Gray Zones: Feldman on Policing in Europe

The Gray Zone: Sovereignty, Human Smuggling, and Undercover Police Investigation in Europe, by Gregory Feldman (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2019).

reviewed by Davide Casciano, Sapienza University of Rome

Over the last few years, in several European countries, political debates have focused on a so-called migration emergency, the depth and reality of which is questionable. This has led to increased border security controls, part of a global enterprise carried out by several agencies at a national and transnational level, which has also attracted the attention of anthropologists. Many researchers have looked at the role of the police, trying to understand their relationship with the political world and with state sovereignty. The police no longer appear only as a supplement to the rationality of the legal order or as the institutional embodiment of the sovereign’s monopoly on (legitimate) violence. The very concept of state sovereignty as a territorial monopoly has been strongly questioned.

Gregory Feldman’s book The Gray Zone describes a police group with peculiar characteristics, allowing him to deepen the concept of sovereignty and to widen it considerably, both ethnographically and theoretically. The ethnography follows seven members of a police team from a European Union maritime state who are engaged in the control of transnational crime. These are undercover agents operating on the streets, moving from what the author defines as the first sovereign form, bureaucratic and vertical, towards a gray zone that contains a second sovereign form, egalitarian, relational and less abstract. What allows these police officers to become examples of the possibility of an alternative sovereign form is, among the other things, the absence of bureaucratic supervision in the gray zone. Feldman places the work of agents operating in a specific area, which is given the fictional name of Miranda Street, as part of a global security effort. Within this context, the author has managed to access this field site in exchange for anonymity. In fact, many of these officers’ actions would press beyond the boundaries of legality, as set by the first sovereign form.

The distinction between this first and second form of sovereignty is primarily analytical and is compared to a more blurred reality. Indeed, while Feldman’s book is strongly theoretical and philosophical, particularly in the introduction and conclusion, the bulk of his book is taken up with four ethnographic chapters. His ethnography provides fertile ground from which to question the concepts of biopower and biopolitics as presented in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s books Empire and Multitude. Where Hardt and Negri set their philosophical elaborations against the background of historical examples, Feldman decides instead to use ethnographic fieldwork for similar purposes.

The first chapter portrays the team’s egalitarian organization and how its members perceive targeted people not as generic “others,” but as individuals with personal stories, as they see themselves. These two aspects are indeed linked, as the structure of the team partly shapes its actions in the gray zone. Here, concepts of agency and action are distinguished because only the latter allows, in a collective effort, the establishment of new political spaces.

The second chapter examines an essential theme in police ethnographies: the relationship between violence and sovereignty. The team operates with endless possibilities for action that could, therefore, also result in abuses. However, this is mostly the case in gray areas that tend towards the first sovereign form, rather than the second. Violence in the second sovereign form, as demonstrated by the undercover police team’s own internal deliberations about its uses, is limited to the achievement of specific goals. In new situations, without previous conduct patterns to guide them, team members’ choices follow an ethic that derives from an inner dialogue between different points of view. An honor code (which Feldman analyzes in terms borrowed from the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah) leads team members to act in a way that maintains respect for themselves and others.

The third chapter elaborates the uses of secrecy. In the case of the team, the keeping of secrets helps hide and protect their space of sovereignty. The state needs to keep the operations of this group undercover to protect informers and the team itself, paradoxically allowing it’s members to act according to their own developing ethics. However, the team experience this secrecy as frustration and the author’s presence as ethnographer becomes, under certain conditions, a way to escape it.

The fourth chapter focuses on the European approach to immigration, the main policy area that shapes the security apparatus discussed in the book. Feldman’s account of three investigations carried out by the team shows how blurred legal and illegal domains can become. Gray areas involve security agents, ordinary citizens and criminal groups in a global network. All these organizations and individuals are looking for shadow areas in the legal system so as to act outside the boundaries of the first sovereign form.

Ultimately, the concepts presented in Feldman’s book are challenging to synthesize without diminishing their theoretical depth. Gray zones appear to emerge both during states of exception and in everyday life, whenever it is possible to bypass the law. Despite their potential to generate horrible effects, they also offer a fresh opportunity to start anew and to rebuild political relations. The agents with whom Feldman worked struggled to reach the second sovereign form, to emerge as creative political subjects by means of their thoughts, judgments and actions. Thus, ethnographically, these subjects emerge not only as empty technicians of sovereignty, endowed with police authority. They imprint their mark on history and politics, within a field of human relations, even through their formal position in the state bureaucracy. Feldman takes this concept of sovereignty from the work of Hannah Arendt, as a constituent act in political space. Michel Foucault’s writings are also mentioned, referring for example to his concept of raison d’état. The author is bold enough even to offer a critique of Spinoza and his ideas of mind and immanence, which he sees as producing an underlying weakness in the conceptual work of Hardt and Negri. The Gray Zone is an outstanding work that will interest any anthropologist dealing with police, security, or migration. Its theoretical scope will allow it to be used extensively in the future, contributing profitably to the debate on contemporary sovereignty.

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