Tag Archives: books

Do Buildings Have Agency?

Published in shorter form as “Do Buildings Have Agency?” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLVI No.30, 23 July 2011

Neera Adarkar, ed., The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life (Gurgaon: imprintOne, 2011)

Can built forms have their own subjectivity? Architects, geographers and urban planners would surely answer this question in the affirmative. By contrast, most historians and social scientists have long viewed all non-human artefacts as “socially constructed”, and the structure and agency of the physical environment has remained weakly conceptualised, even in urban studies.

Given the number of published works on the deindustrialisation of Mumbai and the decline of its textile industry – including an award-winning oral history of mill workersi co-authored by the editor of this new anthology on chawls – it is significant that the most ubiquitous form of working-class housing in the Mumbai had not yet been studied in any depth until nowii. Galleries of Life is a salutary exploration of the history, architecture, culture and politics of chawls which creatively examines the tension between historical nostalgia and contemporary urban change in Mumbai.

Buildings can nurture, constrain, limit and transform those who inhabit or pass through them. Generic typologies mass produced on an industrial scale – apartments, tenements, chawls, skyscrapers and slums – are generative of their peculiar milieus and practices. Like other forms of housing, Mumbai’s iconic chawls are basically physical containers which give shelter and provide shape to social reproduction. But urban housing and the built environment can “act back” on communities and society. Housing as social space can signify a bundle of rights and claims, a locus of legal and property relations, a stage for politics and performance, and a set of resources for survival and mobility.

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Skyscrapers and Sweatshops

A shorter version of this review  was published in Mint Lounge on 28 May 2011.

Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).

The past two decades have seen large cities in North America and Europe decisively rebound from a painful postwar history of technological change and spatial restructuring. Since the 1980s, urban centres throughout the developed world have been built new business districts and gentrified into consumer zones, as educated workers and families returned to cities hollowed out by decades of de-industrialisation, suburban flight, and social upheaval. Urban manufacturing hubs and ports whose fabric was shaped by the production and shipment of goods and commodities were left behind by finance, information and business services in a new global economy centered in cities such as New York, Chicago, London and Paris.

This post-industrial city has since become the archetype for mega-cities across the world, and Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City is a tribute to the endurance of the age-old metropolis and the capacities of its citizens to rebuild spaces and reinvent economies. Weaving historical comparisons with policy discussions and the passion of a committed urbanist, the book is a foray by a respected academic economist into mass market non-fiction. Like Thomas Friedman’s writings on globalisation or Samuel Huntington’s on the clash between the West and Islam, Glaeser’s styles his theories into simple universals. Globalisation works hand-in-hand with urbanisation, therefore the world is “paved, not flat”. Civilisations don’t simply clash, but also exchange goods and transfer ideas through via cities which are “gateways between markets and cultures”.

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A Rule of Property for Bombay

This book review appeared in edited form as “Micro-History of Mumbai” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLV No.36, 4 September 2010.

Mariam Dossal, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai, 1660 to Present Times (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010).

Historian Mariam Dossal’s new book on Bombay/Mumbai is a major contribution to a flourishing genre of new urban histories in South Asia, and a scholarly cross-over into a large-format, illustrated urban heritage books. This is Dossal’s second major monograph on Bombay, following her Imperial Designs and Indian Realities (1991) on the infrastructure and planning of the colonial city from 1845-1875. Her new book focuses on “the ways in which the politics of land use have impacted on the lives and living conditions of Bombay’s inhabitants” (xxiii) with “contested space as its central concern”.

The book seeks to explain historically how “expensive private property dominates almost every aspect of life” (xix) to the detriment of the environment, health and happiness of Mumbai’s citizens. Dossal’s work breaks new ground in its use of new sources to shine a light on a central thread of colonial and urban history in Bombay.

Land is one of the enduring themes of South Asian agrarian and colonial historiography. But the survey, settlement, and mapping of lands in cities – and the formation of a market for private property in urban land – remains under-investigated by historians. Marxist social history, premised on the opposition of industrial capitalists and wage labourers, relegated landlords and landed property to an ambigious “third space” in the historical geography of urban development.

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Urban Obduracy: Unbuilding Cities

Anique Hommels, Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Socio-Technical Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.

While sharing a common intellectual genealogy, the contemporary disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and urban studies have followed divergent paths of development, and flourished in largely separated academic compartments. Anique Hommels’ Unbuilding the City argues for the complementarity of the approaches of STS and urban studies in explaining the phenomenon of urban “obduracy” and strategies for “unbuilding” the city. Linking together the concepts drawn from actor-network theory and constructivist studies of socio-technical change, the book contains three case studies of postwar urban development in the Dutch cities of Utrecht, Maastricht and Amsterdam.

How can we understand urban structures as more than simple technical or physical artifacts? How can we explain the history of cities and their power relations as socio-technical ensembles? Does the urban built environment embed the tacit knowledge of its original planners and builders, such that their norms and values continue to shape the relations of city-dwellers in subsequent generations? In a well-known essay on the question “do artifacts have politics?”, Langdon Winner has cited the example of the low-lying bridges designed by planner Robert Moses in New York, whose passages were too low to permit movement by public buses between the freeways and beaches of Long Island. Moses’ bridges prevented access to these elite white spaces of recreation by inner-city black populations, thus inscribing a permanent spatial discrimination into the design of seemingly apolitical technical artifact.

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A History of Modern Computing

Paul Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

In my own lifetime of thirty years, global society has been transformed by the widespread availability of inexpensive computing technology. Indeed, only within the past ten years, a new combination of commoditised hardware, software, and network infrastructure has put this technology within reach of millions of new people. A certain taint of presentism is, therefore, inevitable in any attempt to write the history of computing in our time, as we are positioned at a particular point in a dynamic of ongoing social and technical change. As with earlier historians of the “industrial revolution”, we must assess the historicity of the information or “digital revolution” both as historical narratives and popular common sense.

