Category Archives: anthropology

of Morphic Resonance

It’s been months since the last post here, almost 3 quite busy months since our return home from this year’s cross-continent trip. The last six weeks included a very successful gallery show for Broot and a one-day pop-up show for me, and we’re now in Nova Scotia, just finishing another 3-week trip, this one a 55th anniversary circumtransit of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (four nights by freight boat from Rimouski to Blanc Sablon PQ; ferry from Labrador to St. Barbe, Newfoundland; north to L’Anse aux Meadows, then down the west coast to Gros Morne National Park, then ferry to North Sydney NS, and finally to Horton Landing; home to Maine by the weekend).

StLawrencesatellite

The usual welter of thoughts and reading and explorations of this’n’that accompanied, of course, so there’s much to get caught up.

The Flickr photostream tells many tales but also leaves out happenings that didn’t happen to get photographed. I’m just uploading the bountiful harvest of our week in Newfoundland, and thinking through What It All Means. And wondering what’s next. There are Flickr Albums of faces, surfaces and abstracts, and landscapes as a first stab at sorting the hundreds of images.

The perennial puzzlement of how to think about and what to do with the vast array of anthropo- and zoomorphic images of rocks and wood and water seems to be heading toward a resolution, but the complexities and leaps of association that underlie will take some explication. The cut-to-the-chase of the moment is an evolving scheme for a multimedia gallery presentation next summer, the provisional title for which is

Morphic Resonance:
Portraits in Stone, Wood, and Water

but the emergence of that title takes us back more than 3 million years, to the Makapansgat Pebble, which is surely an anthropomorphic form.:




The hominin ancestor who picked up and carried the pebble some 20 miles from its geological origin seems to me to represent an early (I’m tempted to claim the earliest) instance of aesthetic Consciousness in our own evolutionary branch [“possibly the earliest example of symbolic thinking or aesthetic sense in the human heritage”]). My own pursuit of wholly imaginary faces in various materials seems a direct descendant. I’ve been chewing over the deeper significance of this for the last year or so (since I learned of the Makapansgat Pebble). A couple of weeks ago the phrase “morphic resonance” drifted through my mind, and seemed somehow portentious (though I can’t remember when/where I first encountered it). It turned out to be a coinage of Rupert Sheldrake:

Morphic resonance is a process whereby self-organising systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems. In its most general formulation, morphic resonance means that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. The hypothesis of morphic resonance also leads to a radically new interpretation of memory storage in the brain and of biological inheritance. Memory need not be stored in material traces inside brains, which are more like TV receivers than video recorders, tuning into influences from the past. And biological inheritance need not all be coded in the genes, or in epigenetic modifications of the genes; much of it depends on morphic resonance from previous members of the species. Thus each individual inherits a collective memory from past members of the species, and also contributes to the collective memory, affecting other members of the species in the future.

This seems akin to notions of ‘distributed consciousness’ with which I’ve been toying in the last year or so, and surely skates on the rim of mystical hoo-hah. I direct your attention to the Bodhidharma posts of February 2018 for earlier instances, and of course to the Just a Rock: a lithic menagerie book; see also Form Finds Form and Just Another Rock and Allegories and Agglomerations for more kindred threads.

What Kittens?


all what you do it come back to you
you got to bear the consequence

(an extended rumination, knitting several trains of thought)

The Young Tuan B3

53 years ago we were in Sarawak, helping to build a new village into which people from 15 Iban longhouse communities would be resettled. This Land Development Scheme (its formal designation) involved the planting of high-yield rubber trees which the Scheme participants would (eventually) tap, thus trading a semi-self-sufficient life on the fringes of the cash economy for full-fledged peasant status, living on the proceeds of their labor in the sort-of-cooperative rubber plantation. They would “own” their rubber plots, but pay mortgages on the land and on the single-family houses in the new village. What could possibly go wrong?

The premise that government-sponsored Development would make a better life for all (schools for children, health care clinics, “Progress”) was almost completely unquestioned. The assumption that demand for natural rubber would increase was unstated, because self-evident to the minds of mid1960s government planners. But that’s not how it turned out.

