The February 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Living the Laughscream: Human Technology and Affective Maneuvers in the Iraq War,” by Nomi Stone, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Katherine Sacco and Michelle Hagman conducted with Stone about her article’s arguments and their relationship to her broader research agenda and artistic practice.
Katherine Sacco and Michelle Hagman: We’d like to start by asking you to tell us a bit more about how you got involved with this project. How did you gain access to the field sites you describe as the “Iraq warscape,” including military training camps? What was your role as an anthropologist at these training camps?
Nomi Stone: This project began when I cold-called dozens of military bases across the United States to ask if I could observe trainings in their mock Middle Eastern villages. No one obliged until I encountered a public affairs officer who was so charmed, upon Googling me, to discover that I am a poet (he was too), that he said he would do everything he could to get me in. Access to the military bases thereafter came incrementally and was partially born of a geopolitical moment: the military was engaged with “culture,” the province of our discipline. I located myself as an outside observer who was interested in future academic jobs and did not plan to work for the military. Nonetheless, as I sought to understand the position, discourses, and logics of military personnel, my military hosts were likewise interested in trying to understand my own.
During my fieldwork, I was continuously reminded of my own uncomfortable border location: an anthropologist-in-training who insisted on independence and was constantly dodging the attempts of military personnel to secure my professional advice on how to improve the simulations. Never have I been more aware of anthropology’s thorny history and its colonial enmeshment. Perhaps I felt most uneasy as I came to understand the kindred tools that soldiers and anthropologists use to find our feet and become more at ease in an unfamiliar setting. Although I was seeking to understand a social phenomenon as a scholarly pursuit and not to further war-making, I still felt deeply uneasy about the tensions in the role. As the soldiers were trained to wait to procure operationally relevant information in order to not estrange their informants, I, too, watched myself wait to ask both American military personnel and Iraqi role-players more sensitive questions. I watched the soldiers practice composing useful dispositions and mirroring their Iraqi interlocutors, while taking critical notes about these instrumentalizing logics.
Despite the gulf between our goals, I also knew about composing a disposition in the field and moving between registers. When I interviewed American military personnel about their experiences in war and about architecting the predeployment simulations, I noticed that I began to “shoot the shit” and joke around about American pop culture. They liked having a girl around. “Nomi Stone,” they would call out from the other side of the fake mosque, “are you going to put me in your book?” I was an academic with a notebook, but in some moments, I watched myself begin to assume the position of American girl hanging out with American soldier dudes.
Meanwhile, having no prior experience with American military personnel and having spent the last fifteen years studying and doing research in the Middle East, I was far more comfortable with the Iraqi role-players. But when I interviewed the role-players, didn’t I morph as well—if only into a state of being that afforded me ease? The first day I met the role-players at one of the bases, the female role-players were in the fake market, hawking Lablābī, a chickpea soup sold in paper cones throughout the Middle East. I asked, in Iraqi Arabic: “Wīn a-Lablābī u Ashgid [Where is the Lablābī, and how much]?” The role-players were so stunned that I spoke the Iraqi dialect that, during the interlude between simulations, they sat me down and gave me a Coke. When I told them my name was Nomi and joked to them that it was just like those limes that grow in Basra—that tart, pungent flavor found in so much of Iraqi cooking—they laughed with recognition (and perhaps a sense that I was different from the military personnel). They began to call me “Nomi Basra.”
As I formulated my observations about the U.S. military’s attempts to become insiders in the war zone so as to acquire information, I felt shame and my own complicity, thinking of anthropology’s own past. I hunted every day, within anthropology, for the tools to critique the co-optation of anthropology. Yet the ethical and political stakes are so much higher than any conversation confined to our single discipline. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (2002, 67) caution of an ethos inherited from the Enlightenment and intensified during capitalism that “treats human actions and desires like lines, planes, bodies.”
As these supposedly local others fight, bargain, mourn, and die on a loop, “the reified, hardened plaster-cast of events take the place of events themselves” (Adorno 2005, 55). One company that supplies cultural training and atmospheric aids to the American military offers a chilling window in: you can buy a Cheese Vendor; a Butcher Vendor; a Goat Carcass; a Horse Carcass; an African Corpse; a South Asian Corpse; a Middle Eastern Corpse. This project is a journey into the contours of that violence.
KS and MH: You describe contradictions in expectations about the authenticity of training simulations: the role-players are expected to enact authentic cultural knowledge while staying within the bounds of the military’s role-playing scripts. You argue that the role-plays “echo a colonial logic of cultural translation, wherein the actual knowledges of the Other are not necessarily pertinent.” Do you see parallels or disjunctures between the military’s efforts at cultural translation and the cultural translation that is often a part of anthropology? For the military, authentic cultural translation is further complicated by the geographical distance between training sites in the United States and the Middle Eastern villages they are meant to represent. Does this geographical remove impact the bind that role-players face in producing cultural authenticity?
