Muecke, Stephen and Paddy Roe. 2020. The Children's Country: Creation of a Goolarabooloo Future in North-West Australia. New York: Rowman & Littlefield. 252 pp. Hb.: US$44.95. ISBN: 9781786616487.
A conventional book review of Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe's experimental ethnography would miss the point of their imaginative prose. That point being: research creates non-representational kaleidoscopes of worlding, even if buttoned-up genres of academic prose pretend otherwise.
Consider that proposition seriously before you embark on Muecke and Roe's writerly adventure down the Lurujarri Trail, which weaves its way through ochre landscapes, beige concepts and blue legalities. Each chapter of The Children's Country is recast as a narrative day on a week-long hike through Western Australia. But the trail that Muecke and Roe recreate is not a snow globe idyll. Rather, it is a ficto-critical recomposition of the Lurujarri Trail, which Roe first established to share his Aboriginal ‘songlines’ with Australian publics. Roe wanted to share these songlines (which are part landscape, part music and part dream) because he was concerned that extractivism would obliterate such practices of walking with Country. These songlines, which hybridise nature and culture, are hard for cosmopolitan Moderns to grasp. Roe appreciated this modernist shortcoming, however, and designed the Lurujarri Trail as an embodied pedagogy to teach Moderns about Aboriginal dream-tracks. Taking the embodied pedagogy of this trail seriously, The Children's Country seems to ask: if this trail was a scholar, what book would it write?
Muecke and Roe answer this question by writing performatively. Performative writing (which becomes steeped in its object, rather than desiccating its object) has become an established technique in the subfield of experimental ethnography. The Children's Country offers an Australian spin on performative writing, deploying Muecke's characteristic ‘ficto-critical’ style – a style which emerges as an oasis in the binary desert between fiction and fact. Ficto-criticism encourages its reader to wonder where the story stops and the truth begins. It surprises because it does not use criticism to ‘undermine’ truth. Instead, it highlights that ‘facts are always carried by stories’ (p. xvi). It is as if Muecke and Roe composted fiction and fact into an earthy storytelling aroma.
The Children's Country performs these ficto-critical experiments while simultaneously engaging transdisciplinary debates that are often called ‘multispecies ethnography’ or ‘cosmopolitics’. Drawing on the concepts that have gained traction in such posthuman subfields, Muecke and Roe develop new approaches to networks and ontologies through phrases like ‘modes of belonging’ (p. 125). They define this phrase in contradistinction to Latourian modes of existence, which attend to what a network is, rather than what a network has. Moving beyond nuanced definition, Muecke and Roe also propose posthuman updates to classical concepts, such as totemism, by suggesting: ‘Aboriginal “sciences” may have invented totemism as an extended multispecies kinship system’ (p. 62). This multispecies update to totemism bolsters the accreditations of the Lurujarri Trail as a landscaped lecturer who teaches Moderns about the merits of Aboriginal governance. Totemism, in this view, is reconfigured as a ‘time-honoured system for ecological management’ (p. 146) that incorporates ‘non-humans into representative democracy’ (pp. 51–52). This totemistic democracy emerges in contradistinction to the naturalistic government of Modern Australia.
Muecke and Roe's ficto-critical account of the Lurujarri Trail deflects the cut-and-dry concepts of critique. But I am so well trained! Like a dog sniffing for stimulating aromas in a bed of roses, my critical instincts encounter curious scents when The Children's Country describes itself as a ‘partisan text’, which presents its ‘case in the best possible light, to the point of avoiding counter-evidence’ (p. xvii). This partisan approach is particularly well-illustrated when Muecke and Roe mention ‘Indigenous sciences’ (p. 86) – or what is frequently called TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge). A complex debate swirls around TEK. But Muecke and Roe seem to sidestep this complexity, perhaps because it provides evidence against the merits of Indigenous science. For example, while Muecke and Roe persuasively describe an incident in which Indigenous science locates endangered turtles more accurately than Western science, a review of the TEK literature turns up many anecdotes in which Indigenous peoples do not conform to the figure of the ‘ecologically noble savage’. I suggest, then, that a partisan text is more persuasive if it confronts (rather than avoids) counter-evidence. Showing why common critiques of TEK do not apply to Australian Indigenous sciences would make it harder for the well-trained critic to pick up provoking scents in the green gardens of The Children's Country.
While wandering along the Lurujarri Trail, with Muecke and Roe by your side, it may help to glance at the legal calendar in the appendix, treating it as a temporal map through a spell-binding literary landscape.
University of Texas at Austin (USA)
Donzelli, Aurora. 2020. One or Two Words: Language and Politics in the Toraja Highlands of Indonesia. Singapore: NUS Press. xx +289 pp. Hb.: S$56.00. ISBN: 978-981-3251-14-4.
