This week, I embark on my 12th year as an adjunct at the College of Southern Nevada (formerly the Community College of Southern Nevada, which I much prefer — they changed the name in a bid to sound classier). For the last 11 years, I’ve taught intro-level anthropology, even as my career shifted from academia into the museum world.
Teaching is a choice for me. I have a full-time job, a MORE than full-time job, running the Burlesque Hall of Fame, and much of what little spare time I have left is spent as a caretaker for my father (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) and maintaining some kind of social life, but when I can pick up a class, I do. I enjoy the classroom experience, and if you’ve ever worked at a community college, you know how rewarding it can be.
My classes are typically full of very bright, hopeful young people (along with a scattering of returning students and retirees) who have been terribly served by the educational system. Many of them are minorities and/or from poor families, which means not only has their K-12 education been abysmally bad (on purpose, I’d argue), but so has the rest of their lives during their developmental years. Continue reading →
I recently came across the blog post Naughty Librarians and the Eroticism of Intellect, which purports to explain the enduring appeal of the image of the “sexy librarian” in modern life. Aside from the post’s dismissable evolutionary psychology conclusions, the author raises some interesting points about the ways the image of the librarian in our culture intersects with and embodies certain aspects of modern eroticism, grounding his or her (the author is identified as “J.M. McFee” with no bio) argument in a highly individualized literary psychological approach.
The trope of the sexy librarian as an aspect of the American sexual psyche has interested me for a long time — in fact, it was what triggered my academic interest in sex in American culture and eventually drove me into Women’s Studies. So I was quite interested to see what this J.M. McFee had to say. Unfortunately, in the absence of any sort of historical or cultural context, I found McFee’s musings rather toothless. For example, the contention that “eyeglasses and print media are already sufficiently antiquarian to have become as fetishized as garter belts and riding crops” could be true (though I rather doubt it, since eyeglasses and books are very much part of our daily lives in a way that garter belts absolutely aren’t) but even so, it doesn’t tell us very much about why librarians have become so idealized and not, say, book store clerks, editors, or opticians.
The sexualization of the librarian does not stand alone in our cultural erotics, nor can it be cleanly separated from the whole structure of American (possibly Western) sexuality. While I can’t profess to have the whole story, I hope here to give at least an outline of what the whole story might look like. Continue reading →
In my last post, I defined a museum as “a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects.” I then spent quite a bit of time dealing with the implications and ramifications of the word “objects”. But there’s another important part of that definition, one which opens up a significantly different view of what a museum is, and that’s the part about a museum being a “social institution”.
Objects can be displayed in a lot of contexts. I have a bunch of artworks by local Las Vegas artists displayed throughout my home — but that doesn’t make my home a museum of Las Vegas art. Lots of people put together collections of images on Pinterest that communicate knowledge about themselves or topics that interest them, but Pinterest isn’t a museum either.
What makes a museum a museum is that it’s social, and that it’s an institution. As a social phenomenon, a museum is a point of connection for a community of visitors, researchers, curators and other staff, and even subjects. And as an institution, that connection, that web of social relationships, is a structured one. Continue reading →
Believe it or not, there is no readily accepted definition of a museum. The American Alliance of Museums officially throws up its hands, stating in its handbook National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums that the term “museum” describes “an organization that people can identify intuitively but that cannot be neatly packaged in a definition,” and continuing on to describe a “big tent” approach, saying that “If an organization considers itself to be a museum, it’s in the tent.”
In other words, we many not be able to define what a museum is, but we know one when we see it.
Sure, there are other definitions of museums, legalistic jargon-laden definitions that serve to define museums in relation to tax codes, property law, fair use protections, and so on, but basically its a reflexive signifier. Museums are museums.
For me, a museum is a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects. Other things go on in museums — stories are told, texts are offered up, performances are… um, performed, and so on, but unless somewhere in the institution objects are being displayed to communicate knowledge, it’s not a museum. It’s a library, a theater, a performance art space, or something else, but not a museum.
