Imagining Danger and Safety (and Conference Talks!)

Quick note that I’ll be giving the same talk twice this month. First, this weekend in Philly I’ll be at the American Ethnological Society’s annual meeting. I’ll be part of panel 3.1.5 “Technologies of Disaster, Power, Ethics, and Politics,” Saturday morning at 8:00am. Then, on March 30th, I’ll be presenting at my department’s annual symposium here in DC. Reach out if you want the details for the latter – promo material forthcoming.

My talk is titled “The Promise of Early Warning: Radio, Protection, and Political Demands in Northeastern Congo.” I look at the different ways in which humanitarianism and infrastructure offer certain promises (of care, of life, of progress, of modernity) and what happens when those promises are not borne out as imagined. It’s one step in thinking through my research from this past summer as I prepare for fieldwork, and also thinking with recent scholarship on these issues. I’ll be continuing to think with, on, around, and about this, I’m sure.

As I both prepare for the upcoming AES conference and continue to read for my comprehensive exams (ack!), I wanted to drop some thoughts here. This weekend one of my readings was Juliana Ochs’ Security & Suspicion: An Ethnography of Everyday Life in Israel. Part of Ochs’ argument centers on how discourses about security get reproduced at the level of bodily practice and ways that fantasies of threats and protection get embodied. I’m still sitting with the book a bit, but I found it really generative to think about processes of everyday securitization. In the context of the second intifada, Israel’s itinerant, moving checkpoints and ever-changing security measures shaped people’s perceptions of security, not unlike what other scholars of security in Israel have shown. But Ochs demonstrates how these practices get filtered at the individual level as people’s personal imaginations of the city (Jerusalem) are shaped by their own experiences of the city, of Palestinians, of trauma, etc. – she shows this through, among other things, people’s commutes in the city and how they explain what parts of the city are safe or dangerous, when it’s okay to travel, and what modes of transportation are safest.

This is just one slice of the book, but it’s been useful to think with as I put the final touches on my conference paper, and I’m sure it will continue to be in the back of my mind as I study securitization, humanitarian infrastructure, and technologies of intervention. I’m interested in how the communication networks that I study might shape people’s understandings and interpretations of insecurity, and how the promise of technology and intervention might be changing these processes. Thinking with Ochs, then, I’m interested in how the threat posed by the LRA, but also the discourse and daily communicative practices around this threat, play out at the local level. How are the threat, discourse, and practice interpreted, embodied, lived, and felt?

And so, by way of conference paper snippet, here’s a glimpse of what I was thinking about last summer when I was doing exploratory fieldwork in Haut Uele, DR Congo, and a snippet of what I’ll be talking about on Saturday:

Let me first describe an instance in which the radio allowed humanitarians and civilians to trace LRA movements. Last summer, while I was awaiting my Congolese visa, alerts were sent out about a series of small roadside attacks which included three incidents of looting and one killing of a soldier south of Garamba National Park, near the village of Sambia. Once I got my visa, I was able to travel by road to Dungu, and upon arrival heard that there had been more looting or sightings of LRA fighters south of the park and, more recently, west of the park. Given both the history of LRA tactics and the daily incident reports, one can cobble together the most likely scenario: if all of these incidents involved the same group of LRA fighters, then they probably had been living south of Garamba, looted local communities to gather supplies in advance of a journey, then traveled through Garamba to poach elephants, and headed west on their way up to Central African Republic, to take the ivory either to other LRA groups or to LRA commander Joseph Kony, who is rumored to be in hiding in Sudan and using illicit trade to continue his rebellion from afar. In June, while I was preparing to cross into the Congo, communities on the early warning network were hearing daily reports of LRA activity, which hopefully allowed parents to keep children close to home rather than tilling distant fields, allowed travelers to be on alert on remote roads and pathways where the danger of looting was heightened, and mobilized peacekeeping forces to patrol the areas most affected or most vulnerable.

Once I was settled into my routine listening in to daily rounds with the radio staff in Dungu, however, a problem arose, or rather, erupted. In late July, news came from near the town of Bangadi of a particularly bold attack in which an FARDC camp was raided and a small town was looted of food, medical goods, a power generator, and radio equipment. Days later a series of roadside looting occurred, including several deaths and the kidnapping of a local government official. Given the location of these incidents northwest of the park and on the route to Central African Republic, this is likely the same group which had been actively moving, looting, and attacking communities throughout those months. But despite the weeks of information-gathering, the fact that a government official had been abducted, and their mandate, the peacekeepers in Bangadi never deployed to the nearby communities to investigate or respond to the killings and abduction. Knowledge had been shared, but action wasn’t taken. People died, were looted, or abducted, and the assailants vanished with impunity.

What I explore more in the talk is what to make of such failed promise as when the early warning network provides information so that civilians know about the threat, but there’s little they can do about it. The promise of humanitarianism, and of technology, is premised on improving lives. What happens when these hopes are dashed? What do promises, even broken ones, generate? I gesture at political responses to abandonment and potentially new politics emerging in moments of such failure, but there are other places to train our eyes and ears. If we channel Ochs’ focus on everyday and embodied security, though, it’s worth asking how the radio produces particular imaginations of rebel movement, how the information that gets circulated shapes daily practices, and how knowledge about the LRA threat is felt. These are some of the things I’ll be tackling as I think through the promise and practice of early warning.

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