Savage Minds and the anthropological ground zero

(in a “recent comment”:/2008/03/19/new-sm-feature-occasional-contributors/#comment-255038 reader Dylan Kerrigan comented that he thought Savage Minds was too Euro-American. We asked him to write an occasional piece amplifying his thoughts on this matter, and we present it here -R)

Now I’m not the first person to identify a particular anthropological tradition emanating from the ‘West’ that defines what is called ‘anthropology’.

I’m not the first to rant about the dominance of a Euro-American worldview – with its accompanying (selective) modes of funding, disciplinary canon and research areas – that (I believe) pervades anthropology and the discipline uses to ‘construct reality.’

I’m not the only person on SM either to allude to such suggestions – Kerim’s timely abstract for AAA, and peanut’s comments for example both reflect a similar sense to my own.

In the wider published anthro-scape too, authors like Restrepo, Escobar and Ribeiro in particular with their ‘World Anthropology Network’ have written on this problem, its realities and the possibilities of dialogue, for the last 15 years.

In particular they ask how do places not necessarily English-speaking or dominant in the production of anthropological tradition, places like Latin America and the Caribbean, complicate the picture of a hegemonic anthropology that historically comes from the metropolitan centre?

And how can they help to envision an anthropology beyond the modalities, models and conditions already consolidated in Britain, France and the US, and spread throughout the world by the expansion of the Western university system?

While these allusions may at first seem like a rehashing of familiar watersheds – Dell Hymes or Talal Asad or the Writing Culture debate and more (studying up, anthropology with an accent, native anthropology etc.) – that is not the case either.

This is not an argument about one tradition as a truer producer of anthropological knowledge than another. Of ‘us’ being better than ‘them’ or the powerless writing back to the powerful.

It is rather the claim that some voices are louder, and speak more often, than others.

That some ideas, concepts and bibliographies have more paradigmatic weight.

And that the simple everyday repetition of such conventions has pedagogical consequences that determine the quality of students we produce, the anthropologists we create and the way we envision the future. Basically, some discursive formations and institutional practices are normalised over others.

For example, all anthropologists study the history of anthropology as defined by the West yet not all anthropologists study knowledge produced by anthropologists outside the Western canon.

I believe that students should not all be reading from the same hegemonic page because the reality of our endeavour – one that is both humanistic and scientific – is that different environments require distinct anthropological toolkits not necessarily commensurate with the intellectual formations disseminated by the ‘anthropology’ carried in the expanding Western university system of the 20th century.

Let me illustrate. At the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus where I teach a two semester course called Anthropology of the Caribbean I use an already understood local paradigm – carnival (with its industries, history and representation) – to explain neoliberalism in an introductory fashion that enables the students to envision an idea – ‘Accumulation by Dispossession’ (D. Harvey) – in the framework of something local they already understand.

Carnival as an ‘indigenous intellectual device’ works well in the Caribbean but not in the US university system I have also taught at, where students do not have the same intimate connection to carnival.

Furthermore, the use of race and class as generations of foreign trained scholars (both locals and those from abroad) have faithfully and traditionally done to tell the story of Caribbean social structure does not tell the story of the islands as those here understand it. Students here don’t get race as Euro-American scholars do, nor does class fit so well into a society whose historical evolution has little to do with original Marx or Marx revisited.

Race and class here are more correctly understood as two of many bases of ethnicity, and ethnicity itself is a paradigm locals get better than most because as Trinidadian scholar Lloyd Best pointed out the society here is comfortable “living all the ethnic identities that are convenient to them”.

These examples my seem non-sensical or a drab even – yes, of course meanings shifts – but anyone visiting Trinidad, whose population is more mixed than Barak Obama (to add some contemporary political salience) realises when he says “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents; and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible” is very much my point.

We in the non-Euro-American spots around the world hear definitions of reality from a hegemonic ‘anthropology’ that ignores the realities of our experiences and privileges the experiences of others.

What happens to the Caribbean student who says, “Europeans have no idea what ethnicity means?”

What happens to the Caribbean teacher who says, “ethnicity is not race, that ethnicity has nothing to do with race?”

