Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Proponents of today’s anti-trafficking and antislavery seem paradoxically to beg that not seeing can be believing, even as anti-anti-trafficking skeptics are voicing doubts about the evidence base behind estimates of slavery’s prevalence. Even as it seems clear that the epistemological bases for action are mismatched, an important question may have been skipped over in this controversy: If verifiable data is lacking, through what representational techniques and moves is a sense of urgency built around modern slavery’s alleged omnipresence and far-reaching antislavery legal measures justified?
Insights based on my field research in sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic combine with my study of the Websites of some of the world’s leading new abolitionist organizations to provide a basis for my critical reading of today’s antislavery discourse. Expositions of the wrongs toggle between two modes, subjunctive (narrative-based or emotive) and paradigmatic/quantitative (evidence-based or rational). The weft of this weave is a representational embrace of the hiddenness and hence unknowability of the wrongs, through personal testimonies, photographs and video, which also serve to make the revelation of truth itself an object of suspense in antislavery reporting. The warp consists of exhortations to ignore doubt and support antislavery action in spite of not knowing exactly where, how or against what. More than sheer ambivalence, then, I propose that an imagetextual art is at play here, an art that honors the aesthetic principle that not-knowing is more alluring to the mind and the eye than knowing is.