a plea for anthropology

It’s been an exciting month on Savage Minds, from a great new open access and digital anthropology effort to a reading of foundational texts to a discussion of contemporary scholarship, with a lot of stuff in between. And all the while a glance at the right-hand column opens onto a window of often fiery comment exchanges. I haven’t guest-blogged as much as I wanted to, in part because things came up, in part because I wanted to keep priority on the main discussions, and in part because I’m afraid of that comment stream. Although I’m sensing this post is headed toward an “epic fail,” I would like to register a plea to find our way beyond internet conventions that encourage people to tear each other limb from limb. These conventions can sometimes be exacerbated by anthropological training, making anthropology a “field of stumps” as each generation cuts down the work of the previous (I think Eric Wolf said that, but can’t locate the reference; [update, thanks Ryan and see this comment for full reference]).

The internet is mean

Jonathan Marks recently posted a A rant on race and genetics, which despite its provocative title is really about how people need to take account of over a century of anthropological study on human variation. For that he gets branded a “Boasian Cultural Marxist race denier” (perhaps a compliment, really). My recent Race redux hasn’t drawn the same ire, but I’m really wondering how to respond to the idea that “agonies” about health inequalities for U.S. blacks are “misdirected” or if I want to “risk the outer darkness” where Charles Murray resides. Similar things, or much worse, happen across the blogosphere, like when female anthropology bloggers write about gender.

It is in this context–and let’s just be honest here–that at least some readers consider Discuss White Privilege to be associated with internet-troll behavior. I’ll immediately note the irony that the prototypical internet troll is a white adolescent male. So it may not be fair, but people who have been blogging much longer than me tend to tune out and never reply to certain kinds of comments. Of course, the designation of troll signifies a less-than-human status, which is what Discuss White Privilege has been trying to get people to discuss. Unfortunately, in the context of the internet, adopting a name like Discuss White Privilege is almost guaranteed to provoke exactly a dehumanizing reaction, and I actually think some of the shorthand replies to @ DWP might be an attempt to humanize the addressee through initials.

Where should anthropology blogs go?

Unfortunately my anthropology blogging is not yet paying the bills, and so it’s always difficult to know what to do. Do I try to answer that whole race-intelligence thing? Do I head over to try and help Marks, seizing the Boasian Cultural Marxist race denier mantle? Take a swipe at John McCreery? And then of course it strikes me that this is all blogging anyway, and the comment stream at that–does anyone actually care? Shouldn’t I be more involved in these issues on my campus? Or doing some real political work?

Plus, it seems a lot of this blog back-and-forth is rather like something I’m again dimly remembering of an anthropologist from the Manchester School punching out a fellow Brit in an all-white bar in colonial Africa for insulting blacks (apologies again for not having a reference–grateful for help!). In other words it’s a white-male brawl over who gets to speak about others, something DWP has been saying. I paste below the poster she discussed in her previous comment, a “deeply racist–though ‘well-intentioned’–poster.”

I do wonder if Adam Fish is correct to argue for post-anthropological approaches, as invoking anthropology may just too inevitably call up all those worn ideas about race, bounded non-West cultures, and the racist merging of gorilla-indigenous on this poster. Or these days, get you labeled as–oh, those people who aren’t science anymore. Is it time to jump ship on the anthropology brand?

I think not. Drawing on the anthropology brand means drawing on some of the best thinking on human origins, variation, and diversity:

Anthropologists are well placed to face these changes, first by documenting them in ways that are consistent with our disciplinary history. The populations we traditionally study are often those most visibly affected by the ongoing polarization brought about by the new spatiality of the world economy. They descend directly from those who paid most heavily for the transformations of earlier times. . . . We cannot abandon the four-fifths of humanity that the [ 1% ] see as increasingly useless to the world economy, not only because we built a discipline on the backs of their ancestors but also because the tradition of that discipline has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind. (Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations, p.138)

Moreover, and to simply be crassly opportunistic and pragmatic about this, there seems to be a growing interest in anthropology–internationally, at the undergraduate level, and if the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics can be believed, even for job growth in the U.S.

Savage Minds is undoubtedly the core of the anthropology blogosphere, and is a logical place for hashing out these issues. But it does seem important to note that most all of us are here because in some sense we are not exactly part of that academic anthropology core–although of course it is important to immediately add that many of those inequalities get echoed in the anthropology blogosphere and exclusions are not all equivalent. But I do hope we can work on ways to work together, or at least productively disagree. There is a need for anthropology, and an anthropology blogosphere–I’m grateful to Savage Minds for all the blogging they have done and for a chance to share some thoughts.