The expression ‘one or two words’ is used by Toraja speakers to announce a formal speech of a political or ceremonial nature. Such speeches are characterised by the use of couplets, the second line of which repeats with different words but identical structure a similar meaning. This ritual register is contrasted with everyday language. Couplets are not invented but are chosen from a stock of several thousand examples. Traditionally only experts who were believed to have an innate capacity to access this source used this register. Like all other local vernaculars in Indonesia, Toraja is complemented by the national language, which has no special relation with any of them. This relation can be characterised as diglossia, with a primary ‘low’ code and a superimposed ‘high’ code.
Aurora Donzelli's aim is to connect a micro-analysis of talk (speech events) with social settings and cultural meanings to achieve a more thorough understanding of the way both are dialectically constituted and change. Her focus is on political discourse during the twenty years since the fall of Suharto. Regrettably, it was not feasible to record samples of everyday speech, although one imagines that comments on political discourse in that register would have been relevant. The author has been familiar with the area since 1997; her main doctoral research was in 2002–2004, with repeated return visits up to 2018.
The first part of her book concentrates on the social and cultural contexts of politically relevant language use. It starts with the historical development of a Toraja identity as an ethnic label and considers how speakers view their common local language by making ‘explicit meta-linguistic appeals or indirect allusions’. For example, the vernacular can be used as an oratorical device to emphasise the difference between the pretensions of national policies and the actual local situation. This is followed by an examination of internal divisions that exist in spite of generally acclaimed appeals to the supreme value of Toraja unity. After 1998, a bottom-up instead of a top-down approach led to a new division of political power and budgets. Regional units could also be divided or amalgamated in new ways according to the wishes of the inhabitants. However, the Toraja could not agree on how to profit from this new situation, which resulted in the splitting of their common district.
Another important topic is mortuary rituals. These rituals involve vast networks of obligations and entail large-scale slaughter of buffaloes and pigs and distribution of meat among attendants according to intricate rules. These rituals also tie migrants living elsewhere and their financial resources to places of ancestral origin often marked by traditional houses and associated burial sites.
The second part focuses more directly on linguistic aspects. To analyse the changing relationship between the use of the local vernacular and the national language over time, Donzelli uses the framework of linguistic ideology. This concept stands for beliefs about language and covers ideas of language users but also of linguistic scholars. She gives a useful summary of its role in ongoing discussions. In many ways the Indonesian national language is considered to be superior. It stands for the ideal of a unified and independent nation state and its use is associated with bureaucratic power and modernity. But it is also the medium of a flourishing literature and its political role during and after the Suharto period would have merited more attention.
On the other hand, Donzelli convincingly demonstrates how the indigenous idea of power as a form of centripetal cosmic potency is reflected in language use during local ritual events and public gatherings. Toraja leadership style requires demonstrating minimal effort together with control over a large number of intermediaries. She shows how this works out in the decision-making processes during funerary meat distribution. It also explains why, for instance, candidates in local elections of headmen are denying their own ambition and leave campaigning to others.
In her final and to my mind most original chapter, she uses the Bakhtinian notion of chronotope to show how recourse to the Toraja language and Sukarno-style rhetoric can create novel spatio-temporal forms of collective belonging, reflecting global idioms of transnational neo-liberal democracy and revivalist appeals to local traditions.
Donzelli often refers to other recent studies of the Toraja and their neighbours that also cover many other aspects with which she could not deal. These omissions left me with a feeling of nostalgia for a time when a holistic narrative was believed to be a realisable ethnographic ideal.
JAN DE WOLF
Utrecht University (The Netherlands)
D'Angelo, Lorenzo. 2019. Diamanti. Pratiche e stereotipi dell'estrazione mineraria in Sierra Leone [Diamonds. Mineral Practices and Stereotypes in Sierra Leone]. Milan: Meltemi. 180 pp. Pb: €16.00. ISBN: 9788883539732.
Diamond mining does not have a good reputation: widespread representations and shared imaginaries associate it with exploited workers, entrepreneurs operating illegally, negative environmental impacts, shady financial flows, conflicts and violence. That, at least, is what often emerges from films, civil society campaigns and part of the grey literature covering the sector. This book by Lorenzo D'Angelo, resulting from a long-term ethnographic engagement with diamond miners in Sierra Leone, takes these stereotypes seriously and counters them with an empirical analysis of the practices that characterise not only work but also profit sharing, use of technology, production and transmission of knowledge, religion and spiritual labour in mining areas.
The literature on diamond mining in the country has been dominated by a focus on the role of the most precious gems in funding and prolonging the Sierra Leonean civil war, the initiatives resulting in the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, and the ways in which ‘conflict minerals’ can be turned into ‘development minerals’. The author engages with these themes in the introduction and the first chapter, contextualising the growing interest – in the academic as well as the political and activist sphere – for artisanal mining and its social dimensions, and setting the stage for the nuanced analysis that follows.
Each following chapter moves from a different constellation of stereotypical images associated with diamond miners, using the author's ethnographic material to highlight their contradictions and deconstruct them. The idea that mining sites are chaotic and lack organisation, for example, is countered by the minute description of the institutional arrangements and solutions adopted by the economic actors partaking in the informal economy of diamond extraction in order to organise production, remunerate work, share profits and manage risks.
