Precarity is a double condition. On the one hand, it denotes a socioeconomic position of insecurity and poverty, often particularly associated with statelessness. On the other, as is here argued, it denotes an anthropological or existential condition, one for which human beings are constitutionally unable to fully ground themselves in the world and for that reason are open both to anxiety and to openness and risk. This essay argues that these two forms of precarity are not only increasing but are approaching closer to one another, with the result that old leftist models, which posit stable relations between either “bourgeoisie” and “workers,” or “elites” and “subalterns,” and place them at their center, need to be revised. Instead, models based on precarity as simultaneously a social and an existential condition are required. This is particularly the case for the academic humanities because they, too, are becoming increasingly bound to precariousness under neoliberalism. These new models will have a stronger sense of cultural and aesthetic autonomy than the older leftist models that have dominated the humanities since the 1960s. The essay makes this argument in three stages: first by offering an account of Carlo Levi’s memoir of the 1930s, Christ Stopped at Eboli; then by describing the post-1968 trajectory of the humanities and their limits; and last by offering a close reading of Amit Chaudhuri’s recent novel, The Immortals.
This essay was originally written as a talk for the “Subaltern Studies: Historical World-Making Thirty Years On” conference at the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. I thank Dipesh Chakrabarty and Debjani Ganguly for the invitation.