This post builds on the research article “Eviction Time in the New Saigon: Temporalities of Displacement in the Rubble of Development,” which was published in the May 2013 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published a variety essays on the economies of Asia. See for example, Judith Farquhar and Qicheng Zhang’s “Biopolitical Beijing: Pleasure, Sovereignty, and Self-Cultivation in China’s Capital” (2005), Jonathan Bach's "They Come in Peasants and Leave Citizens": Urban Villages and the Making of Shenzhen, China"(2010), and Brent Luvaas “Material Interventions: Indonesian DIY Fashion and the Regime of the Global Brand” (2013).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on cities and urbanism, including Olga Demetriou’s “Streets Not Named: Discursive Dead Ends and the Politics of Orientation in Intercommunal Spatial Relations in Northern Greece” (2006), Danny Hoffman's "The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities" (2007), and Brad Weiss’s “Thug Realism: Inhabiting Fantasy in Urban Tanzania” (2002).
Interview with Erik Harms
Darren Byler: What drew you to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City in particular to conduct this fieldwork? How did you first become aware of the way the performance of time was so closely tied to the performance of space?
Erik Harms: I first visited Vietnam in 1997 after earning an undergraduate degree in anthropology from UC Berkeley. I went there in part because a student job in the South and Southeast Asia library on the 4th floor of Doe Library had introduced me to the existence of Southeast Asian Studies. The imagery on the magazines and newspapers coming in from Vietnam spoke to nearly every key lesson I had learned in my general study of anthropology at Berkeley. I was fascinated by what seemed to me like an incongruous mix of pictures juxtaposed against each other, where cranes and bulldozers would jostle for space with ads for consumer goods, or where reverent photos of Marx, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh smiled a few pages before ads full of colonial nostalgia or pictures of gleaming motorbikes. Vietnamese society was and is, as I like to think in retrospect, a “postman’s paradise”: it is a postcolonial, postwar, post-anticapitalist (but not officially post-socialist), and increasingly postmodern society in the midst of what scholars call the “post-reform era.” So Vietnamese society is theoretically fascinating for the way it speaks to so many anthropological topics.
Vietnam in the late 1990s was also spatially extroverted, which made it an exciting place to work as an ethnographer. People from all walks of life spent a good deal of time outdoors, and were always engaged in conversation. At the time, for me, as a recent anthropology graduate, the ability to walk into a sidewalk café and literally talk for hours on end with a range of interesting (and interested) people was an intellectual eye-opener. Everyone, it seemed, was reading newspapers, talking, arguing, philosophizing. In this setting, “discourse” was not some heady theoretical concept but a way of life and conversation that drew me in ethnographically and also made me aware of the relationship of space and time. Indeed, the most common quip people would say when comparing the United States (as they perceived it) with Vietnam was the following: “Vietnam is poor. America is rich. But no one in America has time to drink coffee.”
Embedded in this statement about drinking coffee is a deep commentary about sociality as a form of production in its own right. It is a form of social production which takes place in spaces and also over time. Vietnamese at that time seemed to recognize that Americans were spending all their time producing things that could be readily converted into money but that Vietnamese were producing people in the total humanistic sense of the word. There’s a term for it in Vietnamese: “làm người.” This literally means “to make a person,” but it is really a deeply rooted notion about how the total social phenomena Marcel Mauss talks about are really forged through processes of becoming, or what Marxists (of the non-vulgar sort) like to call producing persons. What could be more anthropological than that! A society where the art of producing persons is always on the tip of everyone’s tongue!
DB: At the beginning of the article you describe the “play of time” as (1) a social construction, (2) an instrument of power, (3) a site where “people engage with emergent, historically-situated, and contested spatio-temporal relations.” What are some of the issues at stake in this description of the temporal – particularly in terms of political performance and ethical strategies for claims such as a “right to the city”?
EH: The points I am trying to make here are very simple, but perhaps easily overlooked. The way we experience time is always socially constituted. Everything Lefebvre says about space, one might say, could also be said about time. In many ways this is obvious: One does not need a degree in anthropology to know that a “New York minute” appears to pass differently than a solemn “moment of silence” before a sporting event, or that “time flies when having fun.” But to connect the multiple possibilities afforded by the malleable experiences of time with political-economy and power is exceedingly important. From Marx’s theory of value on through E.P. Thompson, Nancy Munn, Bourdieu and others, we see how the control of time can play into the control of people. When we discuss the right to the city, however, we often tend to fetishize land and space. But the temporal dimensions are just as important. After all, one owns land in some sense by occupying it, and occupation implies a temporal dimension, of staying in a place.
