Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown by Javier Auyero, Debora Alejandra Swistun
“Knowledge about a poisoned environment, Flammable teaches us, is not solely shaped by what we see and smell and touch […] Experience of that polluted reality is, this book shows, socially and politically produced.”
Javier Auyero and Debora Alejandra Swistun
Auyero and Swistun present the story of a slum, Villa Inflamable (Flammable), located in Dock Sud Buenos Aires near the River of La Plata, housing a petrochemical complex with Shell as the main company.
Flammable is an ethnography with the claimed objective to “unravel the back box of symbolic violence” based on some of the works of Pierre Bourdieu who explains how domination works through the “misrecognition of power structures on the part of the dominated” (6). The authors describe the environment in this shantytown in a way that contradicts most of the literature available on slums. They do not share the classical model of consciousness where the community becomes knowledgeable about the local dangers allowing them to lead a collective action (8). On the contrary the book tells a story of contradictions among local actors that permeate the community, which cannot therefore be described as one homogenous population.
Flammable is an analysis of marginalization combined with environmental threats. The authors relate the lives of a community affected by a toxic environment trapped in poverty and disease where resignation and confusion are impregnated in the slum society by local bureaucracy, corporations, and other actors, which we will discuss later in this paper.
The authors present their study as a truly local research since one of the authors, Swistun, was a local resident for most of her life, which allowed the authors a preferred access to local, some residents.
They explain how most residents have a “ready-made discourse” for the visitors that they were able to go around and access the backstage by conducting team ethnographic research via in-depth interviews with local officials, Shell personnel, activists, lawyers and residents.
Auyero and Swistun question the actions and discourse of the institutions that rule the lives of Flammable’s residents: the petrochemical industry dominated by Shell, the Argentinian state, and the medical establishment. The entire book presents a general sense of puzzlement resulting from extremely disconnected publics and targets of the interviews.
The actors: dominated – dominating
Auyero and Swistun expose the relations of power in the shantytown that rely on the knowledge and understanding of what they call a poisoned environment and the meaning the residents give to contamination. How and why are the residents of Flammable living in this toxic environment? And why are the residents staying in such a harmful place?
Power is shaped between residents and outside actors: doctors, the government, journalists, teachers, and lawyers. All actors affect the knowledge about (or what is perceived as) the toxicity of the situation in Flammable (5). The authors discuss this knowledge to explain how power relations are maintained based on a Marxist theory of power reproduction that keeps the residents living in Flammable somehow accepting to live in harmful conditions. They however, differentiate the particular relations of power established in this shantytown in that there is not a clear dividing line between the dominated and the dominating and there is not one unified exploited community.
On the one hand, Shell and the petrochemical compound appear as the most evident culprit responsible of the neighborhood’s toxicity, and are blamed for the smoke and lead in the water affecting the residents’ health. On the other, the government inaction regarding the imminent needs of the residents of Flammable – medicine, unemployment subsidies, and integration, urban planning – has played a key role in maintaining the toxic situation. Additionally, lawyers appear as secondary actors bringing promises to obtain compensations from the petrochemical companies for inflicting damages on the local residents. This secondary role results in a never-ending wait for compensation, reallocation, testing, medicines, help and change. Maintenance of this hope reinforces the system through “invisible elbows of external power forces and of everyday routine survival struggles” (6). The authors discuss these forces as an “exposed waiting” where power acts as a “tempography” in which residents simply wait for others to take the decisions, “surrendering themselves, in effect to the authority of others” (128) in the always frustrated hope to get compensation.
In the midst of this wait, the authors present the different views among the actors and the heterogeneity of the residents of Flammable. Many people see Shell as the main source of contamination and social problems of the shantytown but others do not think of Shell as a contaminating source. On the one hand Shell present a sustainability report, projecting a positive public image, funding special programs of education and nutrition in the shantytown and providing employment to some residents, on the other, it is the source of a toxic environment affecting health and livelihood.
