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First Speaker in DAMES “Blackness” Series

September 16, 2020

 

THANK YOU to Professor Troutt Powell and Professor Sturkey for making the event a huge success. The video of the talk can be found here or on YouTube.

The first event in the 2020-2021 “Blackness in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies” speaker series was held on September 22, at 4:30 PM. Eve M. Troutt Powell (Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania) presented “Training Slaves for the Camera: Race and Memory in Representations of Slaves, Khartoum, 1882.” The talk was moderated by UNC’s own Professor William Sturkey. All events will be held virtually through Zoom.

Eve M. Troutt Powell teaches the history of the modern Middle East and the history of slavery in the Nile Valley and the Ottoman Empire. As a cultural historian, she emphasizes the exploration of literature and film in her courses. She is the author of A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain and the Mastery of the Sudan (University of California, 2003) and the coeditor, with John Hunwick, of The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Princeton Series on the Middle East, Markus Wiener Press, 2002). Her most recent book is Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement in Egypt, Sudan and the Late Ottoman Empire (Stanford University Press, 2012). Troutt Powell is now working on a book about the visual culture of slavery in the Middle East which will explore the painting and photography about African and Circassian slavery in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Please register here.

Organized by the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, co-sponsored by the UNC Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, with support from the Institute of African American Research.

Profile of Alumnus Rashad Hauter

September 10, 2020

Rashad Ahmed Hauter graduated from UNC in 2007 with majors in Biology and Asian Studies, concentrating on Arabic. Professor Nadia Yaqub remembers him well as an enthusiastic student. Rashad was a first-generation college student, the child of Yemeni immigrants who “fled poverty and unrest in pursuit of the American dream” and established a business in Vance County, NC.

After UNC, Rashad attended the Campbell University School of Law and graduated cum laude. He became assistant district attorney for Wake County, trying more than 800 bench trials. Next he took up a role as a state Regional Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor, trying more than 700 bench trials and 40 jury trials. In 2017, he founded his own private practice as a criminal defense and immigration attorney.

Most recently, Rashad is running in the special election of the Tenth Judicial District Bar (Wake County) to be a nominee considered by Governor Cooper for appointment to this position, resulting from Judge Denning’s resignation. Rashad is a wonderful reminder that studying Asian and Middle Eastern languages and cultures brings opportunities globally but also locally; in fact Rashad sometimes is able to offer his legal services pro bono for those who need an Arabic-speaking attorney.

 

Professor Mark Driscoll’s forthcoming book

August 24, 2020

The Whites Are Enemies of HeavenProfessor Mark Driscoll’s forthcoming book, The Whites Are Enemies of Heavenconsiders Western imperialism in Asia in the nineteenth century, and proposes a new theory of “climate caucasianism” that links racism with environmental destruction in an innovative matter, demonstrating the close linkage between our current struggles with both racial inequality and climate change and the expansion of Western empires at the outset of the “modern” age.

Professor Driscoll is best known as a scholar of Japanese modernity, a specialist in cultural studies whose publications have ranged from translations of the colonial novels Kannani and Document of Flames, both by Katsuei Yuasa, to his first monograph, Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, a tour de force of interdisciplinary and theoretically-informed humanistic scholarship.

In his new book, he utilizes primary sources in Chinese, Japanese, and French to re-contextualize the Opium Wars as a key moment in both the emergence of extractive, coal-fed capitalism and the destruction of Qing China’s world leading carbon-neutral economy.

Advance reviews of the book from the website of the publisher, Duke University Press, praise Driscoll’s scholarship:

“Mark Driscoll dazzlingly argues that at the origin of the Anthropocene lies the predatory behavior of European colonialism in East Asia—what he daringly terms “climate caucasianism”, a historically unprecedented assemblage of extraction, coloniality, ecological devastation, commerce, and war. Driscoll’s exquisite and brilliant scholarship demonstrates a simultaneous mastery of Chinese and Japanese languages, cultures, and histories. The Whites Are Enemies of Heaven should be of immediate interest to students in all those fields wishing to understand the multiple entanglements of imperialism, colonialism, ontology, and resistance that underlie the complex assemblage called climate change.” — Arturo Escobar, author of Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible

“Mark Driscoll’s The Whites Are Enemies of Heaven is an ambitious and original study of Japanese and Chinese resistance to Euro-American imperialism. Beyond his compelling focus on race and racism—which rarely get the explicit attention they deserve in East Asian studies—Driscoll turns to Marxism, postcolonial theory, and ecocriticism to analyze global histories of extractive capitalism and drug production in this wide-ranging and thrilling analysis. There is no other book like this!” — Teemu Ruskola, author of Legal Orientalism: China, the United States, and Modern Law

Profile of Professor Nadia Yaqub’s Newest Book

August 21, 2020

Cover of Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution

Professor Nadia Yaqub’s recent book Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution (University of Texas Press, 2018) situates Palestinian cinema squarely within mid-20th century political cinema.

