Unintended Open Source Ethnography
For as much serendipity as conventional, on the ground, ethnography is known to entail, the “approach” discussed here is barely an approach at all: it was unprovoked, unplanned, without coordination, being neither methodical nor systematic. It became a collaboration, out of mutual interest, from distinct and separate positions, but there was no agreement about the direction it would take. And, it was public from start to finish, hence the claim to “open source.”
Ignoring Johannes Fabian’s argument for ethnography as commentary, and fixing attention on the lack of systematization, some will want to argue that there is nothing “ethnographic” about this, and I am even prepared to concede the point because it costs me so little. The real story here is not about ethnography, which is simply a vehicle, but rather the intended destination: understanding neocolonialism today. Had the intended destination been an ethnographic approach to understanding ethnography, rather circular, the likely motivation would have been yet another defensive validation of “the anthropological contribution,” something that interests me almost not at all, given its paralysis-inducing, conservative introversion.
This Moment Was Brought to You by Twitter
Let me add a few more notes about Twitter (to the dread of former students who went through my “Twitter course”). The primary venue for this encounter was Twitter. These days I am probably more active on the Twitter parallel to this site, writing more and more regularly than on this site (our other parallel sites, on MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, are considerably less noisy, for now). The commentary and exchange of views and information is also much more intense and regular in Twitter than we find here. In addition, the wide ring of interlocutors is a different one, corresponding mostly with journalists (independent or professional), activists, and others, primarily in the Middle East, India, Africa, and Latin America, many of whom have provided materials and other assistance to ZA. It’s a place where I can freely switch to writing in Italian, or Spanish, and continue dialogue (or shouting matches) with others. My video remixes continue even there, pulling as needed short video segments to illustrate different points in a debate. So in the debate about the rape allegations against Julian Assange of Wikileaks, I would insert a humorous clip to make a critical point about the Swedish police, which appears to be led by Frank Drebin of Police Squad (video clip), or in the personal smears against Assange and excessive deference to his accusers, I was reminded of this scene from A Passage to India (video clip). Had I wanted, I could have waited several weeks to mount another satirical video collage to present on this site, more complete, less spontaneous, and the original motivations and context obscured.
The message here is a simple one: you can do some things with Twitter that you cannot do with ordinary blogging, not to the same effect, with the same audiences and partners, and not in the same context of spontaneous collaboration. Twitter, like blogging, is not something that I recommend to all anthropologists–not at all. You have to know what you are doing with these tools, and why you want to use them.
Happy Independence Day?
The “story” begins like this. On the blog of a friend and past collaborator with ZA, Guanaguanare: The Laughing Gull, Guanaguanare posted this cutting music video by Fela Kuti, “Colo-Mentality,” as a tribute to Trinidad & Tobago’s Independence Day (celebrated 31 August)–along with the transcript of the words which you can view there, for a post appropriately titled, “Independence?…Whatever“, and I recommend listening to this song:
I related the disenchanted, been-around-twice attitude to recent events in Trinidad, since the new regime of Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar came into office in late May of this year. Among her first acts? Importing two Canadians, under very dubious circumstances, to lead the Police Force with highly inflated salaries, and even more inflated promises that these two foreigners would, by some magic of their northern superiority, put an end to a crime wave that Trinidadians themselves have never defeated. For those following the story, the racism and self-deprecation embedded in the story is astounding, and yet normal. It is a classic piece in a tale of neocolonialism, of self-rule self-defeated by those who serve their selves to alien others.
Also, I related this to other videos and transcriptions posted by Guanaguanare in recent months, of direct relevance (full transcriptions available there), each of these posted to Twitter by me. The first two are by a rare phenomenon, a Trinidadian punk band I have had the pleasure of corresponding with on YouTube and Twitter, Anti-Everything, breaking the extant colonial laws with their repeated use of the word “fuck,” a word banned in Trinidad. The third is by Trinidad’s leading living legend of social and political commentary in calypso:
Vodpod videos no longer available.
The opposition says, “Vote for change.”
