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FORMLESS: A Day at Lima's Office of Formalization



In 2009–2010, a team of officials at Lima's Office of Formalization worked to formalize (legalize) the hundreds of markets that operate informally in the downtown area of the city. To persuade businesses to apply for an operating license, the Office lowered the threshold of requirements and simplified the procedure. This strategy was akin to the legal reform program promoted by Hernando de Soto's 1986 influential study of informality, El otro sendero: La revolución informal. But at what point does simplifying the law, in its aim to bring state regulation closer to the realities of informal vendors, produce, rather, the informalization of the legal and bureaucratic apparatus? Drawing on fieldwork at Lima's Office of Formalization and at the downtown markets of Mesa Redonda and El Hueco, this article is an ethnographic examination of informality not as the absence of legal or bureaucratic form but as a sequence of countless operations engaged in its deformation. Georges Bataille's theories of general economy and l'informe (the formless) frame this study of the formlessness of bureaucratic form and of informal vendors’ unrelenting desire for autonomy from the state.

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