In her introduction, Yaqub writes “Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution is an in-depth study of these films, the filmmakers, and their practices; the political and cultural contexts in which they were created and seen; and the afterlives the films have had with communities of Palestinian refugees and young filmmakers and other cultural actors in the twenty-­first century. This study situates the works within regional and global conversations and practices surrounding the filmmaking and politics of the era. It offers detailed analyses of the films themselves, their coming into being, their distribution and viewership, and the intense interest they have generated during the past decade.”

Diana Allan (McGill University) wrote in a review in International Journal of Middle East Studies, “In six chapters, Yaqub deftly illuminates a series of shifts in the filmic conceptualization and representation of Palestinian resistance over the past fifty years. . . Palestinian Cinema elegantly weaves together a diverse array of sources––correspondence, personal interviews, memoirs, and other vital primary and secondary materials, including key revolutionary journals (al-Hurriya, Filasteen al-Thawra and Shuʾun)––and appends a comprehensive filmography of PLO films produced between 1968 and 1982. . . this book represents an invaluable and compelling contribution to scholarship on Palestinian filmmaking, Palestinian cultural production, and transnational, Tricontinental solidarity. It opens a window to a luminous period of revolutionary production that, until now, has been largely inaccessible to English-language readers, and invites reengagement with these vital, visionary works in a moment where inspiration is urgently needed.”

The process of researching the book involved intensive archival work as well as study of films and related materials collected by relevant cultural organizations. Her subject matter was inherently precarious, and has been undergoing constant erasure. In an interview with Nicholas Baer in Film Quarterly (72:1), Yaqub discusses her approach:

I relied heavily on the research, publications, and programming of others. In particular, the extensive work of the Palestine Film Foundation and its 2014 program “The World Is with Us” was fundamental to the book. Through the screenings and gallery installation of that program, I was able to study more than thirty films by Palestinians and solidarity activists. Some of that material has become available on YouTube, and a few titles can be purchased from distributors, but many others remain very difficult to see. While my book includes discussions of a number of films that were not included in that program (e.g., the Syrian material and the films that Kais al-Zubaidi made in the late 1970s), it would not be an exaggeration to say that the project would not have materialized without “The World Is with Us.” The library of the Institute for Palestinian Studies in Beirut was another crucial resource since it contains copies of almost all publications of the PLO and various Palestinian political organizations.

In the same interview, Yaqub notes that one of her goals was to reevaluate the role of compromise in the creative decisions of filmmakers:

My goal with the book is to contribute to our understanding of political cinema through close readings of films and attention to contextual details that illuminate some of the complexities inherent in this type of engaged creativity. How constraints, contingencies, and opportunities all shaped this film movement and the works that emerged from it expands our understanding of how cultural production works in the real world. Because filmmaking is complex, expensive, and collaborative, it is marked by compromise. This is particularly true of political filmmaking. Film scholars often focus on visionary filmmakers whose primary commitment is to their art. By treating the works of filmmakers who were committed to both filmmaking and a political project, I have attempted to offer an alternative understanding of compromise as a mode of film production. Compromise certainly limits expression, but it is also a necessary force that produces certain types of texts that deserve to be studied seriously and understood on their own terms.

The book was shortlisted for a Palestine Book Award, and in 2018 she was invited by Columbia University to curate a film festival on Gaza.

In honor of Professor Larry Kessler, By Miles Fletcher

August 15, 2020

I welcome the opportunity to write a few words about the career of Professor Lawrence D. Kessler who died at his home near Wilmington on August 10. From my first day on campus in the fall of 1975 I was fortunate to work closely with Larry. He was a wonderful colleague and friend. He was always supportive, willing to listen to any concerns, and ready to give helpful advice.

Larry’s long and distinguished career as a professor of East Asian and Chinese history at UNC began in 1966. He arrived in Chapel Hill as the sole specialist in Asian history and taught in the Department of History for more than three decades. His first few years coincided with a tumultuous period of dissent at the University. Larry actively participated in protests against the Vietnam War and in 1969 demonstrations in support of striking food workers at Lenoir Hall. The latter event prompted Governor Bob Scott to deploy the National Guard on campus. During these demonstrations Larry was arrested twice.

