Ethnographies of Resistance Movements: Legible to the Authorities

About 739 posts ago, I published “Exposing the Network,” wherein I expressed my worries about making data on resistance movements and anarchist networks available to open source intelligence gathering by the authorities. The value of such research may be great for discussions internal to anthropology, but the data on which the discussions are based are published, and thus the questions of ethics and responsibility arise–even more so for academics who play a role as activists in the groups they describe. I wrote this in light of the work done by the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System to recruit anthropology in the service of counterinsurgency (and note below where this has impacted how anthropology is viewed by members of the public). I went further, and documented the ways in which open source has been imperialized, and open access has been militarized. That led to various disagreements between myself and Owen Wiltshire about the value of open access, my abandonment of a long-standing interest in promoting open access (in fact, it is rare that I have mentioned this in the past two years), and my presentation of “Useless Anthropology”: Strategies for Dealing with the Militarization of the Academy. Now I read this excellent post on the website of the North American Studies Network (emphasis added):

Diversity of tactics and researching ‘the movement’

…I’m curious to know what y’all think of the following excerpt from Peter Gelderloos’ “The Difference Between Anarchy and Academics” (2007): “A serious danger posed to and by social scientists is the question of studying the movement. Our narcissistic side may be thrilled by academic studies of anarchists, but these studies are a threat. We do want constructive criticism but I argue that we should absolutely not want to be legible to the authorities, and the authorities are the ultimate audience of all academic production. Just as anthropologists help the CIA to manage Iraq and Afghanistan, they could also provide information that facilitates the infiltration and repression of our movement. We do not need professionals to enable us to communicate with other people. They will only translate us for the authorities. We must build our own networks that expand beyond the ghetto. In the meantime we need to obstruct any serious ethnologies or studies of our networks. It seems strange, since networks are second-nature to us, but the authorities really don’t get it. Many of our tactical victories so far are attributable to their ignorance of how networks function. They’re still trying to identify our leaders and funding structures for chrissake. Once some clever academic finds a way to translate networks into terms that are actionable for technocrats, police control of horizontal movements will become much more effective… For that reason, with both irony and seriousness, I call for the excommunication of all academic anarchists who produce not for the movement but for the academy. If you study networks, find ways to explain to us how to effectively extend networks to people currently plugged into the system (or some other useful question), not how to analyze our networks so they can be understood by outsiders, as intellectually stimulating as that task may be… Simply producing information aids the system, even if that information seems to be revolutionary in its implications. This is because in democratic societies, people are pacified, and even if they are well informed they will not have gotten what they need to fight back. Information is not what’s lacking. It is the institutions of power, and not the people, that are positioned to act on this information, and even critical information coming from dissident academics can help these institutions correct themselves. The Early State project provides a great example. Among their writings, one finds many articles that squarely disprove the statist mythology regarding the creation of the state – that it arose out of need or out of some social contract. They make it clear that the state is a coercive institution, thus they have a clearer view of the true nature of democracy than nearly everyone on the left. Yet this information will not find its way into the popular mind, because the government and the capitalists control the infrastructure that shapes the popular mind and those academics are not engaged in any political actions to directly spread that awareness to the people.” Apropos the current topic, do you think there’s a real risk of that our conference could provide useful and actionable information to our enemies, or is Gelderloos just being paranoid?

I will agree with Gelderloos–even if I have not seen his work and can find it nowhere (which is an excellent message by itself, if occulting the original document was deliberate). Activist voyeurism is dangerous. The options appear to be: (a) open source ethnographies, in line with Fabian’s ethnography as commentary, using materials that are intended for public distribution and commentary; (b) ethnographies of dominant institutions, to make them more legible to the public; and (c) whistle blower ethnographies–covert research in powerful institutions with the intent of exposing wrong doing and publishing leaks.

Where anarchist movements are concerned, rather than documenting the network and exposing it, anthropologists might consider instead collaborating to produce narrations of actions that better convey their intended meanings to the wider public. For example, rather than describe and analyze the actors, events, and discussions that went into the anarchist protests at the recent G20 gathering in downtown Toronto, where commercial property and police cars were attacked, one might instead work to produce what is largely invisible and inaudible, which is the anarchists’ views on why those targets were attacked, the meaning of property, etc. It need not be “insiders’ propaganda” either, as the ethnography can take the form of an extended conversation between a skeptical anthropologist and anarchist interlocutors. The benefit for the anarchists involved might be that their message gets spread and may inspire others. The alternative is silence, where they are cast as ignorant hooligans who just want to vandalize, and who subvert the protest actions of other groups that were extremely upset with the anarchists for undoing what were intended to be peaceful actions, and for helping to provoke excessive police violence.

There are, of course, many other options and possibilities, with different methods and rationales, and it would be great to read what you think about this topic.

6 thoughts on “Ethnographies of Resistance Movements: Legible to the Authorities

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  3. Stacie


    How do you reconcile your suggestions of (b) and (c), focusing on researching dominant institutions, with Gelderloos’s points on information and institutions?:

    “Simply producing information aids the system, even if that information seems to be revolutionary in its implications. … Information is not what’s lacking. It is the institutions of power, and not the people, that are positioned to act on this information, and even critical information coming from dissident academics can help these institutions correct themselves.”

    Does he mean “correct themselves” by something like noting points of weakness in their structure / facade and improving it?

    I also just found an article on community assessment called “The Sondeo: A Rapid Reconnaissance Approach for Situational Assessment.” Why building a community network for local foods would require a “reconnaisance” of “local people” I don’t know, maybe part of the “war on poverty.” They say it can help you find out about “limited resource clients, women and culturally ‘invisible” groups.'” Funny to think that having limited resources and being a woman would make me more invisible than other people. Should we be assessing government and corporations instead? Or should we stop assessing anyone at all and focus on our own networking and exchanging information among ourselves? I really don’t know but need to figure it out. Obviously we’re not an anarchist movement, but the questions of information and reconnaissance touch on some of the same issues.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks Stacie.

      Researching dominant institutions would reverse the flow of information, inspection, and surveillance, in ways that I doubt anarchist activists would find problematic. Gelderloos’ statements seem to be based on an observation of the polarization of political power, with much of it in the hands of authorities, so reversing that polarity would be welcome. By institutions correcting themselves, I take it to mean the same things that you did.

      Perhaps we don’t need to focus so much on sites, groups, and institutions but more on processes, phenomena, values, etc., that cross many social boundaries and that register their effects in numerous locations in a society. That is another alternative, and not a very original one either.

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