Laboring in Academe

Amidst the discussion of both the alleged mismanagement and abuses of Hau‘s editor-in-chief in particular and the power dynamics of the discipline of anthropology more broadly, currently ongoing under the hashtag #hautalk, a central topic of concern is the exploitation of workers. The allegations against Giovanni da Col stem directly from two open letters penned by former or current Hau staff, which confirmed what an amorphous whisper network had already known and others had suspected. Many of the allegations are about workplace management, either of finances or of staff, and it begs the question of what it might look like to work in academia in a manner that is not exploitative.

This question is one that many precarious and early career academics grapple with constantly, and one which senior academics seem to consider not at all. From the vantage point of graduate students, our role model faculty and the structures and positions they inhabit often seem out of touch on issues of precarity and the job market, inclusivity and access, and questions of gender, race, indigeneity, sexuality, ability, and other factors that affect us.

As I was explaining Emily Yates-Doerr’s experience with Hau—something which can only be described as a shakedown—to my partner, I had to remind myself that only in academia is it totally normal for authors and editors to not be paid for their labor. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the solution is always paying people for their work. As Marcel LaFlamme notes (in a Twitter conversation that is really useful but hard to organize – but glimpse here, here, and here), transforming academic publishing into another gig economy is hardly a solution at all. Rather, we should think more seriously about how to make the academic training process (i.e. graduate school) and the everyday work of academics (i.e. research, writing, teaching, and university administration) less exploitative and hierarchical, more egalitarian and emancipatory. Part of that involves paying marginalized people for their labor (that goes for in teaching and publishing, but also in the field in our interactions with interlocutors and research assistants), but it involves much more than that also.

The above-linked Twitter threads are all worth a read. This whole conversation reminded me of a similarly broad conversation a few years back when Yasmin Nair stated that academics who write for free are scabs. I don’t want to rehash that whole thing, but it’s worth asking just what conditions we expect and tolerate in academia. Unfortunately, I think too often the answer is far more than we should.

I say this as someone who always is very excited to be involved in the community of scholars, whatever that means. I’ve been publishing writing outside of this blog for five years and only ever been paid once. I’ve done an assortment of guest lectures, social media posting, book reviewing, and event organizing, mostly without remuneration. This was not because I was compelled to, rather I was excited to. I sought these things out. That doesn’t mean it is, or isn’t, exploitative. The fact is that some tasks seem like good networking or practical opportunities (whether or not they are in reality) and others seem like chances to be part of something we care about and something that, maybe, can change the discipline for the better.

I, like many, did not go into academia for the money, even while we yearn for and deeply need a living wage. Rather, I and presumably others chose academia because I wanted a career of teaching and learning, a life pursuing and producing knowledge and understanding. It’s an ideal to chase, to be sure. The problem is that these ideals are easily exploitable by those who would rather look the other way, especially as they benefit from the status quo, feed these ideals, and turn them into demands. This is precisely the case with Hau – both open letters elaborate that the staff were deeply committed to the “radical” open-access project that reinvigorated ethnographic theory. It is this commitment, this passion for the possibilities of anthropology, of scholarship, and of doing things otherwise that was in the end used to justify abuse and wage theft. (See Anand Pandian on what “open access” should really mean)

It is ethical and just to do political work – work that contributes to a project you believe in – with or without compensation. If we can earn something to make that work more sustainable, we should, but such work should not be reduced to a transaction. This goes for efforts to open up the academy to others, a burden often placed on the shoulders of marginalized faculty in the form of emotional labor, diversity appointments, and other service work that is all but invisible to privileged scholars and administrations. This also goes for efforts to do anthropology differently, no doubt part of the appeal of public anthropology, decolonizing anthropology, and open access scholarship. Contributions to these types of projects become unethical if you are convinced to do this work under the pretense of some benefit that might never materialize, or when you are told you will be rewarded but there’s actually no guarantee of that. All too often, this happens in academia, and far beyond. (The number of students I have juggling multiple internship a semester can attest to that).

Many in the world of academia continue to pretend it is somehow separate from the processes under which the rest of the world works. As Hugh Gusterson notes, “anthropologists have not been doing enough homework” – by which he means they haven’t been paying attention to how universities function. Journals and professional societies and conferences and departments are all a part of this.

“It is as if there is an avoidance relationship preventing us from systematically studying the institutions we inhabit,” Gusterson writes. I can only assume this avoidance relationship is because actually noticing the power dynamics of our departments and journals and associations would mean acknowledging that they need to be changed. That’s the only explanation for why the most elite universities would rather wage a scorched earth campaign against their own graduate students than acknowledge that they are workers with the right to unionize. It must also explain why we train students plenty about the theoretical and analytical politics of our discipline, but very little about its labor politics.

