Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Genital theft goes to Hollywood: Another penis snatching update

On a plane recently I made the bad decision to pass the time with the film "It's Complicated." Meryl Streep leans on the coos and croissants of her Julia Child portrayal to this time incarnate a supremely irritating SoCal divorcée. I squirmed with embarrassment for the actors' sake, especially Alec Baldwin -- please, Alec, do us all a favor and return to 30 Rock, where you belong.

But the film does contain one noteworthy scene. Toward the end, Meryl and her gal pals are dishing about their lackluster sex lives when one bursts out the assertion that a lack of sex can cause a woman's vagina to close up. "It's true!" she insists, "I read about a case on the internet!" The others laugh, but the scene is ultimately ambivalent about the veracity of the tale, leaving viewers with the impression that whether or not it's true, it's a real fear for women of a certain age and status.

Though most of the African stories of disappearing genitals involve men, women can suffer the fate too. For women, it usually happens much like the actress said: the crotch becomes strangely sealed, like a Barbie doll, though in the African case lack of sex is not understood to be the precipitating factor.

Julien Bonhomme, in his book Les Voleurs de sexe: Anthropologie d'une rumeur africaine, argues that because the notion of the rumor carries such a negative social-epidemiological charge -- the rumor as social cancer -- the phenomenon of penis snatching is better understood as gossip, a major mode of communication in the African city. It's "radio troittoir" as the animating force of social life, in newspapers (Bonhomme's main source) as well as in curbside conversation, and penis snatching offers a prism through which to grasp that reality. I'm only a few chapters into the book so will save a full review for later. For the time being, I'll say that if nothing else, "It's Complicated" reminded me that gossip, even penis-snatching absurd gossip, is far from solely an African thing. Perhaps Bonhomme will have to write a sequel: Anthropologie d'une rumeur américaine.

(This is one of the things I love about anthropology: navigating and exploring difference and finding unexpected convergence amid the divergence.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Surprising ways of fulfilling the responsibility to protect?

One of the highlights of attending the Law and Society Association annual meeting was having the chance to catch up with my friend and fellow Duke cultural anthropology grad student Jatin Dua. Jatin, one of the most brilliant people I know, is studying piracy in the Horn of Africa, and he specifically looks at how the region's modes of governance turn on the fusion of protection and profit. As he writes (in an abstract of his research),

Western Indian Ocean piracy may be seen as an attempt to produce protection from global poaching and dumping and from the surveillance of regulators more generally, and signals a shift from the purchase of protection through taxes, tariffs and bribes to collecting rents through a form of capital-intensive armed entrepreneurship. As such, piracy as a system of protection competes with a variety of state and non-state forms of protection in this area.”

Both the pirate-cum-coast guard (the Somali Coast Guard has apparently renamed itself the Somali Sovereignty Protection Unit; shape-shifters with much in common with the the highway bandits/rebels in Central Africa, these armed Somali seafarers often play both pirate and coast guard roles) and the maritime insurance agent at Lloyd's describe their actions as important forms of protection. A form of coerced rent collection has taken on an important role in the region's political economy, similarly to the way that Charles Tilly described the history of the state as a the evolution of organized protection rackets. Jatin will soon start fieldwork on the Kenya coast, in Somaliland, and in London, and as he learns more the synopsis I've just offered here will prove increasingly simplistic, but it at least outlines certain contours of what he will be looking at.

Jatin's analysis fascinates me for several reasons. For one thing, through the R2P doctrine (Responsibility to Protect) “protection” has become the organizing principle of humanitarianism, and the main fault assigned to places like CAR (or Somalia) is their failure to protect their citizens. I have myself had a hand in perpetuating this line of analysis through publications with titles like “Still Waiting for Justice and Protection.” And, maybe especially on a visceral level, such accounts have a high degree of explanatory power. As Achille Mbembe pointed out in his contribution to Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, in parts of Africa government forces and the rebel groups that oppose them more often attack civilians than their putative enemies. Upon meeting peasants who have recently been racketed by highway robbers or cattle thieves or poachers or “rebels” or soldiers or any of the other kinds of militarized entrepreneurs, the lack of protection does indeed appear a defining feature of the region's politics.

