What is political anthropology for you? How do you understand both anthropology and politics (or the political): what is politics (or the political) and what does anthropology mean to you?
The relation between anthropology and the domain of the political is very important to me in the sense that it orients and organises my understanding of anthropological research. It informs my research and writing endeavours in several registers in fundamental ways. As I reflect on your opening questions, I find them to be charged with great interpellatory force. They come across as an invitation to put forward a manifesto, a field-defining programme. Here, I think I am better placed to try and articulate a field-defying proposition, rather than a field-defining one. I am therefore wondering how I can hold within the same frame the idea of a manifesto or a programme – for the discipline, for the political – whilst at the same time acknowledging the relation between dis-interpellatory practices and a desire for the political. I am inspired by José Esteban Muñoz’s (1999) reworking of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s insights into the counter- and cross-identificatory dynamics at play in social, political and sexual boundary-setting and associated “turf-war thinking” (Muñoz, 1999, p. 8). It may be a question of emphasis: a political anthropology can help convey the distinct accent or inflection of a desire for the political to ground anthropological endeavours, whilst simultaneously marking a hesitation and a space between anthropology and the political that problematise and call into question disciplinary domains and the (neo- and postcolonial) contexts of their constitution. Another way of opening up the issues at play here could be to consider whether political anthropologies, emerging at the intersections of lived experience and conceptuality (Strathern, 1991; 1999) as interplays of already pluralising, splintering and reassembling knowledge practices and situated experiences in precarious worlds (Posocco, 2020), might be a route towards questions of definition, not strictly or primarily as a matter of exact meaning and literal referentiality, but of definition as distinctness and vividness, a coming into focus and an opening up to cross-identification, subjects, objects and worlds.
I should state unambiguously that I am not at all invested in projects of inclusion into disciplinary canons or boundaries. I have always found thinking through and across domains of knowledge more stimulating and productive than the safety of established disciplinary histories. Neither am I particularly interested in upholding and policing the boundaries of disciplines or sub-fields. Relations of power manifest themselves through the delineation of the contours of areas and “segregated field formations” (Arondekar and Patel, 2016, p. 155), that is to say, borders and frontiers can be concrete manifestations of acts of disavowal of the politics that subtend knowledge formations. From this perspective, then, it seems appropriate to respond with restlessness and disquiet to intellectual or life projects grounded in problematic notions of belonging, when these turn out to be always in some way exclusionary. Conversely, it might be interesting to work towards imagining projects that may contribute to a political anthropology, or better still, to think about how one can shape political anthropologies with an eye to the “awkward relations” (Strathern, 1987) that exist between political praxis and anthropological worldmaking. I am therefore extremely excited by your proposition that we should work towards envisioning a plurilingual and de-centralised endeavour. It is an apt point of departure to work towards disrupting the tranquillity of disciplinary framings and/as power formations.
Does your research in political anthropology voluntarily relate to, or at the contrary, break with one or (m)any disciplinary traditions (as places for teaching, working and carrying out fieldwork)?
To develop some of the points raised above with regard to the question of definition, it seems important to tackle questions of heritage and disciplinary tradition by asking how exactly these might be framed and addressed, if we are to work towards an inherently plural and pluralising political anthropology. Heritage and tradition have to do with “normative arborial grammars of reproduction and descent” (Franklin, 2007, p. 28). Here it is useful to return to Sarah Franklin’s incisive work on queering genealogy. Whilst genealogy has the potential to disrupt linear and teleological figurations of reproduction and transmission (Foucault, 1971), Franklin astutely observes that genealogy – very much like gender and kinship – is an idiom for naturalising relations. Franklin offers Dolly the sheep as a figure for thinking through the contours of queer genealogy, thus unmooring assumptions about the stability of biological categories as much as sexual and reproductive orders (Franklin, 2007). Without exhausting the analogy too soon, Dolly is “an odd sort” (Franklin, 2007, p. 28) and cannot be fully or squarely encompassed in any assigned categories. As Franklin notes, Dolly is not even a “proper clone”, and yet she is used to shore up notions of “stock”, “kind”, “species”, etc. It seems very auspicious and urgent to keep these questions about genealogy in mind for an account of a political anthropology which can at once speak to the urgent questions that emerge in the present and carefully circumvent, and hopefully challenge, entrenched notions of “good breeding” and academic pedigree, the currency in use in academic systems steeped in postcolonial melancholia (Gilroy, 2004) such as the one in the United Kingdom, where I am based.
