To Jared From Uncle Paul, the Anthropologist

Dear Jared,

So, it’s been some time since I last wrote you.  You’re a busy and important person, so maybe you don’t remember that we may be related.  I grew up with Kushners in and around Washington DC and my family would often gather at Kushner’s Restaurant for celebratory meals.   Who knew that you would grow up to work in your Father-in-Law’s (FiL) White House and I would become an anthropologist?

It would be nice to hear from you sometime.

The last time I wrote I was worried about you.  You had so much to do. My God, it can’t be easy to reform the entire Federal Government.  And how difficult it must be for a Jew—Orthodox no less—to bring peace to the Middle East.  Oy, it’s a burden that must keep you up at night!

In that letter, if you remember, I wrote about the perils of ethnocentrism, about how treacherous it is for you—or anybody—to use a business model to resolve the considerable and complex social and cultural problems that plague our contemporary world.  As you may have realized by now, business models don’t work very well in international politics. I also suggested in my previous letter that you would feel much better if you and your lovely family moved back to New York City.

Please forgive me, boychik, but your Uncle Paul digresses.  When I think back to all those tasty dinners at Kushner’s Restaurant I am compelled to talk too much.  Sorry.


Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin Ireland  Photo by Paul Stoller

You see, I am very worried about you.  Given the grim realities of the Mueller investigation, things don’t look good. You might get indicted.  You might have to go to jail.  Given his history, your mumser FiL might just throw you under the bus.  In the world of family relations, as any good anthropologist knows, consanguineals (blood relatives) take precedence over affines (in-laws).

Kiddo, you should prepare for the worst, no?


Hanukkah Candles, 8th Night 2018 Photo by Paul Stoller

As bad as your legal exposure might be, I am much more worried about the culture of hate.  How do you feel about your FiL’s ignorant comments about Jews in the Diaspora.  You must have been at the recent White House Hanukkah ceremony.  Yes, your FiL praised his Jewish American supporters, but then, when talking about Israel, he referred to the Jewish State as “your country.”  The robotic Vice-President, who also spoke to the same room of American Jewish presidential supporters, also referred to Israel as “your country.”

Were you not offended?

Were you not mortified?

This kind of discourse, of course, is part of the culture of hate that, thanks in large measure to the ignorant and hateful rhetoric that spews from the mouth of your FiL, is sweeping across America.  Hate crimes are increasing, including now, of course, antisemitic acts.  Acts of antisemitic hate have spiked during the past two years, including the massacre in Pittsburgh.

Coming back to the White House Hanukkah celebration, when someone says that American Jews owe their allegiance to “their” country (Israel) and not the United States, he or she also suggests that Jews have divided loyalties, that Jews can’t be trusted, that Jews will cheat you—all longstanding antisemitic canards.  I, for one, am offended that your FiL would suggest that Israel is “my country.”  My dad fought in the Pacific during World War II.  He was a proud member of the Jewish War Veterans.  Did he or the thousands of other American Jews who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam have divided loyalties?  Just because a person happens to be Jewish, doesn’t mean that she or he blindly supports Israel.

In the culture of hate people who want to preserve their power attempt to divide an increasingly diverse population.  Those who want to divide a society say that difference is dangerous.  Those who look different, have divided loyalties, eat exotic foods, speak a different language, or practice a different religion are “others.” The social and cultural practices of these “others” threaten the purity of established norms—in America, the ethos of being white, male and Christian.  Others are “you people,” some of whom owe their allegiance to another country. These “others” must be denigrated and humiliated.  In cases like Charleston, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, they are killed.

What an ugly reality to confront!

One way to make this ugly reality more palatable is to spin false narratives and practice what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith,” which is believing in the illusions you create. Your FiL does it all the time.  He lives in a dangerous fantasy world

Do you as well, Jared?

Do you really think that your personal relationship with the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince, the murderous MbS, will bear fruit and bring about peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors?  Do you really think that you and MbS have a special relationship?  What do you think he says about you when he speaks Arabic to his family?  What do you know of the Saudis and their ways?

Do you speak Arabic?

Have you studied the history of the Middle East?

Do you have any idea what the Saudis think of Jewish people like you and me?

You may think you’re safe, but you’re not.  In your FiL’s dysfunctional America, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians, LGBTQ people, and Jews are non-white, which, as any anthropologist can tell you, is a social and not a biological category. Boychik, you may work in a West Wing office, but you are still “other,” Don’t think “they’ll” never come for you.

They will.

So, if you ever feel like you need a avuncular visit, just let me know.  I’d be happy to see you–even in prison–to chat, talk a little anthropology and suggest some books that will transform the quality of your life.

