Tag Archives: History

Lords of Time: The Maya, Doctor Who, and temporal fascinations of the west

The fourth in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first three posts are herehere, and here.

In this post, I’ll consider the 2012 phenomenon in relation to time and otherness. Naturally, I’m hedging my bets and posting this before the potential end of the world. Although no one can seem to decide when the Maya are, they appear to be sometime between Aug 11, 3114 BC and Dec 21, 2012 AD.

This time frame has less to do with the Maya themselves than with how they are invoked by Westerners (both believers and debunkers). I realize that “West” and “Westerners” — just like “the Maya” —  is an overambitious gloss, but indulge me for a moment.  For the record, my perspective is based largely on the American, British, and Spanish public spheres in the press and internet.  (While there seems to be 2012 interest in Russia and China, I’m not in a position to comment on that in any detail. Please leave a comment if you can.)

In the rhetoric of the West, “the Maya” appear to take quantum leaps between historical moments.  In my previous post I focused on the “otherness” of U.S. spiritualists in the eyes of apocalypse debunkers. It goes without saying that the Maya are also “other” in ways that anthropologists have long objected to.  The precise relationships between The Maya (abstract) and the Maya (ethnographic, historic) is a matter of debate, but regardless they are invoked constantly when it comes to apocalyptic expectations for 2012.   Continue reading

Regarding Japan Part 2: Affective Loops and Toxic Tastings

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

Glenn Beck, archaeologist

Celebrity conservative and goldbug, Glenn Beck, made an interesting argument this past Wednesday, August 18, on his Fox News show — since 2009, the most watched news program on television’s most watched news network. Beck contextualized this segment as part one in a three part series on Civil Rights in America.

Here the Hopewell earthworks with their numerological connection to the pyramids of Giza are being deployed as evidence that North America was a site of divine providence. The Bat Creek stone, originally found in Tennessee in 1889, is supposed to be evidence of pre-Columbian Jewish migration west from Phonecia across the Atlantic. Later in the segment a guest offers Tisquantum’s (Squanto) discovery of the Plymouth colonists as another example of divine providence.

The foil to Beck’s argument about divine providence, that America is special in the eyes of God and that the Founding Fathers were doing God’s work on Earth, is what he terms manifest destiny. For Beck manifest destiny is a perversion of divine providence. He states, “Manifest Destiny is, get out of my way, my way or the highway, because I’m on a mission from God. That is Manifest Destiny. That’s Woodrow Wilson. That’s Andrew Jackson. That’s not George Washington. It’s different.”

According to Beck, the purpose of this lecture is to reveal a history that “the Smithsonian, science, government, and commerce colluded to erase.” He continues, “The history that has been erased in our nation and, in particular, with the Native Americans, happened because it didn’t fit the story they created – manifest destiny. It only works if the Indians were savages. And they had to have savages for commerce and government to expand. The ancient artifacts prove otherwise. Why aren’t we looking into those?”

I think its unfortunate that archaeology, perhaps the most popular and most public face of anthropology, is so frequently hijacked by amateurs for nationalist and religious ends. The blog A Hot Cup of Joe just did a noteworthy post on this very topic. With the authority and authenticity that so many cultures ascribe to events in the past a material remainder can, like a fetish, carry great power. An actual physical object from the distant past that is undeniably real to the touch is proof that people were here before and the certainty of that physical reality is conveyed, like Frazer’s principle of magical contagion, onto ideologies making them just as real.

It’s doubly unfortunate that living American Indian people have to put up with this manipulation of the past to suit the ends of non-Indians. On August 13, Indian Country Today reported that the Cherokee Nation was filing suit against the state of Tennessee for extending state recognition to six groups that the Cherokees believe to be fraudulent. Included in this group of six are the “Central Band of Cherokee” which claim to be a Lost Tribe of Isreal.

Meanwhile on Glenn Beck fansites, his viewers did not give the above performance high marks. A common concern expressed on discussion boards was that the history lesson resonated too closely with Beck’s Mormon faith and they feared that the stigma attached to Mormonism would lead some to question their fandom of Beck, possibly leading to less enthusiasm for his general political agenda that they so highly value.