28 thoughts on “a plea for anthropology

  1. Kudos on the thoughtful post, Jason.

    As for why I posted as Discuss White Privilege: it was a *specific* reference to the first comment I posted asking Dorien Zandenbergen how her being a white anthropologist had affected her project and how she wrote about it. That first comment was nothing if not measured and respectful, and neither the moniker nor the comment was used for trolling purposes. To me it was a pretty neutral pen name, or certainly not as charged as it became for others. But that’s because I am a critical whiteness scholar and view the term as fairly prosaic. Subsequent comments continued to be posted as Discuss White Privilege out of, frankly, laziness–it is already in my computer’s comment field–not some great urge to be provocative.

    Again, thanks for the measured response. I truly hadn’t though responding as Discuss White Privilege was a big deal, and certainly didn’t think it would be read as trolling. But I guess that’s (also) because we anthropologists don’t discuss white privilege as much as we should, in quotidian fashion, along with all the otherness forms of privilege which structure the social relations about which we write.

  2. I don’t participate in the comments here, but do on other blogs. As a person who gets drawn into back and forth hatchet affairs on occasion, it is clear that anonymity is part of the problem, which isn’t to say the pseudonyms don’t have their uses. More problematic, I think, is that comment streams have the feel of low level chat to specific others, but the mode and style of discourse is something quite different. This is especially when interlocutors have a high level of “book learnin’.” When DWP puts together a highly cogent and sophisticated comment, it comes across as an accusatory lecture. Were he/she sitting face to face with the person or people the comment is addressed to, it just wouldn’t fly to speak that way. No doubt the overall message would come across in shorter bits. And it would be much easier for the affronted to turn away or leave the room. In short, face to face, the parties have a chance to arrive at some form of agreement (or disagreement) in a way much more conducive to everyone feeling a little less threatened. Out here in the blogosphere, we seem to be trapped between two worlds and the results are often not pretty.

  3. Thanks for this post, Jason.

    I want to make one additional comment about the bigger picture.

    Savage Minds has always had interesting things to say. I used to read it regularly. But in an effort (perhaps) to be edgy and provocative, there is also a certain meanness to some of the regular posters. What passes for intellectual repartee often looks more like professional wrestling to me, with some of the Savage Minders promoting their individual brands more than displaying the requisite humility with which we ought to approach each other’s scholarly work.

    Writing and publishing is putting yourself out there in the world. We all want engagement with our work, but in a constructive way. I wouldn’t let my students turn in work that resembles the regular posts on this website (hasty, not well thought out, and largely unsupported criticism verging on nastiness being in the main, or at least far too frequent). Rather than tearing other people down (which is like trophy hunting in certain academic circles), I try to encourage my students to develop the knack of building something useful out of the constructive, insightful elements of other people’s arguments.

    I also worry about how writing in the blogosphere may come to influence real scholarly writing. (Yes, I am signaling a distinction here). Indeed, some of my reluctance to jump on the open access bandwagon is that (whether this is a legitimate concern or not) our shared intellectual spaces will end up looking more like Savage Minds. I think this would be a bad outcome.

    Finally, I agree that we shouldn’t be blaming the medium. But we need to be paying more attention to the tone of the message. I think the discursive style in this blog actually sets the stage for the kind of bad behavior we are talking about. I think some of you need to tone it down and show a little more respect for authors who put their stuff out in the world — at various lengths, at various levels of polish, tentative hypotheses on the way to theory building, willing to be disproven, willing to be fodder for a debate, but also deserving of being treated with more humility and respect and not the sarcastic, dismissive, sometimes elitist, and frequently edgy-cum-nasty tone that too often passes for intellectual discourse on this blog .

    Stuart

    p.s. one might speculate whether, to take a Schieffelin-esque turn, if trolls didn’t exist, this blog would call them into being.

  4. Hi DWP, Lorin, and Stuart–thank you for a set of thoughtful comments.

    Stuart, I would like to challenge you a bit, or perhaps extend this out to an even bigger picture. I have not been a regular reader of anthropology blogs until last year when I joined the blogging fray. I have not noticed–at least in this last year–the kind of activities you describe on Savage Minds.

    It’s wondefully encouraging that you are working with your students to build useful arguments from others. However, would you agree that many (most?) graduate programs have not exactly functioned in this way? And to what degree is this a shared practice?

    Back in 1999, Immanuel Wallerstein wrote about social sciences generally that “we must most of all lower our arrogance decibels” (The End of the World as We Know It:156). Again, this was about the social sciences generally, but it was 1999, before Savage Minds and a social science blogosphere existed. (As I wrote in my post, I’m pretty sure Eric Wolf made a similar statement pre-internet.)

    So I guess I would be wary of drawing too hasty a line between the “good” things that happen in the real classroom and real scholarly writing and the “bad” things online. As Wallerstein wrote, there is a need to lower the “arrogance decibels” across these arenas (although I will readily admit to at times trying to participate in some of this “trophy hunting”).