Contradictions are at the base of the Flammable. The authors present a field note of the diary of Axel Garde, Shell’s manager of health. This note is full of contrary statements. Garde first explains that Shell does not use lead hence, is not at the root of the contamination of the area. However, he establishes that the area is an industrial zone and people should not be living there (68). He blames the situation on poverty unlinking all the health problems to any toxicity produced by the company; the source of lead and other toxins are not “the environment but the behavior of shanty dweller”. Garde reduces the problem to a behavioral contamination.
Contradictions are thus everywhere in this survey, involving all the actors of the area including the residents themselves.
“Flammable residents’ suffering is sometimes appropriated, other times denied or amplified, by existing institutions, usually for the sake of their own legitimation” (17). Auyero and Swistun discuss environmental suffering as a social suffering involving the direct damage of contamination and the harm of social domination. Exposure to a toxic environment includes both the chemical toxins and the marginalization.
This suffering is also attached to a “toxic uncertainty” manifested through: a lack of information – there is never a clear answer on the root of the problem; a shift in responsibility – there is an overall lack of accountability that swings the blame to different actors and causes (parenting, poverty, marginalization, government); denial, there is widespread need on behalf of the residents to deny the toxicity of the area and; blindness, residents tend to avoid confrontation ignoring critical situations and thus becoming part of the perpetuation of the system (91).
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness” (Marx 1859). Marx saw social change as possible with the understanding of the functioning bases of the system. He looked forward to make people aware of the power structure and the systems of class oppression to create a new-shared consciousness. Social change could only be fostered by an overall consciousness of the change in need.
Contrary to this possibility of a collective consciousness, Auyero and Swistun present a “collective disbelief in joint action”. The overall shared consciousness cannot be reached due to a lack of a collective knowledge promoted by the local contradictions between actors in Flammable. Collective inaction is part of the perpetuation of the system affecting Flammable with their “hopeful submission to both degraded living conditions and to the actions of others” (134).
The authors conclude with an interview to a resident of Villa Inflamable, Ana, that covers many of the most important themes of the study but cannot be seen as a summary of a “Flammable point of view” since there is no such thing as a “unique perceptual script” (153).
With this lack of collective thinking, local agency is limited and social change is utopian.
The authors stress the complexity of the relationship between “objective (contaminated) space and subjective (toxic) representations (between habitat and habitus)”. Residents, they explain, are “disposed because they are exposed, but the set of confused, contradictory, and mistaken understandings, or mis-cognitions, to borrow Bourdieu’s word, engendered by long-term exposure to pollutants is mediated by the many appropriations, denials, and distortions carried out by existing institutions” (157).
Bourdieu sees power and its knowledge as practically constructed and continuously restated through an interaction of agency and a system of structured, structuring disposition (Bourdieu, 1990). In Villa Inflamable, the reiteration of the system is done through the construction of social dispositions produced and reproduced through the interaction of the habitat and habitus. Residents’ practices are seen as constrained and orchestrated by collective structures but they are also agents reinforcing larger structures. Bourdieu differentiates between the group habitus and the individual habitus (ibid). The former is the subjective but collective internalized structures and common perceptions that are at the base of individual assimilation of ideas coordinated through practice, and the latter explains the singularity of each social trajectory. Auyero and Swistun use this theory to emphasize the particularities of Villa Inflamable that despite a certain collective structure and a shared environmental suffering is not only different from other slums but has a heterogeneous composition.
This book presents testimonies of many of the actors affecting the livelihood in Flammable proving that toxic experiences cannot be comprehended without learning about the larger material and symbolic context: “Flammable’s historic relationship with the compound and the plethora of outside intervention” (159). Throughout the study the authors look forward to confirm how the most evident and immediate perception is usually part of a discourse that is not presenting the broad veracity, which is never only one.
“The essential principle of what is lived and seen on the ground – the most striking testimony and the most dramatic experience – is elsewhere” (Bourdieu et al. 1999: 123).