The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

City-Without-Any-Quality (CWAQ) and Its Counterparts

  • Jean-Yves HeurtebiseEmail author
Living reference work entry


In an encyclopedia based on particular cities, on the literary specificities of the different cities in the world, it could seem at the same time both provocative and necessary to propose an entry dedicated to the anonymous though redundant and plethoric City-Without-Any-Quality (CWAQ).

What is meant by City-Without-Any-Quality (CWAQ)? And what are its counterparts?

Part 1: CWAQ or the City for a Man Without Quality

The CWAQ could be understood in reference to the globalized city. To parody and reverse Pascal’s famous aphorism about the universe as “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (Pensées, fragment 199), the CWAQ is a city whose center is nowhere and its circumference everywhere: it is the global suburb made of faceless skyscrapers, tentacular thoroughfares, and rhizomatic subterranean metro lines. The CWAQ can be defined as an “ideal-type” modern city whose model is reproducible everywhere anytime. The CWAQ could be portrayed as the city of multinational headquarters, world summits, and international colloquia connecting airports to hotels and hotels to airports.

More generally, the CWAQ refers to cities made for man and not by man: not a city built gradually from the bottom, out of human historic settlement, but places of relocation and displacement rising almost instantaneously from the ground. The CWAQ denotes the urban model according to which the traditional and historic “City-of-Old” (CoO) is demolished and rebuilt with reference to top-down plans of urbanization and completely reframed and designed to fit with the imperatives of the global and continuous circulation of goods and people. In a nutshell, the City-Without-Any-Quality is the city where no one lives and everyone moves: the CWAQ is no more like the “City-of-Old” (CoO), a place to stay; it is mainly and first a place of transit.

It is not surprising, though not so often noted, that one can find in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities one of the best and first descriptions of the CWAQ as opposed to the CoO.

The City-Without-Any-Quality is the natural dwelling for the Man Without Qualities. It is a city whose name has no toponymical value – less a city (a specific site) than a fluidic state of urbanistic spreading made of emptied spaces and dehumanizing buildings: “So let us not place any particular value on the city’s name. Like all big cities it was made up of irregularity, change, forward spurts, failures to keep step, collisions of objects and interests, punctuated by unfathomable silences; made up of pathways and untrodden ways, of one great rhythmic beat as well as the chronic discord and mutual displacement of all its contending rhythms” (Musil 2017: 4).

Robert Musil seems to be extremely aware of the distinctive features of the City-Without-Any-Quality, which opposes it to the historic and singular “City-of-Old”: cities marked by specific places and identifiable shops where we thought we could stay and live being replaced by the CWAQ framed for the nomadic age of ubiquitous changes and totipotent moves: “At the age when one still attaches great importance to everything connected with tailors and barbers and enjoys looking in the mirror, one often imagines a place where one would like to spend one’s life, or at least a place where it would be smart to stay, even though one may not feel any particular inclination to be there. For some time now such a social idée fixe has been a kind of super-American city where everyone rushes about, or stands still, with a stop-watch in his hand. Air and earth form an ant-hill, veined by channels of traffic, rising storey upon storey. Overhead-trains, overground-trains, underground-trains, pneumatic express-mails carrying consignments of human beings, chains of motor-vehicles all racing along horizontally, express lifts vertically pumping crowds from one traffic-level to another…” (Musil 2017: 26).

The CWAQ is so much a place of infinite movement and global transportation that a scholar speaking about the congestion of East Asian cities and commuting issues in Manila said, ironically if not desperately: “Building wider highways for the additional vehicles is also not likely to help; many of the commuting roads in Manila are already much wider than Chicago’s Outer Drive. The ultimate would be to clear out all the buildings, and have nothing but commuting roads” (Nagel 1991: 44; our emphasis).

