Critical Inequalities: Closing Roundtable
Jenn Baldwin

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

[On May 9-10, 2014 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory held the conference “Critical Inequalities.” Below are the remarks by closing roundtable participant Jenn Baldwin (Medicine/Anthropology).]

Written by Jenn Baldwin (Medicine/Anthropology)

Over the last two months, through the faculty/graduate seminar organized by the Unit for Criticism, we have engaged with the subject of this conference through a range of different disciplines, theoretical frameworks, and the impressive scholarship of many of our conference participants about the real world contexts they each study. And in reflecting on the scholarship and discussion from the last two days, I want to revisit the two terms that brought us all together: Critical Inequalities.

To many of us in the audience the term “critical” refers to a theoretical mode of engagement, a critique. Critique engages us in the necessary task of cultivating theoretical models and analytics that allow us to move back and forth between particular contexts and wider shared experiences, between the micro and macro manifestations of historical and global processes. But the term “critical” also references an analysis of the role of power in shaping social formations and experiences.

For example, critical medical anthropology, my own discipline, seeks to evaluate the body as a political site, with material and symbolic qualities that are produced through and made the subject of power relations. Well-recognized scholarship includes Paul Farmer’s work and interventions in medicine that demonstrate how social inequalities powerfully sculpt the distribution of infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis as well as health outcomes among the infected. As Farmer notes, “in a very real way, inequality itself constitutes [a] modern plague” and a “pathogenic force.” At the conference in May, Didier Fassin’s harrowing statistics told a comparable story regarding the disparate rates of chronic conditions and life expectancies experienced by individuals who occupy different racial and class positions.

Fassin’s work on biolegitimacy also makes an important intervention into the Foucauldian concept of biopower. He argues that Foucault’s biopower addresses the governmentality of life itself which is defined as le vivant, or life-as-biology following the work of Georges Canguilhem. Instead, Fassin wishes for us to analyze life as such which he defines as life that is lived (le vécu--biographical, and embedded in political choices and moral economies. Fassin argues that to talk about biolegitimacy rather than biopower is to emphasize the stakes of the game rather than the rules. Discussing biolegitimacy in his keynote address, Fassin revealed the inherent contradictions between rhetoric upholding the equality of all men and the disparate meanings, values, and treatment assigned to particular lives.

In the world of medicine, the term “critical” also references a particular bodily state. Being in a “critical condition” denotes a vulnerable status of severity, acuity, and precarity. To the medical profession, it indexes a dangerous deviation from a state of balance in which the body is no longer able to flexibly regulate and adjust to changes in its internal and external environment. It is a deviation from a state conducive with living and the future. It warns that the individual’s prognosis is not favorable to and potentially incompatible with life.

In identifying these alternative meanings of “critical,” I am restating what we already know: when we talk about “critical” inequalities, we are often talking about relationships of power that render individuals and communities vulnerable--sometimes to the point of physical or social death. On an abstract level, inequalities are the products of large-scale social forces that have disparate effects on unequally positioned individuals. The work we addressed during the Critical Inequalities conference and seminar all points to the concrete and devastating effects of such inequalities. Specific examples from the presentations and scholarship discussed includes:

* Margaret Somers’ haunting images of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, along with her analysis of the increased risk, insecurities, and burdens that are borne by the poor and increasingly the middle class as a result of market fundamentalist policies that recode as deregulation those regulative policies that redistribute wealth to the rich.

* Jeremy Varon’s presentation which recalls the social vulnerability that inspired the anger of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the wake of the recent financial crisis and its accompanying soaring rates of unemployment and housing foreclosures.

* Patricia Williams’s writing on Trayvon Martin’s death and the struggle for justice within the courts, as well as her keynote address on the re-biologization of racism (thanks in part to a new book by the science editor of the New York Times), as well as the ongoing deployment of racial stereotypes in the media, by corporations, and society-at-large. Her scholarship vividly captured how these factors framed Martin's death, as well as the changing metrics for assigning value to (or we might say, devaluing) human life within increasingly neoliberal, privatized, and corporate moral economies.

