In an early phase of my work on later modern war I explored the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in US counterinsurgency and its invasive mapping of ‘human terrain’, and as part of the attempt to impel (and interpellate) US soldiers into what I called this ‘rush to the intimate’ I considered the role-playing simulations acted out in mock Iraqi villages and towns fabricated for pre-deployment training in the continental United States (see ‘The rush to the Intimate’: DOWNLOADS tab).
In the interim many more detailed studies have appeared, but one of the most imaginative and insightful can be found in Cultural Anthropology (32/1) (February 2017): Nomi Stone‘s Living the laughscream: human technology and effective maneuvers in the Iraq war (open access).
It focuses not on the US soldiers and their reactions but on the Iraqi role-players, many of whom served as US interpreters in Iraq, described by one US officer as ‘the apparatus’ or what Nomi reconceptualizes as ‘human technology’. Their performances are carefully scripted, and yet:
Amid this artifice, role-players have been hired to enact Middle Eastern villagers authentically—not by their own measures, but rather within prescribed military terms. Role-players are asked to be exemplars of their cultures and those cultures must be synchronic, pruned of their excesses and any relationship to the outside: Iraqis, as it were, in a box. However … the Iraqis who worked for the American military first as interpreters and contractors in the 2003 Iraq War and subsequently as role-players are a somewhat unique subset of the population; indeed, they are often quite far removed from the U.S. military’s imagined characteristics of a prototypical Iraqi. Not only are many of them educated, they are also particularly versed in American culture and critical of Iraqi politics. They typically bear an ambivalent relationship to both countries as they negotiate past accusations, allegiances, and the prospect of assimilation. Many show little trust for outsiders and even less for each other, and because of their dangerous affiliations in wartime, they have learned to chameleon in most circumstances. As they are turned into stereotypes inside an archetypal village, and as they act out wartime precarity so often that their homes and their losses turn into even more estranging archetypes, they laugh.
The machine thus turns out to be made of flesh. Role-players inject new ways of being, in part through laughter, into their performances. Those interjections indicate the limits of a military fantasy that believes human beings can be wholly resourced and turned into technologies.
This is on my mind because this past term, in a series of lectures on performance and performativity – the differences between them and the dots that can join them – I returned to these role-playing exercises to flesh out (literally so) the ideas involved; above all, to emphasise how every performance is different even when the script is nominally the same, and so the contingency of the performative.
And ‘the laughscream’?
The [Iraqi role-player] knows or feels more than the military narrative of their experience can accommodate, exceeding the constricted functions prescribed for a hired cultural tool. Additionally, the laughscream acts as a refusal to be lived by the role and the role-players’ fraught wartime pasts. For those accused of betrayal and marginalized by their compatriots, pursued by Iraqi militias and not always trusted by the U.S. soldiers whom they worked for, that past is painful. As one role-player explained, reflecting on the harshness many Iraqis had endured: “We are turned inside out. At the same time, we can laugh and cry.” Indeed, for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military, it is presently prohibitively dangerous to return to their former home, particularly amid the ascendance of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, due to their wartime choices, many now negotiate ongoing ambivalence and feel stranded between nations: although they were frequently ejected to the peripheries of their countries for working with the Americans, many strongly identify with Iraq and are ill at ease with full assimilation in America. As they continue to work for the U.S. military, some conceal that work from their families in Iraq, grappling with how they might be perceived. Amid these tensions, the laughscream functions in part as an actor, an agentive vector out.
Laughter rises to confirm that, for the role-players at least, the Iraq of the simulation is not the Iraq of their homeland. As fake guns sound, role-players repeat themselves, becoming increasingly estranged from the original object. Yet, through laughter, the archetypal and mechanical face of country and person give way to Iraqis who live impossibly hybrid and ambivalent lives in the United States to which they have aligned at such great cost. In the parodic redeployment of power as Judith Butler has conceived it, the mechanical performance of death becomes a complexly subversive act that momentarily insinuates life into the playing of a role.
But there is another reason for reading Nomi’s essay: it is so beautifully written. If, like me, you often feel assailed by the sheer grimness of so much academic prose, provoked into your own laughscream, this is a wonderful demonstration that intellectual agility and analytical depth need not involve the death of style.