As Kerim noted a few weeks back, I am currently the director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, a museum located in Las Vegas committed to preserving the history and legacy of burlesque as an artform and cultural phenomenon. If you had asked me a few years ago what direction I expected my career to develop in, I’d have never said “Museum Director.” Sure, I’d taken some museum studies courses in grad school and have worked in a couple of museums, but I always thought I’d help out with an exhibition here and there and that would be the extent of my involvement in museums.
Well, life, as they say, happens, and here I am today, responsible not just for an exhibition here and there but for a budget, a nation-wide volunteer network, a collection of 4,000+ artifacts, and a whole slew of legal, professional, and ethical concerns I’d barely even imagined 5 years ago. Since a) anthropology as we know it today grew out of museum practice, and b) the perspective of a museum worker has rarely been seen on Savage Minds, I thought I’d write up a few posts detailing some of the things that occupy my thoughts and time. I won’t be aiming for any grand theoretical statements here, just some musings on what constitutes life in the museum for this particular anthropologist.
And since it’s the question I deal with most, I thought I’d start with a discussion of what burlesque even is in the first place. Defining the field of study, so to speak. Easier said than done, I suppose — burlesque as an art form grades into and branches off from a lot of other theatrical traditions, and has been in a state of near-constant change for at least the last century-and-a-half.
Santoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist who blogs for Psychology Today. If I were as stupid as he is I’d probably shoot myself, but that didn’t stop someone at the magazine from letting him post the nonsense of Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women? (The same people who don’t know how to use capitalization in titles, maybe…)
The article disappeared pretty quick (the link above is to the Google cache), so either someone at the magazine had a lucid moment or they don’t know how to work their Internet thingies, but either way, it’s out there and it bears the imprimateur of a pretty mainstream magazine.
Here’s the gist: During interviews for a longitudinal study of American adolescent health called Add Health, researchers assign a score for how attractive their subjects are, using a scale of 1-5. Kanazawa takes those objective-because-it’s-a-number-yo! figures and averages them by race, does a little factor analysis, and concludes that black women are objectively less attractive than all other women. And after discarding a few factors like the “fact” that black women are fat and stupid (which, he points out, doesn’t seem to hurt black men much, who are seen as the most attractive of men), Kanazawa concludes it must be because black women are so testosteroney.
We will NOT be seeing Mr. Kanazawa on Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Continue reading →
Along with other recent wackiness, Arizona’s state legislature passed a law, HB 2281, which aims to prevent or limit the teaching of ethnic studies.
Prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that:
Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.
Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
This is not a new development — I first wrote about this on Savage Minds almost a year ago, although I figured it was the kind of right-wing looniness that makes great theater but never gets through the legislative process. Continue reading →
20 years ago, I knew hardly anyone with a food allergy. Shellfish and strawberries were the only foods I’d ever heard of someone being allergic to. Then, suddenly, airlines were replacing peanuts with pretzels because of food allergies, and food started being labeled “Processed in a facility that also processes tree nuts.” A few years later, I met someone who was allergic to wheat. Pretty soon, it seemed like everyone I knew was allergic to something – gluten, lactose, chocolate, and a gazillion other things.
How can we explain this epidemic of food allergies? The radical shift from hunting and gathering finally catching up with us? Radical advances in medical technology that allow us to identify conditions that went unnoticed a generation ago? A build-up of environmental toxins in common foods? Interaction of foods with strange new food-like products like high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors?
Now, I don’t know much about medicine and physiology, but I do know a thing or two about belief, and when millions of people believe something that isn’t empirically verifiable (1 in 5 Britons, according to the article above), we’ve got some ‘splaining to do.
Now, my first reaction is what I think many food allergy sufferers will share: that the study is flawed, not in its procedure, but in its very medical-ness. That is, there’s a strain of anti-modernism in the recent explosion of food allergy awareness that simply doesn’t trust the mainstream medical industry to recognize and treat food allergies. So when you get a bunch of mainstream medical researchers to study the issue, it’s no surprise that they don’t find anything.
