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Inside Anti-Crisis

Anti-Crisis-BigMichael Schapira, Interview Editor at Full Stop sits down with Janet Roitman to get an insider perspective on her new book Anti-Crisis. Dr. Roitman, Chair, Department of Anthropology at the New School, examines the cycle of crisis production and thinks critically about the Global Financial Crisis. Below is an excerpt of the interview. Read the entire interview at Full Stop.

Crisis is not a small word. It is meant to raise the stakes of the present moment. We may no longer speak with the grandeur of the Continental philosopher (Rahm Emanuel parroting Winston Churchill —  “never let a good crisis go to waste” — is probably the best known use of the term today), but that doesn’t take any of the immediacy out of the crisis claim. However, what are the grounds of crisis? What allows us to call the 2007-9 economic collapse the “Global Financial Crisis,” and how do we tell ourselves the story of how we got there and where we need to go? As the anthropologist Janet Roitman notes in her excellent new book Anti-Crisis, our telling of events like the Global Financial Crisis has the effect of “permitting and enabling certain narrations and giving rise to certain questions, but not others.” The questions we tend to ask are along the lines of “what went wrong?” (e.g. in our pricing of derivatives or other complex financial instruments), but not “how can one know crisis in history? And how can one know crisis itself?” It is a stretch to say that the Global Financial Crisis has reached any neat resolution, which makes Roitman’s call to think outside of the politics of crisis such an important task for understanding our present moment — in both its limitations and possibilities.

I sat down with Janet on a chilly morning near Lincoln Center to discuss why we need to think crisis differently, why the concept has eluded the critical attention that we give to other terms, and why anthropologists may have something significant to contribute to philosophy and political theory.

Michael Schapira: How did you arrive at the concept of “crisis?”

Janet Roitman: It’s actually a very simple story. I’d published my first book, which was on Central Africa and related to economic anthropology. One of the things that was important to me in that book was to not write about Africa and its pathology. I was very careful not to take the Weberian model of the rational-legal state and then recount the ways that Africa diverges from and doesn’t achieve that model — which is basically what most political science on Africa does. I was teaching in France at the time and got an email from Beth Povinelli at Columbia inviting me to give the Franz Boas lecture. Of course, I was very flattered. So we had this email exchange. Fiscal Disobedience had been out for a couple of years and I didn’t want to just present the book, so I wondered what exactly they wanted me to do. She wrote back saying that the book had been really helpful for thinking about crisis in anthropology. I didn’t know if she meant crisis in the discipline of anthropology or how anthropologists deal with the concept of crisis, but what I did know is that I felt I had failed miserably. In the introduction to my first book, I say why I am not using the terms crisis or failed states, so I thought, “Oh no, I went to all these pains to avoid these terms and here they are asking me to come talk about them.” I was really flummoxed, but I thought about it and realized that Achille Mbembe and I had written this text almost a decade prior in Public Culture called “Figures of the Subject in Times of Crisis.” So I went back and reread that text and realized that I was happy when we wrote it, but now totally disagreed with it a decade later. So I wrote the presentation for the Franz Boas lecture that explained why I was in disagreement with it and why my book was supposed to have marked a different direction.

To jump over a lot of stuff, I ended this experience of having given the lecture with the question of how to think Africa otherwise than under the sign of crisis, which was a quandary. As an anthropologist, or at least someone associated with the discipline of anthropology, I had to devise an ethnographic project to investigate this question; but first I really needed to think more about the concept. So I started this work of inquiring into the concept. When I arrived at The New School in 2007, I taught two graduate seminars where we really traced the emergence of the concept in the social sciences and its displacements through various disciplines — from Marxist historiography to economic anthropology to post-structuralism, etc.

Read the entire interview at Full Stop.

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