An Unqualified Urbanism


Writing about slum urbanism, even if celebratory, tends to emphasize the fractured, chaotic nature of the physical environment of slums, as if they were mere splinters of the ordered whole of modern life. I suggest instead that the slums possess a distinct autonomous order in contrast to the splintered quality of life in ordinary formal settlements. It is not this order that constitutes a slum, because a slum is by definition a human settlement within the metropolis that has repelled, whether by accident or deliberate effort, the governmental practices that collectively generate an official place. But within the space created by this purely negative definition (the absence of full governmental modernity), one finds a distinct and positive quality, unrelated to the slum’s negative character as a zone of exception. In characterizing this autonomous order, care is warranted, not only to avoid the obvious risk of romanticizing the objectively not-so-great living conditions within many (though not all) slums, but for the more significant reason that the life of the slum is characterized by a set of logics—political, cultural, religious, etc—that are structurally different from the logic that governs the lives of those who live in the formal sector. The political and cultural logics that order life in the slums belong to what a social critic might call “human life as such,” unassimilated into the very different logic of modern globalized society, which offers administration in place of politics and a culture industry in place of a culture.

(It may need to be stated that slum life, at least in the Indian slums that I have visited in and around Mumbai/Bombay, is quite unlike what might be imagined by those who are unfamiliar with this form of urbanism: the quality of construction is sometimes quite high; in some slums most residences have electricity, poached with varying degrees of skill from the utility lines that pass nearby; some have quasi-professional police forces; most above a certain size have some system of self-government; some are full of shops selling all manner of daily necessities and pleasures; in almost all, the alleys are full of gossip and play. In short, the slums that I have visited are generally what Professor Garvin might call “mixed-use districts with a vibrant street life”—all of this simply takes place outside the purview of the formal state apparatus.)

I will offer an illustration: I was once spending the day following an inspector from the state of Maharashtra. The slum was to be cleared by the state’s redevelopment bureaucracy, and its residents compensated in kind for the destruction of the dwellings, businesses, etc., that they had constructed or bought over time. In Maharashtra this in-kind compensation usually comes in the form of a flat in a poorly located and poorly built high-rise, and so the inhabitants are generally unenthusiastic about the process (though this depends on the particular character of the slum—some are so physically dangerous to live in that their inhabitants welcome the chance to be compensated for moving, even to a worse location). The compensation is offered on a pro-rata basis; that is, if you have a large house in the slum, you will get a proportionally large flat in the high-rise. Here the state runs into trouble, because the slums are illegible to it. The state has no cadastral map of the slum, no deeds on file, not even a list of who the property owners might be. In the face of this illegibility, the slum must be subjected to a formal survey—it must cease to be a slum, in one sense—before it can cease to exist as a physical construction.

And so, clad in the uniform attire of his office, cloaked with the full territorial power of the sovereign state, clipboard in hand, with me close beside him, the state inspector enters the slum as the embodiment of this surveying process. His function is to implement the algorithm by which, in its immense but finite subtlety, the government of Maharashtra will decide what each property in the slum is worth. And it is at this point in the process that the slum makes clear that it is not passive prime matter to which the state’s procedures may give form. In the absence of the habitual docility before the state that we think of as the ordinary condition of human life, in the slums an altogether different habit prevails. One might call this habit “politics.”

Politics is unfamiliar enough to those of us who live in the formal sector that it is worth describing what it looked like in this case, which was the collective, in-person appearance of nearly all the residents of the slum. Unwilling to accept the allotment per the state’s algorithm, the slum residents followed the state inspector during his entire traverse of the slum, not to lobby him on their own behalf, as if in a state of nature, so to the speak, but to hash out with one another what the just allotment should be. In the end, the inspector was forced by what one might (reductively) call the moral force of collective decision-making to disregard his algorithm and accept the residents’ collective judgment as the legitimating process by which to compensate its residents.

It is not resistance, exactly, that is offered to the state inspector in this story. It is the autonomy of the residents’ own political lives—which have nothing to do with the state—rather than hostility, that makes the slum-dwellers effective in removing the compensation process from the sphere of the sovereign’s claimed legitimacy. (Antithesis, one might say, only advances the dialectic of state and capital; only an oblique movement can stall it.) No one in a slum is officially qualified to build, to police, to govern, and yet building and governing go on. And, in the space left over by the absence of “qualification,” so does human life.