Reviewed by Owen McNamara, Université Libre de Bruxelles
In Routine Crisis, Sarah Muir explores the prevailing sentiment within the Argentine middle-class that not only have things gone wrong with their country, but that they will never be put right again. The book tracks the “radical negativity” of the middle-class in the wake of the country’s millennial economic crisis. This crisis entailed an economic collapse, the largest sovereign debt default in world history, sky-rocketing rates of unemployment and poverty, and, as a result of currency devaluation, the over-night loss of lifetimes’ worth of savings. For the Argentine middle-class, Muir tells readers, these events were experienced not only as a financial loss, but as a loss of hope in the future; they crystalized the repeat political and economic crises through which Argentina had passed during the twentieth century and reframed them as proof that the country would never live up to its modernist dreams. While the political class bore the brunt of the blame during the civil unrest of December 2001, when crowds gathered in Argentina’s major cities to demand “Que se vayan todos” (Out with all of them), Muir is attentive to the way middle-class Argentines consider themselves complicit in the corruption that led to the crisis they were living through. Muir suggests that her interlocutors had come to see Argentina as a pathologically corrupt society, a stance that “inverted the familiar idea that national history is a teleological progression toward a better future” (93). In Routine Crisis, Muir not only captures a sensibility of hopelessness, but also lucidly explicates the social and political implications of the middle-class embrace of disillusion as a historical outlook.
Muir makes important interventions into the study of crisis and corruption, and it is her exploration of disillusion as an ethnographic object that allows for the most original of her claims. In line with many theorists of crisis, Muir suggests that crises dramatize structural failings within society. Unlike other theorists, however, Muir refuses to treat periods of crisis as moments of radical possibility. Instead, Muir attends to the lived experience of crisis, which she demonstrates is felt by her interlocutors as the foreclosure of possibilities. Muir shows the generative aspects of crisis as well, exploring how the ritual narration of crisis is constitutive of a middle-class, and indeed, a means through which the middle-class works to define national identity in its own image. In a similar conceptual move, Muir inverts understandings of corruption as erosive of sociality, instead arguing that middle-class Argentines’ shared commitment to suspicion is drawn out to stand as a defining feature of the national character. Muir shows that, paradoxically, the national public is based on an understanding of corruption “that rendered the nation a failed, even impossible, project” (106).
The way Muir organizes Routine Crisis enables her to work through such paradoxes. Throughout chapters two and three Muir develops a discussion of psychoanalysis and conspiracy theorisation as narrative genres regularly engaged in by her interlocutors. Through psychoanalysis and conspiracism, middle-class Argentines plumb the depths of their psyches and theorise the workings of obscured power to understand the mechanisms through which the country is held down and crisis produced. What is telling, for Muir, is that these are normally narrative genres associated with agency. In the Argentine post-crisis context they produced nothing but disillusion as they were applied to a century long history of down-turn and disempowerment. In a particularly striking outcome of these modes of discourse, Muir shows that despite the revelations which the crisis laid bare, Argentine modes of interpretation meant that the supposed reality of the market was reaffirmed. Crisis was the result of corruption and national delusion, but unlike the illusory Argentine peso, the U.S. dollar was considered a safe asset. Muir sums up this counter-intuitive outcome: “the revealed fictionality of monetary value strengthened the imperative of acquiescing to its facticity” (pp. 67-68). Intellectual moves such as this, in which narrative genres or patterns of speech are drawn out as constitutive of more encompassing political trends, are a strength of Muir’s work. She uses the tools of linguistic anthropology in a way that is both instructive and accessible. By applying these tools to her data, Muir manages to convey exactly what is at stake with regards how the Argentine middle-class discursively construct their post-crisis world.
This ethnography is an important work for scholars of Argentina. By studying the sensibilities of the middle-class produced in the wake of the millennial crisis, Muir not only offers insights into how the momentous years were understood, but also provides important data regarding a demographic that has exerted outsized influence on Argentina’s cultural and political life. It is unfortunate that Muir was not able to attend more to the last fifteen years of Argentine politics, however. Muir’s focus on disillusion, she tells her reader, is in part motivated by a desire to understand what sort of political futures this historical outlook leads to. By these terms, her informants’ assessments of the Kirchner-era, and the role the middle-class would play in that period’s political turmoil, deserve more space than that which they have been allotted in the monograph.
Routine Crisis: An Ethnography of Disillusion offers a novel approach in anthropological studies of crisis. Muir tracks the production and productive capacity of disillusion, and in doing so challenges political anthropologists to focus not only on the possibility of new beginnings, but also on the lived experience of endings. Thematically, Routine Crisis will be of interest to anyone involved in studies of crisis, corruption, or Argentina. The book deserves a broader readership, however, due to Muir’s compelling writing, the way she renders the often-complex tools of linguistic anthropology easily comprehensible, and her impressive capacity as an ethnographer to untangle the messy, often seemingly contradictory ways in which her interlocutors express the experience of disillusion.