NS: Yes: the question of authenticity was one of the charged centers of the project. The malleability, the substitutability of place was initially shocking to me as an anthropologist. For example, an Iraqi village would be transformed into an Afghan village in a flash, by changing the language on the signs. Or, as I describe in the article, Iraqis could role-play in an Afghan village if enough Afghan role-players could not be located; if the soldiers were working with interpreters anyway, language might function simply as another dimension of otherness, an additional note in the cacophony.
The question of geographic remove was a funny one. Military personnel running the simulations were worried about role-players integrating too much in America and diluting their capacity to perform Iraqiness. They hired a cultural advisor to “bring the role-players back” when such instances occurred. I learned much about the military’s conception of culture through such moments: often, it was rendered as both unified and hermetically sealed.
And, as I’ve already touched on, there was an ongoing, dark echo between the military’s project of cultural translation and my sense of anthropology’s own project. Thinking the contours of that gap—and what sort of anthropologist I wanted to be—drove this work forward.
KS and MH: You describe how some of the role-players at these training sites had worked with the U.S. military during the 2003 Iraq war, and then started to work as role-players upon emigration to the United States. Could you tell us more about the everyday lives of these people? You write that they often had to work a variety of other jobs, alongside their work as role-players. How do you think the current political situation affects the lives of these individuals?
NS: Each month, the role-players moved between the mock villages and the real world, where they held down other jobs, from construction or service industry work at restaurants or hotels to teaching Arabic on the side. The daily was filled with the labors of settling into a new country: making sure the food stamps stretched far enough, Skyping with siblings in Iraq, prepping for the U.S. citizenship exam, trying to do the online test to become an employee at Walmart while not being sure how to answer its (indeed) inscrutable questions. For example, the prospective Walmart employee is confronted with the following scenario: a malcontent customer comes to them and says that Walmart has very bad service. Should the employee: a) give the customer a form to lodge a complaint? b) tell the customer that Walmart is understaffed today and apologize? c) apologize and say Walmart is doing its best? d) ask how Walmart might do better? My friend retorted, “does Walmart think they’re the White House, asking seventy questions like this?” And then offered: “I have no idea, but perhaps it is c: Sorry—Walmart is doing it’s best, but Inshallah it will do better soon.”
What struck me most, always, was the funny and surreal tension of living a life stranded between states: trying to become American while every day performing static and archetypal forms of being Iraqi. Meanwhile, these individuals wrestled with affiliation and loyalty, belonging and expulsion: having worked with the American military during the war, many were accused of collaboration by their countrymen. This limbo zone was dramatized inside, outside, and in between the simulations in all sorts of subtle ways, complicated by economic insecurity and trying to become anchored in a new country, something I explore more in my book manuscript. I witnessed different performances of affiliation as individuals variably tried to prove to others that they were real Iraqis or real almost-Americans.
The current political situation has been complicated for these individuals. Before the election, many were uneasy about Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, although a few told me that some part of them hoped Trump would win because they felt Iraq had been abandoned by America’s prior administrations and they didn’t feel like anything could be worse. But things got worse, both here and there. The morning after Trump’s immigration ban initially went into effect, an Iraqi role-player friend of mine told me he no longer felt safe in America. Another friend with a green card said: “As long as they don’t kick us out. We finally got here.” Still another told me anxiously: “I think he [Trump] will eventually send all Iraqis back, even if they have green cards. Iraqis can’t feel safe anywhere.” In a moment of despair, a friend who had nearly been killed by a militia for working with the U.S. military told me that Iraqis who blamed him for his wartime choices thought: we deserve this, to be treated this way now that we’re here. After the ban was scaled back to no longer include Iraqis and was thereafter overturned, there was something of a sigh of relief.
KS and MH: You develop the concept of the laughscream to describe “moments of affective excess [that] create a momentary reprieve for role-players while typically not disturbing the military structure.” We’re interested in the ambiguous instrumentality of the laughscream. Why is it important to note that these moments of laughing/screaming do not ultimately change the structure of the military trainings? Do you see the laughscream as something specific to the context of military training, or could this concept travel to other contexts?
