Category Archives: Reading circle

Ruth Benedict: Anthropology and the Humanities

I’ve decided to move this reading circle to Monday, post the reading and my comments on it immediately, and then let discussion run the whole week. I think this will be a bit better because it involves less moving parts.

The reading for this week is Ruth Benedict’s “Anthropology and the Humanities“, her presidential address from 1947 and one of the last things she was to write before she passed away less than a year later. It originally appears in American Anthropologist 50(4).

One of the reasons I chose this piece was to point readers in the direction of one of the most valuable sources of open access anthropology: the Wiley website itself! When the AAA went over to the dark side, Wiley crunched some numbers and decided that the big money was in recent publications by the AAA. As a result, it allowed the AAA to open up access to all material prior to 1964 and place it in the public domain. As a result essays like Benedict’s are now free for all to access. It’s a classic example of the politics of open source in anthropology: the actual anthropologists push the publisher to go OA. The publisher crunches the numbers and tries to accommodate them while still making a profit. Then the professional bureaucrats at AAA write letters to congress trying to shut the whole thing down while the executive board passes resolutions saying that they don’t want to shut everything down but are going to have to and can’t we please realize what nice people they are on the inside.

Luckily, academics can be trusted to advocate for their ideals and publishers can be trusted to act in their best interests, and so now we can read Ruth Benedict for free.

Writing at the end of her life in the 1940s, I see Benedict as looking back over anthropology as it transitioned from a humanistic, philological, very german-emigre discipline to one increasingly dominated by anglo-protestants and focused on becoming ‘scientific’. Partially this is the result of the rapidly rising cold war, but also the generational shift away from the original Boasians: just about the time of this writing Benedict was pushed aside for the chair of the department at Columbia for Ralph Linton, despite Boas’s insistence that she be his successor. So despite her claim to be committed to a ‘scientific’ view of anthropology, my feeling is that she is very attractive to the idea of anthropology as a humanistic discipline.

Her arguments here are well-worn ones from the early days of Boas: that humanists focus on the particular rather than the general (following Windelband), and that they focus on the mind and spirit (following Dilthey). The piece also insists that, historically, most of what has been considered positive knowledge has been in the humanities. Modern technoscience is a relatively recent interloper in that regard.

I think this argument is important to remember as anthropology goes through future iterations of the ‘art or science’ debate. For many writing today have forgotten Benedict’s message. For them, in order for anthropology’s findings to count as knowledge it must be ‘science’ or else it is nothing or, even worse, ‘postmodernism’. Somehow history, literature, philology and other rigorous humanistic disciplines seem to have fallen off of our radar. They were very much present to Benedict, however.

Another thing that has fallen of our radar is concision and elegance in prose. When I read this Benedict piece, I feel like blogging is in our disciplinary DNA. Benedict’s prose is clean, forthright, argument driven, and easy to understand — just like a blogger’s is (or should be). True, this was a speech written to be read, but anyone familiar with her work knows Benedict wrote like this for all occasions. And she is not the only one — Mead and Linton also produced prose like this. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to this sort of style?

Other than that, I don’t have too much to say about the piece — to people who are familiar with Benedict and her era it will be a nice short dip into the past. But for people who aren’t familiar with this era I’d highly recommend reading this piece and poking around in the back issues of these journals. These guys were pretty smart, and it takes only a small leap of imagination to put ourselves back into a period of anthropology in which some of our most enduring problematics were being laid out.

I’ll open it up for comments — what did you think of this week’s piece?

Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery

The piece for discussion this week (actually, it should have been last week, but I got caught behind a couple of different eight balls) is Vincente Diaz’s “Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery“. It’s a short piece with a few flaws — it lacks the informality and wit of Diaz’s other work, and feels at times one revision away from being really polished. But overall it is accessible, short, and a great window into a wider scholarly project that is happening in a lot of places, and in many ways similar to HAU’s. So perhaps a bit of background is in order.

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Reading Circle: Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery

Thanks to everyone to read and contributed to last week’s reinauguration of our ‘reading circle’ feature. This week I’d like to showcase some more great open access work by asking people to read an article from the open access serial Pacific Asia InquiryVoyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery: Austronesian Seafaring, Archipelagic Rethinking and the Re-Mapping of Indigeneity by Vincente Diaz. Diaz is the author of Repositioning the Missionary published by the Pacific Island Monograph Series at the University of Hawaii Press. It’s a short piece but it does a good job of conveying where Diaz is coming from.

