The latest project meeting of SUPURBFOOD was held in the comfortable but atmospheric headquarters of AIAB in Rome. The site used to be the slaughtering facilities for cattle destined to be consumed in the City, and some of its former role is still apparent.
In this context a few colleagues were a bit squeamish about my use of the term ‘zombie ideas’ in my opening presentation. I remembered reading the term being used by the sociologist Ulrich Beck, in his discussion about how the critical ideas of science were not keeping up with the pace of social change:
“Zombie concepts are those that were appropriate to the period of methodological nationalism. They are not appropriate to the age of global ecological, economic, and terrorist threats. There is coming into being a new system in which everyday practices involve an exceptional level of cosmopolitan interdependences”.(1)
Beck only uses the term twice but it is quite clear what his metaphor is suggesting, that in our midst are concepts or ideas that are no longer alive – they no longer refer to an empirical reality but they continue to shuffle on, in part because no one is able to strike them down. He was criticising the way in which the social sciences still cling to forms of enquiry that are based in the nation state, when it is apparent that the forces and flows of globalisation have made the nation state less meaningful. During the process of working on the synthesis report for all of the City Regions taking part in SUPURBFOOD, his comments seemed especially pertinent, (although in the paper he perhaps overstates his case).
In my presentation I was particularly concerned with the zombie concepts that linger in the field of policy, including spatial planning, where the emergent role of the City Region and the of needs of sustainable food have yet to be fully recognised.
Many of us who are working on European projects would agree with Beck that creating a post-national or cosmopolitan social science is not easy, but in our own ways we are taking small steps towards it. But as with many people who find themselves facing zombies in fictional situations part of the problem is telling the undead from the living.
Author: Dr Matt Reed