informality, precarity, spontaneity

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informality, precarity, spontaneity


An urban condition of spontaneous growth, unincorporated into the spatial, economic, and financial systems of a governing municipality. A territory of highly productive and diversified economic activities that replace taxable and regulated forms of economy with those of flexible and negotiated agreements.

Spatial Informality: The organization of small resident-built structures around social contacts, friends, family, and the provision of a particular service such as selling foodstuffs, street food vendors, tailors, mobile phone kiosks, printing, or offering expertise in mechanical repair or construction. As one service comes on line, other related or support services will grow, building up a network of immediate need-based economic networks that are directly tied to social connections and familial relationships. Residents typically own their own home/business structure, yet lack any legal claim to property that can be used against a governmental entity, and subsequently lack the right to perform physical actions on that property.

Economic Informality: Participating in buying, selling, and trading of goods or services outside of governmentally structured tax regimes.


Pecquet, Gary. “Private Property andGovernment Under the Constitution”

The Freeman,

Guha-Khasnobis, B., R. Kanbur, & E. Ostrom, eds. Linking the Formal and Informal Economy: concepts and policies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.


The term Precarity has gained a trendy political currency by a certain portion of the American Urban Amish, a subset of city dwellers who make their own yogurt but have a hard time selling their bespoke moustache shaped oven mitts at places like the Brooklyn Flea Market.  These self-proclaimed Precariot, those who identify as the proletariat suffering from financial instability and economic vulnerability of their state of precarity, blame the neoliberal political machine for its failure to provide things like a more extensive national dental program to cover root canals, or more widespread and favorable rent control program for their bed-sty brownstones…  #firstworldproblems

Possibly unbeknownst to this subset of overeducated, underemployed and highly entitled urban dwellers is a particularly romanticizing and nostalgic depiction of a bygone era of supposed economic security in Fordist corporate America implicit in this “critique.”  This lack of a critical awareness threatens to depreciate the term’s political punch into an empty buzzword for the not-so-poor-off.   Judith Butler draws a distinction between “a more or less existential conception of ‘precariousness’” and a “more specifically political notion of “precarity,” in the introduction to “Frames of War,” published in 2009.   While this distinction seems provocative in reference to the notorious Afghan child photographed without her face covered, in reference to the dumpster-diving freegan blogging about his latest finds, the term runs dangerously close to collapsing into another tagline on the notorious


Butler, Judith. “Precarious Life, Grievable Life.” Introduction to Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, 1-32. London: Verso, 2009.

Horning, Rob. “Precarity and “affective Resistance”.” Marginal Utility. February 14, 2012.

McCurry, Steve. Afghan Girl Portrait. The National Geographic


The condition resulting from non-rational decision-making, often involving illicit or illegal activity. Spontaneity is a potentially self-effacing term that can simultaneously describe much of the urban poor’s spatial operations as impromptu, as well authoritarian policing practices bereft of moral regard. Spontaneity is characterized by the immediacy of emotional response, whimsy and/or lack of premeditated action. Spontaneity works both as a creative and destructive condition on physical actions and spatial exploitations.

The term has been coopted to describe a particular genre of architectural installation practice, which begins to challenge the temporal, durational limitations of the work. Possibly aligning itself with a certain populist, radical revolutionary ideal, which defies the traditional, rational, and ordered Marxist revolution, Spontaneous Interventions carry revolutionary weight by claiming to act in somebody’s particularly defined Public Interest. While the actual spontaneity of any of these interventions might be suspect, they typically seek some spatial method to highlight governmental, corporate, or social wrong-doing, in the name of anti-capitalist critiques for the good of the Common Man.

References: accessed Sep. 15, 2013.

Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey. “Michigan’s Mirrored Memorial To The Foreclosure Crisis.” Gizmodo Australia. September 12, 2013. Accessed September 16, 2013.


-Allen Gillers and Paul McBride

Allen Gillers


  1. Comment on the concept of “URBAN Precariat”

    Here, the definition of “precarity” is intriguing and challenging in terms of its cynical manner. It is a radical way of criticism, so it provides the reader with a destruction of possible prejudices, which is good. However, I think that if we discuss “precarity” in terms of today’s urban conditions, the potentials of this urban agency, that is “urban precariat”, should not be underestimated, although popular trends try to appropriate the term along their marketing strategies. To me, our job is not only to criticize but also to redefine such crucial terms and reappropriate their potentials/meanings on the way of resistance against social injustice. What is most important in Butler’s introduction to me is the concept of “frame,” which is re-assesed as a critical tool of “apprehension” though its limitations. If we work through its potentials, as Butler says, “frame” –as image or text- can break from or with itself and its context; so provide the reader with a new way of “apprehension” beyond already constructed norms of “recognition”. That is why, I believe in the power of re-framing after destroying all the prejudices. And I think that what we frame is how we frame, which means that we need a “dialogue” or “praxis” in between the destructive critique and the constructive methodology.

