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exts about the environments of cities frequently begin with apocalyptic renditions of our current urban age. Framed by concerns around social equity on one hand, and the resource demands of cities on the other, it is not uncommon to see the tremendous challenges of urban life rendered as some kind of dysfunction that is new, and newly exploitative of peoples and natures as never before.
I would like to begin with a note of gratitude to Austin Zeiderman, for nurturing Hydraulic City into being through endless readings, conversations and provocations over the last decade and a half. My thanks also to AbdouMaliq Simone, Asher Ghertner, Diane Davis and Malini Ranganathan for their incisive, generous and generative readings across Endangered City and Hydraulic City. Having learnt so much through their work, I am honored by the significant time and attention they devoted to these books.
Indeed, the neoliberal restructuring of cities does promise both to intensify poverty and resource use in cities the world over. Nevertheless such “impact narratives” of urban life are also profoundly disabling (Hart, 2002), leaving little space to understand how life is always being made and being made otherwise by those marginalized by state and market assemblages. While recognizing the power of political economic processes that structure cities, Endangered City and Hydraulic City ask, what becomes or is possible in the city today, particularly for those marginalized by urban policies? The books follow the practices and processes, the fissures and leaks through which poorer residents are sometimes able to make durable lives in the city over time through limited governmental programs to make people live.
For want of space, I will not be able to address many of the excellent interventions our interlocutors raise in their essays. I only address a few here: These are on the historically contingent performances of urban infrastructure and urban publics, the making of liberal and illiberal subjects, and the vitality of non/human actors. I will conclude with a brief note on the centrality of the city as a native category and analytic device for thinking about urban processes and urban life.
Infrastructures are technologies of exchange and distribution that bring cities and subjects into being. In his work, and also in this contribution, AbdouMaliq Simone urges us to recognize the fragility of the associations between infrastructure and political subjectivity. As contingent and relational processes, infrastructures frequently call on diverse relationships of care and expertise to become. They elucidate political histories and also aspirations for the future. In Hydraulic City, I argue that the diverse modes of belonging entailed by different infrastructures reveal how urban residents are always more than either citizens or subjects. Differentially hailed by infrastructures like those for provisioning water, energy, media and housing in the city, urban residents do not experience the city as singular individuals. Instead, they experience the polis as dividuals, multiply composed by different infrastructural relations (Strathern, 1991). Some of these infrastructures legitimate their presence in the city, others continue to place them outside projects of governmental care. Denied substantive urban rights, marginal residents are often compelled to connect to urban infrastructures using diverse relations of friendship, kinship, clientship and citizenship. Evident in the Hydraulic City as in the Endangered City, are the ways that marginalized residents constantly mobilize different relations to establish reliable presences and habitations in the city.
In Hydraulic City, I seek to make two contributions to theorizations of biopolitics and urban government. First, I wish to draw attention to the multiple subjectivities that persons mobilize in cities to stabilize their lives. These practices demonstrate how it remains a little problematic to theorize urban residents as citizens or clients, or as members of civil or political society. Residents at once occupy diverse times and spaces of subjectivity; a diversity they embrace to make claims on different urban specialists in the city. Second, as Asher Ghertner points out in his sharp overview, it is through the quotidian practices of low-level state officials (meter readers, plumbers, engineers and key-men) that biopolitical projects are enacted. Generative of a vitality that Austin identifies as el vivo, residents learn the crafts of mobilizing plumbers, councilors and residents to access urban resources. Emergent through negotiations between these urban experts and city residents, biopolitics emerges not as a seamless, all-seeing extension of state power and knowledge. It is instead a very contested and partial project full of excesses, leaks, fissures and ignorances.
In her incisive commentary, Malini Ranganathan asks a critical question: How might we understand these practices of the governed in relation to the work of liberal government? Is it the case that liberalism depends on “informal” relations beyond liberalism to incorporate new subjects in its ambit? Or that liberal government depends on the use of illiberal techniques to discipline subjects placed outside its care? Through ethnographic fieldwork conducted with state officials, city politicians and marginalized residents, I observed both kinds of operations at work. For instance, a councilor’s letter to the city on behalf of his client could establish that client as a hydraulic citizen in the eyes of the state. The water department would often see such subjects as deserving of legitimate water connections, and of hydraulic citizenship. But not always were claims made in languages beyond liberalism successful in bringing persons into domains of liberal citizenship. As I describe in the book, the same councilors also disciplined their subjects with threats, fear and violence, to interrupt the establishment of their constituents as hydraulic citizens.
As such, I argue that diverse relations beyond those sanctioned by liberalism (such as patron client relations, kin relations, friendships etc.) were deployed both to assist and interrupt the formation of liberal subjects. Drawing on the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000), I identify these heterogeneous social relations of living and claiming resources as a non-constitutive outside of liberal rule. They at times serve as the grounds to make liberal subjects from illiberal ones. At other times, these relations continue to regulate exchanges for those placed by liberal city laws beyond its regimes of care and subjectification.
