Fugitive Work: On the Criminal Possibilities of Anthropology

From the Series: From Reciprocity to Relationality: Anthropological Possibilities

Photo by Mattias Givell.

“THE ONLY POSSIBLE RELATIONSHIP TO THE UNIVERSITY TODAY IS A CRIMINAL ONE.” So wrote Fred Moten and Stefano Harney (2013, 26), in all capitals, in their influential book, The Undercommons. The death work of contemporary imperial sovereignty (see Mbembe 2003) demands such a posture. It demands astute, fugitive manipulations in the contemporary—be they within the university or other modern institutions, or against and beyond them. These criminal relations underline the different skins in the game, “theor[ies] in the flesh” (Moraga 1981) and the flesh of theories. Terrorists, immigrants, refugees, queers, youth, homeless, the gender-nonconforming, and other outlaws crack the boundaries of those deemed human and those deemed not (see Wynter 2003; Mahmood 2018). The figure of the zombie ricochets through popular culture, with its incessant hunger to kill, consume, devour a receding order—one that some want to make great again—at a moment when the academy generally and anthropology specifically risk retrenchment.

The haunting expropriations of land, labor, and loved ones are still the backbone of the discipline, along with the pilfering of ideas. David Harvey (2003), Paige West (2016), and others hold that such forms of accumulation must constantly be revitalized.⁠ These afterlives of “slavery, colonization, apartheid, capitalist alienation, immigration and asylum politics, post-colonial liberal multiculturalism, gender and sexual normativity, securitarian governmentality, and humanitarian reason” (Butler and Athanasiou 2013, 10) and other ghosts form related modes of dispossession. They include those of biological life: its reduction to the barest forms of existence—integral to the reconstitution of capital relations and its reiterations—and to deepening imperial, gendered, and white supremacist governmentalities. These modes of dispossession demand an analysis of modes of human-making and unmaking. Immigrants and refugees, addicts, and other criminal types mark a return of the dispossessed. These phenomena beckon toward an anthropology of fugitivity analyzing not life and death, but death and life. Fugitives and their anthropologists—and anthropological fugitives—disrupt the decidedly unexceptional necropolitics that infuse daily life in too much of the globe. Indeed, Maya Berry and colleagues (Berry et al. 2017, 560) hold that a decolonizing and what they call fugitive anthropology demands breaking with their “intellectual home,” drawing on their racial and gendered experiences of fieldwork and their deep implications for the discipline.

Fugitive work encounters new modes of being: affective, subjective, and almost always outlaw and criminal. They can tell us who counts as human, who counts as intellectuals, who counts as theorists, and what counts as theory.

At the same time, ever thickening borders and other new rounds of enclosures (Federici 2004; Rosas 2006), the recounted pawings of “me too,” the demand and the promise that Black lives matter, the executions of Native bodies and despoilment of their land, the end of refuge in the United States and elsewhere in the globe, and the crimes and savage societies of top-tier journals and their spoils all rock the discipline. The privatizing or cordoning off of the commons, including indigenous lands and related strategic resources occurring across much of the globe today, demand a fugitive anthropology versed in criminal relations, knowledges, and powers of the university and the accompanying modern institutions. Anthropology fluctuates between ideological retrenchments and an ever crueler optimism. It jostles between the finalizable injustice of the past and the unfinished possibilities of the future.

The present and the future demand that we work as insurgents, as fugitives: across real and imagined borders and against pessimisms of the will, but perhaps not the intellect.

A fugitive anthropology or anthropology of fugitivity refuses such interpellations. It rejects such terms and their associated resistance-versus accommodation-binaries, engaging the discipline partially, asymmetrically, strategically (Simpson 2016). A fugitive anthropology recognizes allies and accomplices: those who work with us in a field and in departments, whose support we know we can rely on and who share knowledge of the subjugations that too many of us experience. Fugitive anthropology demands teetering on the tightrope between abandoning the discipline and its criminal, settler, and intersecting gender, sexual, and racial infrastructures. It seeks to contribute to projects of unsettling anthropology (Rosa and Bonilla 2017) and important new contemplations of reflexivity in the field and beyond (Berry et al. 2017). It code-switches for other ends, other constituencies, Other people, even while playing the game of the affirmations of discipline. A fugitive anthropology plays the dozens, crosses the wrong kinds of borders—almost always illegally—and holds at its heart the injustices of the past that are integral to the present (and to the birth of the discipline).

I, and many others like me, testify in immigration proceedings. We must traffic in stories of the “rapists,” “bad hombres,” and other pathologized figures of the moment that incarnate the drug war, particularly the weaponized masculinities mobilized by drug cartels and conventional governments alike—as in Mexico (Valencia Triana 2011), places farther south, or other parts of the globe. Our flesh often renders us vulnerable in courts and other sites of statolatry as well, although it is nothing on par with those whom we bolster. Spectacular terror, the battles for drug marketplaces or other resource-rich terrain in certain frontier zones of Mexico, underlines how subalterns—who often cannot speak or at least often are not heard when they seek asylum or talk to authorities—experience dispossession and are racialized accordingly. They are persecuted and displaced. They flee their homelands, and many end up in detention (a polite term for immigrant prisons) or in immigration courts. There, they must invoke the macabre and monstrous occurring in their homelands, and they demand that I and others like myself confirm it. They must make themselves dead in order to live, a demand that I have come to call necrosubjection. These private and indirect governments (see Mbembe 2001) must be held apart from the entanglements of empire and capital so that this current of immigrants are not misrecognized as entrepreneurs. They come here under duress, their lives threatened.

The present and the discipline’s future demand this and other kinds of fugitive work. The present and the future demand that we work as insurgents, as fugitives: across real and imagined borders and against pessimisms of the will, but perhaps not the intellect. A fugitive anthropology would smuggle resources to affected communities. It would traffic in illegal knowledges. It would mobilize critical expertise for truth while recognizing its complex effects. It would recognize that work with fugitive communities resounds beyond the boundaries of the academy and scandalizes postures of intellectual detachment that bleed slow deaths in certain bleached areas of the discipline.


Berry, Maya J., Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Shanya Cordis, Sarah Ihmoud, and Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada. 2017. “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 537–65.

Butler, Judith, and Athena Athanasiou. 2013. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Malden, Mass.: Polity.

Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.

Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mahmood, Saba. 2018. “Humanism.” HAU 8, nos. 1–2: 1–5.

Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press.

_____. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Translated by Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15, no. 1: 11–40.

Moraga, Cherríe. 1981. “Chicana Feminism as ‘Theory in the Flesh.’” In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press.

Rosa, Jonathan, and Yarimar Bonilla. 2017. “Deprovincializing Trump, Decolonizing Diversity, and Unsettling Anthropology.” American Ethnologist 44, no. 2: 201–208.

Rosas, Gilberto. 2006. “The Thickening Borderlands: Diffused Exceptionality and ‘Immigrant’ Social Struggles during the ‘War on Terror’.” Cultural Dynamics 18, no. 3: 335–49.

Simpson, Audra. 2016. “Consent’s Revenge.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3: 326–33.

Valencia Triana, Sayak. 2011. “Capitalismo gore: Narcomáquina y performance de género.” e-misférica 8, no. 2.

West, Paige. 2016. Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” New Centennial Review 3, no. 3: 257–337.