Public Anthropologies

In this conversation, Juno Salazar Parreñas (Ohio State University), author of Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation, and Greg Beckett (University of Western Ontario), author of There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince, discuss shared themes of their work, including survival, vulnerability, uncertainty, and ethnography as a therapeutic practice for grief.



Greg Beckett (GB): One of the resonances across the books that struck me has to do with how people—including us as ethnographers, because we are implicated in all kinds of interpersonal and interspecies relations—deal with, think about, or even come to terms with the existential uncertainties that come with questions of life and death.

Juno Salazar Parreñas (JSP): It’s a difficult question. I feel like the existential question of life and death in my work is about “personalizing” the Sixth Extinction and about seeing the human–animal relations that “people” this era and its unfolding.

I really didn’t expect to find that many of the people who work at orangutan rehabilitation centers are displaced like the orangutans housed at these sites. They are economic migrants who were unable to cari makan (look for food) in a subsistence economy.

It was striking for me to see the conceptual resonance of chache lavi (looking for life) in your book with cari makan, as finding creative ways of making a living. Yet, it feels that the stakes are really different between Malaysia and Haiti as, respectively, a middle-income versus a low-income country. I don’t want to rely too heavily on World Bank language, but it feels like that difference matters!

And that difference, for me as a reader, feels rooted in anti-Blackness. I was so struck by the deep inequalities that are specific to Haiti, between the guy who is serving wine at his party and the kids who sell water sachets.

GB: The gap is quite large in Haiti. While the country is often described as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, many Haitians are quick to point out that the country also has many millionaires.

Cari makan also struck me immediately as being similar to the Haitian idea of chache lavi. I was thinking not just of the similar language used (looking for or finding things associated with life or a living), but also, the way you unpack cari makan shows so nicely how the four time scales you discuss in the introduction—affective encounters in seconds and minutes, life histories, the longue durée of colonialism, and the epochal time of extinction—fold into each other. I appreciate how you frame your discussion of “finding a living” in relation to the other chapter, which focuses on forced copulation, that makes up part two of your book.

In the chapter on forced copulation, you quote one of the workers at the conservation area, Nadim. In the course of grappling with the weight of the fact of forced copulation, or rape, as he calls it, he seems to settle on an explanation that revolves around his phrase, “The ecosystem is dead.” I was thinking of that in relation to the kinds of displacements that might lie behind that statement—displacements that feel like they have resulted in the end of forms of life and ways of living. The particulars are all so different between the two places we are describing, but that seemed to me to resonate with statements that urban migrants make, like “There is no more Haiti.”

JSP: The sense of death I get from your book feels more hopeful in the sense that death offers the chance for a new rebirth, and I love the moments where you evoke that: the joke about the world ending, the drum that won’t be used to call spirits but will be on display somewhere, and the rituals of tending to spirits. I tried to be hopeful in my book, because I think it’s irresponsible to say, “Oh well, let them all die.” But it does feel that the kinds of deaths that worry me don’t have a chance for rebirth, namely orangutans and all that they have signified—forests and forest-dwelling lives that get drowned.

I think a lot about poured concrete. It’s supposed to signify permanence. But weeds can emerge through concrete, and earthquakes make concrete into rubble.

Some deaths are permanent, and some lives are so destroyed that there isn’t a possibility for return.

GB: I think that is such an important distinction to note.

The claim that Manuel made when he said that “Haiti is dead” is a powerful claim about his experience. But as you note, it is not a claim that is at the same level or about the same kind of death as the fact of extinction, because whatever we might mean by Haiti, whatever he might have meant by it, it names something that can always return or be reconfigured or be reborn, at least potentially. The end of a species, though, has a different kind of temporality and suggests a different experience.

Everyday courage at Lundu Wildlife Center. (Photograph by Juno Salazar Parreñas)


GB: “Vulnerability” emerges as a key term in a lot of talk about Haiti, although it is typically used as a kind of seemingly neutral, technocratic way for engineers to talk about how social inequalities get concretized in the built environment. I’ve tried to push past that to think about some other kinds of vulnerability.

But I read it differently in your book, where I feel vulnerability appears in a much more radical way, as an ontological condition of life. We are all vulnerable and dependent, hence radically interdependent—on other people, on other species, on the natural world. It can be disastrous to lose people we love, or people on whom we depend, and I think we can all individually relate to that on a personal level.

But I was wondering about the kind of vulnerability that is required to confront something like the end of a species—Ruth Behar’s idea of a vulnerable observer, perhaps.

JSP: Vulnerability emerged for me as a concept when I saw and felt that so much of the performance of care entailed taking on a physically vulnerable position. Some, in that vulnerable relation between semi-wild orangutans and their people, were more vulnerable than others.

