I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.
Writing is a responsibility in the academy. Through our writings we enter into dialogues with one another. From undergraduate thesis to dissertation, scholarly articles and monographs, our writing marks the trajectory of our careers. It forms the basis on which our peers and colleagues evaluate the contributions we make to discipline. But writing is more than a job responsibility of an academic. In writing anthropology, and in my case archaeology, there is an added responsibility to scrutinize how the histories we produce are connected to the lives and futures of the communities we study.
The formation of anthropology as a discipline in North America occurred at the same time as European and American governments dispossessed indigenous nations of their homelands. Coinciding with the closing of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century, the Bureau of Ethnology, later renamed the Bureau of American Ethnology, sponsored ethnographic and linguistic research on Native American communities. These “salvage ethnographies” documented the cultural traditions and lifeways of Native American tribes under the presumption that the combination of assimilationist policies and exposure to American lifeways would cause them to vanish entirely. Archaeologists followed suit, recording ancestral sites and collecting artifacts, as well as human remains in their attempt to document the cultural history of tribes. The objects and ancestors uncovered by archaeologists and others—often through dubious means—became specimens of national history; representations of a past that ceased to exist following the arrival of Europeans and their colonization of the continent. Given this colonial history, how can the work of these disciplines be used to disrupt colonial relations in the present? Continue reading →
What if anthropology were to suspend its claims to be a social science, whether of a geisteswissenschaftliche or a positivist variety? What if it were to turn instead to exploring its affinities with art and literature as a mode of engaged creative practice carried forward in a world heterogeneously composed of humans and other-than-humans? I am prompted to reflect on these questions by an encounter from my recent fieldwork.
In February 2013, I participated in Frogtopia. At once no place and multiple places, Frogtopia is the creation of Frog King, who in turn is the creation, or the costumed alter ego of Kwok Mang-ho. Born in Guangdong province in 1947 and educated in Hong Kong, where he now lives, Kwok is recognized today as one of the pioneers of multimedia and performance art in China. His output consists of a proliferation of works in a variety of media: video, photography, ink on paper, costumed performance and found materials such as plastic bags. His approach, typically, is to fill his canvases and exhibition and performance spaces with his characteristic motifs, including calligraphy, inflated plastic bags suspended from strings and the frog image that has played an increasingly conspicuous part in his work. Kwok has stated in interviews that he was drawn to the figure of the frog because of its metamorphic life cycle and its capacity to move between land and water. At the same time the image is meant to evoke a range of other associations, its bulging eyes embodying watchfulness and suggesting too a bridge for exchange and communication between Chinese and Western artistic influences and a sail boat for journeying to new places. Continue reading →
I will only know what I precisely want to say in this piece once I finish writing it.
This enigmatic sentence is not meant as an alluring opening statement, nor is it a sign for an experimental literary method that I will be employing in this blog. For what it’s worth, this sentence captures my principal insight into the process of writing. It is an insight that I gained after years of experiencing much frustration with writing, after producing endless drafts of the same text, after nights and days spent on trying ‘to get it right’, after struggling not to lose my focus, not to get lost in the texts I tried so hard to write.
Luckily, I do not feel like that any more. But it has been a long ride. Continue reading →
Some of our co-bloggers in this forum rightly suggest that reading precedes and accompanies writing. But then they say that young people today, in this era of attention deficits, are losing the art of reading. When I was young, hope I still am, I usually responded quite stubbornly to this kind of admonishing “wisdom”. Maybe our teachers need to be more inspiring. In writing, we may need to rediscover a richer variety of forms. There was a time, for instance, when scholars primarily wrote not in essays, but in a more difficult and older art of texting, namely, aphorisms.
Let’s not underestimate the new forms of attentiveness that are emerging. On Instagram for instance, which to the surprise of discerning readers creates the possibility of stranger sociality based only on a fellowship of images. Continue reading →
When the Roman Empire collapsed, numerous libraries and an unknown quantity of books disintegrated with it. Amid a rising Christianity hostile to traces of paganism, the texts of many authors admired in Roman antiquity were turned to dust and the memory of their existence dissolved. Pieces of writing by noted figures such as Cicero or Virgil certainly survived, but the majority of what these men wrote has been lost. This was an epochal moment in the history of writing: an imperial collapse so profound that it physically disintegrated vast amounts of texts, erasing them from human memory.
