4 blurry days in DC

Just a brief post to second the feeling that being at the AAA this year was mostly an oxygen-poor struggle to remember what it was I had planned to do before getting on the plane. In my case, only now can I recall what it was that I intended to do, and failed to follow through on. One word of advice for my fellow Minds, bringing your baby daughter to the AAA is enormous fun, but it has the effect of making half-baked 15 minute presentations appear thoroughly uncooked and downright impossible to follow. Needless to say, of the four panels I went to, two of them were my own. Don’t ask me about the other two.

I am most disappointed that I failed to make the SM party, especially since I really prefer to see people in the leather, as it were. But alas, I was having a gay time wiping snot out of my daughter’s eyes. I did get to catch up with Rex, which was delightful, and fortunately, attended no job interviews. I look forward to my next chance to meet everyone…

In related news, I would like to note that during one of my conversations with an editor from a Prestigious University Press, I was told that anthropology books had little chance of being picked up by bookstores like Kramers until the discipline deals with the fact that it has “shot itself not in the foot, but in the head.” I figured it was unwise to pursue the conversation because I need cynicism on my side, not taunting me from beyond tenure…


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

19 thoughts on “4 blurry days in DC

  1. I was told that anthropology books had little chance of being picked up by bookstores like Kramers until the discipline deals with the fact that it has “shot itself not in the foot, but in the head.”

    Grant McCracken, whom some of us know as the author of Culture and Consumption is an anthropologist turned marketing guru. On his blog McCracken writes,

    We have a problem in higher education. Students must now choose between cultural studies and professional studies (specifically, business school).

    If they choose the former, they swear off real engagement (and full employment) in the world. If they choose latter, they swear off a deeper knowledge of the culture in which they will compete.

    This is a long standing problem. It plays out that distinction between the “world renouncing” liberal arts and the “world embracng” professional studies. But it is a problem that has been made more grevious by two things: the continual retreat from the world performed by cultural studies and the continual interpenetration of culture and commerce in the marketplace. The rapproachment of the two fields is, in other words, both more difficult and more urgent.

    Let me put this more concretely. Most business schools do nothing to advance the cultural literacy of the MBA graduate. This despite the fact that success in marketing, innovation, management and the capital markets now turns more and more on a mastery here. I noticed this particularly at the Harvard Business School, where almost without exception knowledge of contemporary culture is excluded from the classroom. Occasionally, when teaching there, I would make a contemporary culture reference (Righteous Babe Records, the early long tail experiment by Ani DiFranco, say). Students would look at me in astonishment, either because they had never heard of Ms. DiFranco, or because they knew her music perfectly well but never “in a million years” expected to hear her name spoken at HBS.

    I am on record at believing that cultural studies has stystematically removed itself not just from real world usefulness but from any intellectual vantage point that would allow us thoughtfully to examine, as opposed tediously to condemn, the interactions of culture and commerce.[Emphasis added]

    The question has long been who would step up and create a program in the excluded middle? Who would establish a rapprochment between these two worlds? Who would create a program that was fully informed and fully engaged?

    Anyone else but me see a connection here?

  2. Woah — I know _Culture and Consumption_ well. He’s the one responsible for “This Blog Sits At?” That’s crazy. I never could figure out where that author came from. I guess now I know.

  3. FYI, from IT Conversations,

    Grant McCracken holds a PhD in anthropology from The University of Chicago. He is the author of Culture and Consumption, The Long Interview and Big Hair. He was the founding director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) and has recently taught at McGill University and Harvard Business School. Born and raised in Vancouver, BC, Grant’s resume also includes stints as a phonebook proofreader and chauffeur to a Hollywood star.

    In response to a question on anthro-L about what makes the sort of thing that McCracken and other corporate anthropologists do different from conventional market research, I wrote,

    The simplest answer answer is that “the kind of market research that’s existed since the early twentieth century” is mostly surveys and focus groups informed by theory from social psychology. The result has been a declining fraction of the kind of fresh insight that marketers need in an increasingly crowded marketplace. The better corporate anthropologists—and IMHO McCracken is very good indeed—combine streetwise ethnography with an anthropological sensibility that generates, if not always fresh insights, at least fresh angles.

