Remembrance: Diane M. Nelson

Michelle Murphy, Jake Kosek, Diane Nelson, and Joe Dumit. January 2022. Photo by Lochlann Jain.

Diane M. Nelson June 5, 1963 - April 28, 2022
Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University
Ph.D. Stanford, April 4, 1996
Thank you: Joe Dumit, Cori Hayden, Stefan Helmreich, Jake Kosek, Beatriz Manz, Joe Masco, Bill Maurer, Michelle Murphy, Liz Roberts, Jackie Orr, Miriam Ticktin, all comrades lucky enough to have basked in the courage, love, and sheer brilliance of Diane Nelson. Their input is included.

Dear Colleagues,

We have been robbed of an irreplaceable colleague. The world has been stripped of a luminous soul.

To read Diane Nelson’s work is to be transformed by it. To know her was to understand how deeply the personal is the ethnographic. It’s utterly impossible to describe the singular brilliance that created an entirely original genre of ethnography and led to the three spell-binding books Diane called her “genocide trilogy.” And so one asks: What would Diane do? She would tap the connections, the puns, or the goofy popular references that could bring a person or a community to life on the page, just as she highlighted the struggles of the people of post-genocide Guatemala by attending to their off-hand remarks, their kitchen conversations, the small sensitivities that made their complex lifeworlds real to her, to the page, to us.

Diane graduated from Stanford's anthropology department with her PhD in 1996, advised by George Collier and Akhil Gupta. After six years as an Assistant Professor at Lewis and Clarke College, she moved to Duke University in 2001 where she was a Bass Fellow and then Eads Family Professor of Cultural Anthropology.

In her extensive and influential work on mass genocide, Diane investigated how enduring violence manifests, always highlighting the tenacity of Mayan survival and collective power. She began work in Guatemala in 1985—already pioneering and daring research in a terrifying war zone in the highlands, which was tightly controlled by the Armed Forces. She spent months there each year over the next three decades and had recently been planning her first return trip since the start of the pandemic.

To say that Diane’s first book analyzed the legacy of the civil war would be correct but would miss how A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala (1999) re-envisioned the project of ethnography through her mind-blowing knowledge of social theory and the rigorous creativity of her work. In one chapter, she takes seriously the name some children in a village called to her: “Queen of Lizards.” She meticulously built on and inhabited this nickname and its reference to analyze the work of Mayan cultural rights activism, cyber-space, and the nation-state. As the Lizard Queen, she investigated the temporal configurations of post-genocide Guatemala and the placement of the anthropologist within these temporal incongruities. The work is politically and intellectually engrossing; one has to read it to believe it. Her second and third books, Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala (2009) and Who Counts? The Mathematics of Death and Life After Genocide (2015), investigate the meanings and residues of the genocide amidst the multiple and varied experiences of rebuilding Guatemala. Indeed, as the queen of denaturalizing the things we thought we knew, Diane scrutinized the cultural politics of pyramid schemes, dams, exhumations, math. The work is virtuosic, big-hearted, precise, irreverent. Resisting the idea that Mayan culture needs to be rescued, she didn’t so much study the people of Guatemala as live and work, observe, and theorize in relation with them.

In unpacking the double-entendre of counting in Who Counts? (who calculates, who is valued), Nelson demonstrates the biopolitical effects of numbers and actuarial math, showing how math—political, colonial, genocidal math—is also necessary and intimate. Her chapter on efforts to revive Mayan numeral systems dissects how in denigrating those systems, colonizers eradicated the means by which Guatemalans could make themselves count. In another chapter, Nelson offers close analyses of how reparations could be garnered only through complex exhumations and reconstructions of body parts, bringing new meaning to the Arab roots of algebra, al-jabr: reuniting broken parts. The beautiful book, compellingly written with unflinching, exact prose and engrossing stories, bursts with exuberance and theoretical relevance.

Diane honored and celebrated relationships built over decades in the pages of her books with a peppering of puns, jokes, and unexpected pop-cultural references. Her first-year graduate school evaluation contained the following gem: “Her humor sometimes gets in the way of her analysis.” But thank goddess she was not to be disciplined, because her humor was not just for a giggle or to show off her exquisite erudition (pink Freud!) but always in the service of insight into her multiple registers of analysis. What if a Brazilian was a person and a number? (How many zeros in a Brazillion?) That she could pull this off while illuminating the inequities and everyday horrors that impacted peoples’ abilities to flourish without a hint of frivolity offers a rock-solid testament to her commitments. Her wildly ingenious play carried meaning because it was underpinned by her radical empathy to the embodied structures of social injustice. In writing about numbers as an engine (rather than a camera), she wanted to situate the logics that justify unfairness. Her praxis of anticolonial Marxist feminism lay at the core of her being and work.