In my University teaching, I sometimes ask students to sit still for an “entire five minutes” and refrain from “goal oriented activity.” It is not an easy task for them (or myself)! The fidgeting that ensues reveals how deeply our sense of temporality burrows into our bodies and subjectivity—temporality is one of the most important dimensions in any of the many of humanity’s multi-various techniques du corps. This simple in-class exercise reveals how deeply engrained time discipline is, even in an anthropology class, where we like to think of ourselves as somehow outside the so-called neoliberal ordering of space and time. Then I found myself in Thủ Thiêm, where everything emanating from the perspective of urban planners seemed to be about making the city more efficient and fast-paced. And then in contrast to this, there were all these people facing eviction who were simply sitting around. I came to realize that it was their temporality that was most threatening to the architects of Vietnam’s future.
DB: To illustrate how “‘slowness’ is relative” you show us how an assemblage of largely ideological or discursive forces of “eviction, development, financing, and planning ensnare each other” in one long convoluted sentence (I really like this!). Two paragraphs later you write that “most demolitions are done by hand.” Are movements which produce the sort of slowness you describe mostly discursive in origin? How do infrastructure and embodiment factor into the production of slowness?
EH: What I mean by this is to insist that relative speed or slowness is always contextual and that there is great potential here for anthropologists to study the articulation of different temporalities. All of this may operate on some levels as a “discourse,” but as I see it discourse only becomes socially meaningful when it must be realized through practice, social action, and it becomes a source of conflict when people actually must engage alternative temporalities in very real, embodied ways. To demonstrate this, and to show that this is a portable concept, we might take an example which is increasingly common in North American cities. When a person rides a bicycle to work, she sometimes impedes the traffic of cars behind her on the road. As a fond observer of these sorts of interactions, I take a small (and admittedly devious) pleasure when watching what often ensues. More times than not the motorist becomes “trapped in” by the bicyclist and must slow down well below what the motorist considers to be a desirable rate of travel. Eventually, after some (often amusingly visible) frustration, the motorist rapidly speeds up – often gunning the engine – in order to overtake the bicyclist and then zooms quickly around her, often adding something of an exaggerated swerve to signal the satisfaction of having overcome the cyclist. (These exaggerated acts, it often appears, are also meant to send the cyclist a message.) The bicyclist, meanwhile, continues pedaling, often slightly frightened by the burst of combustion-fueled machine power, but nonetheless relatively uninterrupted. But the real tension often emerges moments later, when the speed-infatuated motorist encounters a red light and the bicyclist, who has not changed her pace, slowly rolls up alongside the automobile. Adding insult to injury, the cyclist, seeing no traffic at the intersection, breezes through the red light. The motorist, in spite of all the horsepower of industrial civilization, often fumes in the face of the cyclist’s indifference. But the cyclist has not engaged in an overt act of resistance. She has simply pedaled along the road.
Watching these episodes, one senses a great degree of tension. It is a tension born of the conflict that has emerged from these different modes of locomotion, and different attitudes towards the appropriate speed one must have while moving across the landscape within a particular form of social organization. The tension I have described here is very similar to the kind of tension I believe people feel when they encounter a different way of using time in urban space. Infrastructure can play a part in this in the form of clogged drains, slow roads, traffic jams, etc. But it can also relate to ways of inhabiting or using spaces. For example, a very efficient road might on paper be considered a fine work of infrastructure, but in practice it might be limited by the presence of a bicyclist slowing down traffic. And from the perspective of the bicyclist, of course, what constitutes a very efficient road may well be something different indeed. So even infrastructure is social through and through, and its effects only emerge through usage and social practice.
DB: In your discussion of the way slowness of “ruptured time” produces “strangers-in-the-making” you tell us with Simmel that strangers are those who “come today and stay tomorrow.” The strangeness of a place proliferated by strangers reminds me of the way Michael D. Jackson has argued that “ontological insecurity” drives people to “relentlessly” recover their sense of personhood “in the face of forces that threaten to reduce them to nothingness” (1998: 192). In the absence of a secure “existence” (or ontology), unfamiliar environments and cultural “others are experienced as destabilizing influences or threats” (78). Do you think the desire of permanence and a utopian future you found among inhabitants of the eviction zone extend beyond the temporal to a desire for ontological security?
