On Appropriation

Andrew Dawson

University of Melbourne

‘Appropriation’, the subject matter of volume 3 issue 2, is unusual as far as journal special issues go. It lacks a sustained interrogation of the concept of appropriation. In her contribution Erin Fitz-Henry points to the potential perils of this, noting that without sustained empirical investigation what appears as an appropriation may simply be a ‘reverberation’, and, one might add, perhaps much less. It also lacks, by design, an introductory overview. However, one feels, these apparent deficits turn out to be strengths. What emerges through the five contributing articles is, in fact, a remarkable coherence. Less an exploration of appropriation per se, they make for a very focused exploration of the appropriations of knowledge between different domains, especially between the academy and, for want of a better phrase the ‘real world’. Also, lacking the cajoling narrative of an introductory overview, the special issues’ coherence mirrors that of the very anti-authoritarian forms of political coherence that contributor Chris Garces describes in his analysis of new political movements such as Occupy Wall Street (see below).

There are a number of significant parallels between the papers. Fitz-Henry’s and Peter Locke’s papers explore very clearly appropriations of academic knowledge.
The focus of Fitz-Henry’s article is recent intellectual concern with dismantling the hierarchical division between humans and non-humans. This is particularly extant within ecological anthropology and post-human philosophy more generally, and is significantly influenced by the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Fitz-Henry’s concern is with reverberations of this turn into the corporate sector. Her main focus is the world’s second largest chemical corporation, Dow Chemicals. She demonstrates how, within its advertising campaigns it takes on the post-human turn, melding representationally, for example, persons and oxygen. Of course, the key irony she is alluding to is that between an idea borne within the academy that is underpinned often by an environmental protectionist concern, and its appropriation by agencies at the heart of environmental degradation. Her analysis is resonant with those early 1990s critiques of that core amongst core of anthropological tropes, where reverberations were identified between the ‘field’ and oppressive national and other sedentarizing projects, for example. However, what marks her essay out as different (and special) is the empirical demonstration of her argument. Nonetheless, her honest deployment of ‘reverberations’ rather than ‘appropriations’ suggests that there is still empirical work to be done for her argument to be truly demonstrated. Fitz-Henry’s article points to an important project that urgently warrants further research.

The appropriation at the heart of Peter Locke’s article is the emergence of ‘psychosocial support’ and, in particular, ‘trauma psychiatry’ in post-war contexts. This is an ethnographic analysis of the ways in which trauma psychiatry is, as Locke puts it, “unpredictably appropriated and adapted according to (the) social dynamics of specific local contexts.” His research was in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He offers a range of examples across a range of scales of how trauma has been: taken-up by families within their survival strategies; adopted in identity-rebuilding processes; infused within political debates; and incorporated within struggles between political groups and the state, etc. However, Locke’s article is considerably more than an ethnographic case-study. Rather, it forms a careful riposte to “trenchant” critiques of humanitarianism and humanitarian psychiatry within anthropology. As he states, “a dynamic balance between critique and practical engagement – sustained over time as on-the-ground realities evolve – is called for if we are to fully accept and take responsibility for the complexity and unpredictability of how social scientific knowledge is appropriated by the populations we aim to serve and the institutional reforms we hope to support. Helping to install comprehensive mental health services in ways that are sensitive to the cultural, political, and economic particularities of a given context is, in this view, an important initial contribution we can make.” Locke’s article is a particularly fine example of the approach he advocates.

Chris Garces’ and Paul Green’s papers explore not only appropriations of academic knowledge, and anthropological knowledge in particular, but also their re-appropriations and sharings.

Garces’ is a theoretically and ethnographically complex study of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. His analysis is consciously indebted to activist David Graber who played a key role in developing OWS as a leaderless political movement. It is also grounded in Garces’ own appropriation and transformation of Rolf-Trouillot’s concept of the ‘savage slot.’ Garces recasts this as “uncivilized slot”, drawing our attention to the conditions under which OWS emerged – “the contemporary brutalization of citizenship” within the liberal democratic state. What Garces sees in OWS is “the cultivation of an open ethnographic sensibility.” The key actors at the heart of his analysis are the protesters in general and activist and other participating anthropologists in particular. What emerges is a clear sense in which this ‘open ethnographic sensibility’ was mutually constituted by the different participants. It is in Garces’ account of the role of non-anthropological participants in cultivating this sensibility that his article is most startling. For example, in one of several acutely observed passages he demonstrates how, “participant observation was not just on the mind. It was generally speaking in the air, around and about this movement of movements.” The sense one is left with after reading this article is not just of anthropology’s potentialities for contemporary political movements such as OWS, but also of the potential for Anthropology’s own invigoration through its engagement in such movements.

If Garces’ article points to the reinvigoration of Anthropology through political engagement, then Paul Green’s points to its redemption from defensive elitism, through the appropriation of ‘other’ disciplines’ methodological practices. Green begins by highlighting ‘their’ appropriation of ‘our’ ethnography. A commonplace and boundary-drawing reaction he identifies amongst many anthropologists is that ‘we’ do ‘real’ ethnography, defined by the longevity of our fieldwork, and a sustained engagement with ‘communities’. ‘They’, in contrast, do ‘drive-by ethnography’. However, Green points to the difficulties of this when it comes to the study of modern, and especially urban settings. His work is in Britain and, especially Japan. Iterated often as the ethnic community, research often focuses on its public surfaces. And, commonly, bewilderment ensues when, faced by the, often transient multitudes within the urban space, the anthropologist simply does not know how to go about doing ethnography. A common reaction is to seek recourse to the interview. In contrast, Green describes how his own research switches from the space of the community to the intimate spaces of kinship and friendship networks. Most importantly, he describes how it appropriates from other disciplines, techniques such as internet engagement and video diaries, that enable him to participate in ethnography, with all its virtues. Green’s is an important reminder of the virtues of inter-disciplinary appropriations and re-appropriations.

Concerned, largely, with US legal definitions of personhood, Leo Coleman’s thoroughgoing article apparently stands askance to the others and their foci on the (re-)appropriations of academic knowledge. However, there are important parallels, particularly to the work of Fitz-Henry. Not only do they share an interest in the corporation. Fitz-Henry is concerned with probable corporate appropriations of the de-hierarchization of human and non-human subjects. Likewise, Coleman is concerned with the dissolution of the distinction between, putting it loosely, the corporation as thing and the corporation as person. Also, in a broader sense, their articles are implicitly about the corporate misappropriation of rights of nature (Fitz-Henry), and rights of individuals (Coleman) discourses, borne, respectively of environmental and human rights activism. Coleman’s focus is legal debate relating to the US Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United v Federal Election Commission. A central outcome of that was that corporations were, effectively, invested with the quality of “artificial” personhood. Naturally, the key riposte to this by the main protest group, “Move to Amend”, is encapsulated in their slogan, “corporations are not persons.” However, Coleman observes, the argument that this conveys is inherently weak. For, above all, what it fails to address is the success of corporations in ‘appropriating’ identity politics. Whilst corporations may not, intuitively, be persons, they have, within the Supreme Court’s decision been able to recast identity politics – individuality and personal freedoms – as their prerogative. In this context, Coleman argues, challenging decisions such as this must go beyond intuitive ideas about personhood, to encompass a reformulation of how rights themselves are conceptualized. As he puts it, “if rights are rethought not as protections against state power, but as a positive warrant for selfhood and for a project of collective governance of self and others, then they become a site of political agency which can more specifically be reserved for human actors.” Coleman’s article is not only a prescient study, but also a constructive contribution to preventing corporate forms of misappropriation.