Monthly Archives: September 2013

The travels of a head

Last year I contributed to the Wellcome Collection’s Brains: The Mind as Matter exhibition, an examination of how brains have variously been collected, manipulated, used and abused by different bodies for different purposes across time and space. The exhibition (in its London showing, 29 March – 17 June 2012) saw around 105,000 visitors, and in the vein of most Wellcome productions, did not shy away from provocative displays and potentially controversial activities (e.g., the ‘hands-on’ Brain Jar public demonstrations).

In seeking out possible items to feature in Brains, I was reminded of a story that I’d heard during my PhD research about the head of the pioneering British archaeologist and anthropologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942). Labelled the “father of scientific archaeology” (Sheppard 2010) for his significant (if very contentious) roles in defining field methodology and in shaping archaeological practice and collecting activity in Egypt and Palestine in particular, Petrie was said to have donated his own head to the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) in London. Indeed, with some investigation (see Simon Chaplin’s contribution to Ucko 1998; Silberman 1999), it became clear that upon his death in 1942 in Jerusalem, Petrie’s body was buried in a cemetery on Mount Zion, and his head returned to England with the express purpose of processing it in order to add his skull to the teaching and research assemblages at the RCS.* But, what is critical for my purposes is that the head was never processed as per Petrie’s wishes.** Despite documented consent from Petrie for the use of his skull in the RCS collections, such consent has never been abided by, and his full head still stands off-limits today in the RCS’s laboratories. Continue reading

Tools for the field: Digital audio recorders

My digital voice recorder died a slow death this year.  It was a Zoom H2.  I bought it about 5 years ago and used it all last year for fieldwork in Baja.  I think the salt air may have something to do with its death–or maybe a battery leaked, I am not really sure.  There is some greenish crud on the back near the battery compartment, and it has been acting up in all sorts of ways lately–giving error messages, not wanting to shut off, and so on.  It has also been eating batteries like, like, like something really, really hungry for batteries!  My wife has been using it for her interviews and now it’s burning through two AA batteries in about an hour and a half, which is not good.  But the battery life of the H2 has never been great.  That’s been a problem from the start.

So, long story short this means I ended up looking around for a new voice recorder.  Looking back, the H2 was an ok investment.  It had great sound quality, but the user interface was really clunky, and the construction of the unit itself felt pretty shoddy.  It looked and felt pretty cheap to me.  I spent about 250 bucks on that thing and I definitely would not buy another one. Continue reading

The Aesthetics of Disaster: On Flooding and Fire in Colorado

Two weeks ago, my corner of the world was flooded. It rained and rained and rained. Rivers and creeks swelled above their banks and beyond their normal courses, carving out whole new paths through mountain canyons, suburban neighborhoods, and trailer parks. Along the way, these newly wild waters took much with them: hillsides, boulders, roads, houses, animals, and people.

Living a disaster is not the same as viewing one. Lived disaster is ambiguous. It is simultaneously confusing and crystal clear. Its discomfort is not mediated by images nor soothed by geographic distance. The aesthetics of disaster are raw in both natural and cultural states. This is the indifferent violence of a nature that doesn’t care about you. The turbulence of emotions that will not settle, that swirl about like rapids, foaming, bubbling, then dissipating and taking new form—from fear to euphoria to guilt to relief and more.

This is a story of destruction and recovery, not of beauty. Why then are the aesthetics of disaster so sublime? Continue reading

Gratz to Julie Livingston on her MacArthur fellowship

It’s that time of year again: the MacArthur foundation has unveiled its 2013 Fellows. Amongst them is the anthropologist Julie Livingston. Congratulations Julie!

Technically, Livingston’s Ph.D. is in history, but worked with Ivan Karp on a Ph.D. on Botswana and it and her previous work demonstrates a keen sense of the importance of culture and history as they affect and are affect power relations. Its this concern with contextualization, particularity, and the relevance of empirical and qualitative work that makes her approach ‘anthropological’, not the fact that she studied in “Exotic Africa”. I’m hesitant to say more about her work because I’m not very familiar with it. But in an age where people believe anthropology must be Quantitative True Science, Livingston’s award helps remind us that interdisciplinary social science is, literally, genius.

In fact, anthropologists regularly figure as MacArthur fellows, and one of the pleasures of writing this blog is making annual announcements that another one of our own has made it big. So congratulations Julie and, if you don’t mind us stealing some of your thunder, congratulations to anthropology as well.

An anthropologist among the librarians

It’s been more than five weeks since I first settled in Librarilandia and the natives are starting to accept me as one of their own. Since navigating the perilous voyage to this out of the way place and enduring countless humiliations as I’ve embarrassed myself in a bumbling effort to learn their customs and expectations I have finally begun networking in earnest. The pace of the note taking has picked up too. Now, having studied at the feet of the Librarian elders, I can begin to offer these first insights, hunches, and observations.

