Errance and Elsewheres: An Interview with Jonathan Echeverri Zuluaga

The November 2015 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Errance and Elsewheres among Africans Waiting to Restart Their Journeys in Dakar, Senegal,” by Jonathan Echeverri Zuluaga, who is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editors Julien Cossette and Kathe Gray conducted with Echeverri Zuluaga about his conceptual work and arguments, his methodological approach to migration, and his current engagement with filmmaking.

Julien Cossette and Kathe Gray: Your recent article describes how errance is a notion that you encountered in French aesthetics and art, as well as how you first came across it in Mabanckou’s novel Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (1998). We are interested in how researchers develop conceptual frameworks for their scholarship. Can you talk a bit about how you came to recognize the notion of errance as something applicable and appropriate to your work, how you adapted it to what you were observing in the field, and what you think the limits of its usefulness might be?

Jonathan Echeverri Zuluaga: Marilyn Strathern (1999) and others have argued that ethnographic experiences extend beyond the “the moment of observation” and into the “moment of analysis” back wherever home is. Ethnography not only means conversing, accompanying, and taking part in the lives of one’s interlocutors. Reading and writing in the field and afterwards is an essential part of it as well. This is important to understand how I came up with the concept of errance. I would like to say that it is a native concept, but it is not. If the people with whom I interacted were a community, they were an ephemeral and heterogeneous one. People had vastly different cultural backgrounds and, hence, if I had picked a concept from the Igbo language, for example, others might not have felt represented by it. In other words, a native term might have been as foreign as errance turned out to be.

In graduate school, one of my professors advised us to stop reading theory while doing ethnography. Theory can shrink people’s minds—we come to see only what we read. So I took his advice and started to read a lot of fiction, which I particularly enjoy. Besides Mabanckou, some of the other authors I read while I lived in Senegal were Orhan Pamuk, Roberto Bolaño, Nadine Gordimer, Santiago Gamboa, Ken Saro Wiwa, Chinua Achebe, and J. M. Coetzee. When I came across the passage about errance in Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, I was intrigued and I looked up the word in the dictionary. The fact that the definition involved making mistakes was greatly appealing in the context of my research. And derivations of the word, like “knight errant,” made me think of adventure. Yet I do not think I was able to exhaust the polysemy of errance. For example, the expression “erring on the side of” might be another way of referring to borders and limits. The concept of errance can thus be used in many ways. In present times, as scholars struggle to make sense of massive movements of people from South to North, errance is a reminder that this movement can be full of loops and actually lead elsewhere in the South. As for my turn to French aesthetics, it constituted an attempt to find academic roots for errance and to engage in a conversation with other scholars.

To be clear, however, errance is a situated concept (spatially and temporally) that I use to describe the itineraries of a specific group of people. In 2014 and 2015 I spent short periods of time doing ethnography with Africans who have been arriving in Quito, Ecuador since the turn of the twenty-first century. Some of them, like Jim (from my article), had come from Dakar, while others had escaped recent violence against African foreigners in countries like South Africa. Many of them were about to undertake a dangerous journey to the United States. Others had decided to stay in Quito, and they seemed more rooted than the people I met in Dakar. Given that some of those migrants decided to start families and build a life to which they could attach themselves, errance might not be suitable to think about this population.

JC and KG: Speaking of roots, we would like to explore the question of space and identity. You argue that errance disrupts the assumption of direct, linear movement usually associated with migration, evoking instead a meandering quest for a better life. Like wayfaring (Ingold 2007), the concept seems to suggest that a life unfolds not in a fixed place, but along a path. It thus questions the assumption that identity is always rooted in the “homeland” and offers instead the possibility to attune to “the multiplicity of attachments that people [may] form to places through living in, remembering, and imagining them” (Malkki 1992, 38) even as their journeys unfold. Can you expand on how your interlocutors’ senses of place and self might have been shaped by their ways of moving and being as they “erred?”

JEZ: Conceiving of identity as something that forms along different unfolding paths is a powerful way of going beyond essentialisms. This resonates as well with James Clifford’s idea (1997) of fieldwork as a series of travel encounters, which highlights the role of movement as constitutive of cultural meanings.