The new village was built next to the single trunk road that connected to the state capital (some 80 miles away) and continued on to link a series of (basically Chinese) towns, all situated on rivers that had formerly been the primary transportation corridors. Quite suddenly the accessibility of rural hinterlands changed—buses were available to nearby towns, a vastly expanded range of goods and services became available, and participation in a national and international cash economy was ubiquitous.

That process of infrastructural development and contingent change was what I thought I would return to Sarawak to study, but that’s not how it all worked out. I went to Nova Scotia instead, and only occasionally checked in with what was happening in Sarawak. The last 50 years has brought devastation of forests, the building of large dams on several rivers, rural dislocations and resettlements, and the advent of palm oil plantations to take the place of rubber as the principal primary export commodity. The Sarawak we knew is all but unrecognizable.

The new village of 50 years ago was on the edge of a vast and largely impenetrable peat swamp, covered in 100+ foot hardwood trees. Nobody envisioned any possible use for that land, since it would have to be drained and cleared. Nobody thought of palm oil as a possible crop for Southeast Asia until about 1980. That’s when Malaysia (and Indonesia) started to ramp up palm oil planting. Beyond swamp-draining and planting of oil palm, I don’t know any of the details of the development in the area we worked in, but in general the development process in Sarawak involves government and large corporations, and the public face of the operations emphasizes the benefits to one and all of the glorious implementation. The only sure thing is that the little people get squeezed and screwed, while somebody else reaps the benefits.

My attention to this bit of backstory comes about today because of a New York Times Magazine article on the tragedies of palm oil, which mostly focuses on Indonesia, and which raises some wider issues that I’m inclined to discuss under a new rubric: What Kittens?. The reference is to a passage in Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel, written 90 or so years ago but absolutely on the money today. Still more backstory is needed.


well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

When I began to read about agriculture, in the early 1970s and before I went to Nova Scotia to do research in what I was pleased to label as “agricultural transformation”, a central concept for my explorations was the importance of exotic energy, by which I meant petroleum fuels and such petroleum derivatives as fertilizers and pesticides. In the 20th century, exotic energy was brought to bear on agricultural production, underwriting its intensification and midwifeing the increasing scale and concentration of agricultural enterprises. It was the inexorability of the transformation process, together with its malign effects upon families and communities, that led me to abjure that line of research as soon as the ink was dry on my dissertation.

I continued to track the significance of exotic energies in human affairs throughout my teaching career, especially in about 15 iterations of a course I called Human Geography. I was never as systematic as I should have been, but I did continue keep eyes peeled throughout the years as a librarian. Some years ago I read a number of news stories about far-sighted experimenters who were using discarded vegetable oil (mostly from fast food fryers) to power their diesel cars. A win-win, one might have thought: recycling a disposable, replacing a petroleum product, carving out an efficiency. Soon after that rash of stories I heard about “biodiesel” as an alternative Green fuel source, and made the assumption that the feedstock must be recycled plant oils… Ah, assumptions. Little did I know that the Southeast Asian palm oil plantations were more and more the primary source of biodiesel, and (hand in hand with deforestation) responsible for much misery along with obscene profits for the perpetrators of ever-larger projects. None of this should have been in the least surprising.


archy she says to me
yesterday
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens

The world of academic thought and action seems at any point in time to be mappable into distinct Disciplines, though the edges of any Discipline are ragged and permeable. But over time, in decades or generations, the boundaries shift and shimmer, and local heresies morph into schismatic reorganizations; intellectual fashions and leitmotifs come and go, and the focus of the Important peregrinates. I’ve been on the edges of a succession of disciplinary kerfuffles, almost entirely as a bemused observer.

In the 1960s the concept of Development was a leitmotif in many social science disciplines, not least in Economics, Political Science, and Anthropology. After a brief vogue for Ecology, Cybernetics, and a whiff of Sociobiology, in the 1970s and 1980s the leading edge lurched toward Postmodernism and Diversities (thankfully, I missed those morasses). The 1990s found those same fields riveted by Globalization. And the 21st century has seen Global Warming and Inequality come to the fore as the reigning integrative challenges. Each of these seems like an era, and the succession leaves a trail of supposed focal Problems behind, their dilemmas unresolved and their protagonists ageing gracelessly.


