Discipline and Wattle: Suffering Ch. 1

The first chapter of the book should draw a familiar contrast with the introduction– little of the analytical language or conceptual erection (can I say that?) of the Intro is explicitly present in the first chapter of Part 1: “Governing Space”. I’m tempted to discipline Dr. Moore for his bad puns and subtitles, but that would involve pots and kettles and accusations, and I should refrain. This chapter by contrast is a great introductions to what is, as promised a complex tangle of people, places, histories, governments, sovereignties and disciplining. The frustration of trying to capture the social complexity of this place and time in an ethnography has already emerged in discussion… let me just reiterate some things. “Complexity is not its own virtue,” as Strong put it, gnarly or knot. And there is a double challenge here: first, to render the details, affect, experience and sense of a place using the relatively narrow tools of the ethnographic trade, i.e. the tools of the writer; second, to make the conceptual armature that is familiar to a broad range of scholars order and clarify the details that are otherwise available only to a narrow band of Zimbabwe specialists. Two kinds of complexity: the complexity of the novelist’s craft with rendering complex social life sensible and the complexity of the philosopher/social theorists craft of rendering conceptual schemes and empirical facts intelligible. In this respect, I think there is still a great deal to be said about “experimental” ethnography and the craft of writing one after the critiques of the 1980s–but only if this question is not divorced from the related goal of making conceptual schemes(Kerim implanted this term in my head– are you reading too much Davidson or something?) articulate with empirical description.

Chapter 1 almost achieves both, but I wouldn’t call it a complete success. It has a clever general structure and a lot of great detail (perhaps too much, indulging in places in obviously interesting but marginally relevant details of things like witchcraft or the rhetorical stylings of incompetent lesser headmen). There are two ways into the chapter, at least. One is through the author’s own “ethnographic emplacement” — the fact that as an anthropologist he had to find a (good) place to live, secure permission to live there, build his own hut and then, at the end of it all, found himself threatened with expulsion from that hut by the District Administrator — which in turn is the second way in, through the event of the District Administrator’s letter threatening residents with expulsion from Nyamatsupa if they do not conform to the plans for “villagization.” These two entry points–the author’s own experience with wattle, and the event of the DA’s disciplining letter–are explored in great detail, and are used to great effect as occasions to start laying out the complexity ethnographically. They do not explain, but they do start to map out settings, characters, events in history, and other crucial components of the story. Yet to emerge is a sense of how inquiry into this story has proceeded (what problems animate Moore’s search, other than his threatened hut) and a conceptual clarity (of the sort we hope will be provided via articulated assemblages and sovereignty-discipline-government).

I think this is one of the best ways to draw the reader into the ethnography–the same way the anthropologist was drawn in. As an ethnographic technique it is without peer, it sets up the tension which the author will resolve for the reader. However, as an analytic introduction, it doesn’t always help. One might wonder why this tiny event–significant to the victims to be sure, but seemingly insignificant beyond that–needs explaining, or where in our overcrowded, youtube-addled brains we are going to store it. Will we be needing all this detail? The Tsanga valley, the Dazi and Nyamatsupa regions, Nyanga (thanks to Strong for finding us a visual!). The overlapping powers of chief and headman, raimakers and DA, histories of the colonial and post-colonial regimes.

I’ll be interested to hear what readers got from the first chapter. Does the story of the meeting between DA and chief make sense, and does it motivate the kinds of questions raised in the intro? Is the detail overwhelming or helpful and where? I have to admit that I’m still fuzzy on a few of the characters and their roles, and if asked to display my knowledge of the various parts of Kaerezi or its inhabitants, I would dissemble. But it seems to be mostly all there in chapter 1, and so I can consult…

I wrote a long section about assemblages, but I think our server ate it because it Internal Server Errored on me. I will try to return to the issue in the next post…

P.S. Mobility continues to be present throughout, though not yet quite a theme: Trucks open the chapter– movement through the territory. the issue of mobility on foot emerges repeatedly, 1 hour walks, jogging behind oxen for 3K, security routes constantly improved by trucks and graders. Cattle allow people greater mobility than agriculture. since fixing capital in place was risky given the history of evictions. Indeed, the nature of mobility in this place is quite obviously tied to the constant evictions, resettlements and displacements, making the very idea of a permanent home risky, if not seemingly impossible.

