October 22, 2011

Consciousness, Motivation and Violence: Review of War of Words, War of Stones

Jonathon Glassman. War of Words, War of Stones: Racial Thought and Violence in Colonial Zanzibar. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

PART 2: Glassman shows in detail how newspaper debates between the two rival parties over Zanzibar's history, slavery, marriage, and land rights became increasingly polarized and racialized. The outcome these polemical exchanges was that any conflict, especially those with a hint of violence, could become politicized. As each side ramped up their violent rhetoric, it drew readers and listeners into an everyday drama where everyone was encouraged and even coerced to choose among racialized political identities. The personal nature of the island's social relationships made these dramas all the more bitter—gradually almost every aspect of everyday life became infused with the tension of potential racial drama. Everything from bus rides and public dances to traffic accidents and crime became an opportunity for transforming the "overlapping discursive circuits" of newspaper discourse and racial rumor into "what many came to imagine as actual lived experience."
The book draws on a wealth of original sources—the enormous number of published newspapers circulating in Zanzibar during the 1950s and 1960s (and even earlier) as well as archival material. Glassman's choice not to draw on oral interviews is a conscious attempt to steer away from the minefield of counter-interpretation generated (and being generated) around the meaning of the 1964 Revolution. Instead Glassman revises and offers fresh interpretations on theories of violence and ethnic conflict.
The arch-instrumentalists who view violence, especially "ethnic" violence, as an expression of class conflict or other material factors often stress that violence has to be "activated" by elites; violence is the outcome of planning and the hard work of social polarization. On the other hand, elites rarely control and direct the violence of crowds and mobs; the crowd's logic is not the product of external direction. Through a detailed examination of the character of mob violence in Zanzibar, Glassman argues that mob violence acts as an incentive for individuals to recast their experience along communal lines. In the context of a polarized political climate where people are encouraged to racialize their daily lives, transgressive violence can appear necessary. Violence in Zanzibar had to overcome the powerful affective bonds and neighborly relations; once it did (through the racialization of everyday experience in the "newspaper wars") criminality and rumor could work powerfully on people's everyday experience of themselves.
Rumor, argues Glassman, enables people to "replace the subjectivity of personal experience with false memories of victimhood." It "turns everyday patterns" and even sounds into "signs of impending violence." For those who actually experience acts of oppression, rumor further encourages them to think of these acts in the overall terms of a racialized narrative. For Zanzibar, Glassman documents how rival discourses of crime and criminality centered on both mainland immigrants from Mozambique and Tanzania and poor "Manga" Arabs from Oman; these discourses aided rival parties in giving concrete representation to their enemy.
Glassman rejects the distinction between acts that are expressions of the "real" consciousness of the crowd, and those they are "manipulated" into performing by elites. Working through the logic of writers like Robert Weinberg and Paul Brass, Glassman concludes that, based on their distinctions, one has to argue that violence in Zanzibar is a product of elite manipulation in the context of contests for political power.
Yet the nature of the violence itself, argues Glassman, contradicts this argument. The "stylized" and "expressive" nature of the killings in Zanzibar belies any notion that elite discourse sat as a form of false consciousness swaying the actions of an irrational mob. Propagandists in Zanzibar, notes Glassman, although they used inflammatory language, never called for violence. The violence instead was activated in the moment where racial discourse became "embodied" reality, often experienced as a fear of violence and domination from the "other." It was mostly a product of everyday experience and not directly shaped by elite direction.
Building on the work of Sudhir Kakar and Natalie Zemon Davis, Glassman argues that a mob focuses and sharpens a group's identity; participation is a kind of group ritual. Mobs are thus both spontaneous and premeditated. Participants' subjectivities and moral conscience are spontaneously re-shaped in the midst of the violent act itself, but their decision to "act spontaneously" is the product of a racialized discursive envirornment, which is then embodied and amplified through rumors and stories.
Glassman's evidence is vast and skillfully deployed, and his argument is subtle and well-stated. Yet while Glassman helpfully deconstructs the divide between spontaneous and induced violence, I wonder if he doesn't leave himself exposed to the criticism that his "false memories of victimhood" engendering "violent subjectivities" too closely resembles a form of false consciousness. In closing the gap between spontaneous and induced violence, I'm inclined to think that Glassman open up an unintended gap between "true" "personal" subjectivity (rational and moral), and "false" "collective" subjectivity. This may encourage readers to think of the "individual" as acting truly (as in heroic stories of individual rescue) as a counterpoint to the madness of the crowd. This thinking, if taken to its logical extreme, leads us back to our original problem, thus demonstrating that many crucial questions remain to be uncovered towards a better understanding of mob violence.


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