All posts by Ryan

Ryan

Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

Surfing vs. the commodification of everything

curren_servais
Tom Curren, logo-free, 1991. Photography by Tom Servais.

Do you ever think about the first time a concept really stuck for you? Not the first time you heard of the concept, but rather the first time it resonated and had meaning. I think about this all the time. We are inundated with a flood of ideas and words all the time, but what makes them stick? What memories or experiences make this possible? Take, for example, the concept of “commodification,” an idea that always gets me thinking about the strange, complex, symbolic, abstracting behaviors of humans.

Commodification. I think I know the moment I was first confronted with that strange idea…but I didn’t really know it at the time. I just knew there was something there, something equally fascinating and revolting, that needed to be examined, picked apart, and dissected. It happened in the early 1990s. I was 16 years old. I remember opening a copy of a new surfing magazine, and laying my eyes on the photograph above, taken by photographer Tom Servais, of the greatest surfer of all time,[1] riding a logo-free surfboard in full defiance of the (then) highly commercialized world of professional surfing. Continue reading

Anthropology in an Age of ‘Dangerous Nonsense’ (Part 1)

In the waning moments of 2016, one man, armed with an AR-15 and “information” about a conspiracy related to Hilary Clinton, walked into a DC pizza parlor hell bent on finding truth. After a quick look around and a shot or two fired, what he got was arrested. This is surely an extreme example of the perils of “dangerous nonsense” that Neil Postman warned us about decades ago.

Back in 1985 Postman wrote a little book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which I happened to use for a class on culture and film I was teaching last year. It turned out to be a prescient book to be reading during the 2016 campaign season (and then some). Postman’s book focuses on the erosion of public discourse in the US, and he faults TV as one of the primary corrosive forces. While there are admittedly some holes in his argument, especially from an anthropological perspective,[1] the book is definitely worth a read.

In essence, Postman’s book is about the fate of liberal democracy. He begins the book with a simple suggestion: If we want to understand what has happened to our democratic institutions, we should look to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World rather than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (the latter, of course, is selling like crazy in these post-election times). Postman writes,

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

Continue reading

This week in anthropological rebuttals to Charles Murray

Just when you think that The Bell Curve has been thoroughly debunked, it rears its ugly head…again. It’s like a weed that just won’t go away–and that should give us something to think about. Charles Murray, one of the authors of that book, is apparently on a US tour promoting his ideas about intelligence and race to a new generation. Oh great. But, all things considered, we shouldn’t be surprised that these ideas have once again resurfaced in the public sphere (they never really went anywhere, after all). Now is probably a good time to ask why these ideas persist, and why they get so much applause and support from certain segments of American society. Hmmm.

I’ve been hoping for an anthropological response to Murray’s latest quest to share his “knowledge” with the world, and this week there were two. First we had Agustin Fuentes share his response to Murray’s talk at Notre Dame. Fuentes comes in at about 53:00 (see YouTube video below), but it might be a good idea to watch the whole thing if you haven’t encountered the work of Mr. Murray. Just in case you don’t know the lay of the psuedoscientific landscape. I also suggest reading the late Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” if you haven’t already. That will definitely get you up to speed. Here’s the short version of what Fuentes had to say:

And then Jon Marks wrote this great response on his blog. In it he covers a bit of the history behind Murray and his ideas, and examines the question of whether or not he should be invited to college campuses. Here’s part of Marks’ answer:

We should not be debating the innate intelligence of black people, or of the poor, on college campuses or anywhere.  It is a morally corrupt pseudoscientific proposition. 

It’s like inviting a creationist or an inventor of a perpetual motion machine. The university should not be a censor, but it sure as hell is a gatekeeper.  At this point, sometimes they go all radical epistemological relativist and and say that all ideas deserve a hearing.  But all ideas don’t deserve a hearing.  The universe of things that do get discussed and debated on college campuses is rather small in proportion to the ideas that people have debated over the years.  Should we stone witches? No. Might the speed of light be 140,000 miles per second, rather than 186,000? No.  Might the universe just be made up of earth, air, water, and fire? No.  Might Africans just be genetically stupid? Might people who want to debate this point have their fundamental civic morality called into question instead?

Well said, Mr. Marks. There you have it. Check out both, then post your comments below or on twitter: @anthropologia and/or @savageminds.

