A Carceral Regime: Violence and Social Memory in Southwest China

Essay Excerpt

I use the term regime also for its connotation of a politico-bureaucratic authority,multiple and contradictory in experience, but sustained by an imagined unity (Anagnost 1988; Lefort 1986). A political regime is an imagined watershed that gives the braided channels of bureaucratic authority their force and direction. In the carceral regime of reference I trace here, the state's imagined unity reveals its shape in thedams and diversions that direct memory and forgetting of the most profoundly painful matters. The capacity to inflict corporeal violence, on which this unity depends, is involved in the processes of memory and forgetting at the most personal level. In calling this regime incarceration, I wish to echo and distort the vocabulary of more familiar efforts to inquire into the interdependence of memory and corporeal violence, such as inscription, incorporation, and encryption.2 Although writing about social memory cannot yet break free of the psychoanalytic regime, it can carve out new channels as well let our ethnographic worlds creatively corrupt the terms with which we interrogate those worlds.  (Mueggler, 170)

About the Author

Erik Mueggler is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, afilliated with the University's Center for Chinese Studies and the Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History. His research covers a variety of topiccs in social and cultural theory, focusing on the politics of ritual, religion, science and nature in the border regions of China.

Mueggler's first book, The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence and Place in Southwest China (2001), explores the history of a minority community in Yunnan province in the last half of the twentieth century. The book shows how rural mountian people used resources of language and ritual to create a habitable place for themselves in the face of many, sometimes devastating, projects to bring modernity to them.

In The Paper Road: Archive and Experienc in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (2011), Mueggler investigates British and American botanists and their Yunnanese collaborators. In the first half of the twentieth century, Western botanists undertook an intensive exploration of western China, collected and named thousands of new species, shipped tens of thousands of specimens back to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh and Kew, and introduced hundreds into cultivation in British gardens. By focusing on the relations of these explorers to the mountain inhabitants who worked as their guides, porters, and collectors, Mueggler explores this region as a place of multiple, experimental encounters amongst the world's human and nonhuman inhabitants.

In his most recent projects, Mueggler has returned to ethnographic work in Yunnan and Sichuan, on death and death ritual, and on the practices and ideologies of printing in monastic settings.

Mueggler is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including a Macarthur Foundation "Genius" fellowship, a a Center for the Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences Fellowship, and a British Academy Fellowship, and fellowships from the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Social Sciences Research Council, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

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