In the mode of Ruth Benedict, here’s a list of “Anthropologists do this… but Librarians do that.”

1. Information Science has an ambivalent relationship to science

What was once called “library science” is now increasingly known as “information science,” but what is so scientific about it? Much like in anthropology it is in part a rhetorical move, to position oneself in a way to claim the authority of science. Which is not to say that science is absent. Anthropology is inclusive too of ecology and evolution, Boas saw the application of cultural relativism in the scientific method as making a break with the amateur scholars of the Victorian Era, and even the Writing Culture crowd argues that radical reflexivity is actually in keeping with more empiricism, not less. Similarly for the information sciences. It has its toes dangling into the waters of mathematics, logic, and computer programing. It has a tradition of what I would call “scientistic” internal communications: they love charts and graphs and diagrams. But there just aren’t a whole lot of natural laws about information, so it is still very humanistic in its orientation.

2. Regardless of the science issue, librarians are still positivists Continue reading

Open Access for the Few?

Hardly a day goes buy that I don’t see an email, Facebook post, or Tweet asking for access to some academic PDF or another. I’m all for anything that erodes the awful paywall system that academic publishers have erected in order to preserve a broken model, but it bothers me that the reality of the current system is that a small coterie of academics have the equivalent of open access, while the rest of the world is blocked out. If I really need access to an article right now, I’m pretty sure someone at a major research library would email me a copy, but if someone who isn’t an academic wants that same article they are unlikely to be able to call upon their social network in the same way. What is really absurd about this system is that it is the people least able to pay for access who are the most likely to have to pay.

The Fifth Issue of HAU

In November, 2011 I watched a slightly wild-eyed Italian man mount the stage of a Montreal hotel banquet hall and announce to the world that he was launching a new open access journal that would fundamentally alter the world of anthropology, and perhaps the world at large. Having watched previous world-changing initiatives burn up when entering the atmosphere of the realityverse, I was a little skeptical. What I wanted to see, I claimed, wasn’t the first issue of HAU, it was the fifth. Starting something is easy — keeping it growing is hard.

Last week, the fifth issue of HAU appeared.

Congratulations and mahalo to Giovanni, Stéphane, Sean, Holly, Philip, and the people who worked to produce HAU. I think I owe Giovanni a drink.

Getting Reading Done With Sente (Tools We Use)

Some of you may be aware of the productivity cult known as “Getting Things Done” (GTD). Although I find the full-blown GTD approach doesn’t really fit well with an academic lifestyle (what’s the use of using “contexts” when your work follows you everywhere?), reading about GTD taught me a few basic principles that make me feel less stressed out by allowing me to focus better on the work at hand. I mention GTD because I intend to use it as a framework to discuss reference management software, especially Sente for the iPad which recently got a significant upgrade. This review consists of three sections: 1. Applying GTD principles to academic reading with Sente. 2. Some comments about new features and continued limitations in the latest version of Sente for the iPad. And 3. Other options for reading and managing references on the iPad.

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Breastfeeding in public: what is and what is not "appropriate"

I just read about a discrimination case in the San Diego area in which author/educator Rachel Rainbolt was told by her child’s homeschool teacher that breastfeeding was “inappropriate” behavior during weekly meetings.  Read more about this case on her site.

First of all, this sort of reaction to breastfeeding is not uncommon.  It reminds me of this cartoon, which points out some of the deep hypocrisy that pervades this whole issue, especially here in the US.

Second, this is obviously about cultural norms–and this includes ideas about what is and what is not considered “indecent” in public settings.  Part of the issue is who defines norms, and how certain activities (or parts of bodies) are deemed either acceptable or not.  The whole conversation about breastfeeding is entangled in all kinds of social and cultural ideas about human nature, sexuality, and how we think about individual human bodies in relation to the larger social body.  When a lot of people think about breasts (this includes men and women), they automatically think SEX.  As if that’s their primary reason for existence. Continue reading

Creativity, Intellectual Freedom & the Field School

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Sara Perry.

I have spent a significant portion of the past 1.5 years designing and implementing a series of new courses for archaeology and heritage undergraduate and graduate students at my university. By far the most challenging of these experiences has been the creation of a nine-week field school for first-year undergrads enrolled on our BA in Heritage Studies—a programme intended to mirror the standard field school that archaeology-specific undergrads are obliged to complete. This topic is an interesting one for me not because of the difficulty of launching and directing such a course. Indeed, anyone who has led a multi-collaborator fieldwork project will be intimately familiar with the many logistical, conceptual, economic, emotional, physical and related challenges—although locating frank reflections upon these challenges is not necessarily an easy feat (but see Colleen Morgan’s blog posts on Archaeological Field Schools & Management Styles and Creature Comforts & Happiness in the Field; also, if you have institutional access, see Harold Mytum’s 2012 Global Perspectives on Archaeological Field Schools).