Kendzior: In Defense of Complaining

This was meant to be a book review. Instead, it’s an essay about the power—and importance—of complaining.[1]

The book under consideration here is Sarah Kendzior’s The View from Flyover Country, which was published in 2015. In case you don’t know, Kendzior is an anthropologist-turned-journalist whose academic work on authoritarianism turned out to be just slightly relevant to the recent turn of events here in the US (and elsewhere).

People ask me all the time what you can do with a degree in anthropology. Now, thanks to Kendzior, I can suggest that students study the intricacies of autocracies and use their analytical skills to warn fellow citizens of the impending erosion of constitutional democracies.[2] Just for starters.

If you follow Kendzior’s work, you know she is willing to speak out. She is not shy. She doesn’t waver. She was willing to talk about issues that many academics—including myself—are hesitant to address. Ever since I first heard of her work, I respected her willingness to take on the kinds of issues that many academics often save for our closed conferences and pay-walled journals (or, perhaps, our Twitter accounts). I’m not sure if she identifies primarily as an anthropologist these days, but in my view she’s one of the few who is doing the kind of “public anthropology” that many of us talk so much about. This is what happens when the analytical perspective of anthropology is unleashed.

The View from Flyover Country is a collection of essays Kendzior wrote for Al Jazeera English between 2012 and 2014. I read most of these essays when they first came out. But readings through them again was a powerful reminder of issues, and voice, that Kendzior brings to the table. The book is arranged in 5 parts: 1) Flyover Country; 2) The Post-Employment Economy; 3) Race and Religion; 4) Higher Ed; and 5) Beyond Flyover Country. There’s also a Coda titled “In Defense of Complaining” that is so poignant to the present moment I’m going to start—and end—there. Continue reading

Reader Letters #2: Trump Edition

Here’s the second round of Savage Minds Reader Letters! We asked our readers to share their thoughts about anthropology in the Trump era for this round, and we got some great responses. Thanks for sending your letters, and keep an eye out for the next call. We need more letters!! –RA

The descent into incivility?

In your “Call for Reader letters:” you reminded us to “recognize that when you are critical of people’s ideas, you are also ultimately being critical of them as well.

Donald Trump was not only critical of the ideas of Democrats but was particularly critical of Senator Elizabeth Warren when he taunted Democrats by saying “Pocahontas — his insult of choice — is now the face of your party“.  From an anthropological perspective, Trump is changing the rules of discourse among civilized people developed in Greece and China hundreds of years ago to avoid conflicts.

Rules of discourse are a part of civility. Civility can be confused with disengaging from others so as not to offend, which Trump disparages as “political correctness”.

Trump’s 140 character tweets are mostly used to influence with mocking, ridicule and “alternative facts”. In a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) survey teachers said schoolchildren are adopting Trump’s overall tone of more hatred for more people. (3)

Civil discourse generally requires agreement on a common set of facts. Modern communication tools, like Twitter, however, mean anyone with access to a computer has access to a megaphone to broadcast their unquestioned, “alternative facts”.

During a hard fought presidential campaign John McCain praised Barack Obama for a terrific speech that “comforted and inspired the country” and performed an important service by encouraging “every American who participates in our political debates to aspire to a more generous appreciation of one another and a more modest one of ourselves.” (4)

Senator McCain was almost prescient, asking Americans to aspire to a “more modest appreciation of ourselves” when one of the most immodest men in history is now President of the United States. Hopefully anthropologists will not look on 2017 as the year America began a descent into incivility.

-William M. Smith Continue reading

The Resonance of Earth, Other Worlds, and Exoplanets

How do planetary scientists understand distant places like Mars or planets orbiting another star? A conversation with Lisa Messeri about “resonance” and the anthropology of space.

By Michael P. Oman-Reagan

Figure 1: This artist’s concept shows what each of the TRAPPIST-1 planets may look like. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Yesterday, NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system) orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1. This is the most known rocky planets around a single star and, as planetary scientist Sara Seager noted in yesterday’s press conference, that makes this system an ideal laboratory for understanding if any of these planets host truly Earth-like conditions. Last May, scientists using the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile announced they had found three planets in this system. Yesterday’s letter, published in Nature, confirmed the historic discovery of seven planets in the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system.

