Being Disconcerted

As a young boy, I was feminine. Or maybe I was just indiscriminate, loving both My Little Ponies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Luckily, my parents didn’t police me as I neared the dress up box, pulling out some of the gaudier items. But my inability to obey the rules of gender would soon cause some problems. I would struggle with these problems, until a transformative moment in second year anthropology.

The Playtime Police

Being indiscriminate wasn’t grounds for suspicion during kinder, at least with the other kids. But by primary school the cohort had truly bifurcated. Without exception, the boys were playing with boys and the girls with girls.

Left in a kind of gender limbo, and with no friends, I decided to approach some friendly-looking girls during a sunny recess. Group ring leader Stacey Peterson* intercepted me before I could enter the cubby, duly notifying me her posse didn’t play with ‘gay people’. I didn’t know what gay people meant, but I can remember feeling ostracised. Not long after labelled a ‘gaybo’, this kind of policing would continue through to high school. For example, Matt MacDonald* took it upon himself to habitually sing Shania Twain’s ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ whenever I was within earshot.

Reading Anthropology

I had intuited something not-quite-right about the rules shared by Stacey, Matt and their contemporaries. But with the help of anthropology, it became easy to see the strictures of gender as culturally and historically contingent. Elsewhere, particular gentials aren’t determining people as male or female (Helliwell 2001) and people are going about their lives quite capably without any mandate to keep things ‘natural’ (MacCormack 1980). We could also take these ideas towards a more speculative anthropology (Anderson et al. 2018): in another place, or another time, boys will play with My Little Ponies and no one will think twice, much less police, reprimand or taunt them. And nor will Shania Twain be co-opted.

A re-enactment of me reliving the Stacey Peterson encounter: textual healing.

Conceiving of This Encounter

There’s a few ways we could think about my encounter with the anthropology of gender.

Ghassan Hage (2012) has noted that, throughout the 20th century, people have sought social and political change with reference to a critical sociology that has ‘helped us see… relations of power and domination’ (p. 287). Hage calls this sociology-inspired politics an ‘anti-politics’.

In contrast, the kind of politics that might emerge from anthropology he calls ‘alter-politics’ (p. 288). Coming into contact with the radically different, whether through fieldwork or reading,

‘such difference disorients us to begin with and in the process of helping us reorient ourselves within it and in relation to it, anthropology widens our sphere of what is socially and culturally possible’ (Ibid.)

My experience reading about gender is a bit different to this, however. I had already felt an ongoing sense of disorientation with gender, and anthropology provided some tools for a further disorientation, eagerly received, followed by reorientation with new possibilities. This experience led me to pursue further disorientation throughout my bachelor’s degree.

Helen Verran (2013) has grappled with similar issues to Hage. Sketching experiences of disorientation and reorientation, Verran frames this in terms of epistemic disconcertment (p. 145). Marisol de la Cadena (2015) lucidly summarises Verran: ‘this disconcertment… is the feeling that assaults individuals – including their bodies – when the categories that pertain to their world-making practices and institutions are disrupted’ (p. 276).

For Verran, knowledge is not only cognitive, but variously located in ‘institutions, categories, arranged materials and communitive protocols’, meaning ‘the multiple pulls of these intense habits of knowing are felt bodily’ (p. 145-6). This is something I wish I knew in first year. As you encounter radically different worlds, remember that it is not only your brain being pulled around.

*not their real names


References:

Anderson R, Backe E, Nelms T, Reddy E and Trombley J 2018, ‘Speculative Anthropologies’, Theorising the Contemporary, Fieldsites, December 2018. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/speculative-anthropologies

de la Cadena, M 2015, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds, Duke University Press, Durham.

Hage, G 2015, ‘Critical Anthropological Though and the Radical Political Imaginary Today’, Critique of Anthropology, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 285-308.

Helliwell, C 2001, ‘Engendering Sameness’,  Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, vol. 6.

MacCormack, C 1980, ‘Nature, Culture and Gender: A Critique’, in C MacCormack and M Strathern (eds), Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 1-24.

Verran, H 2013, ‘Engagements Between Disparate Knowledge Traditions: Towards Doing Difference Generatively and in Good Faith’, in L Green (ed), Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge, HSRC Press, Cape Town, pp. 141-161,

See also:

I mentioned speculative anthropology. Cultural Anthropology has a series of short blog posts on this topic. Sarah’s Anthropozine post on ‘interplanetary anthropologist’ Ursula Le Guin also considers the imagining of future worlds.

You can listen to Ghassan Hage speak about alternate worlds and multiculturalism in this Familiar Strange podcast.



PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation

Space: The Final Frontier. The final colonial stomping ground for the rich and the entitled and the predominantly white. The phrase “colonisation of space” – and all its associated connotations of conquering and civilising – has long been in use in both science-fiction and real-world references to the future of humanity, as envisioned in the great starry plains of the cosmos. (The first “original” use of the phrase is difficult to ascertain). Undoubtedly, from the so-called “Space Race” of the 1950s to the 1970s, to Elon Musk’s present-day SpaceX program, the modern world appears particularly enamoured with the concept of exploring and, eventually, inhabiting space. Earth’s own moon, and the red expanse of Mars, are especially coveted as the site(s) for this proposed future habitation, as the planets deemed to have atmospheres most resembling Earth’s (from within our own solar system). At least, if not entirely resembling Earth’s, the atmospheres of the moon and Mars are deemed the most “manageable”; the most “conquerable”, and, indeed, the most “colonisable”.