but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove them

So I escaped the Wheel in the 1990s, into the aether of Library and Information Science, and enjoyed more than a decade of adventures completely outside of disciplinary argy-bargy, learning and building and following my nose. They paid me to know stuff and find out about more stuff and help others find what they were seeking. I had audience and agency, and an infinitude of things to explore. The 13+ years of retirement continues to present that infinitude, in which I revel. I sometimes miss the audience and the agency, though photography offers both.


these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too

But every so often I encounter some subject matter that reopens old files and nudges me toward trying to make better sense of one or another of problems left behind. It was palm oil this time, but who knows what next?


one day she was talking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject

argybargy du jour

All those years ago I was drawn to Anthropology because I thought it was a comprehensive and comprehensible way to MAKE SENSE of the world around me; and in my years as a prof I approached teaching Anthro in the same spirit, looking at the great variety of solutions to the practical problems of living that people had developed over the vastnesses of time and space (well, 10,000 years or so; and terrestrial space, but still…), returning again and again to the observed Fact that the Emperor was Naked. And now I find myself looking to one particular/peculiar strain of the discipline to, once again, [try to] make sense of the contemporary world.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of things that have fundamentally the same message. Much seems to emanate from David Graeber, and is concerned with bamboozlement in many forms:

…a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of US corporate bureaucracy — away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole… corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized with investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors. As a result the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable… (19)

…the last two centuries have seen an explosion of bureaucracy, and the last 30 or 40 years in particular have seen bureaucratic principles extended to every aspect of our existence… (27)

What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the self-conscious completion of the world’s first effective planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system. (30)

…public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth. (35)

If one gives sufficient social power to a class of people holding even the most outlandish ideas, they will, consciously or not, eventually contrive to produce a world organized in such a way that living in it will, in a thousand subtle ways, reinforce the impression that those ideas are self-evidently true. (37)

…what we call “the public” is created, produced through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action — taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings — and not others. (98)

(The above from The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. There’s much more I’d transcribe from Graeber’s writings, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and of course Debt.

A similarly resonant voice: Tariq Ali in the latest London Review of Books:
The New World Disorder (Vol. 37 No. 7 · 9 April 2015)

But social democratic reforms have become intolerable for the neoliberal economic system imposed by global capital. If you argue, as those in power do (if not explicitly, implicitly), that it’s necessary to have a political structure in which no challenge to the system is permitted, then we’re living in dangerous times. Elevating terrorism into a threat that is held to be the equivalent of the communist threat of old is bizarre. The use of the very word ‘terrorism’, the bills pushed through Parliament and Congress to stop people speaking up, the vetting of people invited to give talks at universities, the idea that outside speakers have to be asked what they are going to say before they are allowed into the country: all these seem minor things, but they are emblematic of the age in which we live. And the ease with which it’s all accepted is frightening. If what we’re being told is that change isn’t possible, that the only conceivable system is the present one, we’re going to be in trouble. Ultimately, it won’t be accepted. And if you prevent people from speaking or thinking or developing political alternatives, it won’t just be Marx’s work that is relegated to the graveyard. Karl Polanyi, the most gifted of the social democratic theorists, has suffered the same fate.

and this announcement by William Arkin, via Gizmodo, of a Twitter feed covering a lot of the same dolorous but important ground:

o here’s what I plan to do: Expose. Explain. Secrecy and euphemisms are carpet-bombing us into submission. I’m sick of the parameters of the sanctioned debate. So instead I will try to treat the secret world like a sports league: There are coaches, players, commentators, bookies, and marketing geniuses. We’ll have something to say about all of them, something to reveal every week. The teams are the NSA, the CIA, FBI, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, ICE; and that’s just Division I. There’s a Division II playing somewhere else, far more obscure but nevertheless influential and odious, populated by billion-dollar institutions like the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or U.S. Army North, real parasites on the American spirit, survivors because what they do festers in the dark. Each has a history and personality, a lineup, a budget cap, a general manager, a narrative to sell.
(much more and very worth reading)

Rembetika again

Anthropologists are prone to connoisseurship of subcultures, appreciating niceties of identity and keeping weather eyes peeled for boundary-defining shibboleths. Lowlifes and marginal folk seem especially attractive, perhaps because they offer exciting alternatives to the bourgeois stolidity of the Buena Gente. In this realm I have more than 30 years of fascination with the Greek underworld of the re[m]betes and the musical genres grouped under the ‘re[m]betika/o’ rubric. Basic source materials include Gail Holst’s Road to Rembetika: Music of a Greek sub-culture songs love, sorrow & hashish (1975) and Elias Petropoulos’ Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition (2000).

