Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Planet of Slums Precis

The Discourse and Normalization of Social Cleansing
In Chapter 5 of Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums, entitled “Haussmann in the Tropics,” he starts off with a quote by Gita Verma, explaining that “The root cause of urban slumming seems to lie not in urban poverty but in urban wealth” (95). Immediately, the reader can speculate this chapter might be examining the strained relationship between the upper class and the urban impoverished. Especially in comparison with other chapters, this quote seemed to be much more in conversation with the actual argument he makes in the chapter. “Haussmann in the Tropics” is set up in a way to explore the dynamic between the upper class and the lower-class slum population first by a brief schematic overview of their land to population ratio, the conflict over urban space that this entails, followed by a deeper look into the effects of urban beautification and development on slum populations, and finally an exclusive look into the isolated and luxurious lifestyles of the Third World upper class.

After dedicating a few pages to the way the inequalities between the rich and poor map out geographically or spatially, most of which is probably common knowledge for the reader, he discusses the ways in which the state will push the poor out of urban spaces for a number of reasons. He quotes Jeremy Seabrook in discussing one of these reasons, which is urban development and building, where he recites, “the word ‘infrastructure’ is the new code word for the unceremonious clearance of the fragile shelters of the poor” (100). Davis continues to show how words such as infrastructure and urban development convey the exact opposite for many of the poor, who are sacrificed instead of provided for by the state. He continues to hint at this idea of the state as a threat, often times as a deceptive threat. Davis writes, “When it comes to the reclamation of high-value land, ideological symbols and promises made to the poor mean very little to the bureaucrats in power” (101). Furthermore, these behaviours on the part of the state become more farcical in practice because of their purpose in deceiving the international community, such as is often times the case when Third World countries host international events such as the Olympics or IMF-World Bank meetings.

In discussing the “beautification campaigns” by the state, he touches upon the way in which slum-dwellers are seen and treated as “dirt” that needs to be disposed of in order for the streets to be clean (104). Immediately, one could extend this horrifying rhetoric to that of ethnic and social cleansing campaigns. For instance, in Colombia, where such social cleansing campaigns have been rampant, impoverished, marginalized people are termed as desechables, literally meaning throw-aways. This kind of language is adopted and used over and over again to the point that its implications go unchallenged. The power of this rhetoric is immense, and when considering several other factors at work here, it is a rhetoric that must be interrogated. The overshadowing goals of development and beautification sponsored by the state, coupled with the isolated upper class of the Third World, eerily recreating floating Southern California lifestyles (115), both function in a way that normalizes the goals and actions advocated for in this kind of discourse, all the while nullifying the voices and lives of countless individuals.

While this chapter does not target a specific ideology to make its argument against, it nonetheless points out a pattern of behaviour and rhetoric by state powers, sometimes in favour of the upper class or even in anticipation of international festivals and events, which needs to be addressed. This kind of behaviour is an integral part of the problem of slums because of the way this kind of action can get normalized and, although indirectly, be made morally acceptable by others, such as with the Olympics. With that said, how is Davis, if at all, attempting to speak to our complacency with these kinds of politics and practices? Where are we in this process? How is his rhetoric effective or ineffective in conveying the urgency of this problem and our implication in it?

-Serena Quiroga
SID 19807117

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