Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola, or that Book that Kept Me in Grad School

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this guest column from Gina Athena Ulysse in tribute to Karen McCarthy Brown. Gina is an associate professor of anthropology at Wesleyan University. Born in Haiti, she has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. She is also a poet, performance artist and multi-media artist. Prof U, as her students call her, is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago 2008). She recently completed Why Haiti Needs New Narratives, a collection of post-quake dispatches, essays and meditations written between 2010-2012. Currently, she is developing VooDooDoll, What if Haiti Were a Woman, a performance-installation project. Her writing has been published in Gastronomica, Souls, and Transition.)

News that Karen McCarthy Brown passed away after years of deteriorating illness reached me earlier this month. I kept it to myself. When more official announcement from Drew University–where she was Professor Emerita of anthropology and sociology of religion—showed up on my Facebook feed this past Sunday, I shared it with the following comment:

Reading Karen’s Mama Lola kept me in grad school. Vodou got a human face from her. A tremendous loss, indeed.

When the first email arrived from UCSB’s Claudine Michel who penned the preface to the third edition of Brown’s award-winning ethnography in 2010, I had a flashback to nearly two decades ago. Continue reading

Anthropologists are helping Vanuatu and so should you

People around the world have heard about the devastation cyclone Pam has wrought in Vanuatu and other areas of the Island Melanesia. It’s striking to see people who normally couldn’t tell Tanna from Tuvalu suddenly focus in on this part of the Pacific. And there is good reason to do so — Pam’s impact was devastating. The cyclone hit Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, square on. Many other outlying islands were also hit. Vanuatu needs our help to recover from these terrible, terrible events.

There are many excellent charities you can donate to to help the people of Vanuatu. But I’d like to particularly attract your attention to one charity organized by anthropologists and others with a close connection to the country: Heart blong mifala wetem yufela — which means roughly like “our hearts are with you” in Bislama, the English creole widely spoken in Vanuatu. This fund is being run through chuffed.org (‘chuffed’ is Australian for ‘pleased’), an excellent Australian charity site. The money  will go right to the Australian High Commission in Port Vila Vanuatu High Commission in Canberra — you can’t get much more directly targeted then that. The list of people who have donated to this fund are a who’s who of anthropologists, historians, and other researchers who work in Vanuatu and Melanesia more generally. Please consider giving.

What is Vanuatu that anthropologists should be mindful of it? Although less well known than the Papua New Guinea of Mead and Malinowski, Vanuatu has a long and important history in our discipline. Vanuatu — and Island Melanesia more generally — was the location that generated some of the first, and still highly-regarded, anthropological ethnography. Codrington’s hugely-influential book The Melanesians fundamentally shaped anthropology, and gave the west the concept of ‘mana’. Foundational researchers such as A.M. Hocart and W.H.R. Rivers conducted research in this area. Today, the Vanuatu Cultural Center is leading the world in its programs to produce new blends of indigenous and anthropological knowledge (please click on that last link — it’s an openness ebook!). A key player in supporting the cultural center, Ralph Regenvanu, is a parliamentarian with a background in anthropology.

There are so many reasons to help out now that Vanuatu is in such dire straits — especially for anthropologists. Donations are always helpful, but if you’re not in a position to send money overseas, take this opportunity to teach about this current disaster and how it intersects with our discipline — this may be the first and last time that students Vanuatu appears on the radar of many people outside the Pacific.

Writing Archaeology “Alone,” or A Eulogy for a Co-Director

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Jane Eva Baxter as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Jane is a historical archaeologist and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at DePaul University in Chicago, IL USA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including the forthcoming book Childhood and Adolescence in the American Experience (University Press of Florida 2016). You can follow her on twitter @janeevabaxter.]

For the past couple of years, I’ve been suffering from the condition we affectionately know as “writer’s block.” This has not been a generic or widespread condition as much of my writing is progressing as swiftly and smoothly as my job structure allows. This particular writer’s block has been confined to the writing associated with several years of archaeological work I conducted on the island of San Salvador in The Bahamas. The reason for this particular condition is easy to identify: my project co-director simply decided to stop writing.

My co-director and I began planning our research in 2002, and from 2004-2012 we conducted archaeological and historical work investigating transitions in the daily life of the island’s residents. During this time, we co-authored conference papers, site reports, proceedings volume papers, and articles for the Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society. We often co-authored work with our students. We developed curricular materials for the local school, co-authored a popular guide to the historic sites on the island for residents, tourists, and student groups, and created archaeology posters for a small, local museum.

