Anthropolandia, year one: A Review

A year has gone by since I posted the first entrance on Anthropolandia, so it is a good time to think about the experience of blogging. While I have been blogging before (the obligatory adolescent year-abroad-Blog, and as part of a blogging network by aspiring journalists and/or writing professionals), trying to write an academic blog meant a steep learning curve. First, academic blogging is so much slower. The amount of detail, the correct sources, the depth I aspire to – all contribute to a different understanding of “time-consuming”. While earlier, this meant the general amount I spent on blogging, today, this is the time that goes into just one good post. Second, and related to this, I think the transition between one and the other is not exactly smooth. Luckily, as an anthropologist, I belong to a species that has experimented with writing styles for quite some time and has developed an enormous tolerance in terms of what language is still considered scientific. In terms of my initial aim to lose fear of the white page, I think I have gotten closer to this, or at least I see Anthropolandia as the experimental space it was meant to be. But when thinking about experiments, I think I am only just starting. I think the new series Vignettes from the Field has an enormous potential for this, and I will try my best to contribute to the series from time to  time.

Statistics

Overall, I am happy with how things are going. There are almost zero days when no-one comes by to see what’s going on here, and I have vistors from almost allover the world! I would really like to have more discussions in the comment sections, especially on the pieces I explicitly ask for my readers opinion, but maybe many of you just aren’t the commenting type of people. The most frequented times change almost weekly, sometimes it’s Monday morning, sometimes Wednesday afternoon, so I assume this has a lot to do with when I publish. The most frequented categories for the first year are Genderella’s Stories, which I appreciate and will try to continue updated. But there seems to be a new trend in the Vignettes, as well, but as the series is young, it doesn’t yet make it to any important place in the yearly stats. In general, you people seem to prefer personal post to the short book reviews, which is understandable. I am sorry to all of you young visitors hoping for a comprehensive storyline-review for some of the novels I have been reading (I’m guessing homework, here?!), but I will not change my reviewing policies. I do the book reviews to remember the impressions a book left on me, for the content I have other systems to turn to.

The Reading List in Retrospect

I made it through 22 books, which is less than I had hoped for, so the first aim for 2017 is to make it to at least 24, that is, two per month. The difficulty clearly is to make it through the whole book, if it doesn’t start promising, or turns out not be useful, etc. Of those 22, five were purely scientific, which is clearly less than I had hoped for. To my defense, there is an unpublished blogpost on all the books I have started but never finished, which is about five times as long. My experience is that monographs are considerably more easy to finish than edited volumes, which is why one of the strategies for this year will be to read more ethnographic monographs. In terms of genre (apart from ethnographies), my taste for novels is obvious. Maybe this year there will be more graphic novels, poetry, or – if I feel adventurous – short stories. For sure, there will be more ethnographies, which I will  try to read as novels. We will see how that works. In terms of diversity, I think I have made an effort. I am somewhat unwilling to assign sexes and gendered identities to the authors I have read this year, since I don’t know how they identify, but I would go as far as to say that I could make more efforts in terms of queerness. Considering race, I could try harder for Latin America (especially considering my specialization in this area), and basically everything east of Germany until getting to the US. At least novel-wise, Latin America as a focus region is already planned for this year.

I clearly have a tendency for contemporary literature, and I don’t really plan to change that. I have a few classics waiting in my bookshelf, but also a serious “Classics” aversion, so I doubt I get very far with this one considering all the other plans I have. Language-wise, it is noticeable that I find reading in English so much more enjoying than anything else… From 22 books, only 5 are in my mothertongue, German, and only one in Spanish – which is a graphic novel, even. For 2017, I plan to continue the English trend, but try to read more Spanish, as well. As I said, there are already several works on the list, and I really hope they will nice to read, because I admit that until now, I haven’t found many Spanish-writing authors that convinced me. Notable exceptions: Roberto Bolaño, Alvaro Cepeda Samudio, and maybe Hector Abad Faciolince and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. No, not Borges, not García Márquez, not Vargas Llosa. And where are the women, by the way?

