(This invited post comes from Ståle Wig, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Oslo. In the past Ståle has also run an excellent two part interview with Paul Farmer here on Savage Minds, so check that out as well. When asked about his interests, Ståle writes that he “never became a proper Africanist, and is currently preparing Ph.D. fieldwork in Cuba.” -R)
On an August afternoon in 2008, around 50 first-year students gathered in a dusty old movie-theatre that was turned into a lecture hall, near the University of Oslo. As we came in to find our seats, an elderly man observed us curiously from a wooden chair under the blackboard. I had seen him before, in our assigned textbook, with his engraved features and unmistakable, soft white moustache.
That day I had come to my first lecture in anthropology. Fredrik Barth had come to give his last.
Much like our new subject, there was a mystique to the man by the blackboard. We were told that he was an influential anthropologist. Some of us had heard that in his golden years, his ideas engaged big shots like Giddens and Bourdieu. That he was at times strongly criticized, but also hailed as a reformer of the study of social life. But as we sat there waiting, none of us knew why, and what all that really meant.
Thanks to a new book by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Fredrik Barth – An Intellectual Biography (Pluto Press), the Norwegian veteran will appear less of a mystery – and yet ever more captivating. Continue reading
The civil war on Bougainville — a large island that is part of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea (PNG) — was one of the most important events to happen in the Pacific since World War II. Local dissatisfaction with the island’s large, foreign-owned copper mine turned to demonstrations, escalated into a guerilla war, and forced both the mine and the PNG government to leave the island, which then entered a period of conflict between pro- and anti- PNG factions. It was a key test of sovereignty in newly-independent Pacific states, had an enormous human cost (20,000 dead, sexual violence, destruction of villages and property), and was a cautionary tale about the limits of corporate power. The reconciliation process that ended the conflict in itself is studied by academics and policy makers all over the world as an example of successful peacemaking. So what does this new book offer to Pacific scholars, and to the anthropology of mining?
Everyone knew Bougainville was important when it happened, and there is a large literature on the conflict — often written in the heat of the moment — recording the events that transpired. Given this crowded terrain, it’s fair to wonder whether Kristian Lasslett’s new book State Crime on the Margins of Empire: Rio Tinto, The War on Bougainville and Resistance to Mining can add anything new. The answer is: “yes.” Lasslett’s book is a remarkable and extremely valuable addition to the literature on this area. Written from a Marxist perspective, it uses impressively detailed original research to present a fresh take on the Bougainville conflict, one that is highly critical of the existing consensus about what happened on the island. Continue reading
Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, drops on Amazon today. Wade, a science writer for the New York Times, has been critical of cultural anthropology in the past — and the feeling has pretty much been mutual. Inheritance is set to create a ground swell of indignation in the anthropological community because it is one of the most biologically reductionist writings to come out in years. The AAA has, to its credit, been on top of the issue and has hosted a showdown between Wade and Augustín Fuentes. Expect more coverage from us, including a couple of guest blogs, in the next couple of months.
Anthropologists of a critical bent take deep personal satisfaction in denouncing racism and reductionism wherever they find it. These days, its rare for something as blatant as Wade’s book to appear with the blessing of a major press. So… yeah. I’m guessing that it’s going to be on.
I personally prefer to use claims, reasons, and evidence to criticize authors. When books like this appear, however, its easy for passions to get inflamed and for people to make personal attacks: Jared Diamond’s comb-over is ugly, Charles Murray’s male pattern baldness makes him look like Princess Leia, etc. We also tend to make arguments of guilt from association: Madison Grant was wrong and so are you. Both of these rhetorical maneuvers don’t do justice to the uniqueness of an author’s position or engage its particulars directly — and thus are unanthropological.
As this moves forward I hope people punch above the belt. It shouldn’t be hard, since Wade is such an easy target.
What happens when dedicated people come together to work on a project they care about? Where do good ideas come from? How is it that some creations start off in niche markets and grow into global brands while others fade into obscurity? In his latest foray into Japanese popular culture, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story, Ian Condry offers ethnographically grounded theory for the study of creativity. The work can be read as a synthesis of the best practices in the field of pop culture studies from anthropology and cultural studies.
Condry describes the efforts of dedicated artists and producers working in a “crucible” atmosphere of “collaborative creativity.” Their collective social energy is the “soul” of their shared engagement with the project. Therefore this study offers something other than a follow-the-money investigation, anime as Japanese national culture, or an interpretation of the content of anime, reading the text. Rather Condry seeks to follow-the-activity and commitment of small groups of people (mostly men) as they exercise creativity. It is the dynamic social relations, the connections between people in a working group that shine through here. Anime is emergent from the social practice of creativity and the collective values of that group as they define the importance of their own actions within a context.
I’m suspicious of for-profit journal publishers, but I like university presses. They are often value-driven, down on their heels, and plucky. When the death of publishing at the hands of The Digital was first announced, they were pretty depressed. But since then they’ve moved into ebooks, developed new ways to market their books, and have done a good job embracing the new.
Princeton is a good example of a large, (relatively) wealthy press with a lot of cultural capital that is looking for new ways to engage audiences. I think this ‘trailer’ (yes, you read that right) for their new book 1177 B.C. just stepped over the line. My favorite part is when the words “NO MORE MYCENEANS” start drifting towards you while the soundtrack from Lord of the Rings plays in the background.
James Scott’s work drives me nuts, but there is no doubt about it: his review of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday is one of the best is one of the best that has been written, and deserves a wide audience.