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The orang solar (“solar men”) are finally here. The longhouse community has been lit in a pleasant buzz since awaiting the arrival of the technicians (described by my adoptive parents, as “orang solar”) who would install new solar panels. The week prior, the available men in the longhouse had worked every day on building the shed that would house the solar batteries within and the solar panels above.
Apai1 tells me that the solar batteries are arriving separately from Germany. He is so impressed with the origin of the batteries that he repeats this fact to me a couple of times. However, he worries, they might be delayed in the port, not in time for Christmas when the villagers’ adult children return for the holidays from working in the cities.
The solar panels are not the first that the village has had. The first sixteen solar panels were placed above the longhouse roof about a year ago, replacing the many village generators run on diesel. However, the electricity generated from the solar panels is enough for “lights and TV only”—not enough to run the iceboxes or a washing machine that sits idle in a bathroom where I bathe with a scoop and a bucket.
I’ve been conducting ethnographic research in this Iban village of Batang Ai that sits close to the Sarawak/Kalimantan border for about a couple of months so far. Broadly, I am interested in the different ways indigenous rural communities in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, assert their rights over territorial domains that may lead to successful conservation of forests. It’s been full cycle returning to Batang Ai, where I had previously worked as a wildlife researcher for an international conservation NGO about ten years ago.
No longer counting orang utan nests in a strictly quantitative study whereby the forested landscapes are our dwellings for long periods of time and longhouse communities are a mere night’s stopover to obtain local field assistants, I am returning as a DPhil student, in a comparatively “messy” ethnographic study to examine the political ecology and the differing social-cultural interpretations of conservation landscapes in Sarawak.
I struggle with many things, including learning Iban, which everyone says should be easy for me to learn because it closely resembles Malay, the national language of Malaysia. My slowness in learning the language reminds me of how knowing Malay and some Iban was good enough as a wildlife researcher conducting nest count surveys.
“Bisik medak sarang maias?” Can you see an orang utan nest?
“Anang guai!” Slow down!
“Ako lelah.” I’m tired.
Local communities are more or less removed from the “realities” of wildlife research, unless the men (and usually, only men) are needed as field assistants or when conservation education workshops are conducted, with the assumption that indigenous rural communities are not conservationists or if they have any conservation knowledge, this has been forgotten and must be revived.
Years later, I have returned to Batang Ai, with a humbler approach and a willingness to accept my ignorance on many local issues. I no longer preach conservation when the local hunter comes by with kijang (barking deer) meat to sell. I try to understand why certain wildlife meat is preferable, why other wildlife remains a local taboo, and why sometimes local conservation strategies fail to work. I ask a lot of questions about how they manage different parts of their land or why certain forests are kept aside instead of being converted to rice fields. I learn the Iban terms for different stages of managed forest succession and the rituals that go along with it. During the grueling month of September, when the Indonesian haze was at its peak, I planted rice with two communities, and throughout the later months, I help harvest their intermittent crops. Unlike my time as a wildlife conservationist, I now spend more time with rural women, and in doing so, I learn about their dreams, hopes, and their hidden labor.
A few days before the arrival of the solar men, I watched my adoptive father and several men cut down a tree that was over thirty years old. With the aid of a hand chainsaw, the tree fell within less than ten minutes. It was then sawed into planks that would be used as walls for the solar shed. From seed to mighty tree to now, wood to build a solar shed.
I felt really sad to watch how quickly the tree fell after many decades of growth. But I stayed silent. Part of the agreement for accepting the solar panel donation includes that the community would have to provide the wood and labor for the solar shed. The additional solar panels are appreciated by the community members, who have seen many of their adult children leaving for work opportunities elsewhere. “We can have cold water and keep meat that we don’t preserve from spoiling,” says Apai. “Our grandchildren [who live in the towns with their parents] are not used to our food and prefer fried chicken wings and cold drinks.”
Much of the rural community life is changing, as most of the younger generation have opted for non-farming jobs and town lifestyles. However, this particular community has managed to retain its customary ways and customs, weaving into what I am beginning to understand as part of its multiple strategies to maintain rights over land and forests and to entice villagers’ adult children and grandchildren to eventually return home one day and help maintain intergenerational territorial rights.
Apai explains further that after a couple of decades of living without being tapped into the main electricity grid, which derives part of its energy from the Batang Ai dam,2 he decided that he had enough and asked for a solution from the government agency responsible for building many dams in the state. He wasn’t thinking of solar energy at that time, but he felt it wasn’t fair that some people in the state were benefiting from the dam-generated electricity, while others, living within the dam site itself, had to rely on diesel-run generators.
A year later, the government agency announced that it was donating solar panels to the community. “It’s been good so far,” Apai says. “We no longer spend about RM300 [about 50 pounds] per family per month to keep the generator going.” I keep to myself, my suspicions of the giver’s intent, particularly the timing of the second solar panel donation, so close to approaching state elections. After all, the community members clearly feel that they have benefited from this contribution. I also ask myself, would I do the same if I were in their place and seek for support wherever I could find it?
