While most will talk about fundamentalism as the return to and adherence to a set of unchanging truths about life and how to act within it, I want to read urban fundamentalism as opening up a space and time of the miraculous. By the miraculous I means the ability of urban residents to act without being eligible to act—where something is put in motion, put in place regardless of whether individuals have any recognizable capacity to do this. The miraculous thus becomes a way enabling the city to do the job of the city.
For the city was to e the place where people could change their lives, leave behind the strictures of claustrophobic accountability and obligations. The haunting of guilt and ancestors, the pull of the land, and the anchorage of people within ecologies of seasons, crops, and spirits could be dispensed with in favor of a more systematic, rational formula of self-design, and the shared benefits of public life and urban citizenship. Of course as there were few real examples of such an idea, the imagery of citizenship was to be more a matter of accords and deals. The city had to be made sufficiently liveable—in terms of the salubrious, industrious, the moral—in order for it to be profitable. In opting for a more civilized existence, those inhabiting the city also were more inclined to leave civilization behind as well, as the capacity to fight and disrupt could also be intense. The irony here is that the evidence for the transformation of human possibility inherent in ideal model of the city may largely come from the section of the urban population which, in the so-called Global South, we know little about. This population is a kind of phantom majority—neither strictly poor nor middle class nor rich but who have found some way to do slightly more than just hang on, but at the same time, are never powerful enough to impose their own visions of city life. These are the teachers, factory workers, civil servants, service workers, cops, drivers, clerks, technicians, small storeowners….
They always had to roll with the punches, do things that they perhaps never imagined themselves doing. For as Ackbar Abbas puts it, too often urban politics is the politics of disappointment—about the “not there” in what is there; it is about being transported to a place you didn’t think you were at. Urban residents no matter what their background for the most part wanted a version of the good life and they were willing to make a lot of sacrifices to try and get it. But all the effort urban majorities across the Global South made to disentangle themselves from kin and neighborhood ties and obligations and to turn themselves into enterprising individuals inorder to give them a shot at this good life often only produced a sense that, damn, this is nowhere and that it is too late to do anything about it. All the investments in property, education, and making their lives legible only got people deeper into debt, further away from where the real economic action is, more isolated, and more insecure. At the same time, all of the efforts that this same majority made to compensate for a job that didn’t pay enough—for building livelihoods and living spaces incrementally over time, for honing highly adept strategies for working with others to increase their exposure to opportunities and the larger world—while still holding—may suddenly fall apart as well.
While some have explained the compensation for these disappointments by citing a renewal of religious fundamentalism, I would argue that whatever the embrace of this device of religious faith may be, it is also compelled by recognition of the fundamentals of the city. In other words, no system of accountability or categorization can completely control what comes out of urban life. While controlling people is often predicated on making them recognize their eligibility for particular benefits and opportunities, urban life exceeds any definition of eligibility—it is, what the Senegalese youth call “our time.”
The anthropologist Ghassan Hage tells us that once crisis implied the suspension of everyday order and self-discipline so that people could put together new ways of acting to deal with the inadequacies of the past and new opportunities for the future. But now, the contemporary governance of crisis makes keeping the old order and discipline the main component. He gives the example that queuing for the bus in an orderly fashion should be contingent upon the bus actually arriving. It would make no sense to continuing queuing for a bus that never arrives. But this is exactly the relationship that contemporary governance tends to take apart. Order and discipline should be maintained during the crisis of the bus never arriving, and that in fact, the bus will never arrive if the people do not queue. Of course this is an inversion of the conventional logic of things. Those who refuse to queue, those who are unruly, who protest or rebel, not only disqualify themselves from the resolution of the crisis but become responsible for its perpetuation, thus reinforcing the need for orderliness. Buses, water, power, modernity, sustainability or better livelihoods thus won’t arrive because the potential recipients of these things have not yet demonstrated sufficient eligibility for them—are not worthy of them. Plus, their unworthiness is the very things that keeps these things from being sufficiently delivered even to those who have demonstrated their worthiness. And so in the end, this emphasis on eligibility is a kind of ruse, since it covers up the reality that no actor or sector can really get a handle on what the city is and what it is becoming.
