Screw the transit of Venus

I mean who cares. Honestly: it’s completely unconnected to anything that really matters to us. Phenomenologically its one of the most boring experiences one can have, and you can’t even see it without special gear. Am I the only one who thinks the emperor has no clothes on this one?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m amazed and gratified to see there is a culture out there that can invest so much meaning out of so little — I am, after all, an anthropologist. And I only begrudge the astronomers their massive funding a little bit. What really bothers me is the screwed up priorities that make this sort of thing a media spectacle. 

I understand that astronomers are deeply personally committed to goals which most people find incomprehensible and not worthwhile — all academics suffer from this problem. I understand that moving science forward is important and that there is, somewhere, down the road something useful that comes from much of the basic research that astronomers do. And I understand that we need science education that explains to people why this stuff is important and they should continue funding it. 

But often this validation of disciplines like astronomy is made by delegitimizing disciplines like — wait for it — anthropology, which deal with topics which are extremely value relevant to most people. Hiding behind the transit of venus is a glorification of ‘hard science’ which goes hand in hand with the dismissal of the ‘soft’. Riding alongside it is media coverage telling people to spend a portion of their day thinking about the stars rather than whether austerity will actually lead to economic growth.

Anthropology is not like the dream of perfect pure knowledge that so many people aspire to (bench science isn’t either, but that’s another story). We just produce another kind of knowledge about things that matter here, today, and now to people. The transit of Venus will not come again in your lifetime. Neither will your child’s birthday, or the invasion of Iraq. These are the things that have concrete effects on our lives and matter deeply to us. Anthropologists study these moments because they matter — something that other scientists, socialized to pursue more remote goals, somehow look down on us for. I’ll never understand them and, apparently, vice versa.

I admit there’s a fair amount of ressentiment in this post, and maybe the astronomers out there will complain that social issues already get way more coverage than astronomical data. But just think: what if people took the time they spent observing the transit of venus and spent it learning about income inequality in their home town? Or if they learned about a place radically different from their home town? Or if they tried to figure out whether tax cuts do or do not stimulate the economy? Or if they took their photo album off their shelf, sat down with their children, and sharing their family history? 

Social issues get covered widely in the media, it’s true. But social science often does not. And the disciplines that hit closest to home, the ethnographic ones, don’t deserve to be bumbled off the radar by the frickin’ transit of Venus.

Ok I’m done venting. I feel better now. 

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

69 thoughts on “Screw the transit of Venus

  1. Nevermind the fact that charting silly little insignificant astral events such as this one were how ancient (and not-so-ancient) mathematicians and astronomers calculated things like the size of the earth, the distance between the earth, moon, and sun, and the size of the Milky Way back before we had crazy huge ass telescopes and could measure spectral phenomena…

  2. “But often this validation of disciplines like astronomy is made by delegitimizing disciplines like — wait for it — anthropology, which deal with topics which are extremely value relevant to most people.”

    Kind of like what you seem to want to do to physics (astronomy)…?

    Look, some people are impressed that you can go out and see a planet during the day! And you didn’t even really need any special equipment – we went out with some binoculars and focused the light of the sun onto the ground, and right there you could see the planet moving across the surface of the sun! I’m sorry if you can’t see the wonder in that but no need to be a downer.

    PS. I am curious about your point about the news. How do you distinguish between discussing ‘social science’ and ‘social issues’? Do you have data on how often it is discussed? I did a search on nyt and ‘income inequality’ seems to be mentioned roughly once per day on average, but I guess that’s not what you meant?

  3. But I don’t disagree with you on your points about the media storm and the narratives tied up therein. I often find myself wondering about what you bring up in the penultimate paragraph.. especially as it relates to my own research, which is pretty arcane by most people’s standards.

    But hey, you can do esoteric research while still spending time on the things you bring up, if Noam Chomsky is any example. Contrary to his own beliefs he was no genius, just a really curious dude who worked hard and thought a lot. I think we can all aspire to political and civil engagement in our daily lives despite whatever our particular research focus is and however esoteric it may be.

  4. When someone curious about anthropology finds this page through Google, they’ll think that anthropologists are hacks who are jealous of the ‘hard sciences’ (further legitimizing this distinction (spoiler: there isn’t one)) and out of touch with their own culture.

  5. I really do not see the point of singling out this particular event as the one to blame for why no one cares about anthropology. A lot of people (myself included) are intrigued by stuff that happens in space, like planets or moons moving across the sun, comets, meteor showers, etc. Something that happens only rarely, if even within one’s lifetime at all is definitely worthy of curiosity, as far as I’m concerned. People in all times and places seem to find such things interesting. Why shouldn’t we?

    I share your frustration that anthropology isn’t a “popular” discipline even thought it speaks to popular concerns perhaps more than most other sciences of either the “hard” or “soft” variety. How do we change that? Perhaps, I dunno, writing for popular audiences? Writing columns in popular newspapers and magazines? Speaking to people? If more of us were more committed to being public intellectuals who speak to issues of broad public concern in a manner that is accessible to a general audience, well, that might be a place to start. Getting cranky about the things people are widely intrigued by in a blog post directed at an audience of anthropologists and no one else, well, that’s not really helping.

    For the record, I suspect most people are more interested in the phenomena itself than the discipline of astronomy.

  6. I care.

    But your post reads differently in Australia, I guess. Cook’s expedition to observe the 1769 transit was one of the things which led to Australia being established as a colony by the British, and therefore to the centuries of interaction and conflict between traditional owners and colonisers which have defined my home country.

