Tag Archives: Central Asia

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 3

“The time is now ripe for anthropologists to consider the concept of freedom and the empirical manifestations of freedom in culture. What more significant and urgent task is there for the anthropologist than that of launching a concerted inquiry into the nature of freedom and its place and basis in nature and the cultural process? Such an inquiry would provide in time a charter for belief in those values and principles indispensable to the process of advancing culture and to the ideal of a democratic world order dedicated to the development of human potentialities to their maximum perfection.” (preface to The Concept of Freedom in Anthropology ed. David Bidney, 1963 p. 6)

Freedom Hof-style
You and me both, pal.

Thus did David Bidney valiantly launch the investigation into freedom by anthropologists only to immediately then admit: “I realize that hard-headed, realistic anthropologists, including some of the participants in this symposium, would not find themselves in agreement with this anthropologic dream. There is danger, they will protest, that you are reifying Freedom into an absolute entity, just as culture once was. Freedom they will object is a non-scientific, political slogan which betrays its ethnocentric, Western and American origin…”

Freedom, as concept, still evokes this suspicion. That it is “nothing more” than a political slogan; or that it masks the reality of domination, oppression, slavery and power. As well it should given how promiscuously it is exploited.Or, as Edmund Leach so characteristically puts it in his contribution to the same volume: “To prate of Freedom as if it were a separable virtue is the luxurious pursuit of aristocrats and of the more comfortable members of modern affluent society. It has been so since the beginning.” (77)

What Leach expresses here, in part, is the descriptivist bias of anthropology of the time, and specifically of political anthropology: that the goal is comparative analysis without a priori reference to any normative political ideals. This, I think probably resonates with most anthropologists, who would be much less likely to be interested in Freedom as a concept that delimits a certain relationship between action and governance, more more likely to see it as a slogan that has been used as a warrant in colonial, imperial and global economic endeavors; as a tool used to transform existing arrangements in its own name (and secretly in the interests of a global elite). At a first cut this is undeniably so if one simply listens to the way the word is used in the news, and by politicians especially.

Indeed, it is my probably hasty opinion that the whole of “political anthropology” (at least in it’s 1930s-1970s form) shares this bias, despite the fact that it would seem to be this domain to which one would immediately turn for help in understanding the variations in the nature of Freedom. Instead, freedom is excluded from investigation insofar as it contaminates, confuses or otherwise confounds the exploration of objective political structures. Continue reading

Time’s “What Happens…” Cover

The July 29, 2010, cover of Time Magazine features a portrait of a young woman from Afghanistan, her dark eyes arresting the reader and where her nose would be there is only a terrifying scar encircling a single, fleshy hole. The headline is “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan” and the subheading reads, “Aisha, 18, had her nose and ears cut off last year on orders from the Taliban because she fled abusive in-laws.”

Even without the headline it is a deliberately provocative photograph and one that will surely sell a lot of magazines. Contextualized by its headline the cover is pure propaganda. It makes plain the strange ideology of America’s foreign wars: We are at war with (fill in the blank) for their own good. What happens if we leave Afghanistan? Women will have their noses cut off, willy-nilly. You don’t want that do you? Presumably if we leave Afghanistan then Afghani civilians will no longer be accidently killed or mutilated by drone attacks either… those survivors didn’t get a Time-Life photographer though.

Both are acts of violence, Aisha’s disfigurement at the hands of the Taliban and civilizan casualties at the hands of the American military. But the former graces the cover of a major, mainstream media publication because it resonates powerfully with American traditions of belief about “other” people. The Taliban are barbarians and their violent behavior is symptomatic of their temporal displacement, they are literally living in the past rebelling against modernity. And so it is the duty of Civilization to intervene and save them from themselves by making them more like us. By force if necessary.

In conference papers I have argued that the genesis of this ideology is to be found in the formative conflict of the American nation, the Eastern and Western Indian Wars. Throughout the nineteenth century in political, academic, and journalistic circles American violence against Indians was seldom justified in crude materialist concerns like the acquisition of land. Instead experts created a panopoly of deficiencies inherent in the tribes’ supposed savagery that needed only to be replaced by the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism for them all to become productive members of society. “Kill the Indian and save the man,” was one such rallying cry that Americans should keep the “promise” made to all Indians — to save their souls, teach them English, and make them modern. To make them into versions of us.

