Politics and memory in the fever archive: A tribute to Rosalind Shaw

Here is the text for the talk I gave during a celebration of the work of Rosalind Shaw

Politics and memory in the fever archive

First, I need to apologize to the discussants and the audience.

Two things happened between the time I sent this already fragmented paper to Jean and Rosalind.

  1. I participated in a panel called “The Humanitarian In the Mirror,” which featured a cross-disciplinary discussion about humanitarian images, representation and whiteness. So the things I am going to say differ a bit from what I sent you last week.
  2. Immediately after that panel I went to the movies — this requires a celebration of grandmothers who are willing to watch a four-year old and an eight month old. I  saw the horror film, Get Out. So the apology to the audience is that this talk may contain some spoilers if you’re planning to see the movie.

From the panel in Baltimore, I met Catherine Mathers, an expert on student voluntourism and the racial politics and ethics of humanitarian representation. In her paper, she highlighted the role of parody, focusing specifically on Savior Barbie, and how such projects facilitate some degree of self-critique — specifically of whiteness and savior industry — without fundamentally challenging the unequal sociopolitical dynamics undergirding them. After seeing “Get Out,” I realized that a finer point to her argument, and she certainly confirmed this in a later twitter discussion,  is that a structural critique of whiteness, particularly today, requires a different narrative genre: not parody or satire — our most common fallback in this post-Colbert/White Savior Barbie era–BUT HORROR.

The film follows Chris Washington, a black photographer, as he travels with Rose, his white girlfriend (does she have a job?), to her family’s home in a wealthy white town (like the witch cities Rosalind describes in her work). He is warned by his close friend, Rod, a TSA agent, to not go on the trip, but Chris ignores his friend’s warning and finds himself the victim of a plot designed by whites to purchase and inhabit black bodies, which we ultimately learn is driven by their desire to appropriate and use what they perceive to be the most valuable elements of black life and existence.

Today, I want to read this insight alongside Rosalind’s body of work on politics and memory and my recollections of the Ebola outbreak in a book length essay entitled “The Fever Archive.” Some of you may recognize it as a play on Derrida’s Archive Fever, which I came to through my discussions with friend and mentor, Byron Good. I want to begin by telling you a bit about myself through recounting a bit about my parents, whom I also saw this past weekend, in South Carolina.

Searching for Mende-ness

During my visit to South Carolina, my father, an amateur genealogist and historian, and retired social worker, recounted his experience of his visit to Sierra Leone. His voice cracked under the residual strain of a mild stroke and congestive heart failure that put him in the hospital and through months of physical therapy last year. In many ways, I suspect dad’s long stories are a way for him to reckon with the possibility that he will eventually no longer be able to tell these stories, that the histories that he has foraged from the archives, his memories of the past, will vanish into the ether, never to be recovered.

I’m overcome by the exhaustion I hear in his voice but I hold my tongue about the choices he makes about his health: my father still drives himself 45 minutes to teach a course to young social workers at South Carolina State, a public historically black university in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where, nearly 50 years ago, patrolmen fired upon black students protesting segregated local businesses. My father’s weekly circular commutes to that place feels like a less grand return: it was his first landing spot upon his arrival from Seattle in the early 1960s to study ministry before he moved to Benedict College, in Columbia, SC, to complete a degree in sociology. The town is also one of the childhood homes of former republican South Carolina governor, and current US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. Her immigrant parents taught at another local historically black college when they arrived from India, and as I like to tell people, put her in a high school in Orangeburg, formed by white families who opposed desegregation — rituals of the past becoming institutionalized and embodied in figures who are held up by the current administration as evidence of “diversity.”

As Dara, my eight-month-old, cries in one of the bedrooms in the back of my parents’ house, my father has pulled out a couple of genealogy books, showing the migrations of his ancestors from Mississippi and Alabama, to Tennessee, Ohio and, later, to Washington state. A Seattleite born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, my father’s interest in the movements of his people had been a several decades long project. He pored over census records and consumed lay and academic historiography of the region, seeking not only origins, but also memories, which Rosalind has reminded us, are separate projects of reckoning with the past and with history, as it is embodied and experienced — as it lives in everyday social and cultural practices.

