Kin la poubelle

Increasingly, we live in a world where nothing makes any sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell us stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality.  But those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow.

(Opening words from Adam Curtis’ (2015) film, Bitter Lake)

Over the last decade, attempts have been made to counter urban theory’s traditional focus on large cities of the global north. Understanding ‘cityness’, it is argued, should entail a broadening of the frame of reference far beyond such untypical ‘global cities’ as London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, and so on. The city of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a focus for some of this ‘decentring’ activity; it is “often invoked, used, and abused, as a trope to represent the quintessential postcolonial city” (De Boeck, 2012). And earlier this week I heard Filip De Boeck give a superb talk at UCL about life in Kinshasa, as part of the Power and Space in the City series of workshops.

He began by commenting that Kinshasa contains almost no buildings of architectural interest, and effectively no infrastructure. Or, at least, for most people, no functioning infrastructure. Those services which are provided are unreliable; in fact, it is not meaningful to talk about ‘disruptions’ to services, both in the sense that disruption is the norm, and because for many people it is precisely in disruptions that opportunities arise. Institutional attempts to ‘plan’ the city only play a minor shaping role in the urban space which results. Far more significant is an ongoing “random” occupation of space, characterised by uncertainty, improvisation and constant renegotiation; De Boeck (2011:271) suggests that it is precisely the

organic approach to the production of the city and its spaces that enables Kinois to survive at all…And many activities in the city become possible not because there is a well-developed infrastructure available to sustain them but, rather, because that infrastructure is not there, or only exists through its paucity.

Potholes in the road, for example, are welcomed since they can be filled in on behalf of motorists, in return for a tip.  (The potholes are then deliberately recreated every evening.)  In another example we were shown, there was no particular incentive for a group of stall-holders to fix a leak in an adjacent sewage pipe; this creates a permanent muddy patch forcing pedestrians to divert from the road and walk past their stalls, and thus become potential customers.

In Kinshasa, it is impossible to plan ahead. Residents often comment that “nothing has any meaning”; they can only make it up as they go along. They can only proceed by being open to possibilities, by being skilful “at being flexible, at opening up to this ‘unexpected’, that often reveals itself outside the known pathways that constitute urban life as most in the Global North know it” (ibid:272). There is no reward for imagining this way of life as linear: it constantly reveals itself as iterative, emergent, unpredictable. Causality only becomes clear retrospectively. Everything is pragmatic.

Now, any story of a city can only ever be a partial one. But I was wondering whether (my reconstructed version of) this particular story allows us to conceive of the people of Kinshasa as oppressed. In a different story, we might paint the Kinois as victims of global structural forces, or we might see the neglect of the state, or the arbitrariness of its workings, as itself oppressive. But that’s not what I’m getting at. Rather, that if Kinshasa in this reading constitutes a parable for the way we increasingly seem to interpret the world more generally – as something which can no longer be rationally understood or intentionally planned, and probably never could be – then the question of oppression becomes meaningless. In this way of thinking, everything just is (or, rather, becomes). There is no structure which can be complied with or transgressed; no basis on which justice, normativity, or ethics can be grounded. It is tempting therefore to ask if we even should be telling stories of this type. Rather problematically, however, this question itself is rendered senseless by the story.

And yet I seem to have set up a rather unfair binary choice here: between an illusion of modernity on the one hand, and a truth of ungovernable flux on the other; between the oppression of the concentration camp and the freedom of the slum. I’d like to think these are not the only choices we can make.

20 February 2015, London

References

Curtis, A. (Director) (2015).  Bitter Lake.  BBC Productions.

De Boeck, F. (2012). Infrastructure: Commentary from Filip De Boeck. Cultural Anthropology. Online Curated Collections. Available from: http://culanth.org/curated_collections/11-infrastructure/discussions/7-infrastructure-commentary-from-filip-de-boeck (accessed 20 February 2015).

De Boeck, F. (2011). Inhabiting Ocular Ground: Kinshasa’s Future in the Light of Congo’s Spectral Urban Politics. Cultural Anthropology, 26(2):263.

Notes

Photograph by Joseph Winter, and stolen from the BBC website: “The city council has just three dustbin lorries for a population of 8m – but lots of wheelbarrows. Council official Basil Lungwana says they are trying hard. He says the biggest challenge is to change people’s habits.”

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