My adviser recently told me that I will need to work on saying “no” to professional opportunities. I’ve always been eager to get involved in projects, and graduate school inculcates in us the propensity to see everything as an opportunity. Opportunities were how I’ve wound up doing a lot of extra work throughout grad school, and a “missed opportunity” was precisely what I was presented with when I failed to meet someone’s expectations. Everything is a chance to improve, network, publish, or get a line on the CV. But it’s also a chance to be a part of the discipline in a more involved way. In a position plagued with impostor syndrome, taking on extra work is one way to feel like you actually belong. And with a job market so precarious, you just have to suck it up and do the extra work if you really want that postdoc. There’s a critique of the neoliberal university in here, to be sure. But there’s also a clarion call to do things differently.

What can we do differently? The tl;dr of this is to smash hierarchies and build solidarity everywhere you turn. If there’s one thing I learned from organizing here in DC, it’s that hierarchical organizing is a choice. So is collective work. Our departments, journals, and associations should be as egalitarian as possible, and should work to tear down hierarchies elsewhere. Our research, citation, and hiring practices should recognize the labor of others, especially those most marginalized. Collaboration over exploitation, autonomy over coercion, accountability over impunity. There are editorial collectives and labor unions and other anthropological affinity groups out there doing the work. We need more. If anthropology is a way of being or understanding, than let us make it one worth fighting for or create something new that is.

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Unsettling Anthropology

The last week has seen a tumult online in the world of anthropology. A run-down can be found in this IHE article and Hilary Agro’s cliffnotes twitter thread. The conversation centers on the formerly open-access anthropology journal Hau and the abuses of its editor, Giovanni Da Col, as nodded at by David Graeber’s statement and as described in two separate open letters by current or former Hau staff. But the abuses alleged and the culture of the Hau project are about more than just a single person or journal. Several commentators have pointed out that this phenomena is part of a broader problem within anthropology as a discipline (as well as academia more broadly and society at large).

Two important contributions to this aspect of the conversation, pushing beyond Hau and to the discipline itself, are worth sitting with. First is Zoe Todd’s thoughtful post on decolonizing anthropology (again). Todd points to the way we think about theory and anthropology – a way which presumes only certain types of thinkers as theorists while others are merely interlocutors or informants. The fact that this mode of thinking remains embedded in our discipline – the way it pervades course syllabi and seminar discussions and reviewer comments and journal publications – indicates that the effort to decolonize the discipline is far from finished. Todd’s whole piece is well worth a read, as is Anand Pandian’s reflection on open access anthropology. In it, and in the context of what has happened at Hau, Pandian notes that the open access movement is not merely about taking down paywalls, but creating a more open scholarship that breaks down other barriers too. As he puts it so eloquently:

The paywall is invidious, yes. But there are other walls that have also come into focus in recent days. Walls that shield those securely employed and exalted in anthropology from the acute concerns of those in more precarious positions. Walls that credit the field’s white forefathers with its most essential lessons, while relegating others to the status of native informants, loyal wives, helpful assistants, or grateful descendants. Walls that distinguish properly deferential and manifestly scholarly writing from forms of expression deemed too intimate, too vulnerable, too personal, too conversational, too passionate to count as serious scholarship. Walls that celebrate the glories of the master’s house. Walls that extol good theories at the expense of good stories. The moment in fact is long overdue, the reckoning with all these walls built beside and on top of each other.

Tearing down all of these walls is exactly what we should be doing when we decolonize anthropology. I hope that this moment is not an ephemeral one, but one that continues forwards unrelentingly. Anthropologists should be working together to dismantle all manner of systems of oppression in their work – not only by studying such forms of oppression in “the field” but in our professional lives on campus and in journals and in presses and at conferences and in the job market and in the streets.

We should openly be working to reorganize our discipline along new axes, not to seize power but to dismantle it. Collective work – in research and writing, in teaching and learning – is central to creating a more emancipated, unsettled, and free anthropology. Some of this work is happening in unionization efforts, some of it in open access and public anthropology spaces, some of it in classrooms and conferences. But it requires everyone committed to a new future for scholarship in order to create new ways of being, together. We can’t be free while others have power over us. Anthropology can’t be decolonized while a colonial mindset still governs much of its structures. Universities can’t be liberated while trapped in old power structures. We need to imagine something better, something otherwise.

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.

Anthropology at the Barricades

One year ago, dozens of direct actions took place across Washington, DC, to disrupt the Inauguration of Donald Trump. Today, celebrating and defending dissent and commemorating the first salvo in an ongoing struggle, there are numerous events all over the country. Many of these are part of a broad call to build out our movements for collective liberation. If you’re in DC, there are a few things going on today.

In the spirit of this solidarity, I’m sharing below a talk I gave in November as part of a panel on protest, theory, and practice at American University’s Public Anthropology Conference. It’s relatively unedited, I’m not a social movement scholar, etc. – but it’s some of my thinking on solidarity from the academy.