I am pleasantly surprised that despite the availability of the 24-hour electricity generated by solar energy, the community has so far maintained its relative independence from electricity. TV viewing, for example, is kept for a couple of hours during the night, after dinner. The community is close knit, and the young people and children who return home for the weekend or holidays, spend more time in the ruai,3 as their parents did when they were their age.
I remember many of the pleasurable afternoons when there was no work to be done in the rice fields: together, sitting cross-legged in the ruai, we, three generations of women, are peeling corn kernels off by hand, from the cobs that have been dried in the hot sun the day before. Unfamiliar with the work, I quickly shred my thumb until it bleeds an angry red, similar to the bronzed color of the corn. Sometimes, when the noon is relentlessly hot and we have just finished our meal, we spread out on our backs on the ruai to nap until the air becomes bearable. There is an option of switching on the fan, yet people prefer to lie close to the open doors, where there is more of a breeze. I particularly enjoy the late afternoon lazy conversations that occur on the ruai, snacking on fruit or tubers sourced from around the longhouse and the rice fields.
The month of December has brought in the coveted durian season, and we have been feasting on the creamy custard flesh every day. When our stomachs groan with the weight of durian and we can no longer eat any more, what is left is mashed into tempoyak4. Like sunrays converted into solar energy, durian is converted into another desired source of energy.
One evening, under the glare of the television light powered by solar, my adoptive parents prepare a monthly ritual to give thanks to the gods for their eldest son’s new job in the oil and gas industry. Apai waves a chicken egg above the plate offering of seven ritual ingredients that includes rice wine. Later, he would pour the rice wine between the cracks of the wooden floor. He conducts this ritual in what appears to be in a perfunctory manner, as his eyes drift to the TV when the short ritual ends. Apai reminds me later that it is important to remember your roots, where you come from, despite how far you may have traveled. This includes what travels toward you, including the solar panels and solar batteries from Germany.
“We came from the earth, we return to the earth,” says Apai, who expresses hope that his children would one day, return to the longhouse, to help protect their land and forests. “It is their pusaka,5” he adds.
Solar energy may have brought some convenience to the community, such as freeing up limited financial resources. However, it seems that the maintenance of traditional customs and ways is dependent on the elders who feel the need for it and thus express this need through mostly actions. The younger people then learn from observing and may emulate their parents, while adapting to their own current needs and wishes.
The solar men have arrived, and I am roped in, as the adoptive daughter, to help prepare food for lunch. They are local men from the nearby town and easily converse in Iban with the community. They would later spend the next couple of days hammering the solar panels into place, as the community watches. As Apai has feared, the solar batteries are stuck in port and will likely be released after the New Year.
“Not in time for Christmas,” he frets, anticipating visits from his six children and eleven grandchildren. And then he smiles, “It is good to have solar [energy]; life is a little better now.”
June Rubis is a DPhil candidate in the School of Geography and Environment at the University of Oxford. Her dissertation explores the different strategies and politics of how conservation landscapes are made in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
All photos in this post are credited to this author.
1. Meaning “father” in Iban. Apai is my adoptive father in the community and also the longhouse headman.
2. Batang Ai dam was completed in 1985 and displaced about 3,000 people from twenty-six longhouses (Aiken and Leigh 2015). This particular longhouse community was not displaced, as they were living further inland, close to the Indonesian-Sarawak border. The village moved closer to the dam site in the early 1990s.
3. communal corridor
4. preserved durian
5. Meaning “heritage” in Iban and Malay; its origin is derived from Sanskrit
Aiken, S. Robert, and Colin H. Leigh. 2015. Dams and Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia: Development, Displacement and Resettlement. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 97, no. 1: 69–93.
Cite as: Rubis, June. 2016. “Solar, Sustainability, and Strategies in Sarawak.” EnviroSociety. 3 February. www.envirosociety.org/2016/02/solar-sustainability-and-strategies-in-sarawak.
Whenever there is armed conflict, sexual violence and rape, often against women and girls, soon emerge as central concerns in the global public. This is an important topic, as rape is often used as “a weapon of war.” It is a dangerous concern, nevertheless. Opposing war parties commonly develop public relations strategies aimed at exploiting the global concern over sexual violence. Further, “rape as a weapon of war” may be a false assumption, for it may overshadow other atrocities inherent in nearly all armed conflicts and the focus may be on rape as a selective phenomenon separated from the political and economic context.
Over the past decade, wartime rape has gained increased scholarly attention. Today it is an integral part of media coverage from conflict zones around the world. From being completely ignored or poorly understood as “spoils of war,” the subject of gender-based and sexual violence is now a widely debated topic among researchers, peacekeepers, law and justice sectors, policy makers, and organizations working to combat violence. More awareness of wartime rape has led to the formulation of guidelines to address support for victims as well as legal consequences (Linos 2009: 1548). In the Rwandan and Yugoslav war tribunals, for example, “rape as a weapon of war” was prosecuted as a crime against humanity and a constitutive act of genocide (Buss 2009). While international attention to gender-based violence in war is important and has helped to break taboos, stigma, and the silence attached to rape, social science scholars now argue that dominant global discourses, such as labeling rape as a “weapon of war,” are often inadequate, simplified, sensationalistic, and stereotypical (cf. Buss 2014: 4; see also Washington Post).
