DISCIPLINARY ADAPTATION AND UNDERGRADUATE DESIRE: Anthropology and Global Development Studies in the Liberal Arts Curriculum
Like most disciplinary scholars, anthropologists have been reluctant to reorganize their undergraduate programs to speak directly to student concerns. Yet, students are oriented, both intellectually and proto-professionally, to issues like global development, about which anthropologists have much to teach. This article examines student assumptions about development and about the interdisciplinary knowledge they think they need to understand it. I outline a critical pedagogy to respond to student ideas about development. I then sketch the cultural assumptions and bureaucratic structures that work to marginalize interdisciplinary programs. I conclude by suggesting ways anthropologists could adapt their undergraduate programs to “colonize” new curricular territories frequently defined in interdisciplinary terms.
In North Carolina, a faith-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization facilitates a child sponsorship program that connects North American evangelical Christians with at-risk children in one of postwar Guatemala City's most violent neighborhoods: La Paloma. Pitched in the name of gang prevention, child sponsors help create a context in which these Guatemalan kids might choose God over gangs. Based on fieldwork in North Carolina and in Guatemala, with both sponsors and the sponsored, this article explores how child sponsorship makes the work of gang prevention dependent on the work of self-cultivation. It is an ethnographic approach attuned to what this article understands as the subject of prevention, that is, the individual imagined and acted upon by the imperative to prevent. This includes at-risk youths, in all their racialized otherness, but also (and increasingly so) North American evangelicals who self-consciously craft their subjectivities through their participation in gang prevention. The subject of prevention's observable outcome is a kind of segregation with its own spatial logic. The practice of evangelical gang prevention ultimately produces an observable kind of inequality that says something about the surgically selective nature of Central American security today. Some Guatemalan youth connect with North Americans. Others get left behind.
Sovereignty and governance in contemporary Africa are hotly contested issues with important—even dire—consequences for all those interested in the continent's markets, resources, people, and welfare. This article focuses not on questions of how authority is assigned or removed but on how it is shaped, worn, and performed for diverse audiences, particularly in the arena of “traditional governance.” Here, the Bafokeng “ethnic corporation” meets Africa's last absolute monarchy, the Swazi Kingdom, in a juxtaposition of styles, symbols, and strategies that illuminates the difference between an aesthetic of defiant African alterity and an Afromodern capitalist cosmopolitanism.
This article explores the engineering of affect in socialist urban design and subsequent changes in the affective register of a rapidly growing city in late socialist Vietnam. The setting is the north central city of Vinh, destroyed by aerial bombing during the American War and rebuilt with assistance from East Germany. A primary focus of urban reconstruction was Quang Trung public housing that provided modern, European-style apartments and facilities for more than eight thousand residents left homeless from the war. Drawing from interviews, images, poems, and archival materials that document urban reconstruction, the article foregrounds the complex historical, ideological, social, and gendered meanings and sentiments attached to a particular construction material: bricks. It argues that bricks have figured prominently in radical and recurring urban transformations in Vinh, both in the creation and the destruction of urban spaces and architectural forms. As utopic objects of desire, bricks gave shape to an engaged politics of hope and belief in future betterment, as construction technologies once reserved for the elite were made available to the masses. In Quang Trung public housing, bricks harnessed political passions and utopian sentiments that over time, as Vinh's urban identity shifted from a model socialist city to a regional center of commercial trade and industry, came to signify unfulfilled promises of the socialist state and dystopic ruins that today stand in the way of capitalist redevelopment.
In 2009–2010, a team of officials at Lima's Office of Formalization worked to formalize (legalize) the hundreds of markets that operate informally in the downtown area of the city. To persuade businesses to apply for an operating license, the Office lowered the threshold of requirements and simplified the procedure. This strategy was akin to the legal reform program promoted by Hernando de Soto's 1986 influential study of informality, El otro sendero: La revolución informal. But at what point does simplifying the law, in its aim to bring state regulation closer to the realities of informal vendors, produce, rather, the informalization of the legal and bureaucratic apparatus? Drawing on fieldwork at Lima's Office of Formalization and at the downtown markets of Mesa Redonda and El Hueco, this article is an ethnographic examination of informality not as the absence of legal or bureaucratic form but as a sequence of countless operations engaged in its deformation. Georges Bataille's theories of general economy and l'informe (the formless) frame this study of the formlessness of bureaucratic form and of informal vendors’ unrelenting desire for autonomy from the state.
This article analyzes stories of ghosts and criminals told by residents and workers in urban high-rise buildings and suburban gated communities in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. For many in Chiang Mai's “communities of exclusion,” the fantasy of progressive, orderly neighborhoods and intellectual, prosperous communities coexisted with stories of empty streets haunted by violent ghosts and drug-addicted foreign invaders. With the added shocks of economic and political crises in 1997 and 2006, events that littered the Chiang Mai skyline with abandoned buildings, the idea of progress in Chiang Mai—in the Thai idiom of khwam charoen—underwent its own crisis. Through an analysis of these stories of progressive or haunted sites, I show how, for many in these communities of exclusion, the fantasy of progress and development has been rendered uncanny.
