Tag Archives: Western Europe

The Royal Wedding

How can anthropologists not be interested in the upcoming royal wedding? Centuries of globalization has wiped elaborate large-scale ritual off the face of the planet everywhere except the toffee-nosed bits of the UK. In my opinion, any one who loves a good public orchestration of symbols ought to be interested in this one. In fact, the media coverage itself ought be a little interesting — especially when one considers the way the event may or may not be scripted for the people in the church versus the people outside of it.

Plus, there might be a big fat cathedral anthem in it for us as well. For those of us not laboring under a millennia of an oppressive class system, what’s not to like?

Discipline and Wattle: Suffering Ch. 1

The first chapter of the book should draw a familiar contrast with the introduction– little of the analytical language or conceptual erection (can I say that?) of the Intro is explicitly present in the first chapter of Part 1: “Governing Space”. I’m tempted to discipline Dr. Moore for his bad puns and subtitles, but that would involve pots and kettles and accusations, and I should refrain. This chapter by contrast is a great introductions to what is, as promised a complex tangle of people, places, histories, governments, sovereignties and disciplining. The frustration of trying to capture the social complexity of this place and time in an ethnography has already emerged in discussion… let me just reiterate some things. “Complexity is not its own virtue,” as Strong put it, gnarly or knot. And there is a double challenge here: first, to render the details, affect, experience and sense of a place using the relatively narrow tools of the ethnographic trade, i.e. the tools of the writer; second, to make the conceptual armature that is familiar to a broad range of scholars order and clarify the details that are otherwise available only to a narrow band of Zimbabwe specialists. Two kinds of complexity: the complexity of the novelist’s craft with rendering complex social life sensible and the complexity of the philosopher/social theorists craft of rendering conceptual schemes and empirical facts intelligible. In this respect, I think there is still a great deal to be said about “experimental” ethnography and the craft of writing one after the critiques of the 1980s–but only if this question is not divorced from the related goal of making conceptual schemes(Kerim implanted this term in my head– are you reading too much Davidson or something?) articulate with empirical description.

Chapter 1 almost achieves both, but I wouldn’t call it a complete success. It has a clever general structure and a lot of great detail (perhaps too much, indulging in places in obviously interesting but marginally relevant details of things like witchcraft or the rhetorical stylings of incompetent lesser headmen). There are two ways into the chapter, at least. One is through the author’s own “ethnographic emplacement” — the fact that as an anthropologist he had to find a (good) place to live, secure permission to live there, build his own hut and then, at the end of it all, found himself threatened with expulsion from that hut by the District Administrator — which in turn is the second way in, through the event of the District Administrator’s letter threatening residents with expulsion from Nyamatsupa if they do not conform to the plans for “villagization.” These two entry points–the author’s own experience with wattle, and the event of the DA’s disciplining letter–are explored in great detail, and are used to great effect as occasions to start laying out the complexity ethnographically. They do not explain, but they do start to map out settings, characters, events in history, and other crucial components of the story. Yet to emerge is a sense of how inquiry into this story has proceeded (what problems animate Moore’s search, other than his threatened hut) and a conceptual clarity (of the sort we hope will be provided via articulated assemblages and sovereignty-discipline-government).
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The Sport of Kings

I recently finished “Rebecca Cassidy’s”:http://www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/departments/anthropology/staff/r-cassidy.php book “The Sport of Kings”:http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN052100487X&id=A-QYXw9Wl9YC&pg=PA1&lpg=PA1&dq=%22sport+of+kings%22&sig=HqaMihlGyD04O7ioDGQkBHnQDUQ and I must say I thought it was really a wonderful little piece of work. The subject is thoroughbred horse racing in Newmarket which is, apparently, the center of British horse racing. The book reads a bit dryly at first, and it really is an ethnography — no fancy pants theory here. These two things, combined with the fact that clueless yanks such as myself have no idea that there is a racing industry or that Newmarket is its center, means that the book may not appeal to lot of Savage Mind’s readers.

But the more one reads the more Cassidy draws you in to the world of Newmarket and the interlocking systems of class and breeding that unite its two main species. Cassidy’s tone might strike American readers as a bit empyrean (or perhaps just stiff) at first, but this soon turns into an understated and dry charm as Cassidy describes the vagaries of life amongst punters and jockies. Indeed, Cassidy successfully writes an ethnography that is in some ways an ‘expose’ of the racing industry and that is much more even-handed that it could have been, and her authorial distance is one of the means by which she pulls this off.

