“Burn Him”: Midsommar, Horror and Anthropology

[Content and spoiler warning: This piece discusses key plot points from the film Midsommar and includes descriptions of suicide and racial violence.]

When the five main characters of Ari Aster’s horror film Midsommar (2019) arrive at Hårga, a remote commune in Sweden nestled in the woods of Hälsingland, we’re meant to read the pastoral community as an escape. Dani, Christian, Josh, Mark and Pelle are greeted with mushroom tea to enhance their “trip” offered by beautiful young women in peasant dresses, cottagecore aesthetic meets artfully staged Ikea spring collection. This escape is presaged by the brutal deaths of Dani’s sister, mother and father, her grief elaborated in the dark, moody color palette of the movie before they arrive in Sweden. As a horror film, Aster establishes a terrifying premise of intimate murder-suicide from the outset, such that by the time the travelers arrive in Hårga, the endless sunshine would seem to bleach away any lingering jump scares. Initial promotional materials for the movie indicated, “How can you be scared in the sunshine?”

Yet the journey to Hårga is not simply an indulgent Eurotrip—we learn early on that Christian, Josh, Mark and their friend Pelle—who comes from Hårga—are all anthropologists. They’ve arrived for the festivities and the ethnographic possibilities the community’s folkways offer—familiar and non-threatening. Viewers learn quickly, however, that the Hårga welcome is actually a trap, with all but Dani (the only non-anthropologist) killed, burned or sacrificed as part of the community’s midsommar ritual. The remoteness, the whiteness and the seeming benevolence of Hårga as represented by Midsommar also represent the elaborations of anthropology’s violences—not the overt body-horror of slasher flicks, but rather the ways the discipline masquerades at inclusion, burning up the bodies of some to maintain the status quo of a “peaceful” community of scholars.

Pelle (left) and Dani (right)

As we entertain the possibility of “letting anthropology burn,” I’m invested in the kinds of conflagrations the discipline tends to gravitate towards. Ryan Cecil Jobson stages “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn” (2020) at the American Anthropology Association (AAA) meeting in San Jose, when the forest fires exhibited the obvious and catastrophic effects of climate change—a gradual process suddenly punctuated by the “event” of flames erupting throughout the Golden State. Jobson reads the conference, and the American anthropological community’s response to the fires, as evidence of the ongoing, if not perpetual “crisis” anthropology finds itself in. This crisis, Jobson claims, cannot be resolved within the “halls of convention centers or university departments” (2020, 260). This crisis within the discipline, he elaborates, is nothing new, and yet is marked by the tendency to render particular historical movements or moments as “non-events” (Trouillot 1995).

The Wenner Gren webinar by the same name, “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn? Race, Racism, and Its Reckoning in American Anthropology,” was staged in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, the movement to defund the police, efforts to “decolonize” the discipline, and to reckon with the institutions and ideologies of racism embedded within the anthropological community. While Lucia Cantero, Ryan Jobson, Chris Loperena, Jonathan Rosa and Savannah Shange spoke, the You Tube chat exploded with critiques and commentary from the audience, interjections from the junior scholars staging their own interventions in the conversation. Yet these small, prescribed and delimited spaces of contestation proposed by graduate students and junior scholars can be so easily collapsed by moderators or muted by administrators should the conversation get too hot. I want to dwell on these marginalia and exclusions embedded in certain modes of anthropological and academic disciplining, the conversations that get side-lined as non-events. What personal experiences are deemed inconsequential to the story of anthropology, and what griefs get hidden in and through the field of anthropology?

Let’s start, for instance, with Dani. Throughout the film, Dani is told that her emotions and her reactions are incommensurate to the situation. When she receives what she perceives to be her sister’s suicide note, her partner Christian tells her that she is over-reacting, that her over-reaction in fact encourages her sister to “act out.” We soon learn that Dani’s intuition was actually spot on, that her sister killed herself, asphyxiating her and Dani’s parents in the process. Yet we never see Christian apologize for his dismissal–instead, he is disgruntled by the fact that this series of events prevents him from breaking up with Dani as intended. When Dani arrives at Hårga alongside Christian and the others—grief-stricken by the loss of her family, she is belittled for not being game to “trip,” to align her psychedelic rhythms to the rest of the group. Concerned that she’ll alienate Christian further, Dani backtracks—“You’re right, I just needed to be reminded. You’re right. I’m lucky to have you.” The movie is continually indexed by moments in which Dani feels slighted, attempts to address the issue with Christian, and instead takes the blame for the conversation, apologizing, over and over again, for ever bringing it up.

