Category Archives: everyday life

#corona On being prudent

In a recent post for Allegra Lab, I ask what we can do from our homes, to which we are confined these weeks, being overwhelmed, seeing the problematic and political nature of  all these facts and narratives that are presented to us in the Covid-19-crisis.

I have elaborated on three tasks:

First, we can join public debates and be a voice of prudence. This is to help de-escalate discussions where people – sometimes out of sensationalism, sometimes out of hurried obedience and often out of fear – demand that their states take extreme measures of surveillance, deprivation of liberty and sanction. The term “state of exception” has been used to such an extent that we have gotten used to it already – exactly what Giorgio Agamben warned us about.

Second, we can engage with our students and address their sense of insecurity by adapting our upcoming or ongoing courses, seminars and lectures in a way that allows the topic to influence whatever subject we had intended to work on. Since few things are as pervasive as a global pandemic, there is hardly any subject (in anthropology and beyond) which we could not reconceptualize by taking account of COVID-19. As we will have to teach digitally, it is also important to discuss the pitfalls that come with online learning, while making use of newly available resources.

Third, we can practice writing our fieldwork diaries in our homes: Note down how the virus has already impacted our own personal everyday lives, how it has led to a restructuring of our daily schedules, how it has decreased and altered the amount of time we spend with colleagues and friends and how it might have increased the number of hours we spend with members of our household. For those of us who have children, we can observe how they, too, struggle to adapt to a physical world that has suddenly shrunk and to a digital world that has suddenly expanded. We can look outside our windows and correlate how changes in governmental policies become observable in the very way people physically move in the streets. And we can honestly record our own feelings from day to day. We can then come back to these notes at a later stage – just as we do when we come home from the field.

This too, to me, is public anthropology. One directly engages with the media, the second takes up current topics and reworks these with our students for whom we are responsible, and the third collects data diligently in order to be able to draw from this source later on when we have the capacity and the psychological distance required to take a long hard look at what is happening in front of our eyes right now.

Read the full post here. My intro is part of an ongoing series which we have labelled #corona thread.

#corona: Views from an anthropology of the state

This is from my twitter thread which I started on March 9, after having returned from Singapore and Myanmar. I am saving it here for better readability and for those, who do not use social media.

Here are my thoughts on the corona virus from the perspective of an anthropology of the state: Having just returned from 2,5 weeks of short-term fieldwork in Southeast Asia (Singapore and Myanmar) I noticed the following:

When we look at the policies of authoritarian states such as Singapore and Myanmar we can see highly diverse tactics in how to deal with an epidemic or pandemicSingapore: closes its borders, monitors its citizens, checks every persons temperature at the airport and at hotels. Provides sanitizing gels everywhere, cleans public spaces regularly several times a day. Informs on all media channels how to wash hands, keep distance, when to stay home and whom to call. The population not only cooperates, but even copies the state’s measures (e.g. in restaurants, in gyms, and malls). Singapore reports all cases early. As a result, the growth rate of new cases has slowed down and the number has almost remained the same since February.

Myanmar – in contrast: no checking of temperature at airports, no entry denial to travellers from high-risk countries, no information beyond a couple of posters in downtown Yangon. No cases reported until today. No trust in the government, but a lot of rumours.

Then I return to Germany and I find: people buying toilet paper (?) and pasta in large quantities. People still not understanding how to sneeze and when to stay away from crowds. People stealing sanitizing gels even at my university – with the result that none are provided. Due to Germany’s federal system, there is no centrally communicated measurement in place, but an endless trickle-down of bits and pieces of news – all in the form of recommendations, none binding, in many cases not adhered to. There is a lingering sense of defeatism. There is also a slight sense of panic. The hoarding of toilet paper and the sanitizing gels standing in for trying to substitute danger with purity. The buying of pasta seems to be a post 2WW phenomenon, though. None of it is rational behaviour, but driven by fear.

Authoritarian states such as Singapore, China, but also Israel switch into command mode, and its citizens obey as there is no other option. They fear the state more than the virus. In authoritarian states such as Myanmar (and the current US) there is politics by denial: Business as usual, nothing to see here or to report. And in democratic states such as Germany, it takes an epidemic such as the current one to see where the limits of governmental agency are:

The downside of upholding individual freedom is that we are on our own.

