Teaching in place: fostering relationality and reciprocity in the classroom in 2017

view of the Rideau River from Carleton University campus, Ottawa, Canada


It’s that time of year again when professors like myself are editing, updating, or drafting syllabi for the coming fall semester up here in Canada (and as I understand, the fall term is underway for many of my American peers!). Heading into my third year as an anthropology professor here in Ottawa, Canada, I’ve been thinking hard about what it means to enact anthropology, pedagogy, and co-thinking in this particular place and time. I live, work, and teach in unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory. In fact, Ottawa, Canada’s national capital, sits in entirely unceded Indigenous land. What does that mean? Well, our House of Parliament sits on land for which no treaty was ever signed or negotiated – creating complex and urgent realities between a) the Algonquin communities whose laws and histories are inextricably bound to this city in the heart of the Ottawa River watershed and b) the broader Canadian nation-state (and its myriad institutions).

View of the Peace Tower (Parliament), Ottawa, Canada

I think a lot about how to make explicit the relationship between my workplace, Carleton University, and the unceded lands and waters it is bound to. Most of the non-Canadian audience of this blog has probably never heard of Carleton (I wouldn’t expect you to know much about it!), but to bring you up to speed: it rests within a verdant triangle of land that is bounded by the UNESCO World Heritage Rideau Canal and the Rideau River. While the mostly brutalist 1960s architecture of the campus does little to really celebrate the awe-inspiring land it is built on, the waterways that surround our campus tie us directly into the Ottawa River watershed that Algonquin peoples have tended to, laboured within, storied, and celebrated since Time Immemorial.

typical brutalist architecture on Carleton University campus

As a new professor, I’m repeatedly struck by how little we are expected to gesture to or tend to the specific lands, waters, and layered place-based histories we teach within. In Canada, a former French and British colony, we arguably still measure ourselves incessantly and self-consciously against American, British, French, German, and Italian (and other European) intellectual praxis. We often populate our classrooms with long-dead British, American, and other European thinkers, who themselves laboured within specific and storied landscapes and geographies that are worthy of their own care and attention. This is, of course, a symptom of the conceit of the ‘university’, which seeks to universalize the knowledge we share within postsecondary institutions. Achille Mbembe’s (2015) specific articulation of the pluriversity as a tool to — in reference to Fanon — provincialize european thought is, to me, a powerful way to unsettle the supposed universality of the anthropological theory and praxis we teach in the classroom.

I’ve written elsewhere about how I employ ‘watershed level thinking’ as one pedagogical tool in the classroom to encourage students to engage their studies in a way that is attentive to the geographies and legal-governance paradigms that animate this specific territory in Ottawa. Where possible, I also encourage my students to tend to the waterways around the university, applying Tsing’s (2015) ‘arts of noticing’ as a deliberate tool to unsettle the universality of the university. I build, too, on the notions of ‘Indigenous place-thought’ (Watts 2013) and ‘Indigenous place-story’ (Donald 2009) that Indigenous scholars Vanessa Watts and Dwayne Donald articulate, respectively, in their scholarship. My efforts to encourage students to think critically and closely about place and its stories is a small attempt to foster a sense of tenderness towards, and awareness of,  their surroundings. This is my attempt to encourage students to think critically about the territories they move within as they study. I employ this approach to encourage students to think about not only their role as scholars but as people bound to particular socio-political realities and stories.

classroom discussion of the more-than-human beings we share time/space with at Carleton University

To this end, I also think a lot about how there is a lot of day-to-day, routinized discourse within academia that demeans or diminishes work that is produced outside specific institutions. In the UK, we are conditioned to elevate scholarship from Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group. In America, we are conditioned to prioritize work produced at Ivy League and/or R1 institutions. In Canada, UBC, U of T, and McGill tousle for the honorific of ‘Harvard North’. Rather than lament or feel shame for not producing our work within specific (elite) localities in the academy, I argue that Mbembe’s manifestation of the pluriversity encourages us to tend to our specific responsibilities within the places we find ourselves. And this tenderness to, and tending of, specific localities in our teaching is not a mere nicety – it is an essential form of resistance and refusal (to gesture to the work of Mohawk anthropologist Audra Simpson (2014)) – of settler-colonial and white supremacist ideologies which normalize the dispossession and erasure of Indigenous peoples  in stolen lands across North America. The pluriversity is also an important tool to refuse the white supremacist logics that erase Black scholars and thinkers from curricula, departments, and institutions throughout Europe and North America (see the work of Dr. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman at UCL in 2014 to dismantle whiteness in the UK academy (Grove 2015), among so many other scholars who draw attention to the erasure of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and POC) scholarship from the classroom).