I doubt that’s true, but here’s the thing: the belief that it’s true is part and parcel of the food allergy… can I call it a “movement”? In their rejection of modern medical knowledge and modern food processing technologies, as well as their yearning for a more “natural” diet and a greater connection to their bodily functions, food allergy advocates (if not food allergy sufferers) certainly have at least some of the hallmarks of a social movement. And they’ve certainly created social change, as well – modern supermarket shelves are packed with (ironically) high-tech allergen-free foods: gluten-free beer, bread made of spelt, soy milk and ice cream, and so on.
But leave aside the political aspects of today’s food allergies; what intrigues me is the almost religious asceticism imposed by many food allergies. A vast number of foods are made containing wheat, for instance, so the wheat allergy sufferer is constrained to a diet that eliminates a great many common foods – much like a Jew during Passover, when most wheat-containing foods must be avoided as “leavened”.
The author of the Telegraph piece above notes the similarities between food allergies and food taboos, drawing on Mary Douglas’ understanding of the way boundaries create meaning and order:
[W]hat we eat not only defines us as people but also helps us to feel control and mastery over an otherwise chaotic and random world. She argued that by ordering foods into those we can consume and those that we can’t, we create meaning, and the boundaries provide order in our lives.
As a set of dietary restrictions, rather than a medical phenomenon, it seems reasonable to see food allergies – along with vegetarianism/veganism, the Slow Food movement, the “buy local” movement, and the $30 billion-plus diet market (in the US) – as an attempt to wrest back control over an aspect of our lives that we are increasingly and maybe irretrievable disconnected with. Few of us have any connection with the food cycle except as consumers at the end of a very long and complicated food production cycle. Food allergies allow us to assert control – on pain of death – over what we ingest, and demands an attentiveness – again, on pain of death – to what’s in the foods that we buy.
But this fussiness is part of a larger yearning for control altogether, which is where the anti-modernism comes in. Food has long been not only a means of forging and asserting cultural identity but of resisting the onslaught of a homogenizing, enervating modernity that threatens to dissolve not just cultural identities but individual identities. From the health spa/retreats of the Kellogg brothers and their peers (that gave us corn flakes and granola) to the popularity of Sweet-n-Low in the ‘50s and ‘60s to the communes of the hippie era to the herbal remedies of today, food has been seen as a way to “get back” to a more “natural” way of life – as opposed to the high-stress, low-community, detached and distracted way of life that is modernity.
None of this is to suggest that there are not very real food allergies – it’s hard to argue with anaphylactic shock. Nor, more importantly, is it to say that the 98% of food allergy sufferers in the study with no medically detectable food allergies do not, in a very real way, suffer. The bodily manifestations of the most obviously social disorders can still drastically limit a person’s quality of life.
What it does suggest is that treatment of food allergies needs to go much further than antihistamines and food avoidance to encompass the cultural psychological. If control is a central issue – as it is already recognized to be in anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders, which strike bright, ambitious young women with overbearing parents hardest precisely because they are the least in control of their lives and the most aware of it – then a) developing non-food strategies for regaining control, and b) developing a realistic relationship with the demands and pressures of daily life are also important to individual adjustment.
On a social level, food allergies and other dietary restrictions join a range of other control-seeking phenomena – pop psychology, personal productivity, conspiracy theorism, and religious fundamentalism, all of which attempt to throw a lasso around the neck of our stampeding lives. As a critique of modernity, there’s nothing original here; Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life addressed similar concerns about the loss of autonomy in 1903, and Emile Durkheim addressed similar concerns a decade earlier, noting the anomie inherent in industrial/commercial society in The Division of Labor in Society.
