Nikhil Anand, Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2017, 312 pages, $26.95 (paperback), $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 0822362694

I want to begin by thanking Nikhil Anand for his wonderful book and for many years of invigorating conversation and collaboration. My deep appreciation also goes to our three generous critics for their astute comments and to Asher Ghertner for skillfully organizing this forum as well as the conference panel from which it emerged.

Of the many incisive points made, I’d like to comment on just a few. The first is the interplay between modes of government, which I see as a key linkage between the two books. Both share a discomfort with some of the ways liberalism and neoliberalism have figured in geography, anthropology, and urban and environmental studies: too often they are assumed to be known entities, and critical scrutiny is given primarily to their “effects” in specific times and places. In contrast, both books refuse to grant these modes of government causal agency and explanatory power, treating them instead as contingent and unstable techno-political formations that may exhibit recognizable patterns across different histories and geographies, but that require all kinds of situated work to make and maintain. The fact that we can identify a particular rationality or technique of rule as recognizably “liberal” or “neoliberal” tells us very little about the political ends for which it can be used and the degree to which it shapes wider social worlds. And while we may sketch the outlines of certain broad shifts—in my case, the increasing centrality of security, risk, and vulnerability to a range of issues that may once have been seen through the lens of modernization or development—the question of what such shifts ultimately mean on the ground should remain an empirical one.

Both books also engage with the murky interstices and entangled genealogies of the liberal/illiberal binary. My approach is to emphasize the durable moments in which liberal frames of political engagement are—for certain bodies, spaces, and populations—reconfigured by, even predicated on, illiberal ones. One example from Colombia is the securitization of citizenship, whereby rights and responsibilities are tied to logics of threat and protection—a dynamic central to the urban political formation I call the “endangered city.” Though my analytical spotlight shines brighter on governance than on citizenship, as Diane Davis notes, this may be because my fieldwork revealed the “rights-bearing citizen” to be only occasionally the salient subject position available to the urban poor. My decision to focus on modes of government above political parties was also an ethnographic one, since the imperative to protect life from future threats was shared across the political spectrum, even as there were heated debates about how that imperative should be pursued and to whose benefit. Such differences in emphasis between the books, I would argue, reflect less our intellectual commitments as authors than the political-historical conjunctures we set out to describe.

This begs the question of how to reconcile liberalism with its sometimes inconsistent or incoherent distributions of responsibility: Shouldn’t we expect to find a decisive shift away from the state and toward the individual? I would respond by asking: Is there a fully coherent and consistent form of liberalism anywhere? After all, governing is a project that often makes use of opposing ethical and political imperatives, such as freedom and protection, individual and collective, public and private, and so on. Rather than pointing out internal contradictions within modes of governance, I’m interested in the work that goes into making them seemingly consistent or temporarily coherent. This involves many things that do not fit comfortably within “liberalism” as conventionally defined, but that nevertheless represent what AbdouMaliq Simone, in his commentary, refers to as the “inconsistent or even heterogeneous potentialities that never quite make it into the open.”

This connects to the question of what our books have to say about modes of urban government in the Anthropocene. I think both shed light on techno-political problems that are becoming increasingly important as planetary transformations reshape our material ecologies, political institutions, economic orders, technical standards, infrastructural systems, and social relations. Indeed, in Bogotá, you now see many of the governmental logics and political struggles I analyzed playing out in the idiom of climate change adaptation, which is a dynamic I tried to capture in a later article. I would guess the same could be said of the discourses of water scarcity and concerns about infrastructural breakdown, repair, and maintenance in Mumbai. These phenomena cut across North/South divides, drawing both books into wider conversations about how to understand urbanization on a planet whose future will be predictably unpredictable—what Diane Davis rightly calls “the million dollar question.”

