This Was an Event: An Interview with Chloe Ahmann

The February 2018 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “‘It’s exhausting to create an event out of nothing’: Slow Violence and the Manipulation of Time,” by Chloe Ahmann, who recently completed her PhD in the Department of Anthropology at George Washington University and will join the University of Chicago this fall as a Collegiate Assistant Professor and Harper-Schmidt Fellow. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Alexandra Vieux Frankel conducted with Ahmann about her article’s arguments and their relationship to her broader research agenda.

Alexandra Vieux Frankel: Some of your earlier scholarship focused on education in Baltimore. How did you move from the classroom to the study of toxicity and responses to it?

Chloe Ahmann: I first came to south Baltimore as a teacher, actually. For several years before graduate school, I taught six- and seven-year-old students how to add, subtract, read, write, and develop other skills that their parents hoped would help them “escape” Curtis Bay in order to move on to better things. And although I often look back on my time in the classroom as a tremendous training ground for anthropology (it was), in so many ways I was ignorant of the conditions that had made Curtis Bay a place that one might aspire to leave.

We weren’t supposed to teach history. The subject was not tested, could not be quantified, would not contribute to the school’s so-called productivity. Add to this the much-belabored point that toxicity is so easy to ignore if it does not affect your breathing. So, when I left the city to begin my graduate studies, I knew little about its relationship with heavy industry. Instead, I proposed a dissertation project focused on the rhetoric of urban school reform and began studying how larger national trends in the educational accountability movement were playing out in local speech (e.g., Ahmann 2017). It was through that initial research—very much an outgrowth of my teaching experience—that a long-time resident, Ms. Karen, piqued my interest in toxicity.

I went to visit Ms. Karen on a summer afternoon to talk about changes she had observed at the neighborhood school. As one example of the shift toward what educators today call “data-driven teaching,” Ms. Karen was telling me about a graph-heavy report she had received about her granddaughter’s reading skills. She called it “slippery government speak.” She went on to draw comparisons between the charts in the pamphlet and contamination reports that used to circulate through the community. That conversation sparked my years-long project to map Curtis Bay’s toxicity. While I was conducting interviews with residents and visiting archives across the city as part of that effort, I got word of a campaign emerging from the local high school. There, just down the hill from Ms. Karen’s house, a group of students calling themselves Free Your Voice were fighting to bring attention to environmental burdens in an effort to keep yet another plant from opening in the area. Which brings me here. A little serendipity, a little curiosity, and a very compelling interlocutor—isn’t that at the root of most anthropology?

AVF: I found your invocation of creativity in the article especially interesting. Kirin Narayan (2016, 29), in her recently published Everyday Creativity, elaborates on earlier anthropological theorizations by noting that creativity “can be a way to reclaim space amid repressive, disciplining institutions.” This interpretation has some resonances with your usage, whereby creativity engenders a lively response to the experience of slow violence. How does your approach to creativity relate to some of its other conceptualizations in anthropology? How did you come to conceptualize it in your fieldsite?

CA: Even though my intent in this essay was not to theorize creativity per se, I wanted to draw attention to its persistence in places and under circumstances where the anthropological eye has been trained on its opposite—that is, on the various forces (temporal, political, perceptual, and otherwise) that repress the human imagination and make it difficult to formulate a thoughtful response. Rob Nixon’s (2011) concept of slow violence names one collection of those obstacles. But what I observed in Curtis Bay was not only this set of impediments to action. On the contrary: student activists were perceiving, analyzing, and deliberately retooling temporalities of toxicity in an effort to block yet another toxic project. Theirs was, in other words, a studied response to the experience of slow violence. They were doing creative conceptual work, and this essay calls on scholars to appreciate their responses as such.

Of course, that call rests on an implicit conceptualization of creativity as human activity that transforms the status quo, that perceives form and “bends it to one’s will,” as Edward Sapir (1924, 418) once put it. To vastly oversimplify an old debate: it’s the agency within and against one’s structure. So in Curtis Bay, working creatively with time does not actually mean manufacturing temporalities out of nothing. Instead, it means thinking through the temporalities that circulate in everyday life—including those that Narayan might say “discipline” and “repress”—and putting them to work in pursuit of environmental justice.

AVF: Questions of morals and ethics stand out in this article and in your other work. In your 2017 Anthropology News article “On Not Being Seen,” for example, you advocate for paying closer attention to negotiations of visibility in the field, rather than solely in the process of writing, as well as to the ethical implications of those negotiations. In your article for Cultural Anthropology, you note that moral punctuation “demands an ethical response.” Might ethnography itself be considered an act of moral punctuation, especially in the context of a political moment at which questions of anthropology’s obligations are being widely discussed?

CA: It certainly isn’t always. And perhaps that’s why anthropologists today are asking these questions with such urgency. At the very least, there’s a healthy amount of hand-wringing going on to demonstrate that, in a moment of incredible political chaos, our work “matters”—that it advances a more just and thoughtful world, and that it does not shy away from pressing ethical quandaries.