    Thank you again,
    Jason

  5. As one of the principal unnamed villains whose names Stuart tactfully avoids, I want to stand up and endorse what he says. All authors who expose themselves in public deserve a respectful reading.

    That said, I wonder if we mightn’t talk a a bit about respect. My sense is that today’s academic world — certainly not just anthropology — is full of tender souls whose grandmothers never told them, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Personally, I have always learned the most from teachers and colleagues who told me bluntly that some half-baked idea was crap — while adding that they were sure that I could do better. If my aim were to perpetuate racist and other inequalities, I can think of no better mechanism than a condescending blind eye. The ideal is probably somewhere between these extremes. But where? I have some ideas but I’d rather hear others’ first.

  6. Jason, thanks for this post. A really quick comment here, and then I will write something more here when I get the chance later. Just wanted to say that this is a really valuable conversation, and I appreciate HOW you have brought it about.

    Also, I think the Wolf reference you are talking about is when he warned against “intellectual deforestation,” or basically spending all of our time tearing everyone who came before us to shreds. That was, I think, in the 1990 article “Facing Power: Old Insights, New Questions” (pg 588).

  7. Thank you Ryan, that was exactly the quote I was mis-remembering as “field of stumps.” At the current 25-year-wall of AAA Open Access we will be able to all read that article in just 14 more years! Here’s a larger chunk, which is certainly interesting in the light of some current debates. And thanks again!

    In anthropology we are continuously slaying paradigms, only to see them return to life, as if discovered for the first time. The old-time evolutionism of Morgan and Engels reappeared in ecological guise in the forties and fifties. The Boasian insistence that we must understand the ways “that people actually think about their own culture and institutions” (Goldman 1975: 15) has resurfaced in the anthropology of cognition and symbolism, now often played as a dissonant quartet in the format of deconstructionism. Diffusionism grew exhausted after biting too deeply into the seductive apple of trait-list collecting, but sprang back to life in the studies of acculturation, interaction spheres, and world-systems. Functionalism overreached itself by claiming to depict organic unities, but returned in systems theory as well as in other disguises. Culture-and-personality studies advanced notions of “basic personality structure” and “national character,” without paying heed to history, cultural heterogeneity, or the role of hegemony in shaping uniformities; but suspiciously similar characterizations of modern nations and “ethnic groups” continue to appear. The varieties of ecological anthropology and the various Marxisms are being told by both user-friendly and unfriendly folk that what they need is “the concept of culture.” We are all familiar, I trust, with Robert Lowie’s image of “diffusionism laying the axe to evolutionism.” As each successive approach carries the ax to its predecessors, anthropology comes to resemble a project in intellectual deforestation.

    I do not think that this is either necessary or desirable. I think that anthropology can be cumulative, that we can use the work of our predecessors to raise new questions. (Eric Wolf, Facing Power, American Anthropologist 92(3):588)

  8. My sense is that today’s academic world — certainly not just anthropology — is full of tender souls whose grandmothers never told them, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”

    I was about to post exactly the same thing.

    When Steven Pinker’s latest book came out, does anyone remember what actual arguments were presented against it? Because I looked at what was said by everyone on this site and I was appalled at the lack of argument. The book was dismissed, self-consciously in some cases, on the basis that it was by Steven Pinker. Everyone seemed to agree that it was bullshit. We got a few links to other blogs that discussed specific issues with it, including one that criticised it on the basis of nominalism with respect to instances of violence, managing to confuse metaphysics with social science. But because everyone already agreed that the book was or would be bunk, there was actual little discussion of why it was bunk, and so at a time when anthropological issues were being discussed on NPR, BBC Radio 4, countless blogs and newspapers, the television, and published books, this blog was wallowing in self-satisfied repulsion.

    That’s a huge flaw. This is a public site. Anyone can read it. And when it comes to books like The Better Angels of Our Nature, anthropologists ought to, and often do, have interesting and important things to say. This a perfect venue in which to raise such points. The audience here, however, seems to consist of a few professional anthropologists who largely agree with one another on almost everything, and who claim offense at every little thing – an odd thing in such a fractured discipline. Insisting on using real names only compounds this tendency.

    I have to ask: has anyone here ever read any other blogs? I regularly read a number of them, by physicists, biologists, etc, and the comments are usually rough-and-tumble arenas in which egos are bruised. Argument and truth, however, stand up, and are respected, and few actual insults fly. Here there seems to be more respect for individual egos and less for truth and reason. That’s a little disturbing.

    The only way we can ever get to the truth of any issue is to leave egos aside, or attempt to, and discuss matters in terms of arguments instead of personages. If your arguments are destroyed before your eyes and you feel offended, improve them and get back out there. Don’t be such wimps, for pete’s sake.

