Lists can be tyrannical. They tell us what we are supposed to do and what we have failed to do. They purport to keep us on task. They lead us to derive pleasure from crossing things out. Done! Eliminated! Lists enlist us to worry about rank and order, to aspire to the top-ten, top-twenty, top-one-hundred. Lists compel us to click and consume. If you like that, you might also like this. Click through to learn about 13 Animals Who Are Way More Gangster Than You.
These characterizations and their assumption of shared experience speak to cultural patterns of a particular time and place. Lists reveal systems of thought and organization, as Foucault notes in the preface to The Order of Things, which opens with his reading of Borges quoting a “certain Chinese encyclopedia.” The specious tome’s categorical division of animals into an alphabetical series—…(i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera…—strikes the French philosopher as hilariously distant. He writes, “In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”Continue reading →
Like many writers who have to sustain themselves with a paying job – in my case, and probably yours too, an academic job – I spend a lot of my time fretting about not having enough time to write. Many of my friends in the profession are the same way. We have to teach, we complain, which requires time to prepare, deliver, and grade our lessons, while managing students and their many needs. We serve on committees, attend faculty meetings, and hold office hours. We devote countless hours to reviewing the work of our peers – others who seem to find the time to write, which we must review at the cost of our own writing time.
As a result, I think, many of us don’t feel like writers. I know I don’t. Not a real writer, anyway. A real writer, in my mind, is someone whose principal vocation is writing. I picture someone like Honoré de Balzac, writing through the wee hours of the morning, fueled by endless cups of coffee; Joyce Carol Oates, author of more than 50 novels and countless other works of fiction and non-fiction; or Maya Angelou, who kept a small hotel room as a writing space, which she called “lonely, and…marvelous.” These to me are real writers. Continue reading →
It is my pleasure to announce the fourth (and final) season of our Writers’ Workshop series. Each Monday we will share a new essay reflecting on some aspect of the writing process. We invite you to follow along, and to make these essays part of your weekly writing rituals. This fall we have a fantastic group of contributors:
In the middle of the teaching term, summer is the far away season where you imagine that all of your academic, and possibly creative, writing projects will get off the ground. It is an oasis over the desert horizon. When summer finally arrives, you realize the large, luscious lagoon you imagined is more like a puddle. Desperate, you dive in anyways. The reality of the academic summer is that we continue to have competing demands on our time. We rush off to the field. Our families have a heightened sense of entitlement to interact with us. Kids aren’t in school. We are faced with duties left undone in the scramble to get through the term. Those of us who are junior, or precariously employed, are likely packing and moving (again).
According to every “how to” book on successful academic writing, waiting for big chunks of time to advance intellectual projects is ill-advised. Instead, consistent short bursts are the way to cultivate a long and successful publication record. Through various experiments, I found this to be true. Nevertheless, most of us stay committed to a substantial amount of summer writing. We have to. Savage Minds has been a supportive space for thinking and talking about anthropological writing. In this first guest post I want to open a conversation about summer writing and sketch out my plan for the coming month as guest blogger. Continue reading →
[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 →
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Annie Claus as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Annie is assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. specializing in the social ecology of marine and coastal environments and diverse environmentalisms. She has published work on the impacts of environmental policies on coastal communities, the political ecology of disasters, and conservation social science. Her most recent work analyzes the relationship of Okinawa to Japan through the lens of coral reef conservation.]
I weaseled my way into a writing class as I was finishing my dissertation. Others had advised against taking the course (“just finish your dissertation and worry about its readability later”). But I had been convinced that clear writing reflects clear thinking. If clear thinking emerges through writing with clarity, shouldn’t we all be required to take at least one class about the craft of writing before we inflict our thinking on others?
The professor had taught writing for years and was on the editorial board of The New York Times—a real professional! His (The Pro’s) over-enrolled class was pitched to future journalists but that seemed insignificant to me. I pleaded with The Pro for a spot:
“Anthropologists are also writers, without training or hope. Isn’t it important to make academia a better, more accessible place?”
What are you writing right now? Are you writing right now? An article, a paper, a book, a dissertation. A poem, a report, a proposal, an exam. A blog post. Who are you talking to about your writing? Who is reading your writing?
One year ago, we launched the Writers’ Workshop series here on Savage Minds to provide a new space for reflecting on writing. We’ve now had two successful seasons with twenty-one anthropologists contributing: Continue reading →
I am thrilled for the opportunity to write as a Savage Minds guest blogger for this first month of 2015. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to become a better writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months poring through style guides and manuals trying to learn the writer’s craft. This is not because I am writing my first book. Unfortunately, I am almost five books into my career, and only now do I feel compelled to improve my prose. As an ethnographer, I privileged the message over the medium.
I’ve taught ethnographies for thirteen years, and at the end of each semester, I survey student opinions of the required books on my syllabi. “Reading [this book] was like being forced to read Facebook’s terms and conditions for class,” a student wrote about one of the texts I assigned. The book in question suited the course subject, and contained field-changing theoretical insights. As a piece of scholarship, the book excelled, winning a major award from a large professional society. As a piece of writing, however, the book failed. My students judged the prose opaque, circular, jargon-laden, and gratuitously verbose. I agreed. I prepared a lecture on the core arguments, and spared my students the headaches induced by needless erudition.
