Yearly Archives: 2012

Polity rocks the biographies

What is it with Polity and biographies lately? The British press has unleashed a slew of new biographies in the past few years. The have translated Joachim Radkau’s biography of Max Weber (all 700 pages of it) and now they are bringing Fournier’s biography of Durkheim to English. Along the way they’ve also published biographies of ‘theorists’ like Derrida, Adorno, Bobbio and Barthes.

I read the Weber biography when it was first released and I highly recommend it for anyone teaching or thinking about Weber. Most American academics understand that the version of Weber that had such a big impact in the post-war US was a highly distorted and tendentious reading of the thinker, and since then a whole industry of outraged and extremely persnickety Weber specialists have worked to show us in extreme detail what Weber actually said — thus we have two new translations of Protestant Ethic and the new translation of the methodological writings (which has gotten less press but is more important). Radkau’s biography is valuable because it provides a single, comprehensive overview of Weber’s life.

And what a life it is. Radkau’s all-embracing biography comes across a bit distanced and quirky in English (although it is well translated) but the detail — and the convenient small sections it is broken down into — make it worth reading. In the book Weber seems less a Faustian genius grappling with the deepest forces of modernity and more a broken man deeply damaged by his punishing Victorian upbringing. Up-to-date and also deeply immersed in historical research, it is the go-to source of Weber in English.

I haven’t yet read Fournier’s Durkheim bio, but given his monumental biography of Mauss I am sure it will also be a treat. The English language translation of the Mauss biography cut out, like, a hundred pages of stuff about Mauss’s involvement in socialist politics that was relevant to the French but not to us — and I was ok with that. The Durkheim bio looks like it is a complete translation, so we will see. Although there has been biographical work on Durkheim done in the past, frankly scholarship on Durkheim has improved a lot since then and we need a new scholarly biography. So I am looking forward to Fournier’s bio. One thing, however: Durkheim’s life was much much more boring than Mauss so I do fear I am going to plow through seventy-five pages chunks on the minutiae of academic politics at the University of Bourdeaux. But we’ll see. I think I’ll take a pass on the Derrida bio. 


Dr. Who Is An Anthropologist

Clare’s recent post on Lords of Time prompted me to write up a blog entry that’s been frittering away on my hard drive for some time: Dr. Who is totally an anthropologist, isn’t he?

He seems to know everything about everyone but is also totally clueless and seems not to know what he’s doing most of the time, and can’t seem to operate his kit. He arrives at random places and knows someone there a little bit, but no one there very well. He has an assistant or two who he claims to care about, but actually spends a fair bit of time condescending — or screaming — at them. He claims to support social justice struggles but always stops short of direct action, even when violence is warranted. He’s obsessed with not committing genocide. And in fact, he (or people like him) is usually the source of the problem in the first place. He’s eager to pitch in but not a team player — or at least prefers to be in charge of the team. He sees the secrets and patterns that others miss. He’s adaptable to any culture, lifestyle, cuisine, or habit, but also lacks basic courtesy. He ostentatiously demonstrates his insider knowledge of local mores to people who lack it. He loves humanity but is solitary and knows few people. He claims a knowledge so encyclopedic that it is almost omniscient, and yet he is totally opaque to himself. His traveling makes him melancholic. He is a professional stranger. He spurns his own kind and yet his adventures rely on power he derives from being one of them. Sometimes he is scarred. At other times he is manic. He insists on not dressing normally. His assistants are always visiting — they eventually end up somewhere else once their 1-3 year gig with him is up. Half the time he can’t see the forest for the trees, while the other half of the time he’s so focused on what’s in front of him that he can’t see the big picture. He dreams of being the instrumental figure who, in times of total crisis, can save the lesser beings who he patronizes. Too often, however, it turns out that he is caught in the grip of forces bigger than he is.

The only exception to rule is Chris Kelty, who looks and actuals disturbingly like the guy they got to play The Master in the Russell Davies version of Dr. Who

What does it mean to be a mother?