After completing his doctoral dissertation and receiving his Ph.D. in 1969, Larry published two books and numerous articles. His first monograph examined the early reign of the powerful K’ang-hsi (Gangxi) Emperor who ruled China from 1654 to 1722. His second book, The Jiangyin Mission Station: An American Missionary Community in China, 1895-1951, focused on the history of a Christian mission near Shanghai established by the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington.

Larry worked tirelessly to promote Asian Studies on campus, in the Research Triangle, and across North Carolina and the Southeast. He was a driving force in the creation of a major in Asian Studies at UNC through the establishment of the Curriculum in East Asian Studies in the late 1970s, when perhaps a half-dozen specialists on Asia taught in various disciplines on campus. This academic unit later became the Curriculum in Asian Studies, for which he served as chair in the late 1990s, and it is now the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.  Larry was a founding member of the Triangle East Asian Colloquium, which has for decades sponsored conferences and presentations pertaining to East Asia for faculty members at universities and colleges in the local area. In addition, Larry was dedicated to spreading knowledge and understanding about China and Asia beyond the academy to the broader community. He energetically organized and participated in outreach programs to help K-12 teachers incorporate material about Asia into their lesson plans. Not surprisingly, he leapt at the chance to be among the first American academics to visit China in 1976 as the People’s Republic began to welcome foreign visitors. He then became the director of the North Carolina China Council, an affiliate of the national Asia Society, which focused on spreading knowledge about China. One particularly innovative project was Larry’s assembling a traveling exhibit of photographs and recollections, “North Carolina’s ‘China Connection,’ 1840-1949,” that toured the state in 1980-1981 to explain the range of historical links, including the tobacco trade and missionary ties, between North Carolina and China. Larry also served terms as president of the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies and as editor of the Southeast Review of Asian Studies.

These achievements suggest how much we all owe to Larry’s pioneering and sustained endeavors on behalf of Asian Studies at Carolina.

Miles Fletcher

Launching the new M.A. Program in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

July 17, 2020

Discussions of the possible launch of a graduate program go back more than a decade in our department, and have involved most of the faculty as well as support from peers in other departments. Ultimately the growth of our undergraduate majors, minors, and language enrollments kept us busy enough over the years. In 2017-2018, however, then-Chair Nadia Yaqub constituted a graduate planning committee that built on previous efforts to complete a proposal draft, which would eventually become our formal proposal to the leadership of the university. This proposal received approval in December of 2019. Many individuals were involved in this process, but the key leaders were Yaron Shemer, Uffe Bergeton, Robin Visser, and Nadia Yaqub.

The new program, for which we are now recruiting applicants, is intended to provide humanistic training to students in one of two tracks: either the broad, interdisciplinary area of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, or the more focused field of Chinese studies.

The M.A. will give students the chance to improve proficiency in one or more languages designated “critical” to the future of America by the State Department, as well as significant expertise in the culture of a country or region in Asia or the Middle East. Students will develop advanced skills beyond those already mastered as undergrads to enhance future careers in higher ed, politics, international organizations and non-profits, journalism, the military, and business and finance.

To students considering our M.A. program: please take a look at the directory of faculty in our department to get a sense of our interests and areas of expertise. We include scholars of literature and environmental humanities, experts in critical theory, historians of culture, specialists in film and visual culture, anthropologists of medicine, and experts in language teaching among other topics. We look forward to hearing from you.

Profile of T.J. Turner, Asian Studies Alum

July 9, 2020


T.J. Turner of Kernersville graduated in the spring of 2020, part of this most unusual class of students who were unable to take part in the standard graduation ceremony and departmental celebrations that typically mark the end of the undergraduate career. T.J. navigated the end of his senior year and the 2020 pandemic with positivity and optimism.

T.J. made the most of his time at UNC, double majoring in Chemistry and Asian Studies with a concentration in Japanese. He studied abroad at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, for the spring semester of 2018, supported by a competitive Phillips Ambassadors fellowship. He also worked in the laboratory of Professor Stephanie L. Gupton in the Chemistry Department, a specialist in cell biology.

I spoke to T.J. about his experience with Asian Studies:

Q: What role did Japanese play in your time at Carolina?

