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urvival in the city entails a politics of life. Who lives without risk of a landslide, who survives at the hands of the law, who drinks water without fear of contamination, who demands roads and sanitation from the state—answers to these questions are not givens, but products of rule and negotiation. Following Michel Foucault, scholars refer to the seemingly mundane administration of human life in myriad spheres as “biopolitics.” Biopolitics involve regimes of knowledge and ways of seeing that continuously mark certain bodies and populations as worthy of care, while rendering others subjects of discipline, neglect, and even death. Endangered City by Austin Zeiderman and Hydraulic City by Nikhil Anand get at the heart of the differentiated biopolitics of risk and water in Bogotá and Mumbai respectively. What both authors discover is that at stake in the biopolitics of the city is belonging. Claims to belonging in the city shape and are shaped by the politics of life.
Endangered City is a book about how the biopolitics of risk and insecurity constitute the everyday lives of Bogotá’s poor and provide an avenue for claiming belonging in the city. This is the majority, given that this is a country where “savage capitalism” (24) and the long-standing failure of land reform have produced gaping inequality, as two housing workers, Yolanda and Teresa, reflect early in the book. In part, this condition of “endangerment,” the word Zeiderman uses, arises from the multiple ongoing threats the poor face and that have been seared into their collective memory. This memory is due in no small part to the slow death of a child pinned by a mudslide televised to the world in the mid-1980s. Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict between right-wing paramilitaries and left guerillas has decimated the hinterland, leaving hundreds of thousands killed or displaced while ravaging the inner city and periphery with drug cartels and extortion rackets. Earthquakes, mudslides, and floods—so called “natural” disasters—contribute their share to the aura of endangerment here.
But it is not simply the fact of these dangers that condition poor people’s lives, what Zeiderman repeatedly refers to as “lives-at-risk.” It is also the governmental response to and management of lives-at-risk in sometimes counterintuitive ways. This biopolitical regime, ultimately, is what endangerment is—a sometimes surprising terrain of political engagement between citizens and the state, a regime that produces states and experts as much as it produces citizens and subjects, albeit through tenuous categories of race, class, gender, and geography. Here, Zeiderman makes a novel contribution to the literature by thinking of risk not simply as a responsibilizing tool of (neo)liberal government, but also, following James Ferguson’s provocation, as a progressive art of government. What, then, are the progressive uses of risk?
As one example, Zeiderman gives us the story of Liliana, a single mother of five from Ciudad Bolivar, one of the poorest peripheral neighborhoods of the city, who lost her house in a 2006 mudslide. Because of a peculiar, somewhat arbitrary, governmental calculation, some areas of the city are designated “zones of high risk”—the only word in Bogotá for “slum” as Zeiderman discovers to his astonishment. Zones of high risk are eligible for resettlement, while others are not. Liliana’s home is not in such a zone, even though it sits on highly precarious ground. So, Liliana makes an appeal to state authorities to be considered at-risk, or in the author’s words: “To become a citizen with rights, Liliana first had to be visible as a life-at-risk” (133). Liliana ultimately secures this designation, and moves her family out of the endangered zone, thanks to the resettlement subsidy. She manages to claim belonging in the city, though only through making visible her life-at-risk.
Liliana’s story reveals the workings of a preeminently liberal biopolitics. The crux of Zeiderman’s argument is that such liberal biopolitics are also entwined with illiberal political formations, what Anand refers to in his book as “non-constitutive outsides” (62), such as patronage politics and Catholic norms of reciprocity. Liliana herself propitiated the Caja de Vivienda’s (the resettlement agency’s) employees with Catholic alms to have her case heard. Zeiderman similarly observes colonial tropes of the hacienda at play in relations between citizens and the state. That liberal risk management draws force from illiberal genealogies of power and hierarchy is one of Zeiderman’s primary arguments, and one that is, in turn, reinforced by Anand’s ethnography, which I turn to next.
If Endangered City is about the biopolitics of risk, then Hydraulic City is about the biopolitics of water—its rhythms, flows, and interruptions. The infrastructural arrangements that guide and govern water also condition the lives of Mumbai’s poor. If in Bogotá residents work hard to be visible and claim belonging only as lives-at-risk, then in Mumbai, they work hard to be visible and claim belonging as lives worthy of watering. Here again, nothing is a given. Just because Mumbai has adequate supplies of water consolidated through colonial and post-colonial era high-modern dams and elaborate conveyance projects, it does not mean that all lives are worthy of being hydraulic lives. Anand shows with clarity and detail the many waters at play here, and does so poetically by interrupting his own narrative with “interludes” of different waters in this city. He argues that like many cities around the world, Mumbai carefully hones Malthusian “crisis” narratives in combination with selective silences about “how much” water, “which” water, and “where” water in order to justify withholding access from certain publics while enabling it to others.
