In this piece I would like to explain, in detail, why I think Peter Wood’s recent piece in Anthropology News is fundamentally misguided. For a lot of readers, there will be no point in my doing so — they will just write Wood off as ‘racist’ and move on. I’m, shall we say, extremely sympathetic to this point of view. But I do think that Wood’s piece deserves some scrutiny to explain why so many people find it so misguided.
In his piece, Wood takes issue with four essays in Anthropology News responding to the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent reaction in Ferguson. Wood argues that the essays are “a retelling of… the left’s canonical myth of Ferguson: facts submerged in a sea of fiction”. He goes on to argue that these authors’ accounts of Ferguson ignore “the record of events established by the grand jury”. He claims that the concepts of “structural violence” and “structural inequality” used in the essays are “intellectually lazy simplifications of complex social circumstances” which “remove all moral and social responsibility from the actors who are portrayed as victims”. In doing so, he claims, anthropology “erases the motives of key participants and reduces them to objects acted on by invidious external forces”. In the end, Wood claims, it is a “just-so story that America is a nation run by privileged whites determined to maintain their privilege.” In fact, he says, “this is, quite plainly, a myth. There is nothing in the realm of fact to support it.”
These are amazing claims, and it is difficult to understand how Wood can make them in the face of an overwhelming body of evidence that proves exactly the opposite of what he claims. Wood is clearly not stupid. Charitable readers will assume that he is not evil. The nicest interpretation of Wood’s position, therefore, is that he is simply ignorant.
As c.10,000 anthropologists descend upon Washington, D.C. this week for the annual American Anthropological Association conference, my colleague Jonathan Marion (University of Arkansas) and I, alongside an international cadre of researchers, have joined a long-standing conversation about the relationship between digital cultures, visual media and ethics that will fully manifest on Saturday, but that exists online in multiple forms too (more below). That conversation is a complicated one, known to induce frustration, confusion, feelings of helplessness, despondency and, at times, defiance among those who engage in it. By this I refer to the business of negotiating (1) the ethical implications of our own research programmes, (2) the experience of formal ethical review, and (3) ethical issues borne out of the everyday actions of our communities of study. Such ‘business’ is seemingly made even more complicated when digital and visual media are brought into the fold.
Indeed, more than ten years ago Gross, Katz and Ruby published Image Ethics in the Digital Age, a pioneering volume whose topical concerns – privacy, authenticity, control, access and exposure – are arguably more conspicuous now than in 2003. Today, their complexities appear to be extending as digital interactions themselves extend, and the consequence is an inevitably fraught landscape of practice with debatable outcomes.
In my last post on Bauman and Briggs Voices of Modernity I explored their argument that Boas’s notion of culture makes it seem like a prison house from which only the trained anthropologist is capable of escaping. In doing so, however, I only really presented half of their argument. The book has two interrelated themes: One is a Foucauldian genealogy of the concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation (as seen through the rise of folklore studies). The other is a Latourian exploration of the construction of folklore as a science. This is done by exploring how oral traditions were turned into texts, and thus evidence of traditional culture (however that was defined). Aubrey, Blair, the Grimm brothers, and Schoolcraft were each faced with hybrid oral texts whose own modernity (as contemporary documents) belied their perceived scientific value as authentic remnants of ancient cultures. For this reason the texts underwent tremendous alterations, if not outright fabrication, by these scholars in order to make them suitable for their own purposes. The book traces how these processes of entextualization were shaped by each scholar’s concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation.
(former Mind Thomas Strong recently participated in a conference on ‘competing responsibilities’ organized by Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle. What follows is an interview between Tom, Susanna, and Catherine on the conference theme, which dove-tails wonderfully with Bree Blakeman’s recent blogging on the concept of responsibility. Transparency: By chance I’m going to the next round of the conference in Wellington, so this is something I’ve been thinking about as well -Rx)
TS: Could you both introduce yourselves, and talk about how you came around to the question of responsibility?
In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.
Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t? Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading →
In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar BrenéBrown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy. According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising. In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world. This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.
Just over a month ago a Peruvian indigenous federation circulated remarkable video footage showing about a hundred isolated (so-called “uncontacted”) Mashco-Piro Indians just across the river from a Piro indigenous village along the Rio de las Piedras in Peru. They appeared to be asking for food and trade goods like rope and metal tools. The Piro and Mashco-Piro languages are close enough to allow communication. Hoping to avoid direct contact and the possibility of disease contagion, forest rangers at Monte Salvado floated a canoe laden with bananas across the river. After a tense three-day standoff, the Mashco-Piro eventually disappeared back into the forest. No one is quite sure why the Mashco-Piro — who have so steadfastly avoided such contact until recently — suddenly showed up. Many suspect that illegal loggers active throughout the region have disrupted their usual migration routes.
