Freitag, 2. September 2016

The Fame of Syrians: (Facebook) Archives As Traps

Von Persefoni Myrtsou
In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Berlin (forthcoming)

A.'s Archive: A portrait from the '60s partly destroyed from humidity
A portrait from a photographers studio from the ‘70s
A.’ s indexing system and unsorted photographs from family albums
The following essay is an excerpt of "The Fame of Syrians: (Facebook Archives as Traps). The full essay will be published with the E-Book.
In a paper from 1996 entitled “Vogel's Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps”[1]. Alfred Gell draws attention to the curatorial choice[2] of anthropologist Susan Vogel to exhibit a fishing net trap of the Zande people as part of a contemporary art exhibition at the centre of African Art New York. According to Gell, Vogel thus intended to 'deceive' the viewers regarding the actual status of the object in this space. Inspired by this incident, Gell goes on to analyse the aesthetic affinity between actual hunting traps and contemporary conceptual a rtworks, and in so doing to question criteria used to affirm status of art only to certain objects and not to others. Gell argues that artworks function in a similar way to actual traps; as forms that are intended or are able to entrap and capture the mind and purpose of others. The trap is the external objectification of the mind of its maker, and a transfiguration of the reciprocal relationship of the maker; the hunter (or the artist), and the prey (the viewer)[3].  

Taking Gell's conceptual understanding of the trap as a point of departure, Daniel Miller in an article titled “The Fame of the Trinis: Websites as Traps” portrays the personal websites of Trinidadians as aesthetic forms -or even as artworks- intended to “entrap or captivate other wills so that they will come into relationship with them, exchanging either in economic or social intercourse” [4] and “express the social efficacy of their creators”[5]. The anthropological study The Fame of Gawa by Nancy Munn[6] is for Miller (and for Gell) an important reference point. Munn conducted a symbolic analysis of sociocultural systems, based on her ethnographic research of the main practices related to value producing practices based on the economy of gifting on the island of Gawa. Building on Malinowski' s study of the Kula Ring[7], Munn demonstrated how Gawans gain their “fame” by participating in the long-distance Kula exchange ring. The reputation that the Gawan community has been successful in this interisland exchange system asserts the “fame” of the community; it internal viability and external visibility. Miller thematises websites of Trinis not simply as “expressions of particular individuals objectified” in these personal websites, but also as “collective constructions”, which attempt “to expand individuals largely by expanding the fame of the entity they most fully identify with, in this case the nation-state of Trinidad and Tobago”[8], and assert the fame of the Trinis.

As a tribute to these scholars, in this paper[9] I build on their interpretations of the idea of the trap. I will analyse two archives put together by two Syrians none of whom currently resides in Syria. Both archives relate thematically to Syria. My empirical data consist of online and offline participant observations, memory protocols and interviews with the individuals who put together those archives. I should note that I intentionally do not consider this topic merely from the perspective of migration,[10] since the two main informants, although both migrants, did not wish to connect their archives to their experience as migrants. Rather they focused more on their social and political practices through their archives related to Syria.

The contents, structures and target groups of these two archives may seem very different at first glance. The first one is a digital archive that contains documents concerning the post-2011 Syria and is placed on a Facebook profile page. The second is a non-digital archive about the city of Damascus, consisting of i. a. photographs, films, postcards and periodicals, dating back from the late ’40s until today. By regarding archives as traps in Gell’s and Miller’s sense, I firstly want to build on their extended understanding of the concept of the trap. Secondly, I suggest that the transfiguration of the relationship of those involved in the making of the archive (the archivist, the contributors, the viewers) is infused -because of the socio-political situation in Syria- by moral responsibility. This moral responsibility towards a war-torn country, the fellow citizens and the self, functions as a self-imposed trap; one has to continue contributing and archiving for the benefit of the whole community. Finally, I will propose the practice of trapping in these archives as a way of activating political and civil agency, aiming to attract attention and raise awareness for a larger cause; to reconstruct the fame of Syrians; their visibility and viability to their own selves and to the rest of the world.


