LOL Anthropology


Recently I’ve been rethinking my attitude towards popular trends in anthropological theory. You know what I’m talking about… that sudden realization that a whole bunch of anthropologists seem to be engaged with a theoretical framework, scholar, or empirical subject matter that seems to have come out of the blue while you weren’t paying attention. Lacan, Agamben, affect, transnational flows… whatnot. In the past I used to share Marshall Sahlins sense that these were but passing fads and that long-established anthropological traditions had already said many of the same things if we just knew where to look for it. Now I’m not so sure.

Lately I’ve been thinking that there is something productive about playing with the latest lingo. The important word is “play.” Just like internet memes, trying to fit your research or ideas into a new meme gives one a chance to see the material afresh. Hell, it can simply make it fun again, like remixing Gangnam Style with Star Trek the Next Generation, or removing all the music and adding sound effects, or perhaps even just singing it as an acoustic set.

If I enjoy these internet memes so much, why am I so dismissive of anthropological fads? There are probably three reasons: First, there is the erasure of disciplinary memory. Newer is not necessarily better, and it is good to show a little respect for where we came from. The second is that it is simply hard to keep up. One doesn’t just casually pick up Lacan – there is a whole new vocabulary to master. For this reason it can often feel like empire building (reason #3). By establishing a new anthropological trend one is trying to build up one’s own cultural capital while simultaneously devaluing other forms.

But what if anthropology isn’t a zero-sum game? What if we felt comfortable playing with these forms the same way that we feel comfortable generating anthropology fox memes [see above]? This, I think is one of the great benefits of anthropological blogging. Unlike formal, peer-reviewed, publications we have the freedom to play in our own playground.

True, comments can often be harsh, but they can also be encouraging. Seven years of blogging on Savage Minds has been a tremendously rewarding experience for me, on many levels, but if I had to pick the one thing I have found most rewarding (other than the friends I’ve made) I would say it is the chance to play. See, for instance, my dog’s review of Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet. Yes, there have been missteps and posts I wish I could go back and erase, but overall, it’s been fun.

I’m glad to see so many new anthropology blogs popping up. And I’m glad to see universities starting to take them seriously as part of faculty evaluations, even tenure review. But I’d hate to see them loose this sense of fun. My hope is that the anthropology blogosphere can be as silly and productive as Gangnam Style remixes.

Here are some relevant links:

Ethan Zuckerman’s The Cute Cat Theory Talk

And Michael Wesch’s presentation before Library of Congress on anthropology and YouTube:

5 thoughts on “LOL Anthropology

  1. I totally agree with you re: the use of blogs for playing with ideas. I my own blog for that a lot (the most directly relevant to this post being the possibility of using internet memes as a a tool for data collection in and hope that I’ll eventually have enough of a readership that people will actually talk through some of those ideas with me.

    As for popular trends in anthro theory, my instinct is that the yearly conferences provide a lot of opportunities for just that kind of experimentation, if not in our actual papers or posters, at least in the post-session conversations that happen over drinks later in the evening. Where or when do you think you see the opportunities for that kind of play popping up?

  2. i’ve always been wanting to see more play in the meetings, or at least improvisation. of course, now that i’m working among ‘amis, play becomes more central: in writing about alcoholism, for example, the mode that i tend to go toward is an interpretation of jokes about gout. play might show up at the meetings, i think, if people are more wiling to sign on to playful panels (standing out here for me are the panel several years ago on fat, organized by don kulick; and another panel called “anthropology goes birding”), which might require some encouragement. it might also happen if we employ playful aesthetics in our writing. there’s a recent blog by futuru tsai about “taiwan’s east village” that has this quality

  3. Interesting that both @Sam and @DJ would mention conferences/meetings as spaces for this kind of play. Actually, I came up with the idea for this post during one of Allen Chun’s annual shindigs at Academia Sinica where he likes to bring together people from different disciplines and have them talk about each other’s papers. But it is hard to make these kinds of conferences work.

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