Two Tone Anthropology: Towards a Journal of Frivolous Anthropology

With a conference finished and my last board of examiners meeting now over it’s now time to move on to the usual summer activity of writing. As I sit down to start contemplating what needs my attention, my anthropological proclivities become clear. Articles and papers are underway covering the spread of collective violence, vigilantism and security, and the role of hearsay in the causation of violence. Serious stuff – and necessarily so. But these sit alongside articles on fictional anthropologists in films and Batman. I’ll also be on a panel next week with Phoenix Jones, Seattle’s real life superhero. While there’s a serious side to these other issues – they are of a very different type. So, not for the first time, I’m having the thought – ‘I’m a two tone anthropologist’.

I think anthropology is at its strongest when its engaging with social problems. I may love functionalist explanations – they are anthropology at it’s most elegant – it makes the world of social interactions seem sensible and tidy. The reason functionalism became a dirty word is because most social systems are messy – inequalities, abuse of power, discrimination, violence and illness are ubiquitous. The world would be better with less of each of these things. While these problems are all too big for anthropologists or anthropology to ‘solve’, the suffering they cause make them the most worthy issues on which to spend our time. Getting to grips with the complexities of the intertwined forces and practices that make up these social problems is of value beyond the boundaries of our discipline. Understanding the causes of inequalities and suffering, or, building on this, understanding the imperfections of the structures set up to minimize these things – that’s what I think the largest amount of socio-cultural attention should be directed towards.

Contrarily anthropology is most fun to play with when the stakes are low. When it’s just pushing anthropological ideas into odd realms. When there are no informants whose safety we have to worry about. When we can just playfully apply anthropological theories to interesting areas. Once you’ve had that anthropological epiphany (that magical moment, generally at some point in your undergraduate degree, when you realise that anthropology has started to make you think differently) you start doing it by accident. Friends will ask you a straightforward question and 10 minutes later you’ll have gone deep into Gell-ian understandings of objects or talking about Geertzian winks. The occasional chance to run with these thoughts a bit further and in print (or in a blog) seems to me the perfect antidote to the depressing nature of reading about suffering, inequality and imperfect systems.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this (although I note that many anthropologists deliberately separate their work and play) but I think two tone anthropology is the way forward. Blogs are a very good repository for some of these musings – but wouldn’t it be nice to get our working out for these things properly scrutinised? Wouldn’t it be nice if some of our peer-reviewing was of anthro-fluff that correlates with the fluff we’re interested in? Wouldn’t it be good to have a journal dedicated to anthropological curve-balls? This is something I would like to see – we need a Journal of Frivolous Anthropology!

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10 ways life of anthropologists changed in last decade

Ten years ago this summer I started my PhD at Sussex. I have a predilection towards a good listy blog – so I thought I’d look back over the last decade at how the lives of anthropologists have changed in this time: five ways it’s got better, five ways it’s got worse.

5 ways it got better:

1. Google

Like all powerful tools Google has its drawbacks. It contributes to one of the ‘Ways it got worse’ list that follows. It is also complicit in surveillance, annoying advertising, tax evasion and other problematic practices. But in terms of making the life of anthropologists easier or more productive it is has had more impacts than I’ll manage to think of here. Literature searches (in Google search or Google Scholar) have become so much easier tat it is easy to forget the meandering path from one book to the next through a trail of references that I used to go through as an undergraduate.

English:

English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beyond searching for key words the ‘cited by’ and ‘related articles’ functions in Google Scholar let you follow paths of connectivity that shave days off writing papers and reading lists. Google image search makes jazzing up wordy Powerpoints immensely easy. You can find direct quotes within seconds rather than having to trawl though books, find news stories when you can’t remember where you read X. You can find phone numbers and email addresses details of grants and deadlines; unearth teaching resources and films. In 2013 I find it hard to envision life without Google.

2. Digital recording devices

Bulky dictaphones; awkward tapes; posting tapes to relatives; paranoia about the demagnetising properties of airport metal detectors; inability to easily back up recordings; turning tapes over at inopportune moments in interviews – these are all problems of the past.

English: Audio levels shown on a Zoom H4n whil...

English: Audio levels shown on a Zoom H4n while recording Deutsch: Lautstärkeanzeige des Zoom H4n bei der Tonaufnahme (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New abilities to record, store and copy days or weeks worth of interviews and films digitally has made audio and visual recording easier, less burdensome and less time consuming while also increasing the audio and sound quality available to ethnographers everywhere. Coupled with programmes like Nvivo that offer the ability to file, share, annotate and code this data, digital recording devices are offering opportunities to change the way we make field notes and conduct interviews. 

