• Article

Re-examining the 'Subaltern'

Report of: 


Wednesday, 10 December 2014 to Thursday, 11 December 2014


Columbia University Global Center Mumbai

On 10-11 December 2014, the Studio-X space of the Columbia University Global Center in the Fort area of Mumbai was the setting for a workshop entitled Urban Democracy: Informality, Precarity and Modes of Survival. This was the second in a series of discussions in the Idea of the City in Asian Contexts series, the urban studies oriented forum of the Rethinking Asian Studies in a Global Context programme, coordinated by IIAS with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (www.rethinking.asia). The first workshop in the series, Public City, Private City, was held in New York in August 2014 and explored the politics of planning.

As in New York, the Mumbai workshop brought together a diverse group of around 25 scholars, activists, writers, architects, urban planners, journalists and PhD candidates – this time from around India, other parts of Asia, the U.S. and Europe. The objective in Mumbai was to critically re-examine theories and policies relating to the subaltern city, i.e., the practices of survival, persistence and illegitimized existence found in the so-called ‘slums’ and ‘ghettos’ of colonial and late capitalist modernity, in order to find new ways of looking at these phenomena.

The co-conveners, Anupama Rao (Associate Professor in the Department of History at Barnard College, Columbia University) and Paul Rabé (Coordinator of the Urban Knowledge Network Asia at IIAS), were interested in how historical legacies of planning, spatial segregation and informality in Asian cities and beyond have enabled practices of urban life that challenge the aesthetics of modernism and the logic of private property. ‘Slums’ and ‘ghettos’ have been a refuge for disposable populations, including internally displaced persons, refugees, illegal immigrants – as well as the poor. But they are also sites of improvised and tenuous forms of sociality and social cooperation, political actions and claims – arguably forms of informal ‘democracy’ – which either go unrecognized or become stigmatized as violence, crime, or unproductive and fruitless ‘mob’ behavior. Encroachment, illegality, and the resort to informal livelihoods are sites of subaltern survival, and define struggles for recognition in the face of spatial exclusion and civic disenfranchisement.

Scene from the public program. Photo Paul Rabé.
Above: Scene from the public program. Photo Paul Rabé.

Discussions in the Studio-X space centered on four session topics relating to various aspects of the subaltern city:

  1. ‘Between the formal and the informal’, touching on regulations, policy and planning, land grabs and urban dispossession. 
  2. ‘Conceiving and intervening in the slum’, covering approaches to the ‘slum’ by governments, donor agencies, civil society and market players; notions of power and identity; and collective action versus individual market opportunism. 
  3. ‘Segregation and ghettoization’, examining how categories of social difference such as migrants, caste, religion and gender are used to produce social and spatial separation. 
  4. ‘Housing and right to the city struggles’, touching on cultural and activist interventions on behalf of precarious and un-housed populations, emerging sites of ‘infrapolitics,’ and experiments in utilizing public-private partnerships for spatial justice.

The workshop ended with a reception and a public programme moderated by Jared Stark (Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Eckerd College) and featuring artistic interventions by literary theorist Emily Sun from National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan), Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan and writer and cultural critic Jerry Pinto. The third and last of the urban workshops to be convened by Paul Rabé and Anupama Rao in the context of the Rethinking Asian Studies programme will take place in Shanghai in October 2015 on the theme of the ‘Future of Urban Studies’. The co-conveners will close the workshop series with a presentation of the discussion themes from all three workshops.

Paul Rabé, IIAS,
Coordinator of the Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA)