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||| The Bazaar and The City |||
History and the Contemporary in Urban Electronic Culture
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Though the South Asian subcontinent has been linked to the capitalist world economy since the 16th century, the new phase of globalisation in the 1990's has in many ways marked a clear rupture with the post-independence order. In the first place, globalisation has accelerated a number of processes in India that have had the net result of re-inscribing the urban as a key reference point in popular culture. The reasons for this are complex and a catalog would include the secular decline in the imagination of the village in the popular, rapid urban growth and the crisis of Nehruvian developmentalism. One other factor has been the whole fragility of the nationalist idea of sovereignty, which has been complicated by a series of continuing crises, which include challenges by combination of political and social movements : from a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement to secessionist movements in Punjab and Kashmir, as well as movements of oppressed castes fighting Hindu caste hegemony. The state and the political are no longer the secure kingdom of the old nationalist elite.
One of the unintended consequences of the crisis of the political has been the re-emergence of cities and towns as nodes of consumption and mobility, as well as production centres of a new techno-popular imaginary.
What has emerged in India in the past decade is a constellation of practices cohering around film, television, cable, telecom, music, computer and internet cultures. What is interesting is that this has obtained in the face of economic growth unremarkable when measured with that of China, nor is the rate of urbanisation as distinct as the Latin American models. Yet the growth in the new cultural commodities are staggering: India is already the home of the world's second largest film industry, the second largest music market, a large television industry with fifty Indian satellite channels in just a decade, rapidly growing software and computer sectors. These in many ways define the map of the urban contemporary: a discussion of this moment will also help put light on the spatial forms of urban electronic culture.
I will now sketch out very schematically some of the features of the urban contemporary in India. The most dramatic expression of the contemporary is that of the concentration of different techno-cultural practices at the current conjuncture, leading to a charged urban experience. From the 1980's onwards, India's cities and towns saw a technogical experience drawn clearly by Virilio's chronospehere : the emergence and acceleration of cultural forms simulateously that could be traced to differnt periods in the cultural history of the West. What is interesting is that this constellation obtained less through a strategy of postmodern parody of the past and mixing of styles but through the intersection of the chonopolitics of the global and the uneven local maps in India's cities. Thus at the same moment in time we are witness to a the cohabitation of older and newer forms of technological reproduction and practice: cassette and phone cultures co-exist with those of the internet, new music, film and television. The important thing is that all these forms more or less arrived at the same time with globalisation - the effects were dramatic. The aestheticization of everyday life in urban India grew through registers of shock, spectacle, mass consumption, a new advertising. The idea of an empire of visual signs was nothing new in India, both Hinduism and Islam were strongly visual and public with attention to spectacle and colour. What was new was the relationship of acceleration to consumption, mobility, new modes of sexual desire and the experience of the city.
The second was the production of the new in the city which differed significantly from the older claims of developmental modernism. The idea of the new was now constantly redrawn with an emphasis on consumption and the constant reworking of the image world through appeals to desire. This emerging domain of consumption was clearly a gesture to the claims of a sexualized and dynamic city: it also produced a whole new regime of display where signs were constantly retailed for a mass public. This has been a deeply problematic and contradictory space, with culture wars obtaining almost at every stage of the transition to globalism. The other, and this is something I will dwell upon later, is the tension between the expansionary needs of a visual culture and the spatial limits of the city.
The other aspect of this new visual regime of the urban contemporary is its inter-textuality, which is in line with global developments. Film, advertising, music, television, computer and internet cultures all offer overlapping visual maps: it is the speed with which systems of signs move between forms that is striking and distinctive in the contemporary.
We can distinguish two layers in the contemporary landscape of urban media in India whose relationship can at best be described as porous. At one level are the new media empires: the corporate owners of satellite television channels ,large software companies located in the techno-cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad, the advertising companies in Bombay. The large software companies have been the most profitable in the stock market, and operate in real time with Western contractors, and employ thousands of programmers popularly known as html slaves.