That said, there is no sense that there was anything empyrean about how Cassidy did fieldwork. Her ability to connect with her informants despite the anti-intellectualism of the racing scene peeks out from behind her main narrative. Her occasional droll asides about her nicknames (“I became a regular at two betting shops in Newmarket, where I enjoyed the nickname of ‘Flaps’ based (so I was told) on my arm movements during a race.”) their fascinated horror at her vegetarianism and proclivity to read books (” , and above all their belief that she must understand horses because of ‘her Irish blood’ all helps us locate her in the ethnography. And her description of first riding a thoroughbred is a unique passage in the ethnographies I’ve read — half phenomenology, half novelistic reportage, it captures perfectly an experience which most readers will never have, and which is nevertheless at the dead center of the entire social system she describes.

Cassidy’s fieldwork as a ‘lad’ mucking out stables as well as a visitor to the more rarefied realms of elite racing circles have allowed her to write an extremely detailed ethnography that immerses one in the jargon of horse racing and the multitude of details that surround it. This is combined with a sharp eye for fashion and class — we learn why goretex jackets and comfortable jeans are a must for owners, and why seafood and champagne are de rigeur for them when they go to the race track.

The final chapter, “Blood Will Tell” covers local theories of breeding and blood in horses and was, for me, the most interesting part of the book. It provides an interesting counterpoint to American theories of race and biological determination here in the US. It is sort of Emily Martin meets The Horse Whisperer. If you can read backwards to authors such as Strathern and Carsten then it’s really a very nice bit of work.

So, if you are an Anglophile, the kind of person who will pick up a readable ethnography for pleasure every once in a while, or if you are looking for an ethnography to give middle to upper level students on class, breeding, gambling, or the ethnography of Europe, I’d recommend you give Sport of Kings a look.

Modernism: Good or Bad?

I love looking at, talking about, walking through and around new buildings. Usually I like new ones more than old ones. At the risk of revealing possibly bad taste: Paris is full of pretty buildings; oddly, my favorite is La Grande Arche de la Defense. The building is usually regarded as a failure (e.g., here mentioned along with a bunch of supposed architectural mistakes). Yet, I’ve always thought the way that it completes Paris’s monumental central axis is sublime.

Modernist buildings — especially in combination with modernist urban planning — have not infrequently received sustained criticism over the years as abjectly inhumane. In particular, modernist projects of urban renewal were reviled for the way that they tore up the textured fabric of cities in favor of highly rationalized, functionalist “machines for living.” San Francisco’s Western Addition was subject to post-war urban development in the 1950s and 1960s. Many there still lament the loss of blocks and blocks of the neighborhood’s precious Victorians, especially in a city that only 50 years before had suffered the cataclysmic destruction of the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The memory of that loss, and of the mistakes of redevelopment, still governs San Franciscan attitudes toward modern architecture. Unfortunately, that means that San Francisco now seems to consider its Victorians sacred. No urban project is ever announced in SF without facing the opposition and wrath of neighborhood activists. So rather than a modern city at the hub of one of the world’s most important centers of technological innovation (the Bay Area, yo), it can sometimes seem like a theme park complete with unique and thrilling rides. SF’s modern gay and lesbian center was forced to accomodate the demands of preservationists, and instead of an important piece of architecture on its main axis, it has this:

Modernist city planning, the anthropologist James Holston writes in The Modernist City, was based on a utopian ideal and a revolutionary program. In the mid-twentieth-century, more than one developing nation embraced the progressive ideals embodied in modernist planning as a means to hasten social and economic ‘advance.’ But, as Holston points out, the results were not infrequently mixed to negative. The city was radically defamiliarized and ‘de-natured’ in the new designs: not an organism but a machine. A new book connects up the development of modernist architecture to training in new engineering and manufacturing techniques. Transparency of materials (think glass) and monumental public spaces were thought to materialize a critique of private property. The ostensible equality of city residents was one goal.

