All posts by Ozma

Target Audience

In my Anthropology of Alternative Economies course I assigned Bill Maurer’s book Mutual Life, Limited. I found it puzzling in ways that I find a lot of contemporary anthropological writing puzzling, which is why I am blogging about it here. Now, this probably reads as the set-up for a long rant about “postmodernism” that will end in my shaking my tatty black umbrella in the general direction of all perfidious young uns, set to an encomium of sympathetic yowls from the horde of cats circling my ankles. But that is not really what I intend here, and it’s none of your business how I spend my weekends anyway. Continue reading

New York London Paris Munich

Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout pop music. We haven’t had any music blogging here of late, and this isn’t particularly culturalogical, but anyway: “Miranda!”: is a great, great, great Argentine pop band if you have a yen for lovely, lovely, lovely pop music (and who does not?). Sin Restricciones is one of the only CDs I’ve bought in years that actually makes a case for the album format: I had two favorite songs that I listened to over and over again; but instead of then getting tired of those two songs and putting aside the rest of the CD, I moved on to two new favorite songs, and then to two others, and then to two others, so that to date I have ended up obsessively loving 8 out of the 12 songs on it, and I wouldn’t rule out the last 4 winning me over in their turn.

I miss America

…when I watch My Name is Earl. Obviously Jason Lee is great, but I heart the genius that is Jaime Pressly in so many ways it leaves me feeling, um, confused. Anyway (and this is more or less apropos ongoing conversations about race in America here on SM), last night there was an episode with scene involving a mixed-race, but mostly redneck, crowd dancing in a honky-tonk to Young MC’s Bust A Move (one of my genteel Southern mother’s all-time favorite pop songs, btw) and how I felt about it was: dayummmm. My country ’tis of thee.

Very Briefly Noted

I just re-read, after a lapse of several years, Marshall Sahlins’ “The Sadness of Sweetness” (1996; Current Anthropology 37 [3]: 395-415). Criminy, it’s an amazing essay. That is all.

Elementary Structures of Sex & the City

It has recently become fashionable to argue that the contradictory nature of the information about the sexual habits of the great apes does not allow any resolution, on the animal plane, of the problem of whether polygamous tendencies are innate or acquired. Fashionable, yes; empirically defensible, no. Social and biological observation combine to suggest that, in women, these tendencies are natural and universal, and that only limitations born of the environment and culture are responsible for their suppression. Consequently, to our eyes, monogamy is not a positive institution, but merely incorporates the limit of polygamy in societies where, for highly varied reasons, economic and sexual competition reaches an acute form ( vide the NYTimes wedding announcements page).
Continue reading

Product Endorsement

I’ve been reading Keith Hart’s Money in an Unequal World with the participants in my Alternative Economies class, and finding it hugely exhilirating. For quite some time I had been wondering when my next big intellectual crush was going to come along; I haven’t felt this swoony since I discovered the work of Joan Martinez-Alier and James O’Connor while writing my dissertation thesis.

Call me an old-fashioned girl, but even though I acknowledge that Bruno Latour has definitively skewered “the modern critique” I find it’s still what I like. “Network theory” doesn’t do it for me; I still want history (1) systematically accounted for and (2) demystified with a flourish. I can’t help it: in spite of agreeing with all the remonstrances about how I oughn’t to fall for it it remains my idea of a good time, every time.

Mandatory retirement in academia

This is probably not an issue taking up a lot of mental and emotional space for most Savage Minds contributors and readers, but it is currently the hot topic at my institution (the University of Alberta). The U of A has a mandatory retirement age for faculty (65), and there is a movement underway — one that probably will be successful — to overturn it.

The principal argument against the policy is that mandatory retirement is simple age-discrimination (which, undoubtedly, it is). The sub-arguments are various, but an important one is that 65 year old people are to a significant extent not as “old” nowadays as they may have been a generation ago — they are healthy, productive, keen of mind, and so on. Again, this is indisputable.

And yet. Having just come off the job market myself, and having lots of friends on the job market, and feeling responsible for rising graduate students who will soon enter the job market, I have some qualms about going all Grey Panther on this issue. As far as I can tell, the academic job market has important “zero sum game” qualities. One domain of limited flexibility is infrastructure (offices and labs): finding creative ways to assume salaries continue for longer and pension-collection is forestalled won’t open up new funds to expand the physical spaces that house active faculty.

I wonder, too, whether the faculty most interested in the abolishment of mandatory retirement now were also among those most thoughtful about the generational structure of their disciplines 10 and 20 years ago: when they were admitting graduate students and attracting undergraduate majors. That being said, I concede that mandatory retirement is discriminatory. So it is a controversy about which I am not quite sure how to feel. Thoughts?

