Category Archives: Blog post

Finding Your Way

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Paul Stoller as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Paul is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University. He is the renowned author of innumerable articles and eleven books ranging from ethnography to memoir to biography, and is also a regular Huffington Post blogger on anthropology, Africa, higher education, politics, and more. In 2013, he received the Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology from the King of Sweden. His newest book Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-being in the World will be out in October from the University of Chicago Press.) 

For the Songhay people of Niger and Mali life is a series of paths that end and then fork off in two new directions. At these forks in the road the traveler must choose her or his direction, destination, and fate. My choices, many of which were shaped by forces beyond my control, miraculously led me to two mentors: the late Jean Rouch, French filmmaker extraordinaire, and the late Adamu Jenitongo, a profoundly wise sorcerer-philosopher among the Songhay people. Both of these men loved to tell stories, the life source of their science and their art. They never told me how to tell a story; rather, they asked me to sit with them, walk with them, and laugh with them. In this way, they said, I would find my own way in the world and my own way to tell stories. They both believed that the story, in whatever form it might take, is a powerful way to transmit complex knowledge from one generation to the next. Like Milan Kundera in his magisterial The Art of the Novel, they believed that the evocative force of narrative could capture truths far beyond the scope of any philosophical discourse. Continue reading

Economy Such Complex, Culture Much Simple

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” — H.L. Mencken

In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman argues that economists and policy makers have deliberately mystified the current economic situation for political reasons and that the solution to our current woes is actually very simple: we need more government spending to boost demand. He plays off the above Mencken epigram, saying “For every simple problem there is an answer that is murky, complex, and wrong.”

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Joan Rivers was not an anthropologist

When Joan Rivers passed away yesterday, the world paid far more attention than most people might have expected. A veteran of… well, pretty much everything, Rivers was someone who many more people took seriously than anyone expected. But anthropologists in particular were surprised and pleased (at least in my case) to discover that she had an undergraduate degree — and from Barnard no less, the mothership of American Cultural Anthropology. But, sadly, it is probably not true.

At the moment, the current wikipedia entry as earning “a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature and anthropology”. So if Wikipedia says it it must be true? Hmmm…

Wikipedia lists three citations for this assertion: Rivers’ New York Times obit, her (superbly named) memoir Enter Talking, and a Washington Post obit. In fact, the Times obit gives her major as English. This morning when I checked it the WaPo obit listed her major as anthropology, but now that has been removed for some reason and her major is not specified. In Enter Talking (which Wikipedia cites without a page number, tsk tsk) what Rivers actually says is: “I was an English literature major” (that’s page 55 of the 1986, NYC, Delacorte press edition).

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The Private Lives of Anthropologists: A Review of Lily King’s Euphoria

[This is an invited post by Paul Shankman, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado. Paul is an anthropologist of Samoa, and author of numerous articles about Margaret Mead and the Mead-Freeman controversy including The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009, and reviewed here on Savage Minds).]

 A review of Euphoria by Lily King. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press (2014).

The last time Margaret Mead appeared as a character in a best-selling novel was over fifty years ago. In Irving Wallace’s The Three Sirens (1963), Dr. Maud Hayden (the Mead stand-in) finds her world turned upside down by the discovery of a Polynesian island where, as America’s foremost anthropologist, she leads a team of researchers who encounter “people from a simpler, happier society, free from the inhibitions and tensions of the 20th century.” The novel’s dust jacket informs us that the culture of the island is “a shocking assault, a challenge to their most cherished beliefs about love, sex, marriage, child rearing, and justice.” So profound is this encounter that the researchers end up studying their own desires, fears, and passions. Of course, this trashy potboiler had no redeeming social value, but interest in the Mead character, the tension between a repressive West and a permissive Polynesia, and the interplay between professional fieldwork and private lives attracted many avid readers. Continue reading

Salaita Updates

UPDATE: Read comments for statements from the AAA and the UIUC anthropology faculty and graduate students.

UPDATE 2: Here is the official AAA blog post with the letter that was sent to UIUC.

