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Unlearning the City

Infrastructure in a New Optical Field

Swati Chattopadhyay

Publication Year: 2012

Cities are more than concrete and steel infrastructure. But modern urban theory does not have the language to describe and debate the vital component of urban life that is lived on the streets of cities and towns. Swati Chattopadhyay has written a nuanced argument for a new vocabulary of the city in Unlearning the City, proposing a way of analyzing the materiality of the urban that captures the ever-changing element of human experience.

Urban life is intrinsically messy and usually refuses to conform to the rigid views laid down in much of urban studies theory. Chattopadhyay looks at urban life in India with a fresh perspective that incorporates the everyday and the unstructured. As the first to apply the theories of subalternity for an understanding of urban history, Chattopadhyay provides an in-depth study of vehicular art, street cricket, political wall writing, and religious festivities that link the visual and spatial attributes of these popular cultural forms with the imagination and practices of urban life. She contends that these practices have a direct impact on the configuration and knowledge of public space, and the political potential of the people inhabiting cities.

Unlearning the City uses the popular culture of Indian cities to question the dominant conception of urban infrastructure and encourage a conceptual realignment in how the city is seen, discussed, and even experienced.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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Preface: Unlearning the City

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pp. ix-xviii

...This is a project about the idea and role of “cities” in the web of global imaginations. It is about questioning the paradigms of urbanism within which we have formed habits of imagining, researching, and teaching about the city. The central problem in theorizing cities today is a paucity of vocabulary. The structural changes that have occurred in cities around the world in the last two decades ...

Analytic Index

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pp. xix-xxiv

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1. Flows and Bumpy Roads

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pp. 1-38

...This project began with the provocation of “change” in contemporary India. Since the opening up of India to the global market economy in the early 1990s, the country’s cultural landscape has undergone a remarkable transformation. The symptoms of this transformation are ubiquitous: Western-style shopping malls, new suburbia, gated residential communities, mega Cineplex theaters, ...

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2. The Optical Field

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pp. 39-62

...In a crucial scene in the film Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), Salim and Jamal, two brothers who had grown up in the slums of Juhu in Mumbai, are looking across the city from the top of a high-rise under construction. They have met after years of separation. The camera catches the haze of the low-lying roofscape of the slums in Jamal’s background, then pans across the ...

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3. Provincial Cosmopolitanism

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pp. 63-92

...An important symptom of the infrastructural refashioning of contemporary Indian cities is the increasing obsolescence or outright prohibition of those modes of transportation and use of streets and sidewalks that had contributed to the visuality and texture of these cities in the second half of the twentieth century. Cosmopolitan urban visions appear incommensurate with the ...

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4. Armature and Experience

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pp. 93-120

...Some years ago while browsing through Anthropologie in downtown Santa Barbara, I came across half a dozen cricket balls among a collection of housewares and knick-knacks. I picked up one, felt its weight, and turned it around in my hand. It did not have a company name or the weight stamped on it, and yet, it was the real thing. What was it doing next to fancy door knobs and pretty dishes? What was it meant to do? Then it struck...

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5. Writing on the Walls

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pp. 121-162

...The social contract theorists from John Locke to Jacques Rousseau have understood freedom as innate, a preexisting attribute of the individual, a priori to social formation. Thus in contract theory, “politics begins with the agreement to limit this original liberty.” In such a form, liberty works as a dual move of an empty “I want” and the right to “our person and possessions.” This is the basis ...

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6. Auto-mobility

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pp. 163-198

...I was stuck in traffic. A small fan pointed at me on the back seat of the car was whirring in an unsuccessful attempt to ameliorate an unseemly hot Kolkata summer. My driver in the front seat was leaning out of the window trying to gauge the depth of the traffic jam. I was late for an appointment. My eyes shifted to the bus in front of us. The following words were painted on the back of the bus: ...

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7. Fungible Geographies

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pp. 199-242

...In the Bengali months of autumn, the goddess Durga is awakened for an untimely propitiation—akal bodhan—to seek prosperity and well-being. She visits Bengal in her dual form as slayer of the demon-god Mahisasur and as the protective mother in the company of her four children. Preparations for her arrival begin months prior. And then for five days, Durga and her entourage ...

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Conclusion: Infra-struc ture

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pp. 243-252

...I began this book with a citation of “change” in postliberalization India and the effects of structural adjustments in cities of the global south. While I bring this work belatedly to a conclusion, popular revolutions are rocking the Middle East. The people have taken to the streets to protest ruling elites that have perpetuated, in collusion with capital, governments that are fundamentally...

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pp. 253-254

...This book was inspired by the popular culture of Indian cities, much of which required onsite documentation. In Kolkata the documentation work was conducted sporadically over the past decade, made possible by numerous artists, artisans, builders, bus operators, cooperative organizers, shopkeepers, and residents who took time to discuss their work and practice with me and by Kamal...


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pp. 255-290


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pp. 291-298

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About the Author

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p. 324-324

...of Art and Architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism, and the Colonial Uncanny....


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pp. 325-328

E-ISBN-13: 9780816682843
E-ISBN-10: 0816682844
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816679317

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2012