Yesterday’s reading

Yesterday I encountered 4 texts that are still rubbing against one another in my mind (a recurring situation, though not all instances produce pearls), and it seems worthwhile to try to capture the thoughts provoked.

First was a review by Richard Wilk of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, from American Anthropologist and sent by my friend Ron Nigh. Anthropologists generally grumble and sneer at Diamond’s methods and popularity, but Wilk’s review goes beyond the grumpiness and works over some of the implications of 40-odd years of changes in anthropology’s world view. Worth quoting at length to set the scene:

The World until Yesterday would have made a perfect textbook for the first introductory anthropology class I ever taught at Pima Community College in 1977… My tone in lectures was just like Diamond’s, showing a liberal appreciation for diversity, tinged with nostalgia and a sense of loss. This seemed like a respectful attitude toward people whose singularity was rapidly being gobbled up by a monolithic ” Western culture. ” We were comfortable with treating “traditional” peoples as timeless, immune from current events, so things they did 50 or 100 years ago could be recounted in the present tense…

The success of The World until Yesterday shows us that even though many anthropologists have left it behind, the traditional past continues to have power as a stance for a critique the present. The vast distance between the West and “the rest” allows our audience to accept a gentle moral critique of modernity in an unthreatening way. After all, traditional people are fading away and becoming more like “us” as they adopt cash economies, learn to speak national languages, drink, and perhaps snort coke…
In anthropology, we are now used to seeing culture change as a contingent, political, and negotiable process, in which local people and communities must face and engage with bureaucrats, NGOs, large multinational corporations, distant markets, tourists, and conservationists. Diamond never mentions the mining companies that are ravaging parts of Melanesia, or illegal logging, corrupt politicians, and land theft. Nor does he perceive any conflict between conservationists and local people…

…I am sure Diamond will interpret anthropologists’ complaints about his work as political correctness, antiscience sentiment, or professional jealousy. That is much easier than recognizing that he has based his narrative on an analytical scheme that has been rejected; this work is like using phlogiston to explain what is happening in a particle accelerator.

The culmination of Diamond’ s imaginative generalizations about the traditional world is his lessons learned, a sequence of recommendations for how “we moderns” should treat our elders better, eat a more natural diet, learn more languages, and heal the violence of crime. These mild liberal recommendations are mostly aimed at individuals—there is no plan here for political or collective action, no hint of how we might challenge the power of corporations to determine what we can eat, or address the fundamental inequalities that feed crime and conflict. His plan is not going to change anything; it will only reinforce the fundamental National Geographic worldview of his liberal readers. Diamond’s book should, however, get anthropologists thinking about how we present our work to the world, both as writers and as teachers. I still teach introductory anthropology and find that the vast majority of textbooks are still structured like Diamond’s book, as an evolutionary progression, with “traditional” exotic ethnographic cases used to illustrate types of societies. We do not seem to have any master narrative that can displace the story of modernization, a morality play that has lost its radical potential. Do we pander to the crowd and tell stories that emphasize compassion and empathy while confirming fundamental prejudice in the search for a mass audience in the United States? Or do we have a story that can challenge Diamond’s analytical complacency?

For me the takeaway involves thinking about my own approaches to teaching Intro Anthro back in the days when I used to teach the course, and considering how I’d approach the task now. I abhorred the textbooks that publishers flogged and used my own handout materials instead, and assigned readings that were tangential (hell, orthogonal) to ‘straight’ anthropology –one year I had the students read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar as stimulus material, but in retrospect I wasn’t able to carry that off successfully (good idea, though). I wanted my Intro students to engage with how the world was changing, and how people everywhere were being messed with. I can’t really claim that I offered a consistent radical critique (like, I wasn’t trying to be a Marxist) or even that I had a coherent vision of what I wanted them to emerge from the course thinking –I mostly just wanted them to be more interested in what was going on around them.

So I wrote back to my friend Ron thusly:

Perhaps it’s just because it’s early Monday and I have the Diamond review rattling around in my mind, but I just encountered a video that seems at the moment to speak to the Problem of how to communicate anthropology to current audiences. A few hours from now it’ll seem silly to make such a suggestion, but for the moment…

Forget for a moment that you don’t (probably) know the backstory, like who Janelle Monae is, or other versions of the song (you can see the lyrics via http://www.metrolyrics.com/tightrope-lyrics-janelle-monae.html ). Listen to it, note that the black lady in the sequin dress is Janelle herself, and note that this is taking place at an Industry event (Billboard Women in Music 2013), and read a bunch of the comments. Here you have it in microcosm: the t-t-t-tightrope is the path each person has to tread and negotiate,

Like the Dow Jones and Nasdaq
Sorta like a thong in an ass crack

aw hell, now watch

Compare and contrast. It’s All There. The Postmodern Condition: I gotta keep my balance.

