In the new issue of Public Books, sociology professor Harvey Molotch reviews Ruled by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi by D. Asher Ghertner, which examines how calls to turn Delhi into a "world-class" city justified rampant gentrification and displacement. Ghertner suggests that even Delhi's poor were persuaded that making the city "world class" would improve conditions for everyone, even as the poor were pushed to the city's periphery. Molotch argues that “world-class” has become a new mode of hegemony in city-making. Here's an excerpt:
Aesthetics plays an intrinsic role in the functioning of modern regimes even, or perhaps especially, under conditions of mass poverty. Making things beautiful, or at least decent or nice, facilitates both urban development and mass acquiescence. The positive image of certain elements renders other types of physical matter and some types of human beings out of place. Under the regime of “world-class,” they become in effect weeds that make the city ugly. Such a regime justifies spending resources to upgrade the city while uprooting whatever threatens to mar the landscape.
D. Asher Ghertner’s Rule by Aesthetics invites us to interrogate the beauty and allure of modernization—the aesthetics of “world-class”—as part of the civic system: the intersection of governmental structures and the sentiments of elite and impoverished popular classes alike. In Raymond Williams’s term, it is part of the “structures of feeling,” an internalized sense of inferiority, that brings poor people to defer to their overlords. Ghertner similarly points our vision toward closely held hopes and dreams that, however perniciously, cross and link groups.
Ghertner traces the “world-class” sentiment from its birth in late 1990s Delhi through to the contemporary moment. The sentiment gathered strength in a time of hyper-growth, as India’s second-largest metropolis (now over 18 million) burst beyond its borders and raised up new buildings for the rich and well-off. This also meant, as happens, the growth of shanties and effluvia—approximately half of the metropolis looks (and smells) accordingly.
Our friend “world-class” to the rescue. Here was a credo offering a way out—a way to mobilize policy and action, as Ghertner explains, “without planning benchmarks or even mutually agreeable definitional criteria.” It was vague, but just the right kind of vague. Defying the cacophony of bureaucracy, political bickering, and social demands, “world-class” could be used to rule. Yes, there were no specifications of what “world-class” was or what it’s opposite, a “slum,” might be, but—says Ghertner quoting Amita Baviskar—“like obscenity or divinity, ‘world-classness’ provokes a response from within, an instant shock of recognition”; or, as in the US Supreme Court lexicon, “you know it when you see it.” Playing the “world-class” card can trump potential confusion.
Image: Urban slum in Delhi, via Public Books.