The multiple forms of knowledge and technical expertise developed by miners contrast with normative views about their geological ignorance or the inadequacy of their technologies. D'Angelo provides examples of miners’ capacity to read geological landscapes and ‘follow’ the materials in order to identify diamond-rich areas, and to ‘mould’ the environment according to their needs. Like hunters, miners can be seen as occupying an intermediary position between the village, where social life is centred, and the bush, the natural world characterised by spiritual presences and material resources that must be recognised and domesticated. A historical digression on the sieve, a fundamental tool to process the gravel extracted in the mines and ‘reveal’ its precious content, shows how – contrary to what is perceived as technological backwardness – miners’ knowledge has in fact developed in connection to the political-economic and natural context of their activities. This adaption allowed artisanal miners to make profits that would be impossible, under the same conditions, for the apparently more advanced large-scale industry.
In the final chapters, the author refers to regional anthropological literature on kinship and patronage in order to analyse the continuities and ruptures between, on one hand, pre-existing patterns of dependence and community work and, on the other hand, practices that emerged alongside the expansion of diamond extraction. Miners are not simply victims of poverty and exploitation, it is argued, and their activities take place in contexts shaped by articulated and complex histories of social relations. The moral and spiritual landscapes navigated by miners, their religious affiliations, and the practices of reciprocity and sharing supported by them, disprove the recurring image of the diamond miner as an individualistic and deviant ‘gambler’.
D'Angelo's dense monograph, rich in ethnographic and theoretical passages, is one of the few available in Italian on the topic. Its plain writing makes it also accessible to students or readers without previous knowledge of the theme. The book portrays the complexity of the informal economy of diamonds in Sierra Leone, highlighting its profound embeddedness in social and cultural structures. The recent expansion of small-scale mining in the global South has been predominantly framed, given its implications in demographic, environmental and economic terms, as a typical object – or problem – for development studies. Therefore, while interdisciplinary in his approach, D'Angelo seeks inspiration primarily from the critical anthropology of development (particularly from the work of J. P. Olivier de Sardan) in order to develop a less normative analysis of the sector.
Located in the growing literature on the anthropology of mining, this book has the merit of expanding beyond a single subfield and identifying connections with broader themes. The condition of diamond miners is used as a prism to observe not only the ongoing socio-economic transformations in rural Africa but also the variable forms assumed by extractive economies, and the socially and politically situated character of economic practices and technological choices.
The Nordic Africa Institute (Sweden)
Jackson, Michael D. 2020. Quandaries of Belonging: Notes on Home, from Abroad. London: Union Bridge Books. 187 pp. Kindle Edition: £23.75.
In Quandaries of Belonging, the anthropologist Michael Jackson – New Zealand-born, UK-trained, US-resident and with ethnographic experience in locations throughout Africa, Europe and Australia – intertwines personal and ethnographic material to explore experiences of belonging, home and exile, while pushing the limits of anthropological writing. Quandaries of Belonging continues with Jackson's previous master blending of ethnography, evocative writing and philosophy to address the possibilities enacted by focusing on experiences and narratives to explore how people craft a sense of connectedness in the context of human plurality.
In the thirteen chapters of this book, Jackson takes us on a fascinating journey through parts of his biography, some of his previous works, as well as some of his natal Aotearoa New Zealand landscapes, personalities and historical episodes. He does so using an evocative narrative that also takes us on a journey through two languages (although the book is written in English, throughout the text there are numerous excerpts in Māori) and different writing genres (there are poems as well as other literary material in the book). Such narrative choice is not a mere issue of format as the evocative power of words may transcend the reductive and essentialising risks of language that Jackson cautions us about in his work. Language, the ability to tell stories, is concomitant to human life. As Jackson tells us, we storied our lives, so they make sense. Story-telling bridges the personal and the collective, and while worldviews can help to make sense of our lifeworlds, they can also simplify the lived experience. Language, Jackson tells us, is simultaneously a generative potential and an essentialising framing that can reduce lifeworlds to worldviews and life to language, withering away the vitality of life as lived. In Chapter 7, Jackson explicitly reflects on the social life of stories and the power of narratives. Building on his previous work and tracing the social life of narratives about famous New Zealand fugitive Joe Pawelka, Jackson illustrates how, as stories acquire a social life of their own, our lives – or more specifically our storied lives – stop belonging only to ourselves and impinge on the lives of others, even well after our death. Such is the potential of story-telling.
