Symposium #158: Atlantic Slavery and the Making of the Modern World: Experiences, Representations, and Legacies

In October Wenner-Gren once again made the journey back to Tivoli Pálacio de Seteais in Sintra, Portugal for the 158th Symposium, “Atlantic Slavery and the Making of the Modern World: Experiences, Representations and Legacies”, organized by Ibrahima Thiaw (IFAN-University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar) and Deborah Mack (National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC). Be on the lookout for the upcoming special issue of Current Anthropology for the meeting’s papers, available to all 100% Open-Access.

Front: Laurie Obbink, Mark Leone, Liza Gijanto, Ibrahima Thiaw, Deborah Mack, Catherine Hall, Joseph Inikori, Ana Lucia Araujo, Kelly Goldberg.
Back: Cameron Monroe, Jemima Pierre, Hannes Schroeder, Michael Blakey, Jean Muteba Rahier, Katharina Schramm, Temi Odumosu, Fátima Pinto, Danilyn Rutherford.

ORGANIZERS’ STATEMENT

“Atlantic Slavery and the Making of the Modern World: Experiences, Representations and Legacies”

Ibrahima Thiaw (IFAN-University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar)
Deborah Mack (NMAAHC-Smithsonian)

Even today, Atlantic slavery and the slave trade continue to haunt our present and to impact our everyday lives. The persistence of racist ideology and its contestations, economic disparities within and between nation states and across continents, human trafficking and massive migratory movements in world populations today are stark reminders of global processes unleashed by capitalist and imperial expansions concomitant with the Atlantic economy. While the institution of slavery and the trade in people were important components in other major global trade networks (e.g., Roman empire, trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean commerce, etc.), the historical proximity of Atlantic slavery, its strong racial and racist foundations, its scale and its long-term effects make it profoundly relevant to the modern experience. Its enduring legacies and multiple reverberations on various domains of modern life are sensitive topics of tremendous political and popular concern in various regions of the globe, and particularly in Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

There is a massive body of scholarly (anthropologists, historians, sociologists, economic historians, art and architectural historians, preservationists, landscape and urban planners and various other heritage professionals, etc.) and non-scholarly production (e.g., visual artists, storytellers, musicians, performance artists, etc.) on Atlantic slavery and its afterlives. Over the past decades, however, the strong resonance of histories of slavery in local and global politics, the challenges they pose to modern governance and policing, the multiplication and multivocality of actors, as well as the racial polarization of these debates have collectively rendered the discipline of anthropology ever more relevant. Politically engaged anthropologists have dismantled Eurocentric assumptions about racial hierarchies and stigmatization, gender and class biases, and essentialist views on cultural identity. Many anthropological explorations of Atlantic slavery today are self-reflective and highlight the capacity of the discipline to reinvent itself by examining its paradigms, theories, and methods and by challenging accepted models of thought, as well as commonplace understandings of cultural, racial, ethnic and even socioeconomic differences. Anthropology has taken a stand against many power-driven assumptions to be more attentive to subaltern voices worldwide, particularly on issues related to slavery and its aftermath in the global North as well as in the global South.

Building on such momentum and on the large corpus of existing literature, this symposium will gather pioneering academic and public scholars working from a wide range of perspectives. The symposium will not only evaluate existing literatures and practice, it will also provide a unique opportunity to generate and explore new ideas for future directions. We hope to build conversations among several disciplines of evidence, contexts and frameworks to challenge pre-existing approaches, and in the process identify new approaches in both theory and practices that benefit both scholarship and our globalized communities on the ground. Participants from different disciplinary homes, cultural backgrounds, and research traditions in Africa, the Americas and Europe are invited to reflect on the different geographies of power and cultural economies of Atlantic slavery and their enduring legacies in the 21st century. Because we want these conversations to be among people who are both strangers to each other and bring different types of new knowledge to the table, we hope that we serve as a strong voice to building bridges within anthropology and across disciplines. We are intentionally challenging intellectual traditions within and across the field of anthropology and offer models of what anthropology has to become in order to have greater impact in policy as well as public culture and action. Our goal is to provoke productive, cross-pollinating conversations across geographical, methodological and theoretical boundaries, to revisit, reactivate, and redirect debates on Atlantic slavery for the 21st century and beyond.

