Digging the Occupation: The Politics of Boycotts and Archeology in Israel (BDS pt. 3)

Recently, the television network NBC started filming Dig, a new archeology drama set in Jerusalem. Normally, we’d be ecstatic to see our fellow archaeologists getting such media fanfare. But there is nothing normal about this venture. Filmed on-site in illegally annexed East Jerusalem, the show is underwritten by 6.5 million dollar grant from the Israeli government. For comparisons sake, this means Israel is spending more to film Dig than on the yearly education budget for all K-12 Palestinian schools.

So why is the Israeli government, currently in the midst of a budget crisis, throwing millions at NBC to get Dig on the air? Because they know something we’ve been reluctant to own up to: archeological knowledge remains one of the Israeli state’s most powerful weapons. If Dig unearths anything, it is that in Israel archeology is neither a neutral nor innocent enterprise. Instead, it has become just one more tool in the occupation of Palestinian lands.

As anthropologists and archeologists, we should be especially concerned when we see our discipline being misused to promote discrimination and occupation. By endorsing Palestinians’ call for BDS, the AAA has a unique opportunity to highlight the misappropriation of our scholarly techniques and defend the good name of our profession.

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Classified information

I had a delightful day at work yesterday. It started with a two hour long debate with my colleagues about method and theory. Once we exhausted the possibilities we put our ideas into practice. After I made my contribution a senior scholar reviewed my work and directed me to make some changes, the end result was pretty good. I love this environment of collaboration and shared decision making!

This summer I am volunteering at The Mariners’ Museum as part of my training in information science. I help them with grunt work necessary to meet a funding deadline, they give me work experience and expand my professional network. I get three credit hours towards my Masters to boot. The museum library is housed on the campus of Christopher Newport University and we have one of the most expansive collections of ship’s registries and nautical themed rare books in the US.

My current project is working in the library’s archives creating catalog records for individual items. This is unusual because archives are typically only described at the collection level, who donated the collection and what sorts of materials are included. Its rare for an archive catalog to index each and every thing present in a given collection.

The work I’m currently engaged in is an accrual to an existing collection of pop culture items, all donated by the museum’s vice-president who enjoys perusing eBay, flea markets, and antique stores for anything that references ironclads, the Monitor, or the Battle of Hampton Roads. In 1862 the local waterways hosted a major Civil War naval battle, it was the first encounter between metal ships heralding the end of wooden navies. So this local historical event is of global significance, at least to Navy people anyway. Continue reading

Writing Badly, Speaking Better. Practical Books for Doing the Life of the Mind

Rex’s post on back to school books got me thinking. `Doing the life of the mind’, as he puts it, involves lots of different activities. Its not just reading and writing. Talking is a big part of what we do.  And to different audiences, or not , as the case may be. Much of the way that we do our academic presentations gets in the way of wider communication. This might be intentional. In reinforcing the walls of the silos in which we like to situate our knowledge it fosters the aura of complexity and exclusivity which in our social universe renders academic knowledge credible.

A recent book addresses this phenomenon as it applies to writing in the social sciences and,  by extension,  to anthropology.   Learn to Write Badly . How to Succeed in  the Social Sciences   by Michael Billig is not a ‘How To’ book.  Its  a  `How Not To’ book.  But, as the author makes plain, if you don’t write in the way which has become authoritative in your field, even if it entails writing badly, there could be consequences for your reputation if not your career.

Although Billig’s is a book about writing I think that the author’s claims work pretty well for communication in the social sciences more generally. It certainly made me think about how we as anthropologists in academia tend to speak to our audiences whether they are our students or our peers. The formal style of academic presentations in anthropology based on writing rather than on `findings’ prioritizes engagement with other writing over and above engagement with either our audience or our informants. This is quite different to communication in other fields,  within and outside academia. A how to book which you may find useful for engaging with these other fields is Carmine Gallo’s Talk like TED summarized neatly here by Sam Leith of the Financial Times .

Sure,  it’s a manual in self promotion (but lets not kid ourselves that academia is any different). But it also has lots of useful tips about connecting with the audience, making a few key points and giving them something to remember.  And I learned something wholly new, useful and unexpected. That if you press the B or W keys in powerpoint you can suspend the presentation so your audience is focusing on you not the slide until you are ready to show them the next one. Despite the acknowledged allure of  intellectual  posturing sometimes you just cant beat useful practicality.

Around the Web Digest: Week of June 22

I’m currently participating and observing a family on vacation just outside of Macon, Georgia. I even gambled on last night’s NASCAR race (and won). Anyway, I was able to sneak away to provide this Digest of articles from the past week that I think you should read. If you have or write a blog or article that you’d like me to check out for next week’s Digest, please let me know by email (richard.powis@gmail.com) or on Twitter at @dtpowis.

Alright, y’all.  Continue reading

Books for (re)starting school I: Your recommendations?

It may feel like summer to academics in the northern hemisphere, but the start of the school year is right around the corner. For some people, this will mean the beginning of an exciting new career in college or graduate school — for a lucky few it will mean the start of a career in college or graduate school as a professor. For many more, it is a time to find new ways to do familiar things better.

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Pt. 2. Why Anthropologists Must Boycott: Israeli Attacks on Academic Freedom

This is the second post in a series advocating that the AAA endorse an academic boycott against Israel. For more general information on BDS, see our first post.

This past May, Palestinian students at Haifa University requested permission to hold a formal commemoration on campus for the more than 600 Palestinian villages destroyed in the course the Nakba (the mass expulsion of Palestinian residents that accompanied Israel’s founding). When administrators denied their request, students decided to gather informally without flags or banners. They were not in violation of any university policy.

