The University of Iowa

‘An Anthropology of Nothing’ Paper Presented Feb. 16

February 7th, 2011

What: “Notes Towards an Anthropology of Nothing: Humanitarianism and the Void”

When: Wednesday, February 16, 4-6 p.m.

Where: IP Commons, UCC

Who: Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, Department of Geography, University of Colorado at Boulder

Abstract: In 2008, nearly 30,000 people, mostly ethnic Georgians, were ethnically cleansed during a short, brutal war in South Ossetia. In the wake of the war, over $3.7 billion in foreign aid poured into Georgia, with more than 96 NGOs and donor governments providing relief to the displaced. Within a few months most internally displaced people (IDPs) were given a small cottage or an apartment, furniture, secondhand clothing, hygiene kits, food deliveries from the World Food Organization, and more. Yet, oddly enough, despite this outpouring of aid, nearly every interview I had with IDPs began with the same plaintive litany: “They do nothing for us. The government is not helping us, they do nothing for us. We are getting nothing from the NGOs, just little things that don’t help much. We are alone, we are abandoned, nobody will help us, and we have nothing.”

What is “nothing” in the context of the humanitarian experience? In this paper, I use “nothingness” as a means of staying morally proximate to IDPs in order to understand why the activities of humanitarians, so carefully documented for donors, fail to register as gifts or as statist care in the eyes of their beneficiaries. Using Alain Badiou’s concept of the void, I examine the problem not only of “having nothing,” but also “doing nothing” and “being nothing.” In doing so, I begin to go beyond Badiou’s formal presentation and to develop nothingness as anthropological concept and lived experience.

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