Ever since the pioneering work of Mary Douglas on risk back in 1992, anthropologists have understood that there is a difference between what is actually dangerous and what people think is dangerous. Scientists can measure the probability of you being struck by a bolt of lightning or getting hit by a car. But our fears are not based on extensive scientific study, nor are they the results of our own idiosyncratic psychology. They are shaped by the culture we live in and the history we’ve collectively experienced. The sad thing, anthropologically, about Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration is that it does not make Americans safer, just makes some Americans feel safer. The tragic thing about the order is that forces others to suffer for the sake of our own false sense of security.
By: JC Salyer and Paige West
On January 20, over one thousand anthropologists came together to read Michel Foucault’s lecture eleven in “Society Must Be Defended.” What began as a simple blog post became a global showing of scholarly solidarity and transnational anthropological community building in the wake of the disastrous presidential election in the United States. Groups in sixteen countries convened to both read aloud and discuss Foucault’s analysis of biopower, racism, and the state. Some of these groups were based in university settings but many were not. We had readers in pubs, museums, living rooms, on a live radio broadcast, and in front of Trump Tower in New York City. After the events on January 20 people contacted us through e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, to describe the sense of collective scholarly engagement that this event provided. Many said that the feeling of anthropological community in the face of this disastrous political change grounded them.
In the wake of this extraordinary response to the initial Read-In idea, we now propose along with co-sponsors Savage Minds and the journals American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, Environment and Society, and Political and Legal Anthropology, and based on hundreds of suggestions from anthropologists, a monthly global Anthropology Read-In.
Here is how it will work: On the third Friday of every month for the next four years (or as short or long as necessary), using the new #AnthReadIn on Twitter and utilizing the Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/170068806806067/, we will come together to read and discuss a single text or a few short texts. Anthropologists will curate the monthly reading lists with each curator, or curatorial collective, assuming responsibility for three months’ worth of readings. At the end of their tenure as curators, they will then pass the responsibility on to another individual or group. Hence, we will provide readings for February and March and then pass the responsibility onto someone else who will provide readings for April, May, and June. We are hoping that this method (a kind of snowball sampling method of editorial control) will move the privilege of choosing the readings around through a broad network of anthropologists and through a range of perspectives and expertise.
We initially chose lecture eleven from “Society Must Be Defended” because we had both been trying to think through how the election did and did not alter the United States as a nation-state. In the two months following the election we watched in horror as hate crimes increased in the United States and as it became even clearer than it had been in the months leading up to the election that the new administration was going to focus on representing Black Lives Matter protesters, migrants, and other people of color as enemies of the state. Therefore, we wanted to read Foucault to consider how racism is the dividing practice par excellence of the modern biopolitical state. But we also wanted to remind ourselves that the state itself is grounded in, and literally built on, racism and dispossession. Specifically, it is on the land of indigenous peoples and it was built with and through the labor of slaves.
Sadly, the first week of the Trump administration has proved to be as much of an assault on principles of equality, democracy, and humanism as was feared, if not more so. Because we believe it is important that the #AnthReadIn be primarily about providing an intellectual response to the Trump presidency, we have tried to select readings that directly address that actions of the administration and that challenge us to consider what is actually mandated in terms of a moral response. Therefore, for February 17 we propose to read Hannah Arendt’s “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” which is the ninth chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism as well as Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Personally, we will both be reading, discussing, and sharing our thoughts through social media. We invite you to do the same.
Paige West is Claire Tow Professor of Anthropology, Barnard College and Columbia University
JC Salyer is Term Professor of Practice, Barnard College
On behalf of the entire core blogging team of this soon-to-be-renamed blog, I am delighted to announce that Zoe S. Todd will be joining us as our newest member!
Zoe Todd—“Academic, Writer, Indigenous Feminist, Métis Advocate”–is assistant professor of anthropology at Carleton University. Her research is on colonial and legal relationships between indigenous peoples and the Canadian state, and cultural relationships between people and animals, especially in the context of indigenous personhood. Zoe has been a guest blogger for us before; her past writings are:
Tansi! Tawnshi! (2015)
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” .