But even this silent commemoration was too much for administrators. Haifa University organized a raucous dance party on the quad to disrupt the informal gathering. During the event, representatives of the student union taunted those present and police officers were sent in to intimidate and later disperse the Palestinian students.

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Anthropology and Enlightenment: Reflections on the ASA Conference in Edinburgh

I have just got back from the Association of Social Anthropologists Decennial conference. The ASA formally represents anthropologists from the former Commonwealth countries, including the UK. Like the AAA for those such as myself,  who are neither resident in nor citizens of the United States,  it’s now more than this- a forum for anthropologists to get together to discuss practice, organize conferences and share ideas.

The ASA holds annual conferences, some of which are in commonwealth countries.   This year’s conference was Edinburgh, a fabulous city as well as a pertinent choice given the forthcoming referendum which will determine whether or not Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.  This nationalist moment informed the theme of the conference which was structured around the intellectual contributions of the Scottish enlightenment- to modern thought in general and to contemporary concerns in anthropology.

These big ideas were intended to be explored in some of the plenaries, depending on the contributors, many of whom did as academics will and explored their own big ideas. This wasn’t   a particular problem. As in any conference of this sort, themes are primarily ways of organising the order of events and putting people together.   And, this being anthropology, there was less orientation to coherence than to the presentation of highly individual points of view which we were presented with in abundance.

If anything, there was slightly too much on offer. I am not sure exactly how many delegates attended, maybe somewhere between five hundred and one thousand, but there were so many panels, almost eighty, over three full days that the audiences were often very small. On the plus side, this gave the event an intimate feeling, which was reinforced by the social buzz of the coffee breaks. In contrast to the social awkwardness induced by the overwhelming scale of the American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings where delegates huddle over flat screens as they try to work out with whom to seek a connection this was a meeting which encouraged face to face interaction.   The setting, a University campus in a part of the city near to downtown, was suitably informal.

The content on offer was not very different from that presented at other social or cultural anthropology meetings elsewhere. There were, for example, panels on animal human relations, on issues of care and gender , on forms of modern knowledge, on utopias and on waiting. Ontology and neoliberalism as terms were invoked with an unsurprising regularity (I even managed to invoke them in my own presentation on religion and David Hume!) , as were emergent keywords struggling to become dominant as the next wave of fashionable theory.

A number of  strong papers foregrounded field findings presenting insights on observed social practice as it is being reconfigured in the face of rapid change.   Others foregrounded an analysis which preconfigured the interpretative framing of a story, generally including the anthropologist, as ethnographic insight. I left the conference having learned far more about my fellow anthropologists than I learned about the worlds which they had experienced first hand.

This isn’t a comment on this specific conference. Far from it. It’s a reflection on the current preoccupations of anthropology. Good anthropology should both reflect on itself and our own theory and on real social practice in the world. The whole point of ethnography and of spending an extended time in the field was to use observation of how people lived in the worlds they made as the building blocks of the theories which could to describe and explain them in different settings.

As a professional showcase of what social anthropology currently is and what social anthropologists think its important to talk about I enjoyed the conference enormously. Its appeal to those outside the discipline is less certain. As long as our concerns are driven fundamentally by the models and imaginaries of social theory   we will continue to have the kinds of conversations which characterise our conferences. These are fascinating and erudite for sure, but if we are really concerned with wider society should we be having them only with ourselves?

Plays Well in Groups – [Book Review]

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Plays Well in Groups: A Journey through the World of Group Sex
Katherine Frank. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013. 406 pp.

“So, how did she…do her research?” This was a common response after mentioning to colleagues that I was reading a book “on the anthropology of group sex.” The critical intonation of the query comes from professional curiosity of these anthropology students and professors, and it is rooted in a (mistaken) assumption that the book is strictly ethnographic. Rather, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey through the World of Group Sex by Katherine Frank is an excellently researched collection of narratives – histories, current events, media studies, ethnographic works, and participant interviews – analyzed through a sex-positive and unifying anthropological lens. Frank’s task is drawing parallels between different forms and practices of group sex in general, while exploring deeper social, political, economic, and historical contexts in order to contrast them. Much of the book is about who has group sex and why, as well as who fears group sex and why. An overarching theme of the book is thus one that appealed to my interests: an emphasis on sexual taboo and transgression. Continue reading

Anthropologists Should Embrace BDS

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Isaiah Silver, a pseudonym for two AAA members and Ph.D. candidates in anthropology.

In the 30 April edition of Anthropology News, the leadership of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) invited its members to “help the association decide on appropriate courses of action,” amid ongoing Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. The call came after continuing requests that the AAA join the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, that seeks to pressure Israel to end its discriminatory policies.

In that spirit, we would like to use this space in order to in kick off the conversation. Over the next month we will argue that BDS is a sensible response to ongoing Israeli violations of human rights; that endorsing an academic boycott is a moral obligation for scholars in general and anthropologists in particular; and that a BDS resolution would be consistent with past and current AAA statements and policies.

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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

Travel/Writing

I’d like to think that most anthropologists now accept that you don’t have to travel to do ethnographic research. Ethnographic sensibilities are in the mind as well as the body, and just as John Urry concluded that tourism is a way of seeing the world, we could argue that ethnography is a way of experiencing and making sense, wherever you are. ENCARC Team Image 1One of the pleasures of Arctic Encounters has been an opportunity to do joint fieldwork, a mode that increasing numbers of my colleagues are favouring these days, and to engage with the work of colleagues across the ‘circumpolar north’.

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