downtown cap-haitien

i woke to a completely new set of sounds and smells this morning in downtown cap-haitien, a cacophony of tap-tap horns and shifting motorbike gears. street peddlers shout out their goods, “dlo! dlo!” mosquitoes buzz in your ear. an old man sings a sweet melody as he cleans the streets in his flannel shirt, cap, and rubber boots. he sweeps the water and dirt away each morning as if he himself swept in the new day.

pedestrians flood the street in every direction as their chatter is nearly drowned out by the sound of running engines. they form single-file lines to navigate the giant, swollen ponds of water from last night’s rain, a quick and short form of order in their morning passage before scattering in either direction again. i can’t tell if some people look both ways before crossing a street to avoid getting possibly hit or to see if they have any friends down the way who’re just killing time. breaks squeal and women sing. men with wheel-barrows full of fresh, brown sugar cane, each as tall as michael jordan, begin skinning and chopping them with machetes. peanuts crackle as they roast.

then there’s the rumble of the un, bright and early. in fully-loaded, white armored transports, the un winds through the tight streets in true war-zone fashion. the rifles of the blue-helmeted soldiers are loosely slung, and the 50caliber machine gun bounces with each bump. its ammunition box is full. they shout in a language no one really knows. in return, the residents shout back in a language the soldiers don’t know. i hear these things just as much as i see them when the sun hits my face. if the sun could make sounds, this is what it would sound like.

there’s a gentle breeze blowing over the harbor. i swear the ships there don’t move, these older shipping boats from a more prosperous time.

here is a sour smell too. there’s no garbage service in haiti, so the only thing you can do with trash is burn it. and burn it they do. it smells like a campfire gone wrong, horribly, horribly wrong. and then there are sweet smells, like the scent of sizzling breakfast peppers. with rice and beans too! you smell the haitian coffee brewing and the sugar cane waiting for a buyer–five gourdes for three pieces. you can begin to smell the salt in the peanuts, and you hope they’ll taste as salty as they smell. you can catch another spicy sniff of something, but will never be able to put your finger on what exactly it is before the breeze takes it to the next lucky sniffer.

location, location, location

Location, location, location. Spaces. Places. Places color the lives of people. I’ve fixed my attention on certain things in certain places everywhere I’ve been in life. And Williamsburg is certainly no different.

There’s a tree outside my room. I’ve watched the wind blow through the leaves in summer. I’ve watched the leaves turn a different color. I’ve watched the wind move through its bare branches in winter. And now I watch the wind blow the blossoms in spring. I watched the same cycle with a certain tree outside the window of my apartment at GMU, and I watched the same cycle with another tree the year before that. As I watched the leaves fade, die, and fall, they watched me flourish, learn, and live. There’re many things to say about a topic like this, ranging from the obvious role that landscapes play in people’s lives, through the process of how physical spaces are made into social places, to the role that memory plays in the daily lives but I’ll maybe save that for later.

I ran by the used bookstore today before it closed at 5, and I picked up two books I think will be pretty crucial reads, and also helpful (maybe) for my work down the line. The first is one I’ve seen in the bib of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel. The other is W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk. I have this thing with free-reading that whatever it is I plan to read, I have to do it all at once. I hope you can see the problem that poses…I have no idea when I’ll read both these books.

As I was walking through the bookstore, I decided to look at the “travel” section. It came to me that that might be a great resource and aspect to include in my MA. That is, I hope to figure out if where bookstores and other venues place travel literature–specifically travel literature on Haiti–and how they present it is in any way significant to what one might encounter when actually reading or consuming the literature itself, like what sections the books are in, what sections are beside it, where the sections are, blah blah blah. I’ll have to work through that later though. I think I’m back on a *regular* sleeping schedule, so that’s good.

obama, voldemort, and foucault

I’ll finally spit out how I feel about the 2008 presidential bid, so bear with me: I don’t like Obama; I don’t like Clinton; and I definitely don’t like McCain.

Obama’s speech on race a few weeks ago was simply outstanding, and he made very important points that all people should embrace. Obama’s polished poetics do an excellent job at pointing out how fucked up race and racism is, but can we ever really overcome it?

I’m going to put on my Foucault hat here and do some literary criticism: for every time you engage in a discourse about something, you necessarily (re)affirm it and (re)constitute it. Discourse also masks power relations by abstracting them. Think about Harry Potter: there was a huge stigma surrounding the name of “Voldemort.” Just conjuring his name instilled fear, right? So they decided to call him “he whom shall not be named.” Reality check: changing Voldemort’s name does not eradicate the power relations that surround the concept of his name or the social category that he represents. You can call Voldemort whatever you want, but it will never cut out the issues behind what Voldemort and his name represent. And every time you discuss the concept of Voldemort, whether you say his actual name or some epithet, it immediately reissues the issues that surround him.

