The Bongobongo and Open Access

Recent comments on Hau and the opening of ethnographic theory remind me of what I always think of when I hear about the Bongobongo:

The time is gone when anthropologists could find solace in the claim that our main civic duty–and the justification for our public support–was the constant reaffirmation that the Bongobongo are “humans just like us.” Every single term of that phrase is now publicly contested terrain, caught between the politics of identity and the turbulence of global flows. Too many of the Bongobongo are now living next door, and a few of them may even be anthropologists presenting their own vision of their home societies, or studying their North Atlantic neighbors. The North Atlantic natives who reject them do so with a passion. Those who do accept them do not need anthropologists in the welcoming committee.
–Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations (2003:137)

Trouillot is then outlining a vision of anthropological duties and risks, include making native voices more full interlocutors, identifying the ultimate targets of anthropological discourse, and publicizing the stakes of anthropological exchange.

To what degree do Open Access efforts–specifically Hau–move us in that direction?

Allow me to first state that I am very encouraged by Hau and its potential. I also do not want to take away from the many interesting comments. However, from that discussion, I am left wondering:

1. As Rex identified in his initial post, “I don’t see a role for indigenous anthropology (i.e. by and for indigenous anthropologists) in this program at all.” David Graeber challenged this, but Rex challenged back–and so it seems the question is still on the table: To what degree might open access also be a place where indigenous anthropologists, native voices, and internal others have a chance to become more full interlocutors in anthropological conversations?

2. Are we “identifying clearly the ultimate listeners,” those Trouillot called “the Sepulvedas of our times” (2003:136)? Hau admirably aims to make “anthropology itself relevant again far beyond its own borders” (2011:viii) and is specifically launched against insularity and triviality. At the same time, the observation of “parochial irrelevance” is followed by lamenting that the Deleuzians, Speculative Realists, Lacanians, and Foucauldians are not taking classic anthropology into account, “a colossal failure of nerve” (2011:x). But are these the Sepulvedas of our times?

3. Trouillot was not talking about Open Access, but he did discuss accessibility: “Media claims notwithstanding, the influence of academic research that could be labeled politically ‘progressive’ has decreased–if only because these works are increasingly inaccessible to lay readers” (2003:137). And so I here wonder–even if every article in American Anthropologist were declared Open Access today–to what degree would it make a difference for the Bongobongo and the Sepulvedas of our times? I do not mean to be too harsh–Trouillot recognized the need for “a technical vocabulary to which research contributes and without which it cannot be sustained” (2003:137, and of course Trouillot’s Global Transformations is rather out-of-reach for many lay readers)–but it is worth thinking about how Open Acess and accessibility could and should interact.

This also seems related to Rex’s analogy to Academia as Music Industry. “Platinum hits” may be rarer, but the irrepentant Sepulvedas of our times keep churning out multi-nationally financed blockbusters.

19 thoughts on “The Bongobongo and Open Access

  1. the hong kong anthropological association has an excellent model for making anthropological knowledge accessible to the general public and to general public dialogue about research being conducted in the city. this is also reflected in the city’s only anthro department where students’ work seems to be loaded with less jargon and more quality analysis and ethnographic data.

    but anyway, another major problem in publishing today is the publish and perish culture itself… as robin said, its difficult to find quality work out there today. not surprising given that profs have to publish at the rate they do today… and well, the more… crap… that gets published, the less people want to read into it anyway.

  2. Having lived and worked at the margins of academia and in non-elite settings at that, my sense is that we often still have to affirm that the “Bongobongo” are humans just like us—often particularly when they do live next door, or at least in the same city or as laborers on our farms. Ethnogenesis has its dark side; and the colonial subject, illegal laborer, or refugee next door is too often an “other” not like “us.” What “just like us” means may be differently argued, but the challenge remains.

  3. Thank you for the comments!

    @Robin, definitely the music industry has provided some fruitful metaphors–also gets me thinking about the sampling and borrowing and who became paid and famous.

    @JM, thank you for the alert to the Hong Kong Anthropological association. One of the issues is certainly the traditional disdain–from the academic side–of applied anthropology, which has been viewed as never useful for theorizing. And your point about publish-or-perish, which of late is more like publish-and-perish, is certainly well taken.

    @Linda, I certainly agree that assertions of shared humanity are still an important agenda for anthropologists, with in some cases even greater urgency. I just finished teaching Labor and Legality by Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz and can affirm that there is an important humanizing aspect and documentation. What I read in the Trouillot quote is more that this cannot be anthropology’s “main civic duty,” justification for funding, and source of solace. Partly because those who reject are unlikely to be convinced by anthropology, and at times anthropology’s welcoming can contribute to a new round of otherizing.

