Author: Camille Wright

Camille Wright was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is currently the Books Publicity Assistant at Duke University Press, where she started as a journals marketing intern in May 2017, and CEO and founder of Merch by Millie, a handmade apparel and accessories shop. Other organizations Wright is involved with include Believe Ticket Project, where she creates email campaigns, graphic content, fact sheets and ask letters, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and Girl Scouts of America.

Re-framing and Refusing the Enduring Colonial Fascination with Polynesian Origins

Today’s guest post is by Maile Arvin, Assistant Professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. In her book Possessing Polynesians she analyzes the history of racialization of Polynesians within the context of settler colonialism across Polynesia, especially in Hawai‘i. She argues that a logic of possession through whiteness animates European and Hawaiian settler colonialism.

Where did Polynesians come from? How did they end up living on some of the most isolated island in the world? How should Polynesians be classified racially? These questions may sound innocent, but are, in fact, over two centuries old. They were repeatedly asked and answered by white social scientists in nineteenth-century philology and early twentieth-century anthropology, forming a special field of study dubbed “The Polynesian Problem.” These studies largely claimed that Polynesians had white ancestry, a latent whiteness which could potentially be rehabilitated through white settlement of Polynesia. In this way, such studies have long upheld the logics of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness, as I explain in my book Possessing Polynesians. Unfortunately, in some key ways, these questions about Polynesian origins, and their animating colonial logics, continue to shape social scientific research about Polynesian people. 

A new genomic study just published in Nature is the latest to weigh in on Polynesian origins, claiming to document the genetic presence of ancient Indigenous South American ancestry among eastern Polynesian peoples, including those from the Tuamotus, Marquesas, and Mangareva (all occupied by the settler colony of French Polynesia) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island, occupied by Chile). The study has sparked a round of headlines expressing wonder at the notion that Polynesians and Indigenous South Americans had contact from as early as 1150 A.D. (see, for example, coverage in the New York Times, Guardian and Science).     

Figure I.1 in Possessing Polynesians. “Polynesians “Polynesians a-ok!” Honolulu Star- Bulletin Honolulu Star- cartoon, 1962.

To many Polynesians, this “new” evidence that our ancestors met Indigenous South Americans in the twelfth century is not terribly surprising. Since at least the 1970s, the revitalization of long-distance voyaging across the Pacific Islands, using traditional double-hulled canoes with traditional methods of reading the stars and currents, has proven that Indigenous peoples were and continue to be more than capable of navigating across the Pacific Ocean. So why the surprise from mainstream news outlets? And what’s the problem with genomic scientists using Indigenous DNA to investigate ancient migrations? 

There are many ethical considerations to the actual practice of genetic research, but here I’m going to focus instead on the larger narratives that the recent Nature study help promote. This is not to dismiss the importance of questioning how and why Indigenous DNA is collected, stored and used (see some discussion of these issues with this study, including by archaeologist Guillaume Molle here, and biological anthropologists Lisa Matisoo-Smith and Anna Gosling here), but to note that even if the details of scientific research practices were completely ethically sound, the conclusions of such studies and the ways they get reported can still perpetuate colonial ideas. 

Case in point, this headline from Nature:  “Native South Americans were early inhabitants of Polynesia” (July 8, 2020). This framing of the study’s conclusions makes a big leap. Instead of only positing contact between Polynesians and Indigenous South Americans, this headline suggests that Indigenous South Americans were the first to inhabit Polynesian islands and thus may be the ancestors of Polynesians. As this Nature article highlights, this theory of an eastward settlement of the Pacific Islands was the obsession of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Heyerdahl, who could not swim, infamously drifted on a balsa wood raft from Peru into the Pacific in an attempt to prove that Polynesia was settled by a mythical, now-extinct white race who had preceded the Incas. Heyerdahl did not believe that Polynesians or Indigenous Peruvians could have purposefully navigated the Pacific Ocean; he and others at the time advocated the theory of “random drift.” This was a racist idea that discounted Indigenous oral traditions and practices documenting deep knowledge and experience with long-distance navigation. He continued publishing on these ideas into the 1960s. 

Even during his life, Heyerdahl’s theory about an eastward settlement of Polynesia was largely discredited. “Random drift” was not widely dismissed until the revitalization of Indigenous voyaging beginning with the Hōkūleʻa’s first voyage from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti in 1976. But, as I note in Possessing Polynesians, Heyerdahl’s underlying belief in an ancient white race settling Polynesia was not the spontaneous invention of an individual racist. Migration routes and grandstanding methods aside, Heyerdahl’s belief in an ancient, advanced white race who settled the Polynesian islands and subsequently “degenerated,” was actually very much in keeping with a century of prior white settler scholarship. From the work of Australian John Dunmore Lang, who claimed in 1834 that Polynesians were likely the descendants of ancient Grecians or Romans, to American anthropologist Louis Sullivan’s belief in a “pure” Polynesian type that was almost “Caucasian” in the 1920s, white settlers were fascinated with the possibility that ancient white people were the real Indigenous people of Polynesia. In this logic, which I term the logic of possession through whiteness, by making Polynesians proximate to whiteness, white settlers staked their own claims to indigeneity in Polynesia, since through this circuitous reasoning, white people preceded Polynesians and could, through settler colonialism, “help” contemporary Polynesians regain a measure of civilization they had long lost. Polynesian people today must necessarily continue to challenge the consequences of this logic in a variety of paths towards decolonization. 

Most of the recent mainstream coverage of the Nature study references Heyerdahl, while only some reference Polynesian voyaging traditions. But none of those references frame Heyerdahl and the theory of eastward settlement of Polynesia within this much longer history of white supremacist and settler colonial social scientific study of Polynesian origins. This is a problem because claims about Indigenous origins can be and are used to undercut their claims to indigeneity and to bolster settler colonial claims to a place. To invoke Heyerdahl without any recognition of the history of the politics of his theories and their impact on Indigenous peoples allows colonial knowledge production about Polynesian origins to continue to circulate without naming it as such. (Others have made similarly critical points about Heyerdahl, including Kanaka Maoli scholar Sara Kahanamoku here, and Smithsonian geographer Doug Herman here.)

Polynesians have a multiplicity of origin stories. These stories also have deep histories and politics. There should be more widespread discussion and engagement with Polynesian peoples if and how their origins should be investigated through genomic science. But whether or not such research continues, there must be a deeper reckoning with and refusal of the ways Western science stakes possessive claims to Indigenous lands and bodies. 

Read the introduction to Possessing Polynesians free online and save 30% on the book with coupon code E19ARVIN.

Q&A with Harriet Evans

Evans, HarrietHarriet Evans is Emeritus Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster and Visiting Professor in Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She is the author of The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China and Women and Sexuality in China. In her newest book, Beijing from Below, she tells the history of the residents in Dashalar—now redeveloped and gentrified but once one of the Beijing’s poorest neighborhoods—to show how their experiences complicate official state narratives of Chinese economic development and progress.

Beijing from Below explores the lives of the urban working class in Dashalar, a neighborhood that borders Tiananmen Square in Beijing. What is the historical importance of the neighborhood, both in the context of your research and in the history development in Beijing?

First, Dashalar is known in Beijing as being a very particular kind of neighbourhood with unique social, demographic and cultural characteristics going back in time that make it “unrepresentative” of anywhere else in the capital. I don’t think this is a very helpful way of thinking about what the study of a neighbourhood—or anywhere for that matter —can tell us. Every place has its own singular characteristics. As a kind of inter-disciplinary historian-cum-anthropologist my intention is never to look for what is representative but rather to think about the kinds of issues and questions that are shared across historical and spatial boundaries. So what does the very specific history and contemporaneity of Dashalar tell us? What issues are highlighted by its history through to the present that prompt reflections on other places and people across time elsewhere?

Dashalar is a small neighborhood of about 1.26 square kilometers just outside the former inner-city walls, southwest of Qianmen, the gate at the southern end of Tian’anmen Square. Its main street runs westward from Qianmen Avenue and is intersected by Meishi Street on the north-south axis. Historically part of the outer city, it has long been known as ‘South City’ (nancheng), To this day, reference to South City is shorthand for the vibrant liminal world of street vendors, rickshaw pullers, street entertainers, gamblers, prostitutes and vagrants of the capital’s “traditional” popular culture immortalized in Lao She’s famous novel Rickshaw Boy, first published in 1937. Dashalar is also often referred as the “eight big lanes” (ba da hutong). Being able to name the “eight big lanes” is a mark of your familiarity with “old Beijing”, as I discovered once when I was wandering about and fell into a conversation with a local man who questioned me about my understanding of the neighborhood’s history. The term itself refers to the eight main lanes of the neighborhood’s red light district before 1949.

I have not studied the early history of the neighborhood but between the late Qing and early Republican eras (roughly between the 1870s and the 1930s) Dashalar was known for its opera singers, teahouses, eateries and prostitutes. It was where court personnel from the Imperial palace (the Forbidden City) at the northern end of the Square went to indulge their pleasures, where aspiring literati travelling from other parts of the country stayed as they prepared for the imperial examinations, and where many Han officials lived, barred from living in the inner city by the Manchu government’s segregationist laws. It was also a place where itinerant merchants from outside the capital crossed paths with beggars and the down-and-out hoping to make a living from the vibrant melée of people traversing the neighborhood.