In late 2011, a different group of Mashco-Piro living near the border of Manu National Park shot and killed Shaco Flores, an old Matsigenka friend of mine, with an arrow. Having lived among the Piro for many years and learned the Piro language, Shaco had been patiently communicating and trading with the Mashco-Piro for over twenty years, always maintaing a safe distance but slowly drawing them closer with his gifts, food and conversation. But something happened on that fateful day in late November: perhaps the Mashco-Piro were spooked by Shaco’s appearance with several relatives at the manioc garden on a small river island where he had been allowing the Mashco-Piro to harvest his crops; perhaps there was internal disagreement among the Mashco-Piro whether or not to accept Shaco’s long-standing offer to bring them into permanent contact. We may never know. Continue reading →
I’ve spent a lot of time in India, but only briefly visited Mumbai. However, even though I was only there for a few days, I did manage to see enough to get a sense of the different worlds that people inhabit there: from the home of a wealthy patron of the arts near Victoria Terminus, to that of a struggling actor at the other end of the city, whose flat only had running water for ten minutes a day. Getting from one end to the other was an epic journey, and it (along with rides on over-crowded commuter trains, pollution, etc.) left me with a feeling that life in this city was impossible. Perhaps this sense of impossibility is why so many talented writers have chose to write about Mumbai, and why I keep reading them. Among the more memorable books I’ve read are A Fine Balance, Maximum City, Beautiful Thing, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I just finished last night. There is a lot that could be (and has been) said about these books — about the relationship of writing to geography, about the relationship between journalism and fiction, about the relationship of these authors to the city, etc. — but in this blog post I want to focus on something that struck me in Boo’s writing: the omniscience of the narrator.
We now know that living abroad or corresponding with someone outside the US makes you fair game for government surveillance. A few years ago I wrote about the difficulties faced by anthropologists working in places like China, where there can be no expectation of privacy.* We now know (as many long suspected) that nowhere is safe. What does this mean for anthropologists?
High levels of confidentiality may not be important for all types of anthropological fieldwork, but it can be hard to anticipate what statements might get our collaborators in trouble and we have a responsibility to protect their privacy to the best of our ability. As more and more of us are storing data in the cloud and more and more of our collaborators are communicating with us via email and on Facebook, we should be conscious of the fact that we cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything stored online. Continue reading →
Writing is not always easy. Sometimes the writing flows and sometimes it doesn’t. But writing about things that are emotionally weighty, heavy, and disturbing is a different kind of not easy.
Monday morning I wrote a political asylum report for a victim of political violence in Nepal. Monday afternoon, bombs exploded near the Boston marathon finish line, killing several people, injuring hundreds, and stunning many (including this Massachusetts native, runner, and former Boston resident). The next day, I read about a twenty-year-old Tibetan mother who self-immolated and died in Tibet, and I wrote two more Nepali political asylum reports, one especially gruesome, and then collapsed on the couch, paralyzed in a sort of grief and shock and despair at the bad things human beings do to other human beings.
Writing felt necessary but debilitating. I could only write about the particularly horrific asylum case in short increments, writing a sentence or two, then turning to something that would allow me to breathe freely, breathe in some goodness and hope, and then exhale the horror. Write the horror down. Make sense of the horror for a judge. Or at least try to. Continue reading →
[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman, who offer individual takes on some issues raised by James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale U P, 2009). Kerim’s previous post on the book is here. This post is by Leif.]
James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia is an interesting read. If anthropology-readers are used to embarrassment regarding the gaze on tribal peoples, then here is a license to guilt-free gawking: These weren’t tribals but rather freedom-seeking secessionists from the lowlands. There were no real ethnic others, the book suggests. Instead, linguistic and cultural diversity and the profusion of ethnic labels are just markers of state-evading strategies. In my view this is all rather problematic, in that clueless western readers (people ignorant of, say, particular histories, cultures, societies, languages, peoples, or politics in Southeast Asia) are invited to feast on the identities and politics of the Southeast Asian hinterlands without any involvement.
The effect bears some resemblance to the fickle fascination with Indians of the Brazilian Amazon as natural allies of the rainforest, that evaporated once the noble Other was seen as somehow too modern. Scott draws explicitly on the work of Pierre Clastres regarding the Guayaki and other Indians of Latin America, that the Indians had run away from the state and hierarchy and all that. Clastres had been a student of Levi-Strauss, and his early tribalist work was deeply fatalistic regarding the looming disappearance of all indigenous peoples. Clastres’ shift in focus, from pre-contact- to ex-contact peoples does not remove the assumed purity of the tribal slot but instead relocates its source. The tribals aren’t pure because of their cultural- or other essence, but because they ran away from the source of all pollution (the state, with its inequality, taxation, sedentary lifestyles, and other contaminants).