  4. But surely, John, if the question is whether anthro books are interesting to bookstores, then McCracken’s indiscriminate anathema against cultural studies is beside the point. I can think of any number of anthro books that “thoughtfully [] examine […] the interactions of culture and commerce,” without a word of tedious condemnation.

    Which are the tedious condemnations of “the interactions of culture and commerce” that McCracken is pointing at?

  5. Thanks MT.

    Thing is, it’s not difficult to think of work that could be considered tedious in its condemnations of commerce (I’d start with Mauss) or, to pick up on the Steve point on “This Blog Sits…”, overly-reliant on an “oppression/resistance template.” In fact if you follow cultural studiesish work, people have recognized this as a problem for some time.

    I guess this is not an argument that really needs making on this blog, but one gets tired of arguments against “cultural studies” or “postmodernism” that take one or two hazily-remembered examples and make them stand for large and variegated literatures.

  6. Hi, Colin. Would you care to offer a short list? (This isn’t a rhetorical question, I am always on the lookout for good books to read.)

    That said, let’s try for a moment to put aside the defensiveness and act like anthropologists. Between ckelty’s original post and my quote from Grant McCracken, we have two data points, two examples of what Vic Turner called “native exegesis.” One is a comment from an individual described as the editor of a prestigious university press, the other a comment from someone who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from U. of Chicago, has founded a program on contemporary culture at a major museum and teaches at McGill and Harvard Business School. Their opinions may be outliers, but neither can be dismissed as wholly uninformed.

    In my case, I would add a memory of an article that appeared a year or so ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where a Harvard University Press editor mentioned that the average sales of a monograph in the humanities and social sciences is around 700 volumes. So the issue may not be confined to anthropology.

    Still, the strongest evidence to me is what I encounter every time I return to the States and make a beeline for the nearest Borders or Barnes & Noble to see what’s new on the shelves. For years the anthropology has been mainly what people in my generation see as classics. You can still find Malinowski and Ruth Benedict, Claude Levi-Strauss and Clifford Geertz, but rarely will you find anything by any anthropologist more recent—and, if you do, it will be gone the next time I travel to the States. This, too, may simply reflect that fact that the overwhelming majority of books are, as far as bookstores go, ephemeral—even the bestsellers come and go like mayflies. The disheartening thing is that there is no—at least when I look—accumulation of new classics, no new books by anthropologists that have risen to classic status, books that stay on the shelves year after year.

    And when is the last time you saw a book by an anthropologist on the tables at the front of the store, where the stores stock the books that they expect to sell well? (I may have, quite a while ago, seen one of Deborah Tannen’s books, on the argument culture or how men and women talk differently, otherwise I can’t name one.)

    These observations don’t, for a moment, make me leap to agree with Grant McCracken’s conclusions any more that it would make me leap to the conclusion that a Taiwanese farmer experiencing what appears to be an epileptic fit is an example of spirit possession (as David Jordan points out, his neighbors may have a lively discussion of whether he is (1) possessed by a god, (2) possessed by a ghost, (3) simply crazy, or (4) faking it—there being material advantages to being recognized as a medium).

    They do, however, make me unwilling to sputter, “But…but…but…” and conclude arbitrarily that the man is talking nonsense. I want to know what’s going on.

  7. Thanks John: I don’t have a good answer for why there aren’t new marquee names in anthro. There are certainly currently-active folks who are widely read across a number of disciplines, like say James Clifford, but I doubt he’s an author your native exegetes favor. My scholarly book-buying has largely moved to a specialist web bookseller, http://www.frontlist.com, so maybe I’m part of a fragmentation of the market.

    As to what’s going on, I’ve heard the view you report expressed by numerous exegetes native to a variety of disciplines (I’m trained in political economy) and with a curious *emotional* force disproportionate to what people have typically actually read. So I reach for a structural explanation. Some of it may just be generational. I was an undergrad during the golden age of poststructuralism in the late 1970s, so I read a lot of continental philosophy and stuff that draws on that makes sense to me. Some of it is a methodological divide, maybe a political one. I’m interested in gender, race, sexual norms, which means I take questions posed around them quite seriously. Others see these as epiphenomenal and/or uninteresting and/or distractions from class, and the divisions over that often get fought out in terms of post’isms. But I don’t mean tendentiously to suggest that’s the whole story.

