Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Stefano Portelli. Stefano is a cultural anthropologist with a doctorate in Urban Studies, his primary fieldsites are a barrio of Barcelona and the Ostia neighborhood of Rome, where the issue of mafia is crucial. Starting September 2017, he will be a Marie-Curie fellow for Leicester University’s Department of Geography.
Black flags from Rome: Mafia and Isis, as before Mafia and Al Qaeda
by Stefano Portelli
After the Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 2015, some social networks mostly based in Southern Italy published an uncanny piece of news, that bounced back on the web immediately after the much more deadly attacks in November. The Sicilian mafia boss Totò Riina, from the maximum security jail where he is secluded since 1993, was reported answering to the fear of terrorism spreading across Italy, by suggesting that if the Italian state really wanted to defeat Isis, they should release him from prison, and let him do. “Ci penso io” is a sentence that could condense the mafioso’s claim of being able to deal with the Islamic state: a very ambiguous formula in Italian, as anthropologists know. It entails taking charge of somebody else’s problem through one’s connections and savoir faire, but without disclosing the means. It creates a relation of gratefulness tinged with admiration – the basis for dependency and patronage.
The piece of news was certainly a hoax, as some of the websites themselves suggested. Still, that same January some newspapers echoed it in a more ‘respectable’ form, by quoting an interview with an anonymous secret agent, who literally said: “Terrorist leakings are much more difficult in the South [of Italy], where there is somebody who controls or even manages the territory”. A title was “Half of the country is safe (under the Mafia)”, the other “Isis only fears the Mafia”. In November the idea gained even more popularity, when the online version of an influential weekly magazine built a whole article on it, quoting another source from the intelligence community who declared that “the real protection” for Italy against Isis is “the indirect one wielded by criminal organizations”. “The Mafia succeeds in opposing terrorism”, was the title. The thesis was promptly rejected by an Italian left-wing journalist, but its very presence in public discourse reveals a rather unexplored consequence of the terrorist threat. Fear quickly evokes national cohesion, but can reach the point of crossing the boundary of what is publicly admitted, into the realm of the unspeakable, and of the obscure.
Yesterday I sat in on a webinar sponsored by ICEERS (the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service) and organized by anthropologist Bia Labate. Entitled “Myths and Realities about the Legality of Ayahuasca in the USA,” the webinar featured three experts on the subject. The first was Jeffrey Bronfman, a leader of the União do Vegetal church in the US whose shipment of ayahuasca (the UDV calls it hoasca) was seized in 1999, leading to a protracted court battle and, eventually, a supreme court decision in favor of the church’s right to use the tea as their sacrament. The second was Rob Heffernan, member of the Santo Daime church (which also uses ayahuasca as a sacrament) and chair of its legal committee. The third was J. Hamilton Hudson, a recent graduate of the Tulane law school who has been following legal developments surrounding ayahuasca-using groups who are affiliated with neither of the aforementioned churches.
The webinar—and the series of which it is a part—are a response to the apparent confusion regarding the legal status of ayahuasca in the United States. This confusion, and some of the factors contributing to it, came to light over the past year and a half with the rise and fall of a group called Ayahuasca Healings, the self-proclaimed “first public legal ayahuasca church in the United States.” Also known as Ayahuasca USA and Ayahuasca Healings Native American Church (AHNAC), AH is one of a number of groups who use ayahuasca in a neo-shamanic setting and, more importantly, who claim that they have the legal right to do so. Unfortunately for AH, they don’t, and a friendly letter from the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) was enough to finally convince them of that fact—at least for now.
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Christina Callicott.
