All posts by Rex

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

Mana: How an Austronesian concept became a video game mechanic

Today The Appendix (“a quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history”) published my piece “The History of Mana: How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic“. I’m very happy with the piece (tho there are a few typos I want to fix), which is meant to be accessible to a broader audience — i.e. ‘public anthropology’. I wanted to blog about it here in order to get people to read it and to draw attention to a great young journal with a lot of energy behind it. But more importantly, I wanted to talk about how this article happened, and what the production process says about public anthropology and scholarly workflow. Continue reading

“An anti-nominalist book”: Eduardo Kohn on How Forests Think

Earlier this month I sat down with Eduardo Kohn to talk about his amazing book How Forests Think. We started out discussing his intellectual influences and ended up ranging widely over his book, the status of Peirce as a thinker, what ‘politics’ means, and a variety of other topics. Thanks to the hard work of our intern Angela, I’m proud to post a copy of our interview here. I really enjoyed talking to Eduardo, so I hope you enjoy reading it!

Wisconsin and the Amazon

RG: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk. I really enjoyed How Forests Think. When I started it I was a little on the skeptical side, but I ended up thinking it was a mind-blowing book. I thought we could begin by discussing the background for the book and your training. I see the book as mixing biology, science studies (especially Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour), and then some sort of semiotics. It seems like there are a lot of influences there. You got your PhD at Wisconsin, so how did that work out? Can you tell me a little about your background?

EK: The way I got into anthropology was through research, by which I mean fieldwork.  And I was always trying to find ways to do more fieldwork. I saw Wisconsin as an extension of this. When I was in college I did some field research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had a Fulbright to go back and do research after college, and only then did I go to grad school.   Although How Forests Think aims to make a conceptual intervention in anthropology, I think of our field as a special vehicle for engaging intensely with a place in ways that make us over and help us think differently. Continue reading

Carl Hoffman > Jared Diamond

Carl Hoffman is a travel writer who has recently turned his attention to New Guinea, where he produces grisly stories of cannibalism, murder, and The Smell Of Men. Jared Diamond is a scientist with decades of experience visiting New Guinea whose books attempt to humanize the people who live there. As an expert on Papua New Guinea, I was really surprised  to find that I was much more impressed with Hoffman’s understanding of Melanesia and its people than I was Diamond’s. So how could I like a cannibalism-obsessed journalist more than a scientist who admired Papua New Guinean’s parenting skills? Continue reading

What happened at the Fuentes-Wade Webinar

On 5 May 2014 The American Anthropological Association hosted a webinar in which Ed Liebow, the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association, hosted a debate between Augustín Fuentes and Nicholas Wade. Fuentes is a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, and Wade is a science journalist and author of A Troublesome Inheritance. This post describes what happened there, for people who don’t want to stream the whole thing. Our fearless intern Angela transcribed the webinar, and I double-checked the transcription in key places where the recording was difficult to hear. I’ve occasionally cleaned up speech, but the quotations here are as direct as we could manage — indeed, this post is designed to let people hear the participants speak for themselves. Continue reading

Some Questions Only Seem Reasonable Because You Don’t Know The Answer

As scholars and/or scientists, we believe that no question is out of bounds. Is the bible a literal description of the creation of the universe? Does owning guns make people safer? Scientists think these questions can and should be investigated by anyone who feels like doing so. We disagree, then, with the people who think that some questions should be off limits. There are many reasons why: they seem so unintuitive they couldn’t possibly be true; they challenge existing authorities; the truth is not in the interests of the powerful, and so forth.

But scholars also believe that certain questions are not worth asking. Sometimes, its for the same reasons that I’ve listed above — after all, academics are people too. But there is another reason that scholars and scientists roll their eyes when certain questions get asked, or certain answers are proposed: history.

People have been asking questions for a long time, and have been coming up with good answers for just as long. Specialists in a field remember this history: we were taught it as students, and we make it as researchers. We’ve seen answers to questions come and go — often after the real answers are more or less established.

Consider, for instance, the settlement of Polynesia. How did all of those islands in the Pacific get populated when they were in the middle of the ocean? Polynesian voyaging is one of the great triumphs of our species, and the prehistory of the Pacific is now relatively well understood. But that doesn’t stop people from asking the question afresh. A few years ago I was talking to someone about their recent trip to Morocco, where they noted that Berber languages sounded suspiciously like Hawai‘ian. Could Polynesians have migrated from the old world?

Sure they could have. Or they could have migrated from the Americas — Thor Heyerdahl proved that the voyage was possible. In fact, it was once a going theory that they migrated from Egypt. So if you are a non-academic and google for Polynesian origins in the Middle East, you will in fact find books on this subject.

It’s just that those books are out of date and wrong. Polynesians could have come from Egypt or Morocco. However, they did not. And as for similarities in language, well, with a little ingenuity, and given languages with reasonably compatible phonologies, you can find a ‘cognate’ between two unrelated languages about once out of every two words you try.