    Re the short list, a few favorite books that approach commerce thoughtfully are:

    Billig, Michael. 2002. Barons, Brokers, and Buyers: The Institutions and Cultures of Philippine Sugar. U. Hawaii.

    Clark, Gracia. 1994. Onions Are my Husband. Chicago.

    Gudeman, Stephen and Alberto Rivera. 1990. Conversations in Colombia: The domestic economy in life and text. Cambridge.

    Halperin, Rhoda. 1990. The Livelihood of Kin: Making Ends Meet “The Kentucky Way” Austin: University of Texas Press.

    Hefner, Robert W. 1990. The Political Economy of Mountain Java. U. California.

    Oxfeld, Ellen. 1993. Blood, Sweat, and Mahjong: Family and Enterprise in an Overseas Chinese Community, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

    Yanagisako, Sylvia. 2002. Producing Culture and Capital: Family Firms in Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  8. Thanks, Colin. There goes my Amazon budget again.

    Since, however, I haven’t yet read the books, allow me to hazard a speculation, based on the titles alone, to how you and others respond to it.

    I can imagine a commodity trader being interested in the Billig, reading it in the way that I’ve had business students read Brian Moeran’s A Japanese Advertising Agency, i.e., intrigued by an inside account of a business in which they were interested but, alas, turned off by the references to anthropological theory.

    I’ve seen a fair amount of business press coverage of the family firms that dominate the haute couture/luxury brand industry in Italy, so I can also imagine a business audience for Yanagisako’s work.

    The others, based on titles alone, strike me as potentially appealing to a similar audience as that which reads, say, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed. The difficulty here is, as I know from being active in Democrats Abroad, that most people stateside with a serious interest in poverty or, more broadly, how people make ends meet at the lower end of the globalizing economy already have tons to read about people for whom ( whether it be for ethnic, regional, or whatever other reasons) they feel more concern. The books may be good ones but without a big idea (one thinks, for example, of Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital), it’s hard to see them attracting a lot of interest among a general readership or business reader audience.

  9. I don’t think that the claim about anthro books disappearing from the shelves has anything to do with anthropology’s utility as a marketing tool, or any failure to deal with the vagaries of commerce and culture… I think what the editor was suggesting is that there is no educated (read: intellectuals/academics who are not anthropologists) book-buying audience for anthro books such as their might be for american history, literature. Whatever cultural studies was, it hardly covers the range of anthro books, and their absense from kramers is hardly evidence of anthropolgists retreat from engaging the real world. It is, I think, intende to suggest that the world has retreated from the kind of analysis anthropologists offer, and the discipline, qua professional body, has not figured out how to deal with this.

    More interesting was the fact that the same editor suggested that many anthro books become better and better sellers as time goes on, and that it is impossible to know in the first two years, which books will be hits– which obviously conflicts with the fact that the entire publishing industry, including the academic presses, are organized around marketing and promoting books at their appearance, not at the point at which the discipline sorts the wheat from the chaff. That’s a fundamental conflict of interest, I say.

  10. Do we do *worse* than the publishing industry in general? what I mean by this is: if you take the number of anthro books published each year (or, say, cumulatively across 5 years) : anthro books that are “successful” by the relatively puny scale of the pointy-headed academic book market, is our ratio really so terrible? In the regular ol’ book world, every year there are a lot of pulped copies of failed mystery novels for every Da Vinci Code or whatever.

    Likewise, every scholarly generation has its egregious crimes against good sense and readability (componential analysis, anyone?). Elegantly phrased insight is always rare; if you add wit, all the more so. Marshall Sahlins is super famous because his writing stands out and has stood out for decades now — not because post-whateverism has turned everything to crap and there’s nothing worth reading anymore. Maybe too many books are being published that will never find a readership — but my guess is that the ratio of books *worth* reading to books published is more or less the same as it ever was.

    now I must go and jump around.