Astrepo and Escobar answer these questions by saying anthropology, as a field, needs to be understood as fractured, plural and multiple.

Now I don’t expect there to be an overnight transformation in the ways anthropology is taught. The solution will have many aspects both in the short term and the long term.

What SM has done in its capacity to bring people back regularly to its website and create dialogue in the global anthropological community is important work in this endeavour but for me SM has to be careful too. It should not merely mirror the existing power dynamics, something I feel it does at times.

SM should be more than the same old syllabi and books, the same old theorists and concepts, the familiar conversations we had in grad school.

Most importantly, the blog can be a mechanism for “the translation of knowledge across sites that are linked by networks of connections among power-differentiated communities” (Restrepo and Escobar 2005).

Which brings me to the paragraph I should of stopped at in my original comment. ‘Occasional Contributors’ is a great idea for creating dialogue. But what about some others ideas too, like, bu tcould be many other things too…:

*An archive for papers that have been previously presented at conferences with a comment function to encourage conversation (papers would be shortish versions 10pgs max).

*An exchange of syllabi perhaps called ‘Comparative Syllabi’ – so if there’s a common class being taught across continents we can see what books and authors colleagues are using and find pertinent in different locales.

Further, if MIT and other ‘elite’ universities are establishing their canons by extending it to people over the net through website and podcasts, other voices need to speak up too and offer alternative canons in a similar fashion. Something SM with its readership is well positioned to provide.

Thanks for the opportunity to say my bit.

Kind regards

Dylan

Best, Lloyd. 2001. ‘Race, Class and Ethnicity: A Caribbean Interpretation.’ Paper presented at the Third Annual Jagan Lecture, York University, March 3, 2001.

Restrepo, Eduardo and Arturo Escobar. 2005. ‘Other Anthropologies and Anthropology Otherwise’: Steps to a World Anthropologies Framework’ in Critique of Anthropology Vol. 25 (2) 99-129

Ribeiro, Gustavo Lins. 2004. ‘World Anthropologies: Cosmopolitics, Power and Theory in Anthropology’ available

19 thoughts on “Savage Minds and the anthropological ground zero

  1. Good comments, and ideas about Savage Minds’ future directions that have been kicked around before but need more consideration.

    There’s one thing, though, that isn’t quite settling for me, though. Maybe it’s that too much power is being ascribed to Savage Minds, which in the end is just a blog founded by a bunch of grad students and early career anthropologists. From what I recall, none of the founders have tenure. Some of us don’t even have PhDs. An absolute minimum of money has been spent on the site: hosting costs, and that’s it. No ads, no salaries, no royalties for images, no design fees.

    So, maybe I’m naive here, and maybe I’m underestimating the availability of Internet resources, but anyone with access to the Web could have, and still could, so what SM has done. Throw a copy of WordPress (which is free) on a server and start writing. SM has always encouraged other anthros to start blogging. Any one of us, I’m sure, would be more than glad to lend a helping hand to anyone who needs advice on getting started (though maybe we could be more forward about that — and since in my other life I’m in the tutorial biz, I’d be happy to write up a howto if that seems like something people would dig).

    And as far as I can remember, we’ve taken all comers when someone’s approached us about writing here — and we’ve encouraged them, too, to carry the conversation from SM to their own blogs, with some occasional successes. The point is (and here’s the naivite) there’s no reason an anthro anywhere in the world couldn’t or shouldn’t do what we’ve done; I’m not going to pretend that the Internet is a level playing field, but we’re talking about academic elites no matter what country you happen to be in.

    Yes, SM reflects the nationalities and theoretical interests of its members, and yes, most of us are white, Western academics. Male, too, as Kerim noted. And yes, we absolutely should be questioning that positionality — but at the same time, I think we all agree that posting to SM is something all of us should be doing (and more often, for some of us!).

    I think we’d all like to know more about different anthropological traditions — we are, after all, anthropologists, who got into this discipline because (among other things) we were curious about all the different ways people conceptualize the world around them. We’d love to see a healthy anthropological blogosphere, with perspectives from all over. I know I’d love to see a blog exploring culture from the perspective of Carnival — or other local paradigms.