    So here it’s not at all disconnected historically from current social issues. Perhaps not the social issues you find compelling where you are, but for millions of us here they’re real, and important.

  7. er, really?

    whiny anthropologist, complaining that people watch the stars and marvel at their own place in the solar system – instead of paying attention to what the anthropologist thinks is important, namely other anthropologists (and I’m sorry, but this is inevitable: maybe his own research on World of Warcraft, too).

    really: what made this sound like a good idea for a post?

  8. What a weird post. Events are what you make them – astronomers may use this moment to talk about their history, and the wondrous mathematics of the heavenly bodies, but you can use it too. I totally agree with Michael Pulsford. Those mathematics enabled accurate navigation, and are connected to the history of the British Empire and colonialism (the economic consequences of navigation were immense). It is amazing to ponder the world then, that would mount a series of expeditions akin to going to the moon, to secure time-synched observations of the transit. And the import and consequences of the observation of the heavens, were matched by the import and consequences of the observations of the Tahitians, and Hawaiians and Tasmanians etc…and their observations of us. The social forms that Cook encountered had massive ramifications for European society. Contrary to your claim, the transit could be deeply connected to everything that matters now – if only someone bothered to write such an account hey? You can’t choose what will grip the masses at any given moment, but better to seize it and use it and work with it to explain your point of view than go off in a huff!

  9. This is the most absurd thing I have read by an anthropologist, and that’s really saying something.

    The reason people don’t care about anthropology is because it’s full of bad thinkers with heads full of continental brain fluff who think their approaches to minor social problems are the most important thing in the world. The reason people care about things happening in the solar system is that they’re awesome and literally awe-inspiring. If you don’t feel that way, then I feel genuinely sorry for you.

    It’s precisely this kind of thinking that I abhor. Solving those boring social problems is just to enable us to enjoy and appreciate the universe and the stuff in it, whether that’s Hesiod or volcanoes or Venus transitting the sun or the Hubble telescope’s images providing evidence of the age of the entire goddamn universe. Destroying poverty is not an end in itself; it’s so that the formerly poor people can lead happy lives wherein they get to do the things they couldn’t do before, like understanding the universe in a much better way.

    But just think: what if people took the time they spent observing the transit of venus and spent it learning about income inequality in their home town? Or if they learned about a place radically different from their home town? Or if they tried to figure out whether tax cuts do or do not stimulate the economy? Or if they took their photo album off their shelf, sat down with their children, and sharing their family history?

    Well, then we’d have another generation of boringly anthrocentric people focused entirely on solving minor social problems and bringing their boring observations to the internet. If more people were interested in whether tax cuts stimulate economies, we wouldn’t have a real solution to any problem. We’d just have a lot more inane comment clutter on Youtube videos and blogposts. (Also, as the transit didn’t take much time, I doubt using the time to research income inequality would yield very much useful information. Also also, here the transit took place at about four in the morning, and I don’t think the time spent on it would have been used for anything other than boring old midweek sleep.)

    But if more people took the time to consider that their position in the world is transient and chaotic, and at the mercy of powerful inhuman forces operating in a universe vaster than any brain can imagine, then perhaps that’d take the wind out of the sails of fundamentalist Christianity and Islam. Maybe.

    Anyway, how on earth you could find your family history more interesting than the measurement of the distance between the earth and the motherfracking sun by means of a volcanic ball of rock with a sulphuric acid atmosphere really beats me.

    On the other hand, way to build traffic for the SM site.

  10. this post is not impressive. Sounds like you read too many poorly written news stories yesterday.

  11. @Michael Pulsford yes!!

    @Rex Is it really a zero sum game? I would prefer to think that hard and soft scientists (and those of us that are more “plastic” like in the neurosciences) can advocate for one another and that legitimizing the role (and awesomeness!!) of things like *direct observation* and *evidence* would do wonders for improving BOTH science literacy and social policy.

    Because astronomy and anthropology have at least one major thing in common: religious texts are HORRIBLE sources of truth.

    That is, to answer the question of “whether austerity will actually lead to economic growth” we can either (a) pull something out of our ideological asses or (b) look at actual data of other attempts to use austerity to drive economic growth.

    Rather than whining about the astronomers taking all of the public’s attention, a more constructive post might be titled, “Transit of Venus is AWESOME! Astronomers used PAST EVIDENCE to predict the time of crossing and we ANTHROPOLOGISTS can use the SAME PRINCIPLES of observation to answer SUPER-IMPORTANT questions, like whether austerity will actually lead to economic growth.”

  12. Kinda grumpy methinks. I observed the transit and it was FUN. It didn’t even occur to me that I was denigrating anthropology in the process, or more precisely, enabling atronomers to denigrate anthropology by sharing their enthusiasm. Sorry.

  13. Solving poverty is just a means to the end of understanding the universe? No, the end of solving poverty is people not suffering and dying because our social system has declared that some folks have the money to waste time measuring the distance between planets while others just get to starve to death.

    Learning about income inequality leads to inane YouTube comments and the Occupy movement with anthropology superstar David Graeber.

    But: is media coverage of natural science really any better than its coverage of social science? I didn’t pay attention to much of the coverage of the transit, but did it go much past “This won’t happen again for 100 years!” to actually talk about what scientists do and what this really tells us about the universe? Despite Graeber’s interviews, I feel like a lot of folks still don’t get Occupy.

