May 2012 Issue: Vol. 35(1)

Introduction by Editors John Conley and Justin Richland

As is customary in PoLAR, this issue brings together a group of papers that range widely across time, place, and topic. They deal with such ostensibly different issues as the politics and culture of the European Union, crime and punishment in Latin America, the ambiguous relationship between global capital and the nation-state in oil-rich (and oil-poor?) Kazakhstan, and social and economic reform programs in the post-9/11 Arab world. But as also is customary in PoLAR, a deeper look at the articles reveals common themes, transcendent issues in law and politics that reflect anthropology’s complementary strengths of intense focus on the local against a coherent background of theoretical concerns.

We begin with two articles that deal with law, politics, and culture in the European Union. In “The Governance of Things: Documenting Limbo in the Greek Asylum Procedure,” Heath Cabot examines documentary practice in Greek asylum procedure. Her ethnography focuses on the “pink card,” the government identity document for asylum-seekers, showing how its use simultaneously—and unpredictably—reinforces and undermines its role as a regulatory technology. Her analysis raises the larger issue—captured vividly in her title phrase–of how tangible things, in this case documents, and the way they circulate and signify, can be both objects and instruments, if not agents, of governance.

Bureaucratic processes and the persons they figure also take center stage in “Training Bureaucrats, Practicing for Europe: Negotiating Bureaucratic Authority and Governmental Legitimacy in Turkey.” In it, Elef Babul explores some of the complex cultural issues that have arisen in Turkey’s long-term effort to join the EU. To meet the EU’s good governance standards, Turkey is making a concerted effort to inculcate the values of human rights and egalitarian state-society relations among its public officials and government workers. By thus portraying state officials as subjects in need of education and reform—of modernizing, as it were—this effort challenges their traditional status as educators of the people and custodians of the keys to modernity. To retain their legitimacy, Babul shows, government officials must reinvent themselves as being of the people rather than above them.

The next two articles deal with aspects of crime, policing, violence, and punishment in Latin America. In “The Art of Torture and the Place of Execution: A Forensic Narrative,” Stephanie Kane investigates the torture and execution of a teenaged boy in a remote ecotourist destination in Argentina—a death that was officially ruled a suicide. Kane’s essay weaves official reports and the reflections of the victim’s family and friends to reveal the ways in which violence leaves its mark, haunting not only on the memories of those left behind but also the physical and sociopolitical landscape where the events occurred. In so doing, Kane’s analysis discloses the ways in which those still caught in the sorrow of their loss and the senselessness of this crime grope toward and through narrative in an effort get justice and find peace.

Aldo Civico’s “ ‘We Are Illegal, but not Illegitimate’: Modes of Policing in Medellin, Colombia also looks at violence, policing, and their mutual entanglement. Civico focuses less on the victims of crime and more on those entrusted with their protection, specifically on the “murky pacts” made between state forces and “demobilized” former paramilitary members who had once been their enemies, as they work in concert to police certain marginal neighborhoods of Medellin. Such pacts, Civico argues, compel new ways of thinking about the nature of the state and the supposed monopoly on legitimate use of force that undergirds its sovereignty. Analogizing to the intreccio, or intertwining, of the Sicilian Mafia in the Italian state, Civico finds in these cooperative ventures that bridge licit and illicit forms of state-sanctioned violence, undertaken ostensibly in the name of law enforcement, evidence not of the impotence of the state but of its presence, and indeed its effectiveness.

Although set half a world away, Saulesh Yessenova’s The Tengliz Oil Enclave: Labor, Business and the State raises related questions about the nature and efficacy of the contemporary state. Yessenova’s ethnographic subject is an oil enclave in Kazakhstan, and her primary focus is on the troubled relations among labor, the multinational companies that manage the project, and the Kazakh state. Examining the incongruity of labor riots during an apparent economic boom, she uncovers troubling aspects of the relationship between the state and multinational capital, including the unexpected influence of the form contracts that set the terms of the public-private partnership. In this case, Yessenova concludes, the state’s failure to extend the rule of law to workers in the enclave is evidence of its impotence, as well as of the capture of key state actors by economic interests.

Finally, Mayssun Sukarieh’s “The Hope Crusades: Culturalism and Reform in the Arab World” presents an ethnographic perspective on public relations campaigns in the post-9/11 Arab world that promote such slogans as “Hope,”“Life” and “Optimism.” Examining these campaigns and a set of parallel policy reform documents, she finds that they share a “culturalist” ideology in which individual thought and action are strongly determined by shared beliefs. In this view, the problems of the Arab world are thus largely a product of cultural deficiencies that can be remedied by top-down cultural change. Sukarieh’s most surprising finding may be that this cultural reform project—which also embodies neoliberal economic reform—is promoted as much by transnational Arab elites as by the West.

We welcome the complex ways in which our contributors to this issue are thinking through the cultures of law and politics in so many varied contexts. We especially appreciate their attention to the ways in which social actors enmeshed in legal and political processes find themselves caught up with each other. Indeed, though the locales are far-flung, the measure of concern revealed in all of these essays suggests how often, in today’s late modern state, the mythic “social contract” of classic liberal political theory reveals itself to be something more in line with Civico’s “murky pact.” We hope you find these essays to be as revelatory as we do.

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