In the context of the history of Beijing, Dashalar has long been one of the central Beijing’s most densely populated and poorest neighborhoods, with a mixed and mobile population of Han, Manchu and Muslim people. During the Mao years (1949-1976), but particularly during the famine years of 1959-1961, Dashalar was the destination of large numbers of near destitute people from the rural areas attempting to find a means of making a livelihood in the capital. It was also a neighborhood affected by the massive demolition and relocation projects underway from the mid-1950s to enlarge Tian’anmen Square and build the Great Hall of the People and the National History Museum as part of the capital’s construction of its famous “ten great buildings.” By 1965, it was reported that the amount of “old and dangerous housing” had doubled that of 1949. A combination of scarcity, population density, inadequate investment in housing and services, and an overwhelming policy emphasis on productivity repeatedly undermined the designs, intentions and plans formulated for Beijing’s older districts between the 1950s and the late 1970s.The 1976 earthquake further exacerbated the situation, and subsidies to enable people to undertake repairs were woefully inadequate. In all, under a policy of “not letting the roof fall in, not letting the walls collapse, but repairing serious leaks,” the area suffered from extreme neglect.

Between the early 1980s and 2000, the date when the government initially hoped to stage the Olympics, various plans for the old city’s development marked Dashalar for regeneration to “transform [its] old and dilapidated housing”. Dashalar then appeared in another protection plan in 2002 as one of the “twenty-five historical areas of Old Beijing city,” two thirds of the housing of which was graded as dilapidated. Demolition of parts of the neighborhood finally got underway in late 2004 with the widening of its main north-south road axis and the relocation of large numbers of local residents, powerfully recorded in Ou Ning’s documentary film, “Meishi Jie” (2006) While pedestrians had to pick their way through piles of rubble, debris and litter, posters appeared on courtyard doors and walls explaining the government’s concern for local residents. Evacuation orders were put up, and notices appeared urging inhabitants to “say farewell to dangerous housing” (gaobie weifang) in return for monetary incentives offered for voluntary relocation. Enormous billboards displaying computer-generated images of the reconstructed neighborhood celebrated the commercial splendors of Dashalar’s history, and in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, shop owners were ordered to re-furbish their shop fronts with new signage and grey paint, at their own expense. Street vendors and pedicab cyclists were cleared from the lanes as the local government implemented a policy of physical, spatial and social cleansing of the neighborhood. Full scale reconstruction of the neighborhood’s main West Street where I worked only began in the winter of 2008-9, with migrant workers laboring alongside bulldozers late into the night to lay new pipes and wiring in excavated street, leaving a tangle of open wires and piles of rubble in the tiny pedestrian margins left at the sides of the street.

Despite policy intentions of the local Xuanwu government, lack of funds and the demographic density of the neighborhood effectively scuppered plans for infrastructural improvements, and until very recently, no significant infrastructural changes were made there. Local residents continued to live in cramped and damp dwellings, with no sanitation, or even hot water. An official 2005 survey of Beijing’s “urban corners” noted that it had a population of nearly 60,000, with a density of 45,000 people per square kilometer, more than double that of other inner-city areas, with many families living in rooms of less than ten square meters. It was also noted that some 90 per cent of the nearly 3000 “big cluttered courtyards” (dazayuan) in the ten single-story communities (shequ) of Dashalar were “dilapidated housing” (weijiu fangwu).  30 per cent of the local population were classified as “masses in difficulties” (kunnan qunzhong). Nearly a fifth of the population were a “migrant population” (liudong renkou). Until it was administratively merged with the inner city’s Xicheng (West City) in July 2010, the Xuanwu District government responsible for Dashalar was also known as the poorest of the capital’s districts.

Linking my research interests with this brief outline of the historical development of Beijing prompts a number of thoughts:

  • First, the story of China’s massive internal migration from rural to urban areas is a well-known aspect of China’s engagement with global capitalism. In mainstream media and academic terms it is largely seen as an effect of the marketization of China’s economy, the relaxation of controls on mobility, and the privatization of employment and property ownership, and as such is one of the best known features of China’s spectacular urban growth in recent decades. The specific characteristics and size of this recent migration are, of course specific to recent decades. However, the longer historical perspective outlined above reveals migration from the rural areas as a recurring feature of the neighborhood’s history, begging questions—to which I will return below—about the shifting constitution since the early days of the People’s Republic of the hierarchies defining urban-rural relations and the significance of local Dashalar people’s self-identification as “authentic” “old Beijingers.

Second, my focus on a group of people I call urban subalterns in preference to the value-laden category of the “underclass” (zui diceng) widely used in Chinese sociological analyses reveals a lengthy and inherited experience of urban poverty not revealed in dominant accounts of the urban working class of the Mao era as recipients of state accommodation, education and health benefits.

Third, the recent commercial “heritagization” of Dashalar after decades of what the local residents experienced as neglect by the state contributes to a new characterization of “old Beijing” which basically ignores the ethnic, religious, regional and social diversity of Dashalar’s past. The emergence of a “nostalgia industry” accompanying this “re-invention” of an “old Beijing” tradition, and apparent in the quantities of coffee table books of photographs of “old Beijing” is part of a heritage discourse that ignores long-term local residents’ claims to belonging to the neighborhood. In their terms, it basically denies them human and social recognition as people worthy of consideration, and replaces this with what they consider to be a “fake” old Beijing. Nevertheless, local people are not averse to using this heritage version of “old Beijing” as a way of making money as well as an ironic assertion of their historical claims to their own neighborhood. Their collective self-referencing as the real “old Beijingers” emerges as an implicit and ethical demand for recognition.

All this underlines the place of Dashalar as a central site of local self-identifications. It was literally the the only site of social and emotional experience for a number of the people I got to know there, some of whom had rarely, if ever, left the neighborhood. And even though over the years I was working there it was physically and spatially transformed, effectively excluding its long-term subaltern residents from the gentrified delights appearing on their doorsteps, Dashalar remained in people’s memories and narratives as a centre of belonging. The place then is remade, but in its remaking it remains a site of attachment and rootedness. And not only for the people who continued to live there. The only person I knew there who had made it good as a successful local restauranteur and photographer lived with his wife and family in a gated community to the south of the neighbourhood, but Dashalar, the place where he was born and had grown up, centred his everyday activities and his photographic passions.

Finally, I want to say something about the party-state. One familiar trope about the Chinese state gives it a kind of monolithic control over ordinary people’s lives. Historically, the Chinese state has reached into neighborhood life in many distinctive ways sustaining the state’s extension of control under the new communist government in 1949. However, despite the fact that local life in Dashalar was ultimately framed by the policies and structures of the new government, the latter’s attempts to mould its subjects into good socialist citizens whose primary loyalities were to the collective good met with uneven success. On the contrary, my study shows how despite such attempts, the family remained the dominant focus of local people’s efforts and passions.

The book has a unique structure: longer, narrative chapters with direct quotations from residents of Dashalar, followed by brief, analytic interludes. How did you choose that structure, rather than following a more standard monographic format?

I had been thinking about how to structure this book for a long time and consulted various ethnographies (not about China) as inspiration but none really worked. What I wanted was to find a structure that combined a flavor of local life, including its spatial, material and sensory qualities, and the personalities and voices of the people I knew, with detached attention to conceptual analysis. Accordingly, my first nearly final draft was largely structured around the individual families I knew best, and was narrated as much as was possible in the voices of those people. For their narratives, I drew on the recordings of conversations I had made over the years, together with my copious fieldnotes. The narrative structure of the main chapters of the book was, of course, the result of my editorial decisions to find a way to convey their voices in a form that I hope does justice to them and their concerns.

At this point, I was invited to discuss some of the chapters with a bunch of history graduate students, who had read a couple of the chapters in advance. In the discussion we then had, they made it clear that while they enjoyed reading these people’s stories, they would benefit from a bit more guidance about how to interpret them. What were the main themes that emerged from these stories?

My response was to retain the main chapters, more or less as they were, and follow them up with what I call brief analytical interludes discussing what for me were the main themes and questions raised by their stories. The final concluding chapter then collates these themes under other, broader ones, which to different degrees link the specific experiences and stories together.

Is there a story, or chapter, in particular that resonates with you?

This is a difficult one, for they all have their part to play in my analysis.

But I guess, on a human level, the story that touched me the most was the migrant couple’s, whose resilience, determination, dignity and deep commitment to each other as well as their children enabled them to endure unspeakable suffering and social discrimination. The violent abuse they were subjected to by the law enforcement officers and the police constituted a clear violation of their most basic human rights. What kept them going was the desire to see their children, and particularly their son, through higher education. They expected that eventually they would return home to Shaanxi when they could no longer work and would be cared for by their son who they anticipated would marry and have a child there. The tragedy of their story played out, for them, in the mismatch between their expectations and what they saw as their daughter-in-law’s rejection of them. Their son was a deeply loving young man, who on numerous occasions, in front of me, had demonstrated his affectionate respect of his parents. He was torn between his attachment to his parents and his desire to lead a different kind of life, and to bring up his child together with his wife in ways that could not respond to his parents’ expectations in their terms. While therefore, the tragedy was the effect of destroyed hopes and expectations of filial support on the part of the older generation, this story also reveals the tragedy of unanticipated generational shifts in conditions of extreme scarcity and precarity, in which, to paraphrase Lauren Berlant, hope and optimism can produce cruel effects.

