In this essay, I examine interlocking political, economic, and cultural processes involved in the continuous reproduction of the structural violence that affects migrant farmworkers in the United States. Excluded from rights and protections afforded other workers, migrant and seasonal farm labor—a social class comprising mainly undocumented Mexican and Latino persons—endures endemic poverty, poor health outcomes, and squalor living conditions. This structural violence is sustained by government neglect and illegal hiring practices and liberalized production regimes that benefit multinational corporations and large-scale agricultural producers, putting migrant workers in harm's way. Emphasizing the importance of the phenomenology of perception to the anthropology of structural violence, I argue that this system is also underpinned by a mode of perception built on specific understandings of alterity and community. The setting for this article is rural North Carolina, where I have conducted 16 months (2004–07) of ethnographic field study on tobacco farms and in farm labor camps. Among growers and other locals, I find that the faces of migrants do not compel infinite responsibility, as in the face-to-face interaction idealized by Levinas. Instead, an essentializing discourse of culture portrays migrants as "other" and "outside," equates them with trash, and makes them available for various kinds of blame. I develop the concept of "faciality" to take account of how social power overlaps with perception to legitimize patterns of social subordination, economic exploitation, and spatial segregation. I also examine everyday tactics of resistance among migrants, who take command of the stigmatizing quality of vision to morally indict manifestations of structural violence. In this study, I enhance our understanding of the dialectics of domination and subordination in U.S. agriculture, which provides fruitful ground for theorizing the dangerous constitution of structural violence in the context of transnational labor migration and international agricultural restructuring.
Cultural Anthropology has a number of other essays on on migrant labor. See for example, Shao Jing’s “Fluid Labor and Blood Money: The Economy of HIV/AIDS in Rural Central China” (2006); Yan Hairong’s “Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value Flow through Labor Recruitment Networks” (2003); and Adeline Masquelier’s “Of Headhunters and Cannibals: Migrancy, Labor, and Consumption in the Mawri Imagination” (2000).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on Mexicano politics in the United States. See, for example, Michael J. Montoya’s “Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research” (2007); Laura A. Lewis’s “Of Ships and Saints: History, Memory, and Place in the Making of Moreno Mexican Identity” (2001); and Arlene Dávila’s “Latinizing Culture: Art, Museums, and the Politics of U.S. Multicultural Encompassment” (1999).
About the Author
Broadly speaking, Prof. Peter Benson is keen on understanding what forms of human existence take shape amid the powerful influence of corporations and industries, moral and emotional movements in the civil society, cultural framings of citizenship and the family, public health governance and medicalization, social and historical constructions of race, and waves of transnational labor migration. Working in the United States and Latin America, his goal has been to produce ethnography that is richly informed by historical and archival research, critically attendant to political economy, and deeply appreciative of subjective experience as inspired by my fascination with existentialism and phenomenology.
His primary research project is a study of tobacco agriculture and Mexican farm labor migration against the backdrop of the antitobacco movement, the globalization and industrialization of food and farm chains, and intense struggles over immigration. His latest book, entitled Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry, tells the story of the people who live and work on U.S. tobacco farms at a time when the global tobacco industry is undergoing profound changes. Against the backdrop of the antitobacco movement, the globalization and industrialization of agriculture, and intense debates over immigration, he draws on years of field research to examine the moral and financial struggles of growers, the difficult conditions that affect Mexican migrant workers, and the complex politics of citizenship and economic decline in communities dependent on this most harmful commodity.
In addition, he has completed a major collaborative research project on structural adjustment, export agriculture, and political violence in highland Guatemala , which culminated in a coauthored book, Broccoli and Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatelmala. Tracking the commodity chain of the global broccoli trade, this book connects affluent American consumers concerned about their health and diet with Maya farmers desiring and struggling for something better. Broccoli is a starting point for a broader analysis of the social production of power and desire at multiple levels, such as shifting frameworks of international trade, discourses about health and nutrition, and the vastly uneven worlds that consumers and producers inhabit.
