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Review Article

NIKOLAS KOSMATOPOULOS

Crisis works

What do anthropologists have to say about crisis, the buzzword of our times? How
does the discipline most known for radical suspicion towards global notions approach
one of the most universalised and universalising words today? How does the anthropological response to modernity’s eternal love affair with crisis navigate between outright
rejection and creative engagement with its ethnographic and theoretical potential? The
title of this review essay encapsulates both a rapidly proliferating trend in anthropology
today, i.e. ethnographic research on crisis, and the chief approach adopted by most of
these works, i.e. crisis as constitutive of new subjectivities and power formations. Three
recently published (2013) books taken together offer a kaleidoscopic view of the
different perspectives and challenges facing the inchoate anthropology of crisis.
In this review I will draw on class discussions in a homonymous course, which I
taught last autumn at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African
Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University in New York. In Crisis Works we
approached crisis not just as a modern category of thought, but rather as an emerging
field of expertise, an advanced technology of government and a rewarding ethnographic
challenge. In the course I selected these three books as core readings, not only because
they are representative of a contemporary anthropology of crisis but also because they
study classical crisis cases (natural disasters, disease epidemics, financial meltdowns,
respectively) from different points of view (affected communities, medical doctors,
expert and lay analysts) and based on a variety of methodological and theoretical frameworks (marketisation, humanitarianism, narrativisation). Hence, this review is written
both from the perspective of an interested reader and an engaged teacher eliciting
student insights and responses to the readings.

Disaster markets
Markets of Sorrow, Labours of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina (Duke
University Press 2013), Vincanne Adams’s ethnography of post-Katrina New Orleans,
serves as a fitting introduction to the anthropology of crisis and disaster for newcomers, both due to her adept handling of a highly mediatised catastrophe and the
easily accessible writing style of the book. Markets of Sorrow tellingly describes the
aftermath of a natural disaster as it is characterised by the advent of what the author
calls an ‘affect economy’, which encompasses the ‘business of social suffering’ on one
hand and the ‘philanthrocapitalism’ of faith-based civil society organisations on the
other. Keeping always an eye on the privatisation of state relief services, the routes of
Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale (2014) 22, 4 479–486. © 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
doi:10.1111/1469-8676.12090

479

. the strong feature of the book is the identification of new forms of knowledge. such as opaque debt regulations and home value programmes. Those affected are expected to become self-entrepreneurial and market-visible. This is ultimately the crucial element of the book: namely her prioritising of the political aim to denounce global neoliberalism on behalf of the affected people on the ground over a deeper contextual understanding of the local struggles and solidarities that go beyond widespread accusations of neglect and profiteering by state and corporations respectively. hurricane victims have to become ‘Katrina savvy’ in order to overcome the mounting bureaucracy that stands in the way of the equitable recognition of need. the privatisation of state services. Adam’s concepts are simultaneously arguments – ‘affective surplus’. indebted and self-accusatory in the eyes of the donors. moralised relationships with church-run charities are constitutive of the ‘techno-morals’ (Kosmatopoulos 2014a) of the post-disaster reconstruction. state agencies and civil society organisations with humanitarianism and relief efforts. namely as a powerless local site in which powerful global projects (and projections) are applied. The militarisation of emergency as part of the US national security doctrine. ‘venture philanthropy’. hence perhaps her focus on suffering – both in her eloquent effort to show how it turns into lucrative business and in her conscious choice to give abundant space to the often desperate voices of the victims. Adams builds her story mainly by drawing on interviews with the victims and short fieldwork stays in their city. Both disasters are far from ‘natural’ – Adams considers the term inadequate. state (failure) and even natural disaster. Powerful technologies and practices. Thus within disaster capitalism. Seeing how these practices work while still listening to the voices of those affected by their widespread application convincingly complicates concepts such as affect. Sisyphean negotiations with insurance companies and loan agencies. the moralisation of the disaster relief – turning it from civil right to moral duty.480 N I KO L A S KO S M AT O P O U L O S corporate and government money and the entanglement of entrepreneurs. ‘business of social suffering’ – positing that one more disaster of almost equal intensity took place in New Orleans after Katrina. all of these fundamental changes open the way to new fields of expertise and forms of subjectivity that call for further anthropological investigation. but must also appear needy. insurance companies. Couched in a Marxist language with biopolitical overtones. In that sense. Placing the frustration of those affected (perhaps exceedingly) centre stage. charities have to learn to do business-like book keeping and to compete with corporations for government funds on relief. On the contrary. but also a vehicle to provide free labour where the state has withdrawn. yet. affect is becoming a field of investment. because long-term mismanagement and neglect have heavily contributed to the catastrophic results in the first place. in Katrina the © 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists. army generals have to develop specialised skills for humanitarian operations. Adams is a medical anthropologist. Having said that. this post-disaster ethnography applies at a smaller scale the critical framework that Naomi Klein described as ‘disaster capitalism’. Adams – in following the neoliberal takeover of relief efforts – runs the risk of treating New Orleans in similar ways to those that she denounces. In other words. Thus. banks. Most of the book is divided between first-hand testimonies of people who suffered during and after Katrina and second-order analyses of new forms of structural inequality provided by the author. Adams follows the tradition of an engaged (and denunciatory) anthropology pioneered by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Paul Farmer. labour and power around the expanding ‘affect economy’. the state does not withdraw completely.

