The annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association is now over, as is Thanksgiving. Now that we are over the hump and have a bit of perspective, we can ask: How well did the AAA handle the meetings?
Trump’s victory yesterday was the result of many factors. The politics of academic publishing was hardly an important part of the elections results. Large for-profit publishers like Elsevier and Taylor and Francis did not secretly elevate Trump to victory, nor would the outcome have changed if voters in Florida had access the entire run of Anthropology and Humanism. But this election did raise issues that central to open access as a movement. It was about truth, credibility, and authority. It was about how the same fact pattern can be interpreted in different ways. It was about judging for yourself the quality of partial and possibly biased information. And what comes next is even more relevant to our academic values. In the next four years we will see many people pushing back against accepted truths — that African Americans face discrimination, that the holocaust occurred, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and much much more, I’m sure. Now, than, we academics need to explain what scholarly and scientific knowledge is, why it is important that non-experts should take it seriously, and how open access is central to a vibrant, functioning democracy.
In my past few walks down the history of anthropology, I’ve tended to focus on white guys being cruel to each other. I thought I’d try to widen my remit a bit in this entry, and look at white guys flattering each other — which involves, in this case, Alfred Kroeber being cruel to himself.
The people who fill our theory readers are real people who lived vibrant, quirky lives. It is easy to reduce them to a set of ideas or to a stereotyped, essentialized colonizer. But in fact their ideas — and their colonialism! — were flesh and blood and richly particular.
And they all knew each other.
Consider Mauss’s correspondence with Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheimians both, their theoretical interests allied them against Malinowski. Mauss’s withering, gallic trashing of Malinowski may have more to do with placating Radcliffe-Brown than it does genuine animus. But it also reflects so much else that academia still has: A concern with funding, grudging respect for publication history, trash-talking about a rival’s advising style. It’s all there.
I know of Malinowski’s despotism. Rockefeller’s weakness with regard to him is probably the cause of his success. The weakness, due to the age and the elegance of the other English, those in London as well as those of Cambridge and Oxford, leave the field in England free for him; but you may be sure, even the young whom he protects know how to judge him. There are dynasties that do not last. His big work on magic and agriculture will surely be a very good exposition of the facts. This is what he excels at. And the subventions from Rockefeller for a whole army of stooges which he has had at his disposal will certainly have allowed him to have done something definitive. Only, alongside it there will be a very poor theory of the magical nature of this essential thing. At last he is going to write a great book on his functionalist theory of society and family organization. Here his theoretical weakness and his total lack of learning will make itself still more obvious.
This little glimpse into history is just one of the many open access publications on the history of our discipline that are out there. In addition to the newly-revived History of Anthropology Newsletter there are also the many excerpts and memorial over at the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. Thanks to them for making this small, wonderful, slightly terribly little bit of historical kvetching accessible to all!
The alternate title for this post was going to be “Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas walk into a bar…”. This is a little autobiographical passage from pages 46-48 of History, Evolution, and the Concept of Culture: Selected Papers by Alexander Lesser. In it, Lesser (a vastly under-read and under-appreciated author) describes what it was like to be a graduate student in the 1920s. It’s a fun little vignette that says something about the limits of functionalism… and academic networking! I’ve condensed this account down a good deal — if you’d like to see the full version, check out the book.
I first met both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski in 1926 or 1927. It was the first occasion of their both being in New York at the same time. Pliny Earle Goddard was very anxious to have Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski meet Boas. He believed they would both discover that Boas was driving at the same thing they were driving at, that there really weren’t any fundamental conflicts. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski were invited to what was a large living room in Ruth Bunzel’s parents’ apartment, somewhere near Riverside Drive. There were only about ten of us: six graduate students, Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Boas.
When the time seemed right, Goddard invited Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown to say something. Radcliffe-Brown started off by giving extemporaneously a fifteen minute exposition of what he considered to be the meaning of meaning. It was, from a verbal standpoint a beautiful performance. Boas simply looked at Goddard, and looked at Radcliffe-Brown, and nodded his head. And that was all. Then Goddard turned to Malinowski and asked him if he wanted to say anything, and Malinowski gave an exposition of his concept of functionalism. After he got through with his fifteen minutes, Goddard turned to Boas, expecting him to say something… and then there was utter silence.