Two forms of violence, one is disturbing and senseless, the other distressing but necessary. Two forms of violence, the former justifying the later. What are the means by which American people distinguish between the two? What accounts for the absence of Afghani civilian casualties on the cover of Time? For anthropologist Gabriele Marranci the legitimization of Civilization’s violence can be understood through culture, especially Christian eschatology.

In the West, anthropologically, suffering from acts of war or terrorism (terms which, in today’s Afghanistan, are often used to include national resistance, secular insurgency and territorial disputes) seems to be classified into two distinct categories. On the one hand, the western-induced suffering is perceived as ‘ethnical’ and ‘lawful’, superior and enlightened, an act of ‘love’, a bitter medicine for the salvation of the ‘ignorant’ (understood as ‘not knowing’), the ‘sinner’ through the redemption of blood, and as death with a view to societal resurrection and rebirth. On the other hand, however, there is a perception of a need for punishment of the barbaric actions of the ignorant, of the infliction of evil for the evil committed by people who are somehow disgusting for rejecting the ‘Truth’.

That is, violence and suffering are not condemned for the effect they have on human beings, but are condemned and rejected only if they are not the ‘right’ violence, ‘salvific’ in nature and ‘just’ in cause – in other words, a transubstantiational violence. Hence, destruction and suffering, in this case, is a part of redemption, while the Taliban’s violence is merely destructive.

In this light the old theoretical tools of anthropology — myth, ritual, sacrifice, the gift — all seem fresh and relevant again in the context of international violence and geopolitics. Baudrillard’s hyperreality could be useful too as the circulation of signifiers, let loose from their signifieds, flows permiscuously from Central Asia through the great nodes of global capitalism and on into the blogosphere.

So readers, what is your interpretation of the Time Magazine cover? I’m not asking about the content of the article, but the image and it’s headline. Does it suggest to you a realism that offers a way of understanding living Afghani people? Does it offer any insight into the nearly decade long war that has cost so much in American life and treasure? Or does it, as I argue, stand as evidence of an American epistemology of the Other, showing how Americans arrange what it is that they think they know about the people of the world?

The New Persistence of Memory: The Language and Popular Culture in Africa Archive

Some readers here may have seen my review of Johannes Fabian’s recent books, which are linked to a site he co-created with Vincent de Rooij called The Language and Popular Culture in Africa Archive. It’s a great small collection of original texts, translations and commentaries, curated with scholarly care, and representing hard to find and valuable resources. What’s more, even though it is a small-scale project, it was one of the first open access publications in anthropology, and could continue in this fashion if there were interested people.

Fabian wrote to me recently concerned about the future of this archive, highlighting several issues that I think we will all face in the near future:

As you may have noticed in my email signature below the address of our LPCA archive has changed (because of some reorganization at the University of Amsterdam). The old address that appeared in publications so far will get you there for a while but probably not forever. One of the vagaries of presence on the net. Also I say “our” archive because it has been a truly collaborative effort with Vincent de Rooij, a former student and a linguist-cum-anthropologists whose dissertation was about Katanga Swahili. He designed, maintained, and edited the website meticulously. And he did this for almost 10 years without any institutional funding or even academic credit, on his own time. This has become untenable for me but, more importantly, he has turned to other subjects and interests, which is of course entirely legitimate. So the sad news is that LPCA, though it can run, as it were, on autopilot for years as long as it keeps its space on the server, is, if not dead, in suspended animation.