Probably just as well that I’m retired.

Anyway, a bit later in the day I started reading Ted Nelson’s autobiography Possiplex, as wild and wooly a carnival ride as one can find these days, and ran across this snippet:

Profuse connection is the whole problem of abstraction, perception and thought. Profuse connection is the whole problem of expression, of saying anything. It is the problem of writing. It is the problem of seeing– we see and imagine so much more than we can express. Trying to communicate ideas requires selection from this vast, ever-expanding net. Writing on paper is a hopeless reduction, as it means throwing out most of the connections, telling the reader only the smallest part in one particular sequence. (pg 36)

I don’t really agree with Nelson’s ‘hopeless reduction’ take on writing, though I surely feel the tug of all the unsaid might-have-been links. Writing can invite readers to consider what they might not have thought of themselves, and provide launchpads to their own essays in ‘profuse connection’. Sometimes what you can offer to readers is a more expansive view of familiar territory, just by exploring and enlarging a word or phrase.

So I started thinking about candidates for words that might serve as centerpieces for an Intro Anthro course in 2014, terms to encourage ‘profuse connection’ applicable to multiple situations, and help to build a “story that can challenge Diamond’s analytical complacency”. Many words from Raymond Williams’ Keywords would make good candidates: Alienation, Civilization, Class, Community, Modern… the idea is not to define the terms, but to explicate their multiple meanings and senses and history of use, to see how they might broaden the questions we ask of the world around us. But we really want something that speaks to Wilk’s imperative for “seeing culture change as a contingent, political, and negotiable process” in which people everywhere are enmeshed. The example that came to me is Co-op[ta]tion, one important sense of which is “the process by which a group subsumes or assimilates a smaller or weaker group with related interests.” This fate happens to individuals and to groups, and is arguably the most potent instigator of ‘culture change’. Everybody is more or less on the t-t-tightrope at some point in their life; some make a successful passage, and some fall…

That could be an exciting class to teach.

Simultaneously I was finishing John Williams’ Stoner, which is more or less about teaching and academic life. It turns out that the book (originally published in 1965) was named Waterstones Book of the Year in 2013 (“The New Yorker called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of” earlier this year…”). Here are a few of the bits I was moved to copy out:

He planned the course during the week before the opening of the autumn semester, and saw the kinds of possibility that one sees as one struggles with the materials and subjects of an endeavor; he felt the logic of grammar, and he thought he perceived how it spread out from itself, permeating the language and supporting human thought. In the simple compositional exercises he made for his students he saw the potentialities of prose and its beauties, and he looked forward to animating his students with the sense of what he perceived… (pg 27)

…for many years, unknown to himself, he had had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked in his study. (pg 100)

…in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter. (pg 179)

It hardly mattered to him that [his] book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of his that he could not deny was there, and would be there. (pg 277)

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers. (pg 3)

The fourth text in yesterday’s interconnected reading binge is Evgeny Morozov’s Making It, from last week’s New Yorker, which deals with hackers and makers, both terms that deserve the sort of historically-informed explication alluded to above.

When, in November, [Stewart] Brand was asked who carries the flag of counterculture today, he pointed to the maker movement. The makers, Brand said, “take whatever we’re not supposed to take the back off, rip the back off and get our fingers in there and mess around. That’s the old impulse of basically defying authority and of doing it your own way.” Makers, in other words, are the new hackers. (pg 71)

Morozov covers a lot of territory in a few pages and knits in a broad range of thinkers and doers, including Mary Dennett, Buckminster Fuller, Kevin Kelly, Murray Bookchin, Lee Felsenstein, Steve Jobs.

Then there are the temptations facing the movement. Two years ago, DARPA –the research arm of the Department of Defense– announced a ten million dollar grant to promote the maker movement among high-school students. DARPA also gave three and a half million dollars to TechShop to establish new makerspaces that could help the agency with its “innovation agenda.” As a senior DARPA official told Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “We are pretty in tune with the maker movement. We want to reach out to a much broader section of society, a much broader collection of brains.” (pg 73)

(Can you say ‘co-opt[at]ion’?)

Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. (pg 74)

It was quite a day.

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