In the same way, I would argue, undergraduate and graduate students struggling with the expectations of the academy—the hidden curriculum of higher education—are constantly confronted with the need to identify and rationalize their pain to administrators, faculty members, and mentors, only to bracket those conversations with an apology. I’m sorry that I brought up that that lecture made me uncomfortable. I’m sorry for making the department’s response into BLM into “a thing.” I’m sorry for bothering you again, but my stipend still hasn’t gone through and I need to pay rent. Dani is essentially being gaslit—a term that originates from 1938 play Gas Light, in which an abusive husband strategically messes with the lighting of the home to convince his wife that she’s gone mad. You can see why the eternal sunlight of Hårga, then, plays such an essential role in Midsommar—while the sun might never seem to set, the shadows can be just as easily cast to confuse or misdirect the viewer.

While the antagonist of Gas Light was overtly and consciously attempting to sabotage his wife’s sanity, Christian, however, genuinely believes himself to be the perfectly kind and caring boyfriend. He has essentially cast himself as the good guy—it is this inherent sense of “goodness” that he then uses to absolve himself of any kind of responsibility or blame for his actions. It’s this characterization of the benevolent perpetrator that is so pernicious and toxic to anthropology departments, and academia in general. There is a belief, as iterated in 2018 during the #HAUtalk scandal, that because we study systems of power and privilege we are immune to embodying the very same discriminatory practices. As Anar Parikh writes, “anthropologists are absolutely terrible at recognizing how the very systems they are so precisely trained to follow in their field sites also play out in their own lives” (2020). Because we believe ourselves to be the caretakers of Gramsci, Foucault, and Agamben, for instance, we direct our critiques and approbation at “outside” fields of study, while insulating ourselves against instantiations of these very same systems of oppression in our departments, in our classrooms, in our interactions with students or interlocutors.

This benevolent insulation, and weaponization, plays out in a number of ways. We were confronted with the problematics of kindness and “good intention” again this summer with the publication of allegations against John Comaroff, first in The Crimson and later in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The carefully reported allegations of assault and sexual misconduct brought against Comaroff were continually modulated by accounts in the article, and on social media, of Comaroff’s generosity as a mentor, his kindness to undergraduates and rising graduate students, his willingness to extend assistance to those more precariously positioned in the academy. Indeed, when I met John Comaroff last summer during a period of fieldwork in Cape Town, I personally experienced that warmth—after a breakfast discussing research ideas and potential fieldsites, I walked away impressed that such a prodigious scholar could be so generous with his time and advice.

Senior scholars like Ann Stoler came to Comaroff’s defense, asking The Chronicle not to, “‘add kindling to a situation which should never have gotten to where it is now.’ She said ‘the idea that he would ever use his position to belittle a student is so far from what he has done’” (Gluckman 2020). Stoler asked that her words not contribute to the fire (add kindling) which had finally reached Comaroff, attempting to stamp out the flames of controversy with a declaration that stood in opposition to the lived experience of the women who brought claims against the anthropologist. The argument seemed to be as simple as: he has always been a good man to me, and therefore he couldn’t possibly be an abuser. Benevolence is used to short-circuit any attempts to demonstrate that a person might be generous to some while using this kindness through positions of power to abuse others, or that generosity can co-exist with aggression.

I note this tension because cultural narratives around violence often frame the perpetrators as monstrous, that abusers must be evidently and obviously bad. But the reality is far more mundane and complicated. Violence does not always happen in the shadows. It often occurs in broad daylight but we choose to look away, groomed by the narrative that people are only looking out for our self-interest. There must have been a misinterpretation or misremembering, he might say with a smile.