    And of course, we learn them and they can’t help but become part of our Euro-American worldview. The privilege and curse of being part of Western society is the power to capture indigenous views — I don’t know any way around that, other than to give up anthropologizing, which I doubt anyone would suggest. Certainly if any society is desperately in need of anthropology it’s the West, especially the US.

    Let me give up the field now, because clearly I don’t have any final conclusions to draw here — I’m just fumbling around, working these thoughts over.

  2. Thanks oneman I agree with your assertion that perhaps too much power is being ascribed to SM in Dylan’s original response to Rex’s post (the phrase “civil society,” I think that’s what Rex wrote, was the catalyst for the responses and maybe that was an overstatement, but seemed quite harmless).

    I agree with the general points Dylan is making about making room for other view points, voices, challenges to the canon etc. I’m just not sure how SM is actively not doing this, as oneman points out. Or that others can’t or shouldn’t host their own anthro blogs and link to SM (and vice versa) so that there is a range of voices–they don’t need to all be in the same place, isn’t that the point of these blogs.

    My first experience with SM was about two years ago when I really barely read blogs. A website I co-produced was blogged about here and I heard about it and commented on the post. After that Chris Kelty asked me to guest blog but I couldn’t at the time although I did in Nov 2007 when I blogged for a week about the intervention in Aboriginal communities in Australia. I also started my own blog about Indigenous issues in Australia (mainly, but not only). I was inspired by SM to do this and have been at it for over a year now.

    I guess my point is, similar to oneman, why not have more blogs that form a network of diverse anthropological views? Inclusivity and diversity of views should be the goal, but this isn’t going to happen in one place and the internet actually allows for these networks to link up–and de-link–providing cross-talk that allows for the sorts of debates Dylan is calling for.

  3. I am not sure, honestly, what my ethical obligations to my audience are as a blogger. Its a voluntary, unpaid thing that takes up tremendous amounts of time that I should spend doing other things. I’m not sure how my own personal and moral commitments strongly require me to do it one way rather than another.

    Dylan (and others, apparently) seem to be arguing that I have a responsibility to create a syllabus swap etc. etc. Are they also arguing that this responsibility is incumbent upon me in a way that it is not upon them?

    If so, this seems to be a clear sign out there that they do, in fact, tacitly agree with the claim that they earlier took issue with: that they consider SM to be a location for a sort of civil society, and that we bear some special burden to manage that responsibility responsibly.

    Or am I misunderstanding you?

  4. I think our obligations to the civil society of blogitude go like this:

    1. Represent ourselves honestly and accurately.

    2. Listen, appreciate, and interact respectfully (including the respect of non-coddling disagreement) when others represent themselves. Grow.

    3. When others aren’t handy to represent themselves, keep them respectfully in mind while doing 1.

    As a historian, my perspective comes from a field in which none of the people I work with are alive to talk with me. I have to represent them because that’s what I’m stuck with. And being descended from someone is no guarantee of authenticity in that representation; we the living are all other to the dead. How nice that anthropology’s others are here to talk with.

    I’ve spent my life actively learning from others. That’s my responsibility and my pleasure. Make it a chore and I’ll do it anyway, but you’ve lost something there. The nice thing about a community of scholarship is that we don’t all have to know the same things. Division of labor, and all that. If I know something I say it, if you know something you say it, and boom, we’ve got a community.

    I take that to be the point about fractured, plural and multiple networks. That’s not a grievance or a resentment, it’s a nice analysis of how things work. None of us are everything, check. Pull up your shit and let’s shoot it.

  5. i like Rex’s point that perhaps via the long way round i maybe implying tacitly “that they consider SM to be a location for a sort of civil society, and that we bear some special burden to manage that responsibility responsibly.”

    But i would maybe suggest a slant on that point of view – this being that if you make the claim about your marvellous civil society should you not be held to some kind of account of what that ‘marvellous civil society’ should include and be about?

    The other equally valid point made is i should get out there like others and get a blog going so there can be a network of blogs across spaces.

