Citification and Its Contents – What I owe to Robert A. Orsi

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli

The content of this blog post corresponds to the first part of lecture I gave on February 10 2022 during an online seminar series on “Re-thinking Roman Religions” organized by the Institute of Classical Studies of the University of London. I am grateful to Kate Cooper and Julietta Steinhauer for inviting me as well as to all the participants to the seminar for their precious comments and insightful questions.

The title of this post is an outspokenly playful plagiarism of the English translation of Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930), i.e., “Civilization and Its Discontents”. Likewise, the story of my developing spatial-critical approach to the historical study of urban religion can be said to have started with a plagiarism. What is a plagiarism, though? And is it so bad?

There is a French philosopher I like pretty much. His name is Guy Debord. In one of his most famous essays called “A User’s Guide to Détournement” (1956), Debord quotes another French, a poet, he liked very much. His name is Isidore Lucien Ducasse, also known as Comte de Lautréamont. In one of his two only works, The Songs of Maldoror (1868), Lautréamont draws extensively on yet another French, a naturalist this time, called Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. I don’t know how much Lautréamont liked Buffon and on whom Buffon, in his turn, possibly drew. They don’t say it and it is not important.

Painted portrait of Guy Debord, at the Abode of Chaos. Image: Thierry Ehrmann. CC BY 2.0

As far as I know, Buffon was a real “comte”, while Lautréaumont’s same title was part of a nom de plume, a pseudonym. Taken altogether, “Comte de Lautréamont” is a sophisticated compound plagiarism made of (among other things) a quotation of the title character of Eugène Sue’s 1837 gothic novel Latréaumon and an allusion to the Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. For Ducasse, indeed, poaching was a form of art and plagiarizing was a personal brand. According to Debord, all The Songs of Maldoror are a masterpiece of plagiarism, in that they are “one vast détournement of Buffon and other works of natural history, among other things” (Debord & Wolman 2006[1956]: 16) Ultimately, Maldoror is about a massive hijacking of Buffon and other writers by a 22-year-old poet who once wrote:

Plagiarism is necessary. Progress demands it. Staying close to an author’s phrasing, plagiarism exploits his expressions, erases false ideas, replaces them with correct ideas.” (Debord & Wolman 2006 [1956]: 16)

For both Lautréamont and Debord, plagiarism is as a most parasitic literary device and, at the same time, a most progressive and corrective technique. Plagiarism is illuminating precisely because it is parasitic. Plagiarism, for Débord, is also democratic and even revolutionary, but this is another story. Instead, what I am summarizing here is the story of the little plagiarism I made (for a longer version, see Urciuoli 2020). A plagiarism, I hope, that might turn out to be as epistemically progressive and methodologically correct as Debord and Lautréamont wanted it to be. It is the story of my plagiarism of “citification”.


Citification was born between 1987 and 1999 by two male genitors. One is the US American political theorist and activist Murray Bookchin. The other is the US American historian and scholar of religion Robert A. Orsi. As a noun and a technical term, citification appears only in Bookchin. In his 1987 book on The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, Bookchin uses citification with a programmatic intent (see Bookchin 1987: 54), and yet somehow he got it wrong. Or better: he employed citification in a value-laden and idiosyncratic unpromising fashion that has limited its future prospects. This coinage goes almost unnoticed. Orsi, instead, in his 1999 introduction to the collective volume Gods of the City, never used the substantive “citification” but, only twice, the adjectival/participial form of the verb “citify”, i.e., “citified”.  Nobody noticed this usage either but Gods of the City – especially thanks to Orsi’s introductory essay – has sparked a whole burgeoning field of study that spans human geography, the social sciences, and, finally, also the religious studies: the field of urban religion (see Garbin and Strhan 2017). As what follows will show, Orsi, when using “citified”, got it right.

All in all, my “citification” can be said to be a plagiarism because it parasitizes Bookchin’s “citification” by rerouting its sense in a way that departs completely from Bookchin’s aims and rather overlaps with Orsi’s use of “citified”. From Bookchin, so to say, I steal only the signifier, all the rest is erased. Instead, to say it with Lautréamont-Débord, my “citification” stays close to and exploits Orsi’s “citified” by trying to erase some false ideas on its meaning and potential uses and replace them with correct ideas. This post gestures at the methodological advancements and prospective paths of analysis that citification can offer to the historical study of ancient religions.