While China’s effort has been written about as “collective”, as in this article, it was really a top-down decision by a few officials that was adhered to because people fear the state. While we in Germany are still enjoying our individual freedom to ignore governmental recommendations, an unintended side-effect of surveillance and micro governance in authoritarian states is that it ultimately aids health care measurements and helps curb epidemics and pandemics. And a side-effect in democracies and other authoritarian states is that the upholding of individual freedom comes at a prize, as does the complete denial of the issue. The two are actually close. That is, when it comes to epidemics, Germany and Myanmar have a lot in common!

March 24: I’ll continue: “Queremos o melhor para população. Se o governo não tem capacidade de dar um jeito, o crime organizado resolve” – This is a statement from organized crime in Rio, Brazil who enforced a nightly lockdown because they would take care of the population, in contrast to the government. Also, ISIS has warned its people not to enter “the land of the epidemic” (aka Europe ) and layed out a “sharia directive” that includes how to wash your hands properly.

We live in interesting times when organized crime and terrorists care more than the state.

tbc…

 

 

In honour of Baiyz Apa (1927 – 2020)

On January 27, 2020 at 4.20am, my  beloved Kyrgyz grandmother, Baiyz Apa, passed away. She had been waiting for this moment for the last five years, asking Kudai (Allah) to please bring her home. I lived in her home for one and a half years between 2005 and 2006 and have frequently returned in 2008, 2010, 2015 for further ethnographic research and whenever it was possible. The last time I “saw” her was in December 2019 when her great-grandchildren recorded an Instagram videomessage of hers for me. Who would have thought this to be possible? I carried out research at a time when there were only two telephones in the  village: one at the mayor’s office and one at the peregovornyi punkt – the post office. Both almost never worked. When I wanted to talk to my parents or grandparents in Germany, I needed to travel for 40km into Talas town and hope for either a mobile signal or use one of the telephones there … Now Baiyz Apa was on Instagram, telling me that we have not seen each other in a long time. She was right. I could see that she was very weak but her mind was sharp as always. I showed her message to my son, whom she named when he was born. She gave me two options — Aralbek or Zhangybek — the first indicating the child to be the  “leader” of Aral, the village we all lived in, the second meaning that of a “new leader.” Of course I chose the second.

It was through her blessing, I believe and she believed, that he came into the world. I remember very clearly how I had asked her in 2010 to please give me a bata so that I would give birth to a child. And she did. But beyond her blessing, Baiyz Apa has given me many other things: It is through her that I truly came to understand what growing up in one of the remotest parts of the Soviet Union must have meant for a woman. It was through her that I understood that as a woman one can do ANYTHING. She gave birth to 11 children … the first 4 died. After the fourth death, she consulted with the village imam at a time when “being a Muslim” was forbidden in Kyrgyzstan. He advised her to pray — so she began to learn to “read namaz” five times a day and thanks to Allah, her fifth child — a boy — lived. After him, she had six other children and also adopted a daughter.

It was probably half way into my fieldwork (which was devoted to understanding legal pluralism in Kyrgyzstan) that I realized how interesting Baiyz Apa’s life history was. And I asked her whether she would like me to write it down for her. She said “if it helps you with your work, I will.” And so it was not out of self-interest, but of generosity that she agreed to dig deep into her memories and tell me story after story after story for weeks on end.

I had been smart enough not to impose a linear structure onto the way she was telling her life story by not asking her to go back as far as she remember and start from there until we would have reached the present time. In contrast, I had asked her to start from the most important event in her life. What was she most proud of? And she began to talk about how she had managed to marry off all of her children as a single working mother. Her husband had been much older than her and had died early, so that she was left with the burden of not only working full time in the Kolchoz, but also raising her children alone, being responsible for her household and —  everyone familiar with Central Asia knows how difficult this is — finding money and ways to participate in the life-cycle rituals: births, birthdays, graduation ceremonies, marriages, funerals, mourning rituals, to only name the most important ones. I also vividly remember her story about how much she wanted to go to school and how she walked for hours on end from the pasture down to the valley each morning in the dark to attend the village school there, together with only boys. How she was married to a man much older than her since all younger men had gone to the war — partly fighing in Germany — maybe against my own grandfather at the time.

