Findings: Part 3 from Issue 3 of Anthropology Now

CUNY Graduate School Student Collective:

Akissi Britton, Risa Cromer, Chris Grove, Carwil James, Martha Lincoln, Michael Polson, Sophie Statzel, John Warner

This column, a new regular contribution to Anthropology Now, will highlight emerging anthropological research that has the potential to reshape contemporary social and political debates. A series of short reviews will be coauthored and edited each issue by a diverse student collective from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which has historically supported publicly engaged anthropology. The members of the collective would like to thank Katherine McCaffrey, Ida Susser, and the rest of the editorial board for this opportunity and their continued support.

In addition, the members express their appreciation to the “Discoveries” student collective of the sociological journal Contexts for generously advising on process and approach.

Defining Torture

Christina Schwenkel. 2009. “From John McCain to Abu Ghraib: Tortured Bodies and Historical Unaccountability of U.S. Empire.” American Anthropologist 111 (1): 30–42.

In April 2009, the Obama administration released a series of CIA-authored “torture memos” that established a program for the physical and psychological mistreatment of presumed Al-Qaeda operatives, employing means such as the “insult slap” and water-boarding. These documents sealed the case that detainee abuses were not mere aberrations by rogue soldiers, but were premeditated by the highest U.S. authorities. Preempting calls for criminal prosecution of the authors of the torture memos, President Obama declared that the United States faced “a time for reflection, not retribution,” and asserted, “nothing will be gained by…laying blame for the past.”

The president’s gesture is consistent with U.S. leaders’ longstanding refusal to express remorse following the exposure of U.S. war crimes. It also resonates with the nation’s precedent for applying torture toward strategic ends. The counterinsurgency tactics of today’s U.S.-led War on Terror were refined during the Vietnam War. Under the auspices of the Phoenix Project, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces tortured and killed tens of thousands of suspected Viet Cong (South Vietnamese National Liberation Front) combatants and civilian sympathizers and pioneered the use of psychological techniques like sensory deprivation. Somehow these war crimes have evaporated from U.S. national consciousness. A recent article by Chris tina Schwenkel explores wars of empire and the selective forgetting that follows them. Schwenkel explains how U.S. citizens came to embrace state-sponsored torture, while at the same time enshrining John McCain’s brutal treatment in the “Hanoi Hilton” as an enduring trauma. Schwenkel argues that the United States imagines Vietnam as a “land of terror”—a preoccupation that appears everywhere from “Rambo: First Blood” to McCain’s campaign speeches. Further, she demonstrates how these ideas are used as political ammunition against postwar Vietnam. Both in international diplomacy and global media, the Vietnamese were never allowed to forget the damages—real and imagined—that Americans suffered on their soil.

As the U.S. War on Terror becomes enshrined as an “American tragedy,” U.S. mourners fixate on national losses, honoring fallen combatants and grieving over the corrosion of national values in a foreign war that is reminiscent of the U.S. “quagmire” in Vietnam. But as Schwenkel argues, Americans must not commemorate and forgive themselves while forgetting their offenses against adversaries. “U.S. empire must ultimately recognize and be held accountable for the unreconciled historical wounds and legacies of suffering and trauma that it continues to reproduce and inflict on others”(39).

Martha Lincoln

Working on Waste

Kathleen Millar. 2008. “Making Trash into Treasure: Struggles for Autonomy on a Brazilian Garbage Dump.” Anthropology of Work Review 29 (2): 25–34.

In 2009, the International Labor Organization estimated that as many as 52 million people would lose their jobs in the formal economy due to the ongoing economic crises. What will happen to the millions of unemployed? Ask Zezinho, the current head of the Association of Catadores, or trash pickers, in Rio de Janeiro. The grandson of a union organizer, Zezinho’s chances for employment in the formal, or legally regulated, economic sector were devastated by recession, inflation, and government policies in the 1980s. These policies contributed to the creation of mass unemployment and undermined social services. Now Zezinho lives and works on a trash dump on the urban periphery of Rio. Collectors of redeemable recyclables in places such as Rio’s “Jardim das Floras” dump may tell us a lot about where and how 52 million newly unemployed people not only struggle to survive, but also how they organize new forms of social, cultural, and political life.

Kathleen Millar’s timely research on this trash dump illuminates how people create meaning and social relations in the most trying situations, as well as how these workers are integrally enmeshed in an economic system that formally excludes them. Millar navigates between the Scylla and Charybdis of catadores as passive victims of economic redundancy and simple happy souls reveling in their material poverty. In doing so, she unsettles basic notions of poverty and work. Despite the precariousness and daily dangers of their work, catadores build a sense of autonomy over their work, networks of support, a basis for political organization, and class consciousness. This is not how those within the informal “underclass,” outside formal wage relations, are generally understood.

Millar’s argument is not simply descriptive. In the ethnographic detail of how people create life out of trash, how struggles between catadores and recyclable purchasers develop, and how community and kin ties emerge that knit together social life on the dump, we begin to see where new forms of struggle, consciousness, and life emerge. Because these dumps become the sites of regeneration for the dispossessed, during times of economic crisis and further dispossession, studies such as this one underscore the holes and pressure points in our current economic system. In a world where 52 million workers will be thrust into unemployment, studies like this are crucial toward understanding not just bare survival, but also how new forms of organization, meaning, and consciousness arise from the waste of economic crisis.

Michael Polson

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