Happy Holidays from your Uncle Paul, the Anthropologist

An Anthropologist Confronts the Culture of Hate


The Wall of Terror in Berlin, Gestapo and SS Headquarters (Photo by Paul Stoller)

Even though I was long ago the object of anti-Semitic scorn and abuse, I have steadfastly remained an optimist about my personal and professional life in America.  The memories of people calling me “kike” or a “dirty Jew,” or sale juif (in the Paris Metro) have drifted deep into the background of my consciousness.  I hardly ever think about a gang of young boys sticking my head in the junior high school toilet, flushing it, and saying, “you Christ killing dirty Jew.”  In the 1950s and early 1960s such events were not exceptional and rarely reported. I, for one, was too afraid to report these anti-Semitic acts to the school principal.  I thought that no one would punish their behavior.  Whenever those boys saw me, they laughed or gave me threatening stares—all because I happened to be Jewish.

I was lucky, though.  Unlike my African American, Latino, Native American, LGBTQ and Muslim friends and colleagues, I didn’t have to long endure the ugly everyday presence of racism, ethnic prejudice, homophobia or Islamophobia.  Unlike my female friends and colleagues, I didn’t have to confront a daily barrage of gender bias. Instead, I tried to hide my Jewishness and pretend that I was white.

Passing for white made it easier for me to get over the anti-Semitism I had experienced as a child and teenager. I went to high school, college, and graduate school where I studied linguistics and anthropology. I lived in West Africa where I conducted research in rural villages in the Republic of Niger. I learned to speak French and an African language.  I became a university professor and have been teaching college students for more than 30 years.  I’ve written books and won some awards.  I have a nice house and a beautiful family.  You might say I have a lovely life. Why would I think about those past events?  Why would I worry about hate in America?

The events of the past week, though, have brought those worries to the surface.  A racist anti-Semitic Trump-loving loner sends pipe bombs to the most prominent people on Trump’s “enemies list,” including two former presidents, a former vice-president, a former secretary of state, former directors of the CIA and of national intelligence, two Jewish billionaire activists, and several members of Congress—all highly visible critics of the current president. In Kentucky an armed white man unsuccessfully tries to enter an African American church in an effort to kill black folk. Determined to carry out his mission, he goes to a Kroger grocery store and executes an elderly African American man. Still not satisfied, he exits the store and executes an elderly African American woman. His work completed, he passes a shocked onlooker, who is white, and says: “Whites don’t kill whites.”  In Pittsburgh a white man armed with and AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and several hand guns enters a synagogue on the sabbath, a day of peace and announces that “all Jews must die.” He then brutally kills eight men and three women—the worse incident of anti-Semitic violence in American history.

In Trump’s “nationalist” America, can Jews like me, or for that matter Jared Kushner, still pass for white?  Consider the perceptive words of anthropologist Karen Brodkin in an essay “How Jews Became White Folks and May Become Non-white Under Trump” published in the Jewish Daily Forward, December 06, 2016.

In the wake of World War II, the horrors of Nazism were becoming public and publicly repudiated. Eugenics and political forms of institutional anti-Semitism lost much of their hold. A good economy and a progressive political climate enabled America to dismantle some aspects of legal discrimination and segregation. One result was that Ashkenazi Jews became white; for a while, in the ’50s, we even became a best-selling flavor of American popular culture. Those benefits weren’t extended to African Americans, Mexican Americans, Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans. Racism itself didn’t take a hit. The category of white just expanded to include Southern and Eastern Europeans. I figured it was permanent.

Now, Trump’s election and the closet of bigotry it has opened raise a question. Have the decades of whiteness we’ve enjoyed affected American Jews and Jewishness permanently, so that Jews would still be considered white, in the sense of still being included among the racially privileged, those safe from persecution?

Or is it possible that the new Trump regime will “unwhiten” and mark Jews racially on a national scale?

Following Trump’s election, of course, hate crimes, according to the FBI, spiked significantly.  According to a June 26, 2018 report published in the online journal, The Conversation: Academic Rigor and Journalistic Flair, a team of sociologists and criminal justice scholars who study hate crimes considered the increases in US hate crimes:

We see three factors behind the moderate overall increases in 2016. First, there was a precipitous spike around the election. Second, on top of sustained levels of hate crimes against African-Americans, and a small increase against Jews, were larger percentage increases against other groups. Third, hate crimes increased by double-digit percentages in several large states, including New York, California, Florida and Illinois.

In 2017, our data show that hate crimes rose 12 percent over 2016 levels in 38 of the largest cities. There were 1,038 hate crimes in the nation’s 10 largest cities – the highest in more than a decade.

Trump’s direct and indirect affirmation of hate through continuous public vilification of women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, Muslims and Jews has clearly opened the floodgates of hate in America. As the disturbingly deadly events of the past week indicate, many “nationalists”, a designation that Trump assigns to himself, think it is now okay for white people to openly hate, vilify and in some cases kill African Americans, Muslims, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, Latinos, Jews, and even politicians who are Democrats) –all to “purify” America and prevent white genocide.

In Trump’s America I’m afraid Jews are no longer white folks.  We now join all the stigmatized Others who in this culture of hate must vigilantly look over their shoulders and wonder why the white dudes in the pickup truck are staring at us as we walk our dogs or when we stroll with our children and grandchildren in our neighborhoods. Is   the white man lingering outside the synagogue or Mosque packing?  Would he kill Jews attending a bris (male circumcision ceremony) or Muslims praying during the Friday Jumu’ah prayer?


Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.  Photo by Paul Stoller

Have we reached an deadly impasse in American social life?

In the short term, we live in tragic and troubling times.  The hate crimes of the past week have probably made made many of us angry and less optimistic about the here and now. Those crimes have reminded me of troubling incidents from my past. They have made me reflect deeply about my Jewish identity. They have also compelled me to worry about America’s unraveling social fabric.  As an anthropologist I know that social bonds are fragile. I know that senseless violence can erupt at a moment’s notice. Even so, hateful domestic terrorists have not sapped my spirit.

During my time as an anthropologist, my mentors in West Africa always advised me to take the long view of things  I have learned from them that human beings are resilient. Even in times of tragic sadness, there is space for hope.  Indeed, the students I’ve met in my classes and the young professionals I’ve met on my travels in the US and Europe have given me hope for the future.  They are passionately committed to a more perfect union in which we work together for social justice, in which we demand respect human difference, in which we take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

Taking the long view, the contemporary culture of hate looks like a bright fire that will eventually burn out.  On the long road to social recovery, it will take some time for us to wake up and force the “rats,” as depicted in Albert Camus’s The Plague, back into their holes. Considering the impressive qualities of the next generation I am confident that despair and hopelessness will slowly dissipate and be replaced with hope and resolution–a prediction that reinforces my optimism–even in this tragic and troubling moment of American history.


Are We All Going Crazy?


The Peace Wall, Belfast  (Photo by Paul Stoller)

Belfast, Northern Ireland.  I have a confession:  I’m not sleeping well these days.  I used to sleep well, but recently I wake up in the middle of the night feeling anxious.  Objectively speaking, I shouldn’t feel anxious.  I have a nice house, a stable well-paying job that I like, a lovely family, a fine set of supportive friends and colleagues.  I eat well, travel widely and feel appreciated at work and at home.  So why can’t I sleep well?

Some people suggest that it might be an undiagnosed medical condition. Other people say that erratic sleep comes with age.  But when I discuss this seemingly inexplicable problem with my friends and colleagues, who also have good jobs and stable family lives, they, too, have experienced many nights of tossing and turning.  Like me, they have dreams about devastating floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, nuclear holocausts.  Like me, their worries about expanding poverty, the open display of racism, ethnic discrimination, Islamophobia and misogyny, the spread of hateful speech and explosion of violence against minorities, have  added a new dimension of stress to their busy lives—resulting in sleepless nights.

I admit that my small circle of friends and family cannot be a representative sample of the current population in America, but are our stories of unrest isolated examples of what seems to be widespread social mania?

I think not.

To be blunt, the chaos of our social and political relations has shaken the American social foundation.  Even in the recent past we took for granted some fundamental, bedrock American principles:

  1. We are a good people who help the downtrodden at home and abroad;
  2. We value decency and respect for one another and for the rule of law;
  3. We value the search for truth and respect the inviolable processes of science, even when scientists uncover inconvenient truths; and
  4. We applaud excellence and denigrate ignorance.

There are probably other bedrock principles that I have overlooked, but you get the idea.  We live in world of alternative reality in which expedient lying and unseemly behavior are not only accepted but applauded–in the exercise of brute power.  The speedy denigration of core values, extended through the rapid spread of social media, has ripped apart our social fabric and brought on, for many of us, a succession of sleep disturbed nights.

As an anthropologist who thinks often about the dangers of an unraveling social fabric, I worry about the future.  What kind of life awaits our children and grandchildren?  In the here and now, I lose sleep.  Even so, when I interact with scholars in their 20s and 30s—the next generation of professionals, including, of course, anthropologists—I am filled with hope.  These young scholars lead precarious lives.  Their prospects for academic employment are bleak.  When they do find employment, they are overworked and underpaid.  Senior scholars sometimes disrespect them– privately and publicly. Somehow, they persevere continuing to conduct research and write essays and monographs that convey much-needed engaged anthropological insight in the public sphere.

I have witnessed this impressive talent firsthand in writing workshops I have facilitated during the past four years.  During these workshops, we work on developing an evocative way of writing ethnography, of communicating anthropological insight to the general public, of not shying away from employing anthropological ideas in public discussions about racism, religious intolerance, income inequality, gender bias, political conflict, not to forget the ever-important debate on climate change.  During these workshops, the knowledge, depth, and expressive skill of the participants, most of whom are precariously employed, has overwhelmed me.  When I listen to them sensuously describe the people and places where they have conducted their research, their words and images often take my breath away.


Mural on the Peace Wall, West Belfast (Photo by Paul Stoller)

They are creative.

They are skilled writers and image-makers.

They are persistent.

They are politically engaged.

They have important stories to tell.

They are our future.


Mural Near Falls Road, West Belfast (Photo by Paul Stoller)

In Europe and in North America, we live in crazy times, which means that many of us are not sleeping as well as we might.  Having just concluded one of the aforementioned writing workshops in Belfast, Northern Ireland (a socially and politically troubled city) among an inspirational and resilient group of international scholars, I am finally looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

If we pay attention to the committed and refined scholarship of the next generation, we can be confident of better days ahead.