    I agree with the definition to the extent that it claims, urban precariat has a lack of class consciousness. In fact, I want to make this criticism go further/harsher and claim that it is the “prostitute” of today’s urban environments as defined by Walter Benjamin for the urban figure within the context of the 19th Century Modern City. Prostitute becomes one of the most revolutionary urban figures for him, because it embodies all the characteristics, inner conflicts and multiplicities peculiar to the “commodity”. Both the seller and the sold, as being the “wish image” of the capitalist mode of reproduction, the prostitute constitutes the dialectics in itself. At this point, I argue that all of us are the prostitutes as explained above. All of us are the seller, the sold and even the customer in one. All of us, in other words the “urban precariat”, successfully embody the inner conflicts, dialectics and multiplicities of the commodity today. However, as I said at the beginning, we should reframe –as Butler may claim- our consciousness on the way of a revolutionary body politics, in which I still believe; and we should reappropriate the potentials of our collective body, which is underestimated and humiliated by stuff like “”. In this context, I would like to finish my comment with the words of David Harvey, from his book Rebel Cities:

    “The so-called “precariat” has displaced the traditional “proletariat”. If there is to be any revolutionary movement in our times, at least in our part of the world (as opposed to industrializing China), the problematic and disorganized “precariat” must be reckoned with. How such disparate groups may become self-organized into a revolutionary force is the big political problem. And part of the task is to understand the origins and nature of their cries and demands.” (1)

    (1) David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London, UK; New York, USA: Verso, 2012.

  2. I actually appreciate the intensity of the cynicism and loathing in this definition. Emotionally, I’m very seduced by it which makes me want to try and unpack some of the statements and logic contained within. I think Secil did a great job of providing constructive criticism and a possible synthesis for the term “urban precariat”; I can’t top that.

    I think the particular strata of urban floaters that’s depicted in the above definition are for all intents and purposes, ridiculous. However, I think what’s dangerous about railing on the “urban precariat” is that these criticisms are more often than not just used to buttress the ethos of the neo-liberal machine; stop playing faux revolutionary, be an adult and fight for your piece of the globalized economy– which produces and circulates images of the notorious Afghan child. I’m not advocating mustache mitts by any means, but I don’t think we can fairly stand in judgement of the “urban precariat” when we (and the Afghan child) are just as imbricated in the machinery of capital. Maybe that’s why the signification of these particular “urban precariat” enrages us — they reflect our own completely compromised ethical, moral and political contradictions. (Secil said this much more elegantly).

    Personally, the idea of the “precariat” or even “proletariat”, as a singular class also seems too simplistic. Class doesn’t seem to allow for dissensus. conflict and contradiction. Maybe we need to re-think what “class” means and what else it could be, to create a term to describe a community not constructed by the definitions of the governmentality it seeks to transform.

  3. Clarifying that there are multiple types of informality as this definition does is vital to the understanding of the term. Not every neighborhood that is spatially informal is also economically informal, in fact, there is a growing number of people who live in informal settlements, but work in the formal sector. Additionally, there are countless businesses all over the world that are located in formal settlements, yet are not economically formal. It should be noted that this does not happen purely in the developing world, but rather in many cities and towns throughout the world. For example, there are men and women constantly selling fake designer bags, scarves, sunglasses, and clothing as well as candy, food and drinks in every major city ranging from Florence to Quito to New York. It has become a form of economy that is part of all of our lives.
    It is also interesting to note the relationship between informality and spontaneity. While an informal settlement may have spontaneously grown over time, often they are planned. While the planned structure may not be obvious at first, it is often there. Looking into the underlying structures of the informal may give us insight into growth patterns of a given area and allow us to address some of the issues that it brings with it.

  4. Informal settlements are often the results of an influx of refugees, large socio-economic divisions, or city developments such that the poor end up living in squatters at the periphery. I would say this differs from Precarity in that in a developing country, the proletarians, the laborers who work to build a city but cannot afford to live within its extents, would most likely be more closely connected to informality versus precariousness. As stated in the previous comment, ‘the “precariat” has displaced the traditional “proletariat”.’ It’s trendy to be precariat but not so to be proletariat.

    A large amount of informal settlements tend to be overlooked/ignored by official laws and governance, but this is not necessarily by choice or pleasure of the squatters. So what about communes that choose to explicitly reject governance of a country (to the country’s dismay) and govern themselves, but still occupy that country’s land? For example, Christiania in Copenhagen, DK is a “hippie” commune, seemingly started by precariats in the 1970s in abandoned military barracks. In the words of founder of Christiana and journalist Jacob Ludvigsen, “The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the well-being of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.” However, now there are issues of how to govern the community that refuses to be governed “like that”. While over the years the community now pays taxes and fees for water and electricity, they still do not own the land in which they built. Although several measures have been taken to hinder construction and get the community to comply to laws beyond the rules they set up for themselves, the commune just keeps resisting. According to my cousin that lives in the suburbs of Copenhagen (who does not regard the community particularly fondly), any attempt to diminish the sale of cannabis only lasts for a couple days before things are back to going as normal. Like regeneration. Any fear in demolition of their homes is met with intense resistance by the Christianites. It seems interesting to compare an informal settlement that is ignored by governance versus a settlement that resists/rejects being governed.

  5. Informality is that which is outside, the realm of control of the governing body. Though the government may be able to temporarily relocate, shut down or limit the informal practice, there is no way to suitably deal with the situation.
    It is any response; occupation or happening that chooses (whether due to necessity or minor) to be outside of the scope of conventional practices. Yet, it seems to be the true democracy, as any member of the informal movement is choosing to self-govern and represent their sovereign control.

  6. I would like to flesh out the idea of precariousness that Judith Butler discusses in “Precarious Life,” which you mention as “a more or less existential conception of precariousness.” She derives this notion of precariousness from Levinas; “the face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness, is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace, the “You shall not kill.'” This confrontation with the Other’s precariousness is the very experience that takes us into the realm of ethics. In this sense, we are all precarious, no matter our economic or political situation.

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