I think people will see interesting parallels with the ‘ethnographic theory’ I discussed last time, but the piece is coming from a very different subject position and intellectual heritage position. And best of all, it’s only seven pages long. Seven pages – surely you can manage to read seven pages and then drop by the site to talk about it. So download Voyaging for Anti-Colonial Recovery: Austronesian Seafaring, Archipelagic Rethinking and the Re-Mapping of Indigeneity

As usual, I’m posting this on Wednesday. I’ll write up my thoughts on Friday and open it up for comments after that. We can run through the weekend and then by next Wednesday we’ll be ready to move on to the next piece to discuss.

HAU and the opening of ethnographic theory

Ok, a little less politics on this blog and a little more anthropology. Hopefully some of you have looked at the introduction to HAU and want to start talking about it. The title of the piece is “the return of ethnographic theory” but I’ve titled my post the ‘opening of ethnographic theory’, and for good reason.

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HAU and the future of anthropological communication, pt. II

One of the problems plaguing anthropology today is its state of perpetual indecision. This is probably not a new problem, but it does have serious consequences for how we write and publish. What is the center of sociocultural anthropology today? Where is the discipline going? What standards can we use to assess the work of young scholars? No one has the answer to these questions, or at least not enough people have the same answer. We are resistant to rely on quantitative measures of citations because we are allergic to quantifying social life, and we seem to be willing to go to any length to avoid carefully reading and judging scholars work on the basis of our own evaluation of it. As a result we fall back on reputation and use ‘prestige’ of a few journals to measure a job candidate’s (or tenure candidate’s) strengths. As a result people are forced to publish in Wiley-controlled journals until they get tenure and finally get a chance to publish what they want, where they want it.

Where is our discipline going? The good news is that because we can’t currently answer this question, we have a chance to try to do so in open and transparent forums.

In other words, we need to not just notice open access publications, and just resolve to cite them, we need to read them and talk about them: the key activity that comes between these two moments. The key to publicizing open access scholarship is to make it part of the conversation.

I’d like to get the ball rolling by trying an experiment. Every week for the foreseeable future I will (if all goes well) point to a piece of open access scholarship and suggest that everyone read it, say on Wednesday. On Friday I’ll post an entry saying what I think of it, and ask you all to comment. I’ll let the comments run until Wednesday, when I’ll post another piece. Sound easy enough, eh?

There’s no better place to start than HAU, which as come out of the gate so strongly. In particular, David Graeber and Giovanni Da Col’s introduction to the first volume is well worth reading for the vivid prose and possibly-groundbreaking paradigm of ‘ethnographic theory’. Best of all, the presentation is very brief, only three pages long. Are you telling me you can’t read three pages before Friday? So come on and grab an OA PDF of the introduction, read the first three pages (and of course as much of the rest as you want) and stop by the blog on Friday afternoon (Honolulu time) to tell me what you think. Who knows, it could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Suffering Ch. 5: reading military through colonial anthropology

I spent the weekend trying to figure out how to tie together Donald Moore’s book with the recent spate of talk here about sports and the military. No go on the former so far, but I think the book is a good case for thinking about the history of anthropological knowledge and its contribution to geo-political affairs. Comparison with Iraq is obviously apposite– why is Mugabe’s Zimbabwe not the same kind of threat as Saddam’s Iraq, barring the obvious issue of oil? Why is the region considered (relatively, and by the US and EU) stable despite the ravages of AIDS, the super out-of-control inflation or the century-long (and now tit-for-tat) history of racialized dispossession at the center of Moore’s book? But more relevant is the question of how anthropological knowledge has been used in both governance and wartime in the history of Africa. The “colonial” card is one often played in anthropology (and frequently here on SM), but rarely, I think, carefully examined. For my money, Chapter 5 of Moore’s book is one of the few places I’ve seen an anthropologist take really seriously the complicated uses of anthropological knowledge in a colonial and post-colonial setting, and I think it merits a comparison with the question of what, for instance, people like Montgomery McFate, Laura McNamara, or Marcus Griffin are involved in with respect to Iraq are involved in with respect to the use of anthropological knowledge within the government today (NOTE: I didn’t mean to lump all three of these folks together as people working in or on Iraq… only as three different kinds of anthropologists working with or on the miltary or defense. Laura McNamara works for th DOE and has studied defense analysts, but has nothing whatsoever to do with HTS or the DoD.) .
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The Suffering Continues, Chs. 2 and 3

Mea Culpa for the delay since our last post on Donald Moore’s book.
I’ve been moving, getting sick, getting my family sick, destroying my
laptop (on which last week’s 2/3rd written post still exists on an
unreachable, powersurged nirvana of a hard drive in an unknown Apple
“depot” somewhere in America), and then getting stung by a wasp in my
left hand… in short, I was doing the suffering this week. But I’m
ready to return the job to Moore now, so on to chapters 2 and 3.
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News from Zimbabwe: A New $200,000 Note

Via BBC News:

Zimbabwe is to start circulating a new 200,000 Zimbabwe dollar note, in a bid to tackle the country’s inflation, the highest in the world. The new note, issued by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe from Wednesday, can buy 1kg (2.2lb) of sugar. Food and fuel shortages have become common as the government relies more heavily on imports, pushing prices to new heights. The official annual rate of inflation in Zimbabwe is nearing 5,000%. In practice, this means the price of a loaf of bread costs 50 times more in cash than it did a year ago.