My associations with vulnerability prior to fieldwork were “vulnerable species,” an official step before the designation of endangered species. The concept of vulnerability became for me, as you said, an ontological condition of life, as I was coming to terms with the significance of what it means to die from a fatal infection caused by an endemic bacterium. I remember getting pushback around the issue of vulnerability—that it’s not a position someone would want to be in. I concede that many do not have the courage to willingly inhabit vulnerability, but to me, it’s a profound thing to embrace.

I love how you wrote about vulnerability in your postscript: “It is part of the human condition that we are vulnerable beings, and thus always open to the risk and possibility of crisis.” Because of the nature of my work, I see vulnerability as a condition of life, for everything on this planet.

GB: That makes a lot of sense, and the way that you dwell in that vulnerability is really powerful throughout your book.

JSP: I have a specific ethnographic question for you. I imagine Celeste and the other squatters in your book died violent deaths after the second coup, when the neighborhood was a red zone. But I realize that we can’t know.

GB: The situation in Martissant after the 2004 coup was very difficult and very violent. It still is today. I do know, with some degree of certainty, that some of the people I write about were killed after the coup. Others left the area or disappeared, or at least I have not been able to contact them. A few were able to make it by navigating the interpersonal relations of the neighborhood and aligning themselves with the new gangs that took over. Today, the whole area is still very much defined by the conflicts within and between various armed groups, and there has been a new bout of political violence there.

JSP: This leads me to circle back to how you handle politics in your book. Everybody we meet in it is readily theorizing about Haiti, citizenship, sovereignty, and hopes for the future and for freedom. At first, I felt that you purposely were not choosing a “side,” but throughout, you are critical of elites, parachuting journalists, and inhumane humanitarians and UN officials. In this very uncertain context of complex, hidden, and alleged collaborations, what position do you feel is the one to take?

GB: I think that the 2004 coup was catastrophic and set in place a whole series of political events that the country is still grappling with. I say that knowing full well, though, that Aristide is a complex and contradictory figure. I don’t want to become an apologist either for him or for those who called for his removal.

In writing the book, I had to come to terms with grief, and also with the experience of trauma, especially from the kinds of political violence that took place after the 2004 coup sent Aristide into exile. It took me a very long time to reckon with my own feelings, politically and personally, and in coming to terms with those feelings, the analysis really took a turn as well.

Tree canopy inside the “urban forest” at Parc Martissant. (Photograph by Greg Beckett)


GB: I was surprised in your conclusion by the scenes in which, first, the orangutan Lucas kills (or is thought to have killed) Deh and then Jeffrey. That moment comes just before two other emotionally heavy ones—first, the 2016 declaration of Bornean orangutans as critically endangered, and then the sudden death of Layang, one of the workers at the Wildlife Center.

I was struck by it in part because the death of Manuel was such a significant event for me in my own fieldwork, and in part because there isn’t perhaps as much discussion as there could be about such things in ethnography (despite some very notable works by Renato Rosaldo and Ruth Behar). In my case, I tried to see in Manuel’s life and in his death a kind of hope. In your book, you turn not so much to hope but to courage, and I think that is a really important move. To me, the relation between grief and courage in that scene, as in much of the rest of your book, was crucial to the lesson you take from Layang’s death: “How well we die depends on others.”

JSP: For me, writing the book was an exercise of grief. In the years I was writing, I had to grapple with an unexpected death in my family and the death of my PhD advisor, Mary Steedly, who had died when the book was in production. Renato Rosaldo’s book of poetry about Shelly Rosaldo’s unexpected death got me through that difficult period of my life. Everything I thought about was framed in the aftermath of experiencing personal loss. I think that had I not been profoundly shaken and affected by personal grief, the book would have been different.

Can you say more about how your own feelings of trauma and grief shaped your analysis? A profound takeaway for me from reading your book was that in very difficult, messy, uncertain circumstances, no one can have the hubris of political clarity, and that everyone is trying to survive and to keep going.

GB: That is definitely how I came to think about it while writing the book, but it took me quite a long time to come to terms with that idea. I came to understand the experiences of trauma and grief in the field only much later, after the fieldwork and while struggling to write the book. I would say that, in terms of symptoms, I was responding to trauma and grief by shutting down my feelings. That, in turn, led me to turn to theory as a kind of intellectual defense. The book I had been writing never worked, I think, because it was based on a kind of hubristic attempt to explain and make sense of everything.

My therapist gave me a task, kind of like a homework assignment, to “exercise the value of humility,” as he put it. It was, simply put, a transformative experience, one that made me finally pay attention to not only my own feelings about what was happening and had happened in Haiti but also to what people had been telling me. My fieldnotes made a whole new kind of sense to me after that, and I came to understand that I had to foreground the experience of uncertainty in order to really capture how crisis feels.

