“Take the issue of class inequality – how can that be an issue if anyone can become rich by thinking about it?
If any one of us can just attract wealth to ourselves: no issue.
The powerlessness of positive thinking. It always envisions you as a lone individual.. redesigning the world to fit your ideas. But we do have strength, we do have power. We have collective power, which we could use to make changes which would end a great deal of unnecessary suffering in the world.”
Didier Fassin is possibly one of the most inspiring anthropologists I’ve ever read, and his 2011 Munro Lecture, “Humanitarian reason: a moral economy of our time” was without doubt the best lecture I heard at Edinburgh while studying for my MSc. So I’m now almost delirious with excitement having heard of his forthcoming book, Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing, the result of 15 months of fieldwork based in a police station in the Paris banlieues.
The abstract for a recent lecture at NYU summarised Fassin’s latest work as follows:
Most incidents of urban unrest over the past decades in Western countries have followed lethal interactions between the youth and the police in disadvantaged neighborhoods generally composed of working-class families of immigrant origin or belonging to minorities. But beyond these tragic events, abundantly covered by the media, little is known about the everyday of urban policing.
Over the course of 15 months, at the time of the 2005 riots, Didier Fassin has conducted an ethnographic study, the first of its kind in France, in one of the largest precincts in the Paris region, sharing the life of a police station and cruising with the patrols, in particular the dreaded anti-crime squads. Far from the imagination nourishing television series and action movies, his study reveals the inactivity and boredom of eventless days and nights where minor infractions give rise to spectacular displays of force, uncovers invisible expressions of violence and unrecognized forms of discrimination against minority youngsters, undocumented immigrants and Roma people, and explores the social conditions that make them possible and tolerable, notably decades of policies of urban segregation, racial stigmatization and economic marginalization.
Already published in French, titled La force de l’ordre: une anthropologie de la police des quartiers, I’ll have to wait until August 2013 to get hold of the translation. Which might give me time to work through the ever-growing stack of amazing, soon-to-be-read books on my desk…
Trailer for “The Clinic and Elsewhere”, Meyers discussing his new ethnography about Baltimore adolescents as both ‘addicts’ and ‘patients’.
I was always the belligerent child at school who spent far too long on my soapbox (little has changed), and every year I’d have the same argument about the poppy appeal. Yesterday I came across an excellent piece from Wales Online written ahead of Remembrance Day in 2010, where ex-SAS soldier Ben Griffin publicly, and excellently, criticised the Poppy Appeal as a political tool.
Griffin was the first SAS soldier to refuse to go into combat on political grounds, and left the army in 2005. He questions the Royal British Legion’s use of celebrities (such as The Saturdays, seen above), and reminds us there’s more to war than joyful frolicking in poppy-shaped confetti: “The RBL would say they are modernising and appealing to a younger generation. I disagree. I think that their stunts trivialise, normalise and sanitise war.”
Griffin also points out that the language of the campaign, urging us to remember our “heroes” and “support our troops” attempts to depoliticise and mystify not just the Poppy Appeal but war itself:
“The use of the word ‘hero’ glorifies war and glosses over the ugly reality. War is nothing like a John Wayne movie. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle, there is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about the deaths of countless civilians. Calling our soldiers heroes is an attempt to stifle criticism of the wars we are fighting in. It leads us to that most subtle piece of propaganda: You might not support the war but you must support our heroes, ergo you support the war.” (Emphasis mine)
Griffin of course is not alone in his critique of war from a veteran’s perspective, and Harry Patch’s famous quote has been given a thorough airing on the social network feeds of those with anti-war persuasions.
But what is it “our heroes” are actually fighting for? The noble cause of “freedom” is a slippery category, which everyone can claim as their own, as shown by the bizarre cognitive dissonance that allows the EDL to throw Nazi salutes…
…whilst also “honouring” the fallen troops of WWII on Remembrance Day. For this and many other reasons, I share Griffin’s unease at the subtle ideology exercised by the all-pervasive poppy, claimed by the RBL to be “neutral” but in reality anything but. Happily, the use and misuse of political ideals such as humanitarianism, freedom, democracy, and female emancipation to justify imperialist military interventions has been written about by a selection of my current favourite writers.
In his introduction to Violence (read it, it’s excellent), Slavoj Žižek critiques the sense of “humanitarian urgency” so often used as window dressing to justify war. After all, if we’re fighting a war for human rights, freedom, democracy and all those great things, how can you be anti-war? How could you be anti-democracy, anti-freedom? Even Bush and Blair supported “democracy” after all.