An attention to the diverse forms of subjectivity in Mumbai reveals how liberalism has, at best been a partial and very incomplete political project in much of the world, often limited to the middle and upper classes. Here, Diane Davis makes an astute observation when attending to the different historical specificities of Bogotá and Mumbai. Indeed, an attention to historical specificity not only reveals different modes of political praxis in different cities, but also the different languages urban experts and subjects use in projects to govern the city. Unlike in Bogotá, languages of risk have thus far not been central in governing life in Mumbai. Instead, over the last fifty years, local elected officials in Mumbai have been invested with a moral authority to supply water for their publics. Residents closely watch the actions of their leader-patrons, and have little difficulty with voting them out in the city’s competitive elections, should they not act with sympathy and discreetly provide their water connections.
The political history of the city is also important to consider when adjudicating the effects of neoliberalism in the city. Often, in critiques of neoliberalism, scholars and activists assume the normativity and existence of liberal subjects as the targets of neoliberal reform. For marginalized residents in much of the world, however, citizenship is both an aspiration and partial fiction. They are not fully liberal subjects. When marginalized residents of the city are not treated as liberal subjects, and have instead long been rendered invisible through discourses of danger, security and vice, the effects of neoliberal government are far more ambivalent.
For this reason, I noticed marginalized residents in some settlements to be relatively open to neoliberal technologies, such as the installation of new water lines connected to prepaid meters, in Mumbai. Residents who did not have access to regular municipal water supply (through postpaid connections), saw in the promise of new prepaid water lines, an extension of state care and recognition, albeit with market logics (see also Ranganathan, 2014). On the other hand, their neighbors who did have access to water through postpaid connections were opposed to these connections. These residents successfully organized an opposition to prepaid meters and their attendant water reforms in the city. Following significant protests by settlers and their activists, the city was compelled to stop its different projects to distribute urban water through market logics.
In Hydraulic City, I suggest that it is not just social histories that troubled neoliberal projects in Mumbai. The material histories of Mumbai’s hydraulic infrastructure also challenged any easy transition to neo/liberal government. Built slowly and incrementally (as infrastructures have been) over the last century and a half, the city’s pipes are an accretion of the different political moments they were constructed in. Pipes break, rupture, are diverted and always leak.These materialities are intransigent (Collier, 2011). They ‘act up’ and often refuse to cooperate with new technopolitical programs. Because city engineers were constantly subject to the “eventful” politics of pipes and persons (Braun and Whatmore, 2011), they were not able to sufficiently prevent leakages necessary for a conversion to a 24×7 water system regulated by prices.
Therefore, if water infrastructures—as social-material assemblages—resisted privatization in Mumbai, I suggest in the book that is because of the vitality of urban water infrastructures in both senses of the word—material and social. First, with new materialist approaches, I show how the city’s pipes, pumps and meters constantly acted in ways that troubled the designs and plans of the city water department. The city’s water network was vital, living, breathing assemblage of more-than-human relations that engineers had difficulty controlling. But if pipes are vital assemblages, they become so not prior to, but with the historical ways in which humans also participate in their making, modification and disrepair. Taken together, the vitality of social and material actors was generative of an excess that constantly escapes the biopolitical orders of urban government.
To conclude, I would like to make a final point about the generativity of ‘the city’ to urban studies. Indeed, as AbdouMaliq suggests, despite the concept of the city being roundly critiqued, it endures and “continues to haunt” the urban. I must confess that my return to the city emerges from the fieldwork I conducted, both with marginalized residents and also with municipal engineers. Let me explain by way of two brief examples.
In Mumbai, like in other cities, urban relations extend far beyond municipal limits. I draw on the work of Marxist geographers and anthropologists in suggesting that it is precisely the extension of social and material relations beyond the city that allows for cities to become. Here, AbdouMaliq Simone makes a critical intervention when he provokes us to “restore a sense of metabolic agency to the notion of the city.” Urban metabolism accomplished through infrastructures is fundamental to the making of the city as a viable, geographically delineated polis. In the book, I detail the ways in which the city sequesters water from dams in its hinterlands through metabolic processes that include law, engineering and politics. Representing its diverse populations in the singular, municipal engineers successfully claim and channel this agrarian water for ‘the city.’ These processes bring ‘the city’ to life. The city here exerts a force and depends on processes that continue to drain its hinterlands of water.
Second, for residents that have long been denied substantive citizenship, the city has long been an important locus of aspiration and site for making claims. In the 1960s, for instance, residents of a nearby periphery of Mumbai actually demanded to be incorporated into the city, so that they could receive reliable water supply from the city’s water department. As such, the city has been and is a frequently deployed native category—in planning as also in politics—in ways that have tremendous meaning and material consequence both for its government, and also for subjects living on either side of its borders. It is a category and thing brought into being and made to matter through both material and aspirational processes, made by the tenuous and historic assemblages of urban infrastructure.
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Chakrabarty D (2000) Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Collier SJ (2011) Post-Soviet Social: Neoliberalism, Social Modernity, Biopolitics. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Hart GP (2002) Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ranganathan M (2014) Paying for pipes, claiming citizenship: political agency and water reforms at the urban periphery. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(2): 590–608.
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