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Precarity: Interview with the Authors

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Precarity."

Jennifer Shaw and Darren Byler: Precariousness emerges in this collection of articles through ethnographic attention to fragility, security, and survival. How does your methodology inform your ways of seeing and understanding precariousness? What insights can anthropological methods contribute to the growing cross-disciplinary literature on the concept?

Hayder Al-Mohammad: One has to look at things a bit differently when it comes to a place such as Iraq. Anthropology has not been particularly interested in Iraq and life in Iraq, as evidenced by the sparsity of work on the country. Anthropologists have managed to do research in other parts of the world that have faced war and violence, so there is something different about the case of Iraq. One also has to keep in mind that much work on the region and on those associated with it—the so-called Arab or Islamic world—is a closed shop for the local North. You have a discursive tradition of salafi/Foucauldian self-makers, we’re supposedly postsecular, and voila: the region has been nicely contained to a tiny problematique!

Thus, even in the midst of the carnage that Iraq went through under the sanctions and the wars initiated by the United States and the United Kingdom—under the Democrats and the Labour Party, as well—the academy was finessing Iraq and its history into irrelevance. Where anthropologists are today exercised by the ontology of spores and various insects, who can today rouse themselves into excitement or concern about what was and is being done to a place such as Iraq (the United States continues to bomb Iraq in 2016!)? It’s interesting to see that difference, multiplicity, change and uncertainty can be found within the mushroom spore, and yet Iraq’s history and ontology has already been written, it is felt.

What is precarious is Iraq and its history. That is in part what precarity comes with; Iraq does not have a visible history outside the one authorized by local North academics. We have a wonderful moment in the Democratic Party’s selection of its presidential nominee to show what this precarity of history looks like for those who experience greater degrees of precariousness in the social world. Hilary Clinton is doing well in what the local North calls the black vote, that is, voters whose skin happens to be of various hues and colors. Yet Hilary Clinton was the one, in the 1990s, who invoked the Republican Party’s talking point about young black men as superpredators; she would go on to use inflammatory language like this again and again against Iraq and Iraqis. Hilary Clinton stood next to her husband when he was president as he pushed through welfare to work and the three-strikes provision, among a set of other policies and initiatives that disproportionately and negatively affected people who are poor and black. Even so, Hillary is doing well with the black vote.

You see, once you are made to inhabit marginal, precarious spaces such as Iraqis and many African-Americans do, your history is not your own. Your experiences are not your own. They are there to be written by others who have much less at stake in them. It’s a terrifying and unnerving thing to be told of your history, which you do not recognize, while you yourself are undergoing it. You wake up to find yourself written up as a convalescing bug, and yet you keep swearing to those around you: I’m not a bug! I’m not in a discursive tradition! I’m not the postcolonial subject!

I have sat on panel after panel in which I am told that Iraq’s recent history is due to oil or sectarianism, even as colleagues have been consumed by the complexity of individual objects from Bic pens to Legos, or by the relationships between various human and nonhuman actors. The histories and ontologies of objects are said to be open and multiplex, while those of Iraqis seem to be much less so.

Thus, questions of methodology would have to include not only how one opens up a world for research, but also how to open up different accounts and narratives which have yet to be authorized or deemed worthy of interest in the local North. The return from Iraq to the local North is where one’s job properly begins, if one is willing to take on the struggle. Otherwise, one falls into easy, tranquilized forms of discourse that repeat and echo the talking points dominating the discipline at the given moment. Alternately, as a good postcolonial figure, one can perform what I call contestation lite in order to maintain the illusion that actual debate and discussions are taking place.

Naisargi Dave: Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I’m not sure that I identify with precariousness as a central theme in my work or in this particular article. The reason is that I’m not comfortable positioning certain kinds of subjects as more precarious than others, or as examples of precarity. It is not that I don’t see the uneven distribution of life chances—of course I do. But I believe that insofar as any life is dependent on events outside of its control—the inevitability of death; the loss of the ones we love; being recognized as a member of a class like human or man or woman that we did not invent—all of existence is fundamentally precarious and always has been. For me, what an ethnographic method enables is the ability to think and see precarity beyond social class, not in a facile attempt to see the world as undifferentiated but to underscore the singularities of the experience of precarity. I see this as a radical sympathy—a making-sensible in which we ourselves are implicated—instead of a speaking-for. Or, to put it another way, ethnography should allow us to see fragility where we might not have expected it.

