Remote and edgy

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Erik Harms, Shafqat Hussain, Sasha Newell, Charles Piot, Louisa Schein, Sara Shneiderman, Terence S. Turner, and Juan Zhang. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.020


Remote and edgy

New takes on old anthropological themes

Edited by Erik Harms, Shafqat Hussain and Sara Shneiderman

Erik Harms, Yale University, Shafqat Hussain, Trinity College, Sasha Newell, North Carolina State University, Charles Piot, Duke University, Louisa Schein, Rutgers University, Sara Shneiderman, Yale University, Terence S. Turner, Cornell University, Juan Zhang, University of New England

Eight anthropologists working in various parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America reflect on an essay by Edwin Ardener on the concept of remote areas recently reprinted in HAU (Volume 2, Issue 1). These reflections all show that the idea of the remote can be detached from its geographical moorings and understood not simply as a spatial concept but as a relativistic social construct. Considered in conjunction with the notion of edginess, they understand remoteness not so much as a place, but as a way of being. By purposefully comparing work in cities and in places more commonly described as remote, they show that the remote may be present in any site of anthropological inquiry.

Keywords: remote areas, edginess, margins, Edwin Ardener, place, borders


Erik Harms and Shafqat Hussain

In this collaborative, multi-authored essay, we present a series of short reflections on the concepts of the remote and edginess written by eight anthropologists working in very different parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These reflections are inspired by an essay by Edwin Ardener ([1987] 2012) on the concept of “remote areas” recently reprinted in HAU, and were also the subject of a roundtable session at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association held in San Francisco in 2012. Encountering Ardener’s text a quarter century after it was originally published, we were convinced that he had identified something important and enduring when he suggested that “distance lends enhancement, if not enchantment, to the anthropological vision” (ibid.: 520). While anthropology no longer insists on the importance of going away to distant lands as the main reason for conducting fieldwork, there was something intriguing in Ardener’s essay about the ways “anthropological vision” builds rhetorically from an engagement with “the remote.” Here we saw a provocative prompt that would give a diverse group of anthropologists an opportunity to reflect on how remoteness continues to inform anthropological thinking, even when geographical distance is no longer central to the concept.

Taken together, these reflections all show, in some way or another, that the idea of the remote can be detached from its geographical moorings and understood not simply as a spatial concept but as a sociological concept of relative association or familiarity. Remoteness is not so much a place as a way of being. To show this, we have deliberately brought scholars working in very different ethnographic contexts into conversation with each other, purposefully juxtaposing anthropological work conducted in cities with work conducted in places that more commonly would be described as remote. In doing so, we show that remoteness proves to be very present in all of these different sites of anthropological inquiry. Ardener himself had said as much: “Not all purely geographical peripheries are in this condition, and it is not restricted to peripheries” (ibid.: 532). Remoteness might appear in the most unexpected of places—sometimes right in front of the anthropologist’s nose. Furthermore, we show that while urban spaces can in some cases can be perceived as remote and edgy, it is also possible for the edges of nation-states to be perceived as the center of their own socio-cultural formations. Remoteness is ultimately a relational category, and anthropologists working anywhere may build productively from the analytic concept of remoteness. Regardless of their field site, anthropologists cannot take remoteness for granted. Any study of remoteness must attend constantly to the concept’s shifting valences, and must see it as a category subject to transformation by state agendas, majority politics, economic interests, and contested identities. Remoteness is not simply a static condition found somewhere out there beyond the pale; rather, it is always being made, unmade, and transformed.

In the collection assembled here, Ardener’s musings are especially interesting for the way they bring urban anthropologists into conversation with anthropologists working in distinctly nonurban places. This is precisely how the roundtable session that prompted these papers came about: Shafqat Hussain stumbled upon Ardener’s piece while researching a book on Hunza in Northern Pakistan (Hussain 2009). This region is typically represented as remote, in its classical (geographical) sense, and a host of sentiments and conceptual categories—from mythical civilizations to mythical nature—are attached to Hunza’s remoteness. But when he shared Ardener’s work with Erik Harms, who works on the fringes of Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), it quickly became clear that the concepts also resonated with Harms’ research on periurban space. Residents from Saigon’s central districts would describe the periurban fringe where Harms worked (in Hoc Mon district) as exceedingly remote, despite the fact that it was only eighteen kilometers from the hip central business district in Saigon’s District 1. All of a sudden conversations about the Himalayas began to seem relevant to an urban anthropologist working in Ho Chi Minh City, a lowland city of more than eight million people.

These encounters with remoteness in very different places led to the question of how the remoteness of an urban fringe might compare with the more classical remoteness of the Himalayan context. The comparison very clearly demonstrates the degree to which remoteness is a sociological concept of relative associations. Its meaning is neither fixed nor determined by a geographical metric, but emerges out of sociocultural processes which are themselves situated within structural conditions, including but not limited to: the economics of land, the socio-cultural production of space, the geopolitics of national borders, the politics of ethnicity and citizenship, struggles for social services and inclusion, or conversely, state evasion. Furthermore, it is clear that historical process and political context impact the way different societies experience the constructs of rural versus urban, upland versus lowland, civilized versus barbarian, and so on. In all cases, understanding how these formations come about, change, and even how they sometimes persist, requires attention to history, political economy, ideology, and everyday social life.

In a recent book, Saigon’s edge (2011), Harms described something very similar with the concept of social edginess. This term describes the way in which people living on urban fringes oscillate between a sense of power and danger that comes from their position in relationship to the larger city against which their marginal position is defined. Living on the edge of a city literally puts people on edge and makes them edgy in all the empowering and disempowering ways implied by the word: life outside the center of the city at times pushed them over the edge, and at other times put them on the cutting edge of opportunity. As outsiders in relationship to the city’s inner districts, the people on Saigon’s edge were marginalized. But they also played on their position and essentialized their edginess strategically/ pragmatically as a way to carve out opportunities in the world.