To assist your exploration if this is unfamiliar territory, there’s a BBC documentary:

and Music of the Outsiders

and Kostas Feris’ feature film Rembetiko (1983)
and literally hundreds of CD reissues of classic music from the 1920s and 1930s, such as Rembetika: Greek Music From the Underworld … or search ‘rembetika’ and ‘rebetika’ and ‘rebetiko’ and ‘rembetiko’ in Spotify or other streaming services.

Today I came across a really delicious vein of text in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, replete with the trademarked style for which he is celebrated. He’s describing two dance forms, hasapikos and zembekiko:

They are, in fact, the quintessence of fatalism and morose solitude, a consolation and an anodyne in individual calamity, and with the songs that accompany them create a hard metrical and choreographic counterspell. They have another black mark against them: they are linked with low life in refugee quarters, with drunken cellars and hashish-smoking dens and waterfront bars, with idle hours spent over the nargileh, and with a dandified trick of flicking those tasseled and time-killing amber beads. Traditionally they are accompanied by a sartorial style, now largely obsolete: pointed shoes, peg-top trousers held up by a red sash, the jacket worn loose on the shoulders with sleeves hanging ‚ and by twisted moustaches, a quiff falling over the forehead, and the cap aslant on the back of the head. With this goes a relaxed gait, a languid syncopated flick of the beads round the index finger held in the small of the back, a cigarette in the corner of the mouth, a faintly derisive smile, a poker face, an unflurriable deliberation of gesture and a dangerous ironic light in the veiled eyes. (pp 244-245)

Downright ethnographic, isn’t it? You really should just get the book and read it…


Gnawing on the bones of the past

I’ve been working over various episodes of my checkered past (see sketches of aspects of graduate school years), which need retreading and elaboration). Recently I happened upon a folder from October 1972, when I’d been in Nova Scotia less than six months and was at the beginning of my dissertation fieldwork. My friend Shel Anderson was teaching a course in Anthropology at Acadia, and asked me to do a guest lecture on what I was doing. At that point in my life, it was easiest for me to write out a sketch of what I wanted to say, and then to use it as a springboard from which to talk (rather than reading the words from the page). I was quite surprised to reread the text more than 40 years later and find that I recognize the person who wrote it, and that much of my approach to teaching during the years I was a prof at Acadia (1973-1990) is pretty clearly sketched in the text. It seems worthwhile to transcribe what I wrote, and perhaps that will inspire me to further dealings with that phase of my life.

I’m going to try to lay a whole lot of different stuff on you, some of which will be repetitive and some of which you may not immediately be able to understand because I can’t express it very clearly, or because I’ve made a lot of assumptions about the way things are that you don’t share, or haven’t gotten around to developing yet. So ask if you don’t immediately understand, and disagree if you think I’m wrong about something –some of you (know it or not) know a lot more about the [Annapolis] Valley than I do anyway.

And also I’m still at the stage where I’ve got a lot of basic questions that have to be answered before I can begin to understand better (like 3 weeks ago I didn’t know what silage was. And I still don’t know what [political] Party affiliation means here in the Valley. And I still don’t know what people’s own maps of things in the Valley look like or how they vary. And I don’t know much more than a few anecdotes about social stratification in the Valley –these are all things that some of you could work on if you felt like it –it would be an enormous help to me, and I’d be delighted to help you figure out how to go about looking into these and other things about the Valley… One thing I do have is access to a lot of different ways to look at the Valley, although I haven’t used them all yet…).