EH: You are certainly touching on something important here, but the operative word should be stability rather security per se. In urban Vietnam, it is very common for people to describe a search for something called “ổn định,” which literally means stability. The problem, however, is that one person’s stability may come at the expense of another’s. For example, the dreams of a utopian future celebrate urban visions that will bring order and predictability to the urban landscape, and people appreciate the way this might deliver a sense of stability. But many people who will be displaced to make these visions possible have what they see as already stable lives. The disruptions that come with displacement and eviction actually undermine the stability they have established. In fact, one of my close friends and colleagues at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City once took me aside and said: “the key to everything here is a quest for ổn định.” He was right, and so are you with this question!
I should note that security is important in Vietnam, but it is typically invoked in the register of policing and social control, fear of crime, and discourses of “social evils” perpetuated by denigrated social “others.” The topic of security (an ninh) comes up quite commonly, but is often registered as a kind of anxiety that arises in the face of human others who one imagines as wishing to do one harm (or who one imagines will harm “society”). One might say that the problem of stability is more directly related to a deep sense of ontology while the problem of security is more related to the concept of threats posed by outsiders and strangers, which then recursively impinge on ontology. However, as anthropologists, we know that discourses of self are often framed in terms of discourses of “the Other.” Readers interested in these concepts should consult the work of Vietnam scholars like Christophe Robert and Alfred Montoya who have written convincingly about discourse of social evils and the role they play in the production of Vietnamese conceptions of self.
DB: Near the conclusion of your essay you describe a gender and socio-economic “leisure mode of production” as a strategy of resistance. This seems similar to what Lauren Berlant (and others such as Anne Allison, Andrea Muehlebach and Sareeta Amrute) have called “dissociation” an ethical strategy that takes up the deviant and abnormal not as defective but as a method toward a life-affirming flourishing. For Berlant this strategy often takes the durative present (rather than a utopian future) as the site of lived-ness of life. She calls it here a “temporally-stretched encounter manifesting a structure of resistance but finding a form in a non-political idiom.” Did you find the same to be true in your case? Were those who took up “cool indifference” less concerned with the future, a different life for their children etc., than those who were blocked from such paths to agency?
EH: I think these arguments are all quite in line with what I am arguing. But we can add a little bit of Jim Scott here by remembering that the “landscape of power” is essential to understanding the ways in which non-political idioms of resistance might play out. With the example of my bicyclist given above, for example, the bicyclist is not really resisting anything. She is simply pedaling forward on the way to work. But it prompts a response from the motorist, so it does actually operate as a form of resistance, whether or not it is consciously intended as such. Now if the cyclist wished to confront the motorist head on – in a game of “chicken,” for example – we know of course which partner in this pair might prevail through sheer brute force. So in this case, the landscape of power itself makes indifference a much more powerful form of action than overt oppositional resistance. The same might be said of those residents in Thủ Thiêm who resist eviction by ignoring it. In a head to head confrontation they would lose against a bulldozer. But their indifference to the agents who send the bulldozers is much more frustrating and disruptive to the project than some other forms of resistance, because it signals a refusal to engage in relations of brute force in the first place. However, one must not overly romanticize the power of indifference because brute force can and often does prevail. Agents who command the means to inflict brute force can bring great harm to those who wield more modest instruments. A bicyclist might “frustrate” a motorist, but a frustrated motorist can easily send a bicyclist to paradise.
Further Reading from Erik Harms
(2012). "Beauty as Control in the New Saigon: Eviction, New Urban Zones, and Atomized Dissent in a Southeast Asian City." American Ethnologist, 39(4), 735-750.
(2012). Neo-Geomancy and Real Estate Fever in Post-reform Vietnam. positions, 20(2), 405-434.
(2011). Saigon's Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City. University of Minnesota Press.
(2009). "Vietnam's Civilizing Process and the Retreat from the Street: a turtle's eye view from Ho Chi Minh City." City & Society, 21(2), 182-206.
The official website of the Thu Thiem New Urban Area, offers Vietnamese and English-language descriptions of the project, as well as links to official policy documents. ·
Sasaki Associates is an urban planning and design firm based in Watertown, Massachusetts that is in charge of the master planning work for the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Zone project. ·
Annette Kim's work on sidewalk use is on the cutting edge of urban studies, mapping, and social analysis. ·
The website of Hanoi Public City offers a model for engaged conversations about urban life in contemporary Vietnam. ·
Anyone interested in story of Thu Thiem should visit some of the many Vietnamese newspapers with online websites. Type “Thủ Thiêm” into the search pages for a wide range of important news items, ranging from facts about the project to critical reportage of life in the eviction zone. However, readers should note that after about 2011, when evictions intensified, the newspapers began to stop covering daily life in Thủ Thiêm. Useful newspapers include the following:
- Tuổi Trẻ
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