A friend of mine keeps harping about The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archeology of the 1980s by Kent Flannery, so I’ve finally read it. The article describes a meeting between four archaeologists. The narrator is an archaeological Everyman, trying to find his way in the ebb and flow of theoretical fads, empiricism’s rising and falling esteem, and a changing academic landscape. Into his life come the Born-Again Phiolosopher, a poor fieldworker who discovered fame and fortune in the critique of others and the development of universal Laws; the Child of the Seventies, driven by blind ambition and making his career by repackaging (and sometimes stealing) the work of others; and the Old Timer, a down-in-the-dirt hands-on fieldworker (think Jack Palance in City Slickers
) recently forced into retirement by his department for his atavistic faith in culture as a unifying anthropological concept.
I’ll let you read the article — it’s quite amusing — but I want to highlight one of the Old Timer’s responses to the Child of the Seventies’ desire for some kind of relevance to the world outside of archaeology:
“…What does the world really want from archaeology?
“If I turn on a television, or walk through a paperback bookstore, I’ll tell you what I see. I see that what the world wants is for archeology to teach it something about humanity’s past. The world doesn’t want epistemology from us. They want to hear about Olduvai Gorge, and Stonehenge, and Macchu Picchu. People are gradually becoming aware that their first three million years took place before written history, and they look to archeology as the only science — the only one — with the power to uncover that past.”
I can’t endorse this wholeheartedly — I think there’s something to be said for epistemology, though it’s surely not the main gist of either archaeology or ethnology, and I think we should be wary about the desire for consumable romanticism among the public. That said, though, I think it’s a useful question when thinking about what a “public anthropology” might look like. What does the world really want from anthropology?
Here’s my tentative and necessarily incomplete stab at an answer:
- They want tales, descriptions, and souvenirs of the strange and exotic. Some people read anthropology like others read fantasy novels or romances — as a kind of escape from their everyday world. As noted, there’s a danger in this — few anthropologists want to be guilty of packaging exoticism for easy consumption by a bored or frustrated audience. But we may as well acknowledge that this is one thing that people want of us. Fortunately, I think they want more than that, too.
- They want understanding of people whose lifestyles and beliefs strike them as strange, exotic, and even threatening and wrong-headed. I don’t think this is merely wishful thinking on my part — people actually do want to understand. Maybe not all people, maybe not all the time, but at least some people want to understand the world that lays beyond their immediate experience.
- They want security. This follows from the above — if the strange and alien can be understood as rational and even normal, it follows that it becomes less threatening.
- They want solutions to the social problems around them, or at least the possibility of solutions. People want to know that the problems they see in their societies are not inevitable, that they are solvable and that someone is working to understand these problems and propose solutions.
- They want the satisfaction of knowing that they are not racists. This is a hard one — I think many people immerse themselves in anthropological and other social scientific writings to reassure themselves that they are not prejudiced, something like Ozma’s take on the reception of Guns, Germs, and Steel.
- They want to understand their place in the world. People want to know, in the words of the poet in Wings of Desire, “Why am I me, and not you? Why am I here and not there?’When did time begin and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun nothing but a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear and smell just a vision of a world before the world? Does evil really exist and are there people who are really evil? How can it be that I, who is me, wasn’t there before I was? And that one day I, who is me, shall no longer be what I am now?”
- They want to know about the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, we have little to offer in this regard.
As I said, this is a tentative, off-the-top-of-my-head approach to the question, but I think it’s a question well worth asking as we as a discipline and as individuals consider what we have to offer to our society as a whole. Not all anthropology has to be public anthropology, of course — much of the internal debate, what the Old Timer refers to scorningly as “epistemology”, can certainly be carried out “behind closed doors”, as it were — but I don’t think most of us get involved in anthropology just to argue the ins and outs of logical positivism. I think we generally have a desire to make some sense out of our increasingly global society, and to share that sense with those beyond our disciplinary boundaries. If this is the case, then, asking ourselves what our would-be audience wants and expects of us is certainly warranted. I would like to know how others would answer the question — and maybe how (or whether) we can live up to those answers.