This article was part of a bigger project on tobacco agriculture and farm labor, global health and corporate power, as seen in North Carolina. This project has culminated in a recent book, entitled "Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry." While continuing to write on issues pertaining to tobacco, he is also involved in a new research project on existentialism and the history of anthropology.
Relevant Links About the Author
Additional Work by the Author
(2008) Good Clean Tobacco: Philip Morris, Biocapitalism, and the Social Course of Stigma in North Carolina. American Ethnologist 35(3):357-379.
Benson, Peter, Edward F. Fischer, and Kedron Thomas
(2008) Resocializing Suffering: Neoliberalism, Accusation, and the Sociopolitical Context of Guatemala's New Violence. Latin American Perspectives 35(5):38-58.
Benson, Peter, and Edward F. Fischer
(2007) Broccoli and Desire. Antipode 39(5): 800-820.
Benson, Peter, and Kevin O'Neill
(2007) Facing Risk: Levinas, Ethnography, and Ethics. Anthropology of Consciousness. 18(2): 29-55.
Fischer, Edward F., and Peter Benson
(2006) Broccoli and Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatemala. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Interview with Peter Benson
Richard McGrail and Rupa Pillai: Could you provide a brief description of how you understand the term "subaltern"? And, in your view, what distinguishes work on subalternity from other areas of research in anthropology?
Peter Benson: The word, ‘subaltern,’ evokes a power relation, but also a condition, an ontology and a kind of existence. It is a historical term. It tells us about historical relationships of the modern period that have been forged through the waves of colonialism, mercantilism, and globalism. Certain kinds of faces, and certain conditions, come to mind, what Roland Barthes called a ‘face-landscape,’ so that the subaltern is also a figure in place, in time, and in a relation. These are defining elements of the phenomenology of ‘subaltern,’ for me.
Subaltern studies can also be an attitude in the same way that, as they say, existentialism is. The attitude can be about looking at big things from little vantage points. This can define one’s stance with regard to nature, as seen in Hugh Raffles’ recent book, Insectopedia, where an interest in biology and in naturalism seems driven as much by questions about predictability as by questions about contingency. Or it can define a relation to sexuality or madness as seen in Foucault’s work. Disparate works then reflect and orient subaltern studies as an attitude of staying close to the ground. It is about an appreciation for the little, the contingent, and the marginal. In this way, Walter Benjamin is central in the formation of contemporary subaltern studies, not just in terms of epistemology or politics, but perhaps primarily in terms of an ethics and aesthetics.
RM and RP: Is there a danger of fetishizing the subaltern--i.e., of casting the term as a knowable and celebrated subject-position--in anthropological research? If so, should we revisit how the term is deployed both in academic work and in everyday, "common-sense" understandings? Have you seen the term used outside academic context?
PB: There is definitely a danger in casting too wide a net around the subaltern. So, it’s really important to better understand the politics of victimhood, as in, who is claiming what, how are the entitlements distributed and what does entitlement mean, and so on, which is something I’ve tried to do in my work on tobacco growers in the southern United States. Something the sociologist George Lipsitz has helped me to see, for instance, is that simply looking at the sociology of a given society – the distribution of jobs, income, property, and other forms of wealth and power – will tell you a great deal about how social and cultural dynamics work in that society.
This understanding of the subaltern is to my mind effective. I want to know how harm, vulnerability, risk, and insecurity work in contemporary societies. Differences matter, and the ways that differences are masked or maligned or monickered matter, too. The human conditions and expected life chances that many anthropologists document are often at odds with what is the common consensus or the dominant policy approach. Anthropology is thus a kind of reporting. That is not to say that anthropology is just about reporting or doing a social epidemiology. It’s also about other forms of documentation, investigation, and representation. But some element of ethnography is about reporting on what is happening in a place. The question of the subaltern is going to be central to that reporting because societies are, in general, unequal and involve various levels of conflict. So, the question isn’t about who is and who is not the subaltern. For me, the question is more about the perspective, and the levels.
