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Security, otherwise?

Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen have been responsible for some of the most refreshing and engaging theoretical texts in anthropology in recent years. Writing under the banner of the ‘ontological turn’, or latterly ‘recursive move’, Holbraad and Pedersen are ingenious, frequently eloquent, always contentious and probably, as often as not, fundamentally misguided. Nevertheless, they have contributed greatly to a revitalisation of a kind of theorisation in anthropology that seemed to be on the wane. They make anthropological theorisations, by, with and for anthropology, which presume that the discipline has something distinctive and inherently valuable to say beyond adding nuance to, or carping about, more influential disciplines. I applaud all of this, no less because I disagree with them almost completely. Their edited volume, Times of Security clearly fits into the pattern of their work.

Security has recently become a major topic in anthropology, following its growing importance in global political discourse. Although anthropologists have been wary of engaging with the topic – probably because of the risk of co-option or perceived co-option by state and especially military agencies – there is now a sizeable and swiftly growing body of literature. Essentially, this is of two types. One route, followed by the likes of Goldstein (2010; 2016) or Maguire, Frois and Zurawski (2014), takes a classic cultural relativist approach. Accepting that security has become a Big Deal, they seek to understand how the effects and operations of security are inflected by the different cultural contexts in which discourses, apparatuses and operations labelled ‘security’ take place. While the results are often interesting, the overall effect is one of anthropological business as usual: different people in different parts of the world understand and enact security differently; scholars who specialise in security in defence studies, international relations and so on, need to nuance their analyses to socio-cultural particularities; there is a great deal of carping. Like anthropologies of neo-liberalism, the state, youth or masculinity, these anthropologies of security always find themselves responding to an agenda set elsewhere. Only after security becomes a Big Deal does anthropology get its teeth into it in order to relativise it.

Times of Security sets itself a different problem. Rather than relativizing existing concepts of security, providing ‘an anthropological perspective’, it seeks an anthropological concept of security, a way of thinking through security that is radically different, but equivalent to, conventional accounts, and which will allow us to think security ‘otherwise’ (a task also pursued in a very different way in Eriksen 2010). In other words, rather than accepting that security, as defined by others, is a Big Deal that we need to contend with, it proposes that anthropology is a Big Deal and others should attend to the ways we would define and think about security.

Holbraad and Pedersen certainly make an ingenious argument for this proposition in their introduction to the volume. They concede that security in its contemporary form as an overriding concern of domestic and international politics is relatively new, and the anthropology of security is even newer, and rather fragmentary. However, in a typically provocative passage, they then go on to argue that in fact, anthropology was always ahead of the curve: anthropology has always been about security. The evidence for this is not unconvincing. They single out Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown as founding social anthropologists, who set the agenda for the discipline’s development, and also as scholars with a profound interest in security. For Malinowski, security appears as that which will protect and reproduce the human organism, and perhaps especially, that which will shield a person from the existential angst caused by the inadequacy of technology and knowledge. Trobriand magic, which Malinowski interprets as just such a shield against the real likelihood of misfortune, becomes a technology of security. In Radcliffe-Brown’s case, security takes the form of that which reproduces society: kinship and ritual are his security apparatus. What this shows is that contemporary studies of security, both within and outside anthropology, are rehashing debates on the topic that anthropologists were engaged with in the first half of the last century.

Holbraad and Pedersen, however, are in fact sharply critical of the underlying assumptions of both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. In Malinowski, they critique the assumption that the ultimate unit of human life is the individual, biologically needy and psychically conflicted, for whom ‘security’ is the avoidance of personal uncertainty. They argue that too much of the anthropology of security makes a Malinowskian error in understanding security as coextensive with an absence of uncertainty for individuals, and would do well to draw from Radcliffe-Brown the lesson that security can be thought of as the property of a social system. On the other hand, they argue that Radcliffe-Brown’s by now thoroughly-critiqued Durkheimian conception of society is equally inadequate to a properly comparative anthropology of security.

They thus propose to locate security in a Strathernian mode: in units that are ‘more than individual but less than societal’ (p. 9). In order to locate security in this way, they define the concept as: ‘a set of discourses and practices concerned with a given social collective’s reproduction over time’, where a ‘social collective’ means to point to ‘any phenomenon in human lives that takes a social form’ (p. 16). In defining security in this way, Holbraad and Pedersen mean to leverage anthropology’s historic concern with social reproduction – retooled as ‘security’ – while taking advantage of more recent formulations of the social within the discipline to steal a march on conventional security studies.