This case is a prime target for the Bad Archaeology blog and I hope they choose to write it up.

Resource in US History and Culture: The Government Comics Collection

Screenshot from "Duck and Cover" fil...

Image via Wikipedia

The library at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln has posted a collection of digitized government comics and related material. There are about 180 freely-downloadable PDFs available, on topics ranging from health and human services to military training and recruitment.

Among my favorite is a 1951 AIr Force publication explaining psychological warfare entitled “Bullets? Or Words?” and illustrated by Milton Caniff, a comic-strip artist who gave us the syndicated comic strips “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon”.

In fashioning new psychological weapons, it is necessary to base them on sound scientific principles and an understanding of psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology and other allied fields of knowledge.


I’m also a fan of "Bert the Turtle Says Duck and Cover", which offers immensely useful and reassuring advice on what to do in case of a nuclear bomb explosion. “There is always something to shelter you – indoors, a schol desk, a chair, a table.” Funny how they left out lead-lined iceboxes, but perhaps the authors felt that went without saying.

Related material includes briefs for the artists and authors, as well as government reports on the impact of comics, such as the US Senate’s 1955 “Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency: Interim Report”. If you remember your history (or have read Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay) you’ll remember that the mid-‘50s saw a witch-hunt launched against comic book publishers and authors every bit as intense as the one launched against Hollywood, with comic books accused of promoting delinquent and violent behavior as well as homosexuality and anti-Americanism.

Although my interest is more sparked by the Cold War-era material, the collection dates up to the last decade, offering an interesting lens through which to view the last 6 decades or so of US culture and of the US government’s relations with its subjects.

Thoughts on Imagined Communities on Inauguration day

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…

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A Special Offer and a Note About Blogging

Everyone’s arguing lately about Savage Minds — it’s “civil society” or lack thereof, its institutional position in the field of anthropology, it’s Euro-Americano-centrism, and so on. What’s missing, I think, is that while Savage Minds is a “place”, a “publication” of sorts, with some cohesiveness, it’s also a somewhat random collection of individual anthropologists bound together by no shared theoretical orientation, area specialization, political stance, or academic genealogy. I think it’s clear that we don’t always agree — in fact, we’ve disagreed quite sharply at times. More to the point, we not only blog about different stuff but we blog for different reasons.

For me, Savage Minds has always been a place to “mess around”, anthropologically speaking. A place to try out new ideas and thin hypotheses, a wall to throw stuff onto in order to see what sticks. A place where I could try my hand at the kind of argument Yehudi Cohen makes in Disappearance of the Incest Taboo (that’s an AnthroSource link, for those with access) and string together some ideas about the end of marriage, or muse about the moral underpinnings of anthropology. A place to incubate arguments and positions — and to receive feedback from my peers both inside and outside of the field.

It’s been invaluable to have this kind of forum, away from the main channel of academic thought — the journals and academic presses that are our disciplinary mainstream, even if many of them have lower readerships than Savage Minds. So valuable, in fact, that I felt it absolutely necessary to include Savage Minds in my “Acknowledgements” when I published Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War. Here’s what I wrote:

Over the years, two online communities have proven invaluable as both a source of new ideas and a place to rehearse my own fevered anthropological imaginings. To the members of ANTHRO-L (especially Ron Kephart, John McCreery, Richard Senghas, Jacob Lee, Richard Wilsnack, Anj Petto, Ray Scupin, Robert Lawless, Wade Tarzia, Lynn Manners, Martin Cohen, Bruce Josephson, Richley Crapo, Tom Kavanagh, Scott MacEachern, Mike Pavlik, Thomas Riley, and Phil Young) and my fellow Savage Minds, (Alex Golub, Kerim Friedman, Chris Kelty, Nancy LeClerc, Kathleen Lowery, Tak Watanabe, and newbies Thomas Erikson, Maia Green, and Thomas Strong) I offer both my gratitude and respect.

In the end, I’m not sure I could have written Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War without having had this forum to develop those ideas. The other Minds and the many people who comment here not only helped me to refine my thoughts on anthropology and its role(s) in society, but to rethink myself as an anthropologist.

