Where Do We Go From Here?

To cite this article: Lucas Bessire (2021) Where Do We Go From Here?, Anthropology Now, 13:1, 1-10, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2021.1903473

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2021.1903473

 

Lucas Bessire

All efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are in vain.

— Hannah Arendt, 1951

Where do we go from here? A series of converging crises—from pandemics and authoritarianisms to racial violence and environmental disasters—have brought our disciplines and democracies to the brink of epochal shifts whose outcomes are anything but certain. As citizens, scholars and human beings, we are brought to reckon with the wreckage of the recent past, the unprecedented inequities of the present and the prospect of a future that has rarely seemed more unpredictable. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore how the proposed solutions to our planetary dilemmas too often seem to be part of the problem. Anthropological terms for critiquing injustice have been partly coopted by powerful, antagonistic interests; once taken-for-granted vocabularies of difference now collude with the growing inequalities that many anthropologists strive to ameliorate. How can we truly reckon with the problems with the present?1

This special issue began in November 2020. The journal’s editorial collective and I invited a group of leading anthropologists to write—over a compressed period of time—a set of short, informal, open-ended reflections on what they considered to be the major fault lines of power today: those laid bare by the recent past and those expected to shape the near future. We asked contributors to reflect on what we considered overlapping conundrums, including racialized injustice and naturalized inequities, authoritarian impulses and resurgent essentialisms, perversions of science and endorsed doublespeak, contagious toxicities and ecological calamities, predatory economies and elite blind spots, among other things. In doing so, our aim was to start a wider conversation about the connective tissues between these dynamics and our ways of understanding them. For me, it was also a test of sorts. I felt caught between a deep commitment to ethnography and a growing disillusionment with many aspects of the discipline. These dilemmas of shaken faith, eroded trust and failed explanations were not mine alone, but were pervading life for many in the United States and be- yond. I was curious to learn how some noted anthropologists would respond to the stark demands of a moment that felt pivotal. How might their insights help us better understand the present in order to build more inhabit- able futures?2

We did not anticipate the ways these very tensions would metastasize over the 12-week period between call and deadline. For those based in the United States, which this collection focuses on, it was a time bookended by fraudulently contested presidential elections on one edge and on the other by the trial and ultimate acquittal of Donald Trump for inciting a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol by a right-wing mob.3 During these weeks, the atmosphere was saturated with targeted violence, nativist disinformation and contagious pathologies, as the death toll from the viral pandemic spiraled to nearly 2.5 million lives lost worldwide and its symptoms or lockdowns continued to disorder the rhythms of everyday life, for some more than others. Over this same time span, the miraculous promise of vaccination surged into the consciousness of First World populations only to subside into deepening exhaustion, the politicization of collective health and widespread distrust around the inequities of distribution and access. Around the world, people mobilized to defend imperiled homelands and fundamental values from those groups deemed to be a threat. Digital divides became a matter of life and death. A silent epidemic of poverty and hunger raged as corporate profiteering drove stock markets to dizzying heights. Pervasive signs of environmental collapse, the deadly tolls of superstorms and the extinction of nearly 200 animal and plant species hardly registered as news at all. Many were left to contemplate a malaise that mocked the conceit of existing inoculations. It all made our initial question seem more blunt and more difficult: Where do we go from here?

The articles in this collection guide us into the wreckage. Taken together, they provide an incomplete diagnostic of contemporary social dilemmas. They make startling connections between the personal and the planetary, even as they offer insights into what makes this moment seem like a turning point of world historical significance that is far from finished. Written during lockdowns and quarantines that prevented travel, these articles reflect on what it means to be at home, who can feel safe there, in the name of what. Many of the authors turn classic anthropological techniques onto nearby social worlds, while others ask how anthropo- logical sensibilities are, or should be, made over by the present. In the process, they show that many common explanations are insufficient, coopted or in need of correction. This collection testifies to the continued relevance of ethnographic methods, thinking and writing, even as it never presumes that methods alone are enough or intrinsically on the right side. If the shared themes of the articles are significant, the tensions between them are just as revealing. The pieces push and pull against one another, in their styles, presumptions and commitments. The pattern of these juxtapositions, gaps and divides is the collection’s main insight, one that could be taken much further. The result is an ethnographic montage of a time in which democracies and disciplines are poised on the brink of shifts whose outcomes are anything but assured.

The first piece, by Amy Moran-Thomas, deftly establishes the collection’s central themes and problematics. She suggests how the sensorium of COVID’s neurological symptoms may offer an interpretive guide through the “delirium factory” that is the current United States. Here, there is no longer any chance of escaping exposure or maintaining the pretense of a clinical observer. Opting out is not an option. Moran-Thomas recounts her hypoxic journeys through insufficient venues of care in order to convey the mutually constitutive failures of medical expertise, historical amnesia, artificial intelligence and the democratic body-politic. The atmosphere of the present transforms understandings of it. As Moran-Thomas roams the dreamscapes of nervous systemic breakdown, visions are doubled, tenses are reversed, grammars are jumbled and linear causality is a fantasy. If delirium is a set of genres, they are increasingly politicized. Cognitive dissonance itself has become a new threshold of partisan belonging, siloed and redistributed as a proprietary frontier. The particular ways that things don’t make sense now mark one’s position in ostensibly opposed social and political formations.

Ethnographers are uniquely equipped to cross the divides between different perspectives. The collection asks what the ultimate aim of doing so might be and offers several possible answers. Susan Lepselter writes close to the situated standpoints of conspiracy theorists in the American West. For these socially marginalized people, asserting their capacity to “connect the dots” reclaims humanity from disenfranchisement and organizes collectives around the shared intensities that coalesce in the gaps between truth and suspicion, power and powerlessness. Yet any liberatory promises are rarely kept. Like the social “bruises” that Hannah Arendt invoked to explain how 1930s Nazi propaganda gained consistency and appeal, Lepselter notes how marginalized people’s anarchic distrust may paradoxically be coopted into the alternative facts and injurious disinformation of fascist authority. In analyzing this collusion, the risk is that outside commentators may mistakenly conflate what are actually divergent projects and then use “conspiracy theorist” as a proxy label for class-based differences. When this happens, liberal analysts fall into a conspiratorial trap of their own: mistaking such epistemic practices for a stable, maligned identity allows the privileged to blame the poor for their own marginality. Rather, Lepselter shows how conspiratorial thinking is best approached not as a fixed standpoint but as an emergent, diffuse kind of reckoning with a situation in which political forces, as Arendt put it, “look like sheer insanity.”4

