In this guest blog series, the Savage Minds folks have been kind enough to provide a space for me to untangle and unpack some of my recent thoughts on anthropologists, hipsters and such. In my first post, I took the conventional path of defining my terms. In this second post, I focus on a common characteristic that is both productive and frustrating for anthropologists and hipsters alike: their position at the margins.
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Alex Posecznick.
I am an anthropologist. Four simple words, but they capture a complex process of becoming that was hardly simple. Despite the very human desire to impose order on chaos, the processes through which people become acquired by such categories are usually quite complex. Like many anthropologists, I’ve done my share of navel-gazing – reflecting both on the role I’ve come to inhabit and the process through which I’ve come to inhabit it.
I am not a hipster – at least, I do not think I am. This is not entirely helpful as most hipsters I have met don’t think of themselves as hipsters either. Nonetheless, the parallels between anthropologists and hipsters have been on my mind. My observations are frankly exacerbated by my appointment in a School for Education, where my anthropological roots make me (at least in my own head) something of a “cool” kid. In contrast, in anthropological circles, my ties to education mark me as “uncool.” My present position in the structure as permanent and non-tenure further marginalizes me in any academic circle, pushing me to a periphery which some consider beneath notice at all. Can looking at the hipster tell us something about the anthropologist and the academy, I wonder? These observations about the social tension (and structural food chain) within academia naturally presuppose other critical questions: what precisely is a “hipster” and does it actually exist as a meaningful category?
In this post, I’ll consider the 2012 phenomenon in relation to time and otherness. Naturally, I’m hedging my bets and posting this before the potential end of the world. Although no one can seem to decide when the Maya are, they appear to be sometime between Aug 11, 3114 BC and Dec 21, 2012 AD.
This time frame has less to do with the Maya themselves than with how they are invoked by Westerners (both believers and debunkers). I realize that “West” and “Westerners” — just like “the Maya” — is an overambitious gloss, but indulge me for a moment. For the record, my perspective is based largely on the American, British, and Spanish public spheres in the press and internet. (While there seems to be 2012 interest in Russia and China, I’m not in a position to comment on that in any detail. Please leave a comment if you can.)
In the rhetoric of the West, “the Maya” appear to take quantum leaps between historical moments. In my previous post I focused on the “otherness” of U.S. spiritualists in the eyes of apocalypse debunkers. It goes without saying that the Maya are also “other” in ways that anthropologists have long objected to. The precise relationships between The Maya (abstract) and the Maya (ethnographic, historic) is a matter of debate, but regardless they are invoked constantly when it comes to apocalyptic expectations for 2012. Continue reading
There are opportunities in the apocalypse. The end of the world has been commodified. A few are seriously investing in bunkers, boats, and survival supplies. Tourism is up, not only to Mayan archaeological sites, but also to places like Bugarach, France and Mt. Rtanj, Serbia. But even those of us on a budget can afford at least a book, a T-shirt or a handbag.
There are opportunities here for academics, too. Many scholars have been quoted in the press lately saying that nothing will happen on Dec 21 , in addition to those who have written comprehensive books and articles discrediting the impending doom. Obviously publishing helps individual careers, and that does not detract from our collective responsibility to debunk ideas that might lead people to physical or financial harm. But neither can we divorce our work from its larger social implications. Continue reading
The second in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012. The first post is here.
Last summer, I traveled to Philadelphia to visit the Penn Museum exhibit “Maya: the Lords of Time.” It was, as one might expect given the museum collection and the scholars involved, fantastic. I want to comment on just the beginning of the exhibit, however. On entering, one is immediately greeted by a wall crowded with TV screens, all showing different clips of predicted disasters and people talking fearfully about the end of the world. The destruction, paranoia, and cacophony create a ambiance of chaos and uncertainty. Turning the corner, these images are replaced by widely spaced Mayan artifacts and stela. The effect is striking. One moves from media-induced insanity to serenity, from endless disturbing jump-cuts to the well-lit, quiet contemplation of beautiful art. Continue reading
In the comics industry, special issues that promise one hero “versus” another are usually long on gimmick and short on action. Keeping with that tradition my blog post promises an epic confrontation when in reality I’m not really engaging Graeber’s thought provoking essay “Super Position” in a substantial way. I’m going to use the author’s Freudian critique of the summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises as catalyst to reflect on the anthropological study of popular culture.
As an aside I will say this about Graeber’s essay: he uses Roman numerals to demarcate thematic chunks of the essay, which allows him to write without transitions. Whenever I see this technique it always makes me think of Walter Benjamin, that patron saint of the Marxist critique of pop culture. To invoke Benjamin in an essay on Batman is like saying, “I’m very serious about playing around here.” Or, at least that’s what I’m thinking when I write essays with Roman numerals.