Thus the CWAQ means at the same time a kind of city and an age of urbanization. A pure CWAQ has two main elements: roads (terrestrial, aerial, fluvial, and subterranean) and hotels. Even shops are a vestigial remnant of the CoO, deemed to be replaced by drive-thrus and/or electronic shopping assisted by automated drones. In the age of CWAQ, there is no private personal house in which we can stay but hotels in relation to which we are but ephemeral sojourners (in the age of CWAQ, “Couchsurfing” and “Airbnb” will have totally transformed our apartments into hotels, put at the disposal of others’ in exchange of friendship or money).

Part 2: CWAQ and Marc Augé’s Non-places

A less phenomenological and more anthropological way to characterize the CWAQ will be to define it with reference to Marc Augé’s notion of “non-places” (non-lieux): “[…] a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place. […] [S]upermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike Baudelairean modernity, do not integrate the earlier places […]. [N]on-places are the real measure of our time; one that could be quantified […] by totaling all the air, rail and motorway routes, the mobile cabins called ‘means of transport’ (aircraft, trains and road vehicles), the airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets, and finally the complex skein of cable and wireless networks that mobilize extraterrestrial space for the purposes of a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself” (Augé 1995: 77–79). A CWAQ will thus be defined as populated no more by specific locations (of historical/cultural signification) but non-places of circulation: “in the world of supermodernity people are always, and never, at home” (Augé 1995: 109).

Moreover, the shift from inhabiting places in the City-of-Old to transiting non-places in the CWAQ induces a shift in identity: “a person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver. […] The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude” (Augé 1995: 103). The subject of the CWAQ lives in the paradoxical situation in which everything seems to be at hand, while nothing can be actually grasped; he becomes a spectator of sites between which no connection can be made and to which no individual meaning can be given: “In the non-places of supermodernity, there is always a specific position (in the window, on a poster, to the right of the aircraft, on the left of the motorway) for ‘curiosities’ presented as such: pineapples from the Ivory Coast; Venice – city of the Doges; the Tangier Kasbah; the site of Alesia. But they play no part in any synthesis, they are not integrated with anything; they simply bear witness, during a journey, to the coexistence of distinct individualities, perceived as equivalent and unconnected” (Augé 1995: 110–111).

Part 3: CWAQ and Gilles Deleuze’s Any-Space-Whatever

A more philosophical definition of CWAQ will make reference to Deleuze’s concept of “any-space-whatever” developed in his two books about Cinema.

From a Deleuzian point of view, a CWAQ is a city populated by any-space-whatevers (“espaces quelconques”). For Deleuze, the CWAQ is the urban cancer proliferating on the ruins of the CoO: “In the city which is being demolished or rebuilt, neo-realism makes any-space-whatevers proliferate — urban cancer, undifferentiated fabrics, pieces of waste ground — which are opposed to the determined spaces of the old realism” (Deleuze 1986: 212).

The CWAQ is the urbanistic correspondent of the cinematographic, social, cultural, and subjective crisis of the post-WW2 era that marks for Deleuze the development of a new kind of cinema – no more a cinema of action and reaction but of passion and visions: “Why is the Second World War taken as a break? The fact is that, in Europe, the post-war period has greatly increased the situations which we no longer know how to react to, in spaces which we no longer know how to describe. These were ‘any spaces whatever’, deserted but inhabited, disused warehouses, waste ground, cities in the course of demolition or reconstruction. And in these any-spaces-whatever a new race of characters was stirring, kind of mutant: they saw rather than acted, they were seers” (Deleuze 1989: ix).

The CWAQ is the urbanistic translation of what Deleuze named the “break-up of the sensory-motor schema” introducing a new form of cinema: “what brings this cinema of action into question after the war is the very break-up of the sensory-motor schema: the rise of situations to which one can no longer react, of environments with which there are now only chance relations, of empty or disconnected any-space-whatevers replacing qualified extended space” (Deleuze 1989: 272).

