Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Urban, National and Transnational/Global Anthropology
Of interest to: Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Cities
Secondary Theme: Materiality
How do people come to sense social and political change through housing infrastructure and built environments? How do pasts (whether they are state-wide concerns for the poor, solidarity among workers, or the spirit of care) continue to emanate from housing and built environments? How does affective engagement with housing and built environments shape the political subjectivities of those who used to or continue to inhabit them? How do these subjects imagine alternative political directions and possibilities?
This panel will address how residents of various cities affectively engage with housing and built environments to remember and imagine otherwise, enacting new political subjectivities for the present and the future. Recently, anthropologists have turned to materialist theory to understand how housing and built environments become mediums and sites of strong affective engagement (e.g. Navaro-Yashin 2012; Muehlebach 2017). What interests us especially in this panel is the built environments that were built to care for workers and poor citizens in cities all over the world—public housing, housing built to house workers and employees, among others. Welfare states, colonial states, socialist states, and even private capital have (at least once) conceptualized housing as one form of infrastructure that should be universally accessible, especially for impoverished subjects. However, in today’s era of global neoliberalization, these forms of urban housing have become anachronistic— signifying wasteful and excessive investment in people’s lives—and faced criticisms, demolitions, relocations, and reformulations. What is anthropologically curious is that just when these buildings are both physically and symbolically crumbling down, inhabitants have begun to show strong affective attachment to them and what they signify. Former public housing residents in Chicago long for the welfare past through craving free heat that was once abundant (Fennell 2015); residents of socialist-era housing built by East Germans in Northern Vietnam mourn for the disappearance of state care as their housing—once a symbol of global socialist modernity—is now portrayed as a “failure” and is subject to demolitions (Schwenkel 2012).
Four presenters of this panel will suggest that this affective engagement with urban housing is a global phenomenon. Through their long-term ethnographic research with residents of Soviet-era housing in Bishkek, indigenous public housing in Taipei, chawls in Mumbai, and concrete suburban developments built by the Swedish state, each panelist will show why and how people (and especially their affects) persist, linger, and endure (Povinelli 2011) in the housing and buildings they have inhabited for a long time. Further, we suggest that this affective endurance should not be simply understood as a form of place-making. Instead, we argue that it can be understood as a locally-situated and yet also global political response to profound political and social transformations occurring today—the dismantling of the welfare state model, the rise of neoliberal urban planning, post-socialism, and the reformulation of indigenous-state colonial relations. People imagine and demand otherwise, by holding onto their housing.
Finally, the panel will be discussed by two prominent scholars, Christina Schwenkel and Andrea Muehlebach, who have reflected on the relationship between urban housing, built environments, and affect.