Throughout the book, the author deals with one of anthropology's long-lasting interests, recently revitalised by heated debates on the politics of culture and identity politics: human plurality. That is, how to reconcile the fact that we, as human beings, are different while being the same. Focusing on human lived experiences that we share, like that of liminality, exile or belonging, Jackson argues, can bring us together in ways that identity politics, for instance, cannot. In this line, Jackson explores the possibilities of transcending dichotomic understandings, moving beyond either/or ways of thinking about identity and other main tropes of human experience like home and belonging. Such radical empiricism offers a potential venue to overcome dichotomic ways of thinking about identity and difference by helping us to focus on what we share. Building on Jackson's experiential perspective, the book approaches identity politics from a different, and in my opinion fruitful, angle by reflecting on how identity thinking actually takes place by looking at how people live, bringing together difference and sameness. Jackson's proposal, of focusing on how people's experiences may correspond, is highly attractive in a context of growing polarity where differences are emphasised. His is in fact a call to anthropology and anthropologists to focus more on human commonality than on difference. Jackson's proposal does not overlook the mesh of unequal structures people live their lives within. The New Zealand case appears particularly interesting to explore such issues, given the past and current context of symbolic and material acute inequality due to colonialism. In Chapter 12 (together with Chapter 7, the two most fascinating chapters in an overall outstanding book), paraphrasing Spivak's well-known critique of postcolonial reason, Jackson directly addresses the current situation between Māori and Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) in the country, notwithstanding that finding common ground must be done without overlooking the material and other inequalities different groups are inserted into. As he summarises in the book's final words, loosening the hold of the past on the future ‘requires more than storytelling and testimony; it demands the redressing of social injustices and the overcoming of social inequalities in the here and now’ (p. 167).
University of Barcelona (Spain)
Sur, Malini. 2021. Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India–Bangladesh Border. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 227 pp. Pb.: US$24.00. ISBN: 978-0-8122-5279-8.
The book Jungle Passports reflects on the varying intensities of life at the Northeast India borders, where porosity of the fences opens border lives to diverse possibilities. The perennially shifting borders produce various possibilities of survival at the border areas that challenge the predilection of modern nation-states to maintain rigid territorial boundaries. Rather, these marginal areas are imbued with ‘life force’ that entails cross-border mobilities for trade which are facilitated by ‘moral claims to shared indigenous landscape’ (p. 3) and sustain distinctive capitalist relationships. This book situates its narrative into four elements which, as the author points out, ought to constitute ethnographies of borderland areas, viz. ecologies, infrastructures, exchanges and mobilities. It is due to these elements that the remote and marginal borders pulsate with life. At the heart of this book lies the idea of ‘life force’ that continues to foster lives and livelihood despite the presence of the border troops, fences and surveillance. Life force reckons these borders not as anomalous zones but as porous spaces that behold rushed journeys, transborder livelihoods and kinship relationships. However, these mobilities do not exist without encountering conflicts, antagonisms and scarcities.
Malini Sur shows how these relations foreground the existence of multiple sovereignties in these border areas that exist through the presence of brokers, moneylenders and cattle traders who engage in innately mendacious transactions occurring in ecologically vulnerable areas and conversely bestow value to commodities by transgressing the precincts of legality and illegality. A particularly interesting argument in the book revolves around the role played by the geography in determining the politics and sociality of these border areas. The ecological vulnerability of the chars (riverine islands) exacerbates the dependence of the people on the borders as it corrodes other means of livelihood which sustain these borderlanders. Moreover, Sur shows it is not only the devious economies and exchange existent at the remote margins that defy the homogeneity of nation-states but the shifting chars also render the border infrastructures inconsequential and incomplete.
Through minute ethnographic details, Sur points out that the construction of the new border fences from 2015 led to a new regime of fear and exhaustion from the incessant rumours about digital surveillance and use of drones for monitoring the borders in relation to the new fences, especially in the states of Assam and Meghalaya. In an almost metaphorical invocation, she points out how the elephants and the border troops, representatives of the elephantine nation-states massacred the livelihoods of these borderlanders and disfigured the landscape. Just as the elephants unexpectedly destroyed rice fields, houses, etc., similarly the border troops heckled border crossers and made the borders more precarious than ever. In relation to infrastructures, Sur also highlights that road building was as central to the colonial state in the Northeast India borderlands as the fences are to the post-colonial nation-state. The construction of maps and roads in these remote areas was innately associated with the creation of tribes and these roads also acted as the ‘fences’ demarcating the borders. This book situates itself in the varying thresholds of borderland lives wherein on one hand, the border crossers encounter the appalling border troops and on the other hand, they witness angels or farishtey who guide the border crossers and aid their mobilities in and across the borders.
The final pages of the book reflect on the judicial trials that were set in motion after 2015 that aimed to deport the Bangladeshi immigrants from these areas, leading to a regime of paper economies that come alive through bureaucratic practices of the state. The lives of these supposed migrants are situated within a set of ambiguities and are viewed through the prism of suspicion, and as Sur points out, the ‘judicial processes make suspicion, rather than legal and procedural certainty, fundamental to the manufacturing of Indian citizenship in Assam’ (p. 151). The failure of these documents to determine the illegality/legality of citizenship reinforces the incapacity of the state in ascertaining its purpose and exists merely through harassment of people on the basis of doubt and suspicion, and often drives families against each other, as Sur shows through her ethnography. This book brings into conversation historical documents with exhaustive ethnographic vignettes and would be invaluable for those interested in conducting ethnographies in borderland areas. Methodologically, the book presents powerful ethnographic analysis carried out over a prolonged period of time in the Northeast India–Bangladesh border. It is a compelling contribution to border studies and Northeast India studies, and would be of great interest to students of South Asian studies in general.
Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (India)
Montesi, Laura and Melania Calestani (eds.) 2021. Managing Chronicity in Unequal States: Ethnographic Perspectives on Caring. London: UCL Press. 272 pp. Hb.: £40.00. ISBN: 9781800080300.
This collection combines the results of prolonged field studies in health, medicine and care conducted all over the world. The contributors to the collection dwell on many research topics, yet they invariably address the experience of people who live with chronic conditions associated with illnesses of various aetiology.
In the Introduction, a clear and comprehensive methodology used by the contributors to the volume is outlined. It is remarkable how suitable the very title of the book is in the context of the contributors’ methods and the collection's topic. The authors of the volume demonstrate not only how chronicity is managed, but also how and by whom chronicity is formed, sustained, replicated and experienced. Moreover, in this collection the contributors address the question of conceptual definition of chronicity in general. It is also uncovered that states of inequality that exist on structural macro-social level and manifest on interpersonal micro-social level (e.g. joblessness, racism, spatial distance from city centre) accompany chronicity, and essentially determine the health status of people.
It has been argued that industrialisation and modernisation are directly affecting a surge in degenerative and workplace-related conditions in capitalist states. But the contributors insist that chronic illnesses are not a natural outcome of this ‘epidemiological transition’. The authors argue that chronic conditions are produced in a complex way, synergistically with other disorders, and are determined by non-biological, social factors as well. Social factors are highly complex and intricate. On the one hand, they are embedded in both history and contemporary biopolitics of a state; on the other hand, they arise from local culturally specific contexts of health and care. This is where the medical anthropologists encourage us to take a step further: historical outcomes of certain stages of biopolitical managing on macro-social level and of colonialism have produced, in neoliberal capitalism, something that could be called ‘politics of worthiness’. This is a certain set of moral judgements determining a ‘political body’ as (un)deserving of medical assistance and social support of the state. The concept of ‘distributed intensities of worth’ introduced by the collection demonstrates how politics and practices of care can normalise the inequality of access to medical care, ‘good death’ or psychological counselling for various categories of people by shaping their (un)deserving subjectivity.
It is no surprise that care is the third key concept in this volume. The very specifics of (self-)care for people with chronic conditions allow medical anthropologists to infer social inequalities in access to public health institutions. Moreover, even informal types of care represent unstable and often unequally distributed medical care. During their fieldwork, the contributors have observed and analysed the variety of types of care as well as of the recipients and providers participants in these care practices. Therefore, the multitude of interactions between chronicity, care and (un)worthiness is pointed out.
The volume includes ten chapters that focus on different types of national and local institutes of care. Lisa Ballesteros (Chapter 1) and Lilian Kennedy (Chapter 4) introduce us to the healthcare system in the UK. Both chapters describe how carers tend to experience uncertainty stemming from an imperfect system of state care. Giorgio Brocco (Chapter 5) and Devin Flaherty (Chapter 2) demonstrate specific strategies for overcoming this uncertainty, where either ‘good’ life or life whatsoever is sustained via alternative, non-state care providers in the US Virgin Islands and in Tanzania. These alternative options, though, are not always effective as far as life-sustaining during a chronic condition is concerned (Chapter 6), or sometimes suboptimal care would not be criticised or stopped as it would be the only care available at the moment (Chapter 3). Surprisingly, many biomedical models of care turn out to be destructive to health and only aggravate the chronic condition (Chapter 7 and Chapter 9). Moreover, the research materials call the rationalistic definitions of ‘care’ and ‘good living’ into question (Chapter 8 and Chapter 10).
The collection demonstrates how managing chronicity in unequal states becomes a shared experience for a constantly increasing number of people. Cultural, socio-economic and political aspects of care shed light on the fragility of healthcare systems based on biomedical standards and capitalist logic. Yet this volume is far from attempting to generalise people's diverse experience in an easy answer about where chronicity comes from. On the contrary, the contributors emphasise that their optics are only providing a new perspective on previously studied phenomena. This is precisely why this book is an important contribution to contemporary medical anthropology, and why it will also be of use for sociologists of medicine and care.
European University at St Petersburg (Russia)
Koch, Insa Lee. 2018. Personalizing the State. An Anthropology of Law, Politics and Welfare in Austerity Britain. 290 pp. Hb.: £70.00. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780198807513.
