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  • The Ambivalence of Crisis
  • David W. Janzen (bio)

In rhetorical terms, to declare a "crisis" is to create a distinction between an exception (the crisis) and normalcy (non-crisis); that is, between how a specific situation is actually functioning and a projection of how it ought to function under "normal" circumstances. Put another way: crisis marks out a moment as an exception—as something that, like the master signifier, organizes a symbolic field—and it does so against a norm that is external to the crisis itself. Thus, economic crisis can only be defined against an understanding of an "economic normalcy"; an environmental crisis can only be defined against some definition of a "normal environment"; and so on.

The distinction between crisis and non-crisis requires judgment. This idea is embedded in the concept's origins, the Greek "krei-", the root for both crisis and critique. In its original context, ancient Greek medical theory, crisis is a deviation from the body's normal (healthy) state defined not by the presence of illness itself, but by subjective process of judgment the illness invokes. As Janet Roitman writes: "crisis denoted the turning point of a disease, or a critical phase in which life or death was at stake and called for an irrevocable decision. Significantly, crisis was not the disease or illness per se; it was the condition that called for decisive judgment [End Page 19] between alternatives." By calling for "decisive judgment," the crisis condition links the experience of the illness that the patient undergoes (Habermas 1) and the diagnostic process of discernment and judgment (a physician diagnosing the cause and prescribing the remedy), to the trajectory of the illness (the patient will either recover or not) (Koselleck 358). In its long history, "crisis" has lived varied discursive lives—from Greek medicine and Roman law, to Christian eschatology, to modern socio-political upheavals, to contemporary economics. But the subjective/objective dimension remains: crisis is condition that necessitates judgment and intervention, and therefore some kind of subject.

Here, the political dimensions of crisis rhetoric are clear. First, if crisis rests on a distinction between exception and norm, and if that distinction requires judgment, then the logic of crisis depends on who or what has the legitimacy to declare the exception.1 Moreover, because this judgment necessitates intervention—because it is not descriptive but prescriptive—it has material effects. To declare a crisis is to mobilize resources toward a specific outcome. For example, the effect of declaring a public health crisis (the current pandemic, for example) is not merely to quantify risk but to legitimate and mobilize a greater-than-normal response to mitigate risk, or to return to normalcy.

Second, and more importantly, crisis judgment is historically conditioned. It rests on historical processes of normalization; most prominently, this includes systemic forms of inequality that make some lives more significant than others. This is most obvious when we ask: Why are some events recognized as crises while others of equal magnitude are not? In Canada, clear examples are found in Indigenous communities: ongoing housing shortages, the water crisis in Attawaspikatt, suicide rates among northern Indigenous youth, the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic—in quantitative terms, these tragedies constitute crises. Yet, despite repeated and urgent declarations from local and community leaders, these events were belatedly (if ever) recognized as such, and unlike officially recognized crises they have received very few resources. This pattern fits well-documented global patterns in which the critical endangerment of some lives simply doesn't count as crisis (Giroux). In the crisis logics of colonialism and late-capitalism the disposability of some lives—Indigenous, racialized, imprisoned, impoverished—is not an exception but the norm. [End Page 20]

Third, crisis cuts the social fabric with a double-edged sword. On one hand, as a state of exception, crises legitimate and expand existing forms of power and inequality. In times of crisis, democratic freedoms are suspended and limitations on the exercise of power are lifted, often leading to violence, exploitation, and increased precarity. On the other hand, however, crises often destabilize and potentially de-legitimize entrenched forms of power, potentially opening up new forms of subjectivity, action, collaboration, and meaning...


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