Virtual War and Magical Death: Technologies and Imaginaries for Terror and Killing

Duke University Press
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Virtual War and Magical Death is a provocative examination of the relations between anthropology and contemporary global war. Several arguments unite the collected essays, which are based on ethnographic research in varied locations, including Guatemala, Uganda, and Tanzania, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and the United States. Foremost is the contention that modern high-tech warfare—as it is practiced and represented by the military, the media, and civilians—is analogous to rituals of magic and sorcery. Technologies of "virtual warfare," such as high-altitude bombing, remote drone attacks, night-vision goggles, and even music videoes and computer games that simulate battle, reproduce the imaginative worlds and subjective experiences of witchcraft, magic, and assault sorcery long studied by cultural anthropologists.

Another significant focus of the collection is the U.S. military's exploitation of ethnographic research, particularly through its controversial Human Terrain Systems (HTS) Program, which embeds anthropologists as cultural experts in military units. Several pieces address the ethical dilemmas that HTS and other counterinsurgency projects pose for anthropologists. Other essays reveal the relatively small scale of those programs in relation to the military's broader use of, and ambitions for, social scientific data.

Contributors
. Robertson Allen, Brian Ferguson, Sverker Finnström, Roberto J. González, David H. Price, Antonius Robben, Victoria Sanford, Jeffrey Sluka, Koen Stroeken, Matthew Sumera, Neil L. Whitehead

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About the author

Neil L. Whitehead (1956–2012) was Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His books Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death and In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia (coedited with Robin Wright) are both published by Duke University Press.

Sverker Finnström is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University. He received the Margaret Mead Award for Living with Bad Surroundings: War, History, and Everyday Moments in Northern Uganda, also published by Duke University Press.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Duke University Press
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Published on
Mar 28, 2013
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Pages
304
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ISBN
9780822379041
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Language
English
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Genres
Social Science / Anthropology / Cultural & Social
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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In this provocative and compelling examination of the deep politics of war, Carolyn Nordstrom takes us from the immediacy of war-zone survival, through the offices of power brokers, to vast extra-legal networks that fuel war and international profiteering. She captures the human face of the front lines, revealing both the visible and the hidden realities of war in the twenty-first century. Shadows of War is grounded in ethnographic research carried out at the epicenters of political violence on several continents. Its pages are populated not only with the perpetrators and victims of war but also with the scoundrels, silent heroes, and average families who live their lives in the midst of explosive violence. War reconfigures our most basic notions of humanity, Nordstrom demonstrates. This book, of crucial importance at the present moment, shows that war is enmeshed in struggles over the very foundations of the sovereign state, the crafting of economic empires both legal and illegal, and innovative searches for peace.

Nordstrom describes the multi-trillion-dollar international financial networks that support warfare. She traces the entangled routes by which illegal drugs, precious gems, weapons, basic food supplies, and pharmaceuticals are moved by an international cast of businesspeople, profiteers, and black-market operators. Shadows of War demonstrates how the experiences of both the architects of war and of ordinary people are deleted from media accounts and replaced with stories about soldiers, weapons, and territory. For the first time, this book retrieves from the shadows the faces of those whose stories seldom reach the light of international recognition.
Since 1986, the Acholi people of northern Uganda have lived in the crossfire of a violent civil war, with the Lord’s Resistance Army and other groups fighting the Ugandan government. Acholi have been murdered, maimed, and driven into displacement. Thousands of children have been abducted and forced to fight. Many observers have perceived Acholiland and northern Uganda to be an exception in contemporary Uganda, which has been celebrated by the international community for its increased political stability and particularly for its fight against AIDS. These observers tend to portray the Acholi as war-prone, whether because of religious fanaticism or intractable ethnic hatreds. In Living with Bad Surroundings, Sverker Finnström rejects these characterizations and challenges other simplistic explanations for the violence in northern Uganda. Foregrounding the narratives of individual Acholi, Finnström enables those most affected by the ongoing “dirty war” to explain how they participate in, comprehend, survive, and even resist it.

Finnström draws on fieldwork conducted in northern Uganda between 1997 and 2006 to describe how the Acholi—especially the younger generation, those born into the era of civil strife—understand and attempt to control their moral universe and material circumstances. Structuring his argument around indigenous metaphors and images, notably the Acholi concepts of good and bad surroundings, he vividly renders struggles in war and the related ills of impoverishment, sickness, and marginalization. In this rich ethnography, Finnström provides a clear-eyed assessment of the historical, cultural, and political underpinnings of the civil war while maintaining his focus on Acholi efforts to achieve “good surroundings,” viable futures for themselves and their families.

On the little-known and darker side of shamanism there exists an ancient form of sorcery called kanaimà, a practice still observed among the Amerindians of the highlands of Guyana, Venezuela, and Brazil that involves the ritual stalking, mutilation, lingering death, and consumption of human victims. At once a memoir of cultural encounter and an ethnographic and historical investigation, this book offers a sustained, intimate look at kanaimà, its practitioners, their victims, and the reasons they give for their actions.

Neil L. Whitehead tells of his own involvement with kanaimà—including an attempt to kill him with poison—and relates the personal testimonies of kanaimà shamans, their potential victims, and the victims’ families. He then goes on to discuss the historical emergence of kanaimà, describing how, in the face of successive modern colonizing forces—missionaries, rubber gatherers, miners, and development agencies—the practice has become an assertion of native autonomy. His analysis explores the ways in which kanaimà mediates both national and international impacts on native peoples in the region and considers the significance of kanaimà for current accounts of shamanism and religious belief and for theories of war and violence.

Kanaimà appears here as part of the wider lexicon of rebellious terror and exotic horror—alongside the cannibal, vampire, and zombie—that haunts the western imagination. Dark Shamans broadens discussions of violence and of the representation of primitive savagery by recasting both in the light of current debates on modernity and globalization.
In Darkness and Secrecy brings together ethnographic examinations of Amazonian assault sorcery, witchcraft, and injurious magic, or “dark shamanism.” Anthropological reflections on South American shamanism have tended to emphasize shamans’ healing powers and positive influence. This collection challenges that assumption by showing that dark shamans are, in many Amazonian cultures, quite different from shamanic healers and prophets. Assault sorcery, in particular, involves violence resulting in physical harm or even death. While highlighting the distinctiveness of such practices, In Darkness and Secrecy reveals them as no less relevant to the continuation of culture and society than curing and prophecy. The contributors suggest that the persistence of dark shamanism can be understood as a form of engagement with modernity.

These essays, by leading anthropologists of South American shamanism, consider assault sorcery as it is practiced in parts of Brazil, Guyana, Venezuela, and Peru. They analyze the social and political dynamics of witchcraft and sorcery and their relation to cosmology, mythology, ritual, and other forms of symbolic violence and aggression in each society studied. They also discuss the relations of witchcraft and sorcery to interethnic contact and the ways that shamanic power may be co-opted by the state. In Darkness and Secrecy includes reflections on the ethical and practical implications of ethnographic investigation of violent cultural practices.

Contributors. Dominique Buchillet, Carlos Fausto, Michael Heckenberger, Elsje Lagrou, E. Jean Langdon, George Mentore, Donald Pollock, Fernando Santos-Granero, Pamela J. Stewart, Andrew Strathern, Márnio Teixeira-Pinto, Silvia Vidal, Neil L. Whitehead, Johannes Wilbert, Robin Wright

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