My first time abroad was the summer of 2014 (high school years) when I stayed with a host family in Nagoya, Japan for six weeks on an AFS program. I had an awesome introduction to Japan during this time but failed to make strong connections to other Japanese people around my age. Upon receiving my acceptance to UNC, in the spring of 2016, I already knew that I would be going back to Japan on a study abroad program to do some “unfinished business”; that is, I wanted to create lasting bonds with Japanese students during my college study abroad experience and hone my Japanese language abilities to connect better with the culture and its people while serving as an ambassador for black Americans. With this goal in mind, I applied for–and graciously accepted–the Phillips Ambassador program to spend my 2018 spring semester and summer at Keio University in Tokyo. I wasted no time, bonding with my fellow Japanese classmates, honing my Japanese skills, and deepening my knowledge of contemporary culture. Coming back to Carolina, I wanted to help students realize the roles the language can play in their respective fields and introduce them to resources to engage in languages and cultures that they are interested in; as a chemistry major and biology minor (I added Japanese later), I understand the importance of having culturally competent professionals in all fields of study. This drove me to become a study abroad peer ambassador and representative for Mango Languages on the UNC campus. Both positions allow to me to share resources with students and staff that could engage them in their language acquisition journey.

How might Asia influence or be a part of your plans for the future?

I plan on becoming a physician. While my interests in medicine range greatly from surgery to clinical research, my current aspirations are to become an aerospace physician. These doctors basically serve as general physicians for American astronauts and their families. This line of work would put me at the forefront of space medicine and in contact with leaders in the field from around the world. I hope to be a leader in space medicine that cooperates with several international partners all working toward the common goal of helping humans expand into space safely by the guidance of sound science and international cooperation. In this regard, I feel it will be imperative for me to improve cultural fluency and language proficiency in Mandarin and Japanese given the likelihood that these countries will continue to be influential “space powers” in the future. Not to mention I’ve already had opportunities to speak with patients in Japanese during volunteering in the clinic.

What currently keeps you busy?

I am currently the president of the Spread Love Foundation (SLF), a non profit founded late last year out of Durham. SLF aims to provide opportunities in STEM, medical science, and global opportunities to underrepresented youth. Our goal is to grow the next generation of diverse scientists and healthcare providers that will solve the world’s biggest problems and serve as role models to those disenfranchised kids who thought that a career in science was outside of their reach. We are currently in the process of building courses, establishing our presence in the Durham community, branding, and building our team of inspirational science lovers. As president, I hope to also let more of our underrepresented youth know about opportunities to study abroad on scholarship and sharing resources to learn more about becoming a medical doctor. Important to my involvement is showing that you can combine your interest in language/culture with medicine/science!

We have a new name!

July 1, 2020

As of July 1, 2020, the Department of Asian Studies (DAS) is changing its name to the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (DAMES).

The faculty voted unanimously in the fall of 2019 to change our name to more accurately reflect our teaching, research, and role within the university. This does not represent a shift of our curricular focus, but rather an attempt to transparently acknowledge that this unit that started its life as the Curriculum in East Asian Studies has grown over the years—with the addition of Hindi-Urdu and South Asian Studies, the addition of Arabic and Arab Cultures, as well as the addition of Hebrew, Korean and Korean Studies, Persian, and Turkish—into a much broader academic department. The name change is timely because we are currently recruiting applicants for our new graduate program, called the M.A. in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

Please spread the word about our new name and our new graduate program, and reach out to us with questions, comments, or just to share news.

-Morgan Pitelka, Chair, DAMES

Professor Ana Vinea on Language, Illness, Method, and Structural Violence

June 22, 2020

Ana Vinea, the department’s newest Assistant Professor, describes herself as “a cultural anthropologist of the Middle East with general research and teaching interests in medicine, occult practices, and popular culture.” In the long-form essay below, she explores themes of language, illness, method, and structural violence, connecting her own research in the field of medical anthropology to the overlapping crises of COVID-19 and struggles against white supremacy