I’m guessing that by now most of my readers will have heard of this stuff called “ayahuasca.” Everyone from Stephen Colbert to the New Yorker is talking about it, some in terms more cringe-inducing than others. A quick primer for those who don’t know: Ayahuasca is a psychoactive (read: psychedelic) brew developed by the peoples of the Amazon for ritual purposes ranging from ethnomedicine to divination. It’s just one in a pantheon of sacred plant and multi-plant concoctions used by Amazonian shamans, but it’s one that has sparked the fascination of peoples everywhere, from the Amazon itself to the distant corners of the urban and industrialized nations. Ayahuasca, along with other “entheogens” such as psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, is a centerpiece of the new Psychedelic Renaissance, an artistic and scientific movement which has, as one of its primary aims, the legitimization of these currently illegal substances by researching and promoting their efficacy as treatments for intractable ailments, usually psychological, including depression, end-of-life anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The English word “person” has a long and convoluted history. Though the word itself likely derives from the Latin, persona, referring to the masks worn in theatre, its meaning has evolved over time. One of the biggest conceptual overhauls came in the 4th century AD during a church council that was held to investigate the concept of person as it related to the Trinity. Whereas the Greek fathers defined the Trinity as three hypostases, roughly translated as “substances” or “essences,” the Latin fathers saw them as one hypostasis that could be distinguished by the concept of persona. Because both the Roman Church and the Greek Church viewed each other as orthodox, they brushed off the difference of terms as semantics. Over time, this resulted in a conceptual conflation of the terms, effectively leading to persona encapsulating the notion of both the “role” one plays and one’s “essence” or “character” .
It’s difficult to overstate our society’s fascination with Artificial Intelligence (AI). From the millions of people who tuned in every week for the new HBO show WestWorld to home assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, Americans fully embrace the notion of “smart machines.” As a peculiar apex of our ability to craft tools, smart machines are revolutionizing our lives at home, at work, and nearly every other facet of society.
We often envision true AI to resemble us – both in body and mind. The Turing Test has evolved in the collective imagination from a machine who can fool you over the phone to one who can fool you in front of your eyes. Indeed, modern conceptions of AI bring to mind Ex Machina’s Ava and WestWorld’s “Hosts,” which are so alike humans in both behavior and looks that they are truly indistinguishable from other humans. However, it seems a bit self-centered to me to assume that a being who equals us in intelligence should also look like us. Though, it is perhaps a fitting assessment for a being who gave itself the biological moniker of “wise man.” At any rate, it’s probably clear to computer scientists and exobiologists alike that “life” doesn’t necessarily need to resemble what we know it as. Likewise, “person” need not represent what we know it as.
Though we often take for granted that humans are persons, they are not exempt from questions surrounding personhood. Indeed, what it means to be a person is largely an unsettled argument, even though we often speak of “people” and “persons.” Just as it’s important to ask if other beings might ever be persons, it is also important to ask if humans are ever not persons. In this pursuit, it’s crucial to separate the concept of personhood from notions of respect, love, and importance. That is to say, while a person may necessitate respect, love, and importance, something need not be a person to also demand respect, love, or importance.
When the concept of personhood in humans comes into discussion, it inevitably is punted to the medical community, often in the context of abortion and end of life. When does the heart first beat? When can a fetus feel pain? When does the brain begin/stop producing electrical activity? There is no doubt that advancements in our understanding of human physiology have enlightened discourse on what it means to be both a human and a person. However, the question of personhood is all too often debated solely in light of Western medical contexts. This conflation of physiology and personhood is the same issue that was discussed in my previous post on primate personhood and will be revisited in my next post on artificial intelligence. To escape this quandary we need to consider factors outside of physiology that are important to the concept of personhood, such as the social.
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Coltan Scrivner for the month of January. Coltan will be writing a series of posts on personhood from different disciplinary perspectives.
When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, one of the first things I did was go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just like with other zoos I’ve been to, I was most eager to visit the Great Ape exhibit. As always, after sitting and watching the chimpanzees for some time, I inevitably start to feel a bit guilty. There’s something about the chimps, with their eerily human-like behavior, that makes it feel wrong to be watching them in an enclosure.