When such alternate realities fuel militant white supremacy, what are the limits of empathy and relativism? Susan Harding and Emily Martin explore this question in relation to a new conjuncture of intolerance and prophecy at the core of what they call “Trump time.” Under its shadows, conservative proponents use a layered performance of confused logic to argue that a range of future possibilities should be exclusively reserved for partisan believers. Here, cognitive dissonance offers a way to decipher the meaning of certain episodes and piece them into larger parables of militant supremacy. At stake is reclaiming certain kinds of human dignity at the expense of others. To succeed, this op- positional humanism must deny the validity of secular, scientific reason and refuse the right of outsiders to coexist. For Harding, this means that “empathy and inclusion are out of the question.” Instead of legitimizing the cosmologies of hate, she suggests, anthropologists should bend our skills to dismantling conservative worldviews. For Martin, such a project might begin by carefully documenting the consequences of Trumpist belief systems and publicly contrasting them with the more expansive social possibilities afforded by inclusive understandings of personhood. Anthropological tool kits, in other words, can help us more actively confront the emergence of fascist tendencies.

If dismantling certain far right worldviews is the aim, the first problem is how to locate these within actual people’s lives. Ethnography shows it is not so easy to pinpoint who, exactly, should be blamed for Trumpism and its rippling effects. Like other kinds of onto- logical alterity, extremist cosmologies are never stable, totalizing or entirely incommensurable with ordinary common sense. They may be durable and ephemeral at once, appearing as inflexible logics, everyday ways of getting by or violent surges that dissipate just as quickly as they arise. Alongside the what of virulent beliefs, then, anthropologists also attend to the how, when, where, and by whom such perspectives are secured, enacted and attributed.

It has become commonplace for analysts to blame the rise of right-wing radicalism on the poor and their resentments. But David Bond shows how the popular category of the White Working Class—so often used by liberal pundits to personify and explain American extremism—perpetuates several elite blind spots about the lived dimensions of labor in postindustrial New England. The category falsely lumps all of the region’s workers into the same maligned social slot in ways that erase real differences and hinder potential solidarities. Bond’s most startling revelation is that it is not the actual working poor who have become radicalized, but rather the few relatively well-off constituents of the area’s shrinking middle class, including prosperous employees of a local plastics factory, who then appropriate the aesthetics, rhetoric and right-wing cred of American poverty as a way to air their racist grievances. These grievances are aimed at foreign threats but also against less prosperous neighbors nearby. Meanwhile, Bond describes how the real working poor, who mostly vote Democratic, are building diverse grassroots coalitions to protest the environmental injustices caused by the factory’s legacy of pollution. By taking these distinctions seriously, ethnography exposes a vertical topography of formations overlooked by liberal analyses in ways that could help rebuild progressive alliances with those on the front lines of struggles for substantive justice.

The most popular liberal explanations of far-right extremism in the United States re- main distanced and incomplete. Their shortcomings, however, accomplish important social work. Blaming the most marginal of people for societal malaise allows the privileged folks at the middle and top of socioeconomic hierarchies to avoid accountability for their collusions with authoritarian structures, logics and sentiments. When ethnographers follow people’s lived experiences, blanket generalizations or orthodoxies about race, class and gender are impossible to sustain. What often emerges, instead, are questions about the ways that conservative sensibilities and progressive hierarchies are two mutually constitutive and deeply related guises of a single dysfunctional system. Divergent ideologies of injustice often act as a fulcrum be- tween the two sides in ways that merit further attention.

Anxieties over environmental injustice may turn the working poor against conservative policies in New England, but the opposite occurs in the pastoral lands of southern Germany. Nitzan Shoshan shows how a resurgent far-right in Germany becomes more palatable through middle- and upper-class concerns about climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the consumption of local organic foods. Here, it is the sense of intimate attachments to threatened homelands— expressed in the German ideal of heimat

that ties liberal environmentalism to right- wing sensibilities. Shoshan finds far-right sympathies to be common among the small- scale organic farmers who supply healthy produce to elite urban residents and who seamlessly equate concerns over local nature with anti-immigrant, racist nationalism. Examples of “green chauvinism,” of course, are not restricted to Germany. Shoshan re- minds us that similar tendencies mark the consumerist environmentalism of many American progressives, too. The self-congratulatory moralism of elite comfort can only be sustained by disavowing its dependence on the exploitation, extraction and pollution of poorer people and hinterlands. Such insights show that more attention is needed to the specific “transfer points of power” that may connect progressive dispositions and extremist sensibilities.

The geography of American far-right politics never stops at national borders. Like the processes that sustain economic, racial and ecological injustices, these uneven flows of power are global. For Ieva Jusionyte, this means borders themselves pose urgent questions. Jusionyte draws from ongoing ethnography to chart the hidden but concentric circuits through which narcotics, money, people and guns are exchanged across the United States/Mexico borderlands. If the northward movement of drugs is widely perceived as a public threat, its spectacular visibility di- verts attention from the other flows on which it depends. Alongside the pull of consumer appetites and trafficked bodies, Jusionyte shows how this includes the southward push of massive quantities of American firearms, assault rifles and  ammunition—the  material infrastructure for a de facto war waged by cartels and police. Here, the rubble of American extremism is exported and radiates outward through a “violence exchange,” a modern and nightmarish inversion of the alternate economic systems (most famously, the Kula ring of the Trobriand archipelago) that classic anthropology used to critique the idea that capitalist forms of exchange are universal and natural. This dark side of capital is enabled by a porous border whose primary purpose, it seems, is not to stop the cycle but to secure profitable asymmetries between the two sides. Along this border, as elsewhere, the particular categories of difference that organize militarized or humanitarian interventions are shown to be at the very core of the problems they purport to solve.

