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Modernity as a Fragile Milieu

For some time I have wondered over the current force of the term “precarious” — less its heightened political resonance before an eroding welfare state than the sense of generational loss and betrayal that seems to swirl beneath it. I am pretty sure this latter sentiment would baffle ancestors from a long list of disparate traditions, all those concerned with keeping rituals, placating deities, and praying in the face of one uncertainty or another. When was life not precarious? More to the point, when have threats and burdens fallen evenly? Is not someone, in every narrative, always more vulnerable? Richard Keller’s careful dissection of the Paris heat wave in 2003 offers an implicit answer to such questions. By interrogating not just the selective devastation left behind by this slow disaster, but also the selective explanations given for why some died more than others, Keller reminds us that security is as much a matter of storytelling as a state of being. How else might we imagine ourselves governed into total safety? And is that not actually the great, ever-betrayed promise of a modern, securitized life?

Keller’s choice of example is itself telling. Paris, after all, has served as an epicenter of European efforts to remake humanity, civilizing peasants at home alongside savages abroad. This is the seat of revolutions, ground zero of the metric system, the natural habitat of the Enlightenment! A monument of infrastructure, Haussmann’s planned citadel, birthplace of biopower! That the zinc roofs of the City of Light would amplify sunshine through neighboring windows, turning a poorly ventilated attic into an unintentional solar oven (171-2) thus seems a particular perfidy. And yet this is precisely the story that Keller tells, insisting that we recall the history of inequality built into rooftop rooms, and the place of the chambre de bonne in the city’s urban heritage (105-6). Even privileged central Paris includes suffering within its postcard façade. He likewise insists on sketching the biographies of particular individuals who became statistics during the heat wave, tracing the journey through social marginalization that led many of them to make the long climb to such stuffy former servant quarters where they would breathe their last. In epidemiological analysis, Keller stresses, we should not forget other factors beyond unexpected heat and unforgiving buildings, or quick demographic links to old age. Isolation and exclusion again play the role of tireless villains, quietly at work behind the scenery.

A heat wave is a relatively humble disaster. Too slow for arresting images, it seeps through a population rather than striking a spectacular blow. Its victims are hard to count, or even to define with absolute certainty. For these very reasons it reveals seams of vulnerability within bourgeois hygiene and urban policy, pockets of heightened risk for those who fall outside crucial norms. It can also expose blind spots of expert reason; efforts to explain mortality patterns and translate them into policy can themselves obscure risk in a message of safety. Keller shows that under close inspection the human toll grows both more painfully clear and difficult to enumerate, a collective composed of revealing anecdotes rather than a clean dataset with a predictive variable. Yes, many who died were indeed elderly, but factors of social isolation and poverty also played a crucial part, and stubbornly complicate planning.

It is not clear, however, the extent to which a rejuvenated welfare state would resolve the problem, or ensure future safety. For a heat wave reminds us of an older, deeper sense of precarity. From an ecological perspective humans may appear remarkably adaptable, a species triumphantly dispersed around the globe. Yet human bodies remain simultaneously fragile, requiring just the right surroundings to survive. Ours is a Goldilocks formula — not too hot, not too cold — along with plenty of air and adequate hydration. Compared to microscopic creatures like tardigrades (which endure boiling, freezing, and being blasted into space) we are endlessly vulnerable. Heat leaves us particularly trapped and dependent, once down to our skin. If anything, urban life has only accentuated this frailty by covering it up, regulating the environment through additional layers of mass artifice and infrastructure, even while fostering hidden isolation. As Keller’s title reminds us, we are deeply communal creatures, only achieving adult form in the company of others. Under extreme conditions, social relations again grow vital, a primary hope for security, a matter of life and death.


Peter Redfield is Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is most recently author of Life in Crisis:  The Ethical Journey of Doctors Without Borders (University of California Press, 2013).


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