Anthropology and Activism: from Radical Difference to Communities of Suffering.

By Nicolas Argenti

It was fashionable in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for anthropologists to title or subtitle their papers ‘A little known people’ of this or that region. (Evans-Pritchard is reported to have quipped that with so many people studying little known and even lesser known peoples, he should like to study a non-existent people). The rhetorical device of referring to exotic and impossibly remote social groups spoke to the self-image of the anthropologist as adventurer/explorer in search of radical cultural difference. In a recent article Joel Robbins adumbrates a turn that has taken place in the discipline – a fundamental shift away from the study of faraway peoples as examples of otherness first identified by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in 1991. Robbins goes on to suggest that the new focus of anthropology – long in coming to fill the gap left by the turn away from ‘the savage slot’, as Trouillot glibly referred to it – is now the suffering subject. From having been objects in the study of difference, other peoples have now become subjects similar to ‘us’ in a new empathetic embrace that seeks not to highlight human diversity or difference, but to establish communion in the universality of suffering. In embracing this new communion with other peoples, Robbins takes inspiration from Cathy Caruth’s seminal work on trauma. As a literary critic, Caruth has been instrumental in taking the notion of trauma from its clinical setting and introducing it into the realm of the humanities and the social sciences, simultaneously transforming its original use as a diagnosis of individual patients to a lament for the suffering of social groups across time and space.

But while Caruth and others have been instrumental in propagating the spread of trauma as a universalizing discourse in scholarly writing across the disciplines, it is Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman who have recently identified what has happened in the escape of this discourse from the laboratory or the analyst’s couch into the population at large. While Robbins refers to Fassin and Rechtman’s identification of the potential for trauma to encapsulate our common humanity, he does not refer to their more important critique of the analytical price one pays for empathy: Fassin and Rechtman emphasize above all the voraciousness of the trauma paradigm, which devours all difference as it spreads its tentacular grip across societies and – in its seductive vagueness – indiscriminately engulfs such disparate phenomena as slavery, the holocaust, the September 11th attacks, forced sterilization campaigns, the experience of a natural disaster or industrial accident, and discrimination. It is precisely in a critique of Cathy Caruth that Fassin and Rechtman argue that the methodology of trauma entails the abandonment of the search for other people’s experience and its substitution for our own (2009: 18-19). This outward projection of a Western concern in the name of empathy, which Fassin and Rechtman expose as the ‘empire of trauma’, threatens to trivialize the category in the very process of proselytizing its blessings.

My own work in two different settings has had the air of an uneasy pas de deux with the trauma paradigm. Conducting research on political hierarchy in the highland kingdoms of Cameroon in the 1990’s, I was simultaneously fascinated by the ineffable eeriness of the masked dances for which the region is famed, and perplexed by the unplumbed silence with which my questions regarding the violence of the past were always met. Was this a region in which history – of the transatlantic slave trade into which the region possibly fed more human beings than any other, and of forced colonial labor that produced more deaths than any industrialized war – had been forgotten? It was with both of these unresolved impressions – the uncanniness of the dances and the silence of the past – that, back in London writing a book a decade later (Argenti 2007), I suddenly came across a throwaway aside in a colonial diary that hit me with the force of a physical blow, revealing both questions to be facets of a single riddle. The author of the diary was Marie Pauline Thorbecke, wife of a German ethnographer exploring the region in the early twentieth century. She was recording her frustrations with the tedium of the caravan of forced laborers carrying their supplies (Argenti 2007: 102). In order to ensure that their starving porters did not escape into the bush, the Thorbecks, like the German traders in the region and the slave traders before them whom they now employed as their labor recruiters, kept armed guards at the front and back of the column, while another ran up and down the line of porters, whipping those who wandered out of the line. The image was a perfect description of the choreography of the palace mask groups of the Cameroon Grassfields; the leaders of which are called ‘captains’ to this day, and the meandering masks of which are mercilessly hunted down during the performance by a hooded figure with a cudgel who batters them back into the line.

Reading the diary, I suddenly realized that the memories of the slave coffle and the porters’ caravans were not spoken of because they had been embodied; they were not remembered because, with every new performance, they were repeated. Is not the recurring somatic enactment of an original experience the definition that Freud gave to trauma when he first afforded the term its psychic dimension? Is not the inability to articulate experiences so far outside of normal human experience that they are not cognized, not experienced, as they first happen at the core of the PTSD diagnosis? A society in which the people were doomed to repeat in lugubrious and mournful performance what they could not remember because it had ‘always already fallen outside of memory’ (Blanchot 1995 [1980], Langer 1993:39) seemed to be a society of trauma par excellence – or did it? The dancers inside the masks were not involuntarily repeating a physical or psychic blow that they had personally suffered; they were performing a dance that they had voluntarily learned, which they chose to perform in appropriate contexts, in which they took pride and pleasure, and by which they were not haunted beyond the arena of the dance space. In other words, the dance repeated the originary event, but as pleasure and as triumph where before there had been only pain. None of the masked dancers could be said to be suffering from a trauma – individual or collective – without stretching the original definition of the term beyond any relation to its original meaning.

Having recently transposed my research focus from Cameroon to Greece, I have been working on collective memory on the island of Chios. Here again, people’s descriptions – this time verbal – of the current sovereign debt crisis throw them into a seemingly timeless realm of anxiety in which the violence and suffering of past ages comes to life again, transfixing them with the horror of its resurrection: the massacre of the people of the island in the nineteenth century during the Greek war of independence, the 1922 Catastrophe of Smyrna and the forced exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey that ensued, the famine during the occupation of the island by the Germans – all time and all suffering seem to walk again in the fearful premonitions of the victims of the current crisis. It would be tempting to fit these reminiscences into the trauma discourse, to see in the effects of the crisis but a trigger for the involuntary resurgence of traumatic sequelae in the social body of the island. In doing so, we would recognize the suffering wrought by the effects of restructuring programs on the subaltern nations of the fringes of Europe. But we would recognize suffering at the cost of erasing agency: if the people of Greece recall the violence of the past today, it is not involuntarily as victims of a mass psychic disorder, but as a willed contribution to a discourse in the making that promises to make sense of the ineffable violence of the present.

Likewise in Cameroon, if we attribute to the people of the Grassfields social memories at the cost of negating these as memories at all, throwing the people promiscuously into the Procrustean bed of the trauma discourse, then we recognize human suffering at the cost of reducing our interlocutors to psychiatric patients in need of therapy – sliding ineluctably from the transcendence of difference to the traduction of what we might otherwise have recognized as activism. Trauma theory has been of use to anthropology in helping the discipline to highlight the suffering of the world, but a new theory of activism is called for that will recognize not only the torment, but also the everyday heroism, the social contributions and the political engagement of the oppressed, the marginalized, the unemployed, and the disaffected. Where trauma replaced the object of difference with a subject of empathy, a theory of activism could now supplant the paternalism of communion with a recognition of the myriad small acts of social reform emergent at the grassroots.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Trauma and Activism

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