I will always remember  Baiyz Apa for her straightforwardness. In Kyrgyzstan, it is sometimes not customary to tell things as they are — something I learned the hard way, being extremely straightforward myself. But we were very much alike in this way. She would speak out and she would speak up. When once a thief stole the potatoes out of her house’s cellar during spring, she faced him after the villagers had caught him; and while he had returned all the sacks and wanted to ask for forgiveness, she made him take them back and plant them on his own land. Her family was not happy about this as these potatoes had been meant for planting and it is on the potato harvest that villagers in Aral base their life-cycle economy. But she would no longer have what a thief had touched, she said. She was strong- willed and proud, that way …

Baiyz Apa refused to speak Russian during the Soviet Union although she perfectly understood. She never bowed down to authorities. When she worked in the Kolchoz as an accountant (schetchik), she managed to go around ‘the system’ without entering into moral conflict with her religious belief to which she sticked no matter how unusual it must have been for a woman to pray while the state preached atheism. She worked on an opium plantation in the mountains, she drove a tractor, she flew to the southern part of the country at a time when many women had never even set foot outside of their villages.

Most of all, however, she was the kindest, funniest person I came to know in Kyrgyzstan. I will never forget how the night before one of my departures from Aral, she had worked until the morning hours  to finish a shyrdak and a töshök — two traditional Kyrgyz carpets and cushions — for me to take home. Her daughter-in-law had told me how she dripped black tea into her eyes to “stay awake.”

Baiyz Apa is home now. I am happy for her. She told all of us not to cry for “an old woman.” Usually I listened to her, like a good daughter or granddaughter would. But in this case I cannot. I will always miss her and I am grateful to have met her.

Her life history which I wrote down was published in Kyrgyz in 2010. I release the pdf-file of her book Baiyz Apanyn Zhashoo Tarzhymaly here – in honour of Baiyz Apa and for everyone to read, beyond Aral and the other villages where the book has been distributed to.

Anyn arty kairluu bolsun!

 

 

Making sense of …

Communal sense. The making of ethno-religious selves and others in Myanmar

I am going to present my ongoing work on Myanmar at the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Konstanz on December 6, 2018 at 5pm (Bischofsvilla, Otto-Adam Str. 5).

In my presentation I will give an overview of my book manuscript which is based on ethnographic data I collected over several long stretches of fieldwork between 2013 and 2018. The focus of my book lies on critically reinvestigating the category of ‘community’ in light of new material from Southeast Asian Myanmar. My study is geographically situated in Yangon, a fast expanding metropolis and the home of various ethno-religious minorities whose ancestors built the city when they were shipped across the Bay of Bengal by the British colonial forces in the 19th century. My informants, who are Hindus and Muslims, are often referred to as “Indians” in the literature or simply “Blacks” by the local Burmese population, but in their self-understanding, they are the true founders of Yangon. My interest lies in understanding how, in a local context of imperialism and ethno-religious nationalism, these people organize themselves as ‘members’ of groups that perform and are recognized by others as ‘communities’.

My theoretical aim in this book, and my contribution to wider anthropological and sociological debates, is to develop an alternative angle towards the category of ‘community’ that focuses on how and when exactly a collective ‘We’ emerges. In the social sciences the process of we-making has so far been analysed only as a by-product of the process by which ‘Theys’ are created (Appadurai 2006: 50). The concept of communal sense, which I am putting forward in my book, focuses instead on the successful establishing of community as an effect of we-intentionality (Walther 1923) which become ethnographically observable in moments of communitas, in the articulation of common sense and in the material anchoring of common goods.

The force of custom. Lecture at the Institute’s Colloquium in Hamburg

I’ll be travelling to Hamburg next week (13.11) to present the findings of my long-term ethnographic engagement in Kyrgyzstan. My book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” came out in December 2016, almost two years ago. I am still happy with how a decade of scholarship has turned out and am looking forward to hearing comments and feedback from my Hamburg colleagues. Here’s the link to the programme in case you are around. Join me!

And here’s what I will be talking about:

In this talk, I offer a unique critique of the concept of ‘postsocialism’, a new take on the concept of legal pluralism, and a plea to bring ethnomethodological approaches into correspondence with ethnographic data. Drawing on a decade of anthropological fieldwork and engagement with Central Asia, I will focus on describing how my informants in rural Kyrgyzstan order their everyday lives and rationalize their recent history by invoking the force of custom (Kyrgyz salt).