The other really moving thing about this couple is that in contrast with others I knew I Dashalar, they never asked anything of me, in either financial or other terms. Their depleted resources left them with virtually nothing, except anguished grief, which they did not hide from me.  For Li Fuying and his wife, my presence and support signified not a source of material support but of recognition of their difficulties and their pain, at a moment when no-one else seemed to be around to offer any comfort. Ultimately, I think they saw my attempts to understand them and my recognition of their grief as offering the hope of repair.

On the level of methodology, your work uses oral history to center the lives of the urban working class, whose experiences are usually not incorporated into the dominant historical narrative. Could you say more about how you think of the relationship between histories from “below”—which often rely on memory, or non-archival sources of information—and “official” histories?

My book combines conventional archival research, ethnographic research conducted in short spurts over a period of years, with an unorthodox kind of oral history. Unorthodox in that I did not sit down to record individuals’ life histories, nor do I refer to their real names. In methodological terms, one section of the introductory chapter sets out how I see the relationship between these three methods.

In brief, I think of them as corresponding with, contrasting and even challenging each other in ways that shed light on the multiple character of history. We all know that the local archival collections available (then) to researchers, and which I was fortunate enough to be able to access, were/are highly selective in that huge chunks of the recent past are simply omitted from the available record. Hence the extent of the famine’s (1959-1962) effects in the neighborhood only emerges obliquely in references, for example, to child health and food shortages in nurseries and kindergartens. The extent of the Red Guards’ violence in the neighborhood is simply absent from the local archive. Nevertheless, numerous other details were telling, particularly when interpreted within the context of my familiarity with the spaces and people of the neighborhood. So for example, one account of “social ills” in the late 1950s, referred to a local woman, formerly a prostitute, who complained about the inadequacy of the cotton rations, and was reported as saying that she didn’t even have enough to cover her behind. I laughed out loud when I read this, so appropriately did it seem to conjure up what could have been the response of Meiling, a woman who had spent three years in detention for prostitution during the anti-spiritual pollution campaign in the early 1980s. So, in this and other instances, the archival sources revealed all sorts of detail that I could make sense of because of my knowledge of the neighborhood. Far from confirming what I had anticipated, namely the limits of lacunae of the official archive, they often surprised me because of their reference to local narrated experiences.

Another point I want to make about doing this kind of “old school” archival research is that the documents themselves were often painstakingly written by hand, with crossings out and spelling mistakes galore….In instances where the document in question was a plea to the authorities for support to do things like finance the building of an extra toilet for nursery children, when the terms of address had to be carefully chosen so as to avoid outright refusal, the materiality of the document gives evidence of the blood, sweat and tears that produced it.

Memories are always slippery, and there is a whole body of literature out there called memory studies. For me, in this book, the value of the memory with all its selectivity lies not in a comparison with, legitimation or contestation of the documented archive, but rather in what it conveys about the remembering and forgetting subject. The flip side of a memory is what is forgotten or silenced, and of course, what is remembered or not does not stay still. Rather the past that is remembered today may well say as much about today as it does about the past. So memory becomes a vector of how people bring together their pasts in a way that makes sense of their presents, and even their hopes for or desires for the future. So memory is tied up with multiple temporalities that in turn unevenly converge with and depart from the discursive narratives of “official” or “mainstream” history.

The final point here I want to make is that claims are often made for oral histories that seem to be imbued with a sense of the moral high ground—that because the oral history can reveal the downside of history that is often excluded from the official or dominant record, that therefore it is more truthful. I think this is highly dubious, as is the whole notion of “historical truth.” The poor and marginalized do not have a prerogative over the oral. Indeed, as many have argued, the quality of the spoken that emerges in oral histories may be far from revealing the interior experience of the speaking subject, particularly the female subaltern subject. Much depends on the historian’s purpose and positionality.

The situation in Dashalar, and Beijing in general, continues to rapidly change. What, in your opinion, do you think the future of Dashalar is?

The future of Dashalar is already there, in the form of its cool coffee bars and restaurants, and its sparklingly modern architecture. But this process of gentrification is still patchy and the new spaces frequented by hip young global professionals obscure the messy alleys and “big cluttered courtyards” behind them. The other aspect of Dashalar’s situation is its appropriation by the commercial heritage industry as part of the “brand” of “old Beijing” that dominates tourist websites of the capital.

978-1-4780-0815-6What do you hope readers will take away from Beijing from Below?

That is a difficult question…because there are too many things I want the reader to take away, but in a nutshell, I think the first thing is the understanding that history is multiple, it doesn’t simply follow a neat or progressive path, any more than change does. While certain aspects of what we understand as mainstream history and change are clearly beneficial to some people, this depends on and is constitutive of the disadvantaging of others. So our responsibility as historians and anthropologists is to try to articulate how and why these often inconsistent but concurrent processes take place.

Beyond giving voice to the experiences of people left out of the dominant historical record, this study challenges a number of familiar arguments beyond my general comments about oral history. Some of these are shared by commentators and academics of China studies. Others make anthropological points that have maybe universal value.

  • Rural-urban labor migration in China in the past few decades is a new stage in a longer history of rural-urban migration. At one extreme there are large numbers of successful migrant labourers who manage to explore the entrepreneurial opportunities offered by the market to gain access to urban services, property ownership and family security. At the other are those who are pushed into migration by desperation, poverty and a determination to give their children a better future than their own. The documented evidence of the violent abuse and violation of basic human rights experienced by these (remember the so-called “low-end migrants” forcibly removed from Beijing in 2018) demands greater publicity.
  • Historical narratives and received knowledge.

Published narratives of experiences of the Mao era, and particularly the Cultural Revolution, focus on the educated urban elite of cadres, intellectuals, professionals and students, those for whom there are archival and biographical records of persecution and death, years spent in cadre schools and labor camps, and in the countryside as “sent down youth.” It is through the so-called “victim literature” and its concerns with the suffering perpetrated on the nation’s educated elite, that the Mao era is best known both to Western audiences and to younger generations in China. In this, moreover, there is a frequent slippage between the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution, such that the Cultural Revolution effectively becomes synonymous with the Mao era as a whole. The forgetting and simplification of the different stages and experiences of the Mao era in official historiography reproduces this slippage.

The urban subalterns such as those whose stories I have narrated here —the street vendor of Buddhist trinkets, the garbage collector, the public lavatory cleaner, the illiterate “housewife” and member of the household-based production group—made no claims to a privileged victimhood. They did not have any noticeable social or political stakes in debates about the legacy of the Mao era, nor did they have the educational skills or social capital to record their own, or their families’ experiences.

This contextualization of the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution reminds us that dominant media and academic narratives of both Mao and the Cultural Revolution reveal appalling suffering and brutality, yet which is ideologically framed to correspond with ongoing political priorities articulated by the urban educated elite. The moments which were most prominent in my interlocutors’ stories focused on the famine years more than the Cultural Revolution. Nor did their memories correspond with the rupture between the Mao and post-Mao years which structures the dominant official versions of the recent past, and exercises overwhelming discursive weight in the Western media. Rather, their narratives urge us to remember that the received knowledge endlessly reproduced by our media corresponds—unevenly—with the agendas, explicit or otherwise of the media barons and their governments, and these agendas correspond with ideological and political interests. However the temporalities structuring the memories of the past narrated in my book suggest other priorities, sometimes converging with, sometimes departing from those of official discourse.

  • In contrast with much public commentary on the Chinese state’s efforts to establish an effective legal system, the experience of many including those whose stories appear in this book is that state policy oriented to improving the legal system through the enactment of laws does not in itself lead to greater regularization of social and economic practices. On the contrary, corruption and the arbitrary abuse of power emerge as such predictable aspects of the legal structure as it is practiced at the local level, that in the eyes of those affected by it, such as many of those who appear in this book, they have become associated with the legal system itself. This of course, has more general applicability as a critical corrective to dominant media and political assertions about the efficacy of the rule of law in many societies, including our own.
  • The Chinese state

One of the most salient paradoxes of this study concerns the contrast between a state which was instrumental in shaping the conditions of existence of the people of Dashalar and its apparent absence in their everyday language and activities. The agencies representing the state in the experience of my interocutors appeared in the form of occasional benevolence to obscurity, negligence and apparent absence, and even worse to out and out physical violence and psychological abuse, mostly perpetrated by the local patrol officers and policemen. However, imagining the state as a portentous agent “above” (shangmian), as local people generally referred to it, did not make it external to the embodied concerns of daily life. It penetrated the interiority of people’s homes in the form of the ordering (or disordering) of space, in the anxieties, struggles and family disputes over residential security, in fundamental concerns about health and hunger, in despairing anger, and in abject resignation to “fate,” and very occasionally, in explicit protest. In extreme, but by no means exceptional cases, as we have seen, it attacked the bodies as well as minds of its subjects. In this sense, the state was a profoundly constitutive force at the heart of local people’s social, bodily and affective lives. It was thus intimately terrifying in the extent of its powers.