3. Electronic journals/books/blogs

The rise in online journals and online libraries like JSTOR has changed the way that I use journals entirely. Aside from the journals sent to me through the post due to membership of organisations or my own publications I can honestly say I have not picked up a hard copy of a journal in either of my last two jobs. That’s over three years in a post-hard-copy world. While books are clearly going in a similar direction there is still something tactile about an ethnography or an edited volume that draws me towards them whereas endless photocopying and massive filing cabinets are not something I miss in the slightest. The transition from laptops to tablet PCs is clearly going to accentuate this digitisation of reading material and as a result of that teaching will doubtlessly change too.

This as been accompanied by the rise in blogs as a new medium which bypasses the glacial pace of anthropological publishing. For me, coverage of the Human Terrain System was a milestone in anthropology. The frustratingly slow pace of research, writing, submission, editing and publication resulted in a chasm at the heart of anthropological writing while anthropology was in the news more prominently than it had been in years. Blogs on the topic were immediate and accessible. Starting to write this blog is an acknowledgement that this medium has advantages over other forms of writing. Alongside new moves towards open access, this is part of a complete overhaul of in the written forms anthropology takes that will doubtlessly see more changes over the next decade.

4. Turnitin

Whether you’re a marker or a markee – Turnitin has changed the system of submitting work and giving feedback massively. There are many grumbles about not being able to mark in your garden or on a train to be had. There also seems to be accompanying ratcheting up of scrutiny of marking procedures that accompanies the introduction of a new system – but that’s disgruntling but for the best. But the big improvements that Turnitin brings with it are A). a digitisation of marks and grades that makes record keeping more accessible, less demanding of dusty cupboards and more fitting with globalised student and staff movements. B). It makes plagiarism very easy to prove (in many cases). A decade ago it used to take detailed knowledge of key texts and some real detective work to prove plagiarism. Just a few years ago it used to take the endless googling of suspicious passages, dropping one word, then another, then another to try and figure out which one word had been thesaurused . Putting a case together against a student took a real act of will. I once lost three days to a particularly bad batch of essays. Now Turnitin does it for you and I’m happy.

Willful plagiarism at any stage in your academic life deserves punishment. It makes a mockery of those who play fairly, those who took their time to teach you and those whose work you’ve stolen. Turnitin helps me catch you. This pleases me.

5. Finding our way out of postmodernism

When I first started my PhD social anthropology felt a bit stuck. Foucauldian post-structuralism, Strathernian complexity, Baudrillardian linguistic uncertainty were at their peak. The only areas in anthropology where anybody seemed able to say anything at all certain was in critiquing others – either within the discipline or outside it. While this lead to prosperity in anthropology extending into development, medicine human rights and other areas it perhaps wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to ethnography. An unbearable amount of ethnographies became introverted – representing their argument as limited to their own specific view of one particular place. It felt like cross-cultural comparison was dying. While we’ve kept bits of this (I wouldn’t want it any other way) I feel much more comfortable that we’ve got more meaningful things to say than just criticism.

5 ways things have got worse

6. Competition for jobs

I was speaking to a Professor of anthropology not long ago (the British type not the American ‘all lecturers are professors’ type) and he told me that he’d got his first lectureship with just one article in print. That would be unthinkable now. There has been an  escalating arms race of early career publications (partly driven by my next bugbear) where entrance level academics are expected to have an array of impacting publications in print and enough on the burner to demonstrate you’ll be fruitful for years to come. The main source of this arms race has been the masses of DPhil students being processed by departments across the country and throughout the world. With most institutions having a number of PhD students at a similar level to the number of staff in the department the creation of anthropologists outnumbers the number of new teaching and research positions arising each year. While I don’t expect every DPhil to want to become a lecturing anthropologist, I’ve been through the ringer myself and have been watching as friends who are excellent researchers and teachers have struggled (and are still struggling) to find permanent jobs within higher education. Associate tutors/visiting tutors/teaching fellows and other teaching-only positions are often poisoned chalices – massive teaching loads preclude publishing in a publishing-centric career stream. While some departments and supervisors have realised this and are sending DPhils into the world prepared for these eventualities the harsh realities often come as a massive surpise to those entering the melee. It certainly did for me.