altogether. ‘Terms of Engagement’. any claim of ‘failure’ must be treated with care. The book is divided into three main parts. further elaborates on the major dilemmas and challenges facing MSF. Redfield presents his chief theoretical framework of ‘minimal biopolitics’. in disasters such as Katrina. which encapsulates the Doctors’ chief ethical stance vis-à-vis atrocities and humanitarian crises. In his pursuit of answers. such as the need of a constant presence in the field because of chronic diseases. a well-studied partial history of medical humanitarianism and a reflective treatise in ethics from an anthropological point of view. reads as the distilled outcome of a constant and cautious reflection that enhances doubt and undermines any potential partiality. the book’s clear focus on the security–business–faith complex wants to serve as a wake-up call to the contemporary changes in the government of care and relief at a global scale. the sustained rhetoric of disasters as ‘natural’ phenomena enables their political causes to be overlooked and the effects of disastrous policies on environment. Part 1. Peter Redfield’s ethnography of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). social security and population protection to be either minimised or silenced (2013: 15). an essential enrichment to the growing and important body of literature initiated by anthropologists (and critics) of humanitarianism. Surely. publicly funded bureaucratic failure’ (2013: 7). such as Didier Fassin and Miriam Ticktin. not least because it strongly links these two notions with one another. Part 2. ‘Global Ambitions’. a continuous effort to reconcile the principle of humanitarian aid for all in need with the omnipresent scarcity of resources. Altogether Markets of Sorrow is an important contribution to the studies of crisis and inequality in the United States today. Redfield produced a fine-grained ethnography of an important global institution. moral and historical foundations of MSF. © 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists. ‘Testing Limits’. It is not by chance. Life in Crisis – The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders (University of California Press 2013). as is often the case in ethnographies of suffering. after all. echoing Foucault in the focus on the biological welfare of the population as the object of government. Here.CRISIS WORKS 481 state was the main vehicle through which public money was transferred into private hands and both eventually produced what Adams calls a ‘privately organised. and the ‘problem of triage’. . understood medically and cast on a global scale?’ (2013: 1). Part 3. Finally. such as HIV-AIDS. sets the overall stage by introducing the institutional. realistically reflecting the story and convincingly corresponding to the argument. describes the main contours of the long expansion of MSF in a geographical and institutional sense. Therefore. that Redfield tells the story of one of the most influential global humanitarian organisations mainly through the political and ethical dilemmas that MSF encountered since its inception in the early 1970s in Paris. Humanitarian dilemmas If Markets of Sorrow leaves the reader with feelings of partisanship and moral outrage. which brought about the consolidation of global hegemony in the field but also the proliferation of the practice of ‘moral witness’. Writing it from the point of view of the victims comes as a convenient emotional auxiliary to this aim. given that the failure of some is the profit of others. Redfield suggests the ethnographic study of MSF as a response to this research question: ‘What would it mean to build a framework for action around an ethic of life.

