Tantra and Transparency, or Cultural Contradiction and Today’s Tibetan Buddhist Wizard

This is the first of a series of articles that I will be posting this month as a guest-contributor for Savage Minds. In each post I will be sharing some preliminary and open-ended reflections relating to my research on Tibetan diaspora, esotericism, and the globalization of Tibetan culture. This week, I’d like to introduce readers to the non-celibate Tibetan religious specialists known as ngakpa (literally mantra or ‘spell’-users in Tibetan, sngags pa) who are the focus of my current doctoral dissertation fieldwork with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. 

white and red robes
The red and white blue-lined cloth often associated with ngakpa.

Mass monasticism has often been used as a shorthand for Tibetan civilization in general. Over the last few decades in particular, large-scale Buddhist monasteries, whether in diaspora or in Chinese-occupied Tibet, have become key symbols for the continued vitality of Tibetan culture in the face of adversity. Yet even so, for centuries, ngakpa have existed in Tibetan societies as an alternative, smaller community of religious professionals, who though they are not monastics, nonetheless embody many of the possibilities and particularities of Tibetan culture life. Like monks and nuns, ngakpa are professional Buddhist renouncers, individuals who have taken formal vows to devote their lives to religious attainment. Unlike monastics, however, ngakpa are non-celibate and can engage in activities forbidden to the monastic community. Ngakpa thus straddle lay and monastic worlds and reside in a shifting third space of both accommodation and resistance to more centralized political and religious institutions. While monastics are the ‘yellow’ clothed community (ser) and laypeople are ‘grey’ householders (mi skya), i.e. clothed in no particular religious uniform, ngakpa, with their long hair and white and-red cotton shawls and robes, are known as the gos dkar lcang lo sde, the ‘white-robe, dreadlock [wearing] community’ of non-celibate yogis. Able to marry, have families, and pursue worldly work, ngakpa nonetheless spend much of their time in study, meditative retreat or working as ritual specialists for hire.  Continue reading

Highlights from the AAA Israel-Palestine Task Force’s Final Report

The Task Force on AAA Engagement on Israel-Palestine issued its final report today. It is a long and thorough report, so I won’t attempt to summarize the whole thing. (There is already an “executive summary” in the report itself.) But as someone who has followed the issue for a long time, both through the extensive coverage here on Savage Minds as well as on the blog of the Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, and who is therefore suffering from “BDS fatigue” from the repetitive nature of some of the discussions, I still found much that was new and interesting in this report. Even with regard to topics that I am already somewhat familiar with, the report provides examples from the daily lives of academics working in the region which bring these issues to life. Accordingly, what I have assembled below is a rather idiosyncratic selection of highlights from the report, based on what jumped out at me and got my attention, along with some comments and reflections of my own. I hope it will encourage more people to read the full report.1 Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of September 27

This week, a number of online magazines addressed some of the big questions of human history. As always, if you want me to feature anything on the blog, write me at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com.

Aeon Magazine published this article summarizing how paleogenetics is rewriting and complicating our understanding of early human migrations: What Can Paleogenetics Tell-Us About Prehistory?

IFL Science reports that Scientists Have Reconstructed the Hearing Abilities of Our Ancestors… basically, they could hear like modern-day chimpanzees but with a slightly higher range of frequencies, like humans.

This post on Western Digs, a blog that includes paleontology as well as archaeology, covers the discovery of seven men who died by violence together some 1,150 years ago. Isotopic analysis of their teeth reveals that they were originally from another region: Mass Grave Found in California Reveals Prehistoric Violence Against Outsiders

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Encrypting Ethnography: Digital Security for Researchers

(This invited post comes to us from Jonatan Kurzwelly. Jonatan is a a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of St. Andrews. You can email him at kurzwelly@mailbox.org . his PGP fingerprint is: 1B4B 89B4 DD31 B05E 949A E181 B51C CA99 2FD6 6382 -Rex)

Imagine a situation in which everything you do on your computer, tablet or telephone is easily available to local authorities, criminal organizations, corporations or even your neighbors or their teenage children. Imagine that your electronic diary is public and anyone can read everything you have written about the people you work with. Every piece of secret, confidential information you have been entrusted with is being read. It doesn’t matter if you use nicknames and codewords – someone who knows the context of your fieldsite will figure it out. With the use of special software, all your text, photographs, videos and sound recordings can be quickly and automatically analyzed, regardless of the language you write in. Moreover, imagine that all of your communications with your colleagues, sponsoring institutions or supervisors are also publicly available. This includes field reports, emails, video conversations, instant messaging, phone calls.

