Yearly Archives: 2012

Disrupting Transportation Habitus

In his 1935 essay “Techniques of the Body,” Marcel Mauss characterized the body as our primary tool for experiencing the world; bodily practices shape what we think of as normal. The things we do over and over in our everyday lives have a lot to do with what we think we should be doing, as Pierre Bourdieu argued about the reproduction of habitus. The concept of habitus connects individual, embodied action with larger frameworks of culture, society, and built environments. So what does this mean to someone interested in social change? It means that maybe getting people to change some habitual practice can change their worldviews. What is now considered fringe or undesirable can become socially accepted and taken for granted.

For many bike activists, the primary goal is getting more people to think of bicycling as a mode of transport rather than a pastime for eccentrics, and they see bike infrastructure projects as a way of reaching this goal. But if ideas about appropriate uses of streets have to do with habitus, it is also useful to look at what happens when normal street conditions get disrupted by events, changed travel expectations, and even disaster.

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Around the Web

Here at Savage Minds we love to read and we love to share. Once a month I collect the tweets from @savageminds and reblog them here. Check it out, maybe you’ll find a gem you missed! Our Twitter feed is reproduced on our Facebook page, so you can find us there as well. If you’ve found something interesting around the web that you’d like to share with the Savage Minds community you can email me at mdthomps AT or, better yet, tweet your find @savageminds. And now… to the links!

Bicycling and Ethnographic Access

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Adonia Lugo.

I was thinking about how to start talking about bicycling and anthropology on Savage Minds when I saw this post on Gizmodo about bicycling through lower Manhattan during the hurricane that inundated the east coast of the U.S. earlier this week. This is what Casey Neistat saw while he was exploring via bike during flooding on Monday night:

This footage is exciting, and heartwrenching. Seeing New York City in a crisis is scary, even for those of us who don’t live there. And in light of the longstanding attempts to deny climate change, water lapping against the iconic urban density of Manhattan says something frightening, to me at least. But another statement the video makes is that a bike can take you places other forms of mobility sometimes can’t.

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Anthropology & Democracy III: The stand aside or do something edition

This is Part III of a series of posts on anthropology and democracy.  Part I is here, Part II, here.

In the USA, the spectre of democracy looms.  It is days away.  November 6, when people all across the country will step into a small booth and exercise their right to participate in the democratic system by choosing between representatives from the two dominant political parties (oh, and a slew of others that the vast majority of people have not heard of).  This is democracy at the highest political level.  Democracy at its finest.  The pinnacle.  Right?

Maybe not.  Maybe, as DJ pointed out in his comment, we need to pay attention to the various scales at which democracy operates–and what that means for our understanding(s) of what democratic practices are all about.  In the US, I think it’s both interesting and telling that the presidential elections are often treated as a kind of democratic pinnacle or climax–as if it’s really the most important part of the massive iceberg of political and/or potential democratic action.  What about all of the democracies–or lack thereof–taking place as we trickle on down the various levels of social structure?  Things start to look different, maybe, when they move away from the media pomp and glitz that absolutely drench presidential election hoopla.  And this has me wondering whether all of this focus on “the big event” serves a certain political purpose in its own right.  If everyone is paying attention to the big event, what’s happening everywhere else?

And where does the anthropological project fit within all this?  When I posted the first installment of this series, calling for a collective investigation of anthropology & democracy, Keith Hart wrote this as a reply on Facebook: “Seems like a good idea to me, especially since the origins of anthropology in the 18th century’s revolutionary democratic project has been forgotten by practitioners (honorable exceptions include L.H. Morgan) for over 200 years.”

Which leads me to this question: Is anthropology a democratic project these days?  It is, after all, buried within not-so-democratic institutions (this very question was raised by regular commenter DWP in response to my second post).  Do we strive for anthropology to be democratic, or is that just the kind of politicization that ought best be avoided?  Should anthropologists stand aside and study the various “democracies” around the world in a detached, objective manner, or should anthropology be geared toward fostering democratic practices and institutions?  When it comes to democracy, do we stand outside the fish bowl looking in, or do we jump in and try to manage the currents from within?  Please take these questions and run with them.  Or swim, as it may be…

The Illustrated Man vs. Super-Graeber

In the comics industry, special issues that promise one hero “versus” another are usually long on gimmick and short on action. Keeping with that tradition my blog post promises an epic confrontation when in reality I’m not really engaging Graeber’s thought provoking essay “Super Position” in a substantial way. I’m going to use the author’s Freudian critique of the summer blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises as catalyst to reflect on the anthropological study of popular culture.

