Having this opportunity to contribute to “Savage Minds” gives me great pleasure. Not only is it an unusually lively and vibrant anthropology site which takes on many questions that interest me; but the blog may indeed be the only truly new literary form to have emerged from the Internet. Just as email is intermediate between the letter and the chat on the phone, the blog is neither-nor, but with a residue of both-and. It contains elements of the diary, the seminar discussion, the tearoom chat, the written review or commentary, and the speech.
I should point out that although I have been running my own website for ten years now (nearly to a day), this is in fact not only my first posting on this site, but it is indeed my first attempt to write a blog ever. Perhaps I remain, in my heart of hearts, an unreformed child of Gutenberg; truth to tell, I have largely used my website to disseminate texts which have previously been printed. No real innovation there, in other words. I also write an occasional newsletter on my site, but the only interactivity involved amounts to email correspondence with readers. Oh yes, there is, finally, a section of the website called “Network”, which was initially conceived as an experimental area, but which – five years on – only contains a hypertext version of my 1999 novel.
I expect to submit a handful of blogs on a daily or bi-daily basis for a week or two, and my chosen topic is a staple on this site, namely the role of anthropologists and anthropology in a wider public sphere. It is strange and ironic that contemporary anthropology is an elusive and deeply academic discipline with few points of contact with a wider public sphere. The anthropological way of looking at the world is so crucial in this day and age, not just for enriching the public understanding of the world, but also as a means to make it a slightly better place, that it is high time we began to take it seriously. Stepping out of our secluded spaces is risky, you get your hands dirty, you hardly earn any credit points for your institution, you end up being misunderstood and quoted out of context; and at the same time, we have a collective duty to participate in impure ways. In my experience, anthropologists are generally really good at talking amongst themselves, but less skilful when it comes to mixing well with non-anthropologists. The discussion on SM about Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”, to take a recent example, may not tell us a lot about Diamond, but it reveals quite a bit about the attitude taken by anthropologists confronted by people who seem to be invading their fields.
Rather than – or, better, in addition to – castigating Diamond for his oversimplifications (my first reaction to the book, which I quite enjoyed in spite of its irritating determinism, was that this smacks of Marvin Harris), we should be asking ourselves what it is that he does that we could learn from. Why is it that this influential, bestselling book was not written by a social or cultural anthropologist (in which case it would probably have been more nuanced)? Have we become too sophisticated to ask simple questions, like Diamond does, which engage a wide public? If that is the case, I fear that John Brockman, the popular science publisher and editor, might include anthropology when he laments (in the introduction to his “The Third Culture“) that the humanities have long ceased to raise questions which interest non-specialists; that humanities scholars are making themselves busy squaring the circle while others (he has natural scientists in mind) explore problems of political and existential significance.
The kind of anthropology I have in mind is transparent, open-ended and lucid; it is capable of producing pageturners in addition to more arcane monographs, and it has the confidence to produce fast, provocative comments on anything from transnational terrorism to neo-liberalism and cosmetic surgery without fearing that such frivolities undermine scholarly claims to substantial knowledge. We have the power to supply the world with a few drops of complexity now and then, and you know as well as I do that they are needed. I recently published a book on these and related issues, called “Engaging Anthropology“. Instead of repeating myself, I’ll make a new proposal for productive public engagement in each posting on this site. Tomorrow, I’ll give you the story of a sport club in Drammen (a town near Oslo, where I live) and its struggles to incorporate minority children in its activities, and suggest how anthropologists might intervene. It goes without saying that I’m keen to receive your views, objections and suggestions as we go along.