The concept of errance in French aesthetics, as well as Tim Ingold’s notion of the wayfarer, share a sort of idealizing take on movement, however. From this point of view, it seems that movement is boundless. Dominique Chateau (2007) argues instead that the boundlessness we attribute to the movement of others is an effect of perspective. He asks us to imagine a sedentary observer contemplating a nomad caravan. What in the eyes of the observer is a trajectory that drifts off is, in the eyes of the nomad, his own way of structuring space and testing its limits. Conversely, as nomads look at the sedentary observer they might see someone spinning around, locked in his space.

The identities of most of the people I worked with were rooted: they had a rooted sense of adventure, a rooted faith in spiritual protection, a deeply rooted preference for their own food and language—not exclusively rooted in the homeland but rooted. I think identity can change as people travel, but I was only able to see the transformations in subtle ways. For example, Michael, whom I came to know very well, is more comfortable today navigating credit cards, flights, and written English than he was before.

All of that said, I did repeatedly see, while doing ethnography in Dakar, how migration controls shaped the journeys of my interlocutors and shrank their senses of self.

JC and KG: That’s certainly worth pursuing further. Could you elaborate on how border controls might influence individual subjectivities, and furthermore, how errance might be used to interrogate the historical, political, and bureaucratic processes that inform current migration practices?

JEZ: The main setting where I met my interlocutors in Dakar was an aid program whose mission includes serving both economic migrants and refugees. Even though the program’s name includes both categories, these groups were treated in different ways. Refugees had precedence, while economic migrants frequently became an object of suspicion. Molar abscesses, for example, were a common condition among my interlocutors. They can cause a lot of pain and removal is the only solution. When I met Camara Vamba for the first time, the staff at the aid program was reluctant to pay for his abscesses to be removed because he did not fit their assumptions: he was dressed with trendy clothes, which they imagined could have been a sign of him cheating. This is one small way in which border and mobility controls end up being embodied in everyday practices.

During the period that I conducted ethnography in Dakar (2009–2010), African asylum seekers would enter a bureaucratic labyrinth from which they seldom exited with refugee status. In turn, they often lost perspective on their own senses of self. Peter, whom I mention in the article, was obsessed with religious persecution when I met him. It was as if his identity and his self-portrait as asylum seeker had merged. After some time, other paths that Peter had walked started to surface in our conversations: he had worked in Israel as a cook for seven years, and he had been a renowned pastor in Ghana.

KC and Dr. William, two key interlocutors. Despite the age difference between them, both men had intricate stories before arriving in Dakar and constantly came up with plans for continuing their journeys. Photo by Jonathan Echeverri Zuluaga.

I like Roy Wagner’s description, which Ingold (2007, 79) cites, of a life as an accumulation of itineraries. In contrast, current regimes of mobility control build on the boundaries of concepts such as “refugee” and “migrant” in a perverse way: they erase the threads that compose a life. Yet scholars like Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson, and Vassilis Tsianos (2008, 163) also suggest that control should not be overestimated. Writing on the expansion of the European Union’s borders since the turn of the twenty-first century, they argue: “The postnational process of border displacement should not . . . be understood as resulting from the actions of sovereign states attempting to extend their power. Rather, it has been effected by a complex struggle in which the existing regime of mobility control is itself challenged by fluid, streamlined, clandestine . . . forms of mobility.” Questioning taken-for-granted logics of cause and effect in relation to control and mobility is one of the ways that errance can interrogate current historical, political, and bureaucratic processes related to migration.

JC and KG: Yes, Papadopoulos, Stephenson, and Tsianos (2008) present a fascinating historical reading of mobility and the role of what they term “escape” in the constant reconfiguration of forms of power and control. In this regard, we like the evocative passage about the securitization of the U.S.–Mexico border that you quote from Trinh Minh-ha’s (2011) Elsewhere, Within Here. Her language reflects a sort of materialization of this endless dialogue between control and refusal: “You close down, we walk around. You erect, we dig. You dig, we dig and dig further. Bind and soon, you’ll be tearing madly at the wall, and the bonds you’ve created.” Can you expand on this idea of throwing oneself at the “cracks and fissures” of borders? What role might imagination play in this process? Finally, how can we avoid romanticizing such subversion?