I think such projects are the very lifeblood of anthropology today–far more so than the increasingly sterile walled gardens of the academic journals run by the Publishing Borg and its scholarly society minions. So what should we do to keep them alive:

  1. Volunteers? Is there anyone out there with an interest in and focus on popular culture in Africa, african linguistics or swahili who wants to help? This could be an editorial opportunity as well, since there is both the archive and a Journal associated with the project.
  2. How can we improve it, or make it more 2.0-y and social interneterrific without sacrificing what is already there? What’s the right back-end? The journal (Journal of Language and Popular Culture in Africa) could obviously be ported to Open Journal Systems, if someone wanted to do that, whereas the archive materials might be appropriate for Omeka.
  3. How can we make it more “official”– perhaps by assigning DOI numbers (what would a suitable registration agency be?) and so forth to make it findable as a library resource?
  4. Can we leverage the new “open anthropology cooperative” to find people who are interested and committed?
  5. Other suggestions for Johannes and Vincent as to how to make this project survive and grow?

“Artpology” in Almaty

Forget what’s-his-name. For news on Kazakhstan, check out artpologist.net, the multilingual website of a group of scholars and artists studying the contemporary creative scene in Almaty. They write, “We will work with artists of three generations trying to show continuities and ruptures that have taken place in society since the break-up of the Soviet Union.” One of the members of the group is Stanford anthropology student Zhanara Nauruzbayeva. In an interview, Nauruzbayeva notes intersections between contemporary creativity and its rapidly changing urban context:

Initially we were fascinated with the artists’ studios, artists who live in Almaty, you know, what amazing and unique spaces those are. I just feel like there is so much in there and it would be really cool to show them. And this is something to be really proud of. But as we started here on the project we came across this subject of the transformation of the city, the construction and how it changes people’s daily lives and we just thought that we cannot ignore that subject anymore.

Kazakhstan and particularly bigger cities Almaty and Astana have changed a lot in the past 3-4 years maybe, but I feel like this year it’s particularly strong, it’s escalating. With construction, transformation of the city is affecting all areas, not only the older areas that are being demolished. And those spaces are being transformed into apartment buildings and commercial entertainment centers, malls, and also there’s a huge number of cars here, so lots of roads are being built to accommodate that quantity of cars. What else is the transformation, the construction affecting?

Wallpaper magazine has been tracking the urban scene in Kazakhstan recently, having featured the new capital Astana on the cover a few months ago. Presently, Wallpaper.com features something like ‘artpological’ photos of denizens of Astana. Check out Stefan Ruiz’s beautiful photographs here. Ruiz’s description of the city cracks me up: “North Korea meets Las Vegas.”

Bishkek, anyone?

Here on SM we don’t normally post job openings, and of course as anthropologists we find exoticizing far away places both politically suspect and pretty boring, since for many of us places like Vanuatu or Mauritius don’t seem that exotic. However at the risk of denying coevalness with my trans-caucasian colleagues I do have to pass along this one:

JOB: Visiting Assistant Professor, Cultural Anthropology and/or Archeology
American University – Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

The Department of Cultural Anthropology and Archeology of “American University – Central Asia”:http://www.auca.kg/ invites applications for a one-year position with the possibility of renewal, made possible with funding from the Soros Foundation HESP Academic Fellowship Program.

We request that applications be directed to the HESP address given (online or by mail), but please also submit a brief description (~! 3-4 paragraphs) describing research interests, publications and courses taught, along with a CV, to the department of CAA by email at CAA@mail.auca.kg with AFP APPLICATION in the subject line.

Full application information for the International Scholars Fellowship program is “available online”:http://www.soros.org/initiatives/hesp/focus/afp/grants/isfp

Contact Info:
Open Society Institute
Higher Education Support Program
Academic Fellowship Program
P.O. Box 519
H-1397 Budapest

As an Owen Lattimore fanboy I’ve always been interested in Central Asia — my “first novel”:http://www.lulu.com/content/128306 is set in Xinjiang and Bukhara. I think it would incredibly cool to teach there, especially at a place which is (as far as I can tell) getting off the ground and making things happen. While I am not sure exactly what it would be, I am certain it would not be boring.

So: Bishkek anybody? If you get hired as a result of a Savage Minds posting then drop us a line to let us know — we’ll make tshirts to celebrate the occasion.