From a literary perspective, it is interesting to note that for Deleuze, the precursor of the neorealistic any-space-whatever (whose urbanistic form is the CWAQ) is the expressionist deformation of the determinate space (whose urbanistic form is the CoO): “How can any-space-whatever be extracted from a given state of things, from a determinate space? The first way was shadow, shadows: a space full of shadows, or covered with shadows, becomes any-space-whatever. We have seen how Expressionism operates with darkness and light, the opaque black background and the luminous principle… A ‘Gothic’ world, which drowns and breaks the contours, which endows things with a non-organic life in which they lose their individuality, and which potentialises space, whilst making it something unlimited” (Deleuze 1986: 111). We will analyze later on how what Deleuze called here the “Gothic world” is linked to another kind of urbanistic idiosyncrasy which embodied neither by the CWAQ nor by the CoO but as a City-with-Too-Many-Qualities (see below).

To go back to the link between Deleuze’s any-space-whatevers and the CWAQ, it can be expressed via different modes of cinematic expression: “Chris Marker uses airport terminals, public buildings, etc., as a means of undermining certain presuppositions one might have regarding the identity of character, plot, etc. Antonioni’s use of desert landscapes does much the same thing; in short, the ‘any space whatsoever’ functions in much the same manner that the time-image does: it places the identity of character, plot, etc., into crisis” (Bell 1997).

More precisely, there are two kinds of any-space-whatever for Deleuze: “There are therefore two states of the any-space-whatever, or two kinds of ‘qualisigns’, qualisigns of deconnection and of emptiness. These two states are always implied in each other, and we can only say that the one is ‘before’ and the other ‘after’” (Deleuze 1986: 120). Deconnection and emptiness are the very features of the CWAQ: they are complementary and not opposite. Deconnection means that there is no logical connection between the “inside” and “outside” or between the two sides of a “door”: e.g., you pass through the door of New York’s Kennedy Airport, and, if everything goes fine, the next door you will open is the door of a yurt in Övörkhangai or the door of an adobe house at Ixtlahuacán. Emptiness means that the space in between these two doors is a place devoid of any quality: e.g., in between these two doors, you sit on the airplane, in the middle of the clouds, somewhere above the troposphere.

Deconnection and emptiness define the CWAQ; it is the city that has absorbed the entire world, while the world itself has become nothing but a labyrinthic hotel (populated by humanoid forms and tactile screens) – like in Kafka’s works: “The castle has multiple entrances whose rules of usage and whose locations aren’t very well known. The hotel in Amerika has innumerable main doors and side doors that innumerable guards watch over; it even has entrances and exits without doors. … We will enter, then, by any point whatsoever; none matters more than another, and no entrance is more privileged even if it seems an impasse, a tight passage, a siphon” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 3).

Part 4: CWAQ and CoO in Reference to Courtės and Greimas’ Spatial Location Semiotic Square

A more analytical and semiotic way to describe CWAQ will be to understand and analyse it with reference to Courtės and Greimas’ spatial location semiotic square.

First, as shown by Frederic Jameson when he opposed Le Guin’s utopian vision of the countryside to Delany’s utopian vision of the city (Jameson 2005: 175–176), the literary symbolic of the city is always to be understood in its relation and opposition to the literary symbolic of the countryside. In symbolic terms, the city means society and culture, while the countryside means being and nature. From the perspective of the countryside, the city will be depicted as the place of unauthenticity and immorality or deception and isolation, while from the perspective of the city, the countryside will be depicted as the place of backwardness and feudalism or superstition and bigotry (Jameson 2005: 181) (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Frederic Jameson’s diagram of city/countryside relationships