g. such as the Red Cross (ICRC). Redfield similarly treats the thorny issue of decolonisation. writes Redfield (2013: 14). according to which crisis entails both a critical situation and a crucial decision upon it. the controversy over the Afghanistan mission in the 1980s is discussed in a matter-of-fact manner that leaves the reader with the suspicion that the ethnographer has taken on face value the claims of those who stay behind. Perhaps the self-critical modus operandi that MSF prides itself on is enabling the ethnographer to disable his own critical take on the institution under study. . crisis is treated as an ongoing and open-ended ethnographic question. but often also paralysis and division. given the critique of humanitarianism and compassion as an ethical principle and the application of ethics in favour of pragmatism (Asad 2014). This internal perspective might have influenced the way that the author represents instances of doubt and dissent within the organisation. camps in Uganda). premised on the ancient Greek double meaning of the word. For example. ironically the ethnography itself remains often within the institutional borders of the Doctors Without Borders – thus often telling the story almost exclusively from within (and often from the perspective of the upper organisational echelons). ‘MSF couldn’t survive without the word “emergency”’. Even in cases in which the ethnographer has ventured outside the offices of the organisation (e. Notwithstanding this unquestionable ethico-institutional framework. Thus. humanitarianism as it is understood by MSF has come to define itself through exception and disaster and not through development. mainly relying on what they regard as high moral standards and an institutional tradition of self-reflection and open dialogue. In this sense. As a result.482 N I KO L A S KO S M AT O P O U L O S Throughout the book. Redfield tells the story of the MSF’s evolving through what he calls the ‘shifting dreams’ of the contemporary aid world and the ‘lines of tension’ running through its vision (2013: 2). and to operate both within a presupposed state of rupture and an imperative need for action (2013: 14). he shows how MSF has been constantly confronted with diverse versions of limits. The book shows eloquently how the moral aim of saving lives and the declared practice of ‘bearing witness’ face constant practical and political limits. However. and eventually how the responses to them have paved the way for the organisation’s global success. there is hardly any information about how the receivers of the aid think about it. and demonstrates how the application of the word prompts MSF to prioritise the present over the past and the future. which are given less gravity than their potential political effects and stakes. we rarely get insights from the possible effects of MSF policies on populations and places. © 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists. all kinds of dilemmas capture the attention of the ethnographer. borders and critical decisions. In particular. one would expect to hear more about the consequences of MSF’s ‘minimal biopolitics’ on populations and places. Later on. with which MSF has been frequently confronted both internally and externally. Notwithstanding the ethnographer’s meticulous focus on limits and bordercrossings regarding the organisation under study and his early promises to ‘examine intervention’. the dilemma resurfaced over the organisation’s aporia of neutrality vis-à-vis states and other global players. This highly political and ethical issue is treated briefly (and rather insignificantly) in six out of the book’s 247 pages. the historical origins of the Doctors are marked by a crucial decision to choose the moral mission of saving lives over the political project of changing the world. On the face of these limitations the ethnographer follows closely the members of the organisation in their struggle to redefine the ethical and operational framework.