    To that i dont disagree, but would point out as a regular reader of SM and not other anthro blogs as such i felt SM like ‘anthropology’ more generally stresses a world view that could give more volume to other voices.

    Its not a responsibility of SM of course but more a wishful thinking sentiment on my part…

  6. “I believe that students should not all be reading from the same hegemonic page because the reality of our endeavour – one that is both humanistic and scientific”

    I agree! Yet the twinge this thoughtful passage gives me is that humanism and science as such are both historically products of European modernism – as it developed in interaction with the various new worlds (to them) they encountered in their global expansion. Not to say that other parts of the world have not developed their analogs or alternatives. But the frame of the critique of Euro-American anthropology here is a Euro-American frame.

    Of course, this is a culture (if I can be so lumpy for a moment) that has been devoted for at least the last 500 years to anxious self-reflection. Easy pickins, really.

  7. I think Dylan’s initial comment accorded too much significance to SM within ongoing anthropological debate, to echo Kim and others. As Oneman points out, many of us here are pretty marginal or structurally _extremely_ vulnerable (I include myself in this group: on the verge of unemployment from semester to semester), even if we got fancy degrees. However, everyone seems to agree that we’d like to see SM open up in terms of perspectives, styles of thought, locations, and so on. If we share this goal, we might ask ourselves: what’s turning people away who might otherwise want to participate here? Is there some quality to the discourse here at SM that makes people think, hmm, not for me. We could easily respond to this concern by saying, can’t be all things to all people. Yet, we all agree that we want more perspectives, so that response doesn’t exactly work given our stated goal of trying to diversify in multiple ways. Someone else in comments somewhere mentioned the ‘tone’ that governs discourse here at SM. Maybe there is something about the way we address our public that turns some folks away or that makes contributing to the blog unappealing. Maybe not. It’s just a thought. I know many of us here are experts on publics and on critical literature about how such publics are created and reproduced.

    Ultimately, I think SM is pretty much just fine. I’m glad to have been included here, even if I constantly feel lame for not writing very much. I repeat what Oneman has said: we just need more content! The ever pressing need to produce content runs up against the idea that the blog represents ‘expert’ knowledge of a sort. In fact, anthro blogging seems to be structured by a tension between the core values of the discipline (slow research, deliberative thought, complex answers to even simple questions) and the formal properties of blogging as a genre of discourse (quick, easy, snarky). Given this tension, I think the only solution is MORE contributors, to ease the burden on any particular one. The occasional contributors thing is a great idea in this regard.

  8. “should you not be held to some kind of account of what that ‘marvellous civil society’ should include and be about?”

    First, I claimed we had done a marvelous job of creating a civil society, not that that civil society we’ve created is marvelous — an important difference. More to the point, however, is that I’d like to know what, specifically, you think I and the other members of SM owe you, Dylan. You say that we should be held to some kind of account, but could you please specify what, specifically, you think that account is?

    Do you believe that we have a moral obligation to include other people who request occasional contributor status? Do we have an obligation to actively solicit material from ‘non Euro-American’ people? Is there something inherently morally culpable about the fact that the contributors at SM do in fact share a common background? Is it the existence of a community that you find problematic, or merely the fact that it is so privileged?

    Frankly, I feel there is a danger that your argument tips into a sort of paternalism where helpless ‘non Euro-Americans’ must be represented and helped in on and by white bloggers. I think that this does a real disservice to the agency which (I imagine) non-Euro-American-Carribean people have to speak in a world where a blog is just a click away.

    Alternately if your argument is that you just don’t like our style, or think we should loosen up a bit, then the apparatus of racial and class critique that you employ here is overkill!

    Anyhoo thanks for your post.

  9. Yes, Strong. “Tone.”

    Been hearing this one all my life. It’s very true, there’s a sort of confident, assertive tone born of privilege that comes across as aggressive, attacking, or patronizing, i.e. off-putting, to those whose life-strategies and emotional responses have been programmed in more problematic environments.

    My personal approach to this is equal parts Marcus Aurelius and Nietzsche. The way to serenity and power (in the positive, affirming sense) is not to indulge resentment in oneself or others but to practice and encourage serenity and power. I yam what I yam and I does what I does.