Have to know a little bit about what anthropologists do, when they’re not teaching courses. There’s this thing called “fieldwork” where you’re supposed to go to some remote corner of the world and endure incredible privations and have Adventures and Do Research. OK. So what does “doing research” involve? Well, you’re supposed to gather data with respect to some Problem you’ve defined (by reference to theoretical and ethnographic Literature which you absorb in graduate school). Now what anthropologists usually do is rather different from what I’m doing, but I’ll sketch it out anyway –with the proviso that the way I’m telling it is too generalized, i.e., not all anthropologists are wasteful scoundrels…

There are a lot of Traditional Anthropological Problems which necessarily form a part of what Anthropologists Do. Once you decide where you want to go (and reasons are usually pretty ad hoc) and somehow get yourself there, you have to somehow establish yourself, which means get to be known by the people you’re going to rely upon to Provide You With Data. So you choose an area, e.g. a village or group of villages or a bunch of people. And you have to do some very basic information-gathering, like mapping the physical setting (with maps, and with analysis of such things as productive activities) and mapping the population (e.g., doing a survey to see who’s where and who they’re related to). Once these preliminary tasks are begun, you start looking for evidence relating to the particular Thing you’ve claimed you were going to study. And eventually you return [to the university whence you came] and write a report of what you’ve done, which gets called an Ethnography…

But basically what you DO (and remember this is still a very general picture of what anthropologists are “supposed” to do and be doing) is live with, more or less closely, the people you are studying. Now this sounds a bit romantic –the young Sahib, dressed in A-line shorts and solar topi, asking questions and getting answers and writing them down, returning to his tent or grass hut in the evening to Write Up his notes on the typewriter.

Now, anthropologists really do a lot of things which don’t fit with this picture. Like they get interested in bigger things than little villages, and in other human groups than Natives with Bones In Their Noses. In fact, one of the nice things about anthropology is that you can, theoretically, do it anywhere (unlike Sociology, which is usually thought of as the study of your own society), including your own society (although there’s no unanimity on this point –there are those who say you need “Cross-Cultural Perspective” in order to understand anything you see, and therefore must go to a Cross Culture) And an anthropologist (he who has paid his dues in grad school) can call just about anything he does Anthropology.

OK now me: I’m working on some problems that anthropologists generally haven’t paid much attention to –I’m doing research in Canada (but not on Indians), I’m concerned with an unusual (for anthropologists) social unit (the Region) and with some unusual substantive problems (modern agriculture, economic organization of a highly-developed type), and I’m using some unusual tools (quantitative/statistical geography, maps, enterprise analysis using formal economics, and stuff like that).

In a sense I’m ‘only’ doing ethnography, but in a different way, with a different unit of analysis, a different organizational level, and in a different temporal framework than it has been done usually. I’m trying to produce an exemplar of an empirical approach that has not been attempted by anthropologists, and thus to produce a new way to look at human organization.

The fundamental empirical question I am asking is: how are things distributed, in both space and time?

And then (and this aspect requires investigative tools not common in anthropology): how does distribution change? What can be said of processes (economic, demographic, political, social…) in this population? The whole point is to develop a new way of looking at the organization of human populations –or perhaps to develop ways of seeing the interrelations of organizational variables.

So what GOOD is this? Personally, it’s gratifying to know more about the place one lives and the times one lives in. And that’s something that people have to do more (rather than less) of. And ‘professionally’ I’m looking at some things that sociologists, anthropologists, etc. haven’t studied very often: a transformation which is found repeated over the North American landscape, a chunk of time rather than a moment (the only way to study change), a physical and territorial unit of a higher level of integration than those usually studied.

In short, I’m looking at how this region has changed since World War II. Since it’s a farming region, and since farming has changed tremendously since 1946, the main questions I’m concerned with relate to the processes of change in farming. Now there are a lot of processes you can look at –start with just the numbers of farms (and NB that the Census provides my main starting point for data –it provides a statistical sketch of the outlines of change), then look at different types of farms, at different sizes of farms. This generates new questions as one proceeds, but the basic way questions get generated is that you look at the distribution (statistical and/or spatial) to try to account for why it looks the way it looks –how it got that way, what forces have acted upon it and are acting upon it… Anyway, there are a million things you can do. The problem is to string them together into a coherent whole that gives you some ideas about how to answer (or at least deal with) the original problems that got you interested in the thing in the first place. A really good way to think about all of this is in terms of the systems in realspace, with real people in them.

Now since I’m interested in the Region and its organization, I have to consider much more than just farming, even to answer the questions I have about farming. So I look for ways to deal with the population system (and again the Census comes in handy) and with the web of organizations that hold the population together –, that is, in the Integration of the region. Now, Integration is a process, and not just a state. You have to keep working at it to hold things together, and it doesn’t just happen naturally. Thus, you have to expend energy (which you have to get somehow from the environment, and store up somehow for later use) to maintain order. You’re fighting entropy… So because we’re dealing with Processes, we need to see events as structured in time. And it is no less reasonable to be directly concerned with events as structured in space as well.