According to online English dictionaries, “to citify” means to become urban, to conform to an urban environment, to get “accustomed to an urban style of living”.[1] In its active sense, the verb means to cause the urban becoming, that is, to impart to something or somebody the style of a city. Persons are citified when they get too sophisticated for associating again with their village folks; a way of talking can become citified as a consequence of the speaker’s immersion in an urban setting; a small town’s area can get citified by the opening of an avant-garde cinema, an international bookshop, or a MacDonald’s; even the style of governance of a democracy can be citified as a consequence of the mayor-like attitudes and populist tendencies of its prime ministers. [2]

Two things can be immediately noted from these few examples. First, whether applied to human beings, pan-human skills, man-made environments or institutions, “citified” always implies an urban influence and sometimes presupposes some priming urban experiences. Yet it does not demand a city as the necessary arrival point or geographical-physical setting of the citified entity. For instance, I can keep on talking like a Parisian also once returned to my Norman village; by the same token, the new franchise shop does not turn the English hamlet into a city. In short, citification is not coterminous and coextensive with the city.

Second, citification has more to do with the range of urbanity than with the size of a city. For instance, Erfurt is way bigger than Tübingen, Siena, or Santiago de Compostela but its small student population, weak cosmopolitan complexion, flat nightlife and boring weekend sociability make its overall human and non-human atmosphere less citified. In a nutshell, citification does not measure the city. It measures urbanity.

Unsurprisingly, among the things that are particularly prone to be citified are people’s consumption habits: fashions, tastes, and all sorts of advertising-induced needs. Here it is where Robert Orsi’s use of “citified” steps in. It is only in the early 1930s, says Orsi, that

American, and so also global, popular culture became irrevocably citified; advertising, which became a New York industry in the 1920s, stimulated citified desires across the land (Orsi 1999: 22-23: my emphasis).

In Orsi’s 80-page long introduction to Gods of the City, “citified” occurs only in this passage. Besides, none of the authors contributing to his edited volume further use it. If anything, they more simply use “urbanized”. For instance, when Karen McCarthy Brown describes the Voodoo-practicing Haitians moving to New York City, she says that they “c[a]me to the United States already quite urbanized”. She explains that, in most cases, their grandparents had already left the Haitian countryside to move to Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti, where their grandchildren, the future migrants, got “exposed to” American way of life and culture. The arrival of these third-generation Haitians at NYC, says McCarthy Brown, simply “turns up the volume and intensifies these processes” (McCarthy Brown 1999: 95). As a behavioral descriptor, “urbanized” fits in well here. For it always implies a city (whether Port au Prince or New York) as the arrival point of a spatial transnational movement that, in the course of two generations, has turned several non-urban Haitians into urban New Yorkers.

I believe Orsi’s sporadic use of the form “citified” in relation to American popular culture and advertising-induced desires indicates a rather different phenomenon. Citified is not a mere synonym of urbanized. When discussing the cross-class spread of commercial and commoditized imaginaries, Orsi presumably employs “citified” for a reason: such process has involved US citizens and residents within American cities as well and as much as it has invaded American small towns and countryside. In other words, American city dwellers stayed urban and American country people remained rural-based, and yet, via the urban advertising industry, they both became increasingly citified. In Orsi’s view, urbanity clearly traverses the city boundary, reaches out to the countryside, encroaches on and shape more and more differentiated human lives, habits, and settlement patterns. Again, citification is ultimately about urbanity, not the city, and urbanity travels out without its paramount material expression, the city, coming along with it or necessarily sprawling. Housing the media industry, cities like NYC are at the beginning of the flow of Americans’ “citified desires”, not at its end.

A clear confirmation of what I am saying can be found in another fragment of Orsi’s introduction. A few pages before the passage quoted above, Orsi employs the negative form “de-citify”. The verb occurs in relation to some “pastoralization campaigns” organized by secular and religious organizations from the early 19th century into the mid-20th century. Orsi says:

among the motivations for this impulse to de-citify urban population was simply the wish to provide some relief from the oppressive physical conditions of city life (Orsi 1999: ; my emphasis).

The use of the word clearly follows the same logic. Orsi explains that, only in some cases but definitely not as a rule, the de-citifying cures designed to heal the spiritual decay and physical distress of these urbanites required them to be sent out to farms and ranches. In short, just as “citifying” trends do not necessarily draw people into cities, “de-citifying” agendas do not need to push them physically back to the countryside. The US urbanites targeted by these campaigns were mostly de-citifed in situ, that is, in their own cities. They were not de-urbanized. Not necessarily, at least.