Likewise, every time Obama beats back the race issue, he actually reaffirms it. When slavery came about, it threw the concept of “race” into social discourse. And ever since it entered social discourse, society can neither erase the atrocious damage that the institution of slavery forced upon countless human beings, nor mask the hideous history that the concept of “race” has control over. Race and racism are social categories that will live with humanity forever, and that sucks. Pretty bleak picture.

Well, that’s what Foucault would say, and I still don’t wholeheartedly buy into all of what he has to say. (Mainly because I’m a shameless idealist.) But he’s useful at pointing out hidden power relations and oppression in everyday speech, language, and discourse. Unfortunately, his whole system is very dangerous because, as many have pointed out, a Foucauldian mindset can quickly degenerate into nihilism. (i.e., life sucks and we’ll never overcome any of the oppression in it, so what’s the point??)

Again, Obama makes great points about race and racism, but how does he think we can overcome it? I think he takes a righteous idea like overcoming race and capitalizes on it with a “yes, we can!” rhetoric. So here’s the rub: the thing that he tells us we need to overcome is the same thing that he embraces in his presidential bid—race. I’ll rephrase. He wants us to move past race and overcome it, right? But at the same time that we’re supposed to overcome race, it is playing a major role in Obama’s platform! How can “we” overcome it if you keep talking about it?

If I’ve painted Obama as a cunning opportunist, that’s because I think he is. This may be too heavy-handed, but I get an overwhelming sense that Obama is insincere, contrived, and pretentious. And by throwing the “we” in his “yes, we can!” rhetoric, he hides the fact that he is capitalizing on the same thing he tells us is evil and inhumane. His platform on race relies on the assumption that all Americans have the same understanding of race and racism. If they didn’t, then they probably do now. His discourses ensure that. Coupled with my next point, I think this is a very important issue.

I’m not satisfied by the options he gives us–if any–to overcome race and racism. This more perfect union Obama wants is a community, a solidarity. And like Leisa Meyer has recently said about the idea of community on our own campus at William and Mary, a community is “about being proactive, it’s about being active, and not just reactive.” Obama’s speeches, while gripping, will not neutralize the power and problems that race and racism have created in American society since “we still haven’t fixed them after Brown v. Board of Education.” And being aware and conscious of the problems doesn’t mean they’ll fix themselves either. Where’s the initiative here; what’s the plan? I haven’t heard anything that specifically aims to educate and defuse America’s race issue. But for Obama, all we have to do is vote for him and trust that his empty rhetoric will somehow fulfill itself and issue “change.” Obama is piggy-backing on a socio-political hot topic that, in effect, gives him the social capital and clout necessary to win public favor without actually engaging the race issue and its challenging and malicious position in everyday American life.

omfg

So get this. I meet with my adviser for coffee this morning, and he opens by telling me that the Reves Center, the international studies office on campus, has invited a Human Terrain Systems (HTS) member to give a lecture on April 1st. The name of the “anthropologist” is Montgomery McFate, and she is one of the chief mercenaries behind HTS.

What’s really disturbing is that the Reves Center did not consult the Department of Anthropology before inviting McFate. Why didn’t the Reves Center mention anything to the anthropology faculty? That’s the question that’s hot on everybody’s lips.

Several faculty members’ initial reaction is to not endorse, and even boycott, the lecture. Brad Weiss contacted Hugh Gusterson and Andrew Bickford at GMU to see if they’d be interested in being discussants in the lecture with McFate. Unfortunately, they declined because they have to teach that night. Weiss also contacted David Vine from American University, and we’re hoping he’ll accept. All three anthropologists are founding members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.

I’d personally like to hear what exactly it is that these people use as justification for their positions. And of course, I’ll have plenty of questions and critiques.

war is a war crime

The United States invaded Iraq five years ago, and public opinion is still polarized over the conflict. Arguments that surround either side of the debate are widespread and worn-out. But one thing will always remain clear: in war, nobody wins. Everyone loses. Dying is losing, and killing is losing. So how do the decision-makers and trigger-pullers live with this? For even the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands drove her mad.

And still, as the BBC has noted, the US military has pulled out all stops to win the war. This article is a small vignette into the rapidly growing ethical debate in anthropology. That is, whether it’s ethical for anthropologists to partner with the military in the Iraq War. I will be very clear: anthropologists in the US military are tools.