These scenes of sinking, spiraling dread are my favorite kind of horror, the numinous uncanny that seeps out of your nightmares and into your waking life but never erupts, per se, with an attack by a monster like Freddie Kruger. Horror has plenty of exemplary monsters, whose wickedness is evident in the ways they so carelessly cut down their victims, the Jasons of the Halloween franchise, for instance. But, particularly when it comes to gaslighting, to the gendered way a woman might be driven mad (The Yellow Wallpaper, Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, Rebecca) or made to believe she’s just seeing things (The Turn of the Screw), Gothic horror excels. In these instances, as with issues of sexual harassment and violence, the terrifying part is not necessarily the man in the bathroom with the knife—at least then you have an obvious culprit.

Instead it’s the slow and stultifying way things seem out of place, a feeling in the gut that something’s wrong (a different kind of politics of the belly). Harassment, in these instances, is treated like a ghost story—”When someone tells me about a malign presence in their basement or Bloody Mary appearing in their bathroom mirror, I generally don’t think I’m being lied to. I understand that the teller is sharing something they find deeply distressing and viscerally real. But I also think I know better. Their explanation goes against everything I know about the world. I’ve never experienced anything like it, so I have no reason to take their word over my own intuition” (Zimmerman 2017). This kind of dismissal of harassment is played out in movies like The Invisible Man (2020), or Colossal (2016)—the women in these films struggle to prove or convince those around them that they are in danger. What’s terrifying is not their predicament, but rather the way that society’s narratives of the perpetrator as monster ultimately serves to further trap and undermine the veracity of the victim, that her abuser is truly a “good man.”

Here again we see the iterations of “shock” and “awe” voiced during allegations brought against Giovanni da Col; surprise that a Professor dismissed for multiple Title IX complaints would come to an archaeology conference and attendees might be discomfited by his presence; disbelief that a #MeToo reporter would out a survivor when she questioned his journalistic ethics; confusion that the whisper network around Brian Richmond had somehow not reached those who, because of their positional privilege, only ever had to see the kind and generous side of a scholar. I have yet to see, however, the same level of approbation and response around Comaroff as has been met with my other “crises” within the discipline—his case seems to be treated as one the Anthropology Department at Harvard should address, as if the boundaries between our departments and our universities aren’t porous, as if these instances of abuse and harassment was not endemic to academia. We seem to be committing the cardinal sin of anthropology—separating the individual from the system in which they operate.

This attitude is also replicated in the political posturing of solidarity, the pernicious twin to benevolence. Since the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter protests throughout the US (not that it ever went away), American departments and academic groups have issued anti-racist statements and promises to create Diversity and Inclusion Committees. When it seemed as though visas for international students studying in the US would be revoked over the summer, messages expressing concern and support were circulated. Talking with friends fearful of what losing their visas would involve—across uncertain and virally sensitive borders—how their international status would fundamentally alter their personal and professional lives, I heard how harmful these “thoughts and prayers” messages are. For yet again, the responses represented expressions of benevolence and kindness, without any tangible or pragmatic interventions of help.

Creation of non-action in the name of solidarity is essentially the reinscription of non-events, of refusing to attend to what the panelists on Wenner Gren described as the “breach” of anthropology. It is also a positioning that performatively acknowledges the perils of neoliberalism, and the predatory nature of the academy, and the job market, while essentially saying that these predations are out of their hands (Ahmed 2012). I’d really like to do something, but complacency continues to win out.*

This disposition of a performative kindness also manifests in the cannibalism of certain kinds of labor. As the characters of Midsommar learn more about Hårga, and attend the ättestupa ritual, Christian approaches Josh to let him know that he’s going to do his dissertation research on the commune, even though Hårga was already part of Josh’s dissertation prospectus comparing midsommar rituals in Europe. Essentially, it was Josh’s field first. Despite Christian’s theft and colonization of the space as his own, he tells Josh that “he’s happy to collaborate,” suggesting that they could co-author together. Christian is performing the discourse of collaborative partnership at the same time that he’s co-opting the labor Josh has already put into the research at Hårga.