2.REF

In much the same way that university staff increasingly critique A-level syllabuses (for non UK-reader replace A-level with another pre-university assesment – complaints seemt o be similar elsewhere) for teaching students ‘how to pass tests now’ rather than teaching them ‘how to learn’ – the REF (Research Excellence Framework – the artist formerly known as the the Research Assessment Exercise) has become about playing the game. It’s not new, it’s just getting more refined. It exacerbates the above problem for junior academics, it leads to the destabilisation of departments as everyone tries to get the best roster of academics their budget can stretch to leading to mass movement. I know some sort of assessment is necessary in the current climate of free market competition between universities – but I’m sure it can be done better than this.

3.Student fees

The introduction of student fees in the UK is a hideous thing at all levels. A prosperous society should invest in its intellectual future. Students have suffered (and will suffer the burden of debt for years to come) ore than staff – but we feel the pain to. With recruitment numbers dropping – there will be aftershocks felt across academia in the not too distant future. But for the time being the main change is that students are increasingly demanding their money’s worth. Rightly so. But when combined with the increased pressures posed by REF on research we’re being squeezed from both sides. This sucks.

4. Ontologies

The rise in talk about ontologies and multiple ontologies is just euphemising what we used to call culture and cultural relativism. This annoys me immensley and I will more than likely go on a rant about it in the not too distant future. Viveros de Castro is fantastic – perspectivism is interesting – but the ontological turn resulting from his work is Emperors New Clothes-like. I may be wrong – I have been before – but I sense a backlash coming.

5. Student plagiarism

It’s not all sunshine and lollipops emanating from Google. The temptation to cobble together essays from websites and texts has also been facilitated by the search engine. Essay writing services abound. Turnitin offers Writecheck – a sister product that allows students to check if they’ve rejigged the work of others enough to make it undetectable.

Turnitin

Turnitin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While some aspects of plagiarism, collusion and cheating become easier to catch – others are being facilitated by new technology. On one level cheating is probably an effective life strategy and some might even want to reward it – but I happen to think that a level playing field is important. Sadly these services and technologies are run by people who want to make a profit. Those who can afford to cheat have more opportunity to do so. This seems doubly unfair and therefore doubly disgruntling.

Guns, 3D Printers and the Social Life of Things

The recent back and forth in Anthropology Today between Hugh Gusterson and Niklas Hultin highlighted old and new debates in anthropology. Gusterson advocated a tough anthropological stance on gun control in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook high school shooting. Drawing our attention to the political economy of the weapons industry – profits going to the rich, death coming to the poor – he argued in response to Cohn and Doukas’  work (and presumably preemptively against otherss who might follow suit) that this is no space for an analysis of the varying justifications of the NRA and other gun owners. Such analysis of rhetoric only serves to validate such arguments:

If, instead of following the rhetoric, we follow the careers of the guns themselves, the lives they take and the profits they make, we will see that guns disproportionately take the lives of the poor and of minorities while generating profit for companies owned primarily by wealthy white men. For example, the Bushmaster AR-15, the gun that killed all those six-year-olds in Newtown (and whose price is reported to have risen in the weeks since the massacre from $1,000 to $1800 or more), is made by the Freedom Group which, in turn, is owned by Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm worth over $20 billion run by financier Steve Feinberg (Gusterson 2013: 2)

In retort Hultin makes an articulate plea not to strip research on guns from the context where it occurred:

Here I would like respond to Gusterson’s editorial by suggesting that anthropology’s legacy of cultural relativism offers a distinctive and important entry point into the gun debate and that an investigation of the career of guns should not be divorced from the kind of cultural contextualization that he critiques (Hultin 2013 :23)

Here we see Boasian cultural relativism and a Scheper-Hughes-inspired ‘Primacy of the Ethical‘ position re-emerging in response to a distinctly polarising emotive debate. This debate will doubtlessly re-occur in varying iterations (I would argue necessarily so) for decades perhaps generations to come. If we take cultural relativism to be not only a moral stand-point but a methodological one, it ought to be intrinsic to our research. If we are to have anything approaching objectivity behind our research we need a starting point of attempted neutrality. Yet, if we are (even before our identities as anthropologists) first and foremost embodied agents in the field then we need to be able to respond to suffering and injustice humanely. If we see a right and a wrong then we are obliged to take sides. While I myself lean towards the second of these positions – it is with a very healthy dose of the former. Rather than taking an absolute standpoint I find myself viewing this not as a binary but as a spectrum – one I shift around within depending upon the issue at hand. In regard to this particular issue: I don’t like guns. I never will. I’m vaguely curious to know how it feels like to have that power in your hands – but I’m certain that the world is a better place when less people have it. I can understand the multitude of social or cultural reasons that lead to gun ownership – I’d still rather people didn’t have them. Particularly anywhere near me or my loved ones.

