The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

All Issues
MAY 2016 Issue
Critics Page

Tactical Institutions

Urban power is intensely textured. Every move on the part of planners and politicians to rearrange cities and towns in significant measure is necessarily mediated by a landscape of crevices, enclaves, crowds, vacancies, and edges that constantly disrupt the imagined timing of implementation and often force the recalibration of these moves in ways that dilute their effects and efficacy. While various communal groups or associations of residents and interests may be complicit in the undoing of long-honed ways of life, there is something about the sheer profusion of collaborations, neither strictly virtuous nor destructive, that seems to work as a kind of background operating system. So no matter how many nasty sectarian and class conflicts take place, there are also a multiplicity of interruptions, hesitations, inexplicable coincidences, and interweaving of lives that may not always be concretely operational, but continue to endure.

Institutions in Bandra, Mumbai. Photo: Rika Febriyani.

There is no denying the rapidity and breadth through which urban regions are expelling ways of life and means of livelihood in the interest of accumulation through rent and appropriation. In light of dispossessions, it seems imperative to better recognize the thick and muddy realities of urban politics—the persistence of tedious, long-term negotiations, trickery, planning, technical innovation, resistance, and mobilization—that give shape to specific spaces, populations, and economies. How is it possible to convert the plurality of long-honed local “institutions”—sometimes clearly organized, at other times more diffuse and mobile—that in many ways actually “run” the city into more effective “combatants,” given all of the ways in which capital insinuates itself into urban bodies and spaces? I don’t have answers to this question, but it seems that any response would begin with a greater appreciation of the seeming “background noise” of give-and-take, mutual care, and provisional accommodations of conflicting aspirations and ways of doing things that run across institutions of all kinds, from municipal bureaucracies to street level associations. Even though such institutions are often antagonistic, cut-throat, and manipulative, their choreographed intertwining coalesces as if a single collective maneuver.

Cities like Mumbai and Jakarta are replete with local institutions—religious and commercial associations, guest houses, shelters, food distribution centers, labor cooperatives, craft and occupation guilds, welfare providers, schools, and gangs—that exist on a tenuous border between public and private. They consolidate as well as blur edges. They belong to specific constituencies and affiliations but usually make forays into territories beyond their purview. They usually have to work continuously to maintain sufficient commonality among their members and reach across a wider world in order to justify the amount of time and labor members put into them.

Sometimes these local institutions actually bring into existence the very constituencies they claim to act for, providing the terms for recognizing “people” or “groups” that heretofore did not exist. In the process, these institutions set themselves apart from others that might be identified as potential competitors for attention, space, and resources. Such institutions offer particular vernaculars for talking about everyday conditions. They might, for example, promulgate relations of kinship, provide means to anonymity, or make visible the strictly ordered or oscillating hierarchies that otherwise administer urban life. In this way, residents might occupy various vantage points in relationship to the city, literally becoming different things at different times. Reconciliation is not only a matter of working out an internal work, which doesn’t mean that individuals reach for some overarching ideological orientation as much as it indicates the means by which they orbit along the specific routines, agendas, and transport circuits that have made passing through particular places both strange and familiar.

“Collective life” at a particular scale or territory within the city or at the level of the city is not a volume filled with preexistent entities according to a recipe. Rather, it is an incessant choreography of ebb and flow, of momentary congelation and dissipation. This can be the case even at the hardest edges, those that insist most adamantly upon exclusivity and the integrity of identity to keep everything intact in the face of volatile shifts in the social fabric of things. These shifts can be occasioned by small aberrations, people changing their minds and habits. Of course, redundancies of all kinds persist, and it is not difficult to predict who will show up where and at what time; the rhythms of ordinary activity fall into specific grooves, even ruts. But accidents prevail, for there are few predetermined certainties for how individuals, households, networks, sectors, or districts are to navigate with and through each other, how they reach for something out there that cannot be immediately seen but which they know to exist, and how they thus seek to “corner the market” before the “market corners them,” hemming them into unworkable routines.

While operators of all kinds, both individual and institutional, aim to ward off interference and dilution of purpose or composition, they are also compelled to fudge the results of their own labor and spin it in particular directions. They are not supposed to pay attention to unanticipated outcomes even though the generation of the unanticipated is the very reason such institutions exist in the first place. For example, the scores of Muslim associations that exist within Mumbai’s Pydhonie district are not there to account for a disparate set of religious, social, and commercial inclinations. Rather, they serve to pick up those pieces left by other associations that have left off (and who got left out), and to use these pieces, these particular forms of expression, as means to see what it is possible to make happen within a crowded field.

Small theological differences incite political competition for its own sake. On Fridays, for example, prayer congregants are encouraged to assemble on the streets rather than inside the mosques as a means to display a constituency to local brokers, even as mosque committeemen try in vain to block off strategic intersections that might allow for the spillover of bodies at prayer. Each of the mosques staggers its jumu’ah prayer times so that congregants who have already completed them at one mosque might still have a “second look” at another in a kind of open market or democratic display of wares.

In such conditions, endurance becomes a reflection of give-and-take. Within such crowded spaces, everyone has to find new ways of “staying clear” or “making way.” These institutional operations never appear to operate in concert, and often seem to exist simply to provide individuals with an opportunity to acquire a title, a path to some kind of cheap self-importance. But the simultaneity of their existence entails a mode of coordination, a sense of large-scale collective movement, even and especially as it is based on the shifting pieces of local reaction and re-affiliation. No matter how much this amassing, this invisible aggregation, seems to operate at cross-purposes and thus appears to weaken its capacity to ward off the decimation of big capital or shape an overall urban agenda, its persistence ensures that various options for action remain conceivable, possible.

The complicities of government, developers, and business elites can cajole, manipulate, and run roughshod over the places and activities in which these local institutions perform and from which they promise new allocations and authority. Yet, in Mumbai and Jakarta, as in many other local, institutionally thick cities, the simultaneous enactment of differentiated forms of expressions and constituencies render ambiguous the concretized summations and fixities that large-scale development seems to guarantee. There are too many neighborhoods and old housing conglomerations to clear, too many vested interests to wade through, too many failed projects to cover up, too many commercial activities immune to corporatization, and too many lives indifferent to their own apparent capture to take their purported summations seriously.


Abdoumaliq Simone

ABDOUMALIQ SIMONE is an urbanist living in Jakarta and Berlin.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2016

All Issues