Not surprisingly, Nomi is an accomplished poet too: more at her website here. You can also find an excellent interview about her movements in the borderlands between anthropology and artistic practice here:
My academic work and my poetry are inextricable and cross-pollinating. I was a poet first. My first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008) was based on my time in Djerba. I was deeply moved by Carolyn Forché’s call to comprehend the impress of the social on the poetic imagination; this led me to begin conducting ethnographic fieldwork and then to become an anthropologist.
By now, my anthropological engagement is essential to my poetry. As I explained in a poet’s statement some years ago, my philosophy of seeing is “deeply inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate to estrange the familiar and de-estrange the hitherto unknown.” Additionally, my work as an anthropologist sends me both toward moments of conceptual clarity and toward continuous re-complication: as the tidy military diagrams of culture remind us, the world is instead messy and tangled and contingent, as we each engage in the daily work of living and loving and getting by. I want my poems to demand that same complexity, and I only learned how to think it through the wonderful, arduous, and singular training that becoming an anthropologist demanded. What an astonishment to spend seven years shuttling back and forth between reading social theory about war, Empire, technology, migration, and laughter or political histories of America and Iraq and then witnessing the stagings of Empire itself, in its scatterings across the Middle East and the United States, as well as interviewing those whose lives had been demarcated and unmade by those very terms. These forms of seeing and knowing are to me humbling, and both my in-progress ethnographic manuscript and my forthcoming collection of poems, Kill Class, are the beneficiaries of that long academic journey.
Kill Class is due from Tupelo Press later this year; the collection is based on her ethnographic fieldwork across those US military training camps. You can find her poem ‘War Game, America’ here.
“What to do when the concepts and methods most essential to a field of scholarship are taken and deployed as instruments of war? American anthropology has struggled with this question since the Cold War era, when many fieldworkers were drawn into counterinsurgency campaigns around the globe. In this courageous and compassionate book, Kill Class, Nomi Stone offers a new way of grappling with this most difficult problem. Her stark and unflinching poems give a harrowing sense of cultural understanding made into a vehicle of state violence. At the same time, with tremendous delicacy and grace, they enter into the minds and lives of American soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts, revealing bewilderment where you would have thought to find certitudes, vulnerability where you would expect only hardness, small moments of wonder in the face of horror. The result is a truly arresting ethnography of American military culture, one that allows readers to circle at length through the cloverleaf interchanges where warfare nestles into the most mundane corners of everyday life, only to arrive at an exit where you would have expected least to find it: in an ethics of radical and transformative encounter, a way of coming undone in the company of others through the practice of sympathetic imagination.” Anand Pandian, Johns Hopkins University
There’s also an earlier interview with her about her fieldwork (and her ideas about later modern war) over at the Wenner-Gren blog here: also well worth reading and savouring.
All this is much on my mind because over Christmas I read Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Sparsholt Affair and luxuriated in its mesmerising prose; as with other authors I admire this isn’t a purely formal (ahem) affair, though he is undoubtedly a master stylist. Rather, you can roll the words around in your mouth, taste them and so find yourself ineluctably drawn into – rather than distracted from – the pulsing arc of the narrative: in an inversion of the metaphor with which I began, consumed by it. So too The Swimming-Pool Library and Line of Beauty. I get the same immersive pleasure from authors like Tom McCarthy (C is still one of my all-time favourite novels), Pat Barker (try Noonday) and Sarah Waters (oh, The Night Watch!). This isn’t a matter of genre either; Peter May‘s Lewis trilogy is one of the finest works of crime fiction I know, along with almost anything by the ought-to-be legendary John Harvey (also a poet).
I’ve never forgotten a prescient admonition by Pierce Lewis in ‘Beyond description‘ (which appeared in the Annals of what was then the Association of American Geographers in 1985) – a lovely, lovely essay about passion and prose – in which he forestalled a possible objection: ‘we are not trained to be painters or poets, and while that is true, I do not think we should boast about it.’
For the record, I’ve written my share of God-awful prose, especially in the early stages of my career; the fault wasn’t only the dismal Harvard reference system (though it doesn’t help at all: too many names and dates crammed into brackets you have to hurdle over in a madcap race to retain the meaning of the sentence). The colonial present was a cathartic release, in a way, because – after completing that awful opening chapter – I started to lose my academic voice. I’m not desperate to get it back, and the two books I’m working on now will, I hope, show how far I’ve come.
But who, I wonder, are your favourite stylists?
Postscript: For my rant about the Harvard reference system, see ‘Gregory, D.’ (DOWNLOADS tab). And there’s more on the corporeality and contextuality of (my) writing here.