Geography Knows No Boundaries

D. Asher Ghertner
Associate Professor
(Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley)
Office: Lucy Stone Hall Room B-238
Phone: (732) 445-4128
Research Interests: the politics of displacement, rule & resistance, urban geography, development, aesthetic politics, ethnography, India
Core Faculty, Graduate Faculty

Curriculum Vita

I am an interdisciplinary geographer interested in the technologies and tactics through which mass displacement is conceived, justified and enacted. My research uses the contemporary politics of urban renewal in India to challenge conventional theories of economic transition, city planning, and political rule. I taught for two years at the London School of Economics before joining Rutgers in 2012. I am also the Director of the South Asian Studies Program at Rutgers.

My book (Oxford University Press, 2015) uses the case of Delhi’s millennial effort to become a world-class city to show how aesthetic norms can replace the procedures of mapping and surveying typically considered necessary to administer space. The practice of evaluating territory based on its adherence to aesthetic norms – what I call "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 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 bookcover - Rule by Aestheticsthe 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 and in aspiring world-class cities the world over.

I am involved in a range of ongoing research projects. A book project, tentatively titled “Bad Air: The Cultural Politics of Breathing in the World’s Most Polluted City,” examines how the urban atmosphere has become a new medium of spatial governance in Delhi, ranging from how sweat and smell order bodies on the crowded Metro, to how models of residential segregation are being extended into efforts to build “premium atmospheres” in private schools and gated communities, to how crop burning and diesel-truck regulation render the urban a three-dimensional problem extending beyond administrative and terrestrial logics of spatial control.

A second project, “The Anatomy of a Suburb: Law and Environment on the Indian Periphery,” examines what “planning” means when the state’s planning apparatus is mobilized toward subverting its very codes. Combining ethnography with methods from social history, I am studying the improvised infrastructures and building codes in unauthorized colonies—peri-urban, auto-constructed settlements that house a third of India’s urban population—so as to provide a postcolonial account of planning that treats planning as the things planners do, irrespective of their conformance with “the plan.”

A third project, based on ongoing fieldwork among low-level municipal workers in Delhi, explores the novel ways in which governmental decisions take place, and technologies of power are deployed, outside of commonly understood bureaucratic, hierarchical chains. How does our conception of state power change when a local engineer, middleman, or court clerk has as much influence over state decisions as a senior planner or elected leader? What new metaphors might we use to describe contexts in which the locus of governmental power is mobile rather than fixed, and where nodes of power can be substituted for each other?

Finally, I am studying the rise of “micro-mortgages” in India, a state-backed effort to extend small-scale loans to the poor for the purchase of small flats in peripheral residential developments. By charting the new debt-scapes and geographies of investment and dispossession that emerge from this new “subprime” frontier, I am examining the contradictory ways in which forms of propertied belonging emerge alongside exclusionary citizenship and segregation.


Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley. 2010.
M.A. University of California, Berkeley. 2004.
B.A. Colby College, Waterville, Me. 2001.


01:450:250: Cities
01:450:363: Geography of Development
01:450:516: Urban Geography: Dis/Possession
01:450:516: Urban Geography: Frontiers of Urban Theory
01:450:601: Geographic Perspectives
450:605:03: Critical Ethnographies of Power and Hegemony

Selected Publications:


Students: Hudson McFann, Alison Horton, Priti Narayan, Sangeeta Banerji, Wei-Chieh Hung, Thomas Crowley

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