These are not fantasies but real threats if you are not taking additional measures to protect your data and are using a computer! The aim of this post is to introduce the problem of digital threats for sociocultural anthropologists and their informants. My intention is to bring this issue into public debate within the discipline and suggest introduction of appropriate security training into research preparation. I then describe some free-of-charge methods and tools that increase protection from Internet surveillance and data theft. I focus on the need to protect researchers’ personal computers, as well as the benefits of increasing the digital protection, privacy and anonymity of their informants. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of September 20

A storm cut off my Internet yesterday, delaying your beloved weekly digest. The theme of this week is “how-to,” with several blogs featuring advice on how to get funded, get published, and get a job… all good things, in my book. Send any links to me at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com

Anthropologizing provides some example cover letters for jobs in consumer research: Cover Letter Definites and Don’ts Plus 3 Examples That Have Landed Me Interviews

How To Anthropology presents 8 Tips for Writing a Winning NSF (GRFP) Proposal, which is pretty self-explanatory.

The Geek Anthropologist also shares some tips on how to get your work published that will likely be most helpful for first-time researchers but that may have some value for more experienced researchers as well: So You’re a Graduate Student and You Want to Get Published: Takeaways from the Anthropod Publishing Series

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List as Form: Literary, Ethnographic, Long, Short, Heavy, Light

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Sasha Su-Ling Welland as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Sasha is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. She is the author of A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters (Rowman & Littlefield 2006) and a forthcoming book on gender and globalization in Chinese contemporary art (Duke University Press).]

Lists can be tyrannical. They tell us what we are supposed to do and what we have failed to do. They purport to keep us on task. They lead us to derive pleasure from crossing things out. Done! Eliminated! Lists enlist us to worry about rank and order, to aspire to the top-ten, top-twenty, top-one-hundred. Lists compel us to click and consume. If you like that, you might also like this. Click through to learn about 13 Animals Who Are Way More Gangster Than You.

These characterizations and their assumption of shared experience speak to cultural patterns of a particular time and place. Lists reveal systems of thought and organization, as Foucault notes in the preface to The Order of Things, which opens with his reading of Borges quoting a “certain Chinese encyclopedia.” The specious tome’s categorical division of animals into an alphabetical series—…(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera…—strikes the French philosopher as hilariously distant. He writes, “In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”[1] Continue reading

Reader Survey Results Part 3: 95 percent of you never (or rarely) comment!

Why do you comment on Savage Minds. Or why don’t you comment on Savage Minds? Are the comments good? Do they suck? Do you even care? Can internet comments save the future of the human species? These were some of the questions we tried to answer with our reader survey earlier this year. Ok, well, we didn’t actually ask that last one about saving the human species–that was just to see if you’re still paying attention and not frittering away on Twitter while “reading” Savage Minds. I know you’re out there! Anyway, here are some of the answers to this riveting survey. Bonus: Star Wars reference if you reach the end. How can you resist reading this post now? Answer: Don’t even try.

About twelve percent of you never read the comments, period. The majority, about 73 percent, said they read our comments “sometimes.” About fifteen percent said they always read them.

But when it comes to posting comments, about 95 percent of people said they never or very rarely leave comments. Nearly five percent said they comment occasionally. Only 0.2% (one person out of 430 responses) said they comment regularly.

Less than one percent of you regularly posts comments! What’s up with that? Continue reading

Anthropologies #21: Weather changes people: stretching to encompass material sky dynamics in our ethnography

Heid Jerstad brings our climate change issue to a close with this thoughtful essay. Jerstad (BA Oxford, MRes SOAS) is writing up her PhD on the effects of weather on peoples lives at the university of Edinburgh. Having done fieldwork in the western Indian Himalayas, she is particularly interested in the range of social and livelihood implications that weather (and thus climate change) has. She is on twitter @entanglednotion –R.A.

For most people, the climate change issue is a bundle of scientific ideas, or maybe a chunk of guilt lurking behind that short haul flight. The words have fused together to form a single stone, immobile and heavy. Change is a bit of a nothing word anyway – anything can change, and who is to say if it is good or bad, drastic or practically unnoticeable?

But what about climate? It is a big science-y word, neither human nor particularly tangible. Climate is about a place – engrained, palimpsested, with time-depth. That big sky, those habits – the Frenchman advising wine and bed on a rainy day, the Croatian judge lenient because there was a hot wind from the Sahara that day. This is weather I am talking about, seasons, years, the heat, damp and sparkling frost.