Securing home for some may always amplify insecurity for others. Ethnography can illuminate the textures, distribution and feedback loops between these two effects. Melinda Hinkson draws from a unique kind of ethnographic accompaniment to show how rippling anxieties about public security in western Australia bleed into intensified forms of containment and the displacement of many Warlpiri people. Here, the formerly nourishing attachments to home, kin, ancestral lands—known collectively as Ngurra— have unraveled in the face of systemic injury and the loss of interpretive certainty. While the German far right mobilizes to defend Heimat, nationalist rallying in Australia seems to partly cause, rather than protest, assaults against Ngurra. The consequences manifest in what Hinkson calls “The Troubles”: an existential mode of dislocation that resonates far beyond Australia, wherever people struggle to restore profoundly disrupted relations of belonging, kinship and care. What kind of reemplacement, she wonders, could ever begin to undo such Troubles? In posing this question, Hinkson reminds us that the political, social and epistemic upheavals of the present are not entirely exceptional. They often refer back to and piggyback on wider legacies of dislocation, in ways that intensify a fracturing of mutual obligations already well underway. For Hinkson, anthropology can help locate alternate futures in the distinct relationships and concepts that once al- lowed life to be lived differently … and could do so again.

The pandemic shone a harsh spotlight on what happens when self-centered individualism supplants social ties and commitments to reciprocal care. One consequence is that the ghosts of the COVID dead, as Fenella Cannell observes, are not so easily laid to rest. Shades of unnecessary suffering, targeted neglect and unmet obligations return to haunt our homes, dreams and halls of power. While collective rituals are needed to help properly mourn the passing of so many, such rites are never that effective unless they are coupled with principled actions to rebuild eroded networks of support. Cannell describes a remarkable experiment in that direction, in which she and her colleagues in the United Kingdom deployed ethnographic  methods to enhance the delivery of government aid to those whose lives were most acutely impacted by the pandemic. Using anthropological approaches, they were able to expand the official categories that determined who received aid by showing how existing rubrics of family, labor and household unwittingly privileged certain normative modes of relation. Putting our dead to rest requires new spaces for ritual, structural reforms and self-consciously cultivating our ties to the living through more inclusive assertions of related- ness, forgiveness and accountability. Only then, perhaps, might our hopes for a post- lockdown future have a chance at coming true.

How to restore our capacities for healthy, caring relations remains an open question. Rebuilding empathy and trust often begins with a commitment to listening across social divides. Ethnographers know that this is always more difficult than it seems. Really listening to someone else also requires knowing how and when to listen to yourself. In the midst of pandemic lockdowns and high- volume news cycles, Angela Garcia sought solace by replaying the audio recordings she amassed during eight years of fieldwork at low-cost residential treatment centers for addiction in Mexico City. As the recorded noise became an allegory for the interrupted relations and perceptual uncertainties of the present, Garcia began to cultivate new ways of listening to a cacophony that could other- wise seem deafening. She discovered there are no clear or singular sounds, then or now. Instead, Garcia finds a telling parable in the playback of distortions, feedbacks and harmonics. Revisiting our past records and roles, she implies, may be a necessary part of accepting responsibility, crossing divides and moving toward more sensible futures. It is an important distinction. While some authors respond to the present by turning outward, others search for ways forward through in- ward facing “maintenance work” aimed at retooling perceptual registers away from the dubious momentum of profit. Instead of doing more, they suggest that we pause to re- vise our ways of working.

What if we stopped working altogether? Reflecting on the conjoined cruelties of industrial pig factories on the Plains, Alex Blanchette questions whether the best response to present problems is to work more . . . or to work much less. “The fact,” he notes, “is that a lot of things are simply going to have to end.” For exploited working people, quitting can be a principled and courageous act. Blanchette finds inspiration in widespread walkouts and shutdowns to think more seriously about how we might stand together to “annul lifeways that are not worthy of a future.” It is a radical and compelling response to agro-industrial extraction; one that opens ways for people who inhabit communities around meatpacking plants to invert the narratives of cost and benefit. Instead of asking how these bad jobs benefit any town or region, the real question is what debt these industries owe and how it can ever be repaid to local people and places. Of course, quit- ting a dead-end job or closing a factory is never the same as cessation. For all but the most privileged, stepping out of one livelihood means the redoubled pursuit of others. Most provocatively, Blanchette implies some aspect of this call can also be applied to anthropology and its search for alternative possibilities—the initial prompt for this col- lection. When extended to anthropology, the questions are pointed: How do academic hierarchies resemble those of industrial meat- packing? Who is the academic counterpart of the shareholder, the barn manager, the cut floor worker, the customer and the pig? Who makes the money, who wields the knife, who bleeds and who eats the meat? Who is ready to step out of our tenured positions and stand with those whose unemployment, as a figure of thought, raises the value of our own peculiar product?

A wider debate about the limits of anthropological work runs through and behind this collection. In the United States, the discipline is in the midst of fundamental shifts that of ten mirror national trends. Anthropology departments are being closed, cut, curtailed or suspended. Few jobs are available to recent PhDs, and most of them are filled by adjunct or renewable term scholars, themselves of- ten indebted, whose salaries are sometimes so low they must rely on welfare to make ends meet. Except for a handful of departments in elite institutions that are growing wealthier, the programs that remain are besieged on all sides. Right-wing conservatives argue that cultural anthropology takes liberal commitments to tolerance, equity and diversity too far, while some academics argue that we should let anthropology burn because it does not go far enough in dismantling biased liberal suppositions and its colonial inheritances. Taboos are discarded and reinstated. Concepts and canons are reformulated. As enrollments drop and jobs vanish, tensions grow between colleagues, faculty and graduate students agitating for change. Combined with the social and economic reorganizations of the pandemic, this adds up to a radical restructuring well underway.

What, if anything, from cultural anthropology should be kept, cultivated or expanded? Elizabeth Roberts offers a direct response. Drawing from the lessons of collaborative research on chemical exposure, water distribution and health disparities in Mexico City, she outlines how to reorient the discipline around broad coalitions aimed at addressing real-world problems. Roberts reminds us that collaboration is an empty word if it stands alone and even worse if it becomes a way to mask inequalities or entitlements. To realize its promise requires centering collaboration within training and clarifying the real difference for insight that emerges from the complexities of collaborative partnerships. Like others in this collection, Roberts underscores the possible public relevance of ethnography as a method, genre, relation and problem-solving technique. What makes this approach to knowledge production important, Roberts argues, is the slow unfolding of its understandings and commitments to human complexity. Ethnography’s central premise is that immersive fieldwork allows us to understand other points of view and situate them within wider processes, frames and contexts. Contrary to many approaches in  journalism, policy and social research, ethnography can take preexisting concepts and models as questions, rather than answers.