Discipline and Wattle: Suffering Ch. 1

The first chapter of the book should draw a familiar contrast with the introduction– little of the analytical language or conceptual erection (can I say that?) of the Intro is explicitly present in the first chapter of Part 1: “Governing Space”. I’m tempted to discipline Dr. Moore for his bad puns and subtitles, but that would involve pots and kettles and accusations, and I should refrain. This chapter by contrast is a great introductions to what is, as promised a complex tangle of people, places, histories, governments, sovereignties and disciplining. The frustration of trying to capture the social complexity of this place and time in an ethnography has already emerged in discussion… let me just reiterate some things. “Complexity is not its own virtue,” as Strong put it, gnarly or knot. And there is a double challenge here: first, to render the details, affect, experience and sense of a place using the relatively narrow tools of the ethnographic trade, i.e. the tools of the writer; second, to make the conceptual armature that is familiar to a broad range of scholars order and clarify the details that are otherwise available only to a narrow band of Zimbabwe specialists. Two kinds of complexity: the complexity of the novelist’s craft with rendering complex social life sensible and the complexity of the philosopher/social theorists craft of rendering conceptual schemes and empirical facts intelligible. In this respect, I think there is still a great deal to be said about “experimental” ethnography and the craft of writing one after the critiques of the 1980s–but only if this question is not divorced from the related goal of making conceptual schemes(Kerim implanted this term in my head– are you reading too much Davidson or something?) articulate with empirical description.

Chapter 1 almost achieves both, but I wouldn’t call it a complete success. It has a clever general structure and a lot of great detail (perhaps too much, indulging in places in obviously interesting but marginally relevant details of things like witchcraft or the rhetorical stylings of incompetent lesser headmen). There are two ways into the chapter, at least. One is through the author’s own “ethnographic emplacement” — the fact that as an anthropologist he had to find a (good) place to live, secure permission to live there, build his own hut and then, at the end of it all, found himself threatened with expulsion from that hut by the District Administrator — which in turn is the second way in, through the event of the District Administrator’s letter threatening residents with expulsion from Nyamatsupa if they do not conform to the plans for “villagization.” These two entry points–the author’s own experience with wattle, and the event of the DA’s disciplining letter–are explored in great detail, and are used to great effect as occasions to start laying out the complexity ethnographically. They do not explain, but they do start to map out settings, characters, events in history, and other crucial components of the story. Yet to emerge is a sense of how inquiry into this story has proceeded (what problems animate Moore’s search, other than his threatened hut) and a conceptual clarity (of the sort we hope will be provided via articulated assemblages and sovereignty-discipline-government).
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Reading Circle Supplements: crazy inflation and f*ed up laws.

inflastion
For those of you who haven’t yet picked up, or received, your copy of Suffering for Territory, here’s some sources for learning about current affairs in Zimbabwe. Inflation is currently somewhere around 4500%. I think that basically means that the price goes up before you can dig for change in your pocket. Or would that be your wheelbarrow of cash. The US has apparently offered food aid. The Times of London has an article about starvation and the “silent genocide” with the startling claim that no one seems to know what the population of Zimbabwe is anymore. Also (via boingboing) a series of Internet-related laws allowing monitoring of all phone and data traffic.

A few good blogs (1| 2| 3) seem to be out there as well… please post others if you know of them.

Summer Reading Circle: Introduction to Suffering

“I elaborate entanglements with their gnarly knots that defy orderly undoing.” (Donald Moore, Suffering for Territory, p. 9)

The first thing I noticed about Donald Moore’s Suffering for Territory is that the preface and the flap-copy both describe events in Zimbabwe since 2000– the globally significant displacement of white landowners by the Mugabe government– but the research conducted in the book occurred in the early 1990s. At first sight this looks like a way to sell the book (it’s not out of date, it’s background!), but in reality I think there is something much more complex about this book that isn’t articulated until one gets well into the intro: that this is a book for understanding why the events of the last few years make sense. Whereas the news media and the fast-paced world of journalism are excellent at covering and tracking unfolding events, especially in places with dramatic political conditions like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, ethnography is after something that journalists (insofar as they are not really participating in what they observe) cannot articulate.