Kathleen Millar: I did not set out to study precariousness when I began research with catadores in Rio de Janeiro. I was interested in the experience of work performed in conditions other than those of wage labor. And the only way to begin to understand the work of catadores, I thought, was to do this work of collecting recyclables myself. For much of my time on the dump, I collected material alongside a woman I call Eva. A typical day involved meeting before dawn, catching a ride on a truck to the top of the dump, collecting plastics until our burlap sacks were full, and getting off the dump in the early afternoon before the sun and heat became too intense. However, rarely was there a typical day. The bus Eva had to take from her house to the dump commonly broke down or was late. Sometimes she could not make it at all because a chronic health problem that was never properly treated had flared up. On other days, we worked extended hours on the dump because Eva needed extra cash to make a credit card payment that had come due or to replace a container of cooking gas that had run out. A truck’s flat tire, a small cut, or a near-miss with the bulldozer only seemed to add to a shared feeling of vulnerability. Precariousness emerged in my research not as an object of analysis, but rather as an experience. It was a word that kept appearing in the jumbled notes I wrote at night.

After I completed a period of fieldwork and turned my focus to writing, I was interested to find that other scholars from various disciplines were also thinking about precariousness in relation to labor. However, at the time, much of this nascent literature focused on post-Fordist societies of the global North. The observations and arguments made in this work, while compelling in their own right, failed to resonate with the experiences of catadores in Brazil. I won’t go into these differences here, since I discuss them in my article. But I want to mention this disconnect, because I think it speaks to your question about the value of anthropological methods. Ethnographic fieldwork qualifies, in important ways, the view that precariousness is a global condition of the present historical moment. It allows us to see that what precariousness means and how it is experienced differs drastically for different workers across the world.

I would also add that the long-term nature of ethnographic fieldwork—spanning months and years—profoundly shaped how I understood stability and instability. Time enabled me to accompany catadores like Rose, who left the dump for another job and later returned. It was only through this long view that I began to see the conflicting pressures that, at one moment, made stable employment desirable and in another moment made it so incredibly difficult to maintain. There is no single experience of precariousness, not even within a single life. Time revealed the indeterminacy of the everyday and prompted me to trace how precarious work intersected with other forms of insecurity in the trajectory of a life.

Bruce O’Neill: The ethnographic tradition of generating painstakingly detailed accounts of a locality by carrying out long-term participant-observation positions anthropologists to make distinctive contributions to this discussion of precariousness. The time-intensive effort of “deep hanging out” enables anthropologists to build a sense of intimacy and trust with the communities in which they work, which is not readily found in other disciplinary approaches. The building up of long relationships provides anthropologists with insight into the changing structural conditions that make living life increasingly difficult, but also reveals the complicated ways in which precarious social conditions fold inward, become embodied, and change the way people interpret everyday life.

More than a way of asking and answering questions about the world, ethnography is also a way of writing about it. As a form of storytelling, ethnography has been particularly effective for theorizing, with rich texture, the complex ways in which precarity shapes how people inhabit the world—from the most intimate relationships to the self, time, and space to the most global of scales. The essays collected here exemplify this beautifully.

Kathleen Stewart: Ethnography is committed to thinking from the ground. Rather than see the ethnographic ground as something literal—as a set of social facts somehow reflecting the categorical distinctions of a culture—I see the ethnographic ground as a provocation and a problematic that can lead us to think through modes of being attached to emergent forms that are still unfolding, always unfinished. This is an ethnography of the precariousness of being in the middle of a world of attachments and threats. Its method would have to be both patient and jumpy. A method of waiting for what is happening, leaning into its objects, sidling up to other people’s attunements, hardenings, iron-clad investments, and failures to endure. A method that tries to move in the manner of things slipping in and out of an existence that make demands on visceral imaginaries and sensoria. This ethnography is a flickering resource lodged as much in bodies, circulations, and the shock of sensory recognition as it is in words.

