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.

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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.

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