And then, my project co-director stopped writing. At first, this decision to stop writing manifested itself as a waning interest in what had become a rather routinized and comfortable process of co-authorship. Writing plans were disregarded. Deadlines were missed without renegotiation. Discussions about writing ceased. Eventually, he announced he no longer had an interest in publishing scholarly articles, and told me to just go ahead and write everything up on my own. For many, being freed from the bonds of co-authorship might seem liberating, but to me it has been rather paralyzing. It also has given me cause to reflect on the production of archaeological knowledge, and left me to wonder exactly what it means to write without him. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of March 8

Beware the Ides of March, pansies. The dedicated anthropology blogs were a bit quieter than usual this week but to make up for it, anthropologists were featured in a variety of other spaces. As always, if you come across anything good or want to bring an anthro blog to my attention, email me at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com

Let me take a minute to boost the Savage Minds Reader Survey (after all, survey data shows that people who take surveys are nicer and smarter than people who don’t!).

This is a January post, and it’s not even written by an anthropologist. Bear with me. It blew up my feeds this week when it was republished by The Guardian, so I think it’s worth a look. The title is pretty self-explanatory: Don’t Call them Expats, They are Immigrants like Everyone Else

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Walking on Money

It’s mid-day in Cabo Pulmo. October, 2012. The heat is well on its way. I just finished a late breakfast at a small local restaurant called “El Caballero.” Juevos rancheros, juice, coffee, beans, torillas. I’m talking with Lorenzo*, who has lived in Cabo Pulmo for more than a decade. He tells me more about the story of Meri Montaño, as he heard it from one of the primary founding members of the community. According to this elder, Lorenzo tells me, Meri had a massive amount of land, many heads of cattle and lots of money. She was rich. Meri adopted him, the elder explained to Lorenzo, and eventually gave him everything when she died. This story — about Meri giving all of her land to this particular patriarch—is one of the primary versions of history that gets told about Cabo Pulmo. There are other, competing versions of community history as well.

Lorenzo continues with his version. This elder had no idea the land would become valuable one day, so he sold it piece by piece, often without papers. Some also say he gambled it away. According to one anthropologist who worked in the community in the early 2000s (see Weiant 2005), the land was informally sold, traded, gifted, and passed around for decades. These practices led to an incredibly complex and confusing land tenure situation, which worsened in the early 1970s when the Mexican government tried to clarify and formalize land titles in preparation for impending tourism and real estate development. This transformation from informal to formal tenure systems led to decades of conflict. Continue reading

Rendering Land Investible: Multiple Ontologies and Materialites in the Global Land Rush

Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Julian S Yates and Jenny E Goldstein.

Jenny E Goldstein is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her current research looks at agricultural development, degraded land, and the politics of scientific expertise in the peatlands of Indonesian Borneo.

Julian S Yates is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of British Columbia. His research focusses on the reproduction of indigenous environmental knowledge in the Peruvian Andes.

As guest editors for Savage Minds this month, we aim to stimulate some debate on a question raised by anthropologist Tania Murray Li: “What is land?” (Li, 2014). This debate is, we hope, transdisciplinary. We are two geographers (from UCLA and UBC, respectively), who took inspiration from the above question to organize a track of sessions at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting in Chicago (April, 2015), which will feature Tania Li and Wendy Wolford (geographer by training, sociologist by discipline) as discussants. These sessions also draw from our participation in the interdisciplinary Summer Institute on Contested Global Landscapes at Cornell University last year. Through our work there, we examined the role of knowledge production in land management practices within the context of global land grabbing.

What we hope to do this month, therefore, is further this productive interdisciplinary conversation around ontological questions of land, building on anthropological perspectives on the multiple meanings of land and connecting them to geographical narratives that expose systems of value creation in relation to land and natural resources. Throughout the month, the participants in the AAG track of sessions – who are also from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds – will be contributing their thoughts on the notion of “rendering land investible”. Continue reading

What you need to know about HAU Books

HAU, the ground-breaking open access anthropology journal, continues to grow and change. Now more of a scholarly society or research network than just a journal (if it was ever just a journal), HAU introduced it’s latest innovation on Monday: An open access book series. Actually, HAU Books is not exactly brand new — we ran an interview about HAU’s book project back in October. But with HAU’s current social media blitz about the site, I thought now would be a good time to talk about the new site and what it does. Disclosure: I’m on the board of the journal version of HAU, but have no affiliation with the book project and took no part in its creation.

There’s a lot to say about the site and the project, but the most important thing to deal with up front is the content: the books themselves. At the moment, two books are available live: Gifts and Commodities by Chris Gregory, and Anti-Witch by Jeanne Favret-Saada.

