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Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, The Truth about Crime: sovereignty, knowledge, social order.

Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, The Truth about Crime: sovereignty, knowledge, social order. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press (hb US$85--978 0 226 42488 0; pb US$27.50--978 0 226 42491 0). 2016, xix + 347 pp.

In The Truth about Crime, Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff develop a set of arguments, first outlined in their landmark collection Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, about the role that crime and policing play in generating the political and social order in which we live. This 'we' embraces not only residents of South Africa and the United States, the main settings of the work, but anyone in the contemporary world living with the sovereign effects of crime and its suppression. Through a series of ethnographic vignettes and readings of popular culture, they argue that 'criminality has, in this Age of Global Capitalism, become the constitutive fact of contemporary life, the vernacular in terms of which politics are conducted, moral panics are voiced, and populations are ruled' (p. xiii). Crime has become the heuristic through which politicians, scholars and a public that voraciously consumes police procedurals and tabloids try to understand 'a universe that appears to be growing increasingly inscrutable' (p. xiii). The focus of the book is not crime per se, but rather what stories about crime do; what political common sense and 'truths' they generate; what state practices they enable; and the aesthetic forms that they take. The police officer and the criminal, engaged in a violent pas de deux in full sight of the public, make crime the central object of public discourse on everything from everyday neighbourhood life to corruption at the highest levels of government.

The 'five uneasy pieces' that make up the book's second half are as riveting as the pulpy sources from which they are derived; the story of a family terrorized by a witch's familiar on an isolated homestead near Mafikeng is chilling in a way that makes the reader viscerally understand how crime stories do the political work that the authors posit. A section on the vigilante group cum private security corporation Mapogo A Mathamaga vividly describes the organization's methods, while making a more abstract argument about the privatization of state authority and how it is perceived. One of the book's lessons is that the distinction between fact and fiction matters little in the telling of stories about crime. The authors put episodes of 'true crime' such as the killings of Reeva Steenkamp and Anni Dewani alongside works of fiction including the American television show Breaking Bad and the South African gangster film Tsotsi, revealing how the real and the Active generate epistemologies and social orders in much the same way.

The book is, in part, a riposte to a way of thinking about crime that stretches from E. P. Thompson's Whigs and Hunters to contemporary descriptions of the carceral state, which emphasizes the role of policing and its double-- crime--in making states, administrating populations and generating classes. To be sure, The Truth about Crime is part of this long and variegated tradition, arguing as it does that law enforcement remains somewhere near the centre of the state even as it strategically disengages from policing in some areas. But the originality of the work lies in its recognition that this is not how most people understand the meanings of crime. Still today, the authors remind us, it is the more retrograde ideas about crime that do the work of making the social and political world: for example, the notion that crime is the preserve of 'the indigent, the savage, the stranger, the poor' (p. 21)--the Victorian idea of the residuum, in short, still alive and well in the twenty-first century, albeit more commonly expressed today in the language of race than of class. That these ideas bear little resemblance to the reality of how much crime there is or who engages in it hardly matters crime does not owe its capacity to generate 'truths' about the 'real' conditions of life to statistics, but to the horror stories that people tell one another in shebeens and shopping centres.

Is there an outside to this world made by crime? The book is most explicitly about South Africa since the end of apartheid, but it is marked by the political present of the US, where the racial and political valences of policing sit at the front of the mind. Some of the features they describe are particular to 'the postcolony' while others seem like characteristics of contemporary states generally.

It is hard to isolate what is unique to South Africa from what is not, although this slippage between geographies is also part of their point. Where and when crime's sovereign effects begin and end are not the main questions they ask, but they are worth considering.

In the end, The Truth about Crime does not provide what its title promises. Instead, it offers something more valuable--a glimpse into the machinery that refines fear, mistrust and violence into actionable social-scientific 'facts', often with dire consequences for those against whom they are turned. The work has appeal across disciplinary boundaries and is sure to incite substantial discussion in the many places that its analysis touches.

Samuel Fury Childs Daly

Duke University

doi: 10.1017/S0001972019000755
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Author:Daly, Samuel Fury Childs
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Nov 1, 2019
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