This article considers the treatment of commuter train suicides in Tokyo's commuter train network in an effort to think critically about the lived experience mediated by theories of emergence materialized through “smart” infrastructures. In so doing, it embarks from the question of how the commuter train network thinks the disorder of the commuter suicide in relation to how the network has been restructured in recent decades to handle irregularity as regular. This restructuring, I demonstrate, works to corporealize the network in accordance with an understanding of the body as a paradigm of decentralized complex emergence, which is a concept with roots in cybernetics and artificial life but which has also been adopted in recent political theory to rationalize social, economic, and environmental instability. Materialized in the commuter train network, this concept asks us to think the system as a kind of machinic life that, while generating the potential for new forms of value creation, potentially encourages the experience of commuter suicides as a necessary and recursive process of metabolic renewal within a totalizing system.
This article describes the temporality of eviction in a rubble-strewn site of urban demolition in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where over 14,000 households are being evicted to create an ambitious “new urban zone.” Eviction thrusts many residents into an alternative time-world of enforced waiting, marked by an oppressive sense of being suspended in time. For some residents, however, an alternative temporality marked by indifference and disinterested detachment disrupts the project's timeline and thwarts the temporal designs of planners. Attention to the play of time reveals important social dynamics of everyday urban development and shows that acts of land clearance and reactions to them are more complex than simple battles over land and money. Most significantly, the difference between oppressive, alienating “waiting” and empowering, socially productive “hanging out” (chơi) is conditioned by the different ways social actors understand productive activity as an expression of agency played out in time.
Coming out from the shadow of the economic crisis of the 1990s, the neoliberalizing Finnish state identified another emergent threat: “burnout,” a mental disorder characterized by cynicism and loss of productivity affecting nearly all strata of the workforce. Efforts to identify and rehabilitate workers focused on improving “self-awareness,” and having individuals reevaluate their relationship with and expectations of society. For many Finnish mental health professionals, burnout stemmed from individuals who were too “conscientious,” holding attitudes that were increasingly maladaptive in the new competition-oriented economy. Yet for many in rehabilitation centers, calls to “know yourself” paradoxically generated questions about being, and the challenge to come into oneself as a sovereign, beyond these temporally contingent constructions. Many of those under rehabilitative care spoke of finding themselves estranged and metamorphosized in the face of a diagnosis that presented themselves to themselves as an entity yet to be discovered. In this way, rather than focus on the generative potential of institutional categories to construct new subject identities, I instead locate their power in their capacity to open up to examination that which they name. [subjectivity, alienation, emergent disorder, neoliberalism, sovereignty]
Psychological workplace harassment, called “mobbing,” can include vicious bullying but also practices normative within neoliberal labor regimes. It has become an urgent problem in Italy and led to the creation of a judicial category: “existential damages.” Why acknowledge workers’ existential injury during a period marked by the precipitous loss of their safeguards and value? Awarding existential damages displaces the locus of agency from the cause of economic conditions to their effects: from labor policy and norms to the disordered social relations among workers. Obscured are frictions within Italy's uncoordinated political apparatus and how workers’ injury is enacted and maintained. [labor, law, injury, Italy, state, existential, suffering, neoliberalism, precarity]
In 2007, the number of cell phone novels posted on the popular portal, Magic Island, reached one million—a figure that has puzzled observers worldwide. Although critics ubiquitously interpret the writing and reading of cell phone novels as an escapist pastime, I see the cell phone novel movement as a response of young people to their incorporation into a precarious labor regime and their exclusion from collectivities (e.g., workplace and family) that offered their parents key resources for self-determination. Building on textual analysis and interviews with cell phone novelists, acquisition editors at publishers, and creative professionals at cell phone novel portals, I make the following arguments. First, I claim that the cell phone novel phenomenon reveals a curious paradox. The more young people become part of a precarious workforce, the more they seek self-fulfilling work that they are willing to perform, even if they do not receive pay for the work. Second, I demonstrate that the digital-media economy capitalizes on this trend. Although Internet portals, such as Magic Island, promote the writing of cell phone novels as an opportunity to pursue self-fulfilling and potentially lucrative work, these portals only acclimate youth to accept precarious employment and unpredictable work conditions. Last, I conclude that young people recognize in cell phone novels the potential to function as the medium of the political. Cell phone novelists do not simply voice their generation's anguish over their disenfranchisement. Rather, by writing these novels, they produce a conjuncture at which writers and readers come to understand themselves as new collectivities and begin to develop critical insights about work, solidarity, and future. [youth, labor, politics, cell phone novels, digital media, Japan]
This article provides an ethnographic response to the statement that soy kills (“la soja mata”), a refrain often repeated by campesino activists living on the edge of Paraguay's rapidly expanding soybean frontier. In the context of Paraguay's modernization projects since the 1960s, statements like these were easily disqualified as irrational or nonmodern. In the process, the political importance and analytic potential of the beans were dismissed, and so, too, were the lives and analyses of rural activists. And yet the activists with whom I worked managed, over the course of five years of court battles, to bring killer beans before the courts and to have them recognized as a force in Paraguayan politics. In so doing, they also opened up an analytic position for ethnography, allied with Isabelle Stengers's cosmopolitics, which emerges from a situation of mutually enacting responses, rather than as a mediator of relationships between beings included or excluded from the political territory by the criteria of modernity. [legal activism, response, responsibility, knowledge practices, modernity, human–plant relations, frontiers, agrarian transitions, rural politics]