The symposium is organized around five major themes:

1. Historicizing Capitalist Expansion, Atlantic Slavery, and Empires: How have the historical linkages between capitalist expansion, Atlantic slavery and the making of empires been explored in different world regions? How central was the institution of slavery for the development and expansion of capitalism and empire? What were the roles of local versus translocal situations and processes in the polarization of power and wealth in specific world regions? How were these processes maintained and/or changed in different contexts and localities around the globe?

2. Atlantic Slavery and the Politics of Identity: How, when, where, and under which specific conditions did Atlantic slavery produce national and/or transnational identities and political strategies (e.g. diaspora, panafricanism, white supremacy, etc.)? How does the history of Atlantic slavery continue to inform contemporary racialization processes? How and when did the tangled genealogies of the Atlantic blur the very ideological reification of race and ethnicity upon which the institution of slavery was built? How then should we assess the contemporary relevance of identity categories and their eventual use in modern governance? What is the cultural and political significance of the growing industry of genetics and root identity?

3. Slavery and the Production and Reproduction of Social Inequality: How can anthropological approaches to slavery elicit the linkages between slavery and other regimes of inequality based on a manipulation of race, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, religion, etc.? How were these constructed and reproduced, and how did they influence one another in different contexts across the Atlantic and beyond?

4. Remembrance, Memorialization, and the Governance of a Difficult Past: How is slavery remembered in different regions of the world? How and why do different political subjectivities claim and/or contest established modes of memorialization? How do processes of memorialization intersect with the governance, management, and interpretation of these sites of memory and their commodification?

5. Societal and Ideological Responses to Slavery and its Legacies: How are slavery, its memories and/or its legacies produced, experienced, and contested? What are the counter ideologies and other societal responses to slavery, and what effects have they had? How can anthropology contribute to inform policy and the public on slavery and its legacies for a healthier society?

There might be different sensibilities in the ways the terms slave, slavery, and enslavement are used in different academic traditions. However, participants should keep in mind that our prime objective is to generate an up-to-date anthropological knowledge on Atlantic slavery that would dismantle prior assumptions and open up a renewed perspective foregrounded in research and evidence.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Anna Weichselbraun

Banner announcing the annual General Conference above one entrance to the Vienna International Center which houses the IAEA.

In 2013 while a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, Anna Weichselbraun received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Regulating the Nuclear: The Textual Production of Technical Independence at the International Atomic Energy Agency,” supervised by Dr. Joseph Maco. Building upon her fieldwork Dr. Weichselbraun then received an Engaged Anthropology Grant in 2018 to aid engaged activities on “Designing Effective and Credible Nuclear Safeguards.”

My dissertation research explored the practices that make up the production of “nuclear safeguards”—the verification of states’ international legal commitments to not build nuclear weapons. It asked the question: How, against accusations of politicization, does the IAEA demonstrate “technical independence” in order for its judgments to enjoy global legitimacy? During 24 cumulative months of archival and ethnographic research at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria and at the US National Archives, I explored this question at nuclear safeguards workshops and training courses and during a twelve-month internship in the safeguards department’s training section. There I joined newly hired inspectors in the training course for their job over the course of six months. I interviewed inspectors, analysts, and technicians throughout the department about their work and about what the competencies they thought were necessary to do safeguards properly. I attended the IAEA’s annual General Conference and followed debates in the policy-making bodies. I also interviewed editors, writers, and translators about the production of texts across the Agency.

Delegates and staff taking a coffee break.

My research showed that nuclear safeguards are highly constrained by politically normative expectations about appropriately technical knowledge. Safeguards bureaucrats must constantly demonstrate the supreme technicalness of their findings lest they be accused of being influenced by politics. My work demonstrates that the distinction between technical and political domains at the IAEA has been institutionalized through bureaucratic practice that is imagined to produce “objective” knowledge. Bureaucratization acts as a centripetal force, pulling all attempts to produce knowledge into its vortex. The result is a strong institutional preference for the quantifiable, the calculable, and the predictable. This, however, poses problems for recent attempts to strengthen the nuclear control role of the IAEA which seeks to expand the scope of safeguards activities by including analysis of a wide variety of information in order to paint a more complete picture of the state. “Analysts” are viewed with suspicion as their use of judgment is conflated with bias. Further, this perspective also conceals the role of judgment in the “technical” tasks of the inspectors. I argue that the bureaucratic vision of nuclear control derives from the political imperatives of equal treatment at the time of the organization’s founding, which nevertheless conceal the hierarchical nuclear order.