The following should be read keeping in mind that wartime rape is not my primary research focus. However, it has been an inevitable subject in my research on the politics of conflict and armed groups in the eastern territories of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The eastern Congo is known to outsiders as “the rape capital of the world”—an expression Foreign Minister of Sweden Margot Wallström1 coined after a short visit in 2011 (Eriksson-Baaz and Stern 2013). Looking at this on a different scale, wartime rape reoccurred in discussion with individuals I interviewed in the Congo (such as combatants, soldiers, child soldiers, and civilians). Likewise, it was an unavoidable discussion topic with “outsiders” trying to understand why rape is so commonplace in the Congo. The purposes in this short blog post are not to discuss the prevalence or motivations of sexual violence in the Congo conflict but rather to follow up on the current debate, simply asking: what do we actually know about wartime rape? Where is the discussion going? What are the general misunderstandings and misconceptions?
Until recently, sexual violence in armed conflicts was not considered as a research topic per se, but sexual violence (against women) was often mentioned as context or as a byproduct of other forms of violence. Much of the research available, therefore, has predominantly been carried out by humanitarian organizations, advocacy groups, and policy makers. In these reports, sexual violence is often explained as a result of disorder, the breakdown of governments, and lawlessness and as a consequence of living in violent and chaotic conditions. In the academic debate, a different focus emerged during the 1990s when the international community became aware of “rape camps” set up during the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda as part of ethnic cleansing (see, e.g., Jones 2000). Since then, scholars and advocacy groups have often discussed rape in ethnic terms (e.g., in the case of Darfur, Iraq, East Timor, Ecuador, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, India–Pakistan, etc.). Another focus is on rape as a political or military tactic used to destroy communities, to break people and split groups apart. This argues—as opposed to the social breakdown narrative—that rape is a deliberate tactic “having a systematic pervasive or officially orchestrated aspect, emphasizing that rapes are not random acts, but appear to be carried out as deliberate policy” (Buss 2009: 149, citing Niarchos 1995: 658).
Sharp lines: Beyond critiquing global discourses in the donor and media industries
This has meant that over the past decade, wartime rape has predominantly—and with a broad stroke and little regard to the political and economic dimensions of global and local warring—been defined as a strategy, a tactic, or “a weapon of war.” Such global discourse has received criticism from a number of scholars arguing, for example, that focusing on rape as a separate phenomenon in war tends to reduce other complexities of violence, such as other types of sexual violence, humiliation, forced recruitment of children in armed groups, forced labor, massacres, or mass killings that often occur simultaneously. Ericsson Baaz and Stern, who are the leading authors in this line of critique, have written substantially about rape in conflict (2009, 2010, 2013) and have sought to disentangle what the global discourse entails—especially in regard to the political consequences and unwanted side effects of a sole focus on rape as the weapon of war. For eastern Congo, they have argued that the dominant framework for understanding and addressing rape has become “so seemingly coherent, universalizing and established that seeing, hearing, or thinking otherwise about wartime rape and its subjects (e.g., perpetrators/victims) is difficult” (2013: 2). This has to do with “outside” actors and agencies and their vested interest in creating a myriad of local replicas of the global narrative.
Despite reports and figures that show the high prevalence of wartime rape, for scholars working in the Congo the “commercialization of rape” or “rape tourism” is widely known. Many have observed journalists (and researchers) who search in what they themselves declare to be “rape hospitals” or “rape communities” to find victims of rape whose stories are then published as “horror stories” in media or reports made accessible worldwide for the pursuit of funding (Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2013: 2). The critique here, Eriksson Baaz and Stern rightly point out, is not only about the ethical aspect of exploiting victim identities but also that a single focus on rape can contribute to “the recycling and reinforcement of racialized images” and “barbaric stereotypes” of the Congolese population, recalling the “Heart of Darkness narrative” (Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2010: 12). Moreover, the critique emphasizes that for many local and international NGOs working in the region, wartime rape has become a lucrative and fund-driven business (8–9), while other projects are less successful or ignored by the international community and donors.
Such opposition and mere focus on discourse and the reproduction of a global narrative and its mingling with simplified stereotypical narratives by a donor-dependent NGO and media sector creates new sets of partialities. As Mertens (2013) discusses in a blog post, it is important not to downplay or minimize the severity of rape, which remains—even though statistical numbers might be questionable—a widespread and commonplace phenomenon in the Congo society. A report, to cite some numbers, shows that about a thousand women are raped every month in Eastern Congo (see Palermo et al. 2011 for a detailed breakdown). In contrast, most perpetrators are in fact not military forces or combatants but civilians (Cohen et al. 2013). Further, a report conducted by the Demographic and Health Survey (2015) shows that only 1 percent of sexual violence cases in the DRC has been carried out by soldiers, whereas 80 percent of the cases were carried out by someone closely related to the victim. Further, the study found that sexual violence is commonplace throughout the DRC and not only confined to the conflict-ridden east (see also Congo Siasa for an overview of numbers and figures). Sexual violence, however, was more brutal when it was related to violence generated by the conflicts taking place in the eastern regions (Palermo et al 2011). What is more, there are indications that sexual violence against men is also widespread, a subject that has been less studied and heavily underreported due to stigma and shame (Dolan 2014). As these figures indicate, we must be careful with how we frame “rape as a weapon of war” as well as with what we actually mean when we speak about sexual violence and rape in contexts of conflict.
