Catherine Fennell on her new book, Last Project Standing

Interview by Janet Connor

Janet Connor: If you were at dinner with an urban planner, maybe not from Chicago but from another large American city, how would you describe your book?

Catherine Fennell: It’s a challenging question because tbbhe topic of public housing is utterly over-determined by public sentiments and an ongoing history of racism that reduce the complexity of subsidized housing in the U.S. to a particular kind of place — “the projects”. These sentiments and this history also tend to paint this particular kind of place as particularly decrepit, impoverished, and black. All this despite the fact that the vast majority of public housing projects in the U.S. provided sound housing to people who fell into a range of economic and social categories. These reductions make it difficult to appreciate the extent to which many Americans’ lives are bound up in the project of state subsidized housing. They also collapse people into place, making it near impossible to divorce the imagined decrepitude of “the projects” from the imagined depravity of their residents. These potent sentiments shape the kinds of questions that often get asked about housing projects and the kinds of debates they anchor.  And they also shape what urban planners learn to recognize as successful housing. And they shape the kinds of urban development interventions that gain traction. So I’d want to be careful about how I set up a book that was always more interested in how such sentiments gather and circulate within and beyond a housing project, than in proving particular iterations of such sentiments right or wrong.

I’d start by sketching the Chicago case: A ten, then fifteen year urban planning experiment that has demolished some 25,000 units in the city’s public housing projects, partially replaced them with smaller mixed-income developments designed to promote mainstream employment, and displaced some 75,000 Chicagoans, many of them impoverished African Americans.  I’d tell planners that this case is worth learning about even if they never pick up my book because this case guided the direction of national policy. More than that, though, it also gets at the heart of why many planners who I’ve met get into planning in the first place: to realize more inclusive cities. Then I’d tell them two more things. First, that I’ve left it to scholars better versed in policy assessment to determine whether or not Chicago’s experiment has succeeded on the terms it set out to succeed. Second, I’d emphasize that there are compelling questions to bring to an urban planning project that have little to do with assessments of success or failure.

When ethnographers show up in housing studies, academics and practitioners alike expect them to be focused on “the lived experiences” of marginalized peoples. Throughout my research, people often understood my purpose as relaying the voices of public housing residents. This focus has done so much good, yet it can reinforce the idea that housing projects have been worlds unto themselves, removed from “mainstream” social and political life. So, I’d explain to the planners that I designed my research to foreground moments in which a range of urbanites collided with a built environment in tremendous social and material flux. This included, of course, public housing residents transitioning out of one housing project on Chicago’s West Side. But it also included their new middle-income neighbors, social workers and advocates, politicians, and even people who assumed that they had nothing at all to do with public housing.  I’d tell them that focusing on people as they collided with the people and things of changing public housing, like the ferocious decay of under-maintained buildings, the unnerving loudness or silence of new neighbors, or the presumed poignancy of public housing residents’ struggles, allowed me to analyze how urbanites might become attuned to the problem of poverty and its alleviation in a “neoliberal” policy climate. This would be a climate in which state and municipal agencies step further and further away from the provision of low-income housing and related services, even as they recruit urbanites in their capacity as neighbors or simply concerned citizens to become more involved in caring for the poor.

Finally, I’d want to offer several concrete cases from my research that presented discrete problems that planners might be in a position to address. I’d do this because problems like a systemic lack of financing for maintenance, a narrow conception of who or what constitutes a legitimate household, or appropriate practices of energy consumption very much impact low-income people who are living within or seeking subsidized housing. My interlocutors leaving public housing want and need these issues addressed in a thoughtful manner, and I see no reason why anthropologists cannot contribute to that.

Janet Conner: Central to the book’s argument is the concept of sympathy, which you describe as “a communicative mechanism whose subscribers invest it with the capacity to extend feelings, qualities, and visceral states across very different entities” (p. 7). How does this concept help you think about the ways public housing residents, social workers, and other Chicagoans who appear in your book navigate housing reforms? Why should anthropologists concerned with questions of communication be interested in sympathy? 

Catherine Fennell: Sometimes it seems that you come to a concept only after pushing against others that seem perfectly plausible but that don’t quite fit the material you’re working with. Late in the process of writing my dissertation I had a conversation with Danilyn Rutherford about my hesitations concerning the analysis of my material in terms of writings on affect theory. Specifically, I was hesitant about how some of this work presented the experience of visceral intensity as something that escaped language. Was this a suggestion that such experience eludes social mediation? If not, how should an anthropologist approach the affective resonances of social and political life? Rutherford suggested that I look at the classic work on sympathy. This was an extremely helpful and generous suggestion and it ended up completely changing my thinking and writing for the book. It helped me move toward a conceptual framework that would be alive to two things. First, it allowed me to foreground the visceral intensities of fraught collisions between my interlocutors, the disappearing built environments of Modernist-Era social welfare projects, and the emerging ones of a “neoliberal” communitarianism. Second, it allowed me to track how social worlds structured by profound racial and economic discrimination realigned the people, places, and things of disappearing projects. What attracted me about the classic concept of sympathy (as articulated by thinkers like Hume, Ribot, and Frazer) is precisely its capacity to accommodate material and visceral forces alongside meaningful coordination.  I don’t consider myself a linguistic anthropologist, but I think that any anthropologist interested in communication could learn something that anchors what we now call affective experience firmly within social and political life.