This article asks what anthropology can contribute to public and scholarly debates about politics of knowledge in global governance and argues that bringing together insights from aesthetics of governance, science and technology studies, and theories of performativity offers a productive reorientation to existing approaches. My specific question is: how did WHO research that was intended to counter alarmist discourses about female genital cutting end up legitimizing them? For anthropologists who participated in the scientific controversy, the answer was clear: the study was driven by ideology. To expand the range of analytical responses, I suggest, we need to understand the rearrangements of knowledge and power in neoliberal governance, as well as a conception of authorship that uncouples scientific statements from sovereign subjects. Deadly harms were not made certain by ideology, I argue, but by aesthetics of expertise, WHO bundling of governance by emergency and governance by evidence, and performative iterations at the cultural boundaries of science. To make this argument, I analyze the historical conditions of possibility for the WHO study, offer an ethnography of knowledge production, and trace the social and governmental lives of fact and meaning-making. [WHO, female genital cutting, science controversy, governance by evidence, anthropology in the public sphere, aesthetics, performativity]
This article approaches the brand from its surfeits, those material forms and immaterial social meanings that exceed its authority and intelligibility. By thinking through “counterfeits” and other unauthorized brand forms, on the one hand, and the novel and often unpredictable social meanings that emerge through moments of brand consumption, on the other hand, I argue that at the heart of the brand is an instability, a tendency toward an excess of meaning and materiality. Showing how brand and surfeit emerge out of the commodity form in late-19th-century consumer markets, the article then demonstrates how in recent decades the brand has mediated, and been mediated by, shifts in the global economy; in particular, I examine the respatialization of labor, the financialization of capital, and the neoliberal economic and legal reforms that have made such shifts possible. I argue that the capacity of the brand to function as a financial instrument of global capital has turned on its ability to both produce and police those surfeits that threaten to decenter it. This tension between brand and surfeit requires us to rethink the study of brands. In particular, any approach to the brand requires ethnographic sensitivity to those moments when the brand displaces itself in ways that enable novel social imaginaries, performative possibilities, and material forms that cannot be easily recouped by it. [brands, counterfeits, trademark, neoliberalism, globalization]
In the global neoliberal economy, material and immaterial production increasingly happen on opposite ends of the world where they are assigned different social and economic value and serve to perpetuate stark inequality between increasingly large, transnational corporations and small, local manufacturers. Not everyone, however, accepts the terms of this arrangement. This article chronicles the efforts of Indonesian DIY fashion labels to undermine the global regime of immaterial labor. It argues that DIYers challenge neoliberal business as usual in at least three ways: (1) by seizing the means of material production and making garments on their own terms; (2) by recombining material and immaterial processes of production into a single continuous act; and (3) by treating the brand—the symbolic, legitimizing force of labor inequality—not as the active subject of global capital it has no doubt become, but as an object, ripe for appropriation and manipulation. [brands, trademark, fashion, youth, immaterial labor, circulation, globalization, Indonesia]
In this article, I analyze significant gaps between what branding means in Guatemalan Maya communities and how brands are understood in international projects of legal harmonization that are also about rebranding the Guatemalan nation. Following Guatemala's internal armed conflict, neoliberal statecraft has involved policy approaches that amplify the presence of global brands while compounding conditions of socioeconomic inequality that limit Maya men and women's access to authorized goods. Meanwhile, Maya people are invited to participate in a modernist vision of citizenship and social progress that encourages a privatized model of indigenous identity mediated by branded commodities and formal market transactions. In this context, the brand is a powerful medium through which claims to legitimacy and authority are negotiated at national and local levels. [brands, piracy, intellectual property, trademark, fashion, Guatemala, Maya]
This article analyzes the political dynamics centered on Skopje 2014, an urban renovation project sponsored by the government of the Republic of Macedonia, which is linked to efforts to define a distinctive nation brand for the country. Examining the project and the controversies it has generated, I argue that the form of nation branding represented by Skopje 2014 indicates a new modality of neoliberal governance in which the state functions as an entrepreneurial subject within a competitive global marketplace oriented to the attraction of deterritorialized finance capital. I show how promoting a national brand image defined a field of state management where the development project was imagined to mediate Macedonia's relationship to foreign investment and tourism. However, as illustrated by the Macedonian case, nation branding not only rationalizes a new state project but also grounded an idiom of popular claim-making on the state. Through portrayals of the Skopje 2014 project as an inauthentic and counterfeit copy of other European cities, critics have constructed counterproductive national promotion as both an economic and existential threat to citizen-subjects. The article therefore explores how nation branding can open a new space of politics when nation-brand images emerge as sites of popular contestation. [nation branding, national identity, representation, citizenship, neoliberalism, Macedonia]