As an aside I will say this about Graeber’s essay: he uses Roman numerals to demarcate thematic chunks of the essay, which allows him to write without transitions. Whenever I see this technique it always makes me think of Walter Benjamin, that patron saint of the Marxist critique of pop culture. To invoke Benjamin in an essay on Batman is like saying, “I’m very serious about playing around here.” Or, at least that’s what I’m thinking when I write essays with Roman numerals.

Graeber’s subject is Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman movies, which are themselves based on Frank Miller’s legendary characterization of the hero in “The Dark Knight Returns” (1986), widely considered one of the greatest comic book stories of all time (and rightfully so). Miller’s book closed the door on the Silver Age version of the character and redefined the Gotham City universe as gritty and violent. Among the movie going public Miller is also known as the original author of Sin City and 300, while to the comics crowd he’s associated with legendary runs at Daredevil and Wolverine.

Miller himself is a reactionary ass and his slander of the Occupy movement as composed of “louts, thieves, and rapists” was only the latest salvo in a stream of proto-fascist dribble. So when Graeber pins down the The Dark Knight Rises as “anti-Occupy propaganda” he is pretty much on the money. A more patient man than I could probably connect the dots between the Reagan-era conservatism of “Returns” with Rises. Neoliberalism and the apocalypse, maybe. Revenge, definitely.

What are superhero movies all about? And why are they so popular right now? These are the questions that prompted me to think about how anthropology could actually forward such a project. How ought we compose a research agenda focused on mass media and popular culture? Personally, I find myself consistently disappointed in most everything academics have written about pop culture. I’d like to think that anthropology could do better. What Graeber is doing here is using history and critical theory to write a polemic in order to make a political point. That’s fine, but it’s only one way that anthropology might go about designing research about comic book super heroes. Continue reading

Moby Debt (Thoughts on Debt)

One of the things a good book does is to show you patterns which you start seeing everywhere. David Graeber’s Debt is one of those books. Right now I’m enjoying listing to the Moby Dick Big Read in which:

David Cameron, Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry and Simon Callow jump aboard ambitious project to broadcast Herman Melville’s classic novel in its entirety – 135 chapters over 135 days

As I discussed in my last post, one of the central arguments in Debt is the constant tension between debt as a finite, calculable thing as defined by money (and backed by the authority of the state), and debt as an infinite moral obligation which can never be repaid. This tension is central to Moby Dick. Here, for instance, is a passage about captain Ahab from the end of Chapter 41:

They were bent on profitable cruises, the profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint. He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.

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advocacy and the informed outsider

an experience that many have had and that some have written about has been providing expert opinion. I’m sharing here to see what people’s experience might be like.

last weekend, I attended a conference of ethnic Chinese professional people of various political identities, but all living in the United States. The conference made me anxious for several reasons: first, public gigs of this sort always give me the willies; second, the organization seemed tied to political interests and organizations toward which I am at best ambivalent; and finally the organizers wanted to have several talks on “indigenous education”—an issue that has been highly politicized and contentious on Taiwan. And I found myself both as a token “American” (meaning, in Mandarin Chinese white person) and as an anthropologist who has worked in Taiwanese indigenous communities, a token indigenous voice. Continue reading

Graeber’s Marxism (Thoughts on Debt)

I recently finished reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and I hope to start a series of posts inspired by this book. Not so much reviewing it, as in dialog with it. For my first post I wanted to highlight what I understand to be the Marxist underpinnings of Graeber’s methodology. To do so it is useful to look at a recent critical review of the book in Jacobin by Mike Beggs, one of the journal’s editors. It is useful because Beggs get things very wrong, but wrong in a particularly interesting way.

Beggs seems eager to prove is that Graeber creates a straw man out of economic theory, but in doing so he himself makes a straw man out of Graeber. He starts by conceding that some forms of economics are overly individualistic:

The most simplistic renditions of neoclassical economics may reduce all human interactions to self-interested exchange.

He then promptly points out that this critique is not new, and that the importance of social structure “could almost be seen as a constant in social theory since the classics.” Here is where it gets interesting:

But most of these other approaches to grand socio-history differ from Graeber’s in treating these levels as structures, and not simply as the practices that create them. They are made up of complex, evolving patterns of relationships that cannot be reduced to or derived from deliberate individual or interpersonal action. They emerge, as Marx put it, “behind the backs” of the very people who collectively create them. They become the social contexts that frame our actions, the circumstances not of our choosing within which we make history. They are collective human products, but not of ideological consensus – rather, they are the outcome of often competing, contradictory pressures.