  4. Just want to say to Linda that I agree absolutely. The trick is learning that the other is an extension of us. In my own thinking I frequently find myself returning to Clyde Kluckhohn’s observation that human beings are all alike in some respects, like some others in other respects, and still uniquely themselves. The anthropologist’s problem is figuring out which is which.

    I myself would go further and note that “like some others in other respects,” the domain to which small-c “culture” applies varies depending on what Simmel calls social circles. Working in a Japanese advertising agency, I quickly learned that generic knowledge of Japanese culture or even Japanese corporate culture was of limited use. Even clients who produced similar products had very different corporate cultures and, at the end of the day, successful pitches depended on taking into account the tastes and preferences of particular decision-makers.

    I strongly suspect that anyone who becomes involved in the practical politics of applied work of any kind will share this type of experience.

  5. @Jason

    Thanks for the quote from Trouillot. What he says makes a great deal of sense. I would note, however, that when I read your comment,

    To what degree might open access also be a place where indigenous anthropologists, native voices, and internal others have a chance to become more full interlocutors in anthropological conversations?

    I note a series of complexities that are rarely taken into account when questions like this are formulated. First and foremost among them is the question whether the “others” whose lives we share and study are able or willing to “become more full interlocutors.” The answer may seem transparently “Yes,” if the other is an indigenous anthropologist with whom we share a common language and intellectual interests. I think, however, of the Daoist master with whom I worked in Taiwan. He was happy to have me as his disciple, doing what disciples do, hanging around, lending a hand, and picking up through a kind of on-the-job apprenticeship how to do what he did. He never indicated the slightest interest in what I was doing qua anthropologist with what I was learning from him. In contrast, the Japanese market researchers whose research provided the data for my book on Japanese consumer behavior were very interested, indeed, in what I was doing and how I interpreted their research. Even so, co-authorship was not in the cards. They were busy people with projects of their own. I wonder how fellow anthropologists whose collaborators are illiterate or, alternatively, sensibly preoccupied with their own concerns, whether getting in a harvest, pushing drugs, surviving in a war zone, running a restaurant or bond trading desk….develop relationships in which the other becomes a “full interlocutor.”

    In sum, if “native voices” and “internal others” refer to indigenous anthropologists who legitimately claim to be one or the other, I see that they have a legitimate complaint in an academic world in which they find themselves confined to marginal or service employment. But are the measures being proposed either feasible or likely to lead to improvement in the lives studied by anthropologists? I don’t want to be too cynical. I would, however, like to see the discussion get beyond pious moralizing. Any chance of that?

  6. A little joke to begin with:
    One feature that “indigenous anthropologists”, “native voices”, and “internal others” have in common is that –some– anthropologists think they are not full interlocutors in anthropological conversations.

    This brings me back to the old question of why main anthropological Departments are still organized in terms of –the old same– geopolitical labelling of the (colonial) world? And why research core areas are also run within this view of the people who inhabit the world?

    I wonder how can we answer ‘To what degree do Open Access efforts–specifically Hau–move us in that [explained by Jason] direction?’ if we are caught in oppositions like Sepúlveda versus Bartolomé de las Casas

    A brief example: currents discussions in my country about Malvinas/ Falkland islands are a significant token of how little anthropology has contributed to think about the relations between politics, violence and culture (e.g. ‘progressive’ media quoting Eduardo Galeano instead). Although I truly like Galeano’s literature, I didn’t get the chance to hear any anthropological argument about why the islanders want to remain as a British colony

  7. Thank you John and JG for the perceptive comments and important issues raised. I do not know if I can do justice to the complexities, but since I am unabashedly attempting to channel Trouillot for this post, I read him as saying that points #2 and #3 actually go with point #1. That is to say, plainly spelling out the stakes and identifying the ultimate targets of anthropological discourse is what could offer greater possibility for others to jump in:

    The better we identify such interlocutors–inside and outside of anthropology, and indeed outside of academe, from rational choice theorists, historians, and cultural critics to World Bank officials and well-intentioned NGOs–the more chance there is for savages to jump into the discussion, establish themselves as interlocutors, and further challenge the slot by directly claiming their own specificity. The identification of the interlocutors and their premises facilitates the identification of the stakes. Las Casas and especially Rousseau are spectacular precursors who showed great political and intellectual courage in spelling out what they saw as the stakes behind their counterpunctual arguments. Institutionalized anthropology has tended to choose comfort over risk, masking the relevance of its debates and positions and avoiding a public role. (Global Transformations, 136-7)

    The two endnotes to this passage seem quite relevant to this thread, as they go directly to previous comments (and the jobs of some of the commenters!). First, with regard to how “the savages” can jump into the discussion:

