The Public Afterlife of Ethnography
didier fassin
The French newspaper Libération was founded in 1973 by Jean- Paul Sartre
and four young far- left journalists in the aftermath of the 1968 movement with
the motto People, speak up, take the floor, and keep it.” In its earlier years it
experienced vari ous financial and institutional crises that resulted in occasional
interruptions of its publication. In the 1990s, under the Socialist presidency
of François Mitterrand, the editorial stance shifted toward an improbable
combination of social democracy and libertarian ideal. In the 2000s it drifted
further to the center left following the purchase of a controlling stake in the
daily by the banker Edouard de Rothschild. Although ideologically distant
from its radical beginnings, Libération nevertheless remains today the main
progressive national newspaper in France. As a sign of its unique position
within the world of journalism, it devotes the entirety of its front page and
the next three as well as its main editorial each day to the coverage of a single
“event.” The se lection of this topic is intended to highlight some of the defin-
ing prob lems of con temporary society.
For its January 8, 2015, issue, the “event” chosen by the editorial board was
the publication of L’Ombre du monde, a book based on the fieldwork I had
carried out in a French prison over the course of four years. This showcase was
a unique opportunity to discuss what constituted the matter of the research,
namely the punitive turn of society, the in equality of citizens before the penal
system, and the grim experience that inmates have of the “carceral condition.”
Prison hardly ever makes the headlines, and the decision by the editorial board
to give the topic such visibility as well as the content of the articles written by
the journalist in charge of the “justice section” along with the substantial
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