The history of Hunza also shows that remote areas cannot be disentangled from projects of modernity at a global scale. But the history and contemporary ethnography of Hunza suggests that while the geographical remoteness of Hunza is a given condition, the way it is imagined has depended upon who has done the imagining and within which political, intellectual, and cultural context. Hussain’s research shows how the people of Hunza, like the people of the Dolakha region in Nepal as shown by Sara Shneiderman, the residents of Kabre village in Togo as shown by Charles Piot, or like the people of Guizhou in China as shown by Louisa Schein, too, strategically deploy their positions of remoteness in their interactions with various outside players.

What becomes clear from the various pieces in this forum is that these seemingly different kinds of places all exhibit elements of what Ardener describes as remoteness. These places are at once locations and social relations that are not outside the core/structure of a culture, rather they are connected to it in a particular way, which gives them a singularity. Consider, then, Edmund Leach’s (1961) work on the idea of topological space, which represents the level of connectedness of elements of a system. Leach discusses society in structuralist terms as a figure whose shape changes at different points of connection (ibid.: 7–8). Thus, depending upon the connectivity, the shape of a culture may appear different from different vantage points. It is in this way we can think of remoteness as not only determined by topography, but also topology, that is the level of connectedness experienced in cultural vocabulary. So two geographical locations may be equally distant in topographic space from a third location, but the connectedness in physical and conceptual space of the two may not be the same. Generally speaking then, remote areas and edges are distinguished by other areas and places because of their sense of apartness based on their special connectivity to surrounding regions. This condition of remoteness must be understood in relation to issues of historical, political, and economic power and to how people both reproduce and challenge their position everyday.

The title of our collection—“Remote and edgy”—insists that remoteness is never fixed; it is not a predetermined and enduring place but a process situated in dynamic fields of power. The condition is always infused with the edgy feeling experienced by people living in a world where the relations of inside and outside, near and far, proximate and remote are always contested. Calling remoteness edgy means thinking of remoteness as an active process. As a noun, an edge refers to a boundary zone between the remote and the near. But the edge is more than a passive noun; it can be an edgy adjective, or even edge itself like a verb into discourse and social action. Social actors can be edgy, moving productively between remote spaces and the centers of power and influence. They can be on the cutting edge or, alternatively, cut by the sharp edge of dispossession (Harms 2011: 35–36). If the remote is a largely spatial concept that implies otherness, edginess inserts a sense of the ways human beings negotiate and wield remoteness as a strategy for living in the here and now. However, because the remote is often geographically close, it must be understood as not just a spatial concept but also as a state of mind, a mode of social practice, or a technique of conceptual ordering. The remoteness of which we speak may be physically distant or contiguous, real or imagined, material or primarily symbolic. But in all cases, the remote is edgy. These are all themes that clearly resonate with anthropological approaches to understanding social life; the remote and the edgy, one might say, have long been central to the discipline.

In general, until the 1950s the dominant paradigm in anthropology was based on the belief that “by studying those furthest from modern man we could better understand the meaning of being human” (Cohn 1987: 29, emphasis added). Claude Lévi-Strauss (1963: 16) wrote,

Both history and ethnography are concerned with societies other than the one in which we live. Whether this otherness is perceived as remoteness in time (however slight), or remoteness in space … is of secondary importance compared to the basic similarity in perspective.

In early anthropological studies remoteness was an important methodological criterion of a society to be studied because it stood for isolation. Such isolation implied, to anthropologists, a discrete and bounded society which could be viewed at a distance (hence constructed as remote) and described in its entirety and clarity—a holistic view—a condition that was the foundation of early ethnographic writings. The “other” was also constructed theoretically through evolutionary discourse. Thus anthropologists studied remote societies because spatial distance also stood for temporal distance, as shown by Johannes Fabian (1983), who maintains that, from the perspective of Europe, what was beyond it was also before it.

But remote areas are not necessarily cast as embodying “the other” because of some predetermined quality; rather, it is because they are understood to be strange in some way or another. This strangeness, of course, is relational, defined in contrast to perceived spaces of familiarity against which some areas are deemed remote. For example, some of the core ideas and practices associated with modern nation-states since the late nineteenth century—exploration and categorization, boundary marking and delimiting territories, industrialization, nationalism—are addressed through persistent engagement with the concept of remoteness. Conceptions of remoteness thus typically emerge from within structures of familiarity. As such, remote areas are not outside the field of power of the dominant social structure but entangled with it. Ideas of edges and remote spaces are intimately bound up in the construction of centers.

The etymology of remoteness suggests that the word remote derives from the Latin, remotus, the past participle of removere, to remove. It is thus a basic condition of positionality, measured/evaluated in terms of farness and nearness, in real (geographical) and conceptual space. The social construction of remoteness is not only about spatial and discursive practices and power but also about affect, which Hugh Raffles (2002: 326) describes as the “perpetual mediator of rationality.” Remote areas are marked by a kind of estrangement and/or uniqueness: remoteness is to space what strangers or un-familiars are to social relations, but not all strangers are equal or equally strange. Writing about this Zygmut Bauman (1990: 147–48) states:

The “unfamiliars” come in a number of kinds, of unequal consequences. One pole of the range is occupied by those who reside in practically remote (that is, rarely visited) lands, and are thereby limited in their role to setting the limits of familiar territory (the ubi leones, written down as danger warnings on the outer boundaries of the Roman maps). Exchange with such unfamiliars is set aside from the daily routine and normal web of interactions as a function of a special category of people (say, commercial travelers, diplomats or ethnographers), or a special occasion for the rest. Both territorial and functional means of institutional separation easily protect—indeed, reinforce—the unfamiliarity of the unfamiliars, together with their daily irrelevance.

In remote areas, the strangeness of strangers and unfamiliars is overdetermined, that is, one is unsure or a bit vague about the real determinants of their strangeness, and this very condition makes the strangeness of remote areas of a different, perhaps unique kind. Ardener ([1987] 2012: 531) writes in this vein when he states that a remote area “produces that note of eccentricity and over-definition of individuality, if you like an over-determination—or to exaggerate slightly, a structure of strangers.” This affective quality of remoteness is perhaps best captured in the pieces by Sasha Newell and Terence Turner, in which cultural estrangement and geographical connectivity vary together.

