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Unlearning the City: Infrastructure in a New Optical Field by Swati Chattopadhyay (review)
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Reviewed by
Swati Chattopadhyay
Unlearning the City: Infrastructure in a New Optical Field
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
320 pages, 89 black-and-white + 8 color illustrations.
ISBN 978-0-8166-7931-7, $90.00 HB
ISBN 978-0-8166-7932-4, $30.00 PB

Swati Chattopadhyay’s Unlearning the City: Infrastructure in a New Optical Field encourages the reader to rethink the city by investigating new possibilities for an urban infrastructure that arises from a politics of participation. In this compelling study of the urban vernacular of Kolkata, West Bengal, India, Chattopadhyay directs our attention away from the aerial perspectives of planners and municipal authorities and instead maps out a new geography based on the creative occupation of the city by its inhabitants. Chattopadhyay provides a detailed and nuanced view of the potential for a more broad-based and culturally embedded form of urban resistance—one that challenges the pervasive homogeneity of global culture and in so doing generates an optimism seldom provided by the more thoroughgoing critiques of globalization.

Unlearning the City is a welcome addition to the literature on contemporary politics, urban theory, and visual studies. Chattopadhyay has done meticulous research along multiple fronts and uses her knowledge of postcolonial theory and architecture to move convincingly from discussions of political philosophy to the means and methods by which artisans craft the city through their labor. The book reads as a collection of related essays that help us “unlearn the city” by bringing a whole new sequence of public spaces to light. The author gathers, organizes, and presents these sites by approaching Kolkata from the embodied vantage point of the street. [End Page 161]

Chattopadhyay’s redefinition of the term infrastructure resides in recognizing the highly visible popular expressions of political desire that are manifested in street cricket (chapter 4), wall writings (chapter 5), automobile art (chapter 6), and Durga Puja pavilions (chapter 7). These varied explorations of visual representation give voice to the actions of the marginalized majority and reveal a level of local participation that stands in stark contrast to the nation-state’s push for putative global competitiveness. While other authors have discussed some of these forms of cultural production in different global contexts, this book goes a long way in linking visual practices to the implicit politics emerging from the field of popular culture.

The author envisions an alternative mode of urbanism in light of the 1990s economic transformation that opened India up to foreign investment. The first chapter outlines the problematic nature of the Indian government’s historical shift from an earlier focus on rural development to a new emphasis on urban investment. Chattopadhyay explains how the government implemented projects that were clothed in the rhetoric of common good but which ultimately benefited only corporate capitalism. She supports this claim with case studies of state-sponsored and state-sanctioned residential developments in and around Kolkata that cater to the upper-middle and elite classes of Indians and foreign nationals. In advertisement billboards and sales brochures for these projects, the celebrated natural landscape of Bengal is traded for something that resembles suburban America. In looking briefly at the controversial nature of these enclaves of privilege, the author repositions the reader into a different “Optical Field” (chapter 2), one that operates from the margins and counters this borrowed Western imagery.

Chattopadhyay searches for physical spaces where the urban imaginary of the disenfranchised majority (the subaltern) is brought into prominence through direct and subversive public actions. Her argument about the potential agency of the subaltern (or the lack thereof) is framed with reference to a debate stemming from the writings of Antonio Gramsci, Ranajit Guha, and Gayatri Spivak. The problem of the subaltern as developed through the work of these authors is the lack of self-representation, which leads to their invisibility. Chattopadhyay proposes a crack in this repressive characterization of the figure of the subaltern where he/she emerges in the public domain by becoming visible through an emergence in the popular domain. The notion of the popular as the place to experience the political is a central theme in Chattopadhyay’s book. This transference occurs when a series of words...