Repair as repopulating the devastated desert of our political and social imaginations

Drawing together a wide variety of contributions and approaches to different strategies of repair and recovery in post-crisis Portugal, Francisco Martínez has compiled the volume Politics of Recuperation, a comprehensive anthropological approach to the meanings of the crises in Southern Europe. As explained in the back cover:

How did Portuguese society recover after the economic crisis? Through a range of ethnographic case studies focusing on the Portuguese recovery, this book begins a conversation about the experience of recuperation and repair. It addresses how the recovery of relations creates something transcendental, adds a human dimension to the public sphere and expands our conception of what constitutes the political.

Located in the cracks and gaps between the state and society, recuperation appears as a social and infrastructural answer linked to reciprocity, critical urbanity, generational interweaving, alternate ordering and reconnection of different bodies and histories. With chapters looking at public art in Lisbon and recuperative modes of action, this collection takes a thorough look at a society in crisis and shows how the people of the community create micro-politics of resistance. Ultimately, Politics of Recuperation reflects on the meaning of personal and collective resilience in Europe today, as well as on the limits and interstices of contemporary politics.

Repair as repopulating the devastated desert of our political and social imaginations

In my contribution––originally conceived as a comment in a workshop where the different chapters were discussed, and here framed as a conclusion to the volume––, I reflect on how the different works resonate with a growing series of recent works addressing Southern Europe in/as Crisis. Indeed, the recent post-2008 crises have rekindled the fear of ‘going backwards,’ still very vivid in migration tropes from the 1960s–70s. However, this assessment of ‘backwardness’ unfolds a wider European genre of telling ‘what the problem is’, with peculiar connotations for Southern Europe: where ‘modernity’ and its alleged univocal drive towards ‘progress’ comes centre stage: Europe, here, appears as a particular poetics of infrastructure.

But these crises have also rekindled a ‘slight orientalism’ of Southern Europe: a nearby place conjuring images of the far away or, more precisely, a slightly far away nearby place. This slight orientalism has been over the years conveniently mobilised over and over again in the ways in which tourism is branded and marketed. Interestingly, it has also served later on to underpin the ‘exceptionality of Europe’ trope and its violent incarnation in the perceived threats of non-European migration: fierce – when not most of the time overly brutal – border and sea control, detention and containment or racialised police checks. Southern Europe as both leisure resort and boundary-maker of ‘Fortress Europe’.

However, beyond these tropes, and in a context of experimentation with ‘neoliberal’ forms of government the financialisation of life and the expansion of indebtedness have also brought with them other explanations for what the problem was and what to do about it. Indeed, to many, the Common Market, and later the European Union, have been quintessential mechanisms for that economic transformation. One in which the developmental issue of Southern and Eastern Europe was addressed beyond explicitly racialised terms, yet forcefully reinstating a particularly modernist ontology of the social: a scalar one, which not only classifies actors in terms of a grid of the big and the small (macro and micro; the state and the people; society/group and the individual), but also creates concomitant orders of worth and causality with regards to what it might mean to take political action.

Against this background, the works here compiled offer alternative accounts. Notably, the Portuguese verb reparar has a nuance that the English ‘to repair’ does not have: one that goes beyond ‘to fix something that is broken or damaged’ and ‘to take action in order to improve a bad situation’ (the two main definitions found in the Macmillan English Dictionary). Reparar also means ‘to observe’, ‘to pay attention’. The descriptive repertoire that this anthology brings forward would thus help us shed light on the distinct nuances that different groups, people and collectives might be bringing about, unsettling unified narratives around what might have happened and what to do with it. Observing, paying attention to the forms of repair, hence, might be the best antidote to ready-made explanations of the ‘what’ and ‘why’, and any ready-made concepts or frameworks suggesting what should be done and how: an unsettled response to an unsettling condition, perhaps?

In my opinion, what is at stake in the particularly reparative practices and relations beyond scale, assembled in this anthology (dances, moneylending, the retrieval of ancient legacies, caring for discarded goods or engaging in different forms of urban activism) is a dispute of the actual definition of ‘welfare’. In other words, the works here compiled might portray a reinvention of ‘welfare society’ that does not bear the mark of
disaster, but of hope: a hope that in these particularly disastrous times
of ours – when crises do not seem to have an end – they might be ‘repopulating the devastated desert of our [social and political]
imaginations’, to say it with Stengers.

As I see it, the allegedly small has never been more important to recasting our hopes, to repopulating our imaginations of the greater good, devastated by austerity and the path-dependency of neoliberal rule. Especially when everything seems lost, these modes of repair show the hopeful character of how things might be created anew: not going back to ‘what we were’, but
experimenting with modes of togetherness yet to be defined.

Published in Politics of Recuperation (pp.207-220). Oxford: Bloomsbury (2020, F. Martínez, ed.) | PDF

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