At the same time, this should not be interpreted as a concurrence with the view of the “totalitarian” state, which I do not think is a useful term. If anything, this study reveals how, even in conditions of close everyday supervision by state agencies, the people targeted for control by those agencies manifest a stubborn recalcitrance, if not outright refusal, to go along with the state’s demands…The image that comes to mind is of someone silently digging in their heels in refusal to go along with the demands of others. What also comes to mind are Scott’s famous “hidden transcripts” as “weapons of the weak.”

  • Exchange, recognition and agency

An anthropological issue. This study has given me a profound lesson in how to understand ethnographic research as a process of exchange. While one’s interlocutors may have a range of instrumental interests in tolerating or even welcoming the researcher’s presence, including gifts, monetary loans, the acquisition of cultural capital and so on, such concerns should not be seen as antithetical to ethical concerns. If I was seen and treated by some of my interlocutors as a source of material advantage, I was also treated as witness to attempts to define an ethical way of living in the ordinary everyday.

This connects with what I understand as the desire for recognition. A major reason explaining my acquaintances’ willingness to share their stories with me was in my view because my interest in their lives signified a recognition of them as human subjects in a world which consistently withheld from them all that the desire for recognition implies: respect, consideration and justice. Long years of having been denied even the basics of human respect occasionally exploded in rage and despair: in Meiling’s vociferous claims to virtue, in Zhao Yong’s loud accusations against the police for infringing his human rights after a minor traffic offence, or in Li Fuying’s tortured memories of police brutality, forcible separation from his wife, and finally his despair when having to face his son’s decision to lead his life in ways that clashed with his own sense of self, as apparent in his hopes and expectations.

Interpreted through the lens of agency, my Dashalar acquaintances’ narrations of their experiences, memories and longings can be thought of as expressions of desires to assert a kind of authority in their lives. Agency here appears not as a “synonym for resistance to relations of domination,” as the late Saba Mahmood put it, but rather a form of struggle on the part of disadvantaged people to claim a dignity in an environment which, objectively, denied it to them. Understood in these terms, the expression of agency can be conceptualized as a search for recognition, not in the sense of identity politics, but, following Nancy Fraser, in a way that contrasts with the customary depreciation experienced by the subject, subordinating her to the impossibility of participating in social life as an equal of others. This is a kind of ethical recognition that acknowledges the subject’s performance of personhood as that of a full partner in social interaction,

Read the introduction to Beijing from Below free online and save 50% on the paperback edition with the coupon EVANS50 until June 30, 2020.

Sa′ed Atshan and Katharina Galor, co-authors of The Moral Triangle, interviewed by Sandra Korn

The Moral TriangleSa’ed Atshan is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He is the author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique. Katharina Galor is Hirschfeld Visiting Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and Urban Studies at Brown University. She is the author of Finding Jerusalem: Archaeology between Science and Ideology. In their co-authored book, The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians, they draw on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews to explore the asymmetric relationships between Germans and Israeli and Palestinian immigrants in the context of official German policies, public discourse, and the impact of coming to terms with the past.

We invite you to watch Sa′ed Atshan and Katharina Galor’s interview with their acquisitions editor, Sandra Korn.

Read the introduction to The Moral Triangle and save 50% off of this book and all in-stock books and journal issues through May 25th using the code SPRING50.

Joshua Neves on the Coronavirus (COVID-19), Anti-Chinese Racism, and the Politics of Underglobalization

Neves, Joshua photoJoshua Neves, author of Underglobalization:
Beijing’s Media Urbanism and the Chimera of Legitimacy
, is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair, Film Studies at Concordia University and coeditor of Asian Video Cultures, also published by Duke University Press. He wrote this post on February 21, 2020 and updated the statistics today, March 11.

In the 2018-19 flu season, the United States’ Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that 16.5 million Americans saw a health care provider for their illness, 490,600 people were hospitalized, and 34,200 people died from influenza. Such data helps us to temper recent panic about the coronavirus, contagion narratives, and the repressive Chinese state. 

To be sure, the strict management of information and party-state bureaucracy have plagued China’s response to the virus. My aim here is not to downplay what are very grave challenges to public health, but rather to turn attention to the ways the viral outbreak has also been swollen by frenzied news and social media around the world. Among the many responses in North America and Europe, for example, is a resurgent anti-Chinese racism. This includes suspicions about exotic animals and racialized ideas about sickness and disease, as well as alarm about surgical mask shortages, government cover ups, and entire cities under quarantine. As a recent US headline puts it, “First the media sold you overblown fears. Now it’s selling false comfort.”

But there is little new in this hysteria over China as a breeding ground for pandemics. From counterfeit medicine to authoritarian capitalism, China plays a complicated role in stories about the world system. On the one hand, it’s laboring population serves as factory to the world and has sustained the global economy through stagnation and crisis. It both produces the world’s best known things and is derided as a menial laborer or copycat—and not, that is, a designer. A major theme in recent news coverage centers on profits lost to factory closures. In many such stories, concerns about the well-being of migrant workers, among others, seems limited to their inability to get to work. On the other hand, even while China co-creates what we have come to know as globalization, its ambition and the challenges it poses to the Washington Consensus have led many to see the country as a global villain. Alongside Russia, Iran, etc., the PRC increasingly fills an imaginary void in post-Cold War geopolitics. It is the “other” that “we” organize our anger or fear around. 

What interests me about the tensions framing the COVID-19 outbreak is that China is at once understood to be inside and outside of the world or proper society of nations. It is both a prime mover and sickly underminer. This contradiction—including mistrust, intolerance, fear—must be tied to a history of anti-Chinese racism in North America and elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the current “yellow peril” is once again linked to the exploitation of Chinese workers, as well as a deep suspicion of these same people’s motives and lifeworlds. It highlights the inequality of global supply chains—a current logic of racialized capitalism—which seek to move things in specific directions and keep everyone in their place. It is this sense of global order that the virus ignores with its potential to spread where it should not. Contagion thus not only refers to the unruliness of new flu strains, but to the new mobilities of Chinese people, products, and technologies. The latter includes US attempts to block the Chinese company, Huawei, from building 5G infrastructure around the world. Officials claim that Chinese built networks will allow Beijing to infiltrate critical telecom infrastructure, making them insecure and threatening. These same reports rely on language that could just as well describe panic about the infectivity of influenza. Per Vice President Mike Pence, “We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East.”

The point of highlighting such tensions is not to bracket the very real problems posed by the People’s Republic of China or its vision of the future. But it is to refuse sweeping and prejudicial assessments of China and the Chinese, which inform insidious racisms by tethering ideas about counterfeits, censorship, exotic animals, the flu, and much more, to particular bodies. Put simply, these critiques are widespread, confused, epidemic—and demand more nuanced attention from journalists, scholars, and publics. What remains undigested by routine critiques of China, and is once again brought into relief by the recent outbreak of the outbreak narrative, is how smug dismissals buttress troubling ideas about the munificent “West” and the “free world.” This is one of the most menacing and normalized aspects of anti-Chinese racism in the North Atlantic. It locates viral contagion in Asian cities and populations, naming them as external threats, thereby consolidating a violent clash of civilization understanding of the earth. Here is safe; there is toxic.

It is important to add that, contrary to Euro-American assumptions about Chinese repression and citizen compliance, political dissent is endemic and visible across the PRC. For example, in Social Protests and Contentious Authoritarianism in China, political scientist Xi Chen describes both the dramatic rise and routinization of social protest in China and also how, “beneath the surface of noise and anxiety,” China’s political system remains stable. This is a complex political formation and no doubt differs from the imagination of protest in places like the US. But these differences notwithstanding, it is important to understand that protest and dissensus are frequent responses to life in contemporary China—and many Chinese citizens are “more than ready to blame the Communist Party for suppressing public health information and closing ranks against the people.” What is distinct, and marks an increasingly global condition, is that such protests are not made within formal civil society. Instead they are quasi- or il-legal, and suggest new modes of political society. Consider the January 2020 essay, “When Fury Becomes Fear,” from the outspoken former academic and critic, Xu Zhangrun. In searing prose, Xu argues that the current epidemic sounds a “viral alarm” and “has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.” See Geremie R. Barmé’s translation of Xu’s essay here, a Wuhan diary here, a typical report about netizen responses here, or the Sinophobia tracker here. What matters about such examples, is that they refuse the self-righteous politics of pity—where, for example, Americans are free and Chinese are controlled—and instead demands that we re-examine the workings of popular politics under globalization, which includes China and the so-called “West.”