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By around dawn the morning of January 20th in Washington, DC, four individuals sat at the intersection of 10th and E, back to back, connected in a technical lockdown. A half dozen others—myself included—sat right where the police had dragged us, in between the concrete barricades that were supposed to form the security lines for entering Donald Trump’s inaugural parade route but instead became the nucleus for one of several direct actions occurring simultaneously across downtown DC. A few dozen others flanked us, chanting slogans and waving signs amidst the tumultuous opening salvo against the President’s Inauguration. The goal of The Future is Feminist, the non-hierarchical radical feminist collective that spearheaded the action at 10th and E, was to disrupt the checkpoint for as long as possible. Several other checkpoints saw similar direct action protests of varying size and tactics that day—each representing a community concerned about what a Trump presidency meant for it, from Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, from radical labor to queer activists—and the city also saw a permitted march—a winding parade of protesters, artists, puppets, and families—and an unpermitted anticapitalist, antifascist march clad in black. All of this was organized autonomously under the label “Disrupt J20.” By the afternoon, the other blockades had disbanded and police had kettled part of the black bloc march. Six and a half hours after locking down, the four individuals declared victory, unchained themselves voluntarily, and led a march away from the intersection, which by that time was teeming with hundreds of protesters who had formed a human wall—arms locked and several rows deep—preventing parade-goers from entering the checkpoint. This was how the tone was set for radical resistance to the Trump presidency.

In the months since, direct action has seen a revitalization, from immigration activists blockading ICE vehicles to prevent deportations to waves of ADAPT activists and allies staging occupations of Congressional offices every time Republicans have attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Direct action has also been used by antifascists and anti-racists operating under the ethic of no-platforming, working to prevent white supremacists from organizing or speaking in public, from Berkeley to Charlottesville, Boston to Gainesville. The Trump presidency has inaugurated mass resistance of many types, and starting with the events of January 20th we can see a large number of people turning to direct action to effect change, protect their communities, and assert their rights.

I had participated in this action not as an anthropologist but as an activist. But, as usual, I approached that day with an anthropological sensibility in many ways. Many forms of community organizing, including the organizing that went into Disrupt J20, emulate the ethnographic work that anthropologists do as activists build relationships with others. And as a man involved in a feminist group that centers the most marginalized voices, I was and am concerned with my place and the politics of representation, something which anthropologists honed in on a generation ago and continue to grapple with today, and something I’m conscious about even as I give this talk. As part of an acephalous, egalitarian group that reached decisions by consensus, and which itself acted autonomously alongside numerous other non-hierarchical groups in Disrupt J20 that day and in the weeks leading up to it, I was excited to be a part of a community organized according to different principles than the hierarchies and individualism that dominate American public life. Describing other ways of doing things and studying alternative modes of organizing society have long been at the center of anthropology’s contribution to our understanding of the world. And as both a scholar interested in an empathetic, engaged anthropology and an activist interested in creating a more just society, I viewed that day with an eye towards making the world a better place and creating a new set of relations through praxis. Our decision-making and action-taking processes were our politics—for the activists at 10th and E, direct action was at once both theory and action. It was praxis. Here I situate my experience that day within an attempt at a radical methodology, a revolutionary praxis, and militant scholarship. I put direct action forward as but one way that anthropologists can engage with the world, and I would argue that such participation should be in our toolbox when considering how to respond to our current moment.

On the same day as the blockades and marches, anthropologists around the world gathered collectively for a virtual read-in of Lecture Eleven from Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended. The 1979 lecture addresses the intersections of biopolitics and state racism and the state’s power to discipline and control populations. It is a fitting read for our time, and a lecture that was and continues to be generative for those of us thinking through such issues. Scholarship, research, and theory can be central to radical political action. Movements are driven by ideas, and intellectual communities—certainly not just those in academia—can be crucial to helping these ideas take root and grow. Radical political teaching, and radical scholarship, are critical parts of defending society. Direct action is another. When faced with a resurgent ideology of hate and contemplating how to take action, anthropologists should organize in their communities and fight where they stand.

The scholarship on protest is a broad field, and the topic of resistance has long been of interest to social scientists. Often, though certainly not always, resistance gets glossed either as the armed resistance of revolutionaries or as the types of “everyday resistance” that workers and peasants engage in when faced with hegemonic power. While these forms of resistance and subversion are integral to our understanding of how people engage with the sites of power around them, today I focus on a particular form of resistance, one that seeks not only to subvert power but disrupt it or move beyond it. In opposing or moving beyond the current state of things, direct action constitutes one form of resistance warranting further discussion.