In what follows, we show that there is something productive to be gained from looking at edges and remote areas, be they understood as geographical spaces or social constructs. And we are of course not alone: James C. Scott (2009) has made the case for this with his work on Zomia—forcing scholars to recognize the ways in which seemingly remote populations might be conceived not as outcasts but independent minded peoples who willfully reject the regimentation of the sedentary agricultural state, with its bureaucracies, uniformities, simplifications, and other banalities. Setha Low (2001: 45) says something similar about cities when she notes that “contradictions and conflict at the center are often drawn more vividly at the edge.” In the outer-islands of Indonesia, Anna Tsing (1994: 279) argues for the importance of margins as “an analytical placement that makes evident both the constraining, oppressive quality of cultural exclusion and the creative potential of rearticulating, enlivening, and rearranging the very social categories that peripheralize a group’s existence.” Margins are “sites from which to see the instability of social categories … the zones of unpredictability at the edges of discursive stability” (ibid.). These examples show that while the remote may no longer be defined by spatial relations or pure geographic distance, a host of current anthropological concepts continue to profit from the spatial sense of separation and the epistemological difference that it implies: borders, marginality, frontiers, Zomia, periurban spaces, slums, enclaves.

In the following short reflections, anthropologists working not only in hinterlands and uplands but also in urban centers, discuss the many forms remoteness takes and how it informs their anthropological research. Writing from downtown Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, Sasha Newell theorizes remoteness as the potent residue that accumulates in the invisible gaps between established categories of social value. From this perspective, he posits that every urban edge has a remote side, a space of relative semiotic freedom contained by unforgiving boundaries. From the perspective of a village in West Africa commonly described by scholars as remote, Charles Piot historicizes the category of the remote and shows how village and identity categories cannot be understood without reference to colonial policies as well as post-colonial relational personhood. In this respect, the remote is fully modern and cosmopolitan, but also normative. Louisa Schein, writing from what she calls the “edges of alterity” in China’s Southwest, shows, like Piot, that alterity is historically changing; the Miao both resist being marginalized and promote ethnic tourism that celebrates their society as existing on the “edge of time.” Sara Shneiderman, writing from the hill district of Dolakha in Nepal, describes remoteness as a relational category in ways that resonate with Schein’s study of the Miao. Like Newell’s observations in an urban setting, furthermore, these observations from Nepal highlight how the politics of remoteness connects to the production of alterity and how groups can mobilize their simultaneous recognition as both outside of and connected to other groups for pragmatic political purposes. Like Piot’s example from West Africa, this example further demonstrates that remoteness may be understood as an agentive, necessarily historicized category. Terence Turner’s contribution draws an unexpected but enlightening connection between the Russian formalist ideas of Boris Eichenbaum about estrangement (ostranenie), and shamanistic transformations among the Kayapó of Amazonian Brazil. In the flying shaman, Turner seeks out the edge of epistemological boundaries just as Eichenbaum pushed the limits of intellectual life in the Soviet Union; both of them encounter great power and danger when they push to the remote corners of possibility. Finally, by bringing us to Hekou, a Chinese town on the border with Vietnam, Juan Zhang emphasizes the concept of edginess, exploring it as a blending of abject marginalization and developmentalism, as well as raw economic ambition. The border town is simultaneously constructed as the edge of an empire and the center of a new economic order founded on border-transgressions with the subversive potential to enable new possibilities. Like all of the pieces in this collection, Zhang highlights the role of historical, political, and economic forces to show that the remote is best understood as an edgy place of contested social life.


From the edge of shadow: Remotely central in Abidjan

Sasha Newell

Remoteness is not an obvious adjective for Treichville, a district at the center of Abidjan, a city of over four million and an economic hub for Francophone West Africa. In applying it to my research locale, I test its conceptual value as a “relational category” (Shneiderman, this forum) for socially and geographically central spaces. Erik Harms’ (2011) attention to the ideologies and practices surrounding urban edges reveals how spaces that share qualities with Edwin Ardener’s remote zones might emerge at the heart of urbanity. Ardener writes of remoteness as social space that, due to the sheer length of travel, is ill-defined by hegemony—the hard edges of social order at the center blur out as their lines extend outwards into distant and difficult terrain. But perhaps a lack of connectivity rather than distance per se produces such an unfocused arena. Remoteness might then be similar to Michael Thompson’s (2003) category of rubbish—the potent residue that accumulates in the invisible gaps between established categories of social value. As such, remoteness is always lurking in the very crevices of centralized structure. Some people (outlaws, for example) seek out remote spaces to profit from invisibility, while others are wedged into them by socioeconomic forces beyond their control. Thus, residual and disorderly social material collects in the interstices, in the shadows cast by semiotic walls too ideologically important to allow for visible anomaly. Perhaps every urban edge has a remote side, a space of relative semiotic freedom contained by unforgiving boundaries. Thus, the event-richness, singularity, and individual self-definition of remote zones may be the product of the very ordering principles that try to shut out such variation. In the shadows cast by the searchlights of the panopticon, the edges between things are harder to see.

Abidjan’s location surrounding a lagoon has allowed for a naturalized segmentation into zones with very different characteristics and spatiotemporal qualities. The physical connections that exist are typically highways, bridges, and underpasses most pedestrians find dangerous and uninviting. Furthermore, because most people rely on a web of collective taxis and unlicensed bus services with self-determined routes, the relative distance between zones has more to do with the market for particular trajectories than geographic distance. Disparities of distance are thus greatly exaggerated by ideological social divisions. Remoteness is a problem endemic to the internal infrastructure of Abidjan.