Screen Shot 2020-02-21 at 12.42.46 PMAs I write, 4,379 people have died from the coronavirus and nearly 119,108 cases have been confirmed. Currently over 1000 deaths have been reported outside of China, with Wuhan, Hubei Province, still the most affected area. While details vary, reports indicate that lockdowns and curfews affect hundreds of millions Chinese citizens. The strictest rules, per the South China Morning Post, keep 60 million Hubei residents from leaving their homes. Further coverage suggests that the epidemic may now have peaked, as its spread slows in China, though others note that Japan is now a hotbed for the virus, with new cases also confirmed in the Philippines, South Korea, Iran, Egypt, and others. I linger on the current flu epidemic, stories about its (mis)management, and its Asian hosts and itineraries because they bring into relief a range of issues that are critical to what I call underglobalization

978-1-4780-0805-7When writing Underglobalization, I struggled to make sense of the contradictory and often racist understandings of China that co-exist in much official and popular discourse. As above, I was struck by the way that China is both dismissed as a fake, parasite or outlier nation and, at the same time, is critical to both the global economy and institutions, and to the everyday experience of the world. This paradox brings into relief deep structural conflicts over what constitutes political, economic, and social legitimacy in the present and future. Against such antagonisms, Underglobalization charts how a wide range of social actors underperform or refuse to implement the specific procedures and protocols required by globalization at different scales. Put differently, what international law (like the TRIPS Agreement) identifies as illegal must also be understood, in many contexts, to be locally valid. One important ramification of this claim is the recognition that contemporary global dynamics are shaped by increasing tensions between (il)legality and (il)legitimacy. Most simply the book asks: what happens when legal contracts around the world—including rights, civil society and citizenship—fail or become dangerous, and on what ground are political relationships reclaimed and sustained? 

Save 30% on the paperback edition of Joshua Neves’ Underglobalization using the coupon code E20NEVES and download the introduction here.


Celebrating Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month where studying, observing, and celebrating the role women have had and continue to have in American history is encouraged. While recognizing the achievements, it’s also important to acknowledge the struggles women face and have overcome. We’re excited to share recent books and journals from Duke University Press that align with this mission and celebrate women around the world and throughout history.


In Honeypot, E. Patrick Johnson combines magical realism, poetry, and performative writing to bear witness to the real-life stories of black southern queer women in ways that reveal the complexity of identity and the challenges these women face.

In Invisibility by Design, Gabriella Lukács traces how young Japanese women’s unpaid labor as bloggers, net idols, “girly” photographers, online traders, and cell phone novelists was central to the development of Japan’s digital economy in the 1990s and 2000s.

Lynn M. Thomas’ Beyond the Surface constructs a transnational history of skin lighteners in South Africa and beyond, theorizing skin and skin color as a site for antiracist struggle and lighteners as a technology of visibility that both challenges and entrenches racial and gender hierarchies.

978-1-4780-0645-9The concluding volume in a poetic triptych, Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Dub: Finding Ceremony takes inspiration from theorist Sylvia Wynter, dub poetry, and ocean life to offer a catalog of possible methods for remembering, healing, listening, and living otherwise.

Laura E. Pérez analyzes Latina art to explore a new notion of decolonial thought and love based on the integration of body, mind, and spirit that offers a means to creating a more democratic and just present and future in Eros Ideologies.

From The Guiding Light to Passions, Elana Levine traces the history of daytime television soap operas as an innovative and highly gendered mass cultural form in Her Stories.


In Mafalda: A Social and Political History of Latin America’s Global Comic, Isabella Cosse examines the history, political commentary, and influence of the world-famous comic character Mafalda from her Argentine origins in 1964 to her global reach in the 1990s.

In Naked Agency, Naminata Diabate explores how the deployment of defiant nakedness by mature women in Africa challenges longstanding assumptions about women’s political agency.

Radical Transnationalism,” a new issue of Meridians, looks at the expansive domains of transnational feminism, considering its relationship to different regions, historical periods, fields, and methodologies. The issue’s contributors, working in locations across the Global South and North, investigate settler colonialism, racialization, globalization, militarization, decoloniality, and anti-authoritarian movements as gendered political and economic projects.

Collected to honor the work of French women’s history scholar Rachel G. Fuchs, the essays in French Historical Studies issue “Patriarchy, Protection, and Women’s Agency in Modern France” touch on interrelated themes central to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France, including evolving forms of male power expressed through paternity, the victimization of women and children resulting from industrial capitalism and male abuse of power, and the development of mechanisms to protect the abused through surveillance of potential victims.

World Anthropology Day 2020

Anthro Day

Happy World Anthropology Day! Duke University Press joins the American Anthropological Association to recognize the research and achievements of anthropologists around the world. Celebrate the rich contributions of anthropology and  the exciting possibilities for the discipline’s future with our new and recent titles.

Avian ReservoirsIn the timely new book Avian Reservoirs, Frédéric Keck traces how the anticipation of bird flu pandemics has changed relations between birds and humans in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, showing that humans’ reliance on birds is key to mitigating future pandemics.

Macarthur “genius” grant winner Julie Livingston shows how the global pursuit of economic and resource-driven growth comes at the expense of catastrophic destruction in her latest book, Self-Devouring Growth, thereby upending popular notions that economic growth and development is necessary for improving a community’s wellbeing.

In another newsworthy recent work, Fencing in Democracy, Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Díaz-Barriga argue that border wall construction along the U.S.–Mexico border manifests transformations in citizenship practices that are aimed not only at keeping migrants out but also enmeshing citizens into a wider politics of exclusion.

Decolonizing EthnographyAlso examining the experiences of migrants, Decolonizing Ethnography, co-authors Carolina Alonso Bejarano and Daniel M. Goldstein team up with Lucia López Juárez and Mirian A. Mijangos García, both immigrant workers themselves,  to show how to integrate ethnography with activist work. Their fieldwork in a New Jersey center for undocumented workers shows how anthropology can function as a vehicle for activism and as a tool for marginalized people to theorize their own experiences.

In A Possible Anthropology, Anand Pandian offers an ethnography of anthropologists at work: canonical figures like Bronislaw Malinowski and Claude Lévi-Strauss, ethnographic storytellers like Zora Neale Hurston and Ursula K. Le Guin, contemporary scholars like Jane Guyer and Michael Jackson, and artists and indigenous activists inspired by the field. In their company, Pandian explores the moral and political horizons of anthropological inquiry, the creative and transformative potential of an experimental practice.

Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation by Deborah A. Thomas uses the 2010 military and police incursion into the Kingston, Jamaica, Tivoli Gardens neighborhood as a point of departure for theorizing the roots of contemporary state violence in Jamaica and other post-plantation societies.

Progressive DystopiaSavannah Shange traces the afterlives of slavery as lived in a progressive high school set in post-gentrification San Francisco in Progressive Dystopia. Despite the school’s sincere antiracism activism, she shows how it unintentionally perpetuated antiblackness through various practices.

Focusing on Costa Rica and Brazil, Andrea Ballestero examines the legal, political, economic, and bureaucratic history of water in the context of the efforts to classify it as a human right, showing how seemingly small scale devices such as formulas and lists play large role in determining water’s status in A Future History of Water.

In A Revolution in Fragments Mark Goodale uses contemporary Bolivia as an ideal case study with which to theorize the role that political agency, identity, and economic equality play within movements for justice and structural change.

Otaku and the StruggleIn Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan, Patrick Galbraith examines Japanese “otaku,” their relationships with fictional girl characters, the Japanese public’s interpretations of them as excessive and perverse, and the Japanese government’s attempts to co-opt them into depictions of “Cool Japan” to an international audience.

In Ethnography #9, Alan Klima examines moneylending, gambling, funeral casinos, and the consultations of spirits and mediums to predict winning lottery numbers to illustrate the relationship between contemporary Thai spiritual and financial practices and global capitalism’s abstraction of monetary value. Klima uses an unconventional, distinctive, and literary form of storytelling in this experimental new work.

Check out our full list of anthropology titles, and sign up here to be notified of new books, special discounts, and more. Share your love of anthropology on social media with the hashtag #AnthroDay today.


Black History Month Reads

To celebrate Black History Month, we are featuring some of our recent books and journals that explore Black and African-American history, issues, and culture.


In Honeypot, E. Patrick Johnson combines magical realism, poetry, and performative writing to bear witness to the real-life stories of black southern queer women in ways that reveal the complexity of identity and the challenges these women face.

The concluding volume in a poetic triptych that began with Spill, and continued with M Archive, Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Dub: Finding Ceremony takes inspiration from theorist Sylvia Wynter, dub poetry, and ocean life to offer a catalog of possible methods for remembering, healing, listening, and living otherwise.

In Everything Man, Shana L. Redmond traces Paul Robeson’s continuing cultural resonances in popular culture and politics, showing how he remains a vital force and presence for all those he inspired.

afterlife ofIn The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery, Alys Eve Weinbaum investigates the continuing resonances of Atlantic slavery in the cultures and politics of human reproduction that characterize contemporary capitalism, showing how black feminist thought offers the best means through which to understand the myriad ways slavery continues to haunt the present.

Allyson Nadia Field and Marsha Gordon examine the place and role of race in educational films, home movies, industry and government films, anthropological films, church films, and other forms of noncommercial filmmaking throughout the twentieth century in Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film.

Peoples History of DetroitMark Jay and Philip Conklin use a Marxist framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present in A People’s History of Detroit, which comes out in May. It outlines the complex socio-political dynamics underlying major events in Detroit’s past, from the rise of Fordism and the formation of labor unions to deindustrialization and the city’s recent bankruptcy. 

In Art for People’s Sake, Rebecca Zorach traces the little-told story of the Black Arts Movement in Chicago, showing how its artistic innovations, institution building, and community engagement helped the residents of Chicago’s South and West Sides respond to social, political, and economic marginalization.