While the anthropology of politics has long been devoted to the question of how political order emerges in the absence of a state or a centralized political instance, the state has become the focus of the sub-discipline over the last two decades. Ethnographers are primarily interested in state practices, predominantly from the perspective of citizens, but increasingly also from the perspective of state actors.
Insa Lee Koch's impressive study of how the state is experienced by the residents of a British council estate represents a significant contribution to this developing field of the anthropology of the state. Her fieldwork took place between 2009 and 2018. Council estates are housing estates for poor people built with public funds. Koch shows that these are sites where statecraft is practised, insofar as the state has tried to construct and implement its models of what constitutes a respectable citizen in these estates. The content of the model has changed over time, from the nuclear ‘respectable’ working class family of the post-Second World War period to the citizen as an individual consumer and entrepreneur living under more recent neoliberalism. The book that emerged from this research is carefully contextualised in history, based on intelligently reflected ethnography and, containing many captivating life stories, decidedly compelling to read.
Koch's central focus is first on the gap between local moral conceptions of personhood, community and care linked by a notion of connectedness, on the one hand, and individualising state practices, on the other hand. The result of this gap is a complex pattern of state desire and state rejection marked by an opposition of local moral orders and legal orders. This is demonstrated through her analysis of interactions with three key public services, namely the benefit system, housing authorities and the police. What locally constitutes a ‘good person’ (for example, a single woman caring for her adult children) is often a ‘bad citizen’, accused of seeking to cheat welfare benefits, in the eyes of state actors. Second, the author shows how in state practices, welfare and lawfare are not two different ‘hands of the state’, but two sides of the same coin, where welfare has become a form of control and punishment. Third, the book deals with the strategies used by inhabitants of the council estate to counter these state practices, namely their selective rejection, appropriation or bypassing of the state, which Koch summarises under the not immediately comprehensible term of ‘personalising’. Presenting oneself in a way that conforms to the notions of legitimate personhood that the state seeks to enforce – that is, the performance of legitimate poverty – is a key strategy in this regard. The result of these reciprocal strategies is a deep alienation between Britain's poor and the state. The state, in the view of Koch's interlocutors, has broken a moral contract by claiming to represent them, while simultaneously neglecting and controlling them. This strong sense of betrayal by those who govern and disenchantment with representative democracy produces a very difficult context for activist politics. It also provided a socio-political backdrop to the 2016 Brexit referendum, which was perceived by Britain's second-class citizens as their opportunity to say no to those who govern and to a particular kind of Britain as well as an attempt to moralise politics, which Britain's poor consider deeply unfair.
The author does not aim at methodological equidistance to all actors in her field. Her position is clear: she very much sympathises with the ‘people at the margins’, especially the single mothers, who are also the actors with whom she primarily sought a dialogue. Nevertheless, she does not take an activist stance. It is unavoidable that the ‘other side’ sometimes appears somewhat one-dimensional and that her portrayal of ‘the state’ ultimately remains rather fuzzy. The book deliberately presents itself as an anthropology of the state from below.
The major contribution of the book is that it expands the anthropology of the state by including the concept of class. While the author also emphasises the intersectionality of class, race and gender, class (‘working class’, occasionally also referred to as ‘citizens at the margins’, ‘most marginalised citizens’ or ‘the vulnerable and the poor’, with ‘middle-class’ as the antithesis) remains the main conceptual lens through which the state is viewed. It would have been helpful if the author had defined her concept of class more explicitly – this may be due to the British context where class stratification is particularly visible and may appear as self-evident. However, this does not make this analysis of state rule as class rule and the worthwhile study on ‘real citizenship’ under neoliberal conditions any less worth reading.
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz (Germany)
Stensrud, Astrid B. 2021. Watershed Politics and Climate Change in Peru. London: Pluto Press. 240 pp. Hb.: US$54.74. ISBN: 9780745340203.
The recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a dire picture of both immediate and far futures. Each day that passes, the variegated impacts of climate change are becoming ever more present and integrated into everyday lives, experiences and politics. Within a scholarly field dominated by the natural sciences, anthropology has a distinct voice that has the ability to unpack how the experience of climate change is always shaped by power, inequality and injustice.
One of the voices that deserves to be heard also beyond the anthropological community is that of Astrid Stensrud, whose recent book Watershed Politics and Climate Change in Peru takes the reader to Southern Peru. While most anthropological work on climate change continues to be based on classic community-oriented studies, Stensrud's point of departure is the Majes-Siguas watershed, which connects high altitude Andean communities to the desert recently colonised by industrial agriculture fed by large-scale irrigation schemes and its concomitant migrant communities. The result is a fascinating account of watershed politics where climate change is always present, yet rarely in the centre, and never outside relations of power and webs of meaning.