Holston focuses his ‘anthropological critique’ on Brasilia, the now-legendary Ur-modernist capital of Brazil, and here he finds that the revolutionary program of the city’s planners failed, in part because the city’s inhabitants actively resisted it in their everyday lives and forms of dwelling. And we have become accustomed to such critiques. Imagine the surprise, then, of Tapiola, a suburban development on the outskirts of Helsinki.

You can learn about Tapiola in minute historical, cultural, and architectural detail at Tapiola 50, a website celebrating the development’s 50th anniversary. Tapiola was, to my knowledge, constructed under exactly the same design principals that other mid-20th-century urban developments were. I have lived in Tapiola for less than a month. And far from a modernist dystopia, the place seems like Le Corbusier’s Valhalla. Families roam clean and crisp public squares pushing distinctively Finnish super-strollers (most are equipped with huge wheels, the better for pushing through snow I’m told): SUVs for babies. Clusters of intelligently designed apartment buildings are seperated by birch glens and walking paths. Public buses, bikes, pedestrians, and cars co-exist. The overall impression is youthful, fair-skinned, orderly, and pleasant.

I can assure you that this is exactly what the place looks like in real life (minus the pixelation). It raises a question: is the modernist aesthetic in fact appropriate to particular sorts of ethos? A Finn might respond (and some have, when I asked a few) that Finns are not in fact predisposed to the Mediterranean life of the street that might be more characteristic of a Brazilian/Portuguese mode of dwelling. Perhaps, then, the modernist aesthetic ‘works’ in some places more than others. Perhaps the emphasis on ‘organic’ cities versus ‘denatured machines’ needs to take account of places like Tapiola, where modernist design appears to exist in felicitous harmony with a style of living. Or perhaps I haven’t lived here long enough to know where the fissures and dissatisfactions lay.

Junking the Nature/Culture Divide

That our possessions encode and elicit our identities as persons seems both a commonplace and a fancy observation. For example: notions of ‘taste’ and ‘style,’ in the U.S., Japan, or wherever, reflexively link up practices of adornment and comportment with expressions of self. I love reading fashion blogs for the way they analyze self-presentation through clothing, often with refined understandings of cultural history. Slate compiles several excellent ‘street style’ blogs, many of which are urban micro-ethnographies of what people are up to in places like London or Helsinki. This on-going satire and serious critique of celebrity fashion contains some of the sharpest writing and analysis I have read, whilst also being super funny. Where contemporary usages of ‘style’ seem to me to emphasize creativity and individual expression, ‘taste’ points to perduring differences of a structural sort, most obviously those of class. Could you call these categories a metapragmatics of dress?

Clothing is easy. Here’s another easy one: pharmaceuticals. It’s not that hard to find examples of cultural projects that re-create materially what we human beings are. Pharmaceutical projects and products redefine the horizons of possible human being. Docility in body, docility in mind: fascinating new work is uncovering means through which mood is medicalized and controlled in consequential ways. And the corporate appetite for research subjects demands careful tracking and attention even as we read today that in the U.S. a federal panel is recommending a relaxation of regulations concerning the use of prisoners in pharmaceutical testing.

Accounts of the intermediation of the material and the symbolic or the corporeal and the social can include the lighthearted (tracking the category of ‘formal shorts’ over time) or something a bit more serious (noting disparities in access to life-changing drugs whilst criticizing a medical model that would reduce people to their molecular components). Current critical attention to ‘biopolitics,’ to the social processes and effects of science, to emergent digital worlds, and the like is exploding. We’ve grown accustomed to the claim that ‘nature’ has been superceded as either a symbolic construct grounding human affairs or the ‘world’ in itself ‘before’ our activity on it. Again, these notions can be given robust philosophical genealogies, or they can be illustrated with the rather obvious. Global warming grabs the headlines, but it’s worth remembering that the entire biosphere was also transformed by the atomic testing programs of states like the U.S. over the course of the twentieth century.

