Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On The Politics of Disaster

Adi Ophir at 2011 JWTC

“My final prayer: O my body, always make me a man who questions!”

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

In his talk, Adi Ophir asked us to consider the importance of scale and framing in identifying, assessing and responding to disaster as extraordinary. His challenge to rethink the easy division of human and natural acts poignantly bridged our guided bus tour of Johannesburg, Ann Stoler’s rumination on ruinations and Achille Mbembe’s reflection on ‘The Ordinary, the Event and the Accident’. As we passed beneath the shadows of many of the repurposed physical structures of the fallen Apartheid order, street signs and addresses reminded of the centrality of memory, truth and reconciliation to Post-Apartheid South Africa—as well as Apartheid’s ongoing role in structuring the ordinary order of things. This insistence on retaining the memory of what was once ordinary in what is now ordinary deliberately invokes a strange sense of historical scales of time and space. In the city of Johannesburg, and South Africa more broadly, we find sometimes strange and uncomfortable, yet hopeful meetings of times, spaces and people never as separate as some would like to think.

It seems counterintuitive to ask, ‘What, when and how is disaster extraordinary?’ for, as Ophir reminds, the extraordinary depends upon point-of-view, and disaster is always extraordinary for the victim. But to ask, ‘What, when and how is disaster?’, exposes disaster as both ordinary and extraordinary states of being structured by and dependent upon human action, as victims, actors and in-actors. To naively ascribe disaster to any nature (besides, perhaps, a deeply flawed human one) is to ignore the politics of framing and scale Ophir posits as so central to understandings of ordinary and extraordinary states of being. Further, to do so ignores the politics and human costs of the means and terms through which disaster is contained. For in converting extraordinary events into new configurations of ordinary states of being, human actors seek to best preserve certain distributions of ordinariness. Disaster, then, relies upon certain allocations of preventative and responsive resources as well as understandings of human worth.

Disaster represents a rupture in time and space that displaces the ordinary order of things, and is always partial, prejudiced and political in constitution and imagination. How, then, can we account for the distortions of spatial and temporal scale, framing and entanglement that are so foundational to the imagination, structuring, form and violences of ordinary life? Otherwise put, how, where and when does one begin to understand and critique the ways that human lives are imaginatively separated in time and space in order to privilege the ordinary comforts of some over the basic survival of others? ‘Disruption of everyday life,’ as Ophir puts it, remains disturbing to the victims and should create the same sense of disarray and rage even among those not affected. However, we all know too well that extraordinary events—unjust wars, genocides, apartheid to name just a few—are too often normalised and legalised. This is made possible in part, by ‘separating the victims’ point of view with that of the perpetrators and bystanders,’ Ophir explained.

The normalisation of disasters is a political matter. Depending on the political interests of those in power, certain events are deemed more important than others, i.e. extraordinary. 9/11 as Ophir suggested is one such event. The US has constantly insisted upon its extraordinariness and uniqueness for the past decade. This hyperbolic exaggeration justified the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as unleashed an entire discourse (the infamous ‘war on terror’), the pseudo search of so called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and many more destructive policies. The disaster and ‘disruption of everyday life’ lived by Afghans and Iraqis is not only undermined but perversely justified in the name of the victims of 9/11.

As those of us privileged enough to live, in different times and places, with the expectation of corporeal security as an ordinary state of being observe the explosions of rage broadcast (selectively and often difficultly) over the past days, months and years, the challenge is to better assess the costs of our ordinary comforts. Images from London, Tehran, Los Angeles, Cairo, Gaza, Soweto, Kingston and Paris, to name but a few, confirm that the ruptures we occasionally recognise as extraordinary disaster constantly surround us in our ordinary states. What is extraordinary, it seems, is the rarity and unevenness with which the constant distribution of extraordinary burden is recognised. As so many struggle to shrug off the shadows and ruinations of imperial violence, it is imperative that we recognise disaster’s thriving lifelines around us, casting its shadows from and upon the structures, institutions and modes of thought we ordinarily call home.

Ophir is certainly right in alerting us to the politicisation of disasters and the inequalities political ideology perpetuate. Nonetheless, extraordinariness and ordinariness are too often, as previously mentioned, facets of the same catastrophic events. Sections of Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia, writing on life in the township of Kathelong, illustrate this point brilliantly. ‘What does it mean to say that black life under apartheid was not all doom and gloom?’ Dlamini asks. ‘Only lazy thinkers would take’ such a question ‘to mean support for apartheid. Apartheid was without virtue’ (Dlamini, 15). Dlamini’s narrative troubles the neat boundaries between ordinariness and extraordinariness and underlines the messiness of both terms. How can one theorise about the ordinariness of an extraordinary event without underestimating its exceptional nature? How do we account for the mundaneness within the extraordinary?

‘Genocides too have their ordinary aspects,’ Ophir reminded us. That is, even under the most catastrophic, gruesome circumstances—Apartheid, genocides, war—people still manage to carve out some form of life. They hold on to and form anew their aspirations, values, and morals. They do the most ordinary things: laugh, live, cry, mourn etc. Such ordinary aspects of disasters are too often dismissed for a focus on the dramatic sensational features of disasters. This has several shortcomings, the first and most problematic one being the transformation of victims into hapless passive beings in need of saviours. Second is the parallel transformation of lived realities into uncomplicated meta-narratives bereft of the political, social and historical circumstances that, together, labor to constitute and enact these sharp strikes of disaster. Ophir’s discussion, as well as the theme of this year’s workshop, Ordinary States, States of Ordinariness, brought these challenges to the fore. The ordinary and the extraordinary are always intimately entangled. Hasty dichotomisation not only misses such crucial point but risk perpetuating what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the ‘danger of a single story,’ a single story which unfortunately almost always loses sight of and/or avoids larger historical, structural, political factors.

Natacha Nsabimana, PhD Student, Anthropology, Columbia University and

Andrew E. Dowe, PhD Student, Student, African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Yale University

No comments:

Post a Comment