Spies Like Us

I’m enjoying the new group blog Savage Minds. I particularly admire that they’ve been able to keep the blog fairly focused on their own discipline, something that I think we historians at Cliopatria struggle with from time to time.

Oneman’s entry on anthropology and counter-insurgency was especially interesting to me. Most historians of modern Africa do work that is extremely close to anthropology in methodological terms, involving many of the same ethical questions, though (thankfully) we’re one step removed from the internal turmoil that such issues raise within anthropology. (The AAA is a much more interesting annual meeting than the AHA because there’s always a much bigger chance of a major intellectual fist-fight breaking out at some point during the conference.)

The problem is that I think Oneman’s reservations (and some of the other comments in the thread that follows) about whether anthropologists should assist the U.S. military in various ways are shot through with a lot of the contradictions that trail behind ethnographic work in a postcolonial world. Some of these contradictions are acknowledged and some aren’t. Some of my own reflections are as follows:

1) Oneman mentions that scholars doing ethnographic research in much of the developing world are already perceived as spies or employees of governmental or international agencies by most of the people they speak with. Most Africanists I know, including myself, would confirm that observation. People I have spoken with often assume that I represent a governmental agency: I’ve been asked to forcibly direct the police to return a wayward son to his mother, to carry pleas to particular governmental ministers or international agencies, to arrange loans, to carry messages to the U.S. government.

This has interesting implications, however. Oneman notes that it’s better to be able to say honestly that you’re not when someone asks if you are. I suppose, but it’s not that easy. Many people you meet think of you as a spy in an extremely general and vague way, and as far as they’re concerned, whether you literally work for a specific American intelligence or military agency is neither here nor there.

I actually think they’re right: functionally the ethnographer is a spy, even if they’re just an anthropologist from Harvard looking to finish a monograph. They’re a stranger who watches, records, asks questions, produces knowledge. Spy melodramas aside, that’s what a decent amount of “humint” produced for various governmental agencies also is: observation, recording, questioning, knowledge production.

If you’re talking to an informant who specifically wants to know whether you’re CIA or not, and has a specific idea of what that means, you’re possibly already in real danger. Moreover, no informant to whom that specific question matters is going to believe anything an American or European researcher says anyway about whether or not they’re supplying information to American military interests.

2) In part, this is because of the fact that scholarly ethnography is intended to be public knowledge, something that anyone can make use of in any way that they like, constrained only by the responsibilities and burdens of the public sphere. No matter what you do, the people you work with are going to blend their understanding of your actual purposes with their perceptions of American, international and local interventions into their lives, so this is really the more important place where your own understanding of your work might be in tension with giving dedicated assistance to American policymakers of various kinds.

But if you do your job well, and provide a responsible ethnographic account of a particular place or people or theme, what’s to prevent American military planners or intelligence agencies from making use of it to serve their own operations and interests better? None if you take seriously the obligation to produce publically disseminated knowledge. So this is a good reason not to do private contractual work for military intelligence, because that would remove your research from public circulation. But the very fact that we produce public knowledge means that anyone whose primary motivation is to prevent the US (or any other institutional or governmental interest) from optimizing its own strategies would have to keep private and unpublished any information that would help them do so, thereby violating their obligations as a researcher.

Do your job right as a researcher, and there’s every reason to suppose that you are in fact helping military planners or policymakers, if they bother to pay attention to what you say. If that’s your hang-up, you’re already in the wrong business, unless you assume your work is of negligible importance as a whole.

3) Or if you assume that ethnographic research done well and responsibly will by its very nature return results of little use to military planner or policymakers not because of anything the researcher does, but because modern human beings are by their very nature intractable to military planning or most policy interventions. In which case, why not consult with military officials if they ask for a consultation? I’m not talking about being on retainer to produce classified monographs–but if I were a specialist on the Middle East and a US officer called me up and asked if I’d brief some group of military officials, well, why the hell not? If someone called me and asked me how to invade Zimbabwe, I’d tell them as an expert that it can’t be done long before I put on my Mr. Ethics cap and started complaining about why it would also be a Bad Thing for other reasons. What most of us who have done this kind of research have to say about people in general and the societies and places we study in specific is precisely the reason that many of us were skeptical about the Iraq occupation from the outset. Before I have anything to say about the United States as a moral entity or about warfare as an ethical problem, or anything particularly political, I have somethings to say as a much more detached student of humanity. I have no problem saying those things, relatively dispassionately, to whichever audience might ask to hear them.

