Culture Revisited

There seems to be a kind of convergence in my online life around the concept of culture: a FaceBook conversation with Levi Bryant, a post and discussion on Neuroanthropology, which was reposted to Synthetic_Zero and has generated some discussion there as well. All this makes me think it’s time I revisit the concept. Long followers will know that I’ve posted about “culture” before as I’ve played with the idea and tried to explore its various limits and liminalities. I can’t say that I’ve solved any of the long standing problems that have plagued anthropologists for decades, if not the entirety of the field, but I have my thoughts, and thoughts are worth sharing.

First, a little background. What’s wrong with the concept of culture? Lots of things. Since the founding of the discipline, anthropologists have debated the definition of “culture.” In 1871, Edward Tylor gave us his famous “everything and the kitchen sink” definition: “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” From there the concept proliferated, and, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckholn published a “critical review” of different conceptions of culture in which they listed 164 unique definitions of the term. This predates many of the more recent significant definitions – Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism, Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, Geertz’s webs of signification, Rappaport’s culture as ecology, and so on – so the field has only become more cluttered in the intervening years. This has led to empirical issues since the methodology and analytic methods one uses to examine culture depend largely on how it is defined. As a result, a lot of anthropology is incommensurable simply because different anthropologists have studied different things under the name of culture.

It’s possible to say that all of these different concepts of culture are right in some way and that culture is simply impossible to define. As a result, like so many visually impaired people inspecting an elephant, we can only grasp it impressionistically based on the particular definition we use at any given time. That might be okay for managing the methodological concerns, however, there’s an additional problem. The issue with “culture” is not just that it’s hard to define, it’s that those definitions have serious implications for the people we study. Culture, as it has been defined in the past, has made it possible to exoticize others, and has been used as a tool in the colonial expansion of the West to justify our occupation of their lands (see Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Writing Against Culture” and “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” – the latter demonstrates that these ways of thinking about culture are still in use today). Add to that the recent criticism of “black culture” (or “Islamic culture”) – which , admittedly, are not used by any anthropologists that I am aware of – and you can begin to see how problematic concepts of culture can be if not thought out.

With all of that in mind, what are my thoughts on culture? First, I’m not sure it’s necessary to define it entirely. That we have different conceptions of culture is not necessarily detrimental to anthropological practice – we’ve gone this long without having a universally accepted definition, so I’m sure we’ll be able to continue for a while. That’s a bit of a cop-out, though, even if it is what I really think. As I’ve shown above, definitions do matter – they have methodological and analytical implications, as well as political ones – so agnosticism isn’t really a viable solution.

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I would argue that we get away from a lot of the problems mentioned above by avoiding concepts of culture as a thing – either form or content. Lende’s definition of culture as warped spaces gets dangerously close to this. I would also say that it’s better on the whole to avoid complex metaphors and analogies. Again, Lende’s analogy of culture with Einstein’s relativity offers a good example. The problem is that analogies and metaphors only go so far – our lives are not literally warped by culture – and so, for analytical purposes they can become troublesome (I can imagine some anthropologist of the future trying to measure the warping of life around culture). It’s possible that metaphors are good for trying to communicate the idea to a broader audience that doesn’t have a knowledge of the century-long debate around the concept. However, even in those cases, I think simple and direct definitions are better whenever possible so as to avoid further confusion as much as possible.*

My own preference, then, is to think of culture as a process – the process of interacting and engaging with others including non-humans, the process of building relationships. And for this, I think Anna Tsing’s definition of “friction” is a good starting point (and here I think it was unfair of Lende to relegate Tsing to the “Newtonian” camp simply because she uses a concept from Newtonian physics to name her approach): “…the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference.” It is through this process of interacting across difference that many of the things we define as “cultural” (art, artifacts, rituals, styles, values, norms, beliefs, etc.) are produced. Culture is therefore an act of production. As a result, we can’t talk about “a culture”, we can only talk about the processes of interaction and the kinds of things and relationships that the process produces.

I think this avoids many of the political problems associated with the concept because by definition, anyone who is commenting on a culture is part of the cultural process, and they too are implicated in any critique. When Bill O’Reilly decries “black culture” or the “culture of poverty” his actions can (must) be seen as part of the process the produces those effects, and, therefore, partially responsible for their persistence over time. Methodologically and analytically, it means we must focus on the interactive processes and their products. What exactly is produced through the process of modeling environmental systems? What kinds of artifacts, what kinds of relationships, what kinds of knowledge or values, etc.? I’m not sure this idea is any easier to convey to the broader public, but it isn’t so complex that most people couldn’t understand it with some assistance.