JSP: Thank you for sharing that. My own writing process felt like I owed it to others to get it out, that I felt like a spirit medium, transmitting something much bigger than myself. I sobbed a lot while writing. Part of it was personal grief, but much of it was the scale of loss as expressed through interpersonally shared stories, especially Nadim’s story of seeing termites trying and failing to evacuate their dwellings as their dwellings became waterlogged. Something else that I get from thinking about our books together is the depth and nuance that ethnography is able to engage.

GB: I agree! I think that some of ethnography’s power comes from its analytic framing, but perhaps even more comes from a kind of embodied storytelling through which we can dwell in and think through what you describe as co-presence.

Spontaneous vulnerability at Batu Wildlife Center. (Photograph by Juno Salazar Parreñas)


JSP: That phrase, “Tout sa ou wè, se pa sa,” or “That which you see, it’s not that”—your book really illustrates that so well. In a situation that could be described through a pornography of violence and suffering, you evade those pitfalls and really get to the complexity of politics and political economy.

GB: In terms of the phrase “tout sa ou wè, se pa sa,” it was something that came up, ethnographically in my research, in a very complex and uncertain moment. There was uncertainty in a very local sense in the neighborhood where I was working, but there was great uncertainty at the national level, too, as that same moment was part of what we can now see as a build-up to a disastrous coup.

I remember thinking at the time that I had to “get to the bottom” of things, to figure out what was really going on. But of course, in some ways that is an impossible task. So it made me rethink what I was doing—or what I should be trying to do—analytically. It made me think that the task of ethnography in this case was not to make the uncertain certain (to get the “right” story) but to find a way to dwell with uncertainty and to begin to think about how to document uncertainty ethnographically. That took me in a different direction, and notably took me to feminist theory and to affect theory, both of which also seem key to how you explore uncertainty in your work.

JSP: True; uncertainty just made sense to me when thinking about how to build a social relationship without the conventions of human speech! And of course, as I learned from social linguistics, you can’t take speech at face value.

GB: We’ve talked about uncertainty, but there is also contingency, a term you use to great effect throughout your book to highlight not just the unknown or uncertain or the unpredictable but, really, the place of emergence and possibility in all life. I appreciate it when you say in the introduction, “This is not a time to fatalistically give up.” I get the sense from reading your book that you, and certainly me as a reader, are dwelling in the midst of something profound. We need to recognize and grieve the futures that are no longer possible (including futures that include certain species), while also knowing that other aspects of the future remain unsettled and contingent, that some things might be over but that not everything is, or at least not yet, and that some things might still be otherwise.

JSP: Thank you. I feel the same from your book. You write, “In the time that remains, we can hope. And we can live.” Given that our conversation is in the Public Anthropologies forum, I do wonder whether our shared concern about survival under present circumstances might be unsatisfying to those who want to take on clear courses of action. How do you answer the question: What should be done?

GB: This is something I struggle with a lot, especially when trying to grapple with the weight of what feels like unstoppable forces, such as the 2004 coup or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti—or something as final as extinction. It is easy to feel powerless in the face of those forces, and that feeling can in turn lead to a sense of resignation as we come to terms with the harsh limit of the possibilities—or I might even say the impossibilities—of our historical moment.

For me, it has been important to embrace what I think of as the political dimensions of grief and mourning. I’ve struggled with moments of desperation and hopelessness, but I have also learned that those feelings, which are of course valid responses, are not enough and are in some ways a luxury that many people in Haiti can’t afford. One lesson I’ve taken from people like Manuel, who is a looming figure in my book for this reason, is that hope is not something one merely has or doesn’t have. We have to cultivate hope as a stance. It is a choice, an orientation to the world—I would even say it is a political practice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “courage,” and especially how you discuss it in relation to Layang, and about the kind of courage it might take to keep going even when we know that we won’t succeed. That kind of courage might lead us somewhere quite different from either a political resignation that accepts there is no alternative or a political optimism that believes (naively?) in a total revolution. I think it might be much more radical to begin to think of a courageousness and hopefulness that aims at the “political imperfect,” at an imperfect politics—imperfect in the sense of never finished and never quite becoming what we would want it to be.

One thing we can do, as anthropologists, is dig deep into the radical claim of the discipline, which I see as being rooted in the idea that the world can always be otherwise. Ethnography can be really important in that regard, as a form of what Carole McGranahan calls “theoretical storytelling.” It not only can analytically show us that “otherwise,” but it can help us come to know it in intimate ways, to feel the possibility of that otherwise.

Ethnography can help us think the impossible. But beyond the text, we are going to have to learn to live with the political imperfect, with contradictions that we cannot resolve. To do that, I think, might require a kind of radical hope and radical courage—the hope for a future we can’t fully know and the courage to keep trying to build that future, even in the midst of a catastrophe that feels like the end of the world.

JSP: Yes! To cultivating hope and courage!

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