Burning Questions

“Why couldn’t a Batswana author or scholar, someone already in Botswana, have written this kind of book?”

A student in my course, “Feminist Perspectives on Global Capitalism,” posed this question on the daily discussion forum in response to Julie Livingston’s Self-Devouring Growth. This was at my former institution. The classes taught by my colleagues and me in feminist studies offered a respite (or at least tried to) from the everyday intertwined oppressions of heteronormativity, misogyny, and white supremacy. The city in which this university is located is about 61% white, 28% Black, but the university is nearly 80% white. Football dominates along with Greek life.

This question came from my most inquisitive student in the room, who was a white anti-racist activist and anarchist. This student seemed to live by the bumper sticker motto of “question authority” and would do so by regularly asking prickly questions that would coax otherwise quiet students into new lines of inquiry. One such question was the question of whether or not Julie Livingston was fatphobic, when she writes about the “fattening of cattle and the fattening of humans occurring in tandem” as a way to link the emergence of the beef industry to the emergence of metabolic human illnesses like hypertension and diabetes (56). Because Livingston begins that list of illness with obesity, the students felt that they had enough evidence to show that she was being fatphobic (35). I had to ask them if their takeaway invalidates Livingston’s point that hunger and malnutrition have been replaced with modern metabolic illnesses that are linked to changed consumption practices under global capitalism. I think they begrudgingly accepted that it didn’t.

The particular question about why it’s not possible for a Batswana author to have written Self-Devouring Growth was more about Julie Livingston’s positionality as a white scholar based in the US and working in Africa. At first, this question struck me as essentialist and ethnonationalist, as if truths are only accessible from native anthropologists or that one can only speak as a representative of a community from which one belongs. At its heart, the question reveals a real tension about race and scholarship. Why is it that Africanist anthropology is dominated by white anthropologists?

The students in my class were not anthropologists in the making and they did not care about anthropology for Anthropology’s sake. These students had a range of other commitments. For many of them, they are there because they want to seriously transform society and the world, even as their points of reference were almost always Ohio. Many had never been outside the state and most have never travelled internationally. They knew little about the world outside of the US.

My class sought to give them connections to understand how global capitalism works on both a global and intersubjective scale. Self-Devouring Growth was a superb demonstration of those connections and Livingston did so by showing the depth and breadth of radical transformations that bind Botswana to the world through industrialization and alienation. Water has transformed from an “animated ecology” gifted by ancestors through rainmaking to an alienated resource managed through hydrology (33). Cattle that were simultaneously familial relations, modes of wealth, and individuals with unique qualities, whose slaughter would meaningfully link sons and daughters to uncles and friends, become disaggregated, de-individualized packages shipped around the world: boneless beef to the European Union, organs for South African pet food, hair to Germany, horns to Japan, gall to France, and gallstones to Hong Kong. Roads that bear the aspiration for nation-building and development transform into ever-hungry deathtraps for people, cattle, and the ecologies that are exploited for sand and gravel that serve as the base layer for roads and all other construction projects.

I wanted my students to focus on these lessons that Livingston’s parable delivers, but I also felt called upon to take the student’s inquiry seriously. As with all of my lectures, I focus on a set of questions to engage and had this particular question lead their engagement with the text. I reminded them what they knew so far about Botswana: it’s a middle income country that has state-provided health care, industries in mining, agriculture, and high-end safari tourism, and a human population of about two and a quarter million people. I then asked them to guess how many universities it had.

The answer is 6 and most offer degrees in only technical fields. The point I wanted to make with them was about capacity-building. The ability to freely decide your major, take elective classes outside of your field, and in subjects like history, anthropology, and feminist studies are all privileges specific to the US-based model of liberal arts higher education (and in the case of feminist studies, a privilege fought for by student activists who rightfully convinced state university administrators that state schools have a civic duty to teach about marginalized people and experiences).

Only Julie Livingston could write this book because of the sources, sensibilities, and experiences from which she draws. These include an afternoon in the 1990s when she transported a wheelchair user into the city of Gaborone to file a claim with the government’s Motor Vehicular Accident Fund and had to leave that friend in the flatbed of her truck while she and their mutual friend ran documents across multiple stories of a government building without an elevator; rainmaking described in Isaac Schapera’s ethnography published in 1971 and based on research in 1931; and the global market of Japanese used cars once they no longer meet Japan’s strict fuel and safety standards.

A scholar based in Botswana didn’t write this book. It is not because of aptitudes or talents. Much of it is because of the institutionalized nature of inquiries. When the possibilities of advanced inquiry in higher education are limited to technical questions of how to assess the Gross National Income of given years or how to engineer food safety, there is little room to think of bigger picture questions afforded by ethnographic methods and social historian sensibilities.

Ultimately, that student’s point speaks to the bigger question of what kinds of questions are we able to think about and what kinds of questions are we able to pose. Julie Livingston leads us to think about the biggest burning question of our common era: What kind of future is possible when our ways of living are literally invested in our collective destruction?

 Juno Salazar Parreñas is Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies & Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Cornell University. Her book, Decolonizing Extinction (Duke UP 2018), received the Michelle Z. Rosaldo Prize from the Association for Feminist Anthropology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *