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Javier Auyero and Débora Alejandra Swistun, Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009, 188 pages, US $19.95 paper, ISBN 978-0-19-537293-9.
See Tom Perreault's most recent contributions to Society & Space here: Reworking the Spaces of Indigeneity: The Bolivian Ayllu and Lowland Autonomy Movements Compared and ‘A People with Our Own Identity’: Toward a Cultural Politics of Development in Ecuadorian Amazonia
Among its many admirable qualities is the fact that Flammable’s authors are not geographers. I’m not unhappy with my discipline; it’s just that this fact allows sociologist Javier Auyero and anthropologist Débora Alejandra Swistun to write an account of urban geography free of the disciplinary fetters that sometimes haunt geography. They write about urban space without fetishizing it, and their examination of nature-society relations is unburdened by the turgid prose and theoretical millstones that too often weigh down geographical analysis. This is not to say that Flammable is conceptually untethered. Rather, Auyero and Swistun apply theory with a light touch: their prose is careful and considered, and they don’t allow theory to run out ahead of empirics.
Flammable tells the story of Villa Inflamable (translated and referred to in the text as ‘Flammable’), a shantytown on the edge of Buenos Aires, hemmed in by a petrochemical complex and the festering waters of the Río de la Plata, and which was named for a ship explosion just offshore. It is, as Auyero and Swistun tell it, a story of urban relegation and environmental suffering, of people whose lives are shaped in profound and permanent ways by the toxic environment in which they live, and by the confusion, longing, and resignation produced by indifferent state bureaucracy, duplicitous corporations, and prying journalists (and, it must be said, researchers). Perhaps above all, Flammable is an exemplary ethnography. The product of two years of collaborative fieldwork, the book is a model of ethnographic research and writing. Its analysis is rich with quotations from interviews and passages from the authors’ fieldnotes. Together these lend insight not only into the rhythms of daily life in Flammable, but also into the challenges and opportunities inherent in research of this sort. This fact, together with the authors’ uncluttered prose and the book’s short length, make Flammable an ideal text for teaching research methods. Undergraduates and graduate students alike will learn much from this book, and like me, are likely to find themselves returning to it repeatedly for reference and inspiration.
Part of what makes Flammable such a remarkable book is the collaborative relationship between Auyero and Swistun – a collaboration that, unfortunately, is not easily replicated. Auyero, of the University of Texas at Austin, is an outsider to the community, but with years of research experience in Buenos Aires. Swistun, by contrast, is an insider. Having grown up in Flammable (and as a resident during the research period) she knows viscerally the burdens of living there. She has instant access to some residents, most notably her own family (however, because Flammable, like any community, is not homogeneous, her access does extend to all residents—an understandable limitation that deserves more attention than the authors give it). Ethnography is most often a solitary endeavor, in which the ethnographer ventures off to the ‘field’ and lives among the "locals" in order to understand their day-to-day experiences. But what if the ethnographer is a local, the "field" is her neighborhood, and the day-to-day experiences she records are those of her own life? The logistics of this collaborative ethnography open up many of the knotty categories of research methods: questions of the "field," positionality, and the relationship between researcher and researched are all exposed for interrogation here. The collaborative, insider/outsider nature of Flammable places it alongside Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism Through Seven Lives in India, collaboratively authored by the Sangtin Writers collective and geographer Richa Nagar (2006), as both a model of collaborative ethnographic work and an intellectual and activist challenge to ethnographers.
Flammable is a complex book with an uncomplicated structure. Following the introduction, which sets the conceptual and geographical stage, Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the shantytown of Flammable, making effective use of maps and photographs—some of them by neighborhood children asked to take pictures of places in their community that they like and dislike. Chapter 2 (“The compound and the neighborhood”) examines the relationship between the oil refinery compound and the community that has grown up in its shadow. Here the authors allow firsthand accounts (their own fieldnotes and the children’s photographs) to tell much of the story. They also draw on personal narratives of Flammable residents, which often take the form of idealized nostalgia for an unpolluted community long gone. Auyero and Swistun do not discount such narratives as naïve, nor do they hold them up as clear evidence of environmental transformation. Rather, they present them as windows into the experience of living with extreme pollution. As they emphasize, such idealized representations of the distant past must be viewed as a backdrop against which present experience is measured.