By way of gratitude, then, I asked my publishers if I could offer at least a little something back to this community which has offered me so much. They responded enthusiastically, providing me with a discount code to offer Savage Minds readers. So here’s the deal:

  1. Order Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War from U Mich Press.
  2. At checkout, enter the coupon code: WAX08UMP
  3. Enjoy a 20% savings!

With the coupon code, the US price is $26.00 instead of the usual $32.50. As far as I know, this offer is not limited to US buyers, but I’m pretty sure the price of international shipping will eat up any savings over buying the book at full price locally. The coupon code expires on May 30, 2008.

For more information about the book, check out the review by Penny Howard at the Socialist Review. More reviews and information about the book will be posted at my personal site on the book page as it becomes available.

And if you’re not interested, for whatever reason (maybe your mother was cruel to you as a child?), that’s cool, too — I offer you as a member of the Savage Minds community my thanks.

But really, buy the book. Buy the book or I shall plug at you a second time! Tphptptptptp!

Anthropology and Global Counter-Insurgency Conference in Chicago, April 25-27

I’ve been invited to speak at a conference hosted by the University of Chicago later this month on the topic of “Anthropology and Global Counter-Insurgency”. Other speakers will include David Price and Hugh Gusterson, who are doing yeoman’s work on the issue. Despite the fact that my introduction to Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War discusses issues related to counter-insurgency at some length, it is because of my work here at Savage Minds that I’ve been invited to speak. Take that, traditional publishing models!

Here’s the skinny on the conference, from the organizers: Continue reading

Colonial Ethnography

Orientalist critique can sometimes seem like an intellectual game of “gotcha,” but for India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs), orientalist colonial policies, and the regimes of knowledge upon which they were built, are a very real burden which informs nearly every aspect of their daily life. The stigma of criminality that prevents, for example, someone with a masters degree in English literature from finding a job as a schoolteacher, or makes it imperative for a professional photographer to carry his camera receipts with him so he can prove he bought his own camera, or makes DNTs afraid to talk in their own language when traveling by train, are a direct result of colonial practices.

When doing research last summer in the British colonial archives I read numerous colonial ethnographies of the so-called “Criminal Tribes” (as DNTs were then known). Many were written by policemen, and the information in them was written for the express purpose of identifying such criminals. Gunthorpe’s 1882. Notes on Criminal Tribes Residing in, or Frequenting the Bombay Presidency, Berar and the Central Provinces, Lemarchand’s 1915, A Guide to Criminal Tribes, and, also from 1915, Naidu’s The History of Railway Thieves : With Illustrations & Hints on Detection are all in many ways the same book with slight variations. They freely stole from each other and the style was essentially the same. Numerous other such guides were circulated among the various colonial agencies.

They are like bird watching guides, identifying common habits and markings which will help you spot a criminal among the crowds. From Lemarchand:

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Reading Ward Churchill After Eichmann

In the wake of Ward Churchill’s firing from Colorado University and his subsequent decision to sue for reinstatement, I’ve been thinking a lot about how (and, I admit, whether) to read Churchill’s work in the wake of revelations (or allegations, depending on your point of view) of academic dishonesty including plagiarism, fraudulent claims of Indian identity, and shoddy use of (or misuse of) historical sources. Some of the claims lodged against Churchill push to the edge of absurdity, including the use of articles ghostwritten by himself to support claims made in other articles.

For those who have been sleeping off a bender these past few years, here’s the story. Continue reading

The Naming Project

Last year, in a post I wrote after visiting the British colonial archives, I commented on the fact that millions of photos from the colonial era are still sitting in boxes, yet to be cataloged. And those photos which have been archived often have nondescript titles, such as “Indian boy in native dress.” I suggested that archivists could use the power of the web, just as Madonna is doing with her photos. So I was happy today to learn about Project Naming.

Project Naming started in 2001 when Inuit youth took 500 digitized photos taken by Richard Harrington during the 1940s and 50s and asked their elders to help identify the people and places in the pictures. This program was slowly expanded to include more and more photos, but in 2005 they started a new phase of the project in which “more than 1,700 photographs” from Canadian archives “were digitized and sent to Nunavut Sivuniksavut for identification.”