    On top of that, blogging should be fun. It shouldn’t be an attempt to reproduce real academic writing. Furthermore, complaints about tone are always terribly sanctimonious. The tone here is mild as mother’s milk.

    I agree that people whose writing is put into the public sphere should be respectfully treated. But for the people on this blog, that seemingly doesn’t apply to Steven Pinker or Jared Diamond, but does apply to spurious post-colonial articles that distort the words of Micronesian navigators. It appears as something of a double standard. It is possible to respect a person and their contribution without respecting their arguments when those are not very good.

  9. Some interesting comments by all, including the one by Al that argument and truth carry the day. Perhaps this is the case in some blogs, but in those I’m most familiar with (mostly revolving around questions of politics or political economy) argument plus argument modelled on the high school debate club format carry the day, and the aim is to fish for unsuspecting opponents and smash them by any means necessary. Loud-mouthed sophistry and refusal to concede anything that might signal weakness rules. There tends to be little space for sharing of ideas, no allowance for tentative hypotheses to be collectively built upon and/or dispensed with. Indeed, a cooperative voice is typically ignored or demeaned by way of getting back to personal insults disguised as intellectual discourse. Questioning the academic history of one’s opponent is the weapon of choice: “Didn’t you take any courses in logic?” All of this plus bullying the more obviously weak, not to mention those who make the mistake of not being a native English speaker. I would suggest the medium is part of the problem here. It seems to me likely that such behaviour is partly generated by the impetus to perform for the silent majority, those who read along but don’t participate. One wonders about the number of potential participants who sniff around this odious place and don’t bother to enter the fray. Is this the kind of “natural selection” we want?

    I would tend to agree that with Al that Savage Minds is pretty mild compared to what I’m used to, although I don’t share his negative take on its flaws. I do wish that more of the places described by Al existed, but I’m dubious. Perhaps I’m still a babe in these woods.

  10. One wonders about the number of potential participants who sniff around this odious place and don’t bother to enter the fray. Is this the kind of “natural selection” we want?

    I have a postgraduate degree in anthropology from a good university, and I’m looking to reenter academia. I don’t have a doctorate, however, and I’m currently outside of any major anthropological circles despite keeping up with the literature with books and OA journals (like the Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde). On that basis alone, I felt and feel like an outsider on this blog. On Jerry Coyne’s blog, by comparison, I don’t feel like an outsider, despite it being largely about evolutionary biology and despite my having no specific biology qualifications since the age of 16. There is much more combative debate in the comments there than here, and yet it’s actually quite a welcoming place. There are some boneheaded people there, of course, and some rather stubborn views with regard to some aspects of philosophy, but it’s a place where good argument generally, although not inevitably, wins.

    I have no doubt that the moderators of KKK messageboards are as diligent in their expulsion of objectionable material as they are on WEIT. What matters, though, are the kinds of views disavowed or banned. If the moderators and the community believe in respecting others, making sense, and being faithful to truth, then the argument can get as intense as you like without destroying the board. There’s no reason that couldn’t be done here without destroying anyone’s career, good name, or ego.

    Honestly, I read this blog for a long time before commenting precisely because everyone seemed so fragile. I also disliked the hatred of anonymity, which can actually be an advantage when saying uncomfortable things in an academic community as small as anthropology. Long comments here were deemed “kudzu” instead of simply accepted as the inevitable result of trying to be clear. Going off-topic was condemned, instead of seen as the inevitable course of human conversation (something especially strange on a blog run by a community instead of an individual).

    I was in my mid teens when broadband came into existence. I’ve been engaged with the internet for about half of my life. To me, posting on the internet is synonymous with debate. You can’t put something on this vast network without a password and expect people not to comment on it, and people commenting on it often means that they disagree with it.

    And if you want a blog that pays the bills, you’ve got to engage in controversial topics. PZ Myers – who you may or may not admire – receives plenty of death threats and strange emails in response to his very successful blog.

  11. I would like to revisit some of the statements about anonymity, and about trolling, because I think they miss some important, unspoken nuances about how one’s subject position (including where one is positioned in the academic hierarchy) affects one’s ability to speak, to be listened to/heard, and *not to be retaliated against* (including in *literally* life-threatening ways): retaliated against not just for voicing one’s opinion, but for making truthful statements, statements of fact about events that have occurred and those in positions of greater power and hierarchical position (in the academy) simply do not want to have known, publicized, and acknowledged.

    It greatly disturbs me that several people have implied that I chose the moniker Discuss White Privilege so as to troll, when nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, my desire not to reveal my name is directly related to the censoring of this Savage Minds post [...] [concerning events that] reinforced the academic hierarchy of fear and cowering of which David Graeber discussed in his 2006 Charlie Rose interview. The fact that this post continues to be censored to this day, even in the aftermath of the publication of “Whiteness as Public Space?”, continues to send this message.

