Jurafsky, Dan. 2014. The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
The Language of Food has always been one of my favorite blogs, and so when I heard that it was being turned into a blook, I leapt at the chance to review it. Having now read the book, I still like Jurafsky’s writing and approach, but feel the blog was occasionally unable to transition of the Internet and on to the page. And yet, despite the beefs anthropologists might have with the book, I find myself recommending it to non-academic friends both because it makes a fine read, and because it teaches some core anthropological lessons. It deserves a wide readership for the anthropological lessons it teaches and the delightful stories it tells along the way.
One of the things one often hears is that investment in education is what is needed to boost national productivity. The tremendous explosion of global higher education is explained as a response to this need for better educated and more productive workers. I think there are some good arguments to be made against this position (a lot of new jobs don’t need a college degree, much of the supposed growth in American productivity came from the financial bubble, etc.) but let us take it at face value for now. If there is a demand for a certain type of new worker, few of the world’s institutions of higher education are meeting the demand to produce such a worker.
Take for example this letter from Mohit Chandra, a partner with KPMG, to “India’s Graduating Classes.” Many of his complaints would be just as valid of students I’ve met in Philadelphia as they are of students I’ve met in Ahmedabad or Taipei. It seems to me that there are two possible explanations for this failure. The first is that the institutions of global higher education are particularly unproductive and inefficient at producing the type of students they wish to produce. The second is that they don’t actually wish to produce such students in the first place. I’d like to argue that the latter statement is closer to the truth.
Let us look at the skills that Chandra wishes to find in new employees: “language skills, in thirst for knowledge, in true professionalism and, finally, in thinking creatively and non-hierarchically.” In reading this list I can’t help but think of Bourdieu and Passeron’s argument that education primarily serves to cultivate a
misrecognition of the truth of the legitimate culture as the dominant cultural arbitrary, whose reproduction contributes towards reproducing the power relations.
The skills Chandra lists are elite skills largely cultivated in the home long before arriving at the university. Bourdieu and Passeron argue that schooling exists largely to “inculcate the fait accompli of the legitimacy of the dominant culture” rather than actually training students to cultivate these skills.
Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become real in the industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.
The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift, or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.
What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity. Continue reading →
According to the Urban Dictonary “buffalaxing” is a term which comes from a YouTube user named Buffalax who is famous for writing fake English lyrics to foreign songs which (to an English speaker who doesn’t understand the original language) sound like they could be the actual lyrics to the song. You can find this kind of thing by searching YouTube for “buffalax” or for “misheard lyrics.” Some of these are funnier than others, and many are simply offensive. The reason I bring it up is that buffalaxing is very popular in Taiwan, and I wanted to share a new music video which has some fun with this meme. But first some context…
Let’s start with two of the more famous songs which have been given misheard Chinese lyrics. The first is “Golimar” from the Telugu movie “Donga“:
That curious identity politic that mixes neo-primitive fashion, ecological coolness, spiritual openness, upper middle class ambition, multiculturalism, and conscious consumerism can be coalesced under the moniker eco-chic–an elite contradictory expression of social justice and neoliberalism. It will be explored in the conference Eco–Chic: ConnectingEthical, SustainableandEliteConsumption, put on by the EuropeanScienceFoundation in October. The conference organizers see this expressive culture accurately in its rich contradictions. Eco-chic “is both the product of and a move against globalization processes. It is a set of practices, an ideological frame and a marketing strategy.” If you’ve spent anytime in Shoreditch, Haight, Williamsburg, or Silverlake you’ve got some experience with these hip, trendy elites. Ramesh calls them “Burning Man Hipsters.” I’ve been studying new media producers in America and eco-chic describes an important cultural incarnation of these knowledge producer’s value set. As far as anthropology is concerned, meta-categories such as eco-chic, liberalism, or transhumanism that cross cultural boundaries while remaining bound by class, challenge our discipline to revisit totalizing notions such as “culture” and “tribe.”