This emphasis on eligibility on amplifies the twists and warps that ripple across the urban fabric. Districts come and go with increasing speed. Vast new developments become ghost towns as soon as they are completed. Wealth is made and lost in a matter of minutes. Control can be exerted over the smallest of biochemical transactions and across wide expanses of the earth. Yet many urban areas are completely off limits to any form of official policing. This is a process that gives rise to new aberrant forms—legal illegalities, know unknowns, socialist market economies, and so forth. The norms we rely upon to know the world morph into something else. But paying attention to all of these aberrant forms of urban life—its proliferating twists and bends—then become a kind of deception. A deception for the fact that the city has always already fundamentally become something other than what we thought it was.
The emphasis on eligibility becomes a way of reading this complexity in a way that puts the onus on the compliance, the order of individual lives. For example, conditional cash transfers are a way of calculating the distribution of income subsidies according to formulas which specify norms concerning, for example, a child’s physical growth, attendance at school, and health. While there is less money around for social welfare spending, governments are rightly concerned with cost efficiencies. Still, the generalization of eligibility as the main approach to crisis management fails to take head-on the challenges of deception and how to operate in cities where it is increasingly important to act with big gestures but where it is also difficult to know what is going on. There are so many things to pay attention to, so many potentially relevant factors to take into consideration in trying to figure out just what is going on, that some things are just going to be left out, and you never can really tell for sure whether what is left out is really important or not. All that stuff about telling true from false can be simply too much work for little payoff.
Here it is useful to consider Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the “power of the false” in his reflections on cinema. The process of making a film generates all kinds of in-between moments—as you rarely ever see a film that proceeds in real time from beginning to end. Each frame or scenarios need not follow from the preceding scene—angles, vantage points, time, and arrays of images can all be recombined. Instead of an indirect image of time being derived from how things actually move, a direct time image—that is creating a specific sense of time in how the film unfolds—produces its own sense of movement, through sound and optical intensities that exist outside of any story line, theme or objective. Multiple experiences of the present, logically impossible to experience in any real, simultaneous time, can come to the fore; story lines can be modified by disconnected places and moments out of any temporal sequence. In film you can go to the movies, get on a plane to Europe, and go swimming in the ocean, all at 3pm today. So each in-between in cinema comes to question its own truth, its own limits of what is possible, and thus unleash a wide range of possibilities. This is what Deleuze calls the power of the false—that, “which replaces and supersedes the forms of the true, because it poses the simultaneity of incompossible presents, or the co-existence of non-necessarily true pasts.
Additionally, Deleuze characterizes contemporary cinema as that in which “the people are missing.” For talking about people as being parts of a social class or ethnic identity or political aspiration is not adequate to either the potentials opened up cinematic events nor the unfolding politics of urban life. As such, the people, the people of the city have to be invented. This, as Vincente Rafael put it, is a different kind of state of exception, perhaps akin to a miracle. Writing about Filiipino vernacular experiences of freedom, the missing people discovers themselves in the very inviting and welcoming of their arrival in a process that is never completed and is always underway. In other words, the urban majority discovers itself not in dissecting its practices and identifies, not at the ballot box, but by always taking on the challenge of paying attention to and absorbing ways of life that are not always recognizable, of creating urban spaces where nothing is summed up, where residents can try lots of different things without feeling like they going to mess up the situation for everyone. People come together and discover each other—not because they had to, not because they were fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens—but because the opportunity arose in the midst of people doing other things. They may have been dealing with a broken water pipe, strolling leisurely in the streets at night, celebrating a religious festivity that brought together different crowds, gathering around a traveling food cart in a neighborhood, or having a heated yet friendly discussion on public transportation.
