Ever since the pioneering work of Mary Douglas on risk back in 1992, anthropologists have understood that there is a difference between what is actually dangerous and what people think is dangerous. Scientists can measure the probability of you being struck by a bolt of lightning or getting hit by a car. But our fears are not based on extensive scientific study, nor are they the results of our own idiosyncratic psychology. They are shaped by the culture we live in and the history we’ve collectively experienced. The sad thing, anthropologically, about Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration is that it does not make Americans safer, just makes some Americans feel safer. The tragic thing about the order is that forces others to suffer for the sake of our own false sense of security.
[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Kim Fortun as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Fortun is Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is the author of Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (University of Chicago Press 2001), former co-editor of Cultural Anthropology, and is now playing a lead role in the development of the Platform for Experimental, Collaborative Ethnography.]
Sometimes, to do fieldwork is to write. This was the way first fieldwork went for me, in the years in the early 1990s when I was working in Bhopal India, at the site of the “world’s worst industrial disaster,” resulting from a massive release of toxic chemicals over a sleeping city. The devastation was horrific, but debatable from the outset. Dead people and animals were strewn across the city, rows of the dead covered in white sheets paved hospital courtyards. The sounds of coughing and grief were overwhelming, and unforgettable. Disaster was blatant and flagrant, yet it was still was a struggle to account for in words and politics.
It was years later I was told and read about the sounds and sights of Bhopal in the days just after December 3, 1984. Journalists, activists, academics, poets, and many who were tangles of all these helped with the accounting. Stories about the plight of gas victims were also, always, stories about cover-up and denial. Even the basics – the numbers of dead, the number exposed, the number injured – were (and remain) in dispute. At the 30th anniversary of the gas leak in 2014, activists were still mobilizing to revise the death record. Continue reading
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Elizabeth Angell.
Yesterday an Italian appeals court reversed the convictions of all but one of seven scientists and experts charged with involuntary manslaughter for failing to provide adequate warning before the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. (The conviction of Bernardo De Bernardinis, former deputy head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department, was partially upheld, but his sentence was reduced to two years instead of six.1) As an anthropologist studying disaster and risk, I’m doubly interested in the L’Aquila story, both as an example of the search for accountability in the aftermath of disaster, and for what it tells us about the ways knowledge, particularly knowledge about risk, circulates between expert communities of scientists and officials and broader publics.
The day after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northeast coast I received a well-intentioned facebook message from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in nearly a decade. She was checking to see if I and those I care about in Japan were all right. Although I responded graciously and positively, my own reluctance to participate in the twittering drama filled me with suspicion. By writing to me, was she trying to claim a little piece of the action, a connection to the disaster? Would she secretly prefer that I were directly affected so that she could share in the piquant pang of aftershock without having to suffer its enduring losses?
About a week later, as the scale of suffering in Japan became clearer, I became less concerned with everybody else’s questionable investments in the pain of others and more suspicious of my own hesitancy to engage emotionally.
Although I frowned and cried as solicited upon seeing the unavoidable photos of people staggering through muddy ruins, I wasn’t sure how to feel the rest of the time. Brian Massumi’s claim that
“power is no longer fundamentally normative, like it was in its disciplinary forms—it’s affective”
suggests that stories and images circulate and infiltrate strategically. Even though, as de Certeau reminds us, readers aren’t fools and we employ tactics with which to play and navigate the web of discourse, we’re still stuck inside of it—and it inside of us. Our critique of media, savvy avoidance of manipulation, and resistance to being told how to feel are themselves already the threads of discourses that have been woven into us.
Part of me wants to believe that some basic feeling for the suffering of others arises before all of this, that there’s a relational web prior and in excess to the discursive one—and that it’s woven more tightly.
But if the mass mediated means through which we gain access to others is always already shaping how we feel for those others, how can we feel without capitulating to the powers that traffic in affect? In the case of catastrophes, which seem to (fairly regularly) punctuate the passage of ordinary life with significance, how do we resist the meaning-making machines while still engaging meaningfully?