The Enjoyment of the Pariah: Technologies to exist at the margins [of the State]

A collection of essays, artistic contributions, and two inserted zines, Queer City, a reader was developed as part of an 18-month inquiry in São Paulo. Initiated by and ArtsEverywhere/Musagetes, the Queer City program was a broad collective inquiry into how can we understand the contemporary city through a queer, intersectional, non-normative lens. The program included a series of encounters, dinners, residencies, and performances, and Queer City, a reader reconfigures these moments into a new form, extending the inquiry trans-nationally. The Reader was edited by Júlia Ayerbe and designed by Laura Daviña of Edições Aurora/Publication Studio São Paulo. Order a copy in Portuguese or English online. The following essay is a complementary, web-only contribution by one of the authors in the Reader.

In a capitalist world, a homeless person is a paradigm of the pariah, an individual seen as an outcast of the system. In a capitalist world, the pariah is a dissonant existence. In all senses and for good. At the margins of everyone and everything. His indigence degrades the idea of progress. His meagreness contradicts the imperative of satiety. His opaque and dry skin, wounded by incidental misfortunes, aggressions, and illnesses, renders explicit the impossibility of always having the cure at hand, inside of a pill. His slow and aimless walking—or his horizontal life lived on sidewalks, thresholds, and medians—screams that time is not money, but rather waste. The pariah bums about spending life in long, fruitless hours. Nothing comes out of his hands or labour. For this very reason, the pariah does not accumulate things, for he has nothing to accumulate—except, of course, for the guilt of squandering so-called rich time without producing anything but laziness and indiscipline. The pariah is the embodiment of weakness, of social and material failure, of the irremediable misery that found in him its most profound, systemic expression, considered extremely difficult—or almost impossible—to redress.

This is the pariah seen from the outside by the domesticated eyes of capitalism, which are only capable of distinguishing, as from the perspective of market ideals, what determines well-being or lack thereof; what is desired and what causes repulsion; the good and the bad inside a normative universe, the in- and the outside of the system.

The outside that means in

Yet, the pariah is, indeed, inserted into capitalism, and not at its margins, but outside. His insertion is promoted by the State and within it, as a statement of “absence”: this is what happens when the State is not present, this is what people become. And it is precisely at these margins that are not borders, but centre, where the State places itself: not allowing people to die, but rather forcing them to live in precarity, that is where the State’s cruellest and most disingenuous version rests. It comes up as some sort of calculated absence, which is necessary for the pariah, as such, to become the beneficiary of precarious public policies of a social nature, making him dependent on the minimal funding resources and palliative supplies offered by the State. These policies almost never address the actual root of the problems that make the pariah a pariah—according to the capitalist ruler—because that is how he must be: precarious and dependent. This way, with only stingy resources, the pariah can hardly manage to become autonomous and leave the marginality created by the State to separate those who “made it” from those who were left behind along the way.

And that is how he is kept: first as a cheap workforce, captive to the market, pacified and disciplined by the public authorities. Second, as an example of what men and women might become—oh, the horror—if they do not follow the catecheses of capital and apply them to their own lives. Furthermore, this becomes the pariah’s view of himself from the outside: the pariah as a necessary weakness in the capitalist system’s reproduction.

From the pariah’s side, this perspective might change. We find no system there, and he could (as a possibility) dispense with what subjugates him. This power is realized precisely when he rebels against the State’s peacemaking and disciplinary policies, when he refuses to be the target of its precariousness and capitalization. Once the pariah accepts for his life the enjoyment of a vagabond, adrift existence; when he wanders through the city enjoying it without requiring any monetary mediation, oriented by the wills of the belly, heart, and mind, detached from any capitalist imperatives of production, accumulation, or time exploitation; when the pariah exists; when he becomes autonomous and no longer gives in to the requirements of institutional precarity, as intended by the State; then he becomes contemptuous, strange, an alien to the system and, therefore, a disruptive, counter-hegemonic, anti-capitalist subject. From the inside, he becomes a threat to the structures placed outside of himself that continuously try to pass through him. This is the moment when he “needs” to be taken out of circulation and isolated. The prison system is the second way of life projected on him by the State.[pullquote]In whose interest is it to build a person that needs and will always need to be under tutelage?[/pullquote]

Inverting the keys to analyze the situation

The aim of this text is to raise questions capable of continually and increasingly subverting the keys to analyzing the capitalist city through the reality of the pariah, always in search of anti-capitalist strategies composed in the gaps of the system. The first one is: why is the pariah seen as an irremediably weak being? In whose interest is it to build a person that needs and will always need to be under tutelage? Is the condition of requiring tutelage innate or a political creation? Why not envisage the pariah as a strong, autonomous being, someone who has a voice? Furthermore: would it be possible to look at a body that wanes on some sidewalk, yet is still capable of enjoyment, without trembling, judging, or feeling disgusted by it? What are the technologies of a pariah unsubmissive to the State’s policies of subjection to precarious work? How does he create and use these technologies—here taken as strategies for living that include not only the body’s survival, but also its enjoyment? Does he socialize them? With whom? To what extent is it possible to abstract the general aspects of such individual technologies and introduce them as keys to counter-hegemonic thinking? Would it be possible, as Foucault suggests, to detach “the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time”[1] and establish the pariah’s technology as an apparatus to produce truths regarding capitalism? That is: is it possible to define and validate capitalism by the parameters of the pariah instead of defining and (in)validating him by the parameters of capitalism?