Most residents would describe the skyscrapers of Plateau—the “Manhattan of West Africa”—as Abidjan’s center. Enthusiastically illuminated by flashing electric signs, the buildings were falling into disrepair under the abjection of a fickle global economy that left behind the “Ivoirian Miracle” of the 1960s. Unlike Harms’ (2011: 54) elegant spatiotemporal map of Saigon, which contrasts the historical depth of the city center to the expansive contemporary edge of the periphery, Abidjan’s modernity seemed to concentrate in the Plateau and bleed outwards towards a village-like periphery populated by huts and palm-wine vendors. On closer inspection, temporal flow was disproportionately distributed, pooling around mushrooming neoclassical villas of Riviera while leaving other quarters stagnant, but also siphoned off into the invisible pockets where it nurtured threatening subcultural concatenations. Surrounding Plateau were a variety of quartiers, each characterized stereotypically by Abidjan’s residents. To name a few: Cocody and successive Rivieras 1–5 were for the elites, Zone Quatre for Europeans, Abobo was “the village,” Marcory for bluffeurs (those who devoted themselves to the appearance of success). While Paris and Saigon have clearly mapped perimeters, Abidjan remains a fractal city, its internal edges more clearly demarcated than its periphery. The French designed Treichville as the original quartier indigène, anxiously placing it on the other side of the lagoon from Plateau, connected only by an easily-destroyed floating bridge. The quarter now serves as a hub connecting the city, and until the disruptions of 1999 it contained the largest market and most vibrant nightlife. However, residents of other quartiers continued to see it as dangerous, unpredictable, and supported largely by “edgy” activities and illicit economies. Its residents were often characterized as nouchi (bandits), and many lived on the precarious edge of day to day urban survival, unemployed and always in search of the next manzement (source of income). While some used the word nouchi derogatorily to edge out the impoverished as vaut riens (worthless), Treichville youth appropriated it as a sign of urban savvy. The popular culture associated with nouchi identity—its encoded argot, its music and dance, its clothing style—became iconic of Ivoirian coolness: the “cutting edge.” Even as their parents looked down on nouchi as a perversion of Ivoirian culture, elite youth were learning nouchi slang, listening to music from the quartiers populaires, and dressing in imitation of Abidjan’s “mafia.”

Obscured from the gaze of the elites, who demonstrated their elevated refinement through the mimetic performance of Frenchness, Treichville’s combination of symbolic remoteness and geographic centrality made it a space of cultural freedom and creativity within which an alternative, local source of urban modernity could flourish. As James Ferguson (2006: 17) writes, the shadow is not merely obfuscation, nor a “dim or empty” double of its original: “A shadow, after all, is not a copy but an attached twin—a shadow that sticks with you.… A shadow in this sense is not simply a negative space, a space of absence; it is a likeness, an inseparable other-who-is-also-oneself to whom one is bound.” Treichville began as the dark and frightening shadow of colonial Plateau, itself a shadowy counterfeit of Paris and Manhattan. However, like Schein’s (this forum) Miao pop singer, more recently these quartiers of disconnected remoteness have created their own sources of illumination through appropriations of popular music, media, and the dissemination of urban slang as a new founts of modern national identity. Like Turner’s (this forum) Kayapó shaman, it was through encounters with estrangement that nouchi and elite youth alike took hold of new and dangerous powers of appearance with which to transform their identity. Edged out of modern membership into the relative remoteness of invisibility (Ferguson 2006), Abidjan’s shadows looked back.


Entangled histories

Charles Piot

In northern Togo, remoteness has long been an effect of power. During the Atlantic slave trade this area was a hinterland raided by coastal kingdoms, defined as subhuman and savage, its remoteness evincing its vulnerability. The colonial remade the area as a labor reserve, its inhabitants drafted to build the French colony’s infrastructure, its brawn and backwardness opposed in the colonial imaginary to a more “civilized” coastal region. During the early postcolonial period, the underdeveloped north signified an inferior, always less-than place, forever in need of a modernizing embrace. Today, Togolese Pentecostals demonize its villages, seeing them as heathen and satanic, once again removing them from humanity’s core. As if fulfilling its representational destiny, this area remains marked in 2014 by all the signs of remoteness and allochronicity: straw-roofed houses, subsistence farming, gift exchange, ceremonies to the spirits and ancestors.

What then might an anthropology of the remote in such an area consist of— and how to avoid the traps and perils of Orientalist prejudice? My own approach is to engage in a double move: on the one hand, historicizing out-of-the-way-ness (see also both Schein and Shneiderman, this forum), thus attempting to render it self-same and less other, and on the other, holding onto its difference, thus preserving its queer potential for theory. Remote areas and queer epistemologies have been potent sites of anthropological theorizing, and I would insist that they remain so today.

In thinking the history of this area, I aim not only to show how its remoteness is a constructed category but also to understand its entanglement with the modern. The first moment in this entanglement, c.1600–1850, was that of the Atlantic slave trade—a foundational moment in the creation of European modernity (Gilroy 1993)—when this hilly area became a refuge, absorbing tens of thousands fleeing violent capture across the subregion, while also providing the Americas with part of its labor force. The area was remade during the colonial period, 1884–1960, by administrative policies of ethnicization and villagization, in which ethnic groups were created and named, with the category “Kabre” enunciated for the first time and “villages” becoming fiscal units (Roitman 2005) that provided the French with tax and labor. In the 1920s, small groups of Kabre were forcibly relocated to southern Togo where they began cash farming and eventually established the periphery of a busy diaspora whose comings and goings were organized by the push-pull of money-making in the south and ceremony in the homeland. This era constituted Kabre as a “traveling culture” (Clifford 1997) rather than one fixed by place or territory. The early Independence period, c.1960–1990, saw this area’s incorporation into a native son’s nationalist project, with, among other things, Togo’s Kabre president from 1967–2005 returning home each year to witness ceremonies and local wrestling matches—thus showing his ongoing attachment to the local while also recruiting champion wrestlers into the army.

