On Vulnerability and the Anecdote

She tottered down the narrow, pedestrian-only street. Tiny, white-haired, and bent awkwardly at the waist, she struggled to pull a small wheeled cart over the cobblestones. I wasn’t sure how she was managing. And knowing what many Parisian apartments are like, I wondered how she and her groceries were going to get home. The stairs in my sublet around the corner — narrow, dark, worn in the middle of each slippery stone step from centuries of use — spiraled tightly upward for six stories. Perhaps a kind neighbor or gardienne (building manager) would help her.

I could write about Paris’s 2003 heat wave, the centerpiece of Richard C. Keller’s new book, Fatal Isolation, in good academic fashion, but instead I’m thinking about the elderly woman I saw on a Paris street that July. I could engage with one of Keller’s arguments, drawing on Charles Perrow, that the canicule was a normal accident.[i] Building on Keller’s evidence and analysis, I could make the case that the heat wave was an envirotechnical disaster — a deadly result of the confluence of environmental, technological, and political factors.[ii] I could invite us to consider Paris as an envirotechnical system — a city, like many worldwide, where the infrastructure of the built environment, when combined with natural processes like weather, produce an urban heat island effect that can be fatal, especially for society’s most vulnerable citizens.[iii] I could place the 2003 heat wave and Keller’s narrative in the context of French environmental history,[iv] the field of environmental history, or related scholarship that has explored the human body in and as environment.[v]

But instead, I want to think about the anecdote as methodology and narrative strategy — what it does for Keller’s examination of the 2003 heat wave, what it does for readers, and, in particular, this reader, who has found herself fixated on a fleeting encounter of her own from that summer.

Keller uses the anecdote to locate and recover les oubliés (the forgotten): the 95 victims of the Paris heat wave who died between August 1 and 20, 2003, individuals whose bodies were never identified and claimed by loved ones, and who were interred in the secteur d’indigents (poor section) of the Parisian public cemetery of Thiais.[vi] As Keller writes, “the anecdote has a long and important history as both a literary form and empirical evidence for ethnographers, historians, and literary critics.” The anecdote is, however, not pure objective fact. Inevitably, the ethnographer “inscribes through interpretation, not merely as a transcriber of the voices of the past.” Nonetheless, “the anecdote has an almost unique capacity not merely to illustrate historical narratives, but also to rupture them by producing what [literary critics Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt] call ‘counterhistory’ through its status as an interruption in a larger narrative.” The anecdote can thus advance scholarly arguments and challenge dominant historical narratives.[vii]

Keller’s anecdotes of the forgotten are the result of long, painstaking, labor-intensive fieldwork — consulting old phone books in the Bibliothèque Nationale and making call after call (often to the wrong person), walking through quartiers, climbing steep spiral staircases, knocking on doors, chatting with neighbors. Some of the book’s most powerful moments are these anecdotes — brief, fragmentary glimpses into lives not usually visible.

Bodo. An immigrant from Germany who had lived in France for decades. Home was a chambre de bonne (former servant’s quarters) in Paris’s fifth arrondissement. Ninety square feet on the sixth floor directly beneath the building’s zinc roof with western-exposed windows. He lived alone and his only known family member was a half-brother back in Germany. Bodo’s neighbor found him that August, door ajar, his body blocking the half-open door.[viii]

Sonia. Age 87, former domestic servant. She lived in a seventh-floor walk-up on the Avenue Bugeaud. No windows, just skylights, no hot water, only cold.[viv]

Marceline and Claude. Lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the twelfth arrondissement for over fifty years. She was almost deaf, he seemed paranoid; they heated with coal. Their bodies were found August 17.[x]

Jeanne R. Age 91. She died in a nursing home, but had spent most of her later years in a tiny, third-floor apartment in Saint-Denis after her husband died in 1972. No elevator, toilet, or running water. She had no children and her only social contacts were a niece and a social worker. When interviewed by French social scientists in 1995, Jeanne explained, “Depression overtakes me, but I’m used to it. I have no visitors, before I knew the old neighbors, we saw each other a bit, but the new ones I don’t know.”[xi]