Rather, what proved most problematic from my perspective was negotiating the creative tensions and partialities that the field school exposed between the different parties involved in its execution. This proved to be a struggle between, on the one hand, enabling students to freely and meaningfully do their own innovative interpretative work, and, on the other, managing professionals’ (e.g., established academics’) expectations about the analysis and presentation of the project data. The problem seemed to revolve around matters of control, trust and opening up the intellectual process to genuine intervention by new contributors—that is, students.

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Forgetting Gabriel Tarde

(This guest post comes from Matt Watson, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at Texas Tech University. He’s developing these ideas in a book manuscript titled Reading Latour’s Cosmopolitics: Ontology, Ecology, Love. Descriptions of his research and publications are available at Feel free to send thoughts, corrections, objections, specific compliments, or notes (love or ransom) to -R )

As Rex recently pointed out, Durkheim’s elder and rival Gabriel Tarde is experiencing a “reinvention” or “revival” at the hands of Bruno Latour and assorted posthumanist authors. They’re studiously reworking Tarde’s ambitious argument that invention, imitation, and opposition are the elementary forms of social life (human, animal, and other). Of these three elements, Tarde most thoroughly explored imitation. A now-established trope among neo-Tardians is that Durkheim’s success in securing sociology’s autonomy as a discipline relegated Tarde’s “microsociology” (as Gilles Deleuze called it) to the margins of the human sciences. Contributors to the edited volume, The Social after Gabriel Tarde, assert that anthropologists haven’t worked through Tarde’s ideas. The editor, Matei Candea, states, “Until recently…Tarde was almost entirely absent from anthropology, with the notable exception of the works of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.” It might come as a surprise, then, that in 1964 Margaret Mead could write, “Since Tarde’s original publication, the idea of imitation has been worked to the bone.” What on Earth could Mead have meant? Wasn’t Tarde forgotten?

The short answer is no.

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OAC Online Seminar: A cultural analysis of the Lance Armstrong "reality show"

The Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) is continuing its online seminar series with its latest installment (#17), a paper by Lee Drummond that takes on the Lance Armstrong phenomena (or debacle), using it as a lens for understanding American society.   The seminar is well underway, and will be open for comments and questions until September 21.  Here’s a bit from Drummond’s abstract: Continue reading

Gabriel Tarde: Been there, done that.

In the last decade or so (earlier, if you speak French) there has been a ‘neo-Tardian revival’ as people organize conferenceswrite books, and otherwise advocate for Gabriel  Tarde, an otherwise-forgotten thinker of France’s Third Republic. Most anthropologists think of Tarde, if they think of him at all, as one of the many guys that Durkheim defeated on his climb to the top of France’s academic heap. Today, people are interested in Tarde because he is part of the intellectual genealogy of people like Deleuze and Latour. This work is interesting and important because it moves beyond a vision of society as composed of static, coherent, superorganic social wholes to one which more adequately theorizes human conduct as a dynamic, emergent system with multiple determinants and outcomes. Except I will say one thing:

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The Omniscient Narrator

I’ve spent a lot of time in India, but only briefly visited Mumbai. However, even though I was only there for a few days, I did manage to see enough to get a sense of the different worlds that people inhabit there: from the home of a wealthy patron of the arts near Victoria Terminus, to that of a struggling actor at the other end of the city, whose flat only had running water for ten minutes a day. Getting from one end to the other was an epic journey, and it (along with rides on over-crowded commuter trains, pollution, etc.) left me with a feeling that life in this city was  impossible. Perhaps this sense of impossibility is why so many talented writers have chose to write about Mumbai, and why I keep reading them. Among the more memorable books I’ve read are A Fine Balance, Maximum City, Beautiful Thing, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I just finished last night. There is a lot that could be (and has been) said about these books — about the relationship of writing to geography, about the relationship between journalism and fiction, about the relationship of these authors to the city, etc. — but in this blog post I want to focus on something that struck me in Boo’s writing: the omniscience of the narrator.

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Anthropology Co-Citation Graph

Recently Kieran Healy posted a link on Twitter to a co-citation graph he’d made to try to understand what philosophers “have been talking about for the last two decades?” He also posted a nice poster he made from this data [PDF]. I reposted these and mentioned that it would be great to have something similar for anthropology. The internet being the wonderful place that it is, I shortly had my wish, courtesy of Jonathan Goodwin.

anthropology co-citation graph

This chart isn’t as clean as Kieran’s – and probably has too much data (four journals going back to 1973), but Jonathan has helpfully provided instructions for how he did it in case anyone is interested in pursuing it further. I’d love to be able to create separate charts for each of the various sub-disciplines in anthropology, but that might be harder to do since they often appear in the same journals. Still, hopefully some interesting insights can be gleaned from this kind of data. If you are able to do anything with this, let us know in the comments!

UPDATE: Jonathan made a new, lower-density, chart for just 1998-to-the-present.

UPDATE: And a new one, with a chronological slider.