Reader 02 Intro Contd
In the face of such turmoil, which upset our very sense of affiliation and belonging, Reader 02 remains sympathetic to a critical, often untimely attitude to the present. The new ruses of the Smooth City, the Informational City, or the happy fictions of a distracted global placelessnes have now run against the realities of a global crisis that seems unending, and promises a churning of which the events in Seattle and Genoa were but early intimations. But the working out of the crisis may well take place through smaller, non-spectacular conflicts of which cities and towns shall be important sites.
This reader collates research, writing and looking that is alert to the city as a locus of imaginary engagements, a body of distinct practices, a compendium of different ways of knowing, and as a field of power, strategies of survival and resistance. We seek to capture the city through different views and purchases on urban being and becoming. The spatial and temporal axes of city life provide us with the architectural format. The prism of one moment, say the catastrophe of the pogrom-like dimensions of the Bombay violence of 1993, may provide us with narratives of social and cultural fear, suspicion and hate that can only be illuminated at a moment of danger. Similarly, the mediatised spectacle of 9/11 opens us to the immediacy of catastrophe in a city that lies at the heart of empire but is also one of the key icons of the contemporary cosmopolitan imagination. Clearly no place is better organised, more amenable to the spectacular staging of violence and the cultivation of fear and suspicion than the modern megalopolis, with its demographic concentration, its interweaving of different ethnicities and registers of anonymity, its grandiose architectural environment and its myriad localities and alleyways. The catastrophic event visited on the city positions us vertiginously in the architecture of the present, but is only one axis of temporal engagement and spatial entry. Memories of childhood provide the form for an indirect sense of the violence that assailed Calcutta in the 1940s. And, posed against the large-scale spectacle of ruin, we may observe smaller vistas, but ones hardly negligible for those afflicted with visionary presentiments and fears. A subordinated urban society in Delhi is privy to a menacing entity, a shape shifter: how to account for its sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance, a phenomenon that fleetingly brings a marginalised city space into public and national discourse? As Ranajit Guha would put it, what status do we allocate to this small voice of history, inhabiting a domain of perception not readily accessible by discourses of reason? Does this have something to do with everyday anxiety rather than the catastrophic moment, the experience of migration and displacement, of marginality and the threat of governmental scrutiny? Or is this to rationalise perception and neutralise other ways of inhabiting the city?
The notion of city as spectacle and stage, as space of performance and urban congregations, extends into another set of reflections. Contributions on the cities constructed in and through theatre, cinema, music and media mobilisation draw upon a range of methods including urban social history, the analysis of narrative form and style, and anthropological fieldwork. Issues of virtuality, temporality, spatiality and locality emerge as key categories. Each of these acquires a certain power when thought of in combination rather than as discrete phenomena. Thus the virtual dimension of cinematic fictions invites us to look at the specifics of film history and film form. But this virtuality acquires particular force when the cinematic imaginary intervenes to restructure perceptions about the divisions of everyday life and the political-ritual moments in urban spatial practices. The temporal organisation of entertainments, for example show times, a mechanism to discipline urban audiences, assumes changing calibrations in different entertainment spaces and audience congregations, and over the time of the evening. The timing of the arrival of a fax that threatens libel action against a screening of a contentious film gives rise to strategies of spatial relocation; and so on.
The section on digital urbanism mobilises the imperative of connecting the virtual to the real, such that it ‘bleeds’ into the real. Here the architecture of the Internet, as something governed by a sense of in-betweenness, incompleteness, and the possibilities of accessing multiple forms of knowledge and engagement, suggests possibilities for the unsettling and re-imagining of built environments. This is done both by a visionary declaration of the autonomies that exist as potentialities in online space and by envisioning the infrastructure of matter and (electrical) energy that underpins the Internet. Both these acts suggest an alteration of the frame through which we apprehend the urban.
This process of unsettling things, for example dominant media forms and representations, brings to light the variety of practices that compose the everyday. A strong motif of Sarai’s media neighbourhood project, or Cybermohalla, has been one of attending to the specific qualities of technologies of sound and image. Young people from a working-class neighbourhood in Delhi work with these different registers of the sensorium to creatively observe and interrogate their locality. In this collection, a particular dimension of their activities, writing the city through the everyday experience of the locality, is extracted to provide the lineaments of an emergent, multiple and multimedia environment. A separate section on writing the city shifts genres from the diary to the essay. Writers on Beirut, Delhi, Srinagar, Calcutta, Berlin, Lagos, London and Mexico City consider various dimensions of the everyday: the phenomenology of night, the time-space of the bus journey, the invisible spaces of hospital wards dealing with terminal illness, nineteenth-century notions of what constituted new media for the city. The city as space lived through the thickets of apprehension and violent governmentality provides the critical motivational energy to these explorations.
Surveillance is a crucial issue here, as new technologies are mobilised to identify populations against a complex grid of knowledge about the body and cross-referenced information nodes – for example, biometric surveillance of key indicators such as fingerprints and retina, and face recognition software that claims to be able to pick out faces from a crowd and match these with databases of criminals. This dimension of the politics of surveillance and identification, which received a fillip after 9/11, has clear implications for the structures of urban governance and policing, especially in a context in which urban planning gives priority to the logistics of health and environment over the populations which compose the city. These analyses are put together in a section devoted to Sarai’s engagement with the politics of information. Here our contributors also map emerging fields of intellectual property rights with global ramifications, as in the patenting of human genetic material and seeds. Apart from tracking these processes, these contributions reinvest in a notion of the commons and public knowledge, and think through the possibilities of on and off-line resistance. They reaffirm Sarai’s commitment to a notion of the public domain, of open access against the aggressive drives to carve up the world, its myriad resources and creative practices into a burgeoning proprietary imperium.
One note on the form of Reader 02. We have continued the essay form (both text and image), while retaining the sharp intellectual edge of the writing. The preference for the essay form in this reader is clearly linked to the idea of pushing a critical form of public writing, which is both accessible and insightful. Another point is that while readers usually contain a preponderance of thematically organised, already published texts, The Cities of Everyday Life is the exact opposite. The bulk of texts here are original pieces of writing and appear in print for the first time.
Finally a word on collaboration. This reader was put together by six editors, five of us working from Delhi and the sixth (Geert Lovink) working from Sydney. Collaborating on a book of this scale and ambition is not easy, but we are happy to say that it has been an extremely smooth process, with deadlines kept, themes agreed upon and wide-ranging editorial consensus. And it is a model Sarai plans to hold on to in all our succeeding readers.