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

n Mumbai there is enough water; in Bogotá enough land. Both books chart out various dimensions of the inequalities entailed in the distribution of life—its resources, materials, opportunities, and the ways in which distribution generates scarcity and surplus, which become appropriable by different actors and agendas. The surplus of reflexivity, the ability to reflect upon things in ways that are capable of designing articulations to a wider world, as well as piecing together insular environments that are immune to the volatilities of that larger world, have long been hedges against scarcity. And scarcity, itself, prompts compensations, labor-intensive practices of self-reproduction and time-consuming maneuvers to stay in place, as a power elite’s hedge against the potentialities of collective life on the part of the “majority.” Yet, collective life, often inexplicable and un-mappable can and does emerge, provisional, tentative, fragile, and ambivalent though it may be. Through the engagements offered in these books, what might collective life’s possible futures be?

Despite being rightly criticized for their elision of the political and the constitutive powering of the ecological composition of urban life, “Chicago inflected” theorizations do productively reiterate the status of collective metabolic agency as perhaps the key locus of contemporary ontology. This is particularly the case as the boundaries, and thus the forms of emplacement within or outside of life, constantly are shifting and traversing each other in the practices of genomic science, biotechnology, hydrocarbon derivation which all attempt to elaborate new metabolic pathways. Such ontologies of metabolism are embodied in and by multiple relationships of having—having complex relations, form, reciprocities, and possessions that exceed the regime of property. Perhaps, then, is it viable to restore a sense of the metabolic to the notion of “the city,” not in terms of particular “rights to it” or “properties,” but as shifting architectures of “having,” where possession is something continuously worked out through various performances of infrastructure, visibility and opacity, sutures and disconnections?

Particular practices of calculation are predominant features of both books. And so this query concerns the political potentialities of calculation:

City life had been often imagined as a process of living-with—which largely concerned the continuous working out of attention and indifference, of reciprocity and individuation, of proximity and distance, as a matter of intensities, affective flows, apportionment of affordances and responsibilities. Cities as a locus of calculation largely convert this living-with into ways of life that are the products of informational inputs and responses, anticipations and adjustments of behavior, sculpting of interfaces among humans, infrastructure, informational systems, and media.

Techno-logics and machine processing, far from actualizing determined outcomes posit domains of the incomputable, as computational processes based on informational inputs always increase the size of random information, which, rather than circumscribing a field of operations, gives rise to distinct orders of informational patterning in phase transitions. In her descriptions of algorithmic calculation, Luciana Parisi insists that the way doing is done always leads to something else; that computation is a form of constructivism, of future-oriented trajectories, of the structuring of new collective intelligence, new densities of affiliation not based on the specification of prior objectives.

Randomness is not simply outside the realm of computation, but has more radically become its absolute condition. In light of the ways in which inter-operability—a means of translating discrete features of the urban environment across each other as a way to measure their probable impacts—become increasingly important to urban governance, how might the city as a field of calculations, conversely, continue to operate as an arena of random intersections that generate new forms of collective sociality? And what is a sociality of accreted collaborations based not on the pursuit of particular objectives but on the shared living side-by-side under conditions that become increasingly difficult to grasp and proactively intervene into, that can no longer rely upon intensive proximities?

Risk is often deployed as the language of contingency. It is a language that obscures the processes through which particular household and territorial realities have been constructed—a language that abstracts those realities in terms of particular appearances in statistical calculations. If this is the case, contingency for many of the residents these books engage also can become a means of “freeing” up livelihoods from a limiting commitment to specific modalities of self-recognition.

Residents could get on with negotiating complicated interactions with different facets of the city without necessarily being hindered by the defense of “ultimate bottom lines” or “territories of belonging.” They could get by without taking on cascading social obligations which limited the kinds of perspectives and information residents had available.

What are the thresholds—as well as lines of both complicity and autonomy—that mark the assumption of risk as the medium through which residents maximize circulation and exposure and mark a “milieu” through which new form of subjugation are constituted? How can circulating residents be sufficiently visible to grab opportunities when they appear, to be sufficiently visible to be themselves grabbed, included, while also not being exposed to all of the “elements” that can throw a person off, draw too much scrutiny? If the profusions and intensifications of risk tend to curtail the sense of one thing leading to another, of each reciprocal exchange opening up new vistas of value, how could the performance of vulnerability enable a greater openness of residents to each other?

Emplacement and emergence have been key matters of urban concern and definition. How things are connected to each other; how they are assembled. But in the process of “sharing-out” that such assemblage implies, there is also separation and, as such, how does the city exist then as a locus of the making-separate, where estrangement marks the possibility of relation, and where the city is the very platform for withdrawn presence.

In both books’ landscapes, instead of classifications, there are the preponderance of gradations, of the more or less, there here and there, the up and down, and all of the more textured slopes, an incessant instantiation of differing that propel new sutures and exclusions (both are relations). As the city itself seems to become an increasingly withdrawn presence and urban residents subsumed into more seemingly homogenous formats of emplacement and individuation, what are possible trajectories of what Frederic Neyrat calls “planetary wandering”—the sense of being separate so as to compose and be composed—within the city?

Pipes are an accretion of human and non-human relations; they point to an excess of relations. Infrastructure can be seen as a gesture toward the uncertain stabilities that exist in and as a result of the territorialization of space into discernible points, units, tangents, and vectors. Instead of a constantly expansive hardwiring of metabolism, atmosphere and geomorphology, infrastructure is also an increasingly frenetic signaling of volatility. Each suture, hinge, circumvention or agglomeration is insufficient to the uncertainty infrastructure both registers and constitutes.

Creative destruction makes infrastructure a plaything in the recalibration of value; exhaustion acts as a crisis that prompts repairs and renovation, and aesthetic incompatibility to prevailing sentiments subjects infrastructure to radical makeovers. But from its inception infrastructure seems to point to the simultaneous presence of many temporalities—all of the actions never quite constellated as event, all of the intersections and transactions that either could have happened somewhere but didn’t or that did but didn’t go anywhere specific or didn’t leave enough of a tangible trace to point back to or move on from.

Thus if the city has been “creatively destroyed,” to what extent does it endure through the very mechanics of urbanization that would otherwise seem to render it an ideological phantasm; something that continues to haunt the eventualities of urbanization, no matter what they may be? Can there be an infrastructure of strange alliances?

Another way of putting this is that relational configurations constantly emerge that do not manage to operate and which are therefore incapable of conveying the predictability that otherwise connects socio-temporal layers in the city. Such sets of urban relations assert themselves more like inconsistent or even heterogeneous potentialities that never quite make it into the open. And, still, they do not disappear but can be grasped only as the awkward realization that urban life is mirroring an original that might never have existed.

For example, across the so-called South, large numbers of residents talk about themselves being or at least becoming middle class. Even when their incomes may only nominally increase, rarely keeping pace with their expenditures, even when laboring time increases and consumption levels diminish, many remain adamant that their relation to the city is that of the middle class. The absence of evidence is not really the point, as the relation to being middle class is deployed as a political aesthetics even as those that do the deploying implicitly know that there is little economic foundation for such a relationship and frequently recognize its ideological function. So the inoperable relation is not that there doesn’t exist a middle class to which residents can “really relate,” not that it is just mirage, but rather any sense that the middle class has collapsed. Rather than think about reverse-engineering such inoperable relations into a more “realistic” assessment of livelihoods and life positions, how could we thing about infrastructures as ways to extend the coming together of discordant experiences, maximize strange alliances?