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Professor of Anthropology Receives ACLS Fellowship

Professor of Anthropology Richard Kernaghan receives an ACLS fellowship for new book project.

Richard Kernaghan, assistant professor of anthropology at UF, has received a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies to pursue his new book project, Semblance in Terrain: On the Legal Topographies of Postwar, in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley. Expanding upon the work of his previous book, Coca’s Gone, Kernaghan draws on his more than 20 years of experience in a region historically linked to the Andean cocaine trade. Semblance in Terrain examines how following the military defeat of the Maoist Shining Path insurgency, new relations between physical geography, territory and rural transit emerge, while carrying forth traces of political violence.

To simply write about the largely “undocumented” history of the Huallaga Valley does not illuminate its transformation through the milieu of war, development, and daily life. Nor does anthropology benefit from secondary glances at bureaucratic charts or casual histories — which barely exist for the Huallaga Valley, anyway — or histories devoid of spatial and behavioral shifts. To tell a fuller story of the Valley, Kernaghan combines the methods of ethnography, historical inquiry, and photography.

Richard Kernaghan with river behind him
Richard Kernaghan in the field


Kernaghan began his research on Peru in 1995 as part of his doctoral studies at Columbia University, and he’s been returning to the Huallaga Valley ever since to conduct fieldwork. “When I made my initial visit in the mid-1990s, the military conflict was still unfolding,” he says. One of the most striking features of everyday life in the Huallaga of those years was how the valley’s rural expanses seemed at once politically remote and charged with danger. “Early on, it was hard to travel in the countryside for more than very brief visits,” he recalls. On the main road, the likelihood of insurgent ambushes and the wide-distribution of military checkpoints frequently interrupted transit. News spread through rumors swirling with flimsy accounts and unfettered hype, affirming the apparent danger. And yet Kernaghan says the stories people told of their own experiences were what he found most remarkable. “It was stunning — the ways they could combine deep-seated dread with moments of wonder or surprising turns of fate,” he says. As they shared accounts of prior events, they also told of what was transpiring in the countryside, conveying concrete advice about where it was not yet safe to go. In so doing they illuminated and re-enforced territorial practices — a crucial aspect of what Kernaghan’s new book explores.

Semblance in Terrain describes how attention to rural mobility in the wake of a counter-insurgency war can serve as a critical lens for reading and registering histories of violence. During his ethnographic research for the book, Kernaghan accompanied people who have spent their lives shuttling others around the valley in rafts, canoes, pickup trucks or three-wheeled auto rickshaws. His project description says it most succinctly: “I track transformations of rural routes, spatial prohibitions, and land ownership by analyzing the personal histories and material practices of current and former transportation workers (transportistas).” Despite its war-time military importance, the Huallaga Valley has not figured prominently in scholarly studies of Peru’s internal conflict. Literature on this region tends to be policy-oriented and relatively removed from the everyday experiences of the area’s longtime residents. Kernaghan contends that the voices and accounts of transportistas not only deserve to be heard, but also that without them, territorial transformations of the post-war era cannot be understood.

As the conflict has waned, new legal conditions have emerged — these have made it easier for to document how the new road construction and the expansion of rural mobilities have altered local topographies in visible yet unappreciated ways. Scenes of transportistas and their vehicles fill a new special digital collection at UF’s Smathers Libraries. Comprising almost 250 photographs and video clips, the collection constitutes an important part of his ethnographic work. In a core practice of visual anthropology, Kernaghan is creating conversation between both the photographic memories and the verbal images transmitted through the accounts of transportistas. “By setting different kinds of images side by side, I show that war does not end by ending,” says Kernaghan in his project description.

Kernaghan will finish the book, which is about halfway done, over the next year with support from the fellowship. It will be published by Stanford University Press, which also published Coca’s Gone.