Josh (right) speaking to Christian (left)

These very rhetorics of co-production and collaboration are often used to exploit junior scholars—undergraduate or graduate students might be solicited to help gather and analyze data with the promise of a line on their resume or a co-authored publication. But then this labor might not be compensated—the compensation is the experience itself. As Irma McClaurin puts it, “graduate school education seems nothing more than a modern-day form of sharecropping that provides cheap labor and institutionalizes structural inequalities that position graduate students as ‘second-class citizens'” (2020). Or students might travel to a fieldsite or archaeological dig which allows rare access to the mentorship of senior scholars and primary data, but be subjected to harassment as the payment for entry. Indeed, “The Patron” recounts Comaroff buying soda and candies for the students he brought with him to South Africa—these are the exchanges expected if we want access to the upper echelons of academia. We are permitted entry, but parts of us get eaten away in the process.

Anthropology’s appetite extends to the funds and fees expected to participate in the profession and the academy. Many have noted to prohibitive costs associated with membership to organizations like the American Anthropological Association, or attending conferences, particularly those without sufficient means to book international airfare. Fellowships and grants provide stipends for fieldwork and dissertation writing, but we must not to be greedy with the meagre allowances we’re allotted. Students protesting the TA/RA packages leverage the fact that they barely have enough money to eat and house themselves—yet many #COLA protestors at UCSD were fired as a result of their protesting, including several anthropology graduate students.

In fact, as Savannah Shange argued in her talk “Abolition as Fieldmethod,” the project of ethnography essentially relies on the consumption, digestion, and regurgitation of our interlocutors’ stories. We consume the stories we collect throughout fieldwork, stories which are then translated into the academic products—the very bread and butter—by which we stock our fridges and pay out rent. Kelly Knight refers to this process as “ethnographic vulturism,” a carrion (clarion) call that demonstrates how the turn from “Savage Slot” to “Suffering Slot” still relies on what Lucia Contrero referred to in the Wenner Gren webinar as “toxic passivity.”

Not only does this seeming benevolence exclude culpability, it also obscures the harms associated with not seeing the effects of such benevolent racism, sexism, and ableism. Dani is at times choked by the grief of having lost her family, yet because of the ways that her feelings are continuously invalidated, she retreats to the shadows to cry, hiding the swell of sorrow that wracks her body. During the Wenner Gren webinar, panelists discussed how “numbness is cooked into the discipline”—both a numbness to the affective experiences of those among us, and an expectation that we are privileged enough to be numb towards the conditions that have unfolded over the last couple of months.

The crisis of coronavirus and racial violence are felt most acutely by those who were already navigating the material emergencies of academia—the absence of sufficient financial or material resources to make ends meet as adjuncts or teaching assistants; the limited health care options, let alone barely operational mental health care resources within universities; the responsibilities of caring for sick relatives, or small children, while ensuring that rent got paid. These burdens have been amplified, exacting very real material and emotional costs on our students, and our scholastic productivity, if not basic survival. All while we are simultaneously told to capitalize on the crisis, that this is an opportunity for unique and unforeseen scholarship.

And yet, as Chelsey Carter writes, “The lack of empathy and care for scholars, especially BIPOC scholars, is one of many reasons people continue to be abused by the system, endure substantive mental health crises, and ultimately drop out of their graduate school programs or prematurely end their academic careers” (2020). In the chat during the Wenner Gren webinar, Carter elaborated, indicating that structural violence does not do enough to address the erasure, and the elimination of certain kinds of bodies, peoples, and experiences in anthropology. Publish or perish indeed.

Nor do terms like structural violence fully account for the ways that these very same experiences of violence, abuse, dispossession, are then called upon to inform how departments should address decolonization, restorative justice, anti-racism. BIPOC, women, and other marginalized communities are continually expected to serve on Diversity and Inclusion Committees, to guide the awareness-raising efforts of an organization or a department, a profound task of emotional and intellectual labor that often goes uncompensated. The personal experiences, traumas, and persistent othering that many students have experienced is expected to be offered up for others’ consumption without question, but this labor is only valued in certain places, in certain ways. Those who ask for participation often do not consider the costs of such “knowledge-sharing,” nor are willing to compensate for the time spent explaining what meaningful co-production and collaboration would actually mean in practice.