To know Diane was to trust her ethnography. One knows she got it right because one invariably witnessed it. To ride in a taxi was to experience her in action, slowly unearthing the life story of the driver. And many of us knew—we just knew—that she thought of each and every last one of us as her very, very best friend. We each knew that because she lit up when she saw us, attended to our goings-on, and tended the friendships. She remembered with gob-smacking precision every detail of the last conversation, even if it was months ago, and asked for news on each one. Her kindness was limitless. Of course she would write that last-minute reference letter (and make it amazing), of course she would share a hotel conference room (wrenching herself from sleep to partake in pillow talk of the highest order), of course she would translate a passage (and make it exact), of course she would come to a writing crit (and not only scrutinize each manuscript in advance but then later, entertain everyone with a John Denver sing-along). After our last phone conversation a few weeks ago, she headed to a zoom dissertation defense—from her hospital bed. Of course she needed to honor this student’s hard work.

If her writing threw a glitter bomb into ethnography, her public lectures made theory both gut-punching and captivating (and she performed nearly two hundred). Here, one witnessed the inseparability of her joy, politics, and analytics. Sometimes she would open by singing. Or she would beam from the podium, instructing an audience to pry fingers and thumbs from electronics to learn a lesson in counting. In one talk she riffed about her T-shirt’s logo in the context of malaria and mosquitos. Then she disrobed only to expose another T-shirt deserving of commentary, and another and another…for a full eight, goofy, but revealing T-shirts. Colleagues still chuckle about her (in)famous “blood spurt talk.” After practicing in a hotel room bathroom that was left looking like a campy B-movie crime scene, she launched her talk by yanking up her sleeve and plunging a knife in her arm, ketchup spurting all over the shabby-chic Hilton carpets. Her long list of teaching awards attests to her charisma in the classroom. Students have said: “She's an incredibly inspirational professor as well as—I'm convinced—a total genius,” “She is truly a genius and can bring out your inner-genius,” and “She's amazing and everyone in class loved her.”

As an audience member and commentator, Diane was equally nimble. Her affirming laugh could be offered in solidarity (fluidarity!) with a colloquium speaker. But since she was unrelentingly positive, modest, and gentle, she could, when necessary, step up to give the reprimand-we-all-wanted-to-give to a too-full-of-themselves speaker not clued into the knotty histories lurking in their words (“seminal!” “emasculating!”). Diane’s humor, primed for circumstances joyous or dire, modeled how debate and disagreement could sparkle and vibrate, even with high stakes. Her non-confrontational mode of care combined with a moral compass and spine of steel always ready to dislodge those nearby out of our comfort zones and into…what? New horizons of accountability and action, theoretical flights of fancy that would reshape the terrain, jokes remaking the political unconscious and remaking us.

During the pandemic she travelled regularly to Ohio, taking care of her mother after a stroke. Her descriptions trembled with compassion—for her mother, for others as they did care work. During this time, she developed her new research project. The early drafts were wholly original and set to explode minds. Through a concept of Riparian Worlding, she was weaving histories of genocide and indigenous activism with the materiality of rivers and hydroelectric dam projects, delving into the ways that the mass violence central to Guatemala’s recent history itself had a deep impact on the environment, at the same time as it laid the groundwork for extractive regimes that have further threatened local livelihoods of humans and animals. In a recent AAA talk, she claimed, “Water as genre, as hydrocontemplation for ethnography, offers tools and even weapons of engagement.” And no one would have been able to describe the uncapturability, the resistance, of water and fully elucidate how that materiality impacts everything in the ways that she would have. The loss is indescribable.

Beekeeper, singer, yogini, indefatigable activist. Diane’s genuine curiosity, attention, energy, delight, and generosity were legion and without bounds. She brought a twinkle to every interaction; her style in everything was unique, fearless, and unselfconscious. When my nine-year-old daughter and I shared a room with Diane at a conference, Asha stood at the door for ten full minutes, bags packed, late for the airport shuttle, straining to find new topics for conversation, unable to leave the magical soul that was Diane Nelson.

And we, too, are simply unable to leave her. After so many life lessons, Diane gave us—her friends and colleagues—a precious example in passing. She, who always reached for the richest vein of connection, didn’t want to say goodbye either. Instead, she wrote: “i pues, hasta la vista!”

Diane is survived by her parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and her partner Mark Driscoll. She is also survived by myriad students, colleagues, and a raft of close, close friends that she cultivated, buoyed, and who strive to find ways to honor her. Long live Diane Nelson, and may those country roads reunite us.


Nelson, Diane M. 1999. A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2009. Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

———. 2015. Who Counts? The Mathematics of Death and Life After Genocide. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.