Brief historical recall: to subordinate and make profit out of poverty

In Microphysics of Power, Foucault points out that, until the Middle Ages, the prison system had an essentially fiscal role:

by means of fines, confiscations, distraints, by granting expenses and all sorts of allowances, operating the judicial system became profitable; after the breakdown of the Carolingian state the judicial system became, in the hands of the nobles, not only an instrument of appropriation—a means of coercion—but a direct source of revenue; it produced an income over and above feudal rent, or rather it became an aspect of feudal rent. […] They became an integral part of the circulation of wealth and of the feudal levy.[2]

Later, this system turns into a complex structure of justice, police, and prison, with the goal of fighting ever-growing popular uprisings. Thus, an anti-seditious system rises. It is an apparatus that, according to Foucault, bears a triple role: “to force the people to accept their status as proletarians and the conditions for the exploitation of the proletariat”; to isolate the “violent elements” of the mob from society through imprisonment, those who seemed to be more ready to turn to armed action, “including farmers who were forced by debts to leave their land, peasants on the run from tax authorities, workers banished for theft, vagabonds or beggars who refused to clear the ditches,” among others; and

to make the proletariat see the non-proletarianised people as marginal, dangerous, immoral, a menace to society as a whole, the dregs of the population, trash, the “mob.” For the bourgeoisie it is a matter of imposing on the proletariat, by means of penal legislation, of prisons, but also of newspapers, of “literature,” certain allegedly universal moral categories which function as an ideological barrier between them and the non-proletarianised people.[3]

Later, during the 19th and 20th centuries, a certain literary figuration of the “criminal” in journalism, literature, medicine, anthropology, and sociology would highlight this third role of the anti-seditious system.

Foucault is trenchant when saying that, ultimately, such a system is created to pit the proletariat mob against the non-proletariat. This way, two categories are spawned: the good poor (proletariat mob) and the bad poor (non-proletariat mob), in which the first one submits to his condition of being exploited, and the second one rebels against this condition. The bad poor then has his social isolation reserved “in prison, in the Hôpital General, in the galleys, in the colonies.”[4]

Loïc Wacquant. Taken from

Making a historical leap, a similar strategy is signalled by French sociologist Loïc Wacquant when approaching the contemporary North American penal system. From the perspective of neoliberal progress in the 1980s and ’90s in the United States, the deregulation of the labour market, the elimination of social policies, and their replacement by policies of precarious labour which the most disadvantaged layers of society are obligated to cope with as their sole source of income, Wacquant points to a massive expansion of the prison system as a way to pacify and discipline the bad poor (the rebel ones) who do not bend to precariousness-driven poverty management policies.

Both Foucault and Wacquant identify the same need in their research, separated by at least four centuries: the State’s repressive apparatus pacifying and disciplining the poor who rebels against his “fate” of remaining precarious, established by the dominant classes. So why not eliminate the pariah for good? Why not let him simply die instead of forcing him to live?

Cheap gear oil

More than an outcome, the pariah is part of the capitalist machinery—the cheap oil to this gear system. Wacquant approaches the “industrialization of punishment” in the wake of neoliberalism: profit-oriented imprisonment through the privatization of North American penitentiaries, filled with poor black people, for whom the prison is intended. Poverty is useful to the reproduction of capital, and the optimization of such usefulness is sought when reinforcing imprisonment not only as a device to subjugate poor bodies, but also as a profitable business. Wacquant states:

These companies, listed on the NASDAQ exchange, posted record growth rates and became the darlings of Wall Street during the 1990s. America’s “new economy” has brought not only the internet and digital information technologies: it also encompasses the punishment sector! As an indication, California’s state prisons employ twice as many staff as does Microsoft.[5]

Therefore, the pariah cannot be abandoned to his death, but rather is kept alive, since he can be as productive inside of a prison as outside of it by means of inclusive policies that locate one of their main vectors in precarious labour. In this case, the relation between pariah and State is much more “subtle” concerning the mechanisms of submitting abject bodies. These bodies need to exist, but in a controlled fashion. One of the manners of institutionally ensuring this is by eliminating, through discipline and pacification, the anti-capitalist technologies that turn the pariah into what he is according to market canons.[pullquote]One of the main paths to neutralizing this rebellious technology is precisely labour.[/pullquote]