New Year, new Series, new Reading List

For 2017, I want to focus on science. Reading novels does count as science in two ways: First, reading good books is a way of developing a good writing style, and that is one of the professional aims for this year. Second, if I can focus on novels from and about the region/people I do research on, they might help me to “get into the mood”. But the plan is to read more monographs, on the region, on the people, on the topic,  on things completely unrelated, but monographs, to understand the mechanisms of the format, to gain insights into the topics at an in-depth level, and to be inspired.

Another important aspect will be writing. The new series on Vignettes will play a prominent role here, and maybe others will follow, because I might just as well practice at home. I am hoping to expand the Genderella series, even if I am afraight of finding new things to tell, because really every new chapter is yet another instance of a situation that could have been so much nicer, was the world a different place. To sum up, Anthropolandia is not going to change a lot, but I will try to paymore attention to what I had initially planned for this space: To be about (scientific) reading and writing.

“You for the taxes, we for food!”

December 30th, my husband and I are driving down Calle 100, until we have to stop at a traffic light. We’re following the rest of the family in the other car, we’re going to Villavicencio for the holidays. As we stop, a man approaches our car to clean the back windows, and my husbands asks me for some coins to give to him. It is a cloudy day, and the cleaning will not last for long, because we’re heading for a dirt road to see some more of Colombia’s spectacular landscape and avoid the heavy traffic on the fast road connecting both cities. The man finishes, and my husband hands him some 300 COP – about 10 cents. The man is very energetic, smiling all over his face as we hand him the money. He thanks us for the contribution and starts a small conversation about working during the holidays. “You for the taxes, we for the food” he says and we wish each other happy holidays and a happy new year as the traffic lights change from red to green. As we drive down the street, I think about what he just said: We, meaning people like my husband and I, who in his view gain sufficiently to pay taxes, and him and people like him, who can barely make a living from the few cents the “tax-paying” people pay him for his services. I liked him and his friendliness, and felt connected as we wished each other happy holidays, but as I continue to think about our brief encounter, the separation startles me. We in the car, he cleaning the windows outside; we supposedly paying the taxes, he not earning sufficiently to even think about it; he working, we on our way to our holiday getaway; and so on. Possibly the only thing we have in common is that after a few minutes, we will both have forgotten about this encounter at the traffic light. Because others will follow, for both of us.

22. Reading in the Field: Caminos condenados

Something like a Vignette about Reading.

I open the cellophane and get a first impression. The green and yellow landscape on the cover is withdrawn from the viewer by a fence. The pages on the inside are of a thick yellowish paper with black-and-white-drawings. A friend of mine is mentioned as part of the team of investigators that gave birth to some of the material in the comic. I get exited, thinking of her and how she loved being part of that team and made up her M.A. thesis from the very material. The comic is structured in three parts. The first works as a kind of introduction,  where a peasant from the palmoil region gives a kind of historic walking tour through the land. In the second part, the reader accompanies a young researcher on her day in the village, where she gets to know more of the day to day consequences of living close to the palmoil plantations. In the final part, we can observe a cartography workshop with some villagers, in which they speak about their aspirations for the future of the land.

While I ask myself how to ‘read’ a comic book – like, it’s clearly more than reading just the text – another thought crosses my mind as I marvel at a flashback scene. During a workshop to draw a map of the future, one of the participants takes as his vantage point the past, and how he used to live on a finca with his family members, enough room for everyone and land to work and grow plants for food, access to water and all that. When he realizes what he ‘had’, he becomes silent, and we see scenes of the house, a pair of army boots, the back of a person in camouflage with a gun around the shoulder, then the finca closed down, wooden boards crossing the windows, he and his family walking away.

The images now mix in my head with a memory of the Memory Studies Association’s inaugural conference. On the last panel of the second day, a discussion arose about whether memory studies scholars should or should not pair with memory activists. While on one side, people were campaigning for the idea of an indepent scholar who has her concepts clear and analyses the data from whatever field she’s working on, on the other side voices could be heard claiming the importance of an engagment with civil society, and of leaving the ivory tower to bring all those concepts to use on the ground. Someone was afraid to engage in designing a game about the holocaust, as for him this should clearly not be the context to negotiate holocaust memory. But such a game already exists in different forms, many of them probably designed by neo-Nazis with much less reserve. The question is not whether there should be a game about the holocaust or not, because such a thing already exists. The question is, rather, whether we as scholars are willing to leave the development of those games to those who might abuse the idea, or whether we should not rather be participating in efforts to make the knowledge we generate behind closed doors available to a broader public by exploring alternative media. This includes video games as well as comic books, and might go as far as handycraft workshops or dinner parties.

