Institute of Social Anthropology

Institute of Social Anthropology

Anthroblog

„Maestro Gigis Tochter“ By Prof. Michaela Schäuble

“Ernesto de Martino ha rovinato il Salento!” – “Ernesto de Martino hat den Salento ruiniert!” Giovanna regt sich wahnsinnig auf, als ich den Namen nur erwähne. Ich befürchte, dass sie das Interview sofort abbricht, noch bevor wir überhaupt richtig begonnen haben. Aber stattdessen kommt sie jetzt erst so richtig in Fahrt. Die Menschen ausgebeutet hätte er. Die Geschichten gestohlen hätte er, und die Musik. Und die Menschen hier, in Nardò und Galatina, die hätte er dargestellt wie Zigeuner und Prostituierte. Aber weltberühmt geworden sei dann doch er, und nicht die Musiker. Antropologo! Sie zischt es so verächtlich, als handle es sich bei dem gesamten Berufsstand um Scharlatanerie.

Um Giovannas Aufregung zu verstehen, muss man wissen, dass sie die Tochter von Luigi Stifani ist: dem Ausnahmegeiger, Autodidakten und Musiktherapeuten, der in den 1950er Jahren dem italienischen Anthropologen und Religionshistoriker Ernesto de Martino das Phänomen des salentinischen Tarantismus näher gebracht und später selbst ethnographische Berichte von so genannten „Tarantel-Besessenen“ (tarantati) gesammelt hatte.  

Bekannt als Maestro Gigi oder mesciu Gigi im salentinischen Dialekt, wurde Luigi Stifani immer dann gerufen, wenn in Nardò oder in einem der umliegenden Dörfer eine Frau – in selteneren Fällen auch mal ein Mann – anfing, sich seltsam zu gebaren. Wenn eine tagelang lethargisch war und bewegungsunfähig das Bett nicht verlassen konnte, oder schrie und um sich schlug, starke Kopfscherzen hatte und sich übergeben musste, übermässig schwitzte, sich wie ein Tier benahm und/oder obszöne Bewegungen und Geräusche machte, so hiess es, sie sei bei der Tabakernte von einer Tarantel gebissen worden.
 
Eigentlich gelernter Friseur, kam der Geiger dann zusammen mit einer Gruppe anderer Laienmusiker – einem Gitarristen, einem Akkordeonspieler und einem Tamburinspieler – ins Haus und spielte, oft tagelang, bis sich die Symptome besserten oder verschwanden. Mit dem pizzico, dem „Kneifen“ der Violinensaiten wird das Kneifen, beziehungsweise der Biss der Spinne symbolisiert. Die Gebissene soll durch die Musik in Wallung gebracht werden und zu den Rhythmen tanzen, angeblich, bis das Gift herausgeschwitzt ist. Luigi Stifani, das wussten alle, war der Beste – Maestro Gigi eben. Für seine Musik hat er ein ganz eigenes Notationssystem erfunden, das aus Silben und Zahlen besteht (siehe Abbildung).

Ernesto de Martino, der mit einer ganzen Truppe interdisziplinärer Wissenschaftler aus Rom in den Salento gereist war, um das Phänomen des Tarantismus zu studieren, profitierte von dem Wissen Maestro Gigis und dessen einmaligem Zugang zu den Betroffenen. Sich dem Geiger anzuschliessen hiess für den Anthropologen, Zutritt zu den privaten Räumen der Betroffenen erhalten, die „Heimtherapien“ in Aktion beobachten und die „Tarantel-Besessenen“ direkt befragen zu können. Das Buch, das er darüber schrieb, La Terra del Rimorso [Land der Gewissenspein] wurde zu einem Klassiker. Und noch Jahrzehnte später reisten Anthropolog*innen auf seinen Spuren in den Salento, um Meastro Gigi und die Betroffenen ebenfalls zu befragen – so lange, bis die Menschen vor Ort genug von den Forscher*innen hatten und keine Auskunft mehr gaben.  

Dass Ernesto de Martino heute im Salento so verschrien ist, ist ein relativ neues Phänomen und hängt unter anderem mit den vielen rivisitazioni zusammen – übersetzt sind das sowohl die „Neuinterpretationen“ des Phänomens als auch die „erneuten Besuche“ im Salento. Unter Wissenschaftler*innen und Intellektuellen gilt De Martino aber nach wie vor als epochaler Denker und seine Werke werden derzeit gerade wieder neu aufgelegt, übersetzt und international rezipiert.

Für die Menschen vor Ort ist der Ruhm De Martinos ebenfalls spürbar. Die Besucher fragen jeden Sommer nach den „besessenen Frauen“ und wollen die Instrumente von Maestro Gigi sehen. Seit dessen Tod im Jahr 2000 kümmert sich nun Giovanna um sein Erbe. Die Wohnung der Eltern, die sie heute noch bewohnt, hat sie unverändert gelassen. Sie führt uns durch die Räume wie durch ein Museum.