    I did not adopt the pen name Discuss White Privilege in order to troll. I adopted it because of the extreme, shocking racist bullying and retaliation one can be subjected to for, literally, *discussing white privilege*, as a black female scholar doing critical whiteness studies. Universities retaliate–fiercely–against those who blow the whistle on their wrongdoing; and we have to situate such acts of university retaliation (especially by a UC administration) against two recent university scandals which serve as reminders of the ways in which universities are willing to resort to police violence to squelch legitimate, non-violent dissent, and will cover up even known and documented abuse so as to protect their reputations: the Davis pepper-spray incident, and the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal. I do not want to end up like Amadou Diallo for speaking my mind; a prospect that I seriously worry about given two of the forms of racist retaliation that have already occurred for speaking honestly about these issues of hostile racial climate in the Berkeley Anthropology department and the lengths some at Berkeley have gone to NOT to discuss them (including on this site, and presently on the Berkeley Blog, where they are censoring a comment linking to this Savage Minds blog post and its reference to the Berkeley Anthropology racist gorilla poster and the department’s ongoing refusal to address the racially problematic nature of this poster; and, ironically, this comment is being censored in relation to a post by Roberto Mendoza-Denton on how subtle racism affects its targets–so yes, what message is sent when an anthropology department and its individual professors make very public proclamations about being antiracist, but then privately act to suppress actually addressing the acts of bullying and racism that make that anthropology department ‘white public space?’).

    So no, I did not adopt the name Discuss White Privilege so as to troll: I adopted it to ask people–anthropologists reading this site–to think about and take seriously what white privilege means, and how it is daily deployed and manifested, and how it creates “white public space” that allows some voices to be heard while others are silenced, allows some people to speak for (and over) others while others are spoken for.

    A black person who does not have the benefit of white privilege so as not to be automatically assumed to be a criminal/from ‘the ghetto’/irrationally angry/a violence-prone gorilla and thus can be easily brutalized by the police–if not killed–as an act of revenge/retaliation, for speaking up about hostile racial climate and racially-motivated publicly bullied, and who can easily be dismissed and discredited–though telling the truth or making a legitimate argument–has very different reasons for seeking safety in anonymity. And in adopting the name Discuss White Privilege, I was trying to foreground this, too: a foregrounding that was absolutely NOT about trolling, not in any way.

    It is important that Stuart Kirsch spoke up for Vincent M. Diaz, and called out a racist attack on him for what it was. But this usually doesn’t happen, and that is why people like me would rather post anonymously. I really empathized with Vincent’s admission that he has found the white academy a hostile and abusive space/place. We, as anthropologists, need to acknowledge the extent to which disrespect, abuse, bullying are fostered/enabled/incubated–if not encouraged–by some departments/academic circles, where what is abuse and racism that should be called out as such is not, and is thus normalized in the process. Moreover, I think we need to think about how problematic the term ‘mastery’ is in relation to the concept of ‘academic mastery’, and the kind of aggressive, never-admit-you’re-wrong, androcentric performances-of-erudition it encourages: we need to think about the problematic valences of the term ‘mastery’ over anthropological literature/scholarship/theory, especially in relation to anthropology’s historical imbrication in colonial projects. We do not need to encourage *domination over* as the preferred mode of intellectual/academic engagement, especially not when it encourages the kind of racist disrespect we have seen on this blog and in relation to ‘speaking for’ non-white others. And this is not my attempt to engage in too much ‘book learnin”, or to arrogantly lecture people. It is an anthropological plea of my own; to ask that, per the poster above, (dark-skinned) black people not been seen as violent gorillas to be controlled and ‘spoken for’ such that we are seen as violent threats should we speak for ourselves. (And yes, this is one of the reasons i was deeply disturbed that John McCreery was so quick to label my comments as ‘militant’ ‘Black Power’ anger, when they were far from being legitimately characterized as such).

    I hope this clarification makes clear the extent to which I did not come here to troll, and why I still think that anthropology really needs to discuss white privilege.

  12. Hmmm…I suppose since I was quoted here, @DWP, I’ll respond, although very briefly.

    Personally, I don’t see anything troll-like in your comments here or anywhere else. No doubt you’re correct in your assertion that some are in denial of white privilege. RE “book learnin’,” it is particularly clear in the comments on this website that people, including you, are capable of putting together long and very sophisticated arguments that at times seem to go beyond the biases of the medium and, perhaps, beyond the truncated attention spans of those populating the e-world. In other words, having been the victim of arrogant dismissals of my own carefully thought out comments, I have a sense that online social spaces abhor overly formal, impersonal discourse.