But more to your point about whether ethnography can count as a kind of moral punctuation: I like Sian Lazar (2014, 103) on this. She’s written about the role that ethnography can play in “fixing” events after the fact, in hailing them as such, so they achieve a kind of narrative coherence. (Of course, it’s not just ethnography that punctuates. Media does this, too, as does the discipline of history.) So while the happenings that I write about in this article and those that I neglect may have felt comparable while they were occurring, this essay in some senses contributes to the punctuation of December 15, 2015. It says: This was an event. It stands apart from mundane time. It helps crystallize a longer history. In that sense, yes, ethnography often punctuates. Whether or not it does so with explicitly moral or political aims depends on a number of things.

AVF: As experiences of slow violence condense and crystallize for the residents of Curtis Bay, moral punctuation is intimately tied to place and, in particular, to a centuries-long history of exposure to industrial pollution. How you conceptualize place and its role in your research, especially vis-à-vis moral punctuation?

CA: Curtis Bay is a place where the political life of the nation has quite literally been imprinted on the landscape. It’s a place that different capitalisms and their associated regimes of risk have made, covered up, and remade. In material terms, I like to say that it’s full of palimpsest places. Victory Elementary, built in 1943 for the children of wartime workers, has since been repurposed to house Abbey Drum, a company that builds containers for hazardous waste. If you know where to look inside the Curtis Bay Recreation Center, a disintegrating conduit of community life, you’ll find the hundred-year-old infrastructure from the neighborhood’s first water pumping station. And street signs across the town betray the former lives of places: Quarantine Road, today the site of the city’s largest landfill, once held contagious bodies in isolation. Or take the planned incinerator site. Before it was that, it housed a multinational chemical corporation. Before that, a munitions producer. Before that, another quarantine station.

In the larger project from which this article is derived, I have worked to trace the history captured in this landscape. My research begins with the founding of Baltimore City at the end of the eighteenth century and considers how different modes of risk management have shaped Curtis Bay. It also explores how this history does (and at times does not) manifest in the present day, particularly with respect to the “stop the incinerator” campaign. Moral punctuation, as I discuss it here, is primarily a temporal designation. But time and space are of course mutually imbricated. To put it in spatial terms: imagine if someone were to simultaneously elevate all of these layers—to bring them all to the surface, call attention to them—so as to demystify their entanglements. In Curtis Bay, moral punctuation has the effect of connecting the incinerator to older regimes of corporate risk, militarization, and contagion and saying: Enough. We are oversaturated.

AVF: I first read your article shortly after the 2018 Women’s March, and I found myself reflecting on it again in the context of recent revelations of sexual harassment and gender-based violence. I am wondering if the concept of moral punctuation might apply to the #MeToo movement. What might be the implications of thinking about endurance in terms of gendered slow violence?

CA: I’ve been thinking about that, too. In fact, the second chapter of Sameena Mulla’s (2014) book The Violence of Care, which traces how survivors of sexual assault confront the competing temporalities of medicine and law, helped me think through what I had observed in Curtis Bay. And Emma Backe has a piece forthcoming in Medical Anthropology Quarterly on this very question. Given that sexual violence is often both punctuated by a single event and experienced as an ongoing state of trauma, she considers the extent to which crisis-oriented interventions contribute to survivors’ distress by failing to address the many temporalities at play. In contexts of gendered slow violence, then, as in contexts of environmental harm, one might rightly ask if punctuation and other event-centered orientations are any more liberating than the call to endure one’s pain. Some scholars have asked just this. Nick Shapiro, for example, has argued compellingly against the political value of the spectacle when it comes to remediating atmospheric forms of suffering.

But perhaps the broader point to be made here is that disjunctures between the immediacy of events and the reality of extended distress mark all sorts of violence. More than this, it is often in the eventualization of protracted harm that opportunities for making change develop. Consider the Watts Rebellion, Bloody Sunday, Tiananmen Square, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the Flint water crisis, the Ferguson unrest, the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, the 2016 U.S. presidential election. All are instances in which long-felt problems, festering resentments, or a combination of the two triggered enormous responses to some crystallizing event. In Curtis Bay, the fact that the incinerator was never built is not so much because it would have polluted—that was nothing new. Instead, the incinerator was never built because a small group managed to make it stand in for two centuries of accrued exposures whose cumulative effects they were no longer willing to accept.

References

Ahmann, Chloe. 2017. “Accountable Talk: ‘Real’ Conversations in Baltimore City Schools.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 48, no. 1: 77–97.

Backe, Emma. Forthcoming. “A Crisis of Care: The Politics and Therapeutics of a Rape Crisis Hotline.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Lazar, Sian. 2014. “Historical Narrative, Mundane Political Time, and Revolutionary Moments: Coexisting Temporalities in the Lived Experience of Social Movements.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20, S1: 91–108.

Mulla, Sameena. 2014. The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Intervention. New York: New York University Press.

Narayan, Kirin. 2016. Everyday Creativity: Singing Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Sapir, Edward. 1924. “Culture, Genuine and Spurious.” American Journal of Sociology 29: 401–429.