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Unlearning the City

Unlearning the City: Infrastructure in a New Optical Field

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Unlearning the City
    Book Description:

    Cities are more than concrete and steel infrastructure. But modern urban theory does not have the language to describe and debate the vital component of urban life that is lived on the streets of cities and towns. Swati Chattopadhyay has written a nuanced argument for a new vocabulary of the city inUnlearning the City, proposing a way of analyzing the materiality of the urban that captures the ever-changing element of human experience.

    Urban life is intrinsically messy and usually refuses to conform to the rigid views laid down in much of urban studies theory. Chattopadhyay looks at urban life in India with a fresh perspective that incorporates the everyday and the unstructured. As the first to apply the theories of subalternity for an understanding of urban history, Chattopadhyay provides an in-depth study of vehicular art, street cricket, political wall writing, and religious festivities that link the visual and spatial attributes of these popular cultural forms with the imagination and practices of urban life. She contends that these practices have a direct impact on the configuration and knowledge of public space, and the political potential of the people inhabiting cities.

    Unlearning the Cityuses the popular culture of Indian cities to question the dominant conception of urban infrastructure and encourage a conceptual realignment in how the city is seen, discussed, and even experienced.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8284-3
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
    (pp. 1-38)

    This project began with the provocation of “change” in contemporary India. Since the opening up of India to the global market economy in the early 1990s, the country’s cultural landscape has undergone a remarkable transformation. The symptoms of this transformation are ubiquitous: Western-style shopping malls, new suburbia, gated residential communities, mega Cineplex theaters, prominence of the hotel industry, networks of flyovers, and heritage preservation to fatten tourism. The economic policies that have made it easier for foreign firms to enter the Indian market and have encouraged nonresident Indians to invest in the country have had a tremendous impact on the...

    (pp. 39-62)

    In a crucial scene in the filmSlumdog Millionaire(Danny Boyle, 2008), Salim and Jamal, two brothers who had grown up in the slums of Juhu in Mumbai, are looking across the city from the top of a high-rise under construction. They have met after years of separation. The camera catches the haze of the low-lying roofscape of the slums in Jamal’s background, then pans across the surrounding high-rises. Salim, who works for a slumlord-gangster, wishing to reestablish himself in his brother’s eyes, notes his newfound sense of self in the city: “That used to be our slum. Can you...

    (pp. 63-92)

    An important symptom of the infrastructural refashioning of contemporary Indian cities is the increasing obsolescence or outright prohibition of those modes of transportation and use of streets and sidewalks that had contributed to the visuality and texture of these cities in the second half of the twentieth century. Cosmopolitan urban visions appear incommensurate with the pace, rhythm, and spatial needs of bicycles, cycle-rickshaws, and hawkers on the streets of the global metropolis. They survive only when detached from the domain of labor and inserted in the space of leisure: gyms, sports tracks, and museums. Contemporary artists have become fascinated with...

    (pp. 93-120)

    Some years ago while browsing through Anthropologie in downtown Santa Barbara, I came across half a dozen cricket balls among a collection of housewares and knick-knacks. I picked up one, felt its weight, and turned it around in my hand. It did not have a company name or the weight stamped on it, and yet, it was the real thing. What was it doing next to fancy door knobs and pretty dishes? What was it meant to do? Then it struck me: it was being sold as a decorative object, something with which to decorate one’s living room or study....

    (pp. 121-162)

    The social contract theorists from John Locke to Jacques Rousseau have understood freedom as innate, a preexisting attribute of the individual, a priori to social formation. Thus in contract theory, “politics begins with the agreement to limit this original liberty.”¹ In such a form, liberty works as a dual move of an empty “I want” and the right to “our person and possessions.” This is the basis of politics as the need to limit freedom and to secure private property. James Mensch clarifies the point. He notes that the assumptions of contract theory invariably lead to equating political freedom with...

    (pp. 163-198)

    I was stuck in traffic. A small fan pointed at me on the back seat of the car was whirring in an unsuccessful attempt to ameliorate an unseemly hot Kolkata summer. My driver in the front seat was leaning out of the window trying to gauge the depth of the traffic jam. I was late for an appointment. My eyes shifted to the bus in front of us. The following words were painted on the back of the bus:jabo bolei to dnariye acchi(I am standingbecauseI intend to go). It made me smile.

    At a basic level,...

    (pp. 199-242)

    In the Bengali months of autumn, the goddess Durga is awakened for an untimely propitiation—akal bodhan—to seek prosperity and well-being.¹ She visits Bengal in her dual form as slayer of the demon-god Mahisasur and as the protective mother in the company of her four children.² Preparations for her arrival begin months prior. And then for five days, Durga and her entourage are worshipped in fantastically decoratedpandals(temporary pavilions) that occupy public space (Figure 7.1; see Plate 6). Streets, parks, and sidewalks are appropriated by the pandals and temporary food and hawker stalls, catering to the large throngs...

    (pp. 243-252)

    I began this book with a citation of “change” in postliberalization India and the effects of structural adjustments in cities of the global south. While I bring this work belatedly to a conclusion, popular revolutions are rocking the Middle East. The people have taken to the streets to protest ruling elites that have perpetuated, in collusion with capital, governments that are fundamentally nondemocratic. What we are witnessing is the populous as a revolutionary force claiming power—the right to political action—that belongs to them proper. There is a sense of incredulity in the Western response to these mass movements,...

    (pp. 253-254)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 255-290)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 291-298)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 299-299)
  17. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 300-303)