Graeber’s subject is Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman movies, which are themselves based on Frank Miller’s legendary characterization of the hero in “The Dark Knight Returns” (1986), widely considered one of the greatest comic book stories of all time (and rightfully so). Miller’s book closed the door on the Silver Age version of the character and redefined the Gotham City universe as gritty and violent. Among the movie going public Miller is also known as the original author of Sin City and 300, while to the comics crowd he’s associated with legendary runs at Daredevil and Wolverine.
Miller himself is a reactionary ass and his slander of the Occupy movement as composed of “louts, thieves, and rapists” was only the latest salvo in a stream of proto-fascist dribble. So when Graeber pins down the The Dark Knight Rises as “anti-Occupy propaganda” he is pretty much on the money. A more patient man than I could probably connect the dots between the Reagan-era conservatism of “Returns” with Rises. Neoliberalism and the apocalypse, maybe. Revenge, definitely.
What are superhero movies all about? And why are they so popular right now? These are the questions that prompted me to think about how anthropology could actually forward such a project. How ought we compose a research agenda focused on mass media and popular culture? Personally, I find myself consistently disappointed in most everything academics have written about pop culture. I’d like to think that anthropology could do better. What Graeber is doing here is using history and critical theory to write a polemic in order to make a political point. That’s fine, but it’s only one way that anthropology might go about designing research about comic book super heroes. Continue reading
In my last post, I defined a museum as “a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects.” I then spent quite a bit of time dealing with the implications and ramifications of the word “objects”. But there’s another important part of that definition, one which opens up a significantly different view of what a museum is, and that’s the part about a museum being a “social institution”.
Objects can be displayed in a lot of contexts. I have a bunch of artworks by local Las Vegas artists displayed throughout my home — but that doesn’t make my home a museum of Las Vegas art. Lots of people put together collections of images on Pinterest that communicate knowledge about themselves or topics that interest them, but Pinterest isn’t a museum either.
What makes a museum a museum is that it’s social, and that it’s an institution. As a social phenomenon, a museum is a point of connection for a community of visitors, researchers, curators and other staff, and even subjects. And as an institution, that connection, that web of social relationships, is a structured one. Continue reading
Believe it or not, there is no readily accepted definition of a museum. The American Alliance of Museums officially throws up its hands, stating in its handbook National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums that the term “museum” describes “an organization that people can identify intuitively but that cannot be neatly packaged in a definition,” and continuing on to describe a “big tent” approach, saying that “If an organization considers itself to be a museum, it’s in the tent.”
In other words, we many not be able to define what a museum is, but we know one when we see it.
Sure, there are other definitions of museums, legalistic jargon-laden definitions that serve to define museums in relation to tax codes, property law, fair use protections, and so on, but basically its a reflexive signifier. Museums are museums.
For me, a museum is a social institution where knowledge is communicated through the display of objects. Other things go on in museums — stories are told, texts are offered up, performances are… um, performed, and so on, but unless somewhere in the institution objects are being displayed to communicate knowledge, it’s not a museum. It’s a library, a theater, a performance art space, or something else, but not a museum.
As Kerim noted a few weeks back, I am currently the director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, a museum located in Las Vegas committed to preserving the history and legacy of burlesque as an artform and cultural phenomenon. If you had asked me a few years ago what direction I expected my career to develop in, I’d have never said “Museum Director.” Sure, I’d taken some museum studies courses in grad school and have worked in a couple of museums, but I always thought I’d help out with an exhibition here and there and that would be the extent of my involvement in museums.
Well, life, as they say, happens, and here I am today, responsible not just for an exhibition here and there but for a budget, a nation-wide volunteer network, a collection of 4,000+ artifacts, and a whole slew of legal, professional, and ethical concerns I’d barely even imagined 5 years ago. Since a) anthropology as we know it today grew out of museum practice, and b) the perspective of a museum worker has rarely been seen on Savage Minds, I thought I’d write up a few posts detailing some of the things that occupy my thoughts and time. I won’t be aiming for any grand theoretical statements here, just some musings on what constitutes life in the museum for this particular anthropologist.
And since it’s the question I deal with most, I thought I’d start with a discussion of what burlesque even is in the first place. Defining the field of study, so to speak. Easier said than done, I suppose — burlesque as an art form grades into and branches off from a lot of other theatrical traditions, and has been in a state of near-constant change for at least the last century-and-a-half.
(this entry is CC’d. If anyone wants to download some pictures, do a voice over, and throw this up on our Khan Academy for Anthropology, be my guest)
Anthropology is, in many ways, the art of taking implicit, taken-for-granted meanings and making them explicit. This is important because human beings cram a tremendous amount of meaning into everything we do, and yet much of the time we are only vaguely conscious of the meanings we surround ourselves with – and if you are a cultural outsider, you may miss them entirely. Just as learning the grammar of a language will help you understand it and write clearly in it, learning to make cultural meanings explicit helps us understand and express ourselves to others. Take, for instance, the thinking woman’s crumpet.