This presentism presents particular challenges to the historian in his or her craft of framing a coherent narrative of technological development. Here I will consider different approaches to the history of computing which confront both the the familiar challenges of a historian of technology, as well as the unique aspects of computing as an object of historical inquiry. In the introduction to his A History of Modern Computing, Paul Ceruzzi discusses two distinct approaches to the history of computing, what he calls the technological systems approach and the social constructionist approach. What are the objects of inquiry of these two approaches? Continue reading A History of Modern Computing

Democratic Politics and Economic Reforms in India

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.10, no.1, Carfax Publishing, Bradford, U.K., 2000.

Rob Jenkins, Democratic Politics and Economic Reforms in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

For better or for worse, in most countries of the post-Cold War world, a fairly generalised packaging of liberal-democratic state institutions and neoclassical market economics has now achieved hegemony as the prescription of the possible future. A host of international financial and trade institutions, aid agencies, global policy elites, and their state and non-state apparatuses now debate the dynamics of making “transitions” to this model, and the “reforms” necessary to “complete” this effort successfully. Neoliberal ideology constructs this as a universal and ineluctable process, eliding the complex politics of market-oriented reform by trumpeting an ideal notion of democracy, almost entirely emptied of meaning.

This recent book attempts to analyse this contingent, political dimension of the change in India’s development strategy since 1991, examining the commitment of governing elites to market reforms in a long-established democracy. Their commitment is by no means inevitable and irreversible, India’s liberalisation being undertaken in a competitive political system, where powerful interests could pose obstacles to thwart market reforms, unlike other “transitional” societies in Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia. In this, Jenkins intervenes in debates on the relationship between democracy and market liberalisation, arguing for the importance of political incentives, political institutions, and political skills.

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The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour

Originally published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Fall 2001.

Jan Breman, Karin Kapadia, Jonathan Parry, eds., The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour (Contributions to Indian Sociology, Occassional Studies 9). New Delhi and London: Sage Publications, 1999.

Marking both a renewal of interest in labour studies and an important disciplinary shift, the publication of this anthology is a significant event. Introduced by Jonathan Parry, the fourteen essays by sociologists, anthropologists and historians in the volume include two “book-ends” introductory and concluding reviews of the respective literatures on the “organised” and “informal” sectors of the industrial economy in India, both by Jan Breman. These chart the shifts in labour studies from the narrow emphasis on the tiny formal sector of the economy — about workers’ “commitment” to the industrial setting, measures of productivity, the social profile of formal sector workers, and trade union strategies — to the much larger and unwieldy “informal” sector of the economy, incredibly neglected by research scholars. While questioning this dualism in the study of economic activity in India, Breman raises questions about the formation and coherence of the working-class or proletariat as an identity and analytical category, the diversity of forms of wage labour and industrial production — from home-based to small workshops to large factories — and the multiplicity of workers’ identities in both formal and informal occupations.

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The Historical Past and Political Present

Originally published in Satyam Online, 24 February 2000.

Constructing contingent memories as authoritative, and transforming the many threads of the past into a coherent narrative, the discipline of history is one of the most important fields of modern social thought. As an endeavour of the present, with its ongoing debates and revisions, history is inevitably concerned with claims to present-day power and representation. The controversies which have recently dogged the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) in the past several years are thus not simply an academic issue, but a fight for control of our collective memory and identity.

Let us not misunderstand this dispute, as many have, as one between the “Western” and “Indian” versions of history. Nor is it really a fight over saffron or secular historiography. While no one can deny that the intensified assault on administration, education and public life by the Hindu Right in the past few months is a terrifying phenomenon, this issue goes beyond simple ideological postures and academic methods.

Sarkari or Sarvajanik History?

Last week, two volumes of the ICHR-sponsored Towards Freedom series of books on the freedom struggle, edited by the noted social historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar, were withdrawn from publication by the Oxford University Press under official pressure from the nodal ministry for education, Human Resources Development (HRD). Continue reading The Historical Past and Political Present

Wages of Freedom: 50 Years of the Indian-Nation State

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.8, no.3, Carfax Publishing (Bradford, U.K.), 1999.

Partha Chatterjee, ed., Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State, Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 1998.

Recent years have seen a significant enrichment of the theoretical depth of Indian political and social analysis, inspired both by revised disciplinary perspectives — most notably, the work of the Subaltern Studies collective — and by contemporary political changes. This volume, edited by one of the most outstanding of such recent theorists, brings together both seasoned analysts and new contributors from the fields of social, cultural and political analysis in a solid collection of essays that examine the experience of postcolonial democracy and nationalist modernity. Continue reading Wages of Freedom: 50 Years of the Indian-Nation State

Untouchable Pasts

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.8, no.3, Carfax Publishing (Bradford, U.K.), 1999.

Saurabh Dube, Untouchable Pasts: Religion, Identity, and Power among a Central Indian Community, 1780-1950. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

The prevailing narrowness of disciplinary boundaries in history and anthropology have prompted a now well-developed critique of the isolation of the archive and the field, respectively — the privileging of elite archival sources, textual authority, and their master narratives on the one hand, and the ahistorical essentialism, questionable epistemic and cultural perspectives of fieldwork on the other. The effort undertaken by the Subaltern Studies collective to use the anthropologist’s tools in the writing of history has, in the study of Indian society, introduced questions of culture and power, identity formation and representation, and everyday cultural and social practices into the historiography of modern India. This recent book deepens this project of ethnographic history through a study of the Satnami community of Chhatisgarh in contemporary Madhya Pradesh. Continue reading Untouchable Pasts