    In those situations where I’m one-down, and there are many, it would horribly embarrass me to be treated like a delicate thing who couldn’t carry my own water. So I completely agree with what Rex just said about agency.

    I realize that we do not always start in the same place on this trajectory, and that rules of courtesy vary. I’m far more careful with the delicate feelings of my students than I am with colleagues who lay claim to be my equal and who I happily accept as such. Like the people on this blog.

  10. I only have one thing to add – which is that I understand the “civil society” of the blogsphere as developing as much (if not more) in the dialog between blogs as in the dialog that emerges between bloggers and their readers on a given site.

  11. Cool! Sorry to misunderstand you, Strong.

    Just sayin’ kid gloves is usually what right-thinking progressive intellectuals mean when they talk about ‘tone’ in the context of diffident excluded others. Or rather what they mean after lots of bubblings about discourse and subalternity and hegemony and whatnot boil down to that in the end.

    (I’ve seen it boil down to ‘shut up’ a time or two. I get the feeling that I’ve been around a little longer than many of you; maybe my triggers are out of date.)

    Anyhoo, this is all so inexorably familiar that I can’t actually figure out what you did mean. Little help?

    I agree that SM is pretty much fine, and share the hope that as such it will be attractive to a wide variety of thoughtful folks looking for a place where we can speak our savage minds about topics of general interest.

  12. Picking up on (what I understand to be) part of the point of Dylan’s message, I believe that one (small?) thing we all can do to de-center the Euro-American ‘groundzero’ of current anthropology is to learn to work in another language. Not in the ethnographic, fieldwork sense, but in all the other anthropological “work” that we do: reading articles, writing papers, teaching courses, and so on.

    I recently moved to Italy to marry an anthropologist who was born and trained here, and it’s embarrassing to me as a US trained anthro that so few of us seem able to read the anthropological products from other parts of the world. It looks like most everyone else is reading ours (and usually not in translation).

    English has emerged as the twenty-first century lingua franca for business and academia. But if anyone should be able to step off the stage (metaphorically or even at that next conference) and talk with the locals in their own way, shouldn’t it be us anthros? And if we can access the anthropological products of other non-Anglophone/Francophone intellectual traditions and incorporate that into our ‘dominant’ discourses, won’t that go a long way towards de-centering the implicit and assumed superiority of ourselves and our knowledge about the world? Just a thought.

  13. Ciao Zachary, complimenti per la tua buona situazione e grazie per l’intervento. Puoi per caso suggerire qualche buon’ punto di partenza nella antropologia italiana, magari sul’Web? C’e’ un blog di antropologia italiana? Ho visto una rivista storica interessante (ma purtroppo in inglese) a: http://users.libero.it/f-pelli/f-pelli.anthropologyitaly.html.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Zachary’s point, especially since Italian intellection tends to be subaltern within the European frame, as he suggests. Which raises another familiar issue, about whether Europe and the United States can properly be said to be centers as such when they are so internally diverse, fragmented and contentious. As I recall, Cornel West has a nice book about this but there are many from our ‘internal others’ and their fellow travellers.

    I do not, by the way, assume that my knowledge about the world is superior; it’s just mine. Here I stand, here’s how things look to me. I do know how power/knowledge systems work, but that does not exempt me from them. Assuming my morals are humanistic I can learn other ways of knowing by asking people and listening when they speak, by attending to what they write, or by trying to figure out the logic of their conduct. In each case I use my own basic cultural input-output system to frame my new understanding, nor can I possibly do otherwise.

    George Herbert Mead suggests that ‘taking the perspective of the other’ is a fundamental process of self-formation. Of course this can be a sinister process distorted by power, as illuminated by Hegel and DuBois, but it’s also just basically how we figure out who we are and who we’re not. I’m not everybody, nor does it make sense for me to try to be – any more than it would make sense, to use one of Mead’s examples, for me to try to play first base and shortstop at once, although playing each well requires understanding of the other. So I’m grateful to my significant others who step up and join the conversation as we learn to see each other as part of ever-broader networks of diverse humans.

