What is it like to be “informal”?

Katalin Gennburg

In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ The essay discusses the basic questions posed by cognitive philosophy. Nagel wanted to point out that even if we are able to explain scientifically how the mind works, we are not able to explain scientifically the feeling of being someone or something. His arguments started off a debate that began by referring to the second Kantian question: ‘What am I able to know?’ This was the definite moment of the birth of cognitive philosophy.

The crux of Nagel’s question, for me, is that he makes the point that if we speak about someone or something, we have to be aware that we cannot look through the eyes of the scientific object. By asking the Nagel-question, I’m trying to figure out the question of WHO speaks about WHAT. The time in Cairo gave me an entirely new perspective of how to catch phenomena that are scientifically interesting. The ethnographic methods we used (mapping, drawing, interviews) gave us the opportunity to explore people’s habits and practices in Cairo. By expecting innumerable differences between what people do in Cairo and Hamburg, I was surprised to find them but equally see them in relation – to what people do everywhere in the world. As we know from Henri Lefebvre, space is not something given from above, i.e. people produce space. What we discovered in Cairo and in Hamburg was as simple as that. It’s the people who produce space and make the city tick.

From this point of view, there is a big gap between what science tells us about practice and what people actually do. Here we are faced with a similar question and scientific problem that cognitive philosophy tries to formulate by asking ‘What is it like to be a bat?’

During our stay in Cairo, Professor Hans Harms, architect and city-planner, gave a lecture on ‘informal housing’. For me, this lecture reminded me of the question this essay poses. The title of his lecture raised my expectation to hear a clear definition of ‘informality’, including crucially the critical questions of ‘WHO invented the term?’ and ‘WHO uses the term and what for?’ Calling to mind the tradition of critical theory and the call for discourse analysis that, amongst others, Michel Foucault posed, these questions seemed important enough to be answered. This is my attempt to formulate my initial thoughts about the term ‘informality’, a term obviously used in scientific explanations and descriptions of phenomena that can be observed in ‘countries of the global south’. I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on this topic as a result of the great workshop I was so lucky to attend.

First of all, it is important to not ignore that fact that more than one third of the world’s population live under inhuman conditions without access to even the minimum standard of living as defined by the United Nations. This essay thus deals with an epistemological question, i.e. the question of where the term ‘informality’ comes from in general and where it leads us towards in discourses about ‘informal housing’ in particular and about mega cities in general.

The ‘stability pact for south-eastern Europe’ was made after around eight years of debate between countries like Macedonia and Serbia and their partners, i.e. the European Union and the World Bank. Regarding the question of WHO uses the term and for what, it is important to bear in mind that both actors, the EU and the World Bank, are powerful players with strong political interests generally not considered to be interests of social balance but of holding power. Terms from a specific political background cannot be used without knowing and acknowledging their particular background. In this sense, we are engaged with politics when using political terms. The idea to connect the language we are speaking to the thoughts we are thinking goes back to Friedrich Schiller. This interrelation had a massive impact on Victor Klemperer and his book ‘Lingua Tercii Imperii’ about the language used by fascists in the Third Reich. Klemperer tells us that, for instance, ‘fanaticism’ was used in different ways by fascists than it was used and understood before – so that nowadays we need to question in what way people use and understand the word. It is easy enough to see this interrelation and when trying to describe phenomena in scientific terms we definitely need to question what we are speaking about and where the description, the adverbs, the terminology originates. As we know from Theodor W. Adorno and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, it isn’t theory that reflects reality. It is reality that builds theory and therefore social scientists and people in general have to understand theory and reality in a dialectical manner, as dialectically interrelated and constitutive of one another.

Regarding the term ‘informal housing’, we don’t just have a term describing objectively what we see and what ‘reality’ (as far as it exists in that singular sense) looks like. My argument is that we are dealing with a term that presents something like the needle’s eye into the entire topic of the ‘world economy and its actors’. Postcolonial theory thus might provide a bundle of extra arguments concerning the question of WHO speaks about WHOM and WHAT in western European social science.