These conventional studies of security, which came to prominence during the Cold War, were always articulated in terms of societal units: security studies concerned states and the balance of military power between them. The end of the Cold War, and the proliferation of low-intensity warfare, terrorism, and a host of non-military threats to environmental or human securities resulted in the scholarly use of the term ‘security’ being stretched and broadened to an ever-expanding range of objects and circumstances. This, in turn, led to efforts to control the meaning of the term, and to avoid its dissipation into analytic uselessness. The most influential such effort was that mounted by the Copenhagen School of security studies, in the development of the notion of securitization (the cannonical source is Buzan, Wæver, and Wilde 1998).

The theory of securitization disciplines the use of the idea of security by shifting the analytic focus of security studies. It interrogates not the nature and magnitude of threats or how to deal with them, but draws attention to the ways in which something becomes ‘a security threat’. Securitization theory suggests that this is a performative act: a political actor seeks to represent some object as an existential threat to the community; to the extent to which this designation is accepted, relations with the object of securitization will tend to be removed from normal politics, and it will be treated as an emergency or exception, demanding special powers and measures. Whereas a previous generation of security studies was concerned with whether such and such an entity or factor was objectively a threat, in securitization theory the actual existence or seriousness of such threats becomes irrelevant in a new focus on the performativity of threat production.

This theory is widely cited by anthropologists of security (e.g. Goldstein 2010, 2016; Diphoorn and Grassiani 2015; Murphy and Maguire 2015). Indeed, it is clearly useful to an anthropology of security in the sense that it locates security in exactly the kinds of social relations anthropologists are best placed to study. It also corrects the Malinowskian tendency towards individualising insecurity as uncertainty, with which Holbraad and Pedersen charge much of the anthropology of security. However, securitization theory seems to them to suffer from the same problems that affect Radcliffe-Brown’s Durkheimian structural-functionalism: it fits rather too snugly into what they call a ‘liberal political cosmology’.

Both structural-functionalism and securitization theory rest on the presumption that there are, at the root of politics, subjects and sovereigns or citizen-individuals and states, the units of this ‘liberal political cosmology’. These are autonomous entities sui generis, with their own principles of operation and independent zones of operation, which constitute veritable orders of reality. Politics, argue Holbraad and Pedersen, is the name we give to the spaces and activities by which these autonomies are brought into relation with one another. Thus, in structural-functionalism, the political is that mediating domain between the privacy of the domestic, non-societal sphere, and society, in which particular individuals take on and enact the roles and obligations that articulate their society as a system encompassing individuals. Correspondingly, securitization theory rests on a spectrum between the non-political, individual acts which require no state intervention, the political, in which the relation between sovereigns and subjects is negotiated, and the extra-political, the zone of emergency or exception in which the power of the sovereign is relatively untrammelled. Securitization theory thus agrees with structural-functionalism, point for point, in its identification of the syndrome of power and politics in a way which, Holbraad and Pedersen argue, ties both completely to a history of western political philosophy.

Whence the significance of Holbraad and Pedersen’s turn to Strathern in their definition of security as pertaining to units that are ‘more than individual but less than societal’. Their aim is exactly to open the concept of security and frame it in such a way that alternative modes of security, not beholden to historically European ways of thinking the political, can be accommodated as equal and alternative modalities, ‘security otherwise’. This is the significance of the notion of time in their definition: security is the reproduction of a given social collective over time. Their point, elegantly demonstrated by several of the contributions to the volume, is that different forms of social collectivity in reproduction unfold time in radically different ways.

Thus, for example, Kernaghan discusses the way in which cocaine traders in Peru elude law enforcement by playing with a temporal disjuncture between the law enforcement of the self-consciously modern state and the deep past of indigenous divination practices. Whereas state modernity sets itself off from indigenous tradition in order to create a security framework in which the imaginable outcomes of drug trafficking are all threatening and controlled by the state, cocaine traders consult chamanes, curanderos and omens, providing them with alternative future narratives, and also cues towards evasive temporal rhythms that enable them to escape from the legal outcomes of their occupation.

Similarly, Kublitz and Buch Segal, argue in different contexts that the politics of the occupation of Palestine create times that are curiously compressed and immobile. Kublitz’s account of the use of nakba, catastrophe, amongst Palestinians in Denmark shows how the nation is constructed in relation to disasters, each one a reflection of al-Nakba, The Catastrophe of the 1948 Israeli invasion of Palestine. Each new setback becomes a catastrophe, referencing this ‘reverse myth of origin’, but in the process, opens up the possibility that al-Nakba is reversible and that history itself might be undone. Buch Segal’s account of the lives of the wives of Palestinian activists detained in Israel has a similar theme. Here the women find themselves captured in the present because the bureaucratic tasks they must complete to maintain a relationship with their husbands, through permissions to visit them and so on, have endlessly to be repeated as soon as they are completed. As a result, the women are unable to move on from their husbands’ incarceration, and remain stuck in their present role of ‘wife of a detainee’.