Isn’t the earth obviously flat? Couldn’t vaccines be dangerous? Why do people ignore the clear evidence the Bible gives us about the creation of the world? People ask these questions all the time, and feel slighted when professors respond by rolling their eyes and assigning remedial reading rather than taking them seriously.

Sure, we could be wrong. Our explanations could be mistaken, and it takes people being mavericky to shake us up from time to time. But — let’s face it — most of the time when people start demanding new answers to settled questions, this demand only seem reasonable to them because they don’t know how good our established answer is. When we dismiss new answers to old questions, we are not abandoning the fundamental tenet of open inquiry. We just want to get back to doing research on problems without good answers. Is complacence and self-certainty a danger? Yes. Is reinventing the wheel in the name of open mindedness a scientific virtue? No.

Get ready for Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance”

Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, drops on Amazon today. Wade, a science writer for the New York Times, has been critical of cultural anthropology in the past — and the feeling has pretty much been mutual. Inheritance is set to create a ground swell of indignation in the anthropological community because it is one of the most biologically reductionist writings to come out in years. The AAA has, to its credit, been on top of the issue and has hosted a showdown between Wade and Augustín Fuentes. Expect more coverage from us, including a couple of guest blogs, in the next couple of months.

Anthropologists of a critical bent take deep personal satisfaction in denouncing racism and reductionism wherever they find it. These days, its rare for something as blatant as Wade’s book to appear with the blessing of a major press. So… yeah. I’m guessing that it’s going to be on.

I personally prefer to use claims, reasons, and evidence to criticize authors. When books like this appear, however, its easy for passions to get inflamed and for people to make personal attacks: Jared Diamond’s comb-over is ugly, Charles Murray’s male pattern baldness makes him look like Princess Leia, etc. We also tend to make arguments of guilt from association: Madison Grant was wrong and so are you. Both of these rhetorical maneuvers don’t do justice to the uniqueness of an author’s position or engage its particulars directly — and thus are unanthropological.

As this moves forward I hope people punch above the belt. It shouldn’t be hard, since Wade is such an easy target.

American Anthropologist now shares peer reviews with all reviewers

I recently did a peer review for American Anthropologist, and was surprised (and delighted) to receive a note for them thanking me for my work and telling me that decision the editor made regarding the manuscript and — this is the new part — attaching all the feedback all the other peer reviewers gave the article as well. I’m familiar with this model, which is widely used in the biosciences, and I think it is great . Peer review is central to what we do but we rarely teach it to our graduate students, and the process itself is wrapped in a secrecy which makes learning on the job difficult.

At times peer review is like some sort of kinky Victorian sex act that Foucault would dissect: secret, unmentionable, but totally central to our academic/libidinal economies. People speak of it in hushed tones, afraid of the terrible secrets that will be disclosed if their behavior ever became public. Opening it up like this will help increase the quality of peer review by making review more transparent. I think it will also encourage peer reviewers to not act like total assholes when they review pieces. Which, let’s be honest, is something that needs to be encouraged.

I was curious about how this change was made so I reached out to Michael Chibnik, the editor of  AA, and asked him how it came about. Thanks to Mike for answering these questions so thoroughly.  Continue reading

Coming of Age in Samoa, open access

In 1928 Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa with William Morrow & Company. She did not copyright her book, possibly because copyright was only a few years old in the US and the idea had still not sunk in. However, when it became clear that the book would be a consistent earner, she did copyright it, and it has been locked up tight since then.

Luckily, the good folks are archive.org have a scan of the original 1928 edition without a copyright mark. I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that this text is essentially now free for all, provided you use and circulate this edition.

Image of the original edition, from Wikimedia.
Image of the original edition, from Wikimedia.

This is just one example of the many, many important works of anthropology that are legally available for circulation, but which people haven’t located, or done due diligence to make sure that the pieces truly are open access.

So when was the last time you actually sat down and read Coming of Age in Samoa? Why not download it today and try a chapter or two?

Copyright strikes Marxists.org

(update: I’ve reworked a couple of paragraphs to reflect updates to this issue.)

It’s a pretty sad day when the copyright holders of the standard English edition of the collected words of Marx and Engels decides to start enforcing their property rights (more over at Crooked Timber). For years and years, marxists.org has been a model of outreach, providing a comprehensive collection of high-quality texts by Marx and Engels, open access and in multiple formats. Every social thinker should be blessed with such a site. 

Apparently nine years ago the publishers of the complete works of Marx and Engels (known as MECW) gave marxists.org permission to reproduce the first ten volumes of MECW on their website. They are now revoking it as part of their plan to market an on-line edition to university libraries. These files will be available until 30th April, or about four days from now. They can be found on the website, or on a couple of otherlinks. So if I were you, I’d get downloading. And while you’re waiting for that massive corpus of righteousness to trickle down the Internetz, why not sign the petition at change.org?

Lawrence & Wishart has published a reply to critics (and marxists.org has replied to the reply), in which they argue that little of the content of marxists.org will be affected by this change; that radical publishers have done this before and they are not therefore betraying their values; that many other editions of Marx and Engels will still be available; and that they need the revenue to keep their tiny, values-driven press afloat.