Stepping out this morning to return an overdue library book (The Daring Book for Girls, natch) it was cold and windy, winter having arrived in coastal Virginia just last night. As I walked up Main Street to the public library the neighborhood church bells began to chime in memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre. I counted twenty-six chimes, which is remarkable because twenty-seven people were murdered one week ago today.

Of course the person symbolically omitted from this sonic commemoration is Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, who has become persona non grata, not only for having given birth to a mass murderer but for taking him to target practice. For some this seems like an egregious and unforgivable mistake, perhaps more so among people who did not grow up around guns. But as activists rally around the cause of gun control the gender politics of masculinity and parenting are just bellow the surface.

Across the Internet people took to blogs and comment boards to declare Nancy Lanza an unfit mother, to reflect on the difficulties of parenting a child with mental illness, and to criticize others for their opinions and rhetoric. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about what a proper mother is and they are not shy about voicing their opinions about what other people are supposed to be doing to meet those standards of mothering.

In a Washington Post report from Newtown, CT, one local resident was quoted, “I am feeling that there is more anger toward the mother than there is toward the son.”

As a non-mother, I was somewhat surprised by this. Perhaps those of you out there who are mothers are already familiar with the power of this discourse to enforce conformity. Like all members of the order Primates, humans are obsessively interested in the reproductive behavior of others in our communities especially when, where, and how mothering takes place.

In the United States children are supposed to be given priority over anything else in a mother’s life. This attitude colors everything about the current abortion debate, for example, which is really a debate about what it means to be a mother. Mothers are often held to unobtainable Victorian feminine ideals of complete selflessness and unconditional love such that for a woman to pursue her own interests, say, is to open up the worth of her parenting to the judgement of others. Men and fathers are not surveilled in this way.

Tragically Adam Lanza had access to his mother’s guns and she, along with twenty-six others, died from his rampage. It appears she has not survived public judgement on the worth of her parenting either. However, I have yet to see any pundit weigh in on the relative merits or shortcomings of Adam Lanza’s father. Our society is much more interested in monitoring the parenting behavior of females than males.

Lords of Time: The Maya, Doctor Who, and temporal fascinations of the west

The fourth in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first three posts are herehere, and here.

In this post, I’ll consider the 2012 phenomenon in relation to time and otherness. Naturally, I’m hedging my bets and posting this before the potential end of the world. Although no one can seem to decide when the Maya are, they appear to be sometime between Aug 11, 3114 BC and Dec 21, 2012 AD.

This time frame has less to do with the Maya themselves than with how they are invoked by Westerners (both believers and debunkers). I realize that “West” and “Westerners” — just like “the Maya” —  is an overambitious gloss, but indulge me for a moment.  For the record, my perspective is based largely on the American, British, and Spanish public spheres in the press and internet.  (While there seems to be 2012 interest in Russia and China, I’m not in a position to comment on that in any detail. Please leave a comment if you can.)

In the rhetoric of the West, “the Maya” appear to take quantum leaps between historical moments.  In my previous post I focused on the “otherness” of U.S. spiritualists in the eyes of apocalypse debunkers. It goes without saying that the Maya are also “other” in ways that anthropologists have long objected to.  The precise relationships between The Maya (abstract) and the Maya (ethnographic, historic) is a matter of debate, but regardless they are invoked constantly when it comes to apocalyptic expectations for 2012.   Continue reading

Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 3 of 3)

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The second interview, with Tom Boellstorff, is here.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.* (See Part 1  here, Part 2 here)

Ryan Anderson: Let’s bring things back to the issue of OA and the academy.  You have said that many OA activists are inhibited from fighting against the privatization of the intellectual commons because they have already “bought into the premises of an academic career”.  Why do you mean by this?

Keith Hart: Intellectual life is intrinsically individualistic. We may like to think of ourselves as social creatures, but unfortunately they only hand out brains one at a time. Collaboration is particularly developed in the hard sciences and the academy has always depended on an informal cultural commons: teaching, seminars, conferences, free sharing of ideas, equal access to libraries and so on. Everyone wants personal recognition, but up to the 1950s, this aspect of academic life took a back seat to the university as a community of scholars, teachers and their students.