Direct action does many things, of course. Sometimes it obstructs; sometimes it liberates. Sometimes it cripples state or corporate power; sometimes it communizes space for all. Across the city on January 20th, people engaged in direct action as a part of a collective struggle for a more equal and just society in the face of not just a man or a party but a system that seeks to isolate and oppress us. In the months since the Inauguration, many people have forged new relations through action, whether at airports in opposition to the Muslim ban or in their workplaces through collective action. New networks of resistance, many centered on direct action, have formed in response to white supremacy and misogyny—and not just that of Trump. Direct action is part of building community, which is central to opposing not just the latest form of fascism but also the neoliberalism that brought it about.

In the immediate aftermath of the election one year ago, there were many different responses to the “new” situation we found ourselves in as scholars residing in the United States. This newness was, of course, not new at all for scholars of color, women, and queer academics for whom state, society, and the academy rarely make space. Neither was it new for students of color, women, gender-nonconforming students, undocumented students, and the many other marginalized populations inside and outside of the university. Nonetheless, the ratcheted up white supremacy and retrenched misogyny that Trump represented and still represents rightfully gave many pause. What was a concerned scholar to do?

There were calls to speed up our response to the crisis by paving the way for a sort of faster, more responsive ethnography, a way to study current events and contribute an anthropological voice to the public discourse. There were calls for a more public anthropology, to open the gates of knowledge in the face of swelling anti-intellectualism. There were calls to research what gave rise to Trumpism by supporting more scholarship of the Right, including the oft-cited white working class, but also other groups that rallied to Trump’s cause. All of these are ways to engage as a discipline in a time when many feel drawn to change the way we’ve been doing things. The read-in was itself a response to such a feeling, digging into our wheelhouse of reading and theory to respond to our time. There are other ways, for those of us in the university, to use our classrooms and our role as educators to teach radical politics, to help decolonize the university, to democratize the classroom, to unlearn the white supremacy and misogyny latent in our society and our institutions. Like the rest of the United States, the American university was created for particular bodies, and we have work to do to continue reimagining these spaces and communities. My point is, there are many ways to take action as anthropologists. One way that anthropologists can respond to our contemporary politics that is both intuitive and has great potential is to participate.

At the heart of cultural anthropology, arguably, is the method of participant-observation, and we can and should hone in on this approach and join those struggling against ascendant fascism on the frontlines. Emphasizing the “participant” part of participant-observation, I’m calling for radical, militant participation as a means of scholarly resistance. We should practice a radical method, an engaged theory, an anthropological praxis. In her defense of ethnography, Alpa Shah states that “with the crisis of the left and the spread of the right across the world… there is a compelling need for participant observation as revolutionary praxis, to offer better theory and action in the world.” While Shah still finds a tension between scholarship and activism despite this need, I think that a commitment to radical praxis has the potential to bolster both. Bringing scholarship and resistance together can be a fruitful process in a number of ways.

Being actively involved and already engaged in defending society will make a faster turnaround for research more possible when it is most needed, after all, and public scholarship can only be more relevant if it emerges from popular struggle. Spending time working alongside those trying to secure communities and improve lives also opens up new venues for a more public anthropology. And while studying the right is certainly a necessary project, one from which we can learn a great deal in order to better respond to and curtail movements that seek to retrench various forms of inequality, we would also do well to further our work with marginalized communities and in so doing redouble our efforts to support them in the everyday work of their defense, survival, revitalization, and emergence. Working at the service of these movements can reaffirm our commitments to those bearing the brunt of neoliberal and fascist policies and white supremacist and xenophobic violence.

By dedicating ourselves to and contributing to the movements that are doing the work, anthropologists can put their bodies at the barricades, build relations through community organizing, and engage with a world outside of academia, all while contributing to a more engaged anthropology. There are times when research will be exactly what political action needs—mapping hidden power relations, for example, or tracing patterns of abuse to be resisted. In these scenarios, an informed and engaged scholarship can contribute to causes seeking to empower or protect communities through research, advocacy, and presence. But there will also be times when the concerns of activists may not lend themselves to a conventionally published ethnography as we know it. The livelihoods of our interlocutors is foremost, of course, and security culture exists for a reason, as the state persecution of activists across the country and around the world has reminded us. Audra Simpson’s invocation of ethnographic refusal is just one demonstration of how we can be more creative in what it means to produce scholarship amidst varying power differentials. Another is the by-now old idea of “studying up.”

In times when writing vignettes about an action centering on organizers and activists may not be the best way to talk about our interlocutors, it would make the most sense to turn our gaze and study “up” from the perspective of our comrades on the frontlines. When Shah argued that participant observation was “a potentially revolutionary praxis,” she meant that it encourages us to “question our fundamental assumptions and preexisting theories about the world” and better “understand the relationship between history, ideology, and action.” For Shah, ethnography is more than a method—it is our praxis. Through this praxis we can encounter theories of action and social change while living the solidarity with communities that many anthropologists propound. From the eyes of those on the ground, it is actually quite easy to see the links between settler colonial genocide and the destruction of the environment, between slave catchers and riot cops, between broken windows and for-profit prisons, between redlining and profiling. Training an investigative and critical eye on the structures that oppress and divide is critical both to revealing such processes and to helping allies, accomplices, and comrades find common cause against the next common enemy.