In the week since Rex’s post on the Salaita case things have been moving fast. So fast that (unlike Corey Robin) I have a hard time keeping up. As of today, six departments at UIUC have taken votes of no confidence in the university leadership, with the number expected to rise to ten by the end of the week. Add to that seven academic associations which have issued letters condemning the university’s handling of the case, as well as numerous talks, conferences, and other events which have been canceled by scholars boycotting the university, and it is safe to call this a “movement.”

If you want to understand why, I strongly recommend reading this letter by the AAUP [PDF]. Continue reading

“Everyone was running little magazines in those days”

I recently went a conference where I had a chance to meet Nikolas Rose recently. I’m always interested to meet Famous Professors to see how they do it — what unique combination of personality traits got them, well frankly, tenure. Isn’t that something every academic should start keeping track of?

I’m pleased to say that Rose’s success –as far as I can tell — is due to his genuine pleasantness and keen desire to keep his nose down in the weeds and keep producing substantive ethnographic/historical work. Its always a pleasure to meet someone who has managed to become a success without turning into an bad person or cutting themselves loose from the lived reality we are supposed to be studying.

One thing I learned about Rose, rather than from him, came from an excellent interview with him in Public Culture. It was about his early career in the 1970s. This is what he said:
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Is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge about structural inequality?

In case you have been living under a rock (or in the field, either is permissible for an anthro really) you may not have noticed that everyone and their mother is dumping ice water on their head in the name of ALS. Watching this fad unfold has provided Internet observers and other semi-employed persons an extraordinarily rich phenomenon to critique.

First of all, there’s a lot to like about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. By means of this fad I have learned that I have friends, Facebook friends, and friends of friends, who have loved ones or have lost someone because of this disease. It’s raised millions of dollars for rare disease research, which is inarguably a good thing. And it has done so by means of a viral marketing campaign that is, in essence, a short video clip of people acting silly. Wins all around.

It’s also interesting how, like the best of the Internet, the Ice Bucket challenge has spawned appropriation, reappropriation, and metacommentary. Here I’m thinking of Orlando Jones pouring a bucket of brass shell casings on his head to protest violence against Black youth in America, Matt Damon pouring toilet water on his head to draw attention to the lack of clean water around the world, and persons in Gaza pouring rubble on their head to draw attention to ongoing violence in Palestine. It’s really cool how the Internet allows people to riff on a theme and permutate established performances into something new.
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The Trouble with Teaching (and a call for help)

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

These are a few of my favorite things.

Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens. Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with string. These are a few of my favorite things. [Sound of Music (1965)]

When Rodgers and Hammerstein first produced this song in 1959 on Broadway, they may not have been thinking about debates related to ontology – but how wonderful to be able to list in the same breath raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens as favorite things.

Speaking of kittens, I recently watched the film Statues Also Die (1953), directed by Chris Marker (who is obsessed with cats) and Alain Resnais. A brilliant filming of a series of sculptures, masks and other things from Sub-Saharan Africa, set to music, edited to match the tempo, and a narrator posing many thoughtful questions. Through the use of music, playing with light and shadow, the directors of this film were able to  animate the masks in such a manner that allowed the things themselves to mount an anti colonial critique. One of the central questions of the film, why African art should be placed in ethnographic museums and western art should be placed in art museums is a question that continues to crop up even today.  The impact of this early questioning was so profound that the second half of the film was censored in France until the 1960s. I suspect it was not only because it was an anti colonial critique, but rather the manner in which it unfolded in film might have much to do with it as well.

There is something unflinchingly uncompromising in the face of things that we have in some way wronged or failed to recognize. It is remarkably uncanny. And I am only human to find some humanity in these sorts of encounters.

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Dude Guardians of the Galaxy is TOTALLY A METAPHOR FOR ANTHROPOLOGY

As I get older, I have less and less in common with my students and every fall I try to think back to movies or TV shows I’ve seen that might serve as a common reference point for us. I was walking to the library the other day wondering “What movies have I seen recently?” And the only thing that came to me was “Guardians of the Galaxy” And I was all like: “Ok, so how can I make Guardians of the Galaxy relate to anthropology?” And then I realized: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY IS ALREADY A TOTAL METAPHOR FOR ANTHROPOLOGY.

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Making archaeology popular.