It should be clear by now that, however legible and even clearly marked out, the border of a city, past and present, does not tell where the effects of urbanity cease. Therefore, an investigation of citified behaviors – including religious behaviors – must notattempt to develop criteriafor infallibly distinguishing between originally and/or exclusively urban and rural religious practices. Instead of dictating the topographical terms of the enquiry, such a perspective invites to start with (the notion of) a city without compellingly equating the fieldwork with a city frame. Let alone adopting what urban sociologist Hillary Angelo calls a “city lens.” A city lens, in fact, is a

lens [that] carves up spatial and social difference in binary terms. It delineates the geographic space of the city against a non-urban outside, and assigns a variety of polarized social signifiers to each location (Angelo 2017: 162).[3]

The notion of citification not only allows for the possibility to expand the geographical reach and scope of the enquiry beyond a city-space. It also urges to look at phenomena observable in the city – including religion – by doing away with a “folk understanding of the city” as well as of the country (Angelo 2017: 162).

Let’s now move a bit closer to religion. Like a person, a religion migrating with/through its worshippers to a foreign city can be more or less “urbanized” in its symbols, narratives, practices, and institutions. Consider again McCarthy Brown’s study of the Haitians “serving the spirits” in their living quarters in Brooklyn. In this essay, we read about Voodoo priestesses hauling a garbage pail full of earth up to their apartment on the thirty-seventh floor of a low-income building; or, like the ingenious Mama Lola, deciding to pour the libation into several small bottles and parceling them out to devotees who will directly wash their bodies with it. In all these cases, Voodoo can be said to be “urbanized”, in that, due to the trans(p)l(ant)ation of the ritual setting, the traditional contact with the Haitian earth in this pristine agricultural cult has got lost. People with migration background feeding the spirits through the skin of their bodies in a bath tub have certainly (and self-reflectively) urbanized Haitian voodoo. Yet such a refashioned voodoo can be equally said “citified” in that

it is not hard to see Voodoo in New York stretching and straining to accommodate new, and often alien, spaces. Most of this strain is felt at the level of ecological dissonance, a lack of natural harmony between the religion and its adopted socio-ecological niche. Ceremonies condense and twist themselves around to accommodate the more confining spaces of New York. Some dimensions of Voodoo’s symbol system become attenuated, distant; others intensify and undergo greater embellishment (McCarthy Brown 199: 99; my emphasis).

Whatever its origins, I would say that a citified religious “symbol system” is one that must creatively “stretch[] and strain[] to accommodate” to the urban space in ways that are largely contingent upon the characteristics of the city site at a given time and the social-existential trajectory of the practitioners. In this case, “most of the strain”, says the ethnographer, “is felt at the level of ecological dissonance”. Yet not all the strain. Herein lies the second main aspect of citification as urbanity-related descriptor of processes of religious change. One can be a Santeria-practicing Puerto-Rican immigrant in Brooklyn, a second-generation Italian-American in Harlem, a homegrown conservative evangelical in London, or (why not?) a Roman early Christ believer in ancient Rome. These people’s biographies, means, strategies, and outcomes cannot be more different, and yet the citification formula is the same for all. Fuelled by aspirations as forward-looking hopes of achievement, citified religious practices are such as to appropriate bits and strips of city activities, places, and rhythms that would otherwise remain anonymous or indefinitely other. In doing so, citified religious practices also produce religious change.

Eventually, I suggest that whatever spatial practice we decide to identify as religion can be citified by both adopting and adapting to city features. I also argue that describing these urban religious affairs as citified, rather than urbanized, would be explanatorily much more useful. In fact, it would help shift the focus from the quest for the geographical provenance of both cult and practitioners (with reference to an urban-rural divide or inter-urban networks) to the analysis of a distinctive quality of transformative religious practices as different as:

turning apartments into abattoirs (…),basements of housing projects into venues of the spirits, streets into penitential pilgrimage routes, city water flows into receptacles for sins or the resting places of Hindu gods, and intersecting street corners into vectors of spiritual power (Orsi 1999:41).

