Monday, April 12, 2010

A Prelude to Precarity

Precis on Planet of Slums
Aaron Benavidez, 13875347

Planet of Slums primarily argues that the informal sector promotes a wretched existence for millions of people—those vulnerable to exploitation, violences, filth, sickness, and premature death. This argumentative gist can be encapsulated in the following phrase lifted from “A Surplus Humanity”: “If the informal sector, then, is not the brave new world envisioned by neoliberal enthusiasts [enter De Soto], it is most certainly a living museum of human exploitation” (Davis 186). This explicit thesis is supported by: the chapters that are devoted to illustrating “the most ghoulish part of the informal economy;” the section on the nine myths or “epistemological fallacies” of informality; and the following rhetorical question that haunts the "Epilogue": “But if informal urbanism becomes a dead-end street, won’t the poor revolt?” (190, 178, 201).

Throughout the Planet of Slums, Davis argues toward the attention of two types of readers. First, Davis write for a Economist or New York Times reader or someone of that ilk who might be endlessly excited by page after page of statistics and graphs while simultaneously blind to the fact that his book lacks a steady commitment to deep locality or the examination of particular historical and social contexts. He assumes his readers would not exact a critique that questions his globetrotting statistical gaze at the detriment of a more socially imbedded project. Second (and pertinent to our discussion last week), Davis addresses the De Sotoians of the world who, like “massiah[s] of people’s capitalism,” argue for too easy solution to informalization (Davis 80).

To be sure, the aims of Planet of Slums include both the bleak exposition of lives rendered precarious by structural adjustment programs via neoliberal policies and a call to action to address this mass immiseration. However, the book largely fails on both accounts since Planet of Slums demonstrates an effacement of the precariate depicted in the text, which disarms any significant impetus to act on behalf of the precarized.

Davis’ rhetoric in Planet of Slums renders the precariate without particular histories, engaging testimonies, or extended narratives that might bear witness to their experiences. In fact, the very few individualized narrative accounts offered by Davis involve an intermediary whose presence eclipses any possibility of protracted, agonized vocality: Public-health expert Eileen Stillwagon for Lovly Josaphat; UN worker Rasna Warah for Mberita Katela; Filip De Boeck for Vany; and photograher Vincen Beeckman for the boy who said he ate 800 men (Davis 142, 197-198). Lovly, Katela, Vany, or the boy never stands alone to speak her or his own story. Even more, the few narratives depicted by Davis fail to resonate a vulnerable, finite human in the state of precariousness since Davis so often blunts the narrative account into brevity rather than generosity. Take, for example, the three-year old Vany who only get seven lines to make his case for the way his identification as a witch potentially renders him precarious.

But the situation get’s worse. Davis’ depiction of the precariate as deviants mired in filth demonstrates a dehumanizing rather than explanatory gesture. Judge, for example, the representations of the 10-year old boys who are so desperate for survival that “plastic solvent bottles wedged between their teeth, brandishing balls of human excrement” function as techniques for survival (Davis 139). Instead of thematizing human suffering and survival more generally, Davis contextualized the anecdote as further evidence that the precariate “lives in shit” (137). Other examples abound: the “slum-dwellers” who abort fetuses (135), the slum insurgents (203-206), “dwellers of slums” who sell their daughters to textile factories (187), etc. Even the zoological figurations—rat (127) and hawk (143)—that function by metonym, and catachresis, respectively, obliterate the vulnerability (and the humanity) experienced by the precariate.

The overwhelming logos dimension and its obsessive concern for making a case through statistics, charts, graphs, and numerical figures additionally suffocates the few pleas potentially available for demonstrations of precariousness. Nothing appears to blunt the subjective register, for example, than in “Slum Ecology” where Davis assesses urban environmental vulnerability not by individual testimony, but by the following sterile, cold equation: risk = hazard x assets x fragility (124). True, Davis’ excessive attention to the logos dimension, to an extent, complements the demands of rendering visible objective violence—global, institutional, structural violations that prescribe order and legibility. However, in obscuring testimonies that might otherwise give blood and guts to the precariate by an over-saturation of the objective register, Davis loses the possibility of an ethical demand upon the reader. The address fails. It disarms obligation.

Lastly, in Planet of Slums, the global precariate rarely appears situated near death—but rather as surviving or (even further from death) managing or lingering. A survey of the representations of the precariate underscores the point. Davis endlessly and unflinchingly frames the identity of the precariate in ways that emphasize habitation/inhabitation rather than precariousness more generally: city dwellers (Davis 19), slum dwellers (23, 46, 130), residents of slums (23), urbanites (26), urban poor (27), illegal dwellers (29), urban newcomers (30), squatters (33, 38, 122), pioneer settlers (121), slum residents (129), shantytown renters (180), and (my favorite) pavement dwellers (36). Rather than depicting the precariate on the verge of death or as already dead by the invisible hand of structural violence, Davis’ emphasis on dwelling implies a lingering survival that requires no real response from the reader. In fact, the rhetoric of endless statistics in “The Urban Climacteric” obsessively underscores a proliferation of the precariate at large (a million strong and growing, he seems to suggest), thereby obfuscating inestimable deaths.

All the above silence the viability of Davis’ critique and our mobilization from it.

Work Cited
Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. London: Verso, 2007.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.