Postmortem and Possibilities: Reflections on AAA 2016

After the results of the election, there was a new kind of energy at the AAA’s, a nervousness and a palpable anticipation. There was a sense that this crisis, this political and epistemic rupture, was anthropology’s moment to break into the public, to apply its knowledge and insights to a wider audience and professional demographic that has long eluded and bedeviled the discipline. There were late breaking panels on Standing Rock, Flint, being unapologetically black, as well as workshops on responses to the promise of a “new” America. A sense of unease and fear percolated and infused almost every panel discussion. I was reminded of Gina Athena Ulysse’s discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement at the 2014 AAA Conference prior to the die-in: “I can’t breathe.”

Many of the conversations at the conference began and ended with a similar refrain: what does it mean to “do anthropology.” This phrasing is telling—it puts anthropology and ethnography in an active stance. And yet to do anthropology has also historically been applied through primarily passive means. Even if we have moved away from the “prime directive” of early anthropology, we are still expected to leave a very faint and indistinct imprint on our fieldwork community. We cultivate a sense of community, recruit interlocutors, and develop close ties within the field, but we are still expected to remain separate, the proverbial fly on the wall as we maintain our positionality as the insider-outsider. We are discomfited by fieldwork that is engaged, ethnography that walks a little less softly and perhaps carries a different kind of stick.

On Thursday, the second day of the workshop, a late breaking session was held on responses to the election. To do anthropology in these newly amplified political stakes cannot be passive. Yet the confusion and ambiguity about where we go from here emerges from the fact that anthropologists are uncomfortable with action. Applied anthropology or activist anthropology is seen as separate and perhaps even destabilizing to the discipline because the stakes are higher, as is the anthropologist’s investment and sense of vulnerability. This is a moment for rapid response ethnography of the same caliber as the Ebola crisis, but it’s also one in which the identity of anthropology needs to shift. Like Melissa Harris Perry’s address on Wednesday evening, this transition period is not necessarily going to be comfortable, but we need to lean into the discomfort. Otherwise, I worry that these conversations could lapse into complacency.

Within my own department, only six blocks away from the White House, we’ve had open forums, teach-ins and discussions about what to do, what can be done. There is an evident tension between those who want to return to ethnographers of the past and those calling for a radical revisioning of current ethnographic praxis. These questions, however, are reactionary, despite the fact that the threats elicited by the President-elect are hardly new. What we do is embedded within the question: what do we do as social scientists whose critical engagement is often left of center yet rarely easily accessible? And how does this articulate with established but perhaps outdated ways of conducting ethnography? Several panels on public anthropology still seemed stuck in a scholarly demographic. As one panelist lamented, anthropology is jargony, preachy and overly focused on minutiae. Alex Golub from Savage Minds pointed out that public anthropology is not the same as doing anthropology in public. Sometimes our ability to quickly respond to news depends upon our introductory and foundational training in theory and practice 101, rather than the remote village where we’ve spent too many hours agonizing over fieldnotes.

Post-election responses have also triggered emotional valences among conference attendees. As a woman, I have spent much of my life learning not to acknowledge my emotions, to manage and control them so that they don’t get misconstrued in relation to my gender, my age or my professional position. Don’t get too emotionally invested, or you’ll be labeled as crazy. Don’t demonstrate the personal resonances of your class material or your fieldwork, because it’s subjective and it undermines your critical perspective within the academy. Don’t show the pathos behind the reasons why you got invested in advocacy or activism. For all the promises of the affective turn, we are rarely permitted to be with our emotions in any productive or cathartic way. And yet AAA 2016 held space for those emotions—it was not uncommon for voices to crack mid-sentence, or speakers to take a moment to collect themselves. It gave the papers and panels a renewed sense of urgency.

On Friday, as I was coming down the escalator between the Hilton and the Convention Center, an older gentleman in front of me fell. As he rose from the moving stairs, he clutched a white handkerchief to his forehead where a sharp, deep indentation had been gouged out. As I rushed to help, I was shocked by the sight of blood. Ever since November 8th, the nation seems to be experiencing a sort of epistemic wound, yet we are only just starting to see the physical, psychological and symbolic violence that will follow the results of the election. We can feel the pain in a visceral way, but we can’t point to a singular point of injury—yet. The splatters of blood on my shoes, my hands, and the indentations in the escalator were not dissimilar from the blood of my own body, precipitated by the decision to get an IUD after the election. The cyborgian reproductive intervention created a sense of uterine crisis in my own body just as we were grappling with what it mean to give birth (berth?) to a country in which many of us no longer feel safe. Many of our bodies have already begun to wince and flinch away—we owe it to our students and one another to acknowledge this. Our responses are both intellectual and deeply personal, so let us strive to hold the intimate and the ideological at once.

As the older gentleman revealed the flap of skin scraped away from his scalp, I felt that I could not cry (for him? for me?)—I needed to hold the pressure, use the skills I had developed both intentionally and through a sort of field osmosis throughout my focus on medical anthropology, at the same time that I felt responsible that he had fallen, that I had let him fall, and that, like the escalator, we could continue to fall at the same time as the stairs continued to rise.

Make no mistake. There will be blood. The hate crimes have already begun to spike. The question is what kind of triage anthropologists are prepared to provide. Several panelists remarked that their shock with the election partially stemmed from the realization that rational arguments do not always win. The budding post-truth paradigm means that logic and measured rhetoric are no longer the best tools to convince the public. Our candidate choices were partially premised on a discourse of insider-outsider status—anthropology has long lamented its outsider status, both publically and within universities more generally. And yet, as other panelists this past weekend pointed out, we also need to recognize that a number of other disciplines have been developing strategies and training students to address these very problems for years. It’s on us that we haven’t incorporated the lessons of other disciplines and cultivated more interdisciplinary ties. We have a tendency to assume that it’s our responsibility to educate the public, but what about our own education? What do we still need to learn? We should also remind ourselves that the core of anthropology still tends to hinge around white male academics. I was emboldened by the number of speakers of color, of international panelists and graduate students incorporating the lessons of radical, intersectional feminism and taking the Ivory Tower mentality to task for failing to account for the experiences of black practitioners, queer practitioners, Latinx practitioners, practitioners who are transitioning or living with a disability. The center cannot hold.

Many of these same practitioners work in a social justice capacity, collaborating with NGOs and non-profits, or embedding themselves within an activist community. They have learned how to conduct non-violent confrontations with the police, how to talk to policy makers about legislative change, even how to create covert IP addresses to communicate information under the surveillance of a repressive government regime. These skills and experiences are just as worthy and valuable as our ethnographies, if not more so. We need to move beyond pedagogy, trigger warnings, safe spaces and the cultivation of sanctuary campuses. These are all important response initiatives, but we are a discipline that revels in the multitudinous, multifaceted worlds that comprise the constellation of human cultures. World building starts with representation and theory, but it only becomes actualized once we start to get our hands a little dirty.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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