Roberto Barrios is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction (Nebraska, 2017).
This talk is co-sponsored by the Department of Anthropology.
In the case of Western European historiography, the origin of the crisis concept is often traced to Classical Greece, where it was used in the medical and legal fields to denote decision or a judgement. During the Middle Ages, the latter meaning of crisis as judgement lent itself to application in Christian teleological histories of salvation, with the Final Judgement being conceived as a crisis that would mark the transition between two qualitatively different temporalities: the history of humanity and the eternal utopia of the Kingdom of Heaven. This Christian Medieval meaning of crisis would eventually permeate 18th Century historiography, where the term came to describe critical moments of upheaval that marked transitions between different epochs, a meaning that endured in 19th Century evolutionary social theory. At the same time, crisis’ classical meaning as judgement is also commonly seen as the origin of the 18th Century Western European notion of critique. In 20th Century social science, this connection between crisis and critique resurfaced when a number of scholars came to see upheaval as a methodologically opportune moment that makes visible socio-political fault lines, contradictions, and structures that are more difficult to document during times of “normalcy.” Most notable among these scholars was Marshall Sahlins, who popularized the term crise révélatrice. But proponents of the revelatory merits of crises drew a modernist blindside as they assumed the vantagepoint for beholding a crisis was one that was informed by Marxist or political ecological theory, granting these analytical perspectives status as universally applicable transcendental critiques. Since the 1960s, post-structural deconstructions of Marxist analyses have helped us recognize the situatedness of Eurocentric social theory. In light of these contributions and in the context of global challenges such as anthropogenic climate change and the COVID 19 Pandemic, this presentation explores the following questions: If crises are, indeed, revelatory, what role does the beholder’s epistemological vantagepoint play in what is revealed to the observer? If crises are laden with the potential for social change, can they also bring about epistemological change and if so, for whom and how?