Language and heroes
More than 40 years ago, in 1978, Susan Sontag wrote Illness as a Metaphor, a beautiful reflection on language and illness under the shadow of her own breast cancer diagnosis. In that essay, she is concerned with how metaphors come to cling to illnesses in ways that moralize and discriminate sufferers, as well as thwart scientific understanding. Hers is a call for a kind of purification of illness, a stripping away of metaphoric thinking in favor of the material body, the literal illness. This is an important call insofar as it fights the prejudice that accompanies some diseases, including COVID-19. Yet, it is a call that most medical anthropologists would question, based as it is on the assumption that diseases and their causes are confined to the body and can be fully comprehended by science only, stripped of history, culture, and society. COVID-19 demonstrates the fallacy of this assumption by exposing the bodily impact of entrenched systemic and institutional racism. It also does that through the divergent trajectories of the pandemic in different countries, trajectories shaped by social and political factors, as much as by biological ones.
This caveat aside, what Susan Sontag does so masterfully is to draw our attention to the language we use to talk about disease. And I start with her work because ever since COVID-19 transformed our lives in March, I’ve been fascinated with the language surrounding the virus and with what that language does – how it shapes our understandings of the pandemic and how it allows us to see certain things and blinds us to others.
Military terminology abounds: medical staff is at the “frontline,” “battling”/”fighting” an “invisible enemy.” States “at war” with the virus take, or should take, “mass mobilization measures.” The virus, a submicroscopic biological organism without consciousness, has gained nationality; for some it is a “Chinese virus” – a deeply racist metaphor of precisely the type Susan Sontag warned against. Other metaphors are more moralistic: SARS-CoV-2 is “mother nature’s revenge” for our continuous mistreatment of the planet, a “pause” during which “the earth needs to heal.” Healthcare and occasionally other essential workers like grocery, farm, meat, or cleaning workers are described as “heroes” or “superheroes,” military and pop culture figures at once. Occasionally other actors also become super/heroes like researchers at UNC or other scientists working on the novel coronavirus. The virus to which no one is immune is a “great equalizer,” hence “we are all in this together” when confronting it.
The widespread, and global, use of combat metaphors should not come as a surprise. War language has long been used in biomedical texts and popular media to talk about the immune system, AIDS, or cancer, as well as about other equally non-military matters: drugs, poverty, crime. And, of course, it has been employed in relation to past epidemics. There is something ostensibly compelling about this language – it creates a sense of urgency that appears to fit the moment. Yet it remains a problematic language. If we are at war, does this mean that we are all potential soldiers now? Should the exigency of war on the virus allow for authoritarian measures in lieu of public health policies? Labelling the virus as the “enemy” and giving it a nationality enforces the stigmatization of Asian-American communities, helping it spread alongside the virus, in similar insidious ways. The language of war enshrines violence and destruction at the center of medicine and healthcare. Such combat metaphors do not only shape how we see the pandemic, but also reflect the society confronted with it, something that medical anthropologists like Emily Martin, who has analyzed the imagery of the immune system as a nation at war, have long observed. The ease with which we have recourse to this language speaks of the pervasive militarization of American society, as it speaks of the way we tend to think of solutions to our problems in mostly aggressive ways involving attacks, enemies, or sacrifices. Of course, as a medical anthropologist who sees all diseases as culturally and socially embedded, I do not think that there is a neutral, non-metaphoric language to talk about disease, including COVID-19. The question is what are the metaphors that can help us think about and deal with the pandemic in ways that are more conducive to social justice, community building, free access to healthcare, and global solidarity. Can we find a way to cure without waging war? And I have to say that demilitarizing our language is not an easy task – many times while writing these lines I have caught myself wanting to use combat metaphors! Several voices in the past months have similarly underscored the necessity of this double task of critique and recreation of our COVID-19 metaphors. Readers can see some examples here and here and here, among others.
The explosion of the language of “super/heroes” of the “fight” against COVID-19 is another instance of the war language that is simultaneously compelling and problematic. It recognizes and valorizes the tremendous, and relentless, efforts of medical staff (from physicians to nurses to researchers) to understand and combat the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and to care for patients with COVID-19. Yet, what does it mean to call medical personnel heroes while at the same time failing to provide them with the necessary PPE (personal protective equipment) to keep them safe and with the necessary medical devices (ventilators, beds) they need to treat patients? Is the widespread use of this language a way to gloss over the failures and vulnerabilities of a market-based health system where hospitals are primed to compete not collaborate and where elective and specialty care is more lucrative than public health or is this language a way to highlight the work of the medical staff despite these structural constraints? Are these medical specialists heroes or victims? It is interesting to see the kind of pushback that the language of heroism has received, especially when originating from the heroes themselves. Similar to Dr. Rieux in Camus’ The Plague, some medical professionals have rejected the rhetoric of sacrifice and heroism or expressed ambivalence toward it. They noted that they are just “doing their jobs,” as “professionals” trained to face risks in their work. Some have argued that this language does not make space for, even silences, their much more nuanced experiences and emotions of dealing with the new coronavirus that range from anger and frustration to fear for themselves and their families.
