ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Uneven terrains of the present: towards a differential anthropology of action in time
Location Science Site/Maths CM105
Date and Start Time 06 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Andrea Enrico Pia (London School of Economics) email
  • Fuad Musallam (London School of Economics) email

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Discussant Felix Ringel

Short Abstract

This panel begins by arguing that individual and collective agency is necessarily constrained by variously regimented representations of social time. It asks if these representations of modern time serve to obscure alternative temporal orientations and, if so, what social actors do to reclaim them.

Long Abstract

This panel takes seriously the idea that power and social time are mutually constituted. In particular, it posits that the globalising experiences of precariousness, ecological degradation and political disenfranchisement are power-laden qualities of the present that make the problem of the future (and certain readings of the past) more pressing for some people and not others. This is not solely an issue of different timescapes in different places. Rather, people everywhere are constantly caught in their own differentiated timescapes of expectations and experiences that vary depending not solely on cultural tradition, social or class background, but crucially on how they act upon the world.

The papers in this panel will engage ethnographically with persons across the globe who act in the ruptures of the present with a desire to bring about a substantively different future for their community and place. Here the possibility of a future-otherwise becomes a requirement in order to act in the present. In doing so they may be motivated by shallower or deeper conceptions of the past and traditions of action. They may be engaging with an evacuated short-term past and future (Guyer 2007), or enacting various forms of 'creative presentism' (Ringel 2014). They may also be breaking away from progress-oriented narratives of national development and homogeneous time (Anderson 1991). In every case, such persons are nodes in the progression of bounded but potentially indeterminate histories, with particular conceptions of how past relates to a present in which they try to bring about alternative futures.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


'When different rules apply': time, agency and norm-remaking in wartime Nepal

Author: Ina Zharkevich (Oxford University)  email

Short Abstract

By exploring how people in the former Maoist heartland of Nepal adopted previously transgressive norms and practices, this paper demonstrates the centrality of the temporal dimension of war for understanding people’s agency during conflict as well as the processes of social change engendered by it.

Long Abstract

This paper explores how people in the former Maoist heartland of Nepal adopted previously transgressive norms and practices during the decade of the People's War. By exploring the rise in practices of beef-eating and inter-caste commensality, this paper suggests that the temporal dimension of the war-time 'when different rules apply' was crucial in making people accept new ideas and break established norms on a scale atypical for the 'normal' times of peace. Analysing the agency of Maoist activists who self-consciously tried to implement a project of radical social transformation and those people who were 'caught' in the midst of the Maoist transformative endeavour, this paper demonstrates that the contours of the 'new society' emerged not only due to revolutionaries' intentional actions but rather because of the 'exceptional' nature of the time war-time which forced people to recreate their daily lives often in quite radical ways. By transgressing social norms, 'ordinary' people did not deliberately undermine the normative order in the same way that the Maoist activists did, but rather responded to the constraints of the war time, where the need to secure the survival of one's kin and the safety of the community often outweighed other considerations. While the Maoist activists lived 'for the long-term future', sacrificing not only the 'near future' but also one's family ties and one's own life, 'ordinary' people had to live in the perpetual present with most of their 'agentic' choices being driven by the need to ensure the continuity of life itself.

'Life on hold' during the Ebola crisis in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Author: Jonah Lipton (London School of Economics)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the temporal effects of the Ebola crisis on life in Freetown through assessing responses to heavy regulations imposed to contain the virus. It examines the interplay between the experience of ‘life on hold’ in crisis, and opportunities for ‘progress’, reflection, and critique.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the temporal effects of the Ebola crisis on life in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Although most residents had no direct contact with it, Ebola was omnipresent in Freetown during the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015. This was particularly the result of restrictions imposed by national and international authorities to control the spread of the virus, including heavy regulations surrounding business activity, travel, social gatherings, participation in life-cycle rituals and seasonal festivities, and the shutting of schools and colleges. Given the importance of these activities on marking the passage of social time, I suggest that Freetown residents experienced a liminal sense of 'life on hold' during the crisis, which was discernibly connected to the rules and procedures of the 'state of emergency' that was in place for an unspecified duration.

However, the crisis also allowed for reflexive engagements with and furthering of existing life-projects - which under normal conditions cannot be considered 'linear' or predictable - partly in the form of new employment opportunities and channels of income. Experiences of overt regulation allowed for critiques of the motivations and methods of powerful authorities. In addition, people found novel covert ways of performing ongoing obligations and tasks, counter-balancing the risks of stagnation or decline. The paper interrogates the interplay between 'life on hold' in crisis and 'normal' life and temporal horizons in Sierra Leone. The paper is informed by 17 months of ethnographic fieldwork, spanning the period directly before the crisis, and the crisis itself.