* Rob Nixon’s published work on the protracted, slow deaths among this and future generations as a result of environmental degradation and climate change which provided yet another example of how inequality works to exacerbate environmental risk. Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan’s juridical and ethnographic analyses also revealed how environmental destruction poses a threat to social rights and collective identity.

My own work on US veterans returning home with war traumas suggests yet another set of asymmetrical effects: examples include the targeted recruitment of the urban and rural poor into our professional military, the epidemic of veteran suicides and homelessness resulting from these recent wars, and even a soldier’s predisposing risk for developing PTSD when he or she has had earlier exposures to trauma and violence including childhoods marked by poverty, domestic abuse, and other forms of overt and structural violence. Looking through the glass darkly also reveals the hidden companions to these veterans’ politically acknowledged traumas and injuries. It reveals the significant burdens of psychological trauma, physical injuries, and deaths of both private contractors and Iraqi civilians that are little recognized in our society.

In all of these ways, our engagement of this topic showed again and again that the task of critically countering the mechanisms and effects of inequality of various kinds requires a diverse disciplinary tool kit and multiple methodologies. Likewise, many of the talks demonstrated the importance of evaluating inequality at different scales: whether from the precious individual to the statistical population Fassin surveyed, from the local community and village courts to the national juridical arena assessed in Sivaramakrishnan’s work, or from national policies to their linkage with international trends as Siobhan Somerville analyzed.

Somers’ and Williams’ scholarship asks us to consider how ideologies that naturalize or biologize the status quo justify prejudicial treatment and the state’s lack of obligation to serve particular groups equally.

Mary Romero and Somerville highlight the need to compare—perhaps even to queer—our analyses of how the rights and citizenship of particular populations are framed. As their scholarship individually and collectively suggests, such analyses allow us to elucidate how the use or expansion of certain categories can result in the contraction of rights and possibilities for some groups, while also shoring up normative, or otherwise exclusionary ideologies and policies.

I would like to end with some questions that emerged in reflecting on the last two days: How do we or should we represent inequality? What are the necessary aesthetics of representation? What are the cognitive, affective, and political tasks that these representations should accomplish? Do some mediations or modes of representation harm rather than help, and how so?

Fassin contrasted the image of a “precious brown haired girl” with statistical renderings that alienate the personal and lived realities from the quantitative representation of inequality. Somers presented us with three slides regarding representation. The first one stated “this is what inequality looks like” and revealed a messy, complicated graph of statistical trends. The second slide announced “this is what inequality sounds like” and cited the sickening statistic that the top 1% of Americans captured 95% of the income gains in the first two years of the economic recovery. The third slide concluded with “this is what exclusion looks like” as a caption to an image of a victim of Hurricane Katrina, dead from flood waters she was unable to escape. Angelique Haugerud’s work offers an analysis of the aesthetics of satire and its use in social and political activism as performed in the Billionaires for Bush movement. Additionally, Sivaramakrishnan’s work offers another way of thinking about representation that suggests a more celebratory and optimistic modality through his documentation of the political and legal gains being made by those whose cultural identity and heritage is under threat by environmental degradation.

Yet, in reflecting on how to represent inequality, I am also reminded of Arthur and Joan Kleinman’s concern over the effects of the commodification of images of suffering and inequality via their global circulation and consumption. The Kleinmans warn that many of the mediations of inequality and suffering that populate nightly news stories and humanitarian campaigns risk alienating the consumers of these images (largely located in the global north) from their own complicity in the production and maintenance of inequality. Further, they warn against the tendency of representations of inequality and suffering to mask local agency and obfuscate from view the significant and necessary efforts made by local communities to intervene on behalf of their own members.

While I can posit no answers to the questions I raised, it is clear from both the Kleinmans’ cautionary remarks and the exemplary scholarship of our participants in this conference that much work lies ahead which will require both our heads and our hearts as we commit ourselves to understanding and representing critical inequalities, their causal mechanisms, and the solutions necessary for their extinction.


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