RM and RP: What makes a discussion of subaltern studies particularly relevant now?
PB: The most important aspect of the subaltern studies literature and subaltern studies as a scholarly approach over the past decades, and that is of particular relevance for today, is the concern with history. The nature of the consumer society makes it seem as though history doesn’t matter or can be consumed on the fly, that history should be a set of talking points to be accessed on a cell phone. When it seems that the relationship between the present and the past isn’t vital, tense, or conflictual, then there is going to be an overall ramification in the area of political consciousness and the kind of modernity that is being lived. The key point here from subaltern studies has always been that it is not just the presence of historiography or an awareness of the past that defines a critical education, but the kind of history, the perspective on the past, the scope and scale of the archive, and the kinds of voices that are heard and that speak – these aspects of relating the present and the past are more human.
RM and RP: Would you categorize your article as subaltern studies?
PB: When I learned that my article had been selected for this volume, I was pleasantly surprised because I have felt the influence of subaltern studies in my own reading, but it doesn’t always come out in the most explicit ways in my writing. I’m studying an incredibly vulnerable population, migrant farm workers, a laboring class, a group of people who regularly contend with instability and danger. In the process, I look at how vulnerability is constituted through complex power relations linking labor, management, and the wider supply chain to the politics of corporate regulation around tobacco and international agribusiness. Yes, I believe this is subaltern studies.
RM and RP: What has inspired your work and in what ways might it contribute to a more thorough understanding of subalternity?
PB: The work of Alphonso Lingis has inspired me. It connects to the subaltern in that a lot of what he does is a phenomenology of the world laid bare, a world that is not mystified, a world that is experienced, that seems close, that seems like the world of life and labor that interested Marx. Here, Chakrabarty’s work has also been important for me. I look to work that links political economy and phenomenology, a linkage that I think broadens the scope of what subaltern studies is, or might be. One aspect of Marx that always interested me is Marx as a phenomenologist, as someone concerned with perception, with constructions of self and other, mystification, dreams, fantasies. The question is about culture and the contemporary economy and forms of consciousness and making and unmaking consciousness. I think some of the scholars whose work does this really well are Kathleen Stewart, Lauren Berlant, Anna Tsing, and Stuart Kirsch. These authors might not fit into a very narrow concept of what subaltern studies is, but each is looking at dynamics of power and what power looks like from below.
RM and RP: What advice would you offer researchers pursuing subaltern projects? What ethical responsibilities does the researcher have?
PB: In my case, working with migrant farm workers, there were ethical considerations. The population is vulnerable, largely undocumented, lives in itinerant housing, has limited access to healthcare, and faces discrimination within the ethnographic setting. Part of what I tried to do in the article was to document these conflictual relationships of stigma, stereotyping, and backbiting between the different working populations. The meaning of ethics here is linked to the stake of “getting it right,” in the sense of capturing multiple levels and making sure that the context is complex enough so that the conditions of vulnerability and conflict don’t seem parochial at the same time as they do feel local.
Another ethical consideration might be how to relate scholarly work to concrete considerations for policy and law-making. The stakes are likely to be higher when the subjects of the study are part of a subaltern group. Not all scholarly work has to end with a practical solution. In this particular article, I felt I could draw out some relevant points for farm labor policy and farm workplace occupational and safety regulations. In fact, one of the anonymous reviewers pointed out that although the article used ethnography to engage theories of structural violence, meaning, and the force of landscapes, there was also the possibility to illuminate something of interest for a policy maker as a result of this ethnography. The peer review process is a really good format for bringing out different levels of ethical engagement and practical solutions and encouraging scholars to broaden the audience without diminishing the peaks and intensity of their work.