That’s my current take on the topic. I can’t say that I won’t change my mind in the future, and I’m not suggesting that all anthropologists should use this definition exclusively. I’m only suggesting that this is a useful way to think about culture for me in my practice. There’s a lot of room for other possible conceptions, and I think the most important thing is that we continually pay attention and continually work on building a better understanding of culture and the way social processes work.

 

 

 

*I think there is one way in which the relativity metaphor might be useful, but Lende doesn’t explore it much. That is the idea of relativity versus relativism, which Bruno Latour hints at in Reassembling the Social. Relativism says that we all exist in different, incommensurable worlds, and that, as a result, we cannot judge others based on our own standards. That’s the extreme form, at least, but all of the lesser forms depend on this assumption for their basis. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, on the other hand, suggests that we all come from different starting points, different points of observation. In order to converge, we have to understand those different starting points, and work out how bring our different observations together. I think something like this, rather than relativism, would be a useful framework for anthropology.

Communist Cybernetics

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I’ve been getting a lot out reading Molecular Red by Mckenzie Wark – I think it’s one of the most useful books I’ve read for my dissertation research (alongside Friction, and A Vast Machine). It’s a good read, but because I’m in the midst of research, teaching, and other work, I’m only plugging away at it slowly. If you’re interested or curious about the book, you can download the “Molecular Red Reader” for free. It has several newly translated essays by Bogdanov and Platonov as well as a few essays by Wark himself and an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson the author of the Mars Trilogy. I’m not far enough along, and I don’t have time right now to post a full review or summary of the book. Instead I’ll just offer a quote that, to me, captures some of the value of the book.

“Tektology as organized labor experiments with the poetic substitution of universal ingression, to propose social and technical forms, from among which history will select. This was the program intended for the Proletkult labs, and it might not be a bad one for twenty-first-century design practice either. It begins with a kind of détournement of existing forms, then experiments with their application in other domains, before testing out prototypes in situations where users select the most useful and discard the least useful

The main question for Bogdanov is: how to build a program of knowledge oriented not only to survival but to growth in organizational capacities in relation to an environment. Particularly problematic here is that one can’t always know in advance where the environment is going to make itself felt. ‘The total stability of a system in relation to its environment is evidently a complex result of the partial stabilities of its various parts in relation to those influences which are directed against them'” (p. 51)

What Wark is describing for Bogdanov is a kind of communist cybernetics. This question of organization is what I’m trying to explore in my research on modeling. I am interested in the ways that constructing models is not simply a way of understanding environmental or other complex systems, but also a way of organizing relationships among people, and also between human and non-human systems. My hope is that my research will encourage modelers and other natural scientists to experiment with different ways of conducting research to not only improve the way we understand the world, but also to change the way we relate to it.

Playing Games with Anthropology

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For the past week in the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course that I’m teaching, I had my students play a game that I designed in order to explore some of the implications of global decision-making processes and the relations between different groups with different resource and values (you can download the rules for my game here). I think simulation games of this kind are good ways to examine complex issues in an experiential way. Rather than simply talking about colonization, militarization, environmental problems, health problems and so on, students can grapple with the limitations and implications of these issues directly in a simulated, safe environment.

My game is not perfect even though I spend a lot of time thinking through the various scenarios and the relationships between different variables. There are things that I simply could not represent very well like the internal dynamics of a particular nation. Sometimes the game was too complex for students to grasp in a handful of sessions – I had to explain rules repeatedly, and I think the reasoning behind some of the rules and limitations might have gotten lost on the students. Regardless, there were some interesting results, and the students had interesting comments in our discussion at the end. I asked them to write a one-page reflection on the game as well, because I think it’s important not only to play the game but to reflect on the experience and its limitations. I’ll report what they say when the reflections are handed in.

