The Geopolitics of Spectacle: Space, Synecdoche, and the New Capitals of Asia, by Natalie Koch. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018.
Reviewed by: Kyle T. Evered, Michigan State University
In her 2018 book The Geopolitics of Spectacle: Space, Synecdoche, and the New Capitals of Asia, political geographer Natalie Koch confronts today’s spectacle-scapes of monumental urban development by focusing on the resource boom-fueled example of post-socialist Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. In doing so, she brings our discussion of such places to a point beyond mere narrative of architectural excess to produce a scholarly analysis that provides context, critical analysis, and perspective. Engaging with the country’s resource curse of wealth in the absence of democracy, we witness an experience of top-down planning under extreme capitalism that rivals the excesses of the most pompous of Soviet-era developments. Likewise, we also encounter the frenetic construction that is so saturated with old, re-imagined, and freshly invented symbolisms that new sites’ kitsch repertoires distractedly compete with their intentional extravagance.
Contributing meaningfully to the question of not only forward capitals but rapidly planned and built urban schemes more broadly, Koch lucidly interrogates the sources, dynamics, and meanings of “spectacular urbanism”. She delivers a nuanced multi-scaled analysis that uniquely underscores and probes the extremes that are operative in Astana and comparable cases. Moving beyond the city’s trappings, however, she also distinguishes and challenges the consequences of such projects for their wider states’ territories and populations. This engagement brings us to a point beyond simply accounting for and discounting the spectacle-ridden landscape as she then accounts for how these spaces give way to their own varying sorts of resonance—and dissonance—among the populations confronted by them. The result of Koch’s efforts is a supremely erudite and invitingly comprehensible read that allows Astana to tell the reader a great deal about the city, its country, the region, and state-sponsored mega-developments and authoritarian nation-building.
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