After the silence had gone on for as long as I could stand it, I asked a question. I was scare to death, of course. I asked Malinowski if he meant it when he said that every thing, every item in culture, had a vital function. He said, “Yes.” I said to him, “In the back of my hat here’s a little bow which is sewn on to where the seam comes. Now if you go to a store and try to buy a hat, you’ll find it has a little bow on it.” I asked him what its function was. The binding of the hat is sewn together at the back end very tightly; the bow doesn’t hold anything. If it isnt’ there, nothing will happen. And yet if you should happen to buy such a hat in a store, and it didn’t have the bow, the salesman would say, “wait a minute, I’ll have the bow put on.” But what function does it have? Well, Malinowski looked at me and said, “Well….” He thought first of course that maybe it held the hat together, and I showed him it didn’t. So then he said, “Well, maybe it’s decorative.” I said, “How? You can’t even see it.” We went on like this, for some time, but he finally said, “Oh, I’m interested in important matters.” He simply dropped it.
Now, where did I get this item? I happened to be indexing the first forty volumes of the Journal of American Folklore – that’s how I was earning my way through Columbia, for fifty cents an hour. If you start trying to index a thing like that believe me, as you go through a volume it becomes damned boring. So every once in a while, you say: “Oh, what the hell, at fifty cents an hour I’ll read a paper.”
There were several papers by a man named Garrick Mallery. He was an American ethnologist, and he was particularly interested in survivals. In regard to the hat bow, his explanation was that this was a survival of something which had once been more functional. At the back end of the hat ribbons were attached, and one wore the hat with ribbon streamers; style had gradually dictated that these become smaller and smaller, until they were finally stuck up inside the hat, and disappeared into the bow. So much for hats and Malinowski.
The 2016 MacArthur Fellows were announced yesterday and — unlike some years — there were no anthropologists on the list. Established back in 1981, the grant was intended not to find “geniuses” (despite the fact that its nicknamed the genius grant) but rather “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary orginality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. This year no anthropologists made the cut, but this isn’t how it always goes. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking about Dennis Tedlock and reading Marisol de la Cadena’s Earth Beings at the same time lately. Much of Earth Beings is concerned with intimacy, translation, and understanding — both cross-cultural and inter-personal. It seems to me that Earth Beings isn’t alone in having this concern. Although I am hardly an expert in this literature, Viveiros’s ‘controlled equivocation’, Holbrad’s Truth in Motion and much other work in this vein is really about what it means to understand someone who is different than you. Although much of this work is branded ‘ontology’ at times I feel like its central concern is really epistemology.
Jay Ellison’s recent letter on trigger warnings made the rounds of social media late last week, and this week the story continues to circulate. It’s a topic that hits close to home for me. I have two degrees (MA and Ph.D.) from Chicago. As a student, I worked part time in the Social Sciences and Humanities division and full time in Physical Sciences, punching down cross connects in building basements and visiting faculty offices to explain what ‘the web’ was. I sang the Sunday service in Rockefeller chapel, was married at Hillel, and had the reception at Ida Noyes (long story). At one point when I was writing up my Ph.D., working part time, and serving as the Starr Lecturer in anthropology, I joked that I was student, staff, faculty, and alum — simultaneously. I’ve been told that my latest book is featured on the front table of the Seminary Coop. What could be more Chicago then that?
That said, there are many people more connected to the university than I am. I am just an alum. But I still feel connected to my alma mater. That’s why I’m writing this letter to argue that Ellison’s letter is on the wrong side of this issue in general, and in violation of our university’s long-held academic values in particular.
In some sense, Ellison’s letter has little to do with Chicago itself. A newcomer to the university, Ellison is a full-time administrator with no faculty appointment (as far as I can tell) and, worse of all, has a Ph.D. from Harvard: A light-weight, blue-blooded institution which all true Chicago grads recognize as far more concerned with maintaining its cultural capital than letting scientia crescat and vita excolatur (of course, it could be worse — he could be from Yale). Continue reading
(update: I incorrectly spelled ‘Tedlock’ in the title of this post when it first went lived. This has now been corrected. Apologies.)
It seems like I’ve been writing a lot of obituaries lately. Between Elizabeth Colson, Edie Turner, and Anthony Wallace and Raymond Smith, I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about the past. Now, in close succession, we have also lost Paul Friedrich and Dennis Tedlock. It’s sad to record these passings, but I take some consolation in the fact that the people we remember have been so productive and matter so much to the people who mourn them — the world is richer for them having been in it. But in remembering these two today, I also want to talk briefly about how our discipline is changing, and what these demographic shifts might signal for anthropology’s future.