Josh (left) to Pelle (right) asking to read the sacred book

When Christian informs Josh that he’ll be conducting his research at Hårga as well, Josh decides to take pictures of the community’s sacred book, even though he had been told earlier by a community elder that it shouldn’t be photographed. Josh’s decision is admittedly bad, and yet, as Mary Kay McBrayer (2019) points out, what Josh is seeking is essentially a higher form of knowledge that has been closed to him. An analogy could be made to academia—that a university education, at the right price, will provide you access to sacred knowledge that is not available elsewhere. But that sacred knowledge exists within the confines of the Ivory Tower. As the only man of color in the group, Josh is punished for crossing the boundaries—how his presence in Hårga is accommodated or penalized.

When we learn that Pelle was in on the sacrificial plan the whole time, we can consider how Josh’s death reads in relation to race. Christian discovers Josh’s dismembered foot planted in the garden. We can recall Shange’s reminder, flagged in Jobson’s “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn,” that “fieldwork is never completely out of sight of another set of fields—cotton, cane, tobacco, rice” (Shange 2019, 10). The violence of slavery and plantation histories is invoked in Josh’s very placement unto death. Josh’s crime is that he entered the “white public space” of anthropology (Brodkin, Morgen & Hutchinson 2011), or should I say Midsommar.

This conceit, that whiteness and white spaces are the true threat to life, is central to recent horror films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Suburbia becomes the site of terror, rather than a retreat from the “perils” of a purportedly chaotic, violent urban landscape. The antagonists of the film—the white family that grooms and abducts Black people to ultimately hollow out their consciousness and inhabit their bodies—are at first presented as the best kind of white liberal allies. The patriarch informs Chris (the Black boyfriend being prepared for auction) that he’d vote for Obama for a third term if he could. While this attempt at solidarity is used to try to gain favor and allay any misgivings Chris might have, Peele is still making a commentary on the dangers of “nice white people.” Indeed, the horror genre has historically treated Black characters as expendable (see the documentary Horror Noire), or used Blackness to designate the “Other” or monster (consider here, for instance, films like I Walked with a Zombie). So the fact that Josh—the sole Black character amongst the five students who travel to Hårga—is punished for reading the sacred book and planted in the community’s garden after being killed is not incidental.

Violence is not only directed at the anthropological guests who enter Hårga, but also central to the midsommar traditions that the community practices. After participating a feast held for the two oldest members of the Hårga community, Dani, Pelle, Josh and Christian attend the ättestupa ritual. During this ritual, the two esteemed dinner guests jump to their deaths, beaten and killed by members of Hårga if they don’t perish in the fall. Understandably, Dani responds with disgust and horror, as does Christian. But since Christian has chosen Hårga as his fieldsite, he backtracks, offering an argument of cultural relativism to Dani to justify the ritual and the elders’ violent deaths. The ritual must be an honor, he tells Dani. The elders chose their deaths, seeking redemption and meaning through their demise within the larger community’s cosmology. Christian is essentially relying on what Jobson refers to as “the Boasian fix,” the initial promise offered by the father of anthropology to study and contextualize, rather than taxonomize and hierarchize, difference. Their deaths were chosen and made meaningful within Hårga society.

Quite apart from the problematics of moral equivocation that often come into play during discussions of cultural relativism, we see somewhat of a structural functionalist argument employed to explain the incidents of violence that punctuate the latter half of the movie. Part of the reason why Josh and Pelle were so excited for the trip was due to the fact that the midsommar ritual only happens every several years—we are led to presume that the agricultural abundance, contentment of the community, and overall social equilibrium is secured through the midsommar rituals. As the elders explain after ättestupa, the older generation must die, and several members of the community must be sacrificed in flames, to release the “negative affekts” which might disrupt the rural community. These rituals, and the public, collective demonstrations of joy, grief and mourning that accompany them, are the “release valves” that anthropologists like A.R. Radcliffe-Brown discuss, the moments of ritualized inversion which allow for social and structural continuity. Their horrific consequences, through this relativist frame, are excused because they allow the community to “survive,” and because of the meanings those who choose to kill themselves via ättestupa.

