Monday, April 12, 2010

Planet of Slums: Let the Facts Speak for Themselves

A precis. Bear with me.

Reading the first half of Planet of Slums, I found myself hard-pressed to draw out a conspicuously polemic opinion about the urban poverty so at its core, an opinion freighted with particular biases and presumptions that appear to be purely analytical yet function with distinctively ideological intent. This is not to say that the text has no apparent opinion or that it succeeds completely to present its ideas as purely analytical or rational. It could just be my inherent thick-headedness for economic study that causes the blurred position of the text in my mind. Regardless, it would appear to me that rather than blurring its position, the text in fact engages in a pursuit of tangible facts that are utilized to provide an account of the life of the world’s urban poor excluded from the wrangling of polemical opinion. That is to say that the position of the text would seem to be found in the way in which it provides a “factually-based” account for the realities of life for the urban poor rather than in opinions that it would presumably take regarding urban poverty.

Key to the text’s approach to providing an accurate account for life in urban poverty is its examination of the definition of “slum” in “The Prevalence of Slums.” It tracks the cultural uses and connotations of the word as it became synonymous with ideas of illegality and immoral behavior while consistently invoking what is quickly named the “classical definition” of a slum, “characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure” (22-23). This eschews a definition formed by conceptualizations of the causes of slums, instead relying on characteristic effects (what I would call “consequences”) of the existence of slums in particular regions of the world. It would seem to follow that, according to the given definition of “slum,” in order to provide an accurate account of the life in a slum, one would examine the effects, the consequences, of living a slum life. Quickly: by “consequences,” I do not mean to imply that anything is “deserved” by an individual living in urban poverty but that by living in such circumstances one’s life becomes subject to anything that such a life entails. To return to the matter at hand, in providing its account for slum life, the text, mirroring the definition it provides for “slum,” draws focus on the effects of urban poverty rather than what “urban poverty” means.

With that, the text characteristically provides a whole host of facts that are oftentimes overwhelming for the conscience to comprehend. I find it important to note that throughout “The Prevalence of Slums,” and the majority of the opening half’s data-streams, these facts are not used to support the text’s arguments but are used to provide the actual account of life for the urban poor. As it pours out its facts, the text hints at an amalgam of potential causes of urban poverty, especially the reasons for the heightened flight to urban areas. Yet, it remains primarily devoted to unveiling factual data in a practical manner. More than that, it appears to strategically overwhelm the reader with factual data. Facts, when presented with a preeminent sense of practicality, are hard to ignore. As the text slowly unveils all the intricate machinations of extralegal property (e.g. how slumlords engage in a duality of legally owning property while managing it in an illegal fashion), it becomes apparent that ideas of capital and assets, the world of formal property, have no room in a life spent avoiding the impenetrable and uninterested system of formalized capital. How could a life that exists outside of the formal system expect to benefit from it?

From there, I’d stretch to claim that the text’s “opinion” may be that capitalism, representing formal property systems, is inherently engaged as a contributing agent in the practical realities of slum life. However, it remains an extrapolation rather than anything I can explicitly point to in the text. Its precision in overwhelming the reader with its breadth of data keeps it cleverly free from any outright polemical stance. At least…so far. Let’s not get presumptuous.

-Michael Woo


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey Michael, I found the claims about facts in your response provocative. Perhaps I am privileging the perspective of sociology, but I recently read a text by Robert Bellah regarding the project of ethnography as a fact-making enterprise.

    In speaking of Paul Rabinow, Bellah says: "If the author [Rabinow] has reminded us quite rightly that a fact is, etymologically, something that is 'made,' we may be forgiven for pointing out that the Greek word poiesis means 'making' and that the poet is a 'maker.' But the materials of the poet are not so much facts as symbols and narratives, or rather facts that are themselves symbols and narratives" (Bellah xxxii in Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morroco).

    The text seems to point to the tenuousness of the fact-making project as one situated in stability. If facts are made, they can certainly be unmade. Even more, the making of facts asks us to question the historical or social or epistemological conditions in which facts are birthed into resemblances of scientificity. Objectivity misrepresents the handiwork that goes into manu-fact-uring "facts".

    Even more, Bellah suggests that the division between fact-making (a la Planet of Slums) and poetry (a la, say, Atlas Shrugged) perhaps may not be as disparate as one might assume. And perhaps this "fact" illuminates why Mike Davis teaches Creative Writing at UC Riverside?


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