As the authors write at the end of Chapter 2, “Pollution lives a double life: one in objective space—in the air, water, streams, and soil of the shantytown; another one in the bodies and minds of contaminated inhabitants” (page 60). The experience of environmental suffering—how lives are misshapen and cut short by environmental toxins—is at once the experience of material contamination and of social domination. Just as the residents of Flammable are exposed to heavy metals and chemical toxins, so are they exposed to the social exclusion and institutional indifference that mark the lives of the poor everywhere. This is the topic of Chapters 3 (“Toxic wor[l]ds”), 4 (“The [confused and mistaken] categories of the dominated”), and 5 (“Exposed waiting”). In these chapters, Auyero and Swistun interrogate the actions and discourses of the institutions that dominate the lives of Flammable’s residents: the petrochemical industry (most notably Shell, the firm with the greatest presence), the Argentine state, and the medical establishment. Here, Flammable’s analysis most resembles other important ethnographies of urban poverty in Latin American, such as Nancy Scheper Hughes’ Death Without Weeping (1993) and Donna Goldstein’s Laughter out of Place (2003). Together, these chapters examine the confusion generated by conflicting information, the indifference of the medical establishment, and the frustrations of navigating labyrinthine state bureaucracies.
In Chapter 5’s “Exposed waiting,” Auyero and Swistun, drawing on the work of Bourdieu, examine how the power inherent in time – what they refer to as "tempography"—is fundamental to the workings of domination and submission: time is “experienced as a waiting time: waiting (while becoming hopeful and then frustrated) for others to make decisions over their lives; surrendering themselves, in effect, to the authority of others… residents in Flammable are condemned to live in a time oriented to and by others” (pages 128-129, emphasis in original). Here, geographers should take notice. In a discipline which turns on the concept of (socially produced and power-laden) space, we would do well to consider more carefully the social production of time, and the ways in which it expresses deeply uneven relations of power.
Given the desperate conditions in which residents of Flammable live, and the callousness with which they are treated by the institutions that dominate their lives, one might expect them to be organized and active in defense of their welfare and local environment. Instead, as Auyero and Swistun discuss in Chapter 6 (“Collective disbelief in joint action”), the community is marked by a distinct lack of collective action. Collective inaction is in part a function of the creeping, slow-motion nature of the contamination affecting Flammable (in contrast to an oil spill, for example, the pollution that emanates from the refinery is gradual, and many people have lived most of their lives—in some cases long lives—in the midst of extreme pollution). But inaction is also an outcome of residents’ subaltern condition. As the authors write, “Theirs is a hopeful submission to both degraded living conditions and to the actions of others” (page 134). As James Scott (1992) taught us long ago, domination produces resistance, and scholars go looking for it. But domination also produces submission, acquiescence, resignation, and passivity. These effects are less interesting, perhaps, but no less important, and are rarely the subject of academic analysis. Flammable’s thoughtful consideration of the absence of collective action makes it an important contribution to the literatures on social movements and environmental justice.
Collective inaction is in part a function of lives lived in uncertainty and confusion. Chapter 7 (“The social production of toxic uncertainty”) examines the sense of uncertainty that, along with environmental toxins, shapes the daily lives of Flammable residents. Living with uncertainty is part and parcel of living with pollution. To a considerable extent, it is the confusion surrounding levels of toxicity, the facts of relocation or compensation, and the very nature of contamination itself, that allows people to get on with their lives:
“Uncertainty is a built-in element in the cultural repertoire of Flammable residents. Despite the shaky grounds, daily routines were never drastically disrupted” (page 142).
Uncertainty, in this sense, serves to mask omnipresent danger, or at the very least to draw it into a misty background, eclipsed by the more pressing tasks of daily life.
Flammable is, above all, a masterful ethnography of environmental suffering. Packaged in a short and plainly written book, this is a deceptively sophisticated work. It is at once an exemplary analysis of urban geography and a much-needed examination of environmental (in)justice in what the authors refer to as “territories of urban relegation” (page 129). It is also an urgent call for research into the uneven geographies of environmental suffering in Latin America. As the authors stress at the outset, despite the voluminous literature on poverty and inequality in Latin America, there has been scant attention paid to environmental degradation as an expression of domination. Fortunately this is changing, as the work of Latin American (and Latin Americanist) political ecologists and scholars of environmental justice becomes more prominent throughout the continent (e.g. Carruthers, 2008). It is possible that Auyero and Swistun are unfamiliar with this literature. But it is certainly the case that in most of Latin America, environmental justice—both as a field of scholarship and a sphere of social action—remains in the intellectual and political shadows. Moreover, in an era in which seemingly every environmental issue is seen through the lens of climate (as one colleague referred to it, the “climatization of everything”), it is oddly refreshing to read an account of pollution and toxicity, and to be reminded that actually existing environmental suffering comes in many forms. This beautiful, tragic book serves as a powerful reminder of this fact and the ongoing struggles it engenders.