Sarah Muir on her new book, Routine Crisis

Routine Crisis: An Ethnography of Disillusion, Muir

Interview by Kabir Tambar

Kabir Tambar: Routine Crisis is about the aftermath of the economic collapse in Argentina in 2001-2002. What is the significance of focusing your analysis not on the period that we conventionally think of as the crisis itself but more on the years that followed?

Sarah Muir: A lot of people have written about the years of the crisis itself. My aim in focusing on the post-crisis period wasn’t simply to do something different, but to ask how something like a “crisis” becomes a recognizable event, with a particular significance. The premise of the book is that an event doesn’t snap into formation once and for all; rather, an event is continually and recursively constituted through semiotic processes that we can trace. Its spatial and temporal boundaries, its internal poetic structure, its relevant contextualization, its implications and significance–none of these inhere within a particular set of developments, and all of them must be constituted in interactions and interpretations. Benjamin used the image of the tiger’s leap to describe how things from the past can suddenly leap into the present, infusing the present with new possibilities for the future. I wanted to explore that open-endedness of an event’s historical significance and political possibility in concrete, empirical detail.

Kabir Tambar: The title of your book confronts the reader with a startling paradox, and it points precisely to this unsettled nature of eventhood. While it is not difficult to imagine a situation where the routines of everyday life have come under crisis (a crisis of routine, let us say), it is much less obvious to think of crisis as something that has become routinized (hence “routine crisis”). If a crisis of routine might belong to an exceptional moment, a routine crisis carries the full weight of a normalized historical patterning. Can you discuss what is at stake in thinking of our historical moment in terms of this fraught conceptual pairing?

Sarah Muir:  At least since Marx, there has been a robust tradition of approaching capitalism as a system of perpetual crisis, in which a boom-bust logic propels things forward, with crisis serving as the means of reproducing, in somewhat altered form, the social world. What’s striking is that, in Argentina, the centrality of crisis to capitalism is not only an idea that leftist intellectuals entertain. To the contrary: Argentina has been so thoroughly constituted by over a century of repetitive economic crises that the centrality of crisis has long been a palpable, lived fact for all kinds of people. As a result, crisis has become a touchstone that people use to orient themselves as they grapple with the world around them, as they consider questions and make decisions about issues national and intimate, momentous and mundane. In this sense, crisis has become folded into the routines of daily life as the one thing you can count on. My aim was to trace both the emergence and the consequences of that paradox, one that we can now find not only in Argentina, but in many other places as well.

Kabir Tambar: One of the ways that you study this lived experience of routine crisis is through the concept of “crisis talk.” This concept seems crucial to the methodological orientation of the book as a whole. How does attention to language frame your understanding of economic collapse?

Sarah Muir:  Very early in my research, it was obvious that people talked constantly about the 2001-2002 crisis, and that this talk was surprising in two ways. First, it was extraordinarily repetitive, so much so that I quickly found I could predict how a given bit of commentary would unfold. Second, this continual chatter about the crisis didn’t diverge along familiar sociological and ideological lines; people with wildly different backgrounds and commitments talked in remarkably similar ways. Both things struck me as odd until I realized that crisis talk worked as a kind of ritual, one that knitted together particular aspects of recent history into a highly stylized narrative. This narrative worked to ground both speaker and listener in the temporal rhythm of routine crisis. What I try to do in the book is show how that ritual of crisis talk allowed routine crisis to orient economic, political, and even interpersonal practices. In other words, this talk was the site where the crisis of 2001-2002 was constituted (over and over again) as a determinate event with a particular significance. And, it was only by attending to language as a crucial mode of consequential social practice that I could start teasing apart the dynamics of the post-crisis period.

Kabir Tambar: For me, one of the most intellectually creative and generative moments in the book arises in your analysis of corruption. You argue that discourses about corruption in Argentina can be profitably analyzed through anthropological theories of witchcraft. How did you come to make this connection? What sort of work were you reading when you started to develop this formulation?

Sarah Muir:  It isn’t entirely on the surface all the way through, but Nancy Munn’s Fame of Gawa permeates my approach to all the themes I explore in the book. When I first read it, it absolutely bowled me over in the possibilities it opens up for understanding the constitution of time, space, and personhood. It gave me tools for imagining how we could take an idea like Bakhtin’s notion of chronotope and use it in detailed anthropological analysis. While I hadn’t anticipated studying corruption, the topic was omnipresent during my fieldwork. I kept coming back to the way Munn describes Gawan witchcraft as the rapacious consumption of a community’s very capacity to produce value. That notion of witchcraft sounded very much like the way Argentines talked about corruption as eroding the conditions of possibility of national belonging. And, theorizing corruption with respect to value helped me see how it was bound up with the ways Argentines dealt not only with obviously financial and economic matters, but also with political institutions and interpersonal relations.

Kabir Tambar: This endemic and diffuse problem of producing value seems also to lead to a prevalent sensibility toward history, one that you refer to as disillusion with the promises of progress and modernity. It strikes me that one might view this sensibility as entailing a withdrawal from politics. But my sense from your book is that my presumption of depoliticization might be made in haste. Can you talk about whether this historical sensibility harbors a possibility for a kind of politics or a distinctive way of relating to political activity?

Sarah Muir:  I don’t think one would be wrong to see depoliticization in the sensibility of disillusion, and there are absolutely important elements of that in the material in the book. And yet, it’s not the whole story. Even as people would proclaim themselves to be fully disillusioned and even as they would reject out of hand the notion that politics might be an arena for legitimate engagement, they also were constantly engaging with political matters. However, the upshot of those politics, whether they skewed right or left, was entirely underdetermined. Looking beyond Argentina, I’m struck by the way disillusion with institutions of various sorts can give rise to intensified demands to raze things to the ground and start anew (for example, the conversation around whether to “let Anthropology burn”) as well as to quiescent withdrawal (for example, Voltaire’s oft-cited quip about tending one’s own garden). So, disillusion doesn’t amount to depoliticization. But it does amount to relationships to politics–and to social life more broadly–that are very different from modernist accounts of history, progress, and utopia.