Although salt is often blamed for bringing about more disorder and hardship than order and harmony, as I will exemplify with the example of mortuary rituals, it allows my informants to disavow responsibility for their actions by pushing a model of ‘how things get done here’ to the front. Invoking salt enables actors even as they claim to be constrained by it, it opens up possibilities to conceptualize, classify, and contextualize large- and mid-scale developments in an intimate idiom. It also is a way to communicate to others that one is an expert in and of one’s own culture. An ethnomethodological perspective, as I pursue it, challenges a conception of social order as hidden within the visible actions and behaviours of members of society. Rather, it examines how members produce and sustain the observable orderliness of their own actions.

 

 

The lecture will be in English. Venue: Institut für Ethnologie (Raum 222 im Gebäude ESA W – Westflügel des Hauptgebäudes, 2. Stock). 13.11. 6.15pm.

Facebook withdrawal symptoms

I had thought about it repeatedly. I had deleted the app from my phone several times, only to reinstall it at a later stage. I had opened a second account for “work purposes” and kept the first for family pictures. Turned out, my family is too much anthropology and my work too familiar. Then came the time of personalised ads and whatever I had googled reappeared as an advertisement on the sidebar – and later as a video “suggestion” in the middle of my feed. During my month in Paris I once watched a French baking show. Since then, my account got spammed with cake videos.

What also changed was the tone and style of many posts. Facebook became more political – which in theory is good – but it got political in a bad way where I noticed more and more people simply screaming at each other. The pictures became crueler, too, the trigger warnings more frequent, the hate more direct, and the frustrations multiplied: academic precarity, genocide in Southeast Asia, the clown in the White House, the National Right allover Europe. Posts on these utterly depressing topics were interspersed with cat videos and other moments of cuteness. As if watching Panda babies rolling down a hill would make it all go away. It not only felt increasingly surreal, it was bullshit.

I remember while I finished my PhD (2009), I harvested strawberries on Facebook every day. They were ripe after three hours. Other fruit and vegetables took longer. I think I spent an average of 3-5 hours daily in the FarmVille app. I now wonder how much faster I would have finished the PhD had I not played. I was not the only one – half of the doctoral candidates I knew at the time were virtual farmers. It was unclear which labour felt more unreal: sowing words or sowing seeds.

Facebook also became part of my fieldwork in unforeseen ways. In Myanmar, the mobile phone market is among the fastest growing worldwide. For most people in Myanmar, Facebook IS the internet. The police looks for their villains by posting on Facebook, the monks preach online, the government publishes official announcements there first. Hate speech, fake news, ad hominem attacks amongst academics – all happening in and regarding Myanmar.

But there are positive sides, too: Facebook has been the fastest way to stay in touch with informants, find new people and fix appointments. Everyone is online. When I could not attend an important mourning procession in fall 2017 as I was not fit to fly to Yangon due to a sinus infection, my informants positioned themselves with their cell phones at different parts of the event and “recorded live”. Laying on the sofa, I “stood” in the middle of a flagellation ritual and could chat parallely with another informant who watched from further up the road while taking notes of what I saw on the screen, saving videos others were putting up of the same event. I am still processing what kind of data I generated that day.

So Facebook has been amazing. To stay in touch with friends and colleagues, to network and organize, to lobby and advertise (Allegra Lab! Go check it out!). But while there has always been the good, the bad and the ugly about it, the ugly seems to have increased in the last year.

I am also under intense time pressure now and should no longer be sowing likes and harvesting hearts. I got a book to finish and while Facebook is an immense data accumulator and this data easily harvested, there is just no time to properly preserve the fruits thus gathered. And winter is coming.

So I am weaning myself off. I harvested email-addresses of all those with whom I was connected only via messenger up to date. To not lose contact, to remain in each other’s lives. It will be more difficult, no doubt, and less colorful and likeable, but if I manage, it will also feel less intrusive and nose-pokey as I often felt when “following” people…

So I have saved all my data, said goodbye, and deleted the account. Facebook’s policy is to keep all data still available for a period of 14 days. If you log in again within this time frame, the account is back up and you are back in. I have – subconsciously – already opened the page three or four times in the last 24 hours. It’s not only a habit. It’s an addiction.

I am using twitter and Instagram as methadone. So if you see me on Facebook, kick me out, gently, but kick me out.

Yesterday I went harvesting strawberries again – in real life.

