- Anti-Crisis by Janet Roitman
We live in a world seemingly awash in crisis. From the Great Collapse of global financial markets in 2007–2008 to spiraling climate catastrophe to crumbling social infrastructure and ever-diminished horizons for those coming of age today, crisis appears omnipresent. But what does it mean to proclaim “crisis,” and what consequences follow it? This is the question at the core of Janet Roitman’s Anti-Crisis. Roitman’s intervention in the crisis narrative is important and timely, and her work is well-informed, provocative, and engaging. Her critical account of crisis narratives does not seek to validate one narrative form over another or to prove or disprove the diagnosis of crisis. Instead, she looks to contemporary narratives of the financial crisis in order to explore how the invocation of crisis opens up certain pathways for action and lines of inquiry while foreclosing others. Roitman explores crisis as a historico-philosophical concept, a “transcendental placeholder,” an empty signifier without positive content itself (9). In a milieu in which transcendental principles (god, justice, reason, etc.) no longer provide meaning and cohesion to social systems, crisis exists not as a critical, decisive moment but as a chronic condition, a malaise that signifies contingency and paradox and provides meaning (9). Crisis, Roitman explains, is also the assertion that provides the negative space from which to articulate a critique of the status quo in an immanent rather than an abstracted manner. Without denying its efficacy for such purposes, Roitman observes that the judgment of crisis is always made after the fact. Crisis is affirmed and then we are left to ask, “What went wrong?”, but while crisis may seem self-evident, as Roitman argues, such a narrative arc means that “the grounds for knowledge of crisis are neither questioned or made [End Page 569] explicit,” and so the critical question of how one can apprehend crisis is never asked (10). How could this be? How could something so essential to the spirit of our current age be essentially empty of meaning? How could claims to crisis not reveal systemic forms of violence, exploitation, and oppression and thus call for struggles against and alternatives to them, but reinforce the dominant order and the interests it serves?
Tracing the etymological roots of “crisis,” Roitman finds them in the Ancient Greek term “krinô” (meaning to separate, choose, cut, decide, judge) and to the Hippocratic school which employed crisis “as part of medical grammar” to denote not disease itself but “the turning point of a disease, or a critical phase in which life or death was at stake and called for an irrevocable decision” (15). But, Roitman asserts, crisis is no longer this defining, decisive moment in the life of something else. Today, it is a state of being, a chronic condition. Drawing heavily on the philosophy of Reinhart Koselleck, Roitman explores crisis as a concept central to the rise of a particular conceptualization of history and historical consciousness, both of which belong to distinctly modern ways of thinking about and being in the world and are clearly distinguishable from their pre-modern correlates, which emphasized transcendentalism rather than immanence and repetition rather than novelty. She argues that by the end of the 18th century, crisis became a “free-standing historico-philosophical concept” that both marks and generates history (20). Empty of its own content and always attributed to something else (capitalism, politics, or culture), Roitman nevertheless provocatively—and I think accurately—posits that in its invocation, crisis is an observation “that secures ‘a world’ for observation” (39).
Following this philosophical archaeology of the concept of crisis in relation to the emergent project of modernity, Roitman turns her attention to current crisis narratives circulating around the Great Collapse of 2007. Surveying their contours, she contends that whether these narratives emerged from neoliberal, neo-Keynesian, or Marxist perspectives, they all began by positing a distinction between the “real economy” and the “‘fictive’ or ‘overvalued’ state of affairs” (43). This, Roitman argues, is itself a fiction because it elides the question of how something that at one instance is figured as...