Dad stops to catch his breath. I jump in as he complains about tainted drinking water, and oversells the deliciousness of cold, crisp lagers like Star and Club. (They aren’t really that great). He reminisces about the winding bus route from Accra to Kumasi. His story quickly devolves into humorous accounts of intestinal upset, the embodied memory and experience of fevers and bodily discomfort that become an essential part of the story binding a certain class of fellow travelers. He detailed the sweats, shivers, shakes, and runs that indelibly shaped his bodily experience of moving through settings unknown, settings to which his body had no time to be accustomed: the two-week vacation does not allow one to sample and experience everyday life without consequence. Fever, chills, diarrhea, nausea, also become deep embodied memory of place.

In “Get Out,” Missy, Rose’s psychiatrist mom, sends Chris into his sunken place with the power of suggestion, and the faint tinkle of a silver spoon against a tea cup. We see a hypnotized Chris falling, descending into deep darkness, with nothing or no one to catch his fall. Law Ware describes the sunken place as a kind of “black collective unconscious wherein we hide our pain from ourselves.” Professor Christina Sharpe might call it the “hold” like that of a ship — a place that signifies and embodies both the life and afterlife of slavery.  In the process of extraction and appropriation of the black body by white, wealthy consumers at the parents’ yearly dinner party, it is the step before surgical “coagulation”, which Robert Johnson, Jr describes as “the inherent failure of integration, the danger it presents to black people and consciousness, and how proximity to whiteness…” may both divine some blessings (first configured as the relationship between Rose and Chris — or Chris and Rod, for that matter) but also the most “toxic of curses.”

Dara is still crying. My mom is with him, remarking on the old world knowledge passed down in her little segregation era village, called Britton’s Neck — the place with the dirt road named after Doc Taylor, the high school principal (her grandfather) who refused integration because of the damage it would do to black children and the quality of their education, leaving the Britton’s Neck School District — until recently, I believe — the smallest school district in the state of South Carolina. When my mother perused the census records to learn more about her mother’s childhood, she saw that this same principal grandfather had crossed out the racial classification of “Negro” and scrawled “African,” in its place. The US state project to erase African history and intimate connection between Africans and African Americans were captured in this minor act of refusal and reinscription, leaving a mark on how we came to understand my grandma Pauline’s revolutionary spirit and the continuity in feminist generations following.

During her visit to Sierra Leone, and armed with knowledge that she shares a genetic marker with Mende people in an African ancestry database, my mother searched for signs of the country in her childhood, in the way her parents and grandparents cultivated and ate their food (greens, sweet potatoes, and of course, rice — which we ate nearly every day in my childhood home). She wondered aloud about the names they called white people in their tight knit and all-black community — which sadly was not puu moi but buckra, which is said to be derived from an Efik word (mbaraka).

Ebola’s ethnographic archive

Angela Garcia has recently noted that it may be “productive for conceiving ethnography as a kind of archival endeavor that connects and unfolds affective, material, and temporal fields.” As I am listening to my father, brother and nephew go back and forth about the history of my mother’s people, a text from Paul Farmer, a mentor, old friend, and vocal admirer of Rosalind’s work, as if summoned by some ancestral spirit, pops up on my mobile phone. He needs a citation for something I’ve written. Paul knows all too well how the ethnographic archive — even when divorced from and no longer sheltered by the state or administered for use by the state — derives its value from/through a political economy of publication (making it (nominally) public), which includes increasing citation counts, mapping scholarly kin networks, and (viral) transmission and circulation of knowledge about the epidemic. In one of the pieces, Ebola’s Keywords, I wrote the following about the term “survivor” as it had been used throughout the outbreak. Here, I hope to draw on the conceptual connections suggested in its definitions, between property and what remains, between affect and kinship:


person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.

1.1 The remainder of a group of people or things:

1.2 A person who copes well with difficulties in their life:

1.3 A joint tenant who has the right to the whole estate on the other’s death.

As Ebola treatment units expanded in late 2014 and early 2015, health workers from all over the world came to assist in caring for Ebola patients. Ebola interventions focused on clinical treatment as much as prevention, isolation, containment and “dignified death.” With this expansion of resources in the affected countries, the number of survivors increased, bringing down previous case fatality estimates from 90% to 30-40%.  A person was said to have “survived” Ebola once she had cleared the virus and recovered from the worst of the symptoms.