NS: I very much see the laughscream as a traveling concept. In fact, I witnessed the laughscream for the first time in a wholly other context, in one of the Jewish villages on the island of Djerba, Tunisia. I was on a creative writing Fulbright the year after I graduated from college, unwittingly engaged in something like ethnography. It was Purim, the celebration of a narrowly evaded massacre of the Jews of ancient Persia. All day, families were exchanging syrupy confections—among them, cakes shaped like Haman’s ears—he, the orchestrator of the massacre. I brought a plate to my Muslim neighbors; they were acquainted with the holiday, but told me that no one had ever brought them sweets before. The Jewish children were playing games of chance, dominoes and dice, all over the streets, enacting that reversal of fate. I had been told that Purim in Djerba was truly unique. I was told that at some moment in the morning—perhaps between six and ten—that all the little boys in the town would begin running. This was described as a sort of spontaneous conflagration; no one ever knew in advance when the event would begin. Girls and women were not permitted to join, but because several of the women in the community acquiesced and told me the children could lead me to the ritual site just this once.
I began waiting in the street at 5:30 in the morning. At 8:45, the clamor began. We headed to a courtyard where Haman’s giant stuffed body was already prepared: he wore a dirty pair of men’s trousers, a flannel shirt, and did not have a head. The men nailed Haman to a gallows. Attached to his perpendicular arms were Haman’s wife and ten children. They were represented by computer print-outs; the only icon available to represent a female was that of a princess, and thus Haman’s wife was a princess. The ten children were represented by various computer print-outs (googly-eyed faces, clowns, aliens). As the men anchored Haman’s body to the wooden structure and then lowered it into a fire pit, the boys threw firecrackers in a constant stream. The boisterousness had an uneasy, flammable quality to it. The children’s faces were smeared with chocolate from that morning’s exchange of sweets as Haman and his progeny were doused in lighter fluid. One child threw a firecracker at my foot. Laughter and screaming commingled.
When they did fieldwork in Djerba in the 1980s, Abraham Udovitch and Lucette Valensi (1984, 76) translated a series of couplets sung on Purim on the way to the Haman effigy. I did not hear them myself, but felt they were revelatory when I encountered them on the page:
Haman, who is buried / May he be really dead
Haman, who is choked / May he be scorched
Haman, who is sad / May his foot be under clay
Haman, who is scorched / May his foot be in the market
The couplets were reserved for anyone perceived as an enemy who was encountered en route. I had always felt like Purim was a parable, something of an acting out of the community’s self-perception in the Muslim world—a community that claimed to have been on the island since the fall of the Babylonian temple in 586 B.C., but that also described themselves as strangers there. This was, I hypothesized, as much about how they saw themselves as about the facts on the ground. The affect of Purim was estranged, triumphant, self-protective, and exacting, a mood of both jubilance and fury, and it produced my first encounter with the laughscream.
The circumstances in my current research in the military sites are wholly other and not parallel, but I recognized the kindred affect instantaneously. In each case, a population uneasily inhabited a zone where they felt, to varying degrees, subaltern. Throughout my research in the mock Middle Eastern villages, I thought constantly about whether the laughscream could do anything, could create any sort of structural reversal. One day I told my advisor (thank you, Nadia Abu El-Haj!) that I was wrestling to find some sort of redemptive conclusion in my work, an argument that allowed for real resistance—and I was coming up empty. She urged me to write deeper into my intuition that structure, in fact, was not unmoored via the laughscream.
To take an entirely different example, Trump’s America is the most prolonged laughscream I have ever experienced: there is in it comedy and dread, a feeling that even as we speed-dial our representatives all day and even as we make a gain, other inhumane policies are, at that same moment, being put into place. I don’t know about you, but it’s the howl I feel now in our country, at varying pitches, depending on my own atttunement or distance from the daily details of the administration’s actions.
KS and MH: Your article states that it aims “to critique the underpinnings of the military project as a whole in an ethical, political, and epistemological gesture.” Could you tell us more about how and why you aim to critique the military in this way? Did you experience any tension between your commitments as an anthropologist and the relationships you developed with your military interlocutors?
NS: The military project turns people into cultural technologies in the service of American Empire. One of my committee members (thanks, Audra Simpson!) told me that my critique was especially unique because I offered something like a political phenomenology, an ethnography on Ritalin of these sites of Empire, peeling them back to show their microphysics. We are not only looking at role-players in American training camps here: that is only the tip of the iceberg. This is about the consequences of the militarization of so-called local individuals in wartime: indeed, amid strategic goals to (appear to) diminish the U.S. footprint abroad, as these “host-nation” individuals are turned into the faces of American projects, their bodies bear the brunt of the costs. This country is built on such logics; I don’t think it is too grand a statement to say that war and Empire are constitutive of America itself.
On the whole, I had fairly positive relationships with my military interlocutors. Having no military background myself, I was long in a listening position as I tried to understand soldiers’ worlds, concerns, hopes, dreams, and anxieties, as well as their many acronyms. The majority of those with whom I spoke were generous, willing to help and to answer my indefatigable questions. In some cases, they were quite ready to offer critiques of military structure and of particular missions. I made several very close friends, and in those cases, the conversations were truly rich, mutually demanding and rewarding.