When Elizabeth Colson passed last month at the age of 99, anthropology lost one of its preeminent figures. Colson was a unique figure in many ways: She straddled the English and American anthropological traditions, rose to prominent positions of authority at a time when anthropology was still largely a men’s club, and exhibited a devotion to her research that few can match: According the Facebook post I was able to find confirming her death (thanks Hylton), Colson died and was buried in Africa.
Edith Turner — Edie as she was universally known — passed away on 18 June 2016. Perhaps the quickest and least accurate way to describe Edie is “Victor Turner’s wife”. But her importance in anthropology is pretty much totally erased by that description. Edie was a tremendous influence on Vic, and all of his work should be read with the recognition that there is a silent second author on the piece: Edie. But even reducing Edie to merely a co-author of some of the most important anthropology ever written doesn’t do her justice. Edie outlived Vic by 33 years, producing her own brand of anthropology with flair and originality. Edie produced around five books between Vic’s death and her passing — that is to say, after she was sixty-two years old, an age when most people are on the verge of retirement! In them, she crafted an audacious, unapologetic anthropology of religion that parted ways with secularism, science, and over-seriousness… and never looked back.
Price, David H. 2016. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. Duke University Press.
A few years ago, I had a chance to have lunch with David Price and some other people at the AAA meetings. Back then, he struck me as exactly like the kind of person you’d expect to be a professor at a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest. Which is exactly what he is. Graying beard, laid back manner. I couldn’t see his feet but if he was wearing Birkenstocks, I wouldn’t be surprised. But beneath this amiable exterior is one of America’s most impressive historians of anthropology, a radical thinker and untiring author whose relentlessly probes the dark corners of our discipline’s history. In the course of twelve years Price has written three books which have helped redefine anthropology’s understanding of itself. And now, with Cold War Anthropology, Price brings his massive, precedent-make (and -busting) history of anthropology and American power to a close. It’s a defining moment in the history of anthropology, and deserves wide attention.
Please join me in reading responsively
We learned that Boycott supporters felt silenced and intimidated by the anti-Boycott sentiment in their departments while on the other hand anti-Boycott supporters felt silenced and intimidated by the Boycott sentiment in their departments.
We learned that the AAA could deal judiciously with a difficult topic or
We learned that the AAA’s curation of Israel’s “World Anthropology” was biased
we learned that everyone cared because turn out was at an all time high or
We learned that no one cared because only half the association votes
(but then again fifty percent is an F
even with grade inflation.)
We learned the other side couldn’t see how far right it was unless
The other side couldn’t see how far left it was.
The boycott was against anthropology’s commitment to relativism, tolerance, and dialogue and
The boycott was part of anthropology’s commitment to social justice.
We learned that the only reason the other side won is that they bought cookies to the business meeting
they purchased extra memberships just to vote.
We learned we couldn’t talk because politics is when the time for talking is past and
We learned should have talked more because talking is what politics is.
We learned that Israel is different than some have been told although
We learned the country is gravely misunderstood by others
We learned that we have the same values, just differently ranked or
have the same values, but believe different things are true
have different values, and differently rank what we think is true
but we don’t
have the same values and believe the same things
that is not the proper role of scholarly associations
this is the most important thing a scholarly association can do.
We learned that never again
or might mean
Because Jewish rights are human rights
and human rights are Palestinian rights
which are human rights which
is why never again means
what it does
#anthroboycott matters because we learned
we learned #anthroboycott matters because
Because we learned #anthroboycott matters
Matters learned because we #anthroboycott
we #anthroboycott because learned
learned because we #anthroboycott
we because #anthroboycott
I do not normally write about my duties as a professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa on this blog, since the blog isn’t associated with UHM and most of what I do in the classroom and committee meetings doesn’t belong on the Internet. But the Australian National University’s (ANU) recent decision to cut its School of Culture, History, and Language (CHL) deserves to be widely noted. This decision is not the first restructuring at Australia’s flagship university, and it will probably not be the last. But it is unique for its severity, short-sightedness, and the damage it will do to Australia’s well-earned reputation for excellence in studies of Asia and the Pacific. I would urge all readers to sign this petition to preserve the school. That said, there is one benefit to the ANU’s cuts: The increasing prestige and eminence of my university as a world center for study of Asia and the Pacific.