Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist SM?

Hey folks, Kelty here, Savage Minds blogger, demeritus. The AAA is coming up and with it several celebrations of ten years of Savage Minds! It is also about ten years of Social Media. It’s an Era! It’s a Decade! It’s time for reflection! Which we will do at the excellently early hour of 8am on Saturday morning, on the panel “Teh Internet and Anthropology: Ten Years of Savage Minds”, organized by Alex Golub, chaired by Alex Golub, and with Alex Golub as a discussant.

I know all my fellow Alex Golubs are excited (as are Kerim Friedman, and Carole McGranahan, and Ryan Anderson and Gabriella Coleman), but I have a problem they do not have: I have nothing interesting to say.

Fortunately, this is not the same thing as there being nothing to say–because what I’d rather do is channel the beast itself: I think Savage Minds should be on the panel! How can we bring SM to this small, closed, early morning panel and rub the publics of SM up against the private parts of the AAA. Oh. That sounds weird. I don’t want it to be weird.

Anyways, I’m issuing a small challenge to those who still gather here in and around Savage Minds… pretend it’s 1784, and Savage Minds is called Der Berlinische Monatsschrift, and the question goes like this:

“What difference has SM made to the discipline of Anthropology?”

Some rules for answering this question:

1) I deliberately say SM, because I mean both Savage Minds specifically and Social Media generally. Both issues are on the table, since it is “The Internet and Anthropology.” You can, if you wish, also read Sado-Masochism for SM, but that’s weird, and we are trying to stay away from that.

2) by discipline, I mean the core pedagogical values of the discipline; the way anthropology’s problems and methods are talked about, taught, and performed now, as opposed to 10 years ago. (Not so much the departments, the money or the people, the journals or the scholarly societies, relevant though they may be).

Answers can come in any form–from 140 characters to a comment to a poem to a snapchat that I will probably never see, to a 10,000 word excursus (no, actually, that would be weird, cf. above). But my goal is to collect them and to make the opening 15 minutes into monstrous, anthroporific, wake-up extravaganza by a collective subject called Savage Minds/Social Media. Do you have an answer? Kant you say what it is? Represent yourself Savage Minds!

You are still reading. That’s odd. You should stop now.

I realize this might seem like a lazyweb way to do things, and of course it is. If no one answers, then I’ll just have to write something, which would be a shame.

Well, I do have an answer, but you should ignore it because yours is better.

OK, well to be honest I am actually a little troubled by the fact that SM/SM might be simply reproducing the elitism of the academy, and not because SM has any power in and of itself, but because we aren’t pushing it to do what we want it to do. Rather, we are either submitting to the technologies themselves without much thought, or we are letting them be resisted/controlled/incorporated into the much older and established forms of power in the disciplines–this can be good, there is value in the conservatism of the disciplines, but it can also be bad.

It’s like the Amish. They aren’t technophobes, despite the caricatures, but rather exceedingly good at adapting technologies to their values, rather than the reverse–which is what the rest of us fallen folks tend to do. Like the Amish, it might be that we academics, with our particular values, must resist being too quick to adopt SM as it has evolved, rather than as we want it to be. But I find most of my collegues are actually that caricature of the Amish–resisting technology entirely in the vain hope that it will go away. What I don’t think we know is how SM could or should make a difference to the discipline.

My concern with the discipline is not unrelated to the fact that I am not an anthropologist by degree, but only by partial training, disposition and mentorship. I work on a day to day basis with students and colleagues in information studies, sociology, anthropology, science studies, media studies evolutionary biology, medical genetics, digital humanities, political theory, history and law. I suspect lots of people in positions like mine are doing the same. It is a very rare thing to find anthropologists who get to work only with anthropology students, but these folks nonetheless remain the intellectual guide stars, because there is (and I believe it) a certain purity to anthropological discipline, and they get to spend their lives focused on it, shaping it, driving it into new configurations, rediscovering past ones, etc. The reality of the modern university, however, is that such discipline is being destroyed–not by the internet, but by administrators bent on interdisciplinarity, over-professionalization of everything, stupid catch-up games with Silicon Valley, and the unwillingness by faculty and administrators alike to deal with the enormous labor crisis facing the institution.

But I want to stay focused on the intellectual issue: The problem I see is that this disciplinary discussion–this cutting edge work on problems and modes of inquiry–still happens in closed, elite circles—increasingly elite, as more and more minted PhD’s either do not get jobs in anthropology, or get bad downward-spiralling adjunct jobs, or reinvent themselves in some other discipline, professional school or newfangled interdisciplinary unit. Good work happens everywhere, but this demographic fact is having a real impact on the discipline of anthropology. The formation of problems and modes of inquiry is not being pushed out of the university into alternative spaces mediated by blogs and social media, but higher and deeper into the enclaves–fed both by our own desire to believe that there is a trickle-down genius from the Named Chair Professors, and by the often unwitting performance of that role by people who all worked hard to get there in the first place.

So what difference could and should SM make here? Is this about new publics, open discussions, and access to these debates? I think not, because it is still a one-way street: as long as the people in the universities, in positions of disciplinary power remain disconnected from the new networked public spheres, the transformed labor market, the massive inequalities in wealth within and between universities, there is little hope for anything other than retrenchment and further exacerbation–faculty blame administration, administration dismantles disciplines, departments and schools; grad students blame everyone. Honest inquiry into the sources of these pathologies seems far from the arcane, pleasurable discussions of the ontological turn or the anthropology of infrastructure, but I don’t think it is. I think the production of those problems and modes of inquiry remains disconnected from the possibilities and promise of SM. In short, I worry nothing has changed.

These past ten years, I hoped SM/SM would turn into the place where lively intellectual discussions, core debates and central problems and issues would happen. We at Savage Minds talked early and often about the need to fill this environment with other blogs, journals, social media outlets to create a rich, biodiverse public sphere in which this could happen beyond the academy. I’m on the fence about whether that’s true: examples like HAU, Cultural Anthropology and Somatosphere are good indicators of a change. But as I spend longer within the university and its circuits of power, it becomes ever clearer to me how little hope we actually have that the people guarding the discipline will be the ones to sustain and transform it.

So what is the duty of the elite to the discipline itself? Is it merely one of ownership? Is it the power to define problems and modes of inquiry that will be both discussed and taught to new grad students but which will ultimately not be rewarded on the job market? Does this elite not owe it to the discipline itself to find a way to speak publicly about the problem that it is creating: pushing research forward in a context where that research, embodied in the freshly minted PhD, cannot be reproduced or extended? Does it not seem like this generational attenuation is of drastic and serious moment these days? Or have I been watching too much Ben Carson?

You see why I am turning to you to answer this question? Help me Obi-Wan, you’re my only hope.


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.