However, the CWAQ is precisely neither the city (as we know it) nor the countryside (as we imagine it). The CWAQ is not simply the opposite of the City-of-Old; more deeply, the CWAQ implies the dislocation of the opposition between the city and the countryside: it is a city that has absorbed in its walls all the exteriority of the countryside while having lost all the intrinsic and inner characteristics of the city. Indeed, since historical cities (CoO) were defined in dialectic relation to the countryside and were built in correlation to the singularities of their “natural” surroundings, the CWAQ evaporates the qualities of both in its indistinct patterns: it is the “waste city” of global dimension. The CWAQ is neither here nor there (since here and there can define both the city and the countryside depending on the situation of the observer); it is “not here” in the sense that it refers to non-places or to any-space-whatsoever, i.e., not to a specific anthropological location but to the interstitial friches of the city where human actions have lost their power of transformation and realization – interstices of the city or zones that have become to constitute the whole of it; a city that will be made by nothing else than metro lines and hotel stations – like in the Chinese contemporary science fiction short story of Han Song:

Subway stations are everywhere in New York City, and I do mean everywhere. The lines connect the most expensive neighborhoods with the poorest slums, and stations can be found in every shopping center, office building, theater, restaurant, nightclub, bar, church… (Song 2015)

These complex spatial relations between the city, the countryside, and the CWAQ can be understood better if we refer to Courtės and Greimas’ spatial location semiotic square (Greimas and Courtės 1979, 1982) as illustrated in Fig. 2 (Silhouette-Dercourt and de Lassus 2016):
Fig. 2

Courtes and Greimas’ spatial location semiotic square

Part 5: CWAQ and Its Counterpart: The City-with-Too-Many-Qualities

But this diagram helps us to understand something more: that the City-Without-Any-Quality has itself its own negative, the City-with-Too-Many-Qualities (CTMQ).

An interesting passage in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities exemplifies how we can shift from the CWAQ to the CTMQ, with the help of literature – the reader becoming the seer of an urbanistic scenery whose manifold peculiarities exceed our capacity to grasp them rationally:

For Rachel was allowed to read the novels that Diotima had finished with, just as she was also allowed to cut down and alter for herself the underclothes that Diotima no longer wore. Rachel sewed and read fluently—that was her Jewish heritage—but when she had a novel in her hand that Diotima had pointed out to her as a great work of art—and it was these that she was fondest of reading—then she naturally understood the events only as one watches lively happenings from a great distance or in a strange country: she was absorbed in and deeply moved by performances unintelligible to her, without being able to intervene in any way, and this was something she loved especially. In the same way, when she was sent out on an errand or when distinguished visitors came to the house, she enjoyed the grand and exciting demeanour of an imperial city, an abundance of brilliant details surpassing all understanding, of which she partook simply through being in a privileged place in the midst of it all. (Musil 2017: 192; our emphasis)

The CWAQ refers to something that is not here, i.e., to the proliferation of non-places into space of the city, while the CTMQ refers to the “not there”: not the “there” of the countryside outside the city (the actual other of the CoO), but the virtual other of the CWAQ, outside not in terms of space but of time. If the CWAQ refers to the ubiquitous banalization of the urbanistic normal, it is logical that its negative is embodied by both positive and negative versions of the CTMQ: the City-with-Too-Many-Qualities to be real, too much positive or negative qualities to be true. In other words, simply stated, the CTMQ means the utopian or anti-utopian forms of the city.

Part 6: Positive and Negative Forms of the CTMQ

These positive and negative forms of the CTMQ can be the utopian city of light and order in optimistic science fiction stories or the anti-utopian city of darkness and oppression in pessimistic science fiction narratives; the utopian city of marvel and glory in “clear fantasy” tales or the anti-utopian city of shadow and horrors in dark fantasy novels; and the imaginary city of the marvelous other or the imaginary city of the dangerous other in travel literature.

