My working definition of gentrification is, “a social process that reconstitutes human beings into contingent instruments of a purely capitalist and technical exchange in all areas of urban life.”
In many ways you could say that this is the precise same definition of neoliberal globalization, other than the fact that gentrification refers specifically to what occurs within urban space itself; whereas globalization refers to the overall process as a whole. Meaning, neoliberal globalization “as such” is not restricted simply to cities, it can just as easily transpire on a soybean farm in Nebraska or at a diamond mine in the remote mountains of Central Africa. From this perspective, gentrification essentially functions as a species to the overall genus of neoliberal globalization, just like a “seagull” or a “parrot” is a just species of the genus “bird.” Gentrification is simply a particular formation of the general movement of 21st century capitalism that occurs specifically within the boundaries of cities.
But what is this “basic thrust?” What is this “particular formation?” And, furthermore, why does there seem to be a correlation between the dynamics of gentrification and an explosion of a whole host of psychopathologies — ranging from depression, to social anxiety, to more extreme forms such as bipolar disorder in contemporary global cities?
What is perhaps most interesting here is how the very frame of gentrification mediates the way we encounter the problem. When we think about the problem of something like depression, a problem that is now haunting our contemporary urban spaces, we often think about it through the ideological frame of gentrification, regardless of whether or not we are consciously aware of it: we try to think about the solution while unconsciously playing by the rules of the very problem we are trying to solve.
As I have mentioned above, the basic drive of gentrification is to reconstitute the humanity that resides in urban spaces into instruments of a purely capitalist and technical exchange. What this means, when we apply this drive to the field of mental health, is that gentrification wants to turn depression into something that is both quantifiable and marketable. For instance, when we reduce something like depression to strictly a problem of neurology, into only a case of “neurotransmitters malfunctioning” — that is to say, reducing depression to a formal problem of biochemistry and nothing else — we are essentially following the gentrified law to the letter. What we are doing is not only reducing the complexity of depression into a pseudo-mathematical schema — “the cure for depression equals X neurotransmitter in X neuronal gap” — but we are also creating the potential for new markets to emerge: from new forms of therapy, to pharmacological interventions, to weekend personal development seminars to help us feel “motivated,” etc. But far more importantly, when we unconsciously adopt this position, we rule out the possibility of seeing any socioeconomic causation: we naturalize the depression, we simply think to ourselves, “It’s sad, but this is just the way things are today.”
Gentrification always presents itself in neutral terms, for it wants to appear to its observers as “just the way things are.” Something like gentrification would never present itself as a charged ideological process that could potentially be the cause of depression or mental illness. It would would never present itself as positive content.
This is not to say, by any means, that I am claiming brain chemistry doesn’t play a role in something like depression. Of course it does. That seems to be a matter of common sense, that there is a relation between biochemistry and our emotional or psychic state. What I am rather saying is that the collective brain chemistry of an urban neighborhood is fundamentally linked to the socioeconomic and ideological frame by which it experiences itself on a day to day level. In other words, we could say that our biochemistry is in a way reflective of the place that we live in. And this is precisely what needs to be brought to the surface for some kind of theoretical and political examination. We need to free ourselves from the hyper-reductionism of neoliberalism and begin to see things more holistically.
Gentrification is a system of pure competition and pure individualization that occurs within the context of an urban topology. It is a system that reduces urban life, on the one hand, to a spectacle of consumerist enjoyment — Selfies, New Age platitudes, cultural “experiences” to be publicly relayed on the social medias for passive consumption — but then on the other hand, beneath that same shiny ideological veneer, it is a dog eat dog world of ruthless utilitarian competition in the economic, sexual, and cultural realm. Gentrification is truly the ultimate “everyman for himself” phenomenon of the city.
So the real question is: who wouldn’t be depressed living in 21st century globalized cities, who wouldn’t feel a permanent sense of insecurity and irrelevance while trying to effectively live within such an inherently emotionally violent situation? Depression is by no means an aberration of gentrification, it is the very law.
My basic claim is that something like depression is constitutive of the gentrified experience, it is its signature content. And not only will something like Prozac or Wellbutrin not really help here, but these things can’t help here. And the reason why Prozac or Wellbutrin cannot help here is because the problem of depression does not strictly reside within us, it resides “without us.” That is to say, within the horizon of the gentrified urban neighborhood, depression is a structural problem; it is a problem that is fundamentally integrated into the very process of gentrification itself: it is “out there,” not strictly within our interiority.
So, what is the role of therapy here? What role can a therapeutic discourse play in de-structuring the ideological frame by which gentrification legitimizes itself?
Of course I don’t know the answer to such an important and profound question. But not only do I think that this is a question that must eventually be answered, but I also feel that some kind of collective therapeutic process is fundamental to the cure for gentrification in the future; that therapy will be an absolutely necessary experience to help reverse the untold damage that has been done to cities over the past two decades by gentrified logic.
The only question is: what kind of therapy will it be?
The therapy of cities in the future, across the world, will rest on its ability to provide a clear pathway out of this very ideological horizon, it will rest on its capacity to open a space — both in theory and in practice — not only to resist this very same “gentrified” interpellation by our techno-capitalist authorities, but also to fundamentally rethink what it even means to be an urban citizen; maybe even what it means to be a human being in the 21st century.
(1) Of course I mean this in a general metaphorical sense, not to make an exact analogy of zoological classifications.
(2) A possible site of research that could link the material reality of brain states with social reality is the function of “mirror neurons” in the brain.