    Only they can gain this status for themselves. No anthropologist–not even anthropologists born and raised outside of the North Atlantic, who risk becoming anthropology’s new comfort zone as indeed they have quickly become in literary criticism and Cultural Studies–can confer this right upon them. We can only facilitate their entry. (156)

    Second, about applied anthropology and a public role:

    The number of anthropologists practicing in and out of academe has increased tremendously in the last decades of the twentieth century. Anthropologists have brought their specialized knowledge to governments, international agencies, grassroots organizations, and high-class advertisers. Yet those individualized engagements do not coalesce into trends in part because academic anthropology, the institutional core of the discipline, has not meditated much on its public role. Just as anthropology protected its “primitives” and their pristine “cultures,” it also protected itself from the public eye, or at least avoided as much as possible entering the public sphere by the front door. (156)

    I fear I may not be getting beyond the pious moralizing John warns me against, and I may still be caught in the Sepúlveda versus Bartolomé de las Casas opposition JG wants to go beyond. But that was the back-text for the post, hopefully helpful.

  8. Jason:

    “To what degree might open access also be a place where indigenous anthropologists, native voices, and internal others have a chance to become more full interlocutors in anthropological conversations?”

    I think John makes a good point about this above: some of the conversations and avenues that we anthropologists tend to focus on may not be all that interesting, meaningful, or valuable for the people we work with. So…changing this whole thing about access might also require rethinking how we communicate (write, make films, etc) and for what purposes. If the goal is to collaborate, then we have to be willing to listen and take into account what kinds of things and actions matter for the communities, organizations, and individuals that anthropologists work with. We tend to produce documents and texts (myself included) based upon our own conventions and ideas about what should be done in ethnography/anthropology. It might look very different if it becomes a higher priority to collaborate and create something that matters for others who have a stake in the process.

    “And so I here wonder–even if every article in American Anthropologist were declared Open Access today–to what degree would it make a difference for the Bongobongo and the Sepulvedas of our times?”

    Really good question. My immediate answer is that it’s not going to make much of a difference. Why? Because most of the content in our journals is A) not going to make much sense to many people outside of anthropology & academia; and B) if it did make sense, it probably would not be too appealing or inviting to read. Mostly because of the style in which we tend to write to ourselves–it’s pretty clearly an internal conversation going on in these publications. That’s no big secret. So, if AA was immediately “open,” that would not necessarily solve the whole problem. It would be good for other academics and independent scholars around the world who want access to these publications (as long as they read English, of course), but there are lots of other audiences that would not get too much from the content. The problem with access, then, exists on more than one front. It’s literally about the fact that these journals are closed behind toll-gated walls, but the access issues are also matters of style, communication, and language. We can close ourselves off–or open things up–in various ways.

    That’s why I think there’s something to be learned from people like Robert Sapolsky (and others) who are good at crossing back and forth between different audiences. I always liked Stephen Gould for that reason as well.

  9. Thanks Jason for extending the post and Troulliot’s argument. In fact, I feel unease with ‘sepulvedizar’ this topic for this precise point: “Only they can gain this status for themselves”. (From you quote)
    I concur with the importance of ‘identifying the ultimate targets of anthropological discourse’. Not sure about how ‘could offer greater possibility for others to jump in’. I’m not saying I disagree, I just can’t offer a single answer.

    On the other hand, we have the ‘production factors’. I know, this is too-big-issue; especially for my humble brain now suffering the South American summer.

    Just a few words fearing I’m going a little off-topic
    For instance Here we have different institutions with their own –mostly not overlapping- cannons: Universities and Conicet (which is like CNRS in France), and we are subject to these –among themselves different- interlocutors as well. Just to mention one feature: the debates about social sciences are more and more being under the outcomes scheme of ‘exact sciences’ in Conicet, and this raised Universities opposition.
    I’m mentioning this for it has real consequences for any anthropological project (wether its public relevance or not), since we are into –or willing to be into– quite unequal ‘dialogs’. (Of course this can be read as the traps of freedom and independence of academic work, another too-big-topic…)

    Indeed, as Jason notes, Giovanni’s post on the Hau discussion thread is very helpful for clarifying what is Hau’s scope and what are the aims of such a project.

    Anyway I think discussing open access (and accessibility) remains a great starting point: for it reassures that we cannot solve issues regarding dialogues with non anthropologists if we cannot do it among ourselves. This is also why I engaged so much in these Hau threads.

    [If I could post in Spanish this would be more poetic, or much fun, for that matter]

  10. I concur with the importance of ‘identifying the ultimate targets of anthropological discourse’.

    Allow me once again to play the devil’s advocate. Are the targets in question some particular segment of humanity, some particular behavioral outcome or change in attitude, an enlarged sense of human possibilities or a vision of what humanity should become? What are the grounds on which a consensus could be built? What do we do with those who disagree?