In these self-consciously planetary times, a recent trend in urban studies is to question the relevance of the “city” in light of the fact that urbanization extends far beyond conventional municipal boundaries. However, as Malini Ranganathan points out, both books demonstrate that, regardless of how we scholars theorize the “urban,” people continue to pin their hopes for a better future on the “city”; whether or not Mumbai and Bogotá are nodes in an ever-increasing planetary push to urbanize is not their most pressing concern. Diane Davis also makes the comparative point that Bogotá and Mumbai “play different roles in the national political imaginary,” and they do so very much as “cities.” In Colombia, the city has long figured as a civilized refuge from the barbaric violence associated with the countryside, even alongside a turbulent history of urban violence, and this significantly impacts how urban life is governed and lived. As I have written elsewhere, we need to check our impulse to treat the urban question as a theoretical question and instead pay close attention to the work our concepts do in the world. Diane Davis urges us to “consider the relative value of grand theory…versus historical specificity,” and like her I side with the latter even as I find the former a necessary provocation for thought.

Here I want to refer to some research I’ve written about since finishing the book, which examines the spatial-political predicament faced by Colombians of African descent. Being Afro-Colombian and urban is a highly fraught political project and, given the racialized violence afflicting places like Buenaventura, redefining the politics of urban blackness is a life and death matter. While urban theorists may see the concept of the “city” as anachronistic and inadequate, this research plainly shows that the stakes of defining the terms of urbanization are higher beyond the enclave of urban theory. Recent commentary about the analytical inadequacy of the concept of the “city” in times of planetary urbanization reminds me of similar discussions about the incongruence of the category of the “human” in the Anthropocene. It seems only possible to hold such views from a position of privilege, whereby one’s own status is secure and uncontested. If inclusion within the boundaries of the city, citizenship, or humanity remains less than automatic for an astoundingly large number of people, the claim that these concepts are now analytically irrelevant rings especially hollow.

Alongside a shared commitment to these humanist concerns, both books also attempt to take seriously the agency of nonhumans and the politics of materiality. As our critics note, this is more thoroughly developed in Hydraulic City. One reason for this is that I tend to be cautious about how, when, and whether to take vital materialism as an ontological foundation; rather, I prefer to inquire into how stuff like land or water, houses or pipes, is endowed with agency (not necessarily or exclusively by humans, but usually in socially thick situations). My caution also stems from my sense that key premises of vital materialism have already been accepted all around us. For example, “vital systems security” and “resilient urbanism” are new governmental techniques that recognize the agency of materiality and nonhumans and the metabolic socio-natures of contemporary urbanization. What once seemed like a critical insight into modernist regimes of knowledge and power—that the divides between subject/object and nature/culture are historical inventions—has now become common sense.

My wariness to embrace post-humanism also stems from my feeling that questions of vitality and materiality cannot be separated from historical legacies of race, colonialism, and slavery, which still exert considerable influence over what constitutes categories like “humanity” and “life” in many parts of the world. Scholars interested in distributing agency to nonhumans sometimes seem surprisingly uninterested in grappling with the fact that certain forms of personhood continue to be violently dehumanized and devalued. As a corrective, I would suggest that our engagement with lively matter needs to run parallel to our engagement with movements such as Black Lives Matter. The implication is that vital materialism is less of a fixed conceptual anchor than an open empirical question to be worked out in specific historical conjunctures in which the boundaries of the “urban,” of “life,” and of “humanity” are constantly shifting.

I’ve tried to write about this more directly in recent work on climate change adaptation in Bogotá, racialized dispossession in Buenaventura, and supply chain security along Colombia’s Magdalena River. In each case, I’m finding a surprising amount of political agency being exercised by and attributed to the material world of infrastructures, environments, technologies, and buildings. Yet I still want to remain attentive to how, when, and why certain materials become vital and others do not. My hunch is that this question points to two prevalent problematizations: first, of cities and infrastructures as vital systems to be secured; and second, of life as vulnerable in an era of heightened volatility.

It is perhaps from the intersection of concerns over vulnerability and vitality that a response to AbdouMaliq Simone’s question about collective life’s possible futures can emerge. These concerns already figure prominently in struggles over how to confront the deep inequalities that structure the uneven distribution of entitlement and dispossession, of scarcity and surplus, of life and death—especially now that the political coordinates of past struggles no longer automatically apply. Examples of what he calls “an infrastructure of strange alliances” can be found in efforts to unite discordant experiences around matters of public concern. In a world where forms of sociality and solidarity based on common conditions, shared temporality, and close proximity appear increasingly out of reach, such “strange alliances” may prove a productive place to locate our critical inquiries and political sympathies.