Such an ethnography tries to describe the things that also propel it. Its objects are also its subjects. Rather than fix notions of agency, subjects, objects, bodies, and intentions, it tries to more fully describe a world under pressure, the way a present moment can descend like a curtain on a place, the way a world elaborates in prolific forms, taking off in directions and coming to roost on people and practices. In the state of emergence and precarity, points of aesthetic-material-social-political precision can appear as a flickering apparition, a flash of color, or a hard shard landed in a thigh muscle. Ethnography has to be nimble and present to time as things throw together, slowing to watch something unfold or speeding up to list the incommensurate elements coming together in an assemblage. These ethnographic reals are not flat and incontrovertible but alchemical, transmogrifying on axes of impact and reaction.

JS and DB: The articles in this collection speak to time and labor as people struggle to survive or support the lives of those around them. More broadly, research on precariousness often focuses on a politics of survival amid work, exhaustion, the passing of time, and even death. What is the relationship between precarious living and temporality? What do you think is the role of the future in the midst of social precariousness?

HA: Precariousness seems different to me in that it does not name a place or space, a time or temporality. Moreover, it does not name a specific mode of ethnographic subject, as I understand it. Rather, precariousness names a focus on vulnerability and uncertainty that exists not outside or under the ordinary but as inherent and internal to it. As Iraqis are still trying to emerge from the devastation of the Clinton-era sanctions, the Bush war, and Obama’s bombing, which cost the lives of many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and crippled the country’s infrastructure in a way unseen in the twentieth century, the country and its people are responding in their very ways of being to precarity—economic, biological, social, existential—and to a deep uncertainty about what historical moment the country finds itself in. In this context, the ethnographer would do well to take a lead from the people she is working with, and I tried my best to do that.

There was no iPhone app, no form of recording device that would have sufficed to compose a method that could open up such deep forms of precarity and uncertainty. One had to take on a posture that chimed with where many Iraqis were already. Thus, precariousness is a theory of practice (and as Pierre Bourdieu would argue, also a method) or an account that insists on taking a position within practical and factical life. It is that, however small it might seem, that constituted a motivational bedrock for me. I was on my way as an ethnographer amid the precarious without a need to drop anchor in a ritual or a mosque; Iraq is too big and fun a place to be finessed into digestible packages and categories.

The focus on practice and struggle immediately makes the story one is looking at a temporal one. One of the points of my kidnapping article was to show that temporality is something up for grabs and is only figured out in the ways that people and lives take on temporality as a resource, as a source of hope or despair, and in the ways that practices and struggles move in unequal ways across disparate bodies.

This may sound mystical or evasive. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that precariousness means precarious forms of temporalities as well. This does not mean one can only look at individual instances, or that there is no history or structure. On the contrary, one starts small and local in Iraq as an antidote to notions of what the local looks like within local North discourses, academic and otherwise. From there one can look at larger entanglements of time and temporalization. But shaking up the picture of Iraq requires continual work; otherwise, the country is dismissed as an example of a policy failure.

ND: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about inevitability. Inevitability marks a relationship to time, but also to truth and to culture. It is a relationship to time in that it engages the far future. It is a relationship to truth in that certain things, like death and change, are indeed inevitable. And it is a relationship to culture insofar as those things I have said are truthfully inevitable are still cultural concepts and thus, like any other, amenable to rereadings such that they are not so inevitable after all.

I bring this up because, as I said earlier, I think all of life is precarious insofar as it is dependent on things outside of its control, and that dependency—so long as we are social beings—is inevitable. And yet we act anyway, despite the inevitability of pain, loss, and change. However, there is a flip side to this, in that we also refuse to act or to be moved because of inevitability. “Why care about this, or do anything about that,” we ask, “when there will always be something worse, or something fixable?” In the case of my current research, it is inevitable that animals will be killed and exploited and harmed, whether for meat or pleasure or whatever else. But the question, then, as William Mazzarella once put it to me, is “does that which is inevitable cease to matter?”

That question, as important and beautiful as it is, is still not the only question to ask. Even after we decide whether the inevitable does or does not matter, we still have to ask what, precisely, is this thing whose mattering we have reflected upon. Is it animals or this classor this man, or is it this being at this moment, regardless of its future or its name? We have a choice about what we see, about what we plug into the temporal frame of the inevitable so that we do or do not have reason to act and feel. I suppose what I’m saying is that I’d like to think about futurity a lot less or, at least, very differently.

Precariousness is of course a temporal concept—something is about to happen or was attained by a fragile process—but the ways in which we live with it, or act despite and because of it, are radically present and immanent. Awareness of inevitability can produce a certain paralysis or, as in the case of some of the activists I write about in this article, it can offer an excuse to surrender to life, to be vital (if also futile).