I should start by saying that I work on violence, conflict and genocide. These are key thematic strands which I have followed through a long-term commitment to ethnographic research in Guatemala, where I first worked with ex-combatants of Marxian guerrillas and their associates (Posocco, 2014), and subsequently, with communities directly affected by the Guatemalan conflict (1960-1996) in the country and in the diasporas that were engendered by long periods of political upheaval. My first experiences of fieldwork were, effectively, “fieldwork under fire” (Nordstrom and Robben, 1996), post-conflict. In the aftermath of the Peace Accords signed between the guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the Guatemalan government in 1996, individuals and communities with histories of militancy and direct involvement in the armed struggle were not confident that the Peace Accords would be respected and that the Peace Agreements would be implemented. They turned out to be right: the cessation of hostilities inaugurated a harsh post-Peace Accords re-entrenchment of structural and spectacular violence framed as increasingly distant from the ideological confrontations of the 20th century. Ideological distinctions were progressively couched in terms of obsolescence, as anachronistic remnants of the Cold War period, ushering in a new era of post-peace, seemingly post-political violence.
I can illustrate the emergence of this framing of violence as fundamentally post-political more concretely through a reference to the film directed by Ray Figueroa and Elías Jiménez Trachtenberg, Toque de Queda, or Curfew (2011). Toque de Queda is widely held to be the first film in the zombie genre made in Guatemala. In the film, a neighbourhood in Guatemala City is under a zombie siege and the undead are said to be infected with the violence virus. The widespread fear of zombies initially brings the local community together against the new common enemy, but it soon appears that individuals in the neighbourhood live atomised lives, and even family members are unaware of each other’s past. The neighbours set up a shambolic militia group to patrol the boundaries of the settlement, but in this partial sociality structured around individuals and their secrets, a violent response to violence – the film suggests – can only spread more violence virally. I found it to be of great interest that Toque de Queda should present the violence that characterises the present as structured around a viral mode of transmission. Violence is embodied – it physically marks those affected – and spreads through contagion. In this context, the frames that organised violent confrontations in the past, especially during the Guatemalan conflict (1960-1996), no longer make sense: this is post-ideological, post-political violence.
In this predicament, a political anthropology might ask: how can a sense of the politics of the post-political virality of violence be invoked or conjured up? According to Sampson (2012), the virality of violence speaks to a broad set of contemporary anxieties, in a global context where the global spreading of disease, corruption and insecurity through globalising networks cannot be adequately addressed by increasingly porous nation states. Sampson (2012) stresses the heady mix of abjection and dispossession of the contemporary condition, alongside the new opportunities that present themselves in the “age of contagion” (2012, p. 3). We can pause here and ask how the contours of the “age of contagion” have been reassembled yet again in Covid-19 times, given that the “age of contagion” is precisely a space for the staging of unprecedented “contagious relationalities”. In Toque de Queda, there are partial connectivities between the residents of the urban neighbourhood and the zombies from “the other side of the hill”. Such relationalities exist as potentiality, but are fundamentally disavowed, truncated and cast in the domain of impossibility. The police refuse to intervene due to lack of resources and other seemingly more pressing demands, but eventually show up. Repression follows and at dawn, after a night of open warfare, the neighbourhood looks like a war zone, with lifeless bodies strewn across the streets. The zombies are exterminated alongside most of the residents, and very few seem to have survived unharmed. The undead and the residents are slaughtered by state security forces and order is restored. In the early morning light, via the radio, the Chief of Police announces: “multiples asesinatos, posiblemente guerra de pandillas” – “multiple homicides, possibly gang warfare”. The cover-up is already in place: the official narrative will be that the carnage was the result of an ordinary clash between gangs. Zombies are the collateral damage and markers of abject disposability, alongside most of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who have also been killed in the newly secured urban space.