In our network MemoriAL, we’ve been discussing for quite some time how in Latin America the division cannot be drawn that clearly: Many of those working in Academia on topics of collective memory have been affected in one way or another by the dictatorships of the Southern Cone, are second generation survivors, or otherwise politically engaged in their countries. But to think that scholarship on collective memory is not an inherently political act is even more absurd when doing it in overly positivist terms as a way of “rescuing narratives” that otherwiese would be lost. If there is only the slightest claim for truth in such an effort, it clearly is an activist approach to the study of memory. Granted, theses thoughts are not only valid for the field of memory studies. Topics of land tenure, gendered working environments and politico-economically motivated violence bear strong political implications. In approaching these topics throught the medium of comic, I think caminos condenados has done a brave and valuable effort.

21. Reading: The Book of Memory

Memory is an albino women encarcerated for murder in a Zimbabwean prison. In Petina Gappah’s novel The Book of Memory (Faber & Faber, 2015), we read her letter/diary to a human rights advocate about how she came to live with the man for whose death she is now incarcerated. Many things about family ties and private lives are unspoken for well over three fourths of the book, until the puzzle takes shapes piece by piece. The entries span a period of several years, in which we also learn about life in the prison, the lives of the guards, the stories of other inmates, and of course, Memory’s life first in a Harare township, then at a wealthy district, and later also studying in Europe, until she comes back to Zimbabwe to reconnect with who has become her family.

It took quite a while to get me hooked, the many unspoken ties and secrets couldn’t evoke sufficient tension to read on for quite some time, and I was really only ready to say this was a good book during the last 25 pages. Until then, the story was ok, but never captivating, no real page-turning effect thus far. But then things started to fall into place, and even though – spoiler alert – we know Memory is innocent earlier on, the real drama about her having ended up in prision reveals itself only late in the story, but then ever more forcefully.

How did I come across the book?

It was recommended on one of those “The best new books by…”-lists, but I don’t really remember which one. Also, I read en essay of Petina Gappah in the New Yorker, and became interested in her prose work.

When and where did I read it?

I tried to finish it before going back to Bogotá to do fieldwork, but didn’t manage before the flight, and on the flight watched movies instead. So I only finished within the first days of fieldwork.

If I ever get out, I will throw birds of paradise from the top of the world. (p. 270)

New Series: Vignettes from the Field

Since I am back in Colombia to do fieldwork, and I’m terrible at keeping a diary, I decided to use this space for something it was originally also meant for: Instead of tiresome navel-gazing, I will from time to time upload small vignettes from the field in which I intent to describe incidences that somehow seem meaningful to me. I might be evaluating them at some later point, but for now, there’s more of a collectors attitude behind. I’ll start today with a trip in Transmilenio.