P.P.S. There is a another subtheme here: ecological farming. The Kaerezi ecological approach to farming (mentioned briefly on p.50, reappearing in chapter 2) reminded me of Michael Pollan’s story of Polyface farms in Swope Virginia in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, wherein he describes the practices of rotation of crop, grazing and fertilizing animals, the arrangement of forest field, stream and home, and the fact that all of this is information-intesive (the farmer even insists that it is something like a post-information technology approach to farmin’). The point being that ecological arrangements are not natural, nor primitive as figured by the planners or to some extent hippies and conservationists–rather that it is a kind of post-human rationality of planning a farm. Naturally, it is easy to see the failures created by the simplistic, ad hoc and frankly retro planning techniques of the Mugabe government when they demand that land be disciplined into urban/rural grids and used according to function instead of managed ecologically. The fact is, however, that the option is not between planning and no planning or between discipline from above and government from below, but between competing rationalities of planning and care. This is something I don’t yet see in Moore. Sensitive as he is to avoiding claims of natural agricultural practices, there is still, to me, a sense that this is about planning all the way down, so to speak, which may also be why the sovereignty-discipline-government triad in motion doesn’t seem sufficiently precise to some readers.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

9 thoughts on “Discipline and Wattle: Suffering Ch. 1

  1. I’ve just finished the first section of the book, and I find that many of the points Chris makes about the first chapter also seem to hold for the second and third. Lots of great ethnographic details, but it is not always clear which ones are important to the larger argument he is trying to make. (Chris’ point about different kinds of planning is a good one and I wonder if it will be addressed later on?)

    Regarding the writing, there are some passages which are absolutely riveting – such as taking the cattle for a “dip” in Chapter 3, but they are often followed by passages which are rather dull or tortuous making for some bumpy driving. I think this is necessary somehow, since bureaucratic encounters are hard to convey in the same way as scenes from life around the settlement, but I do find that I’ll be reading along at a rapid clip for a couple of pages and then suddenly hit a page which requires careful re-reading in order to figure out all the various agencies and players being discussed.

  2. Moore does pose a form of inhabiting the land that is ‘organic’ (though not ‘natural’) against one that is ‘rationalized.’ Traditional agricultural practices are shown to have made more sense, to be more attentive to specificities of history and landscape, to be more holistically embedded in salient social relations, than are those recommended by the grand schemes of colonial and postcolonial development. Moore could tell a story not dissimilar from the one that James Scott has so eloquently told us: a story about the irrationality of modernist, developmentalist reason. This account, then, could be about *why* certain forms of government are destined to fail (on their own terms).

    But this is not what Moore wants to do. Moore takes Scott’s elegant analysis of the failures of rationalized planning and tie it up in knots [sorry]. His goal is similar to that of Li in a recent article; she writes: “I reframe the question posed by Scott—why have certain schemes designed to improve the human condition failed?—to examine the question posed so provocatively by James Ferguson: What do these schemes do? What are their messy, contradictory, conjunctural effects?” Moore does not want to help us understand why, he wants to understand *how*. Again, I assimilate this as a shift in anthropological priorities from advancing general concepts to conveying particular stories.

    Thus, the difficult narration is *meant* to reflect an on-the-ground (historical, cultural, territorial) difficulty. This is what I was highlighting earlier by referring to the ‘ambitiousness’ of the text.

    Yet, I am not sure that showing that government is divided against itself because bureaucrats are territorial too (like tribesmen), and that it is always subject to resistances of various kinds, necessarily alters the picture of modern government as articulated by Scott. I am not convinced that simply *adding* stuff to the picture means that Scott’s key features of modernist planning do not in fact operate in the way that he suggested (through a set of reasoned principles and aesthetic conventions).

    Also, I continue to worry about Moore’s ‘colonial’ translation strategy. Take this sentence about spirits: “Ancestral spirits could also govern subjects, acting on their actions, exercising influence on their habits, regulating their conduct.” The ancestors were also DA’s! Somehow, I feel sentences like this one fail to capture what is distinctive about ancestral power. I am wondering specifically: what *are* the spirits? Whose spirits are they? What theory of personhood and fortune connects ancestral favor/disfavor with individual outcomes? What ideology of efficacy informs these connections?

    Following this, the whole world of the Tangwena chiefdom remains frustratingly hard to see. I think we are getting an excellent view of two different domains: the state and the family. Yet, I am a third of the way through the book and I feel completely in the dark right now about Tangwena as a political unit. I want to know more about the cultural concepts that inform the constitution of the chiefdom as a social unit. I suspect that Moore is deliberately resisting discussion of old-fashioned ‘social structure.’ But without better description of the chiefdom as a social system, we end up assimilating its principles to those that inhabit the other social domains that Moore brilliantly chronicles. Thus, the whole social field appears fundamentally structured (all the way down) by agonistic power plays. And ancestral spirits start to sound like District Administrators!

    And there is the question of brute force. Much of this story is set in motion by the fundamental fact that Africans were systematically dispossessed of their lands under colonial rule. All of the culturalist argument about forms of government does not, thankfully, disguise this fact in Moore’s account. As much as this book wants to do sophisticated things with the analysis of power, I think the main story here is about racist violence and its effects through time.

  3. “I suspect that Moore is deliberately resisting discussion of old-fashioned ‘social structure.’”

    This is perhaps worth dwelling on a bit more. The challenge of appealing (to fellow anthropologists) across really quite radically different places and peoples is not insignificant. On the one hand, an older generation might have once felt comfortable with a certain amount of general knowledge about all of the world’s peoples– but that is clearly not the case today. This means that every monograph or article needs to re-introduce even us specialists to the details of “old-fashioned social stucture” in the Tangwena chiefdom (or wherever else) if we are to have any access to the argument… however… on the other hand… it has become impossible for most graduate students and young scholars to imagine doing so because that looks exactly like repeating work that is already out there, i.e. done in detail by colleagues familiar with the Tangwena (or whoever else) and thus something that we should be expected as readers to have encountered, or else go to the library to fetch. Add to this the post-1980s concern with the general acceptance of the impossibility of representing social reality, and you have a recipe for texts that don’t really give you enough rope.

