The Materiality of Solidarity: An #AmAnth2016 Panel Review

The Materiality of Solidarity

Chair: Antina von Schnitzler (The New School). Presenters: Leo Coleman (Hunter College, City University of New York), Andrea Muehlebach (University of Toronto), Christina Schwenkel (University of California, Riverside), Theodoros Rakopoulos (University of Bergen). Sponsor: Society for Cultural Anthropology.

“The Materiality of Solidarity” generated a riveting conversation among both panelists and audience members on the tension between abstraction, materiality, and effervescence in the emergence, production, and reproduction of solidarity. These papers underwrote an understanding of solidarity sensitive to its manifestations in space and time. This imbrication of space and time into scholarly discussion underscored the salience of past and future in the shaping of aspirations and anxieties, and in the collective feeling of solidarity.

The panel began with Leo Coleman’s presentation, “Broadcast Mantras: Radio Rakhi and Emotional Integration in ‘Village India.’” He traced the debate between McKim Marriott and Louis Dumont and David Pocock on ritual change in Rakhi, a village-level ritual in which sisters would return to their natal village to tie charms around their brothers’ wrists. Anthropologists conducting research in India in the 1950s observed that with the electrification of villages and the proliferation of radios, charms took forms that were easier to mail to brothers in faraway cities. The brothers would tune into the radio to determine astrologically auspicious times of the year and would then proceed to tie the charms onto their wrists themselves. Contrary to Marriott’s argument that technological advance catalyzes ritual change, Dumont and Pocock posed the question of ideational and structural ritual transformation. Their work illuminated transformations in outmigration concomitant with the political and economic transformations in postcolonial India; rather than women moving away, men began to relocate to cities. Preferences in charms purchased and gifted reflected and reified economic transformations, and the broadcasted mantras of radio Rakhi enabled a virtual solidarity to replace a face-to-face one. At the same time, Coleman argued, the community that citizens’ radio Rakhi engendered also made them more susceptible to abstraction as members of the nation-state.

Andrea Muehlebach examined community mobilizations against the commodification and privatization of water in Ireland, Germany, and Italy. Her presentation, “Water, Materiality, and the Possibility of the Abstract Political,” focused primarily on Ireland, concluding with a brief reference to Castellamare di Stabia, Italy. Speaking on her research in Ireland, Muehlebach was not only interested in the materiality of water, but also in the water meters installed by the private corporation Irish Water and the protests that their installation precipitated. Muehlebach showed that the same sites—sidewalks and front lawns—that would require digging up for the installation of water meters also became sites of protest. In this way, neighborhoods mobilized around the political consciousness of infrastructure that itself would have the effect of abstracting and commoditizing water consumption, thus further enveloping neighborhoods and towns into a global economy of dispossession. Protests also took a more private form through the refusal to pay bills, something Muehlebach observed in Italy, another means of resisting abstraction.

Repurposed propaganda posters. Photo by Christina Schwenkel.

Christina Schwenkel’s paper “On the Architectural Intimacies of Solidarity in Vietnam” showed the development of a women’s movement around crumbling—both literally and metaphorically—communal housing in the industrial city of Vinh. She articulated the dilapidation and decay of state housing as the very substance of politics. In 1981, low-skilled women workers were relocated to a housing project in which two families were forced to occupy the same unit. Today, Building C8 is in the most disrepair, but the land it occupies has grown especially desirable to developers. The women and families of C8, however, have refused to leave. In this space, Schwenkel emphasized the accidental being transformed into the tactical: in their resistance, these women occupy spaces of vulnerability. When the ceiling began to collapse, Schwenkel observed that the women repurposed state propaganda posters as nets to protect residents from falling debris. Their management of the building’s decay thereby makes manifest the failure of the revolution to fulfill its promises.

Finally, Theodoros Rakopoulos examined the use of public squares for direct food distribution in his paper “Food Matters: Co-ops and Squats in Greek Solidarity Spaces.” A coalition of young and unemployed individuals endeavored to “cut out the middle man” by partnering with farmers to sell their produce directly to customers in public spaces such as town squares and parking lots. Rakopoulos observed that food squatters’ repurposing of public squares pulled those squares back into political consciousness after years of drug use that had rendered the squares effectively invisible. The coalition also worked to form the cooperative Bridge, which would establish its own permanent, legal location to continue farm-to-fork food distribution. Rakopoulos emphasized that the middleman whom activists strove to cut out was the government itself, thus adding another layer to the dichotomy of visibility and invisibility that made food squatting an effective critique of austerity measures introduced under the Troika Memoranda. That is, this activism that sought to circumvent the so-called middleman did so by drawing public infrastructure back into political consciousness through the occupation of public squares and the invocation of public architecture with their cooperative’s chosen name. Here, again, infrastructure becomes a critical site for the materialization of solidarity.

Julie Chu, the panel’s discussant, posed the question, “what puts the solid in solidarity?” She emphasized that something that is solid seems stable, and noted that the Latin solitus referred to a minted currency composed primarily of gold, thereby construing the currency’s value as stable. In this way, she highlighted the ambivalent quality of these materialities of solidarity that are at once relationships between human and nonhuman, citizen and state, tangible and intangible. In repurposing the signs of the state, the interlocutors who surfaced in the presentations not only produced critiques, but also novel forms of belonging.

In the discussion that followed, one audience member posed the interesting question of whether the state could be understood as a “spectral presence.” In my reading, this notion of a specter highlights the betwixt and between of materiality and immateriality; the specter is visible and yet intangible. For Coleman and Muehlebach, infrastructure engendered the abstraction of citizens, making them visible to state and industry. By contrast, Schwenkel and Rakopoulos showed how dilapidated public housing in Vietnam and the revitalization of public squares in Greece made manifest the failure of the state by insisting on the visibility of those failures. Importantly, these materialities also hint at phenomena that would seem intangible, such as national belonging and the neoliberalization of economies. However, the panelists underscored the enchantment of these materialities as a social process invaluable for the anthropological apprehension of solidarity.