Friday, October 12, 2007

Robin Wagner-Pacifici

Robin E. Wagner-Pacifici is Gil and Frank Mustin Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College and author of, most recently, The Art of Surrender: Decomposing Sovereignty at Conflict's End.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm always a little embarrassed when people ask me what I'm reading, because inevitably I'm reading books that are rather dark and, potentially, depressing. But partly out of occupational necessity and partly out of a best-left-unanalyzed personal predilection, I do tend to gravitate toward books about violent conflict. So these days, as I'm trying to understand changes in ideas about national defense, I'm reading several books that attempt to understand war and its consequences. The first is anthropologist Joseph Masco's book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Masco's several years of ethnography in and around Los Alamos explores the way in which the Manhattan Project to design and build nuclear weapons altered the lives of weapons scientists, Pueblo Indian nations, Nuevomexicano communities, and anti-nuclear activists in the post-Cold War era. The book also aims to understand how the atomic bomb changed everyday understandings of time, space and citizenship. A real strength of the book is the strategy of getting at what Masco calls "the nuclear security state" from the ground-up, from an ethnography of its impact on those most proximal to its origins.

I'm also reading The Logic of Violence in Civil War by political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas. Kalyvas, like Masco, also has a commitment to understanding war through doing systematic research at the micro-level. He is particularly focused on violence in civil wars committed against noncombatants, and turns to the case of the Greek Civil War in the 1940s to build his theory. Kalyvas claims that this violence needs to be understood as complicated but systematic, and certainly cannot be analytically swept up by calling it "indiscriminate." Civil wars are greatly under-analyzed forms of violent conflict in general. Their frequency in the post WWII world demands that we come to terms with them -- at least in order to recognize when they break out and what forms they take.

Finally, I'm reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. This is a book I've wanted to read for many years but needed the prod of my son's having been assigned it in school to finally do it. Invisible Man is an amazing, prescient, powerfully poetic, ultimately very sad book. The un-named protagonist is a young African-American man who is flung into the complex world of New York City in the 1940s after a series of bewildering and dismaying experiences with both Southern white society and the administrators of his African-American private college. Ellison's language moves seamlessly across prose and poetry, erudition and dialect. But most of all, he keeps the reader in a constant state of shock as the invisible man's experiences and encounters keep bordering on the surreal. It's that border, where the violence of racism, the dogma of political organizations, the heat and the cold of urban life all collide that is the space of Ellison's brilliant exposition. I read this book in a state of exhausting energy.
Visit the University of Chicago Press website to learn more about The Art of Surrender.

Robin Wagner-Pacifici's other books include Theorizing the Standoff: Contingency in Action (Cambridge University Press, 2000); Discourse and Destruction: The City of Philadelphia Versus MOVE (University of Chicago Press, 1994); and The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama (University of Chicago Press, l986).

--Marshal Zeringue