Certainly, living on either moon or planet would require extensive “terraforming” of the landscape to allow the human physiology to survive. Science-fiction novels, movies, and television shows abound with images of domes and underground bunkers; great white spectres amidst otherwise barren landscapes.

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Yet beyond merely being able to walk and talk and breath within these habitats, the primary concern centres around our ability to grow food. That is, to grow plants: agricultural foodstuffs such as wheat, maize, vegetables, fruits, herbs. Plants not only for our own (human) consumption but for the potential consumption of livestock as well. Without these, humanity simply will not survive a long-term habitation of space.

Plants – both agricultural, and of the garden variety – have historically been tied to many of the “original” colonization efforts of Earth nations and peoples. It is likely the same will be true of the colonisation of space (Slobodian 2015). What has been deemed the “Anthropocene” has been heavily influenced by the ‘biotic upheaval’ (Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 364) of both plants and animals (and fungi and bacteria and…) associated with Earthen colonialism, and its subsequent ideological ‘remaking of relations among humans, plants, and place’ (ibid.). For colonialism was foremost seen as a conquering of land for European empires; and only subsequently the people and animals and plants that happened to reside on that land. As European powers created settler colonies in these lands, they brought with them the plants and animals of their home countries, producing an intensive “biological expansion of Europe” (Crosby quoted in Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 367). Plants and animals once “native” to Europe (critiques of the concept of native/alien aside) can now be found across the world. In this way, colonialism and its “conquering” of foreign landscapes through human, botanical, and zoological means, arguably represents ‘the greatest biological revolution’ (Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 374) of the modern world. Space proves to be no different. For ‘how could one ever think that, on a remote planet, our environmental care would be any different’ (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti 2017, 213) to what it has historically been on Earth?

So, let’s take a cue from science-fiction, and envision a future a hundred years from now, or two or three or four. Let’s say humans have set up habitations on Mars; we’ve figured out how to grow food plants, and to grow them well, and the first “pioneering” outposts have now expanded to great cities of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. Undoubtedly these cities will be built to resemble the cities of Earth (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti 2017), including its plant life: one can picture parks and tree-lined streets; rooftop gardens and window boxes filled with flowers. Just as Earth colonialism “imported” the plants of settler’s home countries to new lands, so too will the colonisation of space indubitably import Earth plants to the terraformed landscapes of Mars, or the moon, or whichever other planet(s) we decide to “conquer” and “civilise”. Beyond the “practical” agricultural plants mentioned previously, what other plants might be selected for space expansion, and why? How do we decide which plants are “worthy” of inter-planetary expansion, and which should remain on Earth? The botanical and zoological concepts of “native” and “alien” would gain new meaning, as the human experience becomes, literally, extra-terrestrial. Who would make these botanical decisions, and based on what criteria? What would such choices say about our relationship with the chosen plants, and with the unchosen plants, and with the Earth (as a planet) more generally?

These questions and more, coming soon to an Anthropology near you.

Featured Image Source: Samaa.tv


References:

Calanchi, A., Farina, A., and Barbanti, R. 2017, ‘An Eco-Critical Cultural Approach to Mars Colonization’, Forum for World Literature Studies, Vol. 9, Issue 2, pp.205-216

Mastnak, T., Elyachor, J., and Boellstorff, T. 2014, ‘Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants’, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, Vol. 32, Issue 2, pp.363-380

Slobodian, R.E. 2015, ‘Selling Space Colonization and Immortality: A Psychosocial, Anthropological Critique of the Rush to Colonize Mars’, Acta Astronautica, Vol. 113, pp.89-104

See Also:

Mary Douglas’s Garden

Ursula Le Guin and the Ethnography of Future Worlds

The Anthropo Scene Part I

The Anthropo Scene Part II

No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Humans are primates. First scandalously suggested – or, at least, first credited as being suggested – by Charles Darwin, this taxonomical classification has since been confirmed by genetic DNA testing. Humans are very much primates, with our genetic similarity to chimpanzees, our closest relatives, as being ‘wellover 99%’ (Waldau 2007, 105; original emphasis removed). Humans are closer to chimps, genetically, than African elephants are to Asian elephants (ibid.).

This fact has caused ideological problems for much of the Western world. The Christian Bible has long advocated man’s dominion over animals – not over other animals, but over animals, period. There is a deep-seated belief in the idea that human are somehow intrinsically separate from, and “above”, the animal world (not to mention the worlds of plants and fungi). This view remains common today, with many Western and Westernized peoples ‘count[ing] themselves a significant cut above animals’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347); viewing humanity as inherently ‘set apart from the rest of nature’ (Waldau 2007, 107). Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as animals, and, later, following Darwin, the taxonomical restructuring of humans as primates, has challenged this deeply held conviction of the Western world’s. And think about it: We classified ourselves as primates. Classification is a human concept, bounded by human-created terms and ideologies. Even the scientific concepts of genetics and DNA are arguably bound to specifically human understandings and framings of these concepts.