    That said, I saw a big ball of stuff float in front of another big ball of stuff through these neat glasses and it was pretty cool. If you wear two pairs of glasses it blots out the sun completely! Whoa!

  14. 1) hard sciences can give you thrill; social issues, not so much (at least not in the short run). those that do (festivals, tourism, culture shock elements) are advertised, but world turmoil and stuff not so much. with this capitalistic sense of wanting quick fixes ingrained in people’s minds, what else can be expected?
    2) anthropology/social sciences have shot themselves in the foot by hiding in a cave of theoretical discourses that makes them completely inaccessible to the public masses

    maybe it’s the social sciences, and probably more importantly, the social scientists that need to change rather than complaining about the issue. become more accessible to the masses.

  15. Imagine you are a person who has never left your hometown, and someone tells you they spent years of their life traveling across the world where they spent countless days, sitting for hours watching rituals, in a language they barely understood, to learn about exotic people’s religious and cultural practices… You might think:

    “I mean who cares. Honestly: it’s completely unconnected to anything that really matters to us. Phenomenologically its one of the most boring experiences one can have, and you can’t even see it without special gear. Am I the only one who thinks the emperor has no clothes on this one?”

    Maybe we better chalk this one up as a question of values?

  16. Reading these comments makes me remember why I find many educated (sic) people problematic to distasteful. Alerted to the human (social) by reading Mead’s pioneering Anthropology, Coming of Age in Samoa at age fourteen, a gift from a historian, then, hearing her pioneering work disparaged by the head of a university department of Anthropology 32 years later was distressing. Lesson: a growing awareness of human ignorance of itself and all that adventure can mean.

    My goal intent and attention for 70 years has been dedication to balance as a student-practitioner of interdisciplinary learning. Science, from scientia means “the search for knowledge.” Fragmentation into egoistic micro disciplines, physical and human science, humanities and technologies (practical tools) is no meaningful contribution to anything, except a babble of incoherence.

  17. It’s a pity that so few people read Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999). He has an argument there that we need a new religion that is compatible with scientific laws. He complains about a cosmology that finds order outside the reach of human life (the extremes of physics) and proposes ecology instead. Anthropology is not that religion, but the only way of studying the possibility systematically and ritual is its practical ground. Compared with his intellectual rigor and vision, this post fails miserably.

  18. Glad you got that out of your system, but, whatever minor points are worth salvaging, the rest was just so unforgivable! Here’s a poem that puts things in perspective some — with a little note that I’ve taken the large liberty of switching Walt Whitman’s original “astronomer” (in lines 1 and 4) for “anthropologist.” Watching the stars every once in a while, even in a media spectacle, makes me a better anthropologist, dare I say.

    When I heard the learn’d anthropologist;
    When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
    When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
    When I, sitting, heard the anthropologist, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
    Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

  19. FWIW, I’m in “the field” right now, and my hosts were quite interested in the transit; talking about it with them led to some good discussion on what they think about science, modernity, etc. I agree that the media coverage seemed a bit overblown, but I don’t think that thinking about solar systems and thinking about social systems can or should be necessarily separate.

  20. Solving poverty is just a means to the end of understanding the universe? No, the end of solving poverty is people not suffering and dying because our social system has declared that some folks have the money to waste time measuring the distance between planets while others just get to starve to death.

    Yes, stopping people from dying is the first step, but in my home country there aren’t very many people dying from poverty. The government will assist you if you are in dire need, by providing benefits, artificially low-rent accommodation, etc. It’s not great but it’s not destitution and death. There is a segment of the population the government won’t help, however, and that is the small group of failed asylum seekers. If you’ve failed in your application for asylum then you can’t apply for any financial assistance or even a basic home to live in, and most asylum seekers fail first time. That’s a group worth helping, who will be truly destitute and in danger of death without assistance. I volunteer to teach English to such refugees a couple of times a week. The transit took no time away from that. The Diamond Jubilee rubbish did, though.

    You’re also assuming that the problem of deaths from poverty is simply one of money. Or that taking money away from science would be better than taking it away from, say, major league sports.

    What I’d like is a world free from poverty and misery so that all people can appreciate the awesomeness of the universe they’re in, whichever aspect of it appeals most to them.

  21. Comparing astronomy and the transit of Venus to anthropology and, let’s say, a hawaiian fire dance is like comparing the pope to a village shaman. Take note of my use of “the” and ‘a” in the previous statement. The appeal of the transit of Venus, like that of the pope, is global. I cannot say the same for the fire dance and the shaman.

    This appeal also involves our subconscious fear. Astronomical phenomenon or change is scary. Nobody cares about culture change and if the teens nowadays dance to hiphop or techno music. When my 10-year old nephew heard about the transit, he asked about what it could do to the gravitational force. Maybe somewhere a Messianic group viewed it as the beginning of the end of the world. Nobody cares if fire dancers wear grass skirts or eat fire. There’s nothing fearful in their dancing.

    Some of the reasons why nobody cares about anthropology but anthropologists are its lack of global appeal and anthropologists’ inability to tackle people’s fear. Studying dances, costumes, theories, methods, as far as I’m concerned, is a waste of funding, and pushes anthropology further from the immediate reality of the people.

    Corruption is a global menace, but have you heard of Anthropology of Corruption offered as a seminar or course in a university? Currently, bath salt inducing cannibalism has scared Americans, but I have not seen an anthropologist talk about it on TV. I did, however, saw last night an anthropologist who talked about rap music and hiphop on PBS.

    To make anthropology relevant and appealing, it must tackle global and current problems and offer solutions that make sense and work.

  22. Is this honest-to-goodness butthurt or is it search engine optimization? (False dichotomy!) Good job in bringing out the commentarati, though.

  23. Sorry, I am one of those folks who really enjoy astronomy, the hard sciences, and read Sci Fi because it explores some of today’s social issues, especially related to technology, in ways more accessible to folks than our own ethnographies have done since about 1980. Am mourning the death of Ray Bradbury, who took on the McCarthy era, for one.

    Our concerns and ways of writing are not accessible or even appear relevant to those struggling. Worse, when we may raise issues, as did Bradbury in his sci fi writing, we appear from an elite who cannot relate to our audiences.

    NASA’s website provided a great image of it!

  24. This is clearly motivated by academic jealousy: I guess you wouldn’t rant this way about the host of other sociocultural phenomena (and observing the transit of Venus is a sociocultural phenomenon) taking up “media time” that are relatively benign from a standpoint that takes academic disciplines to be “in competition” with each other. I, for one, actually enjoy that anthropology doesn’t enjoy as much public prestige as some other academic disciplines might, if only because it doesn’t make it a viable target for exploitation. Personally, I believe that anthropologically informed arguments should be respected because they are SOUND, not because they are “anthropological”. Disciplinary provenance should not matter, and I think smart people realize this.

    @M Izabel: yours seems to me an extremely myopic view of what anthropology can be, and what it actually is. It may appear “provincial” at times, but this is because it dedicates itself to detailed study of concretely defined issues, not because it would be confined by its locality. And saying that anthropologists (at least, decent anthropologists) study “culture change” is patently false, at least as far as contemporary anthropology goes. Corruption and cannibalism inducing bath salts sound, to me, like absolutely fascinating topics for an anthropological piece of research. But you are perfectly correct in implying that anthropologists appear to isolate themselves from “current themes” a lot of the time. As far as I see it, this is more due to methodological indoctrination and resulting disciplinary bitterness (see above) than due to the lack of potential within anthropology to tackle such themes. There just needs to be more openness to analyze and apply arguments perceptively, rather than obsess about “getting into the local mindset” (which is extremely interesting, but not very useful with regard to such issues) – in short, making anthropological ARGUMENTATION more accessible to the lay public.

  25. @Rex wrote: “I mean who cares. Honestly: it’s completely unconnected to anything that really matters to us.”

    The Transit of Venus is good to think with……and the attention paid to its occurrence requires no further justification.

    What is the name of this blog?

  26. I hate to say this but: Phenomenology is not a synonym for experience. I have to say this just because there are too many scientist out there from all disciplines who recently “discovered” phenomenology and think that it is just about human experience. No, it’s not. Its a whole philosophy about being itself. And from a phenomenological viewpoint the venus transit opens up a whole set of interesting questions: Humans experience (mediated or un-mediated) of nature (Nice read in this context: Ingold), the sun as part of the lifeworld (Husserl), how do events like this transfer into remarkable/special events in the perception of individuals, how does the sun gain meaning (good old Heidegger, the sun as enframed), the use of tools to watch the sun (ready-to-hand/ready at hand?). I will stop here. Just stop “raping” phenomenology. Thanks

  27. @mongke what’s myopic in my comment? I even overstretched my point to widen the conversation about the relevance and appeal of anthropology.

    It also happens that, lately, anything about fear, in creative or academic literature, interests me. Don’t you wonder why most of the things they presented as news on TV are related to fear? Crimes, housing foreclosures, gas price, e-coli breakout are more relevant and pressing than beautiful things that deserve to be on the news too, even if only to break the monotony of gore, but who cares about neighborhood gardens and parks or restaurants and gastro pubs that serve affordable but good steaks?

    Of all, it seems only medical anthropology is becoming relevant everyday. Is it because medical anthropologists study HIV-AIDS, drug addiction, and other social diseases? Why can’t other anthropological sub-disciplines learn how to prioritize from medical anthropologists?

    Those anthropologists who write can also learn from Jared Diamond. A good book title is the best way to market a book. He surely tapped the subconscious fear of his would-be readers with this title, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” Do you think a lot of readers would have cared if the title was “A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.”

  28. “What if people took the time they spent observing the transit of venus and spent it learning about income inequality in their home town?”

    What if you spent the time it took to write this post to learn about how astronomical phenomena are related to social issues?

    Things like the transit foster people’s curiosity about the world. What’s so bad about that?

  29. Hmm, I have to admit that I don’t care too much myself. I didn’t care the eclipse that we had here in Japan a couple of weeks ago either. But then I realized that many people actually do care, and that made the whole event interesting (to me) in an instant. And I don’t mean the frenzy, I mean the eclipse too.

    I recalled from my readings how many people around the word have been amazed by these phenomena and wondered what other people might see into it through their own religions, sciences and special gears. In the end, you have to admit, that they are much “bigger” issues than tax revenues or economic crises. Not that small or big makes any difference in this sense.

    “Phenomenologically its one of the most boring experiences one can have, and you can’t even see it without special gear.” You need a “special gear” to any “phenomenological experience,” don’t you? Another aspect that captivates the anthropologist in me.

  30. Or, and this is just my humble opinion, anthropologists could abstain from whining, discipline envy, and the narcissistic, magical thinking that others should value them for some innate and special quality, and go out and do something that’s useful, and worthy of other people’s time and attention.

    In response to the automatic, trite, rhetorical query “Useful to whom?” that is likely to appear:

    Useful to a large enough group of people to be media worthy. It’s not rocket science, which interestingly enough is rooted in people’s fascination with the sky, which drives a few billion in scientific investment annually in the U.S. alone. I mean seriously, do anthropologists need a kind of Special Olympics to make us feel like winners? Or, are we going to compete like healthy, educated, adults and go for the gold?

  31. “No, the end of solving poverty is people not suffering and dying because our social system has declared that some folks have the money to waste time measuring the distance between planets while others just get to starve to death.”

    1. Knowing something exists doesn’t mean you understand it.
    2. Feeling a certain way about inequality does as much to change it as looking at Venus does to cause it’s trajectory. (Modern physics actually tells us that the later is less certain than the former).

    Understanding that there is massive inequality of monetary assets isn’t exactly unknown by that vast majority of people on earth. In fact, I’m gonna go out of a limb and say that the population mean of those that are aware that inequality exists, and some general information about the distribution of this social reality, is a hell’ava lot bigger than the number of people who can tell you which planet Venus is from the sun. It’s relevance to the history of science. The laws that regulate it’s motion, etc…

    Understanding material inequality on a superficial level, and actually trying to understand it in a holistic and empirical way are two different things. I’d say that neither do anything at all to add to academic, non-academic, and popular understanding of how the variables which effect inequality operate in a way that is connected to clear, specific, and realistic changes of policy or daily life.

    How many anthropologists are doing anything remotely close to this last endeavor? Who are they, and where can I find their work on this? More importantly, how does their contribution and group size compare to the hundreds of wanna-be, amateur economists calling themselves anthropologists who have no interest in actually studying the the data in an objective way, because it would get in the way of their innate and god-given understanding of the subject?

  32. Al,

    I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said ‘waste time’, which implied that astronomy and poverty were a zero-sum game of fund allocation. I also did not mean to imply that anyone here doesn’t care about poor people. I was attempting (a bit dramatically) to express my feelings about the importance of what you called “minor” social issues, which are in fact literally matters of life and death. Furthermore, I was attempting to demonstrate that the ability to do modern astronomy is built upon global inequality, such that some people have the capital to build telescopes and universities and such and other folks struggle to find enough food to eat. Locally, sounds like poverty and the transit of Venus are both non-issues for you.

  33. Wow. You know, I have to admit that about half way through this blog post I realized it was not actually that good or informative, but I decided to post it since I figured that I was most of the way through and I might as well get a blog entry out of it. So I suppose I agree with most of the commenters on this post that it was sort of ass.

    Back in the day Oneman used to write posts like this that were inflammatory but not (if I may say so) very well thought out. They were usually the most popular posts in terms of total hits and size of comments, leaving my careful discussions of theoretical minutiae in the dust. Back then, some of the Minds were really driven to maximize readership, something I never thought was important as quality — I would rather we write good, unread stuff than sensationalist claptrap.

    Well it looks like I don’t always follow my own advice – mea culpa. Once nice thing about this post, however: people have been kept so busy attacking me that they haven’t yet begin tearing each other apart. Or maybe that just hasn’t started yet. Let’s try an experiment and make lemonade out of this lemon: could all future comments dwell on how much I suck and avoid conflict amongst themselves?

    Give it a try — it’ll be like Avengers.

  34. Rex,

    I hated your post, and while I’m sure your self-deprecating comment was actually intended to deflect criticism, I’m going to take you up on your offer and spend a comment carrying on with it. Let me roll up my sleeves and give it a good shot.

    It’s kind of evil, really, to proclaim that astronomers trying to promote public awareness of their incredible subject matter are taking time away from doing something good. It’s the same nonsense behind criticising NASA for its massive budget – “why don’t you use that money to help the poor?” – when the budget is tiny and is a miniscule proportion of the national budget. (It also provides thousands and thousands of jobs, not to mention technological advances, but no one seems to care about that.) The real reason is never that these activities and expenditures take away from anything, because they don’t; there’s always another motive.

    Watching the transit and funding NASA aren’t bad things at all, and the results are vastly more interesting than most cultural activities. If you don’t think so, it’s only because of your ignorance. If you don’t find it amazing and consciousness-raising that by looking into the sky you can make out gigantic objects, the same size as earth (the planet on or around which everything humans have ever done has occurred) or bigger, tens of millions of kilometres away, and that by observing them closely we can find out things about them, then you’re a mentally impoverished individual – not necessarily in capacity, but certainly in content.

    When you say bulls**t like this

    I mean who cares. Honestly: it’s completely unconnected to anything that really matters to us. Phenomenologically its one of the most boring experiences one can have, and you can’t even see it without special gear. Am I the only one who thinks the emperor has no clothes on this one?

    it shows you up as being incredibly ignorant and perhaps even stupid. I don’t think you are those things, but if I were to produce a troll post containing every piece of spurious nonsense from a stereotype of anthropology that I could think of, it would look a lot like your post above. It is as if you would prefer a more ignorant world, and that, from an academic, is sinful.

    Why do social scientists always seem to want to be the centre of attention? Why can’t they just quietly get on with their activities and appreciate the brilliant work done by others on different problems? Why can’t you appreciate that the rise in public knowledge about astronomy and physics is a fantastic intellectual development? Why the hostility? Why is it that non-academic friends of mine aren’t hostile to media coverage of the transit of Venus but an academic is?

    Allofmyrage.jpg

    Does this suit?

  35. I was going to follow the advice of the late Bradbury on this, “pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room”, but for once I’d like to try and throw in something more constructive – so how about this.

    The point to take home about public interest in the transit has nothing to do with “usefulness”, but precisely the opposite – the transit was an interruption of “usefulness” by wonder, by curiosity, a pause to gaze at the skies and hesitate, even for a moment, at the scale of things beyond your own ken or scale.

    That this should be foreign to us, as anthropologists, is beyond absurd. It is completely ridiculous – evidence perhaps of a sort of collective disciplinary surrender to the terms of utilitarian assessment paradigms and “impact assessments”, perhaps even more of our own relentless, neurotic insecurity as a discipline.

    For a discipline rooted in wonder, a discipline that traffics in the vast irreducible richness of human experience – ever unfolding, ever novel and surprising – we are unbelievably adept at destroying any sense of wonder or beauty in our own writings. I’m an anthropologist by training, and so much anthropological writing (so much!) just bores me to tears. Churned out and loveless, facile, CV checkmarks.

    Basically: we kill our material, we make ourselves boring. We suck.

    To chide NASA and the media for opening a space of wonder, for successfully inviting the public to marvel and reflect, however briefly, on matters that have no immediate bearing on the horizon of their lives… This is more than just churlish or petulant. As Al West says, it borders on evil.

    So here’s a thought.

    Let’s all stop whining “it’s not fair”, like entitled children complaining to parental funding bodies, and instead start figuring out how to write again – not just droning on about about “usefulness” and “relevance” and “impact” and “being close to the people”, but to capture wonder. Write with style and love and imagination, with awe and horror – give pause, generate puzzlement, confuse, prompt reflection, invite marvel, reveal wonderful things, offer strange perspectives. Perplex, be unexpected and wonderful.

    Stop trying to be so damn “useful” and “relevant” all the time, and write beyond the stultified horizon of career plans, impact assessments, publication anxieties, peer reviewers, tenure committees, your own need to justify yourself by being “useful”. Write as you would like to be written to.

    In other words: shut up, stop whining, write something beautiful. Then people will pay attention.

    My 2 cents.

  36. @Hugo:

    “In other words: shut up, stop whining, write something beautiful. Then people will pay attention.”

    Agreed. Maybe it’s time for us to make writing a more central focus of our overall methodological training. And by that I mean creative writing as much as anything, because you’re right about the fact many of us take fascinating material and turn it into extremely dull prose.

    Thanks for posting this before packing up your dinosaurs and leaving the room…

  37. One person’s apathy is an other’s obsession. Why draw arbitrary lines of alterity? Why squabble about the pleasure principle? It is beautiful to see a child encouraged in civic engagement as well challenged to contemplate the significance of a shadow.

  38. hehehehehe

    People are forgetting that Rex is not alone in this predicament. So, I say: attack the message not the messenger.

  39. I agree almost entirely with Hugo. But I think it would be wrong, contra Ryan, to take away the message that anthropologists need creative writing courses. Anthropologists obsess about writing already. What they need to do is to be interested in the topics they’re writing about in more than just an abstract theoretical way. Astronomers, entomologists, classicists, Egyptologists – they’re all really interested in what they do, and they want other people to be interested, not because it might have broad political effects, but because they like what they do, they consider it “fun” in some sense, and they have the enthusiasm of people who have lucked out in being able to do what they love for a living. They don’t care so much about “the brand”, or any of that twaddle. Anthropologists don’t seem to have that, except for those anthropologists who are no longer considered at the heart of the discipline by a younger generation of academics. Michael Coe, Patrick Kirch, James Fox, and Jack Goody are all good examples, I’d say.

    ‘And all those exclamation marks, you notice? Five? A sure sign of someone who wears his underpants on his head.’
    Terry Pratchett

  40. @hugo

    I was inspired to major in geography and anthropology in college precisely because of the awe and wonder these disciplines provide and by the desire to write meaningfully. The transit of Venus is equally inspiring to me, and evidently many others think so as well. I would never want to sit through a class taught by Rex, the horror! One of the strangest things I encountered in my undergraduate studies in anthropology was meeting incredibly misanthropic and petty anthropologists like Rex. What drove me to the subject were people like Vonnegut, whose master’s dissertation in anthropology was rejected by the University of Chicago only to be “awarded” years later when he published Cat’s Cradle. Those were the insights I wanted to glean from anthropology, I wanted to see the world “like a visitor from Mars” as Vonnegut put it. The Enlightenment was, and is, about the pursuit of truth in all of its forms. I was recently admitted to a graduate program in anthropology but I’m wondering whether I’ll attend anymore. What for? academic jobs are next to nil and If you happen to land one you might get stuck with Rex for a colleague. Maybe I’ll study astronomy instead. Or better yet start writing again, which was the entire reason I pursued anthropology in the first place.

  41. @Al West:

    “I agree almost entirely with Hugo. But I think it would be wrong, contra Ryan, to take away the message that anthropologists need creative writing courses. Anthropologists obsess about writing already.”

    So…you “agree almost entirely with Hugo”, whose main point was about *writing* yet you think that writing is a non-issue? So which is it? When Hugo wrote this:

    “Write with style and love and imagination, with awe and horror – give pause, generate puzzlement, confuse, prompt reflection, invite marvel, reveal wonderful things, offer strange perspectives. Perplex, be unexpected and wonderful.”

    …what, exactly, was the take away message for you?

    My point, for what it’s worth, isn’t that anthros need to continue some abstract, longstanding obsession with writing, but that the craft of writing and communication should be at the forefront of anthropological methods. It can and should be a vital part of anthropological training, since the communication of ideas is clearly a crucial part of the process (otherwise what’s the point?). We spend a ton of time talking and reading about ethnographic interviews, this or that theory of the day, participant observation, etc…but what about taking some time to work on the end product, which is a written document?

    “What they need to do is to be interested in the topics they’re writing about in more than just an abstract theoretical way.”

    So your assessment of the situation is simply that anthropologists aren’t interested in what they are doing in any substantial sense? That’s the whole problem? Really? I think the problem is more about style, craft, and communication than just some lack of interest. Another part of the problem is that many academics (not just anthropologists) seem to be stuck on a certain style of exposition that isn’t exactly all that thrilling to read (ie texts with tons and tons of in text citations and theoretical allusions that only insiders have a chance of grasping).

    Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

    -Kurt Vonnegut on writing

  42. We hear about ethnographic fiction and ethnographic poetry. Anthropologists in the academe can easily explore creative ethnography or anthropology by first advising their students to take creative writing courses as electives.

    Anthropological texts loaded with theories, academic jargons, and citations are not fun to read for those who are not required or trained to read them. Why would someone spend for a book that will torture his mind? To most readers, reading is a pleasure.

  43. Ryan,

    I agree with Hugo that trying to be “relevant” is not the key. Being interesting is. The transit was fascinating precisely because it wasn’t “relevant”. And furthermore, anthropologists trying to be relevant by looking at precisely the same topics as economists, sociologists, and political scientists, but somewhat amateurishly, are changing the discipline into something completely different.

    Another part of the problem is that many academics (not just anthropologists) seem to be stuck on a certain style of exposition that isn’t exactly all that thrilling to read (ie texts with tons and tons of in text citations and theoretical allusions that only insiders have a chance of grasping).

    Which is fine. Because that writing is for an academic audience. And ethnographies, the only anthropological writing for which a creative writing course could be relevant, are also intended for an academic audience. I don’t think improving writing is the key; many anthropologists already write “well”, in some sense of that word, and there are plenty of existing novelistic ethnographies (which are not widely read and are of dubious academic interest). The problem isn’t writing.

    But I do agree with Hugo that the problem is that anthropologists seem uniquely capable of making whatever it is that they write about dull and uninteresting, when it should be the most interesting you could read. That’s okay unless you’re trying to reach out with a text for general readers. Ethnographies are often very dull texts unless you’re really, really interested. A great example of an ethnography is Gregory Forth’s Dualism and Hierarchy, about Keo villages in south Flores, Indonesia. It’s incredibly detailed, and well-written, in a sense, and it’s very useful for people studying eastern Indonesia. But it would never be read by an ordinary guy on the train. The same is true of in-depth studies of the presocratic philosophers, or the analysis of potsherds. And that’s okay, because the results of those investigations are the important thing, and those can inform larger, fascinating pictures. People are interested in those.

    There are plenty of widely-read texts by anthropologists that are really, really good without having sparkling writing. The writing isn’t the point. Coe’s The Maya is a perfect example, as Coe’s enthusiasm and knowledge shine through. It makes readers want to go on and read more about the area, about archaeology, about ancient history and anthropology, and about the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

    Another work of that calibre, albeit by an ancient historian, is Marc van de Mieroop’s widely read A History of the Ancient Near East. Van de Mieroop says in the preface,

    “Historians are like travel guides: claiming greater familiarity with the foreign countries than their readers, they point out what they find interesting, and phrase their enthusiasm in ways they find comprehensible and logical. They hope to inform readers, while inviting them to explore further. That is the aim of this book.”

    Anthropologists won’t gain airtime by trying to be relevant, and in doing so they are turning the discipline into something completely different. They are also making it dull.

  44. Al,

    “I agree with Hugo that trying to be “relevant” is not the key. Being interesting is.”

    Ok, so when you say that anthropologists should strive to “be interesting” do you mean they should study interesting things or present their work in interesting ways? How, in your opinion, does one go about “being interesting”? Is this a state of mind, a matter of changing research topics, or what? What makes you give a particular anthropological work the official stamp of approval?

    “The transit was fascinating precisely because it wasn’t ‘relevant’”

    Seems to me that many of the people who commented on this post argued otherwise, no?

    “And furthermore, anthropologists trying to be relevant by looking at precisely the same topics as economists, sociologists, and political scientists, but somewhat amateurishly, are changing the discipline into something completely different.”

    Hold the phone. Haven’t anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and political scientists always looked at the same, if not similar topics? Hasn’t there always been a lot of overlap between these fields? When did this become a problem? Take economics. Are you saying that anthropologists should not be interested in how human economic systems work? Should that subject really be left to the economists alone? Really? Do you think that the discipline made a turn for the worse when someone like Bronislaw Malinowski tread upon the territory of economists when he challenged assumptions about “Economic Man”? Was Meyer Fortes doing “amateurish” work when he studied and wrote about political systems? Should that work have been left to the political scientists alone? When Hortense Powdermaker (who trained under the likes of Malinowski, Radcliffe Brown, Firth, and Evans-Pritchard) turned her ethnographic eye upon US society (undoubtedly the domain of US sociologists) was this somehow detrimental to the overall discipline?