Blurred structures: Outlining patterns of variation in wartime rape
In line with what I said above, several recent studies support the critique of predominant global discourses about wartime rape as a tactic and weapon of war (see, e.g., Cohen and Hoover 2012). There are options to take the analysis further. Although rape exists in almost every conflict, there are many patterns, motives, and variations for and of rape (cf. Buss 2009). In general, an important objection against a universalized understanding of rape is that what rape symbolizes and signifies, as well as how it is lived and acted out in domestic relations and public spheres, is place specific and part of longstanding, ongoing struggles over the social construction of norms. One central theme is the battle over determining the historical, “traditional” gender relations and boundaries between socially accepted violence and inacceptable violence. This has far-reaching implications for how we understand wartime rape, for if wartime rape is regarded as a ubiquitous (male-driven) planned strategy carried out deliberately by military and rebel groups, it may appear as inevitable. Cohen et al. (2013) emphasize instead that while some rebel or military groups encourage rape, other groups follow codes of conduct that prohibit rape. Rape was very rare in the Sri Lankan conflict on the part of the Tamil secessionist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) as well as among insurgent groups such as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador (Wood 2009: 132). Further, wartime rape is largely unheard of in the Israel/Palestine conflict. These observations may well point to the fact that historical, political, and economic contexts of a conflict play a significant role in regard to sexual violence.
Another misconception is that generally, women are portrayed as victims and men as perpetrators. Even though the majority of rape victims are women, such clear-cut gender divisions emerge as ambiguous when in Haiti (Faedi 2010) and Rwanda (Jones 2002) women perpetrated sexual violence against other women and against men. Examples of female perpetration have actually been central to a case of sexual violence that has possibly had the widest media coverage in recent years. Torture testimonies from the prison in Guantanamo Bay and from sexual violence against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had women at center stage. Similarly, during my fieldwork in military and demobilization camps in the Congo, I observed how women took an active part in mobilizing violence and encouraged soldiers to participate in violent acts to achieve the wider political and ideological goals of the group. This forces us to rethink the roles of victims/perpetrators/civilians and whom we actually refer to in the “rape as a weapon of war” discourse. What is more, rethinking these roles is important for overcoming gender and racist stereotypes that would have few remembering as wartime sexual violence in the pictures of female and male US soldiers torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
Consequently, and against widespread arguments that sexual violence as part of warfare aims to destroy community and tear a prewar social contract of mutuality apart, it seems reasonable to broaden our understanding. An important observation in this regard is that that national armies (that are supposed to protect the population) rather than nonstate armed groups (that are commonly viewed as the threat to stability) are more likely to carry out sexual violence. In cases where rape was obviously intended to serve as a strategic weapon of war, such as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, high-level commanders were often liable and held responsible for the actions (Cohen et al. 2013). Further, Eriksson-Baaz and Sterns (2013) study of the Congolese national army (FARDC) soldiers adds further complexity to the empirical foundations of our understanding of wartime sexual violence. Soldiers detailed in interviews that during conflict rape often occurred as a response to a breakdown of military leadership structures. Thus, while rape in some conflicts, as was the case in Rwanda or Bosnia-Herzegovina, was clearly used as a political and military strategy, according to Eriksson-Baaz and Stern “sexual violence can also reflect the opposite [of strategy], the breakdown of chains of command, indiscipline rather than discipline, commander’s lack of control, rather than their power; the micro dynamics of violent score-settling, rather than decisions of military and political leaders engaged in defeating the enemy” (2013: 5).
Another pattern of variation, indicating blurred structures, brings me back to my own research site, the Congo. One central explanation to why nonstate armed groups are less likely to carry out rape is that most rebel groups rely on the support from civilians (Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2013). This was also what my own analyses of one rebel group currently operating in the Congo conflict brought to the fore as its members continuously emphasized that close relations with civilians were paramount for economical, political, and military support (Hedlund, forthcoming). Again, not all rebel/civilian interactions are built on what my interviewees invoked as “symbioses” and “good relations.” Mutual trust and collaboration may go side by side with power, dominance, fear, and force—and there is always the possibility of a tipping point. The 2009 massacres in the Kivu regions, for example, show the fragility of rebel/civilian interactions and how rape was used as a deliberate “strategy.”2 Following a military operation launched by the governments of Rwanda and Congo (supported by the UN) with the goal to defeat and disarm a Rwandan Hutu dominated rebel group (FDLR), the rebels responded by “punishing” the civilian population over several weeks. This large-scale violence included mass rape against the civilian population that turned from support group to hostages as a way to communicate a political message “if you try to kill us, we will kill the civilians.”