I have been thinking about this turn to “violence as contagion” – and the simultaneous re-entrenchment of state violence it seems to shore up. I have therefore returned to the literature on virality and social theory. Sampson’s analysis seems prescient here, as he argues that “virality is no metaphor. It is all about the forces of relational encounter in the social field” (Sampson, 2012, p. 4). Virality and contagion can therefore be invoked to shore up or disrupt presuppositions about coherent and bounded social wholes or individual subjects. In turn, different conceptualisation of sociality, community and personhood are presupposed, deployed, and made to matter for thinking contagion and virality. Virality can be oriented to uphold or disavow porosity, entanglement and relationality. I am interested in thinking through these questions in so far as they offer a glimpse into the residual politics attached to seemingly post-ideological and post-political cultural forms. In Toque de Queda, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood in Guatemala City and the zombies never find common cause, but virality and contagion engender a proximity that is fully realised when the inhabitants start turning into zombies, their bodies progressively acquiring the markings of the undead. This predicament, it seems to me, requires an attunement to a distinct sensorium of disavowed proximities, missed encounters, and modes of dead liveliness (Stewart, 2010, p. 34). Here, ethnographic attention and sensoria are oriented towards the post-political horizon and the succession of “quasi-events” (Povinelli, 2011) that unfold as potentiality. Quasi-events “neither happen nor not happen” (Povinelli, 2011, p. 13). Yet, they are concrete, and of political consequence. In turn, such socialities of contagion could be said to be underpinned by forms of what Tim Dean has called – with specific reference to the socialities of anti-homonormative barebacking – “unlimited intimacy” (2009) that exist in the domain of possibility across the contact zone around the perimeter fence of urban neighbourhoods and gated communities, at least up until the repression exerted by the security forces.
In Queer Necropolitics (2014), with Jin Haritaworn and Adi Kuntsman, we have argued, that the analytics of queer necropolitics seek to connect to, and make sense of, the complex intertwining of life and death which is spectacularly and mundanely manifested in the co-presence and proximity between the wealthy and the dispossessed, those deemed to have unfettered access to material resources and rights, and those deemed redundant, criminal or morally corrupt. Necropolitics, for Mbembe (2003), foregrounds the centrality of death, terror formations and death-worlds in the organisation of social and political life within the horizon of colonial orders and the broader condition of (post)coloniality. Mbembe’s (2003, p. 39) formulation of necropolitics as to grapple with “contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death” and as inherently concerned with race and sexuality in the postcolony (2001) was key to the development of this argument. Queer necropolitics, then, re-focused attention on the disavowed proximities between subjects and populations singled out for their suitability for inclusion into the body politic and the political community through the extension of rights, entitlements and forms of visibility, and queerly abject populations confined to “death worlds” (Haritaworn et al., 2014, p. 36; Puar, 2007). Queer necropolitical analysis is concerned with thinking through the co-presence of admittance and disposability in their racialising dimensions and as articulated through sexuality, race and gender, and as most apparent in the consolidation of homonormative projects of inclusion vis-à-vis ongoing structural and spectacular assaults against queerly abject populations consigned to the status of “collateral damage”.
Toque de Queda centres on the violence that engulfs “la colonia” – this urban neighbourhood – and evokes multiple colonial topographies of capture and enclosure, thus conjuring interrelation between violence and coloniality in the present. However, the film disavows the queer proximities and viral politics of the necropolitical socialities and intimacies that play out at the edge of an urban settlement. I have found it very fruitful to recast these viral and necropolitical fleeting encounters and intimacies through a reading of Moten and Harney’s undercommons (2013). In their reflections on theories and praxes of the undercommons, Moten and Harney drew on the black radical tradition to explore the potential inherent in concepts such as “study”, “debt”, “surround”, “planning”, “logistics” and “the shipped” for drawing fugitive paths and lines of flight against the current (post-)political horizon. The undercommons are ways of thinking, doing and relating that coalesce in and through modes of self-organisation and spontaneous assembly. Moten and Harney note that “in war without end, war without battles, only the ability to keep fighting, only logistics matter” (2013, p. 88). However, the making of logistical populations through logics of containerisation, “cannot contain what it had relegated to the hold” (2013, p. 92). This movement of “nothing”, that is, of the shipped who are at once commodity, nothing, and sheer flesh marks the articulation of a sociality, relationality and “hapticality of the hold” (ibid, p. 97-99). Whilst I think it can be problematic to appeal to “the shipped” as a generalised and generalisable category or constituency, thus erasing the specificities of “the hold”, as in the hold of the ship in the context of transatlantic slavery and specific histories of colonialism and genocide (Hartman, 1997; Sharpe, 2016), a political anthropology may contribute towards offering accounts of how “nothing” gets to be differentially constituted in context, along situated political horizons and through knowledge practices, conceptual devices and epistemological presuppositions.
