Invisible City: A Speculative Guide

From the Series: Speculative Anthropologies

Photo by David Revoy/Blender Foundation, licensed under CC BY.

Deep inside the town there open up, so to speak, double streets, doppelgänger streets, mendacious and delusive streets.

—Bruno Schulz

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo describes for Kublai Khan the multiplicity of cities in his empire. “The catalog of forms is endless,” Polo says. “Until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born.” Limned in dreamlike prose, the cities are often doubled or tripled, complemented or inverted. Valdrada, for example, finds its inverted counterpart in its reflection in an adjacent lake; Eusapia in a city of the dead below; Thekla in a blueprint of the stars above. These cities are filled with ambiguous signs and reversals: memories that become futures, models that are the reality they represent, change that in its constancy becomes static and uniform.

Rereading Invisible Cities, I came to see fieldwork I had conducted on collective economic life in Quito, Ecuador with new eyes. Working with street vendor associations and savings and credit cooperatives, I found the world of commerce and consumption in Quito crisscrossed by heterogeneous means and ends, patchworks of organizational forms, technologies, social and economic values, motivations, and calculations. This teeming ecology, lurking under a veneer of petty capitalism, fired the imaginations of bureaucrats and experts who, as part of a broader left-populist regional turn, saw in it a model for a revolutionary social and solidarity economy (economía social y solidaria)—one that, for its proponents, would reorient economic organization to explicitly social ends.

At the end of Calvino’s Borgesian allegory on the diversity of urban form, Polo suggests that the perfect city can only be constructed piecemeal, intermittently. The Khan despairs: “It is all useless if the last landing place can only be the infernal city.” Polo replies that if Hell exists, it is “already here, the inferno . . . that we form by being together.” If we do not wish to “accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it,” we must “learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” This sounded so much like my Ecuadorian interlocutors, who sought to surface Quito’s own invisible city of diverse economic logics and logistics in hopes that it would furnish an alternative to neoliberal capitalism.

Yet as I have written elsewhere (Nelms 2015), it proved difficult to identify truly social and solidary alternatives. The same activity—a marketplace transaction, a loan, a fee—held within it the possibility for both solidarity and its antithesis. Look again, I was told, and what appeared to challenge economic orthodoxy dissolved into business as usual. The effort to make visible alternative economies was often accompanied by the effort to disregard those alternatives, folding them (back) into the hustle and bustle of urban commerce.

The two city-states in China Miéville’s The City and The City might be one of Calvino’s imagined metropolises; they might also be Quito. Miéville’s novel is a treatise on urban politics dressed up as detective noir. The titular cities Besźel and Ul Qoma are politically, culturally, and phenomenologically distinct but located in the same physical space, sharing a patchwork geography: some areas are “total” in one city and “alter” to the other; others are overlapping or “crosshatched.” Internalizing “key signifiers of architecture, clothing, alphabet and manner, outlaw colours and gestures, obligatory details,” residents learn “an existential protocol” in order to see only their city—and studiously unsee their neighbors’—hurrying to erase unintended perceptions even as they brush shoulders.

Inevitably, the cities impinge on one another. Smoke, trash, car crashes, flora, and fauna all pass between them. But the boundary is policed by a mysterious force known as Breach, which appears in moments of illicit noticing to secret away the noticer. Breach’s “calling,” Miéville writes, “is utterly precise.” The only legal way across the border is via an official checkpoint; all other interactions constitute acts of breach. “It is not the passage itself from one city to the other [that is illegal], not even with contraband,” we learn. “It is the manner of the passage.”

Residents of Quito are similarly experts at seeing and unseeing difference in the specific ways solidarity economies are practiced. It’s not what you do, but how you do it. Miéville’s novel thus offers a rich language for the crosshatching of urban life: the way that the social and economic get remixed and policed, the way the same thing can be seen one way, then unseen, or indeed seen twice—past then future, liberation then constraint, radical then retrograde—even as the very effort to see it produces the possibility for reversal or transgression.

For anthropologists already invested in documenting diversity, speculative fictions like Calvino’s and Miéville’s offer comfortable adventures in possibility. Telescope out, however, and difference collapses into identity. At another scale or in another context, the heterodox dissolves into orthodoxy; the imagined tomorrow quivers, suspiciously, with today’s preoccupations. This is the trouble with all efforts to specify alternatives. Aren’t all SF worlds versions of this one? How could it be otherwise? Perhaps, as Stanislaw Lem put it, “we have no need of other worlds.”

Yet reading Calvino and Miéville shifted what I saw in Quito—so not much there, but here—by turning my attention away from the brute search for difference to how people perceived and positioned the alter in urban alternative economies. Alternatives are never preexisting; they require work to make and keep visible—to give them space, make them endure—and this work matters even as they cycle into and out of view. Speculative fiction remakes what and how we see. Insofar as ethnography is an attentional practice, ethnographers might turn to SF not simply as an archive of alternatives, but as a methodological resource for orienting and honing ethnographic attention.


Nelms, Taylor C. 2015. “‘The Problem of Delimitation’: Parataxis, Bureaucracy, and Ecuador’s Popular and Solidarity Economy.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21, no. 1: 106–126.