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Austin Zeiderman’s Endangered City: The Politics of Security and Risk in Bogotá and Nikhil Anand’s Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai are two new books set principally in informal settlements in what might traditionally be called Third World megacities, Bogotá and Mumbai, respectively. These are two books that look at what could conventionally be called natural hazards: earthquakes, flooding, and landslides, as well as trans-species pandemics such as Swine Flu in Endangered City and water contamination and water shortage in Hydraulic City. Yet, both books powerfully reject apocalyptic narratives of the megacity run wild. Each book dedicates a full chapter to showing the social work that narratives of “the city at risk” (in Bogotá) and “the city run dry” (in Mumbai) play in imbuing the very materiality of the city with forms of social and political anxiety. Shaky grounds produce shaky subjectivities; scarce waters produce anxious drinkers. Zeiderman and Anand thus deftly show how stories and symbols of risk and scarcity produce fractured, fearful, and unequal publics that, in the language of Caja, the main disaster risk management agency Zeiderman studied, go through a process of sensibilización to vigilantly patrol sources of risk and diligently divvy out blame to risky and unworthy subjects.
Hydraulic City and Endangered City both assertively foreground the “city” as analytical device, ethnographic fact, socionatural assemblage, and political formation. At a moment in which urbanists have begun to shift their focus from cities to urbanization, it is useful to ask what these texts gain by deploying the city as a heuristic. If, as one of the commentators in this book review symposium, AbouMaliq Simone (2010: 9), puts it, “the very dimension that characterizes the city—its ‘cityness,’ or its capacity to continuously reshape the ways in which people, places, and materials intersect—is often the very thing that is left out of the larger analytical picture,” then what kinds of processes does the city bring back into view? How do these two texts about specific cities open up a wider set of questions about the politics of urban research today? For this book review forum, Malini Ranganathan, Diane Davis, and AbdouMaliq Simone take up these questions as a means of putting the two books into conversation. To help situate the books, I briefly introduce some of the key arguments of each text here, before highlighting two intersecting lines of inquiry related to biopolitics and technopolitics that complement the question of analytical “cityness” and that are opened up further, yet with different emphases, by the reviews that follow.
Nikhil Anand’s Hydraulic City follows the routine, incremental ways in which marginal groups in Mumbai forge enduring socialities by examining how water is made to flow through a vast, porous, public infrastructure. The book makes three central arguments concerning hydraulic citizenship, the matter of government, and the excesses of infrastructure.
First, in Anand’s hands, citizenship is not a singular, historical event, to be “turned on and off like a switch,” but rather an incremental and reversible process that is composed of multiple temporalities—when a water main was laid, when one arrived in the city, when the water valve is opened or closed, when the right political party is in power. What this means within Mumbai’s water world is that it takes a significant amount of work to become and remain a hydraulic citizen—meaning someone who benefits from piped municipal water and the positive social identity such water delivers. Following the plumbing, canals, and springs, we see urban citizenship to have hydraulic qualities, ebbing and flowing with the changing pressures of pipes and politics.
Second, as citizens are formed through the material relations and social hydraulics they forge with water pipes, plumbers, engineers, and state agencies, a delicate choreography of water delivery emerges. Yet despite this tightly orchestrated system, municipal water exceeds human intentionality: pipes burst, water tables drop, monsoons arrive late, creeks flood. Here, then, Anand turns our attention away from the technopolitical foundation of urban governmentality—of narrow rationalities of rule exercised by a coherent set of competencies and authorities—and toward the specific materialities of technology and how they modify the form and effects of government. The city’s infrastructure, we thus learn, leaks nearly as much water as it delivers, and this leakage becomes itself the stuff from which different possibilities for life spring up. For example, a particular hydrological event mixing the Mahim Creek with the Arabian Sea gave the water a magical sweetness that drew faithful Hindus, Muslims, and Christians alike to worship the purifying powers of water. Momentarily breaking the administered divisions between these communities, water here opened up a different threshold of life.
Third, in attending to the excesses of infrastructure, Anand notes how Mumbai’s water system has always been a technology of urban splintering, dividing up first the British from the native, and later subtending durable social divisions: planned versus unplanned neighborhood, apartment versus slum, Hindu versus Muslim. Because most people living in settlements in Mumbai have not been considered substantive citizens of government historically, settlers pursue water connections as a means to state recognition. The utility bills and pipes that legal connections deliver, in other words, give more than water: they also produce subjects recognizably proper to the city. Anand is here building on a long line of work on urban citizenship and what Benjamin (2008) calls “occupancy urbanism.” But, he pushes this conversation further by arguing that settlers’ multiple forms of connection to state machinery also bring about a critical shift in the terms of belonging: as he puts it, “their politics of life are sometimes framed in terms of a politics of rights” (16), where vital infrastructures are twisted into a legal infrastructures and vice versa.