When in Paris …

As a promise to my host, the Maison Suger, located in the pittoresque St Germain district in a little side street just around my new favorite coffee place, I will submit a short statement about how I spent my time in Paris. So here it is:

Doing being writing — one month in Paris.

entrance to the Maison Suger – a haven for working in peace while living in the middle of Paris

 

my writing space at Maison Suger.

In this one month in Paris, I managed to get more writing done for my book than in the entire last year! After a full semester of teaching and finishing off a series of articles, reviews and reports, my goal had been to begin my stay in the French capital with nothing else than having to give a series of lectures in the seminars of the people who kindly supported my application to the Fernand Braudel Fellowship at the Fondation Maison de Sciences de l’Homme (FMSH) and, once done, to write.

All in all, I gave three lectures, the first on March 6 in the frame of the general anthropological “Séminaire de l’équipe Anthropologie comparative des sociétés et cultures musulmanes” (LAS) based at the Institute (IISMM) under the direction of the following anthropologists:

This tells you already a bit about the set-up of French academic institutions. It is a bit like the Russian system, to be honest, where you have an Akademia Nauk (an Academy of Science) and the Universities. Teaching takes place at the universities, research gets done in the academy – which in itself consists of myriads of ‘networks’, ‘laboratories’, ‘seminars’, ‘colloqus’, ‘séances’, ‘interventions’, ‘conferences’, and so on. No wonder BrunoLatour came up with ANT.

doors of knowledge at the FMSH / EHSS building (right)

I gave up trying to understand all the acronyms and who belonged where and only memorized the address and who had been inviting me to give a talk! Yazid Ben Hounet, whom I have known from our time together in the project group “Legal Pluralism” at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology took me for lunch to a small Afghan restaurant before my lecture, so I was already happy when I began presenting (can I just say: “Thank you, Paris!” for the amazing variety of foods I have eaten in those few weeks?). The title of my talk was “Being Muslim in contemporary Myanmar. On ‘community’ and the problem with communal violence” and I have written about it already here. The audience consisted mostly of anthropologists with an interest in Islam, but there were two experts on Myanmar who had joined that day as research on this Southeast Asian country is still very rare. I was particularly happy for their feedback, but also positively challenged by the questions of the non-regional experts.

What I found striking and what I have noticed in all my presentations (which all happened to be on Muslims), was how often people in the audience would use my ethnographic material or the arguments I was making in order to think about contemporary French society: veiling, divorce, polygamy, secularism in general … or, to be more precise, laïcité. I attended a roundtable on secularism in Asia which, in my view, was actually about secularism in France by means of reseach in Asia … so the topics of my talks, on Muslims in Myanmar and in Central Asia, raised interesting questions and comments in the audience.

The second talk was on legal pluralism in Central Asia, taking the example of the local funeral economy in northwestern Kyrgyzstan. I have summarized my argument here. This invitation came from Baudouin Dupret, a legal anthropologist and the only other person I know who tries to approach legal anthropology with ethnomethodological tools (as I have been trying to do). The talk took place in the seminar “Transformations de la normativité islamique” and we went out for lunch afterwards in one of the many restaurants in the area around Boulevard Raspail. What I came to cherish were long lunch breaks with colleagues — always accompanied by a glass of wine!

reading in cafés. People actually do it here!

The final talk I gave took place at the FMSH building and it was my favorite one. I had the opportunity to speak in front of an audience who had all been to and carried out fieldwork in Central Asia. It is very rare for me these days to speak to other regional experts as I am based at a sociology department and in a German context where research on Central Asia is only done only sporadically. It wa thus s a pleasure talking about the main arguments of my book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” — and to see that people actually understood what I was trying to say, and seemed to have enjoyed the presentation, too. Thank you to the organizers of this talk, Stéphane Dudoignon, Carole Ferret and Isabelle Ohayon for inviting me. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my co-presenter that afternoon was Olivier Ferrando, an old friend whom I had not met for several years!

After my lecturing obligations had been met, I was left to my own devices; which meant that I could dive into the books and articles I had brought along. I started writing my historical chapter for my new book on ethno-religious minorities in Myanmar and hope to use the remaining days in Paris to push it as far as possible. The Maison Suger has provided ideal working conditions to make this possible!

an inspirational goddess of writing

Since I am in the lucky position to start a 10-month sabbatical afterwards, my goal is to carry the “French writing spirit” with me back to Konstanz, install myself there and keep up the tradition of meeting colleagues for lunch regularly!

Merci, Paris!