Exposing the Network

I am concerned about a number of comments that have been made, in connection with HTS anthropology, that the military can use anthropological work with or without the help of anthropologists. Collin Agee, who signed in as being with the “United States Army”, apparently a US Army operations officer for the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade of the XVIII Airborne Corps and current director of something called “ISR Integration, Army G-2,” stated:

It is naive to think that a firewall can be erected between anthropology and intelligence anyway. Anything that is published, particularly that [is] available in the Internet, can be used by whomever accesses it, for good or evil.

So anthropologists can engage the military and help us to get it right, or we’ll do it ourselves without your expertise, and surely do it with less efficiency.

He is right–they can do it without us knowing. I have been reflecting on this for a few years now, with Agee simply stating, very directly, what anyone can reasonably expect. But how often do we remind ourselves of this fact when we write, when we plan our ethnographies, when we collaborate with our hosts? After all, any minutiae of a social system could be useful: one might start a ripple effect of destabilization by pressing on something minute in a society, by altering or manipulating a small corner of it, by enlisting unknowing recruits from unlikely sectors of the society, and so on. Virtually anything could be useful. That opens the way to the kind of self-surveillance entailed in Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon. From self-surveillance we would then move into self-censorship perhaps.

There are now networks that I am engaged with, and I would never publish anything, anywhere, in any format, nor even keep notes. Not everything needs to be published–we need to resist these “publish or perish” pressures that turn us into users of friends.

I am worried about anthropological books being published alongside student theses, advertised as offering us deep insights into radical movement-related politics, organizational forms, and internal decision-making, mapping out networks, how they are integrated, how gatherings take place, who gets to speak and when, the norms for interaction, how e-mail lists are used, favourite Web pages, how software is utilized, how information is shared, how action is coordinated at a distance–“too much information”. I am sure it makes for gripping reading for some, for a good sell for a publisher, for notoriety for some activists, and it boosts the CV of the researcher. It can also resemble a great deal of blabbing, “I got the scoop”, of playing show and tell and gossiping about one’s friends and colleagues. In extreme cases, it might get some people in trouble.

I raised some of these concerns in an earlier post, when I bewildered myself with questions I had never seriously asked myself before doing this thing that too many of us still refer to, antiseptically, as “fieldwork”: what am I doing here, sniffing around other people’s business?

Maybe it’s best that we make our writing as esoteric, jargon-laded, and unintelligible as possible. Lacan may be too transparent.

3 thoughts on “Exposing the Network

  1. Brian Johnson

    I must admit, this is a perspective on anthropological work that I had not truly considered before. It’s probably my undergrad naivete that left me with the perception that, if informed consent and confidentiality are maintained, then one’s informants’ rights are totally safe – I hadn’t considered the possibility that expository work could endanger them at a demographic level.

    In other words, thanks for provoking some thought.

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