Books

On Thinking with People and their Escapes: A Review of Unfinished through Storytelling

Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming

João Biehl and Peter Locke, editors

Duke University Press, 2017. 400 pages.

 

If hierarchy is the key to sociological knowledge production, what might it mean to refuse the hierarchy of intelligences between those who know the world, those who can allegedly theorize the world, and those who have to survive the world, or those from whom knowledge is built? One of the decisive promises of João Biehl and Peter Locke’s new edited book, Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming, is precisely this commitment to a radical openness to “the fecundity of people’s own theorizing.”[1] Unfinished stands as a call for thinking with people and engaging the multiple, ambiguous, and contradictory ways people deal with questions of violence, economic exploitation, domination, and subordination. The anthology’s contributors include Laurence Ralph on how “madness” might be an activity of care in Eastwood Chicago; Angela Garcia on grassroots rehabilitation centers for drug users in Mexico City; Bridget Purcell on shifting configurations of politics and religion in southeast Turkey; Naisargi N. Dave on animal rights activism in India; Lilia M. Schwarcz on art and race in Brazil; Lucas Bessire on the “negative becoming” of post-contact Ayoreo in the Amazon; Elizabeth A. Davis on the forensics and memory politics of dealing with the past in Cyprus; and Adriana Petryna on the scientific and social uncertainties of climate change. The authors of Unfinished don’t set out to invent a new, totalizing theory, but instead insist on a fierce commitment to recognizing the complexity of people’s lives and their movements in the world, which, in turn, demands that theory, on the side of texts and life worlds, remains unfinished.

This move enables the authors to account for human-nonhuman interactions and emergent social, political, and affective realities while still contextualizing these realities in relation to structural and historical forces. Laurence Ralph writes in his chapter, “Becoming Aggrieved,” that Mrs. Lana—a mother whose son was shot in the head and who screams at all passersby not wearing protective hats or helmets—could certainly be viewed (by outsiders) and even diagnosed (by psychiatric practitioners or police officers) as “mad,” but she could also be understood from within her neighborhood as an ever-present voice of care reminding residents that gun violence could snatch a life at any moment. Human subjects are neither entirely determined by the structural forces of history, nation, and capital, nor fully understood by totalizing theories—personal and collective actions as well as modes of social mobilization have a key role in life stories and large-scale transformations. As Biehl and Locke write: “ethnographic subjects are, in a sense, both life experimenters and figures of surprise—not knowable ahead of time, unpredictable, and capable of shifting something in our own thinking.”[2] This refined humanism of an anthropology of becomings is itself built on ‘ethnographic sensoria’ that, again and again, challenge the crude determinisms of social theory and the totalizing analytical schemes of social sciences.

The political question at stake is not solely about immediate outcomes, progress or even hope, but instead, following French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, is about ‘a belief in the world’[3] – the complex empirical realities of social life and change that theory can obscure as much as illuminate. Taking on these realities in new ways, as Adriana Petryna puts it in her chapter “Horizoning,” requires a “constant reentry into a potential catastrophic present and a way to perform the difficult but necessary task of making the future less remote.”[4]

Biehl and Locke insist that this “way back into a worldliness”[5] entails ethnographic attunement to breaks, escapes, swerves, and new paths, as much as to the structural and historical determinants that seek to enclose. Yet, an anthropology of becomings insists there is more to the world/s than tracked determinants and outcomes: “Ethnographic fieldwork can make visible the ideologies, maneuverings, and fabulations of power in which life chances are foreclosed and can highlight the ways desires can break open if not alternative pathways, then at least the possibility of imagining things otherwise as one lives on.”[6] An anthropology of becomings, like jazz, knows intimately the time signatures and notes, the scales that might make up a familiar, at times a seemingly static composition, but tries anyway to follow the flows of human living, the leaks and the erasures, the displacements, all with the hope of perceiving or creating something new, a glimmer of an otherwise, a moment of escape. It is only through close engagement with people, lived tensions and textures of individual and collective experiments and shifting matrices of relations and human/nonhuman world-making projects, that we can cultivate these new forms of understanding and relating to worlds. It is in this spirit that, in the remainder of this essay, we would like to join the authors of Unfinished with our own storytelling “so that the reader can grow closer to people.”[7]

Adriana Verejão, Mapa de Lopo Homem II [Map of Lopo Homem II], 1992-2004. Oil on wood with suture thread. Photo by Jaime Acioli, Acervo Atelier Adriana Verejão.