In an article out this month in American Ethnologist, “Resonant Worlds: Cultivating Proximal Encounters in Planetary Science,” anthropologist Lisa Messeri draws on her fieldwork with planetary scientists to propose new ways of thinking about how they “recognize the alien in the familiar” as they study planets in our solar system like Mars and as they search for exoplanets. In this post, Messeri and I discuss her findings and insights about human engagements with space, science, and anthropological ways of finding a connection to seemingly distant other worlds. Continue reading

Beast of Contention: The Polar Bear as National Symbol and Emblem of Conservation

By Michael Engelhard*

The Icelandic artist Bjargey Ólafsdóttir painted this outline on Langjökull Glacier to draw attention to activists’ demands to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm. (Photo by Christopher Lund.)

In the new millennium’s politics, polar bears play the part whales played in the 1980s. From a theatrics-as-protest perspective, their shape lends itself better to impersonation than that of a rainforest or whale. Activists take advantage of this. Dressed as polar bears, they show up in the most unlikely places—the Kremlin, or Ottawa’s Parliament Hill—as nonhuman “climate refugees. In an act billed as “part protest, part performance,” Greenpeace paraded a mechanical polar bear the size of a double-decker bus through central London, as part of its Save the Arctic campaign. Fifteen puppeteers operated Aurora the bear, which had an articulated head and neck, a mouth like an ice cave, and the real bear’s “slightly lazy” ambling gait. Continue reading

SocArXiv launched

Michael Oman-Reagan just reminded me about an important open access project that’s been in the works for a while now: SocArXiv (thanks @OmanReagan!).

I agree with Michael about the potential of this repository. And if your work is currently uploaded on a site like Academia.edu, now may be the time to migrate. If you haven’t heard about it, SocArXiv is a green open access digital repository that runs on the Open Science Framework. I wrote about this project back in September here on Savage Minds. Matt Thompson wrote about the wider arXiv framework in May 2016. When I first wrote about this at the end of last year, the temporary version was online. The full beta version went online in December, and it looks great. Here’s part of the launch announcement:

SocArXiv, the open access, open source archive of social science, is officially launching in beta version today. Created in partnership with the Center for Open Science, SocArXiv provides a free, noncommercial service for rapid sharing of academic papers; it is built on the Open Science Framework, a platform for researchers to upload data and code as well as research results.

By uploading working papers and preprints of their articles to SocArXiv, social scientists can now make their work immediately and permanently available to other researchers and the public, and discoverable via search engines. This alleviates the frustration of slow times to publication and sidesteps paywalls that limit the audience for academic research. Since SocArXiv is a not-for-profit alternative to existing commercial platforms, researchers can also be assured that they are sharing their research in an environment where access, not profit, will remain at the heart of the mission.

Since development was first announced in July, researchers have deposited more than 600 papers, downloaded over 10,000 times, in anticipation of SocArXiv’s launch. SocArXiv anticipates rapid growth in that number in the coming year as it establishes a reputation as the fully open repository for sociology and social science research.

Read the full announcement here. So, anthropologists and readers of Savage Minds, what do you think? Are you on board? Skeptical? Well, check it out and get back to me. Post your comments below!

Call for Reader Letters: Trump & Anthropology (DEADLINE 2/20/17)

In December we published our first installment of our new Reader Letters series. This time around, we’d like to hear what you, our readers, have to say about the new US President, Donald J. Trump. What will Trump’s America mean for the country, and for US anthropology? As anthropologists, how can we approach the social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental implications of the Trump era? What does his election, inauguration, and rise to power portend for the coming years? What do you think? Let us know!

Please keep the following guidelines: letters should be no longer than 250 words and should address issues covered in Savage Minds and relevant to anthropology, broadly construed. As with traditional letters to the editor, all letters must include the writer’s full name; anonymous letters will not be considered. For general guidelines refer to our comments policy. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified before publication. Letters may be subject to minor editing for clarity.

Send your letter in the body of an email (not an attachment) to ryananderson@uky.edu. You can also send me a DM via twitter: @anthropologia. Deadline for submission is February 20 and we plan to publish by March 1, 2017.