Fragmentary remnants of 95 lives. And what little we know about them is largely mediated by the voices of neighbors and building managers, shopkeepers and social workers. They are the ones producing these anecdotal lives.[xii]

At times, we know much more about where they lived than who they were. Sixty percent of les oubliés lived in chambres de bonne or other marginal housing. Seemingly uninhabitable, inhumane apartments grandfathered into housing codes. Insulating buffers for the rest of the building in the summer heat and winter cold.[xiii] They lived — and died — in what Keller calls a landscape of vulnerability, a vertical geography prescribed by poverty.[xiv]

My elderly neighbor. Who was she? Where did she live? What was her life like? And did she survive the heat wave that August?

Collectively, these anecdotes remind us how hard it is to write social and subaltern histories.[xv] They serve as important correctives to official representations of the disaster constructed through political, media, and scientific narratives.[xvi] In particular, they thwart generalization. They reveal what aggregates do not — indeed, cannot — tell us.[xvii] Yet, even as they undermine aggregation, they make the general powerfully specific. The reinscription of poverty through Haussmannization, the limits of French republican citizenship, and aging in late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century France are not vague historical processes affecting the faceless masses. These anecdotes, however fragmentary, individuate and rehumanize.[xviii] Keller’s careful and intentional use of the anecdote gives us insight into the lived experiences of actual people during normal accidents. They help us understand not simply the broad structure of envirotechnical systems, but the ways real people navigate them — and suffer because of them. As François Michaud Nérard, director of Paris’s funeral services department, put it that August, “we need to recognize that a death is not a statistical unit. It’s a being of flesh and blood, which has social links, which has loved ones. … Behind the numbers, there is a person, a human reality.”[xix] The anecdote thus helps recover les oubliés, individuals categorized by a term that, as Keller points out, is a double indignity. “The forgotten” collectivizes and remarginalizes in death those who were usually cast as marginal in life.[xx]

No doubt, Keller’s counterhistory, centered on the anecdote, particularly resonates with me because I was in France for nine weeks that summer. I’ve spent a lot of time in France since the mid-1990s, but my memories of that time are especially vivid.

Dragging a thin mattress down the ladder from a sweltering loft in Lyon to sleep on the living room floor. Buying various creams and potions to calm what turned out to be heat rash. Schlepping a small, overpriced fan on my archival tour de France. An electronic sign in the Montpellier train station flashing 40°C. Three showers a day offering temporary relief from the oppressive Parisian heat.

I remember the heat, still, though I experienced it so differently than Bodo or Jeanne. For one, I was able to escape it. By chance, I had arranged to leave Paris and fly home on Saturday, August 2 — the beginning of the vacation exodus, and what turned out to be the beginning of the three-week, unrelenting, deadly heat wave.[xxi]


* * *


I’ve rented apartments in the same quartier twice since that summer of 2003. Each time, I have looked for the elderly woman, struggling with her cart. I doubt I would recognize her, but I look anyway.

After all these years, she remains vivid to me, perhaps because I lost a good friend, someone who also loved and worked in France, two weeks earlier. I may not have been in Paris during the heat wave, but I had just been there. And when news of the heat wave’s severity finally broke on August 10, the loss of 15,000 people in France, including the 95 forgotten, became entangled with another loss.[xxii]

Anecdotes have the power to connect us across time and space, to engender compassion across vast difference. Keller’s project helps me see how my memories of that summer — of heat, of grief, of that elderly woman in Paris — somehow tie me to the forgotten. It pushes me to reflect upon different kinds of vulnerability in both scholarly and deeply human ways. It has also taught me the power — and necessity — of remembrance.


This essay is in memory of Lara J. Moore. Her dissertation was published posthumously as Restoring Order: The Ecole des Chartes and the Organization of Archives and Libraries in France, 1820–1870 (New York: Litwin Books, 2008). Many thanks to Amy Kohout for her insightful comments on previous drafts of this essay, and Robert Kulik for his editorial assistance.



[i] Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). For Keller’s engagement with Perrow, see Richard C. Keller, Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 11, 53.