Watershed Politics tells the story of the Majes-Siguas watershed through seven empirical chapters. Chapters 1–3 provide the groundwork. The construction of the Majes Canal will be familiar to water scholars of Peru, but Stensrud takes the insights further by showing how the continuing work of engineers along the canal comes to constitute social worlds. Chapter 2 takes us to the desert, where the water from the canal is fundamental to the agro-export boom and its attendant promise of growth, development and prosperity. The chapter reveals the interdependencies and vulnerabilities inherent to that project. The repurposing of water also happens through bureaucratic practices and in particular the introduction of water tariffs, the subject of the fascinating third chapter of the book. It shows how water worlds are made and negotiated through a variety of partially connected practices involving both payments and ritual. Chapter 4, which deals most directly with climate change, stands as a bit of an interlude before the second part of the book. Having firmly established how water can be many different things, enacted through distinct yet partially connected practices, in the first half of the book, Chapters 5–7 all deal with attempts at capturing water. This happens within a single state-scientific logic that can control its perceived uncertainties through different forms of accounting, such as measurement, formalisation and the introduction of new technologies. These chapters powerfully demonstrate how such interventions have a wide range of consequences beyond their intended design, and that these contribute to furthering the erasure and silencing of water practices and water worlds.
The book attains its distinct voice through its attention to the ‘cosmopolitics’ of climate change and water politics. The intellectual debt to Marisol de la Cadena, Mario Blaser and others is clear and consistent throughout the book, but within this body of literature Stensrud manages well to carve out her own argumentation. By focusing on the multiplicity of water and the everyday, political and ritual practices that sustain these on one hand, and efforts to singularise water through state bureaucracies on the other, Stensrud is able to give detailed accounts of how different water worlds are negotiated. Her interlocutors are not only those who have become water users within the Integrated Water Resource Management governance paradigm that has come to enframe watershed politics, but also the engineers and bureaucrats who occupy positions within this system.
The back cover of the book emphasises that it ‘moves beyond political ecology and political economy to achieve a decolonial perspective’. I am not sure whether that reflects exactly what the book does. In explicit terms, ‘the decolonial’ occupies little space in the text and does not appear in the index. The seeds are certainly there for sustaining such an argument, but it would have been interesting to develop this further in the text, both in relation to the theoretical approach, making the bridge between the pluriversal and the decolonial more explicit, and in relation to the positionality of a researcher employed by a university in Northern Europe.
The book reads very well. Several of the chapters have led previous lives as journal articles, but tying them together in a larger argument demonstrates well why we also need books. It manages to strike the delicate balance between theoretically grounded arguments and rich, detailed empirical material. This also makes it suitable for teaching introductory courses, although the price tag makes it largely inaccessible to students without library access.
MATTIAS BORG RASMUSSEN
University of Copenhagen (Denmark)
Li, Darryl. 2020. The Universal Enemy. Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 384 pp. Pb.: US$30.00. ISBN: 9781503610873.
The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity, written by Darryl Li, an anthropologist with legal background, is about foreign fighters in the Bosnian army during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–1995). On the cover of the book, we see an evocative motive in Persian miniature style: a group of heavily armed soldiers in strategic position on a hill look up in terror and surprise as white-clad horse riders charge towards them from amidst the clouds. At the foot of the hill, a detachment of grim-faced fighters of multiple origins – white, brown and black skin; headgear from the Levant, the Middle East and South Asia – are about to attack their armed adversaries. The scene depicts the Battle of Vozuća, which took place in September 1995 in northeast Bosnia. According to stories about this miraculous intervention, the Serb forces on the hill fired into the sky at the angels that had arrived to ensure the glorious victory of the fighters from the Katiba, the Islamic battalion within the Bosnian army. Consisting of both Bosnian Muslim soldiers and foreign mujahids, individuals engaging in global jihad, the Katiba constitutes for Li a special institution, as it allows for a convergence of the phenomenon of jihad as one of several universalisms at work in Bosnia and Herzegovina – others, such as Non-Alignment, peacekeeping and the Global War on Terror are discussed in the second part of the book – and of the authority represented (and violence exerted) by the army. In a seemingly paradoxical fashion, the Katiba fuses the local and the global by adhering simultaneously to the logics of the nation-state and the Muslim community (umma). Therefore, Li's book is concerned with the condition of ambivalence, overcome in the Katiba only through a shared sense of solidarity.
The ambivalence that saturates the contents of the book also assists the reader in questioning stereotypes about mujahids, jihadi culture and Salafism, inviting us to further complicate the picture. Instead of demonising or othering the foreign fighters, the author introduces us to some of the individuals engaged in an armed struggle abroad. By tracing their transregional mobilities and connections with Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe or North America, the reader gains an insight into biographies that transcend national boundaries. Moreover, Li's account of social relations within the Katiba invites us to reconsider, for instance, global Salafism and local religious culture as simple categories in binary opposition to one another. We learn that even though newcomers had to undergo a basic course in Muslim education and Islamic virtues when joining the Katiba, Bosnian cultural traditions were not being eradicated. To fuse people of different backgrounds and theological interpretations into one force that can efficiently combat the enemy, the leadership of the Katiba created an environment for differences to co-exist. The author describes a case where a Syrian and a Bosnian mujahid clash over their style of prayer, for instance, and the conflict is resolved by the commander (amir) of the Katiba, without him demonstrating preference for the regulations of one or the other school of jurisprudence (madhhab) (pp. 115–116). Markedly, the Salafi perspective on religious matters does not encompass everything here.