Looking South Toward Granada


The Alhambra (Photo by Paul Stoller)

There has been much recent discussion about structural inequalities in the academy—especially in anthropology.  In European and North American anthropology there has long been a center-periphery issue.  There are a set of elite metropolitan institutions the prestige of which has shaped disciplinary discourse—what is considered fundamental and publishable and who is worthy of being hired.  There are also center-periphery issues in publishing.  Publishing an essay in an “important” journal or a monograph with a “prestigious” press has given a work a certain disciplinary pedigree.  Gender, of course, is also at issue.  There is much evidence of gendered pay gaps in the academy and in anthropology.  There are also generational inequities.  Younger anthropologists find themselves with little prospect for academic employment and those who manage to secure a visiting or part time position find themselves in precarious circumstances. In the wake of the Me-Too devolution of HAU, Journal of Anthropological Theory and HAU Publishing, both thoroughly metropolitan entities, and the evolution of the #hautalk, a movement on the academic periphery, there is an increasingly energetic move to decolonize anthropology, a concerted attempt to make the discipline more inclusive and less exclusively the bastion of white male privilege.

The strong articulation of these unsettling themes of entrenched elitism and lingering colonization is a much needed wake-up call. There is, however, another domain of latent colonialism in anthropology—the north-south divide—which is sometimes mentioned, but not often discussed in great depth.  Yes, there are currently spaces in which the notion of “world anthropology” is showcased and debated.  But how much do metropolitan anthropologists like me know about the important anthropological work that our colleagues in the south have long been conducting.  How many of us read the latest research in Spanish or Portuguese language journals or books? How many texts published in the south become part of the anthropological canon?

What do we miss when we pay too little attention to our southern colleagues?

We miss a great deal.

Recently I had the chance to attend academic conferences in Mexico and Spain—two exciting, energetic, innovative and inventive spaces of contemporary anthropological research.  In Mexico I attended Ambulante, a traveling documentary film festival. There I had the chance to talk about the work of Jean Rouch and discuss a rather “thin” ethnographic film about a wide variety of Brazilian religious rituals.  My hosts graciously invited me to present a lecture on public anthropology. In another setting we exchanged ideas on the anthropology of the senses.  My newfound Mexican colleagues deeply impressed me with their commitment to social justice, the breadth of their research interests, the depth of their anthropological knowledge not to forget their enthusiasm for the anthropological future. Many of them seemed to know something about my work, but I shamefully admit that I was ignorant of theirs.  This metropolitan anthropologist hadn’t read about a growing body of cutting-edge research in Mexico that constitutes a very exciting and important program of ethnographic research.


Casa del Tiempo,  Mexico City, a site of important anthropological debate. (Photo by Paul Stoller)

My Mexican hosts shrugged their shoulders—an old story.  On my particular path the road to fluency in Spanish is a slow one, but I will continue to learn and will make a point to read anthropological articles and books published in Spain and Latin America. En este momento soy incapaz de presentar una conferencia en espanol. Talvez el proximo ano?

In Granada Spain I experienced an even fuller exposure to the wonders of anthropology in Spanish. I had the good fortune to attend the Fourth International Congress of Ibero-American Anthropologists (AIBR)  At the Congress there was an opening keynote (Nigel Barley) on the cultural parameters of museum exhibits, a special lecture (Maria Paula Meneses) on anti-colonialism and history in Southern Africa, a special interview event featuring two pioneering anthropological feminists (Teresa del Valle and Monica Tarducci) in the Spanish-speaking world, and a closing keynote on doing slow anthropology in a fast world.


Professor Teresa del Valle anthropologist and feminista extraordinaire in Granada, Spain (Photo by Ayo Cabrera AIBR)

Although those special events attracted large audiences of AIBR delegates, an even more powerful intellectual energy could be sensed in the breakout sessions, all of which were jam-packed with tuned-in anthropologists.  At each session that I attended, I witnessed lively debates that convinced me that AIBR in Grenada had become fertile ground for the refinement of anthropological practices and concepts.  AIBR delegates presented papers on a wide variety of topics (mass migration, political anthropology, the anthropology of youth, the dynamics of the Anthropocene, the condition of sex workers, bio-politics and wellbeing, digital anthropology, medical anthropology, the anthropology of food and nutrition, cultural heritage, and many others which, given the privations of space, are too numerous to mention)  The AIBR Congress also featured workshops on anthropological methods and audio-visual practices (nine distinct subjects) as well as the 26 book launches and eight film showings.

I met fascinating and impressive scholars, some of whom had been activists, some of whom had been jailed during the time of Franco.  Based on my many conversations, it seems to me that Ibero-American anthropologists are profoundly dedicated to applying anthropological insights to the resolution of social problems, especially among immigrants, but also among poor rural migrants who, in search of a better life, have moved to large cities.  At each event there was a sense of celebration—of research, of writing, of the contemporary mission of anthropology.