Eco-chic, like many other socio-cultural manifestations of neoliberalism is rife with contradiction. The fundamental contradiction being that it is a social justice movement within consumer capitalism. The producers of eco-chic goods and experiences are structured by capitalism’s profit motive. Likewise consumers of eco-chic goods and experiences are motivated by ideals that try to transcend or correct the ecological or deleterious human impacts of capitalism. Thus both producer and consumer of eco-chic are caught in a contradiction between their social justice drives and their suspension in the logic of neoliberalism. Eco chic events such as Burning Man and television networks such as Al Gore’s Current TV also express the fundamental contradiction between the social and the entrepreneurial in social entrepreneurialism. How do the contradictions within eco-chic represent themselves in American West Coast’s cultural expressions such as Burning Man and Current TV? Continue reading →
Places all around the world are being transformed, restructured, and reinvented to appeal to the international tourism market. Developers, politicians, bankers, investors, hoteliers, and entrepreneurs contribute to reformulating places according to the wants, needs, expectations, desires, and hopes of a global mass of travelers who have the time (and money) to hop scotch around the planet in search of experiences. The question, though, is this: Who benefits from all these changes? Do these new tourist places really only benefit powerful politicians, developers, and investors? Or do they serve society* in some larger sense? Continue reading →
Eleven weeks have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan. Although bodies are still being found amidst the wreckage, the rest of the world has long since moved on. The media waves of shock, horror, heroism, heartbreak, and heart-warm continue to push and pull us through a relentless series of events: from Libya to Tuscaloosa, Kate and William to Bin Laden, Donald Trump to Strauss-Kahn.
The affective loop is dizzying as it moves us between distant places and local homes, political upheavals and natural disasters, raging storms and individual stories, the serious and the absurd. Unable to catch my breath between blows or steady myself according to some sense of scale, I feel like so much has happened since the tsunami struck. And yet, I don’t know what to make of any of it. Are we just bracing ourselves for the next thing?
In an April article entitled “The Half-life of Disaster” Brian Massumi discusses how this media cycle leads us into a perpetual state of foreboding that brings together natural, economic and political threat perception in a configuration that fuels what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism”. The horror is never resolved or replaced; rather, it is archived, infinitely accessible over the Internet. Cast into the web of other events, the unendurable tragedy of a particular event dissipates, or as Massumi says, “it decays”. In today’s catastrophic mediashpere, observes Massumi, the half-life of disaster is at most two weeks. Continue reading →
The AAA is asking people in the US to contact their congressional representatives over cuts to the Fulbright program and the NEH – and the possibility of even more drastic cuts in the near future. In addition to urging you to do the same, I wanted to add some comments about the Fulbright program.
I probably would have had to change my research topic if I hadn’t received a Fulbright dissertation grant to come to Taiwan. The Fulbright program was founded by Senator William Fulbright in 1946, and was initially paid for by selling off war surplus. This makes the current situation all the more depressing. The following chart shows where the current debt comes from.
As you can see, half the debt comes from a combination of Bush-era tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That means that the Fulbright program, originally paid for out of war surplus, is now being cancelled to pay for war debt.
Programs like the Fulbright-Hays grants aren’t just about supporting individual scholars; they have a larger mission of promoting work that collectively helps all of us contextualize the world we live in and recognize how it has come to look the way it does. By not providing the funding necessary to support this year’s crop of applicants, the government is implying that such work isn’t important, that we can exist in a global community but don’t need to understand it.
Unlike HTS, the Fulbright program and NEH fund important research which I believe genuinely contributes to our understanding of the world. It is depressing to see our reckless involvement in two unfunded wars now threatening these programs.
This post has two purposes. First of all, I wanted to alert everyone to a wonderful new online Anthropology journal called Anthropology of This Century which “publishes reviews of recent works in anthropology and related disciplines, as well as occasional feature articles.” This is as close as I’ve seen to an anthropology focused New York Review of Books (or perhaps I should say London Review of Books, as AOTC is edited by Charles Stafford at LSE).
Ortner’s article starts with a quote from Marshall Sahlins: “Whatever happened to ‘Late Capitalism’? It became neo-liberalism.” Some of our readers may not remember the phrase “Late Capitalism” which gained popularity after Ernst Mandel’s book of that name came out in the late seventies. David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity owes a lot to Mandel. Ortner doesn’t dispute Sahlins, but suggests that there are some reasons why we might want to use a new word: Continue reading →
The University of Chicago’s Workshop on Science, Technology, Society & the State is hosting a follow-up to last year’s “Anthropology and Counterinsurgency” conference next week. Entitled “Reconsidering American Power“, the conference aims to expand beyond questions related to the militarization of anthropology to consider more generally the relation between the social sciences and the American state.