    As to the value of anonymity, I absolutely take your point. There are many legitimate reasons to remain anonymous. On my own blog, I discourage anonymity, but allow because the blog deals with mainland China and because I am careful to not allow anonymity to provide cover for the launching of personal attacks. This, of course, goes back to Al’s point above about good moderators.

  13. “Long comments here were deemed “kudzu” instead of simply accepted as the inevitable result of trying to be clear. Going off-topic was condemned, instead of seen as the inevitable course of human conversation”

    I should have said, Al, that I I’ve also been puzzled by this assessment. Of course I’ve already offered a tentative explanation for why this may be the case, so I’ll leave it alone now.

  14. Just for the record, I see no intrinsic problem with the use of pseudonyms. Sometimes they may be useful. The Federalist Papers, for example, were published under a pseudonym and are no less worth reading on that account. When it comes to writing on line, I can understand perfectly why younger scholars with careers and livelihoods to worry about should adopt pseudonyms when they offer comments or ideas that may be controversial.

    As for the length of posts, there is no intrinsic relationship between length and quality. A short post may be verbose, vacuous, or offensive. A long one may be fascinating. A half dozen words may be filled with piffle, huffing and puffery. Five thousand may, each and every one, be indispensable to a tightly constructed argument.

  15. Even though I couldn’t initially recall the poster referenced by Discussing White Privilege, the picture certainly stirred my memory. The now infamous Gorilla poster is wrong on so many levels; however, my initial views concerning the poster’s phrases and imagery straddled the line between applauding the conservationism and masking my embarrassment over the overt paternalism inherent in the question: “Who will speak for them?”

    Did it occur to the creators of the poster that they (meaning the “Indigenous people”) could speak for themselves? That rather than speaking for someone they could act as allies transmitting their message to areas they cannot reach, if in fact they are incapable of reaching such areas on their own?

    Despite being bothered by the line, I wasn’t the least bit shocked by the poster. I’m kinda used to encountering that line of thinking, even at Cal. This type of conditioning results from a life time of hearing, seeing, and reading others act as if they can speak on my “Indigenous” behalf in the way that parents do for their children.

    P.D.
    It didn’t occur to me that the poster’s content could be interpreted as comparing Sub-Saharan Africans to Gorillas. The notion that some groups of people are “monkey-like” is not universal and certainly not an a priori form of perception and understanding. Sadly, some of the people making such comparisons will do so regardless of reason and truth. We can just work to ensure that that crowd becomes (or remains) a minute minority that doesn’t perpetuate its perspective.

  16. Tempers tend to flare the more ideas move from being descriptive to being prescriptive. Tell a story of enlightened good versus ignorant evil, and your villains will be unlikely to respond kindly to you.

  17. In regards to anonymity being an issue for good commentary, I’d suggest you check out the “Open Anthropology Cooperative”, which forced people to go by their real name. This absolutely killed discussion on the boards as righteous old timer professors would rant about how anthropology isn’t what it used to be, and students who have no idea what anthropology used to be, would have no way of countering fifty year old bullshit.

  18. What aepxc said.

    It may also be useful to distinguish active malice or structural violence from thoughtlessness. Our conversation reminds me of a case from early in my career as an advertising copywriter. I was working with a group that produced English-language advertising for Japanese electronics firms. I had achieved a certain amount of success by carefully examining each new product for a feature that lent itself to an unexpected idea. In this case the product was a Sony TV set and the new feature was a black mask behind the screen that made the colors on the screen brighter. I became totally obsessed by the idea that black, the complete absence of color, could be seen as the brightest color of all. I wrote a headline, Sony bought it, the ad was published. It wasn’t until the ad was submitted to a local English-language advertising contest and a judge asked, “How is that going to play in South Africa?” that I realized what I had done — “The Brightest Black You Ever Saw.”

  19. Thanks to all for the additional feedback. I’ll hope here to make a couple observations and clarifications based on my less-than-perfect writing in the original post.

    Somewhat ironically, as I was casting about for that Eric Wolf quote on “intellectual deforestation,” I found in my old xeroxes a copy of Wolf’s 1992 lecture, “Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People”:

    Contrary to the popular saw that “sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you,” these words–as Morton Fried said–can injure mind and body. The race concept has presided over homicide and genocide. (Current Anthropology 1994:1)

    And so, while I would not overplay the power of words–I remember one of my grad school colleagues chuckling when another referred to the very obscure text we were reading as “dangerous”–I do find it curious to be told I’m in the tender souls camp. I am old enough to be from an era when if anyone were foolish enough to repeat that grandmotherly advice on the playground, sticks and stones were the immediate follow-up.

    If I am not mistaken, the purpose of Savage Minds is rather clear, as was reaffirmed when it went on Facebook with We want you to like us: “We’re not the conference panel, we’re the conversation in the hall.” In other words, although this site has offered bold critiques of Jared Diamond and seeks institutional change around issues like Open Access, it is not itself the paper that should be delivered about Pinker or the source of institutional change on hiring and work practices. As at academic conferences, those hallway conversations can be quite better than a conference paper–but they can also be quite awful.