There is nothing new about the idea of using simulation games to teach about complex issues. Other examples include Michael Wesch’s World Simulation, Buckminster Fuller’s World Game, and the University of Virginia’s Bay Game. And there’s nothing specifically innovative about my game or the way I implemented it in this class. But I am interested in other approaches to gaming in the class room. Does anyone else have their students play simulation games? Do you use existing games or do you create your own? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of simulation games from a pedagogical standpoint? What have your experiences with simulation games been? What lessons have you learned from the experience?

The Honest Delusional

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I think the worst kind of person – that is, the most rigid, unchanging, and unwilling to actually engage with otherness in any meaningful way – is the person who says “we are all delusional, but at least I am honest about my delusion.” This is the person who goes around “calling out” others on their delusion simply for the sake of doing so, and then sits back confident in their “honesty” that they have made a meaningful difference. But all of that difference is externalized – their own delusion of delusion remains intact because it’s protected by the deluded guise of “honest” delusion.

The fact is, nothing will get you or anyone else out of their delusion. Nothing. There is no way to finally, once and for all, escape from your biases, your blinders, your limitations. If you think you’ve escaped from your delusions, then you are deluded. If you think being “honest” about your delusions gives you any authority or reason to “call out” others on their delusions, then you’re still deluded.

So what are all of us deluded people supposed to do? Understand that we’re deluded – that’s a start. But that’s not enough, stopping there is just a recipe for becoming an “honest” delusional who’s delusions are never put at risk. So then we have to meaningfully engage with others – those who share our delusions and those who do not. When I say meaningfully, I mean in a way that our delusions are put at risk, where they could change. Real engagement can never be safe.

The purpose of these engagements is not to “call out” others on their delusions, but to work with one another to figure out how to live together in spite of those delusions, or, in some cases, because of them. Merely pointing out that someone else is deluded – even if you recognize your own delusion – doesn’t put your own delusion at risk, and, as a result, it doesn’t do anything to help figure out a way to live together.

The thing is, sometimes “working with” doesn’t look like “working with.” Sometimes it looks like antagonism, or defending delusions. And this is especially true when one or more of the delusions involved is/are not being put at risk. Protected by discursive and in some cases physical barriers, these delusions are safe – the only way to break through the barriers is to assault delusion with delusion. Simply saying “we’re all deluded” doesn’t put any particular delusion at risk it simply puts them all equally at risk without addressing the discursive and physical barriers that protect one from the other. In other words, it puts us back where we started, while also seeming to place the “honest” delusional above the fray and therefore not at risk.

It’s not the fact that we are deluded that is the problem – that’s simply our inevitable lot. The problem is that some delusions are less at risk than others. The solution, then, is not to be “honest” and above the fray – that’s simply another way for the delusional to find solace in his delusion – but to be attentive to these inequalities and find ways to deconstruct the discursive and physical barriers that inhibit our ability to work with one another despite our delusions. It’s not an easy task, and is also vulnerable to delusion, but maybe, little-by-little, we will find ways to live together. If not, at least it’s an interesting ride.

In Praise of Small Victories

The people of Baltimore won a small victory today. The six police involved in his arrest and subsequent death have had criminal charges filed against them. Make no mistake, this was not “due process” or the inevitable result of a fair and equitable justice system. This small victory was won through the collective struggle of the people of Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole. Without their constant vigilance, and the unwavering pressure they have put on their elected officials, it is unlikely that these charges would have been filed. How many other Freddie Grays have there been? How many anonymous victims of police violence whose names never became a hashtag and whose killer still police the streets of Baltimore?

The indictment of six police officers does not change the system. The fact is, Freddie Gray should still be alive. Mike Brown should be completing his first year of college. Eric Garner should be at home with his wife and children. These murders should never have taken place. It wasn’t just six police officers and a “rough ride” that broke Freddie Gray’s neck, or that took away Eric Garner’s breath. It was a system of violence and oppression that has plagued our country for generations – a system that is woven into our collective lives. That’s something that will take a long time and a lot of work to fix, and there will always be people trying to stop it or trying to reverse the incremental changes that have been made.

This small victory is a demonstration of the effectiveness of collective action and the potential for change. It’s a small victory, but it’s also an enormous step forward for the people of Baltimore and for the US as a whole. It opens the door to other collective actions, other small victories, and the possibility of a more just and equitable future, but only if we keep at it.

Ultimately, all victories are small victories, but we make them grow by continuing the struggle, by remaining vigilant, and by pushing back against structural and other forms of violence and oppression. The people of Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown the way, now it’s time for those of us who want to make a better world to dig in and get to work building it.