In Black Madness :: Mad Blackness, Therí Alyce Pickens examines the speculative and science fiction of Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Tananarive Due to rethink the relationship between race and disability, thereby unsettling the common theorization that they are mutually constitutive.

UnfixedJennifer Bajorek traces the relationship between photography and decolonial politics in Francophone west Africa in the years immediately leading up to and following independence from French colonial rule in 1960 in Unfixed. She shows how photography both reflected and actively contributed to social and political change. 

In Beneath the Surface, Lynn M. Thomas constructs a transnational history of skin lighteners in South Africa and beyond theorizing skin and skin color as a site for antiracist struggle and lighteners as a technology of visibility that both challenges and entrenches racial and gender hierarchies.

Beyond countering the brutalizing omission of black British artists in both the art scene and art history chronicles, “Black British Art Histories,” an issue of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, presents perceptive, probing, and illuminating considerations of a range of artists whose practices are fascinating, complex, and of great art-historical importance.

The essays in “Trajectories in Race and Diaspora: Entangled Histories and Affinities of Transgression,” an issue of Qui Parle edited by Donna Honarpisheh, unfold at the dynamic intersections of race and diaspora in a global context. Each essay is preoccupied with how race—as an ontological category born of violence—produces edges, wounds, or incisions that nurture opportunities for further ontological transgressions with possible liberatory potentials.

Q&A with Jacob Blanc, author of Before the Flood

blanc-photo.jpgJacob Blanc is a lecturer in Latin American History at the University of Edinburgh and coeditor of Big Water: The Making of the Borderlands between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. His newest book, Before the Flood: The Itaipu Dam and the Visibility of Rural Brazil, examines the creation of the Itaipu Dam—the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the world—on the Brazil–Paraguay border during the 1970s and 1980s to explore the long-standing conflicts around land, rights, indigeneity, and identity in rural Brazil.

What first drew you to study the Itaipu flood? When in your research did you realize the history of Itaipu was rich and complex enough for you to write an entire book on it?

In full disclosure, I had not even heard the name ‘Itaipu’ before my first semester of graduate school. I knew I wanted to study some aspect of rural labor history, but aside from my general interest in politics of the Latin American countryside, I did not have a specific case study to start with. Eventually I came across Itaipu, and it seemed like each time I found a new body of sources, or each time I thought I had a clear sense of what the main narrative was, it kept changing. Was this a history of farmers versus a dictatorship? Yes, but it was more complex. Was there solidarity amongst the different displaced groups? Yes, but it was more complex. Was land a central catalyst for the protest movements? Yes, but the lands that would be flooded did not have the same social meanings for all of the displaced communities. I started out thinking this would be a history about rural protest against military rule, but the kaleidoscope of stories that Itaipu brought together resulted in something much bigger: a history of rurality, and the contingencies of life, political struggle, and community in the countryside.

There were a few key moments in my research where these insights really took root. The first was when I began my interviews with farming communities in western Paraná, Brazil. My first stage of research had mostly focused on archival evidence of the protest encampments against Itaipu, which yielded a lot of fascinating and important details on the standoff between rural communities and the dictatorship. In this initial research I come across some hints of internal conflict in the camps, but it was only when I spent time talking with people that had participated in the protests did I begin to understand the full complexity of what took place. Landless peasants spoke of feeling marginalized within the movement (where their demands for redistribution of land was drowned out by the call for higher prices to be paid for legally owned property), indigenous leaders told me about their parallel movement to seek cultural and political rights, and even the landed small-farmers who had led the main protests shared memories that were far more nuanced than the archival record suggested. It was in this vortex of testimonies that I began to piece together the complex and often-contradictory ways that the displaced communities mobilized in defense of their soon-to-be-flood lands.

A second key moment was when in a twist of good fortune and perseverance, I gained access to the archives of the Itaipu dam. This was something that no scholar had previously done and I was able to spend two months going through their holdings. Because Itaipu was so deeply embedded in the dictatorship’s development and security structures, its archive was a window into the logic of authoritarian rule. From here, I was able to place the question of land at the center of my narrative: how a wide range of actors viewed and acted upon their understanding of what the lands around Itaipu meant and what role the region should play in the future of Brazil.

Before the FloodInstead of centering the book around the technological and ecological effects of the Itaipu Binational hydroelectric dam, you set out to ask what the flooded lands meant to different Brazialian rural groups. What do you find missing in these other accounts? How does the history of the flood change when told from those on the land itself?

It is completely understandable that scholars have devoted time to studying the largest hydroelectric dam in the world: it was a tremendous feat of engineering, and compounded by the conflicts that unfolded between Brazil and Paraguay to harness the energy of the seventh-longest river on the planet, the Itaipu dam was, and continues to be, a remarkable technological achievement. The construction of Itaipu forms part of my book, but it is more as an explanatory backdrop for how, and why, the military government saw this border region as a central part of its worldview. By shifting attention away from the construction of the dam per se, and by focusing instead on the livelihoods that converged in the flood zone, I want to help us see that a history of water management (a giant hyrdoelectric dam) contains an equally important history of land. The narrative shift from water to land opens new questions on the social and material meanings of land. And given that the book is guided by my framework of rural visibility, this shift also lets us explore what it means for a region to be rendered invisible. This process of invisibility was both literal (Itaipu’s flood inundating 1,500 square kilometers of land) and discursive, with rural livelihoods delegitimized in national imaginations.

You work with a framework of visibility, drawing on works from Rob Nixon and others to think about how the nation-state, in its constitution, relies upon the exclusion of communities and places that are rendered invisible through “active unimagining.” How much do certain historical methodological practices contribute to this unimagining? In what way is your alternative periodization– exploring non-chronological modes of writing history– an intervention into historical invisibilities?

This also links really well to the above question, where a potential limitation of a techno-ecological history of a megadam like Itaipu is that it takes its starting point at the moment of the dam’s conception. That is, it operates chronologically on the terms of the nation-state and the governments and corporations that build these massive development projects. Here, the theme of unimagining is important both historically and methodologically.

In terms of method, it can often be very hard to reverse this process of unimagining. In part, this relates to the challenge of ‘doing’ subaltern history and the limits we have as historians—especially those of us working from positions of personal and professional privilege. But histories of development and forced relocation present further problems still: a proper history of Itaipu requires finding communities that had been uprooted from their homes and who then dispersed throughout the region and the country as a whole. So, I could have stayed just in the areas around the present-day dam and put together a pretty good history of rural mobilization that would still have ticked a lot of the boxes of subaltern and grassroots history. Even just including those voices would have been an important intervention in scholarship on dictatorship that has tended to focus on urban spaces and the more traditional vectors of political protest such as student movements, unions, and political parties.

But to more fully present the histories on display at Itaipu, this required me to build networks of solidarity and trust in order to get introduced to people who could put me in touch with several lines of connections that eventually allowed me to meet with peasant and indigenous communities whose perspectives were vital to round out the story I was able to tell. The logistics of this were often exhausting and uncertain; in one case I took a ten-hour bus ride solely on the suggestion that somebody I was hoping to interview lived in a small faraway town. I did not have their phone number or address, but sure enough, when I arrived I was able to ask around for the farmer and eventually found him, where I was invited to not only hear his memories from the time of Itaipu but to also stay the night with him and his family. So methodologically, our goal of trying to reverse this state of unimagining depends also on a certain amount of commitment and trust in our own process. That is not always feasible, and there are of course very real challenges (many of which are gendered, classed, and racialized) to conducting this form of fieldwork, but it can be a powerful approach to actively re-imagine histories that might otherwise continue to be overlooked.

And in terms of non-chronological modes of history-writing, this was something I went back and forth on a lot during my research and then while preparing the book. There is profound weight in the decisions we make as historians, not just in choosing to tell certain histories over others, but even in how we present the stories we do choose to tell. Structurally in my book, I opted for a bit of both worlds, where the first half progresses chronologically in three chapters from the pre-history of the dam through the Itaipu flood in 1982, and then in the second half I have four chapters that give the histories that predated, ran parallel, and ultimately outlasted the more standard history of what took place at Itaipu. By framing this explicitly as such, my hope is to de-emphasize the more linear narratives that tend to get deployed for paradigmatic events like a development project and even Brazil’s dictatorship more broadly. This again comes back to trying to intervene in historical invisibilities, and I sought to not only present histories such as indigenous mobilization, peasant displacement, and landless consciousness, but to also frame them as more than just ancillary themes to the larger story. Instead, they exist as standalone stories with their own chronologies.

You use the phrase “double reality” to describe the simultaneous events of the Itaipu flood, an expression of military power, and the 1982 election, a symbolic return to democratic rule in Brazil. What is the significance of naming the effects of both events as realities? What does it mean to recognize a multiplicity of realities?

‘Reality’ conveys a sense of both what is happening and also what is perceived to be happened. For the case of Itaipu, this is particularly powerful for the official timing of Brazil’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, the process known as abertura. Through my history of rural political struggles and their alternative visions for democracy, I introduce the idea of a double reality of abertura, with competing perceptions of how military rule was experienced. So what does that mean for the multiplicity of realities? It means that there is an imagined idea of a country that has a particular chronology attached to it; in this case, that of a transition from a military to a civilian regime. And yet people experience the big idea at the heart of that transition, the abertura, as a double reality, whose chronology and evolving meanings play out in drastically different ways.