This work of pluralizing and localizing our teaching goes beyond recognizing watersheds in the classroom. It requires that we ask how our universities came about. It demands that we query whose labour brought the bricks and mortar to stand. To outright acknowledge the entanglements of slavery, white supremacy, land theft, and exploitation that built and build academic institutions (see: Beckert et al. 2011). It requires an unflinching look at the strange and paradoxical universalities and specificities of dispossession, elimination, and slavery that animate universities across North America. (I can’t speak to embodied and visceral experiences in other continents, but work by Achille Mbembe (2015) and Hamid Dabashi (2015) makes explicit the need to unsettle the white supremacy of the university, philosophy, and academia across many localities).

As a Métis scholar and teacher, I’ve been working to develop ways to foster thoughtful and tender responses to the places, situations, relationships we find ourselves bound up within both within academe and beyond. However, I am wary here of the tendency to want to universalize our place-based interventions and apply them to contexts far-removed from the places and beings through which they are thought (to reference Watts’ (2013) important critique of euro-american misappropriation of Indigenous Place-Thought). At a talk last year, someone asked if my theoretical framing of ‘tenderness’ as an ethical response to violence could ‘travel’. I’m not sure that my theoretical work can or should ‘travel’, ie: be applied to contexts outside of those it grows from. My work is bound up with the specific histories, geographies, kinship relations, and responsibilities that I carry as a Métis woman born of and in amiskwaciwaskahikan and the Lake Winnipeg watershed. And now, my work is also embedded within my complex responsibilities as an uninvited guest in unceded Algonquin territory here within the Kitchissibi (Ottawa River). To this end, I’m doing my best to explore the teachings Red River Métis share through our stories, laws, and histories about how to be good visitors in other people’s territories. This is a principle – this importance of visiting and being a good relation in other people’s territories – I hope to foster within my pedagogy as an anthropology teacher. However, I do hope that our specific place-based interventions encourage people to work hard to understand and tend to the specific stories and narratives of the places they live in.

So, in this sense, I wouldn’t expect my work to be universally applicable to other contexts because it is so deeply entangled with very specific and charismatic human and more-than-human beings with whom I have ongoing reciprocal relationships. I would hope that the work I do is useful in ways that are nurturing and inspiring to others, but I also hope that we can celebrate pluralities of understandings of how to do our work as anthropologists. In the same way that my work as an Indigenous feminist in Canada contributes to Indigenous feminisms (the plural acknowledges the dynamic and diverse philosophical and legal-ethical paradigms that inform Indigenous experiences across Canada), I see my work as an anthropologist contributing not to anthropology, but to anthropologies. In the pluriversity, we are co-constituting rich and dynamic ecologies of thinking and action that cannot be easily translated across the vast territories we occupy. But thinking across pluralities enables us to be more cognizant of the responsibilities we hold to and across these places.

So how do I make explicit the entanglements of the scholarship we’re reading and studying within the classroom with the lands/waters/environments this scholarship is produced within? I suppose it starts with unsettling our expectations that we can offer uniform anthropologies across North American institutions. Instead we need to ask ourselves what it means to teach in the specific places we find ourselves, and to make explicit the histories, materialities, and trajectories of the places we teach within. To tend to the human and more-than-human realities that shape those places. To commit ourselves to an ‘ethical orientation’ (a phrase I borrow here from Donald (2010))  towards, and involvement in, the life and livelihoods of these places. And by this, I mean we commit to an unambiguous political orientation to nurturing reciprocal and caring possibilities in these places we live and work. One possible way to support such an approach is to encourage universities to engage in land-based pedagogical programming. To teach students about the specific histories of the places within which they are studying. In Indigenous Studies programs across Canada, there is careful and nuanced support for land-based pedagogy programs that bring together academic institutions and Indigenous communities (see for example the work of Indigenous colleagues at the University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan, and Dechinta). My workplace isn’t quite at the point of developing such a program, and to do so would necessarily require very care-full and thoughtful engagement with local Algonquin communities to develop programs that are deeply informed by Algonquin philosophy, language, legal traditions, and human-environmental knowledge. Perhaps in the future it will be possible to build such a program.