But rather than diving into this debate myself, what I want to briefly raise as an issue here is the point both authors touch upon in the above quotes – that of ‘the careers of guns’. It is a term which instantly made me think of Appadurai’s (ed) The Social Life of Things.

English: Arjun Appadurai listens to an audienc...

English: Arjun Appadurai listens to an audience member during a Q-A session after his lecture on Global Society at York’s 50-50 Symposium עברית: ארג’ון אפדוראי (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the book Appadurai (and also notably Kopytoff) argue that anthropology might un-anchor itself from research based on particular places becoming more fluid by following the biographical lives of objects. Outside of anthropology following the life of a firearm biographically is not entirely new – David Bernstein did it in this article from 2004, Jayson Blair and Sarah Weissman did it here in 2000. A more detailed, long term ethnographic study of the social life of a gun would doubtlessly be fascinating. This was the idea that was lodged in my head when the news became full of talk of designs for a 3D printable gun being made available online.

While these designs have been ordered to be taken offline, Pandora’s box has already been opened. 3D printers doubtlessly provide new legal dilemmas but they also provide bizarre new patterns in the biographies of objects. To borrow from another Appadurai text, Modernity at Large, this represents physical objects (or iterations of them) flowing through the ideoscape and technoscape in ways that mirror the neo-libertarian flows of power/knowledge that are typified by egalitarian ideals of code-sharing among programmers, hacking collectives or new non-state currencies such as Bitcoin. While the initial plans were made available for profit, the subsequent sharing of the files on sites like Mega for free (although now taken down) led to over 100,000 downloads of the gun design. The gun design has been pirated or democratised, depending upon your perspective, in such a way that people all around the world who have access to 3D printers now have access to guns. And depending upon printing speed, potentially lots of guns. With such printers now costing a little over £1000 and coming down in cost quickly we have to explore the potential of these new flows of objects being one that challenges our ability to meaningfully track such objects. And if we can’t track these newly democratised plans/objects – the embargoes that have stemmed the flows of these objects will be challenged in ways it is hard to anticipate. Is it possible to control access to weapons when they can be manufactured by anyone?

In light of this, I just want to end by reiterating the position recently taken by the American Anthropological Association:

Unfortunately, in 1996 the U.S. Congress defunded research on gun safety and gun injury at the Centers for Disease Control. It subsequently imposed constraints on research on guns and public health sponsored by the National Institutes for Health. Far from fostering a better understanding of gun deaths, the U.S. government seems to be actively impeding it.

Therefore we call upon the Congress and the Administration to rescind measures that obstruct the development of empirical knowledge about guns and public safety. (AAA 2013).

What I would add to this is that technological advancement in the form of 3D printers has suddenly made research on gun control (both in regards to the political economy of gun violence and in regards to the cultural patterns underlying their use) increasingly important beyond the borders of the United States. These are now global issues that might not fit with our existing models of exchange. We need social research that is fitting for a problem of this scale.

Bolivar Trask: Marvel’s eugenicist anthropologist

I recently discovered that H.G.Wells was a eugenicist. This made me particularly sad as he was somewhat of a hero of mine. Besides writing The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine he was also responsible for a letter to The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) and the subsequent lobbying of his friend President Roosevelt which lead to the resurgent idea of the ‘rights of man‘ which in turn became the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

H.G. Wells, 1910

H.G. Wells, 1910 (Photo credit: LSE Library)

To be a visionary author is a very good thing. To be one of the architects of one of the most humane things humankind has ever achieved allowed me to place him on a pedestal. Finding out that he thought the forced sterilisation of ‘degenerates’ was a cure to the world’s ills made me momentarily re-appraise my love for him. Fortunately it turned out that by the time he wrote The Rights of Man in 1940 he’d had an about turn and was advocating a prohibition of forced sterilisation. I was also pointed towards the likes of George Bernard Shaw and other social progressives having been in favour of eugenics in the first parts of the 20th century. The real world application of eugenic ideals in WWII highlighted exactly what a world looks like when such policies are implemented, but at one time it appeared to offer a real opportunity to move shape the world into a better place with less poverty and less suffering.

While I doubtlessly encountered both in other places first – the first place I knowingly encountered either eugenics or anthropology (or a fictional iteration of an anthropologist at least) was in the 1990’s animated series of the X-Men. Like Wells before him Bolivar Trask has his reasons for being a eugenicist. In the wider Marvel universe Trask is an anthropologist who sees the the spread of super-powered mutants as a threat to humanity, this is compounded by his finding out his children are mutants. Initially his activities take the form of publishing articles on ‘the mutant question‘ echoing the Nazi anthropologist Otmar Freiherr von Verscuer and Eugen Fischer’s involvement in ‘The Investigation Into The Jewish Question’ at the Frankfurt Institute.