But over a century of social critique has done little to alleviate the real suffering of real people. The question is, do we have the resources and will to take on these challenges at a social level today? Or are food allergies, in fact, an adequate collective response to dehumanizing social conditions? Do food allergies, like, say, spirit possession on Chinese factory floors, provide the relief people need to cope with the impacts of modernity, even as they suffer?
My good friend Eric Ross (author of the classic The Malthus Factor; check out his awesome essay in my book Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War) wrote a lengthy analysis of the Janice Harper affair in the Porcupine, his online political analysis magazine, focusing on the University’s shoddy record with female professors and the age-old fix public intellectuals find themselves in again and again.
Why Janice Harper? Largely, I think, because she is a woman who happened to believe in real gender equality in an especially backward university setting. But, Lesley Sharp also implicitly predicted what would happen when she wrote, in her review, that “Harper pulls no punches.” The critical research that Janice has done on unpopular subjects is the hallmark of her intellectual integrity, of what we need most from academics.
Read the whole thing at The Porcupine – and while you’re there, check out the rest of the material on offer from Eric and his stable of radical-leaning writers.
There has been a lot of talk about Obama’s recent commitment to community college education. The plan, outlined here, calls for increased community college graduation, funding for innovation in educational strategies and techniques for increasing completion rates, increased partnerships between community colleges and businesses, modernized facilities, and the development of online courses (interestingly to be created and distributed by the Department of Defense).
I don’t really know enough to evaluate all the elements of the plan — from a cursory glance, it looks like it will be a helpful in certain areas, overall doing little but doing little harm, as well. It’s not the kind of massive educational reform we need at the community college level (and even more at the university level, and still more at the K-12 level), but I see little reason to be against it.
Except for this: David Brooks supports it. And David Brooks’ track record is perfect: he’s never been right about anything. I mean, he gets details right here and there — there is a president named “Obama”, there are community colleges, students do indeed exist — but not always (e.g. the famous “you can’t get a meal over $20 in this small town” deal, to which the town’s residents replied “well, you could try one of the restaurants”) and on the Big Picture he is just stunningly, spectacularly… off. Now wrong, per se, just off.
Don’t get me wrong — I like David Brooks. He makes me laugh. He has never had a conversation with a working class person that hasn’t made him an expert on all things working class (which is probably why he has limited his interaction with real working class people to just one or two — he doesn’t need any more!). He writes with verve and style and a kind of friendly helpfulness that I find endearing. Just because the man’s wrong about everything doesn’t mean he’s not likable.
Legislation that will end ethnic studies programs in Arizona high schools looks set to be signed into law by the state’s governor. Promoted by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, the law will deprive public schools that do not eliminate ethnic studies courses of 10% of their state funding.
The target of the bill appears to be Tucson Unified School District, whose Raza Studies program serves some 1,200 Latino students. Interestingly, students involved in this program show a marked improvement over the state average on the state’s standardized testing (which goes well with other evidence that students involved in bilingual education, as well as students given access to electives like art, photography, and creative writing perform better on standardized tests – they tend to be more focused on and more engaged with school overall than students who are deprived of these “optional” courses). Continue reading →
For the past several years, my research has led me further and further into the world of counterinsurgency, military anthropology, human terrain, and other aspects of a military regime of knowledge. What concerns me, most of all, is the way that knowledge generated by social scientists can be used (and, if the past is any indication, will be used) to the disadvantage of the people on, from, and with whom anthropologists and other social scientists generate that knowledge.
This issue is hardly limited to anthropologists, though we have traditionally held a kind of loose monopoly on the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Nowadays, social scientists of every stripe traipse through the same terrain anthropologists once considered their own – and we, of course, have no problem returning the favor.
So when a friend forwarded me a story about geographers in Oaxaca mapping the “cultural terrain”, my disciplinary ears perked up. At issue are many of the same issues at play in debates over anthropologists’ and others’ involvement with HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan, although in many ways I find the situation I’m about to describe more frightening still, as it presages wars or conflicts as yet unfought – even counterinsurgencies to insurgencies yet to surge. Continue reading →
The library at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln has posted a collection of digitized government comics and related material. There are about 180 freely-downloadable PDFs available, on topics ranging from health and human services to military training and recruitment.
