Sustainability as ideological praxis: The acting out of planning's master-signifier
The rise and rise of sustainability in urban and social policy circles has transformed the discursive terrain of urban politics. In 2009, Gunder and Hillier argued sustainability is now urban planning's central empty signifier, offering an overarching narrative around which practice can be oriented. This paper takes up the notion of sustainability as an empty/master-signifier, arguing that the recognition of its nominal status is central to understanding how it operates to produce ideological foundation. Drawing upon a series of interviews and focus groups with urban and social policy makers and practitioners in Vancouver, Canada, Zizek's 1989 critique of the cynical functioning of contemporary ideology is used to interpret the city's engagement with sustainability. Focusing on 'social sustainability' it is argued that sustainability has provided a quilting point that has enabled new social and urban policy-related partnerships and organizational agendas to be developed. However, this coherence remains unstable and plagued by questions of signification due to the radical negativity of the master-signifier, where efforts at definition and agreement are haunted by the non-presence of sustainability. It is argued that this framing of sustainability as ideological conduit in Vancouver helps explain the co-presence of transformative rhetoric and business-as-usual. Using Zizek's critique of cynical reason in contemporary ideology, interview data is drawn upon to show how many practitioners seek to distance themselves from sustainability, but at the same time continue to act it out anyway. In conclusion, the sobering politics of Zizek's critique of contemporary ideology are considered in the light of growing urban problems. © 2010 Taylor & Francis.
Davidson, Mark, "Sustainability as ideological praxis: The acting out of planning's master-signifier" (2010). Geography. 123.