But it wasn’t until clinicians and epidemiologists saw a large number of survivors that they learned that surviving an acute Ebola infection was not necessarily the end of illness. Months after being declared “virus-free,” individuals who had been infected with Ebola continued to transmit the disease through sexual intercourse; others suffered from post-Ebola syndrome, a collection of symptoms related to Ebola infections: ophthalmological problems; musculoskeletal pain; hearing problems; and other neurological disorders.

There were other implications of having survived an Ebola infection. Survivors were said to have developed immunity to the disease, at least in the short term. This caused some speculation (in many senses of the word) about the value and use of survivors. Most of this discussion was centered on how to enlist and exploit their labor as caregivers and their biological material — serum developed from their blood, for example — whether their blood is a gift, purchased, or obtained in other ways. It is no accident that this discussion occurred within academic institutions, rather than in spaces of humanitarian care. Ebola had created an opportunity to expand research portfolios, publications and institutional prestige. In a press release from the University of Texas, for example, a research scientist at the university describes his work in terms of using survivors or other immune individuals as laborers: “If we can reliably identify who they are, they could become people who help with disease-control tasks, and that would prevent exposing others who aren’t immune.” An Emory University press release is less subtle in drawing links between extraction and scientific research in Ebola-affected communities. The author describes how university scientists have received funding to “min[e] immune systems of Ebola survivors for therapeutic gold.”

Such statements raise issues about markets, the commodification of survival and survivorship, about the production, extraction, refinement and distribution of survivor blood and labor.  Who benefits from understanding survivors as repositories to be visited, excavated and processed to derive professional, cultural and economic capital? What can be done to ensure that the benefits of these efforts can be recalibrated to care for the people who will surely be affected in future outbreaks? That survivors may be experiencing symptoms that outlast their contagiousness and immunity, conditions that exceed the “use-value” of their blood or intimate labor, has only recently been discussed, and in a very limited manner. It is here, again, that the long history of the region’s fevers, feuds [1], and trade come together in the actual blood of survivors and the markets in which they are imbricated.

[1] I owe this phrasing to Paul Farmer, who is developing a manuscript around this theme.


Falling in love: the reductive seduction of social entrepreneurship

Or is it the seductive reduction of social entrepreneurship? I’ve seen Courtney Martin’s essay circulating for the past few days; I read it amongst a slew of development articles popping up in my Twitter timeline. The point of the essay appears to be: don’t go to work on development/social change projects in other countries simply because it sounds like their problems are more interesting and easier to solve than the ones in your own backyard. She provides this (and several other nuggets of) pithy advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs and aid types:

  • … don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.
  • Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.
  • Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.

Perhaps by design, the essay manages to reduce social entrepreneurship to its core virtues and values: a story featuring “you” as an agent of change, who, above all, travels (“go”), falls in love (“is passionate”), acts (“does something”), talks (“engages in conversations”) and solves (“complex”) problems.

It seems that the underlying premise is that if you expect the work to be difficult and complex and you at least act like you don’t have the answers, then … the work you set out to do will be successful? In some ways, it’s circular logic. Why go if you don’t have a “project” or business in mind? What are you listening to (and to whom), if not just for a place to slot in your idea? Why assume that there’s something for YOU to do and to FALL IN LOVE with?

There’s a lot more to say about the essay, including the Tostan case study (which raises questions of temporality vis-a-vis development-type projects and whiteness), the notion of the “unexotic” and her insistence that “reduction” isn’t malicious, but there is other writing to be done.

Rich people’s shit and other fun things in humanitarian pop culture

A few years ago, I wrote a paper about the brouhaha over Salma Hayek’s breastfeeding a Sierra Leonean baby. I delivered that paper a few places and it started a relatively long and fairly complicated relationship with what I’ve been calling “humanitarian popular culture.” Into this category, many things fit: the satirical Matt Damon’s Children ad on House of Lies; those episodes of “Will and Grace” where Grace’s boyfriend, Leo, works for MSF in Cambodia; and those ethically suspect ads on television that ask you to give 10 cents a day — or whatever they say the price of coffee is these days –to save the life of a sick, too-tired-to-swat-flies child. And let’s not forget Product (RED).