As suggested, the challenge for me in thus historicizing remoteness—in thinking the Kabre village as inside rather than outside modernity, in attempting to recuperate it from Orientalism’s dustbin—was to make sure I did not also write out its difference. While fully modern, and indeed cosmopolitan—if by that term we mean that people partake in a social life characterized by flux, uncertainty, encounters with difference, and processes of transculturation—Kabre nevertheless organize their world along recognizably non-Eurocentric lines. They mix relational personhood with individualism, spirit worship with Christianity, local styles with those gleaned from MTV, witchcraft with biomedicine—and constantly remind us that there cultural-ontological assumptions are different. In so doing—in thus insisting at once on Kabre similarity and difference, on its double-ness as both inside and outside the modern (Gilroy 1993)—I hope to retain some of anthropology’s epistemological edginess in challenging bourgeois normativity. Such “queering” (Wiegman 2012) has always been for me one of anthropology’s strengths and a source of properly political critique.

The most recent epoch in this genealogy of Kabre social formations demonstrates that the village remains a laboratory of the modern and that such rural sites—abandoned by many in the contemporary generation of scholars who prefer the urban—remain a vanguard in an ever-evolving global south history (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012). Since the end of the Cold War and the pullback of the state, these rural spaces have been saturated with Pentecostal churches and NGOs performing sovereign functions, literally deciding who will live and who die (Agamben 1998), and organizing population in a biopolitical-statistical register. Today, too, new global temporalities—more “punctuated” (Guyer 2007) and miraculous than linear and teleological—organize social and political life.

Throughout my work, I have found inspiration in vernacular categories of the outside and distant—of the remote. For Kabre in the villages, the bush beyond the village—the uncultivated space beyond village contours, the diaspora, the capital city, the metropole—have long been sites of potential and possibility, of superordinate power, of human-animal encounter, of generativity and capture. Like many across the continent, Kabre are forever engaged in processes of “extraversion” (Bayart 2000), attempting to refigure and remake insides through that which lies beyond. In a word, Kabre are positively attached to queering and transforming that which lies at home by appropriating remote others—not unlike anthropology itself.


The edges of alterity

Louisa Schein

How can interior be remote? What spatial imaginary envisions an inside that is socially peripheral but not on any geographic edge? These conundrums emerge as I reflect on three decades of working with ethnic minorities in China’s south-west—specifically the Miao. Standard descriptions of China’s spatial organization regularly map minority regions as ringing central China along the sensitive international borders with Southeast and Central Asia, Mongolia, and North Korea. But the province where I work—Guizhou—is not situated on the international border but rather contiguous with provinces like Yunnan and Guangxi that abut Vietnam, Laos, and Burma. These latter provinces have historically been considered less socially and economically remote than Guizhou, even though they are further from China’s coastal and urban regions, sites marked by concentrations of state and market that constitute Chinese “centers.”

What constitutes Guizhou’s remoteness, then? As the editors of this forum stress, remoteness is contingent and relational—and inexorably co-implicated with power. I am interested in how the material interacts with the sociopolitical in the form of discourse and policy to produce Guizhou’s remoteness. Poverty synergized with topography; precipitous mountains made for little transportation and a shortage of arable land. Transportation in the form of roads and public conveyances was sparse, isolation was the norm, and the dense concentration of minorities coincided with recalcitrance of the state in putting resources toward development. Indeed, the area where I worked was long considered the “Miao pale,” denoting a mountain stronghold where minorities refused to be subdued and fought against incursions of the Chinese state and its civilizing practices.

This trope of fierce independence is “good to think” as a social imaginary of remoteness. When is remote space “deep”—like a forest is deep? In a perverse dialectic, Miao ethnic alterity became imbricated with topographical inaccessibility, each buttressing the other. Alteric as excluded, but alteric as menacing. The responsibility for material remoteness was displaced onto a narrative of the unassimilable that was resistant, however, to full penetration by civilization—or by state power.

Is it, then, the thinned out reach of the nation-space, or of the state, that configures which spaces are remote? What does it tell us when inhabitants of the remote are cocreators of its imaginaries?

The so called Miao pale was incorporated in unprecedented ways when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) arrived in the 1940s and the decades of Maoist governance began. When I first started going to these areas in the 1980s, I found socialist peasants emerging from agricultural collectivization as they were all over China. Although Miao language was still the primary language, villages were graced with PA systems such that everyone heard patriotic music and national news in standard Mandarin twice a day.

But just as these villages were losing their material remoteness over the twentieth century, something else was happening. For urbanites—people who felt themselves to be at the center—a sense of losing national identity due to the Open Door to the West and modernization dovetailed with a fascination with interior alterity. While the coastal cities grew ever more uniform, the desire for alteric spaces that were at once Chinese and exotic, what novelist Amy Tan (2008) called villages on the “edge of time,” grew in the social imaginary of mainstream and even overseas Chinese.

By the 1990s and 2000s, this resulted in a boom in ethnic tourism (Oakes 1998). Unlike Juan Zhang’s case (see this forum), where location on the international border made for a trade boom, and hence “the remote turn[ed] ‘backward’ nobodies into pioneers of reform,” in Guizhou, the remote turned this “backwardness” into a commodity for consumption. The result has been a kind of double move. As tourists flocked to minority areas like the Miao pale, their presence contributed to the region growing less and less remote. And yet, the marketability of these destinations was ever buttressed by their construction as remote, resonating with Sara Shneiderman’s description in this forum of how a comparable construction in Nepal elicited donor funds.

In the flickering subjectivities of tourists, though, desire was commonly expressed for scenery, vistas, good photo opportunities, fresh air and water. Might this reflect a post-alteric sensibility: the decreasing salience of cultural difference as demarcating these remote zones?

In recent years I have been documenting a Miao pop star, A You Duo (Schein 2012). A native of rural Guizhou, she cultivated a singing career, achieved a national reputation, and won national contests. Maneuvering inside, as Charles Piot (this forum) puts it, rather than outside modernity, she has used her fame to stage her Miao-ness in big cities, to Chinese audiences. She wears full costume and sings some of her lyrics in Miao. As Guizhou’s “image ambassador,” her visibility produces good press for the province. Her circulation and consumption in urban sites, it is hoped, promotes both tourism and business in the province. We could say that this is a kind of trafficking in alterity, but here’s where it gets interesting. In recent years, A You Duo has also been elected as a delegate to the National People’s Congress. With verve and ardor, she represents her province in the national capital, participating in the business of the central state.