Like religion in general, urban religion, too, is about making homes and cutting boundaries. It is about dwelling (e.g., worshiping in an apartment) as much as about crossing (e.g., turning the apartment into an abattoir). Yet what is distinctive of citified religious experiences and practices is the way and the extent to which the practitioners’ strategies of inhabiting and transcending spaces are shaped by options and limits faced by themselves or by others in organizing their lives in urban environments. Here comes the intellectual plagiarism from Orsi, that is, here comes my definition of citification:

citification of religion refers to the processes whereby differently empowered agents from all social stations carry out religious actions that succeed in appropriating city-spaces at least for some time, in relation to a certain audience, and in a manner that engages with the urban quality of their contexts at particular moments in their histories. A scholarly evaluation and decision based on the observation of different instances of citification, urban religion is the name given to the temporal accumulation of such processes that produces, in turn, new urban space.

Methodologically, this approach shifts the focus from religion as an explanans to religion as an explanandum. In other words, citification invites us to see whether and how many characteristics that we generally consider as aspects inherent to a given religion (if not to religion tout court) are actually the outcome of specific uses of, and action on, spaces on the part of religious agents (Urciuoli & Rüpke 2018). And this not only today. My formula of citification was specifically designed for historical research. Indeed, despite the role played by geography, sociology, and anthropology in establishing the cross-disciplinary field of urban religion, as well as in defining this category in terms of mutual interaction and dependence of religion and urban life (e.g., Day 2017; Lanz 2014), there is no compelling reason for considering this pattern of co-production a prerogative of contemporary religions and urban spaces. Since their appearance on earth, cities have affected religions and been affected back by them in a context-specific but millennia-old dialectic of reciprocal formation. “Citification” aims, at once, to encapsulate these dynamics, disengage them from the presentist focus and bias of ethnographies of religions in so-called global/ized (post-secular, super-diverse, etc.) cities and thereby bring them to bear on the study of religion in ancient cities, potentially all the way down the history of cities. Contrary to Debord – who, by the way, was quite sensitive to plagiarism when it was about his ideas (see Lefebvre in Ross 2022) – I would let the reader decide whether this plagiarism was necessary or not – and for whom, and accord to which idea of progress, if any.


[2] An earlier mayor of Florence, Italian Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is the best “domestic” example I am able to come up with.

[3] The list headed by the urban-rural divide in its many shades (city versus countryside/wilderness/not-yet-city/ etc.) and followed up with binaries like nature-society, agrarian-industrial, community-anonymity, narrow-mindedness – progressiveness.


Angelo, Hillary. 2017. “From the city lens toward urbanisation as a way of seeing: Country/city binaries on an urbanising planet.” Urban Studies 54 (1): 158-178.

Bookchin, Murray. 1987. The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship: San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Day, Katie. 2017. “Urban Space and Religion in the United States.” Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Religion. DOI:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.470.

Debord, Guy, and Wolman, G.J. 2006 (1956). “A User’s Guide to Detournement.” In Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition edited by Knabb, Ken, Berkeley (CA): Bureau of Public Secrets, 14-21.

Freud, Sigmund. 1962 (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton & Co.

Garbin, David, and Strhan, Anna. 2017b. “Introduction: Locating Religion and the Global City.” In Religion and the Global City, edited by Garbin, David and Strhan, Anna. London: Bloomsbury, 1-24.

Lanz, Stephan. 2014. “Assembling Global Prayers in the City: An Attempt to Repopulate Urban Theory City.” In Global Prayers: Contemporary Manifestations of the Religious in the City, edited by Wildner, Kathrin, Becker, Jochen, and Lanz, Stephan, Zürich: Lars Müller, 16-47.

McCarthy Brown, Karen. 1999. “Staying Grounded in a High-Rise Building: Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou.” In Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape, edited by Orsi, Robert A., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 79-102.

Orsi, Robert A. 1999b. “Introduction: Crossing the City Line.” In Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape, edited by Orsi, Robert A., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1-78.

Ross, Kristin. 2006. “Lefebvre on the Situationists: An Interview.” In Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition edited by Knabb, Ken, Berkeley (CA): Bureau of Public Secrets, 267-283.

Urciuoli, E. R. 2020. “Citification of Religion: A Proposal for the Historical Study of Urban Religion”. Religion and Urbanity Online. Accessed 2021-11-09.

Urciuoli, Emiliano R., and Rüpke, Jörg. 2018. “Urban Religion in Mediterranean Antiquity.” Mythos 12: 117-135.

Cite this blog post
Emiliano Urciuoli (2022, April 12). Citification and Its Contents – What I owe to Robert A. Orsi. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from

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