Žižek has written elsewhere on the depoliticisation of “human rights” as “the ideology of military interventionism serving specific economico-political purposes“, and this has been explored brilliantly in Didier Fassin’s Humanitarian Reason and Eyal Weizman’s The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Ardent to Gaza (which I have still to read with the dedication it deserves, despite my excitable anticipation of its publication almost a year ago).
Nina Power, in One Dimensional Woman, draws attention to the increasing co-option of feminism to support military interventions, particularly with regard to recent conflicts in the Middle East. The Taliban’s abhorrent treatment of women was cited over and over again as the compelling reason why we have to go to war with Afghanistan, and we have to go NOW. How can you oppose war with Afghanistan, if peace with Afghanistan means supporting a brutal regime that throws acid in the faces of would-be school girls? Power points out, quite rightly, that the war made it even more dangerous to be an Afghan feminist, lest you be labelled an agent of the occupying forces. Not to mention the absurdity of the political right suddenly adopting women’s rights as their battle cry and cause célèbre, whilst simultaneously attacking women at home.
There’s many other compelling arguments against the Poppy Appeal and what it represents – the seemingly apolitical use of kitsch nationalism to dampen any critical reflection or dissent (as discussed with reference to the Jubilee and the use of nationalist rhetoric amongst some on the left by Wail Qasim); the absurdity of “remembering” the war, whilst we continue with multiple military campaigns and occupations around the world; the hypocrisy of a government that can afford to send soldiers to war, but leaves their welfare up to charity upon their return. All things considered, I still won’t be buying a poppy this year.
Today I got my provisional mark for my MSc by Research dissertation – a provisional 70, which is a provisional first, which gives me an overall provisional distinction. All subject to change with external examiners and exam boards, but still, right now I’m more than happy!
I enjoyed parts of the newly re-opened Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Their section on tartan, where they explained the British tartan obsession as the result of a kind of romantic exoticism by British – and English – rulers, and a symbol of British Empire, more than its to do with Highland culture, was really interesting. That said, their staff all had to wear tartan skirts and trousers, so who knows what’s going on there.
The top floors had the usual portrait gallery fare of Kings, Princes, and other aristocratic and well positioned rich ruling class people who posed for repetitive and vain portraits, occasionally commissioning pictures of their wives, which are included in the gallery maybe as a nod to gender balance. The small but interesting section on 19th century women was adorned with quotes from Charlotte Brontë, Emeline Pankhurst and others, with portraits of suffragettes and physicists and artists. The photography section had some amazing work, the pieces on romanticism and urban and rural landscapes were brilliant, as was the section on childhood and urban space.
One of the collections I was particularly interested to see was the Migration Stories series, which focussed on links between Scotland and Pakistan. Part of this was a series of photographs by Verena Jaekel, A Scottish Family Portrait.
In this series, Jaerkel has documented a series of Scottish Pakistani families, many of whom contain people with MBEs and OBEs, politicians, councillors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and so on. I was excited to think that maybe the Portrait Gallery might be kicking against its the usual tendency of formulaic portraits of rich people, free for the viewing pleasure of us unnoteworthy plebs, and starting to maybe include portraiture of the people who actually shape history.
With a selection of OBEs and business people, the gallery has stayed true to form by looking only at those at the top of the heap, and holding them up as examples for us to admire. Perhaps the very fact that those pictured have roots in Pakistan is enough to make this exhibition interesting, or maybe does something to get rid of the image that everyone brown wants to unleash jihad on their host country (does anyone actually think that any more? Did the wave of ”but they’re just like us!” documentaries, exhibitions, magazine features post-9/11 not work? And if they didn’t, why would one more exhibition change that?). To me, the choice of subject, and the glowing statements about how prosperous and integrated and hard working all these people are just seemed to reinforce the idea that it’s only the rich establishment who are worthy of celebration on the walls of national galleries, and that only those non-white families who “fit in” to British cultural norms are acceptable.
I’m not arguing for the opposite, an orientalist, voyeuristic exhibition of how very strange and exotic and charmingly impoverished migrant families are, and how very Other they are, although there’s always plenty of that to be found in the mainstream media – My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding being a horrific case in point. It’s more the whole format of portrait galleries, and the politics of who they represent that I think needs a total overhaul. The Miracles and Charms exhibition at the Wellcome Collection was far more interesting than most of the work in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in that it showcased art and artifacts collected from working class people, the people who rarely get onto the walls of galleries unless through the lens of someone else’s camera. Instead of a whole museum full of kings, princes, and male politicians, with a token room for well-educated women and rich, safely integrated Asians, a portrait gallery that actually reflected the historical and contemporary population of Scotland, warts and all, would be far more enjoyable.
*Usual disclaimer: I’m not an art critic, I’m mostly uninformed, sorry.