Now, we can say as a general rule for starting that the Territorial System is spatially structured by centrality, and temporally structured by periodicity. So look at these analytical notions (centrality and periodicity) in relation to any subsystem you define –like political, economic, etc. etc…

So there are Regional Systems, and Regions are real things, and they change and evolve –or rather the populations within them change and evolve. There’s a basic rhythm to this, almost: there’s a population system, with people being born and dying and getting married and having kids… and the individuals in those systems grow up and age and form groups and maybe migrate and maybe make it through school and maybe get a job somehow and maybe change the job and maybe get married… i.e., they’re real people.

And they play a lot of elaborate formal games in order to eat: they trade stuff around, using tokens (and access to and supply of tokens is not uniform, for a lot of reasons) which they get in a variety of legitimate, quasi-legitimate and illegitimate ways.

One can look at those games, how they are played and how the players (and the rules) change –that’s the essence of looking at marketing systems: what flows where and in what quantities.

And one can look at the formal, quasi-formal and informal rules for moving stuff around. And moving the privilege of access to stuff around. That’s what Lenski means by a stratification system –control of access to resources.

And you can look at all the stuffing and frills, the odd bits of behavior that the players have a strange way of repeating –the Culture, Social Organization, the Society…

The thing is, the Regional Systems notion gives you a framework to hang your knowledge of an area on, and thus allows you to broaden your knowledge and understanding of the ways in which your Environment is operating.

There are a number of reason why this is not just an idle game played by people who stayed on the Academic Bandwagon to the end of the line –one of them is purely selfish– if you know something about what’s likely to come from where in your (hostile) environment, that’s better than knowing what hit you afterwards, or rather, better than knowing nothing…

But in order to have any Understanding in any deeper sense, you have to integrate a lot of different kinds (and sources) of Information.

Now, we all DO this, mostly unconsciously and to a much less developed degree than we would if we really thought about it. Like, when you first arrive in a new place, like Wolfville if you’re not already from there, you don’t have any information, you don’t know your way around. You learn, both consciously (like when you ask someone, or set out to find something) and unconsciously. So you’re already structuring your own egocentric map of the region. Over time, the map elaborates, is corrected, becomes a resource…

OK, now imagine trying systematically (and consciously) to develop some part of your map –to get more information about something and construct a more elaborate map. So you identify some domain that you’re interested in (for whatever reason)

Event: like school amalgamation, looking at differential response of localities

Institution: like Kentville town government –look at factions, crises, everyday business over 25 years… or Service Clubs: who’s in them and what do they do? How are they stratified? Who’s NOT in them?

As I remember, the class went very well, was augmented with various show-and-tell exhibits like maps and datasets and photographs, and led to a lot of student questions and improvised answers.

On the supermarket frontier

Lately I’ve been taking my 87-year-old neighbor Don Miller shopping in Rockland. He’s a garrulous and interesting dude, long-time mechanic and lifelong Midcoast Maine resident, pretty fiercely independent (“they wanted to put me in a nursin’ home, but I wouldn’t have none of it…”) but no longer able to drive himself. I’ll hope to do him more justice another time, but here he is in his usual plumage:

DonMiller

He likes to shop at Shaw’s, a grocery store I don’t usually frequent (Midcoast folks tend to be fiercely loyal to one or another of the chain supermarkets), and I had time to wander in parts of the store that I don’t usually visit (I tend to shop the peripheries, not venturing into the land of High Fructose Corn Syrup that makes up the core of most supermarkets) and gather up bits of intelligence on what’s on offer these days.

Midcoast Maine is pretty far from the Big Time of American food crazes, but I was interested to see the variety that demands shoppers’ attention these days. Take couscous, scarcely a staple of the traditional diet of this region:

Couscous1 Couscous2
(below: Herbed Chicken, Original Plain, Mediterranean Curry, Roasted Garlic and Olive Oil, Parmesan, Toasted Pine Nut, and Basil and Herb –but see Near East for mooooore…)
Couscous3
And who knew that farro had made it into quick-fix packaging?
Farrotto
and as for Moroccan cuisine, packaged for American tastes:
Moroccan
The old reliable Boyardee appears in many guises, and here exemplifies the American genius for BIG:
OhAmerica
Now I wish that I’d thought to track the evolution of these innovations in American foodways, which I’m sure has been both rapid and punctuated. I mean, cranberries are a long-time New England staple, but what is one to make of infused dried cranberries? And just think what other flavors may show up on next year’s shelves…
Craisins
There’s a world of Anthropology of Food out there, begging to be studied and deconstructed.

