BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 NOV 12
Featured in
Issue 151

What's in a Word?

Do we live in a time of ‘patho-politics’?

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 NOV 12

Phil Collins, how to make a refugee, 1999, DVD still

Sometimes, the right word comes too early; sometimes, too late. Take ‘patho-politics’. In 2008, I came across a fresh issue of the journal Anthropologie et Sociétés (Anthropology and Societies), edited by the anthropologists Mariella Pandolfi and Vincent Crapanzano, who invited contributors to respond to the ques­tion: ‘Passions: at the heart of politics?’ When I read the neologism ‘patho-politics’ in Pandolfi’s contribution about fieldwork and humanitarian aid during wartime, I couldn’t imagine that this term had much to do with peacetime politics or contemporary art. Yet today, as I look back at 2012, patho-politics makes some sense of our tumultuous times.

Pandolfi links patho-politics with the overwhelming experience of listening to traumatized refugees displaced by the Kosovo War. Her fieldwork began in 1997 – a year before Serbian forces started their mission to expel ethnic Albanians from Kosovo – and finished in 1999, after NATO bombs thwarted Serbian attacks and ended up placing the region under UN administration until independence in 2008. As one might guess, patho-politics is inspired by Michel Foucault’s ‘bio-politics’ (when human life becomes a political end), but also by Giorgio Agamben’s take on Carl Schmitt’s ‘state of exception’ (when traditional politics and civil rights are suspended in the name of emergencies). Patho-politics links a state of exception to both the pathos of collective human passions and the pathology of a problem that requires urgent, expedient solutions. While Agamben focused on oppression – consider the Nazi concentration camps or the Guantánamo Bay detention camp – Pandolfi focuses on empathy as a new political force.

In short, patho-politics can end up suspending traditional political systems for the very passionate humanitarian cause of preventing a pathological loss of human life. Pandolfi’s prickly example is the NATO air strikes, which, to save lives, broke with the UN Charter usually favouring domestic sovereignty over international intervention. However righteous, patho-political acts of expediency can confound humanitarian aid with military intervention, even if their goals and staff remain distinct. In general, security and logistics may subject aid workers to military operations; these twin imperatives may undermine local public debates, the needs of the people whom the international forces have been flown in to protect and, paradoxically, even peace. Pandolfi notes how a traumatized person’s loss of a sense of the time of the trauma can easily become the mediatized Now of a live television testimony, which not only normalizes violence but also can be used to legitimize further humanitarian and military intervention.

When I think about Pandolfi’s article today, I’m disappointed that I didn’t make a connection to art the time I first read it: to Phil Collins’s video how to make a refugee (1999), for example, which documents a team of Western journalists deciding how best to film an injured Kosovar boy. Collins – while demonstrating how the media fuels patho-politics with human-interest stories – added the artist to the international players Pandolfi describes: soldiers, journalists, aid workers. Much later, I picked up a collection of essays edited by Pandolfi and Didier Fassin: Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions (2010). In the introduction, they argue that the boundary between man-made conflicts and natural disasters is porous. After flash floods in Venezuela in 1999, the country’s president, Hugo Chávez, declared a state of emergency to allow for military intervention with the goal of saving lives, only to end up normalizing military order in Vargas State. For Pandolfi and Fassin, the new logic began not with Kosovo, but with India’s decision to act against the Pakistani Army’s repression of the people of East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971. Imposing humanitarian reason with military force, India went against the un’s respect of sovereignty and set a precedent, which has since become the global norm. ‘Morality now justifies suspension of the rule of law,’ write Pandolfi and Fassin, ‘Compassion for far-away suffering and its translation into the moral obligation to act has become one of the strongest political emotions in contemporary life.’

Again, I didn’t think about art, but there’s a line from Collins’s video to dOCUMENTA (13), arguably the first large-scale exhibition project to produce and to exhibit art in a conflict zone (Kabul), alongside the humanitarian and military interventions in Afghanistan. The primacy of emotions suggests other rapid fusions, beyond art and war. In his book Éloge de l’Amour (2009; In Praise of Love, 2012), French philosopher Alain Badiou leaps from personal passion to global conflict: from the ‘zero risk’ love promised by a French Internet dating service to the ‘zero death’ wars promised by Western military interventions. There’s a similar leap from the Internet to conflict in the deaths caused by the blasphemous film Innocence of Muslims (2012). Clicking ‘Share’ on YouTube seems akin to pressing the nuclear red button – except that everyone can do it.

Pandolfi does not address re­li­gion, but patho-politics seems to anticipate a world where collective passions – from empathy to piety – have out-manoeuvred traditional politics, including the state’s monopoly on armed conflict. Today, a film can start a little war. Of course, an anthropologist entering the terrain of politics was already a sign of deep malaise, since anthropology usually studies so-called traditional societies without a state. Then again, we seem to have moved from the state to states of emergency, crying for another cause.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.