Chokepoints

From “Conversations at Hickerson House”

For the past four years I’ve been part of a collaborative research project, supported by the National Science Foundation, that’s looking at chokepoints around the world. So, what’s a chokepoint you might ask? Well, a chokepoint is a site that constricts or chokes the flow of say – information, bodies, materials – upon which the world depends. Classic examples of chokepoints would be canals, tunnels, ports are chokepoints. So, we became very interested in these sites because the world is very interesting these sites. They are often the sites of the most vulnerability to world networks and also the most vitality. Obviously, militaries have been very concerned about chokepoints for hundreds of years.

As the logistics revolution has revolutionized how goods get around the world, logistics has become very concerned about what to do about chokepoints. There are huge problems. They slow things down. Whatever happens in the chokepoint often has ripple effects that ripple long beyond the point of passage itself.

We were looking at all these discussions about chokepoints that are out there in the news and in various discourses and we wanted to know what life looked like in these sites. What we essentially did was, we gathered a group of ethnographers from five different institutions: myself; Gaby Valdivia, who’s here at UNC; we have someone that works at Indiana University – Elizabeth Dunn; Ashley Carse is at Vanderbilt; Jason Cons is at Texas; and Justin Dua is at Michigan. And we decided we would all kind of fan out and go study particular chokepoints around the world with a real emphasis on trying to understand what life looked like in these transit zones. One of the things we found is that, because these sites are so vital and vulnerable, they’re often very much overdetermined from without, but they’re also intensely local sites, such that whatever happens in these narrow, constricted passages often really affects life well beyond them. We are very interested in how people navigate these sites. How they live in these sites. How they work them to both legal and illegal ends. What we essentially did was we all spread out and did several months of research each and then over the next year or two we convened various workshops and talked about our findings and started to write up our findings and individual papers and various collections.

The project has been quite interesting insofar as it’s involved those expansions and moments of contraction as well. One of the things that we found is, once we started thinking chokepoints, we started seeing them everywhere and we found that the concept itself was very charismatic. We decided, what if we put the concept out as a provocation to a bunch of different types of scholars? So we paired up with an online magazine called Limn, Limn.it,  who does a lot of work at the interface between art and the social sciences and humanities, and we asked people to give us short articles on chokepoints, whatever that meant to them. We had 18 different articles that came back, and it was really a wonderful moment of expansion because we got to learn so much in editing this project and preparing the special issue of this magazine. It really helped us rethink how we were engaging chokepoints, and since then we’ve had a moment of contraction where we’ve gone back to the original six members of the team and really kind of dove in a little bit deeper to think about what would a real ethnographic approach to chokepoints look like and how can we affect the broader discourses of chokepoints that are out there in the world.