It is conventional to start the description of the utopian city with Thomas More’s Utopia. However we should here rather introduce the positive CTMQ by a description of the Chinese city of Hangzhou by Marco Polo. Indeed, it is from the travel literature of the late medieval period that Renaissance utopian narratives received their aesthetic inspiration:

First and foremost, then, the document stated the city of Kinsay to be so great that it hath an hundred miles of compass. And there are in it twelve thousand bridges of stone, for the most part so lofty that a great fleet could pass beneath them. And let no man marvel that there are so many bridges, for you see the whole city stands as it were in the water and surrounded by water, so that a great many bridges are required to give free passage about it…. The document aforesaid also stated that the number and wealth of the merchants, and the amount of goods that passed through their hands, was so enormous that no man could form a just estimate thereof. And I should have told you with regard to those masters of the different crafts who are at the head of such houses as I have mentioned, that neither they nor their wives ever touch a piece of work with their own hands, but live as nicely and delicately as if they were kings and queens… Both men and women are fair and comely, and for the most part clothe themselves in silk, so vast is the supply of that material, both from the whole district of Kinsay, and from the imports by traders from other provinces. (Polo 1993: 186)

Marco Polo’s description of the Chinese city of Kinsay (Hangzhou) in the beginning of the fourteenth century is one of most influential archetypes of European utopian city narratives and of their subsequent utopic or dystopic variations in modern science fiction novels. There is no need to recall here the evocative power of Marco Polo’s “descriptions” from John Dee and Samuel Purchas geographic writings to Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1816 “Kubla Khan” (and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane). As we know, there is some discussion about whether Marco Polo, living at the court of the Yuan dynasty founder Kublai Khan in Khanbaliq or Dadu (Beijing), did really visit the southern part of China. What is more important for us is to notice the writing devices used by Marco Polo to strike the imagination of the late medieval reader. Hangzhou is described in sentences that could evoke Ezekiel’s vision of the New Jerusalem (the urban prophetic equivalent of the lost Garden of Eden): “In visions of God he took me to the land of Israel and set me on a very high mountain, on whose south side were some buildings that looked like a city” (Ezekiel 40:2). In Marco Polo’s Kinsay, bridges are higher than the highest boats (a performance impossible to reproduce even today), inhabitants don’t need to work, men and women are beautiful and refined, and the whole city itself seems to gently float over the water.

Thomas More’s Amaurot is indeed another cornerstone for the positive rendition of the CTMQ:

The town is compassed with a high and thick wall, in which there are many towers and forts; there is also a broad and deep dry ditch, set thick with thorns, cast round three sides of the town, and the river is instead of a ditch on the fourth side. The streets are very convenient for all carriage, and are well sheltered from the winds. Their buildings are good, and are so uniform that a whole side of a street looks like one house. The streets are twenty feet broad; there lie gardens behind all their houses. These are large, but enclosed with buildings, that on all hands face the streets, so that every house has both a door to the street and a back door to the garden. Their doors have all two leaves, which, as they are easily opened, so they shut of their own accord; and, there being no property among them, every man may freely enter into any house whatsoever. At every ten years’ end they shift their houses by lots. They cultivate their gardens with great care, so that they have both vines, fruits, herbs, and flowers in them; and all is so well ordered and so finely kept that I never saw gardens anywhere that were both so fruitful and so beautiful as theirs. (More 1838: 84; our emphasis)

Looking at this description, it will seem that the gray monotony of the postmodern CWAQ and the glorious utopian version of the CTMQ share many common points: the uniformity and replaceability of the buildings, the assimilation/absorption of the countryside, and the capacity to wander freely or err lonely from one place to another. But what seems cold and bare in the CWAQ becomes luxurious and luxuriant in the positive CTMQ, as if our postmodern CWAQ was the final state of the urban constitution after a process of irreversible entropy affected the utopian city, i.e., the positive CTMQ. Reversely, if we consider the negative versions of the CTMQ, our postmodern CWAQ seems to be a neutralized form of the decadent, purulent, and horrific CTMQ.

As positive utopian stories seem to be rooted in the magnified descriptions of European Renaissance’s more or less imaginary travel books, it is likely that negative anti-utopian narratives took some of their inspiration from the more or less overtly racialist descriptions made by many eighteenth-century Western travelers to foreign countries and places (Tullett 2016).