Unfortunately, that same sense-making skill that anthropologists develop is also the reason why it is so often hard for people (including authors themselves) to say what an ethnography is “about.” Certainly Donald Moore’s book is “about” Zimbabwe, and in particular, a little district in the north east called Kaerezi, and in particular a little village in that district. But to relegate the book to being merely about this village would miss the fact that it is actually (also?) about how power, sovereignty and discipline make space and place look, and happen, the way they do. But to say that it is merely a theorization of governmentality would miss the fact that it (also?) is about race, colonialism, African histories of liberation, resistance, genocide and suffering… and so on.

Fortunately for Moore, and for me, one of the perquisites of anthropology is that one can address novice and expert at the same time. I, for instance, had to look at a map to know where Zimbabwe is exactly, so I am very much a novice when it comes to one thing the book is about. But when it comes to the parade of familiar theorists (Foucault, Gramsci, Dolce and Gabanna, Appadurai, Lefbvre, James C. Scott, Chakrabarty, etc), I’m an expert whose own classes, syllabi and work have struggled to makes sense of things like governmentality, sovereignty, assemblages, articulations, situated ethnographies, space and place. The real challenge, for Moore’s book, is to integrate novice and expert– to make sense of something that is inevitably highly specific and particular, in terms that make it make sense at a global and historical level (and not only in terms of “governmentality”, but generally, as an ethnographic explanation of a situation, not just a particular place or set of people).

Of course, if you are looking for that elusive thing called fieldwork or ethnography (you know what I’m talking about, that thing that you can’t name but that when it is missing makes people say “where’s the ethnography”) then Moore’s book promises to be as rich a monograph of a specific locale as one could want: during fieldwork, Moore was detained by government officials at the airport, subjected to ruthless and pointless bureaucracy, had successive meetings with people in power overseeing his ability to work, was the subject of a public meeting deciding his fate, lived in a tent in the village, built his own mud and wattle hut, worked the fields, visited the archives, and spent on the order of ten years thinking through the experience. If this isn’t ethnography, then I’d be hard-pressed to say what is. More important however, might be trying to precisely articulate what this ethnography does that others (or other accounts that do not employ this kind of fieldwork) cannot do.

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Summer Suffering with Donald S. Moore

Ha Ha Harare here we come! This summer’s reading circle choice is Donald S. Moore’s Suffering for Territory: Race, Place, and Power in Zimbabwe.
Moore Suffering for Sovereignty
There are really a wealth of interesting anthropology books out there right now, so it was hard to figure out what to read. Sandra Bamford’s books is a very close second, and I’m sure it will re-surface here in the future, but given that it just came out (my library doesn’t yet have a copy), it might be hard for people to find. Similarly Harry West’s recent book is also very new, and seeing as how Kupilikula was suggested last year and this year, somewhere along the line it too will return. But in the end, Moore has risen to the top of the list. We’re hoping it will draw in people in geography, politics, maybe legal or environmental studies, so tell all your cool friends in the other disciplines too.

The book is substantial, 400 pages, 3 sections. I will try to post something by July 15th on the introduction, and then shoot for 1-2 chapters per week until mid-late August. I hope all the Savage Minds will chime in, and if anyone else wants to write anything substantial about a section of the book, I will happily post it here on your behalf. Let the suffering begin!

Summer readin’ circle: part deux

Summer Reading CircleLast year, Savage Minds embarked on an experiment in blog-mediated group reading circle and discussion with Anna Tsing’s Friction (co-winner, with Michael Fischer, of last years American Ethnological Society Best Book award). It was a success, as far as these things go, and for me another good example of the possibilities of the medium. I did have the pleasure of participating in a AAA panel with Tsing last November, and when I explained that I was part of the reading circle, she was, well, politic. I’m not sure she knew what to make of it: flattery mixed with nonplussedness, I think. Anyhoo, Savage Minds has been discussing targets prospects for this summer’s circular festivities. The plan is to pick a book in the next week and to take a leisurely 6-8 weeks to work through it, together.

As a forum we have (and love) our diverse interests, so no one book is going to please everyone. But we also have an interest in broadening discussion of anthropology and the application of anthropology to contemporary problems, so it should be a book that reflects that, and one that is accessible (monographs on the migratory kinship politics of fricatives are not really what this is about… unless terrorists or Paris Hilton is involved).