  11. Oh no, John! I was told to stay away from devil’s advocates.
    Pun intended, then:
    I like to think of that *quote* as a broad and ongoing exercise of criticism, which leads to an engaged anthropological practice (whether doing fieldwork, teaching, writing, applied anthropology, being interview by media, and so on). But if the trial obligates to a mandatory answer, it would be human possibilities.

    I hope this is not about solving the founding dilemma: why is that we (humans) are so different and so alike at the same time?
    As you’ve mentioned: the other is an extension of us. (Lévi Strauss’ metaphor of two trains crossing each other’s path, was not about the trains’ speed)

    And btw, ‘target’ is a very unhappy word, isn’t it?

  12. A reply to Ryan and JG–thank you for the excellent points raised here. One interesting connection is both of you talk about language issues. That reminded me of something I wanted to bring up in my previous post from the Andre Gingrich article on “Transitions.” Although I had expected Gingrich to emphasize the need for more language diversity in anthropology, he actually believes it important to build on “English as an academic lingua franca” (2010:554), but emphasizing other languages as well. Specifically:

    Bilingual skills should be a basic precondition of admission to Ph.D. studies in sociocultural anthropology anywhere in the world–that is, English in countries where English is not commonly understood and another language than English in all English-speaking countries. As part of this field’s minimal quality standards, this version of required bilingualism could promote a basic qualification to carry out fieldwork both “at home” and “elsewhere”; it would facilitate access to anthropological knowledge as published in one other major language than one’s own; and last but not least, it would ensure practical usage of the one global academic lingua franca that we have. (2010:557)

    ¿Penasamientos? ¿Observaciones?

  13. In reply to John and JG’s earlier thread, I invoke Trouillot’s “ultimate targets” (he also uses the terms “hidden interlocutors in the West” and “inescapable interlocutors in the West itself” and “ultimate listeners”) to mean the actual people anthropology needs to address. Trouillot lists “rational choice theorists, historians, and cultural critics to World Bank officials and well-intentioned NGOs” (2003:137).

    I take this to mean people who are in a position to offer visions of and for humanity, people who are formulating political and economic policies, and whose visions are based on incomplete, inaccurate, and inappropriate renditions of “human nature,” human history, or simply dismissive of most of humanity.

    A short list at present might include Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Charles Murray (yes, he’s back with a new book); David Brooks and Thomas Friedman; Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama. Not that any of them will change, but that anthropology must be on hand to offer counter-punctual narratives. (@JG–Does that list makes the choice of the word “target” any more palatable?)

    Trouillot portrays this as a kind of three-part counterpunctual argument. For one example:

    (1) You have suggested that biological descent determines behavior;
    (2) I will show you that beliefs, attitudes, and actions vary within and across racial lines even among savages;
    (3) So that you and I can envision a future where one races does not dominate another. (2003:134)

    Trouillot suggests that “with slight changes and the necessary dose of humor, we can reproduce the scheme ad infinitum,” and for an ad infinitum reproduction (and hopefully a dose of humor) please see my PowerPoint, Anthropology and Moral Optimism.

  14. Jason, thanks for clarifying Trouillot’s “ultimate targets” as well as for sharing the PP.
    What I meant with Human Possibilities –with their powers, potential and creativity- is intimately connected with moral optimism. But of course this debates are very much attached to how we define our matria-discipline (e.g.: humanistic or science, and so forth)
    [I just don’t like the military connotation of ‘target’]

    As for you previous post, here are my pensamient(it)os:

    Sure, language skills are crucial, and not just for anthropology. However, I find the proposition “Bilingual skills should be a basic precondition of admission to Ph.D. studies” as the ultimate expression of the class oriented ivory tower.
    Personally I never had a formal education in English other than life, travelling and people. With a limited budget, my parents simply had to choose between arts and languages for their children -and the five of us were really into music and painting. I’m describing this personal vignette only to stress that in many countries is very expensive to get such a bilingual education.
    On the other hand, Universities give free courses mainly for reading purposes, and that is something important, at least.
    I understand how important language skills are, and this is why I constantly translate for my students (not just English, but also form French and Portuguese). I believe this is part of my teaching duties (of course, no one pays me for this, and I don’t expect it to happen).
    In sum, although I’m very fond of languages, I sympathize with overcoming these structural constraints by other means (i.e. one can learn during the PhD training, or later).

    Ps: I can’t avoid noticing that Spanish is the 2nd most spoken language worldwide, after Mandarin. Quite telling, no?

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