Likewise, Julie Livingston  underscores how collective efforts to address the complex problems of the present may begin with the recognition that “the devil is in the details of how they find purchase on the ground” and within people’s lives. Ethnography, if combined with critical ethics and political commitments, can help focus on the granular details of people’s capacities, constraints and lived experience in order to co-create more effective solutions from embedded perspectives. Livingston suggests this recognition could be taken one step further. At the root of many present problems, she argues, is the tendency to falsely equate collective well- being with the pursuit of individual profit. Instead, she suggests that thinking more seriously about what is or should be held in common—from    dwindling     resources   to biomedical knowledge and planetary problems—can help inform and orient our efforts toward change. Revisiting the Commons at a time of profound division is a vital opening and prompt. It begs the questions: Do calls for commonality, universalism and alliance offer one of the best responses to urgent dilemmas, or do they unwittingly reproduce the profitable inequities we seek to contest? What does a non-normative, inclusive version of a Commons look like, and what social problems could it address? How far does commonality or collectivity have to extend in order to make a real move toward justice? To confront planetary and species-level problems, a revised kind of critical human- ism may be needed. Ethnography often locates the basis for critical humanism in the ways that people almost always exceed the social identities they are assigned. Norma Mendoza-Denton reflects on the different understandings of masculinity attributed to “millennial” and “boomer” American men. To do so, she surveys how the category of “millennial masculinity” was conveyed and constructed through the online language practices of participants in the subreddit WallStreetBets, who were  instrumental in a grassroots effort to artificially drive up the value of the stock of a company called GameStop in order to cause prominent hedge funds to lose large amounts of money. Mendoza-Denton finds in this event a revealing glimpse of “the grief experienced by millennials and why they find it now necessary to use GameStop stock as a place to carry their anger.” This raises an important question about how the narratives and categories of generational masculinity relate to the diverse lived experiences of it. To paraphrase Adrienne Rich, critical ethnography seeks to understand the wreck as well as the story of the wreck.5

This kind of grounded ethnography, as Laurence Ralph shows, may provide an important edge for politics and justice today. Ralph argues that an ethnographic practice grounded in careful alliances with those on the front lines of real social issues can help subvert the naturalized typologies by which certain groups of people come to be treated as less than human, illegitimate, dangerous or otherwise targeted for violent eradication. One impediment to achieving this goal is that the discipline’s bureaucratic forms and careerist milestones are at odds with these principled commitments. Too frequently, Ralph asserts, the most radically humanizing, antiracist and antiessentialist insights of anthropology are stifled by institutional hierarchies, punitive training, esoteric genres and unexamined privileges in ways that may reproduce the same injuries many scholars claim to protest. To reconcile these contradictory tendencies, Ralph calls for rebuilding anthropological practice around core commitments to community partnerships, empathetic teaching and attention to humanities that exceed categories of them. Such ethical groundedness, in turn, is one pathway by which present conditions can transform the practice and sharing of anthropology. Ralph discusses how the changing intensities of current social fields should inspire scholars to experiment and develop new anthropo- logical genres around them. Drawing from his pioneering body of work on racialized police violence, Ralph describes the unique potentials he finds within literary nonfiction, fictional writing, graphic novels and animated film to build wider coalitions around ethnographic insight and social justice.

Many of the authors concur that our sprawling ecological crises do not require less of this kind of critical ethnography; they demand more. Adriana Petryna questions how wildfire management tools are hindered by a widespread conjuncture of scientific measurement and political doublespeak. “In the first,” she notes, “projection cannot keep up with changing baselines to meet reality where it is.” In the second, a kind of “perverse politics exploits the gap between expectation and reality.” Petryna does not stop at criticizing these contradictions and their paralyzing effects. Instead, she details how “horizoning work” may offer a concrete way forward in the face of the overwhelming fault lines that haunt the present. This is a mode of thinking that asserts the possibility for people to act despite and through the terms of forecasted disasters. Deeply informed by ethnographic insights, this requires self-conscious commitments to maintain responsive capacities. It means recalibrating and charting new courses toward the horizons of a future that is itself an increasingly mobile and shapeshifting target. Here, anthropology can help resist any narratives of inevitable demise. Through insisting on people and futures that remain open-ended and incomplete, Petryna shows how anthropological understandings can help reclaim more inhabitable configurations of the world from the rubble of our present.

Taken together, the articles in this collection grapple with problems that are more troubling and less exceptional than they might otherwise seem. Certainly, the conundrums laid bare by the recent past are not easily dispelled. It is not yet clear how they will be addressed or amplified by the systemic transformations already underway. This collection provides no quick fixes or resolutions. Instead, it collects efforts to think the present otherwise and opens them to further conversation. Refusing to accept doomsday forecasts, dehumanizing essentialisms or partisan abstractions, the essays collected here pull us back into the lived experiences of pandemics, climate change, far right extremism and racial regimes of truth. In those unsettled zones, there is still the possibility to rediscover how the momentum of destruction remains contingent, how existential excess can turn into creative social potentials and how the footings for radical solidarities might yet coalesce in times of systemic breakdown.

Notes

  1. Like the contributions to this special issue, all aspects of this article are informed by rich and varied bodies of scholarship in anthropology and critical social theory. It is beyond the scope and size of this introduction to explicitly cite all of these influences. Suffice it to say that interested readers should not mistake these for entirely original insights. Instead, they are encouraged to read the work of many other anthropologists who have written on the defining themes, topics and questions surveyed here. This collection was initially inspired by the writings of Gastón Gordillo on rubble. See Gastón Gordillo, Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
  2. This collection is in dialogue with several conversations about the rise of Trumpism published shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, especially the essays collected in Lucas Bessire and David Bond, eds., “The Rise of Trumpism,” Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology, January 18, 2017. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/the-rise-of-trumpism
  3. This collection does not aim to be comprehensive. Its primary focus on the political present of the United States, written mostly by scholars based in the United States, should not be mistaken for a chauvinistic assertion of an “America First” approach to scholarship, in which U.S. realities are falsely presumed to be somehow the best, most important or most powerful examples of trends that are profoundly transnational. Likewise, this collection does not imply that power, peoples and places elsewhere merit any less attention. In- deed, even this narrow set of reflections does not include discussion of many defining dilemmas in the United States. Hopefully what is included and what is omitted alike can figure in future conversations about configurations of power today.
  4. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian, 1951).
  5. Adrienne Rich, Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971–-1972 (New York: Norton, 2013).

 

Lucas Bessire is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains (Princeton University Press, 2021).

