Over the past few weeks I have been working closely with London’s homeless community for my PhD fieldwork. As part of my role at the day centre where I conduct much of my research I have helped a number of people fill out the ubiquitous Job Seeker’s Allowance form – herein referred to as the JSA. The JSA is a standardised government form that applies not just to the homeless, but to anybody who is seeking financial support in the interim between jobs. At first glance then, there is nothing special about the JSA as a bureaucratic document. Filling out the JSA takes about twenty minutes and is generally done online. For the vast majority of people, filling out such a form would be, at the worst, extremely boring. For some however, the implications of this document are much more traumatic than we might initially think – an idea that is especially true for the urban homeless.
The JSA consists of around thirty pages of Yes or No answers, explicitly concerning one’s socio-economic status: Do you have a partner? Do you have any savings? Do you have a pension? Are you owed any money? Do you have a bank account? Anthropology is well acquainted with the “non” suffix – the non-person, the non-citizen, the non-subject, and even non-sense, to name but a few. The “non” prefix is a useful rhetorical flourish with which to highlight those who occupy the spaces of social abandonment, for those who have been stripped of their rights, status and agency. Indeed, many have argued that the homeless are prime candidates for many of the “non” prefixes. For the purpose of this post, I would like us to instead consider the concept of the “No-person” and in particular how this tweaked version can help direct our gaze towards the document – whereby the online materiality of the JSA operates as a zone of abandonment unto itself.
When I first started taking people through these forms, I silently filled the same questionnaire out in my head. Unsurprisingly I was not eligible to receive JSA, given my status as an gainfully employed individual with a (meagre) savings account. It has been suggested that the reduction of personhood into the discrete tick-boxes of the bureaucratic document has the power to “cut” the individual – to reduce what he or she is to an easily docketed language of synecdoche. Given the particulars of my social circumstances, embodied here by the number of “Yes” answers I was able to give, the bureaucratic blade was decidedly blunt.. For pretty much every homeless person, however, their destitution transformed what was, for me, a dull knife into a veritable surgeon’s scalpel. In their case, almost every answer they gave was “No.” No to having a partner, No to having a bank account, No to having a higher education, No to having any savings, No to having a place of residence. These people were not so much cut by the document, but slashed to ribbons. Going through the JSA with each person, it was clear that the experience was deeply unnerving and incredibly draining, often bordering on humiliation – feelings they are forced to endure under the eye of yet another stranger. By the end of the twenty minutes, each potential non-person had undeniably become a No-person. For many, filling out the JSA is one of the initial “steps” to supposedly getting out of homelessness. And yet within this step we arguably see a peculiar form of displacement, whereby the social and material alienation of urban solitude is transfigured into the materiality of the document. In this sense, the brutality of their destitution, and the power-structures that such experiences reflect, is now made manifest through the bureaucratic process of documentation.
Already thrust into the invisible violence of the modern cityscape, people living on the streets have already been confronted with deeply stigmatising identity-package (“I am homeless”). And yet this is just the first step in a long line of de-subjectification, the next being the movement into the bureaucratic abstraction of the JSA form (“I am applicant”). Thus the transition from the street to state department is constituted by a double vacuum of violence, alienation, and passive involvement. When the world acts upon a subject with such relentless force (where only things are done to him rather than him exploring his/her own capacity to act) the result is an overwhelming sense of impotence. The transformation into the No-person is the first step into the disenfranchisement of bureaucracy – the catalyst of which is a contingent material surface that ceaselessly reflects back onto the subject his or her inescapable inadequacies, that he or she has No-thing and is No-thing.
As I hope to have shown, the social encounter with bureaucratic materiality occurs within “explicit and concrete abstractions.” As the document transforms through Yes/No choices, so the client is transformed by the document. The client is not only aware of these foundations, he is forced to engage with them if he has any hope of realising his goals – in this case escaping the streets. Given their status as the politico-moral stewards of the modern (democratic) state, the client expects to be treated fairly by the bureaucrat. Why else, after all, would he endure his flesh being systematically reduced to files? Ironically, then, the appropriate moral response of the bureaucratic conductor, if he is to properly meet the client’s expectations, is to refract the client’s identity into a number – to “cut” him down to size. The depersonalisation of the client from beating heart into bleeping barcode is a necessary strand in the game of material abstraction. As London’s housing crisis deepens under the strain of neo-liberalism, increasing numbers of people will straddle this continuum of alienation, the cradle of which is arguably the material space of the document itself.