My commitments as an anthropologist occasionally created tricky interactions with my military interlocutors. Occasionally, I was cast in the role-plays and I felt like the characters were interesting delineations of how I was perceived. Once, I was cast as an idealistic yet foolish Arabophile American student and NGO employee who thrusts herself in a war zone to aid the displaced refugees. I was instructed to be as well-intentioned, yet as ignorant as possible when inhabiting my role, distributing, for example, expired packages of food and vaccines. They wanted me to move between the multiple mock villages, advocating for the refugees as well as behaving in a generally disruptive way. My character did have some desirable skills: because I speak both Arabic and French, they decided that a further dimension of my role would be as the leak between the Muslim (Arabic-speaking) and Christian (French-speaking) village. This played out in real ways, as my military interlocutors sometimes commented that academics didn’t live in the real world and then sometimes tried to solicit their knowledge and assistance.
KS and MH: Finally, you’ve written a forthcoming collection of poems, entitled Kill Class, based on your fieldwork at these military training sites. How do you see the relationship between your academic and poetic writing about these experiences? Does your theoretically rich anthropological engagement with this subject influence your poetry? Conversely, does the lyricism with which you treat this subject in poetry impact your academic writing?
NS: My academic work and my poetry are inextricable and cross-pollinating. I was a poet first. My first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008) was based on my time in Djerba. I was deeply moved by Carolyn Forché’s call to comprehend the impress of the social on the poetic imagination; this led me to begin conducting ethnographic fieldwork and then to become an anthropologist.
By now, my anthropological engagement is essential to my poetry. As I explained in a poet’s statement some years ago, my philosophy of seeing is “deeply inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate to estrange the familiar and de-estrange the hitherto unknown.” Additionally, my work as an anthropologist sends me both toward moments of conceptual clarity and toward continuous re-complication: as the tidy military diagrams of culture remind us, the world is instead messy and tangled and contingent, as we each engage in the daily work of living and loving and getting by. I want my poems to demand that same complexity, and I only learned how to think it through the wonderful, arduous, and singular training that becoming an anthropologist demanded. What an astonishment to spend seven years shuttling back and forth between reading social theory about war, Empire, technology, migration, and laughter or political histories of America and Iraq and then witnessing the stagings of Empire itself, in its scatterings across the Middle East and the United States, as well as interviewing those whose lives had been demarcated and unmade by those very terms. These forms of seeing and knowing are to me humbling, and both my in-progress ethnographic manuscript and my forthcoming collection of poems, Kill Class, are the beneficiaries of that long academic journey.
Likewise, my work as a poet is essential to both my fieldwork and my writing as an academic. The poem, through language and form, recomposes the sensorium, helps me get as close as possible to the phenomenological experiences I want to describe. I mean that a lifeworld, a there and a then, can be summoned into our seeing as the music of the poem enters the body. As I wrote in that poet’s statement:
These haunted, uncanny spaces require the most sensitive tools of language and rhythm. Imagine collapsible houses full of prayer rugs and fake bullets; a lit market and a mosque glowing in the forest; a recorded call to prayer; in some instances, buried spoiled meat mimicking the odor of a mass grave. Meanwhile, a fake wound is applied onto the chest of an Iraqi role-player who was nearly killed several years ago when he worked as an interpreter for the American military in (actual) Iraq. Fake explosions and bullets pop through the villages, creating different effects within different bodies. The body recoils, the body breathes, seeking release, the body laughs—a rhythm creatable for me only in a poem.
I then reimport the tools and forms of poetry into my anthropological writing to try to bring the reader in. Each mode is a gift to the other.
If a reader wanted, my poems could be read adjacent to this article in Cultural Anthropology. But, of course, each of these genres in the end has its own life and must stand alone. Still: for those who are interested in what it looks like to put these forms in conversation, here are a few of the poems from Kill Class.
One poem, “The Quadrant,” rendered in hypertext so you can enter multiple military simulations, was one of the first poems from Kill Class to be published.
“The Etymology of ‘Alaasa’” is based on interviews of Iraqis who were interpreters and drivers during the 2003 Iraq War and thereafter role-players in the United States, negotiating accusation and threats in the Iraqi streets.
“The Door,” one of the last poems in the collection, walks us in and then out of the Mock Village, those strange and asphyxiating woods.
Adorno, Theodor. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Translated by E. F. N. Jephcott. New York: Verso. Originally published in 1951.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. 2002. The Dialectic of Enlightenment. Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. Originally published in 1947.
Udovitch, Abraham L., and Lucette Valensi. 1984. The Last Arab Jews: The Communities of Jerba, Tunisia. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers.