February 2012

Matt McGregor

nonfiction

Missing: Persons and Politics by Jenny Edkins

All theoretical writing is bad. This is not the fault of anyone in particular: thirty years of stale metaphors, tangled syntax, and unembarrassed name-dropping have produced, ignobly, a genre; the badges of intellectual rebellion have become the uniform of standard practice. It was, I suppose, bound to happen. As we know from Yeats:

Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the wind,
Scarce spread a glory to the morning beams,
But the torn petals strew the garden plot;
And there's but common greenness after that.

In the meantime, though, the political claims of theorists have become increasingly, reflexively radical. If you skim the lessons of today's university presses, you will find stark "calls" for new concepts of community and nation; university and government; animal, human, and planetary life; gender, sexuality, and race; machine and technology; work and leisure; and so on.

Academia, like poetry, makes nothing happen; but it, like poetry, has a fantastic amount to teach. And so it is with some frustration that we see that today's UP hot topics -- like war, poverty, political violence, and the law -- are filtered through the precepts of a dying genre. Missing by Jenny Edkins is an unfortunately perfect example. A well-researched, transnational history of bad institutions, cruel governments, and decent individuals,Missing commits all the sins of generic academic prose.

We see this in her first chapter, in which she discusses the posters of the missing after 9/11. Here, as elsewhere, her clunky theoretical apparatus comes close to ruining her compelling history of that event. As an academic, Edkins cannot let the story speak for itself. It is not enough that New Yorkers found some kind of consolation in the display of photos; we must be told that photographs "make the missing visible." Later, she writes, "A photograph appears to record a moment that has inevitably passed, but in itself, as a photograph, it is equally present." And again: "When one views the body of a relative, what is most striking is that the person is no longer there." And again: "I found it difficult to comprehend how anyone could find it possible to do such a thing -- to disregard life so utterly." And again: "Time stands still for those left behind, and place is unsettled: the missing are nowhere to be found."

This mix of cliché, tautology, and theoretical vagueness is unfortunately typical of Edkins's writing; she has a habit of dressing banal statements in the diction of earth-shattering profundity. This is frustrating, because Edkins is an excellent scholar, and this is, sporadically, an important book. Take, for example, her point that many of the people who died in the WTC attacks were not wealthy bankers, but undocumented cleaning staff. After the towers fell, and the lists of "missing persons" began to circulate -- as well as rather large sums of government compensation -- this was an enormous problem. How can a government search for a person who does not legally exist?

From 9/11, Edkins pivots to the ruins of postwar Europe, where the clumsiness of official bureaucracy she sees in New York is multiplied across an entire continent. In Edkins's detailed portrait, 1945 saw the terror of combat replaced by the tyranny of paperwork, as the millions of displaced persons found themselves processed -- and encamped -- by legions of uncoordinated volunteers. It was the task of the various relief organizations, such as the Red Cross, to register these floating populations, get them into "the system," such as it was, and channel as appropriate.

The relief effort, as it turns out, was not entirely benevolent. The more closely an agency was tied to government, the less attention it paid to the wishes of displaced persons. In general, the fundamental problem of reuniting families was considered less important than the cynical politicking of fragile governments. This created a nightmare of bad bureaucracy: by August 1946, records from the concentration camps had still not yet been processed. Refugees were sitting in camps, and populations were starving. In Germany, the situation was even worse. Of the 2.5 million cases of missing persons registered with officials after the war, some 1.3 million were unresolved as of 2005. Britain, shattered by the war and living with an uneasy peace, made the unforgivable calculation to repatriate all refugees, come what may. Tens of thousands of former Slovenes, told they were on their way to Italy, were transported to Yugoslavia -- where they were massacred, along with 80,000 others.

This is a book peppered with surprises; and Edkins's criticisms of bureaucratic cruelty and official mismanagement often hit their mark. The American Red Cross, for example, comes across as entirely caught up in the phobias and jingoism of post-9/11 America. After raising an extraordinary amount of money, nominally intended to help the families of victims, the Red Cross adopted the rhetoric of an invading army. Funds were to be used for "training and development in response to weapons of mass destruction" and to prepare for "future terrorist attacks and catastrophic events which may be multifaceted and which may occur concurrently in multiple cities and regions." The President of the Red Cross, Dr. Bernadine Healy, told Congress "We must have the ability to help our troops if we go into a ground war."

As her story chugs along, she moves across continents, to consider the jarring insensitivity of the British authorities after the London bombings. The moral of the story is unsurprising: everyday people were extraordinary; officials, in the words of Mary Dejeusky, displayed "a built-in fear of breaking rules, a retreat to learned formulae that demanded caution." This is a good story --which, at its best, is almost journalistic -- but it, like many other chapters, is encumbered Edkins's penchant for pat, moralistic conclusions. She surmises, of one of the victims: "He is not just a statistic."

The problem with Edkins's analysis is that her conclusions are never quite as sophisticated as she imagines. When speaking about the missing, for instance, she refers to the need "to complete their story and to help us in building our own." Europeans need to "examine the heritage we share." "Governments," she writes, "are concerned with populations, not particular people." The problem, here, is not that Edkins is wrong; it is that she is uninteresting. All of Edkins's readers are capable of drawing these glib conclusions. Her "radical" conclusion -- bureaucracy is rather shitty; family is pretty important -- simply rephrases the talking points of nearly every major Anglo-American political party since 1979. As much as we might sympathize with her political ideals, they simply do not bear repeating.

This becomes much worse when she throws into the pot the dreadful infelicities of theory. This gives us sentences like these:

Recognized as a hole, a gap, a lack, or an excess, it cannot be grasped, pinned down, specified in language.

In this distribution of the sensible, the count must be complete; there must be nothing missing, no void.

We forget, too easily perhaps, that behind every face, even our own faces, is a vast untapped landscape -- in many cases a landscape of horror concealed -- that continues to contain the seeds of the past.

In this tumble of metaphors, we see the frustrating imprecision of theoretical jargon: of course one cannot "pin down" a "hole" or a "gap." Who on earth is saying you can? And who "taps" landscapes for seeds? Does Edkins really need this fashionable academic apparatus?

Simply put, one does not need to have a working knowledge of "biopolitics" -- a concept used by Michel Foucault, which Edkins treats as unimpeachable fact -- to sympathize with the call for "a focus on people not process." In her introduction, Edkins claims that "this notion of person draws on Lacanian thinking." But does it need to? It is not that Jacques Lacan is too radical or too difficult, but that he is too standard. The range of references in Missing -- from Lacan to Agamben and Ranciere -- reveals a writer hopelessly attuned to intellectual fashion. These references do nothing for her argument, and are, in the final analysis, little more than the badges of a tribe. Giorgio Agamben's concept of "bare life" -- a juridical concept Agamben borrows from Ancient Roman jurors to explain the obscure relation between sovereign power, the law, and the camps of the Third Reich -- becomes, in this way, a catchphrase.

One wishes that Edkins had slightly less ambition for this book. At its best, Missing is a smart work of journalism. She unearths a great deal of evidence to suggest that the problem of modern politics is not bad people but bad institutions. The officials in Missing are often calculating, cynical, or scared; ordinary people are courageous and decent. This is a rather naive conclusion, but it is not for that reason wrong. When she sheds the tired moves of effete continental philosophy, Edkins asks, bluntly, the most angry and hopeful of questions; it is here that Edkins shows her talent. She never forgives the nasty realpolitik of international relations. Nor should she.

Missing: Persons and Politics by Jenny Edkins
Cornell University Press
ISBN: 978-0801450297
280 pages