  11. Thanks for your response, John. Just to be clear, I was responding to the material you quoted from the orotund McCracken blog:

    I am on record as believing that cultural studies has systematically removed itself not just from real world usefulness but from any intellectual vantage point that would allow us thoughtfully to examine, as opposed tediously to condemn, the interactions of culture and commerce.

    The question has long been who would step up and create a program in the excluded middle? Who would establish a rapprochment between these two worlds? Who would create a program that was fully informed and fully engaged?”

    And this, in conjunction with your other initial data point, seemed to suggest that anthro as a whole, or that part of anthro which takes culture seriously, tediously condemns the interactions of culture and commerce. Another comment on the McCracken blog pointed that way too.

    So my theoretically-eclectic list is an effort to point out that this is nonsense. The rapprochement that McCracken tediously calls for, in multiple rhetorical questions, has in fact been ongoing for years. And there is plenty of older work like Geertz’ _Peddlers and Princes_ that is both culturally acute and sympathetic to commerce.

    So it can’t be that anthro books don’t sell because they hate commerce. On the much larger question of why people buy books, or what interests readers, I really know nothing, and speculative reader-response theory gets tendentious. I might point out, though, that with the arguable exception of Halperin none of the books on my little list is really about “poverty.” Hernando de Soto is an interesting figure, but anthro he’s not. We could just as well point out that self-help books outsell academic monographs.

  12. I’m not actually sure what’s so great about getting sold in Kramerbooks — Olsson’s down the street is, for my money, a much better bookstore. In any case, I don’t know if beating our heads against the wall for not producing airport reading is all that productive — as John McC. points out, across the humanities the average is only a few hundred copies. While certainly we can point to some useless work in the stacks of our local research library, surely a big chunk of that scholarship is important in one way or another — who among us doesn’t get all teary-eyed at the sight of a towering campus building filled basement to rooftop with books?

    There is room in our field for a Barbara Ehrenreich or, better yet, a Stephen J Gould — a space vacated by Harris, Benedict, Mead, Geertz (yeah, Geertz is still writing, but the “good stuff” is as old as I am) — but that shouldn’t be a standard applied across the discipline. Again, while I think we should be asking ourselves how some segment of our work might be made more accessible, it’s important that this issue applies not just to anthropology but to the humanities and social sciences as a whole — how many working economists (aside from Stieglitz) have books at Kramerbooks? How much contemporary literary criticism (aside from Bloom)?

    The answer to how to make anthropology more public doesn’t, I think, encompass only writing style — there are plenty of literary-minded anthros who write beautifully, such as Basso, whose work I don’t recall seeing at Kramerbooks. The issue runs a lot deeper than that — books in general aren’t a very popular medium for a large segment of American consumers (I don’t know about elsewhere). A lot of the issues that anthros care passionately about aren’t even on the radar of a lot of people — so most publisher’s marketing divisions aren’t going to see much of a market ourside of academia, so msot bookstore buyers aren’t ever going to hear about the book in the first place, let along prop it up on the New Releases table. So the question is, how do we build up a market, an audience — I don’t think “writing more accessible books” begins to address that.

  13. How? Talk to and obtain a good agent. Also it’s not just “accessibility” it’s “wow.” I can’t imagine the regular increments in anthro theory routinely appearing in Barnes & Noble. Look at what Malcom Gladwell does. Breathtaking ideas seem to be what publishers want. Or “high concept.” c.f. Dava Sobel’s longitude. The obstacle though is as much your peers as tastes in publishing. Carl Sagan was ostracized for becoming a popularizer. You and your ideas only deserve fame if it’s earned through peer competition before peers, is I think the unconscious sentiment: Publishing popularly is unfair competition. This suggests to me the challenge is to publish a proposed solution to something big with enthusiasm and confidence to carry along the lay person but with a humility and honesty of self-apraisal that won’t alienate your peers. e.g.ala “hey I’m just messing around here, maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, and by the way so-and-so has a pretty good idea too.” People who’ve already earned academic stardom “the honest way” have much less to worry about, it seems to me. Another tack is the sweeping review of the literature in an engaging style: Popularizing anthro or some big arena of anthro as a whole. But how many such books do we need? A couple every ten years? I think people can’t be bothered to keep up with what they perceive to be incremental progress or technical questions.