And yet, as an anthropologist, I find this analysis deeply unsatisfying. Anthropologists have long been in the business of countering/completing the analyses that identify how people and places fail to measure up to certain theoretical principles derived from the intellectual history of the West by instead studying social systems as they actually work. (For a contemporary incarnation of this argument, Alex de Waal, himself an anthropologist by training, made an impassioned case in his Christen Michelsen lecture last year.)

This is partly why I found Jatin's description of the existing Horn of Africa protection regimes, which turns the aspirational humanitarian vision of the term upside down, so stimulating. Given the similarities between piracy and highway banditry and the like in Central Africa, I wonder in what ways the model of protection that Jatin describes might be working here. In my simplified model of his reasoning, it could possibly be distilled as

rent-based mode of governance + profits/entrepreneurship = protection

The CAR is also home to a profitable, rent-centric mode of governance. But where and how might protection enter into the equation? What kinds of protection (rackets) do we see here? I'm finding it hard to get out from under the humanitarian model of lack.

Post script: Contradiction

A couple more examples, as food for thought:

In his book For the City Yet to Come: Changing Urban Life in Four African Cities, AbdouMaliq Simone describes scenes he saw in Khartoum: devout Muslims hanging out in back lots, drinking alcohol as they arranged used car sales. Simone invokes the example to show how people might deploy different qualifications in different situations in order to create opportunities; ie., shape-shifting brings benefits, and to the people who do it, such transformations are neither contradictory nor solely instrumental.

In a presentation I listened to last week about “shanzhai” (bandit, counterfeit) phones in China, the speaker showed a photo of a tightly packed shanzhai shopping mall in Shenzhen. Someone had unfurled a large banner in the atrium: “Respect intellectual property. Every day is intellectual property day!” it proclaimed. Not quite sure what to make of that one.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Contradiction and social life

Social science researchers speak of the need to triangulate – compare multiple sources of data about the same topic – in order to parse the meaning of contradictory information. But what should one do when a single individual contradicts herself – espousing diametrically opposed opinions with equal force – in the course of a conversation?

I've struggled with this question during my research in CAR, particularly in relation to Central Africans' views and management of international aid. What to make of a conversation in which a government environment ministry employee, with the patience of a practiced teacher, explains (in French) the workings and importance of wildlife conservation (including a moratorium on all hunting), and then, just a few minutes later, yells (in Sangho) in favor of his right to hunt, a right he is prepared to fight to maintain?

One diplomat to whom I posed this question responded, “It's simple. They're lying.” But that response offers little analytical meat.

Linguists would likely describe it in terms of code-switching, a literature in which I am woefully little-versed (suggestions for readings welcome). As I understand it, code-switching refers to the ways that multilingual people switch between the languages they know in order to better suit the demands of the social situation in which they find themselves. A person might code-switch within a single sentence, or else might speak employ different languages to suit different settings. Relatedly, Foucaultians might describe this as a situation of overlapping “epistemic communities.” The term epistemic community refers to the people who accept a set of truths/assumptions about the way things are, a shared understanding that forms the basis for their cohesiveness (and control).

These perspectives interest me, but, given that epistemic systems do not exist as discrete, bounded units within a person's head, I'm curious about how contradiction is itself a part of the human condition. A witchcraft-believer might accept biomedical explanations for disease causation at the same time as she pursues a witch for “poisoning”; a racist might count a person of color as a close friend. The exception may prove the rule, but that doesn't harmonize the contradictory beliefs. It seems to me that humans have a great capacity for holding contradictory statements as simultaneously true.

For a number of years now, anthropologists have tried to expose contradictions – the Plato talking to the cave-dwellers model. These analyses might take a form like, “Development workers think they're working for liberation, but really they're enacting a more-invasive form of neo-colonial discipline!” (Ditto human rights activists.) There are some useful works in this literature (I found Harri Englund's Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor useful, for instance), but it has limits. For one thing, you can only pull the wool off of people's eyes so many times before they do it themselves and then get on with the work of living, trying to chart the best course amid imperfect information and inevitable unintended consequences. It strikes me as more fruitful to attempt to make sense of the sincerity that may characterize apparent contradictions. (Bill Maurer is at the forefront of the shift away from what I term curtain-lifting anthropology. Though his writing might be too experimental for some, his analysis usually fascinates.)