Eventually Trask is driven to create an army of giant robots called the Sentinels who eventually decide they are superior to both humanity and mutants and go about trying to take over the world (again there are echoes of anthropological inspiration for the Final Solution). With the X-Men’s alterity allowing them to stand for outsiders and the downtrodden everywhere Trask has, since his inception in the 1960’s, variously stood as a cypher for anti-semitism, racism, homophobia and Senator McCarthy. As introductions to anthropology go, this is not the greatest. So it is a mixed blessing that Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage has been rumoured to be playing Trask in the upcoming X-Men film – an adaptation of Chris Claremont’s excellent Days of Future Past (up there with The Dark Phoenix Saga and God Loves, Man Kills as a contender for best X-Men story arc).

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I am a disproportionately pleased to of see anthropologists appear in films (I’m currently watching the last few findable films in an attempt to watch every fictional filmic representation of an anthropologist – no doubt more on this in future blogs)  I can’t help feeling that we’ve come along way in all the the many branches of anthropology that inferring connections between our discipline and eugenics might not be fair in the 21st century. Possibly for exactly this reason Trask’s academic background has become increasingly hazy. It was always slightly odd to categorise a man capable of inventing super-intelligent giant robots as an anthropologist anyway. But being that my first exposure to anthropology was through Trask and I still became an anthropologist maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe it’s just nice that the Marvel universe has an anthropologist – even if he is a bad guy.

The meaning of ‘Bork’ – the Swedish Chef and cross-cultural translation.

While living with the Swedish owner of the only Irish bar in Guatemala, ‘Johan’ mentioned that first thing he ever remembered finding funny was the Swedish Chef. To the undiscerning eye the Swedish Chef might appear to be a joke at the expense of Swedes. But as a child  ‘Johan’ had understood the Swedish Chef for exactly what Jim Henson intended it to be – a joke about the things that translate oddly in transcultural and translinguistic exchanges.

For those of you who have never experienced the Swedish Chef it is perhaps best to watch a snippet before going any further:

The Swedish Chef is primarily a slapstick take on TV chefs. Central to each sketch is his inability to successfully cook the dishes (largely consisting of a still-living animal or vegetable puppet that gets the better of him and survives death) while he sings a song which ends each verse with ‘bork, bork, bork!’ This is conducted with unconventional cooking equipment which he generally throws around while cooking. He speaks in what is best described as Chef-speak – a nonsensical Swedish strewn with occasionally identifiable English words making it near comprehensible in a way that replicates that uncanny feeling of nearly understanding what’s being said while listening to people speaking another language.

Swedish Chef

Swedish Chef (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Bork’ in this context is just a word that when said in a heavy comedic Scandinavian accent sounds funny. But the repetition of ‘bork’ over and over again makes you question what it means. The fact that this is gibberish lends it the meaning an unknowability that gives the word ‘bork’ an ineffable charm. It is a word that is purely nonsensical, but in a loving way that points towards a childish joy in the fact that people speaking other languages sound funny. The Swedish Chef is not a joke about Swedes being funny but about the liminally alien nature of other cultures being funny. Similar comedy can be seen in The Simpson’s Bumble Bee Man (a riff on the cross cultural oddness of El Chapulin Colorado from Mexican TV).

Roberto Gómez Bolaños as El Chapulín Colorado

Roberto Gómez Bolaños as El Chapulín Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Occasionally such humour can lead to accusations of racism. The more articulate accusations thrown at Sasha Baron Cohen’s comedy foreigner Borat closely echo the criticism Chinua Achebe made of Joseph Conrad – “To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever, but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction I don’t like it” (Achebe interview with Caryl Phillips 2003).

But as a child ‘Johan’ saw Henson’s sentiment in it’s totality: in recognising ‘that’s what Americans think Swedes sound like’ came the recognition that there is something profound lost in cross-cultural translation. I would add the anthropological addendum that trying to minimise this loss is profound, interesting and very often funny in itself.

It is for this reason that this blog has the syncretic name ‘The Golden Bork’ – one part Frazer’s The Golden Bough married with an equal part nonsensical Muppet-Swedish. Here we take ‘bork’ to mean the ineffable, light-hearted funny side of cross-cultural exchange – while Frazer stands for something loftier.