The Conflict Research Society Conference

Last week saw me dozing on flights, stumbling through airports, and taking the tube to a train to a bus to another bus to another train, to arrive in Oxford in time for the Conflict Research Society Annual Conference.

This was my first time attending the CRS conference, and it didn’t take me long to decide that this was one of the best conferences in which I have participated. The easy-on-the-eye setting at Pembroke College certainly didn’t hurt; it wasn’t only jetlag that, between sessions, had me scuttling out to bask in the sunny quads. And I couldn’t resist the utterly unnecessary Hogwarts analogies, when presented with the formidable array of desserts in the college dining hall

More to the point, however, the thematic, rather than disciplinary, focus to the conference, coupled with its modest overall size (only two days – quite the relief after some of the more monstrous conferences), meant that it was easy to meet, and to get to chatting, with other academics interested in similar topics. Perhaps most importantly, this was also a conference in which (post)graduate students, doctoral candidates, and junior and senior faculty intermingled readily. There was little of the sense of hierarchy that at other conferences can see attendees sorted or sorting themselves according to the letters after their names.

There’s also something refreshing about crossing the pond (the actual sleep-depriving, jet-lagging crossing notwithstanding), and getting a taste of how academia is done in other places. While we might study the same topics and read the same scholars, some of the frames of reference shift, some of the assumptions and fixations diminish. An important reminder that, as massive as it is, American academia is not the full extent of academia.

The paper that I was presenting includes a fairly detailed case study of the Zetas criminal organization in Mexico. From what I can see, mine was the only paper on Mexico at the conference. Despite ten years of raging violence, Mexico doesn’t quite have an agreed upon ‘conflict’ status yet. At the opening plenary, Prof. Anke Hoeffler drew a distinction between collective and interpersonal violence, with the implication being that the former refers to conflict or war, and the latter to crime. The levels of violence in Mexico, however, are almost inconceivable as interpersonal crime. Rather, part of the problem appears to be proliferation of highly armed collectives, willing to target each other and civilians.

Still, it is a testament to the sense of the community that the CRS has knit together, that some interloper, who doesn’t even study a proper conflict, was welcomed to the conference. And that the other attendees found plenty to ask about, and plenty to share.



Teaching terrorism

This semester I am teaching a course on Terrorism at Hunter College. It’s about as close to an ideal course topic as I can get (given that The Coffee and Doughnuts of New York City isn’t a widely recognised political science topic), and it made for an interesting end to the summer, as I put together a syllabus.

When I was first assigned the course, it was called ‘Terrorism and National Conflict’ – an old course listing, that I could dust off and revise. I was told that I needed to make sure the course didn’t overlap too much with other courses, including an International Relations course on Terrorism that the department offers. I took this as a chance to put together a course that was less focused on a terrorism/counter-terrorism, here-is-a-problem-how-do-we-solve-it perspective, and more focused on questioning some of the assumptions about how we define and categorise terrorism. A comparative, constructivist kind of approach to teaching terrorism.

Designing a course around a concept that you’re simultaneously trying to deconstruct has its challenges. The first couple of classes of the course will focus on picking apart our assumptions about who and what terrorism is, but most of the course is going to be dedicated to trying to reconstruct some semblance of scholarly knowledge. If we should be suspicious of the way that some people and groups are labelled as terrorist, then upon what can we ground the study of terrorism?

A partial answer might come by giving attention to those directly involved in terror and violence. Towards this end, I have dedicated one class to looking at justifications for violence, and a few classes to looking at why individuals participate in violence. Perhaps more importantly, I have included some first-person narratives from those most closely connected to violence, such as Che Guevara’s reflections of the inauspicious beginning of the Cuban Revolution, and Rigoberta Menchú’s account of state terror in Guatemala.

I finished up the syllabus for this course at about the same time as the protests in Charlottesville, during which a member of a white supremacist group ran down protestors, killing one and injuring more. After the attack, a huge amount of debate focused on whether the act would or should be called terrorism. Here was the kind of contention over interpretation and naming, that I was trying to examine in this course, but here also was a further challenge: having focused on the idea of deconstructing terrorism as a stable category, I now faced a situation in which I felt the use of the label was warranted. Was I still prepared to stand by the syllabus, and my whole approach to the topic of terrorism? I’m going to try, but I am also going to bring my uncertainty about this to the class discussions. If anything, I think this uncertainty means that we have a topic to which it is worth dedicating a semester.