No one perhaps better than H. P. Lovecraft has succeeded in juxtaposing the two variants (positive and negative) of the CTMQ in his works and especially in the Randolph Carter cycle. The short story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” contains alone many urban descriptions of both Utopian and Anti-Utopian natures – going from the dream city that steers the traveler in his quest to the nightmare city that grasps him into its claws:

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles. […] There presently rose ahead the jagged hills of a leprous-looking coast, and Carter saw the thick unpleasant grey towers of a city. The way they leaned and bent, the manner in which they were clustered, and the fact that they had no windows at all, was very disturbing to the prisoner […] When the galley landed at a greasy-looking quay of spongy rock a nightmare horde of toad-things wiggled out of the hatches, and two of them seized Carter and dragged him ashore. The smell and aspect of that city are beyond telling, and Carter held only scattered images of the tiled streets and black doorways and endless precipices of grey vertical walls without windows. (Lovecraft 2005: 164, 179–180)

Perhaps a metaphor may partially encapsulate the differences between these two urban categories: while the CWAQ is a city made of doors (doors opening on unpredictable and indeterminate places – according to the two aspects of Deleuze’s espaces quelconques: deconnection and emptiness), the CTMQ is a city of Janus-faced windows: open windows connecting transparently the inside and the outside in the positive CTMQs and blind windows enclosing confined places full of dark, filthy, noxious, and greasy secrets in the negative CTMQs.


Thus, as a conclusion, we can draw the diagram linking the CoO (City-of-Old), countryside, CWAQ (City-Without-Any-Quality), and CTMQ (City-with-Too-Many-Qualities) together (Fig. 3):
Fig. 3

The semiotic square of Urban Categories

The difference with Courtės and Greimas’ spatial location semiotic square is indeed that the relations between “here” and “not there” or between CoO and CWAQ are relative to the position of the reader: this initial position will differ for someone living in the quartiere uno of Firenze and for someone dwelling around Beijing’s六环路 (sixth ring road). Moreover, the CoO and the CWAQ are not mutually excluded and almost necessary coexist today: for someone living in the City of London, the CoO and the CWAQ actually overlap. Furthermore, the CWAQ can also affect the countryside as demonstrated by the phenomenon of “rurbanization” since an urbanization of formerly rural areas on the fringes of towns or cities always takes the form of the “urban cancer” of the CWAQ with fields being surrounded by highways, shopping malls, and prefabricated housing.

Finally going back to the CWAQ and Deleuze’s expression of “urban cancer,” we should prevent a potential misunderstanding. As noted by R. Bensmaïa, the proliferation of “any-space-whatsoever” constituting the disseminated bulk of the City-Without-Any-Quality is not purely for Deleuze a negative thing; to some extent, this “urban cancer” with all its metastasis of human populated cells becoming “immortals” and destroying the organic/traditional equilibrium between the countryside and the City-of-Old is also the condition for the emergence of new modes of living and expression and for the emergence of new urban singularities (Bensmaïa 1997).

Indeed, for Deleuze and Guattari, the remedy to the CWAQ is not the going back to the countryside or the City-of-Old – for them, there is no going back, only an acceleration forward: “which is the revolutionary path? […] To withdraw from the world market, as Samir Amin advises Third World countries to do, in a curious revival of the fascist ‘economic solution’? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough […]. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process,’ as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet” (Deleuze and Guattari 2000: 239–240). From a Deleuzian perspective, there is no possibility to reterritorialize the CWAQ into the CoO or the countryside but only one path: extending CWAQs’ deterritorializing forces toward something urbanistically unknown – and this is precisely what the City-with-Too-Many-Qualities is about. In this regard, the fact that the CTMQ has necessarily two faces, its positive or utopian (“communist”?) face and negative or anti-utopian (fascist?) face, is a reminder that the risk that “the causal line, creative line, or line of flight immediately turns into a line of death and abolition” (Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 314) can never be dispelled and never be conjured in advance.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.FuJen Catholic UniversityTaipeiTaiwan
  2. 2.French Centre for Research on Contemporary ChinaHong KongChina