- A new theory of the role of aesthetics and visual appearance in how cities and urban populations are governed, and how the urban poor contest their displacement
- The first in-depth ethnographic study of slum demolition, focusing on contemporary Delhi, and one of the first ethnographic studies of city planning and urban governance in India, the world's second largest country
- Offers an in-depth and historical examination of the role of the law in the spatial organization of cities
- Presents a multi-class analysis, examining both how the urban poor face displacement pressures in India and how elite classes mobilize to displace the poor
Rule by Aesthetics offers a powerful examination of the process and experience of mass demolition in the world's second largest city of Delhi, India. Using Delhi's millennial effort to become a 'world-class city,' the book shows how aesthetic norms can replace the procedures of mapping and surveying typically considered necessary to administer space. This practice of evaluating territory based on its adherence to aesthetic norms - what Ghertner calls 'rule by aesthetics' - allowed the state in Delhi to intervene in the once ungovernable space of slums, overcoming its historical reliance on inaccurate maps and statistics. Slums hence were declared illegal because they looked illegal, an arrangement that led to the displacement of a million slum residents in the first decade of the 21st century.
Drawing on close ethnographic engagement with the slum residents targeted for removal, as well as the planners, judges, and politicians who targeted them, the book demonstrates how easily plans, laws, and democratic procedures can be subverted once the subjects of democracy are seen as visually out of place. Slum dwellers' creative appropriation of dominant aesthetic norms shows, however, that aesthetic rule does not mark the end of democratic claims making. Rather, it signals a new relationship between the mechanism of government and the practice of politics, one in which struggles for a more inclusive city rely more than ever on urban aesthetics, in Delhi as in aspiring world-class cities the world over.