The magic of Tecozautla

Mexico City is a great base for doing field work (and also for not getting any work done), but is very much its own bubble. I had to take at least a peek beyond the bubble, during my weeks here.

Tecozautla, in Hidalgo state, is a pueblo magico. Back when I first lived in Mexico, I vaguely remember there being a bit more than one pueblo magico per state – which in some cases seemed to mean that the Secretariat of Tourism had to really dig to find some magic worth advertising, especially in less romanticised states like Hidalgo. More and more magic must have been found, however, because now there are over 100 pueblos magicos scattered across the country.

In the case of Tecozautla, all of the advertised magic seems to take place outside of the pueblo itself. The town is a jumping-off point for the many hot springs scattered among the valleys and crags of the region. The magic of the hot springs – the curative properties of the waters are frequently touted – tends to locked away behind fences and ticket booths, and to be channelled through pipes, down waterslides, and among cement pools.

El Geiser is probably the premiere attraction in the region, and correspondingly, is part of the largest waterpark complex, which features a hotel, a bunch of cabins, a whole series of pools and spas, a zipline, as well as the geyser itself. Unlike other geysers, however, Geiser does not erupt sporadically, in a fountain of water and steam. Rather, Geiser has been tapped, and sends forth a constant billow of scalding vapour, into which brave bathers can plunge, and from which this researcher had to scamper.

The tapped, constantly-flowing magic of Geiser is barely accessible to the people of Tecozautla. Talking to people in the town, it is clear that most had been to the site once at the most, and even then, in much earlier days, before the water park was quite so developed. A strange kind of magic, then, attributed, but unavailable, to the town. A magic that flows at the turn of a crank, but never flows very far. That never overruns the fences and ticket booths and signs warning of the dangers of cholera (yep).

And while this particular regularised, privatised magic is available for the price of admission, there is other magic about Tecozautla, which costs nothing, and yet is barely noticed. Magic in the cobblestone streets and in the crooked windows, in the distinctive curve of the mysterious bovedas that occupy street corners throughout the town. Magic, too, in the pomegranate bushes that overrun fences and drop clusters of gems on the side of the road. Magic in the women presiding over mounds of figs and avocados at the market stalls in the town centre. Magic in the searing blue sky, the furious storms, and the hillsides covered in incongruous thickets of organ pipe cacti, eucalyptus, and cypress trees. Magic that can’t be tapped, or contained behind fences and ticket booths.


You have to be there

I am in Mexico City for the summer, doing some preliminary field work. Although I have visited the city a number of times, the last of these visits was some six years ago. So, along with attending a conference, meeting with various scholars down here, and actually getting on with some research, I was very excited to explore the city again – sufficiently so that a good part of my preliminary preliminary field research was spent dawdling among travel sites and blogs.

One location that stuck out, during these preliminary preliminary investigations, was Biblioteca Vasconcelos. I had never heard of this place, back when I first lived in Mexico – I didn’t move in quite such nerdy circles than – and so was determined to pay it a visit soon after my return. The Atlas Obscura write-up of the site, in particular, made it sound like some sort of surreal, Borgesian fantasy world, in which libraries existed within libraries, and in which musty old tomes could occupy the futuristic space shelves of tomorrow.

Wondering the cavernous hall of the Biblioteca, I waited and waited for space to collapse in upon itself, parallel universes of books coexisting in the same impossible singularity. Pillars of books did hang high over my head, the patterned skeleton of a whale suspended among the tomes. But it was all, in fact, rather consistent and uniform (even if the whale was a weird touch).

The reason that the Biblioteca of the write-up seemed to contain so many more multitudes was that the author had accidentally conflated two sites, describing them as if they were one.

A few metro stops away from the Biblioteca Vasconcelos is the Biblioteca de Mexico “José Vasconcelos.” The two share the name of one of the principal intellectuals of post-revolution Mexico, but in most respects they are very different. Biblioteca Vasconcelos is massive and open, full of layers of stark metal shelving. Biblioteca de Mexico, by contrast, occupies a colonial building, with a scattering of courtyards giving on to small libraries, laced with narrow staircases and passages between shelves stuffed with worn books. Rather than a jumble of impossibilities, each library has a distinctive and cohesive style.

A reminder, then, at the outset of this early stage of field work: you have to be there, in the field, getting a sense of how things really work and fit together. Don’t be like the travel writer that didn’t actually travel. Don’t try to be an expert from a distance. There is no substitute for seeing a place for yourself, for poking about, for wandering the streets, for getting a little lost and stumbling upon the unexpected.