This quarter’s American Anthropologist reprints two distinguished lectures from AAA conferences past, including Jeremy Sabloff’s excellent “Where have you gone, Margret Mead? Anthropology and Public Intellectuals.” Even though I was in attendance at the 2010 conference in New Orleans I somehow missed this talk. You can be sure that my absence had nothing to do with Bourbon Street, seafood, bread pudding, or cruising city neighborhoods with lost cab drivers looking for avant garde art installations. Nothing at all.
Which is a shame, because I’m heartened by the AAA’s earnest interest in exploring the public role of our discipline although I am skeptical as to whether this will amount to more than a trend to be tossed aside when something else bright and shiny catches the discipline’s attention. Maybe I’m reminded of similar calls for anthropology to be interdisciplinary only for that to amount to so much lip service. You can’t make a career publishing in journals of history, American studies, or education. If you want to be an anthropologist you are expected to publish in anthropology journals. Interdisciplinarity be damned.
If you are a dues paying member of the AAA then you can read the text of Sabloff’s plea for heightened public engagement behind a pay wall. While blogging does feature in his essay (with mad shout outs to Daniel Lende and Michael Smith), whether the Association’s decision to pursue a toll-gated publication regime managed by Wiley-Blackwell is at odds with his call for public engagement is, unfortunately, not addressed.
Did you see what I did there? Public. Publication. Eh? Eh?
To the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” Sabloff pines for the day when our discipline had a public intellectual in Margaret Mead, one who captured the nation’s imagination, her commentary circulating freely in popular culture. Excepting the important contributions made by practicing anthropologists and professionals engaged in cultural resource management, Sabloff rightly perceives a great gulf separating anthropology from mainstream American society as well as public policy.
We need a celebrity intellectual, he writes, on par with Richard Dawkins, Henry Louis Gates, Paul Krugman, or Cornel West. Sabloff convincingly argues that the structure and traditions that bind professional academia inhibits the creation of such figures. (It’s worth noting that Mead spent the bulk of her career outside the tenure track at the American Museum of Natural History or laboring as an adjunct professor.)
Indeed, I am struck by how the American academy functions as a highly efficient Frankfurt School-esque Culture Industry, siphoning off organic intellectuals from their native communities and sequestering them in ivory towers of silence. Its spooky how effective it is at reaching that goal. Almost as if by design.
The academy gives little incentive for anthropologists to engage the public, with the emphasis falling instead on the publishing of research. Calls such as Sabloff’s for the expansion and reevaluation of criteria for hiring, tenure, and promotion to include such outreach dovetail nicely with ongoing discussions here at Savage Minds and elsewhere on the state of academic publishing. I think this connection should be explored further.
While anthropology does have a figure like Paul Farmer, he is rather low profile in terms of his pop culture cache. For Sabloff we need anthropologists represented in “highly visible media,” butting heads with Bill Maher, taking phone calls from Katie Couric, and trading jokes with John Stewart (his examples).
I thought these choices were kind of odd and to be honest they rubbed me the wrong way. There are anthropological shows on television already or at least shows where a relationship to anthropology is overt and lies on the surface: Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Antiques Roadshow, the lamentably deceased Postcards from Buster. What Sabloff seems to be saying is that while there currently exist shows on, say, the History Channel that are relevant to themes in anthropology, authentic anthropologists do not play a starring role in them and so mainstream society does not associate them with the anthropology “brand.” But this is not my main beef.
I’m going to come out and just say it. We don’t need another Paul Farmer.
No! Wait! I take that back. We do need more Paul Farmers. We need as many Paul Farmers as we can get, the man is incredible. Maybe what I mean to say is that I’m no Paul Farmer and I hazard to guess that you, gentle reader, are no Paul Farmer either.
I’m definitely not showing up in “highly visible media” any time soon but I am really, really good at teaching Introduction to Anthropology. I think getting more of us engaged in public policy is a terrific idea, but I’m not sure what the policy implications to my research on American Indian theatrical productions for tourists would be. Urging the AAA to get someone to helm public relations sounds keen. But what does it have to do with my everyday responsibilities?
What if instead of celebrity intellectuals we think of what can be done with the AAA’s rank and file. There are, relatively speaking, very few elite professors at prestigious universities compared to the large cohort of professionals at land grant, directional and second tier state schools, HBCU’s, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. There are hundreds more adjuncts and small timers. If public anthropology is to become a social movement within the field we don’t need rock stars, we need foot soldiers. Encouraging professors to get behind a television production initiative sounds worthwhile, but it also sounds really easy. Especially for me because I won’t have to do a damn thing!
I guess begging anthropology to produce celebrities rings hollow to me. Like one time at a SANA business meeting someone rose from the audience to say, “SANA should do something about xyz” Really? And how do you suppose professional societies ever manage to do things? SANA is you. What you’re actually saying is that you should be the one doing something about xyz, only you don’t realize it yet.
In Errol Morris’s cult documentary “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” the director juxtaposes interviews of four eccentric personalities to mind blowing effect, including robotics engineer Rodney Brooks. It’s Brooks who in his fantasies of extraterrestrial colonization coins the phrase that Morris gives as the film’s title. You see, in its exploration of Mars, NASA has relied upon a large, elaborate, and expensive robot – if it breaks then you’re out of luck. The robots Brooks proposes to send are about the size of a dinner plate and far less expensive, so you can send many more.
What I’m trying to say is don’t sit around waiting for the next Margaret Mead. And anthropology doesn’t become more relevant to Jose Six-pack once we cross Marshall Sahlins with Marshall Mathers. We can all be public intellectuals of a local, non-celebrity sort. Find something where you are, some way to play a role however small and do it. It doesn’t have to be hard. You don’t have to write a grant. Just share what you know and what you do with the people around you. Let public anthropology be fast, cheap, and out of control.