So why, then, do so many people still reject the idea that we are “like primates”, or that primates are “like us”? Much of it is tied to the perceived “nature/culture” divide and the socially-held idea that ‘in virtue of culture, humans transcend nature’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347). Yet modern academic critiques (both positive and negative) of the so-titled “Anthropocene” recognise this divide as ‘an untenable approach’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Rather, our (human) place in the world and our relationship with “nature”, is ‘an important arena for [ongoing] anthropological analysis’ (Fuentes 2012, 141). This includes, undoubtedly, our ideological relationship with ourselves as primates, as well as our ideological and physical relationships with other non-human primates. The emergence of ethnoprimatology in the anthropological field is evidence of this growing interest in the link(s) between humans and primates. Fuentes writes that an ‘ethnoprimatological [sic] orientation accepts humans as primates and sees value in including other primates as co-participants in shaping social and ecological space’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Here, ethnoprimatology draws heavily on the concept of the Anthropocene.

Certainly, the insisted separation between humans and primates is revealed to be a distinctly ­Western phenomenon. In many places, humans live in close co-habitation alongside other non-human primates, such as in South- and Southeast Asia, as well as in parts of Africa. Diogo (2018) argues that the negative view of primates is a uniquely European phenomenon, as many other people(s) who interact frequently with primates tend to have a much closer and even reverent relationship with them. He cites Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting Babi, the baboon God, as well as Balinese temples filled with real and sculpted long-tailed monkeys. Waldau (2007), too, references the words of gorilla scientist Dian Fossey’s guide Manuel, who, when encountering free-ranging gorillas in Rwanda, exclaimed ‘Kweli ndugu yanga’, a Swahili phrase meaning ‘Truly my kin’ (Waldau 2007, 104). This reveals intrinsic differences between Western and non-Western views regarding other non-human primates, and our relationship with them.

Of course, this culturally perceived kinship between Swahili peoples and gorillas in no way justifies or legitimises the colonial and very racialized history of Europeans referring to Black African humans as apes. Inspired by Linnaeus’s proposed sub-species (see my companion post here), the early days of physical anthropology were rife with apparently “scientific” comparisons between the physiology of Black African humans and great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. Black Africans (and their kin across the colonies) were routinely referred to as “less evolved” or “less advanced” than their white European counterparts; further down on the evolutionary ladder and more akin to the apes than to “civilised” humans. (Of course, the idea that evolution is a “ladder” at all is a complete fallacy, but that’s an argument for another day). As such, colonial regimes of slavery, segregation, and apartheid could be legitimised through “scientific” terms. Yet once again, we see Diogo’s (2018) claim that this negative view of primates is a distinctly European perspective. Being likened to primates is, in itself, arguably not a “negative” thing – since humans are primates, and there may be much to admire in the lifestyles of primates across the globe. Only in the Christian European view were primates viewed as below humans, and therefore to be like primates was also to be below (other) humans. Modern anthropological and ethnoprimatological analyses critique these understandings, both historical and ongoing, and question, quite literally, what it means “to be human” – and to be primates.

Image Source: Business Insider


References:

Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Fuentes, A 2012, ‘Proposal 2: Humans as Niche Constructors, As Primates and With Primates: Synergies for Anthropology in the Anthropocene’, Cambridge Anthropology, Vol. 30, Issue 2, pp.141-146

Sheets-Johnstone, M 2010, ‘The Descent of Man, Human Nature and the Nature/Culture Divide’, Anthropological Theory, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp.343-360

Waldau, P 2007, ‘Kweli Ndugu Yanga – The Religious Horizons of “Humans are Primates”’, Worldviews, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp.103-123

See More:

“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

The Anthropo Scene Part I

The Anthropo Scene Part II

Things We Wish We Knew: Temporality

Studies of temporality consider experiences of time, and how experiences of time are mediated. This mediation could be variously through objects, materials, institutions, interactions and categories. With this list alone, you already start to sense how most anything can be studied in temporal terms. This is why temporality is an crucial concept: it pervades the social world.

I’ll start sketching temporality with a concrete example. The example comes from design anthropology, an area often foregrounding temporality. But keep in mind you can attend to temporality in almost every anthropological analysis.

Making Time

Contrasting a product design studio with eco-home builders, Anusas and Harkness (2016) show how ways of making things ‘invoke or at least encourage’ different temporalities (p. 55).

The design studio was in a large UK city, with many projects running at once (Ibid. p. 57). Due to pressure from clients, faster design methods were favoured (Ibid., 61). Getting projects ‘off the books’ quickly also meant sustaining the business (Ibid.). Designers focused on what was about to occur or would soon occur. Rarely did they think in time frames greater than weeks (Ibid. p. 58). Coping with projects this way, the designers’ experience of the present can be called ‘close-present’ (Ibid.).