Although much of the project has been about bringing Nunavut youth together with their elders in a very personal way, the project has a page entitled “The Naming Continues” where web visitors can help identify those photos which have not yet been cataloged.

I think it would be great if more archives had sites like this. One possibility I see is that anthropologists could help out by doing what these Nunavut youth are doing. Before going off to the field you could download relevant uncataloged photos and then ask your informants about them. Talking about photos is a great way to start an interview, and who knows, maybe someone will recognize some faces! And it needn’t just be uncataloged photos. That photo listed as “Indian boy in native dress,” surely someone can identify the specific type of clothing and the region of India where it is worn … even if we never find out his name.

Social Life of Swimming Pools

Anyone whose flown over the US has seen the sight: rows of houses each with their own little swimming pool in the back. I was particularly struck by this after I returned from a trip to Iceland which has an amazing system of public pools and hot springs. I’ve heard Germany’s system is also very good. At the time I chalked it up to American individualism and suspicion of anything “communal,” (hence potentially communist), but what I didn’t know at the time was the role played by racism. I discovered this connection via an NPR story about the book Contested Waters, a social history of community swimming pools in several northern cities in the US.

At its heart, this book answers that question. It explains how and why municipal swimming pools in the northern United States were transformed from austere public baths—where blacks, immigrants, and native-born white laborers swam together, but men and women, rich and poor, and young and old did not—to leisure resorts, where practically everyone in the community except black Americans swam together.

But the story does not end there. A second social transformation occurred at municipal swimming pools after midcentury. Black Americans challenged segregation by repeatedly seeking admission to whites-only pools and by filing lawsuits against their cities. Eventually, these social and legal protests desegregated municipal pools throughout the North, but desegregation rarely led to meaningful interracial swimming. When black Americans gained equal access to municipal pools, white swimmers generally abandoned them for private pools.

Slightly related: even though Taiwan is an island with numerous rivers and streams and even public swimming pools, many people can’t swim. Each year many drown as a result. I know many girls don’t like to swim because they don’t like to spend too much time in the sun, which could “ruin” the pale white complexions they work so hard to maintain, and if the girls aren’t swimming I suppose the boys are much less interested as well… (Many of my female students also equate getting muscles from exercise with getting “fat.”) So I was glad to hear that my university instituted a policy requiring all students to pass a swimming test in order to graduate.

Apocalypto Roundup

I haven’t seen Apocalypto yet, but there has been a lot of buzz on the blogosphere, so I thought I’d present some of the highlights.

Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log says:

Originally the buzz surrounding the film was mostly about Gibson’s choice to shoot the entire film in Mexico with local actors speaking Yucatec Maya. Now, of course, observers are more interested in speculating if the film will be dead-on-arrival at the box office thanks to Mel’s notorious anti-Semitic rant and DUI arrest last July. But linguistic issues are still getting some attention in the Apocalypto coverage, for instance in this Associated Press article describing the mixture of excitement and ambivalence among the Yucatec Maya community about a major Hollywood movie filmed in their indigenous language.

He then goes on to discuss the “foreboding Greek title,” after which he links to this post by John Lawler:
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Images of Empire

When I came back from my research trip to England this summer I wrote a post complaining about how few of these archives were online. At the time I knew one of the collections was working hard to put things up on the web, but I was waiting for the official announcement – which I finally got today.

Images of Empire today launches its new website at www.imagesofempire.com, providing online access for the first time to the unique archive of historical images held at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, UK.

Visitors to the website can now explore over 6,000 still images and film clips from the collection, which is currently the UK’s largest dedicated resource of photography and film on the British colonial period. Images from the archive can be navigated and viewed using an advanced search facility and photographs from the collection are available to order online. Registration is free, enabling users to build lightboxes, order high-resolution files and access supplementary information. Further images from the Museum’s collection will be made available online at regular intervals as more of the archive is digitised.

By presenting this collection online, Images of Empire creates a valuable commercial resource for both professional picture buyers and academic researchers, and supports the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in its mission to provide a national forum for preserving, exploring and studying Britain’s cultural heritage associated with the former Empire and today’s Commonwealth.