policies and newsletters. .CRISIS WORKS 483 Perhaps conscious of this potential critique. strong internal democracy and the possibility given to members to express themselves openly about the strategic or practical decisions of the organisation are major elements that differentiate the MSF from the UN or the ICRC. His approach is ‘largely descriptive’. Roitman embarks on an ambitious enterprise that is risky both conceptually and stylistically. who both derived from crisis a strongly transcendental and experiential meaning. At the centre of this method is her differentiation between what she calls first. such as ‘this is a crisis’. conferences and field projects in Central Africa. produced through the practice of simply following his ‘chosen group’s passage through the world of practice’ (2013: 2). the rewarding part of this choice is the impressive range of material provided. Expert narratives Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis (Duke University Press 2013) is written – as the rallying title suggests – in the format of a manifesto. The absence of universal claims and denunciatory statements matches nicely with his sober narrative style. seeking to provide the reader with a sort of philosophically inspired commentary on the diverse narratives around the financial crisis of 2008/9. Redfield posits from the very beginning that his guide for telling the MSF story is the ‘Bildungsroman’ – the Romantic novel of self-formation (2013: 3). culminating in the Nobel Prize for Peace. and Barack Obama. the © 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists. However. meetings. Roitman’s conceptual critique of crisis begins with Martin Luther King. however. in-depth analyses of reports. this choice produced an altogether (too) sympathetic portrait of the organisation. Situating herself at the interface of these and other dividing lines (academic and popular crisis narrations is another one). Roitman’s material is mostly – if not exclusively – textual. Thus. Redfield has put massive work into this ethnography. on whose work Roitman relies heavily to make her argument. After all. most of the book features theories and research by fellow academics. The declared aim of the book is to make a strong argument against the concept of crisis – the ‘primary enabling blind spot for the production of knowledge’ (2013: 25). Notwithstanding the conceptual – and contextual – bias that sheds a rather heroic light on MSF. In this undertaking he has been fortunate to study an organisation with a strong internal culture of textual production. Jr.and second-order observations. comprehensive interviews with current and retired members of the organisation. thus the investigation of how and why we all make so easily the leap from first-order observations. To do this. with numerous visits to exhibitions. handbooks. such as ‘there is no money’ to second-order observations. How do crisis authors structure their texts? What kinds of forms of veridiction are there? These are the research questions that guide her semantic inquiry. which reflects the ethnographic focus on the internal debates as they are represented by powerful players within the organisation. which goes far beyond the proliferation of codes of conduct and manuals of operation as many global organisations have it. the author seeks to observe the blind spot of second-order observation and to ‘erase or at least lighten these lines’ (2013: 15). Redfield’s work is a product of erudition and reflection. For some of my students. Teaching Life in Crisis to a diverse class including both undergraduates in anthropology and in other disciplines gave me the chance to discuss with them the merits and advantages of both meticulous in-depth fieldwork and contemporary social theory.

and essentially. Roitman shows how this grand scheme of distortion proliferates among expert and lay narratives alike and as a result it engenders certain narrations. Perhaps a more substantial link to her own previous work on financial markets in Africa could have offered a profound context and a juxtaposed text at the same time. Further influential authors in the political economy and financial crisis. Roitman successfully makes the argument that expert claims to crisis and lay accessions to those claims serve not radical change. In sync with these movements. Overall. she suggests – albeit reluctantly – to investigate ‘risk’ as the basis of crisis in our world today. Here the book is at its best. By asserting that ‘financial devices are not used in contexts. but rather the affirmation of longstanding principles in the economy and in the polity altogether (2013: 16). but also. this promising reference takes no more space than a short footnote. Marxist. cultural studies. they create contexts’ (2013: 102). The sociology of error – alternately. such as neoliberals. © 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists. a term that is posited without question or doubt. corrupt culture. This is arguably the shakiest ground on which the author walks in the book. Roitman rightly wishes to relate her insights to the recent movements that rose against the crisis. In fact. such as ‘irrational speculation. faulty regulation. Although she doesn’t venture into the morality of debt and indebtedness today. gain and value (2013: 101). Martha Poon. erroneous policy.484 N I KO L A S KO S M AT O P O U L O S historian Reinhard Koselleck takes on a protagonist role in the story – covering more than 15% of the book and providing an elaborate genealogy of crisis/critique. crisis is ‘business as usual’ (Calhoun and Derluguian 2011) that is often overlooked by the proliferation of what Bloor (1991) called ‘the sociology of error’. This passionate manifesto against crisis ends up re-writing the history of the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007/8 by highlighting the deeper systemic changes in the economy that have been normalised during the past decade or so. better. Roitman shows how what we really have is the ‘production of positive – or. Roitman makes this connection when she refers to her work in Africa in order to refer to how the continent often appears ‘as an ontological category of thought under the sign of crisis’ (2013: 157). . performance. or systemic failure and underlying contradictions’. as well as his argument on the separation of morality and politics. Alas. defective models. such as David Harvey. are called on to provide primary research material. she is resolutely adopting the deconstructionist sociology of economic knowledge pioneered by Michel Callon. but it also enables and forecloses various kinds of questions that pertain not only to the systemic features of world economy. Here again she is drawing on secondary material to argue that risk today is governed (and produced) via management techniques and as such is highly productive for the proliferation of ideals of opportunity. her account on the construction of debt as an asset class is highly suggestive. neo-Keynesian. In other words. with lots of empirical material and close observations on the complex workings of financial mechanisms. roots and causes of crisis. practical – knowledge such that the claim to crisis becomes a particular (political) solution’ (2013: 24). Thus. risk is the permanent peril (2013: 96). In the end. The experimental style of a ‘second order narrative’ often oscillates between an obscure language and a missing ethnographic context. instead of the usual suspects. In the end. To many today. the sociology of deviation – orients us towards possible sources. missed forecasting. such as those of Occupy. This particular kind of sociology begins with the question ‘What went wrong?’ and as such it is shared by a wide-ranging array of – often conflicting – interpretations and traditions. to moral (dis)placements. Greta Krippner and Daniel Parrochia.