The second level is the large and dynamic media space of the everyday in urban India which has, for all practical purposes retailed the new cultural constellation to the mass of citizens. These include the thousands of small cable television networks, publically operated phone booths in neighbourhoods which number in their millions, street music sellers, the large grey computer market, and public interet access points. Here the computer, multimedia and phone outlets have the most visible public presence in the street, while the other forms are dominant in virtual space.
What is distinctive about the new networks of electronic culture that have emerged in the everyday is their preference for non-legal practices. This is partly a consequence of the gradual withdrawal of the state from the everyday productive space of the city, from localities and neighbourhoods . The state now exists more as a corrupt bystander, sometimes intervening as a moral policeman, often without results. Non-legality here refers to the thousands of unregistered service providers, the thriving pirate cultures of cable television, music and film. In the computer industry the grey market dominates, operating from neighbourhood shops and new nodes of commercial activity. It was these non-legal forms that have contributed to the dramatic expansion of electronic culture in the city, as also a dynamic service sector in the cities. Street and non-legal cultures are a feature of all post-global cities, but what is significant about India is their prepondernace, as well as ability to innovate within existing built forms.
If non-legality is the preponderant expansionary form of the post-global electronic culture in the everyday, we can also put forward an even more startling assertion. Non-legal incremental expansion seem to have been the dynamic of post-global urban transformation in India, in the everyday at least. Expansion has not been in the form of spectacular vertical construction regimes as in east asia, but in horizontal expansion, gradually poaching on state and private land by a diverse interests which could vary from contractors, small business, slumdwellers, and private citizens slowly encroaching on public land.
This map is seems to out of sync with the global catalog of postmodern urban transformation: no large flows of finance capital pushing for spatial transformation, the absence of a large commercial downtown anywhere in India, no significant spatial class segregation as in the Brasilian experiences, in fact no building drives cohering around a consumption spectacle. One is struck by the paucity of building activity in post-global India at the pace and spatial concentration at which we have witnessed in other societies. This surely contrasts with the Mughal, British and the Nehruvian emphasis on the relationship between spectacle and built forms.
The post-global Indian urban landscape has rather been transformed by the sector classical Marxism often referred contemptuously as petty-commodity producers. The vast majority of this new sector in towns and cities are entrenched in the circulation of electronic cultures, as well as providing new media services to the citizens of the city. Through strategies of molecular non-legal expansion, this sector has transformed the space of everyday life, infusing it with a postglobal density.
In the first place, the old commercial areas built by the nationalist state have been reshaped and transformed into nodes of a new post-global commercial activity. I will take the example of Nehru Place, a large commercial area built by the Delhi Development Authority in 1970 to serve as the core of a business district in Delhi. When it was built, this rather limited area in the best of international style mass production was in fact held out as the pride of finance capitalism in the capital with obligatory visits by dignitaries. Today the old high-commercial district has long vanished, its place taken largely by the non-legal electronic sector. The layers of encroachment, subletting and density are in fact typical of post-global electronic culture. In Nehru Place a diverse combination of legal software firms, the non-legal pirate sector for computer components, scores of shops offering electronic services co-exist with a street market. The state intrudes periodically, conducting raids on pirates, but does not regulate the market on an everyday basis. What is interesting is this non-spectacular space is one of the largest computer markets in India supplying most of the resellers in city neighbourhoods and small towns. Nehru Place is a typical concentration of single-commodity markets for new global products that have emerged in different parts of India. This tradition of single commodity markets goes back to pre-colonial India, but its resurrection for global products in a space dominated by individual stores is interesting. The modal form for this new development was that of cable television in early 1990's, when Delhi's Lajpat Rai Market in the old city emerged as a national centre for components for cable television.
This changed urban map suggests the recall of a form derided by colonialism and nationalism alike - the bazaar. Like the pre-colonial bazaar, electronic markets gesture to the state formally, but remain outside its effective regulation. Unevenness, intimacy, and density are shared by both forms, as is the preponderance of small enterprises. The new bazaars are of course markers of a new arena of consumption, embedded in global technological time, and offer secular form of ownership when compared to that of their medieval predecessors. They are also located in a mix of spaces: sometimes traditional commercial areas which they have transformed, in localities and in neighbourhoods. It is a quitodianism of presence which has obtained: for the first time since independence the domain of technoculture has left the monument and emerged in the street. This is perhaps our own postmodern moment, but one which seems to break with the more global models of that moment.