After all, we all inhabit worlds that contain and evince the traces of human activity in the past. And I don’t just mean the accumulated junk in my apartment. A visitor to highland New Guinea might be chagrined to learn that the grasslands of its valleys are largely anthropogenic. But once you realize that those valleys also contain traces of the radioactive activity of states on the other side of the planet, scaled observation (my apartment, a valley in New Guinea, the whole atmosphere) is rendered almost irrelevant because nature/culture encompasses all of them. Even Peter Day’s Global Business program today reflects on how people are nothing if not creatures who remake themselves via ‘the tool’ — whether the tool is a grass fire to clear land for gardening or a personal fabrication device.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game

After all the player-hating that happened the “last time”:/2006/06/27/cognitive-science-meet-the-angel-of-history/ I focused on popular reporting on anthropology’s adjacent disciplines, I’m hesitant to mention the article that’s been brought up on “Livejournal”:http://community.livejournal.com/anthropologist/949283.html and “antropologi.info”:http://www.antropologi.info/blog/anthropology/anthropology.php?p=1971&more=1&c=1&tb=1&pb=1 about “an article on Anglo-Saxon apartheid in early Englands”:http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/media/proceedings_b/papers/RSPB20063627.pdf and the racial genetics that underlie it.

There are things that I find curious about the article — the assumption that ‘marriage’ and ‘reproduction’ are the same thing and that ethnic identity is always corelated with a genetic marker for instance — but there doesn’t seem to be very much to be ‘racial’ to me. The fact that the word doesn’t appear in the article being the main reason. But even if you are suspicious of euphemisms such as ” ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Ethnic Group” there are more sophisticated critiques of this method than ask if it’s racist. The fact that the topic is a large migration of conquerors into a new land helps this article out of a lot of potential problems because it is in fact talking about a situation with a large migration of conquering people and the clear ethnic differences them and the locals on the receiving end. If the paper was about how the biogenetic substance of Anglo-Saxon conquerors somehow helped them in their conquest, or that they remain a separate ‘race’ today (rather than having pretty quickly blended in with everyone else, as the paper argues) then that would be something else again.

If you’re interested in learning more you can check out the webpage of “The Center for Genetic Anthropology”:http://www.ucl.ac.uk/tcga/index.html at University College London, which is also “Ruth Mace land”:http://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/bioanth/staff_member_mace.htm or, if you prefer “Fiona”:http://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/bioanth/res-students_jordan.htm “Jordan”:http://evolutionaryanthropology.wordpress.com/ land. The center also has some “popular”:http://www.ucl.ac.uk/tcga/ScienceSpectra-pages/SciSpect-14-98.html “summaries”:http://www.ucl.ac.uk/tcga/ns/nsbg.html of what it is up to, although I have a soft spot in my heart for Seth Sanders’s take on one study on “race and religion in Africa”:http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/transition/v010/10.1sanders.html one member of the center co-authored.

Border Nationalism in Germany: An Ethnographic Film

Here is a twenty four minute ethnographic film that is enjoyable for the way it reveals the messy process of doing ethnography. Discovered on Anthropologi.info, the filmmaker, Johannes Wilm, has his own blog, where he explains why and how he made the film as well as some of the background and terminology necessary to make sense of his interviews.

By coincidence I am visiting my parents right now, when the Danish minority has its annual meeting (in Danish: “Årsmøde”). It lasted for three days, and I was back in Oslo the last day, so I decided to take my sister and shoot a little video of one of the celebrations in a tiny little village called “Ascheffel” (just far enough away for me not to run into old teachers from kindergarten, etc.).

I’m glad to see anthropologists video blogging like this. While such raw reports from the field are bound to be less polished than what we are used to seeing on television, I enjoyed watching it and I think our readers will too.

The First Formosan in Europe

Sometimes I stumble upon a link that forces me to drop all of my work and shift my focus entirely. Such was the case when after lunch I learned of George Psalmanazar, “the first Formosan to visit Europe.”

In 1704, Psalmanazar published a book An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan which revealed a number of strange habits. Formosa was a prosperous country of wealth with capital city called Xternetsa. Men walked naked except for a gold or silver plate to cover their privates. Their main food was a serpent that they hunt with branches. Formosans were polygamous and the husband had a right to eat their wives for infidelity. They executed murderers by hanging them upside down and shooting them full of arrows. Annually they sacrificed the hearts of 18,000 young boys to gods and priest ate the bodies. They also used horses and camels for mass transportation. The book also described the Formosan alphabet.

Of course, it was all a hoax. In fact, I came across it via this Ishbaddidle post linking to the 10 Greatest Impostors in History.
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Beleaguered French Anthropologists?