University students, especially at the undergraduate level, despise inaccessible books that use language to obfuscate rather than clarify. I have purged many a smart ethnography from my syllabi after watching students struggle to extract the main arguments from a fog of impenetrable prose. Each year, I explore university press offerings to find well-written ethnographies. The continued production of un-teachable books amazes me.
I ask this because I find the oft-offered advice to “write what you know” both alarming and silencing. Isn’t ethnography at least partially about unknowability? If we acknowledge that textual recording is a form of fixing knowledge, how does one write what one doesn’t know? How can our writing play on the edge between knowing and not knowing, refusing to fix the unknown by writing it into existence? Exploring this playful and vexing tension in ethnographic writing is my current preoccupation.
In my recent work on racism I have differentiated between the ‘racism of exploitation’ (e.g. towards slaves and migrant workers) and the ‘racism of exterminability’ (e.g. anti-Semitism). I argue that the latter is prevalent in the racist modes of classification of Muslims in/by the non-Muslim West.
Inspired by certain dimensions of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s multi-realism, and the teaching of a seminar around Mauss’ The Gift, I have tried to show that the racist experience of the other as exterminable involves the projection of complex layers of affective and existential angst that takes us beyond the dominant domesticating mode of existence in which we live, and where instrumental classification thrives. It invites us to perceive the experience as pertaining to a multiplicity of other realities or human modes of existence. The first is the reciprocal mode of existence classically explored in the work of Marcel Mauss on the gift. I read The Gift as pointing to a whole order of existence where people, animals, plants and objects stand as gifts towards each other. The second is what I will call, after Marshall Sahlins, the mutualist mode of existence. It highlights an order of existence where others are ‘in us’ rather than just outside of us. Central here is Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s work on ‘participation’: a mode of living and thinking where the life-force of the humans and the non-humans that surround us are felt each to be contributing to the life-force of the other. Continue reading →
(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Adia Bentonas part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Adia is an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University. She has worked in and studied the fields of development and global health since 2000, and is a contributor to Cultural Anthropology’s recent special issue on Ebola in Perspective. Her book HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in 2015).
“Everyone identifies with the survivor.” The man, whose name I have yet to learn, wore a sage-colored newsboy cap. We were sitting next to each other at my neighborhood café. A half-hour before, he was several feet away, sketching, occasionally eyeing my copy of The Wretched of the Earth. “Pardon me,” he said, as he approached my table. “I couldn’t help but notice that you’re reading…” Within minutes, our conversation about radical anti-imperialist writing and secret societies had devolved into a meditation on how humans cope with tragic and sudden death.
“Everyone identifies with the survivor,” he repeated, as he adjusted his sketchpad in his lap.
This simple statement is a recent revelation. Although I am a scholar who reads and interprets, thinks critically about theory and teaches many aspects of writing, those actions have never made me a writer. Claiming “writer” was never something I thought about. The strength I pulled from writing was from reading the words of others, not writing my own. As a child, books kept me grounded and helped me to imagine. As I matured, books became a source of the familiar, tools I used to orient myself and keep connected after I left home. I was born in the early 1970s, on the island of Manhattan, and grew up in the shadows of tall buildings with concrete at my feet. I read about survival, never wrote about it. I was one of those folks who could never maintain a journal for more than a week. I always leaned on the strength of others to work through life’s ups and downs. These words were always healing, grounding, necessary for survival. Continue reading →
While I’m brainstorming ideas for this writers’ workshop series, my pre-school daughter is sitting next to me. Even though she can’t read or write yet, she’s fascinated by letters. As I type along on my laptop, she jots down her own invented script in a little notebook. It reminds me of my own journey of discovery of “the written word.” I had barely mastered the technicalities of handwriting when I started scribbling in personal diaries. As a teenager, I complemented these self-absorbed writings with more social formats as I exchanged snail mail letters with pen pals from across the globe. My first love relationships added poetry to the list and I became an avid journalist for my school’s newspaper (named “Boomerang,” hinting at the importance of reader reception). I continued some of that work at university, where I took a specialized course in journalism and experimented with a range of academic writing styles and formats. I also became a “critical writing fellow,” helping undergraduates to translate thoughts into words. When I moved abroad (which happened multiple times), I mailed weekly electronic “letters from [destination X]” to relatives and friends. I kept this tradition during my doctoral fieldwork, in addition to launching an ethnographic blog. So it’s no exaggeration to state that I like writing. Continue reading →
(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 →
(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Michael Ralphas part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Michael is Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, and Director of the Metropolitan Studies Program at NYU. He is the author of the entries on Commodity, Diaspora, and Hip hop in Social Text 100, and of the forthcoming University of Chicago Press book Forensics of Capital based on his research in Senegal.)
The idea of having your own writing style is an illusion. In fact, we learn to write by digesting the writers we love. We obsess over the elegant turns of phrase they appear to deliver effortlessly, and pore over our own drafts hoping to wrench beauty from passages that have been pummeled by angst and uncertainty. If we manage to enjoy success in writing (or really, in editing), it is generally because we have been well trained. At some point, someone made it her mission to instill in us a sense of conviction about the words we wield. We learned to appreciate the magic of authorship. But, it is easier to trace the blessed path to writerly righteousness in retrospect. Learning to write (which means learning to think and plan more carefully) can be a curious kind of training, in part because we don’t always know when it is happening. In reflecting upon my own training, I decided to dedicate this column to the person who initiated me into the anthropological guild, Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Continue reading →