    I am sorry if I ever implied we should prefer real names to pseudonyms; I am also sorry if I ever implied anyone thought “Discuss White Privilege” was a troll because she used a pseudonym and because she used that particular pseudonym. I meant here to simply, and perhaps stupidly, point out that–in the context of this hallway conversation–if someone introduces himself as “Free Tibet” and proceeds from there, my inclination is to assume, perhaps unfairly, that I already know where this conversation is going and I’ll try to skip it.

    When I wrote that “anthropology blogging is not yet paying the bills,” I was definitely not trying to say anthropology blogs shouldn’t tackle controversial topics or get into some heated discussions. I was only trying to point out that anthropology blogs often compete with others who blog as a full-time job, and when we are talking about Diamond, Pinker, and Charles Murray, we are not talking about academics per se but people who are backed by industries, people who are not worried about citation indices but about best-seller rankings. And again, this is not about whining, but about realistically assessing the best way to anthropologically intervene. Here, with John McCreery, I wonder how to identify and secure patrons without selling out. My first thought was George Soros, but happy to hear about others. (I also note this post on Charles Murray as a potential example of productive comment-stream interaction.)

    My last thought: anthropology is in need of a blog called Discuss White Privilege. In need of a blog that would carefully address Pinker. In need of a blog to develop advertising and patron-building. Or as Rex put it in January 2012 about Savage Minds: “We hope in future years we are totally blown out of the water by some of the other great anthropology blogs that have sprung up on line–it’s great to see the anthropological community grow.”

  20. Jason, touché. The quote from Fried was a brilliant riposte to my invocation of the folk wisdom transmitted by my grandmother. Allow me to note in return that while you may not be among the tender-minded, you exhibit a property of the type by taking a broad (perhaps too broad) generalization as about yourself in particular. Another old saw, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

    Re patronage. Another possibility is the one I stumbled into, becoming one’s own patron. When I look for anthropological ancestors to venerate, I always include Lewis Henry Morgan, a lawyer, and Benjamin Lee Whorf, an insurance adjuster. When I failed to get tenure, I was deeply mortified. My self had been defined by the prospect of staying in school. Now I much prefer being an independent scholar who has found ways to make a living that overlap with his academic interests.The only downside is the amount of stuff still rendered inaccessible by JSTOR and academic publisher paywalls. Living outside them gives me a material interest in open access.

  21. Pretty good discussion going on here.

    @Jason:

    That Wolf quote about “intellectual deforestation” is really poignant for all of this, because there is indeed a lot of that going around (in grad school, in journals, not just on blogs to be sure). Early on in grad school I was on board with this approach: Trash the 19th century anthropologists for their evolutionism, trash the culture and personality folks for their generalizations, trash the neo-materialists for determinism, trash the Marxists for structuralism, and on and on through post-modernism, globalization, etc etc. I think it’s a pretty common pattern in the anthropology that I know. And while I think it’s definitely important to challenge and rethink earlier ideas, it’s also important to remember why they are sometimes called “foundational.” It’s easy to trash the culture and personality school–but if you read Mead and Benedict, you realize that there was a lot more to their ideas than you might assume if you are only interested in walking through the territory of anthropological theory for the purposes of clear-cutting.

    I think this kind of clear-cutting behavior happens a lot on blogs (and sometimes it can get really personal). I read a lot of different kinds of blogs, and I definitely think that the comments here on Savage Minds are pretty mild overall.

    @Stuart:

    “Writing and publishing is putting yourself out there in the world. We all want engagement with our work, but in a constructive way. ”

    Agreed. We all do want this. At the same time, people aren’t always going to agree with or accept the ideas we have to put out there. Others aren’t going to listen. So “putting yourself out there” sometimes requires debate and resilience.

    “I also worry about how writing in the blogosphere may come to influence real scholarly writing. (Yes, I am signaling a distinction here).”

    I think it’s interesting that you are “worried” about this. I’m not…in fact I am looking forward to the day when there is more feedback between the two. Also: how do you determine what is and what is not “real scholarly writing”? Based upon the ideas and arguments presented, or the medium through which those ideas are transmitted?

    “Indeed, some of my reluctance to jump on the open access bandwagon is that (whether this is a legitimate concern or not) our shared intellectual spaces will end up looking more like Savage Minds. I think this would be a bad outcome.”