Anthropology of the Spirit

As is well known, during the past couple of decades the anthropology of the body has been very big in the discipline. AAAs sessions organized around this theme reliably signalled prestigious institutional affiliations, funky eyewear, and willfully peculiar shoes that manage silently to show up other choices of footwear as hopelessly plebeian. Were there, across this time, AAA sessions devoted to the anthropology of the spirit, it is not impossible to suppose they were marked by para-academic institutional affiliations, ethnic apparel of indeterminate origin, applause at odd moments, and a general air of obstreperous befuddlement.

My impression is that things have now changed, mostly in response to the rise of discourses of “spirituality” (be they fundamentalist or New Age) in the contemporary context. In class today I gave a “Magic, Science, and Religion” lecture that I self-consciously designed to not risk trodding on any pious/conservative toes, only to have a heated dispute break out in the western quadrant of the lecture hall about the relationship of neopaganism and Wicca to science. It wouldn’t give me so much pause if it weren’t the second time in my short teaching career it has happened; the first being in an intro anthro course when a scheduled “discussion of witchcraft” was taken by some students to mean a discussion of witchcraft: black, white, and how to tell the difference. What I felt, in both contexts, was utterly unprepared to do anything with the turn of events other than to ask that we bracket the debate and return to “what anthropology has to say about this topic”.

At any rate, I’ve found myself pondering the fact that one of the most appealing aspects of the “anthropology of the body” framework is that it enjoins a kind of critical engagement that includes the critical-engager: everybody’s got a body, and it is surprising and interesting to learn about how the taken-for-grantedness of that body is historically/socially/culturally constructed. But not everybody has a spirit. Certainly the critical literature with which I am familiar more or less moves from the stance “people who think they have spirits do so in the following historically/socially/culturally constructed ways”.

The most inclusive stance possible within this framework is a kind of agnostic addendum: “people who think they have spirits (and maybe they do) do so…”

I don’t know. It feels like a problem but maybe it’s just yet another sign that I belong in the “obstreperous befuddlement” rather than the “cool shoes” camp of the discipline.

Alternative Economies

Many moons ago, I asked for help with a course I was putting together on Alternative Economies and many SM readers and contributors responded with terrific suggestions. I promised I’d post the syllabus shortly thereafter, but instead it lumped along, half-written, for months. Well, the semester began a few weeks ago, at which point I was obviously done with writing the syllabus, but then I had to learn how to post documents (thanks Kerim and Rex!), and then I had to, ahem, put theory and practice together in re: posting documents. Anyway… “here”:/wp-content/image-upload/AltEcon.doc it is at long last.

Special thanks to Rex for mentioning the Sunstein review of Freakonomics (and for those of you worried about my students’ tender sensibilities, my teaching persona is rather different from my blogter-ego: I don’t have a princessy moniker, for one thing, and I don’t rip apart assigned material, for another) and to Timothy Burke for recommending Congo/Paris which became a suggested text. The Keith Hart was already on my syllabus before Rex mentioned it here, but anything else you see on here that came up in the discussion (or that might have been on syllabi SMers shared with me) is almost certainly courtesy of the Savage Minds reading and writing public. Many thanks.

As a bonus for interested folks, I also append “here”:/wp-content/image-upload/Anthr230toSM.doc the syllabus for the Anthro of Science, Technology, and the Environment mega-course I’m leading at the same time. Happy winter semester, everybody.

Tenure and the AAA

Inside Higher Education has a current “article”: treating a task force on tenure at the MLA. It’s interesting in its own right, but also — following up on some of the recent discussion here about what the AAA actually does — prompted me to think about how (and why) the AAA is different from the MLA. I’ve always had the impression that the MLA is like some enormous spacecraft hovering over English and kindred departments, both protective and vaguely ominous. The AAA, on the other hand, seems more like a higgledy-piggledy on-the-ground network of anthropology enthusiasts. I can’t imagine it definitively taking up an issue like “how tenure ought to be given across the diverse array of institutions at which anthropology is taught” and having its recommendations taken seriously by deans across the nation. Are the MLA and the AAA as different as I suppose?


How does it feel to be the University of Chicago professor who has co-authored a book containing the following paragraph?

“We have evolved with a tendency to link causality to things we can touch and feel, not to some distant or difficult phenomenon… We smirk now when we think of ancient cultures that embraced faulty causes — the warriors who believed, for instance, that it was their raping of a virgin that brought them victory on the battlefield. But we too embrace faulty causes, usually at the urging of an expert proclaiming a truth in which he has a vested interest.”
“Freakonomics”: pg. 140.