We woke from sleep: revolutionary subjectivity, rupture and Syrian rebel-workers in Beirut

Author: Philip Proudfoot (The London School of Economics)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines how ruptures in temporality informed revolutionary subjectivity amongst Syrian rebel-workers. My analysis — building on the work of Laclau — identifies how a set of ‘future inhibiting’ socio-economic grievances came to be imagined resolved should ‘the people’ achieve victory.

Long Abstract

This paper is about the formation of revolutionary subjectivity amongst rebel-workers in Beirut. A decline in socio-economic stability structured these men's decisions to migrate from the countryside to the city and this decline resembles the material foundations for the uprising. Indeed, migration to Lebanon was once temporary and a means of securing extra cash to be productively re-invested in dowries, land holdings and the like. Even before the uprising this future-orientated pattern of labour migration had shifted into a present-orientated lifeline for families back home.

I argue that the regime has not always relied on its repressive apparatus, or on the manipulation of external political threats, but once built legitimacy through a politico-economic system that guarded against total impoverishment. This changed in the 1990s and 2000s when a series of liberalising reforms were enacted. Agricultural subsidies were stripped; price capping was removed; guaranteed purchase on crops was cancelled, and import barriers fell. Shanty towns encircled Aleppo and Damascus. Thus, the welfare pact between urban bourgeois and rural workers was abandoned. By building on the theoretical models of populism as developed by Ernesto Laclau, I reveal how this gradual tearing away of legitimacy moved toward more encompassing ruptures. This process was narrated through awakening narratives in which a prior passivity was disavowed and a discursive frontier was emphasised that divided Syrian society into two recognised camps: 'the people and the regime'. The Baʿth party's remaining thread of a social contract snapped and rebel-workers saw in the revolution a means of reclaiming their promised futures.

Speeding history in stagnant times: speculative action and fractured temporalities in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution

Author: Carl Rommel (Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

This paper ethnographically explores Egyptian men acting in time and on the future in the wake of the 2011 uprisings. Critically engaging the anthropology of generative events, it depicts the revolutionary years as temporally fractured, entailing parallel processes of acceleration and stagnation.

Long Abstract

This paper traces a handful of young Egyptians experiencing and acting on fractured temporalities in the wake of the 2011 Revolution. Egypt's (counter-)revolutionary period accentuated an awareness of life being lived within multiple temporal modalities. While the uprisings accelerated socio-political processes and made brighter futures seem within grasp, many young Egyptians also experienced the period as urgently stagnant: prospects for economic stability, family building and fun were all foreclosed.

Based on long-term fieldwork among Cairene football supporters in 2011-13 and shorter stints of follow-up research, the paper traces shifts in temporal texture around three 'generative events' (Kapferer, 2015): the 2011 Revolution, a stadium massacre in Port Said in early 2012, and the 2013 Military Coup. As David Scott notes, such events are 'exceptional times' when human action 'stands out starkly' through 'its ability to intervene' (2014): singular moments of 'potentiality', which cannot be understood through recourse to history but only in terms of the futures they actualise (cf. Deleuze, 2004). At the same time, Jaspir Puar suggests, periods of speeding history often imply a slowing of time (2007). Engaging this conundrum, the paper ethnographically depicts Egyptian men interpreting the past through actions in the present. Often, their actions were geared towards making a living; at moments, they tried to carve out a slice of stability; sometimes, they hoped to enact revolutionary futures-otherwise. United in a post-revolutionary timespace laden with capitalist promises, futurity and history, they all 'speculated' on the future so as to act on and master it (Bear, 2015).

Commemorating the past and shaping the future in religious practice

Author: Elaine Christian (Columbia University Teachers College)  email

Short Abstract

I discuss the role of religion in regimenting and representing social time in Tanzania, as clergy simultaneously attempt to maintain spiritual heritage, and discourage specific traditional practices. I examine these as efforts to shape the future of Christianity and of individual Christians.

Long Abstract

This paper discusses the role of religious practice in regimenting and representing social time. A majority of Tanzania's Chagga people are Christian, and Chagga spiritual heritage remains important to many. A central element of pre-Christian Chagga religion was veneration of ancestors and perpetuation of their memory, along with producing offspring to perpetuate one's own memory, thus achieving a kind of immortality. I suggest that this is one way of acting on one's future.

