Remembering Sally Merry: Johannes Waldmueller

Sadly, the world has lost one of its most prolific and original thinkers when it comes to critical issues of utmost international importance. These issues include the dominant modes of governance by quantification, human rights, gender and, more broadly, anthropology of international spaces, dispositifs and infrastructures. Disconnected from all social media, I learned only recently of Sally’s passing and felt terribly impacted, even though I only met her late in her career. Between 2015 and 2016 I spent a wonderfully inspiring postdoc term at the New York University, where Sally acted as my host supervisor. Both of us were working on human rights indicators and the UN at the time, and Sally was always engaging me in her ongoing projects with the Legal Department at the NYU. This opened up a whole new world to me. Within our first meeting – which I remember well, as she took endless time for my issues, even after I arrived late due to NYC’s unique subway troubles – I learnt more from her than throughout my entire PhD studies. Her incredibly lucid mind, her particular efficiency in posing disarraying questions and cutting to the chase triggered me to rethink not only vast chunks of my research, but also entire strategies of my early academic career. This incredibly efficient “to-the-point” style also characterizes her writings. Reading them also enabled me (as a native German speaker) to learn and improve my own writings, probably similar to hundreds of her students elsewhere who are positively influenced by her empirical engagement with governance. Even today, my wife, who frequently copy-edits my texts before submission, keeps telling me to rewrite and condense by focus, saying “how would Sally write it?” Overall, she was a beacon of inspiration as a teacher and scholar, but also for her empirical and ethnographic engagement with human rights in general.

Later on, I met Sally on several occasions, usually at the AAA meetings. Each encounter, and every coffee we had, was particularly enriching in its own way. Our last encounter was at the AAA in San Jose, California, in 2018, where we presented one of her last co-edited volumes to which I had contributed a chapter. Without knowing it, this AAA conference was a harbinger of the dismal times to come. We were all obliged to wear facial masks, just like everywhere today, due to the abysmal wildfires in the region. I remember her telling me about the increasing frustration with the world of human rights, and her plans to move back to Hawaii as soon as possible in order to resume her work on love and relationships on the islands. Despite all, I am certain that that she made it eventually.

 

 

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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