The Scopic Regimes of Urban Neglect

We are living in an era marked by many dystopian visions of the future, says distinguished urbanist Ash Amin. Upending them will require work, he tells Matthew Gandy in a wide-ranging discussion that also assesses the contemporary neglect of the urban poor, their infrastructural rights, as well as the use of big data and smart technology in managing cities

In 2003 UN-Habitat warned that by 2030 around a third of the world’s nine billion humans could be suffering from multiple deprivations, living in slum-like conditions in the world’s cities, many located in the global south. Urban attention is beginning to turn to this problem, and to questions of sustainable urban competitiveness and growth, albeit without much reference between agents focused on growth and urban privation. In his keynote address at the 40th World Congress of the International Institute of Sociology, held in Delhi in February 2012, Ash Amin introduced the idea of  “telescopic urbanism”. The city of the future, he noted, is being looked at through the wrong end of the binoculars: while “business consultancy” urbanism is largely disinterested in the city that does not feed international competitiveness and business growth, “human potential” urbanism largely focuses on settlements where the poor are located for bottom-up solutions to wellbeing. Ideas of mutuality, obligation and commonality have all but disappeared in this new paradigm, the mechanics of which is the starting point of this conversation between Amin and Matthew Gandy.

Matthew Gandy: I’d like to begin by asking you about your essay “telescopic urbanism” (“Telescopic Urbanism and the Poor”, City, forthcoming 2013). Do you want to tell me more about how you use that visual metaphor?

Ash Amin: The title appeared in the middle of a paper on the urban poor in the developing world, when it dawned on me that the kind of argument I was trying to make about the contemporary neglect of this very large section of humanity might have a lot to do with the emergence of a dominant optic of the city as all but a single, connected, interdependent entity. This is when I thought that this piece ought to be called “telescopic urbanism”, and from then on, like any suggestive metaphor, the title acted as a prompt. The metaphor got me to think about the implications of seeing the city only in its parts, through the wrong end of the telescope. Particularly today, as cities around the world are trying to muscle up, gear themselves up for international competitiveness and the like, telescopic urbanism—as both imaginary and code of practice—regularly bypasses the poor, casting them as not part of the urban central, but as part of the urban peripheral, or another world. The metaphor became a way of forcing a thesis on urban neglect: if today the majority city and its needs are ignored by elites—perhaps also scholarship—it is because it is placed out of sight, and for this, forgotten or made anomalous, allowing the city of the thrusting few to colonise the gaze, claim the urban.

MG: In the paper you mention a contrast between what you call “page turning ethnographies” and “voyeuristic hyperbole”. Can you elaborate on that tension between different modes of representing urban poverty?

AA: Yes, I wanted to bring out the contrast between two kinds of ethnographies of the poor that are becoming all the rage at the moment. On a good day, page turning ethnographies of slums and the everyday city by novelists and journalists manage to tell a compelling story of the poor, and the city at large, without reducing fortunes and lives to just these actors. They might focus on particular neighbourhoods or particular lives, but still manage to weave into that story resonances from elsewhere, such as the city’s labour market geographies, the symbolic and affective atmospheres of place, the networks of exchange, remittance or longing that stretch back to villages and other continents, the impositions of the authorities and urban elites, the very ecology of dwelling, metabolic flows and infrastructural provision. These accounts somehow manage to capture the complexities confronting the poor as well as the fullness of their subjectivities and experiences, as it were, in a gesture and sweep. I am thinking of the likes of Suketu Mehta and Katherine Boo on Bombay, or Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Binyavanga Wainana on Nairobi, who manage to narrate the seen and the unseen, the experienced and the imposed, the particular and the general, all in really insightful ways—ways that scholarship on cities often struggles with. They move the telescope steadily, they focus in and out, they return to things missed the first time.

Then we have more voyeuristic accounts of the urban poor, often written by celebrated journalists and opinionated experts. They parachute into a slum, stay there a few days, move off to another one in a different country or continent without waiting to form a nuanced picture of the everyday life of the poor or of their complex formative geographies and histories. They succumb to projecting from the few empathies built and insights acquired, and reducing complexities without a clear narrative or purpose to clear singularities that tell a good story. The upshot is a voyeuristic and often very crude summary of what was seen and heard in a week, and then when the comparisons have been made, the lives of the poor here and there are woven together around a set of easy metaphors, so that the poor can be narrated as survivors, entrepreneurs, clean, jolly, or their opposites, and so that a given location—including a slum with nearly one million people in it—can be spoken of in clear and general terms, without a huge amount of evidence or even literary imagination. It would be invidious of me to name names, but imagine the book equivalents of films like Slumdog Millionaire.