The spatial limits to capital have concentrated the rush of global images on the new electronic cultures in two areas - the domain of the virtual and the domain of the city street. The registers of the virtual are largely those of film and television, and increasingly the sites on the internet. The intertextuality of all media in India inflects the production of images with a new acceleration as well as techniques of editing and movement. This cross-imaging i.e television screens look like websites and websites look like Bombay film posters, produces an theatre of representation where newness seems to be an end in itself, with an emancipation from the social terrain of the past.
The absence of shopping mall culture in India has meant that the retailing of global consumption in the urban everyday has been through the street. This is particularly so in the case of the new multimedia cultures, which have a public presence largely due to the proliferation of images on the street. These images posted on lampposts, bus stops, street corners all over the country are often shorn of the phantasmic quality of Virilio's vision machine. The images are marked by their functionality, offering access to a service economy at low cost for the cities citizens. These functional signs of newness are maps of locality, implicated in everyday practices of electronic non-legality that bear comparison to those studied by de Certeau in his own research project in Paris. It also recalls the visual map of the bazaar, chaotic, uneven and non-expansionary. The contemporieness of this space is marked a fragility: the tension between consumption and economic crisis, between nature and artifice, between constant migration patterns and the desire for stability. The contrasts with the old development authority city drawn from the best of functionalisty design are evident in the areas of new urban growth. De Certeau in his 'walking in the city' had remarked that 'functionalist organisation, by privileging progress (i.e time) causes the condition of the city's own possibility - space itself - to be forgotten ; space thus becomes the blind spot in a scientific and political technology." Pirate electronic culture, by emerging in the very ruins of functionalist buildings, has invested them with deep layers of indeterminacy, where flows have transformed the original urge for order.
Apart from the spatial limits to creating a significant mall culture, part of the problems of any program of display in India is the sharp juxtaposition of inequalities, almost side by side in the city. Slums and legal housing are often in the same neighbourhood in large parts of urban India: it is most advanced in cities like Bombay. The political space of the poor is not insignificant in urban India, mediated by sometimes by struggle and land occupation, sometimes by patronage which makes large-scale demolition drives an impossibility. This makes the retreat of the global spectacle to the virtual more pressing.
"Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction." wrote Walter Benjamin in the "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." For the vast pirate electronic sector in urban India, the desire for modernity comes through a new relationship with temporal acceleration. While in the past such desires were invested in the abstractions of development, the contemporary world of electronic space has held out the dream world of the virtual as one saturated in a new commodity space, as also the promise of mobility. The emergence of a new life-world where the preponderance of industrial products take the part of nature is a sharp break for a newly urbanised population. Benjamin speaks of a similar situation in his Passagen Werke where for children industrial products appear to be nature itself. In the case of the urban electronic contemporary in India this world of industrial nature holds out the dream of mobility for a new pool of urban unemployed, as artisans and pirates. Occupying the lower end of the global commodity chain this sector also mocks the laws of national and international legality, less by design than by a molecular practice.
In the event the post-global city in India has been significantly affected: with a reproduction of density in the old commercial areas and the locality in ways that make the city under nationalism look unrecognisable. What is interesting is that in this process a new everyday life saturated with the practices of new electronic culture has emerged adding its own section to the global catalog of the postmodern. A picture that includes the relative stasis of built forms and a dynamism of new electronic culture recalls the dystopian graphics of cyberpunk, but that would surely be a misreading. The pirate urban forms in contemporary India reveal a tactile energy in a situation of institutional inequality in the world system. They have energised the space of the locality with few gestures to organicism. Flow, instability and indeterminancy are basic to a pirate culture, and such seems to be the fate of our urban futures.
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Thank you to Ravi Sundaram for permission to use this piece.
This paper was lectured at the conference "Architecture and Globalisation", at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, October 1999.
It is also available online at expand, which describes itself as "a project space online, an interdisciplinary artistic field of action, in which aspects of urban and mediated surroundings are assembled and into which offline projects flow in."
Ravi Sundaram, Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi and Joint Director of Sarai, the New Media Initiative.