The image of “politics surrounded” foregrounded in Moten and Harney’s analysis (2013, p. 18) seems to me to also structure the narrative of the film Toque de Queda and the daily experience of the current post-political horizon. “Politics surrounded” – Moten and Harney argue - relies on “the hard materiality of the unreal [to] convince us that we are surrounded, […] that we must remain in the emergency, on a permanent footing, settled, determined, protecting nothing but an illusionary right to what we don’t have, which the settler takes for and as the commons” (2013, p. 18). Politics surrounded suggest the inevitability not only of the perimeter fence to keep the zombies at bay, but also of the violent curtailing of zombie relationality through extermination. Against the narrowing of the political imagination and sensorium, Moten and Harney invoke a politics of exposure to the anti-social energy which they call “radioactive” and that I, through Toque de Queda, suggest could also be envisioned as viral. The socialities of contagion and viralities of violence are ways to feel one’s way out of the settler’s figuring of “politics surrounded” and connect with the residual politics of the post-political condition and the undercommons. Such an emphasis on exposure complicates narratives of viral relationality that do not take account of how virality as a relation is always already socially mediated, as the racialised and racialising dimensions of the Covid-19 crisis make evident. These are some starting points to begin to question the contemporary necropolitics of “herd immunity” governance – an actual government policy under UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson – in Covid-19 times, when unlimited intimacy unfolds alongside and through a seemingly unlimited virality with a yet unknown prophylactic.
These are some suggestions as to how one can think through – and pierce through – the current post-political horizon, a way to show not only that “post-political world was never empirically accurate” (Postero and Elinoff, 2019, p. 3), but that this might be a good place to ground one’s contribution towards an anthropological articulation of a political imagination for a political anthropology.
III. Contexts and fields
How does the specific (political and disciplinary) context of your fieldwork shape your own approach of the political anthropology you are conducting?
I continue to work on situated experiences of violence, conflict and genocide and their afterlives, as they manifest themselves in transnational dynamics and offer an insight into the interrelatedness of vitality and death, living and dying, and the nexus between biopolitics and necropolitics. In the course of ethnographic research on transnational adoption circuits, I have become increasingly interested in how adoption, surrogacy and other bio/necropolitical practices make explicit the relations between structural violence and crisis, and global shifts in the organisation and governance of kinning and relatedness. I have documented forms of “genocide kinning” (Posocco, 2020) which re-inscribe the transnational movement, circulation and exchange of persons, substance and bodily capacities within the logics of multiple genealogies of war, violence, and extraction. It has been interesting to think about these dynamics as they have become visible across globalised borderlands, specifically those between Guatemala and Mexico. From the perspective of these borderlands, I have sought to makes sense of the simultaneity of the demise of transnational adoptions in Guatemala, on the one hand, and the exponential growth in surrogacy arrangements in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco. This has led me to ask how these might connect to the inception of the practice of oocyte harvesting for IVF in newly established reproductive medicine providers in Guatemala City.
I have therefore turned to examine the forms of expertise and the technical infrastructures that enable the collection, processing and storage of bodily substance across national borders and across domains of knowledge and practice. The “ethnographic effect” (Strathern, 1999) engendered by a focus on expert knowledge has conjured up and brought into focus the proximity between reproductive medicine and forensic science, notably forensic expertise in the collection, processing and storage of forensic bioinformation – notably DNA – in the aftermath of human rights violations. I have been reflecting on how DNA analysis used in forensic anthropology to document human rights violations and resolve cases of forced disappearance is also offered by the same forensic laboratories as commercial services to the expanding reproductive medicine sector. It seems to me that a new articulation of a biopolitical and necropolitical interface is at play here, in the context of broader global transformations in medical and forensic infrastructures. I am also interested in thinking through what configurations of biolabour can be said to emerge when extractive practices appear to increasingly tie together medicine – and reproductive medicine specifically – and forensics. It seems to me that biolabour – the embodied labour which is indispensable for the functioning not only of reproductive medicine but biomedicine more broadly, and which according to Cooper and Walby’s insightful analysis (2014) increasingly props up bioeconomies globally – here connects to the production and uneven distribution of liveliness and deadliness, privilege and dispossession, accumulation and alienation, as persons, bodily substance, and, increasingly, bioinformation cross contexts, jurisdictions and social and racial formations. In this sense, the context of my fieldwork continues to profoundly shape the anthropological research I am conducting.