The priest banishing the “negative affekts” of the community through immolation

But the next question is whether sacrifice and suicide are truly necessary to achieve the presumed goals of the community, for we know that rituals and traditions are constantly changing and being remade. What do we make of a collective the demands and is premised on such violence for its survival? In the call for an abolitionist anthropology (Shange 2019), we are tasked with disinvesting in the very governmental, carceral, punitive systems that exact such a high cost and body count. Instead, abolition invites us to consider what new institutions might be built where no death or loss is considered tolerable or excusable, that does not have to relativize or rationalize its own violence.

This is not to excuse Josh’s invasion of the community’s sacred information, a clear violation of the contemporary anthropological code of ethics, or Christian’s willingness to throw Josh under the bus for his own professional gain. Indeed, we could easily lay the blame at the feet of grad students like Josh and Christian, both willing to gesture at collaboration while attempting to extract as much information as possible for their dissertations. But I’m more concerned with a discipline that demands such suspect ethical principles, where the students believe they need to do whatever it takes to please their committees.

In the very formulation of the question of “letting” anthropology burn, there seems to be an implicit understanding that anthropology will allow or submit itself to be burned. At the end of Midsommar, Dani—now May Queen—is given the option of burning her boyfriend Christian or a volunteer from the Hårga community. It seems to me that those who are raising the question of anthropology’s conflagration, and the possibilities of an abolitionist anthropology, are not the same as those who would cling to anthropology as it is, and as it has been. The old guard—as it is and as it has been—is not going to willingly offer itself up for sacrifice. So I ask that we use more active language here, a tense which acknowledges that those with power are unlikely to cede control. The only way that anthropology will be allowed to crumble is if the practitioners and the students abandon the discipline altogether.

And yet I do not think that abandonment is the solution either. Jobson mentions the importance of the Boasian turn, the appeal of cultural relativism in redemption narratives about the promises offered by anthropology, particularly at the beginning of the 20th century. This approach and consideration of difference is often most students’ first exposure to anthropology, and the appeal of the discipline. I myself was enchanted by the proposition of Boas’s student, Ruth Benedict, that anthropology makes the world safe for human difference. I came to anthropology because of its capacious scholarship, its promise of interdisciplinary exploration and application, a space of ethical research constrained only by the limits of the human, and even now, beyond into the non-human. Many were drawn to anthropology because it promised an intellectual home, one that in its exploration of difference seemed to celebrate the same among its scholars and practitioners. We were inspired by the anthropologies of what could be, the anthropological possibilities and futures that ethnographic theory and method solicited.

Many of these same students, and friends, have instead expressed grief at being abandoned by anthropology, their thoughts, their writing style, their academic presence, their theoretical flourishes and personal politics made to feel unwelcome in their departments. Anthropology was supposed to provide nourishment, but instead many departments only offer alienation. So I do not want to abandon these scholars, these hopeful-future-potential anthropologists who were attracted to alternative anthropological sentiments and modes of ethnographic production. During the Wenner Gren webinar, Savannah Shange mentioned the possibility of anthropology as grief practice—in making space for new anthropologies, I want to grieve those who were committed to the discipline and found only the trappings of an abusive relationship. I want to grieve the students who left or were lost along the way because they were told that they were not enough or did not fit within the discipline, or were manipulated by those engaging in their own forms of racial cannibalism. I want to grieve for the ways anthropology often fails our interlocutors, and fails to deliver on the promise of support and encouragement for those who first aspired to become anthropologists.

Dani enters Hårga not as an anthropologist, but rather in mourning, seeking a family that will hold space for her heartache, for the ways that the world had radically changed. Grief, in my experience, is terribly isolating. In my grief, I have felt separate from my family because we processed loss differently—I found that the way I was feeling my way through things was judged as incorrect or inappropriate, only redoubling my sense of detachment. I have felt estranged from close friends who did not know how to respond. But perhaps most of all I felt alienated from myself, afraid that my feelings would drive people away, would consume me entirely. So, like Dani, I buried and compartmentalized those feelings—I had work to do, I did not have the luxury of collapsing or breaking down. This numbness and detachment, however, I was told by my therapist, put me at risk of situational depression.