Im Jahr 2000 ist auch der Band Io In Santo Ci Credo [Ich glaube an den Heiligen] erschienen, der Auszüge aus dem handgeschriebenen Tagebuch und andere Aufzeichnungen von Maestro Gigi enthält. Aber Giovanna will sich damit nicht zufrieden geben. Zumindest ein eigenes Museum sollte zu Ehren ihres Vaters eröffnet werden; sein Name und nicht der des Anthropologen solle untrennbar mit den pizziche tarantate, den therapeutischen Taranteltänzen, verbunden sein.

Noch viel schlimmer als die Arbeitsweise der Forscher*innen in und seit den 1950er Jahren findet Giovanna allerdings die Vermarktung dieser Musik- und Tanzform heute. Am Fürchterlichsten sei das Musikfestival La Notte della Taranta [Die Nacht der Tarantel], das jedes Jahr Ende August in dem kleinen Städtchen Melpignano stattfindet und Zehntausende anlockt. Für Giovanna ist das Festival ein billiger Ausverkauf, bei dem eine traditionelle Musiktherapieform zu einem popkulturellen Massenspektakel gemacht wird. Für die zahlreichen Fans aus der ganzen Welt ist es eine Wiederentdeckung und Revitalisierung einer lokalen Musiktradition. Als Anthropologin beobachte und beschreibe ich diese Auseinandersetzung um ein immaterielles Kulturerbe, das überhaupt erst durch die Aufmerksamkeit eines Anthropologen zu einem solchen geworden ist. Und die Menschen vor Ort erinnern mich mit ihrer skeptischen Haltung auf Schritt und Tritt an die ethischen Implikationen dieser Arbeit und meine Verantwortung.

 

 

Former Blog postings

Teebeutel in einer Schale

May 2018

Taste is something that is very difficult to put into words and, anyway, one should not talk during a tea tasting session, I was told by Nadine. Talking would act as a distraction and then the tea wouldn’t taste as nice anymore. I should ask her again after work.

I had accompanied Nadine to her lab where she was now carrying out quality control on the previously harvested lime blossom tea. Was there a difference in taste between this year’s harvest and the one from the previous year, I wanted to know. After Nadine’s loud slurping of the tea, which marked her tasting of it, had stopped, she informed me that this year’s lime blossoms weren’t so aromatic. She explained that it hadn’t rained much in spring and, therefore, the blossoms didn’t have much of a honey flavour. Hence, in this vintage she couldn’t really taste the sun in the cup. Similar to what we know from wine labels, Nadine tried to explain to me with analogies and metaphors how the organic lime blossom tea, produced by the self-administered workers’ collective SCOP_TI in Buis-les-Barronnies in the Provencal Drôme region, tasted.

Taste and social struggles are closely entwined in this unconventional factory not far from Marseille, where I have now been conducting research and shooting a documentary on self-administration and hope for 18 months. The still photo from my film Taste of Hope (Le gout de l’espoir) shows mousseline teabags on a tiny assembly line shortly before being packaged. On it we can clearly recognise the label with the collective’s own brand name “1336”. The brand takes its name from the, to present, 1336 days lasting squat, resulting from workers taking over the factory from the former Unilever subsidiary Fralib in May 2014. Graffiti from the time of the squat, now slightly faded by the Provencal sun, still adorn the factory’s and its adjacent buildings’ walls. Visitors to the factory find themselves not just looking at slogans such as “Boycott Lipton” or “Fraib vivra”, but also at three stylized portraits of Ernesto Che Guevara.
But the factory visit is not only an experience for the eyes, it is also one for the nose. Even before entering the production hall, visitors are welcomed by the rich scent of a variety of different herbs. At SCOP-TI, pop-icons meet herbal farms and European labour struggles encounter regional environmental commitment. In the meantime, the Fralib logo has been replaced by the cooperative’s logo, enhanced with the slogan “Engagée sur l’humain, engage sur le gout”. The brand 1336’s slogan is equally forceful, reading “Eveille les consciences, réveille les papilles”. Hence, taste and papillae are mentioned in the same breath as humanity and consciousness. This combination raises hope, often producing blissfully romantic perceptions amongst producers and consumers alike. But does anti-capitalist tea really taste different?

In “Distinction” Bourdieu claims that taste is a matter of class. If we follow his distinction of three types of taste, this would mean that industrially packaged tea from a factory should taste “barbaric”. And, having drunk Lipton tea for lack of other tea alternatives, for instance, in hotels or on trains, I am tempted to partially agree with him. Depending on the variety, our taste buds are sometimes maltreated with artificial mint flavours or black tea dust. Nevertheless, I do not fully follow Bourdieu, since subtle (taste) distinctions may also evolve within a social class as well as within a cup. It is particularly this that we should attempt to observe as anthropologists and fully grasp with all our senses.

After having drunk countless cups of 1336 tea and having participated in the harvest of lime blossom tea in Baronnies, I can affirm that it makes a difference – taste-wise, socially and politically – if the tea was produced by the factory workers on the basis of a capitalist logic (violent pursuit of profit and production increase through exploitation) or when local and social needs are put first. The working class’ taste is not homogenous. While for years the SCOP-TI workers put synthetic flavouring substances in the Lipton tea they produced for Unilever, they don’t do this with their own tea brand anymore. Here a mint leaf is really a mint leaf. It’s not an aromatic bomb that explodes as soon as you dip it into water, and leaves a stale taste of old chewing gum on your tongue once you have drunk it. Hope tastes different. Depending on the climate, it might sometimes taste more like honey and sun and sometimes less.