By way of conclusion: Trapped in a Syrian Kula Ring

 Civil uprisings in Syria began in March 2011, what is also referred to by my informants as the beginning of the revolution in Syria. This is also the period when many people started en masse to express their regime-critical views publicly, and in most cases digitally. This mobilisation also brought to the foreground a need to rescue and collect scattered memories from the past for the purposes of a (self)critical future building for Syria. “Crowdsourcing” as a method for recreating Syria's pre-revolution memory but also capture the historicity of current situation in Syria presented itself as an efficient way to gather, share, curate and archive “anecdotes and snippets of memories published” online and offline “by individuals who experienced these decades, but had stayed silent for many years out of fear”. “[A] new collective memory of pre-revolution Syria was being spontaneously curated and rediscovered by the crowd”[24].

In his paper “Foucault’ s Archive in the Era of Cold War Big Data” Jason Pribilsky examines critically the fascination with big data archives[25] developed during and after the Cold War period; he condemns the development of universalist archiving methods of stripping identifying or contextual information from the cultural “facts”. In Foucault' s view, the archive is a more general epistemological category; it is not “the library of libraries;” nor is it “the sum of all the texts that a culture has kept upon its person as documents attesting to its own past.”[26] The archive is what he calls “the system of discursivity”[27], a domain of things said. In this sense the archive is not a static, often physical, storage of information; rather it is an evolving space of contestation, in which documents undergo constant interpretation. “Tacit narratives” of what is considered worth being remembered and archived are related to conscious or subconscious subjective choices of the archivist and “hidden in categorisation, codification, and labelling”[28]. “Social, cultural, political, economic, religious and personal contexts determine those narratives”[29] and posses the power to make meaning for the narrative and generate situated knowledge. Crowdsourced archives[30], such as S.’ s and A.’ s archives, are by nature discursive and situated into quotidian practices of a certain period of time in Syria and beyond, because they are put together by people who have experienced this period first-hand in place and time.  

But let us now return to the question with which I started: why are these archives traps?

First of all, they are aesthetic traps; the first 'victim' to be “trapped” in the aesthetics of these archives is an unsuspected viewer (as I was the first time I encountered them). The circumstances of their creation (the war in Syria)  may instantly “lure” the viewer into a melancholic, nostalgic, sorrowful -even victimising- reading of these efforts and omit the “tacit” narratives and the larger cause of these archives. In the case of S. one cannot stay unaffected in front of the view of bodies of dead children, or the breathtaking story of a kidnapped individual. In the case of A., one can easily fall for the nostalgic aspect evoked by what we would call “vintage” photography from the '60s -although for A. these photographs encapsulate latent memories of a suppressive time for which he is not nostalgic at all. 

As Gell[31] supports, the trap is the transfiguration of the relationship between the hunter (the one who creates the trap) and the prey (the one who falls into the trap). In the cases analysed in this paper, this relationship among the archivist, the contributors and the viewers of the archive is determined by the socio-political situation in Syria; the archivists are constantly looking for material to gather (to trap), the contributors to the archives (S.’ s “friends” and A.’ s photographers and families, who give him their private family albums) are being voluntarily disclosed (trapped?) by the archivists, and may actively continue to gather information from other sources in order to share them with or pass them on to the archivists. The people involved into this type of exchange are bound together by a moral responsibility towards each other, towards themselves, but above all towards Syria. The transfiguration of this relationship is objectified in these archives.

The popular victimising image of destruction of Syria and Syrians, that one often encounters in Western media, is blasted by the anti-image of construction mediated through these archives. These archives function as social agents with social efficacy, and not as merely the signs of some other agency (the archivist’s for example).[32] These archives trap documents and artefacts with voices, opinions, perspectives, shifts in attitudes etc. for a larger cause; to battle the imposed and enduring social amnesia of Syrians and contribute towards social change, collective consciousness and eventually future building for Syria. As the Gawans assert their “fame” -their internal viability and their external interisland visibility- by being successful in the Kula Ring ceremonies, similarly the reconstruction of a collective memory for Syria through these efforts of archiving, could potentially reassert and restore the “fame” of the people of Syria; their (currently war-torn) internal viability and their moral visibility to the rest of the world.


