Out of War: Violence, Trauma, and the Political Imagination in Sierra Leone

Out of War: Violence, Trauma, and the Political Imagination in Sierra Leone. Mariane Ferme, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018, 318 pp.

In his account of the war in Sierra Leone, historian and journalist Lansana Gberie deploys Mariane Ferme’s The Underneath of Things as emblematic of the problems anthropology faces when directed to the study of war. In that book, Ferme argued that the “everyday conflicts” she observed doing fieldwork in rural southeastern Sierra Leone structured the logic of wartime violence. Her project of understanding the war through the prism of village life, Gberie argued, effectively eliminated the politics of this most modern of wars. Ferme’s analysis, he charged, portrayed a dozen-year war as little more than an extension of local cultural practices.

The war and how to understand it is also the subject of Ferme’s most recent book. Though Ferme never directly refers to Gberie’s critique of her first project, it is possible to read Out of War as an extended, if oblique, rejoinder. If pre-war village life made the war make sense in The Underneath of Things, in Out of War, it is the war that makes sense of life in Sierra Leone today. Ferme spins this argument out in a book that is brilliant, messy, and challenging—by turns deeply moving, thought-provoking, and frustrating.

Time and violence are the central problematics of Out of War. Ferme opens the book by invoking Freud and his writings on Nachträglichkeit (after-the-factness), or the enduring presence of past traumas that could not be fully comprehended or narrated at the time of their occurrence (p. 2). The traumas of the past are instead written slowly and partially by those subject to them, scrambling the linear unfolding of time and experience, sometimes for generations. The Introduction’s opening vignette is illustrative: A young man displaced by the war returns to the village. During a communal land-clearing exercise some 10 years after the declaration of peace, he misreads the brush-clearing fire and the landscape. Samuel, the young man, is caught by the advancing flame. Ferme’s interlocutors point out that had the war not interrupted Samuel’s education in the proper techniques of farming, he could easily have avoided death. Such accidents, removed temporally from the fighting and from the “mediatic” image of wartime violence, are invisible to humanitarian, journalistic, and even most scholarly accounts of the war. These accounts are all too dependent on a linear conception of time and a restricted notion of causality. Ferme, by contrast, prefers the chronotope, a Bakhtinian play of recurring signifiers that scramble time, meaning, and trauma. Pre-war, wartime, and post-war events all exist as mutually constituting assemblages.

Out of War is organized into an Introduction, eight chapters, two demi-chapters (labeled “Chronotope 1 & 2”), and a Conclusion. Each chapter deals with some aspect of how the war becomes knowable history, how its traumas and its violences materialized before, during, and after the war. Much of this will be familiar to Sierra Leone scholars and other readers of Ferme’s work; the second half of the book consists of reprints or reworkings of previously published articles and chapters, giving the project a somewhat stitched-together feel. Despite the conceit of the chronotope, the pieces of Out of War work independently of one another, making detailed but largely self-contained arguments and relating beautifully told ethnographic tales.

On that front, there are few ethnographers more capable than Ferme. Chapters dealing with rumors, hunting and warrior figures, chieftaincy, child soldiering, and sexual violence and the law are filled with ethnographic nuances that reflect Ferme’s long and meticulous engagement with rural southeastern Sierra Leone and its diaspora. Many of these ethnographic narratives are framed by equally detailed readings of a wide range of theory, making Out of War a meandering but intellectually exhilarating read. One thought builds on another. For those willing and able to follow the jumps from Wunde chiefdom to Marcel Griaule to rumors about Belgian priests in World War I, there is real value in following Ferme’s intellectual trail.

This is also a deeply personal telling, as Ferme recounts stories of friends and acquaintances who disappeared during the war, sometimes to reappear unexpectedly years later. She narrates her own experiences of violence in the field, some direct and some indirect. She deconstructs these, too, chronotopically. Early on, she tells the story of being assaulted at a public performance, a pre-war trauma that she largely forgets until re-reading a colonial account of violence through which she hopes to understand other repetitions of violence during the war. It is an intricate weave, and one that raises profound questions about what ethnographers know about war and how they know it.

This last point represents an interesting but unnecessary mis-step in Out of War, one that harkens directly back to Gberie’s critique of Ferme and anthropology in general. Ferme is unsubtle and unsparing in dividing the world into good anthropologists and those whom she regards as wanting by comparison. In the former category are those, like herself, who worked in Sierra Leone prior to the outbreak of fighting in the early 1990s. Such scholars, she writes, are uniquely able to understand wartime violence with “a more long-term perspective” that “is important for ethical reasons” and “for the particular truths it can offer about past events” (p. 24). Hence the chronotope. By contrast, Ferme largely ignores or dismisses scholars drawn to work in Sierra Leone because of the war, at times indulging in short-cuts around her own high standards in favor of landing jabs at her peers. (In the interest of full disclosure, my own work falls squarely into this category; Ferme at one point inverts a comment by a Special Court judge so that she can quote him as having accused me of “‘mind-boggling’ naïveté” (p. 146)—a comment that was actually directed at the court’s prosecutor and his fellow judges).

Such willful misreadings and omissions aren’t the most egregious of academic sins, and they don’t eclipse the most exquisite parts of Out of War. But they are somewhat bizarre, relying as they do on a very un-chronotopic understanding of time. More importantly, Ferme’s point-scoring unfortunately stands in the way of offering a more nuanced and thoughtful response to the question of what anthropology brings to the understanding of war. If the only ethical and true anthropology of war is one dedicated to explaining its violence within a long-term perspective, does the discipline really have a compelling response to Gberie’s critique? Out of War purports in its subtitle to be about “the political imagination” in Sierra Leone. But in the final analysis, Ferme reduces politics to chronotopes, iterations, and reiterations of insights gleaned from years in the village. It may well be that longevity is the only real measure of anthropology’s worth, and that an anthropologist’s singular contribution to the study of war is her ability to contextualize its violence in the long-time horizons of rural life. But for all the merits of Out of War, it is still left for Ferme to convincingly make that case.

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