Close-present temporality could be seen in ‘much of the verbal, bodily and material sociality’ of the studio (Ibid. p. 59). For example, the designers often said ‘time is in short supply’, gesticulating to convey this shortage, and leading them to favour speedy design tools such as 3D printing (Ibid. p. 61). Note that a preference for certain tools also means a certain relationship with those tools.

Harkness’ fieldwork was with Earthship builders in Scotland and New Mexico. For these builders, temporality wasn’t sensed as either close-present, nor in short supply (Ibid. p. 61). Earthship builders seek to create sustainable new dwellings, taking a preference for ‘natural’ and recycled materials, along with renewable energy. In turn, these builders make new ways of living, with ‘impulses towards creating alternative futures’, ‘to bring change to the world, to shift the ground, to alter the rules’ (Ibid. p. 62).

An Earthship in construction.

Anusas and Harkness call the temporality made by Earthship building a ‘far reaching present’. Sustainable materials and a shared awareness of environmental issues gave a means to make this temporality ‘real or manifest’ (Ibid. p. 65). In other words, the action of building also made experiences of the present. This included relationships with humans, nonhumans and materials. Though the studio designers had similar environmental and ethical concerns, commercial restraints hindered an experience of the present as far-reaching (Ibid. p. 66).

Let’s look to the history of temporality in anthropology, to contextualise Anusas and Harkness’ approach. In the early 1990s, Nancy Munn (1992) gauged anthropological research on temporality. She found a neglect for one factor. Anthropologists had written too little about temporality as being constantly mediated through everyday life (Munn 1992, p. 116). For instance, Evans-Pritchard (1940) argued the Neur perceive time through local seasonal categories, the main two being tot and mai (p. 96). But this focus on abstract concepts led Evans-Pritchard to neglect how temporal experiences are mediated everyday through mundane social life (Ibid p. 96).

The design studio/Earthships contrast shows how temporal experiences are mediated through mundane practices like making and labouring, as well as through materials and things. Temporality does involve high-level abstraction. But it cannot be grasped only at an abstract level. Nor can it be grasped solely through obvious materials and things like clocks and calendars (Bear 2016 p. 48) or lunar cycles (Munn 1992 p.96).

Temporality pervades social life. Nurturing a sensitivity to the temporal will add nuance to your anthropological literacy, so start thinking temporally!


References:

Anusas, M and Harkness, R 2016 ‘Different Presents in the Making’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 55-70.

Bear, L 2016, ‘Time as Technique’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 45, pp. 487-502.

Evans-Prichard, EE 1940, The Neur: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Munn, N 1992, ‘The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 21, pp. 93-123.

Rabinow, P and Marcus, G 2008, Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Duke University Press, Durham.

See also:

Can we think about the design studio/Earthships example in relation to the art/science debate? Is the art/science distinction helpful here? Can anthropologists study experience in a scientific way?

Rob mentions categories in his post on ontology. Is temporality a category?

Next time your ice-cream is melting, think about temporality!

An Anthropology of Scientific Things

A profile on Stefan Helmreich

Stefan Helmreich Lecture Slide

Whether anthropology is an art or a science is a long debate (see Julia’s post here), but what can the anthropology of science look like? Anthropology and sociology of scientific research has an extensive history and now a lot of that research, along with the philosophy and history of science, falls under the inter-disciplinary category of STS, or Science and Technology Studies.

Bruno Latour is perhaps the most well-known science studies scholar within anthropology, with the book he co-authored with Steve Woolgar Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), having been very influential in the social studies of science (and very controversial at the time, part of the so-called ‘science wars’. Latour and Woolgar argued that ‘facts’ both emerged from and only had meaning within social networks of people and institutions. Often simplistically portrayed as a ‘science-denier’ he now has taken up climate change advocacy to find ways of engaging the public with scientific knowledge (Vrieze, 2017).

Stefan Helmreich, a professor at MIT, is another important anthropologist of science whose research delves into human and non-human relationships, specifically through the lens of scientific research. He has written on artificial life—Silicon Second Nature (1998)—, marine biologists—Alien Ocean (2009)—, and most recently his research has been on waves: from a variety of points of view including from oceanographers, computational life scientists and audio-engineers—Sounding the Limits of Life (2016).

Speaking about waves Helmreich, in a 2014 lecture, says that he is interested in studying them as scientific things, in other words, things that simultaneously exist ‘out there’ but “cannot be separated from the formalisms describing them” (2014, p. 267). Because, in the ocean, it’s so hard to determine what a ‘single’ wave is, working with oceanographers, Helmreich sees that their understanding of waves is totally bound up in the representations, the computer models:

“Waves are mash-ups, amalgams of watery events, instrumented captures of those events, and mathematical portraits of those events, often described statistically rather than singularly” (2014, p. 272)

The waves that oceanographer’s are modelling are, in some ways, human creations at the same time as things in and of themselves. Particularly when ocean waves are of such importance in anthropogenic climate change, waves are inherently connected to human activities. In this way Helmreich proposes that waves have a history, intimately connected with human history. Even the scientific models of waves depend on an entire technological and social infrastructure of buoys, satellites, and computer models.