Some books from ancient Rome were saved from this massive vanishing of written words only because a few copies survived for over a thousand years in the libraries of European monasteries. This survival was often the outcome of pure chance: that is, a set of conjunctural factors somehow allowed those books, and not others, to overcome the wear and tear and ruination of paper and ink by the physical pressures and cuts inflicted on them by the weather and by the living forms attracted to them, primarily insects, mice, and humans. In these monasteries, many ancient books and their words disintegrated after a few centuries, gone forever. But others lingered and were eventually copied by hand again on new and more robust paper, which could withstand atmospheric and bodily pressures for the next two to three centuries. Three hundred years or so later, another monk would grab a manuscript about to disintegrate and copy those words again. Who knows how many amazing books were eaten away by bugs simply because no monk chose to save them from their ruination? One of the books that miraculously survived in a monastery over a millennia of chance encounters with the void was Lucretius’ extraordinary philosophical treatise De rerum natura, The Nature of Things. Continue reading →
This morning, as I am sitting down to write this blog entry in my rental apartment in Nogales, I peer through the window: The sun has illuminated the dark brown border wall that coils over the hilly landscape and reminds me of the spiked back of a stegosaurus. Six months ago I arrived in Southern Arizona to begin fieldwork with firefighters and paramedics for a new ethnographic project about emergency responders on both sides of the line, as the international boundary which abruptly separates Mexico and the United States is locally called. Though ethnographic fieldwork takes many forms – I am conducting interviews, participating in the daily activities at the firehouse, volunteering at a first aid station for migrants, teaching prehospital emergency care at a local fire district, and engaging with the first responder communities in Arizona and Sonora in multiple other ways – my primary activity continues to be writing.
I have always been a morning writer. When I was working on the manuscript of my first book, Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border (University of California Press 2015), I would shut the doors of my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house in the forested suburbs of Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was fortunate to spend my research leave, and would sit at my large desk, facing the barren trees outside, until noontime. I did it every day of the week for several months during a long and cold winter. The manuscript was complete and sent off to my editor on the eve of spring.
But during fieldwork keeping a regular writing routine has been difficult. The topic of our research inevitably shapes how, where and what we write, and my study of fire and rescue services under heightened border security is no exception. Often I spend the entire day on shift with the crew at the fire station, riding along with them to the scenes of emergencies. Other days there is training, community events, long drives to do interviews at more remote fire districts. Having a background in both journalism and in anthropology affects how I go about conducting research. Instead of dividing my time into chunks for doing fieldwork and writing up fieldnotes, I tend to pursue the story as far as it takes me before I finally sit down to reflect on the new material. I think of it as combining the in-depth view of an anthropologist with the fervor of an investigative journalist. It can be exhausting. Continue reading →
Acquiring Spanish as a second language led me to poetry, and becoming a better poet helped me become a better bilingual. I had been a good high school and college student of Spanish and had studied abroad in Spain and Mexico. After college, I wanted a way to give kindness back to the many Spanish speakers who tolerated and nurtured my emerging bilingualism. As a Spanish major with coursework in theatre and creative writing, it made sense to become an elementary school teacher. I was quickly overwhelmed. I struggled to teach third grade math, science, and California history in my new classroom in South Central Los Angeles.
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Katerina Teaiwa as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Katerina is Head of Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History & Language at Australia National University, as well as President of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies. Her book Consuming Ocean Island: Stories of People and Phosphate from Banaba (Indiana University Press, 2015) focuses on histories of phosphate mining in the central pacific, specifically the movement of Banaban rock and the complex relations created by the mining, shipping, production and consumption of superphosphate and ensuing commodities (watch the book trailer on youtube). This Banaba work inspired a permanent exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which tells the story of phosphate mining in the Pacific through Banaban dance. She is currently collaborating in the The Anthropocene Kitchen project to convert her book and research into a science comic.]
They say to write well you should read well: “read more and write better” proclaims the Writing Forward blog. And in her Savage Minds essay Ruth Behar states: “It comes down to this: you can only write as well as what you read.”
