Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City

By Gyan Prakash | Go to book overview

Chapter 10
Imaging Urban Breakdown:
Delhi in the 1990s

RAVI SUNDARAM

At some point in the long years of the 1980s the city of Delhi1 entered its own “very special delirium.”2 The ingredients of this delirium included a powerful mix of urban crisis and an expanding media sensorium that produced a feeling that was exhilarating but equally terrifying and violent. Delhi’s experience is also comparable to that of other rapidly growing cities, including Mexico City, Karachi, and Lagos, all places that have begun to produce a range of dynamic responses and reflections—artwork, music, literature, essays. In the fast-moving landscape of global event theory, however, yet another genre has emerged that seeks to explain the turbulent expansion of cities in the global South. This is a genre that can be best called “urban crisis” writing.

The most recent incarnation is Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, which reads the urban crisis in the post-colonial world as heralding a new apocalyptic “slumming” of the world’s cities.3 In Davis’s narrative, a fetid, violent urbanism in the periphery is the future of modern capitalism, with collapsing cities and open sewage, vast migratory populations, and the retreat of secular and state forms. To Davis’s discomfort, welfare and self-help are now provided not by the state or radicals but by religious movements of popular Islam and Christianity. Davis’s book recalls Victorian reformers’ deployment of shockexposé and horror to focus on congestion, disease, and poverty in midnineteenth-century cities. In the post-colonial world, a version of the Planet of Slums has also crowded urban discourse in the past decade. This is the classic landscape of planners, older reform elites. This discourse fills op-ed columns, widely publicized releases of status reports on the city, and media campaigns. For social liberalism and the inheritors of twentieth-century progressive urbanism, post-colonial urban catastrophes are signatures of weakened sovereignties, the rise of neo-liberal global urban expertise and private developers, and the failing dreams of a more equal way of urban life imagined by planners.

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