References:

Helmreich, S., 2014. Waves: An anthropology of scientific things. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, 265–284. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.016

Vrieze, J. de, 2017. Bruno Latour, a veteran of the ‘science wars,’ has a new mission [WWW Document]. Science | AAAS. URL https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/bruno-latour-veteran-science-wars-has-new-mission (accessed 6.11.19).

See Also:

What is Deep Sea Mining? Video with Stefan Helmreich

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/bruno-latour-veteran-science-wars-has-new-mission

Ethics of applied anthropology

The Human Terrain System (HTS) was a US military program that ran from February 2007 through until September 2014. Growing out of a ‘cultural turn’ in the US military, it enlisted social scientists, including anthropologists, to provide cultural knowledge during the counterinsurgency war in Iraq and Afghanistan (Forte, 2011). The argument was that cultural information would be used for military occupations anyway and, by at least engaging with the military, anthropologists could give better information for the military. This could lead to less violence by the military because of better understanding of how local cultures work (2011, p. 150).

While the program was greeted with favourable press at first, it quickly started receiving major criticism, particularly from anthropologists (2011). The American Anthropological Association (AAA) released statements stating that the HTS was incompatible with the AAA’s code of ethics on a range of fronts. In the end, partly because of the efforts of the AAA and others, there were very few anthropologists in the program.

Understandably a very large number of anthropologists were horrified by the concept of ‘embedded’ ethnographers working within the US counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Particularly given how the discipline sees itself in the wake of the Postcolonial and Marxist criticisms of the discipline in the 60s and 70s: that it was a ‘handmaiden’ to colonialism & imperialism (Forte, 2011, p. 150). While the relationship between anthropological research and colonial administration within colonised countries has been well documented, the complex relationships between anthropology and the military-industrial complex are not as widely discussed.

David H. Price is an American anthropologist who has a series of books looking at some of these varied connections, in the US context, from World War I and through the Cold War. Especially during the two world wars, there were anthropologists who were actively involved with the national intelligence organisations, including as spies, language instructors and strategic analysts (Price, 2008). During the McCarthy era of the Cold War (1940s and 50s), anthropologists were targeted and put under surveillance by the FBI, creating a difficult atmosphere for activist or radical anthropological writing (Price, 2004). As the Cold War developed, more subtle relationships between the CIA and anthropology evolved (Price, 2016),

In Cold War Anthropology (2016) Price discusses what he calls the dual use of anthropology, which has long been a term known to natural scientists (particularly chemists and physicists) in which ‘basic’ research is often used for military and commercial uses, and vice versa. He argues that such interconnection, witting or unwitting, is often not talked about in the case of anthropology. While he discusses one example of a CIA agent going undercover as an anthropologist in the field, a lot of the influence came through the funding opportunities that were shaped by Pentagon and CIA funds, often as gifts to universities channelled through ‘front organisations’ or well-known ‘neutral’ philanthropic organisations. Funding structures can easily shape the kinds of research being undertaken, sometimes to the advantage (or not) of the CIA and US military. In fact the AAA’s first code of ethics was developed in the wake of the ‘Thai Affair’ in which anthropologists contributed to counterinsurgency operations in Thailand in the 1970s (Price, 2016).

Obviously not all anthropologists were involved or complicit in the manoeuvring of the CIA and the Pentagon during the Cold War, but it is a good reminder that the political economy of knowledge production can have profound influences on academic research, including anthropology.


References:

Forte, M.C., 2011. The Human Terrain System and Anthropology: A Review of Ongoing Public Debates. American Anthropologist 113, 149–153. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01315.x

Price, D.H., 2016. Cold War anthropology: the CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Duke University Press, Durham.

Price, D.H., 2008. Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Duke University Press.

Price, D.H., 2004. Threatening anthropology: Mccarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists. Duke University Press, Durham.

Embrace the Serpent: Representing Anthropological Relationships

Karamakate, Theo, Manduca (R-L)

Embrace of the Serpent is a 2015 film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra that shows two anthropological journeys into the Colombian Amazon. It cuts between two timelines, 1909 and 1940, to show two journeys up the Colombian Amazon by Western researchers Theo and, later, Evan—who are based on ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. In the film, the two journeys are connected through the single character, Karamakate, a shaman and their guide. Karamakate is one of the surviving members of a fictionalised tribe, who have access to powerful medicinal plants, that Theo believes he needs to survive. The film blends Amazonian mythology with the diaries and writings of the Koch-Grünberg and Evans Shultes, depicting these journeys from the indigenous point of view as much as the explorers’. In an interview Guerra says that,

in order for the film to be true to that [the indigenous point of view], I had to stop being faithful to the “truth” because, to them, ethnographic, anthropological, and historical truths were as fictional as imagination and dream, which for them was valid. (Guerra, 2016)

Guerra worked with local indigenous communities in the writing and production of the film and, after the film’s premiere in Venice, it was screened a number of times in the Colombian Amazon. The film is spoken in nine languages, one of which, Ocaina is only spoken by sixteen people, and Guerra says that it was a powerful experience for them to see their language represented on the screen (Guerra, 2016).