Among my favorite is a 1951 AIr Force publication explaining psychological warfare entitled “Bullets? Or Words?” and illustrated by Milton Caniff, a comic-strip artist who gave us the syndicated comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon”.
In fashioning new psychological weapons, it is necessary to base them on sound scientific principles and an understanding of psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology and other allied fields of knowledge.
I’m also a fan of "Bert the Turtle Says Duck and Cover", which offers immensely useful and reassuring advice on what to do in case of a nuclear bomb explosion. “There is always something to shelter you – indoors, a schol desk, a chair, a table.” Funny how they left out lead-lined iceboxes, but perhaps the authors felt that went without saying.
Related material includes briefs for the artists and authors, as well as government reports on the impact of comics, such as the US Senate’s 1955 “Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency: Interim Report”. If you remember your history (or have read Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay) you’ll remember that the mid-‘50s saw a witch-hunt launched against comic book publishers and authors every bit as intense as the one launched against Hollywood, with comic books accused of promoting delinquent and violent behavior as well as homosexuality and anti-Americanism.
Although my interest is more sparked by the Cold War-era material, the collection dates up to the last decade, offering an interesting lens through which to view the last 6 decades or so of US culture and of the US government’s relations with its subjects.
David Price’s great plenary keynote, “Soft Power, Hard Power and the Anthropological “Leveraging” of Cultural “Assets”: Distilling the Theory, Politics and Ethics of Anthropological Counterinsurgency”
Jeremy Walton’s discussion of Turkish pulp fiction and action flicks, “Inclement Storms, Hungry Wolves: Consuming the War on Terror in Contemporary Turkey”
Hugh Gusterson on the Pentagon’s penchant for simplistic, technologized solutions to human problems – with a discussion of the Phrase-a-lator, a handheld device that translates spoken Arabic to English (apparently the fish-in0the-ear scenario isn’t panning out) – in “The Cultural Turn in the War on Terror”
Roberto Gonzalez on the theoretical implications of the concept of Human Terrain, “’Human Terrain’ and Indirect Rule: Theoretical, Practical, and Ethical Concerns
My own historical contextualization of the failures of anthropological counterinsurgency and the incompatabilities between anthropology and military action, “The Uses of Anthropology in the Insurgent Age”
And lots more great stuff!
The full-length papers will be collected in the University of Chicago Press’ forthcoming book Anthropology and Counterinsurgency, due out in February 2010 (to the best of my knowledge).
The more recent conference “Reconsidering American Power” was also recorded, and I hope that audio will be available from that quicker than the year it took to get audio up from last year’s conference. I’ll let you know when that’s available.
Just some quick pointers to various military-related materials around the Web.
First, Roberto Gonzalez sent me this link to a BBC Radio 4 show on the embedding of anthropologists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The show features Gonzalez, Michael Gilsenan, Hugh Gusterson, Montgomery McFate, Marcus Griffin, and others. Listen quickly, as it appears to only be posted until the end of April.
Finally, from the Wired Danger Room comes this odd report about the military’s efforts to reproduce anthropological analysis using computer modeling. Now, I’ve been pretty dismissive of the military’s ability to grapple with the implications of anthropology – there is, I firmly believe (and find borne out over and over in the historical record) a fundamental disconnect between the logic of military action and the logic of anthropological practice. But even I’m a little shocked (and a little amused…) by the justification given for looking into the use of computerized behavioral modeling:
More intriguing about this proposal, however, is the reasoning for why virtual anthros may be better than the real thing: “Today in DoD, this analysis is conducted by anthropological experts, known to carry their own bias, which often leads to faulty recommendations and inaccurate behavioral forecasting.”