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Introduction: Localizing the State

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 86, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 957-963 | 10.1353/anq.2013.0055

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Localizing the State

The articles in this special collection saw their inception as presentations for a panel at the 2009 meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia, which sought to revisit the ways in which ethnographic methods could shed light on everyday encounters with the state. Drawing explicit inspiration from Anthropology in the Margins of the State, a 2004 volume edited by Veena Das and Deborah Poole, the panel participants sought to build upon that work’s project of exploring the conceptual, territorial, and imaginary “margins” of the state to analyze the unexpected consequences, delayed forms of resistance, and temporally ephemeral political phenomena in states undergoing significant historical transformations. As a contributor to that volume (Ferme 2004), I was asked to be a discussant on the panel, and later to write this introduction to the special collection. The cover image of Anthropology in the Margins of the State, portraying Anish Kapoor’s “Door”—a rectangle of light surrounded by a dark mass from which tentacle-like lines spread out interrupted by nodes and intersecting each other—serves well to illustrate a point I made in my own chapter in that volume (Ferme 2004) about the punctuated, “nodal” way in which the state becomes integrated, particularly as an apparatus of capture, even in situations where state services and agents appear to be absent, for instance, or for diasporic citizens living beyond its territorial borders. In particular, I stressed the temporal register on which the state, following Deleuze and Guattari (1987), can function as an apparatus of capture. The open door and empty doorway featured in “Before the [End Page 957] Law,” a story told by a friendly priest to the protagonist of Kafka’s novel, The Trial, stands for the paradoxical tension, within the law, between its apparent openness to all people seeking justice, and the obstacles they encounter in practice (Kafka 2009:154-156). In Kafka’s account, the “man from the country” comes to seek redress and asks to be admitted through the open but guarded door, only to be told by the guard that he cannot enter, and that even if the man ignores his interdiction, there are many more doors beyond, each guarded by increasingly forbidding guards. The man from the country sits by the door his whole life, periodically pestering the guard to be let in, but always being told that “he still can’t let him in” (2009:155), only to discover—near death—that this door, through which nobody passed the whole time he sat by it, was open for him alone, and would be closed after his demise (Ferme 2004:110-111). The continuous deferral of access to the law in this story points to the ways in which states and their agents exercise their control on a temporal register—through bureaucratic delays, the establishment of state holidays, school calendars, memorializing practices, and so on.

The law has been an especially powerful arena for the exercise of state power—becoming a tool to legalize usurpations in land claims, for instance (Holston 1991), or even an object of “fetishism” in the context of moral panics triggered by the perceived rise of criminality (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006:22). But the rise of new legal institutions and jurisdictions have challenged state sovereignty as well, as has become apparent in the tensions between national and international courts in prosecuting war crimes, for instance (see Clarke 2009:138-140). In the legal as well as other arenas, the state’s margins are increasingly porous, and can only be drawn in contingent and uneven ways. It may be helpful, then, to think of the state as an inherently translocal entity, which localizes itself in particular sites, and at particular times (Gupta 1995). These may be places like a village land registry office where ordinary Indian citizens encounter corrupt bureaucrats (Gupta 1995:379-381), or checkpoints in a country where a decades-long insurgency leads to the uneven militarization of everyday life (Jaganathan 2004). But they can be imaginary processes of localization as well, for instance through the mass media—which serve to acquaint citizens with prominent government figures in ways that place them at...