kosmatopoulos@epfl. the return of morality in current anthropological debates is manifested also in these ethnographies of crisis. religion.ch Also Visiting fellow at ICTA. All of them place at the centre of the inquiry the ‘technopolitics of crisis’ (Kosmatopoulos 2014b). biopolitics and capital are reorganised during and after crises and disasters. while Adams announces that she deliberately excluded all ‘local’ elements (such as music. medical humanitarianism and crisis narratives keep the discipline in sync with the task of providing innovative. which actors should bear the burden of a fading prosperity – ‘we still ask the same questions’ (2013: 112).e. all of them retain a strong ethnographic focus on practices. Finally. Roitman and Adams submit morality to (neoliberal or emancipatory) politics. humanitarian dilemmas and expert narratives undoubtedly constitute essential facets of the contemporary landscape of crisis and disaster. devices and technologies through which knowledge. . Her last disclaimer. all of them share a rather reluctant attitude towards assuming the status of a field specialist. Thus. serves to caution against the dropping of the concept altogether if it serves to describe real experiential conditions. While Redfield takes the moral principles of the MSF at face value. it may not be by chance that all these works adopt a particular stance on morality. Conclusion: morality returns Disaster markers. However. Roitman’s second-order examination of financial products. Anthropological works that scratch the surface of post-disaster relief. such as in Redfield’s close investigation of the refugee camp. the armband. Notwithstanding the differences in the ways the authors approach their topics. arguing that we must be able to observe how economy works without being burdened by grand – and unquestioned – moral judgements. Redfield admits not to be a ‘specialist by training’. any morality returns have yet to yield crisis ethnographies from a radical Nietzschean perspective. Station 10 CH-1015Lausanne. Yet Roitman is correctly adamant in her push to disassociate the organic analogy between crisis and critique. Interestingly. Roitman consciously takes the position of the second-order observer. and Adams’ rather loose exploration of bureaucratic regulations.CRISIS WORKS 485 she asserts that in terms of morality – i. the global kit. but its very origins. labour. rigid and highly relevant research. Finally. Can this coincidence make us conclude that crisis per se is in fact inaccessible to ethnographic research? It seems in fact that exploring more or less organised responses to crisis by all kinds of lay people and experts constitutes thus far the bulk of the anthropological intervention. that to many people today there is real crisis. No doubt. Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona © 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists. in which contemporary morality is not merely the product of the (techno-)politics of crisis. so her story can be taken for its universality. Nikolas Kosmatopoulos École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Collège des Humanités) CM Building 2 274. history). Switzerland nikolas.

law. Chicago. Durham. 1st edn.edu/reflections_on_violence_law_and_humanitarianism/) Accessed 7 September 2014. Third World Quarterly 35: 598–615. Derluguian (eds. 2014a. Life in crisis: the ethical journey of Doctors Without Borders. Public Culture 26: 529–58. Asad. T. and humanitarianism’. Calhoun.uchicago. V. IL: University of Chicago Press. Redfield. 2013. Berkeley. Durham. D. 1. New York: NYU Press. C.486 N I KO L A S KO S M AT O P O U L O S References Adams. J. ‘Reflections on violence. . Markets of sorrow. ‘Sentinel matters: the techno-politics of international crisis in Lebanon (and beyond)’. © 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists. and G. Anti-crisis. Bloor. NC: Duke University Press. 2014. peace expertise and the care of the self in the Middle East’. Kosmatopoulos.) 2011. Knowledge and social imagery. CA: University of California Press. P. labors of faith: New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. ‘The birth of the workshop: technomorals. Critical Inquiry (http:// criticalinquiry. 2014b. N. vol. N. Business as usual: the roots of the global financial meltdown. NC: Duke University Press. 1991. Kosmatopoulos. Roitman. 2013. 2013.