While I have to write regularly as an academic, I’m currently struggling to identify good reading practices in my weekly or even monthly routine. How do we define good practices? Is what influences us as academics primarily the “high quality” sources — the peer reviewed articles and books, the classical texts or novels, the rich ethnographic texts, fieldwork or other reliable data — that we expect to find cited in our colleagues’ work, and that we regularly assign to our students? Continue reading →
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Carla Jonesas part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Carla is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research analyzes the cultural politics of appearance in urban Indonesia, with particular focus on femininity, aesthetics and Islam. She has written extensively on self-improvement programs and middle-class respectability during the Suharto and post-Suharto periods in Jogjakarta and Jakarta, and is the co-editor, with Ann Marie Leshkowich and Sandra Niessen, of Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress (Berg, 2003). Her current work situates anxieties about Islamic style in the context of broader debates about visibility and wealth.]
We are living in affective times. At least according to the many journal themes, conference panel titles and other measures of anthropology’s current interests, affect is in the air. This feels relevant for thinking about writing. Feeling seems central to the reasons we write, even if we rarely say that out loud. Feeling in the mood to write, feeling ready to say something, feeling safe to say it, feeling passionately about it, feeling proud of it once we’ve said it, these all undergird the conditions for writing. These feelings contrast with the objectivity of a social science based in data and facts, and we have a now decades-long critique in the discipline about the fundamentally political and subjective nature of knowledge production. But these are also largely positive feelings.
I want to suggest that one of the motivations to write is also irritation. This may seem contrary and cranky. I don’t mean for it to. For me it is empowering. I increasingly find that the nudge that takes me from mental idea to written word is much more than a deadline. It is a feeling that might be impolite. I find I am most in the mood to write when I am agitated. Continue reading →
Anthropologists are storytellers. We tell stories: other’s stories, our own stories, stories about other’s stories. But when I think about anthropology and storytelling, I think also of something else, of anthropology as theoretical storytelling.
What is anthropology as theoretical storytelling? Several things. A discipline engaged in explaining, understanding, and interpreting cultural worlds as well as in developing theoretical paradigms large and small for making and making sense of cultural worlds. This is not something new to anthropology. Looking across generations of anthropological scholarship, theoretical storytelling appears repeatedly. From Zora Neale Hurston’s tales and lies to Muchona the Hornet to the Balinese cockfight to Rashīd and Mabrūka and Fayga in Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments and on and on. Stories stay with us. People stay with us. Esperanza. Adamu Jenitongo. Uma Adang. Gloria. Miss Tiny. Charles and Morley and Nick Thompson. Angela Sidney. Valck. Mr. Otis. Bernadette and Eugenia. Tashi Dhondup. And so many more. Anthropology as theoretical storytelling may be a method of narration by both ethnographer and subject, a means of organizing writing, a way of arguing certain ethnographic points, and an ethnographically-grounded way of approaching theory. This is not then a singular approach or description, but a term that captures a range of anthropological sensibilities and strategies. Continue reading →
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Paul Tapsell as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Paul is Professor of Anthropology, and Māori, Pacific, and Indigenous Studies at the University of Otago. His research interests include Māori identity in 21st century New Zealand, cultural heritage & museums, taonga trajectories in and beyond tribal contexts, Māori values within governance policy frameworks, Indigenous entrepreneurial leadership, marae and mana whenua, genealogical mapping of tribal landscapes and Te Arawa historical and genealogical knowledge.]
The greatest challenge of being an anthropologist is being me. From one decade to the next I have been a cross-cultural island of self-consciousness, framed by the cross generational memories of wider kin. Wisdom comes in many forms, but as I tell my students, at least those who turn up to class, it cannot be found on the Internet. Somewhere between my father’s Maori generation of desperately trying to be English and my children’s reality of being overtly Maori you find… me.
Raised in the tribally alienated rural heartlands of Waikato naivety (built on 19th century confiscations at gunpoint), my view of the world was one of barefoot summers by the ocean, while the rest of the year was underpinned by frosts, fog, rugby and ducking for cover in a rurally serviced school surrounded by affluent dairy farms and horse studs. Right from the start teachers placed me neither at the front or the back of the classroom. Kids in the front were mostly fourth generation descendants of English settlers, while at the back were the ever sniffling Maori who had no shoes and walked five miles to school across farmlands, one steaming cow pat to the next. And there I was, from age five, placed right in the middle, on the boundary between a white-is-right future and an uncivilised dark skinned past. Continue reading →
Lists can be tyrannical. They tell us what we are supposed to do and what we have failed to do. They purport to keep us on task. They lead us to derive pleasure from crossing things out. Done! Eliminated! Lists enlist us to worry about rank and order, to aspire to the top-ten, top-twenty, top-one-hundred. Lists compel us to click and consume. If you like that, you might also like this. Click through to learn about 13 Animals Who Are Way More Gangster Than You.