[Re]Build: A Call for Contributors and Participants

As usual, I am late on the uptake, and far behind in my blog reading/writing. But this seems like a very interesting endeavor spearheaded by two very smart and very committed individuals (DMF and Edmund Berger):

Shock and austerity. Stock market instability. Stagnant wages and the decline of purchasing power. War. Climate change. Despite these multiplying crises, capitalism retains an essential tool that allows itself to perpetuate itself on a global level despite its internal contradictions: the ability to leverage technological developments to liquidate the political power of those who would oppose it. At such a crossroads, when labor as an organized force is being dissolved into flexible precarity, how does one attempt to tip the scales and reverse our accelerating fragility? The answer lies in a shift of focus, from a politics of power to a politics that looks critically at infrastructure, a politics of re-purpose, (re-)design, appropriation and the reclamation of space, and of new forms of economic expression.

What the future will be, or whatever name we want to label the path to it, there is one realization that is facing us: it must be post-capitalist. We firmly believe that another world is possible, but it must be built, and the rules for this construction are still largely unwritten.

We propose the creation of a zone of experimentation with the intent of bringing together dissenting agencies with critical practices in hopes of finding prototypes and models for a post-capitalist society. Such a platform calls for a cross-pollination of ideas, a shared and in-depth dialogue, and easily accessible means for hands-on experimentation. This new space will be open to all wanting to participate.

The topics we hope to cover include – but are not limited to:

  • The politics of infrastructure
  • The remaking of space by neoliberal capitalism
  • The relationships between big data, media, and infrastructure
  • Tactics and strategies for re-purposing technologies, complex systems, infrastructure and the politicization of spatial practices
  • D.I.Y. techniques and how-to guides
  • Alternative economies
  • Sustainable living, agriculture, energy, and architecture
  • The possibilities and pitfalls of automation
  • Eco-activism and infra-activism
  • Intervention design
  • Tactical media
  • New and experimental cartographies
  • Peer-to-peer approaches to production and distribution

Contributions can take a variety of forms:

  • Articles and essays
  • Fragments and speculations
  • Videos, links, and commentaries
  • How-to guides, plans, and prototypes
  • Reports, stories, and interviews

Anyone who is interested need only drop us a line here, over at the Deterritorial Investigations Unit blog here, or you can email me at Edmund.b.berger@gmail.com.

Hacking Modeling

I am cross-posting this at my research blog (The Model and The Territory) because it relates to some issues that are of interest to me beyond this project, but the ideas grow out of the work I’m doing for my dissertation research.

It is interesting to me that models can be seen as both a cognition – simulation and representation – and as infrastructure – a system of computational structures embedded within institutional organizations. In other words, the model is not the territory, but becomes part of the territory it seeks to represent, and increasingly so the more influential and widely distributed it becomes. Over at Synthetic_Zero, Edmund Berger describes modeling for environmental management as a form of repurposing of systems designed within and for military-industrial structures for uses that undermine those very structures. In other words, environmental modeling is a kind of “hacking.” It’s an idea I’m interested in and hope to explore to some extent in my research, though there are a number of other angles I’m exploring as well.

Interestingly, Berger suggests that environmental models always, to some extent, represent this kind of hacking, since environmental values are generally opposed to the neoliberal values of the systems they were designed for. Perhaps I’m still skeptical, but I’m finding that models are powerful tools, and that, regardless of the scale and type of environmental model, they have important performative effects that can be considered reformative if not revolutionary. The underlying question of my research – which I’ve already stated, but will restate again and again in many different ways – is under what conditions can we best foster these performative effects in order to promote their revolutionary potential?

I’m not completely convinced yet that all environmental modeling is equal. Some projects seem to reinforce state hierarchies, though it is these hierarchies that are often able to confront neoliberal institutions head-on. Models – especially big, complex ones – make that possible. On the other hand, there are other projects that have the potential to undermine state hierarchies and the division between expert and layperson that underlie them. However, these projects tend to be smaller scale, and rely on smaller, simpler, and potentially less accurate modeling systems. This combination makes these projects potentially less capable of confronting large scale neoliberal interests, at least on the short term. On the long-term, as more of these kinds of projects accumulate and as people come to expect this kind of collaboration in scientific practice, it seems to me that it might be possible to generate a different subjectivity that sees collective action and mutual aid as an effective means of resistance against social neoliberalization.