Heroes, especially superheroes, are not only war figures. They are also central in popular culture. Putting aside any unease with the language of war, the image of the doctor/nurse as superhero has been artistically generative. Urban walls across the world have been embellished with coronavirus-themed murals that prominently feature health workers as heroes – they wear the “S” superman logo on their chest or face mask, adopt combative stances, wear boxing gloves or flex their biceps, occasionally punching the virus in the face. In other representations, or combined with the hero imagery, health workers exhibit religious features – they are surrounded by saintly halos or they sport angel wings. These images marry religion and science in a pop culture imagery of the “fight” against COVID-19 (the war metaphor seems apt here!). In the US, images in the same genre have celebrated Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the now defunct White House coronavirus task force. The celebration of medical staff also took other forms besides murals. Front lawns have switched elections signs that dominated in February to new ones thanking frontline health workers or marking a house as inhabited by “heroes.” In some European countries, beginning first with Italy, people have instituted what could be called rituals of gratitude, daily clapping to honor health professionals’ work that also serves as community-making ritual, forging social connection between isolated households in a kind of acoustic public sphere.
Production of knowledge
Part of my current project has to do with how knowledge is produced across different medical practices, some incorporated in the established medical field (psychiatry) and others rejected by it (religious healing). Because of this pre-existing interest in knowledge production, it has been fascinating to observe how scientific knowledge about COVID-19 has evolved in the past months, and how it has circulated and been discussed by the non-specialist public. What the pandemic offers, I think, is a kind of mediatized, real time view into the complicated work of “making science” (and I use science here to encompass a wide variety of disciplines: virology, infectious disease medicine, public health, and epidemiology).
Even if SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the pandemic, is new, it is by now well understood in its genetic make-up and taxonomy. This is not the case for the disease it causes, COVID-19. Its risk factors, clinical manifestation, infectious and fatality rate, or its long-term health effects remain to a certain extent surrounded by unknowns, uncertainties, and shifting, sometimes contradictory data, confounding efforts to act against the pandemic at all scales, the micro one of our own lives and the macro one of governance. There are myriad such past or present uncertainties. High-risk categories have been identified on the basis of epidemiological data, but vulnerability remains inadequately captured by these categories, especially taking into account reports of “chronic COVID-19” and of healthy young people dying or disabled by strokes. The understanding of the role of asymptomatic patients in transmission shifted, in time leading to changing recommendations about face masks. The mortality rate varies greatly across countries linked as it is with pre-existing pandemic preparedness, public health and hospital capacity, testing scope, and mitigation measures – all factors that are not purely scientific or medical. The clinical manifestation of the disease remains as Dr. Fauci recently noticed a “work in progress.” Initially thought to be respiratory tract disease, COVID-19 turned to be more complex with a vast array of effects implicating multiple systems in the body – immune, neurological, or cardiovascular. Other uncertainties surround the efficacity and safety of suggested medications, compounded by ungrounded opinions of political figures. Even harsher uncertainties and contradictions occur once we move from the lab and the hospital to the level of governance. What are the best models that can predict how the pandemic will play out in the future and how can these models guide mitigation strategies and policies? Should states impose strict lockdowns (Italy), soft social distancing recommendations (Sweden), or follow an intensive strategy of testing, tracing, and isolation (South Korea)?
I have seen posts circulating on social media platforms that, after astutely noticing some of these uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, have jokingly commented that they indicate that science has been wobbly in this pandemic. Yet, science is always wobbly, so to speak. What the interdisciplinary fields of science and technology studies (STS) and history of science, disciplines that have influenced my own work on Islamic healing in contemporary Egypt, show is that the process of building scientific knowledge is less a uniform progression towards absolute facts, and more a complex and gradual process, contingent on social, economic, and political factors. Science, STS teaches us, is always already full of uncertainties, changing evidence, disagreements, and controversies. And it is never divorced from the wider society or immune to politics. Such a perspective can help us make some sense of some of the uncertainties, changing recommendations, and controversies around COVID-19. To give a close to home example, an STS-sensitive eye can aid us in understanding (at least analytically) why universities’ divergent plans to reopen or not in fall, to regularly test all students, faculty, and staff or not can all be based on the advice of public health and infectious disease experts. This is not only because science is not divorced from local political and financial calculations, but also simply because experts disagree. If that is the case, what is needed when taking such decisions is a more expansive understanding of safety, risk, and vulnerability that recognizes that these are not only medical issues, but also issues of ethics, justice, and equity.
If from an STS perspective the complexities, uncertainties, and contingencies of COVID-19 are not surprising, what is unprecedented, at least to my knowledge (but I can of course be wrong here), is the extent to which these characteristics became visible in the public space, revealing to the internet-hooked public the process of knowledge formation in medicine and science in all its messiness. As a result, technical terminology long used in specialized fields – “social distancing,” “flattening the curve,” or “personal protective equipment” – has become not only part of our daily lives, but also of our political vocabulary. Public exposure to the process of making science has been aided by the explosion of scientific papers about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, more than 4000 a week according to some reports. In the rush to understand and control the pandemic, journals have shortened time between submission and publication, and pre-print papers that have not undergone the typical peer-review process have been published in open-access venues. The results of some of these studies have been reported in the press and have been consumed by the public. Some were later retracted, or their methods and results were criticized. This phenomenon has increased uncertainty among the public, all the while revealing the complexities of creating medical knowledge.