KM: This is an excellent question given that precariousness today is often expressed as a relationship to time—a nostalgic attachment to the past, the disrupted present, or the uncertain future put on hold. Of course, the connection between time and precariousness is not entirely new. In thinking through temporalities in my work, I have found it useful to return to the writings of E. P. Thompson (1967), who examined a very different moment in the history of capitalism but one that could also be described as turbulent. His famous essay on the time-sense of workers adjusting to wage labor during England’s industrial revolution draws attention to the ways labor conditions can profoundly alter the lived experience of time. The use of clock time in factories to measure and regulate labor transformed not only work patterns, but also what Thompson (1967, 65) calls the “arts of living.” Leisure emerged as a category of activity separate from labor. A sharp division between the employer’s time (work) and one’s own time (everything that is not work) produced a mode of conceptualizing work that eventually made possible such common expressions as work-life balance, as if work somehow were not part of life. What Thompson’s analysis encourages us to see is that any question about the relationship between precarious living and temporality cannot be fully answered without considering specific experiences of work. If today various forms of temporary, irregular, and flexible work are proliferating, then we need to ask how these distinct conditions of labor might be reshaping rhythms of life.

Ironically, when I explored this question in my research with catadores, the temporality that emerged from the lived experience of work was one that could be characterized as fluid and flowing. I say ironically, because this temporality seems to contradict the widespread association of precariousness with ruptured time or time at a standstill. This is where your question about the role of the future becomes important, given that ruptured time is often interpreted as the future (plans, life stages, notions of progress) put on hold. For catadores, however, their experience of work—especially their ability to determine when and how often they collected on the dump—generated a life rhythm that moved between, and sometimes merged, work and other dimensions of life. I have come to think of this rhythm as woven time, and consider it to coexist alongside the temporality of ruptured time (see Millar 2015) Indeed, it is in part this fluid rhythm of life that enabled catadores to contend with the everyday emergencies produced by insecurities in Rio’s periphery. Another way to put this is to say that woven time enables the future to be realized. In short, I have found that precarious living produces multiple temporalities. The task, as I see it, is to understand the relationship between them.

BO: Time certainly reveals a great deal about precarious living, but I would note that precarity takes a number of social and temporal forms. In this article, I focus on men and women who are chronically unemployed because they are not able to succeed in a globally competitive economy. Employers find them to be not worth exploiting. The absence of a job at which to work or money to spend slows the rhythm of everyday life to a dull monotony. There are, however, other dimensions of economic precarity, such as a person working multiple part-time jobs to (occasionally) keep their head above water. The temporality of juggling multiple jobs is also unrelenting, but in a completely different way.

When the time horizon shifts from the day-to-day to talk of the future, though, I think a certain commonality starts to emerge among different forms of precarious living. Whether one is stuck in overdrive or feeling stalled out, economic precarity lends itself to a present that no longer seems to add up or progress toward anything meaningful down the line. The precariousness of the present prevents people from advancing their life narratives in expected ways.

KS: Ethnography can be deployed to see the outlines of a precarious subject, of risky labors of being, of the precise forms that forces take in lives. People are laboring. At dangerous work, bodies bent and worn and jumping into harm’s way because it is their job. Survival is also a labor of being and a labor of being wide open, without the luxury of absolute mediation (like a blanket, a closure, a room of your home, a dream house, the condition not having to try). Labors of being are a form of risk, of being in the game from a place of hypervulnerability that engenders its own forms of hyperengagement. So there is intensity in the living through and living out of what’s happening in precarious situations. A life story can become a litany of labor, loss, abandonment, rage, violence, hope, endurance, skills of weight-bearing and nimble moves. The precarious life gathers up the worldly effects of what happens: the father who left when the son was two; the third-grade education; a broken back, eight kids, a son who drank himself to death in Chicago, a daughter is nervous; she tingles. There is no naturalized or literalized divide between the everyday and emergency, or the endemic and the event; the world is emergent, event-producing lines or trajectories set in motion alongside hope, violence, and a range of nonmelodramatic effects that don’t organize into evaluative registers. Thinking through these problematics is the work being done in anthropology under the general rubric of posthumanism, including affect theory, new theories of ontology, postphenomenology, and nonrepresentational theory.

