What does it mean to write an urban history? Pierre Bourdieu asserted that “to speak of ‘life history’ implies the not insignificant presupposition that life is a history.” In other words, the idea of a life history assumes that the tales of a life—even the life of a city—can be subject to the rules invented by historians and applied to the making of an historical narrative. Thus, the writing of a life history is not just a simple accounting of uncontested facts and events, but an effort to impart meaning upon a collection of events, to rationalize and give structure to them, and to reveal a consistent, inherent logic, all of which will then, ideally, show stages of progressive development. The more one has a vested interest in the biographical narrative, the more one aspires for coherence and intention—so much so that Bourdieu refers to the biographical impulse as “making oneself the ideologist of one’s own life.” Accordingly, the biographical impulse reveals life as a kind of anti-history: the more we attempt to construct the linear, causal, projective, and progressive historical narrative of life, the more life reveals itself as counter to this type of narration, as, in fact, only a myth of one’s own making.
“Citing Sites,” in No Object Is an Island, edited by Gregory Wittkopp (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2011).