Embrace of the Serpent, while a kind of parable or mythological story, gives a complex depiction of field relationships between the two social scientists and their indigenous interlocutors. They are characters that are sympathetic to the indigenous Amazonians, with Guerra on stating that Koch-Grünberg was, “the first to refer to the indigenous people in humanistic terms as the people of the Amazon” (Guerra, 2016). And they are shown in a very good light in comparison to the other Europeans of the film, who are either missionaries or rubber barons. The gravely ill Theo travels with Manduca, who is local and loyal to Theo because he payed out Manduca’s debt to the rubber plantation. Yet both Theo and Evans, as characters, have a ‘dark’ side to them, they are conceited and can’t full empathise with the local tribes and, at times, their attempt to extract knowledge without considering the indigenous perspective emerges.

In one scene, a tribe that Theo has visited before, and seems to be on good terms with, steals his compass. He confronts them and grabs one of the children pushing him to try and get it back.

Karamakate: You’re nothing but a white 
Theo: Their orientation system is based on the winds and the position of the stars. If they learn how to use a compass, that knowledge will be lost.
Karamakate: You cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men. But you can’t understand that, because you’re just a white.

Here Theo’s obsession with maintaining the purity of ‘traditional’ local knowledge turns into a form of paternalism, in which he feels he knows what they should want or need better than they do.

Embrace of the Serpent skilfully balances the complexity of representing historical anthropological research. It depicts multiple relationships that developed and change between the characters, as individuals not just archetypes, throughout these journeys. Manduca and Karamakate are not simply victims, rather they choose to help the white interlopers and, for good and bad, feel like these researchers were their best shot at telling their stories to the colonisers and capitalists that were destroying their communities.

Guerra doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable actions and opinions of the researchers, and yet, these relationships are never ‘black and white’. Well, in a literal sense, they actually are because the film is shot using black and white 35mm film. The decision to shoot without colour was originally inspired by seeing the old daguerreotype photographic plates, which were “devoid of exuberance and exoticism”, and then going to the Amazonian jungle Guerra realised that colour film couldn’t begin to really represent the multiple colours there (Guerra, 2016). It also has another effect, which I found shone through when watching the film:

“[W]hen I talked to the Amazonian people, I realized that with black-and-white images there was no difference between nature being green and us being something else. Every human, every bird, every drop of water is made up the same in black and white so it was perfectly coherent. ” (Guerra, 2016)


References:

Embrace of the Serpent 2015, video recording, Ciudad Lunar Producciones, Colombia. Directed by C Guerra

Guerra, C., 2016. Embrace of the Serpent: An Interview with Ciro Guerra [WWW Document]. Cineaste Magazine. URL https://www.cineaste.com/spring2016/embrace-of-the-serpent-ciro-guerra (accessed 6.9.19).

Research(ing) Fields / Anthropology of Food

My honours thesis is about coffee so I’ve been reading a lot about the anthropology of food, which is a larger subfield than I had realised. As a research area it is interesting because it allows for multidimensional research that links together ecological concerns with economics and symbolic and ritual meaning-making. Food studies also directly connects the body with these wider social-cultural-economic systems. Because of the way that food travels, or not, it also can be at the forefront of multi-sited ethnographic research.

In an overview of the subdiscipline, Sidney Mintz describes three areas that the anthropology of food focuses on (Mintz and Du Bois, 2002):

  1. Political-economic value-creation
  2. Symbolic value-creation
  3. Social construction of memory         

Mintz, himself, is the author of Sweetness and Power (1986)a very influential book that gives a history of the modern era through the lens of sugar. As one of the most important global commodities, sugar has always been embedded in colonial economic relationships.  His fieldwork in Puerto Rico with sugar cane labourers led him to think about the history of the commodity in shaping both the producing nations and the consuming nations. He ties together the economics (demand/supply) of sugar with its changing social meaning.

The research field, for Mintz, started in the sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico, but he believed that in order to understand these economic and power relationships required a historical and transnational lens, paying attention to the ways in which meaning is made through use. Mintz sees the production and consumption influencing each other in complex ways, just like the intertwined relationships between the economic, geopolitical and cultural spheres.

In doing so he uses the ‘follow the thing’ research method, which traces a single object as it passes through different exchanges and social spheres (Marcus, 1995). The object in such research is often seen as being made of up a multitude of social relationships.

Studying food is also about the connection between these larger social practices and one’s sensory experience. The sensory experience of food is critical to a fuller understanding of people’s relationships to it. How can anthropology describe sensory experience? One example of the increasing attempts to tackle this problem is Sarah Pink’s ethnographic description of a Slow Food Movement walking tour in Wales (Pink, 2008). Pink takes a cue from the slow food walking tour to propose a multimodal ‘slow ethnography’ that embeds itself in the places sensory experience of being there (Sutton, 2010). This then allows Pink to understand ethnography itself as a “place-making process”, shared between researcher and participants (Pink, 2008, p. 175).


References:

Marcus, G.E., 1995. Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24, 95–117.

Mintz, S.W., 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books.