Secretary Perry delivers the US statement at the opening plenary session of the General Conference.

The Engaged Anthropology Grant allowed me to return to my field site to engage my interlocutors on their continued challenge of designing safeguards that would be technically credible but also politically legitimate. While I had planned to conduct a collaborative workshop with former supervisors and colleagues in the inspector training section, finding a time to schedule such an event proved extremely difficult, and indicates some of the challenges of studying elites with tight schedules who frankly have better things to do than to indulge a visiting anthropologist. In response to an encouraging note from one former supervisor about timing, I planned my visit to the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria to overlap with the organization’s annual General Conference, which was both a busy time but also gave me the opportunity to access the building during the entire week with an observer badge. This gave me the freedom to schedule meetings with former colleagues and interlocutors and it also provided opportunities for chance encounters, not to mention further participant-observation.

.The French booth in the “rotunda” promoting nuclear power as a “climate-friendly” low-carbon energy alternative.

During the week I met individually with eighteen people including ten current IAEA staff members, two former staff members, three diplomats, and three NGO participants. When I was not having breakfast, coffee, lunch, coffee, drinks or dinner with interlocutors, I was following the general debate in the plenary hall (including Secretary Perry’s bizarre speech) and paying attention to the gossip circulating in the hallways concerning the state of that year’s resolution on safeguards which the diplomats were hammering out. I learned upon arriving in Vienna that the Russian delegation had surprised the usual process by introducing a draft of a resolution on safeguards a few days before the European countries who customarily present a working draft were able to do so. NGO observers and staff were curious as to whether the Russian disruption would threaten the outcome of this year’s General Conference as the draft text brought up issues about the objectivity of safeguards that I discussed in my dissertation.
After days of procedural debate, the resolution included wording that expressed concern with the “objectivity” of safeguards evaluation practices and called for returning the inspector’s work to a “technical” basis. In meetings with IAEA staff during the week, I explained that I thought that the insistence on the “technical” and “objective” would constrain the work that safeguards inspectors and analysts were doing. Instead of defending their safeguards expertise as merely technical, safeguards experts should articulate that their unique contribution was a combination of technical know-how and trained judgment (referring to Daston and Galison’s expression in their 2007 book Objectivity), similar to the kind of evaluative diagnostics a physician does. A staff member in the safeguards director’s office was particularly interested in this line of argument so I wrote up a short memo for internal use detailing this alternative argumentative strategy for describing safeguards expertise. I am in touch with my interlocutors to follow up whether this argument resonates, and to secure possibilities for continued engagement.

This experience has led me to reflect on the role that anthropological knowledge (our own particular expertise) can play in my field site and in similar organizations, and how this form of engagement among elite groups must express itself differently than engagement with disadvantaged or even oppressed communities. One of the reviewers of my application flagged that a project such as I proposed in which I would essentially attempt to advise members of the organization on its challenges would not be acceptable in a “non-Western” community. I agree that the particular form of engagement with our interlocutors should be sensitive to the expectations and needs of their communities. Thankfully, we have decades of reflexive anthropological thinking on these matters to support us as we attempt to engage our research communities. I am extremely grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for the opportunity to do so and look forward to the future opportunities for engagement this grant has made possible.

In Memoriam: Dr. Cyril S. Belshaw

On November 20, 2018, Dr. Cyril S. Belshaw, the second editor of Current Anthropology, the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s flagship journal, passed away in Vancouver, Canada.   He guided Current Anthropology through a formative phase in its growth, taking over from the founder, Sol Tax, in 1974.  Known for his extensive research in New Guinea, Fiji, and British Columbia, Dr. Belshaw wrote for broad audiences on topics ranging from urbanism in Papua to the future of the Canadian university.   An avid promotor of global dialogue in anthropology, he served as President of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences and was an honorary lifetime member of Royal Anthropological Institute, the Pacific Science Association and the Association for the Social Anthropology of Oceania.  The Foundation is grateful for his service to the discipline. We extend our condolences to his friends and family on their loss.