There have been a handful of suggestions (listed below), but I’m opening it up to everyone for suggestions. If you’ve got a good idea, suggest it with a reason why you think people should be interested in it. Voting will be conducted in a totally unjust, ad hoc and informal manner, but you can trust that your voice will be heard.

Some starter suggestions:
Typecasting: On the Arts & Sciences of Human Inequality by Ewen and Ewen (All about sterotypes and othering by an American Studies and Film Studies duo).
The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics by Charles Hirshkind (Timely ethnography of Egyptian religious politics and practice).
Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order by James Ferguson (A suggestion from last year’s list, Africa, globalisation and neoliberalism).
Suffering for Territory: Race, Place, and Power in Zimbabwe by Donald S. Moore (a historical and ethnographic account of the land questions in Zimbabwe).
Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy by Sarah Franklin (All about clones, sheep, geneaology).

Ranchers and John Muir’s Universal

Since we are all reading Friction together, I thought I’d share one of those moments of recognition – when you have just been reading about something that happened a long time ago and it suddenly seems very immediate and present. Tsing, discussing the creation of “Nature” as a universal and the history of nature loving in the United States, brings up John Muir. On page 99 she writes:

Ranchers were Muir’s most explicit enemies; ranchers used the wilderness rather than experiencing or studying it. They were cut off from the universal; they destroyed it through inattention.

That passange had stuck in my mind, and so when I heard this NPR story about contemporary conflict between naturalists and ranchers it caught my attention. Here is the same story as written up in the Washington Post:

A conservationist group is asking a federal court to block new grazing regulations that it contends would give ranchers more water rights and control over public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management announced the final rules Wednesday, and they are to go into effect next month. First proposed in December 2003, the regulations would increase collaboration between the agency and ranchers whose livestock graze on 160 million acres of the nation’s public lands.

John Muir would roll over in his grave!

Summer Reading Circle VI: Friction

I am going to cop out and just talk briefly about the longish intersection “This Earth, This Island Borneo” since there is a lot on my plate at the moment. I think its ironic that Kelty spend last week discussing what was the most ‘normal’ chapter of the book, and I am now discussing a section which is the most ‘unusual’ — to wit, because it has the funky numbered list running in the margins.

Despite — or perhaps because? — I am the kind of guy who blogs about anthropology textbooks from 1937 I find myself a little unsatisfied with Tsing’s penchant of intermingling experimental bits of writing with other unbroken sections of more or less traditional ethnography. This seems to me less a ‘new craft of anthropology’ (quoting the back of the book) and more a combination of two relatively distinct authorial styles. Of course, Tsing as an author isn’t responsible for fulfilling the promises made on the back of her book! But I think Friction would be more interesting if “Nature Loving” (from last week) was more like “This Earth, This Island Borneo” and vice versa.

In his last entry on Friction Kelty says he’s not interested in playing the “Tsing doesn’t cite this/that game” we’ve been having (and then goes on to point out some things she doesn’t cite!) but I really want to dig in here and emphasize that this is more than a game — how an author treats the voices of their interlocutors is serious business. It is true that the modes in which we talk about the heteroglossia of our ethnography differs depending on whether the voices we are triliquating are ‘colleagues’ or ‘informants’, but in an ethnography where people are trying to probe the boundary between these two categories of interlocutors it really does matter how you approach things like literature reviews.

I like this chapter because it is the bomb eel literature review. And it also comes closest to having a sustained method of grappling with both academic interlocutors (the call-and-response style italicized and non-italicized paragraphs) as well as Tsing’s informant(s) (the funky list). It deals with late-80s issues of representation (“see, here are my fieldnotes… except of course they’re not really my fieldnotes”) and pays particular attention to the liasion of anthropology and ecologically-knowledgeable local peoples.

TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) and the White People Who Write About It is a complex and fraught subject, and it is clear here that one of the things that Tsing is trying to do is find some way to talk about it despite the way that certain left-academic discourses surrounding this subject have almost talked themselves into paralysis. I think that Tsing’s way out — speaking in terms of her concrete, individual relationship with a friend and admitting that it was fun to make the list with her.

I must admit that this also struck home with me since on slow days during my fieldwork I would often sit around with people and make lists of local animal species using “Mammals of New Guinea” and “Birds of New Guinea”. It was enormous fun, especially since the photos and drawings often captured the animals with a clarity that people never got to see in real life. And of course the various taxonomies used by people — forget what it looks like, what kind of sound does it make? Does this one Goes Underneath The Earth? — blew my mind away, since I was, after all, not actually there to study any of that stuff.

So while I’m still not clear how what Uma Adang does is ‘globalism’ I will be interested to see how the next chapter, which builds off of this one, will turn out.