I am very fortunate here in that whilst I am immersed in, and therefore think through, the specific political and disciplinary context of my fieldwork, I have been able to do so in conversation with colleagues – Marco Chivalán Carrillo and EJ Gonzalez-Polledo – who work on allied questions (Chivalán Carrillo, 2015; 2020; Gonzalez-Polledo, 2017) and with whom I have had the opportunity to set up and pursue very rewarding collaborations. These collaborations have centred on thinking together experimentations with a speculative mode of analysis which has mobilised technoscience, multispecies thinking and Indigenous epistemologies to develop a decolonial theorization of the multiple agential modalities at play in contemporary dynamics of expropriation, extraction and terror in Guatemala (Chivalán Carrillo and Posocco, 2020). They have explored entanglements of life, death and data in contemporary infrastructures, apparatuses and social practices tied to bioinformation aggregation, circulation and interpretation (Gonzalez-Polledo and Posocco, 2021, forthcoming). Plurilogues are perhaps modalities, inflections or methods for pursuing field-defying propositions and projects.
What do you think is the role of the political anthropologist both in the public and intellectual debate?
Which are the “solicitations of the present” (authoritarian regimes, repressions, revolts or revolutions, riots, social mobilizations and protests, etc.) that make political anthropology important for our contemporary societies? How does the present affect or disrupt research, methodologies, engagements, interpretations and theories?
How do you position yourself in relation to commitment and political transformations? Do you find it necessary or inevitable a dialogue with social movements? If so, why and what for?
When reflecting on anthropological research as commitment, the points of reference that have stayed with me over the years are Myrna Mack Chang and Ricardo Falla. I often think of their role as public figures and return to their writings, as well as to the research they have inspired. On 11th September 2020 was the 30th anniversary of Myrna Mack Chang’s death. A Guatemalan anthropologist who worked with Maya communities displaced by the conflict (Oglesby, 1996), Mack was murdered by government forces – military death squads – in Guatemala City in 1990. In the past, I attended vigils held by her family, friends and colleagues outside the offices of AVANCSO, the Association for the Advancement of the Social Sciences in Guatemala, in Zone 1 in Guatemala City. I have learned more about her work and life by reading accounts such as the one offered by José Flores (1999), the pseudonym for the author of many works of fiction about the experience of militancy during the Guatemala conflict, which are also exceptional ethnographies (Posocco, 2014). Ricardo Falla is the Guatemalan anthropologist and Jesuit priest who wrote Quiché Rebelde (1978) and Masacres de la Selva (1992). In these books, Falla provided, inter alia, powerful accounts of the massacres that took place in region of Ixcán in the early 1980s. Unlike Mack, Falla has had a long career and has been incredibly prolific. Falla’s early work directly informed calls for an “antropología comprometida” (Manz, 1996), that is to say a theoretical and methodological practice of social and cultural analysis that refuses the “luxury of indifference”. It seems important to return to Mack and Falla in the present conjuncture as they are anthropologists who responded to the “solicitations of their present” through scholarship that was at once methodologically innovative and committed to political transformation. Mack and Falla put the politics back into the emergency they found themselves in. As I return to their work, I am struck by how their research emerged out of the exigencies of a specific historical context and I want to think further about how the experience of “politics surrounded” and “fieldwork under fire” can orient one’s research towards an anthropology which reaffirms or re-inscribes the political into post-political horizons.
If political anthropologies are to tackle the urgent questions of the present, they ought to address the politics of the academy and the university as an institution, or set of institutions, also currently seemingly “surrounded” and “under siege”, as a matter of urgent public and intellectual debate. Against the spectre of a “pure anthropology” – a rhetorical artefact which is, remarkably, not only still in circulation but also energetically brandished in places – I can invoke again the counter-, cross- and dis-identificatory passions of field-defying scholarly work that is often a lifeline in the current landscape of ruination that Higher Education is in the United Kingdom (see Peano, 2020). The “awkward relation” (Strathern, 1987) between radical political praxis and anthropological world-making sustain scholarly work, which is often collaborative, open-ended and enduring. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to be in conversation with Suhraiya Jivraj and Sandeep Bakshi (Jivraj et al., 2020). Together, we have been running the Decolonizing Sexualities Network (DSN) for ten years, thinking collectively about research, methodologies, engagements, interpretations and theories. We have been recently joined by Paola Bacchetta and continue to work transnationally on a range of projects. The DSN has been an invaluable space for thinking through what it might mean to disrupt coloniality and what is made to appear as the current post-political horizon. These spaces of experimentation are key for the cultivation of knowledge practices and representational practices which might be attuned to the cross-identificatory passions through which subjects, objects and worlds come into focus.
I am grateful to Sandeep Bakshi, Marco Chivalán Carrillo, EJ Gonzalez-Polledo, and Suhraiya Jivraj and Paola Bacchetta for many intersecting conversations. The sentiments expressed here are my own.