Start anywhere. It all connects.

I find myself projected backwards to the mind of an earlier self by two obits for Ward Hunt Goodenough, whom I met once at his father’s house in Cambridge in 1963, and whose Cooperation in Change: an anthropological approach to community development was influential for the mid-late 1960s me (the period when Development was the central concept I wrestled with)… and I (re)discover that he was also central to the realms of ethnoscience and componential analysis with which I flirted as an undergraduate (a course with BN Colby) and then again with Chuck Frake at Stanford. A bit more investigation ties WHG to my long-running fascination with the ethnonym Yankee, which I often claim as my own Identity and Tribe. His 1965 article “Yankee Kinship Terminology: a problem in componential analysis” (American Anthropologist vol 67) I’ve just retrieved from JSTOR and put onto the read-on-a-rainy-day pile.

I confess that I was never a very clueful student of anthropology –I gravitated to stuff that interested me and pretty much ignored the rest, and looking back what I mostly see is a succession of boats missed and gratuitous oversimplifications of subtle complexities and, well, intellectual laziness. Of course nobody manages to grok everything, and some things (ethnoscience/cognitive anthropology being a case in point) turned out to be disciplinary dead ends, but I regret the arrogance of my inattention to the things and people from which/whom I might have learned.

Turns out (via Hortense Powdermaker’s Stranger and Friend: the way of an anthropologist) that BN Colby worked with the General Inquirer project, in the basement of Emerson Hall at Harvard (where both Betsy and I spent many hours), and co-wrote articles with George Collier (with whom I studied at Stanford, not gloriously) and Mark Menchik, whom I knew as an undergraduate. Colby went on to work in cognitive science, and a Google search for him led me to Margaret Bowden’s Mind As Machine: A History of Cognitive Science, Volume 1, which offers a whole section on “Anthropology and Cognitive Science” (pp 516-589, via Google Books). And that juicy chunk of text turns up another significant-to-me name: Roy D’Andrade. He was a professor at Stanford just at the point when I wanted to leap from International Development Education to Anthropology, and said “well of course you can” when I asked him about the possibility of the transition. His Sad Story of Anthropology 1950-1999 (download the RTF file) looks like another rainy-day read. From the abstract:

Within the social sciences, anthropology appears to have been more strongly affected by external political trends than its sister disciplines. The trends affecting anthropology appear to reflect primarily ideas and attitudes of the intellectual left in American universities and colleges. As the intellectual left moved from the anti-government activism of the early sixties to Marxism and expectations the death of capitalism in the seventies, through the disenchantment with socialist communism and alienation from Western culture expressed by post-modernism in the eighties and nineties, the centrality of these attitudes in the anthropology professorate of the elite universities resulted in profound changes in the research organization of anthropology and its choice of methods…

Somewhere in these materials I expect to find answers to the questions I’ve barely formulated, bearing upon my own alienation from the discipline of anthropology. It seems to me that the bottom fell out in the 1980s, and D’Andrade seems to nail it:

Within anthropology, while little explicit theoretical discussion took place in the journals, a great shift in agenda took place. The new goal of ethnography and research was no longer theoretically relevant description, but moral critique. The critique was directed against power, domination, and oppression. However, the classical Marxist emphasis on material factors was greatly attenuated. Capitalism was still an enemy, but primarily because it, like the State, Science, the Media, and Western bourgeois culture, was powerful.