A little to busy to find and read this myself right now, but I wanted to point out an article from Anthropology Today which touches on a favorite subject here at Savage Minds, namely the (lack of) engagement of anthropologists with the rest of the world. The article he is commenting on is by Didier Fassin and it discusses how last year’s riots in France caught French anthropology off-guard. Even though I haven’t had a chance to read this article, Anthro-blogger extraordinaire, Lorenz has read and digested it for the rest of us:

Anthropologists had little to say on these subjects for two reasons in Fassins view:

(1) Very few anthropologists were working on the banlieues, on immigration or inequality: This relates to the history of the discipline in France and its predominant epistemological position. Anthropology in France is above all the study of the present of remote societies. Even when French anthropologists became interested in their own society, they tended to analyse its traditional aspects:

(2) Many anthropologists found their beliefs and the ideals of the French society uncomfortably challenged: Isn’t France a secular and colorblind society?

There is an equally interesting commentary on this article by Keith Hart, which I have read as it is freely available on the web. Hart attempts a sociological analysis of the failures of French anthropology:
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Buffer Races and Castelike Minorities

Fareed Zakaria’s recent Washington Post editorial on immigration has rightly been praised for its clarity.

Compared with every other country in the world, America does immigration superbly. Do we really want to junk that for the French approach?

The only criticism I’ve seen of Zakaria is that he conflates German guest workers with second or third generation France citizens of foreign descent. (See Moorish Girl for more on “immigrants” vs. “citizens.”) But I think there is a deeper problem here. The reason immigrants tend to do well in America is not because America is a more welcoming society, but because we already have a permanent racial underclass in our African American population! (And, to some extent, Latinos and Native Americans as well.)

America’s recent immigrants serve a useful purpose, deflecting attention away from one of the core conflicts in our society. American immigration policy in recent years has favored middle class Asian immigrants. Their arrival conflates the black/white dichotomy that led to so much social unrest in the 1960s. This can be seen in the area of Affirmative Action policies where it has been widely remarked that those who would benefit most from their termination would not be White Americans, but the children of Asian immigrants!

Popular in Marxist academic circles, the concept of Asian immigrants to the US acting as a “buffer race” has never made it to the mainstream. I would argue that part of the reason for this lies in the intrenched logic of American “multiculturalism.” According to the dominant narrative, America is a “salad” (no longer a “melting pot”) in which each culture adds its own unique flavor to the mix. This narrative hides the very different histories of America’s various ethnic minorities.

In their celebrated essay, “Black students and the burden of ‘acting White.'” (1986, Urban Review 18(3), 176-203) Ogbu and Fordham suggest a tripartite classification for thinking about America’s ethnic minorities:

In order to account for this variability, we have suggtsted that minority groups should be classified into three types: autonomous minorities, who are minorities primarily in a numerical sense; immigrant minorities, who came to America more or less voluntarily with the expectation of improving their economic, political, and social status; and subordinate or castelike minorities, who were involuntarily and permanently incorporated into American society through slavery or conquest. Black Americans are an example par excellence of castelike minorities because they were brought to America as slaves and after’ emancipation were relegated to menial status’ through legal and extralegal devices… American Indians, Mexican Americans, and Native Hawaiians share, to some extent, features of castelike minorities.

What it means to be a “castlike minority” can be understood by looking at our prison population (more here):

Since 1989 and for the first time in national history, African Americans make up a majority of those entering prison each year. Indeed, in four short decades, the ethnic composition of the U.S. inmate population has reversed, turning over from 70 percent white at mid-century to nearly 70 percent black and Latino today, although ethnic patterns of criminal activity have not fundamentally changed during that period.

While South Asian immigrants may never become white in the same way that Jewish and Irish immigrants did (Fareed Zakaria has commented that TV ratings drop whenever he appears on a talk show), I would argue that the reason immigration has “worked so well” in America is that immigrants usefully distract us from the real racial issues in this country, while for many European countries, immigrants are the racial underclass.