Graeber, in contrast, stays mainly at the level of conscious practice and gives a basically ethical vision of history, where great changes are a result of shifting ideas about reality.

Whether or not you agree with Graeber’s overall argument about the history of debt, this is a laughable characterization of what Graeber is doing in this book Continue reading

AA Editor: We Need Gold Open Access

Open Access week is well underway here on the Internet, and so it’s time to return to a topic I touched on before but didn’t give enough attention to: Tom Boelstorff’s recent call for AAA journals to go completely open access. As the editor of American Anthropologist, our flagship journal, his editorial on this subject is particularly important and deserves more attention than it got in the original news cycle in which it was released.

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Anthropology & Democracy II: Democracy in your neck of the woods

So here’s part two in a continuing series of posts about anthropology and democracy.

Here’s what I have in mind for this one: there are a lot of you anthropological folks out there in the world, and I think it might be interesting for some of you to put your skills into practice and see what you can come up with.  This invitation is open to all: grad students who are so busy you can’t even fathom democracy, assistant profs, undergrads, famous anthropologists, and everyone in between.  Let’s see what we got.   Here’s the prompt: What is democracy looking like through your little peepholes into the world?  Where is it and what’s it all about?  Let me know what it’s looking like on your street, at your college, your field site, excavation, lab, or in your neighborhood, city, or community.  Is democracy just some rumor, some fantasy–or is it unmistakeable, concrete, and material?  Is Democracy the local chapter of a political party that’s going door to door trying to rally support for their candidate?  Is it a bunch of signs stuck in lawns?  Or someone driving through town with a megaphone blaring?  Is it some whisper in a restaurant–or graffiti screaming about politics from some freeway overpass?  Let’s hear some details, folks.  I am looking for the good stuff, the real nitty-gritty of democracy as you see it, taste it, feel it, and crash into it like some sharp-edged table in a dark room.  Ya, that stuff.  Don’t over think it all, just post it.  250 words?  500?  100?  Whatever, just post something.

Since it’s my idea, I will be the guinea pig and go first.  Here’s my off-the-cuff response: Continue reading

Violence against women x 2

This probably belongs on Sociological Images, but I am going to post it here anyway.  I just read this brief 2010 article about violence against women in Russia, after reading through this fact sheet from the World Health Organization.  Then when I looked back at the article, I noticed something that seemed off.  Here’s a screenshot, see if you can figure it out:

Women as targets of violence, in more ways than one.  Sometimes it’s more overt, sometimes it’s a hidden under the surface–like this ad that just happened to be posted alongside an article about violence against women.  It’s one of those ads that changes every time you refresh the page.  It’s just kind of one of those quotidian digital moments that can bring various strands or currents of our social world together.  Different forms of violence, different layers, coming together in a supposedly coincidental moment.  But sometimes these kinds of moments tell us a lot about larger issues, problems, and pervasive forms of violence.


so far, the constitutive goods of ethnography that i’ve talked about have been friendship and (an embodied awareness) of awkwardness. i’d like to see more of us take on vulnerability, because it seems to me that several of the recent mania in our discipline–most notably the hardness (quantitative) envy seen in some quarters, but also seemingly touchy-feely trendy topics like #affect–reveal distancing techniques meant to deny what we’ve known all along: not just that the fieldwork requires considerable vulnerability, but that like any other attempt of carrying experience over into knowledge, findings into academic conversation, the knowledge that we produce is vulnerable at every point it changes places, hands, or media. bruno latour has such vulnerability in mind when he talks of “referential chains” between soil samples and arguments about ecology and, i think, in his conversations of the sociotechnical “factishes” that make us act rightly

this is hardly the place to talk about latour’s arguments–it would make me far too vulnerable than i prefer–but i wonder why, apart from behar’s 1997 the vulnerable observer, we do not spend more time talking about vulnerability, if only to practice a kind of diligence. i don’t mean, by the way, the kind of diligence that has hedged ethnography about with a combination of IRB and rather patronizing ethics codes (not to mention a far too reactionary arguments about both). what i have in mind is more akin to the kind of “hyper and pessimistic activism” foucault talks about in his “genealogy of ethics,” an awareness of the dangers, the vulnerabilities that are part of our trade

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Anthropology & Democracy: A Project Proposal

With the elections in the US less than three weeks away, the idea of “democracy” has been on my mind a lot.  And, considering recent events like this (which isn’t exactly getting a lot of press coverage), I am thinking a lot about the ideals of democracy versus the actual practice of democracy–here in the US and elsewhere.  There’s certainly a lot underneath and behind all of the rhetoric of democracy–and I think anthropology is a good tool for taking a deeper look into what’s going on.