[ii] Sara B. Pritchard, “An Envirotechnical Disaster: Nature, Technology, and Politics at Fukushima,” Environmental History 17 (April 2012): 219-243. See also the special issue on “Disaster in French History,” edited by Elinor Accampo and Jeffrey H. Jackson, in French Historical Studies 36:2 (2013).

[iii] Keller briefly discusses the coupling of human and natural systems (10–11), a related mode of analysis. On technological system and sociotechnical system, the classic work is Thomas Parke Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880–1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983). On envirotechnical system, see Sara B. Pritchard, Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). On infrastructure, see Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43:3 (1999): 377-391; Paul N. Edwards, “Infrastructure and Modernity: Force, Time, and Social Organization in the History of Sociotechnical Systems,” in Modernity and Technology, ed. Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 185–225.

[iv] For just some of the environmental histories of France and its empire, see Michael D. Bess, The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960–2000 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Michael D. Bess, “France,” in “Environmental History Writing in Southern Europe,” ed. Mark Cioc, Environmental History 5:4 (October 2000): 545-56; Michael D. Bess, “Ecology and Artifice: Shifting Perceptions of Nature and High Technology in Postwar France,” Technology and Culture 36:4 (October 1995): 830-862; Michael D. Bess, “Ecology and the Crisis of Agriculture in Postwar France,” French Politics and Society 13:4 (Fall 1995): 33-50; David Biggs, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010); David Biggs, “Breaking from the Colonial Mold: Water Engineering and Nation-Building in the Plain of Reeds, Vietnam,” Technology and Culture 49:3 (July 2008): 599-623; David Biggs, “Reclamation Nations: The US Bureau of Reclamation and Nation-Building in the Mekong Valley: 1945–1972,” Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 4:3 (December 2006): 225-246; David Biggs, “Managing a Rebel Landscape: Conservation, Pioneers, and the Revolutionary Past in the U Minh Forest, Vietnam,” Environmental History 10:3 (July 2005): 448-476; Diana K. Davis, “Enclosing Nature in North Africa: National Parks and the Politics of Environmental History,” in Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Alan Mikhail (New York: Oxford University Press), 159-179; Diana K. Davis, “L’Éco-gouvernance en Algérie française: Histoire environnementale, politique et administration coloniale,” Tracés, 22:1 (2012): 189-204; Diana K. Davis, “Introduction: Imperialism, Orientalism and the Environment in the Middle East,” and “Restoring Roman Nature: French Identity and North African Environmental History,” in Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Diana K. Davis and Edmund Burke III (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011): 12-40 and 95-134; Diana K. Davis, “Power, Knowledge and Environmental History in the Middle East and North Africa,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42:4 (2010): 657-659; Diana K. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007); Caroline Ford, “Reforestation, Landscape Conservation, and the Anxieties of Empire in French Colonial Algeria,” American Historical Review 113:2 (April 2008): 341-362; Caroline Ford, “Nature, Culture, and Conservation in France and Her Colonies, 1840–1940,” Past and Present 183 (May 2004): 173-198; Caroline Ford, “Landscape and Environment in French Geographical and Historical Thought: New Directions in French Historical Writing,” French Historical Studies 24:1 (Winter 2001): 125-134; Jeffrey H. Jackson, Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010); Keiko Matteson, Forests in Revolutionary France: Conservation, Community, and Conflict, 1669–1848 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Keiko Matteson, “‘Bad citizens’ with ‘murderous teeth’: Goats into Frenchmen, 1789–1827,” Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 34 (2006): 147-161; Peter McPhee, Revolution and Environment in Southern France: Peasants, Lords, and Murder in the Corbieres, 1780–1830 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999); Peter McPhee, “‘The Misguided Greed of Peasants’? Popular Attitudes to the Environment in the Revolution of 1789,” French Historical Studies 24:2 (2001): 247-269; Michael A. Osborne, Nature, the Exotic, and the Science of French Colonialism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Sara B. Pritchard, “From Hydroimperialism to Hydrocapitalism: ‘French’ Hydraulics in France, North Africa, and Beyond,” Social Studies of Science 42:4 (August 2012): 591-615; Pritchard, Confluence; Sara B. Pritchard, “‘Paris et le désert français’: Urban and Rural Environments in Post-World War II France,” in The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape, and Urban Space, ed. Andrew C. Isenberg (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2006): 175-191; Sara B. Pritchard, “Mining Land and Labor,” Environmental History 10:4 (October 2005): 731-733; Sara B. Pritchard, “Reconstructing the Rhône: The Cultural Politics of Nature and Nation in Contemporary France, 1945–1997,” French Historical Studies 27:4 (Fall 2004): 766-799; Peter S. Soppelsa, “Reworking Appropriation: the Language of Paris Railways, 1870-1914,” Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies 4:2 (Summer 2014): 104-123; Peter S. Soppelsa, “Water and Power in Modern France,” French Politics, Culture and Society 31:2 (Summer 2013): 117-132; Peter S. Soppelsa, “Paris’s 1900 Universal Exposition and the Politics of Urban Disaster,” French Historical Studies 36:2 (Spring 2013): 271-298; Peter S. Soppelsa, “The Instrumentalization of Horses in 19th Century Paris” in Anthropocentrism: Humans, Animals, Environments, ed. Rob Boddice (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 245-264; Peter S. Soppelsa, “Urban Railways, Industrial Infrastructure and the Paris Cityscape, 1870–1914,” in Trains, Culture and Mobility: Riding the Rails, ed. Benjamin Fraser and Steven Spalding (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011), 117-144; Peter S. Soppelsa, “Visualizing Viaducts in 1880s Paris,” History and Technology 27:3 (September 2011): 371-377; Peter S. Soppelsa, “Finding Fragility in Paris: The Politics of Infrastructure after Haussmann,” Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 37 (2009): 233-347; Samuel Temple, “Forestation and its Discontents: The Invention of an Uncertain Landscape in Southwestern France, 1850–Present,” Environment and History 17 (2011): 13-34; Samuel Temple, “The Natures of Nation: Negotiating Modernity in the Landes de Gascogne,” French Historical Studies 32:3 (2009): 419-446; Tamara L. Whited, Forests and Peasant Politics in Modern France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