Janet Connor: Your use of sympathy also allows you to weave together an analysis across many different scales that may at first seem only tenuously related, from the materiality of your interlocutors’ bodies and the buildings in which they live, to feelings of community both within and near public housing, to broader notions of citizenship. Could you explain how you think about scale in this book?

Catherine Fennell: Again, there’s a tendency in urban studies to treat housing projects as worlds unto themselves. So, research will unfold within the walls of a public housing project, or, researchers will aggregate data collected from discrete public housing communities. This makes sense given how the tradition of community studies continues to inflect urban ethnography, and given just how much patterns of racial and economic discrimination have set public housing projects physically and socially apart from their surrounds. Yet I was interested in how “the projects” had become, as one of my interlocutors put it, “a lightning rod” for debates about the nature of collective urban and more broadly, social welfare and obligation at the very moment state agencies stepped away from welfare provision. So, I needed to find a way to work across a number of scales that I considered relevant to this problem — legislative maneuvers or media spectacles surrounding “the urban crisis,” but also everyday navigation of a changing urban built environment, everything from the discomfort surrounding the strange sociability of new neighbors to the sinking but vague sense that large scale demolition portended massive displacement. Thinking with sympathy allowed me to move across scenes and scales that all foregrounded the problem of how citizens learn to care differently for or just about one another at a moment of state divestment.  I know these shifts of perspective and scale might not sit well with readers who have a clear sense of what the “object” of a study concerning public housing should and should not be. I respect that. Yet I hope just the same my book is a contribution toward thinking about what multi-sited archival and ethnographic work might bring to urban studies and contemporary anthropology.

Janet Connor: When linguistic anthropologists think of publics, we often think of their emergence through the circulation of discourse and textual materials. You discuss publics somewhat differently, particularly focusing on the role of embodiment and emplacement. Could you elaborate on how you understand publics? How methodologically can we as anthropologists study this kind of expanded conception of a public?

Catherine Fennell:

I’ve learned so much from work within linguistic anthropology that centers on publics. Linguistic anthropologists understand that the discursive encounters from which a sense of “belonging” to a collectivity of strangers emerges have some kind of material infrastructure. In other words, that publics are discursive formations that have consequential social and material dimensions. At the same time, it seemed to me that there was even more room to think about that consequential materiality in terms of built form. It seemed to me that thinking publicity through built form might give us a stronger understanding of urban publics — collectivities of strangers who presume “the urban” as a significant frame for social and political belonging. It suspected that such an endeavor would add much to the burgeoning literature on “cities and citizenship.” Now I think that endeavor is even more important because we’re seeing assertions of political sovereignty in the United States focused on “the urban”; consider for instance the “sanctuary cities” debates or moves by some municipalities to issue their own IDs or organizing critical benefits like paid family leave. We could learn much about urban citizenship by thinking through the formation of specifically urban publics. The question of course is how to do this if you’re not going to focus exclusively on discourse, its circulations and its layering.

There’s a strand of work in political theory, geography, sociology, and anthropology that sees public spaces as key to stranger sociability and political debate. I find this work dissatisfying because it takes one genre of public space — the street, the park, the square that would be open to all regardless of “race,” status, creed and so on — as indispensable to robust democratic politics. It seems to me that this approach replicates how Habermas idealizes one historically and socially specific universe of discourse as indispensable to proper democratic politics. I wanted instead to think about how urbanites become attuned to any built form as significant to the lives that they imagine themselves to be leading in common with others. It seemed possible to chart how specific encounters are mediated in some way by built forms that prodded people to re-imagine their relations to others with whom they shared their city. I was actually inspired here by a passing remark that Habermas makes early in the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. “Publicity has changed its meaning,” he complains. “Originally a function of public opinion it has become an attribute of whatever attracts public opinion.” For him, the rise of mass media has diluted publicity’s central purpose — to support “the public” as it articulates collective opinions and critical judgments in the service of reasoned democratic governance. This is a derisive definition of publicity, but its remarkable under-specificity suggests that a range of forms, like speech but also a building, could be implicated in the communicative practices that summon people to collective meanings, commitments, and identifications. I set out in my book to sketch some of those forms.