Geographical fieldwork with philosophers and elsewheres


sher Ghertner continues his work as a creative and profound scholar with his first monograph, Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi. This book is a great read yet also manages to be impressively detailed in its data and textured in its ethnographic feel. Ghertner proves particularly agile in his movement among sites in Delhi as well as among concepts and modes of academic engagement, shifting from exposition and explication to conceptual development and back again. There is a masterful sense of a very locally specific framework and argument that simultaneously hold broad utility for a range of settings. I would like to focus on a few features of this book that I find especially worth thinking about in terms of Ghertner’s larger contributions, as well as some aspects that got me stuck thinking—both in terms of elsewheres, or other sites, where we might see these phenomena happening, and other conceptual engagements that we might consider in light of this.

Among the many accomplishments of the book, it excels in dissecting the world-class city from new angles. Ghertner breathes new life into this concept, moving above and beyond the pivotal, now classic critique by Jennifer Robinson (2002) about global and world cities as a “regulating fiction.” Ghertner advances our understanding here by showing how this idea of the world-class city—this image, this aesthetic—is cultivated through both statistical wizardry and discursive innovation, as part of cultural domination. But he also shows how this reaches various groups: not just those who benefit from it directly, or who are seen as some kind of favored audience ready to buy into its fantasy by buying up luxury flats, but also how this fantasy becomes something that those most persecuted by it absorb, admire, and obey. Ghertner shows how disadvantaged urban populations find ways to make sense of their own unbelonging in schemes of remaking the city to match some kind of world-class aspiration.

In another example of his oblique, innovative interventions in influential debates in urban geography, Ghertner grapples with the gentrification literature by finding ways to shore up its utility for the institutional and political context of Indian cities (see also Ghertner, 2014). While some recent contributions advocate the “planetary” sweep of gentrification analyses (e.g., Lees, Shin, and López-Morales, 2016; Slater, 2017), Ghertner takes prudent steps both toward deeper empirical embeddedness and outward to wider considerations than is the norm for these swirling discussions among a small set of commentators who remind us that gentrification is everywhere. Indeed, the revalorization of devalorized space—an axiomatic understanding of gentrification from the late Neil Smith (1996)—can be witnessed across much of the globe. Ghertner has no interest in naysaying that observation. Rather, he argues that displacement and the remaking of urban terrain happens through different mechanisms, with differently pitched dynamics and differently inflected deplorable outcomes across planetary space, which has quite a lot to do with local political histories, longstanding socioeconomic structures, and both the design and enforcement of regulatory frameworks in any given state. Drawing on his longitudinal positioning in Delhi, he shows how processes of displacement obtain through a number of “extra-economic” means (i.e., beyond the most standard ambit of gentrification explanations), including governance tactics and the impunity of brute force. Ghertner’s focus is specifically on the Indian context, but this kind of insight pertains to a number of other settings where property and residential rights draw on a different inheritance of norms—and repertoire of practices—than in the wealthy postindustrial countries where gentrification frameworks emerged. This is where Ghertner also takes a step outward, by considering how other broad frameworks—such as Henri Lefebvre’s (2003) understanding of urban revolution, and David Harvey’s (2003) accumulation by dispossession—could prove more amenable to a variety of settings, and indeed more adaptable to their specific features and how locally embedded scholars have understood them, than the standard gentrification story.

Rather than abandoning gentrification as a phenomenon to analyze, Ghertner shows us how to do this more incisively so that we might yield better-informed strategies for denouncing and resisting it. If, instead, we start to see all kinds of urban change as gentrification, we are shorn of our ability to understand its nuances and make more effective interventions. Recently, even Saskia Sassen (2015)—sometimes criticized for the overstretch of her own concepts—claimed that “calling a phenomenon gentrification is like an invitation not to think,” in her effort to convey the need for more tailored yet still critical theorizations and analyses of urban change. Ghertner, in richly textured ways, meets and exceeds this intellectual demand to offer us new ways to think about gentrification as well as the limits of what we can describe and analyze as gentrification in this book. He points usefully, for example, to “the gentrification of the state,” elucidating how various processes of governance can be powerfully shifted along a class gradient.

Among the many other thought-provoking facets of Rule by Aesthetics, two features pushed me to think about possible influences or extensions that could be rooted in this work. First, the book is quite philosophically omnivorous. Ghertner engages with philosophers in his geographical fieldwork with aplomb: whether Foucault, Rancière, Barthes, Kristeva, or others, there is much in philosophy (or among the philosophically minded) that Ghertner incorporates into his explanatory repertoire, for how to make sense of what is happening in Delhi with world-class urbanism and this rule by aesthetics. But I was left wondering at several points what this was doing for the book’s reception more broadly—both within geography and beyond. In human geography, there is somewhat of a disciplinary penchant for cherrypicking philosophical frameworks or following vogue theories—obviously not every geographer does this, but it happens often in the discipline, where an idea that is not necessarily relevant, and a thinker who may be extremely clever but has no (or no pertinent) empirical foundation, are invoked in almost scriptural fashion to make sense of a very empirical geographical phenomenon, as if somehow inherently legitimate or beyond question. This is not Ghertner’s game. To the contrary, his command of different philosophical frameworks is erudite and nimble, his use of them sensible and indeed grounded and reflexive, which are key shifts that are all too uncommon. This made me wonder how other geographers might then follow this example, how this could be a model for doing geographical fieldwork with philosophy but without resorting to flavor-of-the-month genuflection or hand-waving.