So here’s my idea: How about doing a bit of a collaborative project about democracy and anthropology?  My idea here is to do a series of posts and open threads here on SM that explore the histories, practices, and meanings of democracy from an anthropological perspective.  My goal is to encourage a lot of participation from the SM readership–and hopefully from others in the anthro-blogosphere.  We can use the upcoming elections in the US as a point of departure, but by no means should this discussion be limited to the USA.

I was reading this post by Jason Antrosio this morning (which is a good example of taking anthropology to discussions about politics), and it made me ask myself: “You know, there are a LOT of anthropologists out there–I wonder what they’re thinking about all of this?”  What are you all thinking about this?  How can we ignite a conversation about the meaning of the d-word?  So I am thinking of a sort of crowd-sourced, participatory, spur-of-the-moment-anthropology-in-the-streets series on democracy.

Maybe we could use this first post to share some links, sources, and readings that cover the theme of anthropology and democracy?  Or feel free to just chime in and give me a yay or nay on this idea.  Please pass this around via Facebook, twitter, etc.  I’d like to see if we can generate some interest here and maybe build up a bit of a collaborative effort.  Maybe we can pull in some folks from the OAC, or Neuroanthropology, or Living Anthropologically, or, or…???

What do you think, readers of SM?  Are you game?

UPDATE 10/20/12: Check out the discussion about this over at the OAC.

The virtues of charging for publications

I spend a lot of time on this blog extolling the virtues of open access publishing, so I thought I should take a minute to extoll the virtues of for-profit publishing and the role they play in the scholarly endeavor. 

As scholars, we anthropologists subscribe to the idea that knowledge should be free and spread as widely as possible. Of course, there are important qualifications to this: we understand that anonymity and confidentiality are important when we right and do research, and so forth. But overall, the goal is to make our work universally available. The problem with contemporary publishing, we claim, is that too many people put profits ahead of accessibility, costs are high because production methods are outdated and publishers can’t or won’t innovate, and the social system of prestige and career advancement tied to publishing disincentives open access. Publishing, we argue, needs to be done for a wider audience, for the right reasons, and in a way that gets the information out there. The bajillion successful open access projects in anthropology today demonstrate that this can be done.

But it can’t be done all the time. I was absolutely delighted to meet the people behind the University of Papua New Guinea press when I visited Port Moresby over the summer. The press has done absolutely fantastic work bringing back into print important work from the independence era of Papua New Guinea, such as the Pocket Poets series. They are republishing work in the public domain — one small piece I saw was a missionary-produced ethnography. A staff member told me there were four of the original print run left, mostly in libraries. The press is not only making the piece available to modern readers, they’re saving it from extinction. They are publishing new books, aggressively seeking subventions to support new authors and scholarship. Their authors are academics and amateur scholars, priests and activists. I was incredibly impressed by the quality and amount of work they were bringing out.

All of this work is valuable, but none of it is free. The press is very smart about outsourcing publishing to companies in Singapore and India (PNG doesn’t have a publishing industry to print their stuff), balancing their list to include textbooks (which sell) and rarer works (which don’t), making their works available on Amazon. But there’s no way around that fact that, for them, for-profit is the only way to go. They simply don’t have the resources to go open access.

Sometimes people like to pummel a straw man version of open access which holds that any attempt to ever make money is an evil obsession with filthy lucre. Clearly, few actual people take such an uncompromising stance. There are many situations when the right business model is to charge money to keep your head above water.

Now, perhaps I don’t understand the UPNG Press’s business model and history — I was only there for a weekend. But it seems to me that the example of this successful, small, boot-strapped press should make us think: just how much like the UPNG Press are closed-access publishers? If a third-world university with few resources can get things off the ground, then what does it say about first-world publishers who claim there is no cheaper way to get their works available than to charge US$100 for a monograph? If Papua New Guineans can do it well and on the cheap, we ought to be able to do so as well.