JEZ: I would like to nuance the idea of “cracks and fissures” and to emphasize one idea that I address in the article. Massive movements of people compel us to think of new ways to challenge narratives of impermeable borders. The quote from Trinh Minh-ha points to something crucial: rather than separating what is on both sides and freezing movement, a border constitutes a surface of contact and circulation (e.g., Balibar 2002; de Certeau 1984). Rutvica Andrijasevic’s study (2010) of detention centers in the Mediterranean importantly questions the idea of borders blocking movement. Rather, Andrijasevic points out, their goal is to control the pace of the flow toward the European Union instead of entirely blocking entry—imagine a dropper. So, on the one hand, cracks and fissures are not alien to the system—they are inherent to it. On the other hand, the point I want to emphasize is my interlocutors’ capacity to find these openings and to keep their motivation up, all while being in trouble. Inventiveness clearly operates here, linked to a rooted sense of adventure. But it is in many ways ironic that the desire to move results from capitalism’s attempts to colonize people’s minds and labor.

In May 2015, while carrying my research in Quito, I met a young Cameroonian woman named Ivonne. She was wondering whether it was preferable for her to stay in Quito or continue her journey; finally she made up her mind and crossed the border into Colombia, from which she continued through Central America to the United States. Thanks to the Internet and smartphones, we kept in touch throughout the trip and every time we chatted via webcam, her bright smile was unaltered. This strength is something I cannot ignore in my work. Still, it is easy to fail to account for all of the obstacles that my interlocutors encounter on their journeys. Describing these obstacles makes their persistence visible. So one way to avoid romanticizing is to account for political economy and history, but as I mentioned earlier with the example of nomads, another way is to stay close to people’s own interpretations of their trajectories.

JC and KG: Trinh Minh-ha’s language also resonates with this resourcefulness and sense of lasting hope, resilience, and perseverance that seem to pervade the lives of your interlocutors in their attempt to reach “elsewheres.” Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson (2013) suggest that the temporal matters in migration, that it does not unfold linearly, and that it may instead accelerate, be suspended, and otherwise experienced differentially across populations. How did you come to realize that an overemphasis on temporal suspension could constitute a methodological trap in contexts like the ones where you conducted research in Dakar?

JEZ: I was inspired by scholarly debates about temporal suspension, such as Africanist critiques of James Ferguson’s (1999, 2002) analysis of modernity in the Zambian Copperbelt. Basile Ndjio (2008, 205) notes that Ferguson’s approach “limit[s] the experience of modernity in post-colonial Africa to a general feeling of ‘distress’ and ‘disconnection’ from the main stream of the global economy.” Critics have read Ferguson’s analysis as a portrayal of stagnating African youths, and in response, scholars like Ndjio, Ch. Didier Gondola (1999), and Sasha Newell (2012) describe other ways that African youth fulfill their aspirations by displacing ideals of modernity—and through movement.

In the field, spending time with interlocutors was key to realizing that while they were perhaps “suspended,” they were also actively looking for exits. To be clear, my first impression was that these migrants were stranded. After some time accompanying them, however, I started to hear about plans, previous journeys, and actual departures. For example, Revive, whose paralyzed left leg had saved him from being recruited to fight in the Liberian civil war, complained when I first met him about having so little money. His work opportunities shrank when one of his friends stole a clipper he would use to cut hair at a barbershop in the distant suburb where he lived. Some time after I met him, he found a way of occupying his time: writing a book about his life and the history of Liberia, which I would help him edit. However this was a long-term project that did not improve his immediate lack of work. One morning, without any warning, he called and said that he was leaving for Sudan. In the beginning I didn’t believe that he had left, but he started to call in the following days from different countries on his route. He went to work at a refinery. So while he worked on his book, he had also been working on his departure for Sudan.