If despite the smirking and the urging you’ve got a free hand, there is something else you can do with that paragraph, and it relates to the book’s success. From its opening scene (a homeless black man with “expensive headphones”), to its closer (a black scholar who “beat the odds” and made it from underprivilege to a fellowship at Harvard), with a marquee story about the impact of legalized abortion along the way, the book constructs a slithery aperture into transformative transactions from which many of its presumably most enthusiastic readers have otherwise been shut out.

This is a book about feminism and racism written for people who feel either uncomfortable or unwelcome in the great conversation North American society has been having about feminism and racism since the 1960s. It presents an authoritative alternate language in which — not to participate in, but — to dominate that conversation. Dubner and Levitt assure their readers that “economics” is the value-free idiom with respect to which those other, value-laden, idioms can be shown to be misguided at best, stupid at worst, and almost always dead wrong.

That’s the point, so much so that most of the material which fluffs out the text (shoddy footnotes, sleight of hand interpretation of titillating evidence, a long final chapter that doesn’t even pretend to be anything but an extended chortle on what negro and po’ white mommas name their babies) hardly matters. Freakonomics is a pandering invitation to a certain societal segment of bombasticators to re-flate their bellows.

That’s all I’ll say for now, but to get back to the question with which I began: the obvious answer to my opening query is that it feels great to be that prof, and that not only does he sleep at night but that rolling in book-sales mega-bucks has given him a lovely and dew-like complexion. But I still wonder. Maybe it feels kinda sticky.

This week in US magazine

Gwyneth Paltrow, asked what she’d do if her daughter, Apple, said she wanted to be an actress:

“I’d probably do what my mother did with me, which is support whatever she wanted to do. But first I’d say, ‘oh no, you’re too smart for that! Be an anthropologist or something.'”

It’s so weird, but this is EXACTLY what my mom said to me when Hollywood beckoned. My agent was inconsolable.


So, as many of you have probably heard, Evo Morales has won the election for the presidency of Bolivia. Upsetting all predictions, he won by a simple majority — more than 50% of the vote. This is an amazing feat in a Bolivian presidential election. There were EIGHT candidates for president, and his nearest rival trailed him by twenty percentage points. This kind of slam-dunk never happens.

It means that a very controversial candidate has a real mandate for governance; that, in fact, he has the strongest mandate that any newly elected president has had in Bolivia since its “return to democracy” in the early 80s (following the dictatorships of the 70s).

So what is controversial about “Evo”? He’s indigenous, a socialist, and emerged as a political leader in coca-growing unions. He’s promised to fully legalize the cultivation of coca in Bolivia. Traditionally, coca leaves are chewed or made into tea; a limited level of cultivation for these purposes is already legal in Bolivia. All cultivation over this level is presumably destined to be elaborated into cocaine (in fact, some of the “excess” coca also goes to traditional domestic use — but, ahem, not most of it). Evo has promised to develop profitable alternative (ie, non-cocaine) uses for this “excess” coca. It’s not as totally implausible as it might sound — at the coca-growing peasant end of things, cultivation isn’t that profitable — it’s just more profitable than any of the currently-available alternatives. So it wouldn’t (hypothetically) be impossible to divert “excess” coca to another kind of weakly profitable (at the peasant end) market if one existed. However, it must be said that although it is hypothetically possible there is no realisitic precedent for the plan.

But that’s not really the most important part of Evo’s agenda, though it will receive a huge amount of hyperventilated attention in the U.S. press. Earlier this week, on Fox “News”, a reporter gamely explained that while a one pound of coca leaves costs about $2 on the street in Bolivia, one pound of cocaine is worth about $15,000 on the street in the United States — so “you can see the mark-up”. It was shamelessly misleading, as a pound of coca leaves would in fact yield an amount of cocaine invisible to the naked eye, but whatever.

The coca part of Evo’s campaign really is small potatoes (as is cocaine’s part in the contemporary — as opposed to the 1970s/80s — Bolivian economy). What is a huge deal in Bolivia today is the nationalization of its natural gas resources. This is what is going to receive real (as opposed to scandal-baiting) international governmental and private-sector attention. It is also what is going to be Evo’s central administrative challenge. Evo came in first in the provinces of the more populous Andean west. Support for nationalization of natural gas resources is high is in the Andean west. Evo did not come in first in any of the provinces of the lowland east. The natural gas reserves are in the lowland east, and these lowland eastern provinces have long been rumbling about regional “autonomy” which can for some purposes can be translated as “keeping the profits of natural gas production in the lowland east and not sharing them with the Andean west”.