This is all speculation at the moment, and I’m not able to back it up with any evidence – particularly the long-term speculations. I’m also not opposed to any approach to modeling per se. At this stage, I think it is important to develop a kind of situational awareness of what the obstacles are to environmental protection and restoration in a given case, and what kind of modeling methods might be best suited to addressing those obstacles. I’ve seen little of that situational awareness being fostered – instead the focus is on improving the accuracy and validity of models. I hope my research will shed some light on the relationship between modeling methods and practices and the social relationships in which they take place so that researchers can make more informed decisions about what approach to modeling best suits the conditions of each particular situation.

(Para)Academic Bastardizations: Toward a Rowdy Anthropology

This post is intended to be a somewhat late reply to Ryan Anderson’s post on the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC). In the post, Ryan asks “What are we going to do with the OAC now? What can we do with it that contributes to building and supporting the biodiversity of anthropological media and ideas?  How can we connect it with other projects, efforts, platforms, organizations, and institutions?  More than anything, what does it meant to keep pushing for a more open, democratic anthropology?”

I don’t really want to talk about the OAC. I’ve said enough about it in the past, and I haven’t been involved with it for a few years, so I really can’t speak for or about anything that’s going on over there. Whatever future we imagine for the discipline, the OAC will be a tool – one that we can potentially use to leverage certain possibilities, but I don’t think that it itself will ever be the future of anthropology. Since I’ve distanced myself from it over the last few years, I don’t feel comfortable talking about what it is or should be – I’ll leave that to those who are and have been involved in it and hope that our paths align to some extent.

Instead, I want to talk more generally about the state and future of the discipline, and what I think we can do to make it a better field for everyone involved and promote the kind of “biodiversity” of modes of thought that Eileen Joy has called for. My suggestion boils down to one thing – one easy thing with many challenging manifestations. That one thing is this: to support one another however we can.

Anthropologists are out there all over the world doing some really amazing work. They are helping people to solve everyday problems, bringing attention to issues that most people are unaware of, and generally trying to make the world a better place. That’s not to say that all anthropologists are doing great things – let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that anthropology is some kind of academic utopia. It’s just to say that there is good work being done, and that we generally continue to strive to do better.

However, as everyone in the discipline knows, there are a lot of anthropologists who are struggling these days. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean that anthropologists are like the poor children you see on those commercials who need to be “saved” for just pennies a day. No, I just mean that many anthropologists are burdened by debt, struggling to find reasonable employment, and laboring under the weight of gender, racial, and ethnic discrimination.

I say “these days” and maybe what I really mean is that it has always been this way with some small differences. In the past, the only people who could get degrees in anthropology were those who could afford to attend college. Now, more people are able to get those degrees, but there is still a privileged minority who have access to the best schools, the most resources, and the best jobs. This is made painfully clear by the recent finding that most tenured positions are held by graduates of a handful of elite universities. There are, of course, other elements involved, but this fact exemplifies the hierarchical structure of the discipline. Where there is hierarchy there is homogeneity, and where there is homogeneity, change is slow or even non-existent. The pot needs to be stirred.

Back to my simple suggestion, that we support one another however we can. We live in a world in which everything is a game, and everyone is striving to win by out-doing all the others. It’s a competitive world out there, and, seemingly, the only way to get ahead is to get an early start. The problem isn’t that it’s a game – everything is a game, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what if, instead of seeing it as a game of trying to get ahead, we think of it as a game where the objective is to work together to make the field as good for everyone as it could be? In that sense, no one can win unless everyone does, and the people who are trying to push their way ahead – or who are already way ahead and unwilling to slow down to lend a hand – are only making it so that nobody – not even themselves – can win.