In all these cases, it is evident that time is in fact produced by the ‘discourses and practices concerned with a given social collective’s reproduction’ – security, in other words, creates its own time, and therefore the possibility of reproduction that it entails. Holbraad and Pedersen take this to indicate that, if time is a product of security, or of the reproduction of a form of social collectivity, then the mode of being to be reproduced and the time of reproduction must be seen as a product of security itself. The social (that which is reproduced by and as security) cannot be assumed, but is produced, in a thoroughly Strathernian mode, on the basis of its own conceptual articulations. Based on this typically recursive analytic strategy, by which the object of research defines itself exactly, Holbraad and Pedersen argue that we can with justification talk of ‘security ontologies’ – conceptual schemes that are produced out of their own operation. This is of course a position very familiar from the ‘ontological turn’ more generally. Indeed, Holbraad has subsequently urged us to reassess political ideology, not as a mask for ‘real’ power, but as a world-making conceptual scheme which genuinely grounds political realities for its subjects (Holbraad 2014).

This is indeed a radical proposition, and the central reason why this volume, like so much of Holbraad and Pedersen’s work, is so refreshing to read: there is certainly something to argue with. Nor is it entirely without support in the book as a whole. Notably, Kwon, in his analysis of North Korean political discourse, shows how North Korea’s post-Cold War ‘military first’ political doctrine and the social philosophy of ‘the barrel of a gun’ forges its own distinctive modes of sociality, temporality and political affect, which might indeed constitute the kind of recursively self-constituting conceptual scheme Holbraad and Pedersen have in mind. Masco demonstrates a similar conceptual system in operation around the US nuclear weapons programme, showing how the bomb constitutes not only national security, but the biosphere as a domain of security (national or human), and constrains Americans’ capacity to think about disasters.

To me, the real interest in the volume, however, lies in the ways in which the individual contributions exist in tension with Holbraad and Pedersen’s analytic strategy. Generously, the volume contains a commentary on the introduction by Povinelli, which outlines some of the key fault-lines. Central amongst these is the problem that, howsoever defined, a concept of security does seem to need to deal with the fact that, under the banner of ‘security’ a distinct form of governance, of truly global significance, has come into being. In other words, ‘security’ has to be seen in context even if it is also creative. In terms of Holbraad and Pedersen’s definition, this creates difficulties for the notion of a ‘given social collective’ – where and what is this? And given by whom?

In fact, most of the contributions to the volume deal with forms of collectivity that are by no means ‘given’ but are in fact the product of conflicts over security that seem to produce their distinctive dimensions, time included. This is most evident in Krøijer’s account of activist politics and direct action around the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009. Krøijer provides a compelling description of the ways in which activists create forms of collectivity, from their bodily practice during direct actions to their norms for decision making, all of which construct an image of the world of their imagined future, in which individuality in terms of agency, responsibility, and by extension, capitalist subjectivity does not exist. Yet here, the recursive self-definition of a conceptual scheme in its own operation is difficult to support, since everything the activists do is framed in relation to the police, the government or the more amorphous capitalist world, whose ideas and actions are very different.

Something very similar happens in contributions from Risør and Petrović-Šteger. The latter discusses the development of new-age ‘neo-cortical defence’ strategies by the Serbian military during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, methods of ‘astral warfare’ that were supposed to tap the psychic energy of the Serbian people to repel NATO military intervention. Yet exotic as these ideas seem, Petrović-Šteger demonstrates how they were first derivative of longstanding US military schemes for the optimisation of soldiers’ performance, and have latterly been reabsorbed into more mainstream forms of new-age self-help. In Risør’s wonderfully evocative chapter on the production of security in El Alto, Bolivia, she shows how neighbours create local forms of security out of radical uncertainty and pervasive violence by striving to read the always inconclusive traces, supposedly left behind by criminals. Security can be crystalised out of these partial signs only when a putative criminal is caught and ‘marked’ in beating or lynching, providing a concrete presence for criminality. Yet, as in Petrović-Šteger’s chapter, the context for this activity is everything. It is very clear that the risks that motivate this activity, and the need for neighbours to look to their own defences, are entirely the product of El Alto’s insertion into a wider situation and history, one in which the state is absent or unwilling to intervene.

Indeed, it is hard to escape the feeling that in these contributions to the volume we are looking at what an earlier generation of scholars would have called subcultural forms. In fact, Hall and Jefferson’s (1976) definition of subcultures as those cultural forms that are produced out of the relation of a parent culture (working class culture in their formulation) and a wider context (the capitalist system) seems peculiarly apt. Nor is this particularly surprising considering the use many of the contributors, themselves associated with security studies in Denmark, make of securitisation theory and its central, Austinian idea of performativity.

