Talking about Sovereignty and Action with Gregory Feldman

Cover of the book The Gray Zone.In this Association for the Anthropology of Policy column, Ted Powers interviews Gregory Feldman about his 2019 book, The Gray Zone: Sovereignty, Human Smuggling, and Undercover Police Investigation in Europe.

Q: For those who have not yet read The Gray Zone, could you offer a short overview of your text’s focus, content, and argument?

It’s a study of what is action and why people are drawn to it. The argument is made that there are two forms of sovereignty: one vertical and the other horizontal. The vertical form is found in the nation-state; the horizontal mode originates from people undertaking joint action. The two forms can be called sovereignty because they both initiate new beginnings for political life, but they also significantly differ because one leads to the silencing of political subjects while the other gives them voice.  

If we don’t tease out these two implications of sovereignty then we lose track of what compels people to take action. All that is demonstrated through the case study of a group of police investigators who take action to create worlds on their own terms, which activists also try to do.

Q: Can you describe how you came to develop this project, and where it falls within your broader trajectory as an ethnographer?

For my first two major research projects—one on Estonia’s accession to the European Union (EU) and the other on the EU “migration apparatus”—I looked at people with expertise in technocratic positions, where they deploy policy logics that they themselves don’t necessarily subscribe to.

I reversed the approach with a book called We are all Migrants, which looks at political action originating in the modern alienated world. And that’s what I mean by “migrants”: not someone who moves, but someone unable to constitute political space with others, i.e. disconnected, alienated. The book elaborates that point through literature, philosophy, and current events.

The Gray Zone, an ethnography, complements The Migration Apparatus: the former looks at action among security officials based on their own ethical judgments while the latter at the technocratic logics that they deploy to facilitate security and social reproduction as an abstract project.  

Q: What were the broad objectives of the project as you began and how did these change over time?

Policymakers often ask before an interview if “you want to know what I think or what I have to tell you?” It’s a joke, but it’s also serious. They are saying that “I may be well paid and enjoying this nice life as an EU bureaucrat, but I’m not necessarily doing anything that reflects my own opinion.” That’s sad and ironic because you have people in positions of structural power whose routine work does not resonate with their own conscience. That’s alienation; it happens to the comfortable and affluent too.

So that captured my attention and I asked an obvious question: “if that’s how alienation happens, or at least one way it happens, then how does the opposite happen? The constitution of people as political actors in shared space.” Isn’t that sovereign action par excellence. I don’t think the question is so simple even though it happens more often than we realize.

Q: How did you go about designing this project, and what led you to utilize the methodology that you employed?

I already knew a member of the investigative team. I asked him if I could do an ethnographic study of his team. I thought I would get a quick “no”. But, quickly, I got a “yes”  with approval from the appropriate senior officials.  

I wondered why they liked their job so much? It certainly wasn’t the cheap thrill of carrying a gun. Why did they like each other so much? Why did they have so much fun with it, even though it was really serious stuff? I mean, they’re making arrests, they’re doing investigations, they’re doing things that really change people’s lives—people who are in very difficult circumstances.

But there was a certain kind of spirit to them that I thought needed attention and oddly enough it seemed to resonate with studies of anarchist groups. David Graeber points out that there’s a certain joyous spirit that you get when taking action—acting is if the state isn’t there. There’s something irreplaceable about that experience, and I saw it in this team too. They sometimes acted as if the state weren’t there, but they didn’t abuse people when they did. As they say, we should be ready for the unexpected in ethnographic field research.

Q: What are the broader theoretical contributions that your book makes to anthropology as a discipline?

Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben…I don’t like to say them in the same sentence because Agamben obviously has an agenda of liberation and has received a lot of unfair criticism… Still, both take for granted this vertical state and that the essence of sovereignty is control and dehumanization. I don’t think that’s true, essentially. I think that’s an effect of a certain form of sovereignty organized as a nation-state.

The essence of sovereignty, I think, is the capacity to start anew. So, even when you call a state of exception in the classic Schmittian case and you eradicate law and act with impunity, you’re basically starting anew, because law isn’t providing you with the security that you claim you need. It’s going to create hell on earth, but you’re still starting anew.

Alternatively, when you constitute sovereignty horizontally you’re also starting anew, but it’s bringing everyone to political life because it’s emerging through the action and the dialogue that those actors have as equal but different people. And that starts to sound a lot like anarchism when you read people like Graeber, and it starts to sound an awful lot like politics as someone like Hannah Arendt understood it.

Q: What are the implications of your project and its conclusions for anthropologists of policy?

Policymakers are similar to what Foucault calls “specific intellectuals”, people in strategic locations in apparatuses based on their expert knowledge and are capable of changing the direction of things by being exactly where they are. Anthropologists of policy engage them and push them to explain their views, responsibilities, and effects of their work. We push them to ethically evaluate it all.

It probably won’t lead to monumental changes, but it gives them a broader sense of what they’re in a position to do. And, you never know what effect it might have.

Q: What messages, if any, does you book have for policy makers and/or advocates?

I think the message is that they might have other ways to engage with the people whom their policy work affects. It gives them a way to understand more deeply the kind of relationship they have with the people that they’re affecting, and I think that’s the value of academic work. Someone who has really taken time to really think about that relationship in a way that isn’t available to the policy maker’s immediate experience.

Q: What is the most important advice you would give to the policy ethnographer?

Here’s what I suggest: it’s a given that anthropologists do ethnography, and I find it curious that we always repeat that to ourselves. What is equally important, and maybe not a popular thing to say, is that you’ve really got to know theory. Theory gives you alternative languages to speak in, alternative registers to talk about empowerment or disempowerment in clear, concise terms. The more eloquent you are theoretically, I actually think the more you can engage with the so-called average person or the so-called typical policymaker because you have a wider range of things to ask that person. Of course, you have to say it in non-technical language, which is also evidence that someone knows theory.

Greg Feldman teaches at the University of Windsor. His previous books on Stanford University Press include The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union (2012) and We Are All Migrants: Political Action and the Ubiquitous Condition of Migrant-hood.

Theodore Powers is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology and Global Health Studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Sustaining Life: AIDS Activism in South Africa (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020) and his work analyzes the dynamics of health, inequality, and activism in South Africa.

If you would like to contribute to this ASAP section news column, please contact the contributing editor: Theodore Powers at theodore- [email protected].

Cite as: Powers, Theodore and Gregory Feldman. 2020. “Talking about Sovereignty and Action with Gregory Feldman.” Anthropology News website, January 22, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1339

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