A Mobile Milieu: Humanitarian Equipment and the Politics of Need | Annual Elizabeth Colson Lecture 2019

Approaching human mobility from the perspective of milieu — the intimate, inclusive envelope of immediate environment — this lecture focuses on humanitarian equipment, from refugee camps to innovative devices that seek to provide for basic needs such as water and sanitation. Such objects offer little prospect of producing a satisfying response to human suffering. They also increasingly reflect market interests as much as technocratic planning. Nonetheless, their very inadequacies can expose conflicting assumptions about human needs and aspirations. Tensions between understandings of what constitutes a satisfactory life emerge at a mundane level, positioning these devices as scalar connection points between individual experience and social imagination. Milieu, I thus suggest, can serve as a revealing conceptual site to investigate the political terrain exposed by human mobility, including rival strains of humanitarian concern, rights advocacy, national identification and ecological anxiety.