The latter example indicates that wartime rape and other forms of violence are still an effective way to instill and spread fear as well as a way to communicate political or military messages through mutilated bodies. Although critical reflection over simplified and universalized global discourses of wartime rape and the NGO and media funding that goes along with this particular depiction of sexual violence is indicated, the prevalence and severity of rape must never be downplayed so as to prepare an analytical ground where discursive dimensions of sociability prevail over the material.
To understand the root causes of sexual violence and its relationships to other forms of violence, we must move beyond easy labels to avoid that discussions of rape in conflict become counterproductive and that narratives are sometimes wrongly conceptualized. Rather than “interpretations at a distance,” more ethnographic research based on direct encounters with perpetrators (rather than with victims) is still needed. Only in this way can we get a better understanding of wartime rape, its multiple causes, its complexity, why it occurs, when it takes place, and for what reasons. A position of sharp lines and blurred boundaries, as proposed above, might be a good point of departure.
Anna Hedlund is a postdoctoral researcher with the South African Research Chair in Social Change, University of Johannesburg. Based on fieldwork in the eastern Congo, she is currently working on a monograph on armed groups and conflict dynamics in the DRC (forthcoming, University of Pennsylvania Press).
1. At the time, Margot Wallström was working as a special representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC).
Buss, Doris. 2009. Rethinking “rape as a weapon of war.”Feminist Legal Studies. 17(2): 145–163.
Buss, Doris. 2014. Seeing sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict societies: The limits of visibility. In Doris Buss et al., eds., Sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict societies: International agendas and African contexts. New York: Routledge.
Cohen, Dara Kay, and Amelia Hoover Green. 2012. Dueling incentives: Sexual violence in Liberia and the politics of human rights advocacy. Journal of Peace Research 49(3): 445–458.
Cohen, Dara Kay, Amelia Hoover Green, and Elisabeth Jean Wood. 2013. Wartime sexual violence: Misconceptions, implications, and ways forward. Special report 323. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.
Dolan, Chris. 2014. Into the mainstream: Addressing sexual violence against men and boys in conflict. A briefing paper prepared for the workshop held at the Overseas Development Institute, London, 14 May.
Eriksson Baaz, Maria, and Maria Stern. 2008. Making sense of violence: Voices of soldiers in the Congo (DRC). Journal of Modern African Studies 46(1): 57–86.
Eriksson Baaz, Maria, and Maria Stern. 2009. Why do soldiers rape? Masculinity, violence and sexuality in the armed forces in the Congo (DRC). International Studies Quarterly 53(2): 495–518.
Eriksson Baaz, Maria, and Maria Stern. 2010. The complexity of violence: A critical analysis of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Stockholm: Sida.
Eriksson Baaz, Maria, and Maria Stern. 2013. Sexual violence as a weapon of war? Perceptions, prescriptions, problems in the Congo and beyond. London and New York: Zed Books.
Faedi, Benedetta. 2010. From violence against wome to women’s violence in Haiti. PhD diss., Stanford University.
Jones, Adam. 2002. Gender and genocide in Rwanda. Journal of Genocide Research 4(1): 65–94.
Jones, Adam. 2002. Gendercide and genocide. Journal of Genocide Research 2(2): 185–211.
Lions, Natalia. 2009. Rethinking gender-based violence during war: Is violence against civilians men a problem worth addressing? Social Science and Medicine 68: 1548–1551.
Palermo, Tia, Amber Peterman, and Caryn Bredenkamp. 2011. Sexual violence against women in the DRC: Population-based estimates and determinants. Paper presented at Great Lakes Policy Forum, Washington, DC, 2 June.
Wood, Elisabeth Jean. 2009. Armed groups and sexual violence: When is wartime rape rare? Politics & Society 37(1): 131–161.
Cite as: Hedlund, Anna. 2016. “Sharp lines, blurred structures: Politics of wartime rape in armed conflict.” FocaalBlog, 22 January. www.focaalblog.com/2016/01/22/anna-hedlund-sharp-lines-blurred-structures-politics-of-wartime-rape-in-armed-conflict.
The following is a guest blog post written by Michael G. Cornelius, author of the article Sexuality, Interruption, and Nancy Drew, which appeared in Volume 8, Number 2 of the journal Girlhood Studies.
It’s admittedly an odd thing, to be a Nancy Drew scholar.
Strictly speaking, “Nancy Drew Scholar” is not the official occupation listed on my tax forms. And when strangers ask me what I do for a living—whenever such casual conversations between strangers bubble up, such as on an airplane—I never reply “Nancy Drew scholar.” I usually say “English teacher” or “professor” or even “medievalist” (which raises more than a few eyebrows on its own, trust me.) And, at the risk of sounding like an actor who worries about typecasting, I’m more than a Nancy Drew scholar. I write on a wide variety of subject matter: sword-and-sandal movies; science fiction; sexuality in the premodern and early modern eras—a quick perusal of my CV would reveal books and articles with words like “Chaucer” and “Shakespeare” and “Gawain” in the titles (there’s also one that includes the word “Farts,” but that’s a subject of a whole different blog post.)