Gifts and Commodities is a hoary old classic of anthropological theory. Before its digitization, I remember it asa slender, pale blue volume with green letters. The book grew out of Gregory’s experience living in Papua New Guinea during its transition to independence (HAU’s new cover features the PNG equivalent of a twenty dollar bill on the cover, which was a brilliant choice). Talk of the difference between ‘the village’ and ‘the city’ was very big at that time, and Gregory turns Papua New Guinean insights about the distinction between gifts and commodities into a classic of Marxist anthropology. Continue reading

Slow Reading

[Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Michael Lambek as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Michael is Professor of Anthropology and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His recent publications include “The Interpretation of Lives or Life as Interpretation: Cohabiting with Spirits in the Malagasy World” (American Ethnologist, 2014 41(3): 491-503) and A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion (edited with Janice Boddy, Wiley-Blackwell), out in paper in fall 2015. The Ethical Condition: Essays on Action, Person, and Value (University of Chicago Press) will also appear in the fall. For the University of Toronto Press, he edits the Anthropological Horizons series in ethnography.]

Instructors on the frontlines report that undergraduate grades are falling into a bimodal distribution rather than the comfortable old bell curve. The majority do poorly, it is said, because they do not know how to write. I suggest the source of the problem lies one step behind writing, in reading.

Writing presupposes reading. To write one has to know how to read and to write well one has to read well. Whether or not we write in order to be read, as Mary Murrell asked in her posting, at the minimum we are our own first readers. We read in order to own our writing, to confirm and assert it is ours, that it is what we want to say and the best way we know how to say it. Even before the copy edit and the proofing, we read what we write; reading is part of the very technique of writing. I am reading these lines as I write them. Continue reading

Around the Web Digest: Week of March 1

Greetings anthroblogosphere! Do we have a word for our readers? Savage Minders? Pansies? As the new Around the Web intern, I’m going to be collecting and sharing anthropology-themed blog posts that I find interesting. If you come across (or produce) anything that you’d like me to share next week, please email me at rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com. I could particularly use some recommendations for physical/biological anthro blogs.

National Anthropology Day was February 19th and I’m nothing if not observant, so here’s an older post from Glossographia: How and Why (Not) to Go to Grad School 

This interview in Guernica with Lily King, the author of Euphoria,  a novel inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, explores the experience of ethnographic fieldwork, what it feels like to be an outsider, and intellectual eroticism: Ethnographic Invention: Megha Majumdar interviews Lily King

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The Ecology of What We Write

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Anand Pandian as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Anand teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation (Duke University Press and Penguin India, forthcoming this fall), and Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India (Indiana University Press, 2014), which he wrote with his grandfather.]

One day last summer, a caterpillar dropped from the rim of my desktop monitor. A peculiar little creature—no more than an inch long, clothed in a jacket of wispy white, a jaunty pair of lashes suspended well behind a tiny black head.

The visitation was unexpected. It’s not as though I work in a natural wonderland. The walls of this office are made of painted cinderblock. The window is fixed firmly in place, completely sealed from the outside. Peculiar odors sometimes drift from the vent above my desk, possibly from the labs upstairs.

The caterpillar seemed unhappy with the windowsill, where I placed it for a closer look. So I scooped up the errant traveler and stepped outside the building, wondering, for a moment, whether there was anything more palatable in the turfgrass. Then I went back to writing, back to whatever I could forage for my monitor that day. Continue reading

Savage Minds Welcomes Rebecca Nelson

Savage Minds is happy to announce the selection of our new “around the web” intern, Rebecca Nelson!

Rebecca Nelson is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Connecticut. Her research focuses on volunteer tourism in Guatemala and how it is opening up new avenues for tourists and hosts to develop more cosmopolitan understandings of the world (as well as opening up new forms of friction over the circulation of knowledge). One of her claims to fame is that her image appeared in the Quetzaltenango paper El Diario, to her surprise, with the caption “Tourists Disappointed By Lack of WiFi in Parque Central.”

She’s about to submit the first draft of her Ph.D. thesis this week, so she won’t start posting weekly roundups till the 8th, but if you come across anything you’d like to bring to her attention you can email her at Rebecca.nelson.jacobs@gmail.com

Anthropology’s Long Tail, or AAA 2.0

Does anthropology have a long tail? Maybe it does, but the head really is superior. Isn’t that the idea behind science anyways? The best ideas are the vetted ideas and the rejected ideas are put to rest for a reason. Or maybe its not there at all. But then again…

First a refresher is in order. “The Long Tail,” refers to the now classic article (2004!!) by Wired magazine editor, Chris Anderson. It gets its name from a particular kind of curve where one variable functions as the power of another. In Anderson’s classic example such curves are used to describe the business model of Amazon which trumped its competitors by selling “less of more.” Whereas bookstores had traditionally made their big bucks catering to customers in the green area of the graph, where more people were interested in fewer titles, Amazon is able to cater to the so-called Long Tail, the yellow area where products are more diverse and demand is low. Why does this matter? The yellow area is actually larger than the green area. Hence, cha-ching –> $$$

Long tail
‘Picture by Hay Kranen / PD’
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