If we started supporting each other, what would that mean? What would it look like? I can think of a number of acts both small and large: faculty can help ensure that their students are able to make a decent living without having to take on large amounts of debt; senior faculty can pay closer attention to their hiring biases and give greater consideration to candidates from underrepresented groups and to those who are not necessarily from elite universities; those with experience writing successful grants can offer advice and guidance to those who are new to the grant writing process; we can all give financial support to projects that aren’t able to get funding in traditional ways; we can donate to open access publications; we can even retweet, like, or share articles or blog posts that highlight work that might otherwise go unnoticed. The point here isn’t to dictate what people should do, but to offer a way of thinking that suggests things that people could do if they are really committed to making the best discipline for everyone. Anything you can do to give a little push up to someone who otherwise might be kept down – that’s how we need to be thinking about making the future of anthropology. If enough of us do this often enough, the pot might just start bubbling as people who weren’t getting noticed before start to take on more influential positions within the discipline, and that’s when change will start to take place.

But maybe I’m getting too light-hearted and utopian for some people. Of course there are a lot of people who do win without helping others – at least on the short-term, and often for most of their lives so that the long-term seems irrelevant. They get their cozy tenure positions and then spend the rest of their careers building a name for themselves off of the labor of graduate students and adjuncts, all the while churning out more and more graduates who won’t be able to find cozy jobs as easily and espousing “radical” ideas without really doing anything to make life easier for the people they work with. I say fuck them. We don’t need them. Let’s work together to build a new, better discipline, and leave them behind to wallow in the old, dying structures of academia. But maybe I’m just being bitter. In any case, I think we can build a more interesting – rowdy – discipline, but it will take work, time, and a lot of mutual support.

Anthropology and the Return of the Privileged, Unreflexive Class

On the advice of a friend, I recently read David Graeber’s new article in Hau titled “Anthropology and the Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class.” While I agreed generally with his analysis of the current state of academia and the discipline of anthropology in particular, I found his diagnosis of the cause and prescription for change more than a little troubling.

The first part of the article recapitulates many of the same analyses of academia that have been floating around for a while. He describes the “financialization” of academia and the resultant decline of academic thought as faculty become more focused on administrative tasks and meeting benchmarks for funding and publication rather than engaging in meaningful academic work. These are all things I agree with, and have written about myself (here, here, and here). It’s a good analysis and I recommend reading it.

The problem comes in the second part of the article titled “Anthropology and the failure of the 1980s critique.” Here, Graeber essentially blames reflexivity, post-modernism, and post-colonial critique for allowing anthropologists to accept their lot as members of the “professional-managerial elite.” That’s obviously a simplification of the argument, and you should read it for yourself to judge, but, aside from the fact that there seems to be little concrete connection between this section and the prior analysis of the neoliberalization of academia, I find this move very troubling.

There are some good points made. It’s certainly possible to question whether this mode of critique has been as effective as it was meant to be given that it has done little to stem the tide of neoliberalism. That could be the fault of what he pithily refers to as “vulgar foucauldianism” or it could be a demonstration of the power that neoliberalism holds in our world today. In either case, the critiques Graeber identifies – in particular the post-colonial critique – are responses to very important issues within the discipline that should not be brushed aside in favor of his own pet issue of the role of the state and bureaucratization. It’s entirely possible that the problem with the critiques is that they haven’t been carried through enough, and not that they are inherently incapable of addressing neoliberalization – or, as Graeber is suggesting, reinforcing those processes.

This is where I think Graeber’s analysis is most disturbing. Toward the end of the article he provides two caricatures of anthropology faculty:

At the risk of being slightly cartoonish, let me evoke a sketch of two different paradigms of academic authority. On the one hand, we have the patriarchal professor, a figure dominant for most of the twentieth century. A figure of absolute self-assurance, whether pedantic or playful, he is on a day-to-day level at least largely oblivious to the forms of privilege and exploitation that make his life possible, and as a result entirely at peace with himself owing to the existence of an institutional structure that guarantees him near-perfect life security. This is a caricature but, still, anyone who has spent much time in academia has encountered someone who fits the description, and there are still a handful, if rapidly decreasing in number, alive and in positions of authority even today. Nevertheless, such characters are no longer being produced. After all, this is precisely the figure whose privilege was so dramatically challenged in the campus turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. In the neoliberal university, this challenge, combined with the dramatic marketization of academic life that began in the 1980s, has ultimately produced a very different sort of figure of authority. Let us imagine him too as a white male, since white males are, still, most likely to win the academic game—but one who, in the place of the self-assurance of the old patriarchal professor, combines a kind of constant nervous self-examination of his own privilege with a determination to nonetheless deploy all advantages—including that very privilege—in any way he can to prevail in an increasingly precarious academic environment; an environment demanding near-continual acts of reinvention and self-marketing. It’s easy to see how, in the specific case of anthropology, long a preferred refuge for the impractical and eccentric, the reflexive moment played a critical role in creating the soil from which such monstrous figures could emerge.