To cite this article: Lucas Bessire (2021) Where Do We Go From Here?, Anthropology Now, 13:1, 1-10, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2021.1903473

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2021.1903473

 

Lucas Bessire

All efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are in vain.

— Hannah Arendt, 1951

Where do we go from here? A series of converging crises—from pandemics and authoritarianisms to racial violence and environmental disasters—have brought our disciplines and democracies to the brink of epochal shifts whose outcomes are anything but certain. As citizens, scholars and human beings, we are brought to reckon with the wreckage of the recent past, the unprecedented inequities of the present and the prospect of a future that has rarely seemed more unpredictable. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore how the proposed solutions to our planetary dilemmas too often seem to be part of the problem. Anthropological terms for critiquing injustice have been partly coopted by powerful, antagonistic interests; once taken-for-granted vocabularies of difference now collude with the growing inequalities that many anthropologists strive to ameliorate. How can we truly reckon with the problems with the present?1

This special issue began in November 2020. The journal’s editorial collective and I invited a group of leading anthropologists to write—over a compressed period of time—a set of short, informal, open-ended reflections on what they considered to be the major fault lines of power today: those laid bare by the recent past and those expected to shape the near future. We asked contributors to reflect on what we considered overlapping conundrums, including racialized injustice and naturalized inequities, authoritarian impulses and resurgent essentialisms, perversions of science and endorsed doublespeak, contagious toxicities and ecological calamities, predatory economies and elite blind spots, among other things. In doing so, our aim was to start a wider conversation about the connective tissues between these dynamics and our ways of understanding them. For me, it was also a test of sorts. I felt caught between a deep commitment to ethnography and a growing disillusionment with many aspects of the discipline. These dilemmas of shaken faith, eroded trust and failed explanations were not mine alone, but were pervading life for many in the United States and be- yond. I was curious to learn how some noted anthropologists would respond to the stark demands of a moment that felt pivotal. How might their insights help us better understand the present in order to build more inhabit- able futures?2

We did not anticipate the ways these very tensions would metastasize over the 12-week period between call and deadline. For those based in the United States, which this collection focuses on, it was a time bookended by fraudulently contested presidential elections on one edge and on the other by the trial and ultimate acquittal of Donald Trump for inciting a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol by a right-wing mob.3 During these weeks, the atmosphere was saturated with targeted violence, nativist disinformation and contagious pathologies, as the death toll from the viral pandemic spiraled to nearly 2.5 million lives lost worldwide and its symptoms or lockdowns continued to disorder the rhythms of everyday life, for some more than others. Over this same time span, the miraculous promise of vaccination surged into the consciousness of First World populations only to subside into deepening exhaustion, the politicization of collective health and widespread distrust around the inequities of distribution and access. Around the world, people mobilized to defend imperiled homelands and fundamental values from those groups deemed to be a threat. Digital divides became a matter of life and death. A silent epidemic of poverty and hunger raged as corporate profiteering drove stock markets to dizzying heights. Pervasive signs of environmental collapse, the deadly tolls of superstorms and the extinction of nearly 200 animal and plant species hardly registered as news at all. Many were left to contemplate a malaise that mocked the conceit of existing inoculations. It all made our initial question seem more blunt and more difficult: Where do we go from here?

The articles in this collection guide us into the wreckage. Taken together, they provide an incomplete diagnostic of contemporary social dilemmas. They make startling connections between the personal and the planetary, even as they offer insights into what makes this moment seem like a turning point of world historical significance that is far from finished. Written during lockdowns and quarantines that prevented travel, these articles reflect on what it means to be at home, who can feel safe there, in the name of what. Many of the authors turn classic anthropological techniques onto nearby social worlds, while others ask how anthropo- logical sensibilities are, or should be, made over by the present. In the process, they show that many common explanations are insufficient, coopted or in need of correction. This collection testifies to the continued relevance of ethnographic methods, thinking and writing, even as it never presumes that methods alone are enough or intrinsically on the right side. If the shared themes of the articles are significant, the tensions between them are just as revealing. The pieces push and pull against one another, in their styles, presumptions and commitments. The pattern of these juxtapositions, gaps and divides is the collection’s main insight, one that could be taken much further. The result is an ethnographic montage of a time in which democracies and disciplines are poised on the brink of shifts whose outcomes are anything but assured.

The first piece, by Amy Moran-Thomas, deftly establishes the collection’s central themes and problematics. She suggests how the sensorium of COVID’s neurological symptoms may offer an interpretive guide through the “delirium factory” that is the current United States. Here, there is no longer any chance of escaping exposure or maintaining the pretense of a clinical observer. Opting out is not an option. Moran-Thomas recounts her hypoxic journeys through insufficient venues of care in order to convey the mutually constitutive failures of medical expertise, historical amnesia, artificial intelligence and the democratic body-politic. The atmosphere of the present transforms understandings of it. As Moran-Thomas roams the dreamscapes of nervous systemic breakdown, visions are doubled, tenses are reversed, grammars are jumbled and linear causality is a fantasy. If delirium is a set of genres, they are increasingly politicized. Cognitive dissonance itself has become a new threshold of partisan belonging, siloed and redistributed as a proprietary frontier. The particular ways that things don’t make sense now mark one’s position in ostensibly opposed social and political formations.

Ethnographers are uniquely equipped to cross the divides between different perspectives. The collection asks what the ultimate aim of doing so might be and offers several possible answers. Susan Lepselter writes close to the situated standpoints of conspiracy theorists in the American West. For these socially marginalized people, asserting their capacity to “connect the dots” reclaims humanity from disenfranchisement and organizes collectives around the shared intensities that coalesce in the gaps between truth and suspicion, power and powerlessness. Yet any liberatory promises are rarely kept. Like the social “bruises” that Hannah Arendt invoked to explain how 1930s Nazi propaganda gained consistency and appeal, Lepselter notes how marginalized people’s anarchic distrust may paradoxically be coopted into the alternative facts and injurious disinformation of fascist authority. In analyzing this collusion, the risk is that outside commentators may mistakenly conflate what are actually divergent projects and then use “conspiracy theorist” as a proxy label for class-based differences. When this happens, liberal analysts fall into a conspiratorial trap of their own: mistaking such epistemic practices for a stable, maligned identity allows the privileged to blame the poor for their own marginality. Rather, Lepselter shows how conspiratorial thinking is best approached not as a fixed standpoint but as an emergent, diffuse kind of reckoning with a situation in which political forces, as Arendt put it, “look like sheer insanity.”4