Most notably poor Muslim settlers are not a population worthy of belonging in the eyes of an increasingly rightwing Hindu nativist politics in Maharashtra, and they thus also find themselves outside the ranks of Mumbai’s hydraulic public. Anand shows how, with respect to a Muslim settlement called Premnagar, engineers easily resort to xenophobic stereotypes about the “not educated” (205) character of its residents and their failure to act as good, paying consumers, thus justifying the municipal neglect from which they suffer. At the heart of the biopolitics of urban water thus lies a politics of belonging. Premnagar is doomed because it is the worst of all intersectional worlds (poor, Muslim, illegal). Meanwhile, in other poor settlements not associated with such ethnoreligious stigma, Anand shows how hard poor residents must work to secure access to water. What struck me and resonates with my own research on Bangalore’s periphery (Ranganathan, 2014) is that in places like Jogeshwari, settlers work hard to archive a range of documents that prove their belonging in the city: things like water bills, ration cards, and voter IDs that tie their personhood to their property.
This, again, is a liberal technique of seeing and being seen, and thus staking belonging in the city. Anand, like Zeiderman, argues that residents engage not just a liberal language of propriety and property to be visible and gain rights—an argument that we also see in Asher Ghertner’s (2015) work—but also the protections and friendships of patrons, dadas, “big men,” and politicians to secure these very rights. For Anand, liberal individuals are thus better understood as multiplicitous dividuals that navigate both liberal and illiberal rubrics of power, both civil and political society. The illiberal frameworks of power are non-constitutive outsides in that they are not subsumed by liberalism, but continue to thrive and expand despite of it. Together, then, these two books specify the emergent, fluctuating, and heterogeneous terrain of hybrid citizenship inside and outside of liberal biopolitics.
While this is their major contribution, it is also the insight that raises the most questions. Should we draw the conclusion from their work that liberalism is a project that always attaches itself to a greater or lesser extent to illiberal logics that lie outside of liberalism? Or, should we be thinking of liberalism as inherently an undertaking that makes use of illiberal authoritarian techniques, especially for those populations deemed most in need of “improvement” and for whom discipline or police power is most appropriate? Here, I am drawing from Barry Hindess’ (2001) “The Liberal Government of Unfreedom” in which he makes the case, drawing on the history of Indian colonialism, that liberal government resorts to more punitive measures for those subjects that are deemed “uncivilized.” In the former understanding, illiberalism is non-constitutive of liberalism, whereas in the latter, illiberalism is essential to the very legitimacy of liberalism.
A second and related question concerns the relationship between liberalism and state responsibility. On one hand, it seems as if the 1985 events in Colombia reframed risk not as a random act of god, but as something the state should be held accountable and responsible for. This translates to the Mumbai case as well: hydraulic government would appear to sit squarely in the realm of the state. On the other hand, if we are calling these regimes “liberal,” then it would imply that the burden of responsibility is on the individual and on her self-regulation. So how do we reconcile that liberalism calls for both more state and more individual responsibility? Related to this question, how, more generally, should this work help us to understand liberalism in the age of the “Anthropocene” in which human agency is deemed of paramount importance?
Third and finally, it is striking that both authors use the notion of “vitality,” though in different ways. In Anand’s book, and in the lineage of Jane Bennett, Sarah Whatmore, Bruce Braun, and others, vitality references vital nonhuman materialities—pipes, leaks, meters, floods, rivers, silt—all of which play a key role in constituting the politics of water and hydraulic citizenship. The “stuff of water” matters because it is always confounding, mystifying, and thwarting the grand plans of engineers and experts. Anand is careful here with his attribution of agency, and argues that we must understand the agency of humans and non-humans as shaping each other. One is not ontologically prior, or superior, to the other. Zeiderman is interested in vitality in a different sense. To him, vitality is a gendered and racialized category that conjures el vivo, or the conniving “full-of-life” poor subject who tries to milk the state for welfare. Given the theoretical focus on biopolitics in both books, how would broadening vitality as a heuristic be useful for both authors? Might there be an el vivo figure in Mumbai and a role in the riskscapes of Bogotá for non-human vitality? These are just a few questions provoked by two carefully researched and beautifully narrated ethnographies.
The salience of these two works goes far beyond the individual cases of Bogotá and Mumbai. Works like Endangered City and Hydraulic City remind us that the city matters a good deal at a time in which we are being asked to reject anachronistic boundaries between city and country and think instead of planetary urbanization or urban-rural agglomerations. These books matter because they remind us why the imagined boundary of “the city”—who belongs, who doesn’t; who is a public deserving of care from the state and who is not—continues to hold fast in the schemes and actions of those charged with and those at the receiving end of policy. So many of the urban dwellers we encounter in these two books pin their hopes for a better future on “the city.” For these precarious lives, it does not matter if Mumbai and Bogotá are nodes in an ever-increasing planetary drive towards urbanization, regionalization, and agglomeration. Of course, we must keep a metabolic understanding of the urban in sight. Still, metabolism must be peopled. People think not of their identity as simply “urban.” What matters to most residents is their recognition as Mumbaikar or Bogotáno. We should be listening to those stories and asking why, despite the physical melding of city and country the imaginary of “the city” continues to hold so much sway, instead of dismissing the city as an irrelevant construct.
Ghertner AD (2015) Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi. Oxford University Press, New York.
Hindess B (2001) The Liberal Government of Unfreedom. Alternatives, 26: 93-111.
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.