Notions of empire too easily smuggle in top-down formulations that impute passivity to those furthest from the center (Pan 2011: 58). As in the collection Empire at the margins (Crossley, et al 2006: 20): “The range of ways in which actors reinforced or subverted the boundaries, whether in the ideological, economic, social, or political realms, is dazzling.… The plastic intermediate zones—our ‘margins’— where they met and mingled become sites for the formation of social identity.” A You Duo’s self-commodification, and her dispatch toward the center by the remote state, reveals the social field to be comprised of agents “all the way down” and the spatially alteric to be under negotiation at the nexus of state, market, and locality.


Remoteness as a relational category

Sara Shneiderman

Some months ago, I spoke with the newly appointed Executive Director of a small NGO working in Nepal. One of their sites is in Dolakha, a hill district where I have conducted anthropological research with the Thangmi ethnic community for over fifteen years. The US-based Director had not yet visited Nepal, and called to ask me what Dolakha was like.

I had just returned from six weeks there, and was impressed by the rate of infrastructural development leading to greater connectivity for residents of this hill district. There is now a paved road winding through villages from which people once had to carry sick villagers for hours to reach a hospital, electricity is in almost every home, and there is a fully functioning mobile network through which at least one member of nearly every household was connected. I recounted all this to the Director. I could see her face fall. She said remorsefully, “But I thought it was remote there.” She continued to explain that it was the idea of remoteness which often encouraged donors to give, and that she would need to rethink her “sell.”

In Nepal—as elsewhere, as Louisa Schein’s piece in this forum demonstrates through the idiom of “alterity” in China—remoteness is a relational category, a characteristic which fades in and out of visibility as a designation for specific locales depending upon who is talking about them and why. The concept has both pragmatic political uses—for states, the people who live in them, and non-state actors like this organization—as well as a range of psychological, emotional, and embodied affects for the people who use it.

The 140 km long road that connects Dolakha to Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu has been in place since the mid-1960s, built with Chinese funding as part of China’s strategy to secure a strategic border region with the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Dolakha residents can reach Kathamandu in about five hours on a bus that runs several times a day. Relatively speaking, then, Dolakha is well-connected to the center, and has been for a long time—in contrast to many parts of Nepal, particularly in the Far West, where it still takes several days of hard travel by foot to reach even a district center, let alone the capital.

Yet, Dolakha is still classified by the Nepali government as durgam kshetra, or a “remote region.” The literal meaning of durgam is “impassable.” This is in contrast to areas designated as sugam, meaning “easily accessible.” The durgam and sugam classifications were introduced by King Mahendra’s authoritarian panchayat government in the 1960s to establish a scale of benefits for civil servants. Those posted to durgam who originated elsewhere received up to fifty percent additional salary as hardship pay. Civil servants from durgam districts would not receive extra pay if serving at home. (I thank Dambar Chemjong for these details.)

The fact that Dolakha was and still is classified as durgam when it has been relatively well-connected for half a century suggests that the criteria used by the Nepali state are not purely geographical. Rather, they index sociocultural remoteness to the normative caste Hindu ideals of the historical Nepali state. Dolakha is extremely diverse, with many ethnic groups, none of which comprise a majority. A significant percentage of its residents are Buddhist or animist and belong to what are now called adivasi janajati, or “indigenous nationalities.” Yet, the district has played a key role in negotiating Nepal’s geopolitical relationships with Tibet and China over time, and was an early site of urban civilization predating the Nepali nation-state; its non-Hindu medieval rulers are credited with minting the first coins in the region. Dolakha potentially challenges predominantly Hindu, Kathmandu-based elite views of the world because it is at once so close, and yet so far. Its history demonstrates how remoteness can serve state agendas—not only in colonial or imperial contexts—but for a state asserting a unifying cultural paradigm in its peripheries through the discourse of development (Pigg 1996).

What does the idea of remoteness mean to people who are classified as such by the state? Durgam is one of several terms used in an explanatory fashion when Thangmi (who are a janajati group) talk about why they are not better off. Others are pachadieko (“backwards”) and padhai lekhai chhaina (“uneducated”). Filmmaker Kesang Tseten’s (2006) documentary, Hami kunako manche (“We corner people”), shows how members of another janajati group in another district of rural Nepal further west talk about themselves as kuna ko manchhe (“corner people”). These concepts are appropriated to demand resources from the state, as well as development aid from NGOs. Remoteness may therefore be understood as an agentive, even edgy, category akin to “backwards,” or “marginal,” which can become an instrument of mobilization, both an explanation for why certain things are the way they are, and a means of transforming them.

In India, “backwards” has become an aspirational category of this sort, promoted through the affirmative action schemes that accord legally recognized Other Backward Classes special entitlements (Shah and Shneiderman 2013). Remoteness may work in much the same way. For the last few years, the United Far West Movement has demanded affirmative action for people from what they call “backwards regions.” Yet most of these activists are members of the country’s culturally and politically dominant caste Hindu groups. They may suffer from geographical remoteness, but not the cultural remoteness that many of Dolakha’s people do.

Remoteness thus operates on multiple geographical and sociocultural levels. Understood as a multivalent relational social field, developing remoteness as an analytical category can help us explore the three-dimensional edges of marginality in Nepal and beyond.


Shamans, Russian formalism, and estrangement

Terence S. Turner

The concepts of remoteness and edginess raise a radical connection to the Russian formalist ideas of Boris Eichenbaum. Ideas about marginality evoke Eichenbaum partly because of the tragic fact that Eichenbaum was purged in the “The Doctor’s Plot” in 1947. Stalinists hated formalists, especially playful formalists. He was charged with being a “ruthless intellectual,” which was a code word for being a Jew. The main Jewish targets of the purge were charged with focusing on the superficial appearances of things, which Stalinists denounced as not being as strong, deep, or significant as material relations. Formalists, with Eichenbaum as one of their main thinkers/theorists, were above all interested in the construction of appearance. They recognized that the habitual or familiar appearance of things had a tendency to become taken as the essential core, or the being of things. But they were also interested in what happens when you suddenly had to confront the juxtaposition of this habitual core with something that didn’t fit, something that seemed to be alien to it.