Its hard not to be sympathetic to a lot of these claims. But at the end of the day I still think Lawrence & Wishart have made the wrong decision. If only a small portion of the collected works are up at marxists.org, then why view this as competition? If most of Marx and Engels’s work is already available online open access, then why bank on selling a new digital edition that will cost more and offer only a little additional material?

I appreciate the need for presses to keep steady earners steady earning, but in this case I suspect that the uni libraries that will buy digital and paper copies of these books would do so regardless of what’s on marxists.org.

At the end of the day, this strategy of enclosure is just going to piss people off and won’t provide substantial additional income. Either the complete edition will stand on its own merits when compared to the public domain/pirated materials or it won’t.

It’s hard to tell small presses that they need to publish the next big thing rather than milk their backlist, but sadly I think that’s true in this case.

By the way, in case anyone was wondering, the pro-capitalist forces are doing well selling editions of Wealth of Nations which is in the public domain.

Open access is organic: on the Journal of Material Culture

Back in December Haidy Geismar, the incoming editor of The Journal of Material Culture (published by Sage), published an editorial mooting the future of JMC as an open access journal and asking readers to weigh in by taking an online survey about the future of the journal.  To date, sixteen people have responded. Sixteen. That’s pretty embarrassing — for Geismar and for the JMC, but also for the open access movement more generally. So after you read this, go take the survey.

The apathy of the JMC’s readership is worth dwelling on because it demonstrates what  is really at stake in debates about open access. Its not about open versus closed access, or for-profit versus non-profit publishing. Its about organic, flourishing publishing tied to vibrant intellectual communities versus mechanical mass production of journals. My use of the term ‘organic’ is intentional: just as consumers and farmers today are increasingly becoming aware of and taking responsibility for the production of the food we eat, so to is open access part of a broader movement to take responsibility for the production of scholarly content.

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Oxford bibliographies: a great but proprietary solution for information overload

As @alltalk and others tweeted to us at SM, Oxford University Press (OUP) is celebrating library week next week by giving everyone free access to their online databases. Its not unusual for presses to periodically ungate their content so everyone can try some free samples. We don’t usually blog about press sales or free samples, but I did want to use this opportunity to talk about Oxford’s new bibliography series, which I think represents a new and interesting way to organize knowledge in today’s web-saturated environment.

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No April fools: read Valeri’s “Rites and Annals”

A doomed genius taken before his time. One of the last line of ancient Roman noblemen revealing his secrets. Hidden writings once known only to an elite few, now revealed for all to see. It sounds so much like a Dan Brown novel that you mistake it for an April fools joke, but it’s  not. There were so many fake announcements and releases on April first this year that one thing got lost in the shuffle: the actually really real release of the second monograph in HAU’s “Classics of Ethnographic Theory”, Rites and Annals: Between History and Anthropology by Valerio Valeri. Valeri’s work deserves to be widely read today because of its own intrinsic quality, as well as for the kind of rigorous, sophisticated, and humanistic approach to anthropology it exemplifies. Valeri’s work combined ethnographic erudition with high-level theorizing, wrapped up with a sophisticated prose style and a commitment to scholarship that exploded American binaries of science versus the humanities, objectivity versus subjective expression. For that reason, the release of Rites and Annals gives us a chance not only to read Valeri’s work, but to think about how it fits into the current approaches our discipline is taking.

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Is there an anthropological canon? Evidence from theory anthologies

Is there a canon of anthropological theory? Do we have a ‘disciplinary history’ of where we have been and where we are going? Sure, there are many grand narratives we tell of our discipline, but these stores tend to be tendentious and based on anecdotal. Can we find a more empirical, disinterested way to look for order in anthropology’s past?

In this post I examine anthologies of anthropological theory in order to see to what extent anthropology has a coherent, institutionalized canon. Is there a strong degree of agreement between these books? Do they tell the same stories? Do they include the same authors and readings? To answer this question, I asked our intrepid intern Angela to track down the contents of every edition of the main anthropological theory readers in North America.

What did I find? The short answer is that these anthologies strongly agree on this history of anthropology between the years 1850-1950. Agreement rapidly decreases after — wait for it — 1974. Why and how? Are these anthologies accurate indicators of the anthropological zeitgeist? Who gets included and who doesn’t? For answers to these questions, read on….

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I think Princeton University Press kinda jumped the shark on this one

I’m suspicious of for-profit journal publishers, but I like university presses. They are often value-driven, down on their heels, and plucky. When the death of publishing at the hands of The Digital was first announced, they were pretty depressed. But since then they’ve moved into ebooks, developed new ways to market their books, and have done a good job embracing the new.

Princeton is a good example of a large, (relatively) wealthy press with a lot of cultural capital that is looking for new ways to engage audiences. I think this ‘trailer’ (yes, you read that right) for their new book 1177 B.C. just stepped over the line. My favorite part is when the words “NO MORE MYCENEANS” start drifting towards you while the soundtrack from Lord of the Rings plays in the background.