But taste is volatile. Similarly, workers’ councils and self-administrative companies have, up to now, never lasted long. In this neoliberal time, self-administration through workers poses a dilemma. Everyday SCOP-TI struggles to compete with other national and international companies in the capitalist market, while at the same time trying not to abandon their humanitarian values. How is it possible to overcome a capitalist logic within a capitalist system? The past has shown us that this is incredibly difficult if not impossible to achieve. However, as we all know, hope is usually the last thing we lose.
This year, SCOP-TI will celebrate the 1336 days of its existence and so far, there is no end in sight. And, because ethnography also tends to be a never-ending endeavour, what else is there left for me as an anthropologist to do other than to stay and drink tea. A 1336, of course!

For more information on the film TASTE OF HOPE, see: www.tasteofhope-film.com

 

"Foto: AltraVita IVF-Klinik Moskau (Copyright: Sarah Hildebrand)“

April 2018

Es würde nicht funktionieren, Spuren ihrer Person auf den Fotos festzuhalten. Ihre Seele (‚dusha‘) sei nämlich nicht hier, nicht in dieser Wohnung, es sei ja nicht ihre Wohnung. Aber ja, sie sei einverstanden, wir dürften sie besuchen.

Ich hatte Raja von meiner Zusammenarbeit mit der Fotografin Sarah Hildebrand erzählt. Sarah würde in einer Woche nach Moskau kommen, um Bilder für den Foto- und Textband „hope“ zu machen – ein Buch, das von Menschen erzählen sollte, die emotionale, körperliche und geographische Grenzen überschreiten, in der Hoffnung auf ein besseres Leben. Es war eben diese Hoffnung, die Raja aus der Ukraine nach Moskau geführt hatte, wo sie für ein ihr unbekanntes Paar ein Kind austrug. Sie war nun bereits im letzten Schwangerschaftsmonat und würde für diese Dienstleistung eine Million Rubel verdienen; ein Betrag, mit dem sie sich eine Existenz im Süden Russlands aufbauen wollte. Die Moskauer Wohnung war nur eine Zwischenstation für neun Monate. Ein Zuhause, das nie wirklich ein Zuhause wurde; ohne „Seele“, wie Raja meinte. Immer wieder bekam sie von Seiten der Fertilitätsklinik zu spüren, dass es nicht ihre Wohnung war. Diese Besitzverhältnisse zeigten sich nicht nur in den spontanen Kontrollbesuchen der Klinik-Mitarbeiterinnen; vor wenigen Monaten wurden auch Überwachungskameras in den Eingangsbereichen installiert. Über die Kontrolle der Wohnungen erhoffte sich die Klinik eine Kontrolle über die Körper der Leihmütter, die sie als ihren Besitz zu sehen schienen.  

Besitzverhältnisse spiegelten sich auch in einem Gespräch mit zwei Klinik-Mitarbeiterinnen wider, in dem sie mehrfach betonten, Sarah Hildebrand dürfe „ihre“ Leihmütter auf keinen Fall fotografieren. Um das zu verhindern, sollte uns die sogenannte „Wohnungsmanagerin“ begleiten. An dem einzigen Tag, an dem diese Zeit hatte, musste Raja zu einer Untersuchung außer Haus. Genau dieses Thema der Abwesenheit interessierte Sarah: In ihren Fotos hält sie die Spuren von Menschen fest, die auf den Fotos nicht zu sehen sind – die Präsenz der Absenz. Ein Abdruck auf dem Sofa, ein Teller mit Essen in der Küche, eine geöffnete Tablettenschachtel im Regal. Dennoch lehnten wir die Möglichkeit ab, in Rajas Wohnung zu fotografieren. Es schien uns unangebracht, mit einer Kamera durch die Wohnung einer Person zu gehen, die zu den Motiven nicht ihr Einverständnis geben konnte. Ein Gedanke, der bei den Mitarbeiterinnen auf Unverständnis stiess: Es sei egal, ob Raja da sei oder nicht, denn es sei ja nicht ihre Wohnung, sondern die der Klinik. Die „Wohnungsmanagerin“ könne uns sicher alle Fragen beantworten, auch die über Rajas privaten Gegenstände.