Against the curse of labour, the redemption of laziness

Regarded in a systemic fashion and inserted into the structure of the capitalist mode of production, the pariah, when undisciplined and not pacified by the State, does not produce or accumulate, nor is he regulated by the fiction of effective and lucrative time created by the market. It is the pariah himself who creates his own technologies for the fruition of time and space, oriented by his most elementary needs by their usefulness criteria: to eat, sleep, excrete, rest, wander, flirt, distract himself, dream, have sex, enjoy, and remain alive. Therefore, the pariah not only diverges from the pillars of the capitalist production system, but also denies them with his sheer unproductive presence. In this sense, he is a threat to both the State and capital, not just for not being a producer/consumer, but for being an abject living body that can serve as a model of rebelliousness and controversy to other abject bodies. Hence, one of the main paths to neutralizing this rebellious technology is precisely labour.

Thus, it is not by chance that most State-owned programs for the homeless population have as grounds for social reinsertion the accomplishment of some sort of work with minimum compensation, practically symbolic and not always complemented by side policies for housing, health, feeding, leisure, psychological and social support, among other basic well-being items. Work is usually attributed a very important, almost unique role in resocialization, according to the model of someone well integrated into capitalist society: a person who works with stability; makes ends meet with his/her own income; expands the impact of that income, sharing it with the family through the acquisition of goods and services; and accumulates savings as a source of future income. The same person continues to work, produce, and accumulate, dedicating time to this daily task, aiming at eventually no longer needing to do it and being able to enjoy the fruits of the production, saved and accumulated over long years of sacrifice.

As for the pariah, work, no matter what kind—as long as it is “honest”—is evoked whenever one wants to highlight his dignity despite his condition of pariah: “John Doe lives on the streets, but he works, doesn’t need to beg for money.” The pariah himself sometimes signals the so-called virtue of work as a touchstone of his human dignity: “I’m poor, I live on the streets, but I work.”

By The Photographer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The question at stake here is: considering that, in a neoliberal capitalist society, work is a powerful device used by the State to discipline and pacify and thereby neutralize the pariah’s anti-capitalist technologies (anti-production, accumulation, and time, in the capitalist sense), could the pariah also be a model of good living for those more vulnerable to oppression and plunder by the labour market?

Furthermore: if we are talking about the pariah’s marginal force as a counter-hegemonic, anti-capitalist power, is it not then essential to analyze such power where it is exemplified, i.e., not at work, but in fully, consciously, actively living laziness? If the pariah cheats the rules, deviates from the disciplinary apparatus, and provokes the canons of capitalism, would he not then contribute, in the medium term, to decelerating the machine, and in the long term, to its extinction?

In order to broaden the reach of these questions, we look to a reflection by Michel Foucault:

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination.

The nature of these rules allows violence to be inflicted on violence and the resurgence of new forces that are sufficiently strong to dominate those in power. Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing these rules, to replace those who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them; controlling this complex mechanism, they will make it function so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules.[6]

This text does not intend to provide concrete answers, but rather to begin an exercise in questioning and utopian thinking, that is, to think with the horizon of a “heterotopia,” which Foucault defined as a “located utopia,” a counter-space that questions and faces the hegemonic space. It is a matter of transforming not only the thought itself, but the way of thinking. In order to perform a better inversion of keys to analyses and keep walking contrariwise, it might be fruitful to consider that it is not based on the pariah’s weakness that we want to see his technologies and find his counter-hegemonic core. It is rather based on the ignominious and gruesome force of his unproductive laziness, devoid of the least horizon of accumulation; of his insolence regarding the use of time; of his abject body (a living, mobile heterotopia?) that bypasses market imperatives. This inside-out reflection resides in the force of the pariah who wanders and enjoys the city.

[1] FOUCAULT, Michel. “Truth and Power,” in: Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980, p. 133.

[2] “On Popular Justice: A Discussion with Maoists”, Idem, pp. 4-5.

[3] Idem, p. 15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] WACQUANT, Loïc. “The Prison is an Outlaw Institution.” The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 51, no 1 (February 2012): 1-15. Available at, accessed on January 20, 2017.

[6] FOUCAULT, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In: Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977, p. 151.


DAS, Veena; POOLE, Deborah. “State and its margins: comparative ethnographies.” Anthropology in the margins of the State. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2004. Available in Spanish at, accessed on January 17, 2017.

FOUCAULT, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980

_____________. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

_____________. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979. New York: Picador, 2010

_____________. O corpo utópico, as heterotopias. São Paulo: n-1 edições, 2013.

SPIVAK, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak? New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

WACQUANT, Loïc. Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

____________. Prisons of Poverty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

____________. “The Prison is an Outlaw Institution.” The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 51, no 1 (February 2012): 1-15. Available at, accessed on January 20, 2017.

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