SEMINAR 1, Tuesday 29 September

Normalizing Cities and Death (law and design)

Program, abstracts and bios


Time : Europe: 10-11.15 (CET) 9-10.15 (WET) Australia: 18-19.15 (AET)

Richard Mohr, Introduction to the seminar series (10 minutes)

Marc Trabsky, Normalizing Death in the Time of a Pandemic (15-20 minutes)

Valerio Nitrato Izzo, Hostile architecture and design: questioning the legal meaning in the urban environment (15-20 minutes)

Questions and discussion (20-30 minutes)


Normalizing Death in the Time of a Pandemic

Marc Trabsky
La Trobe University, Melbourne

Governmental responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have made use of an array of technologies for managing life, maximising its efficacy and exploiting its vitality. This can be seen by the tabulation of mortality rates, construction of makeshift morgues, techniques for disposing multiple corpses and representations of the pandemic as an anomaly. Indeed, the adaptation of the financial moniker, ‘black swan’, depicts Covid-19 as an aberration of governmental practices, or to put it differently, an incongruous disruption in the habitual economy of life and death. The rhetoric of aberration undoubtedly conflicts with the institutional routinization of death, in particular its regulation by the state and a range of medical, legal and financial institutions, which gave rise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to what Michel Foucault called thanato-politics. In this arrangement of governmentality, the technology of registration, which harnesses the bureaucratic logic of the file and classification systems for death causation, is deployed as a normalizing technique for managing relations between the living and the dead.

This paper will examine a tension between governmental representations of the pandemic as an anomaly and techniques for normalizing death as an inevitable outcome of life. The definition of death transformed during the twentieth century from the cessation of a heartbeat and/or the loss of breath to complex neurological concepts of brain death, the diagnosis of which remains the responsibility of medical professionals. The classification systems for death causation, which underpin the technology of registration, have moreover expanded due to innovations in epidemiology, pathology and forensics. During the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the definition of a cause of a death has been revealed as unstable: Covid-19 has been variously classified as causative according to the place where a person died, their symptoms prior to their death and whether a laboratory test was undertaken while they were alive. The technology of registering a death in the time of a pandemic therefore depends on differentiating between the normal and the pathological, standards and variations, and constancies and deviations. This paper will argue that what the Covid-19 pandemic exposes, particularly though the productive tension between the rhetoric of aberration and death as an inevitability of life, is that  normalizing technologies are inextricable from how governmental, medical, legal and financial institutions define the limit point between life and death, how they take care of the dead and how they determine what deaths should be counted at all.

Hostile architecture and design:
questioning the legal meaning in the urban environment

Valerio Nitrato Izzo
Department of Law, University of Naples Federico II

The aim of the paper is to examine new trends in the regulation of access to public space, offering a reading of connections that seeks to bring out its legal dimension. More specifically, I will look at the adoption of hostile architecture and objects as a widespread tendency in urban design. This “hostility”, through a variety of shapes, materials and structures, contributes to make certain classes of subjects vulnerable or to render them socially invisible and add to a long-established pattern of dematerialization of public space in the urban environment. While the phenomenon is relatively known but still under-theorised in the urban studies field, attempts to make sense of the legal dimension are just at an initial effort. Grounding on different approaches and insights from urban theory and legal studies and addressing the potential relevance for this topic of the recent “material turn” in law as well as the connections with technology thinking and rhetoric of the urban decency, I will explore how hostile design has a profound impact on law and rights enjoyment in contemporary cities.


Dr Marc Trabsky is a Senior Lecturer at La Trobe Law School and Director of the Centre for Health, Law and Society, La Trobe University. He writes in the intersections of legal theory, history and the humanities. His research examines the theoretical, historical and institutional arrangements of law and death. His first book, Law and the Dead: Technology, Relations and Institutions (Routledge, 2019), was awarded the Law and Society Association of Australia and New Zealand Book Prize for 2019.

Dr Valerio Nitrato Izzo is a research fellow at the Department of Law of the University of Naples Federico II where he teaches Legal Methodology (undergraduate). His research agenda is focused on different topics between Legal Theory, Legal Reasoning, Law and Humanities, Law in Context: Legal dimensions of the city as a space of justice, Legal Reasoning (Moral dilemmas and tragic cases in law; Legal Disagreements), Law and Catastrophe, Law and Humanities (Law and Music).

Dr Richard Mohr is an urban and legal sociologist who has worked as a community health coordinator, planning and evaluation consultant and academic. Work on the social relations of knowledge led to interdisciplinary research and teaching in schools of Architecture, Law, and Sociology at Sydney University, UNSW, McGill University and the University of Wollongong. He continues as a director of SRPP Pty Ltd, with Dr Margot Rawsthorne as principal.