From my experience there, I’d say the collection is somewhat idiosyncratic. A lot of film footage of colonial officers and their pets, but lots of wonderful treasures as well. The point being that it is one of those collections that will probably work best for you if you are just curious and browsing around rather than if you are trying to find something specific.

The End of Chutnification

One article I like to use when teaching about colonialism is Ann Stoler’s “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” from di Leonardo’s Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge. There is a book length version of the argument as well, but the article does the job. (It works very nicely together with Claire Denis’ film Chocolat)

Central to Stoler’s argument is the claim that colonial policy towards marriages between colonial officers and native wives changed when the mixed-race children began to blur the color line that legitimated European rule. She looks at how in Indonesia, India, and elsewhere, the colonial governments began a policy of encouraging officers to bring wives from home, and how the presence of these wives then created new tensions as a result of the perceived need to protect these women from sexual assault. (The number of people executed for attempted rape does not match any changes in the number of such assaults actually reported.)

It was with this discussion in mind that the following account of changes in Indian colonial rule from William Dalrymple caught my eye:

During the 18th century it was almost as common for westerners to take on the customs, and even the religions, of India, as the reverse. These white Mughals had responded to their travels in India by shedding their Britishness like an unwanted skin, adopting Indian dress, studying Indian philo sophy, taking harems and copying the ways of the Mughal governing class they came to replace – what Salman Rushdie, talking of modern multiculturalism, has called “chutnification”. By the end of the 18th century one-third of the British men in India were leaving their possessions to Indian wives.

In Delhi, the period was symbolised by Sir David Ochterlony, the British Resident, who arrived in the city in 1803: every evening, all 13 of his Indian wives went around Delhi in a procession behind their husband, each on the back of her own elephant. For all the humour of this image, in such mixed households, Islamic customs and sensitivities were clearly understood and respected. One letter, for example, recorded that “Lady Ochterlony has applied for leave to make the Hadge to Mecca”. Indeed, Ochterlony strongly considered bringing up his children as Muslims, and when his children by his chief wife, Mubarak Begum, had grown up, he adopted a child from one of the leading Delhi Muslim families.

Dalrymple’s account of the reasons for this change are not at odds with those of Stoler, but the emphasis is different. On the one hand he attributes it to the “rise of British power” which “quickly led to undisguised imperial arrogance,” but he also attributes it to the “ascendancy of evangelical Christianity, and the profound change in social, sexual and racial attitudes that this brought about”:

The wills written by dying East India Company servants show that the practice of cohabiting with Indian bibis quickly declined: they turn up in one in three wills between 1780 and 1785, but are present in only one in four between 1805 and 1810. By the middle of the century, they have all but disappeared. In half a century, a vibrantly multicultural world refracted back into its component parts; children of mixed race were corralled into what became in effect a new Indian caste – the Anglo-Indians – who were left to run the railways, posts and mines.

The focus of Dalrymple’s article is actually on the 1857 mutiny and the parallels to the current situation in Iraq. It is a taste of his new book The Last Mughal.

(via Arts and Letters Daily)

Academic Charisma

When George Marcus was in Taiwan he briefly mentioned William Clark’s new book Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University over dinner. I promptly added it to the ever growing list of books I intend to read when I have time. Fortunately, Anthony Grafton has distilled the book for us in a recent issue of The New Yorker, and the result is available online.

I won’t attempt to distill Grafton’s distillation any further, but here is a snippet which, I think, captures some of the spirit of the piece:

Universities are strange and discordant places because they are palimpsests of the ancient and the modern. Their history follows a Weberian narrative of rationalization, but it also reveals the limits of that rationalization. … Modern universities sincerely try to find the best scholars and scientists, those who work on the cutting edge of their fields, but they are also keen to preserve the traditional aspects of their culture and like their professors to wear their gowns with an air. They hope that some undefined combination of these qualities will attract the best crop of seventeen-year-olds available.

Perhaps universities should seek to incorporate Rate My Professor ratings in their tenure review process – with extra points for a chili pepper?