When such alternate realities fuel militant white supremacy, what are the limits of empathy and relativism? Susan Harding and Emily Martin explore this question in relation to a new conjuncture of intolerance and prophecy at the core of what they call “Trump time.” Under its shadows, conservative proponents use a layered performance of confused logic to argue that a range of future possibilities should be exclusively reserved for partisan believers. Here, cognitive dissonance offers a way to decipher the meaning of certain episodes and piece them into larger parables of militant supremacy. At stake is reclaiming certain kinds of human dignity at the expense of others. To succeed, this op- positional humanism must deny the validity of secular, scientific reason and refuse the right of outsiders to coexist. For Harding, this means that “empathy and inclusion are out of the question.” Instead of legitimizing the cosmologies of hate, she suggests, anthropologists should bend our skills to dismantling conservative worldviews. For Martin, such a project might begin by carefully documenting the consequences of Trumpist belief systems and publicly contrasting them with the more expansive social possibilities afforded by inclusive understandings of personhood. Anthropological tool kits, in other words, can help us more actively confront the emergence of fascist tendencies.

If dismantling certain far right worldviews is the aim, the first problem is how to locate these within actual people’s lives. Ethnography shows it is not so easy to pinpoint who, exactly, should be blamed for Trumpism and its rippling effects. Like other kinds of onto- logical alterity, extremist cosmologies are never stable, totalizing or entirely incommensurable with ordinary common sense. They may be durable and ephemeral at once, appearing as inflexible logics, everyday ways of getting by or violent surges that dissipate just as quickly as they arise. Alongside the what of virulent beliefs, then, anthropologists also attend to the how, when, where, and by whom such perspectives are secured, enacted and attributed.

It has become commonplace for analysts to blame the rise of right-wing radicalism on the poor and their resentments. But David Bond shows how the popular category of the White Working Class—so often used by liberal pundits to personify and explain American extremism—perpetuates several elite blind spots about the lived dimensions of labor in postindustrial New England. The category falsely lumps all of the region’s workers into the same maligned social slot in ways that erase real differences and hinder potential solidarities. Bond’s most startling revelation is that it is not the actual working poor who have become radicalized, but rather the few relatively well-off constituents of the area’s shrinking middle class, including prosperous employees of a local plastics factory, who then appropriate the aesthetics, rhetoric and right-wing cred of American poverty as a way to air their racist grievances. These grievances are aimed at foreign threats but also against less prosperous neighbors nearby. Meanwhile, Bond describes how the real working poor, who mostly vote Democratic, are building diverse grassroots coalitions to protest the environmental injustices caused by the factory’s legacy of pollution. By taking these distinctions seriously, ethnography exposes a vertical topography of formations overlooked by liberal analyses in ways that could help rebuild progressive alliances with those on the front lines of struggles for substantive justice.

The most popular liberal explanations of far-right extremism in the United States re- main distanced and incomplete. Their shortcomings, however, accomplish important social work. Blaming the most marginal of people for societal malaise allows the privileged folks at the middle and top of socioeconomic hierarchies to avoid accountability for their collusions with authoritarian structures, logics and sentiments. When ethnographers follow people’s lived experiences, blanket generalizations or orthodoxies about race, class and gender are impossible to sustain. What often emerges, instead, are questions about the ways that conservative sensibilities and progressive hierarchies are two mutually constitutive and deeply related guises of a single dysfunctional system. Divergent ideologies of injustice often act as a fulcrum be- tween the two sides in ways that merit further attention.

Anxieties over environmental injustice may turn the working poor against conservative policies in New England, but the opposite occurs in the pastoral lands of southern Germany. Nitzan Shoshan shows how a resurgent far-right in Germany becomes more palatable through middle- and upper-class concerns about climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the consumption of local organic foods. Here, it is the sense of intimate attachments to threatened homelands— expressed in the German ideal of heimat

that ties liberal environmentalism to right- wing sensibilities. Shoshan finds far-right sympathies to be common among the small- scale organic farmers who supply healthy produce to elite urban residents and who seamlessly equate concerns over local nature with anti-immigrant, racist nationalism. Examples of “green chauvinism,” of course, are not restricted to Germany. Shoshan re- minds us that similar tendencies mark the consumerist environmentalism of many American progressives, too. The self-congratulatory moralism of elite comfort can only be sustained by disavowing its dependence on the exploitation, extraction and pollution of poorer people and hinterlands. Such insights show that more attention is needed to the specific “transfer points of power” that may connect progressive dispositions and extremist sensibilities.

The geography of American far-right politics never stops at national borders. Like the processes that sustain economic, racial and ecological injustices, these uneven flows of power are global. For Ieva Jusionyte, this means borders themselves pose urgent questions. Jusionyte draws from ongoing ethnography to chart the hidden but concentric circuits through which narcotics, money, people and guns are exchanged across the United States/Mexico borderlands. If the northward movement of drugs is widely perceived as a public threat, its spectacular visibility di- verts attention from the other flows on which it depends. Alongside the pull of consumer appetites and trafficked bodies, Jusionyte shows how this includes the southward push of massive quantities of American firearms, assault rifles and  ammunition—the  material infrastructure for a de facto war waged by cartels and police. Here, the rubble of American extremism is exported and radiates outward through a “violence exchange,” a modern and nightmarish inversion of the alternate economic systems (most famously, the Kula ring of the Trobriand archipelago) that classic anthropology used to critique the idea that capitalist forms of exchange are universal and natural. This dark side of capital is enabled by a porous border whose primary purpose, it seems, is not to stop the cycle but to secure profitable asymmetries between the two sides. Along this border, as elsewhere, the particular categories of difference that organize militarized or humanitarian interventions are shown to be at the very core of the problems they purport to solve.