so far, the constitutive goods of ethnography that i’ve talked about have been friendship and (an embodied awareness) of awkwardness. i’d like to see more of us take on vulnerability, because it seems to me that several of the recent mania in our discipline–most notably the hardness (quantitative) envy seen in some quarters, but also seemingly touchy-feely trendy topics like #affect–reveal distancing techniques meant to deny what we’ve known all along: not just that the fieldwork requires considerable vulnerability, but that like any other attempt of carrying experience over into knowledge, findings into academic conversation, the knowledge that we produce is vulnerable at every point it changes places, hands, or media. bruno latour has such vulnerability in mind when he talks of “referential chains” between soil samples and arguments about ecology and, i think, in his conversations of the sociotechnical “factishes” that make us act rightly
this is hardly the place to talk about latour’s arguments–it would make me far too vulnerable than i prefer–but i wonder why, apart from behar’s 1997 the vulnerable observer, we do not spend more time talking about vulnerability, if only to practice a kind of diligence. i don’t mean, by the way, the kind of diligence that has hedged ethnography about with a combination of IRB and rather patronizing ethics codes (not to mention a far too reactionary arguments about both). what i have in mind is more akin to the kind of “hyper and pessimistic activism” foucault talks about in his “genealogy of ethics,” an awareness of the dangers, the vulnerabilities that are part of our trade
friendship in tamen’s sense also might suggest why “culture” is often what my taiwanese friends call a “twilight object,” something constantly in diminishment: associations of friends tend to situate their objects this way. think of the friends of the environment near you. as for culture and its various subsets and stand-ins, these nearly always appear in conditions of endangerment, too; and so, we might begin to ask ourselves whether our interpretive work powerfully connects us to other associations (friends of shellfish, sowalo no ‘amis, or indigenous media to name some to which i belong) who were befriending these objects all along, generally aware of their precarious quality. that does not mean that the type of precarity that these friends see–and that might explain their motives for working with us–is the same as our stance on the befriended.
again, take the environment as an example.
since i’m going in this direction, what about friendship as a type of advocacy, a value that some ethnographers fiercely hold and others just as fiercely question? one of the best statements on friendship in this regard comes from the work of the contemporary ‘amis songwriter, suming rupi. recently, many would-be friends of suming’s hometown have come to stay, all professing their love for the landscape, particularly the view of the pacific ocean. on the whole these would-be friends are well meaning and participate in a type of consumer environmentalism known on taiwan as LOHAS, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. in response, suming has written a song which rejects this love
friendship? I know. it does seem too obvious and perhaps disingenuous for an anthropologist to pose friendship as one of the internal, constitutive goods of ethnographic practice. but that’s the virtue i want to invoke here.
back in chicago, home of the haskell hall totem pole, there was–i wonder if anyone could tell me if it’s still there–a world map around which our administrator affixed fieldwork photographs of students and faculty of the department. back in those snail mail days before social media, this was about all the contact we could get with colleagues in the field. the map looked down from the stairwell up to the mezzanine, but was not without contention: was it part of a strategy of representation that reproduced anthropology’s complicity with colonial discourses? an attempt to employ images of rapport to shore up ethnographic authority? what the critics seemed not to get was that the map actually was a token of our friendships with our colleagues, focused on our common practices of fieldwork and writing.
but, right, critics of the map would likely consider friendship naive. there’s a history i could sketch here, but i’ll just go for the beginning and end points. if malinowski claimed in argonauts that through shared residence and daily activity the ethnographer could at least become “a necessary evil or nuisance, mitigated by donations of tobacco,” the discipline has long since shed the illusions we have of reaching even such a limited state of rapport: take marcus’s typically programmatic 1997 statement that even an assumption of the desirability of rapport had been displaced, with no replacement in sight. that marcus ushered “complicity” onto the runway as the new rapport might relegate friendship to some dusty haberdashery. i even hesitate to call it last season.
curiously, however, i had written about complicity unaware of the marcus article and came to see complicity in a positive light, as a means for sustaining a shared project in conditions of political opposition and entrenchment. because i’ve a book on that subject, i’ll just go back to bronislaw (whew!).
I’m DJ Hatfield, one of the guest bloggers for this month on savage minds. When thinking about possible themes for my blog, I just happened to be reading one of my favorite books on writing, Calvino’s Six memos for the next millennium. Originally, these memos were planned lectures about the values of good writing that Calvino was to give at Harvard; he died before giving the lectures and, indeed, before finishing the work. It might surprise several people who read savage minds that Calvino’s six memos (well, the five that he finished!) are what I turn to when I want to think about my practice as an ethnographic writer. And I think that there is much virtue in the structure of Calvino’s little book: the task he set before himself in 1984 was to describe particular qualities that writing should have if it were to meet the challenges of the next millennium–something that might have been envisioned by the editors of writing culture if a peculiar parricidal impulse hadn’t motivated that work. Of course, as a graduate student, the project of writing culture fit my bill. Now that I have a book and a few articles behind me, it’s Calvino’s project that incites my questions about what we do as ethnographers. What are the values that we would think of as central to the practice, what Macintyre in After Virtue called the “internal goods”–those values that we cultivate as we do our work in the field and out? I’d like to start a conversation on this question. As I am not sure whether what I will discuss will be values in the sense of the ends of our practices or in the sense of what orients them, I’ll leave you to give your preliminary suggestions. My postings on some of these values, plus some discussion of recent work, will appear throughout the month of October. My first internal good: friendship