4) It rings a bit hollow to me to hear from some (Oneman doesn’t say this, I should note) that the problem with advising US military interests is that anthropology should be free of all entanglements, or free of any institution which imposes power or authority on the people and communities that anthropologists study. More than a few anthropologists consult with or work for development agencies of various kinds, both governmental and NGOs, and all such agencies exert some kind of direct governmentality over the targets of their efforts. Sometimes quite considerably so. Yes, this has led some ethnographers and similar researchers to advocate withdrawing from any direct relation to the work of development as well. But…

5) The whole conversation ultimately strikes me as demonstrating some of the general disarray afflicting anthropology’s conception of its relations with power–global, national, local. It’s not that much of a surprise that these sorts of discussions rapidly tend to lead to various and sundry self-absorbed musings about the need to shuck off anthropology’s past complicity with colonialism. What often ends up emerging from these bouts of anxious reflexivity is an unsustainably contradictory position: a feeling that anthropology must somehow do emancipatory work or pay dividends in the lives of those who are studied while also abjuring any connection to the actual circuits of power that travel through the world as it is. It sometimes sounds like a high-toned version of various wrestlings with the Prime Directive on Star Trek (small surprise: Star Trek is clearly an ethnographic imaginary at its roots). Everything becomes a minuet, a choreographing of precise gestures and manners, a politics which dare not speak its name in some publics but which can freely declare its affection among others.

Otherwise somewhere in that conversation ethnographers would have to pause and at least seriously treat the possibility that US military power might under some circumstances do the work of emancipation, or that development agencies might do the same. The possibility at least might have to be entertained that the agency and will of some of the people we study might regard the forms of power that ethnographers or academics see with the greatest disdain as the lesser of many evils. In my field of speciality, I think it’s fair to say that many scholars would first and foremost want a complete disconnect between themselves and the US military, with the US government a close second–but for many years, until the late 1990s, quite a few of them were untroubled by the proposition that some postcolonial African governments might make use of their research or even consult them directly. In a place like Zimbabwe, at least in its urban communities, the hierarchy of emancipation for many people runs in the opposite direction. The US is a remote presence; the postcolonial state and ruling party an immediate one. At the very least, some of the assumptions about the failures of US policy in Iraq would have to be moderated against a wider sense of the operations of local power upon the people of Iraq before the invasion.

Some of the assumptions that whatever the US does there always and inevitably tends to the worst are also unsustainable in this light, and that’s part of the problem: it is possible to imagine military policy there which if not resting on a sound and well-founded understanding of Iraqi society, might also be considerably more “enlightened” in a great many ways, much more ethnographically savvy. Stephen Budiansky has an article in this month’s Atlantic about the resurgence of an obscure Marine Corps interrogation manual that came out of experiences in the Pacific War, a document that in some ways can only be described as humanistic. It rejects torture and coercion and advocates practices that can really only be described as ethnographic: entering into a mutualistic conversation with prisoners, understanding them in sympathetic terms, learning the deep foundations of their thought as human beings–and the advice given makes clear that these are not cynical tricks but in fact, practices which aim ultimately at a form of persuasion, to convince prisoners of a larger or different set of interests which they should possess, albeit under circumstances which are profoundly unfree in other respects. The distance between this and the most exquisitely sensitive and professionally correct ethnographic research strikes me as being wafer-thin rather than vast, and that observation should not be cause for self-flagellation but instead exploratory musing. The assumption of some that ethnographic knowledge in the context of US military policy or power always heightens the capacity for oppression seems to me to be in and of itself based on ignorance. Ignorance (or at least incuriosity) about the specific roots and causes of Abu Ghraib and things like it, and the social and cultural character of the US military and government itself.

Contemporary anthropology or ethnography can dream of a skeptical distance from all power, but if so, it best not also dream of being a handmaiden to human emancipation save through the proposition that the truth shall make you free. If that’s the service we can provide, then it’s on tap for everyone, from Donald Rumsfeld down to a peasant in Mtoko. As I’ve suggested, I think that if the US military took some of what we already knew in 2001 seriously, the entirety of the war in Iraq would have been thoroughly reconceptualized or never undertaken in the first place.

If some more direct engagement with the forms and structures of power is advocated, then it cannot be advocated without an actively declared politics, which renders moot most of the responses that Oneman offers to Montgomery McFate–it’s no longer about the nature of public knowledge or the scruples of anthroplogy as a professional practice, only about a politics that defines the US military as the worst of all evils. Which, if it isn’t clear already, I think is a flatly wrong-headed politics on several levels, including as a specific politics of ethnographic knowledge.

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