I hope all of our readers are riding the waves of energy that came from all the actions and demonstrations the past week in order to fight fascism. If you could not make it to a march, I hope you were part of the Read-in last week and follow the Facebook group to keep up with future readings!
Reading “Society Must Be Defended” is the only the most recent in anthropology’s history with the teach-in. Cultural Anthropology provides a brief history of the teach-in and why anthropologists need to continue the tradition today.
Cultural Anthropology also released a series of readings under the title “The Rise of Trumpism” that asks the uncomfortable questions to guide future action in the face of a Trump presidency. If the past few days did not solidify the role of academics in politics, anthropologists need to diversify the way scholarship reaches the public in order to combat the coming bigotry from an emboldened far right.
As neoliberalism continues to waver in the winds of political change, anthropologists in higher education will have to teach students who live in the turmoil of economic and political crisis. Anthropology News looks to innovations in pedagogy in order to find where anthropology will be in the face of labor automation and privatization.
Just a few days in the Trump administration, reproductive healthcare and public arts are in danger due to executive orders. As I type this the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines gained new life and moving forward with their construction. As museums and other cultural institutions are at risk, the American Alliance of Museums put out a call to action. Anthropologists have a stake in so many of our endangered institutions, complacency is no longer acceptable.
In the next week or so, many of us will celebrate the year of the rooster. The year of the monkey, which we are just saying good bye to, had a lot of stuff going on inside of it. But looking back at the anthropology end of things, it’s pretty clear that 2016 was not the year of the monkey, but of the mushroom.
“Racism” is such an unwieldy concept. Living in a world in which racism is one of the fundamental building blocks that shapes all our relationships, calling someone racist is somewhat akin to a fish accusing another fish of swimming in water. This is how I felt when I saw Democrats claiming that the election was won because of racism. If I were to make a list of racist things in American politics it would be just as likely to include welfare reform as the southern strategy, just as likely to include drones as border walls, and just as likely to include super-predators as a muslim registry.
I don’t want to create a false equivalency. There is a very important difference between a political party which relies on minority votes and one which tries to suppress them. There is an important difference between a party which engages in dog-whistle politics to win over swing voters and a party for which such voters are their electoral base. But that doesn’t get us away from the fact that – in American politics – we are always talking about relative racisms. Many of those supposedly racist voters voted for Obama in the last election, and many minority voters handed the election over to Trump in their state simply by staying home on election day.1 I don’t write this because I want to assign blame, but simply to illustrate how crude a tool “racism” is when trying to make sense of this all. So, if racism can’t help us, how do we talk about this phenomenon which is so central to contemporary politics?
It is not an easy riddle to solve, but one important part of the solution can be found in in the writings of Michel Foucault. Just a part of the solution, mind you, but for my own thinking on the matter it has been key. For that reason I was very happy when a bunch of anthropologists announced that they wanted to read read Michel Foucault’s lecture eleven in Society Must Be Defended as a means to think through “the interplay of sovereign power, discipline, biopolitics, and concepts of security, and race” on inauguration day. This is because the concept of biopolitics is a very useful addition to the analytical toolkit we have for talking about the diverse phenomenon grouped under the term “racism.” As with any such analytical tools, the benefits of highlighting certain features necessarily obscure others, and there are entire books written to try to sort out exactly what is lost and what is gained by using these tools; however, today I would like to simply focus on one aspect of this lecture which has been particularly useful to me: Foucault’s use of the term “population.” Continue reading
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.
To start this post off, I want to remind readers of our Read-In on January 20, 2017 where we will read Michel Foucault’s lecture eleven of “Society Must Be Defended” from March 17, 1976. The Read-In will be between 10AM and 10PM Eastern Standard Time and after a discussion will be held in person, through #ReadIn, or on the Facebook page found here.
Now for the weekly readings!
If the role of anthropologists and fellow academics are still in question in the coming years, Mark Edelman on a blog post for PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review summarizes what is at stake for our communities if we do not take action against the current wave of authoritarianism.