We miss a lot when we bypass the rich intellectual traditions of our colleagues in the south.

When I look south, I see the future of anthropology.







A Guerilla Anthropologist Looks to the Future

We live in a world filled with seemingly insoluble problems.  Carbon emissions have increased at such alarming rates that climate experts have had to push forward their dire predictions of ecological devastation.  In the face of climate change denial, feckless politicians, especially in the United States, do nothing to confront the most important issue of our times.  Instead, they roll back previously insufficient environmental regulations.  Our air is getting dirtier.  Our water, which is in increasingly short supply, is less safe to drink.  Droughts and floods disrupt our supply of food, which, given decreased health regulation, is increasingly unsafe to eat.  The future looks even bleaker if you add to this list an ever-expanding income inequality that is in large measure linked to widespread political dysfunction.  From the vantage of the seemingly powerless present, what can we do, if anything, to change a pattern that leads us toward eventual extinction?

If we pay attention to our surroundings, glimmers of hope emerge from the epistemic murk. Although the excessive heat and humidity of August in the Middle Atlantic region of the United States makes many people listless and depressed, I find myself remarkably optimistic about future.  On a afternoon walk yesterday I came upon a yard sign extolling the virtues of American love, immigration and diversity.


A lawn poster in Wilmington, Delaware

Photo by Paul Stoller

The sign was welcome relief from a stredy stream of bad news. Our challenges, however, require much more than placing a sign, however, inspirational, on our lawns.  Maybe my optimism persists because I like to take a long view of things.  The times may appear bleak today, but with patience and forbearance, positive change can occur.  My teacher Adamu Jenitongo, an elder among the Songhay people of Niger and Mali, liked to say that the long path is always worth taking for it usually leads to a better life in a better world.  My professional optimism persists because a younger generation of anthropologists whom I’ve encountered in recent years, has been wonderfully impressive.

Like me, they are fast becoming guerilla anthropologists.  My friend and colleague anthropologist Bruce Kapferer of the University of Bergen, coined the term, “guerilla anthropology,” at the outset of his ongoing cross-cultural project on human inequality. In an interview in the University of Bergen Magazine 2018/2019 Kapferer said:

To me, in a sense, guerilla anthropology is anthropology.  Anthropology stands outside all of disciplines. To put it crudely, most of the disciplines practiced at universities have been born in the Nineteenth Century and in the history of nationalism, which began the modern state…Many unexamined assumptions regarding the nature and possibility of human beings were present that required challenge.  Western philosophy offered a radical critique but it, nonetheless, could not escape the limitation of many assumptions that were culturally and historically embedded it it…But anthropology also took seriously other systems.  These other systems were not necessarily bound by the same principles or frameworks of understanding that our own worlds were.  Anthropology is a guerilla discipline in the sense that it comes from outside a largely Western comprehension of things and challenges ruling assumptions…The critical guerilla anthropological perspective will lead to important reassessments of conceptual and theoretical perspectives that are still dominating discussions on problems associated with inequality.

Most of the guerilla anthropologists I’ve met understand, I think, that the old colonialist way of solving social problems or understanding the world doesn’t work anymore.  Our various systems of politics, economics and scholarship have become ineffectual and counter-productive.  In this context, the guerilla approach to anthropology is perfectly suited to living in, coping with and understanding contemporary social worlds. In my work as public blogger I attempt to present an anthropological perspective on contemporary social and political issues. In that work I often extend the wisdom of the aforementioned Songhay people (an exercise in guerilla anthropology) to the pragmatic analysis of our social, political, and existential issues.

In the work of younger scholars, who will shape our future, there is ample evidence of an emergent guerilla anthropology.  Indeed, their work is filled with passionate expression.  Their guerilla insights, for example, about urban gardeners in Havana, gold miners in Colombia, artist activists in Argentina, or local currency operators in the UK have been revelatory and breathtaking.  This work brings into relief a largely unseen picture of locally-contoured social and political innovation and invention–an ethnographic portrait of a developing future.

During the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to organize writing workshops for doctoral students most of whom are anthropologists.  At each four-day workshop, I have been profoundly impressed by the participants’ passionate commitment to social and economic justice.  Indeed, their dedication to guerilla anthropology is inspiring–especially in difficult institutional times during which they usually work in precarious circumstances.  Guerilla practices, of course, emerge in the margins of institutional anthropology, which means that guerilla anthropologists also tend to cast a radically critical gaze on ongoing institutional attitudes and behaviors (elitism, Eurocentric privilege, misogyny, colonial assumptions) that are still, as Bruce Kapferer suggests, wedded to outmoded 19th Century assumptions about the human condition.

The times call for radical change in our politics, our economic practices, and our assumptions about how the world works.  In a world that is increasingly shaped by social media, guerilla anthropology enables us to practice an other-inspired slow scholarship in a digitized fast world.  That is a prescription for increased ground-level awareness.  It is a path to the future of social science.  For me, it is a tonic that infuses me with hope for the future–even on a hot and humid day in August.