In those passages of the book that are engaged with the components of the solidarity at play within the Katiba, one may be tempted to reassess one's expectations of jihadi culture. The model mujahid does not appear to be the caricature of a furious and fanatic alpha male, but someone cultivating the less conventionally masculine qualities of politeness, gentleness and humility. Li's discussion of Islamic virtues as an essential aspect for the creation of a sense of brotherhood among the Islamic fighters is highly interesting. Characterised as a form of fictive kinship, brotherhood becomes the bond for a group of people from different parts of the world, speaking various languages. To dive yet a bit deeper, the author, it seems, might have profited from also taking into account Armando Salvatore's sociological analysis of brotherhood and civility in Islamic cultures.
Darryl Li has written a beautiful book, which is both pleasant to read and accessible for those who are only superficially familiar with the situation in the Balkans. While it has much to say about Islam in Bosnia, transregional relations and formations of solidarity, the reviewer finds that it contributes in particular to the study of jihadism. Having read the book, one better understands the people in whose lives God miraculously interferes, as seen in the context of the Battle of Vozuća.
Humboldt University Berlin (Germany)
Roszko, Edyta. 2020. Fishers, Monks and Cadres: Navigating State, Religion and the South China Sea in Central Vietnam. Copenhagen: NIAS Press. 288 pp. Hb.: £65.00. ISBN: 9788776942861.
This fascinating ethnographic work based on Lý Sơn Island and Sa Huỳnh in Vietnam looks at fishing communities and their everyday navigation with the state, religious authorities and a challenging geo-political climate surrounding the South China Sea. Edyta Roszko's thick descriptive style allows one to vividly imagine not just the geography but also the sociocultural practices, political tensions and many everyday encounters between fishers, local state bureaucrats and religious people.
She analyses the material using two sets of triadic conceptual relations: (a) state–village–religion and (b) semiotic ideology–purification–indiscipline, which gives a definite sense of focused structure to the narrative. They particularly help in making the reader understand how the island communities navigate through the binaries they create in their everyday lives – secular versus religious, island versus mainland, masculine versus feminine etc. – when they interact with the state, international politics and religious leaders. However, despite this fixed structure brought by the author's analytical framework, Roszko fiercely engages with movement or flux. The approach of the book establishes that though people interact with the political or religious leadership using binaries, these binaries are not watertight: they keep on shifting, allowing people to choose and pit any category opposite another based on their context. In fact, her ethnographic method of recounting the recent past using accounts of the present allows her to engage with concepts such as hegemony, confrontations and allegiances not simply through a top–down (state overpowering society) or a bottom–up (society revolting against state) approach but through one where the confrontations and allegiances are constantly shifting at various scales and temporalities. It is closer to a ‘non-dialectics’ approach, where things exist in binaries but might not always be in constant opposition. This engagement with movement allows the book to bring out the littoral nature of the geography, politics and communities and their relation to each, wherein everything is fluid and in flux. That both the state's and society's understanding of concepts such as indigeneity, ‘Vietnamese-ness’, centre–periphery are constantly in production and changing. This brings this work in tandem with movement studies, new mobility paradigm studies or even delta/island studies.
This kind of approach to marginalised communities at the edge is non-romanticised, for it does not portray these communities as isolated or always ‘victims’. It in fact brings out their negotiations and networked living with the global and national political and economic regime. This networked living is underlined when the author successfully brings out the relational life-world of the fishers: a constant engagement of humans with non-humans shaping their sociocultural, economic and political world, be it the invocation of the rice versus fish dichotomy or their importance of the spirit world. Roszko's take on the production of hybrid products or spaces through the local communities’ interactions with the state or religion brings it in line with literature on ‘state–society relations’ particularly Akhil Gupta (2012), who shows how policies as intended by the state change in practice on the ground. The way polytheistic fishing communities in Vietnam negotiated with a post 1990s nationalist, secular communist state is an example of that.
The writing is reflexive as the author not only recognises the role she played in forwarding locals’ political claims but also her own positionality as a non-Vietnamese female anthropologist who was fluent in the language and the access these facilitated for her. Her own gender positionalities brought in experiences that led her to specifically dedicate a chapter on how women within these communities negotiate, resist and survive. However, it would have been better if the intersectionalities of class, religion and gender had been more overtly engaged with throughout the book. The arguments still go on to establish the state and the international political order as an over-arching, bigger entity that always sets the rules or frameworks in place and the people simply get to work with it, thereby still keeping the hierarchy between state and society alive.
But overall, this solid ethnographic work will be an asset for anyone interested in studies on state–society relations, religion, nationalism, tourism and island studies, with a particular interest on geo-politics of South-east Asia.