French Anthro Musings

A friend of a friend is doing a project anthropology and blogging in France and asked me to pass on a request — is there a French anthropology group blog that is functionally equivalent to Savage Minds? Or in general are there any French anthropology blogs that people can particularly reccomend? I know there are some EHESSians amongst our readers…

The Invention of the World: Islam in the West

While it is indeed possible (and at least fun to think) that trained otters in the service of Chinese explorers were the first to discover the Americas from the East, an article on Al-Jazeera’s website details the influence of Muslim scientists on the discovery of the New World from the West — and asserts the possibility that Andalusia Muslims may have gotten here well before Columbus. Whether the latter claim is true or not, certainly the importance of Muslim scholarship to Columbus’ voyage cannot be overestimated; Muslim navigation was the state-of-the-art in the 15th century and for centuries before, providing most of the navigation tools, such as the astrolabe, that Columbus and his crew relied on. By the 9th century, Muslims had proven that the Earth was a sphere, and had worked out its circumference to within 200 km (Columbus apparently knew about this work, but substituted lower figures to help make his case that the voyage he had proposed was at all feasible).

The impact of Muslim science and culture, and especially of the Al-Andalusian culture that dominated the Iberian peninsula between the 8th and 12th centuries, on the development of Western culture is little known and even less talked about. The treatment of Muslim Spain in Western Civ books tends to consist solely of the Song of Roland and, centuries later, the defeat of Granada and subsequent expulsion of Muslims (and Jews) from Spain. In between, a mighty civilization emerged, flourished, and ultimately declined — one that I am beginning to think contributed more to “Western culture” than the Romans ever did. Besides creating a stewpot of cultural and scholastic achievement in its own right, Muslim Spain served as a conduit for the teachings of the Muslim world at a time when Muslim learning was at its peak. For instance, the Catholic Church was utterly transformed by the study of Aristotle in Arabic translation; likewise, the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping by Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli relied on the introduction of negative numbers by Muslims (who themselves had learned from Hindu mathematicians centuries earlier) and the al-jabr (“algebra”) of Al-Khwarizmi (from whose name we also get the word “algorithm”). The work of Ibn Rashid (Averroës) — who also gave us Aristotle — and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) form the foundation of Western medical knowledge; the poetry and dialogues of and about Muslim philosophers and warriors (and non-Muslims deeply embedded in Andalusian culture, such as El Cid, from the Arabic el Sayyid, “leader” or “chief”) laid the groundwork for the birth of the novel (in Spain, of course!); and the pointed arch essential to Gothic monumental architecture was adopted from Muslim architects.
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Will anthropology disappear in France?

(This email from “Laurence Dousset”:http://www.pacific-credo.net/staff_pages/index.php?id=1 has been making the rounds. The idea of there being no anthropology at CNRS is shocking to me. The petition is “here”:/wp-content/image-upload/saveanthropologyatCNRSpetition.rtf (in both French and English — my English translation is abysmal but there you go) and you can mail it anthropologie@mmsh.univ-aix.fr )

Dear All,
I thought you might be interested to know that Anthropology currently has a hard lif in France. Indeed, since end of last year, the CNRS [National Center For Scientific Research], our major research institution employing nation-wide about 150 anthropologists (about 50% of all institutionally employed anthropologists in France) is considering eliminating the discipline from its research topics. The strategy is to incorporate anthropologists within the history section in a first step, where they will become a minority, and where, in a second step, they will progressively disappear from the scene.

Pushed by stereotypical views of anthropology as being only “contemporary history”, neglecting our theoretical apparatus and what makes us particularly different – long term fieldwork – anthropology is seen as having no proper object of research anymore (everything is globalised, they tend to say, forgetting local persisting or emergent identities), and as being too much divided among its own “troops”.

As you can imagine, there is strong resistance to this movement in France, and many institutions, such as the EHESS where I am employed, have not yet taken up these points of view (and will hopefully not in the near future). But in the long run, if the CNRS simply deletes an entire discipline from its scope, other institutions will follow.

We are asking social scientists to participate as widely as possible in our protest movement. I have therefore enclosed a petition that circulates in France and now internationally. We would greatly appreciate if you would consider filling the petition and sending it back as quickly as possible.

Literary Kinship Studies

While there was once a time that anthropological theory influenced literary studies, lately it seems as if the trend has been the other way around; so, can we assume that when literary scholars turn their attention to kinship studies it will spark renewed interest in the subject among anthropologists? The book I’m referring to is: Novel Relations : The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748-1818. It was recently reviewed in a New York Review of Books article on Jane Austen, by Diane Johnson.