    Besides, what’s wrong with the idea that the discipline will change over time? Sometimes it seems that your vision of proper anthropology is rooted in some early 20th century ideal. Times change, and in my view, so should anthropology.

    “Which is fine. Because that writing is for an academic audience.”

    Well, I’m glad you think it’s fine. I don’t, even if I understand the point you are making about the value of a work despite the fact that it might not read very well. You know, I am part of the supposed target audience of these academic texts, and I think many of them are mind numbing to read. Which is too bad, because oftentimes the subject matter itself is really interesting…but it’s killed by the writing conventions we feel we need to adopt for some reason or another. So it IS often very much about the writing in my book. That’s my take. That said, I don’t want to come off as saying that all anthropologists are bad writers–there are some great ones out there. But I do think that the dominant style in which anthropological work is often presented could use some rethinking.

    “Anthropologists won’t gain airtime by trying to be relevant, and in doing so they are turning the discipline into something completely different. They are also making it dull.”

    By “trying to be relevant” are you referring to anthropologists like Karen Ho, who did an ethnography of Wall Street? Or maybe someone like Philippe Bourgois who looked at homeless populations in San Francisco? Maybe this kind of work is “dull” to you, but I find it just as fascinating as anthropologists who do what might be glossed as more “classic” anthropology. I mean, to me there’s no issue or conflict with taking anthropology to a wide range of topics. Actually, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the discipline to me. But I guess we can once again agree to disagree about the scope of the field.

  45. Take economics. Are you saying that anthropologists should not be interested in how human economic systems work?

    Of course they have, but economics is seldom descriptive and usually normative. A shift towards studying modern economies normatively has occurred in anthropology. Anthropologists once studied “primitive” economies, or at least non-market economies (if there are any). They had data to contribute for their colleagues in economics. Likewise, anthropologists tend(ed) to study state formation and pre-state societies, where political scientists studied the nature of modern political systems, concerning themselves much less with conical clans or segmentary lineages. Political science is also a much more normatively-oriented discipline. This is a reasonable division of labour.

    They’re all one discipline at heart – the study of human beings and what they do. What an anthropologist studies is obviously relevant to what political scientists do, and economists, and vice versa. But if an anthropologist researches some aspect of capitalism in America, then what they’re doing already has a hundred experts, many of whom will have a much better grasp of the problems and the intricacies of analysing the relevant data than the anthropologist. The division of academic labour won’t exactly be efficient. Anthropology was once a descriptive discipline that looked at differences in human populations around the world because that is simply an interesting and worthwhile thing to do, as well as one that could show up how people work, what universal characteristics they share, and the limits of their differences. That was the point; an “ethnography of Wall Street” is a sociologist’s task, even if we (bizarrely) call it “ethnography”. This usage of “ethnography” is very recent, and I think it may be this more than anything that has allowed for these separate but related disciplines to become completely elided.

    Data on Wall Street are, I’m sure, of wide interest, but more data are just so many drops in the ocean. There are few reasons to read an anthropologist’s account of Wall Street over a sociologist’s or even an economist’s. What can they add? What special skills do they bring that a sociologist couldn’t? And do we really think that the method alone warrants including such studies under the label “anthropology”?

    There was a time when anthropology dissertations could be based entirely on library research, and were about a set of topics that were anthropological rather than anything else. Nowadays fieldwork is a necessity and you can work on anything that an economist could also work on, just with a particular method. That’s a terrible division of labour, to say the least. And there are so many interesting things in the world – “useless”, “irrelevant” things – that only anthropologists have the training to investigate.

    I mean, to me there’s no issue or conflict with taking anthropology to a wide range of topics. Actually, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the discipline to me. But I guess we can once again agree to disagree about the scope of the field.

    What do you mean by “anthropology” there? The method of participant observation/conversation? I’m quite sure that sociologists do this as well, and they’re dedicated to researching modern, industrial/post-industrial societies. They have a set of dedicated research aims and a combination of different research methods, from raking through government statistics to reading newspapers to asking questions of active participants. What do anthropologists have to add to this? Is there any point in calling it “anthropology” when that is already an academic discipline dedicated to studying the kinds of societies that sociologists don’t study?

    Besides, what’s wrong with the idea that the discipline will change over time? Sometimes it seems that your vision of proper anthropology is rooted in some early 20th century ideal. Times change, and in my view, so should anthropology.

    I’m quite happy for the discipline to change in some senses (theoretical advances should change things), but why borrow the research aims of other disciplines when there are already good, unfulfilled, research aims for anthropology? Why study modern economies when there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who already do this and when pre-modern economies receive so little attention? Sure, findings of studies on pre-modern economies are directly relevant to and illuminating of modern economies, and that’s what we should expect, but they are still different, and one receives vastly more attention than the other.

    Fortes studied African political systems; Malinowski studied Trobriand economics; and while their conclusions were directly relevant to those topics in an industrial context and in the context of the study of humankind in its most general terms, they still studied something different from what economists study. Yes, they’re connected, but they’re not the exact same thing. All you’ve got when research aims are the same are, well, competing “brands”.

    And that Gregory Forth ethnography I mentioned? That was the first published research on Keo people ever, and it came out in 2001. There are lots of parts of Indonesia like that. Literally only anthropologists can fill these gaps in our knowledge about people globally. The desire to be “relevant” is causing anthropologists to ignore the really interesting things out there that only they are trained to study, and Rex’s post, showing disdain for anything that isn’t of immediate value besides its intrinsic interest, is symbolic of this.

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