Humanist faith in the future as a potential to become otherwise has lost its charge in the precarious world of neoliberalism, contemporary capitalism, the climate collapse of the anthropocene, and the harsh, caste-like qualities of inequality that now directly charge life itself. In the place of a modernist world, the form and force of a series of presents being lived out in the singularities of places and times constitute complex social and political contact zones in an ongoing state of transition. New, specific ways of anticipating futures are both prolific, creating a sense of the too-muchness of the present, and premediated through a multiplication of the possibilities surrounding a future event.

JS and DB: Many scholars have conceptualized precariousness as an existential condition and precarity as differentially distributed forms of fragility that have been attached to marginalized bodies and underemployed workers around the world. Framed in this way, how does precarity relate to earlier conceptualizations of dispossessed workers or the lumpenproletariat? Is precarity new, or has it been with us throughout histories of capitalism and colonialism?

HA: That question only makes sense once you grant precariousness an existential reality of its own, which I am not trying to do. The question is not which class of peoples is precarious, but how thinking about precarity opens up new ways of talking and thinking without shutting the world out as one does so-called theory.

Once you expand the notion of labor to include the labor of life and living, then we all inhabit precariousness in a mundane sense. That sense seems important to me because it recognizes, to invoke language that the discipline once used, the antistructural as part of the structural, or disorder in order. However, we must avoid turning these insights into a system or making a dialectic out of such thinking. Once you do that, it becomes like a McDonald’s happy meal: the thing is prepackaged and your job, as the reader, is just to consume it. All of us who have engaged with the category of the precarious are doing things with it that need not be contained under this banner or that. Our job is much more to show where this type of thinking is fertile.

KM: Certainly, from a global perspective, the forms and conditions of labor associated with precarity are not new. As I describe in my article, for many poor families in Brazil across generations, unstable work has not been the exception but the norm. This makes their experience with precarious work very different from that, say, of youth in parts of Europe or Japan, for whom the full-time and lifelong employment of their parents’ generation became an unfulfilled expectation in their own. For these youth struggling to make a living in a post-Fordist moment, precarity might very well be experienced as new. In other words, I consider the newness of precarious work to be an ethnographic question. Place and historical context matter.

I also think it is important to distinguish between precarity and the precariat, as it has been conceptualized by scholars like Guy Standing (2011). When described as a distinct socioeconomic group and one that is potentially dangerous, the precariat is indeed reminiscent of earlier terms like the lumpenproletariat. It also strikes me as a reincarnation of the concept of marginality, which dominated literature on urban poverty in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The rural-urban migrants who built makeshift homes on the outskirts of Latin America’s biggest cities and cobbled together a living outside of regular, waged employment were seen as a marginal mass, cut off from the city’s economic, social, and political life. In similar fashion, the precariat is often conceived as a redundant population or a surplus humanity. I find this understanding of the precariat problematic because it carries pejorative and apocalyptic undertones, homogenizes a diverse set of worker experiences, and revives dualist paradigms. Moreover, by depicting the unemployed or underemployed as a problem class, the concept of the precariat also reifies normative conceptions of capitalist labor.

Precarity (unlike the precariat) is not a category but a relationship. That is, I understand precarity as a concept that examines how insecure conditions of labor intersect with fragile conditions of life. The specific form that this relationship takes, as I try to show in the article through Rose’s surprising story, is neither given nor uniform. Rather, it emerges through everyday efforts to pursue life projects within particular social worlds. This is perhaps what most distinguishes precarity from the other concepts that you mentioned. Precarity is a beginning point of analysis—less a label or diagnosis than a method. Finally, it is important to emphasize the labor dimension of precarity. I do not consider precarity to refer to a generalized condition of vulnerability, which would likely turn up precarity everywhere we looked. My use of the concept of precarity is quite specific and limited. What value it has derives from the way it brings precarious work and precarious life under the same analytical lens.

BO: It’s an interesting question, and one that I think is connected to the issue of time raised above. There is an ontological sense in which all life is precarious, in that any one life is dependent upon a world beyond itself to sustain itself. The work of ethnography, though, shows us how precariousness is experienced in historically specific ways, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people are taking to the term readily in the present moment.