Beyond geography, the book’s philosophical engagement may well be surprising, especially in disciplines such as sociology where scholars are very accustomed to the struggle of bringing together complicated theoretical frameworks with a rich local context. In particular I kept asking myself what would the analysis in Rule by Aesthetics have been like if Pierre Bourdieu had been utilized more directly and abundantly. Bourdieu is there, but he is not there extensively. Bourdieu as a sociologist was famous for his “fieldwork in philosophy” (Bourdieu, 1990: 3-33), as he himself exemplified this practice of bringing philosophical concepts into the empirical fray to test and recalibrate them. I wondered then—especially around issues of judgment, taste, habitus, etc, that do show up in this book, and are key elements in Bourdieu’s repertoire—what would it have been like to engage with a philosophically minded scholar who is much more empirical, like Bourdieu? He certainly has his own critics, not least among geographers (see Cresswell, 2002), so I am not claiming Ghertner’s book would have been necessarily better for working more extensively with Bourdieu; instead, it is an open question about what could happen with some of the analysis here if there were greater engagement with others like Bourdieu who have also been committed to empirical fieldwork with philosophy.

Second, this book may be about Delhi but it made me think constantly about a variety of elsewheres. I was of course led to reflect on some of my own fieldwork—not on the same specific topics but grappling with some similar broad issues. For example, with the idea of rule by aesthetics, one of Ghertner’s assertions is that we must analyze an aesthetic from multiple perspectives because it does not necessarily have a clear ideology embedded within it. An aesthetic can serve as a form of rule, but it is open to being filled by an array of charged contents. An aesthetic can also be contested, and recast, either by those who suffer from its rule, or by others who pose alternative agendas of power. This made me mull over my work in Turkey, in Istanbul, with regard to the imperial motifs and references in politics, architecture, and popular media in recent years that have been called “neo-Ottomanism,” or even “Ottomania” (see Danforth, 2016), to refer to the spreading fascination with the height of the Ottoman Empire’s power, and representations associated with it. This could be analyzed as having implications on a number of empirical scales, including for Turkey’s currently shifting regional role, but if we focus on the turbulent urban landscape, on Istanbul as Turkey’s economic center and the former Ottoman capital, then we can detect this Ottomania as embodying a sort of aesthetic to remake the city. We could analyze this aesthetic as being wielded to justify or legitimate certain kinds of ruling practices by the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi –Turkey’s current ruling party, also in power at the metropolitan level in Istanbul), and a variety of development initiatives in the city that it has supported, with major displacements as a consequence. At first blush, pondering this case made me reject Ghertner’s assertion about the openness of an aesthetic: how could these sultan-infused moves be anything other than authoritarian and capricious? But on further reflection, I realized my inability to see other ways for Ottomania to be reworked from below, from the side, etc., could very well be due to the success of its rule by aesthetics so far. Still, other angles into this aesthetic could be exploited for challenging the nature of this rule on its own terms, as well as providing different approaches to its analysis.

Another familiar issue that kept pushing my thinking toward elsewheres was the importance of the middle class, which is enormous in the book. Ghertner shows how the middle class has been “conjured” as a key player in creating a world-class city in Delhi and a new kind of imagined future for India. This resonated with my research in Argentina and Brazil, especially, but also to some extent in Turkey and South Africa, where there has been a recent expansion of the middle class in statistical terms. Some observers recognize, however, that in fact we are not talking about a homogeneous class but very socially (and often economically) heterogeneous groups that get clustered into the same, broad statistical category of “middle class.” Some may be much richer or poorer, some may be new to this designation while others may have been described in this way, and seen themselves in this light, for generations; there could be racial differences, quite significant political differences, and so forth (Centner, 2013). We could even imagine many of the political tensions in Brazil and Turkey, building since 2013, as connected to fissures among this increasingly broad, diverse middle class. While the achievement of a sizeable middle class has traditionally figured as a cornerstone of “success” and political stability in development scholarship (Davis, 2010: 245-249), perhaps we now can discern middle-class diversification as fertile ground for the quarrelsome unmaking of democracy among factions of the middle class when development encounters economic turbulence, and the privileges of different middle-class groups begin to be threatened or called into question. With this conjecture in mind, it struck me that the middle class in the Delhi case is not likely to be so unitary either, and that some of the statistical work predicting a kind of “middleclassification” of India, which Ghertner (2015: 29-44) critiques, may point to different kinds of middle classes numerically, despite a homogenizing gloss. In the ethnography, however, I do not get as much of a sense of this heterogeneity of middle classes, with diverse forms of middle-class anxiety. But in thinking about Rule by Aesthetics with and through these elsewheres, I had to wonder about Delhi: was its middle class merely “conjured,” or were parts of it more self-consciously middle-class than others? Do some segments of the Delhi middle class consider themselves more deserving of privilege in the city than those they may see as their middle-class others (whether in terms of religion, party, regional background, occupation, language fluency, taste, etc)? Perhaps exploring some of the differences of vision across social divisions within the statistical middle class—so evident in the cities of middle-income elsewheres—is an avenue for pushing this kind of revealing fieldwork on conjuring and its effects even further.

From its unusual but enticing interventions in grinding geographical debates, to its vivid evocations of changing landscapes and their complicated human dimensions, Ghertner’s book is an excellent contribution that does much more than make me think about philosophers and elsewheres. Indeed its many strengths and arresting aspects will not go unnoticed by readers. But these facets inspired insights I had not expected when I started reading; even long after putting the book down, they keep inspiring me to think about ways of engaging with geographical fieldwork anew. 


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