Guest Blog: Representing Colombian Gold Miners – or: The Perils of Drones and the Perks of Talking

I am pleased to feature a guest blog from Jesse Jonkman, a PhD candidate in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. In his doctoral research, Jonkman has been examining the organizational activities of gold-producing communities in the Colombian department of Chocó. He is particularly interested in how these activities relate to practices of state governance. He wrote this blog as part of the recent Weaving the World writing workshop at the University of Amsterdam.

Representing Colombian Gold Miners – or: The Perils of Drones and the Perks of Talking

by Jesse Jonkman

Informal gold miners in Colombia work for armed groups. At least, in the popular press they do. Most journalists – both domestic and foreign – don’t even bother to call them informal. “Illegal” seems to be their preferred term. “Criminal” will also do. Assisted by draconic headlines, these mining observes go at great pains to list the various social ills of wildcat gold delving. Child labor,[1] they exclaim. Lawlessness.[2] Prostitution.[3] Armed groups.[4] In effect, in many accounts on alluvial gold extraction – even those penned down by academics – the line between those with guns and those with washing pans is not always easy to discern.

The miners, the journalists tell us, are not only criminal henchmen. They also deforest. To reach their subterranean treasures the gold diggers use their excavators to bring down plants, trees, and woods. Moreover, they ruin rivers. They discard tailings in creek- and riverbeds, which clogs water bodies and interferes in the reproductive cycles of fish. We can also read that the miners poison. They sprinkle mercury in rivers, lands, and the bodies of human and non-human animals. In order for us to understand the fullness of this ecological apocalypse, drones, helicopters, and even satellites provide eye-catching bird’s-eye view pictures of lunar landscapes.[5] Our eyes tear at the sight of such devastation. What else to make of this than an “environmental holocaust?”[6]

Scenes from the gold mines in Colombia. Photos by Jesse Jonkman

But there is more to the story of “illegal” gold mining. Apart from criminals, we learn that there are victims. The victims are the poor tenants owning the lunar-like landscapes and living with the mercury-radiated rivers. They are victims of the outside excavator and dredge operators who wreak havoc on their alleged Edenic lives, livelihoods, and landscapes. Sometimes we are told that the tenants have fallen victim to their own greed and naivety–to the “lack of awareness[7] that renting out their lands to foreign miners is an unsustainable practice.

While we continue skimming the texts, we read, repeatedly, that the victims are indigenous, black, Afro-descendant, and Afro-Colombian victims. Perhaps the authors think that such incessant usage of ethnic and racial adjectives helps us to understand the hyperbolic dimensions of their victimhood. Here and there, we find some quoted lines, but by and large, the indigenous, black, Afro-descendant, Afro-Colombian victims of the predatory outside miners do not seem to talk much. They need journalists, academic experts, and politicians to talk for them.

This local silence does say something, at least to the criminals and victims that are being silenced. To them, their lack of citations may suggest that the journalists writing about them have hardly touched ground in their lives and gold mines and have looked at their grievances only from afar; through the bird’s-eye view pictures of drones, helicopters, and satellites.

Anthropologists don’t take a lot of bird’s-eye view pictures. They often don’t have money for drones, let alone helicopters or satellites. On the other hand, they do touch ground and do so rather abundantly. What they lack in helicopters, they compensate in time. They have loads and loads of time. And with all this time on their hands, what else to do but talk to people. Such talking often leads to contingent and open-ended stories, that may not find a large newspaper audience but can provide some shades of gray to black-and-white, rush-and-go journalism which presents environmental conflicts as zero-sum games with clearly distinguishable foes and victims.

As an anthropologist, I lived for one year in the department of Chocó – one of Colombia’s principal gold-producing regions. Though I am wary that my words may come across as somewhat shameless self-praise, I believe that this ethnographic immersion has allowed me to understand that the above-described depictions of Colombian small-scale mining rub off uneasily against the way that many chocoano tenants see themselves and the “predatory” outside miners.

Talking with tenants, you notice that few of them recognize themselves in the well-published and well-read trope of victimhood. Talking with tenants, you can hear people extensively lament the destruction of their lands. They certainly don’t like their trees being smashed to the ground and their beloved bocachico fish being filled up with mercury. But, talking with tenants, you find that they are more than their lands. They like to remodel houses, pay for tuition fees, have money for leisure activities, and dream of better futures. With renting out lands to excavator miners, those things come cheap.

So what about artisanal mining? Governors and journalists alike frequently applaud the use of pans, spades, and sticks as a sustainable alternative to excavators, dredges, and motor pumps. Yet talking with chocoano tenants you will likely here that in today’s mined-out landscapes one delves nada without the help of gasoline or diesel. “Na-Da,” as they say in Chocó, dragging the letter “D,” as to emphasize the genuine nothingness of nothing. Alright, then, what about cultivating crops? Well, living in a department that even imports rice, its main dietary staple, people probably tell you that agriculture would be a return to the unprofitable back-breaking past, nothing more nothing less.