These characterizations and their assumption of shared experience speak to cultural patterns of a particular time and place. Lists reveal systems of thought and organization, as Foucault notes in the preface to The Order of Things, which opens with his reading of Borges quoting a “certain Chinese encyclopedia.” The specious tome’s categorical division of animals into an alphabetical series—…(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera…—strikes the French philosopher as hilariously distant. He writes, “In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”Continue reading →
Like many writers who have to sustain themselves with a paying job – in my case, and probably yours too, an academic job – I spend a lot of my time fretting about not having enough time to write. Many of my friends in the profession are the same way. We have to teach, we complain, which requires time to prepare, deliver, and grade our lessons, while managing students and their many needs. We serve on committees, attend faculty meetings, and hold office hours. We devote countless hours to reviewing the work of our peers – others who seem to find the time to write, which we must review at the cost of our own writing time.
As a result, I think, many of us don’t feel like writers. I know I don’t. Not a real writer, anyway. A real writer, in my mind, is someone whose principal vocation is writing. I picture someone like Honoré de Balzac, writing through the wee hours of the morning, fueled by endless cups of coffee; Joyce Carol Oates, author of more than 50 novels and countless other works of fiction and non-fiction; or Maya Angelou, who kept a small hotel room as a writing space, which she called “lonely, and…marvelous.” These to me are real writers. Continue reading →
Sometimes, to do fieldwork is to write. This was the way first fieldwork went for me, in the years in the early 1990s when I was working in Bhopal India, at the site of the “world’s worst industrial disaster,” resulting from a massive release of toxic chemicals over a sleeping city. The devastation was horrific, but debatable from the outset. Dead people and animals were strewn across the city, rows of the dead covered in white sheets paved hospital courtyards. The sounds of coughing and grief were overwhelming, and unforgettable. Disaster was blatant and flagrant, yet it was still was a struggle to account for in words and politics.
It was years later I was told and read about the sounds and sights of Bhopal in the days just after December 3, 1984. Journalists, activists, academics, poets, and many who were tangles of all these helped with the accounting. Stories about the plight of gas victims were also, always, stories about cover-up and denial. Even the basics – the numbers of dead, the number exposed, the number injured – were (and remain) in dispute. At the 30th anniversary of the gas leak in 2014, activists were still mobilizing to revise the death record. Continue reading →
[Savage Minds is honored to publish this essay by Partha Chatterjee, Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, and of the Centre for the Studies of Social Sciences in Calcutta. He is a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective.]
Having taught for a lifetime in Indian institutions and, alongside, about two decades in US universities, I have a position on this question that is somewhat unusual from the point of view of most American anthropologists. My political views were formed in the course of growing up in a country that was once the classic colonial possession of the British Empire, achieving its independence in the year of my birth. I grew up with the marks of colonial rule scattered all around me – equestrian statues of colonial governors and generals at street corners, all-white sporting clubs and swimming pools where native youngsters were shooed away by turbaned gatemen, rows of office buildings with names like McKinnon and McKenzie or Jardine and Henderson whose top officers, I was told, were still spotlessly white. I went to an elementary school run by an English couple whose son – I still remember his name, Stephen Hartley – was routinely awarded the top prize by our Indian teachers at every school competition. Ever since, no matter which country I have visited, I have rarely failed to recognize the signs of colonial superiority.
I first came to know about the fate of European Jews in a roundabout way. Sometime in my childhood, I came to hear the phrase notun ihudi – the new Jews. It was probably the title of a movie. It referred, I was told, to people like us, thrown out of our homes in the eastern half of Bengal which had now become part of another country called Pakistan. Both my parents came from there. Once every few months, I would wake up in the morning to find the house full of strangers – relatives from Pakistan who stayed with us for a few days and then moved to a more permanent dwelling. We were, I heard, the new Jews – refugees, forced to make a new life in a strange land. Continue reading →