We want you to all check out the blog Academography: Critical Ethnography & Higher Education. Similar to this blog’s vein, Academography is a collaborative blog that brings together work from interdisciplinary scholars under the umbrella term “Critical University Studies”.
The documentary What Was Ours was recently shown through PBS’s Independent Lens and currently available online to view. The film follows two Arapaho youth and a Shoshone elder as they travel to the Field Museum in Chicago to find objects that detail the history and future of indigenous life in the Americas.
Jason Hickel from the London School of Economics illustrates the huge clandestine profits made by rich countries that are obscured under the veil of “aid” to poorer countries. The article would work in classes and conversations that deal with globalization and its repercussions.
Zhou Youguang, the inventor of Pinyin, or the most commonly accepted method to Romanize Chinese has died at the age of 111.
In Switzerland, naturalization into citizenship is dealt with at the canton and municipal level, not the federal. In short, you can be denied citizenship for annoying your neighbors.
The American Anthropological Association is hosting a webinar titled “Social Science Advocacy in 2017 and Beyond” on Wednesday, January 25, 2017 between 2PM and 3PM to discuss social and behavioral science research in a turbulent political climate. RSVP at this link.
That is all for now, please read and discuss for our Read-In this week!
Every Spring I teach “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in the class immediately following MLK day. Typically I focus on first and second year college students. I do it for several reasons: For many of my students, “I have a dream” is the only text of MLK’s that they know; because it helps explain the reason for the season; and, most of all, because the letter is incredibly teachable.
I originally got the idea from Gerald Graff, who remarked that King was such a clear writer you could almost reconstruct the letter he was responding to just by turning his sentences around. So I said, alright, let’s do it. I’ve done the assignment is several different ways, but basically it goes like this: Students come to class, and we read the letter out loud, each student reading one paragraph at a time. We then begin with the logice of his argument: What are his claims, his reasons, and his examples (this goes pretty quickly in a college setting).
We then move on to rhetoric, asking: How does MLK creates roles for readers and audience in the text? Who does he compare himself to? Who is Paul, what is Tarsus? Many students don’t know this, while others are proud to be able to share their knowledge in an institution which is sometimes not totally welcome to practicing Christians. Some who think they are Christians realize they don’t actually know anything about key texts from their tradition. It’s interesting. But anyway the questions are: Who does he think his audience is? What does he assume that they know?
I then introduce the concept of heteroglossia and ask my student what other voices they can find in the text. How is this single-authored piece shot through with other opinions. Who is King agreeing with or disagreeing with? At the end of class I give students an assignment to write the letter than King was responding to, using only text-internal clues regarding what that letter said. I ask them to reconstruct the argument, as well as to sign it — that is, imagine what kind of people wrote it, even if they don’t know their names.
This process is not too hard on students — you could do it in middle school or high school, in addition to college. You can tweak it, asking them to read MLK’s letter outside of class and then come to class having written the letter to which he’s responding. You can assign some chapters on the book on the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, to provide context, or read other texts by King (I’ve used “Conforming Non-Conformist” in the past).
But really, it’s the ease of analyzing King’s text that makes the exercise so useful. Students feel like they can do it. And you can basically teach ALL intro level college analytic skills just out of this one piece of writing. Once they have that under their belt, you can tell them: “Great. Now on Thursday we’ll be doing this with Foucault. Good luck!”
King’s text is not just easy to analyze, it’s also a model of clarity and persuasive speech. King writes clearly and concisely, but does not write sparely or sparsely. When he needs to let the clauses roll out, they roll out. It’s a valuable corrective to the indigestible academic prose that fills the academy, and which our students unfortunately learn to imitate.
King is exemplary for more than just his prose of course. Undergraduates today — especially those in Hawai‘i — don’t live in King’s world. This is the first experience with Jim Crow that many of my students have had. It’s powerful. And King does more than remind readers of a past that they may not have had access to before. His approach to dialogue is important to. In academy which is used to critique, King tries to convince. In an academy which too often stigmatizes enemy subject positions, King offers readers a chance to be good people — if they get on board his plan. King doesn’t just know what’s wrong. He knows what’s right.