Ich konnte nicht umhin, die Widersprüchlichkeit zu bemerken, mit der im Feld der Leihmutterschaft mit Privatsphäre umgegangen wurde. Zum einen wurde mir der Forschungszugang oft mit dem Argument verwehrt, es sei unethisch, in so ein privates Thema „einzudringen“; zum anderen mussten sich viele Leihmütter einer Form von Kontrolle unterziehen, die erheblich ins Private eingreift. So auch Daria, in deren Wohnung – das war der Kompromiss – wir letztendlich fotografierten. Daria wusste, dass wir vorbeikommen würden, explizit gefragt wurde sie jedoch nicht, wie sie mir später verriet.
An diesem Nachmittag machte Sarah das Foto von einem in matte Plastikfolie verpackten Ventilator, der unbenutzt in einer Ecke des Zimmers stand, das als Wohn- und Schlafzimmer diente. Die Wohnungsmanagerin und Daria standen daneben, fasziniert von der Hasselblad-Kamera und amüsiert über die „langweiligen“ Motive, die Sarah wählte. Aber für Sarah, wie auch für mich, als Anthropologin, sind es die alltäglichen und unspektakulären Dinge, die Interesse wecken, die Geschichten erzählen.
Der verpackte Ventilator erzählt von der Standardisierung und Anonymität der Wohnungen. Wohnungen, die alle ähnlich ausgestattet waren, deren Möbel und Objekte nichts mit den Bewohnerinnen zu tun hatten, keinen Zweck für sie hatten. Ob wohl in jeder Wohnung der gleiche unbenutzte Ventilator stand. Man merkte, dass diese Räume kein „Zuhause“ waren. Die wenigen Habseligkeiten, mit denen die Leihmütter nach Moskau kamen, füllten die Räume nicht aus. Bis auf ein paar wenige Zettel mit Anweisungen, die im Eingang und in der Küche hängten, waren die tapezierten Wände kahl. Raja hatte Recht, dachte ich –  die Wohnungen spiegeln nicht die „Seele“ ihrer Bewohnerinnen wider.
Spinnt man diesen Gedanken weiter, könnte man sagen, der verpackte Ventilator erzählt auch von der Standardisierung und Anonymität des Leihmutterschaftsprogramms an sich. Wie Raja, kennen viele andere Leihmütter in Moskau nicht die Paare, deren Kinder sie austragen. Die Stigmatisierung von Unfruchtbarkeit und assistierter Fortpflanzung sowie das Verständnis von Leihmutterschaft als ökonomischer Beziehung fördern anonyme all-inclusive-Programme, die von Agenturen vermittelt werden. Somit symbolisiert der verpackte Ventilator letztendlich auch die versteckten Realitäten und Geheimnisse, die nicht ans Licht kommen sollen – nur dass die Schutzhülle dieser Geheimnisse meist nicht transparent, sondern blickdicht ist.

Am Endes des Tages schien die Wohnungsmanagerin verstanden zu haben, was wir in den Wohnungen suchten. Nachdem wir uns von Daria verabschiedet hatten, bot sie uns an, noch eine weitere Wohnung zu besichtigen. Dort sei heute erst eine Leihmutter ausgezogen – eventuell spüre man in der Absenz noch ihre Präsenz.

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Der Foto- und Textband „hope“ ist im März 2018 beim Christoph Merian Verlag erschienen. Die drei Kapitel der Publikation setzen sich mit den Themen Leihmutterschaft in Russland, Lebertransplantation in Deutschland sowie Flucht und Tod an der Mittelmeergrenze zwischen Spanien und Marokko auseinander. Das Buch ist Resultat einer langjährigen Zusammenarbeit zwischen der Fotografin Sarah Hildebrand und den Sozialanthropologinnen Gerhild Perl, Julia Rehsmann und Veronika Siegl.
https://www.merianverlag.ch/produkt/architektur-und-kunst/hope/3b8a3c60-a899-41f5-a25b-2cfeb8d4cce8.html

Die Buchpräsentation in Bern findet am 23. April 2018 im Rahmen des Science Talk in der Sattelkammer (sattelkammer.be) statt.

 

strahlend blauer Himmel mit Seifenblasen

March2018

Do you remember what made soap bubbles so special? Was it the fact that there were so many of them, flying away? Was it the innate desire of wanting to catch and pop them right before they escaped? Was it the fragile little wall that kept us from it? Who knows. Today I shall tell you about everything but a soap bubble on a sunny spring day. Being part of the CREOLE MA programme, my anthropological way has led me way up north. First to Stockholm, and now to Oslo: places where there are more bubbles flying around than you would ever expect.

Julien Bourrelle, a Canadian illustrator and writer, does exactly what I have been dreaming about for a while: he has made it his job to help international newcomers understand Norwegian, or more generally Scandinavian culture by illustrating important cultural moments in compact and easily understandable drawings. I was delighted by his book, as I happen to be researching in this exact Nordic part of the world where people tend to gather only with a good reason to do so. In order to think about this, I urge you to reconsider the bubble’s qualities. It has thin, yet clear boundaries. Still, its transparent wall seems so easily penetrable. According to Bourelle (The Social Guidebook to Norway), social life in Nordic countries happens in bubbles: each bubble having a perfect reason for being a social unit, a common purpose so to speak. Living in bubbles means you can have dinner with your neighbor after you both cleaned up the yard together but it would be nearly impossible to ask one of your football friends to join. I come across these bubbles daily in my fieldwork with young students at a secondary school. When talking to teachers and students I constantly sense the need for clear social purposes: students ask to be assigned to certain groups in order to socialize with others they especially like, because who would just go up and talk to another person without a good reason? Scary. Big events are elaborately organized for students to socialize around a purpose and gradually develop sustainable social connections. A teacher who runs a project at the school that helps students of all backgrounds to socialize and make new friends once mentioned an example to me where a student had said the project was great because she “had always wanted to talk to a refugee”. Thinking in bubbles, living in bubbles.