What I have learned in my first two years as an anthropology prof is that it is so very important for us to nurture pedagogies that enable students, communities, and institutions to speak of, and across, the dynamic experiences that shape their specific localities and entanglements. So as I finalize my course syllabi in the waning weeks of summer vacation, I’ll be thinking hard about how to offer course material that is attentive, and responsible, to this particular territory, its histories, and its co-constituents. I’ll be doing my best to enthusiastically embrace the pluriversity and the unique nodes of thinking and being that are possible here, now. My dream is to foster classrooms and programs that strengthen our relationships to place, and acknowledge our reciprocal responsibilities to the communities whose territories we are so fortunate to live and work in. And, perhaps naively, I still believe we can accomplish this tender reciprocity to people in place in our teaching, and I send out my solidarity and support to all of you as you enter the classroom to accomplish this mission anew this fall.

Addendum: this piece was written a few weeks ago. In light of ongoing white supremacist events/violence in the US, I also have to ask “how do we bring the specificities of place and time in the locations that we teach into broad and powerful conversations about how to dismantle white supremacy in the academy across North America? How do we work across the local realities in the cities and towns where we are employed in order to make sure students don’t dismiss these systemic realities as something that is reserved for ‘the deep South’ or ‘that other city’, but in fact encourage our students to look at the ways in which white supremacy has manifested and maintained the settler colonial nation-state in myriad and specific ways across the entire North American continent and beyond?”. I’ll be thinking about the interlinkages of Charlottesville, Trump, the KKK and the socio-historical specificities of settler-colonization and white supremacy in my current hometown as I develop my syllabi this week. And I’ll be doing my best to encourage students to think about the entanglement of local realities and global events while they study anthropology.

Works Cited

Beckert, Steve, Stevens, Katherine and the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar. 2011. Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History. Retrieved August 19, 2017. (http://www.harvardandslavery.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Harvard-Slavery-Book-111110.pdf).

Dabashi, Hamid. 2015. Can Non-Europeans Think? London: Zed Books.

Donald, Dwayne. 2009. “Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: Imagining
Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts.” First
Nations Perspectives 2 1: 1-24.

Donald, Dwayne. 2010. “On What Terms Can We Speak?” Lecture at the University
of Lethbridge. Retrieved December 05, 2014 (www.vimeo.com/15264558).

Grove, Jack. (2015). “Rejected MA was too critical of white establishment, says academic”. Times Higher Education,  May 2015. Retrieved August 19, 2017. (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/rejected-ma-was-too-critical-of-white-establishment-says-academic/2020316.article).

Mbembe, Achille. 2015. “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.”
Lecture. May 2, 2015 at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.
Retrieved August 19, 2017.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler
States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the
possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Watts, Vanessa. 2013. “Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency amongst Humans and
Non-humans First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European Tour!” DIES:
Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education and Society 2(1): 20–34.

Great anthropologists who fought fascism

Some of you who — unlike me — have not had family members murdered by nazis or had every synagogue in their home town firebombed in the same night may now be learning about antifa for the first time. But although it’s making waves in the media now, antifascist action has a century-long history which includes many anthropologists, who have fought fascism not by writing letters to the New York Times or retweeting an animated .gif but by putting their lives on the line.

As histories of antifascist action document, antifa is a fundamentally illiberal political movement which seeks to oppose fascism by any means necessary — including violence. For this reason, I can’t stress enough that I am opposed to antifa in the United States at the moment because I am opposed to violence, which is both against my values and tactically and strategically against our interests at this point in time given the mood of the country. But in different times and different places the threat of fascism was so dire that violent resistance was necessary. And in those moments, anthropologists acted bravely and with honor. Continue reading

Anthropologists need to address the Google memo on its merits. Again.

When Google engineer James Damore wrote his now-infamous memo about how woman are naturally unsuited to work at Google, anthropologists everywhere groaned inwardly. Our discipline’s lot in life is tragic. After about a century of research, we have a pretty good understanding of how human beings work. And yet, our findings run counter to what the average American’s ideas about how society and culture function. As a result, we face the unenviable task of having to constantly explain, over and over again, generation in and generation out, our truths to a skeptical public. It sucks. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and walk away from discussion. But we have no choice: Our integrity as scholars and scientists demands that we wade in to every public debate about race, gender, and human nature in order to explain — once again — how people actually work.