Mintz, S.W., Du Bois, C.M., 2002. The Anthropology of Food and Eating. Annual Review of Anthropology 31, 99–119. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.32.032702.131011

Pink, S., 2008. An urban tour: The sensory sociality of ethnographic place-making. Ethnography 9, 175–196. https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138108089467

Sutton, D.E., 2010. Food and the Senses. Annual Review of Anthropology 39, 209–223. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.104957

“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

If you’ve never studied biology before, or expressed any interest in the worlds of zoology or botany or mycology (the study of fungi; and no I didn’t just Google that three seconds ago…), then you’d be forgiven for not knowing who Carl Linnaeus is (or was). The Swede is largely credited as the “Father of Modern Taxonomy” for his system of classification outlined in his book Systema Naturae (first edition published in 1735).

Of course, the concept of classification had been around long before Linnaeus. DeSalle and Tattersall (2018) argue that ‘[n]aming things is a very deeply embedded component of our cultural and evolutionary development’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018, 30). The very basic of language is to name things, and, more than that, naming things in relation to other things. The human naming of things – including “natural” things like plants and animals and fundi – reveals ‘a whole mentality, a view of how the universe is constituted’ (Douglas 1965, 197). Indeed, Mary Douglas’ examination of the rules of Leviticus (Douglas 1966) – dictating what animals are acceptable to eat and why, based on common characteristics – reveals that classification of the natural world was around long, long, before Linnaeus. Classifying the world around us, Douglas argues, protects society from ideological ‘ambiguity and dissonance’ (Douglas 1965, 196). In doing so, humans put the natural world ‘in its place’ (Douglas 1965, 196), and this implies ‘only two conditions, a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order’ (Douglas 1965, 198). (It was in this context that her arguably most famous assertion that “dirt” is simply ‘matter out of place’ (ibid.) appeared).

Where Linnaeus “revolutionised” the world of taxonomy, was in his ‘great gift… of standardization’ (Naumann 2006, 80). He created the binomial system of nomenclature that is still used in the natural sciences today, where each species is given a two-part name in Latin and/or Greek form: First, their genus (e.g. Homo; capitalised), followed by their individual species name (sapiens). (The name Homo sapiens means “wise man”. He was not the most original in his choices). Linnaeus was the first to (officially, at least) classify human beings as belonging to the same kingdom as animals. (Placing humans in the same order as primates came much later, after Darwin and his own “revolutionizing” work on evolution).

Yet Linnaeus was not content to leave it at that. Systema Naturae was published amidst a boom of colonial expansion, where the concept of “race” was perhaps more prominent than ever before. Subsequently, good ol’ Carl thought it would be fitting to divide Homo sapiens into four racial subspecies – and brace yourself, because by modern standards it truly is awful:

‘(1) American: red, bilious, straight – governed by customs; (2) European: white, sanguine, muscular – governed by customs; (3) Asian: sallow (pale), melancholic, stiff – governed by opinion; and (4) African: black, phlegmatic, stiff – governed by chance’ (cited in Diogo 2018, 283).

These distinctions were made not just on skin colour but on temperament and “humour”, too. Linnaeus also went so far as to include the further subspecies ‘Ferus’ (for, I kid you not, feral children) and ‘Monstrosus’, denoting ‘mythical people with strange morphologies’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018). Clearly, he was getting a little carried away. Anthropologically speaking, it reveals an interesting paradigm. In the art versus science debate, Anthropology is largely considered more on the “art” side, whereas taxonomy – based on principles of biology – is considered a science. Yet relegating humans into four racial subspecies – as well as two completely “mythological” subspecies – was clearly not based on any “real” science. We now know, genetically speaking, that there is only one species of human, and that remains Homo sapiens. Sorry Linnaeus.

Yet when these proposed subspecies were published, it was the first time that the notion of “race” had been given a “scientific” basis. Contemporaries of Linnaeus, such as the Dutch physician and anatomist Petrus Camper, used this taxonomic classification of race to further his studies of physical anthropology, including the dubious and now-debunked “science” of craniology/phrenology. As such, the “science” of race loomed large in the colonial mindset of the time, with the “lower human races” of the colonies seen as ‘powerful personifications of wilderness to be fought heroically and conquered by civilised Westerners’ (Corbey quoted in Diogo 2018, 487). Race was given a solid hierarchy, and Anthropology a scientific basis. Certainly, the history of Anthropology is fraught with racist and colonial representations of “primitive”, “less-developed” peoples. Perhaps we should be grateful, then, that the “science” of Anthropology has been discredited, to allow for the more subjectivist interpretations of the “art” of Anthropology to take its place.