Despite all that, around half my scholarly output involves Nancy Drew, Vicki Barr, Trixie Belden, Shirley Flight, Rick Brant, Christopher Cool, or some other girls’ or boys’ series protagonist. I can’t help it. My obsession started at a young age when a prescient elementary-school librarian pressed a copy of Secret of the Forgotten City (Nancy Drew #52) into my hands at the impressionable age of 9. This book had everything: mystery, adventure, secret codes, archaeology, thrilling discoveries, friendship—safe and sane as these books may be, for a farm-town kid ensconced in an upstate village of 200 people and 8000 dairy cattle, this was heady stuff indeed. I never looked back, and I never outgrew my love of Nancy Drew.
If you ever need evidence of this, feel free to come to my house. I can show you my collection. I have 900 Nancy Drew books (and growing). Collectible dot shelves here and there; a few pieces of original Nancy Drew artwork adorn the walls. And my CV reflects this: I’ve written about Nancy Drew and primitivism; Nancy Drew and the Awkward Age; Nancy Drew and Shakespeare; Nancy Drew and sacrality; Nancy Drew and teleological perfection; Nancy Drew and illness; Nancy Drew and motherhood; and, for the piece included in the most recent edition of the the journal of Girlhood Studies (8.2, 2015), “Sexuality, Interruption, and Nancy Drew.”
People sometimes look at me funny when they find out about my obsession with Nancy Drew. I don’t blame them. There are precious few of us out there (though I have always contended there are not nearly enough of us out there.) Many social critics have observed that it is our leisure time, and not our working hours, that truly defines us, whether we obsess over baseball statistics or knitting patterns or growing a pumpkin the size of a Winnebago. I obsess over Nancy Drew and her fellow girl and boy sleuths. I belong to two different girl sleuth societies; I attend Nancy Drew conventions (yes, we have them, and they are spectacular); I re-read the books; I ponder them. And I use them to understand the world. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? What we academics are really doing, each in our discipline, each in our own way? Trying to understand the world—our world, each world, every world. And what better way to do that than through Nancy Drew? Everyone knows her name. She is a cultural zeitgeist—probably the most well-known female literary character of all time. New Nancy Drew books have been produced for the last 85 years, with no signs of stopping. And over the course of hundreds and hundreds of mysteries solved, criminal conspiracies uncovered, and villains locked behind bars, Nancy Drew—directly and indirectly—has confronted nearly every aspect of society, all while remaining a blank slate and a figure of mythopoesis. She is larger-than-life and yet, at the same time, utterly scribe-able to every reader, so that we may place ourselves, not in her shoes (for, indeed, no one is Nancy Drew), but next to her, in her flashlight’s glow, part of her coterie, part of her circle of friends, part of her adventures and part of her world. That is the real power of Nancy Drew. The worlds of characters like Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur are too rarified for us—one has to be extraordinary just to be let in the front door (even Watson, for all his bluster, is a pretty good writer). With Nancy Drew, however, one just has to be curious, and a little bit brave. We can all do that.
“Sexuality, Interruption, and Nancy Drew” looks, quite literally, at the verbal tactic of interruption in the Nancy Drew books, pondering why it is, whenever the topic of conversation turns to marriage, Nancy abruptly and vigorously changes the narrative, altering the course of conversation away from any hint of romance, marriage, coupling, and dyadism, and back to more important matters—like mysteries. Take, for example, the conclusion to The Mystery at Lilac Inn, where Nancy finds it necessary to interrupt two chums whose conversation dares to veer toward their upcoming nuptials:
Later, as Nancy, Helen, and Emily were talking, the two older girls suddenly stopped speaking on the subject of their forthcoming weddings. Helen said, “Goodness, Nancy, you must be tired of hearing us talk about steady partners when—” Nancy interrupted. Laughing gaily, she said, “Not at all. For the present, my steady partner is going to be mystery!” (Keene 1961: 180)
As a scholar, I sometimes feel as Nancy does. I love spying riddles in texts and television shows and trying to ascertain what it all might mean. Of course being a Nancy Drew scholar makes perfect sense in this imperfect world. Who is better at solving mysteries than Nancy? A Nancy Drew scholar? I’m proud to be identified as such.
Keene, Carolyn. 1961. The Mystery at Lilac Inn. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.
MICHAEL G. CORNELIUS is the author/editor of fifteen books, including nancy drew and her sister sleuths: essays on the fiction of girl detectives (co-edited with Melanie E. Gregg; McFarland, 2008) and the companion book, The Boy Detectives: Essays on the Hardy Boys and Others (McFarland, 2010). He has published extensively on Nancy Drew, Vicki Barr, and other girls’ and boys’ series literature. Cornelius is the chair of the Department of English and Communications at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA.
David Graeber, Laura Bear and Nayanika Mathur were recently in conversation at the London School of Economics (LSE) on the anthropology of bureaucracy. They reflected on the connections between their recent publications that propose a new anthropology of bureaucracy (Bear, Navigating Austerity: Currents of debt Along a South Asian River, Stanford 2015; Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, Melville, 2015; Mathur, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy, and the Developmental State in Himalayan India, Cambridge, 2015, Bear and Mathur, Remaking the Public Good: A New Anthropology of Bureaucracy, The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Spring 2015).