Each time I gave Salma Hayek boob talk, someone would ask me, usually once the crowd had dissipated, “Have you seen this?” followed by a description of some version of the white savior narrative in popular form. The last time I gave the talk, 2012, “this” was this. (Hint: It’s Kony 2012, for readers who really don’t want to give that thing any more clicks). And we all know how that one ended.

When I was preparing an early version of the talk, a close friend asked me whether I had heard about Salma Hayek’s involvement with the partnership between Pampers and UNICEF. Yes, of course there is an ad:

In the ad, we learn that for every time a (presumably white-ish, Western-ish) woman buys a pack of Pampers, a (presumably brown-ish) child in a poor country receives a vaccine. Or as my friend put it, “Basically some rich person’s shit is being transformed into lifesaving technology for poor people.” By the laws of syllogistic inference and transitivity: I buy this; I buy this precisely to shit in it; my buying this provides you a vaccine; a vaccine prevents your premature death; therefore, my shit saves your life.

Frankly: Here’s my shit; you’re welcome.

But wait: there’s more. American Standard’s Flush for Good campaign:


Oh, that Kevin!



On the off chance that war doesn’t change everything: more on Ebola

I’m trying not to make my commentary about the current Ebola outbreak about representation, but I’ve been a bit troubled by the political analyses accompanying the epidemiological and health systems ones. Specifically, I want to talk a bit about how Liberia’s and Sierra Leone’s civil wars have been deployed by these analysts to understand the response to the outbreak and how explaining existing tensions requires some deeper knowledge about local context.

Laurie Garrett’s recent opinion piece on CNN and her appearance on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show are both examples of this kind of minimally informed political analysis. There is nothing unique about her stance, I suppose. We see this sort of “war changes everything” or “war happened, therefore…” logic quite a bit. But because she is such a well-respected journalist — I loved The Coming Plague in college and became interested in public health because of that book — I think it’s worth discussing here. As much as I have admired her work, I am beginning to see how her analysis, combined with a reputation for producing compelling journalistic accounts of global health problems, may successfully reproduce the tropes that make for interesting and juicy news, but may not help the cause.

One reason it is useful to understand the context is that even reading newspaper editorials requires some knowledge of existing tensions and conflicts. Yesterday, Garrett tweeted a link to an Awareness Times editorial, focusing (in her short Twitter allotment) on the ignorance of a “very important citizen” who underestimated the threat of the disease publicly. While this may very well be one of the points the editorial was making, I think Garrett’s tweet might be missing the point. It helps to know that the Awareness Times is a paper through which Sylvia Blyden, who has been very vocal and critical of the government response to Ebola from very early on, is communicating her disapproval of the government response to the epidemic.

It is also helpful to know that she has ruffled some feathers on many political matters. According to another Facebook friend, Blyden traveled to the Canada some months ago to collect donations for protective gear to help stop Ebola from spreading. Sylvia Blyden’s critique of this “very important citizen,” therefore, must be understood as a critique of the official response to the disease and elites’ repeated claims that rural people are uneducated and ignorant when it comes to assessing their risk for disease. Rather than simply demonstrating ‘ignorance’ of an elite class, then, she is also criticizing complacency and inadequacy of official response. She is disparaging their assessment of rural people.

In her CNN opinion piece, Garrett reminds of us all the backlash against health workers within these Ebola affected communities. She recounts the story of the woman with Ebola whose family removed her from the hospital and was “brought to a traditional healer.” “Brought to a traditional healer” is usually code for ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, which tend to be, well, euphemisms for ‘backwardness.’ But any medical anthropologist or most undergraduates who have taken an introductory medical anthropology course, for that matter, knows and understands that an individual’s therapeutic itinerary is often related to perceived efficacy. Put more simply, folks’ quest to get better often means looking in multiple places for cures. In the case where biomedicine can’t get the job done, or you’re seeing people enter hospitals and not coming out, where would you go?

Certainly these protracted conflicts have done their damage, but it has been noted that some of the causes of the war were, indeed, the perceived failures of the state and the mistrust engendered in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These were tales told to me by older politically involved individuals whom I encountered during fieldwork in the mid-2000s. One friend, an anthropologist currently in Liberia and who lived in Sierra Leone before and during the war, described how people use the war to explain current problems, when she had observed the same misfortune and problems those years before the war. She wrote, “I remember driving along the Kamakwie road with someone who was saying what a shame the war had destroyed the road. I said, actually, this is pretty much exactly what the road was like before the war too.”