The interests of anthropology are understanding life and celebrating humanity. On the other hand, the US military serves a list of “American interests,” like installing American democracy and business, maintaining American presence in the region, and—as contradictory as it is—enforcing freedom. The Iraqi people are at the bottom of this list. Rarely, if ever, will the interests of anthropology intersect with those of capitalist US foreign policy, especially in Iraq. The military uses anthropology as just another means to an American-imperialist end.

The notions that embedded anthropologists are some sort of damage control dealing with the reality of war in Iraq, that they facilitate “cultural understanding” on the ground, and that projects like Human Terrain Systems (HTS) are essential for the US to pull out of Iraq could not be more wrong. Participating in HTS projects do not serve the Iraqi people. HTS projects serve American interests, simply couched in “humane” terms. If you’re working with an HTS team in the United States military, you are loyal to the United States military first, and to the Iraqi people second (if not third or fourth). That is the bottom line.

The military has been wrapped in Iraq contingency-rhetoric for the past five years, and it’s hard for anyone to say for sure what the military is doing in Iraq. But the only thing that embedded anthropologists are doing in Iraq is fanning the flames, not putting them out. I think it’s clear that the anthropologists who participate in HTS projects are alienated from the very fundamental ethics that bind anthropology to humanity. CNU “anthropologist” Marcus Griffin has been open about his role in HTS. His is a chilling account: helicopter gunship surveys, body armor and camouflage, and weapons training. Give me a fucking break.

50 years ago, the Department of Defense had a very similar campaign. It was called Project Camelot. The program enlisted the help of ambivalent social scientists to work closely with native communities in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The US military used this research to identify, target, and systematically murder thousands of people. The danger and fear that something like this could happen again is very real.

nocturnal emissions

I’m most productive at night. In fact, I think I’ve become close friends with Dwight Davis, the local late-night public radio host. But maybe “friends” is too strong a term. I mostly email him around 330am each night asking him to play the Star Wars theme. When he does, we’re best buds. When he doesn’t, we’re bitter enemies. I’m gonna switch it up tonight and ask him to play some LOTR music.

Tonight? Tonight I’ve got roughly 80pages of material to read for theory tomorrow. I usually gobble theory stuff up, so I’ll probably wait until 500am to do that. I’d much rather read my Haitian stuff though, so that’s what tonight is really about.

Tomorrow is the 5th anniversary of the Iraq War, and across the nation countless people are taking a stand on what they believe. You know I was gonna be right there too. But today was super busy, and it wasn’t until the end that I realized how many obligations I have tomorrow. Bummer.

It’s time to start thinking about a new place to live for the next year. This apartment is cool, and relatively cheap. It’s also super-close to campus, so riding my bike is super-easy. But it’s also very depressing. The building-planner must have been a vampire, because each window in this apartment has been strategically designed to maintain the maximum amount of darkness possible. Seriously, the only thing that gets through these windows are giant man-eating bugs which are determined to live behind my shower loofa. Btw, I’ve just recently switched to a loofa.

So back to what’s on queue for tonight: I’ll finish this great book called Migration and Vodou, then I’m gonna dig back in to some of the pop-literature that’s been written about Haiti over the last 50 years. I’ll get to the theory stuff later…I guess. I just ran out of splenda, that sucks. I had this giant bag completely full of splenda packets that I’ve stolen from various fastfood places. I would go there just to duck in and snag some splenda. Beats buying sugar.

a long time coming

418am, Williamsburg, Virginia. Cold and quiet, except for the buzz of streetlights. But even that drifts into the silence of the night after awhile. Every now and again there’s a loud crash. Is it the sound of trains and overnight commerce in this safe city, or is it the echo of gunfire from the faraway alleys of Cité Soleil in Haiti? I can’t tell; I’ve zoned out.

“Ghosts of Cité Soheil” is an overwhelmingly powerful film about ganglife in the slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The people in that film, all dead now. The bonds they had, the meaningfulness they forged in their brutal lives, the love they shared, all gone now. The love these people experienced was real, but all these things exist now only in film and memory. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that I have been galvanized to do whatever I can in the course of my career and life to help the Haitian people whose lives are constantly cut short by want, suffering, and violence. But how can I make my studies matter to Haitian people? How will I answer the “so what?” question? How can I make my emotional commitment play out in beneficial ways for the Haitian people? Will becoming an ethnographer or cultural anthropologist help me broadcast the Haitian voice of suffering and injustice and make a difference?

This is the beginning of a blog that I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. Although my work is in Haiti, I hope this blog gives you a unique perspective into our cultural world at large. Of course, not all my posts will be sombre and serious. I was particularly moved tonight, and I took the opportunity to channel my energy into something mildly worthwhile and borderline productive. So I finally made this blog 😛