From a wide-ranging discussion that is available in full here, we present a short summary:
What can the post-office tell us about bureaucracy? How do postal services and the bureaucrats that serve in them embody particular public goods and their inequalities? It is important to focus on the history of the politics of race and class in postal services across the world. For instance, in the United States the post office was once seen as the realisation of solid public service and middle class respectability. With the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, however, it becomes a space of racialized violence expressed in the phrase “going postal.” In Germany there is a distinct history with different break points. It began as a public good drawing on military codes, to become (as shown in Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl) a site of social ressentiment and Freudian angst associated with the rise of new right and left wing politics in the 1920s-30s. In the UK its recent progressive privatisation tracks a different trajectory of aspiration and inequality defined by shareholder politics.
How are bureaucracies both moral and military technologies?
Our comparison of different postal services led us towards a discussion of the technologies that found new bureaucracies. Services such as the railways, postal services, the telegraph are often considered as military technologies – particularly in the context of colonialism. However, these are also moral technologies as they are attempts to shape the legitimacy of rule. The bureaucrat and technician bear the burden of efficiency and of performing a particular kind of ethical self. So bureaucrats and their technologies simultaneously enact utopias and lines of violent force. This is a highly confusing combination for citizens as they interact with them.
Why does the history of bureaucracy matter?
Citizens’ encounters with bureaucracies vary across time and space. How can we reflect on bureaucracy through a historical and comparative frame? Our various research sites of the United States, India, and Madagascar offer interesting points of contrast. In India we discuss how, even today, the state and its associated bureaucratic apparatus is believed to embody an abstract vision of justice; one that it is never able to approximate in practice but the ideal is always held out as a promise. In Madagascar, on the other hand, the state was considered akin to a natural disaster – something you speedily get out of the way of. What methods of comparison at a middle range of analysis are possible across these diverse forms? Technology offers an obvious entry point (as our discussions have shown so far), but what about common usages of language and their performative effects?
What does language reveal about bureaucracy; especially about contemporary financialised bureaucracies?
All three monographs as well as our special issue on the public good explore the financialisation of bureaucratic structures the world over. In this context, it becomes particularly important to pay attention to the common language that is being deployed in public discourse and the new words that are gaining prominence. David has looked at ‘deregulation’ in the United States while Laura, Nayanika, and the contributors to their special issue study the effects of ‘austerity,’ ‘transparency,’ ‘consensus,’ ‘accountability,’ and ‘efficiency.’ Our attempt here is to recast the study of bureaucracy through an ethnographic tracing of the new public goods circulated by usages of these ethically loaded words; and the forms of precarious citizenship that they generate. Taking efficiency as an example, we discussed how the ends of this efficiency are never considered—the accumulation of more profits for the private sector.
Is it difficult to study bureaucracy? Is it possible to not study bureaucracy?
Our conversation lingered on how difficult it remains – despite the recent spate of ethnographies – to study bureaucracy anthropologically. Our 3 monographs and the special issue of CJA are recent attempts to overcome this longstanding anthropological difficulty. We all underlined that it remains impossible to escape bureaucracy, be it in our roles as academics in the UK or ethnographers in India and Madagascar or just residents of our own countries. The bureaucrat is the evil sister of the anthropologist in their techniques; therefore we have to find ways to maintain our position as the ‘good sister.’ It is vital to find new ways through which we can study and articulate bureaucracy as more than ‘boring’ or ‘necessary.’
How can we articulate the violence of bureaucracy through the study of paperwork?
A growing ethnography of paperwork has successfully made the violence within bureaucratic procedure visible. David has written of the struggles surrounding his mother’s illness as he encountered the American health system. He makes the point that the supreme idiocy of paperwork is a mere manifestation of the systemic violence of bureaucracy. Our encounter with it is paradoxical; we understand it won’t let us in, yet we still desire to be recognized by it. Laura has written on the tortuous petitions that Anglo-Indian and Bengali railway workers sent to the bureaucracy in colonial India seeking individual recognition (Bear 2007); and Nayanika has looked at how transparency is materially made by documents in contemporary development work in India (Mathur 2012).
How is contemporary paperwork in financialised bureaucracies different from past forms?
We all agreed that the new public good of transparency is critical in changing the forms of paperwork. It remains a largely uncriticised public good in the contemporary world even as it does the work of masking new forms of opacity and state control. What is the relationship between secrecy and government today? How does the discourse of transparency change Weber’s idea of the official secret – that most wonderful bureaucratic invention? All of us gave examples of the manner in which transparency and secrecy operate in our experience and ethnography. We agreed that there is a need for a more robust anthropology of secrecy and spying. The doublethink and triplethink that is central to bureaucracy needs to be elaborated and acknowledged.
Are the bureaucrats conspiring?