First run in 1951, “What in the World?” was the Penn Museum‘s Peabody Award-winning popular weekly half hour television program on CBS in which a panel of experts would guess information related to four or five unidentified objects. This program was aired for 14 years and was wildly popular. The show began with an appropriately smoke/fog filled screen, mysterious music, and a haunting voice questioning, “What in the world..?”

Indeed, that is what I thought as well, when I first stumbled upon this show earlier this year.

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“O most magnanimous hat”

I’ve started an internship in the Special Collections department of Swem Library at the College of William and Mary, creating metadata for archival manuscripts. I ran across this one the other day and had to transcribe an excerpt to share, there are some ellipsis where the ink is illegible. It is a letter from a Yale College student to a family member, 1821.

Lewelyn is I believe as much pleased with college and I am as yet very much pleased with it. The tutor of my division is rather unpopular yet I have always found him polite and obliging. He has excused me every time I have made an application to him. The other day I even … him and told him that some of the students would inhale the exhilarating gas and that I had a curiosity to see them. He said that he would not wish it as a general thing but as I had been punctual I might be excused. I then went and the first that took it had no effect upon. The next as soon as they took the bag from him began to look wet and dance and jump about and pull the fellows about. One began to fight and chase the fellows all about the room. One jumped up and cried out two or three times and danced about and sung and talked about Miss Johns a lady he was particularly fond of and then ran up to a medical student and seizing him tore his pantaloons off just about the knee and left his great long hairy leg stretching out naked and then running up to another snatched off his spectacles. But the two most ludicrous were Cait and Robbins of the Senior class one of them Cait placed his hat in the middle of the floor (it was an old rus… hat which the fellows were in the habit of laughing at him about) and made an … to it “O most magnanimous hat. Super-incumbent on the bare floor! Rex Brainorum” And he laughed all the while fit to kill himself and the other one went about bouncing and scraping to the fellows and ran to … a fat fellow in the room and had to kiss him but he was too strong for him so he left him and very unexpectedly ran up to me and seizing me hugged me and kissed me very affectionately before I could disengage myself.

Ah, college.

Read more about early experiments with laughing gas, and the vogue it enjoyed among the privileged class, in this great post from The Public Domain Review.

On Being Fed Up: Blackness, Resistance, and the Death of Michael Brown – [An Invited Post]

[This invited post is submitted by Discuss White Privilege, an anthropologist who has written extensively to refocus the academy’s critique of racism on itself. We respectfully ask that you review our Comments Policy before responding below. Thank you. –DP]

Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492
I just read the Michael Brown post [by Uzma Z. Rizvi] while in a Black hair salon in East Oakland, where my African friend is getting her hair done (behold: transnationalism, diaspora!). I found the shirt pictured [above], worn by an older Black man exiting the salon, poignant in light of the article mentioning the Department of Homeland Security, and Prof. Rizvi’s statement about the inescapablity of being judged on the color of one’s skin. I wonder how many White anthropologists, reading what Prof. Rizvi has written about racism and the absence of benefitting from White privilege, are really willing to reckon with the implications of this admission, or care about the deep pain of racism they know they will never experience, especially in relation to racial profiling and brutalization by police–which as Prof. Rizvi rightly notes, occurs, especially to bodies coded Black, regardless of education and class (though low socio-economic status clearly exacerbates such racist encounters and outcomes).

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Thinking about Michael Brown and the African Burial Ground

Michael Brown was only 18 years old; he was unarmed and shot multiple times. I am exhausted by this news.

I cannot find words to express how such blatant racism makes a parent feel. It does not matter what we do for our children, it does not matter how educated we are, or what our politics are or really anything. What matters is the color of our skin. My heart goes out to Michael Brown’s parents and to parents world-wide who have the misfortune of having to contend with a child who has been shot for no reason other than for being different. In this case, it is not just about being different – it is about contending with a heritage of enslavement, the resultant race politics, and issues around police brutality in the United States. And this is not just about people of color: there is something unique, systemic, and targeted about the treatment of young African-American men in this country. And there is something awful about the violence of having to watch it happen over and over again on the television, on YouTube, in your Facebook feed, or on the blogs you read.

I remember watching Rodney King being repeatedly beaten by the LAPD in 1992. I was an undergraduate at the time, and I recall one of my professors likening the publicness of police brutality to the necessary publicness of lynching. Neither the image nor that statement have left my mind.

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