People care about the weather. We consider ourselves used to this or good at observing that. My home has more weather than other places – it is colder in winter, the air is clearer and brighter – because it is mine. My sunsets – this is eastern Norway – are vibrant and fill the sky, my sky will snow in June with not a cloud, my nose can feel that special tingle when it gets to below -20˚c. The north is not gloomy in winter – the snow is bright white, the hydro-fuelled streetlights illuminate empty streets and windows seal the warmth in.

What is your weather? It would be safe to assume it is part of the climate and I would go out on a limb and say I think you care about it. Am I wrong?

When the weather matters to people, the task becomes one of bridging this caring and the climate change science and projections. Looking at the impact of these weather changes in different areas of life is, then, going to make up a steadily larger part of useful climate change research.

Mead famously convened a conference with Kellogg titled ‘The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering’ in 1975, and Douglas published Risk and Blame in 1992. In the new millennium Strauss and Orlove (2003), Crate and Nuttall (2009) and Hastrup and Rubow (2014) brought edited volumes to the debate. It seems to be fairly well established, then, that climate change is a matter for anthropologists, as phrased by the AAA statement on climate change: ‘Climate change is rooted in social institutions and cultural habits. … Climate change is not a natural problem, it is a human problem.’ What then, can anthropologists do, about this problem? Continue reading

Anthropologies #21: Global Warming is not a Crisis

For the next installment of the anthropologies issue on climate change, we have a counterpoint essay from Lee Drummond. Drummond is a retired professor of social/cultural anthropology (McGill University).  For the past twenty years he has been director of a very modestly staffed think tank, the Center for Peripheral Studies in Palm Springs, CA.  As a “real” anthropologist he studied South American myth and Caribbean ethnicity.  Later, reincarnated as a “reel” anthropologist he applied his work on myth to blockbuster American movies, treating them as myths of modern culture (see American Dreamtime). –R.A.

The principal “texts” for this little essay are a 2009 lecture, “Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society,” by Freeman Dyson, one of the smartest people on the planet, and an epic performance, “Saving the Planet,” by George Carlin, until his death in 2008 one of the funniest people on the planet. Dyson’s lecture may be found here.

It’s over an hour long, but watch the whole thing–it’s great. Carlin’s performance is on YouTube.

It will take only a few minutes of your day.

Before taking up a few specifics of these pieces, let me provide a background sketch of the phenomenon of global warming that has attracted so much attention over the past couple of decades.

The Big Picture: Greenhouse Earth and Icehouse Earth

Environmentalists gravely concerned with rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere and rising temperatures in the oceans not uncommonly issue the dire warning that these are runaway processes, that Earth will continue to get cloudier and hotter until it becomes another Venus, where lead can melt on its surface. The entire history of the planet suggests that this is not the case. Earth’s climate has oscillated through periods of unusually hot conditions (Greenhouse Earth) and unusually cold conditions (Icehouse Earth), each period lasting tens or hundreds of millions of years. Continue reading

Anthropologies #21: Betwixt and Between: Geological Phase Transition, Adaptive Co-Management, and Anthropology

The next piece in the anthropologies climate change series comes from Michael Agar. His bio is here. Check out more of his work on the rest of the Ethnoworks site, or email him at magar AT umd dot edu. –R.A.

Several years ago, in 2011, The Onion—a satirical newspaper—ran a feature story entitled “Planet Earth Doesn’t Know How To Make It Any Clearer It Wants Everyone To Leave.” The Onion presented the Earth’s prepared statement as follows:

At this point, I think I’ve stated my wishes quite loudly and clearly,” the Earth’s statement to all of humanity read in part. “I haven’t exactly been subtle about it, you realize. I have literally tried to drown you, crush you, starve you, dehydrate you, pump you full of diseases, and suck your homes and families into swirling vortices of death. Honestly, what more is it going to take for you people to get the message? Do I have to spell it out for you?” the statement continued. “Get the fuck out of here. I want you to leave now.

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Real Writing

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Daniel Goldstein as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Daniel is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University. He is the author of three ethnographies and one edited collection, all published with Duke University Press. Most of his work has been on urban life and the politics of security in Latin America and, more recently, on the securitization of immigration in the United States. Daniel’s forthcoming book, Owners of the Sidewalk: Security and Survival in the Informal City, examines the intersections of insecurity and informality among market vendors in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Daniel’s work is characterized by a commitment to activist anthropology and a desire to influence thought outside the academy.]

Like many writers who have to sustain themselves with a paying job – in my case, and probably yours too, an academic job – I spend a lot of my time fretting about not having enough time to write. Many of my friends in the profession are the same way. We have to teach, we complain, which requires time to prepare, deliver, and grade our lessons, while managing students and their many needs. We serve on committees, attend faculty meetings, and hold office hours. We devote countless hours to reviewing the work of our peers – others who seem to find the time to write, which we must review at the cost of our own writing time.