In the last few decades, a significant impasse has emerged in the way that people understand the present and the future relating to one another. One can look back over the twentieth century and see the building up of a social infrastructure that enabled many people the world over to enjoy an unparalleled moment of security and prosperity. That same infrastructure also invited people to imagine a future that would only get better. As the story went: society developed, careers advanced, savings accounts accrued, the next generation lived better than the one that came before it, so on and so forth. Even difficult moments of austerity could believably be framed as a present sacrifice for a brighter future, as was the case during the depths of communist austerity in Romania.

The social infrastructure that once buttressed a present and that progressed toward a better future has, however, been eroding at a frightening clip (and more so for some than for others). This sense of erosion now impacts a far greater segment of the population than would be encompassed by longer used terms like lumpen or the dispossessed. Precarity is distinct in that it captures a broadly generalizable feeling that the present no longer works as well as it used to, and that it no longer segues into the future that one was once encouraged to imagine.

KS: People are vulnerable; some much more than others and much more consistently, actually living out precarity as an existential condition. They are literally sensing out what arrives, what etches itself onto things, what crystallizes in one minute and dissolves in another, how things ricochet, rebound, maybe taking a limb or a child with them. In extreme precarity, a social-natural-aesthetic ecology is a landscape mined for its compositions, a threshold of expressivity resonant with sights and sounds. Sociality itself is a rhythm marking the beat of a saturation in a world in which people risk everything (or not). People are left “improvising with already-felts” (Manning 2009, 30). Their aspirational attention is drawn to getting something out of the alchemical states of a self-sensing world evident in the inhuman gestures of demons and angels, of drug addicts and racists, of the unbelievably injured, or the oddly still-curious. Matter has a heartbeat. Life is a weird realism.

People in such a state may have a structure of attachment to a present saturated with potential and threat, to the real potentiality of the settled world at each moment of its becoming. They may become faithful not to a representation actualized but to a series of actual compositions spun into representations, objects and states of sensory alert. This is what Isabella Stengers (2009) calls a vivid pragmatics. Erin Manning and Brian Massumi (2014, vii) call it thought in the act: “Every practice is a mode of thought . . . To dance: a thinking in movement. To paint: a thinking in color. To perceive in the everyday: a thinking of the world’s varied ways of affording itself.” In the shaken profusion of things throwing together, flourishing, or collapsing, it is not only a determinate structure or an order of representations that matters, but a living out worked out in the senses, the bodies, the affective tensions and attentions of what’s happening.

Life becomes an experiment of being in a world. The body is a tuning fork that learns through small, incremental shifts made in fits and starts.  Ethnography misses all this if it detours into a tired critique-of-representation or anchors itself in the twisted claims to know of an evaluative critique.

JS and DB: Recent scholarship has described attention to precariousness and allied analytics as contributing to the emergence of a “suffering subject” (Robbins 2013) in research. Other scholars have shown that it can produce new understandings of global capitalism (Tsing 2015) and political movements (Butler 2015). What forms of ethics and politics have you seen emerge from an attention to precariousness in your own work? What role does hope or the good play in the middle of trauma and suffering?

HA: Heaven forbid that we might talk about suffering subjects! As the United States and United Kingdom attack and bomb ever more countries (Syria, Libya, Iraq—again!), colleagues working within the global North are suggesting we quit the talk of suffering. Who would’ve thunk it?

I think this is a very real part of it. Something grates on the skin of some of my colleagues in getting a small insight into what devastating harm is caused by the global North. The body resists it; enough of this! Stop it! Let us talk about the good! Let us follow up on Latour’s intellectual as a diplomat! The reactions to Max Gluckman and his students was similar; why must you focus on the impacts of empire and capitalist expansion? What of the continuities in ritual life?

As academics we want to live in the pockets of empire and enjoy what it affords—almost unrestrained access to wherever it is we want to study—but the human impacts of these ways of living on others . . . well, the global North can have too much of a bad thing, it turns out.

The irony of all this is that I have tremendous difficulties with many of the texts that have been lumped under the category of the suffering subject. There is an almost joyous exposition of the suffering of others, be they people of color or those whose economic circumstances are troubled and difficult. One book refers to Mexican migrant workers as broken bodies; who would refer to the bodies of white, middle-class people as broken? It is not as if many of these works are making available new insights into economic, existential, and political uncertainty and suffering. In them, rather, the other becomes marked anew within a liberal sentimentalism that repeats the very discursive separation that it had already been marked by, but in new registers.