There’s no doubt that both of these two figures are indeed monstrous. And I’m sure either of them could be applied to Graeber himself at various parts of his career (despite repeatedly invoking his “working class background” as evidence that he “never had any chance of becoming that person under any circumstances”) – as well as myself. But notice, the problem with the first figure is that he is not reflexive at all. The problem with the second figure is not that he is reflexive, but that he is not reflexive enough – not willing to allow those critiques to penetrate his own existence and change the way he behaves in relation to those who do not share his privilege. Instead, he is willing to use a veneer of reflexivity to further his own agenda and gain more privilege. This is a common critique of “white saviorism” and false “allies” within the Black, Latino, and Indigenous anthropologist communities that Graeber would do well to acknowledge. But even in those circumstances the response is not to abandon the reflexive and critical project, but to intensify it and expand it to spaces where it has been relatively under-applied. To do otherwise would be to discount the gains that have been made by these anthropologists, and to discredit the work that continues to be done by them. I can understand that Graeber is trying to propose a different approach, but, first, the connection between reflexive critique and the neoliberalization of the academy is tenuous at best (how about blaming the state leaders who persistently divest their state budgets from education in general and higher education in particular, and, second, the solution he proposes is weak and somewhat self-serving (in that it promotes exactly what he does rather than imagining various possible approaches).

In the end, Graeber seems nostalgic for a kind of golden age of anthropology. He even bemoans the fact that “the works of Boas, Malinowski, or Evans-Pritchard were written today, they would never find a publisher—except, perhaps, outside the academy.” Although he calls for academics to engage with social movements – a proposition I couldn’t agree with more, though it’s not really novel or revolutionary – he also makes the peculiar statement “In retrospect, it’s hard not to see something deeply appealing about the easy self-confidence of that old patriarchal professor…” He then goes on to say that “the problem with entitlement and privilege is not that some people have it, it’s that other people don’t.” Perhaps Graeber should (re?)read Peggy McIntosh’s brief essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” For McIntosh, “some these varieties [of privilege] are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant and destructive.”

And that’s exactly what I think Graeber is being when he dismisses reflexivity and critical anthropology and the gains that have been made – even if they aren’t enough. I think the ideal would be to make his two caricatures irrelevant because they are no longer representative of the diversity of the discipline. However, this cannot happen unless white male anthropologists like Graeber and myself pay attention to the ways that our privilege affects our positions and make a point of changing the way we respond to these kinds of issues. Graeber’s dismissal of reflexivity as the underlying subjective cause of all of the problems we face in academia makes it easier for us to forget our privilege and leave anthropologists who are not white and male on the periphery. Let’s stop longing for an anthropology that never was, and begin imagining a better anthropology that could be.

Open Access and the Future of Academia

Today on Savage Minds, my friend Ryan Anderson and I posted a conversational piece on open access, and other issues within the academy. Ryan and I go back several years to the early days of our anthropology educations, though he’s one of the many friends I have through social media but have still never met in person. We both took part in the early founding of the Open Anthropology Cooperative, have collaborated on blogs, and had many discussions about anthropology, academia, and the job market, so it was good to have this dialog and resituate ourselves and see how far we’ve come and how much further we still have to go.

I like the conversational style as well, because, although we agree on most things, there are clearly different perspectives and ideas being expressed. Even though the post is primarily about open access publishing, it also touches on a number of issues I’ve mentioned here in recent weeks (here, here, and here), and it was good to hash these out with a fellow anthropologist who is a little further along in his career than I am and get a sense of what might be coming next. I am also glad this was posted on National Adjunct Walkout Day, because, although I’m not sure how much effect those protests have had, I think it’s an important reminder of who is doing the labor in academia these days and how little they are being compensated. I believe that all of these issues are intertwined, and that, in order to address them, we have to work together and fully support one another in our efforts to push back against the neoliberalization of academia.

Anyway, go over to Savage Minds, read the post, and let us know what you think. Hopefully we can figure out some options and strategies for crafting the kind of university that will be truly a public good.

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