    What shared intellectual spaces are you referring to? The closed journals that house most of the new arguments and findings of anthropology? The conferences where we talk to ourselves? I don’t think we really have many shared intellectual spaces. And I wouldn’t mind it if our shared spaces looked a little *more* like Savage Minds, meaning that at least some more people outside of the generally closed circle can access and take part in the discussions. The argument you are making here is, well, kind of strange because on the one hand you’re critiquing SM for being “elitist” and on the other you are basically saying that it’s too colloquial, rough, unpolished, and not good enough for “real” scholarship. So which is it?

    @Al West:

    “This is a public site. Anyone can read it. And when it comes to books like The Better Angels of Our Nature, anthropologists ought to, and often do, have interesting and important things to say. This a perfect venue in which to raise such points.”

    Agreed.

    “The only way we can ever get to the truth of any issue is to leave egos aside, or attempt to, and discuss matters in terms of arguments instead of personages. If your arguments are destroyed before your eyes and you feel offended, improve them and get back out there. Don’t be such wimps, for pete’s sake.”

    Al, I am deeply offended by this comment. Just kidding. I agree with you here as well–it’s important to learn how to deal with (and respond to) disagreement without getting too sensitive. It’s also important to learn the difference between disagreement and insults, a task that isn’t always very easy for some folks.

    “I don’t have a doctorate, however, and I’m currently outside of any major anthropological circles despite keeping up with the literature with books and OA journals (like the Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde). On that basis alone, I felt and feel like an outsider on this blog.”

    You feel like an outsider because you don’t have a PhD, or because you don’t have access to a lot of the literature?

    @Lorin:

    “Perhaps this is the case in some blogs, but in those I’m most familiar with (mostly revolving around questions of politics or political economy) argument plus argument modelled on the high school debate club format carry the day, and the aim is to fish for unsuspecting opponents and smash them by any means necessary. Loud-mouthed sophistry and refusal to concede anything that might signal weakness rules.”

    I am pretty familiar with these types of interactions around the blogosphere, and they are pretty common. Again, I check out a lot of different sites, not just anthro sites by any means. On some it’s nearly impossible to express contrary opinions without getting locked into an endless flame war that goes nowhere. Sometimes this is fed by anonymity–but I also think that being able to post anonymously has tremendous benefits. Also, I think you’re definitely right that complete unwillingness to concede *anything* is absolutely a sign of weakness.

    @DWP:

    “I would like to revisit some of the statements about anonymity, and about trolling, because I think they miss some important, unspoken nuances about how one’s subject position (including where one is positioned in the academic hierarchy) affects one’s ability to speak, to be listened to/heard, and *not to be retaliated against…”

    I think you make good points about the need for anonymity. Personally, I am in favor of this option precisely because of the very reasons that you cite. I think that being able to post something anonymously opens up an important critical space for people to speak out.

    @T’arhe:

    “Despite being bothered by the line, I wasn’t the least bit shocked by the poster. I’m kinda used to encountering that line of thinking, even at Cal. This type of conditioning results from a life time of hearing, seeing, and reading others act as if they can speak on my “Indigenous” behalf in the way that parents do for their children.”

    Ya, it’s extremely paternalistic. There is a strain of this in anthropology, and I have always felt it really ironic when someone claims to “speak for” others. Especially when those others often spend a lot of time sharing their ideas, deep knowledge, and understandings with the anthropologist, who is then cast as the supposed expert. But then, I have never really bought into the idea that a person can spend 12 months in a place and suddenly be some unquestionable expert about a community, culture, etc. I am less attached to the idea of being some expert than finding ways to communicate and share ideas, problems, issues, and dialogs though.

  22. After reading the initial post, my first gut reaction was, “Oh, no….not another reference to Dead White Males.” There go all the women of the early years, not least among them Benedict and Mead. Perhaps they were honorary males? And then we never think of Fei Xiaotong, who went back to China and wrote books that are read today and should be read more, such as _Xiangtu Shehui_, an early attempt to design an alternative anthropological theorizing that was based on the “folk” foundation of its own society .

    Perhaps the lesson is that we, as anthropologists, have to avoid catch phrases such as “Dead White Males,” which distort and caricaturize our past, and engage its legacies carefully. As with Boas, the Manchester School housed many who were not elite in British society–although more privileged than the colonized. Exploring the complexities of what it means to be human means being careful about acts of stereotyping and stigmatization that are used to construct legitimacy in an “Us against Them” environment that poisons our own discourse as we investigate the dehumanizing of the “Other” in the societies we study.

  23. Thank you, Jason, for showing what genuine anthropological ‘self-reflexivity’ and an ‘ethics of care’ look like, and for showing (me) profound decency and respect. I hope other anthropologists will read the post in its entirety, take it seriously and not dismiss it:

    “In retrospect, it was stupid of me to suggest to Discuss White Privilege a more innocuous title like DWP. As it turns out, discussing white privilege is not just salutary as an internal-to-anthropology exercise but vital for the anthropology blogging brand.”

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