To put this in some context, in 1982 my family fled Iraq and we ended up in a refugee camp. Later, we fled with forged documents and made our long way to the United Kingdom. Were there difficulties and hardships, physical as well as psychic? For sure. My family and I could easily have been marked as having broken bodies, for instance. What would that have helped or added? The anthropologist has free license to wax lyrical about suffering and name the lives and bodies of the people with whom they work. In a certain sense, this is what privilege looks like.

However, one of the really unnerving things about Joel Robbins’ attack on the suffering subject is the form the attack takes. According to this line of reasoning, the suffering subject became the paradigm of anthropological thinking after we lost the savage as the discipline’s paradigmatic figure. At least Robbins is honest enough to publicly mourn the loss of the savage. Our job now, according to Robbins, is to change the suffering subject paradigm for the paradigm of the good. So we work out in the academy what our paradigms are and we go out to Papua New Guinea or Palestine and figure out how disparate realities can be fit into our models (the happy meal syndrome again!). Isn’t the more dangerous thing not a bad paradigm that can be taken on and challenged, but an active attempt to instantiate one model over all other models irrespective of local and historical differences wherever the anthropologist is undertaking her research? Why the need for one paradigm across the globe? Why the active work to hegemonize how we think of the world? It’s an odd impulse to me; it’s somewhat counter to what I find to be the joy of anthropology, which is to give us insights about what is going on in the world.

In my own area of focus, I have pushed for an account of ethics as being-with, against the Foucauldian self-tyrannizer. As soon as you change your focus from Islam and look at vulnerability, the picture and shape of lives changes immediately. Are people in Iraq tied by Islamic categories and practices? Yes, many are. Is all of Iraq tied in some form or another by the catastrophes of twelve years of sanctions, bombings that began in 1991 and are still going on today? I say yes; hence the focus in my research on the different relations—ethical ones at that—which come into being during Iraq’s confrontation with the local North these last several decades.

I’ll end with a silly story. In Madison, where I am living currently, there is a population of Iraqis in various parts of the town. One day my car broke down and AAA shows up and does nothing to help me. I’m stuck. I do not want to pay hundreds of dollars for a tow truck and pay the garage fees, because I know the problem is easily fixed. At 8 a.m. approximately, I call an Iraqi chap who I had met only on a few occasions. Within twenty minutes he appeared and got my car started. That was not enough. He then insisted on fixing the car, so he gave me the keys to his car and took mine. I went to work. At 2 p.m. my Iraqi friend calls to tell me that the car is parked outside my office and is fixed. He refused to take a single penny from me, and I know that he spent at least $100 fixing my car.

What is it that ties an atheist Iraqi (me) with a Sunni from Ramadi living in Madison? It’s not a discursive tradition; it isn’t even nationalism. In some sense, we both share an understanding of life and living under war, the experiences of sanctions, and so on. His payment was the ten-minute conversation he had with me, remembering what he had to do to get his family water and electricity when the American military was stationed outside his house in the 2000s. Who else could listen to that story and understand the humor, as well as the sadness, without turning him into an other? Or a subject within a tradition? There are forms of ethics and dwelling that emerge and exist within the rough grounds of everyday life. Closing that story, or others like it, in favor of the good or a tradition is not acceptable to me as an academic, nor as an Iraqi.  

ND: I’ve recently cowritten a piece in which I am critical of the Robbins essay you mention, particularly his coinage of the “suffering slot.” I’m uncomfortable with the idea of slotting away ethnographic attentiveness to co-suffering as sentimental or apolitical or anti-intellectual. I am, however, open to the possibility that work which speaks for precarious others, without attention to our own (albeit uneven) experiences of suffering and vulnerability and precarity as social beings, might well be sentimental.

But to your question about the forms of ethics and politics that I have seen emerge in my research, I would come back to the idea of immanent ethics, an ethics that exists because of inevitability or, to put it another way, because of futility. I love those moments when people know that their actions do not matter—that they will not keep precarity at bay—and yet they are moved by life and move others, anyway. I think this speaks to an ethic that does not put too much stock in reason and calculus, on the good or its opposite, but is instead radically present to what is before it, an attentiveness emergent from the recognition of precarity. And I love those moments when people act not out of hope, but out of an awareness of futility. That might be the only hope that matters.

