I was thinking recently of how much I dislike the welter of food/travel channels on cable TV, and how this is related to my tendency to think about anthropology as a connoisseurship of life. These type shows — or better, they are part of a huge media system that trains its consumers — to want excitement, shock, the unexpected, the excessive. Let’s just call this an impulse to ‘savagery’. So when people find out that we are anthropologists — assuming that they don’t think we study dinosaur bones — they want savagery from us: titillating bits of excessive and unexpected difference.Giving it to them is, I suppose, one way to get some publicity.
However, as Lévi-Strauss might have predicted, show where people go all over the world and eat/meet people run aground on the fact that most people are not all that different, since all foods/people are just combinations of each other. How many times can Tony Bourdain discover street vendors who sell sausage? Or the astounding fact that “this country also has flat bread/stew/a staple starch”? As a result I always feel these shows are constantly being ground down by the very hyperbolic nature which always requires them to push up against their edges.
I think an important part of being an anthropologist is that you are not deeply attracted to savagery, but rather something I’d call ‘subtlety’: an appreciation for the little things in life. It comes from an awareness of them, all of them, which helps you put things in context: why that flat bread that way? How does metalworking in this place mean the dough gets put on top of one sort of thing rather than another? This for Boas this was a German ideographic impulse in which Lévi-Strauss, I reckon, saw a certain family resemblance with his own Frenchified impulses to connoisseurship. In America it has a populist tinge.
I think that one of the most important things anthropologists can do (and I’m thinking here of American anthropologists speaking to Americans since that is where I’m from) is to take people’s initial expectation that we are savagery experts and use it to help them see the subtlety of life. Doing so means helping them get inside ethnographic examples and minutiae. Compare, for example, Andrew Zimmer eating Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches on camera to Dan Jurasfky’s awesome Language of Food blog. You don’t have to already be a total geek to watch in amazement as he traces fish and chips around the world from Persia to England — its a fascinating journey in and of itself.
I say this because I worry that anthropologists often think that the public wants to see them studying ‘sexy’ topics like black market arms dealers, the global market in organs, transvestite hookers, and so on and so forth. I think these are all interesting topics but in lauding these topics as examples of something ‘the public will find interesting’ I feel us inexorably slipping into savagery mode rather than subtlety mode. So bring on the local staple starch and yet more cousin terminology — and a subtle approach to life that appreciates them!