A response to the inaugural lecture of Dimitris Dalakoglou, Chair in Social Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam.
By Herbert Ploegman As Dimitris Dalakoglou argued in his inaugural speech “Anthropology and Infrastructures. From the State to the Commons”, on the 13th of June, “our humanity and our human lives” are truly at stake in the events unfolding at the borders of Europe. He referred in particular to the people trying to cross the Mediterranean while facing extreme risks of drowning, but also to the modified forms of governance in Southern European countries over the years that we understand as crisis.
A transformation – both in Western Europe as in Southern Europe – is taking place now that both state and market selectively discard roles that they formerly used to carry out. Under the header of varieties of “big society” European citizens are increasingly expected to step in where formerly welfare state would cover certain needs. These shifts are presented as necessities during a state of exception, where the ongoing crisis functions as an excuse for the remodeling of society.
Remarkably, as Dalakoglou mentions, “big society” comes from British neoliberal advocates, whose predecessors stated not so long ago that there was no such thing as society. Additionally, less state doesn’t seem to apply when it concerns “bailing out the financial sector from its speculations”.
The retreat of state and market is not only visible in soft infrastructures such as welfare provisions, Dalakoglou argues, but also in what has been a driving force within the project of the European Union: construction. The European Union is not any more capable of covering funding for all kinds of construction projects, and neither are private parties very much interested in taking over this role.
The consequences of these processes surface most clearly in countries such as Greece, where various crises and extreme austerity measures, combined with poor state functioning have impacted society most strongly.
There are two things that intrigue me, while considering the assignment with which Dimitris Dalakoglou has taken on his chair in Social Anthropology at the VU. He seems to bring up some of the drives behind his research: our own humanity and our human lives. This communicates a sense of urgency that addresses the taken-for-grantedness in the relations between citizens and infrastructure which he signals within Western Europe. I can only agree with both the urgency and with this objective.
However, it makes me wonder what this means for anthropology as a discipline and the case of our department. Isn’t it anthropology, of all disciplines, that has since long understood the interrelationships and intricate ties between any place on earth and our presence? Is it my personal feeling that a research objective like this somehow shakes up our goals and activities as anthropologists, and brings activism into the university in a straightforward way?
Another thing has concerned me both before and after hearing the inaugural lecture. While people from countries such as Syria are seeking refuge within our perimeters and life-worlds, it hardly seems to dawn upon “us” how the truths for many of those on the road and in countries such as Greece are not fundamentally different from the realities that we are beginning to face in Western Europe.
The “cocoon” within which we find ourselves, as Slavoj Žižek and Yanis Varoufakis recently referred to in a televised discussion, and through which we can see a dramatic world event happen while excluding ourselves from these processes does not only seem to function on a large scale level, but seems to come about in the micro-processes of our world-making.
Referring to our own humanity and our own human lives, I can only wonder what is needed in order for us to build forms of solidarity that truly change our lives and the relations to our ecologies. I believe that it calls for an even more radical anthropology, possibly understood as a form of social and cultural activism that transcends the confinements of the academy and disciplines.
In addition to that, narratives about the margins of Europe, such as Greece, can simultaneously shed light on the fringes of our very own European selfhood. Stories from countries that are at the same time “ours” and “not ours” may pose a serious threat to what we have come to believe about ourselves. Or it may at least cause some cracks in the belief that we can hold up an ironic approach to what is happening around us.
Herbert Ploegman is starting a Ph.D. on the various narratives on EUrope [sic] within the context of grassroots movements in the city of Athens, Greece. He is also an editor for Kunstlicht, Academic Journal for Visual Art, Visual Culture and Architecture.