CYRIL S. BELSHAW, GlobeLife Deaths, The Globe and Mail

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Jenny Chio

Wenner-Gren is thrilled to share yet another great trailer and blog post from one of our Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship recipients, Jenny Chio. In 2017 Dr. Chio received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship to aid filmmaking on “These Days, These Homes: An Ethnographic Portrait Film.”

These Days, These Homes (preview 2018) from Jenny Chio on Vimeo.

These Days, These Homes

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship

During the grant period, my work was focused on preparing for and conducting a final period of in-country research (May-June 2018) when I met with Wu and Qin again in Kaili, Guizhou. They had both moved into new houses, again, so filming and production was concentrated on shooting these new spaces as well as holding more “reflective” conversations about changes in their lives and our relationship. I also discussed the next steps of the film with them, letting them both know that I will prepare a cut for their review before any distribution or full public screening. After returning to the US from this in-country research, the remainder of the grant period was used to organize footage (video and audio) and to prepare for a final footage review/logging and editing. In reviewing all of the footage from 2018, 2017, 2015, and 2006-2008, I have begun to develop a stronger sense of narrative in the film as well as to experiment with using first-person voice-over narration to help structure the film.

These Days, These Homes will be an ethnographic portrait film focused on the lives of two ethnic Miao women in Guizhou, China. Wu and Qin, as they are referred to in the film, were both born in China’s post-reform 1980s and both married into the same village, Jidao, at approximately the same time, fourteen years ago in 2004. In 2006, I arrived in Jidao with the intent of studying the village’s nascent tourism development program, and over the period of my fieldwork in Jidao, Wu and Qin both became close friends and interlocutors. Since that time, I have visited them wherever their lives have taken them: from Jidao, to the factory towns of south China (Wu), to the nearest provincial capital city Kaili, where both Wu and Qin now reside, at least part time. These Days, These Homes uses the spaces of their lives – their homes in the village and the city – to illuminate and reflect upon the gendered experience of modernity for ethnic minority women like Wu and Qin, whose lives are still unfolding against a backdrop of rapid, almost unimaginable socioeconomic transformation across rural and urban China.

The majority of the film takes place inside the homes of Wu and Qin, and it will span multiples spaces and multiple years. In the time I have known her, Wu has moved numerous times, from her husband’s village house in Jidao to south China’s Guangdong province to a farmstead built by her family on the outskirts of Kaili city and now, in 2018, to a new concrete one-bedroom apartment within one of Kaili’s informal settlement communities. For Chen, her work as the village clinician and in Jidao village’s tourism has brought her new challenges and new sources of income. Within the village, she has moved three times: from a small apartment attached to the village clinic to her husband’s family house to a newly built home with guestrooms for tourists. Then, in 2018, she and her immediate family (her husband and two children) moved into a brand-new high-rise apartment in one of Kaili’s more well-to-do residential complexes, where they spend their weekends away from the demands of village life. Thus, for both Wu and Qin, their homes reflect not only their individual or household ambitions but, more significantly, refract the parallel but divergent paths taken by these two women.

Framed by their domestic environments and engaged in their everyday, domestic duties (from cooking for their families to preparing to host tourists and guests), the film features conversations with Wu and Qin in which we reflect upon our relationships to each other, the time that has passed since we met, and the times to come down the line. Once completed, the film will be structured in two parts, one each on Wu and Qin, followed by a short coda. My own reflections will be included as a first-person voice over narration, following in the style and tradition of the essay film. Visually, I will keep the emphasis on the spaces of home and domesticity, as these are the spaces in which I interact with Wu and Qin most frequently, but I also will include some footage of their lives in the city and village.

Over the next six months, I will workshop some of my ideas and rough cuts with audiences at UCLA, where I have been invited to give a public talk on the film project, gender, and modernity in China, and at USC in the Center for Visual Anthropology as part of their work-in-progress seminar series.