It’s also quite shocking to some students to see that King was in fact a political agitator. We have a vision of him as a great conciliator, someone who found common ground, increased shared understanding, etc. But the King of the Letter actively advocates disruptive, illegal protests. He urges us to heighten tensions, not resolve them. He encourages violation of unjust laws. King was an activist who did the right thing, not the legal thing. I sometimes feel that this is something that people would like us to forget about him.
Finally, reading the Letter makes students ask new questions: What happened after the letter was written? How did we get from there to here. If I fill in some of the context, they start asking: Who was Malcolm X? Martin Buber? If I am teaching a more advanced class, we begin asking “how are we interpellated as a subject? What are the rights and wrongs of such interpellation”?
Your mileage may vary, and it may be too late for you to incorporate some of this material into your own classes later on this week. I’m sure that I’m hardly the only person who finds time in class to teach MLK around MLK day. But if you haven’t yet, why not give this exercise a shot, or adapt it for your own use? Or why not share your own in-class exercises below? Thanks. And happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
By: Paige West and JC Salyer
In the wake of the 2016 US presidential election scholars across the country and internationally have worked to understand the drivers for the election outcomes. We have tried to foresee the potential consequences of a Republican party domination of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government for vulnerable populations, for the environment, and for the economy. And, we continue to grapple with the serious threats the president elect and his cabinet nominees pose to the freedom of the press, to citizen’s rights to free speech, and to the various protections that scholars receive through university systems of academic freedom and tenure. At most universities there have been teach-ins, learn-ins, and panels, as well as emergency meetings of departments, faculty action groups, student groups, and other concerned parties. What more can scholars do?
Since the election, one statement we have heard repeatedly from some academics, pundits, journalists, and bloggers who write about academic life, is that scholars need to somehow change what they are doing, and how they are doing it, in order to face this seemingly new political reality in the Unites States. While the latter part of this argument has been addressed by numerous scholars and activists who write and think about race, class, sexuality, and inequality more generally – with clear and compelling arguments about how this is not a “new” political reality for many but rather a kind of contemporary culmination and re-entrenchment of the structures of power and oppression that underpin the entirety of the national political project – the former part of the argument has been allowed to stand with little critique. Do we need to change what we do and not just how we do it? Not necessarily. Continue reading
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.
By: Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar
In 2016 the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their involvement in the illegal occupation of Palestine both gathered significant steam and faced a huge roadblock. In the United States, the country that largely underwrites and funds the Israeli occupation, the call to boycott initiated in 2004 by Palestinian civil rights organizations movement has had some impressive successes, with eight associations endorsing it thus far, notably in academic fields that challenge Eurocentrism. The movement continued to grow last year as scholars across disciplines learned more about the Israeli occupation and its consequences. Several larger academic organizations discussed or voted on the boycott call, including the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA). As criticisms of the Israeli state and Zionist ideology spread, backlash intensified.
We are part of the diverse group of anthropologists of different backgrounds, including Israelis and Palestinians, who have organized a movement to convince the AAA membership to adopt the boycott. For several years, we have worked to educate our colleagues about both Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and the boycott as an effective tactic by which to support those rights. We’ve done this through panels, roundtables, dozens of op-eds, videos, webinars, teach-ins, email outreach, and canvassing on the floors of various anthropology conferences. As the MLA begins its discussions of the boycott, we offer this retrospective on the AAA vote last spring. Continue reading
My childhood imagination enhanced stories told to me by my elders of where we were from, and my history embraced the possibility of exciting seafarers, noble learned men and women, poor housekeepers, exiled princesses, wandering mystics, Marxists fighting the good fight, and revolutionaries standing up against the British. While some of this might very well be true, at age five or six, sitting in New Jersey, truth was a far fetched notion and irrelevant. As we do, I have carried these stories with me through my life and into my practice, and I revisit them now as I consider the topography of text. I am curious about what it means to write about others from a position of otherness as the cartography of elsewhere informs my writing from within, while positioned somewhere else.
Where are you from?
But, where are you really from?
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