Survival as Development: An Interview with Jason Cons

The May 2018 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Staging Climate Security: Resilience and Heterodystopia in the Bangladesh Borderlands,” by Jason Cons, who is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Tariq Rahman conducted with Cons about his article’s arguments and their relationship to his broader research agenda.

Tariq Rahman: I very much enjoyed your inversion of Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia in this article. As Michelle Murphy (2017) has argued, it is helpful to think with but also beyond Foucault in the postcolony, and specifically Bangladesh. Can you speak to the uses as well as limits of Foucault in your fieldsite, including the process by which you arrived at the concept of heterodystopia?

Jason Cons: I’m glad you brought up Michelle Murphy’s work. I like her idea of “unfaithfully” building on Foucault, which is to say acknowledging the limits, blind spots, and occlusions of his work while at the same time generatively borrowing his ideas. I understand this in terms of taking Foucault’s provocations as heuristics for opening lines of inquiry. That is what I aim to do in this piece.

Foucault’s (1998) theorization of heterotopia is interesting. It is of a different character than much of his work and remains fundamentally open-ended, in part because he treats the concept so briefly. Its basic proposition—that heterotopias are spaces of enacted utopia that stand in peculiar relation to all other spaces—is valuable for thinking about development. It is especially generative for understanding the genres of the model village, the demonstration plot, and the test site. The notion of heterotopia helps to describe the odd relationship between these sites, their surroundings, and the rest of the world. This dynamic is wonderfully captured by Nick Cullather (2004) in his description of Green Revolution test plots. He describes these as articulations of the promise of development and modernization, a promise that stands in stark contrast to the potentially developed spaces outside of the demonstration plot. As he writes: “where the dark green rice stopped, that was the edge of the modern” (Cullather 2004, 228). In other words, the demonstration plots are heterotopias in which spaces of enacted development are juxtaposed with, to paraphrase Foucault, all the other spaces of possible development that remain.

As I reflected on the development projects that I explore in this article, it seemed clear that what these projects articulated was not a promise of potential development (even if that promise is never realized) but an effort to prevent migration against the backdrop of climatological chaos. These projects enacted a dystopian, rather than utopian, imagination of the future. Rather than claiming to provide a future of relative prosperity for recipients of development interventions, they were designed to mitigate against the threat of climate-induced displacement by emplacing potential climate refugees in a chaotic landscape, preventing them from moving across borders. In the article, then, I use the term not so much as an antonym to the notion of heterotopia, but rather to claim that heterodystopias are spaces that resonate with Foucault’s term in troubling ways and to different ends.

TR: Is there a way in which heterodystopias are especially useful spaces for global capital? What role might they play in the political economy of international development?

JC: That’s a difficult question to answer. If the notion of heterodystopia is analytically useful, then it might be applied to a range of different kinds of spaces emerging against the landscape of anticipatory planning and climate change. Some of these spaces would have more direct articulations with circuits of capital than others. For the projects that I discuss here, their relationship to capital and to the political economy of development is more spectacular than grounded. These spaces are not sites of accumulation per se. While many of the projects make gestures toward market integration, they are framed in the language of self-sufficiency rather than accumulation. As I argue in the article, what these projects do do is project an image that development projects are successfully managing climate crisis on the fringe of empire. In other words, they hold out the promise that development and humanitarian technologies might successfully be deployed to stem planetary crises of climate change. So, in this sense, they are absolutely integrated with the broader political economy of development. They suggest that the crises that emerge from a failure to check capital expansion, consumption, and carbon emission might conceivably be manageable through technical fixes.

TR: Discussing the emergence of microfinance in Bangladesh, Lamia Karim (2011) has argued that development came to be oriented around neoliberalism and the retreat of the state. And yet, as you note in your article, heterodystopias diverge from previous models of development in important ways. Do you view heterodystopias as suggestive of a larger turn in development discourse in Bangladesh? How might heterodystopias relate to political and economic shifts in the country?

JC: I do think that we are in a moment of transition for development discourse and practice in Bangladesh. When I first began conducting research in the country, in 2006, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “inventing” microcredit, and that particular form of neoliberal intervention indexed the general thrust of development intervention in the country. The goal of many development projects at that moment was to discipline people into particular kinds of market socialities and practices. 

Both the logic of microcredit and its triumphant success were, as Karim and others have argued, problematic (see also Cons and Paprocki 2010). Yet, for all that, the underlying promise of microcredit and microfinance was that recipients would have a better tomorrow. As the theory went, you take a loan, increase your household income, and ultimately that allows you to do things like have a thriving business, send your children to school, afford better health care and more nutritious food, and so on. The logic of the interventions I examine in this article are markedly different. Here, I suggest that the logic is not a better tomorrow, but rather a tomorrow in which survival might be possible or you might not have to migrate. This shift—from the promise of economic development to the potential of survival—has serious and troubling implications.

That said, I think it is critical to note that the interventions I examine in this article do not tell the whole story of development in Bangladesh. For example, as Kasia Paprocki (2018) has demonstrated, other development initiatives afoot in the southwest are oriented toward moving people out of the delta and managing migration to urban areas in orderly ways. As she brilliantly shows, these projects deploy logics that foreground depeasantization, dispossession, and the expanded production of export commodities.

Moreover, many programs of the sort that I explore in this article continue to bundle interventions with market-oriented programs that hold out the promise of economic integration. The landscape of development intervention in Bangaldesh and particularly in the southwest is profoundly heterogeneous. However, I do think that we might productively trace a transition away from interventions that promise economic integration—such as microcredit—and toward a set of interventions that prioritize security (for people elsewhere) and emplacement.