Recall that for Austin (1975) performativity refers to speech acts which create new realities – christenings, marriages, court judgements and the like are all types of this kind of activity. Crucially, though, these new realities can only form in the context of a set of people predisposed to allow them to do so: performativity works in relation to convention – the vested authority of a priest, for example. This means that, envisioned as a performative, security, or a securitised situation, is always the child of a prior reality that it refers to, not a standalone entity, a ‘given’ collectivity.

What happens to Holbraad and Pedersen’s vision of security as discourses and practices concerned with a given social collective’s reproduction when that givenness collapses? There is no question that the forms of collectivity described in the volume’s chapters are distinctive, and the analyses enormously interesting – but can we really talk of security ontologies in the sense of systems recursively created out of their own operation? Given their embeddedness in wider contexts, not least the global mode of governance called ‘security’, must we not think of them as derivative forms, perhaps even open up the possibility of ‘subontologies’?

That, of course, is mainly a mischievous question: there is no way in which a ‘subontology’ could be accommodated within the literature of the ‘ontological turn’ as it exists at the moment – but perhaps that is exactly the problem. For many critics, it is precisely the apparent rigidity, the sense of a return to an old-school village ethnography, that mars this particular line of reasoning in anthropology (see, for example Bessire and Bond 2014). And yet… What if the ‘ontological turn’ could accommodate the transformative creativity implicit in the notion of subculture, and embrace the production of one thing out of another? Because of its link to performativity entailed by its relation to securitisation theory, Times of Security shows how this might be done.

‘The recursive move’, Holbraad’s favoured label for the ‘ontological turn’ in his recent writings, consists above all in a methodological strategy that ‘intensifies’ ethnographic analysis. It does this by first distilling the motivating ‘concepts’ of other people’s lives from ethnographic material, and then reapplying them to that material as a means of parsing it for meaning, that is, using ethnography ‘recursively’ on itself, rather than appealing to outside resources – ‘the world’, ‘human nature’, etc. The point of doing that, proponents of this method tell us, is to deform and distort anthropological ways of thinking about and grasping the world, displacing our own conceptual repertoires in an effort to ‘decolonise’ thought. This is exactly the project that lies at the heart of Times of Security – the effort to use other securities to force us to think differently about security, making our thought other to itself.

Now, Holbraad and Pedersen may well be quite right to dismiss securitisation theory on the basis that it proposes an image of the political that is too similar to our own ‘liberal political cosmology’. However, at another level, there is a sense in which securitisation’s emphasis on performativity is very close to the recursive operations on which the ‘ontological turn’ is based. Performativity involves taking a given, conventional situation, and making it different by a meaningful gesture, a speech act – even, maybe, by thinking about it. In engaging in such a performative act, a person must be able to distil resources from within their own lives and, reapplying them to that life, make it different. In other words, there is a case to be made that performativity embeds the same ‘recursive move’ as the ontological turn – but now located with the ‘natives’ of ethnography rather than anthropological analysts. By the same token, the ontologist’s claim that such and such a conceptual system – of Amazonia, or of Cuban diviners, or what have you – is of a different order of reality to our own has a clear parallel in the securitising claim that a given threat exists and demands a threat beyond the pale of regular politics. Both operations produce exceptional states.

On the one hand, that argument might be disastrous for Holbraad and Pedersen’s project. Ontologies would go the same way as cultures – undefinable, constantly in flux; another essentialism, obviously open to critique. Yet at the same time, democratising the kind of thinking that founds the ‘recursive move’ – accepting that other people do not only live in different conceptual worlds, but constantly make them in the form of reality – would both be more faithful to the papers that make up this excellent volume and an exciting direction for a bracing and pugnacious version of anthropology. It would do nothing short of shifting the ‘ontological turn’ from the idealistic terrain of concepts to the materialities of the world, answering, perhaps, Foucault’s call for scholarship to ‘separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being … what we are’ (1994, 315–16).



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———. 2016. ‘Some Thoughts on the Critical Anthropology of Security’. Etnofoor 28 (1): 147–52.

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Holbraad, Martin. 2014. ‘Revolución O Muerte: Self-Sacrifice and the Ontology of Cuban Revolution’. Ethnos 79 (3): 365–87. doi:10.1080/00141844.2013.794149.

Maguire, Mark, Catarina Frois, and Nils Zurawski, eds. 2014. The Anthropology of Security: Perspectives from the Frontline of Policing, Counter-Terrorism and Border Control. Anthropology, Culture and Society. London: Pluto Press.

Murphy, Eileen, and Mark Maguire. 2015. ‘Speed, Time and Security: Anthropological Perspectives on Automated Border Control’. Etnofoor 27 (2): 157–77.

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