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…
- I’m really looking forward to Eyal Weizman‘s new book from Verso. I’m still getting through Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation which is probably the most interesting and original book I’ve ever read on Palestine, after Anthropological Urbanism‘s Rakan Budeiri told me about the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency project Weizman is involved with.
But I’m even more excited about The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza after Didier Fassin’s Munro Lecture in Edinburgh this March titled ‘Humanitarian reason: a moral economy of our time’. Fassin manages to straddle both anthropological, academic analysis and applied, practical work, and to me that’s what anthropology is all about. I should probably write a separate post about how amazing Didier Fassin is, but basically he got me thinking about how the catch-all concept of humanitarianism is really a way of depoliticising injustice, and is a banner under which all sorts of atrocities can be carried out, but is impossible to oppose. Like democracy. No one can be ‘against’ democracy or humanitarianism, but these are both ideologically flexible terms that are used by states and militaries to justify the most abominable actions, like war in Afghanistan for example, when economic and political motives entirely distinct from democracy and humanitarianism.
This is also something Badiou discusses, and of course Žižek’s Violence urges us to “think about the fake sense of urgency that pervades the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence” which call for moral outrage and leave no room for sober reflection (2008:3). I’m really enjoying these writers at the moment, so reading that Eyal Weizman is also joining the debate around humanitarianism fills me with nerdy anticipation.
His book seems like it might touch on similar ground to Fassin and Rechtman’s Empire of Trauma as well as Žižek’s Violence, exploring “the defining intervention of Médecins Sans Frontières in mid-1980s Ethiopia; the separation wall in Israel-Palestine; and international and human rights law in Bosnia, Gaza and Iraq,” and showing “how military and political intervention acquired a new “humanitarian” acceptability and legality”. Nonetheless, Weizman is sure to bring new insights and analysis to this discussion, and I can’t wait to get hold of a copy.