I am sure that if you asked any anthropologist who happened to work in Sierra Leone in the 1980s about changes, they would see little change on some issues, but radical changes in others. Because time has passed. Moreover, war does not affect everyone the same. During one of my first interviews for preliminary dissertation research in 2005, I remember a cousin of a friend telling me, “We were very comfortable during the war. We stayed in a nice little place on the outskirts of Freetown and were very safe.” Her story wasn’t exactly typical, but it was not unusual either for a specific class of individuals. If anything, we might ask how intervention has been naturalized under these narratives about ‘failed’ and ‘fragile’ states, as my friend Susan Shepler has said. It also appears to naturalize the outbreak and responses to it: “well, they’ve experienced so much in war that this can only breed distrust.” The distrust and suspicion were there all along, albeit expressed in other forms. I would argue, too, that if war has changed anything, the incredible influx of humanitarian interventions and aid workers during the war and its immediate aftermath — where outsiders and their local cronies seemed to benefit openly from others’ suffering — has also engendered suspicion that has helped fuel the backlash against local and international health workers.

Blurred lines: development, human rights, humanitarianism

Last week, we read Bornstein and Redfield’s introductory chapter to Forces of Compassion. In it, the authors outline a distinction among development, human rights, and humanitarianism. The temporal orientation, disciplinary foci, and the professions associated with each of these forms of social action seem to distinguish them from each other. The authors state, for example, that development is associated with economics, livelihoods and poverty, and are progressive/future-oriented, while human rights organizations are concerned with law, and correcting past wrongs. Humanitarianism is medical and preoccupied with the present, the ‘right now.’ They draw this distinction, I think, because there’s a group of anthropologists who have lumped the work of improving and ‘saving’ lives under ‘humanitarianism’ — the suggestion here being that humanitarianism’s particularity is rooted in a particular conception of ‘humanity’ and ‘life’ and an ethos or structure of feeling, rather than professional and bureaucratic categories. The authors note that their three-pronged schematic is crude, but I think it is telling that they need to provide this schematic at all. Again, I think it lies in humanitarian and development professionals’ clarity about what distinguishes them from each other, and the kind of ethics and professional practice these different kinds of intervention entail. Yet the institutions engaged in these forms of social action not only perform many of these functions at once, but also find themselves using multiple frames simultaneously to justify and continue their work.

As a kind of thought exercise, I went to several international non-governmental organization (iNGO) websites and looked at the short program publicity reports to see how well Bornstein and Redfield’s categories hold up in ‘practice’ — or at least in the routine NGO practice of describing projects for a general audience. I cut and paste these excerpts into a quiz and asked students to identify whether they described humanitarianism, development or human rights programs, as defined by Bornstein and Redfield. Although I was sure to pull excerpts that generally fit the descriptions provided by the authors, students still had some trouble placing the quotes into categories: could the participatory health program that held health facility managers accountable be considered a human rights  (on the issues of participation and rights-oriented language) and a humanitarian (for its medical orientation) program? Of course, the crude association of categories of intervention with professions and disciplines was perhaps less useful than the more analytical move of highlighting the temporal and ideological orientations that we associate with these approaches.

To drive the point home that these distinctions are quite blurred in practice — and manifest in different framing of social problems and, therefore, programs — I asked students to look at the websites of five different organizations (two human rights iNGOs, two development/relief iNGOs and a UN agency) and see how each organization addresses water issues. Of course, many of the largest iNGOs, like CARE or Oxfam, which are firmly situated in all three traditions, describe the problem in multiple ways; they have ‘cornered the market,’ so to speak. On CARE’s water website, for example, they use the language of emergency and crisis; that of long-term investment; and of public health and rights.


A search for ‘water’ on two human rights websites, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, framed the issue much differently. In addition to suggesting that access to water was a human right, most of their reports concerned water access issues in terms of violations: police crackdowns on water access protesters; shaming mining companies that polluted water sources or displaced people from clean water; disease outbreaks due to poor prison conditions, etc.