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A biblical famine—now, in the twentieth century.1 Famines seem anachronistic. They appear to belong to an era more primitive and less technologically advanced than our own. During the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s there was surprise that a crisis of this sort could take place at all in the twentieth century. It seemed biblical in its scale and imagery. Famines are seen as failures of development and modernization and, what is more, failures that can be overcome by progress and more advanced technology. There are disagreements as to where the difficulty lies, whether in the agricultural system, in economic distribution, or in population growth. There is even recognition that political breakdown can cause famines, too, and that what we find these days are not famines as much as “complex political emergencies.” But whatever the nuances of emphasis, there is widespread agreement that what is at stake is how we are to refine and improve our techniques for the analysis and management of famines in the light of these difficulties. Famines are seen as technical problems that modern social and natural science will eventually resolve. In this book I take issue with this position. Famines in the contemporary world are not the antithesis of modernity but its symptom. What this means is that rather than being something that modernization will solve, famines are produced by and symptomatic of modernity .2 Modernity is a distinctive form of life and a particular way of xv Introduction resolving the questions that being human entails. It is a way of life that involves historically contingent political formations and a specific regime of truth. The political systems of modernity revolve around the legal authority of the sovereign state, with its corresponding view of the individual as citizen. This configuration of politics has been called “biopolitics ,” and the form of life to which the citizen is reduced has been called “bare life.”3 In the modern era, bare life becomes central to the calculations of state power. Sovereign power is concerned with the governance of populations and biological life. No longer is a politically qualified life the subject of politics, but life itself, as opposed to death. In this sense, politics is depoliticized: we are concerned with the preservation of life as such, rather than the continuance of a specific political way of life. Aid processes treat lives to be saved as bare life, not as lives with a political voice. Modernity’s regime of truth is based on scientific method. What makes knowledge legitimate (and powerful) in the modern world is not tradition or divine authority but a particular scientific mode of validation.4 In a Westernized modernity, truth no longer derives from religious faith. What counts as true is what scientific research can demonstrate. This is a particular mode of knowing: calculable, generalizable , and objective. Not only are contemporary understandings of famine produced in this way, attempts at ending hunger are also framed within the same discourse. Both the problem of famine and its solutions are constituted within the horizons of modernity. The framing of famine in discourses of modernity has two very important corollaries. First, it means that hunger and how it should be combated are depoliticized. Technical solutions are sought, solutions that draw on modernity’s professed ability to both identify and resolve problems through abstract analysis and the formulation of general principles. Calculability and measurability are emphasized.5 This is the case whether what is being measured are crop yields, nutritional status, population movements, entitlement bundles, or food stocks. Such solutions are inevitably inadequate to the problem, which is not a technical one but one that accompanies specific forms of social and political organization or the emergence of new arrangements . Technical solutions merely reinstate and reproduce one of the precise forms of politics—modern politics—that produce famine in the first place. xvi · introduction For some time, writers have acknowledged that famine involves politics. But what is still lacking is any appreciation of what this implies , which would require a closer analysis of politics and the political .6 If famine is seen as an unfortunate by-product of combat, proposed solutions often take the form of conflict resolution techniques. These can leave unresolved the issues that led to the dispute in the first place. They depoliticize by treating both sides in a conflict as equally culpable and by regarding the absence of hostility as unproblematically desirable. It is argued that relief agencies should be wary of inadvertent involvement in conflict...


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