When politics and conferences converge – AAA after the elections

For the last few days Nayantara Sheoran Appleton and I have been at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association in Minneapolis. Walking around the venue with several thousand anthropologists from across the world is an interesting experience in general, but with the timing this year, right after the presidential elections, it took on a whole new aura. With Donald Trump now president-elect, the conference was unsurprisingly dominated by conversations about the future of the country, the global implications of this election, and above all, discussions on anthropology’s role in this changing world.

As we rushed from panel to panel, ducked in and out of business meetings, participated in art installations, bought as many books as we could fit in our luggage, and met each evening in our hotel room to discuss the day, we spent a lot of time talking about what it is that conferences do beyond present new research. As an important part of any academic career we travel through the conference circuit, the anthropology’s calendar dominated by the AAA. We go to tell people about our research, to make connections with colleagues and collaborators, to catch up with old friends, to re-energise our studies. We also go to explore emerging theoretical and practical trends, and consider how they reflect the wider socio-political concerns in the world.

This year’s conference was dominated by conversations around race, politics and civil liberties. Intersectionality featured heavily, as did bio-ethics in transnational locales. Surveillance, resistance, governmentality and precarity all stole the stage as theoretical frames. Every panel demanded not only debate, but also concern, compassion, and more than ever, action.

The keynote by Melissa Harris-Perry, ‘What just happened?’ was explosive and exhilarating in her calling out of academic complacency and institutional inequality (‘state violence against women has been reaffirmed every minute, we just didn’t notice. Sometimes it was us’). A new annual debate on anthropological theory discussed the term ‘fake,’ a fascinating discussion that seemed incredibly pertinent given Brexit and the US elections (what is the difference between deep fake and mere fake? How fake is too fake, or when is it just right? What is the relationship between performance, spectacle, honesty and fake?). Elaine Scarry made a call to resist the normalization of nuclear defense (‘all it requires is one not to feel silly’), and to address the wider issues in the geopolitical sphere – Donald Trump, she reminded us, is not the issue. The system is the problem, but Trump makes visible the flaws.

Anthropology does not sit outside the spheres that have produced contemporary politics. Indeed we are deeply implicated in it. Recognition of the socio-political hierarchies and elitism that the discipline reproduces and replicates is, of course, not new (Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus is just one of the many texts that examines the power relations inherent in the academy). But this conference reminded us that we need to do more than just recognize our position in the precarious lives of many in the world. As Neil Cantemaza McCay (who gave the indigenous welcome) reminded us, the devil did not exist before we brought it, so we must disrupt the schema. Every panel we went to began with speakers talking about these hard times, and how their work addresses this. The AAA twitter feed (#amanth2016) was full of calls for action and support and recognition of these issues.


Connecting with old colleagues, meeting new friends, increasing our knowledge (while savouring the enormous mid-Western dishes to be found around the city), AAA2016 was an experience that will stick in my mind. While wishing away the conservative tilt in world politics right now might not be possible, surrounding ourselves for a little under a week with engaged, critical, energetic, and energized, anthropologists was just the salve our souls needed.

Conferences exist to spread our research. But they also encourage us to work beyond our bounds. This year’s conference was about solidarity: solidarity with each other; solidarity with those feeling threatened by the new political order; solidarity with those already harmed by the forerunners that led us here. As AAA president, Alisse Waterston said in her opening address, in this time of insecurity and fear, we, as anthropologists, must stand together to ‘move forward stubbornly with a vision for a just future.’ And as Scarry pointed out, anthropology, more than most other disciplines, makes it possible to imagine the lives of other people. This, more than ever, is needed right now.


img_8686 Caroline Bennett is a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington.  Her research explores the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime, exploring mass graves and the dead that lie within them.  She is also interested in how visual methods can offer modes for engaging beyond  the academy.




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