To return to my aforementioned Ministry of Environment friend, I'm starting to analyze the statements of people like him as similar to the statements of, say, oil company executives engaged in environmental initiatives or Pepsi employees spearheading anti-obesity projects. They seem sincerely to understand and strive to combat the ills of their industries, and yet they still drill ill-advised wells in the Gulf of Mexico and advertise their soft drinks to kids using cartoon characters. In other words, their actions are at cross-purposes. I'm not sure where this line of thought might lead, but at least it gets me beyond simply seeing Central Africans as gifted liars, which strikes me as an intellectual cul-de-sac demanding a bit of bushwhacking.

A rant: Cell phones and Africa

On the plane this morning (I'm making my way to the Law and Society Association annual meetings), I flipped through the Wall Street Journal and saw an article about Africa illustrated by a photo of a dark hand holding a Nokia. Could this be yet another incarnation of the hackneyed “cells phones revolutionizing Africa oh wow farmers can get commodity prices on their mobiles and no longer get rooked at the market” stock piece?

Indeed it was, in a way.

I swear, these articles come out so often college students could make a drinking game of it – take a shot every time you see the stock-prices-on-phones example! Or is it some editorial world where's Waldo, planted here and there to see who's actually reading (is there a prize?) I, for one, have lost count of how many times I've seen it since the first coverage around 2005. And yet I've never seen a single farmer consulting commodity prices on his phone.

The WSJ article at least took a novel tack: turns out those commodity prices on a phone aren't so revolutionary after all. Service providers in Uganda are finding that once people have to pay for the quotes, few deem the service worthwhile.

So can we move on to another story now?

On Revolution

If anthropologists still described their reflectively loquacious interlocutors as 'chief informants,' a man I met a few days ago in Kaga Bandoro (a local employee of an international NGO) would rank among mine. Though he's only from the next prefecture over, he counts as a stranger in Kaga Bandoro, and, like so many other liminal people, he has a privileged position from which to wonder over how and why things are the way they are in the town.

“The people here say, 'We are like the whites' – they only look out for their nuclear family – and that's not accepted in African culture. They want only to receive, but they never give,” he mused.

Marcel Mauss' idea that “The Gift” serves as the basis for social cohesion popped into my mind, and I eagerly described it to him. What to make of a place where, in my interlocutor's assessment, gifts were limited to within immediate families? He shook his head at the challenge of it. and then returned to Mauss to ask for clarification so he could carefully note the basics of French sociologist's theories. Did I perhaps have a French pamphlet on social cohesion that I could share with him, he wondered?

We sat quietly for a moment and then he asked, with some urgency, “Based on the research you have done all over AR, do you think it would be possible for us to totally change, to reverse all these problems of corruption and lack of trust?”

“Like a revolution?”


And now an old line of Max Gluckman's clamored in my head: “Africans are rebels, never revolutionaries.” To be fair, I'd argue that no one is really a revolutionary, in the sense that new orders never fully wipe out the influences of their predecessors. The blank slate does not exist and history always remains with us in surprising ways. But Gluckman's point, that in African societies conflict, in the form of rituals of rebellion, serves to reproduce the social order, is painfully borne out in Kaga Bandoro, the eastern outpost of APRD territory.

The APRD is one of the first rebel groups to emerge following President Bozize's successful coup in 2003. Its members await integration into the state through the recently-begun DDR program. They fight with the government over the right to man lucrative roadblocks. (I came across a letter written by an APRD officer to the local authorities in which the author even went so far as to eschew the niceties of usually formal written French to blast the government for hassling travelers and subjecting them to searches on a contested barrier.) Like so many in the government, the rebels see politics as a money-generating scheme. They have no interest in changing the system – they want only privileged access to it. Gluckman's rebels, in the flesh.

But this analysis, I sensed, would leave my friend bereft (though he may have agreed). I wended my way through a meandering answer, saying that I thought revolution unlikely, but that change – and even major upheaval of mores, could happen. And I hoped he was not as unsatisfied with this response as I was.


Apologies for the lack of posts of late. Travel together with computer problems have conspired to constrain my posting.

A few posts, written over the past weeks, follow, and from now on I'll try to keep more up to date.