The major critique in anthropology was directed against pernicious ideas. The Marxist notions of ideology and false consciousness were reworked into a critique of culture itself, now seen as the most powerful source of oppression…

By the mid eighties critical anthropology had become mainstream. The goal of mainline cultural anthropology was to critique both hidden and open oppressions of Western bourgeois culture; its racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, and scientism. The Enlightenment – the historical center of liberal ideas – came to be seen as a well of poison. According to this agenda, the task of the ethnographer is to examine the resistance of non-western and peripherialized peoples to the Western modernizing forces that oppress them. The World Bank and the IMF are enemies, science is an enemy, and rationality is a destructive force. Bureaucratic planning is one of the major generators of oppression. Conformity on the part of ordinary people is treated as evidence of their complicity in their own oppression…

If one looks at the current field of cultural anthropology, it is not just statistics and quantitative methods which have been forced out. Linguistic anthropology is almost gone. Folklore is gone. Psychological anthropology is holding on but with a dwindling base. Economic anthropology is almost gone. Medical anthropology has shifted primarily to cultural critique. The study of kinship is in eclipse. Cross-cultural studies by anthropologists are in decline. The scholarly study of religion in anthropology has decreased almost to the vanishing point…

…try to elicit from your favorite anthropology informant the important findings of mainline cultural anthropology over the past twenty years. You will probably be told that now we know that culture is discourse, that power is omnipresent, that knowledge is central to power, that Western culture is hegemonic, that oppression is diffuse and general, and that we are now in a post-modern world of late capitalism and a global diaspora without fixed communities or cultures.

So as usual I begin with something and follow the webwork to serendipitous discoveries. The blog seems the ideal place to cache such ramblings, to which I may return eventually. Or not.

Sarah Kendzior interview

Back in the day when I was a graduate student (Stanford 1967-1972) the world was oh so different in so many ways. The discipline of Anthropology seemed alive, vital, relevant; there was money (NIMH, NIH, foundations) for study and for research; the ‘Developing World’ seemed to welcome the attentions of young American scholars; and there were jobs for those who survived the process of doing research and writing a dissertation… Of course all was not so rosy as it seemed to us, and big changes were just over the horizon. The 80s and 90s were a bonfire, a train wreck, and departments wrangled and split and tenure-track jobs dried up and money and foreign welcome evaporated. I was safe in a tenured position, but increasingly restive in academia… so I made a successful leap into library school (Simmons 1991-1992) and thence to a job I loved as a Reference Librarian and then Science Librarian. My vantage point on academic Anthropology has been pretty distant for more than two decades –I don’t follow the literature, and many of the current hot topics and controversies are far from my interests anyway. Still, I claim the identity ‘Anthropologist’ and enjoy the ambiguities it affords (few people have any clear idea of what an anthropologist is or does), and I continue to learn about human variety and follow my own paths of inquiry. I do follow the Savage Minds blog, and often find provocative material therein. Case in point: today’s interview with Sarah Kendzior, a writer for Al Jazeera English and (of course) a blogger. Here’s a chunk from the interview that strikes me as beautifully observed and expressed:

Graduate students live in constant fear. Some of this fear is justified, like the fear of not finding a job. But the fear of unemployment leads to a host of other fears, and you end up with a climate of conformity, timidity, and sycophantic emulation. Intellectual inquiry is suppressed as “unmarketable”, interdisciplinary research is marked as disloyal, public engagement is decried as “unserious”, and critical views are written anonymously lest a search committee find them. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the Academic Jobs Wiki.

The cult mentality of academia not only curtails intellectual freedom, but hurts graduate students in a personal way. They internalize systemic failure as individual failure, in part because they have sacrificed their own beliefs and ideas to placate market values. The irony is that an academic market this corrupt and over-saturated has no values. Do not sacrifice your integrity to a lottery — even if you are among the few who can afford to buy tickets until you win.

Anthropology PhDs tend to wind up as contingent workers because they believe they have no other options. This is not true – anthropologists have many skills and could do many things – but there are two main reasons they think so. First, they are conditioned to see working outside of academia as failure. Second, their graduate training is not oriented not toward intellectual exploration, but to shoring up a dying discipline.

Gillian Tett famously said that anthropology has committed intellectual suicide. Graduate students are taught to worship at its grave. The aversion to interdisciplinary work, to public engagement, to new subjects, to innovation in general, is wrapped up in the desire to affirm anthropology’s special relevance. Ironically, this is exactly what makes anthropology irrelevant to the larger world. No one outside the discipline cares about your jargon, your endless parenthetical citations, your paywalled portfolio, your quiet compliance. They care whether you have ideas and can communicate them. Anthropologists have so much to offer, but they hide it away.

links for 2011-09-25