In short, for many of the chocoano “victims,” mining is not so much a source of victimhood but a necessary evil. “Bad for their mothers,” Altanacios (a pseudonym) – the most dexterous motor pump miner I know in Chocó – replied, after I confronted him with the “bad” reputation of his mechanized activities among policy and opinion makers. “How many high school graduates are living in Chocó doing nothing? All of these hijos de puta have nothing else to do but mining, mining, and mining.”

Apart from victims, I didn’t see a lot of “criminals” in Chocó. There may be some guerrilleros enjoying the anonymity of the impenetrable forest – if with “criminals” one refers to non-state armed groups. These combatants certainly know how to point a gun and charge taxes on extractive operations. I guess, however, that most know little of mining technology. The same goes for the paramilitaries, who dwell in a number of chocoano villages and whose presence is only discussed in whispers.

However, when staring into the cabins of excavators, you will not see criminals. You’ll see the sun-gleaming, sweat-soaked faces of excavator miners. They are a lot of things, these miners. Some are cheating husbands, others lavish spenders, and almost all are lousy losers at card games. One might also suggest that they are insensitive talkers whose jokes – fueled with foul language and sometimes of a homophobic, racist, or sexist indole – are difficult to laugh at. And, granted, they are the rivals of Chocó’s rich flora and fauna and can be annoyingly indifferent about eating up large swaths of the forest.

Yet while they may be all these things, they are not criminals. They are miners paying extortion money. But what else to do? As they will probably tell you themselves – if only they were talked with more often – it’s paying up or not working at all.









Guest Blog: The Cow in the Elevator?

I am pleased to present on the Writing, World and Well Being platform a new guest blog, “The Cow in the Elevator,” from my colleague Tulasi Srinivas. It was originally published online as a contribution to The Immanent Frame: Secularism, religion, and the public sphere, a social media platform of the Social Science Research Council.

Tulasi Srinivas is professor of anthropology and religion at Emerson College, Boston, and a Luce-ACLS Fellow for Religion, Journalism and International Affairs for 2018-19. She is the author of several award-winning books including the recent, The Cow in the Elevator: Explorations in an Anthropology of Wonder (Duke University Press, 2018).

This entry is a wonderfully written blog on the anthropology wonder–very good medicine for troubled times. Please pass on it on to friends and colleagues.

In January 2009 I found myself helping three priests lure a reluctant cow into an elevator in the city of Bangalore, India. The cow’s handler and the priests pushed at her rear end while I held tempting ripe bananas in front of her.

I wondered why the priests were attempting to shove the cow into the elevator, but in the whirl of shouting and pushing that was involved, I forgot my bewilderment and entered into the spirit of the exercise.

Finally, we were successful. Having wedged the cow sideways into the elevator, we all rode upwards triumphantly.

I had stumbled upon the cow and the priests because I was wandering around the neighborhood, looking for an address. I had been invited to a house-blessing ceremony by a priest—a griha pravesham, translated from Sanskrit as “entry to the home.” A key part of the griha pravesham, a ritual derived from ancient Hindu agrarian customs, required a sacred cow to cross the threshold of the new house. I assumed the blessing was for an independent house, as I had been to several of these rituals before, where the threshold between the garden and the new home was decorated and blessed.

But riding in the elevator with the cow leaning heavily against me, it suddenly dawned on me that the new “house” to be blessed must be a luxury apartment in this tall steel-and-marble-clad modern building, and that the priests were improvising, creatively rejiggering an essential ritual element to suit the needs of a modern moment of dwelling.

Once off the elevator, the cow quickly regained her composure, chewing her cud in a bored manner as we led her past an expensive marble foyer. When it was her turn to participate, she wandered through the million-dollar home, lifting her hoofs over thresholds, and stoically leaving a heap of dung on the kitchen floor, much to the delight of the participants, for whom the cowpat was an added blessing.

I heard the word adbhutha several times that day to describe all the activities, as the priests tried to explain to me, the curious anthropologist, what was happening and how it could be understood. I translated this Sanskrit term as “odd” or “unusual,” and it seemed appropriate, given the surprise of finding a cow in an elevator.


But I should not have been surprised. After all, anthropologists have argued for nearly a half century that ritual is a space of otherness, a magical space, a counterpoint to the everyday and the mundane. The anthropologist Victor Turner, who studied Ndembu ritual life, suggested that ritual was a space of dynamism, an anti-structure, in opposition to society’s everyday mundane structure. He said, and I paraphrase, that ritual participants are elevated into the anti-statis of ritual, cross the threshold, and return rapidly to the statis of structure, renewed. In this reading, it is the statis of structure that is valuable to society. Ritual is dynamic and transformatory, but necessarily limited.

But as I wondered about cows riding elevators (which I found recently, might be a Bangalorean “thing”) I thought: what if the point is not to return to stasis (however transformed through ritual) but to enter a new space of creative fracture? What if the goal is to be wonderstruck? What if one seeks to spill the magic of ritual into the everyday, and blur the boundaries between the two? What if the goal is not stable continuation, but a subtle transformation of the world? What if, like the creative priests of Bangalore, one seeks to improvise, to enable a centuries-old blessing to fit a much-changed world? What if I was witnessing a seaming together of a deeper meaning of ritual with the modern world toward a richer condition of living?