Perry’s book shows that Austen lived at a time when women’s status was shifting. While it had previously been defined by blood relations, making a woman’s relationship with her parents and siblings more important than who she married, by the end of the eighteenth century women’s status was increasingly defined entirely by the family she married into. This has important implications for literary studies, since sibling relationships are often overlooked in readings of Austen’s novels:

In Perry’s view, previous definitions of the family have been based on incorrect inferences from statistical norms and prescriptive conduct manuals. Statistics taken from public records of marriages and births ignore “many of the other filaments in the web of kinship that located people psychologically in the period,” because there are no published records of such filaments—a maiden aunt, like Austen living with the family, for example, would not appear in any record. And where modern readers assume that a novel will contain a love story, the main story the author had in mind might in fact be about a bad or good brother, a long-lost relative, fathers separated from daughters, a devoted aunt, or some other aspect of the birth family (with mothers often missing or unimportant, as in Austen). Such elements were more important than love stories in the novels Austen read, like Tristram Shandy or The Castle of Otronto.

… This loss of female authority was accompanied or explained by other social factors that were not in women’s interest: the growing “dispersion of communities, and the growing power of individualism,” and changes in property laws and marriage settlements that left sisters and daughters less well provided for than they had been, and with little legal leverage. Inheritance issues drive most of Jane Austen’s plots and subplots; and because she was on the cusp of changes that would increasingly commodify women and virginity for the marriage market, trends masked by conventions of romantic love, she came to seem to some later readers as somewhat hardhearted in the practicality of her views, for instance (in Perry’s example) her implicit mockery in Sense and Sensibility of Marianne Dashwood’s “ardent belief in a first and only love,” a belief that would have made no sense in an earlier period, when a third of all marriages were second marriages, after the death of a spouse, but was fashionably new in Marianne’s day.

Perry’s elucidation of the plots of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century novels in the light of these broad social changes goes a long way toward explaining why many of them do not move us today; the reunion of long-lost fathers and daughters, for instance, or the intense relation of brother and sister no longer seem especially affecting. The long-lost relative plot simply had more emotional force when the “consanguinal” family rather than the “affinal” family was the principle focus of emotional life (though, thinking of The Mill on the Floss or Silas Marner we can see that such consanguinal plots appear at least as late as George Eliot). It may be that the marriage plot itself has seen its day, and in these times of redefined families, plots will change—there is already a spate of family novels and novels about friendship that do not resolve in marriage.

This makes me think about the differences between Hollywood and Bollywood films. In the latter (although it is changing now) familial relations between siblings and between children and their parents are far more important than romantic relations between unmarried men and women. In fact, the main emotional relationship in many Hindi movies is between the male lead and his mother, not between him and the woman he is to marry at the end of the film. I wonder if this (even more than colonial history) explains the love so many Indian’s have of classic English literature?

Culture Talk

According to Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani, author of the book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Americans are trapped in “Culture Talk,” a way of framing the problem of terrorism which assumes that culture was made

only at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic act. After that, it seems Muslims just conformed to culture. According to some, our culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates, so that all Muslims are just plain bad. According to others, there is a history, a politics, even debates, and there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. In both versions, history seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom of an antique people who inhabit antique lands. Or could it be that culture here stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity with rules that are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and mummified in early artifacts?

There are two versions of Culture Talk: the crude view that Islam as the enemy civilization, and a more subtle view of Islam as divided within itself (although this division is seen as unchanging over the course of Muslim history since the middle ages). Mamdani ascribes the first view to Samuel Huntington, whose 1993 article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” is widely cited by proponents of this view. However, Mamdani argues that Huntington’s article was little more than a caricature of Bernard Lewis’s 1990 “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” This earlier article forms the basis of the more nuanced version of Culture Talk.

Lewis both gestures towards history and acknowledges a clash within civilizations. … But Lewis writes of Islamic civilization as if it were a veneer with its essence an unchanging doctrine in which Muslims are said to take refuge in times of crisis.

Lewis ignores the important political and historical contexts of fourteen hundred years of history when he writes:

The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.

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