Viewing that January day from the barricades, after all, included seeing the beautiful work of activists, but also witnessing the resolute force of the state. I saw the inspiring convergence of a collective response to hate as well as the face of an emboldened far-right. One only need shift her gaze to enable different ways of seeing and representing the space of political action. And as anthropologists, there are always many ways of engaging with an experience, and being at the barricades does more than let you see. A multi-sensorial engagement shows that there are many ways to encounter that day, from feeling the closeness of linking arms with trusting strangers, tasting hard-earned food from a communal kitchen, and the uplifting sounds of an anti-racist brass band to the smell of pepper spray, the dull thud of flashbangs, and the feel of police hands on protesters’ bodies. Emotions were there as well: the exhilaration of collective action and the fear of police violence, the compassion of street medics, the panic of news from the kettle, the angry and euphoric urgency of active resistance. As Tara Joly recently wrote about the work being done at Standing Rock, resistance is “a feeling, not a theory.” Protest is a multisensory activity, and as any anthropologist knows, there is no better way to understand what it’s like on the ground except to be there. Depending on the needs of the situation, one can also reflect on these experiences in different ways, highlighting activists or the forces they confront.

With direct action comes solidarity and mutual aid. This is also a place where bodies and voices are needed. Working quietly behind the protests and actions, networks of actors work to sustain the movement. Eight blocks away that day, police used flash bangs, pepper spray, tear gas, and riot shields to illegally kettle the anti-capitalist, antifascist march, beginning what has already been a long and draining series of felony charges, superseding indictments, a police raid on an activists’ house, and status hearings for over two hundred individuals whose trials will begin in two weeks [edit: six were acquitted in December, 129 had all charges dropped this Thursday – 59 people, including numerous local organizers, still face 60+ years in prison]. Since the Inauguration, a vast network of legal support and other forms of mutual aid have kept the promise of solidarity by working hard to keep these people out of jail. At every action there are media teams and street medics, jail support and legal observers, marshals and scouts, a complex configuration of people committed to doing the work. We can and should be among them, participating in our communities.

In calling for scholarly resistance through radical participation, I hope this can be part of a response to the problems of this time. There are countless ways to contribute, to act, to participate. This city alone has seen mobilizations around numerous causes. In Charlottesville, a diverse community came together to plan their own self-defense when the state failed to do so. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy several years ago, Occupy Sandy outpaced both FEMA and the Red Cross in some communities, demonstrating what direct action and mutual aid can do. In response to ascendant fascism, runaway capitalism, and disastrous climate change, what we need now more than ever is a radical, political, ethnographic sensibility that puts us on the ground and taking direct action.

At the Smithsonian

Quick note that a two-part piece of mine has been published at the Smithsonian Museum’s Collections blog. It’s called “Southwest Archaeology and ‘The Time of Vietnam’” – here’s part two. The post is about an archaeologist studying pueblos in Arizona who got help from the US military to photograph some sites during U2 training flights in the desert. It’s an interesting story, and one that has echoes of both the ties between the military and research of indigenous peoples and the connections between war and photography. The photographs are part of the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Here’s a little excerpt:

[One] thing that each photo shares is the mark of a small accessory attached to the camera: in the bottom-right corner, each image has a clock and a counter marking the time and number of the snapshot. Some visual anthropologists have analyzed not just the photographic image itself, but also the “micro-event of the making of the photograph” (Pinney 2012). The counter and clock here are such a “micro-event,” but they are also more: they are part of a whole apparatus that took and collected photographs of much of the world.

While I spent several hours following the roads and mountain ranges of the Zubrow photos, I was drawn mostly to the clocks and counters. I tried to decipher the numbers jotted alongside the counter and across the face of the clock. I got lost in making a chart and reorganizing images by time and by number (the photos are not dated, only time-stamped, and the collection is arranged alphabetically by pueblo name). I found myself wondering what images filled the gaps, and where the planes traveled when they weren’t photographing the American Southwest.

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Check out the whole thing at the links above. The post and the research that went into it were part of Josh Bell’s Visual Anthropology course, which I took last year and which included a couple of visits to the NAA. Big thanks to Josh and to Caitlyn Haynes and Gina Rappaport of the NAA for their help.

On Violence and Truth and Jon Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors

I recently read Jon D. Holtzman’s Killing Your Neighbors: Friendship and Violence in Northern Kenya and Beyond and found it really engaging, especially for my current and recent research projects. I added it to my reading list because I thought the title referenced the electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 (I read it alongside other mass atrocity literature), but it’s actually about local (though perhaps just as violent) wars in northern Kenya and asks how community ties break down such that these wars are possible (and enduring). But it’s also about many other processes that are involved in violent conflict.

