by Claudio Sopranzetti, author of Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok
This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Washington D.C.. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on December 3rd.
The 2010s opened with waves of popular uprisings. Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, cities across the US and Western Europe, Hong Kong, Korea, and—as Owners of the Map narrates—Thailand were all shaken by massive, and largely unpredicted, political awakenings. Established and secure authoritarian regimes, capitalist common sense, and cultural hegemonies seemed to crack under the weight of collective action. Then, as the decade progressed, those awakenings were often followed by authoritarian push-backs, fascist resurgences, diffused fear and repression. Whether in Washington’s offices, in the ballot boxes of Athens, or on the streets of Cairo, Damascus, and Bangkok hopes have been crashed and shivers of change clouded.
The unthinkable happened twice in the course of a decade; as Marx would have said, first as a tragedy than as a farce. Caught in the midst of this open-ended reality, Owners of the Map asks: how can state power be so fragile and open to challenges at one time and yet so seemingly sturdy only a couple of years later? Specularly, how could protesters who had once fearlessly resisted military attacks now remain silent? And finally why, as social scientists, have we completely missed the coming insurrections and their violent silencing?
Trying to answer these daunting questions—central to contemporary political mobilizations around the globe—gets at the core of the theme of the 2017 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association: anthropology matters, a statement that in its grandiose tone is hardly able to silence the unwritten question mark that follows it. Owners of the Map argues that anthropology does matter, provided it re-directs its attention to his strong suits—namely finding contradictions, fractures, and weak spots in political, economic, and theoretical meta-narratives.
In the last decades, unfortunately, our analyses of power have often gone the opposite direction. We’ve too often focused on the sturdiness of power, the invincibility of capitalism, or—at most—on the small and hidden acts of resistance to its triumphal and disastrous march. This has made many of us into the over-systematic thinkers despised by Henry Lefebvre, people who “oscillate between loud denunciations of capitalism and the bourgeois and their repressive institutions on the one hand, and fascination and unrestrained admiration on the other. [Thinkers who] make society into the ‘object’ of a systematization which must be ‘closed’ to be complete; [and] thus bestow a cohesiveness it utterly lacks upon a totality which is in fact decidedly open—so open, indeed, that it must rely on violence to endure.”
Owners of the Map tells a different story, a story of unresolved tensions and continuous attempts to brush them under the rug, of re-emerging cracks and fault lines, of opposing orders striving in vain to impose themselves, and of collective actions that raise significant challenges when aimed at specific weak spots. Letting these stories go unheard, the book argues, does more than losing an intellectual perspective, it promulgates a praxis of political immobility, a position that in times of mass mobilizations and fascist resurgence will not only make anthropology irrelevant, it eventually will put its practitioners on the stand, on the side of those who could have helped but decided to do nothing. As a discipline we have made that mistake in the past, remaining silent and turning our heads to the horrors of colonialism. Are we going to make it again?
Claudio Sopranzetti is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red Shirt Movement.