Securing home for some may always amplify insecurity for others. Ethnography can illuminate the textures, distribution and feedback loops between these two effects. Melinda Hinkson draws from a unique kind of ethnographic accompaniment to show how rippling anxieties about public security in western Australia bleed into intensified forms of containment and the displacement of many Warlpiri people. Here, the formerly nourishing attachments to home, kin, ancestral lands—known collectively as Ngurra— have unraveled in the face of systemic injury and the loss of interpretive certainty. While the German far right mobilizes to defend Heimat, nationalist rallying in Australia seems to partly cause, rather than protest, assaults against Ngurra. The consequences manifest in what Hinkson calls “The Troubles”: an existential mode of dislocation that resonates far beyond Australia, wherever people struggle to restore profoundly disrupted relations of belonging, kinship and care. What kind of reemplacement, she wonders, could ever begin to undo such Troubles? In posing this question, Hinkson reminds us that the political, social and epistemic upheavals of the present are not entirely exceptional. They often refer back to and piggyback on wider legacies of dislocation, in ways that intensify a fracturing of mutual obligations already well underway. For Hinkson, anthropology can help locate alternate futures in the distinct relationships and concepts that once al- lowed life to be lived differently … and could do so again.

The pandemic shone a harsh spotlight on what happens when self-centered individualism supplants social ties and commitments to reciprocal care. One consequence is that the ghosts of the COVID dead, as Fenella Cannell observes, are not so easily laid to rest. Shades of unnecessary suffering, targeted neglect and unmet obligations return to haunt our homes, dreams and halls of power. While collective rituals are needed to help properly mourn the passing of so many, such rites are never that effective unless they are coupled with principled actions to rebuild eroded networks of support. Cannell describes a remarkable experiment in that direction, in which she and her colleagues in the United Kingdom deployed ethnographic  methods to enhance the delivery of government aid to those whose lives were most acutely impacted by the pandemic. Using anthropological approaches, they were able to expand the official categories that determined who received aid by showing how existing rubrics of family, labor and household unwittingly privileged certain normative modes of relation. Putting our dead to rest requires new spaces for ritual, structural reforms and self-consciously cultivating our ties to the living through more inclusive assertions of related- ness, forgiveness and accountability. Only then, perhaps, might our hopes for a post- lockdown future have a chance at coming true.

How to restore our capacities for healthy, caring relations remains an open question. Rebuilding empathy and trust often begins with a commitment to listening across social divides. Ethnographers know that this is always more difficult than it seems. Really listening to someone else also requires knowing how and when to listen to yourself. In the midst of pandemic lockdowns and high- volume news cycles, Angela Garcia sought solace by replaying the audio recordings she amassed during eight years of fieldwork at low-cost residential treatment centers for addiction in Mexico City. As the recorded noise became an allegory for the interrupted relations and perceptual uncertainties of the present, Garcia began to cultivate new ways of listening to a cacophony that could other- wise seem deafening. She discovered there are no clear or singular sounds, then or now. Instead, Garcia finds a telling parable in the playback of distortions, feedbacks and harmonics. Revisiting our past records and roles, she implies, may be a necessary part of accepting responsibility, crossing divides and moving toward more sensible futures. It is an important distinction. While some authors respond to the present by turning outward, others search for ways forward through in- ward facing “maintenance work” aimed at retooling perceptual registers away from the dubious momentum of profit. Instead of doing more, they suggest that we pause to re- vise our ways of working.

What if we stopped working altogether? Reflecting on the conjoined cruelties of industrial pig factories on the Plains, Alex Blanchette questions whether the best response to present problems is to work more . . . or to work much less. “The fact,” he notes, “is that a lot of things are simply going to have to end.” For exploited working people, quitting can be a principled and courageous act. Blanchette finds inspiration in widespread walkouts and shutdowns to think more seriously about how we might stand together to “annul lifeways that are not worthy of a future.” It is a radical and compelling response to agro-industrial extraction; one that opens ways for people who inhabit communities around meatpacking plants to invert the narratives of cost and benefit. Instead of asking how these bad jobs benefit any town or region, the real question is what debt these industries owe and how it can ever be repaid to local people and places. Of course, quit- ting a dead-end job or closing a factory is never the same as cessation. For all but the most privileged, stepping out of one livelihood means the redoubled pursuit of others. Most provocatively, Blanchette implies some aspect of this call can also be applied to anthropology and its search for alternative possibilities—the initial prompt for this col- lection. When extended to anthropology, the questions are pointed: How do academic hierarchies resemble those of industrial meat- packing? Who is the academic counterpart of the shareholder, the barn manager, the cut floor worker, the customer and the pig? Who makes the money, who wields the knife, who bleeds and who eats the meat? Who is ready to step out of our tenured positions and stand with those whose unemployment, as a figure of thought, raises the value of our own peculiar product?

A wider debate about the limits of anthropological work runs through and behind this collection. In the United States, the discipline is in the midst of fundamental shifts that of ten mirror national trends. Anthropology departments are being closed, cut, curtailed or suspended. Few jobs are available to recent PhDs, and most of them are filled by adjunct or renewable term scholars, themselves of- ten indebted, whose salaries are sometimes so low they must rely on welfare to make ends meet. Except for a handful of departments in elite institutions that are growing wealthier, the programs that remain are besieged on all sides. Right-wing conservatives argue that cultural anthropology takes liberal commitments to tolerance, equity and diversity too far, while some academics argue that we should let anthropology burn because it does not go far enough in dismantling biased liberal suppositions and its colonial inheritances. Taboos are discarded and reinstated. Concepts and canons are reformulated. As enrollments drop and jobs vanish, tensions grow between colleagues, faculty and graduate students agitating for change. Combined with the social and economic reorganizations of the pandemic, this adds up to a radical restructuring well underway.

What, if anything, from cultural anthropology should be kept, cultivated or expanded? Elizabeth Roberts offers a direct response. Drawing from the lessons of collaborative research on chemical exposure, water distribution and health disparities in Mexico City, she outlines how to reorient the discipline around broad coalitions aimed at addressing real-world problems. Roberts reminds us that collaboration is an empty word if it stands alone and even worse if it becomes a way to mask inequalities or entitlements. To realize its promise requires centering collaboration within training and clarifying the real difference for insight that emerges from the complexities of collaborative partnerships. Like others in this collection, Roberts underscores the possible public relevance of ethnography as a method, genre, relation and problem-solving technique. What makes this approach to knowledge production important, Roberts argues, is the slow unfolding of its understandings and commitments to human complexity. Ethnography’s central premise is that immersive fieldwork allows us to understand other points of view and situate them within wider processes, frames and contexts. Contrary to many approaches in  journalism, policy and social research, ethnography can take preexisting concepts and models as questions, rather than answers.