No Shamans Here

When you tell someone you study anthropology, the chances are that you will hear one of the following responses:

  • I have a friend/relative who studies insects.
  • Like Indiana Jones? Do you have one of those hats?
  • I think shamanism is so fascinating, don’t you?

The shamanism one is the one that gets me the most upset. The other two are understandable confusions caused by ignorance of the field, but the last one is the result of a type of anthropological hucksterism – the deliberate use of pseudo-anthrpological discourse to sell spirituality to New Age believers.

So I was happy to see this page devoted to proving that North American natives do not practice shamanism. The argument is made that shamanism is a very specialized term, originally referring to specific practices associated with the natives of Siberia. From an article by Tori McElroy:

The word “shaman” actually originates among the natives of Siberia, where it describes a specialized type of holy person. The shamans of Siberia interact with deities and spirits not only with prayer, ritual and offerings, but through direct contact with the spirits themselves. With the aid of rhythmic drumming and chanting, the shaman enters a very deep or “ecstatic” trance.

UC Davis anthropologist, Jack Forbes looks at Western traditions of shamanism:

But if we back off and take a look at so-called shamanism from a multi-cultural perspective, instead of a Eurocentric one, we find that the most famous “shamans” of the 20th century have been people like Amy Semple McPherson (founder of the Foursquare Church), Oral Roberts, Billy Joe Hargis, and the legendary Billy Sunday. Moreover, the day-to-day work of “shamanism” in North America is carried mostly by Roman Catholic and other priests who daily enact “shamanistic” rituals (such as Mass, a “magic” ritual where wine becomes blood and wafers become flesh) or by charismatic Protestant preachers (healers) who attempt to cure by the laying on of the hands and other techniques of “faith-healing,” or by religious figures (preachers or priests) who attempt to “control” events, obtain wealth, drive away death, or determine who gets into “Heaven” by means of prayers, incantations or ritual. Millions of Catholics recite a ritual incantation on their rosary beads every day while the church actively sells (or has sold) “relics,” medals, and other items which are thought to possess “magic” powers. The Bible has apparently been used as a “talisman” by fervent Protestants, and the cross is viewed as a potent object by many Christians of different denominations. Being “born again,” spirit possession and other acts of “ecstasy” are regular features of some Protestant sects.

The fact of the matter is that there is no such religion as “shamanism,” since all of the religions of the world make use — perhaps equally — of the tools of the “shaman” including liturgy (ritual), songs, incantations (recited prayers or formulas) and direct contact with the spiritual world (visions, ecstasy) in order to bring about changes on the physical plane.

And since I’ve been writing about etymology-as-argument lately on my own blog, I think it is worth mentioning the way in which etymology is used here. Unlike arguments which seek to persuade showing that two words were linked in the language of some ancient culture, the anti-shamanism argument uses etymology as counterfactual. By showing that the term has its roots in Central Asia, they seek to disprove its applicability to the the American context. Now, I’m not sure I necessarily buy the Sanskrit (via Chinese) origins of the term, but there is no doubt that the word is not North American in origin, as the Oxford Dictionary shows:

from German Schamane and Russian shaman, from Tungus šaman.

Which isn’t too say that we can’t apply words from one culture to another. We do it all the time. But we should be careful about how we do it. As Forbes puts it:

Quite obviously the above definitions present a culturally hostile picture since the use of terms such as “magic,” “demons,” “gods” and “ancestral spirits” will likely be interpreted as backward, evil or even “devilish” by many European readers.

Of course, it is exactly the exotic otherness of shamanism which attracts:

more than 5,000 people each year who take [a] rigorous training in core shamanism, the near universal methods of shamanism without a specific cultural perspective

A have to admit that while it may not seem to be as immediately harmful, the marketing of such cultural exoticism by anthropologists upsets me even more than when they work for the CIA. But then again, orientalism and colonialism have always been connected …

To end on a personal note: The only time I’ve found myself the object of such orientalist mysticism (my South Asian wife gets it all the time) was when I travelled in Germany. I can’t tell you how many people told me: “You’re Jewish? I think Kabbalah is so fascinating.” I have to say, I was pretty tempted to drop out and become a shaman in Berlin…