In thinking and writing about these questions for sixteen agonizing years, I realized there was another translation to the word adbhutha that encompassed all these joyful, creative feelings and doings: wonder. What if the ritual creativity that I saw in Bangalore was a move toward wonder? After all, that was what the priests had been saying . . . that being wonderstruck was the point. Maybe I should have taken them at their word. Literally.

The Ungraspability of Wonder

Wonder and wondering—the creativity and curiosity of everyday life—are ungraspable, indescribable, and immeasurable, yet slyly naive and densely suggestive. We know it when we feel it. The religion scholar Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy argued that wonder was the attribute of divinity and the feeling that interaction with the divine provoked what he termed the “numinous.” Otto described the numinous as encompassing awe, bewilderment, curiosity, confusion, excitement, ecstasy, fear, dread, marvel, mystery, perplexity, reverence, surprise, and supplication. Distilling Otto’s description, I realized he was speaking about wonder and being wonderstruck, too.

But in thinking about the care required to hoist a cow into an elevator to create a moment of wonder, I began to wonder: Could we eff the ineffability of wonder differently? What if wonder was not an act of God that “struck” one, but was a response to a deliberate conflation of events? Could wonder be deliberately pursued?

Wonder Everywhere

Once I recognized wonder as pursuable and strategic, I saw and heard wonder everywhere in the temples of Bangalore. For example, I found the priests and ritualists had hired a commercial helicopter to shower the temple tower with rose petals for the consecration of a deity—a wonder-full event. The Bangalorean devotees were technocrats, living in the “Silicon Valley of Asia,” as Bangalore was known, yet they were wonderstruck by the circling helicopter, clapping with delight, likening it to Hindu mythic flying chariots.

I argue in The Cow in the Elevator: An Anthropology of Wonder (a folio of tangled observations that range from the philosophically speculative to the quotidian, and that date from 1998 to 2016) that technocratic modern lives in Bangalore are enlivened by wonder. I understood that wonder offered the ritual practitioners a way to radical social hope in the face of consuming neoliberal depredations. Wonder enabled ritual participants to both rupture modernity and capture it simultaneously.

But the broader point is to show that all this mental wandering and wondering advances a more expansive idea of intellectual responsibility for us as scholars, that is to recognize and to show our interlocutors, the priests in Bangalore and others, have a philosophy rather than to explain their mores through philosophy. Could everyday conversations—of life, of time, and of interactions—be precisely what philosophy is made of?

Provoking Wonder

One day, rather than the garland of yellow marigolds or of gold coins the deity was traditionally offered in that season, the priests had decided to decorate the temple in garlands of golden American corn, substituting one form of golden yellow for another (see image above). I saw such unapologetic and joyful ritual creativity all around me in the Bangalorean temples.

It seems that wonder is provoked and stoked deliberately in ritual worlds in Bangalore, and perhaps in the whole of South Asia. The conditions for the breakthrough of wonder were established, and wonder was invoked, incited, and invited in. In The Cow in the Elevator, I curate several dozen examples of everyday Hindu rituals that are creative, in which a provocation of wonder is woven through.

This revolutionary move to wonder by the priests created space for what I call an “experimental Hinduism” that uses new and modern objects and ideas, braided with traditional liturgy in innovative ways to strategically invoke wonder. It demands an equally radical and robust interrogation from us scholars. My observations of wonder and its cousins, astonishment and delight, propelled me toward the questions I ask about religion, ritual creativity, and ethical life.

World Building

When rituals changed, as they frequently did in Bangalore, I understood it was not a mistake or failure, as many ritual theorists have suggested, or even a “selling out” to modern forces, as other more conservative theorists have argued, but rather, an essential creativity. By observing cows in elevators and helicopters raining flowers or golden corn decorations, I found that Bangalorean ritual practitioners aligned practices of wonder with moments of ritual creativity sporadically, and that these moments sedimented and became instituted as part and parcel of the ritual over time. Contending with and interrogating ritual creativity in pursuit of wonder shifts the scholarly quest from marking the hollow focus of ritual as domesticating and efficacious, to more fully understanding ritual as creative and world building.

Scholars fail to see ritual and to understand it as my interlocutors did—not as merely domesticating the dangerous efficaciously, but as creatively transforming the world. Therein lies the problem. The available scholarly conceptual frameworks and critical terminologies are ill equipped to analyze the intricacies of ritual creativity.

Wonder as Possibility

Importantly, this turn to wonder not only presents a different understanding of ritual, but of life itself. As the ritual participants pushed cows into elevators, hired helicopters, and piled corn into baskets, they waited for wonder, creatively exploring imagined possibilities just beyond the horizons of their thought, changing ritual process, to both counter modernity and accept it, and all the while remaking their ethical lives. To me, wonder invites us, as scholars of religion, to rethink our understandings of place and people, of form and meaning, and of ethical life.

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