    I’ve never objected to Dylan’s suggestion that there is much to learn from Latin American and Caribbean theorizing. And African, and Southeast Asian, and South Asian, northern European, southern European, urban and rural, women’s and men’s, lesbian, gay, straight, sex/gender transgressive, and so on. Of course there is. The question is how we would learn that, and how much. I already know how ignorant I am. I’m advocating conversation, not recrimination.

    And now a moment of self-irony, as I reflect on how those of us who are the heirs of ‘the center’s’ hegemonic claims to universal knowledge are being made to pay by being held to the standard of a truer omniscience….

  14. Following the trail of breadcrumbs I found that the World Anthropologies Network has a large collection of pertinent documents on its website, “here”:http://www.ram-wan.net/html/documents.htm, including the entire text of World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations Within Systems of Power, ed. Ribeiro and Escobar.

  15. There are all kinds of way to turn people off to participation beyond simply implying “I’m smarter than you,” Carl. For example, people might not like a particular style of geeky humor. Or they might think that a humorous approach to some subjects is inappropriate. Or they might think the discourse is too academic for their taste. Or not academic enough. Or they might think that blogging has an icky air of self-aggrandizement. Etc. There are many different registers or voices or rhetorics or styles of address available to bloggers and their readers, and to reduce these to the simple dynamics of a particular kind of ‘assymetry’ (as you imply when you suggest that the concern here bascially has to do with being one up or one down and is so very familiar) I think belies a particular framing of the activity we are all engaged in together here. I don’t necessarily see any of this as jousting (though it sometimes can be), and my wounded little academic ego could hardly survive such a contest. Of course, this thread _is_ partly about power assymetries in academic discourse. _My_ suggestion was that dynamics (means and modes) of inclusion can be quite diverse, and so questions of tone could encompass the concerns you express, but could include _other_ concerns as well. I have experienced myself people imputing a particular attitude to blogger discourse (‘gotcha’!) that may not actually be present, in part because *a lot* of blogs in the States are all about snark (‘OMG, I can’t believe Chloe Sevigny is wearing *that*’). But my question actually was meant to be an open one.

  16. Yes, well, c’mon, what was Chloe thinking.

    Thanks, Strong, this is a very helpful clarification and a beautiful short analysis of conversational dynamics. You’re quite right about all the things you mention and it’s true that in that range of tone, I might well be someone who chooses to or not to participate in a blog for reasons having little to do with power asymmetries. Which is funny and alarming, because I like to think of myself as a content guy.

    I think this kind of discussion about how we talk is increasingly likely to come up as Kerim’s project of diverse cross-linking comes to fruition. I’ve recently seen this question of interactive style and etiquette addressed with clarity and vigor in “Alexandre’s blog”:http://enkerli.wordpress.com/, for example.

  17. @Carl Geez, thanks for the link-love, man! And I didn’t even bring you anything. Although, some badmouthers might say it’s all ‘coz I told you I liked the way you thought.
    Ah, well…
    Fuh teh record… Mah writing ain’t up to Savage Mind Standards.

    The traffic and comment-feed on SavageMinds is a sign that things are going rather well. This group’s blog is probably one of the most visible sites for English-speaking anthro online.
    Hadn’t been observing this here thoughtful conversation about diverse anthropologies. But it sounds like I should have.
    Yet, the drive ethnographic disciplines (and journalism) have of periodically trying to look at themselves critically probably doesn’t need my input. And I should learn to hold my peace and place.

  18. Trying to think of this all in a broader way and put it in a framework where all the little bits make sense (not THE framework, of course, A framework), I went to the WAN website and read Ribeiro and Escobar’s Introduction to the anthology, then poked around in some of the collected articles.

    First I should say that there’s just plain some very good work being done there and I’m going to have to spend more time with it to do it justice.

    The Introduction is of a type. For one thing, it’s a manifesto for a new movement, with all the rhetorical strengths and weaknesses of such. There’s lots of buzzwording and not a lot of substantive content, which is fine for the form and the content is amply supplied by the articles.