You can get at the familiarity from a biological perspective by rattling off scientific facts like “they share 99% of our protein-coding genes,” or “our lineages split just 5-7 million years ago.” As a biological anthropologist, I am prone to do so. These things are often invoked to shed light on similarities between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. Between species. Yet, even to someone who knows nothing of biology, there is still something about chimpanzees that rings familiar. Something about the way they behave, about the way they interact with other chimpanzees and their environment. You don’t need the biology or the genetics to begin to wonder if perhaps they should be considered as something more than animal. It’s clear they aren’t humans, but could they be individuals? Can a chimpanzee possess an understanding of a self, be a someone as opposed to a something; can they be “persons?” Continue reading →
This is the third in a series of guest blogs this November from the AAA Archaeology Division Executive Board detailing ideas generated at retreat at the Amerind Foundation this past June. This post is by outgoing AD Secretary, Jane Eva Baxter.
As thousands of anthropologists make their way to Minneapolis to take part in the AAA Annual Meetings, it is worth thinking about the potential ways this organization might help to foster a more robust and inclusive anthropology that actively embraces all of the subfields in intellectual and not just structural ways. When the Executive Board of the Archaeology Division (AD) of the AAA met at Amerind in June, one of the major areas of discussion was how to leverage the resources available through the AAA to create a unique intellectual space among all the professional organizations available to archaeologists.
It’s important to provide a bit of context for this discussion. Most archaeologists do not seethe AAA as their primary intellectual or professional home, but rather are more actively involved in the Society for American Archaeology, the Society for Historical Archaeology, the Archaeological Institute of America and/or the American Cultural Resources Association. The AAA is a secondary or tertiary membership for most current AAA AD members. The AAA is also the most expensive professional organization among these to join, and as Patricia McAnany noted in last week’s post the intellectual ties between archaeology and anthropology were disrupted significantly in the 1990s. These factors have resulted in a substantial reduction in AAA membership by archaeologists. Most of us who have retained our AAA membership have done so because of an enduring belief in the anthropological nature of archaeological inquiry and practice, and because we still find engaging with anthropology outside of our own subfield to be an enriching and nourishing intellectual experience. Continue reading →
U.S. presidential elections are extraordinary moments—ruptures in everyday time, full of transformative promise. Maybe. More than two decades ago, in her seminal essay on time, Nancy D. Munn wrote: “the topic of time frequently fragments into all the other dimensions and topics anthropologists deal with in the social world.” So, in the cacophonous 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, how do we perceive time and why might that matter?
Elections, embedded in cyclical time, are sometimes interpreted as pivotal events that shape longer histories. Such histories can be narrated as slow change, fast change, or stasis; crisis or normalcy; repetitive or linear process; progress or regress. Anthropologists are attuned as well to smaller-scale temporalities. They listen for different personal experiences of time and observe social configurations in which they nest.
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Angelique Haugerud.
“America is a shining example of how to hold a free and fair election, right?” asks Bassem Youssef, a comedian and former heart surgeon who is often referred to as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart.” Astute answers to that question about the condition of U.S. democracy often come from foreigners such as satirists, as well as my East African research interlocutors.
Like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah (The Daily Show), Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report), and Jon Oliver (Last Week Tonight), Bassem Youssef uses irony and satire to hold a mirror up to society, and to unsettle conventional political and media narratives. State political pressure forced termination of the popular satirical news show Youssef created in Egypt during the Arab Spring. He then moved to the United States, became a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics in 2015, and in 2016 started a new show in the United States called “Democracy Handbook” on Fusion TV. As foreigners, Youssef, Jon Oliver (British), and Trevor Noah (South African) wittily play off stereotypes of their own home regions as they comment on events in the United States—such as Trevor Noah’s Daily Show segment comparing the 2016 Republican presidential nominee to African dictators.
Climate change is the nightmare that keeps me up at night. The consensus seems to be that the world will be significantly different within my children’s lifetimes. Many places will be uninhabitable. Many if not most of the world’s great cities, which are built on waterfronts, will be flooded and destroyed by unpredictable weather events and rising oceans. The global refugee crisis will become much, much larger. The food supply will become uncertain. The American landscape and economy will be different in ways I cannot imagine, while India, where I conduct my research, will be a place exponentially more difficult for the millions of people already struggling to get by. There is a degree of uncertainty in these statements, albeit a hopeful uncertainty. Many of the predicted changes are already happening, faster than scientists had thought.