This strange admixture of life and rights is the starting point for Zeiderman’s interrogation of risk in Bogotá, his argument being that the right to life has reconfigured the other rights of citizens, such as the right to housing. This particular transformation took place at a unique political conjuncture in the city, marked by Bogotá’s transition in the global imaginary from a violent and disorderly “megacity” to be avoided into a “model city” for other Southern cities to emulate. This shift was precipitated, in part, through a strategic reworking of a long-standing security logic: previously used to target criminals and insurgents, in the early 2000s a new municipal disaster risk management program emerged, led by the Caja de la Vivienda Popular, or Caja for short. Based on new techniques of vulnerability mapping, Caja showed the self-built settlements on the periphery—formerly seen as the sources of criminal risk to the city—to be the most “at risk” of flooding and landslides, and therefore worthy of state support. This new environmental avatar of security used the technical expertise of engineers, architects, and social workers to educate vulnerable populations about their “at risk” status with the aim of guiding them to voluntarily leave the hillsides. This came at the expense, though, of their existing right to housing, which had been won decades earlier through organized squats supported, ironically, by the employees of Caja.
Endangered City thus follows the politics of risk management to advance an argument about the perils and potentials of what in less nimble hands might be reduced to a story of neoliberal governmentality, evident in the global spread of risk mitigation as a central logic of urban rule. Zeiderman acknowledges at the outset that risk management policies in Bogotá could be read through the complimentary frames of “accumulation by dispossession” and Foucauldian governmentality as an uncomplicated confirmation of neoliberalism’s destructive tendencies: technocratic “fixes” replace political struggle; a state once leveraged by the dispossessed becomes a plodding, bureaucratic tool of their continued dispossession; the horizon of political possibility narrows; etcetera. He even at times uses the techno-management of what he calls “lives at risk” to rebut vitalist theories that rest on an assumed radical alterity of the politics of life. But, at the same time, Zeiderman situates his claims alongside James Ferguson (2009), who argues for a more pragmatic orientation toward forms of neoliberal rule, acknowledging the restrictions they impose while remaining open to the fresh opportunities for political contestation they open up. In Bogotá, in the era of endangerment, one such opportunity becomes clear—poor bogotanos, excluded from the fruits of economic development, can mobilize claims to vulnerability as a strategy for winning material benefits from the state.
To help pull the books into a tighter conversational orbit, it makes sense to see Endangered City and Hydraulic City opening up a set of analytical presumptions regarding biopolitics and technopolitics, dominant frameworks for understanding cities today. Regarding biopolitics, Endangered City makes a key intervention by theorizing endangerment not through the experience of a specific threat, but rather as a more open condition of being in a threatening milieu. In other words, endangerment is more future-oriented and open to the unexpected than being in danger, where a clear threat source can be identified. Whereas much work on biopolitics centers on how certain segments of the population are to be defended and others sacrificed, endangerment shows the possibility of a slippage whereby potential future threats can be mobilized in the present to defend those once considered outside “the society to be defended.” In other words, an attunement to the uncertain means an openness to reconfigurations of life, bringing new actors into the domain of care.
In the case of Hydraulic City, we find biopolitics to be produced not just through those distant acts of governing described by Foucault—including censuses, surveys, and plans. The manner in which chaviwallas, or key-men, must enter neighborhoods to turn the valves of city water pipes makes evident the intimate labor of administering life, opening up multiple sites for new claims to be made.
Both books are also fundamentally about showing the mundane workings of technopolitics, or the everyday, non-omniscient bureaucratic labor of risk mapping in Bogotá and hydraulic engineering in Mumbai. Both books thus move beyond a sense of the technological sublime centered on the penetrative power of science. What we get in place of coherent rationalities is a picture of distributed expertise, the necessity of ignorance, and urban technics as a highly provisional enterprise sustained by daily tinkering. The promise of 24/7 water supply in Mumbai, for example, which global techno-managerial regimes see as a logical step of modernization, was thwarted not by activists, but by engineers who themselves recognized their mutual dependence on plumbers, politicians, and settlers. Once municipal infrastructures and governments are observed through the fitful and precarious practices of whole congeries of human and non-human forces that sustain them—where the coherence of an imagined global urbanism is difficult to locate—then it becomes impossible to abandon focus, as these books powerfully remind us, on the spectacularly unpredictable accomplishments that “the city” represents.
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.
Through these two fascinating and meticulously detailed accounts of urban servicing and governance, focused on Mumbai and Bogotá, we have seen how each city’s built environment is constantly being made and remade through the actions of citizens and the state, whether through exchanges fueled by the language of risk or in the struggle over who is responsible for servicing the material needs of citizens.
In 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.”
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.
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.