Surprisingly, Evo did come in second in Santa Cruz — the province that leads the lowland autonomy movement. This was unexpected, and is encouraging because it indicates there may be a basis for rapprochement between the two regions. Evo is witty, charismatic, and courted the east throughout his campaign, evidently with real success. If he can reconcile eastern and western interests over the nationalization and exploitation of Bolivia’s gas reserves, he will succeed where his 3 predecessors have failed in rapid succession.

If he fails, Bolivia is in real trouble, but in that case don’t expect to hear much about him in the U.S. press. But if he does succeed: whoo-eee. Expect to hear that he personally encourages red-blooded American schoolchildren to freebase cocaine daily and twice on Sundays.

What now?

Or, Anthropology for Old People.

So, with the AAAs in the air and most young anthropologists’ thoughts turning to interviews and how to sum up their thesis research in a boffo mini-paragraph, this might not be the most apropos time to discuss What Lies Beyond. But we here at SM shrink from no grim task.

A question likely to echo down the hotel hallways next week, and certain to rustle among the leaves of the groves of academe during next spring’s campus interviews, is what today’s tesista (this word should exist in English but unfortunately “thesist” sounds religious, “thesiser” sounds like a made-up title for a minor nobleman in a fantasy fiction novel, and “writer-upper” is plainly hopeless) plans to do as her Next Project.

One option that comes up often enough to perhaps warrant being considered a pattern is the young anthro — returned from a doctoral project carried out at a field site accessible only by ice ax, dugout canoe, or 20 mule team equipped with propeller hats — who suddenly evinces a serious interest in the same themes as those of the original research — say, exchange rituals — but in a rather more comfortable setting — say, upscale organic grocery stores located in periurban North America. Sometimes in a tone of mild moral umbrage about giving exoticism a poke in the eye.

I for one always felt certain I’d have none of that. No, I’d stay in the South American heartland, polishing my hard-won though still pretty pathetic Guarani language skills and ultimately dying, slowly, of Chagas’ disease as befits any Chaco dweller worth his salt. Neither bug bites nor saddle sores nor sulfurous ground water would stand in my way.

But that was me talking the talk. This fall, walking the Next Project walk (with a visit to my old field site along the way), I’ve discovered the Paraguayan Chaco (my previous work was in the Bolivian Chaco). A good portion of the Paraguayan Chaco has been settled by Mennonites and is, astonishingly, a Chaco with grocery stores, a Chaco with air conditioning, a Chaco with swimming pools (well, one anyway). My anti-colonialist spirit tells me it is wrong wrong wrong for me to want to take a swimsuit next time, while my sensualist flesh says it is oh so RIGHT.

So, I’m wondering (in a self-exculpatory sort of way) — am I just succumbing to the inevitable? Apart from all the condemnations of exoticist exploitation that are heaped upon old-fashioned, out-in-the-impoverished-Otherish-boonies fieldwork, how much of a role does the fact that anthropology is no longer a young upstart discipline, but one with lots of comfy established practitioners, play in the shift of what kind of ethnography “counts” for our collective purposes?

Blinded me with science!

So this post is a bit of a fishing expedition — I’m looking to add materials to a course on weird economies. Not “Freakonomics”: – style – weird, but late capitalist – style – weird. If you’ve read a particularly compelling ethnographic (or even pop) treatment of black markets, strange markets, marginal and/or avant garde markets, well, do send along the refs!

And if you want to share your thoughts on how the logic of Freakonomics totally makes sense if you’ve drunk the economic man koolaid and totally does not make much sense otherwise — hey, you won’t hear any complaints from me.

The working course description of the course in question is:

“Anthropology of Alternative Economies”: a course considering the theory and ethnography of marginal, secret, and even magical economies in the contemporary world.
While in recent decades we have heard much about the emergence of a “new” global economy, many members of the world population have access to neither this “new” nor to the “old” (wage-labor) economy. Instead, they enter informal, paraformal, and/or illicit economies: providing goods and services outside of (and often in spite of) legitimate frameworks. These workers realize that the economic systems in which they live operate according to strange logics, and they sometimes develop surprising cultural theories to explain them. Such processes are generating exciting new theorization in economics and anthropology. They also present special ethical and methodological challenges to researchers. The course will cover theoretical and empirical readings, from globally diverse contexts and interdisciplinary perspectives, on these multiple sets of issues.