And speaking of the explosion of knowledge production seen in medical sciences and epistemology, a similar trend has occurred in anthropology beginning with March. It is amazing, and rather overwhelming I might add, the amount of thinking and writing generated by the pandemic in my discipline. Major journals like Cultural Anthropology or The American Ethnologist as well as online blogs like Allegra have curated COVID-19 forums, ranging from diaries, to observational pieces (mini-ethnographies, if you wish), to analytical insights, and reading lists. The website of the American Anthropological Association has started to bring together these disparate resources. As expected, medical anthropologists have been particularly active. Projects to manage and make accessible the volume of information have appeared and calls to action for medical anthropologists were issued identifying core research issues for investigation with the goal to inform health providers of social aspects of the pandemic, assess existing COVID-19 policies, and generate new ideas for pandemic response. Medical anthropological insight and research are essential in the current pandemic in myriad ways: scholars have decades worth of experience studying infectious diseases and epidemics like cholera or HIV/AIDS; a central theoretical strand in medical anthropology (critical medical anthropology) is dedicated to analyzing how structural violence impacts disease and health, as well as medical care; medical anthropologists have foregrounded the importance of people’s experience of illness and of their narratives; and applied medical anthropologists have long been working in local communities and collaborating with medical experts to improve health care and outcomes. One could teach an “Introduction to medical anthropology” course through the lens of the pandemic only. Of course, other humanistic and social scientific disciplines are equally important in creating knowledge of the pandemic and, as important, in rethinking the world in its midst.
I suspect that this avalanche of COVID-19 anthropological studies will continue in the future as the pandemic itself evolves. I don’t mean only in medical anthropology, but also in other subfields – anthropology of religion, kinship studies, economic anthropology, political anthropology, and so on. In the end, the pandemic seems to touch our lives and societies in all their aspects. While I have been fascinated by this explosion of anthropological knowledge, it has also at times made me slightly uneasy. Keeping in mind differences in proportion and context, the pandemic brought to mind echoes of the period immediately following the 2011 Egyptian uprising when I was in Cairo to conduct field research. For some time, it seemed that the uprising was the only possible topic to study, as COVID-19 also seemed to be, at least until the current protests against police violence and racism. Recently, some anthropologists have expressed a similar unease and have warned about the danger of a single topic.
The Work of Witnessing
The scholarly work of anthropologists, as well as of historians, area and ethnic studies specialists, and other humanistic disciplines, is central in making sense and acting against the pandemic. In the past months I have spent quite some time reading such scholarly interventions. Yet the genre of writings that I found most impactful and that really brought home to me the reality of the pandemic is testimonies, accounts of the experiences of those closest to the virus and the disease it causes – patients, families, medical staff. Not separate from it, but interwoven with analytical labor, the work of witnessing, of letting them speak, of listening to and foregrounding such testimonies is essential in this moment.
These accounts are raw, gut-wrenching; they speak with no euphemisms of suffering, loneliness, and death intermingled with care, love, and compassion. They are not a comfortable read. They tell many stories. Stories of families whose loved one died without a chance of saying good-bye or with the only option to talk one last time over the phone or Facetime, families who after that had to postpone the funeral or conduct a socially distant one or perhaps a Zoom-funeral. Then there are stories of exhausted medical staff trying to treat patients and deal with the staggering number of deaths. Among them – this one has been the most touching to me. These are stories of physicians, and especially nurses, thrust into new roles that blur the boundaries between medical providers and families, compelled to provide comfort, presence, and human touch so that people do not die alone. They are stories of physicians for whom the pandemic might mean a shift in careers. And of course there are the stories of those who deal with the deluge of dead bodies. In addition to narrative accounts, visual stories provide another kind of testimony into the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. In New York, a photographer turned nurse grabbed her camera to visually chronicle the unfolding pandemic in her place of work. Established photojournalist John Moore, who had covered the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, has turned now to do the same with coronavirus in New York. An Italian photographer captured the exhausted faces of physicians, marked by the traces of PPE. A group of contemporary photographers initiated the Covid-19 Visual Project, a multimedia platform conceived as a visual archive of the moment.
“I think of a Jennifer, I think of Moyshe, I think of a Santiago, I think of a Melissa, I think of a Bessey and a Betty, I think of an Hernan. I can’t stop thinking of them.” This is how a worker in an improvised morgue in New York ends his account. We also should not stop thinking of them or of the more than 115,000 people who have died in the US since March, including more than 600 health workers. The work of remembering those who have died, of collecting and telling some of their stories or at least of offering a one sentence glimpse of personhood as the NY Times has attempted to do is essential. The work of witnessing is not only a human and ethical act, it is also a political one.
It is political because of how in the rush to reopen states, businesses, universities we seem to forget that between 800 and 1,000 people die each day of COVID-19. It is political because we cannot seem to find a way to go beyond the dichotomy of saving lives vs. saving the economy. And it is political because we tend to ignore countries that have dealt with the pandemic in more successful ways, countries that happen to be non-Western and non-white (like Cuba or Mongolia, among others).
This is also politically essential work because of those who are most impacted by the pandemic in the US (and in other countries). With a troubling consistency, data has shown that minorities – – Black, Native American, and Latinx communities – have higher morbidity and mortality rates; they are more at risk of contracting COVID-19, of having poor health outcomes if they do, and of dying from it. These groups have also been those most affected by the economic impact of the lockdowns put in place last minute to mitigate the spread of a virus too long left unattended. In that sense, to circle back to the widely circulated statement “we are in this together,” while technically true (in the sense that nobody has pre-existing immunity to the novel coronavirus), the statement also functions to mask structural racism and its killing capability. In themselves, these data are not surprising to those who study and fight to address how health is impacted by systemic inequality. The pandemic has just made this even more clear and pushed it into the center of public debates. That a nation-wide uprising against anti-Black police brutality, racism, and white supremacy has erupted in response to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the middle of a pandemic that disproportionately kills black Americans and other disadvantaged groups is telling. They are both struggles to breathe.