Gayatri Spivak wrote about the term ‘the subaltern’ referring to those people who still live in a present day post-colonial world. The subaltern are not heard because they are seen to not be able to take part in hegemonic discourse. The ways of knowing, understanding and reasoning must be subordinated to the knowledge, understanding and rational reasoning that the western world dictates. If the ‘western world’ speaks about sweat shops and industrialisation in the countries of the ‘global south’, the subaltern would possibly not reflect their situation of poverty and exploitation themselves, but rather reflect their situation through the eyes of those western people who legitimate their world because of its rational necessity in a capitalist system. Isn’t even the idea of determining the situation of subjects somehow different from the societal location of those who determine the problem? What functions do such identifications have?

I argue that the ‘informality discourse’ refers to modernist western ideals of city planning in general that are supported by ideals of social order and regulation policy. These ideals have a long tradition particularly in Germany, but can be observed in every European city and country in the practices of urban policy and their norms of housing policies. This tradition includes different periods of shaping and re-shaping cities, which points to certain contradictions. Aesthetic ideals in western European urban planning, I argue, are the voice of normative standards. There is nothing ‘natural’ in those standards and their long history. What Georg Simmel called the ‘objective culture’ and what was defined as the ‘ornament of the masses’ by Siegfried Kracauer in the early 20th century can be understood as metaphors for hegemonic ideals that have a long history and are fundamental for our general understanding. For example, what we know as one urban phenomenon – the battle of (high) culture and counter culture including the regeneration of inner city districts, graffiti and street art, represents the battle about what society calls ‘culture’ and what is therefore seen as hegemonic or dominant cultural paradigms.
In addition, Henri Lefebvre coined the term ‘harmonic beauty’. For him, ‘harmonic beauty’ works as a ‘common language’ that can be understood as a ‘code’ or ‘coded language’ and builds the aesthetic of the modernist city in Western Europe. Lefebvre argues that this ‘coded language’ provides a ‘holistic space’ comprised of an ensemble of the fine arts. Cities like Basel or Heidelberg are regenerating their historical inner cities so as to imagine the old European city based on an understanding that these are objectively cultural (Simmel) or harmonically beautiful (Lefebvre). The ‘ornament of the masses’ (Kracauer) still works today and continues to inform urban planning’s ideological background. There is no space to go into this normative aesthetics’ history here, but a significant aspect can be traced back to the idea of the public good in Germany that was based on the idea of social order and justice (‘gute Policey’). This understanding of social order is to this day a matter of class and served elites to secure their property.

When I arrived in Hamburg to attend the first part of the workshop in Wilhelmsburg, I crossed the main station’s court. Hamburg is known all over Germany for playing classical music played around the station in order to avert the unwanted. It is one voice of this idea of social order. I argue: classical music against homeless people and against social disorder is an heir of ‘harmonic beauty’ and ‘objective culture’.



Following this somewhat rambling journey to the classics of urban sociology and philosophy, I argue that the term ‘informal’ is an expression of the Western European ideal of social order policy and discipline, and of the German ‘gute Policey’ in particular, that directly leads to the era of urban planning which is known today as the era of great plans. Both Haussmann’s re-shaping of Paris and Hobrecht’s new order of Berlin are prominent examples of this tradition. Both were stepping up to create a city of social order and regulation and to structure and control the uncontrolled bodies of the modern metropolis. Urban studies today are still clad in those very same clothes, working according to the very same tradition, using the very same vocabulary. My background is in philosophy of science and I am concerned with phenomena by asking the questions of an urban historian. My point is to argue for an acknowledgement of continuities and a worldview that considers scientifically determined phenomena as always already related to one another. I therefore call for urban studies from the so-called ‘Western world’ to look at the so-called ‘countries of the global south’ with the eyes of the people who were first geographically and then economically colonised and are still colonised today. How would the ‘subaltern’ (Spivak) conceptualise ‘informal housing’ and how do they need to speak about ‘informal housing’? What is it like to be ‘informal’?