In practice, however, this is a sticky issue for Chagga clergy, who want to maintain their identity and heritage as Chagga people, at the same time as it is their duty to discourage some practices of ancestor veneration, including animal sacrifice and divination. This duty is impressed upon them doctrinally, as they believe it indicates a weak faith, and by global discourses of modernisation which label certain practices superstitious or backwards. In this paper, I discuss efforts by Chagga clergy to negotiate this tense relationshiop with traditional religious practices. Some focus on theological efforts to create alternatives for Christians to comemmorate ancestors and orient themselves toward a future of salvation (for example, re-contextualisation of Eucharistic traditions); others adopt the language of social justice, positioning sacrifice and divination as vehicles of impoverishment. I examine these efforts as attempts to shape the future of both Chagga Christians and Christianity - attempts which both seek to constrain the temporal orientations and actions of church members, and are themselves constrained by different understandings of orthodoxy and modernity.

Some Yunnanese directions in water management: oral history, infrastructures and the socialist blueprints for water-rich Chinese futures

Author: Andrea Enrico Pia (London School of Economics)  email

Short Abstract

Contemporary Chinese popular mobilisations on common water sources reveals how alternative futures can be actively encapsulated into the iconic infrastructures of the past. In Yunnan, the materiality of infrastructures mediates the mobilisation of the imaginary on present day struggles on water.

Long Abstract

In this paper I will dwell on the trope of "leaking" and draw from the anthropology of infrastructure to explore the ways in which the surviving water structures of the mass campaigns of Maoist water development play into contemporary popular mobilisation on water use and distribution and the formulation of imaginary blueprints for water-rich futures in water-poor and dispossesed rural Yunnan, People's Republic of China. Here, efforts to distribute water equitably are currently being undermined by increasing socio-economic pressures and environmental degradation. Under the present predicaments, local cadres and residents are compelled to re-envision local histories of collective water control and their potential for alternative water-mediated human relations. In so doing, they conceive alternative ways to collaborate that might secure water access for all in the future.

In Yancong, the Yunnanese Township site of my fieldwork, remnants of the Maoist past are seen as laying behind the concrete walls of the collectively-built water structures of the past. Similarly to water, these narrativised rearticulations of collectively meaningful past events may "leak away" from regimented schemes of appropriation and use to later become available to water users in unexpected, cooperative or antagonistic forms.To keep the water supply accessible in the locale, the people of Yancong draw on specific local histories of moral conduct and collective achievements; my contribution will thus show how historically and materially inflected views of collective agency are recuperated as solution to the present-day predicaments of water shortage.

The distributed object: a perspectival review of Gell's paradigm

Author: Valentina Gamberi (University of Chester, U.K.)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores the possible contribution of perspectival anthropology in challenging Gell’s (1998) agency paradigm, flawed by a reiteration of the primacy of humans. Amazonian ontologies, in fact, consider humans and materials as things, without a hierarchical subdivision subject/object.

Long Abstract

The paper reflects on Gell's notion of distributed person, as theorised in Art and Agency (1998). By adopting Husserl's overlap between the real and the phantasised, Gell claims that social relationships are the externalization of a cognitive process, so that personhood is diffused temporally and spatially via the indexes or physical things (Gell, 1998, 222-223), and, therefore, objectified in the 'outside' (Gell, 1998, 231). In this theory of a 'material mind' (Kückler, 2015, 3), Gell reiterates a Jewish-Christian model of culture as the result of 'the imposition of mental design over formless matter' (Viveiros de Castro, 2012, 58). Gell's paradigm, then, does not challenge the primacy of humans in anthropology. However, a critique of Gell's paradigm cannot prescind from acknowledging its merits, the most relevant of which is the rejection of the idea that objects are merely symbols of social relationships.

The paper, therefore, explores whether Gell's material agency can be re-evaluated in the light of perspectival anthropology. As Viveiros de Castro (2012) and Santos-Granero (2009) have pointed out, Amazonian ontologies are based on the idea that culture is the result of a transformation from a primordial artefact-humanity, or, in other words: 'people and objects share the same "symbolic frame of fabrication". They are simultaneously things and embodied relations' (Santos-Granero, 2009, 6).

By reviewing the case studies analysed by the perspectival ethnography, the paper proposes to consider this Amazonian paradigm of distributed object as a possible non-ethnocentric approach to materiality, thereby completing Gell's agency paradigm.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.