Holtzman’s ethnography is principally about the Samburu people, with whom he has done fieldwork in the past and has deep personal and scholarly ties, and in this book he studies the various incidents of violence between Samburu and their neighbors. By looking at wars, attacks, or massacres between the Samburu and nearby Pokot, Kikuyu, Somali, and Turkana groups, Holtzman also tries to map these incidents from “both sides” — attempting a sort of multi-sited (but never claiming “holistic”) approach to the study of violence. The central argument of the book is that there is a process through which neighbors are transformed from unkillable to killable people, and that “this transformation is a cultural and historical process rather than simply a material or political event” (4). Viewing violence as part of a cultural system, Holtzman spends much of the book analyzing how different groups and individuals talk about violence, situating such narratives and representations (including his own as the author) within the same contexts in which violence occurs. The ways people talk about, represent, interpret, and make sense of violence matter.

Most interesting, to me, is this last point, which runs throughout the ethnography. Looking at Samburu and Pokot narratives about the war between these two groups, for example, Holtzman admits ethnographic uncertainty (he doesn’t, and thus we can’t, ever know the “real” reason some of these incidents occurred, or what “really” happened) but also the uncertainty of war itself as combatants’ reasons for fighting don’t add up, or their timelines are off, or potential ulterior motives are revealed. In fact, in many of these incidents, his interlocutors agree on the basic facts of what happened, but they bring forth completely different interpretations of what these facts mean.

This is also seen in other examples: sometimes one group would read an incident through a particular historical lens while others did not: Samburu often saw violence with Kikuyu embedded in histories of Mau Mau killings of Samburu on settler farms, Samburu support for British counterinsurgency, and the subsequent marginalization of Samburu by the postcolonial government, while many Kikuyu interpreted the same current violence ahistorically to be about contemporary land issues, political inequities, and cultural “backwardness.” These incidents and divergences demonstrate the role of memory as a lens through which violence is understood. Meanwhile, Samburu saw a massacre committed by nearby Somalis as an unprovoked and major incident whereas many Somalis situated the event as part of a broader struggle against the British and then Kenyan governments. These different analyses demonstrate how interpretations of conflict occur at different scales – of time, space, population, etc. – depending on different subject positions and who you’re talking to (and, arguably, when and where and how).

One conceptual tool that emerges from these different narratives is that of “collective irresponsibility.” Holtzman inverts Evans-Pritchard’s notion of collective responsibility (a mode of solidarity) by noting that “one may assert that things done by members of our group do not reflect collective actions (although what is done by members of other ethnic groups can be subject to collective blame)” (62) and that “just as victims are prone to apply… ‘collective responsibility,’ perpetrators frequently adopt a stance of ‘collective irresponsibility’: the killers are people like us but not actually us” (100).

Collective (ir)responsibility is always situational, always a matter of who your audience is, always a matter of what the consequences or benefits of association might be. And in instances of violence — especially civil war or ethnic violence — these stakes can be rather high. If “violent acts not only do something but also say something” (165), then how people talk about or interpret violent acts is always in relation to whom that audience is. One thing I’ve been preoccupied with in my own research is how different groups – in different times and in different places – make sense of the same or similar acts of violence. This is something Holtzman reflects upon time and time again.

Given that I’ve been particularly interested in ways of writing about violence (and spent much of the spring thinking through the subject with some colleagues here at GW), I found Holtzman’s extended reflection on the ethnographic project to be useful and engaging. Take, for example, his conclusion to a chapter on different Samburu and Somali interpretations of what happened the day that a Samburu counterattack—a reprisal for the massacre of dozens of Samburu—resulted in the killing of a shiekh:

There is no resolution, nor perhaps should there be. At our best, anthropologists translate something meaningful about a world that we have grasped deeply, but subjectively and imperfectly, to an audience who will rarely fully grasp even that translation. There are no complete answers: there are incorrect versions and even offensive ones, but we, like our subjects, always see and portray worlds through gazes that are incomplete, if also in some senses true, though in stark contradiction to other “true” versions.

[…]

I am not simply trying to present an array of voices to demonstrate that different people are always going to disagree, nor to present a multitude of disagreeing voices that I as the anthropologist can resolve with monolithic conclusions about “what really happened” and “what it means.” Rather, I am aiming to explore what ethnography looks like when we embrace multivocality as an intrinsic aspect of our subject matter, an intrinsic aspect of the worlds our informants inhabit and live through, and thus necessarily an aspect of how we interpret the data. This is different from rehearsing a postmodern cliché of multiple truths; rather, it explores how our subjects act in accordance with a knowledge that these multiple truths shape their worlds (even if they do not acknowledge all of them as “truths”).