On Escape

I (Onur) encountered Harun one day after his cousin Hasan died in a work accident at a construction site at the age of seventeen. Death in these work-related ‘accidents’ is an ordinary part of Kurdish migrant workers’ lives in Istanbul. No matter how common and normalized these accidents are (or murders, as activists call them), death for the living is generative of deep sorrow, hopelessness, and the endless search for an otherwise. “The darkness of the present moment,” Angela Garcia writes, reflecting on Ernst Bloch’s philosophy of hope, “is the very condition that might generate the possibility of moving beyond it. It is the site of hope and the precondition of becoming.”[8]

When I saw him, Harun had been beaten by his uncle for coming to the mourning house high. “He started smoking bonzai again,” explained one of Harun’s cousins. “He was high again. His eyes were red. He tried to come inside, but our uncle got really upset. He took Harun outside and beat him up. Then we sent him back home.” Bonzai is a very cheap drug, a synthetic cannabinoid akin to ‘spice’ in the United States. Although I knew that Harun used to experiment with drugs before joining an Islamic order (tarikat), I still found it surprising, since I had come to know him as one of the most pious young men in the Islamic order that he participates. The older disciples of the religious community used to present him as a successful example and a role-model penitent, one who saved himself from drug abuse after joining the religious order. However, the death of his cousin, and his embodied knowledge that this death could have been his own in the precarious labor market, ruptured the ordinary flow of Harun’s life.

The next day, I found him in the neighborhood. Harun did not talk about what happened at the mourning house. He looked very sad. “We postponed my wedding,” he reported cynically. “It will be more appropriate this way according to our religion.” It was as if someone else was talking through him. “Why did you start doing drugs again?” I asked.

He looked at me and his eyes already seemed far away: “I wanted to escape.”

In Kurdish Istanbul, substance abuse and addiction are everyday responses to loss of loved ones, ‘being stuck’ in the lowest segments of labor markets, and unbearable tensions of interpersonal and familial relations in the entangled histories of capitalism and colonialism; as well as forms of working-class resistance to (learning to) labor and fleeting escapes from the material difficulties of life (in addition to chemically induced pleasure). As Harun told me over and over again, Kurdish migrant workers take on the most difficult jobs and do the work that “nobody else is willing to do.”

Harun is in his early thirties, a Kurdish worker, whose family was forced to leave their village in the 1990s, as a result of the counterinsurgency strategies of the Turkish army. He is one of millions of Kurdish migrant workers in Istanbul and other western Turkish metropoles. Cycles of intense political violence and economic dispossession produce large waves of displaced people in the Kurdish region, and the analytical distinction between economic impoverishment and political repression is hard to maintain; they sustain each other. The physical intensity of the hard labor, political violence against the Kurds in their hometowns and cities, and the substantial decrease in the opportunities for upward mobility as a result of the restructuring of the Turkish economy lead to escapes from work and resistance to urban laboring practices. Kurdish migrant workers, like Harun, struggle to escape, to live an otherwise amidst the intersections of a violent history, a colonial present, and a capitalist economy that yields an ambiguous mix of desire and despair, hope and hopelessness, utility and futility, promise and perversions.[9]

In the political and moral landscape of Istanbul’s working-class neighborhoods, public and religious authorities consider these escapes, as well as their desires and political agencies, as disruptive to the moral and political order. Darker skinned migrant workers of the city have to be educated, suppressed, and controlled. In the Islamic orders that are crucial to the rise of political Islam (and Sunni-Turkish nationalism) in Turkey, the religious authorities call it “the moral education of desire/desiring self” (nefsin terbiyesi). Through ethical practices, cultivation of pious subjectivities and collectivities, Islamic orders control the dangerous classes of the city, discipline their labor power, and contain Kurdish dissent as a part of the Turkish nation-state’s project to control the urban Kurdish population.

The question is not that of ontological difference or radical alterity, nor do we talk about a pure ethical space that is located outside political economy or history. The formation of ethical subjectivities in Islamic orders is neither smooth nor devoid of political tensions: it entails unresolved contradictions and ambiguities in the intersections of ethics and politics. Their mechanisms of discipline and control are open to contestation, resistance, and escapes.

During my fieldwork in inner city Istanbul between 2013 and 2016 (which coincided with a fragile peace process between the Turkish state and the PKK and a violent resurgence of war in July 2015), I witnessed Harun escape from a number of different circumstances. Harun escaped from working eighteen hours almost every day, carrying loads by the ton, and exploitation in the workplace. He also escaped from the exploitative relations that are disguised under the name of kinship, community, or religious brotherhood. Yet the world of drugs was not his only way out. His community, religious brotherhood, family, and relatives alternately facilitated other openings for escape and yet applied different mechanisms of control on workers’ lives.

His escapes, Harun thought, were doomed to failure, as his situation did not improve over time. Yet these escapes let him “breathe,” if only for a moment. They were reminders of possibilities for an otherwise. His escapes and accompanying failures demonstrate the structural character of the inequalities in which his life is embedded as well as his struggle, agency, and desire to claim his own life. These escapes, failures, and ordinary becomings also changed his sense of personhood, politics, and his relations to family, kin, and others. Harun’s struggle invites us to imagine subjectivity in a new light, as he is looking for ways to endure, to constantly re-form social bonds, and to craft religious and political belongings amidst macro historical shifts and political transformations.