I’ll be presenting a paper during Friday’s panel session, “Uses and Abuses of Social Sciences: Disciplines of and for What?” Entitled “Are We Ready Yet for Action Anthropology?”, my paper is intended to counter arguments that anthropologists’ refusal to cooperate with military and intelligence efforts like HTS, PRISP, and the Minerva Consortium necessarily condemns anthropology to irrelevance. My hope is that by examining the model of action anthropology, which has gained little traction in academic anthropology in the 50 years since Sol Tax and his students proposed it, a way of meaningfully engaging contemporary issues might emerge that avoids the troubling issues raised by direct subordination to military and intelligence agencies.
Other participants include David Price, Catherine Lutz, Hugh Gusterson, Jeff Bennett, Robert Vitalis, Matthew Sparke, Sean Mitchell, Kevin Caffrey, Amahl Bishara, Rochelle Davis, Roberto Gonzalez, Keith Brown, Chris Nelson, and a variety of U of Chicago folks from anthropology and the other social sciences, including honorary Savage Mindster Marshall Sahlins. (Note: I’m listed as “editor” of Savage Minds, a title I neither asked for nor knew was being ascribed to me! I’m also listed as an “independent researcher”, despite my 6 years affiliation with the College of Southern Nevada…)
On a related note, the paper I presented last year will be out early 2010 from University of Chicago Press in a collected volume of essays from the conference. (Can we talk some time about academic publishers demanding all copyrights? For free?) As far as I know, the book will be titled following the conference, that is Anthropology and Counterinsurgency. Look for it in an academic bookstore near you!
One of my classes (re)read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities today. Several of the students (none of whom can be quite old enough to have voted against Bush once, and certainly not twice) sagely recalled the last time they had read it, as if we lived in a different world. Maybe we do, I thought, and I felt like doing the same, since it seems an appropriate book to have read on this day of all. Ergo…
So if you are a student at Yale this semester you can take a course with Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Now it isn’t that uncommon for former politicians to teach university courses, but it is unusual for the rest of us to be able to virtually sit in these courses. Here is the YouTube clip of Blair’s first lecture. It starts about 20 minutes into the clip, after a long introduction by Miroslav Volf.
So, what to make of Blair’s course? The topics are interesting and are exactly those topics which concern many anthropologists: faith, globalization, identity, etc. (Blair recently “came out” as a Catholic.) Unfortunately, I can’t imagine any student staying awake in this class. Neither Volf nor Blair seems to have much to say about these topics except for vague platitudes. I thought that watching this would give me an opportunity to say something interesting and/or critical about Blair’s take on these topics from an anthropological point of view – but I honestly didn’t hear anything worth commenting on. He sees globalization as a force which “opens up” society and religious faith as capable of either aiding or hindering that opening up … depending (not quite sure on what).
I almost deleted this post, but then I thought it might be worth posting it to see if anyone has anything more insightful to say about it than I do. And who knows, maybe the course will get more interesting later on…
Who are the Tasaday? Depending on whom you ask, you’ll hear very different answers to this question. You’ll either hear that they’re a group of leaf-wearing, stone-age-tool-using cave dwellers who, when they were discovered in 1971 living in a rain forest on the Philippine island of Mindanao, believed they were the only people in the world. Or you’ll hear that they’re a complete fraud… poor farmers who were cynically coerced into posing as a stone-age tribe by powerful politicians. What’s the truth? To that there is no simple answer.
The second is a 10 minute contribution by Werner Herzog to a 2002 film. Herzog’s segment is called “10,000 years older” and can be found on YouTube in three parts (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).
There is also a short film on the Survival International website.
We’ve also had a number of “first contact” related posts on Savage Minds:
Between the demolition of the Berlin wall and the fall of the twin towers, ‘globalization’ happened to anthropology. One of the most influential essays of the period (probably because it was ahead of the curve) was Arjun Appadurai’s Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy (originally appeared in 1990, iirc). As an article it is both alluring and infuriating. In it, Appadurai proposes the notion of different sorts of ‘-scapes’, a model which has been tremendously influential but which he (and pretty much everyone else) fails to develop in any real way in any future work. Similarly, Appadurai argues that we need to develop models similar to those based on chaos theory and fractals if we are to undersand the global cultural economy. As a bow to the popular science of the time this was very trendy (Gleick’s Chaos came out in 1988, when the article was being writen, I reckon) but again not something that he has followed up on — although quite a lot of people who work on social networking have done so.
For me, Appadurai is like Mahler — I recognize the genius, I understand why it appeals to some, but at the end of the day all it does is make me queasy (I should say that I am talking about his writing — Appadurai is a very nice guy in person). I began to ask myself: why does this article appeal? Or, more specifically, why did it appeal in the context of the late-80s early-90s? Continue reading →