Whenever I mention that one of my primary areas of anthropological research is media, the question I come across on a recurring basis is the following: How will you be able to pursue that through ethnographic fieldwork of everyday activities? My sense is that such a response comes from the view that media are disembodied and deterritorialized objects or processes, or that they operate at a pace that is difficult to engage through participant-observation. In response to such concerns much work in anthropology has sought to “ground” media by focusing on production or reception practices, or occasionally both. However, I consider this kind of question crucial to think through during my exploratory fieldwork and research design phase.
A similar issue has arisen in anthropological research on Muslims in North America. In the conclusion to Katherine Pratt Ewing’s edited volume, Being and Belonging (2008), Andrew Shryock called for greater attention to “the immediate and mediated worlds…articulated in everyday life” (206). So, how should one strike a balance between studying media and the everyday? One could study the everyday dimensions of production practices, or how the reception of media is incorporated into people’s everyday lives, or how and why media producers construct the everyday in certain ways. Continue reading
According to the Urban Dictonary “buffalaxing” is a term which comes from a YouTube user named Buffalax who is famous for writing fake English lyrics to foreign songs which (to an English speaker who doesn’t understand the original language) sound like they could be the actual lyrics to the song. You can find this kind of thing by searching YouTube for “buffalax” or for “misheard lyrics.” Some of these are funnier than others, and many are simply offensive. The reason I bring it up is that buffalaxing is very popular in Taiwan, and I wanted to share a new music video which has some fun with this meme. But first some context…
Let’s start with two of the more famous songs which have been given misheard Chinese lyrics. The first is “Golimar” from the Telugu movie “Donga“:
Whenever I go into a bookstore, I always check out the anthropology section (see part I here). A curious habit, or custom, or something like that. What can I say? I have my routines. I like to see what happens to be on the shelves and compare that to my own understandings of what contemporary anthropology is all about. I imagine that this is some sort of litmus test that tells us something about the state of anthropology in the public sphere. Maybe, maybe not. More about that shortly. So, the last time I did this informal empirical investigation, the results were similar to past experiences: not phenomenal. The most “anthropological” books included:
1. Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson
2. The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond
3. 1491 by Charles Mann
4. Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna
Bateson’s was the only book I saw that was written by an actual anthropologist. How it is that only one anthropologist happens to be in the anthropology section is beyond me. This was a particularly skewed sample, I’ll admit–usually there’s at least a Wade Davis, Margaret Mead, or even Sir James Frazier in the mix. Not this time. The rest of the section was incredibly eclectic, and included everything from books by Drew Pinsky to one by Maira Kalman (which does look pretty cool, though not what I would define as anthropology). Some of this eclectic-ness had to be due to some restocking malfunctions, undoubtedly, but overall the section on anthropology was, as is often the case, a strange and somewhat askew reflection of the discipline. Yes, that is an opinion. And now, it’s time for some questions: Continue reading
Here in Taiwan it’s time for the annual Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié 端午節), which also happens to be a school holiday. The traditional story of this festival is well summarized by Wikipedia:
The best-known traditional story holds that the festival commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan (Chinese: 屈原) (c. 340 BCE – 278 BCE) of the ancient state of Chu, in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance. Qu Yuan was accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, for which he is now remembered. Twenty-eight years later, Qin conquered the capital of Chu. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
It is said that the local people, who admired him, threw lumps of rice into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi [a kind of glutinous rice snack eaten at this time]. The local people were also said to have paddled out on boats, either to scare the fish away or to retrieve his body. This is said to be the origin of dragon boat racing.
This is the version of the story which most Taiwanese learn in school, but the truth is much more interesting. Continue reading
What if humanities scholars started doing evolutionary psychology? No, wait. Hear me out.
I had never heard of this before I read about it in a news focus piece in the May 6, 2011, issue of the journal Science, “Red in Tooth and Claw Among the Literati,” (Vol.332, p.654). Ordinarily this is something I’d be skeptical about. After all I jumped on the bandwagon bashing evo-psyche in the comments of Dustin’s recent post and I’ve blogged about the overblown promises of Culturenomics. But this so-called Darwinian literary criticism is kind of neat. In parts.
First a word about the news piece itself. The author, Sam Kean, comes across as overtly sympathetic to the cause of Darwinian literary criticism and seems to shares his subject’s – Joseph Carroll, the originator of this school of thought – dim view of contemporary literary scholarship. This unreflective, uncritical approach yields a rather dissatisfying article.
It seems this kind of thing is quite unpopular in some literary circles (shocking!), even getting panned in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry (ouch!). But our journalist takes this to mean that the man is some sort of hero and his brilliant idea is getting squashed by poststructural, postcolonial phonies. These “fashionable” theories, along with Freud and Marx, he writes, have all “dismissed the idea that evolutionary pressures have shaped human nature, attributing all human nature to culture instead.”
Anybody who thinks Marx dismisses Darwin needs to stop reading Wikipedia.