The Cold War and the drive to restore home food supplies after the Second World War boosted research on armaments and agriculture. The post-war boom saw lots of public money being directed to universities for research. Private companies also poured money into research on chemicals. Student enrolments took off in the 1960s, so that universities now became big business. We think of them as medieval institutions, but the late twentieth-century university was something unique, a mass production line for workers in bureaucracies and the main research arm of the state. The academics had always ruled their own institutions, but this expansion gave power to administrators. Research came to dominate other academic activities. The humanities and social sciences didn’t have much to offer, but they too jumped onto the research bandwagon. Continue reading Doing It Right

I just wanted to give three cheers for, the website of Cultural Anthropology. It is simply one of the nicest websites I’ve seen for an anthropology journal/AAA section. There is much to admire, but first and foremost is the beautiful clean and minimalist design of their homepage. Having overseen the redesign of the SLA website (which has since gone through additional changes) I can say from experience that this is no easy task. Other things to admire on the site include:

True Open Access: These aren’t simply ads for the journal, but links to articles which authors have placed in institutional repositories.

They also have a great blog: [Heh, right now the blog’s homepage is giving error messages, but you can link to the most recent blog posts from the top level of the site.] You can also follow them on Twitter.

Curated collections: “(formerly Virtual Issues) gather together five articles that speak to a particular anthropological or contemporary theme.”

What other AAA journals/sections have great websites that promote open content?

Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 2 of 3)

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The second interview, with Tom Boellstorff, is here.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.(See Part 1  here)

Ryan Anderson: Earlier you referred to OA as “a strategy of resistance to privatization of the commons”.  Can you elaborate on that point?

Keith Hart: I meant that private property is still the great unresolved contradiction of modern society, not least because its ubiquity often makes society invisible. For Rousseau, the invention of private property was the origin of social inequality. The liberal Enlightenment looked to anthropology for the knowledge needed to realize a democratic revolution against the Old Regime. Morgan (followed by Engels) used Rousseau’s framework to make the history of unequal society the main object of a democratic anthropology. More recently, Lévi-Strauss, Wolf and Goody renewed this tradition, each in their own way. Now David Graeber has taken it up again. But the ethnographic turn made this a marginal current in twentieth century anthropology.

I grew up in a working class district of Manchester. The doors of our houses had to be kept open for neighbors to come in and out as they wished. Even inside the house, bedroom and bathroom doors were never closed. Privacy was the opposite of being open to the free flow of solidarity. I thought that spirit had gone forever, but I found it again when I moved to France fifteen years ago. Here the tradition of people occupying the streets (manifestation) is very much alive and the notion of a public sphere that belongs to all is palpable. Continue reading

The Opportunistic Apocalypse

The third in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first two posts are here and here.

There are opportunities in the apocalypse.  The end of the world has been commodified.  A few are seriously investing in bunkers, boats, and survival supplies. Tourism is up, not only to Mayan archaeological sites, but also to places like Bugarach, France and Mt. Rtanj, Serbia.  But even those of us on a budget can afford at least a book, a T-shirt or a handbag.

There are opportunities here for academics, too. Many scholars have been quoted in the press lately saying that nothing will happen on Dec 21 , in addition to those who have written comprehensive books and articles discrediting the impending doom. Obviously publishing helps individual careers, and that does not detract from our collective responsibility to debunk ideas that might lead people to physical or financial harm.  But neither can we divorce our work from its larger social implications. Continue reading

The first MOOC was a book

There is some interesting discussion happening right now about Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. I think a lot of it conflates education with universities as an institution of learning. To better untangle some of this it is helpful to think about earlier changes in communications technology and how they changed learning. To that end, I’d like to discuss an article by my thesis advisor, F. Niyi Akinnaso (1992): “Schooling, Language, and Knowledge in Literate and Nonliterate Societies.”

Akinannso’s article questions the casual equation of formal learning with literacy. He shows how Yoruba traditions in Nigeria associated with Ifá divination have many of the same features we associate with formal learning, even though it is an entirely oral tradition. There are schools, exams, and, importantly for the present discussion, a process of socialization into the use of texts (whether those texts be written down or memorized). He compares the training of diviners to Peter Burke’s description of the training of Catholic priests in early modern Italy:

During the course of their training, these professionals develop special exegetical abilities and become speakers of the appropriate language of authority.These attributes and the specialized knowledge they have acquired become the chief source of their power in society.