KM: I am interested in forms of politics that are not overtly oppositional. When it comes to lives lived in conditions of poverty or oppression, there is a tendency for social science to gravitate toward cases of organized protest or, in their absence, to seek out smaller acts of resistance. If neither protest nor resistance is to be found, then the story tends not to be framed in terms of politics at all. It becomes a story about mere survival.

Of course, I am speaking about general tendencies. But I think we continue to see these tendencies in dichotomies similar to survival/resistance that you invoke in your question, like suffering/the good or crisis/hope. Rose’s story does not fit easily into such frameworks. Her decision to quit a stable job meant relinquishing a signed worker ID and all the symbolic value that it held. That her decision to quit also meant returning to a garbage dump to pick through muddied and rotten refuse is certainly an indictment of conditions of wage labor and of the precariousness of everyday life for Rio’s poor. Yet it would be wrong to read defiance, resistance, or even negation in Rose’s quitting of her job—a decision she brushed off in a simple gesture of nonchalance.

I call this nonoppositional form of politics a politics of detachment to emphasize that it involves a release from normative ties. Many scholars writing about precariousness today identify the continued attachment to normative relations of work, family, and social belonging as the source of existential distress. This is why, as Lauren Berlant (2011) argues, optimism can be cruel. Rose’s act of quitting her job constitutes a form of politics precisely because it is an act of letting go or turning away from the fetish of waged employment. Of course, this turning away is also a turning toward something else—a re-turning to the dump and the varied forms of living amid precariousness that this enables. I see such nonoppositional forms of politics as very meaningful because any release from normativity opens up space for other possibilities to emerge.

BO: Any conversation about the uneven distribution of society’s wealth and well-being is an ethical one, but I think there is something particular and exciting about where the literature on precarious living takes the discussion of ethics and also anthropological practice.

We find ourselves in a moment when, to borrow from Judith Butler (2015), there is a tremendous pressure to become economically self-sufficient under conditions when self-sufficiency is structurally undermined. The distribution of wealth and opportunity is not just uneven, but the deck, so to speak, is now perilously stacked against most people. The observation leads to a particular kind of space where hope can feel cut and optimism cruel.

To my mind, this space is where the analytical and the ethical dimensions of precarity intersect with the work of anthropology in an important way. Once stuck in this precarious space, one can look around and think: “well, we’re all screwed,” and there is certainly ample ethnographic evidence to support that conclusion. Or instead, one can choose to go in another direction. I think it would also be fair to look around in this present moment, draw a deep breath, and say: “boy, everything’s really gone to shit.”

While the former leaves the conversation in a state of resignation (if not nihilism), the latter is a prompt to get to work. If “everything has gone to shit,” then we as anthropologists have a lot to do: framing problems, detailing historical and material conditions, and experimenting with alternative social arrangements that might bring us to a better place, for example. This kind of work is deeply ethical, and I think it points to something more substantive than hope and less cruel than optimism, which is animating everyday life in precarious conditions. I think underlying a lot of life these days is a certain grit to endure, even as the project of enduring keeps getting harder and harder.

KS: Precarity is about finding ways to be in circuits of force and form. This means there is always the weight of what can be hoped for and what can be feared. The weight of the world. The subject suffering that weight of the world is a subject laboring toward the possibility of possibility. Dreams of the good life proliferate, but to begin to approach what the subjects of such dreams and accompanying labors are going through, anthropology is going to have to expand its shorthand notions of the political to encompass far more than humanist models of suffering or the usual hyperlegible registers of normativity and the state. What is the political charge of precarity itself? How does the precarious subject’s sensing out of events s/he is in the midst of constitute a political act?


Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2015. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Manning, Erin. 2009. Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

_____, and Brian Massumi. 2014. Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Millar, Kathleen M. 2015. “The Tempo of Wageless Work: E. P. Thompson’s Time-Sense at the Edges of Rio de Janeiro.” Focaal 73: 28–40.

Standing, Guy. 2011. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Stengers, Isabelle, Brian Massumi, and Erin Manning. 2009. “History through the Middle: Between Macro and Mesopolitics.” Inflexions: A Journal of Research Creation 3: 183–94.

Thompson, E. P. 1967. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past and Present 38: 56–97.