[…]

We [anthropologists] understand that the lives of human beings are a messy business, more so when, as in cases of violence, so much is at stake… rather than simplifying this messiness for the sake of analytical or theoretical clarity, we as anthropologists [should] embrace the ambiguities and contradictions within ethnographies that mirror, and thus more truly capture, the uncertainties in the world that our subjects (and ourselves) inhabit. (123-125).

And lastly, in the conclusion Holtzman reflects on the role of truth in war, reading Rigoberta Mechú, Tim O’Brien, and other narratives of war in light of the question of “true” representations of violence. But one reflection stuck with me as I grapple with my own research:

People have died in this book, a lot of people, and it doesn’t do them justice for me to slither off to my university job and get paid decent money to say that I don’t really know who is to blame, that maybe it is everyone or no one. Because someone killed those people, so to them, to their loved ones, or maybe to our sense of humanity, who did it and how it happened matters.

Or maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t… Sometimes blame isn’t really the point. A major issue here is the way the stories people tell about their wars contain understandings and misunderstandings of other groups that sow the seeds for future violence (197-198).

An ethnography of violence (or intervention or reconciliation or peace or–) might have multiple purposes, but if one is to tell what “really” happened, I’m not sure that will always be possible. War is messy; everyday life is uncertain. I think Holtzman’s book does a good job of showing us that uncertainty and sharing the stories that people tell. I don’t know what the best way to grapple with such uncertainty is – but I know I’ll be coming back to this book soon as I work through that question.

Connected by Radio

I spent a lot of this summer sitting in a small room in an NGO office, listening to a high frequency radio as people from across Haut Uele, one of the northeasternmost districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would check in with one another about the security in the region. News would come in every day – sometimes everything was fine; sometimes there were concerns related to health, weather, or other hazards; sometimes there were security incidents involving rebels – and the network of radios posted across the region kept everyone informed.

As I transition from my previous work on FM radios to focus on the HF radio network, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the radio fits within the media ecology – the range of media options that people can choose from. When I described my research to one Congo scholar, he expressed confusion as to why the phonie system still exists since cell phones have largely replaced it. But then I remember watching a driver for an NGO wandering up and down the street trying to get a signal to call the office and ask if the road was clear for the last leg of my trip to my field site. He would call, the call wouldn’t do through, so he would take a few paces over to try again. Vodacom only reaches so far.

I then also remember being in a small rural town where a HF radio was being fixed. We stopped by to greet the chief and the NGO staff explained that they were fixing the radio; the chief seemed grateful and said it was important to keep the town connected to the rest of the region. Almost to emphasize this, as we left someone handed a letter to our driver, asking that he take it back to town. There are few reliable ways to send messages even to the next town. When I was studying FM radio, I found out that one of the radio stations I was studying had asked listeners to respond to a sort of questionnaire. While some responses came via SMS, many came via motorcycle taxi or a chain of family and friends.

In a place where getting news from the next town over can be difficult or can take time, the HF radio does a lot of work. I’m still thinking about what all of this looks like, and what it means to be connected amidst violence (see also). As I continue to fumble through a year of courses, grants, readings, and exams, I just thought I’d take a moment to think aloud on here. More soon.

Bombing as Speech Act

There’s an interesting article up at Sapiens by William M. Cotter on military leaflets dropped over civilians during war in the Middle East, specifically Israeli messaging in Gaza as well as U.S. and allied leafleting over ISIS-held Raqqa. As a linguistic anthropologist, Cotter looks particularly at the language used in such leaflets, analyzing them for their strategic use in war. Looking, for example, at the vague language in messages informing Gazans to “stay away from Hamas elements,” Cotter asks, “What does the lack of specificity mean? Why are civilians only being provided with part of the story and given only a portion of the information that they need in order to avoid becoming victims of military strikes?”

The answer is of course because war – even with precision bombing and high tech missiles – doesn’t actually care about civilians or even the distinction between civilians and combatants. Especially in a place like Syria, where total war consumes lives regardless of this distinction, or in places like Gaza, perpetually stuck in interwar1 as civilians never know if violence is near. Actors such as ISIS fighters, the U.S. military and its drones, or the IDF often don’t care about this distinction either. Cotter provides some good analysis of what the messages are actually doing: they provide cover for militaries by technically “warning” civilians of impending violence but without adequately shielding them. In such instances of asymmetrical warfare, such leaflets or other messaging can act as an actual warning for civilians, but also also act as a free pass for military aggression or as a form of psychological warfare to intimidate the opponent.

While my own ongoing work on radio messages and leaflets in Uganda and the Congo resonates with this is somewhat tangential ways (and that will maybe be a forthcoming post), I want to flip the message of Cotter’s piece. The subtitle for his Sapiens article says: “Modern warfare isn’t only conducted with bombs, tanks, and guns—language also plays a central role.” But what if we think of bombs, tanks, and guns as linguistic tools?