If, as previously mentioned, “numbness is cooked into the discipline,” perhaps an anthropology of grief encourages more feeled work, a space where grief does not have to be individual and isolating. I believe many students are driven away from anthropology precisely because their discontent and discomfort with the discipline feels so personal and singular to them. What would it mean then to build different kinds of anthropological communities which did not induce these negative affects of anger, shame, sadness, and grief, and consign these feelings to be hidden? If anthropology is premised on embodied vulnerability (Friend 2020), how might we build space and solidarity that acknowledges the vulnerabilities we’ve caused while pursuing repair? A repair, I would also argue, that does not also demand performing that vulnerability for the sake of scholarship. Dani ultimately chooses to burn Christian precisely because his disposition of detached but “good boyfriend” never recognized or allowed space for her trauma. Her feelings were incidental to his story. But perhaps these feelings are now central to the new story of the anthropology we hope to build from the ashes of loss.

Dani finds her grief community

We grieve the loss of Dr. Sam Dubal, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington and author of Against Humanity.

Thank you to Rine Vieth for their thoughtful and encouraging comments and edits on earlier drafts of this piece.

Works Cited

*The Society for Medical Anthropology (SMA) Emergency Grants are a notable exception.

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

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Bikales, James (2020). “Protected by Decades-Old Power Structures, Three Renowned Harvard Anthropologists Face Allegations of Sexual Harassment.” The Harvard Crimson. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/5/29/harvard-anthropology-gender-issues/

Brodkin, Karen, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson. 2011. “Anthropology as White Public Space?” American Anthropologist 113 (4): 545–56. https://doi.org/10.1111/ j.1548-1433.2011.01368.x.

Carter, Chelsey R. (2020). “Trauma at home: A queer Black feminist’s experience in the afterlife of state-sanctioned violence in Ferguson.” American Ethnologist: 168-172.

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Friend, Juliana (2020). “Pedagogy at the Picket Line: Vulnerability and the Expanding Collective.” From the Series: Book Forum-A Possible Anthropology. Cultural Anthropology. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/pedagogy-at-the-picket-line-vulnerability-and-the-expanding-collective

Gluckman, Nell (2020). “The Patron.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-patron?cid=gen_sign_in

Jacobson, Ryan Cecil. “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019.” American Anthropologist 122 (2020): 259-271.

Knight, Kelly. addicted.pregnant.poor. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

McBrayer, Mary Kay (2019). “How Midsommar Utilizes and Subverts Horror Movie Tropes of People of Color.” Graveyard Sisters. https://www.graveyardshiftsisters.com/2019/07/how-midsommar-utilizes-and-subverts.html#more

McClaurin, Irma (2020). “COVID-19 is a Game Changer for Graduate Schools and Anthropology.” Anthropology News. https://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2020/06/03/a-game-changer-for-grad-schools-and-anthropology/

Römer, Louis (2020). “Feeling like ‘Colored Me’ and the Inequities in the Intellectual Formation of Anthropologists.” Footnotes. https://footnotesblog.com/2020/06/24/guest-post-feeling-like-colored-me-and-the-inequities-in-the-intellectual-formation-of-anthropologists-embodying-reciprocity-series/

Shange, Savannah. Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

Trouillot, Michell-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. New York: Penguin Random House, 1995.

Wenner Gren Blog (2020). “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Race, Racism and Its Reckoning in American Anthropology.” http://blog.wennergren.org/2020/08/webinar-the-case-for-letting-anthropology-burn-race-racism-and-its-reckoning-in-american-anthropology/

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.

There are 2 comments

  1. brw12

    Thanks for this essay, and the extended engagement with the themes in Midsommar. I’m a master’s student at Harvard Grad School of Education. I wonder, what would a more honest, inclusive, and participatory academia look like?


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