TR: Your article concludes by contrasting heterodystopias with more grounded strategies for navigating climate change that were developed by farmers’ collectives in Munshiganj. While these projects better reflect local realities and values, they also seem to share with heterodystopias a logic of resilience, which you aptly describe as “aimed not at solving or preventing dangers to security, but rather at increasing capacities to weather a range of impending storms.” Are there local approaches that go beyond resilience with respect to conceptualizing the causes of and solutions to climate change?

JC: That’s a great question and a challenging one to answer. I do think that there is a critical difference between a project mounted by NGOs or international NGOs that are designed as a bulwark against future state abandonment and collective projects of preparing for uncertain times. In other words, I wouldn’t want to normatively reject all forms of resilience. On the one hand, I agree with Brad Evans and Julian Reid (2013) that resilience, particularly of the form embodied in the projects I explore in this article, is a mode of governmental and security thinking that reveals a nihilism at the heart of the liberal project. But I also think that we might productively distinguish between resilience as a logic or zeitgeist of development programming and resilience as a set of practices put in place by, say, groups of farmers trying to manage short-term risk.

To your broader question of whether there are more grounded approaches that go beyond resilience, I think that there are some shining examples at play in Bangladesh. Over the past decade, I have had the pleasure of collaborating with a remarkable organization called Nijera Kori, a large, decentralized network of landless movements across the country. They have been particularly active in the delta region in mounting resistance to shrimp aquaculture, but they also work on a broader suite of issues around landlessness and rights. They do not provide services but use Paulo Freire’s (1970) notion of conscientization to help local groups situate themselves against broader patterns of governance and capital accumulation and advocate for their rights.

This strikes me as a remarkable approach, one that has often dramatic transformative effects. It radically shifts the terrain of engagement away from resilience or preparedness toward a grounded engagement with rights. Yet it entertains the possibility of a decolonized understanding of resilience; indeed, one might say that the members of Nijera Kori are remarkably resilient. They regularly refuse to be denied things to which they are legally entitled, such as access to government land, safety in the home, information about what government and NGOs are doing in their area, and so on. As David Lewis (2017) has pointed out, radical civil society groups such as Nijera Kori, which used to be more common in Bangladesh, are now more the exception than the rule. Yet I strongly believe that such organizations hold a key to confronting both the broad and everyday forms of vulnerability that are characteristic of life in the delta in the face of environmental change.

TR: You have published widely on South Asia, borders, climate change, and rural development. Can you discuss where this article fits into your broader research agenda?

JC: This article is the first publication to come out of a broader investigation that I am provisionally calling “Climatic Territories.” The project emerged out of what I saw as a dramatic reframing of both the development industry and the India-Bangladesh border in light of climate change. But over the past several years of periodic fieldwork in the delta the project has shifted somewhat. I have become interested in how a variety of interventions—from conservation projects to building industrial corridors to development/security projects—construct the present in light of competing imaginations of the future in southwestern Bangladesh.

The convergent logics of development and security that I trace in this article do not tell the whole story of what has been happening in my field site. They represent one particular framing of the future that, in many ways, doesn’t neatly correspond with a range of other future-oriented projects unfolding around them. If heterodystopian projects imagine the delta as a wasteland and a staging ground for the climate-affected future, the same cannot rightly be said of projects of conservation. These are attempting to preserve the Sundarbans—the world’s largest mangrove forest and a prominent feature of the delta landscape—both as a heritage of humankind and as a critical ecological infrastructure that protects urban life in Bengal from cyclones, storm surges, and other projected hazards of climate change. And these projects and visions of the future are further complicated by another emergent project in the delta: the construction of an industrial corridor meant to serve as an engine for economic growth and regional integration.

I have become interested in the ways that these projects conjure futures that are, in many ways, mutually exclusive and that have the potential to cancel each other out. For example, the Rampal Power Plant, a 1320-megawatt coal-burning power plant that is currently being built just fourteen kilometers north of the Sundarbans, could potentially destroy the mangroves. At the same time, if they are destroyed, the Rampal power plant and the industrial corridor of which it is part will be open to potentially catastrophic cyclones and storm surges from the Bay of Bengal. I see the delta as what I call a temporal chokepoint, as a space that is increasingly choked with present-day projects seeking to bring about incommensurate futures. These projects are all layered on top of a complex and fragile ecology that may not be able to support them. I am currently working on a book that will explore these competing futures and their presents. The book aims to trace the internal contradictions of these future-oriented projects (as I do in this article) and to map the discontinuities between these projects and the futures they claim to herald.

References

Cons, Jason, and Kasia Paprocki. 2010. “Contested Credit Landscapes: Microcredit, Self-Help and Self-Determination in Rural Bangladesh.” Third World Quarterly 31, no. 4: 637–54.

Evans, Brad, and Julian Reid. 2014. Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. Malden, Mass.: Polity Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1998. “Different Spaces.” Translated by Robert Hurley. In Essential Works of Foucault: 1954–1984, Volume 2: Aesthetics, Methods, and Epistemology, edited by James D. Faubion, 175–86. New York: New Press. Originally published in 1984.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum. Originally published in 1968.

Karim, Lamia. 2011. Microfinance and Its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lewis, David. 2017. “Organising and Representing the Poor in a Clientelistic Democracy: The Decline of Radical NGOs in Bangladesh.” Journal of Development Studies 53, no. 10: 1545–67.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. The Economization of Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Paprocki, Kasia. 2018. “Threatening Dystopias: Development and Adaptation Regimes in Bangladesh.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 108, no. 3: 955–73.