If we conceive of bombing as a speech act, a tank as a performative, or a gun as medium, we begin to see all of warfare as communicative practice. War and violence say something, after all. Leaflets and propaganda say something about war, of course, but the politics of war-making and actual acts of war also have a lot to say. We should be attuned to violence as speech. Continue reading

GWU Anthropology Symposium this Friday

For those in the DC area, my department at GWU will be hosting our annual Anthropology Symposium this Friday all day. Please come check out some of the cool stuff going on in my little corner of the world. I am one of the organizers this year, and we’ve brought together a solid slate of presenters.

I’m particularly excited about our keynote speaker, Adrienne Pine of American University, who will be giving a lecture (at 4:30pm) titled “Preparing for an Anthropology of Fascism” and uses ethnographic data from the DC area as well as Honduras to ask what anthropological possibilities and responsibilities are emerging right now.

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A full program is available symposium-schedule (pdf). Hope to see you there!

Activism Forum at Anthropology News

In continuing my trend of working on anything but what I should be working on, I have a small update for you all. You might remember that I participated in a dialogue at American University in the fall discussing the role of anthropology in activism and activism in anthropology. I’m very pleased to announce that, in the intervening months, that dialogue has turned into a very nice little edited collection over at Anthropology News. The facilitators of the dialogue edited the collection and it just went up about a week ago.

My own article, titled “Writing and Research in a Conflict Zone,” touches on the ways that anthropologists might find themselves using similar tools as activists (gathering data, telling stories, etc.) either in the same, parallel, or opposing ways. I then give some short reflections based on my own interactions with, along side, and against popular non-profits working on ending the LRA conflict. Here’s a brief snippet:

The conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government was the focus of numerous academic monographs and NGO reports for 20 years before I heard about it. Little of this coverage mattered when the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut toured the United States with the tagline “discover the unseen.” While anthropologists, political scientists, humanitarians, and northern Ugandans were certainly aware of the conflict with the LRA, the film’s primary audience of upper-middle-class millennials was not. And so the film and the grassroots activist movement it sparked caught fire over the course of the 2000s, culminating in the Kony 2012 campaign.

The idea that raising awareness about an issue will lead to it being addressed is a common narrative in social and political activism. From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to Kony 2012, awareness (and fundraising) is central to activism, especially in the digital age. And a crucial part of raising awareness through activism is storytelling: activists must tell a digestible and actionable narrative that tugs at the proper emotions to galvanize a response. For Invisible Children videos, the formula was one that shed light on the effects of the conflict on Ugandan children, with a request for funds to address these negative impacts (building schools) and a call to take action (lobby the government). This strategy isn’t unique. The Save Darfur Coalition created a similar narrative (Hamilton 2011) and the campaign against “conflict minerals” in your cell phone does similar work (Seay 2015).

Storytelling has, of course, long been the domain of anthropologists. We are trained (or at least learn by doing) to write stories about people and places, shedding light on the lived experiences of others. While sometimes criticized as neither digestible nor actionable, ethnographies broadly do work that is similar to many activist and advocacy narratives. Anthropologists interested in either doing activism or speaking to activists must navigate the different publics and different modes of storytelling involved in such acts. The type of activism I saw emerging around the LRA conflict is part of how I came to find myself an anthropologist trying to write within and between these spaces.

The article centers on how we write about what we write, and for whom. Part of this emerges from the long debates around non-profit messaging about Africa, and part of this comes from a longer academic reflection on how we write about violence. It is also another example of me navigating through how to write about my own progression from one place to another in regards to the conflict that I study. Have a look, I hope you get something out of it.

But more importantly, you should read the other pieces in the collection. The introduction by Haley Bryant and Emily Cain sketches out what the dialogue was all about, and the important questions highlighted by the conversation. Each of the individual pieces resonates with something either implicit or explicit to my article, and the different parts of the collection speak to each other in interesting ways. Chloe Ahmann’s piece looks at the politics, ethics, and methodology of being (in)visible when studying activists in Baltimore. Hugh Gusterson discusses the different audiences an anthropologist has, and the responsibilities one might feel toward particular groups and not others in the course of research. Emma Louise Backe looks at the importance of care and self-care involved in ethnography through her experience studying a rape crisis hotline. Each of these pieces is well worth reading, and I learned a lot from speaking with everyone involved (including Shweta Krishnan, who was a part of our PAC panel but did not write a piece for AN) both during the dialogue and in the writing process after. A big thank you to everyone involved in the event and the publication.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently, and a lot of activism. These sometimes overlap, but don’t always. I strongly believe that scholarship can and should be a form of activism, but it is certainly not the only one. This collection is just one small part of an ongoing conversation and reflection about what anthropology and activism can offer each other, where they converge and diverge, and how to use both to imagine and enact a better world.