The key critical concept Eichenbaum developed was that of estrangement (ostranenie) which meant that what was taken to be a familiar thing suddenly came to be recognized as something which was quite different—quite alien—to what it had seemed like. This idea of estrangement is relevant to these discussions of peripheral spaces and edginess because they are about things that are not central to the habitual being of things, or people’s ideas of the habitual being of things. Formalist poetry consists of a process of stringing together properties that are taken to be alien to the ordinary context in which things have their meaning. Ideas of the power of the remote and of edginess also build on the importance of seeing things outside of their normal context of association, of highlighting the problematic relations they have to the kinds of systems and modes of being that they are ordinarily found in.

We see another example of the power that comes from this estrangement in the idea of the “shamanic shock.” To the Kayapó (the indigenous Amazonian community I have worked with for several decades) you become a shaman by having a near fatal experience, which is essentially a shock. It is a shock of something alien or other. The ways the stories typically start is that the person who becomes a shaman is brought face-to-face with a jaguar or some kind of savage or predatory, dangerous beast. He or she—usually he—is suddenly put in peril of his life or serious injury. It may cause him to suddenly see his existence in different terms or in a different way. He becomes possessed of certain qualities, which lifts him out of his ordinary existence. He becomes, at least in his own identity—his own consciousness—a different type of being, assuming a different quality than he formerly had. He might assume the characteristics of a flying animal or a flying insect. Or he might assume the properties of another kind of predatory beast or animal, which he becomes able to understand. He becomes able to see how other beings see the world. He becomes able to share knowledge and experience with them. And he has, in effect, become estranged, in terms of his previous identity and perspective on life. Once he has been estranged from his own identity in this way, the shaman tries to escape his estrangement by sharing his state with other beings who have already been transformed in this way. In this state of shamanic shock, he looks around to see if he can catch sight of another shaman so that he can learn and adjust to this new mode of being that he has acquired through this shocking experience.

Because he seems to have been transformed into a jaguar or a human hunting animal or even a flying animal, he attempts to use these powers he appears to have. If he has insect wings or bat wings he thinks, “Hey, I should be able to fly.” When he encounters the wise old shamans he has sought out, he says to himself, “Hey, I want to go learn their secrets, their lore, and their recipes.” And so he says, “I think I’ll just fly and go out to the place of shamans.” And so he heads to them, but it’s oddly difficult. He’s pulling against the grain, so to speak. It’s not as easy as it ought to be.

The other shamans see what is happening, and they call to him. They say to fly around the shamanic place and not directly to it. Or they say, “Become a stone, become a stone so that you’ll be hard and heavy and be able to fall through or break your way to the shamanic place.” They tell him not to trust the appearance of the different powers he seems to have, not to trust the estranged appearance that he has acquired. But the shaman has come to trust appearances, because he has acquired this different being. And the result is that he fails. He becomes trapped in the different reality. He is suddenly confronted with a nemesis, a horrifying being, that fills the negative aspects of his alien being—this ostranenie. That terrifying being is a giant spider, which lowers itself down from its place in the Western Sky where he has his web, and he bites the shaman and puts him in a state of suspended animation, like spiders do to caterpillars. In short, the shaman, who has this transformed perspective of the world, sees the world in shamanic terms. But what he sees doesn’t necessarily mean that it is really transformed in a material way.

And that is the essence of the danger of becoming a shaman and then trusting the appearance that your powers are not just powers of appearance. There are ideas about appearance and estrangement that are mixed in with that story, which is about flying to the edge of epistemological boundaries and playing with the powers that come from the shock of estrangement, but also about the limits of what that estrangement can do in material terms.


Remote proximity

Juan Zhang

At the China-Vietnam border town of Hekou, I met a Chinese businessman nicknamed “Little Hekou.” Having spent his formative years as a hooligan (hunhun) and trouble maker in a small town in the interior of China, he never thought that in twenty years he would become a multi-millionaire, a well-respected local business elite, and a representative of the Hekou Municipal People’s Congress who often rubs shoulders with both local and provincial government officials. In the early 1990s, when the borders between China and Vietnam reopened for trade after ten years of armed conflict and unrest, “Little Hekou” was among the first to venture into the nation’s edge and deal with the Vietnamese in a variety of petty trade. He maneuvered with ease between the “bright ways” (baidao, the legitimate and official ways) and the “dark ways” (heidao, the ways of the underworld and local gangs), lubricating cross-border trade activities and state-sponsored development endeavors as a pioneer businessman. “Although Hekou is on the far edge of China,” he said, “we are very close to the state because we make considerable economic contribution. We showcase the success of frontier economic reform!”

The confident words of “Little Hekou” reveal the transformative magic of twenty years of “reform and opening” at faraway frontiers of China. This magic is the result of remote proximity, the way power and profit accrue to those who can navigate the shifting valences of remoteness and integration. The remote transforms into a place of desire as soon as it demonstrates closeness to state agendas and promises both the state and people its immense economic and political potentials. In other words, the remote has to be close enough to the dominant power structure to be meaningful, in line with familiar zones of cultural and spatial proximity. Within the gravitational field of meanings, remoteness has to stay within certain distance to maintain an edge and bear significance. Too far, it escapes the orbit of social relevance and becomes weightless.

Borderlands and frontiers have always been the archetypal “remote place” in popular imagination yet they rarely vanish from the powerful gaze of empire rulers and state leaders. In the past, imperial courts tried to rein them in and colonial merchants wished to market them. Today, state authorities hope to govern them, zoning the peripheries as transformative spaces responsive to development agendas and new sovereign orders. In doing so, the state marks out border special economic zones and encourages entrepreneurial experiments. Border special zones produce wealth and recognition, and the marketplace entices with exotic and erotic indulgence. The remote thus becomes a playground where one gambles and takes chances, where one’s guts and wits are put to the test. It promises the very real possibility of turning individuals into reform pioneers and a new class of entrepreneurs who can also be local political elites.