 

On Escape II; or, Another (White) Flight

Driving down country roads in rural Indiana late at night, one is struck by the openness of the landscape. As the crow flies, I (Heath) grew up only a few country miles from this road, but having lived on the East Coast for nearly a decade, it feels increasingly unfamiliar. My first ethnographic and archival research project took place 15 miles from here, in Huntington, Indiana, between 2008 and 2013. A small rural “sundown town”[10] that is 97.8% White. Tonight, in 2017, I am riding in a full-size pickup truck with two guys who work in a local shipping business. It is two degrees Fahrenheit without the wind chill.

I studied Whiteness and White racism in Huntington.[11] White racism received little attention in the 2000s until the so-imagined scandal that is the Trump administration realized itself within the psyches of East and West Coast liberals. During President Obama’s 2008 bid, NPR declared the United States as “post-racial,”[12] and shortly after the election, John McWhorter wrote an article arguing: “in answer to the question, ‘Is America past racism against black people,’ I say the answer is yes.”[13] During my first year of graduate studies, two professors told me I was misguided to study Whiteness, since everything was pretty much covered in the ‘90s.

What if White lives and small towns, however, are not as understandable as we might imagine? What if, instead, as Biehl and Locke write, they “bring us closer to the plasticity and virtuality, the transformations and dead ends, of our ethnographic subjects and their worlds”?[14] That is, what if White lives and rural towns may also be unfinished? Biehl and Locke write that an anthropology of becomings might need to “let go of some venerable assumptions about the human condition and about where we locate political action, instead asking what life-forms, collectives, and new kinds of politics are on the horizon, brewing within the leaking excesses of existing force fields and imaginaries.”[15]

We arrive at a house with no outside lights and hop down out of the truck, which is left running. Another pickup truck idles in the driveway. There is an enduring myth in these parts that with this kind of cold, it is better for the engine (and warmer when getting back in later) to leave the truck running. Inside the house, hunting and skiing equipment lines the walls, and there is a locked safe in the middle of the room the size of a horse. Three 30-something White men sit around the kitchen island laughing and telling stories. I meet them one-by-one and Timmy, whose house we are in, whose smile is wide, has just started cutting a cigar and emptying its contents into a trashcan. He carefully rolls grinded marijuana flowers into the hollowed-out cigar and licks it shut. A pro-Trump comment is made to my right. An uncomfortable silence falls on the room and quickly evaporates as the blunt is lit and passed. Perhaps it was only my own discomfort. The front door swings open bringing a swoosh of cold air.

Vick walks up and extends his hand. He is drunk on whiskey. Teetering over the island, he tears another cigar open and rolls a fresh blunt. The guy to my right says his goodbyes, shakes my hand, and exits. The air is thick. Comments about “terrorists” appear in the conversation and Vick paces the room, excited and agitated, mixing his political commentary with what seems like a well-rehearsed standup routine. Timmy and the rest of us remained mostly quiet as he expounds on the need to keep bombing in order to keep our own borders safe. And then he stops dead in his pacing and puts his head down, almost like he is frowning with his whole body. “But look, I get it,” he retorts to his own arguments, “they have been living in a country getting bombed by us for almost twenty years. I would fight back too. It’s a terrible situation and they really don’t have any other options. You know? I kind of feel bad when I think of it that way. But at the end of the day, fuck it, if they’re going to keep bombing us, we have to keep bombing them.” Another silence. Timmy pushes the conversation to the summer Bonnaroo lineup. I stand up and with a subtle nod to let my two companions know that it is time to leave.

Pausing in the middle of an anti-Islamic rant is not exactly escape. But sitting with White people in so-called flyover states, where someone like Trump, and the many Republican presidential candidates before him enjoy widespread electoral support, might reveal a more complicated entanglement of life and struggle than the previous 24 months of mass media and Democratic National Committee (DNC) rhetoric would lead us to believe. Are they simply “deplorables,”[16] as Hillary Clinton called them? Are they exclusively motivated by racial resentment? By nationalistic fervor? By a desire to return to 1950s America? By a love for unabashed masculinity? Perhaps yes and perhaps no, but is presidential voting a sufficient lens for understanding someone? Totalizing claims, even sociologically significant ones, become messy, complicated, and paradoxical when viewed within “the midst of social life,”[17] within the entanglements of a local world—one of anthropology’s long-standing epistemological commitments.