    I think Moore is occupying more of a middle ground here than say, Bill Maurer’s book on islamic finance which, while dazzling and brilliant in places taught me approximately 0 about Islamic finance. From Moore I am certainly learning more about Zimbabwe ‘s northeast corner than I ever thought possible, but not they way I might expect if I picked up a book by a journalist about the same topic.

  4. I am not sure that the challenge here is just the cultural and historical uniqueness of social life in the Kaerezi area. Anthropologists all write about complex worlds that are typically unfamiliar (I hope!), wherever those worlds are: rural New Guinea, suburban Australia, urban South Africa or all three at once (like, ‘the mining sector’ or ‘Pentecostal Christianity’). Is the problem here that anthropologists no longer have a baseline knowledge of major ethnograpic areas or is it that the language and categories of analysis we use today are less open and less accessible? Again, I see Moore as having brilliantly mastered critical theoretical approaches to government. I am not yet convinced that those approaches will help us best to see what is distinctive about local modes of habitation. As I have said, that is OK (although I am not sure it bodes well for the discipline). What worries me is that the piece of the assemblange that pertains to the local, the traditional, the cultural… that that piece won’t be visible because the theoretical stuff is not rooted in its analysis.

    That whole problem of not wanting to repeat what has been done before is so vexing! On the one hand, who wants to go on reinventing the wheel. On other hand, subjecting the whole discipline anthropology to the logic of fashion (the avant garde, the new) could be really damaging.

    I do think again that Moore is sensitive to the concern I articulate here. I was warmed and heartened that he acknowledged the translocal nature of Malinowski’s Trobriand writing! This is just something I am tracking (the relative importance of culturally unique constructs informing land tenure in the chiefdom)as a way of assessing what makes an assemblage in anthropology today.

  5. I have been intensely frustrated because I am still waiting for my copy of Moore to arrive in Japan. So all I can offer is a tangent. When Strong writes,

    I see Moore as having brilliantly mastered critical theoretical approaches to government. I am not yet convinced that those approaches will help us best to see what is distinctive about local modes of habitation.

    I am reminded again of one of my favorite paragraphs by Victor Turner, from “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors.”

    In moving from experience of social life to conceptualization and intellectual history, I follow the path of anthropologists almost everywhere. Although we take theories into the field with us, these become relevant only if and when they illuminate social reality. Moreover, we tend to find very frequently that it is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates, but his scattered ideas, his flashes of insight taken out of systemic context and applied to scattered data. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system, they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of edible dough. The intuitions, not the tissue of logic connecting them are what tend to survive in the field experience.”

    I have certainly found this to be true in the twist and turns of the field experience I call my life, as well as the fieldwork proper I did in Taiwan. One of the things I find most disturbing about too many anthropological works (or at least the ones I read) these days is the combination of belaboring theory (mostly a matter of bows and obeisances to current buzzwords and gurus) and its cookie cutter application to data that turns out to be thin, indeed. (I refer to the use of a couple of quotes or anecdotal recountings of cases that provide no useful evidence for pursuing questions about details for which the belabored theory fails to provide an explanation.)

    I must, however, say a thank-you to whoever it was who recommended Sandra Bamford’s Biology Unmoored, which I am finding very good, indeed.

  6. Hello all. I am new to this site, and I am also quite new to Anthropology. I have only recently discovered that it is the discipline to define concepts, phenomena and situations that have always fascinated me-namely the why? people do certain things, how long it has been going on, the cultural and historical uniqueness of a place, expression of cultural norms, rituals in everyday life…etc etc etc. I would very much like some recommendations on primary texts which I could read to familiarise myself with the field, and areas of specialism within it, particularly in the areas of applied anthropology and cultural anthropology.

  7. Stacy: Thanks for visiting our site. Anthropology is a wide open field of inquiry, embracing diverse subjects and methods of study, as you note. This is both its promise and its peril. Our site is devoted almost exclusively to discussion of ‘cultural anthropology,’ although I am sure you are aware that there are other subfields within the umbrella of the discipline as a whole.

    For cultural anthropology, I think an excellent introductory text is Keesing and Strathern’s “Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective”:http://www.amazon.com/Cultural-Anthropology-Contemporary-Roger-Keesing/dp/0030475821

  8. Stacy: another suggestion for finding your way around sociocultural anthropoogy would be Monaghan and Just’s “Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction”:http://www.amazon.com/Social-Cultural-Anthropology-Introduction-Introductions/dp/0192853465. This is a terrific, readable-but-sophisticated introduction to the field that I think would be more fun to read than a regular textbook–Each chapter has a good list of further reading at the end, so if you find something you want to pursue you can.

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