As a result, I think, many of us don’t feel like writers. I know I don’t. Not a real writer, anyway. A real writer, in my mind, is someone whose principal vocation is writing. I picture someone like Honoré de Balzac, writing through the wee hours of the morning, fueled by endless cups of coffee; Joyce Carol Oates, author of more than 50 novels and countless other works of fiction and non-fiction; or Maya Angelou, who kept a small hotel room as a writing space, which she called “lonely, and…marvelous.”[1] These to me are real writers. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of September 13

The theme of this blog roundup seems to be “our digital selves.” Send me anything you’ve written or found at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com!

The Global Social Media Impact Study blog asks What’s Special About Social Media in Small Places? The answer seems to be that, while people feel a certain freedom to explore alternative identities when they’re outside of their small communities, they make sure their online images are socially acceptable and in line with their self-presentation within their communities.

In The Geek Anthropologist, an anthropologist recounts her experience playing Elder Scrolls Online, a massive multi-player online role-playing game, and the unspoken rules that govern it: A Geek Anthropologists’ First Time: A MMORPG Experience 

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Anthropologies #21: The Challenge of Motivated Reasoning: Science, Education, and Changing Climates

Next up we have an essay about climate change and education from Joseph Henderson and David E. Long. Henderson is a Learning Sciences Researcher at the University of Delaware. Trained as an anthropologist of environmental and science education, his research investigates how sociocultural, political and economic factors influence teaching and learning in emerging energy and climate systems. You can find Joseph on Academia.edu here, and on Twitter: @josephenderson. David Long is Research Assistant Professor in the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology at George Mason University.  Long examines how religious faith and political ideology mediates the U.S. cultural relationship toward evolution, climate science, and genetic engineering in educational settings. You can find more about his work on the George Mason University website and on Academia.edu. –R.A.

What does it mean to know climate change? A recent study on the global awareness of climate change found that nearly 40% of adults did not know about climate change (Lee et al., 2015). Among those who did, formal education proved the biggest individual predictor of awareness, with more education leading to greater awareness. The researchers also discovered that awareness levels increased in so-called “developed” nations, where access to formal education tends to be greater. They also found that each nation had a risk perception dynamic unique to their particular context. For example, “developing” countries are more likely to experience the local effects of climate change in their daily lives, even though they rate lower official knowledge of abstract climate change concepts. This shaped perceptions of risk accordingly, toward the more tangible and concrete impacts of already existing climate impacts. Conversely, “developed” countries tend to be spatially and temporally detached from the immediate impacts of climate change (Norgaard, 2011). While simply knowing about climate change is a laudable educational goal, it is also not enough to merely know. Actually moving someone to action—that is, knowing what to do about climate change and why to do it—necessarily entails bringing one’s worldview and values into account, including the possibility that they might need to change. When change asks you to evolve your values, there is often anxiety and resistance. Continue reading

Homo Naledi’s other revolution

When the Homo Naledi discovery was announced I was excited to see that the initial publication was in an open access journal, eLife. In fact to me this was a huge relief for, now that my adjunct teaching days are done and I am gainfully employed in the museum sector, I no longer have access to journals through a university library. (But, then again, I won’t have to rewrite my human evolution lecture. So there’s that.)

One day at work I decided to abstain from my usual time wasting behaviors of Facebook and reading the comments section of the Washington Post, and instead invest my downtime in reading the Naledi piece. Look at me! I’m reading an article for fun! Truly this is one of the most liberating experiences of being outside the academy: now I read scholarship for pleasure.

I was proud of myself for making it all the way to the end, feeling like I got it. Okay, so I skimmed over some of the anatomy stuff, but not all of it. Nothing I can’t handle with a dictionary nearby. With no one to impress with my studiousness except my fellow librarians (who are all, of course, very studious), I looked forward to sharing a bottle of wine with my wife (a biologist and “real” scientist) and telling her all about the findings. We frequently have animated discussions about human evolution, so it came as a surprise when she didn’t want to talk about Homo Naledi rather what grabbed her attention first was that the authors had chosen to go OA.

Jessica has established herself an open access skeptic in our previous kitchen conversations, which unfolded something like…

Her: So where did they publish? Didn’t you say it was the cover of Nature?

Me: No. Cover of National Geographic. Lee Berger had a NGS Explorer grant.

Her: Where then? Science?

Me: No, they went open access. Something called eLife.

Her: Really?! Wow. But why? *gives side eye*
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