Slums and more slums (also liberals and more liberals)

I do quite a bit of thinking about slums.  I’m working on a book project that has to do with novels about slums and I like to think about the ways that slums are written about and described.  In part, I think that all writing about slums has an ethic of social justice embedded in its somewhere.  The abjection that is slum life provokes sympathy and concern if not rage and fury.

The problem for me is that most writing about slums and thinking about poverty in general gets hung up on two problems (both of which are endemic to liberalism and its understanding of poverty).  Either, slumdwellers need to be humanized and aestheticized (the idea being a variant of the “noble savage” which was the bread-and-butter of Romanticism in the 18th century) to counter the “natural” horror and repulsion that we are supposed to feel when we think about or look at slums (this is the principle behind Danny Boyle‘s Slumdog Millionaire).  Or, we are supposed to think of them as the limit point of human existence, a kind of black hole into which humanity descends and suffers.  A dynamic understanding of slums, what happens in them and how they develop, but most importantly, what it would require for a wholesale reorganization of the economy and an abolition of slums all together is a distant horizon for most writing about slums.  Even sociological and anthropological accounts of slum life suffer from this valor/horror dyad, so slums are either engines of human ingenuity and community or pits of despair.  I haven’t found good language for this yet, but I think I like to think of this as a problem between the evangelical wing and the moralizing wing of liberalism (sounds like the same thing, but I’m trying to capture the deep paternalism that’s at work in both visions).

None of this is to suggest that people who live in slums aren’t creative or talented, because they are, or to suggest that slums aren’t horrible, because they are, too.  But it is to suggest that most of the ways that we feel about slums are designed to make us be okay with them, to feel and forget by a kind of emotional apartheid that mirrors the urban cordon sanitaire that encircles slums.

I posted the following piece on facebook, but it bugged me enough that I wanted to write something longer here.  It’s a piece called “Mumbai slumdwellers’ cricket dreams” by Kevin Perry.  The piece is basically designed to reveal slums to wider audiences who don’t know what goes on in slums, how people survive, and  (and please forgive me for the cynicism in this phrase) how they dream banal cricket-centered dreams.  In part, what the piece argues is that slums are engines of productivity and environmentalism where people are working against the odds and surviving in the hopes of getting out of Dharavi:

A 1.75 km2 plot of land in the shape of a heart, the slums are home to a million people and an estimated 15,000 businesses with an annual turnover somewhere in the region of US$665 million. But this massive wealth creation translates to an average daily wage of just 150Rs(£2), and every rupee is hard-earned. ‘A lot of people think that slum dwellers sit around doing nothing all day,’ says Santosh, ‘but you will not see a single beggar here.’ The estimated employment rate in the slums is 85 per cent.

Much of that work is recycling. Cooking-oil containers and paint tins are cleaned and returned to pristine condition; bales of cardboard are reworked into boxes; plastics of every sort are transformed into pellets ready to be sold back to factories, and piles of aluminium are melted down into ingots. The West could learn much from the ingenuity of Dharavi’s recyclers, although their workplaces are extravagantly dangerous.

It’s accompanied by pictures like this one which show the industriousness and conservational ethic that underlies slum life:

But one is left wondering whether slumdwellers would be worthy of attention or sympathy if they weren’t natural environmentalists, or if they were unemployed, or if they were all beggars (because one of the things that most people forget about slums is that they are merely a geographical accretion of a generalized poverty, the most concrete and concentrated representation of a vast social inequality).  Beggars are isolated and individual and become representations of individual failures (a kind of economic karma, to borrow some mischievous South Asian lingo) but slumdwellers are communal and hardworking.  [I’m not sure if this is accurate, I’m still working this out, but it seems to me that the feeling shifted, that at a certain point in the 1980s slumdwellers were not the object of sympathy but were simply concentrated masses of beggars, but as the slums expanded it became impossible to see them as isolated instances of individual failure and they turned into social problems].  In the early part of the century this was the same kind of aesthetic strategy that was applied to Dalits (they were either unbelievably human and beautiful or they were unbearably wretched) when the middle-class thought about writing about caste.

Where it gets complicated for me is that while I can’t stand the form of this prose and the logic of its representations, I’m sympathetic to people who hold on to liberal ideas, especially because the kinds of political strategies that are usually on offer are so painfully stupid and slow.  And were better politics on offer, I know that some section of the middle class which is concerned about slums will take on more radical positions.  Until then, the aesthetic and ethical images that are mobilized about slums are intolerable.  That the middle class has to be constantly reminded of the humanity and beauty of slumdwellers or of the horrors of slum life is an indictment of the middle class and has nothing whatsoever to do with actual slumdwellers (who are just as varied and interesting and complicated as everyone else).


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