Living in round entities, this how it seems to work up here. As anthropologists, we gain great pleasure by observing and deciphering social systems, finding out how things roll. But guess what? More and more, I try to understand my own role in the picture. In my field, I can see lots of social bubbles flying, so what does my behavior and research need in order to grasp their meaning? How do I adapt my work in order to allow my informants to make sense of it in what I believe is their world view? Or, in other words: what does my bubble look like? In my field, everyone knows about the project I’m trying to put together. So really, being the anthropologist is the only reason I have to present for my ever-nagging questions. But is that really all? Is being an anthropologist enough to socialize with people in a society where socialization always needs a clear purpose? Is anthropology that purpose, that bubble, our own little bubble? As the days go by, I have been wondering how I can incorporate this question in my research in order to understand the situation even better. As anthropologists in Scandinavia (and probably elsewhere too), we have to ask people to enter our bubble, as we will never be a real part of theirs. We have to reach out. But, to our advantage, there is a common purpose, also known as my research interest. The bubble does not only offer a safe frame called “anthropological research”, it also offers a safe person, an anthropologist. So, in a sense, my bubble flies around in my field daily. But it’s one of those lucky ones that can invite and merge with another one. Just like when we were children, and the coolest thing that could happen were the triple bubbles that came out when we blew out the air as hard as we possibly could.

leere Sessel in einer Empfangshalle eines Hotels

February 2018

I was waiting on one of these empty chairs for my interview partner at the JW Marriott in Washington DC, 1331 Pennsylvannia Ave. Just around the corner from the White House and the Treasury Department. The comfortable leather chair and the soft music in the background made me think that this was going to be a conducive place for an expert interview.

I am studying the negotiation of international tax norms with a focus on the G20 OECD BEPS “Base Erosion Profit Shifting” initiative. I am interested in describing “who is in charge” of this major reform project in practice (since the old rules have been criticized by various publics as being unfair, because they facilitate aggressive tax avoidance of large Multi-national corporations).

My field is the community of international tax lawmakers. They come together to address common problems and to come up with workable rules and model solutions in the area of international tax. They work at the OECD in Paris, at Treasuries, Finance Ministries, and Tax administrations in G20 and OECD countries. For private international law firms, the big 4 accountancy firms, universities and large multinational corporations. Most people I speak to have an hour to spare. Then I will not see them again for many months.

I have been preparing for this interview for weeks. The first time I have spoken to this man—a former high level official from the US Treasury—was at an international tax conference in Washington DC. The US, amongst the experts I study, is admired for its competence and sophisticated technical tax expertise, which it contributes to the over-all clarification of international tax law. But, the US is also accused for doing what they want - irrespective of what they demand from other countries. My contact is very down-to-earth. He encouraged me—despite his busy schedule—to contact him again to continue talking. He is patient with me—a “non-tax person”, as many of my interview partners refer to lay-people.

But he does not arrive. I am stressing out. It was just yesterday at the Georgetown University Law Centre (also in D.C) that someone had cancelled an interview the minute we were supposed to start. While I am aware that the experts I talk to often do not know how their day will plan out—as a result they constantly need to re-schedule— I am nevertheless in this moment frustrated with the methods of my discipline.

The making of international tax law is a trans-local and multi-local phenomenon. Over the last few months I have been travelling extensively to speak to international tax experts and to observe them at work. The geographical dispersion of the field sites I am studying is a serious constraint for anthropological research, “given ethnography’s focus on local places, on small scale, more or less observable social units and the cultural meanings and practices that constitute them” as Sally Engle Merry stated (2006:980). Especially if we do not reside in these places for extended periods of time as we used to do.

Where the hell is he? My plane to Switzerland will not allow for much re-scheduling. At 1.50 pm I receive an email – which he had sent 50 Minutes earlier – that he had “a 1pm pop up” and that he can offer me 2pm, at his office, around the corner from the hotel. Slightly out of breath, I jumped right in there and I made the best use of “my” hour. We talked about how he learned to speak, in Paris, as the monolithic entity “the US”, what responsibilities and what constituencies constrained his actions as a top negotiator and about the general relationship between the regulators and the regulated.

The picture of the empty chair is for me a reminder that as an anthropologist you need to be incredibly patient. Especially when you study a phenomenon like global trans-governmental and professional networks, which forces you to give up a clear regional focus. These networks are on the one hand feared due to their exclusivity and lack of transparency, but are also needed in an increasingly economically globalized world. As an anthropologist, I have the privilege of time and I should use it to make the complex decision-making processes of these private and official experts more legible to a wider audience. I should not worry about waiting. That is a waste of time.

 

January 2018

This picture shows Christina (pseudonym). She’s a tea plantation worker in Assam, a region in Northeast India. In the picture, Christina has folded her hands together in front of her – a common gesture of greeting in India. She has draped a colourful flowered Sari over her right shoulder. Underneath, we can see a white Sari blouse peeking out. But what really attracts one’s attention in this picture is Christina’s laughter. It is partly hidden behind her hands, but somehow manages to capture the whole photo: A smile, which is so broad, that it spreads across her whole face, making small wrinkles appear on her nose. But what is hidden behind Christina’s laughter?

Between 2014 and 2017, I conducted fieldwork on tea plantations in Assam as part of my doctoral research. Time and again I experienced people answering my questions with long silences, performances, songs or laughter. Mostly, this seemed to occur when they were unable to put their feelings into words. In the following, I describe such a moment with Christina.

