Saturday, August 8, 2009
Righteous Dopefiend by Philippe Bourgois
Fieldwork in the Gray Zone.
The autobiographical literature created by Holocaust survivors provides exceptional insight into how state coercion can make monsters out of the meek. Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi developed the concept of the "Gray Zone" to capture the ethical wasteland imposed by the Nazis on concentration camp inmates struggling to stay alive under genocidal conditions. In the Gray Zone, survival imperatives overcome human decency as inmates jockey desperately for a shred of advantage within camp hierarchies, striving to live just a little bit longer. The Nazis purposefully engineered the Gray Zone of the death camps to force inmates to self-administer to one another, with excruciating cruelty, the logistics of everyday life in the camps. As a contemporary ethical imperative, Levi urges readers to recognize the less extreme gray zones that operate in daily life, "even if we only want to understand what takes place in a big, industrial factory."
As with the concept of violence, we find it useful to think of gray zones in contemporary society as operating along a continuum of insupportable, structurally imposed settings. This perspective renders more visible the complex interaction between intimate behavior and larger coercive constraints. The homeless encampments along Edgewater Boulevard in San Francisco are obviously not the equivalent of Nazis death camps. The Edgewater homeless sometimes quip, "No one put a gun to my head and made me shoot heroin". Their lives also contain camaraderie, humour, and the joy of living. Never-the-less, addiction under conditions of extreme poverty and concerted police repression creates a morally ambiguous space that blurs the lines between victims and perpetrators. By extending the boundries of the Holocaust's Gray Zone to the everyday world around us, we can understand the Edgewater homeless as surviving along an especially coercive and desperate swath of the gray zone continuum.
Levi and other survivors assert that we do not have the right to judge the actions of inmates in the concentration camps because the Gray Zone was omnipotent. He implicitly contradicts himself, however, by devoting much of his writing to eloquently dissecting the moral dilemmas of human agency at Auschwitz through detailed descriptions of individual behaviors, decisions, and interpersonal betrayals. Following Levi, we explore the agency and moral responsibility of the homeless addicts we befriended without obscuring the structural forces that impose a gray zone. We examine in detail the micro-level mechanisms through which externally imposed forces operate on vulnerable individuals and communities; the everyday "state of emergency" ('space of death' and 'culture of terror') in which the socially vulnerable are forced to live.