    The intro is doing another thing that intros often do, which is to try to wedge out a distinct space for the content to follow. The general format is: here’s the state of the field, here are the problems with that, here’s what we offer to fix them. It’s entirely common in my experience for the lit review to be highly selective and caricatured, in order to set up a straw man that plainly needs knocking over. The novelty of what follows is mostly rhetorical since the lit actually contains the things it’s been accused of missing. This intro is so buzzy it’s hard to tell if that’s what’s happening, but on balance I’d say yes; but I could be wrong and I don’t assume I’m right in this particular case. I just had me some thoughts.

    The first thought concerned how much this sort of academic writing is like contemporary art in Europe and North America. Art is in perpetual crisis because at some point in the modernity process the slow evolution of styles was transformed into a frantic seeking of novelty. At this point, the only way you know if something is high art (as opposed to mere decorative arts) is if you’ve never seen anything like it before. Even the names of genres have become suspect in the avant-garde stampede, since if you’re in a named genre you’re obviously not entirely new.

    Exploring beauty has been so done to death; so has exploring ugliness. Everything you could represent has been represented. The fear is that there’s nothing new to say, and a big sigh of relief goes up anytime someone pops up with a new-looking thing and a new line of patter about it. Then it’s parsed for how it’s really not new after all, and soon it’s passe’ already.

    What I’m saying by dubious analogy is that there’s a real danger in requiring our intellectual efforts to be new and different in order to be worthy. For artists this creative refashioning may become unproblematically second nature. But in fields like ours, for thoughtful people of any origin to feel forced to perform this rhetorical newness or even to distort their perceptions and practices to create these distinctions in order to be noteworthy is itself notable and perhaps sad.

    My second thought came from thinking about this thread in relation to another here by Fred and Deborah on “cargo cults”:/2005/09/05/214/ in PNG. They discuss cargo in ritual and relational terms as the focus of PNGuineans “preoccupied with gaining long denied respect from Europeans. In discussing their contemporary cargo activities… they described a history of their efforts to compel Europeans to recognize mutual human-ness.” This is compelling stuff in its own right, but it made me think more broadly about the ways we bring cargo to our relationships and use it to win mutual recognition of human-ness.

    It seems clear to me that this thread is about cargo, and in that frame obviously we would simply want to exchange these gifts and recognize this human-ness. But it gets a little more tricky for me with another analogy which I’m afraid is even more blundering than these last two. But if you’ve stuck with me this far, why not stick just a little further.

    See, my wife and I have cats. They get to go outside and as a result, they bring us cargo with some regularity, in the form of various dead, nearly dead, or disturbingly not yet dead animals. Their favorite cargo is a small rodent that inhabits our yard. They’re shrews, but because we prefer our references “Monty Python”:http://books.google.com/books?id=JpdHiOnYgrEC&pg=PA229&lpg=PA229&dq=saviors+for+seminars+dyke&source=web&ots=MKvZGR2z5j&sig=rGdZlGNKA35mMXuAxCLYQYtnzsU&hl=en rather than “Shakespeare”:http://books.google.com/books?id=OdjaJiyDKH8C&pg=PA31&lpg=PA31&dq=shakespeare+cultural+spinach&source=web&ots=Gubewqx2y1&sig=LhJQRKJfbV2OreNigA6H-US1C6s&hl=en#PPA11,M1 we call them voles.

    As a result of this attempted gift exchange we have developed what we call the “dead vole theory.” Anytime someone offers you something they clearly think is of great value but which you honestly find impertinent or repugnant, they are offering a ‘dead vole’. Dead voles may be recommendations of tv shows, music, food; they may be advice about how to live your life; or they may be suggestions about what to read. The thing about the vole is that it’s just totally fabulous to them, it really is. But it’s not to you, and this creates a bind, because you want to accept this generous gift in the spirit of giving, but gosh dude, it’s a dead vole.

    Obviously if I really respected the mutual critter-ness of my cats I would yummy up the vole, crunch crunch tasty vole here, and slurp the tale appreciatively. Nah. When I reserve the right not to accept gifts of dead voles I am not in any way commenting on their or their givers’ value. Rock on with that, kitties. I am saying that this is not for me.

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