On a Sunday morning in November 2015, Christina invited me to her home. It was the day on which I took the above picture of her. In search of a secure livelihood, Christina had migrated to Assam from a drought-, poverty-, and famine-stricken region in central India – just like many others had. Most tea plantation workers migrated to Assam in search of a better life. Just over half of the migrant workers on the tea plantations belong to India’s indigenous population. They are called Adivasis. When I asked Christina that day what it meant for her to be indigenous, I was answered with a long silence. Then, after a while, she turned to me and said: ‘We are the poorest of the poor and the lowest. We are the ones who do all the hard and dirty work’. And then, suddenly, Christina leapt to her feet and began to sing a song in her mother tongue. She was laughing so hard that she had to start singing the song several times anew. Later I asked Christina to share the lyrics with me. Roughly, the song can be translated into English as follows: ‘When we cut the tea bushes, the skin on our hands bursts and our blood flows everywhere – We Adivasis are brothers and sisters’. I asked Christina what the song meant to her and again she burst out laughing, burying her face in her hands. Then, finally, she explained: ‘Actually, it’s a sad song. It’s a song about our suffering…’.

Maybe Christina was referring to the tough labour conditions on the plantations. Or maybe the song for her was about the low salaries on the plantations, causing  workers to be malnourished and die prematurely. Or perhaps Christina wanted to express her personal suffering, such as having to start working on the plantation when she was only 10 years old and having to raise her five children alone after her husband’s early death. It is also possible that for her the song stood for the continuity of her suffering, extending back into her childhood when she was still living in her home state with her family. She told me that her family was forced to migrate, because they were dying of hunger and thirst. Probably it is a bit of all this that causes Christina to suffer, like so many other workers who came to the tea plantations in Assam in hope of a better future.

But why was Christina laughing when she shared her deep sorrow with me? How can we, as social anthropologists, interpret such non-verbal expressions and put them into words? Did Christina maybe want to share her suffering with me without making me sad, as my research assistant suspected at the time? Or, as I then spontaneously thought, did she maybe have to laugh, so she herself could endure the severity of her suffering? Christina was not the only worker who laughed out loud while telling me about her suffering. I still do not know for sure what lies behind Christina’s laughter. And I still lack the words – which (apart from in visual anthropology) constitute the main medium in our scientific work – to describe it. But maybe, in the end, a song, a performance or a picture is worth a thousand words.

 

December 2017

What do the Christmas dinner at your friend’s grandma’s house, a party evening and the round of introduction in your new hockey team have in common? Exactly. It’s the look on the face of the person who simply wanted to ask an innocent small-talk question. When you answer “I study social anthropology” maybe you’re lucky and the girlfriend of the person’s cousin “studies exactly the same”. Otherwise: “Well… What? Social… err… what is that exactly?”
What is social anthropology? Even in the fifth semester I have a hard time answering this question shortly. In the summer weeks between the fourth and the fifth semester, as part of a course, we had the opportunity to conduct a first short field study to try out our discipline’s methods “in the wild”. Ever since I spent some time on an alp for this purpose I’d like to show this photograph to the asking person and respond: “Social anthropology? That’s hard to outline that quickly, but the whole thing smells more of cow pat than I ever thought!”

A., help me for my text. Tell me, what does social anthropology smell like in the first semester? For me, anthropology has the smell of many new things. It smells like perceiving and understanding the diverse behaviour of humans. Alright! What about the smell of freshly printed texts? Of course, we have to read a lot! A lot in English, too!

Social anthropology, that’s visiting a place, full of questions about the people living there but also willing to contribute something.
Social anthropology, that’s our professor’s advice: “Ah, you’re going to an alp? Maybe you should learn to milk a cow before, so that you can make yourselves useful.”
And what smell reminds you of social anthropology? Since you’re in the seventh semester you dealt with it for a while now. Well that’s a hard question! Spontaneously? Cumin!

Back to the photograph. Our research interest wasn’t focused primarily on cow dung. My colleague and I wanted to learn more about the common management of the alp and about different perceptions of identity. The herder on the other hand didn’t really care about the interesting theories in our books and refused rigorously to be interviewed. No problem! Because anthropology, that’s grabbing a shovel and starting to walk with the herder, to pile up manure and at the same time getting to know him. Through these conversations we begin to understand what subjects are relevant to him and how many factors play together to keep this alp system working.
Furthermore we learn important things that we would’ve never asked about. Especially this “Tour de Cow Pat”. The small piles of manure shape the scenery of the alp pastures of Appenzell. That’s something typical, as the herder explains proudly. If the manure is just laying around everywhere the pasture would be harmed, because underneath only weed can grow, instead of grass. That is the reason behind the daily tour around the alp: collecting the dung to pile it up. The good land is rare in Appenzell, that’s why this daily hassle is
undertaken. “You people in Bern, you don’t do that.” Interesting, we say and take a short note on the piece of paper in our pockets. In the evening we understand the herder’s lifeworld not only out of theoretical considerations. Our whole body is tired, we wash the smell of manure from our hands and are delighted by the scent of freshly cooked “Älplermakronen”.
See, that is social anthropology for me, I’d like to tell the asking person. To switch now and then book for dung shovel and to dive into a reality that might be unfamiliar and exhausting but certainly enriching. Anthropology is as multifaceted, colourful and of variable odours as the people it studies. And this is why the student cherishes her discipline so much that neither dung shovel nor conversations about cumin nor tricky rounds of introduction really throw her out of balance.