Likewise, Julie Livingston  underscores how collective efforts to address the complex problems of the present may begin with the recognition that “the devil is in the details of how they find purchase on the ground” and within people’s lives. Ethnography, if combined with critical ethics and political commitments, can help focus on the granular details of people’s capacities, constraints and lived experience in order to co-create more effective solutions from embedded perspectives. Livingston suggests this recognition could be taken one step further. At the root of many present problems, she argues, is the tendency to falsely equate collective well- being with the pursuit of individual profit. Instead, she suggests that thinking more seriously about what is or should be held in common—from    dwindling     resources   to biomedical knowledge and planetary problems—can help inform and orient our efforts toward change. Revisiting the Commons at a time of profound division is a vital opening and prompt. It begs the questions: Do calls for commonality, universalism and alliance offer one of the best responses to urgent dilemmas, or do they unwittingly reproduce the profitable inequities we seek to contest? What does a non-normative, inclusive version of a Commons look like, and what social problems could it address? How far does commonality or collectivity have to extend in order to make a real move toward justice? To confront planetary and species-level problems, a revised kind of critical human- ism may be needed. Ethnography often locates the basis for critical humanism in the ways that people almost always exceed the social identities they are assigned. Norma Mendoza-Denton reflects on the different understandings of masculinity attributed to “millennial” and “boomer” American men. To do so, she surveys how the category of “millennial masculinity” was conveyed and constructed through the online language practices of participants in the subreddit WallStreetBets, who were  instrumental in a grassroots effort to artificially drive up the value of the stock of a company called GameStop in order to cause prominent hedge funds to lose large amounts of money. Mendoza-Denton finds in this event a revealing glimpse of “the grief experienced by millennials and why they find it now necessary to use GameStop stock as a place to carry their anger.” This raises an important question about how the narratives and categories of generational masculinity relate to the diverse lived experiences of it. To paraphrase Adrienne Rich, critical ethnography seeks to understand the wreck as well as the story of the wreck.5

This kind of grounded ethnography, as Laurence Ralph shows, may provide an important edge for politics and justice today. Ralph argues that an ethnographic practice grounded in careful alliances with those on the front lines of real social issues can help subvert the naturalized typologies by which certain groups of people come to be treated as less than human, illegitimate, dangerous or otherwise targeted for violent eradication. One impediment to achieving this goal is that the discipline’s bureaucratic forms and careerist milestones are at odds with these principled commitments. Too frequently, Ralph asserts, the most radically humanizing, antiracist and antiessentialist insights of anthropology are stifled by institutional hierarchies, punitive training, esoteric genres and unexamined privileges in ways that may reproduce the same injuries many scholars claim to protest. To reconcile these contradictory tendencies, Ralph calls for rebuilding anthropological practice around core commitments to community partnerships, empathetic teaching and attention to humanities that exceed categories of them. Such ethical groundedness, in turn, is one pathway by which present conditions can transform the practice and sharing of anthropology. Ralph discusses how the changing intensities of current social fields should inspire scholars to experiment and develop new anthropo- logical genres around them. Drawing from his pioneering body of work on racialized police violence, Ralph describes the unique potentials he finds within literary nonfiction, fictional writing, graphic novels and animated film to build wider coalitions around ethnographic insight and social justice.

Many of the authors concur that our sprawling ecological crises do not require less of this kind of critical ethnography; they demand more. Adriana Petryna questions how wildfire management tools are hindered by a widespread conjuncture of scientific measurement and political doublespeak. “In the first,” she notes, “projection cannot keep up with changing baselines to meet reality where it is.” In the second, a kind of “perverse politics exploits the gap between expectation and reality.” Petryna does not stop at criticizing these contradictions and their paralyzing effects. Instead, she details how “horizoning work” may offer a concrete way forward in the face of the overwhelming fault lines that haunt the present. This is a mode of thinking that asserts the possibility for people to act despite and through the terms of forecasted disasters. Deeply informed by ethnographic insights, this requires self-conscious commitments to maintain responsive capacities. It means recalibrating and charting new courses toward the horizons of a future that is itself an increasingly mobile and shapeshifting target. Here, anthropology can help resist any narratives of inevitable demise. Through insisting on people and futures that remain open-ended and incomplete, Petryna shows how anthropological understandings can help reclaim more inhabitable configurations of the world from the rubble of our present.

Taken together, the articles in this collection grapple with problems that are more troubling and less exceptional than they might otherwise seem. Certainly, the conundrums laid bare by the recent past are not easily dispelled. It is not yet clear how they will be addressed or amplified by the systemic transformations already underway. This collection provides no quick fixes or resolutions. Instead, it collects efforts to think the present otherwise and opens them to further conversation. Refusing to accept doomsday forecasts, dehumanizing essentialisms or partisan abstractions, the essays collected here pull us back into the lived experiences of pandemics, climate change, far right extremism and racial regimes of truth. In those unsettled zones, there is still the possibility to rediscover how the momentum of destruction remains contingent, how existential excess can turn into creative social potentials and how the footings for radical solidarities might yet coalesce in times of systemic breakdown.

Notes

  1. Like the contributions to this special issue, all aspects of this article are informed by rich and varied bodies of scholarship in anthropology and critical social theory. It is beyond the scope and size of this introduction to explicitly cite all of these influences. Suffice it to say that interested readers should not mistake these for entirely original insights. Instead, they are encouraged to read the work of many other anthropologists who have written on the defining themes, topics and questions surveyed here. This collection was initially inspired by the writings of Gastón Gordillo on rubble. See Gastón Gordillo, Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
  2. This collection is in dialogue with several conversations about the rise of Trumpism published shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, especially the essays collected in Lucas Bessire and David Bond, eds., “The Rise of Trumpism,” Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology, January 18, 2017. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/the-rise-of-trumpism
  3. This collection does not aim to be comprehensive. Its primary focus on the political present of the United States, written mostly by scholars based in the United States, should not be mistaken for a chauvinistic assertion of an “America First” approach to scholarship, in which U.S. realities are falsely presumed to be somehow the best, most important or most powerful examples of trends that are profoundly transnational. Likewise, this collection does not imply that power, peoples and places elsewhere merit any less attention. In- deed, even this narrow set of reflections does not include discussion of many defining dilemmas in the United States. Hopefully what is included and what is omitted alike can figure in future conversations about configurations of power today.
  4. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian, 1951).
  5. Adrienne Rich, Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971–-1972 (New York: Norton, 2013).

 

Lucas Bessire is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains (Princeton University Press, 2021).

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