JC and KG: Staying with the theme of aspirations, we wonder if the concept of errance (and elsewheres) might be applicable to situations in which movement is less a literal, physical movement, and more a set of tactics—in Michel de Certeau's (1984) sense of the word—which, when applied through trial and error, make possible a person's survival. As a concrete example, we could consider how marginalized people, especially in large urban centers, manage precarity through various tactics—some of which succeed, some of which do not. Can you elaborate on how your concepts might be applied to such contexts? Does it alter your conception of errance too much to link it, not so much with movement per se, but with the act of creatively and constantly trying out a series of potential approaches until situations work out?

JEZ: That’s right, paying attention to elsewheres—that is, figuring out how people come up with ways of exiting the social sites in which they find themselves—is a way of getting at examples of errance that do not involve crossing international borders. Marginalized neighborhoods in big cities could indeed be an interesting example, in which people transform their social space by looking for elsewheres. In Medellín, the city where I was born, there are situations of confinement in underprivileged neighborhoods:  armed groups take over different areas, define spaces, and restrict movement. Young people often escape these borders and build ties across them, by connecting through hip-hop, for example. They connect with a larger music scene and make their situation known.

That said, I really prefer for concepts to be situated and nuances to be emphasized. If we read many things through the lens of errance, it would start to be taken for granted. It would lose its potential to unsettle other concepts like migration, which have themselves come to be taken for granted. So, in a way, it would be more interesting for another concept to emerge in productive antagonism with errance, in order to think through this example and others.

JC and KG: As you noted earlier, James Clifford (1997, 2) writes of fieldwork as “less a matter of localized dwelling and more of a series of travel encounters.” This definition seems to fittingly describe your work: encounters between a mobile ethnographer and mobile individuals who are on a long journey riddled with interruptions, changes of plan, and “spasmodic movement.” Can you say more about your most recent research in Quito, particularly in terms of your methodology? What is the significance of this approach to migration?

JEZ: If I did not have an experience of prolonged ethnography in Dakar, it would have been really hard for me to be mobile and encounter mobile people. In Quito, I conducted ethnographic research primarily in a restaurant where Africans (sojourning or living in the city) would often go for a meal. One of the managers is a friend of Jim, who figures centrally in my article. One big difference between this research and my research at a clinic in Dakar was that conversations in Quito were not structured around people being obliged to tell their misfortunes. In many ways, it was easy to be welcomed at the restaurant, but this was only because of my previous connections. In Quito, I run into people who had previously waited to leave the African continent, or even people who first headed to South Africa, then traveled to Quito and were looking forward to testing the American Dream. These routes further speak to the inadequacy of migration conceived and researched as movement between a point of departure and a point of arrival. Current ways of moving encompass loops and detours, as well as moments of suspension and waiting.

JC and KG: In closing, what can you tell us about your upcoming documentary? We are also curious about the affordances and challenges of the moving image as a genre of ethnographic representation. Can you share some thoughts on the filming process, as well as on why you decided to turn to the documentary form?

JEZ: I’m a devoted fan of Jean Rouch. I like his idea of the camera being possessed by what it films. I also like how his response to an obsession with objectivity is sincerity. Years ago, some Colombian friends and colleagues who I admire introduced me to Rouch’s work. These friends were invested in a long-term project inspired by Rouch and Pier Paolo Pasolini, which consisted of making films with youths of underprivileged neighborhoods in Medellín. So they pushed me toward the moving image. The title of my documentary is El Futuro es Brillante (A Bright Future). It is, in a way, the continuation of my Cultural Anthropology article. It portrays the trajectories of Africans whose journeys converge in Quito. While Jim travels to unexpected places, Sam does not think of leaving Quito and his Ecuadorian family, and Ivonne embarks on a risky journey to the United States.

Making an ethnographic film can be difficult. For example, you sometimes have to work collaboratively with a crew (including a camera operator, assistant, and field producer) who may not relate to or have the patience for the typical slow temporality of anthropological work. Doing ethnography with a camera presents its own challenges, not only because people are afraid of cameras and they can hardly pass unnoticed, but also because cameras speak a visual language: they record emotions, ambiances, and concepts, expressing them through images that are different from reported dialogue. It was hard for me, at first, to open the scope of my work to engagements that were not structured around interviewing and talk.

A teaser for El Futuro es Brillante, directed by Jonathan Echeverri Zuluaga.


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