Image Source: Time Toast.com

https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/scientific-racism


References:

DeSalle, R. and Tattersall, I. 2018, ‘The Name Game: Linneaus’s 260-Year-Old Classification of Human Individuals and Populations Was the Start of a Hugely Problematic Trend’, Natural History, Vol. 126, Issue 6, pp.30

Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Douglas, M 1965, ‘Pollution’, in W.A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt (Eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, Third Edition, Harper & Row Publishers, U.S.A., pp.196-202

Douglas, M 1966, ‘The Abominations of Leviticus’, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts and Pollution and Taboo, Routledge Publishing, United Kingdom, pp.42-58

Numann, P 2006, ‘What’s in the Box? Linnaeus’s Legacy’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, Vol. 18, pp.77-94

See Also:

No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Art/Science Debate

An Anthropology of Scientific Things

A Few Lessons Learned From Anthropology’s Past

Holding Out For a Hero: Is Myth Just Spicy Ethnography?

The rise of Marvel’s domination over the box office doesn’t come as a particular surprise to me – we’ve always loved heroes. From Batman, to Indiana Jones, to Luke Skywalker, to Harry Potter, our history and literary canon is saturated with them.

But what is the enduring appeal of the heroic figure? Well, with a little bit of help from the ancient past, maybe anthropology can help answer that question.

The first heroes of the Western canon – Heracles, Odysseus, Achilles – they arguably aren’t so different from those that we know and love in fiction today.

That is, if you consider the ancient and mythic definition of the hero: exceptional humans who operate in a realm more closely connected with the divine than most mortals yet are still undeniably tethered to the human world (Posthumous, 2011).

They possess these god-like capacities and abilities, allowing them to achieve what we could only dream of, and yet they are ultimately always going to be hindered by their inherent humanity and all of the flaws and consequences that come alongside it. It’s not called an Achilles heel for nothing; but these characters are loveable because they’re so imperfect (Campbell 1988).

Operating within this arguably liminal space between the divine and mortals allows us to think beyond the limitations of mortality to ‘what if’ and ‘what could be’ with wide-eyed wonder, taking us out of the mundanity of our own lives and ascending to the realm of the gods. Yet these stories are still firmly rooted in questions of what it means to be human and flawed; to eternal struggles of good and evil, life and death, love and war. To me it is this interplay between the fantastical and the real that captures our attention and our love, and in the process better allows us to understand who we are.

Is this perspective ahistorical? Maybe, but why is so much tension devoted to which side, Light or Dark, people will fall in Star Wars? Why do superheroes always have flaws, whether they be physical (ie Kryptonite) or personal (ie Captain America: Civil War)? Why does Game of Thrones revolve around human politics instead of dragons?

More importantly however, what the hell does myth have to do with anthropology?

The meaning of hero myths is still widely debated. However, Joseph Campbell (1988) argues that “myths are the stories of our search through the ages for truth” (p.4). It is the experience of life, and the adventure of the hero that is the adventure of being alive (Campbell 1988).

In the way that myths can help us better understand who we are in our culturally-specific context, such is also the role of the anthropologist, and to me it’s foolish to assume that anthropology is restricted to the realm of the objective, ‘real’ world (Sarah touches upon this in her article on future worlds). As Geertz (1973, p.16) writes, ethnographic pieces “can properly be called fictions in the sense of ‘something made or fashioned’”; anthropological writings are themselves interpretations (See: Julia’s art vs science article).

“…Reality is not other than the stories told about it” (Rapport 1994, cited in Craith and Kockel 2014) and it is part of the human condition to create these stories – both anthropology and hero myths serve as a medium to do so. As such, they both suffer under the same flaw that their truths are inherently partial and incomplete, composed of blurred lines between reality and imagination. However, this is not “an opposition between truth and falsehood” (Craith and Kockel 2014, p.695), rather, it is a recognition of the human reality of both ethnographic work and hero myths and their aim to tell stories that “ring true” from a human perspective (Craith and Kockel 2014).

So why do we love superheroes? Well… I think because, like anthropology, the best stories, the best myths, the best superhero films, serve to tell of the human condition as they are inherently grounded in it; they just takes you out of the mundanity of your own life and into the magic of the liminal world, allowing you to believe otherwise.

Image Source: Wired


References:

Campbell, J 1988, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, New York.

Craith, M. N., and Kockel, U. 2014. ‘BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN LITERATURE AND ANTHROPOLOGY. A BRITISH PERSPECTIVE’, Ethnologie francaise, vol. 44, pp. 689-697.

Crespi, M 1990, ‘The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell’. American Anthropologist, vol. 92 , no. 4. pp. 1104

Geertz, C 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, Basic Books, New York, pp. 3–30.

Posthumus, L. 2011, ‘Agents of transformation: the function of hybrid monsters’, Hybrid monsters in the Classical World: the nature and function of hybrid monsters in Greek mythology, MPhil (Ancient Studies) Thesis, University of Stellenbosch.

Sarah’s article on Future Worlds

My article on Liminality

Julia’s article on Art vs Science?

And for those who want a bit more myth in their life:

If you want to dive straight in to the original texts themselves, then consider: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; Euripides’ Medea, Hecuba and Trojan Women (my personal favourites); Aeschuylus’ Oresteia; Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (for the myth of Cupid and Psyche).

For slightly more digestible myths: Stephen Fry’s, Mythos and Heroes; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology

For a more fictionalised retelling: Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe; and I know it’s middle grade, but The Percy Jackson series still has the best chaotic good demigod representation I’ve ever read (just don’t touch the films)