A Profile of Andrew Nenow, Asian Studies Major

June 15, 2020

Andrew Nenow is a rising senior with an Asian Studies major and a Computer and Information Science major. He hails from Boone, North Carolina, and came to Chapel Hill as a transfer student from Appalachian State University. He recently was awarded the Boren Scholarship to travel to China and learn Mandarin at Yunnan University during the 2020-21 academic year, though this has been complicated by the pandemic. Andrew has successfully won other awards to support his studies of Mandarin and Chinese studies; he applied for and received a Foreign Languages and Area Studies (FLAS) Scholarship from the Carolina Asia Center. Andrew is also active as a member of the Carolina Analytics and Data Science Club and works as a political science research assistant.

I spoke with Andrew about his experiences trying to continue his study of Chinese amidst the COVID-19 crisis of 2020.

With regards to Covid-19 and my courses moving online, including my summer Chinese courses, it has made it more difficult to practice writing Chinese, but at the same time it has caused me to become more engaged with practicing my vocabulary and speaking on my own, which has been one positive outcome.

I then asked Andrew what has been most meaningful to him about studying Asia since coming to Carolina.

My favorite parts of my Asia-related courses at UNC have been starting to see myself slowly becoming more comfortable conversing in Chinese with some of my peers – a trend I really hope continues! I also have greatly enjoyed learning about Eastern philosophies, but Daoism and Tibetan Buddhism especially interest me.

In terms of his plans for the next year, Andrew is hopeful that he will be able to take advantage of opportunities for learning and leadership on campus:

In the next year, I want to be a part of organizing the 2021 Chinese Leadership Summit, so long as coronavirus will permit such a large event, as well as continuing to write for the Carolina Political Review. I would also like to get involved in a small role with student government in preparation for my time which I will spend with the US government as per my Boren requirements. Later on, I hope to enter the Foreign Service Officer program and work for the Department of State.