In Sara Shneiderman’s (see this forum) portrayal of Dolakha’s remoteness and “centrality” when it comes to serving state development agendas, she describes remoteness as an “agentive category” instrumental for locals to justify the lack of progress in “backward” regions, and to use it to mobilize change. In Hekou, being remote provides justification for a special kind of flexibility that locals demand for special zones. Remoteness endows local businessmen with a creative license to profit from various entrepreneurial experiments, even those that are blurring the lines between legality and illegality. Borderland traders sell clothes during the day, smuggle rice at night, offer sightseeing tours in their free time, liaise with pimps and prostitutes upon request. They mediate among government officials and gatekeepers, broker networks and business opportunities with their language and social skills. They are the self-enterprising, “edgy” entrepreneurs at the national margins, the resourceful “hybrids” (Latour 1993) in China’s booming market place. Just like “Little Hekou,” they are often rewarded by the state as exemplars of frontier economic reform.

Within the border special zone, unsavory trades of smuggling and trafficking, gangs and prostitution prosper alongside the grandiose development paradigm promoted by the state. These hybrid trades are so lucrative that even the local law enforcement is invested in keeping the money flowing by justifying that “special zones require special treatment, or else business will wither in a place so remote.” The potential of transgression always accompanies “remoteness” and evokes tremendous anxieties where state authorities at the center may feel the need for extra exercise of control from time to time. Remote borders are therefore under a constant close watch, as the state practices a delicate balancing act of keeping the remote both near—before it runs out of control—and far—to allow for extra “freedom” and flexibility for economic vitality. The remote is the abject Other (Kristeva 1982) sitting at the edge of state powers, enchanting and menacing at the same time.

In a way, remoteness provides not just a space for the state to assert a “unifying cultural paradigm” through the discourse of development, as Shneiderman notes; it is also situated in a position of ardent yet uneasy partnership between the state and local players. In this sense, the state needs edgy entrepreneurs like “Little Hekou” who are particularly apt in bringing the remote closer to the center and are motivated by an eagerness to be endorsed by the state as model businessmen. In Schein’s reflection of the “edges of alterity” (this forum), she describes the personal success of a Miao pop icon, A You Duo, through her strategic self-commodification combined with state endorsement as a kind of “trafficking in alterity.” In border special zones, a similar kind of trafficking in alterity takes place when hybrid trades and flexible business operations are promoted as distinct pathways to economic success at the margin, and when local businessmen and the state actively forge partnerships to further unleash the potentials embedded in remoteness. This joint venture suggests the promise of transgression and pragmatic cooperation, of tipping the balance and producing new possibilities and new hegemonies (Harms 2011).

Meaningful remoteness depends on its proximity to dominant discourses, visions, and deeply felt desires produced at the center; it also depends on its subversive and transformative potentials in producing new fields of cultural meanings and social significance. In the China-Vietnam borderland, the remote turns “backward” nobodies into pioneers of reform, and “upright citizens” into greedy monsters. It is constantly mutating, hybridizing China’s frontier transformations into an unpredictable future.



Erik Harms, Shafqat Hussain, and Sara Shneiderman

Politically, socially, and economically remote and edgy areas are encountered at the edges of modernity and its processes; that is, they are experienced and constructed in the process of geographical exploration, state expansion, border administration and control, and symbolic representation of national states. The contributions to this forum show that the semantic density of remoteness and edginess is associated with inaccessibility and lack of connectivity. These categories are linked in an ambiguous, love-hate relationship with multiple centers. They are part of the modern experience, evoking sentiments central to that experience such as estrangement, enchantment, and revulsion. If one were to take the historically constituted representation of remote areas and edges, it shows that they act as empty signifiers with considerable freedom of meaning attached to them. They conjure up the danger of the break-down of law and order, but also evoke natural freedom; they represent irrelevance and adhocism, but also vantage points of striking clarity; to outsiders they may represent hard-to-get-to-places or socially opaque cultures, but the residents of these areas may see themselves in terms of their vulnerability to outsiders’ intrusion—or ideally positioned to take advantage of it—hence adding to their edginess. The ambivalence associated with remote places suggests that the making of remoteness as an idea, like the idea of modernity itself, is never complete, as there is no singular meaning that we can attach to it.


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Le reculé et la marge périlleuse: des approches nouvelles de vieux thèmes anthropologiques

Résumé : Huit anthropologues qui travaillent dans des endroits différents en Asie, en Afrique et en Amérique Latine s’interrogent sur un essai d’Edwin Ardener qui présente le concept des « régions reculées » et qui vient d’être réimprimé par HAU (Volume 2, Issue 1). Ces interrogations montrent, chacune à sa manière, que la notion du reculé peut être détachée de son ancrage géographique et reformulée non pas comme un concept spatial, mais plutôt comme une construction sociale relativiste. Dans le but de la faire dialoguer avec l’idée du périlleux (edginess), nous considérons ce qui est reculé non pas comme un endroit mais comme une façon d’être. Nous avons fait le choix de comparer des terrains urbains avec des endroits habituellement considérés comme reculés. Ce faisant, nous démontrons que ce qui est reculé a sa place dans tout terrain anthropologique.

Erik Harms
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
Yale University
10 Sachem Street
New Haven, CT 06511 USA
Shafqat Hussain
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Trinity College, 300 Summit Street
Hartford, CT 06106 USA
Sasha Newell
Assistant Professor
North Carolina State University
334 1911 Building, Campus Box 8107
Raleigh, NC 27695-8107 USA
Charles Piot
Cultural Anthropology
Duke University
214 Ernestine Friedl Building
Durham, NC 27708 USA
Louisa Schein
Associate Professor
Rutgers University
Department of Anthropology
131 George Street
New Brunswick, NJ 08901 USA
Sara Shneiderman
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
Yale University
10 Sachem Street
New Haven, CT 06511 USA
Terence Turner
Cornell University
268 McGraw Hall
Ithaca, NY 14850 USA
Juan Zhang
Discipline of Sociology
School of Behavioural
Cognitive and Social Sciences
University of New England
Armidale, NSW 2350, Australia