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Illustrated Man #10: The Vision

I first started blogging about anthropology and comic books back in 2012 in an occasional series titled Illustrated Man. It lasted for about nine posts before petering out as other projects demanded my attention, especially going back to grad school to pick up a Masters after completing my doctorate. While I stopped blogging about them I never stopped reading comics.

Now a professional librarian, my engagement with comics is changing again as I begin serving on a graphic novel book prize committee for my state professional association. It’s time to shake off the rust and get to writing again! So welcome to The Return of Illustrated Man. For our first installment I’ll be taking up a subject neglected in the original run, superheroes, with a review of The Vision: Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast (2016).


Marvel fans know Vision as one of the oldest characters of the Avengers, his Silver Age origins dating back to 1968. Despite his longevity Vision is not a heavy hitter among the superstar Marvel heroes and is typically only seen in the context of the Avengers group. I mean, he’s no Wolverine or Spider-Man. Casual fans may recognize him as a supporting character from the recent blockbusters Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Perhaps because of his status as a relatively minor character in the Marvel canon, Vision was ripe for a reimagining and his latest iteration, a twelve issue run from 2016 now collected in two trade paperbacks, is stellar.

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Pacific Islanders will pay the price for Trump and Kim’s nuclear escalation

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s war of words is threatening to become a real nuclear war as North Korea has announced that it is seriously considering attacking Guam. This reckless escalation of tension is profoundly frightening to everyone. But one group who will suffer from this potential attack has not gotten enough attention: Indigenous Chamorro people who have had little choice but to live with the US’s massive military buildup on their island, and its consequences.

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It’s not hip to be square

I see shows like Star Trek as emblematic of a transitional period in American masculinity — at least on TV. The 50’s would have been pure Kirk, with a woman on every planet and an ability to knock out foes with a one-two punch. After the 70’s we got numerous examples of Spock, with his faith in science and confusion around emotions (not to mention women). There is a direct line from Spock to Seinfeld, and it goes through Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, and Huey Lewis And The News. The overwhelming message of my childhood was that it was “hip to be square.”

There is something to be said for this change. The confusion over emotions and social norms allowed men to be emotional and sensitive. Alien women may have objectified, but race (supposedly) no longer mattered. But the figure of the clueless scientist who just doesn’t understand women is not harmless. An obvious example is someone like nerd-hero Richard Feynman who was confused as to why women wouldn’t trade sex for sandwiches. The sexist culture that seems to exist within companies like Uber and Google makes it difficult for women in those industries, and arguably affects the kind of products and services offered by tech companies. Twitter’s foot dragging on the issue of online harassment is a good example of this.

There is a debate within linguistic anthropology which helps explain just what is wrong with our society’s continued celebration of the clueless naiveté of nerd culture. Continue reading

Searching for Solutions to Climate Change Risks in the Peruvian Andes

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Courtney Cecale

Climate change has arrived in the Cordillera Blanca. Since 1970, this high altitude mountain range with the largest concentration of tropical glaciers in the world has lost around 30% of its icy mass (or around 200km²). The flowing meltwater converges into hundreds of new high alpine lakes, many of which grow overfull and unstable with each passing year. In a place already notorious for one of the worst environmental disasters in history (killing over 20,000 people), the consequences of further melt from climate change are potentially catastrophic. But in the last 15 months of fieldwork research here, climate change has taken multiple other forms — less sensational than a disastrous flood, but alarming and life threatening none the less.  Continue reading

Re-materializing the Immaterial Economy: Sareeta Amrute’s Encoding Race, Encoding Class

(This occasional post is a book review that comes to us from Alisha Wilkinson and Meg Stalcup. Meg Stalcup is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Ottawa, where she heads the Collaboratoire d’Anthropologie Multimédia (CAM/MAC). Alisha Wilkinson is a senior in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa. Next year she will work in Peru, before starting graduate work in anthropology. I’m very excited to see undergraduates publishing on Anthrodendum, and hope to see more work like this in the future! -Rx)

All ethnographies, perhaps, contain some mystery: of how humans understand each other, or the way that words and glances, observations and encounters are turned into insights about what it means to be human at a given moment in history. But Sareeta Amrute’s Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin begins with a proper mystery, a person who has disappeared, and this literally missing body adroitly stages the subsequent exploration of IT workers’ missing bodies in scholarship on cognitive labor.

