Circulation in crisis

What do murder, microfinance, and black markets in reptiles have in common? They all featured as part of a panel called "Circulation in Times of Crisis" at the Australian Anthropology Society conference in Canberra from the 5th to 8th November. Convened by Heather Horst and Marta Rosales, this panel explored the relationships between flows and blockages of people, things, information, and media.

First up, Jolynna Sinanan (UCL) talked about the effects of the global financial crisis on women working in garment factories in Cambodia. The garment sector comprises 16% of Cambodia’s GDP, and is an important employer of women, who make long, daily commutes on open trucks rather than run the risks of running their own businesses. Jolynna argued that their preference for wage labour is at odds with development programs' encouragement of entrepreneurship as a path out of poverty. Crisis promotes a search for security.

Next, Alexia Maddox (Deakin University) discussed the global black market in reptiles, looking at twenty-seven countries. Focusing on what motivates the supply side (money and enthusiasm) and demand side (novelty, rarity, genetic representation), she described how she used a "social ecology approach" to understand the networks of circulation of exotic creatures. One particular example that stood out was the poison dart frog, which is coveted for its colourful appearance and application to warfare. The poison that it carries, and which is used to make poison darts, is dependent upon its diet, so when it is traded and removed from its environment it is no longer poisonous. This facilitates its trade as it reduces risk. The contradiction of the black market in exotic reptiles is that buyers purchase them because they are passionate about the animals, yet the majority die in transit, contributing to their endangerment.

My own paper addressed the introduction of mobile money to Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010. I discussed how mobile phones and cash are two powerful mobilizing agents because not only do they move themselves, they help other things overcome crucial barriers to circulation. Today, the vast majority of the world's population has access to both mobile phones and cash. This makes them possibly the most useful tools that we have today to overcome the constraints imposed by barriers to circulation, both during crises and in everyday life.

Marta Rosales's paper (ICS-UL) presented some of her recent research on people and objects circulating between Portugal and Brazil. In contrast to a common view of migration as profoundly transforming the lives of those who move, Rosales focused on people who migrate because they want to maintain their current way of life and fear that they will regress if they remain at home. The economic crisis in Portugal has been a powerful incentive for many to migrate with this intent. Carla, for example, is a young person who migrated to Brazil because:

"I could not move out. Every time I needed something like a book, or jeans or cords for my guitar I had to ask my parents for money. I realised I would never replicate my parents' standards of living if I stayed in Portugal. And they are not rich or anything, but the fact is our generation is condemned in Portugal. That's why I moved. I want to at least have a change of trying to do something with my life. In Portugal at the moment the chances are all pointing out to a strong degradation of middle class life conditions."

In Brazil, Carla found the conditions to live independently, working during the day and singing at night. Yet others who migrate find that their lives do not turn out as they expected. Circulation is complex, especially when initiated due to crisis.

Next up, Kerri-Anne Sheehy (University of Southern Queensland) discussed her work with a choir in Towoomba that includes migrant and non-migrant women. The choir was founded in 2006 in response to tensions involving local responses to an increased settlement of African refugees, including tensions between Aboriginal and Sudanese youth. It now has members from a range of countries, including the United Kingdom, South Korea, Japan, and India. Chorists learn to sing songs from around the world in numerous languages to put all members on the same level of having to learn new repertoires and skills. Members are not expected to be able to sing well; the core group "carries" the others. Kerri-Anne discussed how the choir is intended as "a happy, healing place" that allows members to express their emotions and form community.

Finally, Heather Horst (RMIT) presented ethnographic material on how Jamaicans use sound to cope with their anxiety about violence. Jamaica's sky-high crime rates have compelled people to fortify their houses, but creating "security" isn't just about installing bars. Jamaicans also use sound to establish a presence in absentia, turning on radios throughout their houses when they are going out. This way, the houses will seem occupied and are (they hope) less likely to be robbed. The "architecture of fear" therefore includes a range of aesthetic practices–visual, audial, tactile–with "an interplay between the various senses."

What can we conclude from this diverse range of papers? While the topic is an ambitiously large one, all the papers demonstrated how crisis is not just a failure or reduction of circulation, as we might conceptualize it if we focused solely on economic crisis. Rather, the people who appear in these stories put in an equal amount of effort to arrest the movement of people and things (such as preventing theft or settling in one place). Furthermore, people use a range of material and immaterial means to control whether things circulate, where they circulate, and for how long. When it comes to human emotions and preferences, increases in circulation are not always desirable.