November 2017

In 1999, after two years of Chinese language studies in China, I decided to return home to Poland overland via northwest China and Kazakhstan. After Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, a bi-weekly train connection had temporarily been established between Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, and Berlin to facilitate the ‘return’ of the Germans in Kazakhstan to Germany. On the way to Astana, where I would board the train, I wanted to travel along some of the ancient caravan routes that crossed the region divided today administratively into provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang in northwest China. I scheduled nearly three weeks for this 3500 km bus journey, after which my student visa would irrevocably expire.
However, the pace of my travel turned out slower than expected. Many roads which existed as bold lines on my maps were, in fact, hardly-visible dirt tracks through the stone and sand deserts of the arid northwest. On the increasingly decelerating journey, I finally got stuck for good at the Qinghai-Xinjiang border, in a small village which grew around one of China’s largest asbestos mines. Summer landslides blocked the road through the mountains on the Xinjiang side. After strolling through the moon-like landscape for a day, waiting for something to happen, I gave up the idea of moving forward and turned back to embark on a roundabout journey via western Qinghai and Gansu which added some extra 1500 km to what I had originally planned. This journey, for a change, brought me into massive sandstorms which further delayed the travel, making me seriously worry that the visa would expire before I reached China’s western border.
My trip coincided with the last year before the launching of China’s Open up the West program in 2000. While the agenda of the program has been very complex, it is safe to say that increasing China’s territorial integration through infrastructure construction has been one of its main targets. Regions along China’s extensive land borders, all of them rich in natural resources but some, like Xinjiang where I have conducted my research since 2011, also volatile and restive, have since been at the receiving end of massive state investment in roads, railways, and airports. Over the past fifteen years, this investment has diametrically changed local and translocal geographies of mobility.
Last year, when I returned to the road that I was unable to take in 1999, I was able to observe the changes with my own eyes. There, where the bus had driven through a road-less steppe and desert in 1999, there was a brand-new tarmac highway. Interestingly, however, though the materiality of the road changed diametrically, when the wind swirled up the sand the tarmac road ‘disappeared’ from view exactly as the dirt track had done seventeen years earlier. Moreover, in summer months the tarmac heats up to 70 degrees Celsius, making it a place to avoid for both truck drivers and the traffic police. In winter, when sandstorms and dust weather set in, the travelling conditions further deteriorate. Tarmac, which unavoidably disintegrates under the influence of the overweight traffic, sand, sun and salt is symptomatic of a larger issue, namely, that of establishing and maintaining the material presence of the state in this vast border landscape. While currently maintained at extremely high financial and ecological costs, the future of the road is, at best, uncertain.
Things have changed so much since 1999, people say. There is a road to every corner of Xinjiang today, people say. Indeed, ‘things’ have changed. What exactly has changed, and for whom, is an ever complex question. While some individuals and communities profit from new infrastructures, these infrastructures also create new inequalities by excluding others from participating in the new world of cement and speed. Hence, representations of roads on maps as continuous, apparently available-to-all and non-valorized lines can be, variously, a claim, a fantasy, a desire, or a trick. In the practice of traveling, ethnicity, gender, class and other social categorizations influence mobility in powerful ways. On the other hand, ‘things’ have perhaps changed less than is often assumed. Roads are still complex bundles of social relations between human and non-human agents like terrain and climate, whose mutual entanglements in world regions like the Sino-Central Asian borderlands remain as challenging to discipline and control as ever.

 

October 2017

 

I was coming from an interview with a return migration consultant somewhere in Switzerland. In the entrance hall, a pile of bags and suitcases caught my attention. While I had been conducting the interview, someone had apparently put the luggage there, just under the yellow poster advertising for the so-called assisted voluntary return migration programme. An hour earlier, when I had entered the building, the luggage had not been there yet. 

Whose luggage could that be? I looked around. The hall was empty. I waited for some time. But no one appeared. Are these the belongings of someone who is about to leave Switzerland “voluntarily”, as the official language of the return migration programme describes it euphemistically? This was my first and immediate intuition. 

In the absence of my real camera, I took a grainy, underexposed picture with my smartphone. Then I left the building. 

On the train ride back home, my thoughts kept wandering back to the pile of luggage. I realised that, of course, it was not even certain that the pile of bags and suitcases had anything to do with the return migration office. Maybe those were the belongings of someone who just had an appointment with the social welfare office which is located in the same building. If so, this would mean that my speculations had been going in a completely wrong direction and that, in fact, the luggage had nothing to do with my research on so-called voluntary return.

Despite the lacking context, the picture can figure as a symbol for precarious mobility at the margins of society. The building that accommodates the social welfare office and the return migration office is frequented by those who have not found their place in society, or whose place in society is questioned and systematically denied. They are not welcomed, but rather governed and administered by the state bureaucracy. This luggage does not resemble the shiny suitcases of business travellers or tourists in any way. Definitively, here we are not dealing with someone preparing for a holiday. And the sheer amount of material that is packed in these bags gives the impression that someone has stuffed his or her entire life into these bags—ready for relocation. 