Castells, Manuel (2012), Networks of Outrage and Hope. Social Movements in the Internet Age, Cambridge UK – Malden USA: Polity Press
Cora Garcia, Angela et al. (2009), “Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication” in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 38: 1, February 2009, pp. 52-84
Diminescu, Dana (2008), “The connected migrant: an epistemological manifesto” in Social Science Information - Special Issue: Migrants and clandestinity, 47: 4, pp. 565-579
Foucault, Michel (1984), “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”, in Architecture / Mouvement / Continuité, October, 1984 (Original: “Des Espace Autres,” March 1967, Translated from French by Jay Miskowiec)
Foucault, Michel (1972), The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language, New York: Pantheon Books (Translated from French by A. M. Sheridan Smith, first published in 1969)
Gell, Alfred (1996), “Vogel' s Net. Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps” in Journal of Material Culture, 1: 1, pp. 15-38
Gell, Alfred (1998), Art and Agency, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ketelaar, Eric (2001), “Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives” in Archival Science 1, pp. 131-141
Labor Migration (ed.) (2014), Vom Rand ins Zentrum. Perspektiven einer kritischen Migrationsforschung, Berliner Blätter, Ethnographische und ethnologische Beiträge Heft 65/2014, Berlin: PanamaVerlag
Miller, Daniel (2000), “The Fame of Trinis: Websites as Traps” in Journal of Material Culture, 5: 5, pp. 5-24
Miller, Daniel (2010), “An Extreme Reading of Facebook” in Working Papers Series #5, Open Anthropology Cooperative Press, in: (20.03.16)
Miller, Daniel; Horst, Heather A. (2012), “The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology” in Horst, Heather A.; Miller, Daniel (2012), Digital Anthropology, London – New York: Berg
Miller, Daniel (2011), Tales from Facebook, Cambridge UK – Malden USA: PolityPress
Munn, Nancy (1992), The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim Society, Duke University Press: Durham (first published in 1986)
Pribilsky, Jason (2016), “The Will to Enclose: Foucault's Archive in the Era of Cold War Big Data”, in Foucault Blog der Universität Zürich, in: (25.03.16)

Web Sources

- arthereistanbul Website and Facebook page:, (20.05.16)
- “The Uprising Reshapes Syria’s Collective Memory” - Syria Untold: (21.04.16)
- “ Crowdsourcing Syrian Collective Memory” - Syria Untold: (21.04.16)

[1]   The main ideas developed in this paper were further investigating in Art and Agency (1998) later on.
[2]   Susan Vogel exhibited a tightly rolled and ready for transport fishing net (a fish-trap) made by the Zande people, an ethnic group of North Central Africa. The exhibition was entitled 'ART/ARTIFACT' and it took place at the Centre for African Art in 1988. For more information see Gell (1996), p. 17.
[3]   cf. Gell (1996), p. 316.
[4]   Ibid, p. 22.
[5]   Miller (2000), p. 6.
[6]   See: Munn, Nancy (1992), The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim Society, Duke University Press: Durham (first published in 1986). The Kula Ring is a ceremonial exchange system conducted in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. Participants travel hundreds of miles in the ocean by canoe in order to exchange Kula valuables, mostly jewellery.
[7]    In Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), while studying the Kula Ring, Malinowski is asking the question "why would men risk life and limb to travel across huge expanses of dangerous ocean to give away what appear to be worthless trinkets?". He concluded that through the intercommunal contacts due to the Kula Ring expeditions, islanders establish friendly relations among themselves and maintain peaceful contact and communication. In this inter-island exchange other utilitarian items are shipped back and forth, and are traded. Also they reinforce status and authority distinctions, since the ancestral chiefs who are higher in the hierarchy of the ceremony, assume the responsibility for organising and directing expeditions.
[8]   cf. Miller (2000), p. 6
[9]   I am grateful Nedim Nomer for his comments and help, as well as Eleana Yalouri for her encouragement and support. I would also like to thank A., D. A., J. G. for their advice and last but not least my informants for the contribution of invaluable information.
[25] See Pribilsky (2016). Pribilsky refers extensively to the Human Relations Area Files initiated in 1949 by anthropologist George Murdock at Yale University.
[26] Foucault (1972), p. 128-130
[27] Foucault (1972), p. 129
[28] Ketelaar (2001), p. 135.
[29] Ketelaar (2001), p. 136f.
[30] The main limitation of crowdsourcing is its curation; A. is following a traditional thematic indexing method of archiving his material. S.' s indexes are his Facebook albums, though the rest of the information is scattered in his profile. Hashtags would help, but S. is not always using them. If Facebook added a search button on each account that would enable to search the entire content with simple keywords.
[31] Gell (1996), p. 29.
[32] Miller (2000), p. 20

Bitte diesen Beitrag wie folgt zitieren:
 Persefoni Myrtsou (2016): The Fame of Syrians: (Facebook) Archives As Traps. In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Preview (Weblog),;postID=3697950972162993466;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=link

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