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Ethnographic Films: A Family of Resemblances

This is the third post in my series on the definition of “ethnographic film.” In the first post I laid out the basic approach I am using: one based on Umberto Eco’s model of listing a “family of resemblances” rather than offering a strict test of a film’s “ethnographicness.” In the second post I showed how this would work in practice, based on a rough sketch of the “family of resemblances” I will be outlining in more detail here.

Before I do that, however, I’d like to take a moment to point readers to Carole McGranahan’s 2012 post “What Makes Something Ethnographic?” There she provides a list of nine features generated by her class. One of the points of she makes is that these features are constantly changing and evolving. This is why, in defining ethnographic film, I chose to dodge the bullet by avoiding the question altogether! Letting others deal with that problem is the easy way out, I don’t deny it; but it also allows me to articulate a definition that can change along with the discipline. Looking back at previous attempts to define ethnographic film, many of them strike me as having been dated before the ink even dried on the paper. Hopefully this more flexible approach can avoid that fate.

And now on to the list! If you feel I missed an important feature, or overlooked something, please let me know in the comments. Continue reading

Stepping Down from Savage Minds

I’m sad to announce that I am leaving Savage Minds.

Long-time readers have noticed that I have posted less and less frequently over the years, with my last post being over two years ago now. Part of this is just that I’m busy — I’m the executive director of a fast-growing museum with too little staff and too little resources (your basic museum, that is…) and it leaves little time for “extracurricular” activities.

But more than that, as we’ve been discussing changing the name of the site, we’ve naturally also been discussing the future direction of the site, and it’s become more and more clear that I don’t really have much to contribute. When we started Savage Minds, our goal was to apply anthropological understandings to the world around us in a way that was accessible to the general lay reader. Over the years, as my colleagues have gone from grad students to junior faculty to tenured professors, and as we’ve added new members and visiting writers from across the field, the focus of the site has naturally changed. Today’s Savage Minds (and tomorrow’s Anthrodendum) functions far more as a watercooler for anthropologists, with discussions of AAA resolutions and internal review boards and publishing standards.

And that’s fine. The anthropology community obviously needs that kind of place, judging by the reception and accolades Savage Minds has received within the field. At its best, Savage Minds provides a forum for multi-vocal discussions of issues that deeply affect the discipline and our ability to do the work it demands.

That’s just not the kind of work I can play much of a role in. While I still teach an intro to anthro class every semester at the local community college, I simply cannot keep up with the literature in the field. Running a museum means keeping up with a whole different literature, dealing with security, facilities maintenance, retail practices, product development, staff training, legal compliance, financial record-keeping, conservation, cataloguing, text label design, and so on. Only a small percentage of my job, the part dealing with the actual content of our collection and the social contexts which produced it, draws on my anthropological training — and generally my work there deals with interpreting the history we represent for a general lay audience, not other academics and professionals.

So with a name change on the horizon, and all that it represents, now seems like a good time to make my exit. I’m proud to have been a founding member of Savage Minds and I’m proud of the contributions I’ve made to the site, and I’m proud of my fellow Minds for the work they’ve done to make Savage Minds an indispensable anthropological resource. When we set out to create this site, we felt that “blogging”, then a new phenomenon in the world, had an important role to play for anthropology, and I think the last 11 years have proven that feeling correct over and over.

Thank you to all the readers and to my fellow Minds for letting me be a part of Savage Minds. I look forward to watching the site continue to grow and evolve with the field. And if you’re ever in Las Vegas, be sure to drop by the Burlesque Hall of Fame (soon to be in it’s new home at 1027 South Main Street!) and say “hi”.

Perspectives: An Open Access Intro Anthro Textbook

(This guest post by Nina Brown, Thomas McIlwraith, and Laura Tubelle de González announces the launch of what I believe is the first open access textbook for an introduction to cultural anthropology course. I’ve blogged about this textbook before so I’m very excited that it is now available!)

The Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges (SACC) is pleased to announce the publication of Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology (ISBN 978–1-931303–55–2), an open access, peer-reviewed cultural anthropology textbook. The initiative to create this book took shape in 2012 when several SACC members identified a need in our community college classes for less expensive teaching materials. From our inception in the 1970s, SACC has supported lower income and first generation college learners and this book fits with that orientation and concern. We believe strongly, however, that this is a good introductory textbook and that it is suitable for first year classes in cultural anthropology at any post-secondary institution. Continue reading

The Four Dimensions of Ethnographic Films

In my last post I argued that rather than choosing between overly narrow (“closed”) or overly broad (“open”) definitions of ethnographic film, it would be better to follow Uberto Eco’s model of listing a “family of resemblances.” This would consist of a list of features that make a film “ethnographic” but without any two ethnographic films necessarily sharing the exact same list of features. When I wrote that I had a draft list of about sixteen features I had been working on. I had planned to prune it down a bit and sharing it with you today; however, upon further reflection it occurred to me that the longer list could be grouped into four broad categories, or “dimensions,” as follows:

  • Discipline: features related to the discipline of anthropology (e.g. films made by anthropologists)
  • Norms: features related to the norms and practices of ethnographic research (e.g. research ethics)
  • Subject: features related to the topics and peoples discussed in the anthropological literature (e.g. films by or about nomadic peoples)
  • Genre: features related to the various styles associated with the genre of ethnographic film (e.g. “reflexivity”) Continue reading

“To Peace, Because the Awful Alternative is the End of All Life”: Build Bomb–Explore Space(s)–Save World! (Part 2)

This two-part post is a collaborative authorship between Taylor R. Genovese and Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. For more on Martin’s work see his blog Deus Ex Atomica and his personal Twitter account @NuclearAnthro.

In Part 1, we analyzed nuclear weapon and defense industry advertisements from 1950-1964 to demonstrate the fundamentally, and publically imagined, imbrications of spaces exploration and U.S. military supremacy. In Part 2 we continue with a deeper theoretical examination of technoutopian spaces imaginaries. Although in this post we make use of colloquialisms like “Space Race,” “Ocean Race,” and “Earth Race,” we do not accept the real-world separations they imply. We argue, as per our discussion in Part 1, that these spaces explorations were fundamentally aspects of the same underlying colonial and militarist processes.

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Do we even need to define ethnographic film?

Before this year I never felt the need to come up with a clear definition for what counts as an “ethnographic film.” Constructing better pigeonholes only seems to be of use to the gatekeepers who get to decide which films count and which do not. I still think that’s true, but this year I became one of those gatekeepers! As programmer for the 2017 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival I suddenly found myself needing to articulate some kind of working definition that could be communicated to filmmakers, distributors, festival judges, etc. so that everyone understood what did or did not count as an “ethnographic film” for the purpose of this festival. I failed.

The best I could offer was “I know one when I see one” but this definition cost me dearly. We had over 1,500 entries for the festival, and it took a lot of work to weed out which of those films would go on to the judges and which would not. In the end about two thirds of the films were rejected in the first round. In many cases we only needed to read the film description or watch a few minutes to know that it wasn’t right for the festival. In other cases I ended up watching the whole film before deciding. It was a lot of work.

To be honest, I don’t know if a better definition would really have helped. Festival submissions are free1 and a lot of filmmakers don’t bother to read the rules before submitting. Many of the rejected films didn’t even meet the most basic entry requirements listed on the submissions page, and hundreds of them were clearly scripted dramas with no claims to being the slightest bit anthropological or ethnographic. Still, the whole process got me thinking about how I would go about trying to define ethnographic film. Here’s what I came up with. I’m posting this in two parts. Today I’ll set out my goals for such a definition, including my overall approach. In a later post I plan to actually sketch out what such a definition might look like. Continue reading

Surfing vs. the commodification of everything

Tom Curren, logo-free, 1991. Photography by Tom Servais.

Do you ever think about the first time a concept really stuck for you? Not the first time you heard of the concept, but rather the first time it resonated and had meaning. I think about this all the time. We are inundated with a flood of ideas and words all the time, but what makes them stick? What memories or experiences make this possible? Take, for example, the concept of “commodification,” an idea that always gets me thinking about the strange, complex, symbolic, abstracting behaviors of humans.

Commodification. I think I know the moment I was first confronted with that strange idea…but I didn’t really know it at the time. I just knew there was something there, something equally fascinating and revolting, that needed to be examined, picked apart, and dissected. It happened in the early 1990s. I was 16 years old. I remember opening a copy of a new surfing magazine, and laying my eyes on the photograph above, taken by photographer Tom Servais, of the greatest surfer of all time,[1] riding a logo-free surfboard in full defiance of the (then) highly commercialized world of professional surfing. Continue reading