The sense of urgency about dealing with the uncertainties of urban life today means that one cannot simply depend upon the inherited notions about people of the past—the old stories about modernity, development and progress. There must be a way of seeing between the lines, or ways of making lines between stories that are going in way too many different directions.
On the one hand, there is enough evidence to be convinced that city life everywhere is heading in a more convergent, unified direction. But with such evidence, it is all the more striking that minor differences among places and people can be so powerful and inequities so pronounced. Poverty is being successfully addressed and ignored; well-being is increasing, as is the intensification of dissatisfaction and alarm. Lets look at all of the containers through which urban life is enacted. There are images of people as objects of class position, cultural, national and religious identity, expressions of probabilistic behavior, risk and development “careers” and indicators of complex configurations of demographic, biochemical and biopolitical variables. Yet they are all inadequate ways of thinking, feelings and speaking about how urban life is experienced and acted upon. What Deleuze suggests in his observations of cinema, is how to think about lines of commonality, conveyance, and intensity among different facets of urban life that on the surface don’t seem to go together at all.
This is the fundamentalism of the urban and the faith in the city—it is how residents have endured. For endurance depends upon the continuous fascination of discovery—the willingness to suspend the familiar and even the counted-upon in order to engage something unexpected. This engagement may sometimes simply reiterate a commitment to what already is, where the person decides that it is better to stay put with what is familiar. At other times, effort is made to find a way to make what is discovered useful, to incorporate it into one’s life or see it as another vehicle to be occupied, and where time and energy is transferred from one way of being in the world into another.
To make something feel similar is not a matter of finding the terms through which one way of doing things or being is translated into another. This is what Shariah teaches Muslims—there is no way to make sense of God’s law, no way to definitively translate it into a language that everyone will understand. Translation certainly exists as a necessary and constant activity of interchange. It is something that we do all of the time, and endurance certainly relies upon the capacity of the diverse experiences and perspectives of different actors to be translatable.
Yet, the majority of which I have been speaking has long known that causes and effects have no built-in articulation; there is no plan that an observer sees in its entirety that originates in a single intention and then unfolds across the trajectory of space. This doesn’t mean that there are no intentions; it doesn’t mean that people do not set out to do harm or good. Rather, residents knew that they existed in a crowded field where everyone had to try to do something, and if you were going to make something happen, you’d have to work with others that you weren’t going to know very well or necessarily trust. For if everyone simply worked with the people they were expected to work with then nothing really different would happen, and life was already too uncertain to simply have nothing happen.
So endurance is a by-product of bridge building—a way of making things similar no matter what they might be. This similarity, then, is lived through as a means of continuance. Ways of life, territory, and identities may indeed be defended needlessly to the bitter end. Outcries that something should survive at all costs are certainly not unfamiliar in all cities. But the capacity to endure—i.e. the capacity to construct lines of connection between seemingly disconsonant experiences or ways of doing things, and which are without confident translations—is perhaps more significant.
In cities where significant proportion of the population has historically relied upon their own initiatives—in various forms of combination with the initiatives of institutions and various associations and networks—many different things are going to take place. Buildings will assume all kinds of shapes and sizes, economic activities will take place at various scales with various degrees of seriousness, investment and management smarts, and all kinds of emotions will come to the fore—as many of these initiatives won’t work. Hopes will be raised and quashed; people will get greedy but also spread their good fortune around; people will get desperate and try anything, while others will hold on to whatever they have. How do residents continue then through this diversity of intensities, events, calculations, losses and gains? A sense of similarity would have to be constructed; a sense that no matter what people are doing that there is sufficient similarity amongst them that enables them to be co-present. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to like each other, get along, invite each other to dinner, take each other into consideration, or organize various formats of solidarity. Rather, the willingness to see and feel similarity is the modality of enduring through this daily urban life. This is the miracle of the city.