[v] On scholarship that has explored the environmental history of the body, see Conevery Bolton Valenčius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Gregg Mitman, Michelle Murphy, and Christopher Sellers, eds., Landscapes of Exposure: Knowledge and Illness in Modern Environments (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Michelle Murphy, Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Gregg Mitman, Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape our Lives and Landscapes (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disrupters and the Legacy of DES (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); Joy Parr, Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953–2003 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010); Brett Walker, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011); Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[vi] Keller, 1-2, 73-75. Keller complicates the “abandoned,” “unclaimed,” and “forgotten;” see 82.

[vii] Keller, 77-78.

[viii] Keller, 27-28.

[ix] Keller, 111.

[x] Keller, 64, 80.

[xi] Keller, 142-143.

[xii] Keller, 59, 74-81.

[xiii] Keller, 107.

[xiv] Keller, 13, 96.

[xv] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

[xvi] Keller, 4, Chapter 2, Chapter 5, especially 159, 176-180.

[xvii] On agnotology, see Robert N. Proctor and Londa Shiebinger, eds., Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).

[xviii] Keller, 65.

[xix] Keller, 43.

[xx] Keller, 55.

[xxi] Keller, 26, 75.

[xxii] Keller, 33.


Sara B. Pritchard is Associate Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, the author of Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (Harvard University Press, 2011), and co-editor of New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).

2 Responses to On Vulnerability and the Anecdote

  1. Pingback: Book Forum — Richard Keller’s Fatal Isolation by Todd Meyers - Bioethics Research Library

  2. Beautiful and haunting glimpses of vulnerability at the confluence of environmental change and individual psychophysical change. “Anecdote” is often treated as a dirty word in the science of gerontology, whispered when no one is lookng, but of course social workers, nurses, care workers, physicians, all have anecdotes that they draw on to inform their decisions affecting older people. The fact that anthropologists would embrace the interruptive efficacy of the anecdote can be met with curiousity and suspicion. Thank you for this post that shows how it can be both the mode and means of recognition

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