By looking at these histories as both events and realities, we are able to draw out the attachments that different groups project onto what they see transpiring around them. This is important because in arguing for a double reality of abertura, I am not saying that rural Brazilians (or any marginalized group for that matter) is unable to extract real benefits and beliefs from official or mainstream events like the abertura. Instead, I use the idea of doubling to show two main threads. First, how the more official forms of politics like abertura are unable and uninterested in accommodating the ideas and livelihoods like those of the displaced groups at Itaipu. And second, despite these limitations, marginalized groups nonetheless invoke and redeploy official events and narratives to advance their own goals. The concept of double reality helps us explore the lived and discursive experiences of being both marginalized and empowered.

In the aftermath of the flood, mass displacement and resettlement allowed landless workers to lead a new charge to reform agrarian policies in Brazil. How much did these landless movements address issues that predated the flood and even a dictator-ruled Brazil?

The landless campaign in Brazil (known as the MST) has become one of the largest social movements in the world over the past several decades. Founded in 1984, one year before the official end of dictatorship, the MST has championed ideas and demands that long predated the start of military rule in 1964. As is the case all over the world, the question of land has been a constant in Brazilian history, and especially in the twentieth-century there is a long tradition of organized campaigns to win access to land through direct-action occupations. My history of Itaipu helps link the emergence of the post-dictatorship MST through some the earlier iterations of landless campaigns, both before and during the military regime. Although few scholars have yet to fully acknowledge this genealogy, the movement that took place just after Itaipu played a pivotal role in the formation of the MST. And placed within the larger context of landless mobilizations across twentieth-century Brazil, we also see why these groups were met with such sustained waves of repression: because the demand for agrarian reform and the structural redistribution of land was seen as a threat by elites under both military and civilian rule, landless movements have confronted serious challenges regardless of whether the country has been ruled by a dictatorship or a democracy.

Although you name your book Before the Flood, you conclude by challenging neat concepts of “before” and “after” and suggest developing a “plurality of timelines” around a historical event. Do you find there to be further room to challenge the logics of temporality in history? Is it possible to imagine a history that undoes the timeline itself?

This was another tricky, though quite fun, aspect of my project. How to challenge the logics of temporality while at the same time using those logics to advance my arguments. Periodization is at the heart of what we do as historians: we frame a problem and we try to figure out periods of time that in some way are a good match for the problem. And especially as we navigate the process of writing a book, there are logistical and professional demands for telling a story in a way that is legible and efficient. What I tried to achieve was a balance between linear and non-linear storytelling, with enough step-backs and links to show how the multiple sets of temporalities did not exist separate from each other. Instead, the various narratives I cover in my book are in a constant state of engagement and mutual reinforcement. The official chronology of the Itaipu dam and of Brazil’s dictatorship provided a central referent for the other stories I needed to tell. So rather than thinking about writing history in a way that undoes the timeline, we might be better suited to thinking about how to present a wide range of voices that in some form interact with a common temporal thread. This can help us rethink the parameters of how we understand, and how we define, periods of history.

Do you think your work can serve as a blueprint for future methodological experimentation that works outside traditional periodization frameworks?

I hope my book can help spur new approaches to rethinking periodization. Because while my particular case study concerns the Brazilian countryside and the livelihoods of rural Brazilians, the same holds true for any group or community whose reality does not align with mainstream periods of time. My case study was the countryside, but it could have been anywhere that contains competing social realities. And this stands equally across Latin America and globally as well. When we begin to take seriously that officially canonized dates and events do not hold the same social weight for all members of a community or of a nation, we can start to re-imagine on what terms we set historical boundaries.

Read the introduction to Before the Flood free online and save 30% on the paperback edition using coupon code E19BLANC.

National Hispanic Heritage Month Reads

September 15th through October 15th is National Hispanic American Heritage Month. To celebrate, we have selected several of our recent books and journal issues that explore Chincanx and Latinx studies, art, and history, as well as bring awareness to issues faced by the Latinx community.

978-0-8223-6938-7_prIn Eros IdeologiesLaura E. Pérez analyzes Latina art to explore a new notion of decolonial thought and love based on the integration of body, mind, and spirit that offers a means to creating a more democratic and just present and future.

Renato Rosaldo’s new prose poetry collection, The Chasers, shares his experiences and those of his group of twelve Mexican-American Tucson High School friends known as the Chasers as they grew up, graduated, and fell out of touch, conveying the realities of Chicano life on the borderlands from the 1950s to the present.

In Deported Americans, legal scholar and former public defender, Beth C. Caldwell, tells the story of dozens of immigrants who were deported from the United States—the only country they have ever known—to Mexico, tracking the harmful consequences of deportation for those on both sides of the border.

Chicano and Chicana ArtChicano and Chicana Art, curated by Jennifer A. González, C. Ondine Chavoya, Chon Noriega, and Terezita Romo, is an anthology that includes essays from artists, curators, and critics and provides an overview of the history and theory of Chicano/a art from the 1960s to the present, emphasizing the debates and vocabularies that have played key roles in its conceptualization.

Pop América, 1965–1975, edited by Esther Gabara, is a bilingual, fully illustrated catalogue. It accompanies the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University’s exhibition Pop América, 1965–1975, which presents a vision of Pop art across the Americas as a whole.

coverimage-3Trans Studies en las Américas,” a special issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, is an unprecedented English-language collection by Latin American and Latinx scholars on trans and travesti issues. Contributors offer a hemispheric perspective on trans and travesti issues, expand transgender studies to engage geopolitical connections, and bring interdisciplinary approaches to topics ranging from policy to cultural production.

With roots in protest and social change, Latinx theater carries an artistic vitality and urgency that has only been augmented by resistance to the current wave of repressive white nationalism. In “What’s Next for Latinx?“, an issue of Theater, contributors ask where Latinx theater is going and what challenges it faces.

Q&A with Leah Zani, Author of Bomb Children

Zani, Leah author photo

Leah Zani is a Junior Fellow in the Social Science Research Network at the University of California, Irvine and the author of the new book Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos. In Bomb Children, Zani considers how the people and landscape of Laos have been shaped and haunted by the physical remains of unexploded ordnance from the CIA’s Secret War.

How did this project start? What brought you to the former battlefields of Laos?

For nearly ten years prior to and during my early research on this project, I thought of myself as a disability studies scholar and advocate. My experiences with dyslexia sparked my scholarly interests in disability. As a child in segregated remedial classes, I was told by my teachers that I would never graduate from high school—let alone finish a bachelor’s, or a doctorate, or write a book!

So I had this personal interest in disability studies. I had intended to study experiences of disability in Laos as they relate to the war, doing fieldwork with the state’s national prosthetics factory and rehabilitation center. Once I was on the ground in Laos, I realized that this was not feasible due to restrictions on foreign researchers—clinicians told me that I could not talk to patients—and made nearly impossible by government restructuring. I sensed that every few months, the name of the appropriate ministry changed as well as the appropriate paperwork. I couldn’t find a way “in” to a project on disability.

While I struggled to find an open door at the rehabilitation center, I was also building connections with humanitarian and development workers, many of whom were involved in victim assistance or explosives clearance. I quickly realized: There was my open door! I began spending more time with humanitarian and development organizations working in former battlefields. My earlier interest in disability studies is still present in the book if you look for it: my theorizing of danger as a disability; my critique of the language of the accident; and my attention to military wasting, i.e., military waste as a process that is simultaneously embodied, ecological, and geopolitical. I came to the project with an existing interest in bodies, the senses, risk, and impairment.

When I started this project, I did not know that the United States had covertly and massively bombed Laos for nine years. The Secret War was initially a silent backdrop to my research on disability, and the war slowly moved into the foreground to become my primary research focus.


You include what you call “fieldpoems” in the book. How does poetry help you make sense of what you learn in the field?

I came to poetry intuitively, provoked by my own confusion in the field. I didn’t know how to process or record what I was experiencing. In the book, I describe this feeling as a kind of vertigo: standing on the edge of another reality, feeling pulled in, but my feet still firmly planted. I was doing fieldwork in Phonsavanh, arguably the most bombed part of our planet. The town was flattened and then rebuilt after the war using bits and pieces of war debris. There had been no systematic clearance after the war, meaning that people rebuilt the town on top of thousands of live bombs. This existential particularity lends itself to poetry. My sense is that a lot of ethnographers come to poetry via this or a similar path: a wrestling with excess, looking over an edge, or losing one’s language. Poetry can be used to notice and give meaning to experiences that resist description.

Later, my interest in poetry led me to the Lao practice of poetic parallelism. In this regional poetic form, lines are split across multiple columns, the gaps generating an unresolvable tension. Parallelism became the central organizing frame of the book—it unlocked my awareness of how war simmers into everyday paranoia, helped me to recognize when interlocutors were sharing information discreetly and gave me a language for writing about peacetime life and ongoing war violence without dissolving one into the other. And I would probably not have picked up on parallelism if I hadn’t already been writing poems. For this project, poetry was a field method that encouraged a related method of poetic inquiry: thus, “fieldpoetry,” poems written as fieldnotes.