Onur highlights Harun’s attempts at and desire for escape within a seemingly intractable and exploitative ethno-economic and political system in Turkey. Might I suggest that Vick was attempting to escape ethno-economic and political systems of White supremacist masculinity, however entangled and minimal that escape? This, as I take it, is the point of ethnographic engagement, of Unfinished. Biehl and Locke write: “Becomings create holes in dominant theories and interventions and unleash a vital plurality: being in motion, ambiguous, and contradictory; not reducible to a single narrative; projected into the future; transformed by recognition; and thus the very fabric of alternative world making.”[18] Vick is not a heroic figure. But Vick might be more than a person in a “basket of deplorables,”[19] even if I think many of his beliefs of/in the world are both incorrect and deplorable. Those White people who live their lives in flyover towns located in flyover states might teach us that “Trump supporters” is an overly encompassing category that itself flies over the intricacies of people fighting to escape—in fits and starts, partially, incompletely, wrongly—the regimes of exploitation we all find ourselves in. Lives are complicated. Living is complicated. And it is misguided to think that the rurality of White flight in flyover Midwest is more racist than the urbanity of White flight in Park Slope or San Francisco. The insights gleaned from structural interpretations of White racism[20] have taught us that intent is mostly irrelevant. An ethnography of becoming has the potential to show the difficulty of escape, in this case the perpetuation of White racism, whether it is in the pause to consider the life experiences and possibilities of Muslim people being bombed by the United States, or in the family move to a “better” neighborhood with “better” schools. Onur reminds us that ethical subjectivities in Islamic orders are not as neat and tidy as many anthropologists might write them to be. So too flyover people in flyover towns in flyover states. Perhaps lives of White people also entail “unresolved contradictions and ambiguities in the intersections of ethics and politics. Mechanisms of discipline and control [that] are open to contestation, resistance, and escapes.” Indeed there is racism without racists.[21] Might there also be racists trying not to be racist? And might it be possible that the structures and systems of White supremacy embedded in the mechanics of US Empire, make each and every attempted escape of racist, masculinist life exceedingly difficult for people on all sides of the political spectrum? Could it be, following Angela Garcia’s idea of utopia, that what we can see here, in the hesitation, in the contemplation, is an aspiration, a desire for escape, a “critiquing of what is and…[a] hunger for a different future?”[22]

 

Coda

New Orleans trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, says jazz music is existence music. It doesn’t take you out of the world, it puts you in the world. It makes you deal with it. It’s not “thou must,” it’s “this is.” It’s “I did that but I also did this.”[23] Movements of escape, always fragile, always on the verge of breaking, crashing, fizzling out, becoming captured again, are most importantly not about imagining something other than the many worlds already bumping into each other on this planet. Becomings are about the grittiness of our lives and people’s lives, at times gut-wrenching flashes of hope and possibility, an almost otherwise, and at times no more pronounced than a sneeze, a hesitation amidst a tirade that might or might not be uncomfortable with its own totalizing theories of difference.

Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming promises to contribute to our understanding of this current moment of political and epistemological uncertainties, and will be of great interest to scholars, researchers, and writers from across the social and natural sciences and the humanities.

 

Onur Günay is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University Mahindra Humanities Center. His recent anthropological work has appeared in Dialectical Anthropology and Toplum ve Kuram(Theory and Society). His last documentary, Garod (Longing), co-directed with ethnomusicologist Burcu Yıldız, has been screened in international film and art festivals.

Heath Pearson is currently completing his dissertation, The Carceral Outside, as a Charlotte-Newcombe Fellow in the Anthropology and African American Studies departments at Princeton University. His scholarly work has appeared in Transforming Anthropology, Open Anthropology, Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics and is forthcoming in Anthropological Quarterly and Environment, Space, Place. His public work has appeared on NBC news online, and he co-wrote/directed the television episode, “Search & Seizure,” for Viceland.

 

Notes

[1] Unfinished, 48.

[2] Unfinished, 7.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations 1972-1990, 176.

[4] Unfinished, 264.

[5] Unfinished, 18.

[6] Unfinished, 17.

[7] Unfinished, 84.

[8] Unfinished, 114.

[9] Jean and John L. Comaroff. 1999. “Occult economies and the violence of abstraction: notes from the South African postcolony.” American Ethnologist. 283-284.

[10] Loewenn, James. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.

[11] Pearson, Heath. “The Prickly Skin of White Supremacy: Race in the ‘Real America.’”

[12] https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18489466

[13] https://www.forbes.com/2008/12/30/end-of-racism-oped-cx_jm_1230mcwhorter.html#3c83387949f8

[14] Unfinished, 7.

[15] Ibid, 9.

[16] http://time.com/4486502/hillary-clinton-basket-of-deplorables-transcript/

[17] Unfinished, 4.

[18] Unfinished, 32.

[19] http://time.com/4486502/hillary-clinton-basket-of-deplorables-transcript/

[20] Racism Without Racists; White Women, Race Matters; The Wages of Whiteness

[21] Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism Without Racists.

[22] Unfinished, 115.

[23] “Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns,” http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/jazz/home/.


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