Amazon Go and the Erosion of Supermarket Sociability

Invited post by: Sally A. Applin (@AnthroPunk on Twitter)[1]

I recently finished my Ph.D. As a present, a friend of mine gave me a hand. Not help, which he had done during the process, but rather a battery-powered automated hand, cut off at the wrist, similar to that of Thing, the Addams Family’s servant from TV and film. In part of my thesis, and my research on automation, I’ve looked to Thing as a metaphor for IoT software automation. Thing, on TV, is a trusted friend who builds relationships with family members and can negotiate with others on their behalf. In fiction, and the representation of fiction, Thing works beautifully and embodies what a smart agent could be. It is aware of its surroundings, it builds trust. It connects people. Thing is a keeper of local knowledge. The Applin and Fischer (2013) Thing agent, is a software construct using deontic logic to encourage and support human agency, building trust in a relationship based context.  The hand my friend gave me moved on a fixed path for several seconds, and then stopped until its button was pushed again. It looked like Thing, but it was only a physical representation, a simulation of physical form. In automation, data collection is not the same as building relationships, and community knowledge cannot easily be derived from quantitative Big Data. This is one of the more serious problems with Amazon Go.

Amazon Go is a grocery store concept that allows people who have activated the Amazon Go app on their mobile phone, to walk through an “authentication” turnstile into an Amazon Go supermarket. Once inside, people can “grab” what groceries they want or need, and walk out the door, without needing to check out, because Amazon’s “computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning” will calculate what people take, and charge them accordingly via the app. Amazon Go has a video on their website that explains all of this, and shows people “grabbing and going” with their groceries, stuffing them into bags or just holding onto them, and walking out. In the Amazon Go video, no one is shown talking to each other. Continue reading

Reader Letters #2: Call for Submissions (Due 12/20/16)

A few weeks ago we published our first installment of our new Reader Letters series. We want to hear more. Send us your letters! Please keep the following guidelines: letters are to be no longer than 250 words and should address issues covered in Savage Minds and relevant to anthropology, broadly construed. As with traditional letters to the editor, all letters must include the writer’s full name and anonymous letters will not be considered. For general guidelines refer to our comments policy. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified before publication. Letters may be subject to minor editing for clarity.

For this second installment of Reader Letters we invite you to send us your thoughts about the Savage Minds name change, the impending end of the semester, or the upcoming winter break. If you want to write about Levi Strauss’s take on Father Christmas, or perhaps Panopti-claus, we would not object. Otherwise it’s up to you. Write about anthropology and what’s on your mind, and send it to us. No stamp necessary.

Send your letter in the body of an email (not an attachment) to ryananderson@uky.edu. Deadline for submission is December 20 and we plan to publish between December 25 and January 1, 2017.

Of Quinoa, Agricultural Science, and Social Change

Adam Gamwell rounds out the anthropologies #22 issue on food. Gamwell is a public anthropologist and PhD Candidate at Brandeis University working across food, design, science, and markets. His research is based in southern Peru on quinoa. He is also Creative Director and host for This Anthropological Life Podcast. Connect with Adam on academia.edu or linkedin.com –R.A.

Specters of the Dead

Aymara legend has it that some 5000 years ago there was a massive drought across the land, across what would become known as the Andean Altiplano spanning southern Peru and Bolivia. During this years-long drought harvests were lost, there was hunger, and many people and their animals died. Farmers, llamas and alpacas, travelers subsisting on the hospitality of locals all ran out of stores and eventually starved. There was virtually no food to be found, save for two plants that grew wild: quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), and its cousin cañihua (Chenopodium pallidicaule). These two species grow primarily in the Lake Titicaca basin and are remarkably resilient in the face of drought and frost, and can grow in salty, sandy, and acidic soils that kill most other plants. People quickly realized the nutritional qualities of these plants, and quinoa became famous for sustaining those who ate its seeds. The plant was named jiwra in Aymara which translates in Spanish to “levanta moribundos” or that which raises the dying (Canahua y Mujica, 2013).

