What to make of our ancestors and distant relatives, separated from us in time and space? Do we emphasize our connections, symbolically tying us to something bigger–and even potentially boundariless, conceptually defying the impossibility of the close contact from which we build our daily relationships with loved ones and friends? Or do we see those only distantly related to us as an unambiguous–and unambiguously negative–counterpoint to our selves and our locations? … As in, “Thank heavens we’re us and not them, here and not there!” Or, “At least we’re not freaks like them.”
Or … Normalizing Anthropology’s Engagement with the Centers of Power
When you think “Anthropology,” you probably don’t immediately think, “Yes, those are the academic types that get tapped as regular op-ed writers for major newspapers, write engaging books about broadly relevant topics that large audiences want to read, and get access to the corridors of political and corporate power to advise on big, mainstream political and elite media topics like tax policy, effective institutional organization, and international affairs.” More power to Paul Krugman, but anthropologists are like most other academics; the detailed, specialized concepts and observations we scrutinize and discuss are really comfortable for us to deal with, day in, day out … but as we inhabit this specialized world of work and thought, we have a hard time building and maintaining paths of relevance with communities other than those we study. Moreover, the communities we study tend to be on the margins of contemporary economic and political power. I’ve already discussed Keith Hart’s important ethnographic and activist work on the project of humanizing economic networks, something he addresses and references extensively on the website The Memory Bank. He is particular interested in how grass-roots open currency systems can exist alongside national and supranational ones, facilitating inclusion, empowerment, and resilience of individuals and small networks who are constituted by complex lives and identities … and perhaps most importantly, who have economic connections that fray quickly when larger monetary dynamics–inflation or deflation driven by employment cycles, global credit cycles, industrial commodity prices, or national or international politics–suddenly make everything a greater hardship, throwing into tumult any future plans or hopes. Hart’s vision may aim to reach the global scale, but his ethnographic engagement remains not only local, but with better connecting the politically and economically marginal. (Daniel Lende has a nice discussion of this issue at the Neuroanthropology Blog, showing the importance of such seemingly marginal small projects, which can have really high local impact, in growing the relevance of Anthropology.) The marginality of the communities I study is incomparably greater. Not only am I dealing with prehistoric communities, marginal to written history; I’m dealing with groups whose constituents will always be anonymous … and about whom there are legitimate scientific questions about whether they were actually different from us in some fundamental biological ways. And I mainly have just their garbage and the dirt they tracked around to go by. So, like most anthropologists, I have to admit that my research isn’t going to offer direct suggestions about how to humanize contemporary, massive economies all the way to their centers.
Still, anthropologists can offer relevant, constructive ideas for changing the cultural status quo around the centers of power, where big money and mass media tend to distort our interests and how we use dramatic, mythologized or ritualized narratives to resolve our conflicts of interest in emotional but all-too-often shortsighted ways.
It seems easier and easier to question the residential four-year college experience–and the liberal arts bachelors degree that legitimizes it. With exorbitant tuition price tags and a highly challenging post-graduate labor market, college may seem an unnecessary luxury. At worst, it may simply be an expensive way for families to encourage self-indulgence in their children who are on the verge of adulthood. Indeed, the fiscal and political pressures on four-year college programs–regardless of whether they are in state universities and colleges or part of private institutions, whether they are highly selective and have high tuition or are more accessible to a wider range of applicants–are enormous. Is college education worth the upfront cost … and does the content and form of that education really buy you a rich source of healthy, lifelong dividend-yielding capital–in the form of maturation, knowledge, problem-solving skills, and values–that will make it a really smart investment?
Or, Why The Whole VMA Incident Is a Really Teachable Anthropological Moment
My older daughter (and probably my students) will confirm I’m too old for this stuff … The MTV VMA show isn’t on my entertainment radar screen. Certainly not before it happens. So this year, all I kept hearing after the VMAs aired was how Miley Cyrus’s performance was way way too ___________. (Fill in your choice of extreme negative description. In general, the focus was on tasteless, but that was by far the mildest characterization.)
From the breathless-sounding media tags and omnipresent OMG vibes, I felt compelled to check it out.
OK. Especially since this VMA incident seems to have striking staying power, there’s something about what she did–and what we’ve seen–that’s compelling and compounding the ubiquitious media discourse about it. Some serious symbolically structured cultural production going on. A bit of agency, some hegemonic structures, domination, resistance, all in ritualized and ritualizing context, nonetheless somehow reproducing dominant structures and leaving us grasping for sensible glosses about why it gets to us and why it turned out the way it did.
So there’s definitely something anthropological to consider. And perhaps against my better judgment, I’d suggest that it’s actually worth the consideration, if only because the Miley Cyrus/VMA incident has really taken us ritually to some kind of disturbing threshold, creating awareness of something–or several somethings–that we now need to talk through.