For me, climate change is a crisis so big it is hard to think about at all. Can anthropology help us think through a problem that leaves us feeling overwhelmed? I would argue that yes, anthropological thinking can tackle these thorny problems, and in fact, it’s one of the few approaches that can. The recent AAA Global Climate Change Task Force Report makes this clear, by pointing out anthropology’s unique view on historical and current adaptation. Here, I also want to look back and find some inspiration in the public anthropology of Margaret Mead, who did not hesitate to comment on thorny problems of her day. Continue reading →
In my field site of Bangalore, south India, I found support among young female professionals for feel-good feminism—that is, messages of female empowerment in pop culture that do not seek to shift the status quo much. This kind of feminism is often used by advertisers to appeal to female customers, as in this much-talked-about detergent ad in which a father belatedly realizes the bad example he set for his daughter by not helping with housework, or this recent Nike ad featuring female athleticism in India, where few women participate in sports. The idea here seems to be that a general female empowerment can allow (middle and upper-class) women to push the boundaries of gender norms ever so slightly.
But how much deviance from gender norms is really possible? Deviance is a word not used in contemporary anthropology very much anymore. It suggests a rigid norm that can be identified and described with a certainty few anthropologists would agree with now. It is also a term loaded with stigma. Who are the deviants? Continue reading →
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Rachel C. Fleming
In my first introductory anthropology class of the year, I spoke a bit about the figures I consider “founding” to cultural anthropology, and asked if anyone had heard of them. Franz Boas, I inquired? After a pause, one woman tentatively asked, “Isn’t he the father of anthropology or something?” Yes, ok, close enough. She allowed that she had learned about Boas in another anthropology class. Bronislaw Malinowski? One hand went up in the back. A bearded young man said, “I’ve heard of him, but that’s probably because my girlfriend is an anthropology major.” Yes, that would explain it. And then I asked, Margaret Mead? Silence. I was frankly taken aback. I realize her popular appeal peaked from the 1920s through the 1960s, ancient history to this generation of students. However, she is consistently remembered in our field as possibly the most famous anthropologist to date. She wrote popular columns in national magazines about sexuality, gender, and childhood in the US. Coming of Age in Samoa was a massive bestseller and is still in print. The controversy over her research in Samoa was headline news in anthropology for years. The recent bestselling novel Euphoria fictionalizes her life.
Whatever you may think about Margaret Mead, we cannot dispute that she was a major early figure in what we now call public anthropology. With the efforts of anthropologists such as David Graeber, Barbara King, Tanya Luhrmann, Jonathan Marks, Carole McGranahan, and Paul Stoller, to name just a few, we have a growing voice in the public sphere, spurred along by social media. Yet I cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when Mead was so well known that she was widely derided in the academy as a “popularizer.” Given the value of anthropological insight for current issues—a point we all strive to make in our classes and elsewhere—I suggest that we could learn from such a popularizer now. In this blog series I will thus reconsider Mead’s work on sexuality, childhood, gender, feminist anthropology, and public change by imagining what she might make of today’s world and the questions and crises we face. Continue reading →
Anthropologists seeking to communicate their research to general audiences are likely to work with fact-checkers. Here’s some advice on how to handle the process if you’ve been interviewed by a reporter.
I write a lot of emails that make me seem much less educated than I am. Why? I often work as a professional fact-checker.
In this capacity, it’s my responsibility to confirm the accuracy of the words someone else has written. I’m not conducting original research; I’m making sure that another writer got their facts right.
This usually entails contacting the experts the author chose to interview and asking them a series of questions to determine whether or not the wealth of information they provided to the author was adequately distilled into a handful of words. I frequently do this by rewriting the author’s article into a series of “yes” or “no” questions.
Years ago, I was fact-checking for a glossy magazine and wrote an email to a well-respected biological anthropologist who had been quoted in the story I was working on. I asked: “Did marriage evolve so that we can find someone to fall in love with, in order to reproduce?” I’d read enough Gayle Rubin to answer this question from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist. I had to remind myself that, as a fact-checker, my job was not to challenge the statement the scholar had made. My responsibility was to confirm that these were words this media-savvy scholar would have spoken. She answered with a simple “yes.” Continue reading →