My childhood imagination enhanced stories told to me by my elders of where we were from, and my history embraced the possibility of exciting seafarers, noble learned men and women, poor housekeepers, exiled princesses, wandering mystics, Marxists fighting the good fight, and revolutionaries standing up against the British. While some of this might very well be true, at age five or six, sitting in New Jersey, truth was a far fetched notion and irrelevant. As we do, I have carried these stories with me through my life and into my practice, and I revisit them now as I consider the topography of text. I am curious about what it means to write about others from a position of otherness as the cartography of elsewhere informs my writing from within, while positioned somewhere else.
Where are you from?
But, where are you really from?
Along with the fantastical stories of being from somewhere else, this all too familiar pair of questions has followed me throughout my life. From all levels of schooling (and life) in the United States to checkpoints in Iraq: when one is from elsewhere, where that else is, is always in question. When I am asked this question within the context of my practice, there is often an assessment of trust, suspicion and a base line assumption that all anthropologists are spies — and guilty of that until proven innocent. As it has been laid out for me countless times: how can one trust someone with such mobility, with no grounding, with no place, and/or with the ability to move into a new socio-cultural world just for research. Of all of these, the last stings the most because it simultaneously devalues our profession of choice while underlining the privilege that anthropologists carry in our disciplinary bodies. It is that discomfort of privilege that makes me want to pause here for a moment to situate such a question, before moving on to what it means to write from such a place.
Given that my own practice has existed within the ambit of the colonial world, either writing from landscapes of settler colonialism, the spaces of colonial transit, or in former colonies, I have wondered about the relationship between land and trust as a colonial bi-product. That seems to be the tip of the iceberg. Why is trust, in the few geographies I have encountered (thus not a universal), based upon placedness? Where are you from? I used to think it was because part of the human condition was to always place people within socio-cultural structures that made sense to us — but as I have grown, I have experienced a different depth to that question. Where you are from is not about fitting into the social schema – but rather, the where-ness of it all eerily exudes some sort of ontological certainty to belonging.
If you sense some hesitation on my part as I write about this, it is because I bring this up with much trepidation and with a desire (that I am foolishly ignoring) to hedge my bets. This is (at best) a very complicated issue because it is deeply and irrevocably entangled with histories of displacement and land claims, issues of class mobility, and in my mind, a hegemony of agricultural (read: settled) societies that emerges as far back as the third millennium BCE (of course, agriculture starts earlier – I’m linking the millennium to a certain hegemonic form of power related to institutions, infrastructure and agriculture – stay tuned for a different post on those power relations). At the core of my query is a very contemporary question and that is: why the mistrust of immigrants? And what relationship does immigration have with a sense of authentic belonging? As one who has never had the ability to transition into a body of authentic belonging, for me, this will always loom as an uneasy query, and most likely without any answer.
In my own intellectual upbringing I first tried to wrap my head around questions of citizenship, transcultural and transnational identities, which can be dated to the late 90s and early 2000s based on some of my touchstone texts, like May Joseph’s Nomadic Identities, Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul, or Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship. Simultaneously I was ensconced in American minority politics finding my own understanding of a certain type of white ignorance in the US through edited volumes such as Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance (among others). Thus, having been nurtured in the political efficacy of epistemological critique, when I found myself wrestling with a conflicted sense of deep meaning in the ontological turn, I was worried but curious. It worked brilliantly with archaeology, with some archaeologists claiming that we had been doing this all along. Before you roll your eyes at these claims, I would think about the colonial baggage archaeology continues to carry in its current neo-colonial avatar — and perhaps what is being tapped into here is some relationship between coloniality, placedness (that can be excavated), and some ontological certainty of belonging.
A few years ago (in 2013), I co-organized a AAA session entitled ‘Once you see it, you can’t un-see it (A. Roy): Negotiating Inequality and Coloniality in Anthropological Epistemology and Archaeological Practice’ with Sonya Atalay, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, and Jane Anderson. Part of my impetus for the paper I presented (and subsequently published with a different title in a reader for the Cyprus Pavilion at the Venice Biennial), En Route to a Manifesto: Some Thoughts Concerning Epistemic Inequality and Injustice, was to contend with such issues, in particular, the tension between the ontological and the epistemic. What were we doing with this bitter colonial aftertaste that the ontological blue pill was forcing (or maybe enforcing)? And yet, there was something very important happening in the recognition of a sort of vitality for things – or most commonly heard at the AAAs that year as ‘the thinginess of things’. My only solace was that I could trace my pedagogical tendencies to think about entanglement, my body, and issues of labor to feminist/queer scholarship – and I became that crazy lady at archaeology conferences who kept muttering under her breath, “well, it would be nice if you cited or read Karen Barad who actually wrote about this in 2007…”
But there continued to be a nagging epistemic problem – specific to my body and belonging – a problem of deep set coloniality in archaeology specifically and anthropology more broadly. In some manner of speaking, the issue is not so much about the discipline itself, but how my practice was now part of the discipline of anthropology and yet from elsewhere because of its desire to decolonize and dismantle. What sorts of epistemological frameworks was I reigniting that maintained a distinct colonial flavor that I might be able to remove, change, re-evaluate. And how might I do this while acknowledging the vitality of everything around me. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve figured much of this out (although I am still working on it) – except to say that now the earth has more vitality, I am read as belonging elsewhere, and racism continues to create murky epistemic problems in the academy.
Putting the earth and the academy aside, so what’s going on here? Do we or can we belong to a place or not? If we are from elsewhere, can we belong to here?
This sets up an all too easy critique of the failure of the modern nation state, so I am not even going to bother with that. What is more interesting to me is how, in spite of the trickery of citizenship, and the bareness of life, there is still a sense of belonging that permeates our discourses. This authentic belonging is constructed and saturated with the politics of everything and the deep privilege of ascribing or prescribing identity to others. And those of us who continue to embody multiple prescriptions (which I would argue is most of us – although some more than others), learn how to switch. But this is not about code-switching and identity. This is about always belonging to somewhere else.
It is not a coincidence that I write this while I live in the UAE. It is also not merely a turn of phrase that I have chose to write about ‘living’ here rather than saying I am ‘doing research’ or that I am ‘in the field’. It is precisely because I live here that I now have a different stake in cultural work, including archaeology, that happens around me. It is because I live here that I work with collaborators and colleagues as we co-construct some understanding of the ancient and contemporary.
And yet, I still do not belong. When I write about here I am writing from elsewhere. For so many others here, who also may not belong, I cannot help but wonder where they are writing from. Perhaps what we all have in common are our exciting seafaring grandmothers, housekeeper aunts, roaming mystic sisters, and raging Marxist mothers. Or perhaps there is something to seeing the color of your soil on another body that holds us in place for a moment as we recognize something familiar and dangerous.