In this guest blog series, the Savage Minds folks have been kind enough to provide a space for me to untangle and unpack some of my recent thoughts on anthropologists, hipsters and such. In my first post, I took the conventional path of defining my terms. In this second post, I focus on a common characteristic that is both productive and frustrating for anthropologists and hipsters alike: their position at the margins.
Fads at the Margins
The hipster community can offer refreshing and insightful critiques (or even rejection) of “popular” or “mainstream” contemporary trends, whether it be in lifestyle, fashion or social conventions. As a whole, anthropologists do the same when it comes to theoretical formulations. We interrogate tacit assumptions about the world around us and even turn them on their heads entirely. We don’t simply accept that which has come before us, but we question and reimagine it in ways that yield complex ideas; students in my own classes have shared their intellectual struggles with excitement for their first encounters with anthropological literature. We turn to the old, the obscure and the unknown to find alternative understandings; we deconstruct the past and present, refine and reimagine what we thought we knew, and make the old new again. Such nuanced understanding requires making extremely fine distinctions about various concepts. Such work is deeply productive.
However, the ability to make extremely fine intellectual distinctions among various phenomena is precisely what makes us opaque and irrelevant to the general public; it is what the new student to anthropology struggles with. The hipster may claim that band X produces music wildly superior to band Y in every way, while the general public has never heard of either one of them, and cannot distinguish the sound of one from the other. Like the hipster, the scholar is accused of getting held up in endless squabbles about extremely fine distinctions, and thus scholarship can be seen not only as a meaningful dialogue but as a way to demarcate membership in an elite group. And as soon as non-hipsters have heard of band X it is no longer superior to band Y. Discovering powerful theoretical lenses (the equivalent of the next great band or fashion) produces cultural capital for anthropologists, and can help establish a career – but jumping on the bandwagon too late can be labeled cheap opportunism. Worry not, future anthropologists, a new French social theorist is always waiting to be discovered.
Although critique of the mainstream can encourage a rich intellectual dialogue, it can also produce an intellectual snobbery or elitism. I have seen doctoral students who are deeply sensitive to raced and classed elitism shun and ostracize a peer because her/his position was too “mainstream” or framework too dated. Furthermore, any attempt to make that dialogue meaningful to the general public is dismissed as irrelevant (for one’s career) and intellectually stultifying. Despite some movement towards better including applied and public anthropologists at the table, the discipline is still deeply rooted in theory and intellectual fads. This can be frustrating.
Can there be an anthropologist-public intellectual?
Many anthropologists love to ‘hate on’ biologist and professor of geography Jared Diamond1. He writes popular, mainstream books that seemingly re-package antiquated, geographically deterministic, grand theories of human societies that anthropologists discarded as inadequate years ago. At their worst, his writings seem to alleviate White, Western guilt about colonial conquest by pointing to massive, impersonal social forces that are the ‘true culprit’ of current global inequities. However, his works also align with much of the core messaging of anthropology: that socio-political structures, the distribution of resources, historical conditions and geography can be as powerful as agency in shaping the current state of affairs. I agree with a number of the substantive critiques of Diamond, but the accessible texts can lay a strong foundation upon which further conversations can productively be built. Diamond’s books are also fun to read and accessible.
Therefore, although the critiques of Diamond’s work is substantive, it seems to me that what most offends some anthropologists is not his intellectual argument, but rather that Diamond is poaching on anthropology’s territory – that he is taking old anthropological fads to the mainstream. I hear the same fury about non-anthropologists who ‘do ethnography’ or ‘culture.’ The critiques sound much like hipsters who see their own styles go mainstream, or are experts on the obscure:
That ironic Metallica t-shirt is so 2012.
Grizzly Bear is just a pale shadow of Neutral Milk Hotel.
The fury seems partly rooted in our own marginalized position, and the lack of acknowledgment of our own expertise. Why, we wonder, are they listening to these others? Why can’t people see that what we do is so much better than what they do?
Similar to hipsters, anthropologists can be slave to an endless array of fads. Although these academic fads can be intellectually stimulating, we also use this knowledge to demarcate membership, maintain our relevance and evaluate one another – which is a major aspect of doctoral study. As a doctoral student, one learns to articulate personal narratives related to the in-group (anthropologists), but may simultaneously act to make oneself indecipherable to out-groups (everyone else). Furthermore, it seems as if the act of making something accessible to the mainstream is considered one of “selling out.” Thus we frequently complain that no one listens to us, while making our work impenetrable to non-experts and punishing those who attempt to makes those works more accessible. I have heard many call for anthropologists to produce a new public intellectual in the tradition of Margaret Mead, but it seems that the culture of anthropology today is designed to position us at the margins.
The question is in the ‘seems.’ Do we position ourselves at the margins or is there something else at work? Can anthropologists produce public intellectuals given how we socialize students into the discipline? Is it a contradiction of terms, like a “mainstream” hipster? Given our media-bite culture, is it possible to have true public intellectuals at all? Which current anthropologists and anthropological works do you think have been most successful at crossing over into engagement with the public? I invite comment below.
Other posts in the series: