Living through Defeat: New Anthropological Insights on the Vanquished
For decades anthropologists overlooked conflicts and insurgencies that marginalized populations waged against their oppressors. Although for nearly 40 years there has been a growing body of literature on different kind of violence, inequality, conflict, insurgency and revolution, anthropologists studying populations who have lost political conflicts – e.g. civil or inter-state wars, revolutions, but also unarmed political conflicts – have rarely analyzed them as defeated subjects.
The anthropology of political violence can be, schematically, divided between those who study the victims and those who study the fighters and perpetrators. The former have written ethnographies on the consequences of violence, exploring the ways individuals and communities cope with their violent past and still troubled present (Das 2006; Das et al. 2000, 2001). They have mainly focused on the medical, psychological and social care and recognition of victims and refugees by states and international actors (Agier 2008; Atlani-Duault 2009; Fassin 2010). They have also dealt with the issue of traumatic memory (Malkki 1995; Antze et Lambeck 1996; Alexander 2004; Fassin and Rechtman 2007; Chivallon 2012; Baussant 2018) and questioned the building of a transnational justice (Claverie 2012) and post-conflict reconciliation (Thiranagama and Biner 2013). The latter group of anthropologists have developed ethnographies on non-state armed groups or political mobilization, exploring the grounds for the active commitment, ideology, symbolism and politics of insurgent organizations, and the experiences of their militants (Feldman 1991; Richards 1996; Aretxaga 1997; Hoffman 2011; Montoya 2012; Shah 2018; Pudal 2018; Wiegink 2020; Hedlund 2020). While this scholarship has produced a critical understanding of contemporary forms of political violence, they have rarely addressed what happens when these movements are defeated, and how the imaginaries that sustained the militancy may continue to influence the place of the defeated community in the “new reality” and their relationship with the winners.
This special issue aims to fill this gap by investigating defeat as a heuristic concept in anthropology. Nathan Wachtel has shown that defeat is not only a military or political matter, but that it may lead to a dismantling of all aspects of society, including the imaginary, culture, religion, and social organization of the vanquished. Defeat affects people’s way of being in the world and their relationship with others (Wachtel 1971). However, while some authors consider defeat a founding basis of identity and memory (Bensa, Goromoedo and Muckle 2015; Wright 2009; Ricoeur 2000), our idea is to question this foundational dimension of violence and trauma. In this regard, we intend to draw inspiration from Marshall Sahlins’ work (1985), which highlights how the interpretative framework of the experience of rupture and defeat and the particular answers provided by society in order to address and redress these conditions are always embedded in patterns of continuity.
This suggestion should not viewed in contrast to Koselleck’s proposal, which is highly contextualized to the German case (Koselleck 2005). He draws on the work of some historians who have shown that military defeat does not only affect the armed actors and activists involved, but can also entail the broader defeat of an entire society’s “intellectual order” (Bloch 1946). Since these challenging experiences often take place during the emergence of new political regimes (Dower 1999; Hashimoto 2015), as has happened with the defeated countries after World War II, new paradigms may arise for the interpretation of a community’s history, with new outlooks and forms of identity, and this may open avenues for new actors and new forms of political participation. Therefore, defeat may be seen as a space of transformation that reframes (post-)conflict situations and ongoing social changes. It questions the conventional moral categories inherent to societies – such as those of perpetrator, victim, and bystander (Rothberg 2019) – that are often reiterated in a reductive way and with little critical analysis by certain studies in the social and political sciences. However, the change brought about by defeat is never of the sort hoped for, so some social groups may seek to resist it: they may deny defeat (Isnenghi and Pozzato 2018) or construct a counter-hegemonic memory, or practice some form of resistance (Scott 1985, 1990; Beckwith 2015). Memory, then, is an essential issue to better grasp what “to be defeated” means in the specific contexts and cultures we investigate. The idea is to provide a more comprehensive insight into the silences, patterns of repetition, resentment and revenge processes, as well as the dynamics of social renewal and transformation engendered by defeat. How, in what circumstances and why do a defeat and its recalling in the present matter to a specific population? How may the condition of being vanquished and the relationship with the winner influence the process of memorialization and the creation of silences? How does defeat shape the imaginary, the past, and the future?
In order to answer these questions, we are preparing a special issue of a peer-reviewed journal, inviting contributions in anthropology and other social sciences which emphasize a robust ethnographic approach. The articles can focus not only on military defeats but also on social movements, political activists, and similar cases. The challenge is to explore the concept of defeat in light of the heterogeneous characteristics of the vanquished (in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, etc.) and to highlight the changes and reconfigurations of social fields (Lubkemann 2008), and the tensions engendered by the defeat in everyday life.
Abstracts (300 to 500 word-long) are due by 15th December 2020, while full papers are expected by 30th June 2021. They should be sent to both Giacomo Mantovan and Michèle Baussant.
Researcher, Centre for Research in Anthropology (CRIA), ISCTE-IUL, Lisbon.
Post-doctoral researcher, Centre d’Étude de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud (EHESS/CNRS), Paris.
Director of Research in Anthropology at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), French Center of Research in Social Sciences (CEFRES), Prague.