Friday afternoon, I try to find my way back from the city centre to the north. On the first ‘Transmi’, as people like to refer to the fast red busses traveling the major avenues, I am lucky enough to get a window seat, so I decide to stick to the line as long as I can. (Several stops would have suited me to change…) When it is finally time to get out, the bus is crammed with people and I have to watch my steps to find the few centimeters on the floor not occupied by other feet or bags. I manage to get out and wait at the exact same stop to get onto another bus, which doesn’t take long to arrive. I am lucky enough to get a space in the back, standing; the bus is not as packed as the last one. I stand there in the middle between two pairs of chairs in the last row of the bus, as the city outside fleets by. The streets are bustling, people doing christmas shopping on the sidewalks, lines and lines of cars trying to make their ways, many a colorful wall painted with graffiti from all kinds of styles, ocassional green spots, sometimes full of waste, several homeless men taking a nap in the grass or even on the paved sidewalks in the middle of the road. As I watch, I start thinking about the evening, when I am supposed to attend a novena by a very catholic family. (A novena is a tradition here where families meet before christmas to come together and pray. There’s also ususally food.) As a non-religious person, these events make me nervous, because of course I know no prayers, not in my mother-tongue, nor in any other language, and at the same time I’m afraid of being or behaving wrong, or being judged for my lack of knowledge of these customs. I’m getting tense, anticipating discussions about politics that inevitably happen at family gatherings, even though there is a famous Colombian saying that goes somehow like not talking religion or politics in the family – because these topics mean trouble. I am thinking about how many christians have voted ‘No’ on the recent peace deal, and prepare myself for arguments. What to say when someone mentions how the peace deal would have destroyed the traditional family, benefitting instead same-sex marriage and adoption (NOT part of the agreement at all)? How to respond when someone claims all guerrilleros get amnesties (wrong: there will be no amnesty for crimes against humanity, genocide, massacres, kidnapping,  extrajudicial executions, torture, forced diasappearance, rape and other forms of sexual violence, forced displacement and forced recruitment of children, among others)? How to respond to people saying the guerrilleros will get 2 million COP per month (also wrong: they get a one-time payment of 2 million (approx. 630€), and 90% of the minimum wage for two years (200€), and of course only if they don’t have other income)? As I anticipate these discussions I think again about what a happy christmas this might have become had the peace deal been approved in the first round. I feel anger rising within me. I still can’t seem to understand how the image of a different Colombia could be so appaling to some voters. The afternoon sun shines golden through the high-rise buildings when I arrive at my stop. I get off the bus and walk home, past a nativity scene set up at the entrance of our compound, where baby Jesus still hasn’t arrived. He’ll be born on 24th, only.

20. Reading: Nüchtern

This year has treated me well in terms of new books from Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre. And even through Nüchtern am Weltnichtrauchertag (KiWi 2016) is a mere 70 pages, it helps to shorten the time until the next book might be there, or at least it helps to get down from the amazing read that was Panikherz. The book is really just two essays, one about being the abstinent person in the room, the antithese to party, as he has it, and the other one is about all the cigarettes he smokes on World No Tobacco Day. There’s really not much to say about this, other than as an answer to people complaining on Amazon that it is expensive for a book of two essays, one of which is already published online. I see it more as a way of supporting authors I like to read, and people familiar with BvSB’s books will know that many of them are actually compilations of pieces he wrote for journals etc. So maybe just relax and go to a real bookstore where you can skim through the pages of the books you plan to by, and spare yourself some disappointing mail.

19. Reading: The Transmission of Affect

Teresa Brennan’s Transmission of Affect (Cornell University Press, 2004) has been bashed prominently as selectively appropriating neuroscientific research findings, but nevertheless remains a classic on many a reading list on affective transmission. There might be two reasons for this: first, her argument that the idea of boundaries (in relation to human bodies/personal identity) is a culturally specific idea, and second, her absorbing prose. Proposing bodily boundaries as a culturally specific, and therefore non-universal, conception might not sound like a radically new way of seeing things, but considering the time it took until affect and emotions became central research interests in disciplines other than psychoanalysis, it still is a much needed contribution to broadening the scope of what we consider possible and acceptable things of imagining affective transmission. Also, the argument opens up new possibilities in (anthropological) research because it focuses on the relations between peopleand their affects, rather than their interpretations of affects and emotions.

Characterized as “a soul of the nineteenth century” by colleagues, Brennan powerfully and poetically argues for connections between hormones and emotions and what influences both have on each other (because to her, the relation here is more likely of dialectical nature). Up until chapter 4 (The New Paradigm), the book is very rich, focusing on the transmission of affect in a clinical setting as well as in groups, to then elaborate her argument that the social environment is perfectly capable of influencing our biological “hardware” and how social interactions can shape it. From chapter five onwards, Brennan becomes a little more repetetive, but the lasts chapters are also the ones she was not able to revise by herself anymore. She died in an accident, leaving her former assitant and trusted researcher to finish the editing process, which apart from the repetitiveness turned out to be very convincing.

How did I come across the book?

Actually, I don’t remember that anymore.

When and where did I read it?

On a weekend, on the sofa. It is definitely a monograph where this is possible.