My use of fieldpoetry is linked to my experiences with dyslexia: Words are not the way that I know things, so when I write poems as evidence, I mean that they are evidence in this slightly estranged way, a kind of bewilderment or wandering away from words. As a feminist and queer scholar, poetry is one way to engage with what Strathern called “nonknowing” as evidence that does not depend on positivism. Poems are a way for me to explore nonknowing while still feeling rooted and sure of myself. I wrote poems before I wrote ethnographies, and the two are mutually supportive in my work. We need to mainstream more diverse methods and representation practices in anthropology, methods that are as varied as the people and events that we encounter.

I recently became the poetry editor at Anthropology and Humanism, the journal of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. I am, as far as I know, the only poetry editor at a peer-reviewed journal in the social sciences.

You take particular interest in the sociocultural impact of cluster submunitions, known in Laos as “bomb children.” What is it about these particular bombs or their impact that stand out to you?

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Live explosive ordnance on display at a government office in Phonsavan, Xieng Khouang Province. Photo by the author.

Cluster munitions have a social and cultural impact that distinguishes them from conventional weapons. They are, like landmines, a type of antipersonnel weapon that contaminates the places that people live. They are mines in every way that matters. Earlier versions of the Mine Ban Treaty prohibited cluster munitions alongside landmines. Under American pressure, delegates removed cluster munitions from the Mine Ban; the United States signed the Mine Ban but has yet to sign the subsequent Convention on Cluster Munitions. Since deploying these weapons in Laos, the United States has more recently used cluster munitions in the Middle East and continues to sell them.

When a bomber drops a cluster munition from their plane, the force of the fall opens the bomb to disperse hundreds or thousands of smaller submunitions, or bomblets, over vast areas. In Lao, the larger munition is called a “bomb mother” and the smaller bomblets are called “bomb children.” These bomblets are usually the size of two fists held together, lightweight and durable. During the Secret War in Laos, about a third of these bomblets failed to explode on impact. A bomblet will generally not explode if stepped on, though a fire or the impact of a farm tool will likely set it off. Due to their small size, durability, and geographic spread, even heavily bombed areas are still often farmed and inhabited. This means that cluster munitions become part of life—under people’s houses, found in rice fields, used for metal scrap—in ways that challenge distinctions between war and peace, or battlefield and village. They have a unique sociocultural signature, a wasting of the everyday. In the book, I develop a theory of the sociocultural blast radius: the radius of social and cultural effects surrounding explosive ordnance (such as family stigma, endemic risk, ecological destruction, and poverty). A bomb’s sociocultural blast radius is much larger than its zone of mere physical destruction.

Under President Trump, the United States rolled back restrictions on the use of these weapons and is now using cluster munitions with higher failure rates and thus higher civilian causalities.

The title of the book is a reference to the Lao practice of calling these smaller bomblets “bomb children.” The phrase is also a way for me to think about how these weapons have multi-generational, long term effects that exceed the logic of war. I like how the phrase gestures to a future after bombing. And yet, the United States intended the bombing to ruin the incoming state’s capacity to flourish; in a sense, the United States was bombing the future. Fifty years after the war, children are now more likely to be victims of explosions than their parents (because adults know how to safely avoid or handle bombs). What does it mean to be “born” from a bomb, or born from bombing?
Laos is the most cluster bombed country in the world. In 2010, Laos hosted the signing of the Convention banning cluster munitions. The country and the explosive clearance organizations that work there at the forefront of global efforts to create standards for cluster munition clearance.

You mention Laos is “one of the most rapidly developing countries in the world; it is also the world’s most bombed country . . .” How do military waste “haunt” development projects and the government’s response to the country’s rapid growth?

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Fifty-year-old craters used as trash pits. In the background, tables and a parking lot set up for the temple fund-raiser. Photo by the author.

I take up haunting as an attitude to time: the Secret War as haunting, rather than history. At the Sepon Gold Mine, the focus of Chapter Two, the partially state-owned gold mine digs beneath an old communist stronghold bombed during the Secret War, and beneath that into the remains of a 14th century village. These subterranean histories layer on top of each other, sometimes intersecting or puncturing everyday life on the ground above. The first things to be dug up at the Gold Mine were bombs—not gold or copper—and more bombs are found and demolished every day of active operations. During my fieldwork in Sepon, rumors circulated of bombs and war ghosts brought to the surface by the runoff from the mine. And ghosts from the ancient village underneath the mine were possessing mine workers. The gold mine was also a ghost mine—a place where one dug up ghosts or became a ghost oneself.

Back in Vientiane, the Lao capital, I extend this analysis of haunting to explore the relations between state violence and development. My fieldwork was bracketed by the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, an important Lao civil society leader, and the phase-out of one of my primary research hosts. Sombath was abducted from his car in 2012 (on a Vientiane street near my apartment) and has yet to be returned to his family or confirmed dead. I began my preliminary fieldwork just before Sombath was abducted; and when I returned for primary fieldwork I discovered that my research partnerships needed to be renegotiated. One of my research partners rescinded their patronage all together, citing concerns over state violence. My fieldwork ended just as my primary research host was phasing out of Laos, in part due to the challenges of working in an increasingly authoritarian state. In the post-Sombath years, my interlocutors expressed concern that the hardships of working in Laos were caused by Sombath’s ghost. Since Sombath has not been confirmed dead, and his body not found, Sombath’s kin have not be able to perform the proper funerary rituals, thus causing Sombath to become an “angry ghost.” His ghost is haunting Lao development. At the same time, the ambiguity of disappearance (Sombath is alive/dead) points to another possible world of forgiveness and cooperation. Political disappearance creates an awareness of multiple worlds layering within the everyday. In the book’s logic of parallels, this contemporary state violence forms a parallel with the ongoing violence from the Secret War.

In your book, you talk about doing research in what is considered a dangerous environment. What were some of the hazards you encountered while doing your fieldwork?

I went into this research assuming explosives would be the greatest risks to my safety. My Institutional Review Board protocols included procedures for conducting fieldwork in uncleared battlefields and at explosives clearance sites. I soon discovered that state terror, surveillance, and harassment were far greater threats: that being an American woman in an authoritarian state was a greater risk factor than being in the middle of an old air strike zone. I joked to my friends: “The men are more dangerous than the bombs!” I was unprepared for the levels of surveillance and harassment that I was experiencing. In hindsight, I realized that my lack of preparedness was evidence for the public secrecy of state violence: there was no way I could have predicted many of these challenges in advance of doing fieldwork. We must negotiate our research ethics in the field. I also think that my unpreparedness points to a larger, shared issue in field-based sciences around the unequal risks faced by female researchers. As a discipline, we are impoverished in our theories and methods for risk: How I wish that the #metoo anthropology movement had begun before I started my fieldwork! I hope that this book contributes to that larger, disciplinary discussion of research risks and subject/researcher protections.

I approached these challenges as an ethical and methodological provocation to practice fieldwork differently, including my development of a hazardous research methods toolkit. I used the word “hazard” to counter the over-determining language of danger in explosives clearance. I wanted a word that would organically encompass military waste, state terror, and everyday risks like harassment and unsafe water. Ethnographic fieldwork is often a balance between intimacy and danger. The tension is written into our basic method: participant-observation, to participate without losing the distance that is essential to scholarship. Fieldwork in explosives clearance zones materializes the risks of ethnographic intimacy: areas of safety and danger are marked on the ground with stakes and red tape. Get too close, and the bomb with destroy you and itself! I learned to walk the perimeter of explosions, looking inward from a safe distance. My practical development of hazardous research methods eventually dovetailed with my theorizing of parallelism: I began to see how hazards layer on top of each other in postwar zones, amplifying risks without necessarily intersecting or being causally related.

What do you hope readers will take away from Bomb Children?

My goal in writing this book is to increase our collective ability to think about war, particularly covert air war, as a lived human experience. Postwar zones deserve more robust area and cultural studies. Military waste as area studies has only been possible since the 1990s when the widespread use of these weapons, the opening of many Cold War battlefields, and the development of humanitarian explosives clearance made it possible for researchers to study in these zones. Our theories and methods for studying postwar zones are out of step with the realities of the people that we study and our own lives under empire. Many of the theories I put forward are ways of grappling with a world changed by modern warfare’s unprecedented ecological and social impacts. Violence on this scale transforms the very conditions of being, living, and dying. Then, in Laos, half a century passes and new generations are born alongside bomb children, luk labaerd, cluster submunitions. Humanitarian explosives clearance often goes only as deep as a typical Lao plow—a handful of centimeters. More bombs often remain buried deeper, with a thin line of soil separating the farmer from the explosives. How is the violence of war lived in times of peace? How can we lean into the shared challenges of military waste, toxic inheritances that by their nature outlive our politics? Out of respect and accuracy towards the people impacted by these weapons, I offer theories and methods for understanding in parallel both our lives above ground, in all our human richness and possibility, and the brutality of a war buried in the soil just beneath our feet.

Pick up your paperback copy of Bomb Children for 30% off using coupon code E19LZANI on our website.