Reading Notes for “The Child in the Broom Closet: States of Killing and Letting Die” by Elizabeth A. Povinelli


“The Child in the Broom Closet” was published in 2008 by Elizabeth Povinelli who is a Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Colombia University. According to Povinelli’s faculty website, her work focuses on creating a “critical theory of late liberalism” which requires “critical engagement with the traditions of American pragmatism and continental imminence theory.” Much of Povinelli’s research, including this article, engages Aboriginal populations in Australia.

Main Arguments

Thesis: “A specific catachresis between the security state and the neoliberal market—between sovereign state and biopolitical state—animates contemporary late liberal attitudes toward various forms of living and dying” (511-512).

Supplementary Arguments:

• The intersection of the “security state” and the “neoliberal market” creates a specific “imaginary” about life and death—applies this to the Australian government’s treatment of indigenous populations and the security measures Australia has taken post-9/11
• This new “imaginary” has transformed “state killing” (discussed in more detail below) to an “amorphous agreement that people are killing themselves” (515).
• Move from the welfare state to privatization and individualization
• Within the neoliberal state, social investment (in health care or employment programs, for example) is only as valuable as its output value
• Late liberal governments are more concerned with/drawn to “deathscapes” with sublime or catastrophic elements that create common enemies and justify a state of exception than with “cumulative and chronic lethality” (521)
• Offers two avenues for reflecting on the “conditions of lethality in late liberal societies”: (1) We must examine violence and lethality from a perspective outside of the neoliberal ideology that a life is only as valuable as its output value (2) We must stop defining life based on a “redemptive future”—recognize that life is what it is in this moment

Key Concepts

State Killing

• Loosely defined as “the cancellation of [the] support of life” (520)
• The use of cost vs. output value to determine which lives are “worth” supporting (also connected to neoliberal ideology)
• Contributes to the “unequal distribution of life and death in democratic orders” (510)
• Specific examples of “state killing” discussed by Provinelli—
* The Australian government’s lackluster (at best) efforts to address or remedy health disparities in Indigenous populations—poor health is viewed as the result of individual choices
* The inadequate medical attention given to Indigenous folks who contract staph infections—demonstrates the government’s refusal to invest in “poverty-stricken communities” (519)
* The withdrawal of funding for the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) in 2005 despite the fact that it helped Indigenous communities secure employment
* The 2005 amendments to the Crimes Act of 1914 which permitted the Australian government to detain anyone suspected of “terrorist activity”
* The Australian government’s detainment of asylum seekers in 2001 (“Pacific solution”)
* Refusal of the Australian government to evacuate Australian citizens from Lebanon in 2006

The “Broom Closet”
• The metaphoric space (or, in the case of Ursula Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” the literal space) where chronic lethality takes place
• The broom closet is a space of “ordinary, chronic, acute, and cruddy” suffering as opposed to “catastrophic, eventful, and sublime” misery (511)
• Often a target of state killing
• The suffering that takes place in broom closets cannot be easily quantified or represented by statistics
• Povinelli argues that broom closets are less likely to elicit empathy than huge, catastrophic events (which themselves provoke empathy that is never sustained)

Discussion Questions

1. How might Provinelli’s discussion of “state killing” and “broom closets” in Australia relate to the U.S. House of Representative’s recent vote to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)? Is this a form of “state killing” as Provinelli describes it?
2. Do you find Provinelli’s metaphor of the “broom closet” useful, compelling, problematic, etc.?
3. In the closing paragraph of her article, Provinelli notes that “In this world where we live, there is no exit. We can only change the distribution of life and death so that some have more and some have less” (528). In your opinion, is the relationship between life and death a zero-sum exchange in which the fostering of hyper life for some inevitably results in the degradation of life (and eventual death) for others (and vice versa)? In other words, can hyper life and state killing ever exist in isolation from one another?

Definition of Concepts

American pragmatism: “A movement consisting of varying but associated theories, originally developed by Charles S. Peirce and William James and distinguished by the doctrine that the meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Neoliberalism: “A theory of political economy that contends that free market capitalism is the best, and perhaps only justifiable, basis for political organization. Though often associated in the United States with neoconservativism and Republican Party politics, neoliberalism is a separate movement based in the pursuit of individual economic freedom through the protection of private property, the development of free markets, and the sharp limitation of state power” (SAGE Reference).


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