But maybe this interpretation is all too pessimistic. The owner of the belongings might be quite happy with the prospect that his odyssey will soon come to an end. During my research in Tunisia, I encountered several return migrants who were quite happy that they were able to return to their home town. While they felt stuck during their asylum procedure in Switzerland, the so-called voluntary return migration programme opened up a new perspective for them; that their life was going somewhere again. Being able to make plans for one’s own life is a very existential condition of humanity. However, for these young Tunisian migrants, who are wandering around Europe in search for a better future, the European border regime only allows them to imagine their own future under the very specific conditions of a so-called voluntary return. 

Hence, we should not forget that even in this more positive interpretation, it is still the state that governs the conditions of the possibilities of mobility and sets the direction. And it is still the state that has brought forward the conditions that made their lives come to a halt. This kind of governed “voluntary” mobility is the dysfunctional version of a transnational freedom of movement. 

The grainy, underexposed picture of this pile of bags and suitcases does not reveal much of these reflections in itself. It is nothing more than an invitation to think about the conditions of the possibilities of mobility in contemporary society. 

July 2017

 

The picture I am writing about here has acquired more and more meaning for me over time, because I only belatedly understood what is visible in it, and because I had deceived myself about it for such a long time. It exemplifies, as it were, that an ethnography never ends.

I took this picture because I had been fascinated by the idiosyncratic combination of clothes and decorations, in which the three young women celebrated their graduation from religious school. This was in 1996, after the end of the Ramadan, when the great yearly festivals take place in Sungai Tenang in the central Sumatran highlands. The three young women wore the white prayer scarf as it is common for Muslim women in Indonesia. With it, they wore headrings (agal), a male prerogative in their Arab region of origin. Together with the sunglasses and the lipstick the three girls looked coquettish to me, not quite congruent with the occasion. Did they take their religious graduation more lightly than their age-mates in the background? Or was their outfit an instance of creative gender-bending motivated by the structural contradiction of their Muslim and at the same time matrilinear society?

The explanations of a former secretary of the colonial administration soon threw some light on the enigmatic vestiary syncretism. The old man told me about a period in the 1920s and 1930s when many young men from the highlands had gone on the Hajj to Mekka and upon their return had brought with them Arab clothings. They would wear them for their own weddings but afterwards had no use for them anymore. Arab men use the headrings to fix the kufiya, the chequered headscarf. As Indonesian men wear a fez instead of a headscarf, on festive occasions, the decorative as well as practical headrings were up to grabs for the women, so to speak. Eventually it became a habit for women to wear the agal over their headscarfs during religious festivals. This peculiar appropriation of a customary Arab piece of clothing by the “wrong” gender exemplifies the creative and self-confident way the society of Sungai Tenang for a long time re-interpreted Islam and related cultural imports. Today, merely twenty years later, women don’t decorate themselves with the agal anymore.

But there are still occasions when young women wear sunglasses. Two years ago, during an excursion with a number of students to Sungai Tenang, this part of the puzzle finally unravelled for me as well. In daily life neither men nor women wear sunglasses. It would be deemed arrogant if somebody evaded eye-contact in this way. The only occasions when young women, and more rarely, young men, wear sunglasses, are festivals when they have to present themselves to the whole village – such as graduation ceremonies and weddings. As our excursion took place during the festival season, we got invited to many weddings. At each wedding, a master of ceremony explained the programme and the rules. The youth were reminded to behave properly. And remarkably, all those who might secretly object to the outcome of the wedding arrangements were asked to renounce on sorcery.

People said that it frequently happened that brides sitting on the pedestal besides their grooms were suddenly possessed by a spirit a begrudging shaman had sent. To protect themselves they wear sunglasses. It is believed that the evil spirits recognize their victims by their fearful gaze. The sunglasses deceive the spirits. Indeed, on one evening I witnessed myself how in short sequence a bride and her groom, whom their alarmed kin had put on sunglasses only minutes before, twisted and fainted and were quickly carried out of the village hall. A shaman was called to exorcise the spirits that had possessed them.

Finally, the riddle of the picture I had taken 20 years earlier dissolved. The religious graduation had taken place a few weeks before the yearly group wedding in the village. The three young women apparently were brides, for whom their mothers had already arranged marriage partners. That they wear lipstick is another indication of their status. Only unmarried but eligible young women may wear lipstick in public. At the graduation the young women were presented to the whole village. This was a first occasion for a sorcerer to call on a spirit to possess a young bride who was going to marry a rival of his or her son or nephew. The young women in the background in the picture were no brides, and their male age-mates were not yet eligible. Young women who didn’t go on to a higher school married at 14 at the time, young men at about 20.

Are the three women on the picture coquettish? Maybe on other occasions – but on the picture they tensly anticipate the supernatural challenges of the approaching wedding and the unknown and therefore scary events of their married lives.

Note: Kathrin Oester’s Film „I Love You – Hope for the Year 2000“ tells the story of the hopes and fears of young women and men during the wedding season of 1996 in Sungai Tenang.