As my work relates to the tobacco industry, there are other ethical considerations, and in this article, as elsewhere in my work, a central concern of mine has been to expose the capitalist dynamics of this harmful industry. Some solutions are not going to seem realistic. For example, trade policy plays a major role in the story I tell, as does the way that labor camps are part of the global postcolonial field. But just saying that trade policy ought to change or that global culture involves very serious kinds of danger is not going to seem like a plausible recommendation. In this context, one meaning of ethics has to do with documentation and making an archive, and this returns us to the theme of subaltern studies and the important role of using history and anthropology and other methods to enrich our understanding of the world system.
RM and RP: What are the challenges of teaching concepts related to subalternity? What kinds of teaching strategies and practices have you found effective in the classroom?
PB: There are many challenges. One of the challenges to teaching concepts related to subalternity is the pervasive myth that everyone is the same: thinks the same, feels the same, has the same beliefs, and so on. Talking about different ways of telling history, thinking about power and society, paying attention to what is happening to ordinary people – these are sometimes provocative and life changing for students and they command some bravery. Studies of different forms of consciousness, alternative reckonings of the past and autochthonous forms of morality, sovereignty, and law challenge the powerful myths of individualism, of equality, and of manifest destiny that pervade classrooms in America. So, on one level, the core concepts of subalternity challenge the core concepts of liberal education, at least in broad strokes.
These challenges are especially relevant when it comes to subaltern history. One tactic is to highlight a core method of subaltern studies: using an anecdote or a fragment to reveal something larger about a whole situation. I find that this is particularly appealing to students. In my Cultural Anthropology article, for example, the anecdote in the section, “Another Toilet Problem,” is an anecdote that I refer to all the time in class. It’s about putting port-o-potties in the fields where farmworkers are laboring as a workers’ rights legal issue and the ethnography of how the workers feel about that law in the context of social stigma, a dangerous roadside, and the freedom of the woods. These phenomenological aspects of the situation illuminate broad themes having to do with biopower and its discontents, race and injury, and the Hegelian dialectic; in other words, the ways that selves and others are made in the contemporary world.
Questions for Classroom Discussion
1. Discuss the multiple meanings of “campo”. Could campo be a synonym for subalternity?
2. Define faciality. What makes the face unique? According to Levinas, how does the face relate to ethics? How do Deleuze and Guattari understand the face?
3. How does “faciality become a mask that conceals the forces that drive labor migration in Mexico” and enable the distance between the growers and workers?
4. How are faciality and structural violence coproduced?
5. While Spivak asks “can the subaltern be heard,” Benson, through Paul Farmer, is asking can the migrant worker be seen. How are these questions related?
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1988 "Useless Suffering." In The Provocation of Levinas. Richard Cohen, trans. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood, eds. Pp. 156–167. London: Routledge.
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Taussig, Michael T.
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In the November 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Peter Benson examines interlocking political, economic, and cultural processes that continually reproduce the structural violence endured by migrant farm workers in the United States. Drawing on extended fieldwork on tobacco farms and in farm labor camps in North Carolina, Benson argues that a key aspect of structural violence is what he terms “faciality” – the way people perceive each other, and imagine their relatedness. Benson builds on Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of faciality, on Levinasian face-based ethics and on Taussig’s concept of defacement, powerfully extending these frameworks to deepen understanding of what anthropologist and public health advocate Paul Farmer calls structural violence.
Benson delineates many factors constitutive of the structural violence he observed, including deplorable wages, occupational health and safety hazards, and the ever-present threat of deportation. He also shows how structural violence is sustained through regulatory neglect and illegal hiring practices, all of which benefit multinational corporations and large-scale agricultural producers. The cumulative force and cultural logic of these factors, Benson argues, needs to be understood in phenomenological terms, recognizing the power of perceptions, experiences and dynamics amongst laborers, managers, and growers. The migrant laborer does not compel the infinite responsibility idealized by Levinas, but is instead facialized as “other” and “outside.”
While Benson does not use the term “subaltern,” his essay is included in the Subaltern Studies collection for his innovative approach of understanding power as it operates in farm labor camps to marginalize and render migrant workers invisible. Further, the experience of "campo" seems synonymous with subalternity.