This legend was recounted to me in perhaps an unusual place by an unexpected storyteller: a plant geneticist told the tale in-between explaining the orthomolecular and nutraceutical qualities of quinoa. Continue reading

Reader Letters #1: Post-election edition

Last week we put out a call for letters from our readers. Here’s our first installment. If you’re interested in submitting a letter to Savage Minds, please keep the following guidelines in mind: letters are to be no longer than 250 words and should address issues covered in Savage Minds and relevant to anthropology, broadly construed. Some months we will invite letters on specific themes. As with traditional letters to the editor, all letters must include the writer’s full name and anonymous letters will not be considered. For general guidelines about tone and content refer to our comments policy. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified before publication. Letters may be subject to minor editing for clarity. For the next installment, please send us your letters by December 15th, 2016. We will publish the next round by December 22nd. If you want to write about Levi Strauss’s take on Father Christmas, or perhaps Panopti-claus, we would not object. Otherwise it’s up to you. –SM Eds.

On the exceptionality of the election

Melissa Harris-Perry’s keynote “What just happened?” at the most recent AAA in Minneapolis was a captivating appeal to stop viewing the U.S. election results as exceptional, shocking, or out-of-order. To her, Donald Trump’s election reaffirms the United States’ century-old hatred towards minorities. Whatever white anthropologists consider extraordinary, posits for many Black Americans and Black Anthropologists the ongoing fight against an everyday reality of discrimination and violence – and she is right. Yet Harris-Perry’s advocacy for denying the exceptionality in this year’s election complicates strategic political protest. Protesters need the semantics of the exceptional to show that Trump breaches a new set of rules that were introduced by Americans electing their first Black (even if male) president. For many on the ground, Obama’s time in office hasn’t changed the world profoundly. Yet it introduced better policies for the disenfranchised, and the poor. This progress is now at risk of being overturned by a nationalist demagogue who clearly articulated his intentions of returning America to its old racist and sexist self. This return needs to be framed as the extraordinary for two reasons. Firstly, referring to the exceptionality of the situation helps advocates to mobilize protest. They use the exceptional to display their disavowal of Trump’s new order. Secondly, however, allowing anthropologists to use the exceptional as a refusal of the status-quo hopefully induces more ethnographically grounded research on the causes and effects of this regrettable political degeneration in the ‘land of the free’.

Melanie Janet Sindelar, Vienna University Continue reading

The social role of anthropology’s racist uncle

There’s a certain trope that has been going around for years, and it has hit a peak these days as many people express their collective shock and surprise at recent events here in the USA. The narrative uses a family metaphor to talk about the problems of race and racism—and specifically the difficulties of confronting racism.

The narratives center upon the figure of the stereotypical family member, like the old racist uncle. This narrative goes something like this: White liberals think of themselves as progressive and they condemn racism, etc. They “get it,” you know, and want to do something about the issue, and are definitely not racist. But, there’s a problem. They have a lot of family members who don’t think this way, and it’s often uncomfortable to deal with them and talk about issues of race and racism. It’s those family members who are the bigoted, racist, 19th century leftovers, and, therefore, the real problem. The racist uncle personifies this conflict:

One response to this trope is that white liberals need to just get over it and confront their collective racist uncles (read: the older generations who still hold onto strong prejudices and hatreds). This is perhaps not a bad starting point. But there’s something deeper to think about here. Another response critiques the whole scenario, arguing that the trope of the old racist uncle is just an excuse people use to avoid talking about and dealing with the broader causes and conditions of racism. That hypothetical family member is a rhetorical device that people use as a point of comparison to say “Hey, at least I’m not like that.” Continue reading

Anthropology after November 8th: On race, denial, and the work ahead

For some people, the election that just took place might seem like just another choice between the lesser of two evils. One more election that we all learn to deal with, but that won’t fundamentally change much about their daily lives. But this isn’t everyone’s reality. For many people around the country the results of this election, which was fueled by messages of hate, bigotry, racism, and intolerance, has devastating implications. It’s not a matter of if it will affect their lives, but when and how. It is a privileged position to see this as “just another election” that we lament, accept, and endure. Many people here simply do not and will not have this choice.

Shaun King’s Twitter timeline this past week was just one indication of what these election results portend: a surge of racist, bigoted attacks across the country. This election has empowered and emboldened many people to express their contempt, disdain, and hate. According to local news reports, a Muslim woman at San Diego State University was attacked and robbed by two men who made comments “about President-elect Trump and the Muslim community.” This incident took place at 2:30 pm on Wednesday (November 9th). In a separate incident on the same day, a swastika and the words “Heil Trump” were painted on the sidewalk at a UC San Diego bus stop.  Continue reading