Revelations, Anthro style

Michael Brown forwarded this zinger of a report on Mick Taussig’s current class on Apocalypse at Columbia. No comment.


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.

10 thoughts on “Revelations, Anthro style

  1. One concept, relevant but not mentioned, is Brian Aldiss’ notion of the “cozy catastrophe.” The cozy catastrophe kills off most of the people on the planet, leaving a precious few to build a new civilization. Often the gruesome details are omitted and we start with a world mostly empty of people. A few (white, middleclass) people find each other and form close bonds as they cope with catastrophe (kind of like the Scooby Gang on BtVS). Goods are free for the taking. No more traffic. See or

    Science fiction can be an anthropological/sociological thought experiment, when it’s at its best. (Vide Ursula K. LeGuin or Iain Banks.) When it’s at its worst, it tends towards “one man (white, heterosexual) changes an entire planet! With just his agile brain, mighty sinews, and his sword/ray gun/rocketship! And the love of an alien princess!”.

  2. I didn’t really know what to make of this piece. It sounds like an awesome class, but the article seemed snarky and anti-intellectual, but just by implication. You know, like “look at this crap you’re paying 30 G’s a year for your kid to ‘learn’!” Maybe it was supposed to be a fun glance at a really intriguing class, and the criticism was all in MY head, but it felt like it was trying to make the whole thing sound frivolous.

  3. Like Bram, I’m inclined think that taking this class would be about as much fun as one is allowed to have in a college classroom–but a major challenge to the intellect and imagination, too. Given the sophistication of the New Yorker’s writers and readership, the article should probably be read not as a Limbaugh-esque swipe at higher-ed excess but as a wry comment on the disconnect between the course’s subject matter and the banalities of everyday life. Example: If you’re teaching a course like this, how do you respond to a student’s request for an extension of the paper deadline? Can the apocalypse be postponed for 24 hrs to accommodate participation in a lacrosse tournament?

  4. Given the sophistication of the New Yorker’s writers and readership, the article should probably be read not as a Limbaugh-esque swipe at higher-ed excess but as a wry comment on the disconnect between the course’s subject matter and the banalities of everyday life.

    Isn’t that what they said when the New Yorker ran that idiotic cover with the Obamas as Muslim terrorist/Black nationalists? Frankly, I don’t think there’s all that much difference between the New Yorker editors and Rush Limbaugh from my perspective. I elaborate on this here:

  5. I honestly don’t know how to react to this either. However, having just “coped with catastrophe” (I reside in Mexico City, and some of my close friends are medics who coped first hand with the “catastrophe”…it was not amusing), I must confess to feeling rather unfriendly towards Taussig’s last comment. Nothing to do with getting defensive on the grounds of provincial chauvinism – after all, people are dealing with real and present catastrophe every day in various corners of the globe -, but whether or not the article was meant to be snarky is no excuse for the slightly idiotic (because frivolous) tone of that and other comments. What is the point of Taussig’s class? There may well be one, but I cannot glean it from the data provided in that text.

  6. Nice article. Interesting stuff, and I agree that this is very much a topic for the times. I also teach on the question “Why do people keep on thinking that the end of the world is nigh?”, partly because I think an understanding of the impact of end-time thinking is key to an understanding of Christianity, which is the subject on which I work, and partly as a way of getting people to think critically and expansively about Peter Worsley’s “Cargo Cult” classic _The Trumpet Shall Sound_. His conclusion, after all, opens up all sorts of questions about end-time focussed movements not only in the Pacific, but across the world, and throughout history. So why not take his cue and turn our attention to contemporary rumours of a coming apocalypse? Students here in the UK wouldn’t be that familiar with something like Tim LaHaye’s _Left Behind_ novels, and on the surface of it, there’s an inclination to think that apocalyptic beliefs aren’t really that much a feature of our lives. But scratch the surface, and their social importance and prevalance soon becomes apparent… There are some good readings out there on this topic. Some of the ones I use on my reading list are:

    Stewart, Kathleen and Susan Harding (1999) “Bad Endings: American Apocalypsis” Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 28

    Gray, John (2007) Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia

    Boyer, Paul (1992) When time shall be no more: Prophecy belief in modern American Culture

    In particular, I would strongly recommend Gray’s _Black Mass_, I found it good to read and very useful to think about, and I think most of the students have found it a good read as well. Incidentally, I was a bit wary of the American focus of some of the readings, especially teaching in the UK, as there is a risk that I’ll wind up with students thinking it’s an issue that just effects bonkers Americans, rather than something more widespread. Luckily, students don’t seem to have fallen the trap of such stereotyping, but all the same, I’d be very interested to hear of any accounts of apocalyptic or generally end-of-world focussed beliefs in Europe.

  7. I don’t think we can glean much of the real academic merit of this class from the mosaic approach of the New Yorker columnist, but I am curious about Carlos’ comment. What made you think Taussig’s reference to Mexico City and swine flu were frivolous? We don’t have the real context there, but isn’t it easy to imagine he was taking seriously the implications of pandemic within an apocalyptic milieu? Is that you take offense at him using a case that you’ve lived as an example or thought experiment? Or was it the word ‘catastrophe’? I’m not sure I understand your criticism.

  8. @Carlos. I would imagine that one of the objectives of the course is to get students to think critically about their own (and their society’s) attitudes towards prophesies of doom. In that context, the final remarks seem quite in order, as they deftly point out some of the inconsistencies. We have a great appetite for newspaper and TV predictions of doom, and then go about our day regardless. We obsess over apocalyptic nightmares that are clearly complete nonsense, and yet we run real risks, and disasters do happen.

  9. I think that this piece is meant to make academic anthropology seem frivolous and intellectually empty in terms of providing real world solutions to problems / issues that the magazine thinks that their readers find compelling (global pandemics, war, famine, climate change). And I think it speaks to the New Yorker’s editorial staff declaring a sort of war on academic anthropology since so many of us have spoken out about the Diamond issue in the magazine. Remember, that little gem was published under “Annals of Anthropology.”

    I’ve taught at the same institution with Taussig for almost a decade now and the effect that his courses have on students is nothing less than miraculous. From all reports from the kids and graduate students I know who take them, the courses are intellectually and personally transformative. Many of my best undergraduate students majored in anthropology because they took his introduction to anthropology course and most of the ones who graduate and go on to work towards environmental and social justice in really meaningful ways took courses with him.

    To pick the most outrageous statements and comments from any course and make a sort of critique of the academy piece out of them is unfair. All of us have moments in teaching where we think, “How in the world did we get from X (topic of discussion or lecture) to Y (salem witches, auto erotic strangulation, the merits of lima beans vs. kidney beans in burritos, The Princess Bride). But I think for most of us it is really those moments of utter unruly pastiche when we see just how brilliant our students are and the moments when we can begin to imagine creative solutions to problems and issues.

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