The point being that these functions of the university (or seminary) as an institution can be fulfilled separately from the technology of literacy.

Continue reading

2012, the movie we love to hate

The second in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first post is here.

Last summer, I traveled to Philadelphia to visit the Penn Museum exhibit “Maya: the Lords of Time.” It was, as one might expect given the museum collection and the scholars involved, fantastic.  I want to comment on just the beginning of the exhibit, however. On entering, one is immediately greeted by a wall crowded with TV screens, all showing different clips of predicted disasters and people talking fearfully about the end of the world. The destruction, paranoia, and cacophony create a ambiance of chaos and uncertainty. Turning the corner, these images are replaced by widely spaced Mayan artifacts and stela. The effect is striking.  One moves from media-induced insanity to serenity, from endless disturbing jump-cuts to the well-lit, quiet contemplation of beautiful art. Continue reading

Blazing the trail from adjunct to tenure track

Just after the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association I wrote a post about a project being helmed by Matthew Wolf-Meyer that seeks to better understand the challenges faced by adjuncts who wish to become tenure track. You can help us out by participating in brief survey.

We recognize that there is a great diversity among those professionals who could be considered contingent faculty. But this research does not make pretense to be universal or total. We’re looking at a rather narrow spectrum that includes folks with a PhD who are teaching part-time and want to move into a tenure track position. Also we want to hear from people who have successfully navigated these treacherous waters and now hold tenure track positions after laboring for some time as an adjunct.

Please, if you haven’t done so already, add your voice to our growing database of responses. And if you know someone who fits this demographic please share this request with them, too. Obviously the more responses collected the more representative the data for Matthew to discuss in some future blog post.

Click here if you are an adjunct PhD and want a tenure track job

Click here if you are a tenure track PhD and were formerly an adjunct

Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 1 of 3)

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The second interview, with Tom Boellstorff, is here.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.*

Ryan Anderson: Thanks for doing this interview, Keith.  Let’s just jump right in here: What do you think about this whole ‘open access’ conversation going on in anthropology?

Keith Hart: Obviously I am in favor of it. The form that the discussion takes in contemporary anthropology seems to be specifically American, where the contradictions of established practice are most acute. In the most general sense, OA is a strategy of resistance to privatization of the commons, any commons. As such it is central to the intellectual property wars. But here I think we are talking about a much narrower issue of how to make research publications freely available without undermining their role as cultural capital in academic career advancement. This reflects the interests of a mass of unemployed young researchers who can’t afford to pay for information and yet still hope to find academic employment some day. The tension is between maintaining the intellectual commons and conserving ideas as private property. The situation is exacerbated in American anthropology by the peculiarly obdurate policy of the professional association (AAA) which elevates a closed regime of private production for profit above sharing knowledge with the general public. I am reminded of Marx’s early journalism against restriction of peasants’ access to fallen wood in the Westphalian forests. Most OA activists can’t fight privatization with his polemical intensity because they have already bought into the premises of an academic career. I met some anthropology friends on Twitter in 2009 who were as agitated then by the AAA’s restrictive (I am inclined to say “insane”) policies as they are now. We formed the Open Anthropology Cooperative–but we will return to that later. I am still struck by the insularity of American anthropologists who rarely consider if the French, for example, have come up with interesting responses to this general problem. Is OA an issue in Brazil or Scandinavia, in Japan or India? American anthropology isn’t the world and I hope that the OAC’s global membership will discuss these questions fruitfully. But then we run up against the limitations of language. Being able to read and write in English is not universal, yet how often is concern with OA extended to the issue of language barriers?

RA: These are some really important points you bring up.  First of all, let’s talk about the idea that American anthropology “isn’t the world,” as you say.  What do you know about some of the OA-related conversations that are taking place in France, Scandinavia, Brazil and elsewhere?  Where can or should we look to connect with those conversations?  Also, why do you think language barriers are so rarely addressed in OA discussions in the US? Continue reading