  14. Also obviously people like narratives and first person accounts. “My trip to New Guinea” vs.”Levi-Strauss’s hypothesis that (X-symbols-blah-blah) is supported by ceremonial gourd use in New Guinea.” Probably good to have a love affair while you’re there too.

  15. John McCreery: Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern is at the front of one of the bookstores I frequent. It’s not a chain bookstore though, it’s an independent one that seems to be hanging on against the giants. And it’s well-lit and all, it just needs a coffee shop to fully become like a big bookstore. Oh, and a giant chunk of the front is also fairly heavy stuff, there’s Habermass in there somewhere (Discourses on Modernity or whatever it was called).

  16. Thanks to everyone for confirming my impression that Savage Minds is the place to go for the best informed and most stimulating anthropological conversation on the Net. In that spirit I would like to continue the current discussion by taking up oneman’s insightful observation that,

    The question is, how do we build up a market, an audience—I don’t think “writing more accessible books” begins to address that.

    I agree. So, I offer for your consideration Ohnuki Takuya’s “Five Hurdles.” Ohnuki is one of Japan’s most successful advertising creatives—someone who has, in fact, succeeded dramatically in building up markets/audiences. His topic is advertising, not academic writing. But what he says, I believe, applies to communication in general and may, thus, inform our efforts to make anthropology not only more accessible but more attractive as well.

    1. Be Eye-Catching: In a world overwhelmed by information, you have to grab the audience’s attention.

    2. Make News: Unless you offer something new, even if only a new angle on an old subject, your work won’t be memorable.

    3. Keep It Simple: Too many people err in trying to achieve 1. and 2. by being too esoteric. In today’s busy world, people don’t have the time to figure out what you are trying to say.

    4. Add Value: Yes, you must add sizzle to the steak. Better yet is a sauce that makes the steak even more delicious. Remember, too, that criticizing the competition only subtracts value from them; it doesn’t add value to what you have to say.

    5. Move the Product: In the corporate world the Holy Grail is to boost sales. In other contexts, your aim might be to mobilize supporters for a cause or transform an academic discipline.

    WARNING: I have, I freely admit, adapted Ohnuki’s hurdles to fit our particular case instead of simply translating them.

    That said, it’s not too hard to see how they might apply to academic publishing.

    1. Does the title or cover art grab a non-academic reader?
    2. Does the content say something important and genuinely new TO THAT READER? [Put aside the fact that the author has invested years of her life in doing the research and writing the book and, naturally enough, is deeply invested in the value of what she has done. Put aside the fact that while the people she is writing about may now be people that, because of this investment, she cares deeply about. While an ordinary reader who reads this book find something in it that deeply touches him or her?]
    3. Is it easy to read? [The assertion that complex subjects demand complex language and complicated arguments is, IMHO, 99% bogus. Yes, there are subjects, quantum mechanics for example, where George Steiner’s observation that science has moved to a place inaccessible to ordinary language is entirely accurate. But anthropology? There is no excuse for writing less easy to read than, say, Stephen Gould.]
    4. Does the book transform THE READER’s sense of self or the world that we share?
    5. Does THE READER end the book more interested in anthropology and eager to learn more? [If the answer is “No,” the author is only preaching to the choir.]

    One can’t help thinking that if these sorts of criteria were given equal weight with citing everyone who will turn nasty if their names don’t appear in the references and using the latest “theory,” a.k.a., professional jargon, anthropology might be more influential.

  17. I was just going to comment briefly that anthropology texts seem to have a better chance if they’re marketed topically. Books about sex, war (or non-violence), religion, drugs and drug culture, etc. that are essentially clear of excessive jargon seem to stand a good shot at competing with other books on the shelves.

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  19. manmakeshimself makes a shrewd point about marketing books topically. I remember how disgruntled I felt when Curzon Press insisted on making “Japanese Consumer Behavior” the title of my book, reducing my “From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers” to a subtitle. Then it was explained to me that in this age of Internet searches you want the key words that people will be searching for right up front. Seems to have worked. Have sold more than 2,000 in a marketplace where, as I mentioned before, the average sales of academic monographs tends to be around 700.

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