The positivist legacy has been rekindled in the ‘big data’ approach to the city, premised on the assumption that ubiquitous computing provides the means to capture the whole life of the city through smart mapping, GIS, street-level sensors…and so on

MG: In the essay you mention “citywide infrastructural rights”. Can you explain what you mean by citywide infrastructural rights or the language of citywide infrastructural rights?

AA: I was trying with difficulty to retain something of Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the city for all, which seems the right ambition to have for vast sections of the urban population without basic rights. At the same time, I was troubled by this idea, because in today’s city of 5-10 million people, in which perhaps a third of the inhabitants are non-citizens, undocumented migrants, barely recognised as humans let alone burghers, to speak of generalised rights of urban being and participation seems unrealistic. Still, dissatisfied with the shift today in political economy away from a discourse of rights to one of capabilities and empowered subjects, I wanted to not abandon the principle of universal access to the basics of life, because without such access, even the discourse of capabilities and empowerment rang hollow—a bitter promise, and wild expectation. I came to the conclusion that a realistic way forward might be the promise of access to a commons available to all, including the poor, more specifically, access to the basic infrastructures of life, from water and sanitation to primary healthcare and education.

MG: So your emphasis on infrastructural rights is more than the UN style emphasis on universal rights?

AA: Right. The UN declaration of human rights is a wonderfully comprehensive and universalist formulation, drafted at a time of real hope for humankind. Mine is much narrower and much more specific, forced by the embedded miseries and deprivations of our times; a minimalist promise of universal access to the absolute bare essentials of life, guaranteed through a functioning urban infrastructure of supply (water, electricity, sanitation, primary healthcare, and so on). My emphasis falls on the morphology of the collective urban and on communities, rather than on the legal enforcement of a very long list of individual human rights, constantly violated by self-serving or elite-oriented authorities.


MG: The bio-political also features in some of your writings and I wondered whether you see a conceptual lineage between Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life” and Lefebvre’s understanding of spatial rights?

AA: You could put the question in this way: does Lefebvre provide the solution to Agamben’s conundrum that those reduced to bare life exist beyond the sovereign territory and its political rules, and are therefore non-subjects? I would say not, on the grounds that when Lefebvre writes of the right to urban life, he has assumed that the urban dweller has citizenship rights, with the city adding to a set of already acquired sovereign rights. For Agamben the non-subject in the city cannot acquire sovereign rights, while for Lefebvre the problem of subjects without formal rights does not exist! This is possibly why Jacques Derrida opted for the city of sanctuary, in which the migrant without formal rights is given access to the commons on grounds of hospitality for the stranger who makes it through the gates of the city in ‘pre-political’ times. The resident and the visitor must be acknowledged, all the more so in the city with a very large population without formal rights, de facto or de jure. You could say that my pragmatic proposal on infrastructural rights extends this kind of thinking, unpopular at a time of telescopic urbanism, governmental neglect of the poor, middle class colonisation of the city’s collective assets, and popular backlash against the migrant, the stranger, and the poor.

MG: In your essay ‘Urban Condition’ (Public Culture, 2013, 25:2) you make an interesting point about the persistence of what we could term “positivist approaches” to understanding cities. How would you account for the reappearance of various forms of methodological individualism or atomistic conceptions of cities? It seems as if these arguments keep repeating themselves with different groups of disciplines in play.

AA: I’m not sure if “positivist” is the right description of orthodox urban analysis. Very few approaches, apart from a small number of contributions from neoclassical economics, read the city as an aggregation of individuals and rational choice. Instead the orthodoxy (if you could call it this) has moved towards thinking, in quite interesting ways, that the contemporary city—with all its complexities, flows, continual changes, unexpected combinations and large-scale phenomena—can be data captured. Here, the city is posed as an information challenge, which once overcome, would allow the city to be fully known and intelligently governed. The positivist legacy has been rekindled in the “big data” approach to the city, premised on the assumption that ubiquitous computing provides the means to capture the whole life of the city through smart mapping, GIS, street-level sensors, the availability of individual transactions and preferences gathered from smart phones, credit cards, and so on. Its conceit is to think that the availability of sophisticated mathematical models able to work large data in nuanced ways, allows the city to be visualised and understood in all its complexities and evolving changes.

MG: So are you, in a sense, ambivalent about technology, in that it can either be good or bad in relation to urban space? So if we’re talking about smart buildings and smart cities there is an uncertainty in terms of their implications?

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