But we know better, because they’re just the fucking same
They have no new ideas, all the policies will remain
Words are only rhetoric, they’re spoken all in vain
And this is [they are] doomed to fail. [Repeat]
I can sound just like you, if I really wanted to
It’s really quite simple, if you follow this principle
Take a few key words strung together in a speech
Which you then preach like you care – education, heath care
Take a long……dramatic pause.
And vaguely criticize the laws
That you say will be rejected, if you get elected
Never mention strategy to move forward from here…continued
1,2, …forged from the love of
liberty. In the fires of gas and oil.
There’s been no real democracy since colonial history,
When the campaign platform is a fete.
So salute to the illusion that we’re free
Vote for the motion because…
The government is corrupt
And the opposition just a bunch of crooks
And in case you did not realize
…our whole country is fucked
So make this your new anthem, and burn your national flag.
You take a few racist pigs and you put them in a race,
While the cost of living rises everyday.
They couldn’t balance a budget on their heads,
All the citizens of the country suffer when…continued
THE MADMAN’S RANT
Vote for we and we will set you free!
Anywhere you turn somebody chanting to we
Somebody promising jobs for all
Some renting gun to make other people bawl
But somebody promising more police car
Somebody going to take de country far
Somebody putting all de bandits away
We say, “If dey do the crime, dey going to damn well pay!”
But somebody promising human rights
While somebody threatening to put out yuh lights
The mortuary full with little Trinidad boys
A bullet start to whine and put an end to their joy
Now dey lying tall fuh dey Mama to mourn
Dey Nike gone, dey gold teeth gone
You see dey, dey want dey pocket full with blue, blue silk
Dey want dey statue drinking full cream milk
The little red silk is not dey true friend
De blue one had two extra nought on de end
So ah tag on dey toe is now dey ticket to hell
But look where we reach, well, well, well, well, well, well.
Ah hear a madman bawl as he spread out on a wall
He say, “Dis is it, dis is it, dis is it, I’ve been hit!
No time to give up brother, no time to quit!”…continued
The disillusionment with the imported, transplanted, imposed, ossified Westminster system, where elections…like in most liberal democracies, have become a game with outcomes favouring the elites and continuing the same system of oppression. That feeling, that analysis, is out there. I didn’t invent it…that’s one point about this open source ethnography.
Neocolonialism: The Twitter Exchange
The story began in Trinidad, now we see how it continued into Twitter, and then involved two more Caribbean speakers–another Trinidadian (TriniWarao) and a former boxer in Curaçao (SablikaTriumph)–an Afghan living in Australia (Hameed), and two more Canadians (Wayne Borean and “Not Prime Minister Harper”). In the list below, I am “1D4TW” (One Day for the Watchman–from a Trinidadian proverb).
1D4TW: Neo-colonialism: where elections are about selecting the next local manager to answer to foreign trends and impositions. #Independence 9:09 PM Sep 1st [auto retweeted by _the_mad_hatter] [auto retweeted by pmoharper]
It’s About Neocolonialism
We all struggle with these overlapping, mutually complementing cognate terms that refer to mutually reinforcing processes, terms such as imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonialism. We’ve been through this already, in the first part of the Zero Series (to be continued, I promise). The sense one gets of neocolonialism from all of the above, scattered across blogs, YouTube, and Twitter, and spread among commentators and repeaters from Canada, Trinidad, Curaçao, Afghanistan, and Australia–is that neocolonialism is internalized and localized, a variant and complement of global imperialism. It’s what makes imperialism work, at the local level, a way of articulating two distinct arenas and fields of interest. The prime actors in the neocolonial setting are not necessarily foreign (though they can be, in the case of imported experts, visiting IMF delegations, and over-sized foreign embassies), nor are the nation-states in question any longer formal political colonies (in terms of tissue thin charters and conventions). They are now post-independent, in more ways than one. The critique of neocolonialism is about a vision of self-rule that is more like management of locals on behalf of foreign interests, with some locals of course benefiting immensely from such arrangements. Ultimately it is about the continuation of colonialism by other means, a force felt, observed, and spoken about worldwide.