Talk of secrecy led, inevitably, to the way in which the existence of bureaucracies enables conspiracy theories. The analytical problem is that bureaucracies provoke conspiracy theories and accounts of centralised control; so how can we identify the difference between a ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ causal chain in our ethnographic analysis? How can we track both and disentangle the ways in which they mutually support each other? We discussed how Foucault’s decentralised model of state power is not sufficient to capture this complexity. Class inequality is especially important in the study of conspiracy theories; the middle classes and bureaucrats do ‘strategy’ while the working classes are labelled as ‘paranoid.’ We reflected on how states sometimes feed people who are conspiracy theorists with conspiracies to prove that they are ‘insane.’
What constitutes bureaucratic honour and what is its class politics?
If we are to think of bureaucracies as animated spaces inhabited by individuals with particular deals then we need to more clearly consider how bureaucratic honour operates. We need in particular (in an anti-Foucauldian move) to explore its class politics. Examples ranged from military honour under apartheid and post-apartheid regimes in South Africa; to the colonial and post-colonial railway bureaucracy to lower-level development workers in the Indian Himalaya.
How do bureaucracies work in relation to the market now?
We ended by discussing how bureaucracies enable capital accumulation and greater collusion between the market and the state. The distinction between the public and the private that bureaucracy is so intent on upholding is morally real in the personas of bureaucrats; yet is structurally unreal because of the ways in which state institutions now directly funnel profits towards corporate organisations. A need to expose this process of accumulation as well as the morality that underlies bureaucratic action is absolutely critical. This is an approach that we all take in our published and continuing research.
Click here to browse articles in the special issue of The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology on bureaucracy and the public good.
Conversations about “populist radical right parties” (Cas Mudde) in contemporary Europe usually turn to issues such as asylum seekers, ‘foreigners’ and the European Union. What tends to surprise audiences, however, are stories about far-right ecology. Environmental issues are, after all, issues supposedly covered by ‘the left’. However, even if far-right actors across Europe have hardly prioritised environmental protection over the last decades, these actors do intervene in such debates, making the latter meaningful on the basis of their nationalist stance. And maybe, this should not surprise us in the first place given that nature protection, in its beginnings in the 19th century, was often pushed by rather conservative forces.
In the article The Nature of Nationalism, my colleague Christoffer Kølvraa and I thus ask whether and how different types of “populist radical right parties”, the more mainstream Danish People’s Party and the more radical British National Party, have addressed the topic of the national countryside and the transnational issue of climate change.
Although differences in the ‘radicalism’ of the position of these actors exist, these differences are not fundamental. Instead, there is a fundamental difference in how national countryside and transnational climate are assessed. With regards to the countryside, both parties are ardent defenders of what they view as a quintessential national space, a position underpinned by what we call a nationalist symbolic aesthetics. That is, both parties frame the countryside in terms of its natural splendour coupled with a claim for historical continuity of the national community in this territory, thereby making manifest the political sovereignty the people enjoy over the land. In relation to the nature of climate too, the British National Party goes much further than the Danish People’s Party, the former voicing strong scepticism (if not denial) regarding the thesis of (man-made) climate change – something the latter rather insinuates. However, both parties share a symbolic materialism via which international bodies, arguably necessary in the fight against an inherently transnational phenomenon, are criticised as they apparently endanger national sovereignty and classical nationalist ideas of self-sufficiency. When nationalists justify their stance on environmental issues and claim that “we all hold our land in trust for future generations” (British National Party), one should not simply dismiss their arguments as strategic in order to attract voters. Instead, their notion of ecology and environmental protection is deeply embedded in their ideology.
While the topic has received rather scant attention in the literature to date, and thus research charters much previously unmapped territory, the topic has also proven to be challenging – something noticeable in particular in conversations with environmental activists. While the climate politics of “populist radical right parties” are easily rejected by these activists, many of their more subtle positions, for example on invasive species, cannot easily be distinguished from mainstream and even left-wing arguments. Where they exist, these similarities need to be taken seriously! As the modernization of the far-right across Europe does not seem to lose steam, more and more related, counter-intuitive cases emerge. Currently, a group of German neo-Nazis (Balaclava Küche) promotes veganism within their scene. Partly due to environmental concerns, they do so through their YouTube channel but have also offered catering service at neo-Nazi concerts, etc. In a series of interviews conducted after the completion of The Nature of Nationalism, actors (previously) belonging to “populist radical right parties” voiced ‘traditional’ views on a far-right ecology. For example, interviewees lamented about what they perceive as a cultural crisis which ignores the laws of nature. Instead, nations should be viewed as (eco)systems which – if too much alien elements enter – lose their natural equilibrium and collapse. Subsequently, “nomadic cultures and races” were rejected in favor of rooted (“sesshafte”) people who supposedly care for the environment. This can easily take an anti-Semitic twist but definitely contains a rejection of “foreigners” who are not committed to the beauty of ‘our’ country the way ‘natives’ supposedly are.
What these interviews have shown is that differences between these groups are worth investigating. While our paper foregrounds similarities based on a shared ideological ground, subsequent case-studies should equally focus on differences between various actors within a national space or across boundaries. There is work to do as these actors seem to have a future in, at least European, politics.
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