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.

One Year Since the Hardest Day of My Life

One year ago, I faced the most difficult thing I have ever had to face. I still remember that night and the morning Tim died with vivid clarity. I remember the bouts of panic and crying interspersed with periods of guarded hope that he might recover as I made my way to New York City in the early morning hours. I remember the moment I learned that he had died, and collapsing in the hallway of the hospital as my body was wracked by waves of sadness and pain. I remember seeing his body – still warm, but a frigid blue – and holding his lifeless hand, crying, wishing it was only a dream. I remember the ghostly feeling I had for hours afterward – a lingering emptiness that seemed to permeate the world as if a sudden silence had overtaken it.


I don’t talk about it or write about it much. That’s not because it is emotionally difficult – it is in many ways, but not prohibitively so – but because there doesn’t seem to be anything I can say to convey how I feel. Everything falls short, or is easily misinterpreted. So I keep my feelings to myself, and only talk about his death when I have good reason. Often, I find myself mentioning him in conversation as if he were still alive – generally to save others from the awkwardness of having to say “I’m sorry” when they find out he is no longer alive, but also to save myself the pain of saying “It’s okay” to assuage their discomfort. It’s not okay, and it never will be, but I live with it.

I think about him daily. Often I feel the pang of realization that he is, in fact, gone, and I will never see him or talk to him again. I would still give anything to hear his voice one more time. The last year has been rough at times, but also happy, exciting, and even tranquil. That’s the thing about living with his loss – it’s not that I am sad all of the time, but that every experience, happy or sad, is tinged with the sense that he is not there. He isn’t there to talk to when I am feeling down, to calm me when I am anxious, to share in my enjoyment, or to idly chat with about the mundanities of life.

I have fi2014-04-04 06.40.28lled my world with remembrances of him in fear that his presence will fade. It has in some ways, but I am no longer worried that he will fade completely. Still, I keep the reminders around me as a way to keep talking to him even though he is gone. I imagine, one day, telling my kids about the uncle they never met, and seeing their eyes grow wide at the elaborate stories I have of him and is (mis)adventures. I hope that, despite his flaws, they will be inspired and encouraged by those stories, and will keep his memory alive even when I am gone.

That’s what this year has been for me, and now, facing the anniversary of his death, I wish the best to all of our family and to his friends who loved him so much. I hope we all can keep his memory alive, and hold one another’s hands as we heal and find our way forward together.

Creating Our Future

That’s the subject of the latest email from Wallace Loh, the President of the University of Maryland. I respect the sense of agency in the sentiment, but I fear the message itself suggests a lack of agency in the face of “long-term forces” to which “we are not immune.” Constrained budgets are the “new normal” we are told, because “[t]axpayers increasingly view public higher education more as a private benefit than as a public good.” Our only option is to “respond creatively” to those constraints. As a result, he has announced the Flagship 2020 Commission, which will be tasked with making recommendations for how to become a top 10 flagship university.

I am not interested in accepting this new normal. I am not interested in allowing public higher education to become a private benefit – intellectual resorts for the privileged few. Universities have been sites of radical transformation, and, despite the attacks – both budgetary and ideological – with which they are currently faced, they could still be that. In a world faced with global inequalities, environmental destruction, and where such transformative sites are diminishing, we need to defend the few we have left. But that means more than just fighting for better funding of universities (although, that remains an important part of it). It means that we in the university have to do our share of the work to create a future – or, better, a present – in which the ideals of the university as a public good can thrive. It means making the university into a public good and resisting the drive towards privatization by breaking down the barriers that still exist between communities and the academic world. That might, in the end, lead to a radical transformation of the university itself, but one that would provide greater benefit to society as a whole rather than sealing itself off and only benefiting the few who can still afford to attend.

I applaud some of what Loh and this Commission are trying to achieve, but I worry that, in their acceptance of the “new normal” and their rejection of the university as a transformative space, they will fail to see the many alternative futures that we could create.

Cracking the Ivory Tower

A few days ago I wrote a post suggesting that the University system is dying (or, rather, being killed off) and that we need to either enter triage mode or fight to keep it alive. The thing is, it’s hard to argue for the University as a public good when news like this comes out. Essentially, the article describes research that shows that University hiring practices for faculty tend to favor those who graduate from prestigious institutions rather than those who are more productive or innovative. This means not only that the University system suffers from classism, but that unpopular or heterodox ideas will tend to get less attention than those that challenge the status quo. At a time of increasing economic, racial, and gender inequality as well as global climate change and other environmental disasters, we need ideas that challenge the status quo rather than the tired old analyses based on the same theoretical tools we’ve been throwing around since the 1960s – to no avail.

It’s news like this that makes me increasingly convinced that the majority of the truly revolutionary and innovative work is not being done at universities but in sites and situations that persist in the interstices of academic and public life – the para-sites of academia. That’s not to say that truly creative and wonderful things aren’t happening at Universities – my University experience has been full of beneficial relationships and innovative explorations of uncharted territories – but those activities are not rewarded or even recognized by the dominant academic community. They are smiled upon, given the okay, and allowed to exist, but not rewarded or nurtured – those of us who do them do so out of pure passion and generally at our own expense. And this is increasingly the case as budgets get cut and the drive for quantitative measures of performance take precedence over real novelty and engagement.

I love the University, but if it is to become – as it seems to be going – an intellectual resort for only the most privileged of students and faculty, then I think those of us who really care about the world need to begin to find a way out. We have to find these cracks in the ivory tower wherever they may be – we have to nurture them, claw at them, make them grow in any way we can find. We have to do it, and we have to do it together because nobody else is going to.

Indulging Narcissism…


Since it’s my birthday today, I figure I am allowed to indulge my narcissistic side a little bit. With that in mind, I’d like to announce the launch of two new websites that I’ve been putting together and will be added to my online narcissistic presence.

The first is a site all about me, and even uses my name for the URL (! What could be more self-loving than that? It will serve as an online CV for job applications and other purposes in the coming years – as I begin to move out of the PhD program and into real life. I won’t be posting there – it will be more of a static page, but I will update it periodically as things change.

The second is a research blog where I will document the trials and tribulations of my dissertation field work. I have been doing that a little bit here, but I think it’s helpful to separate the dissertation project from my overarching work at Struggle Forever! I’ll link back to it here and do cross-posts as needed, but documenting the nitty-gritty of research will take place there from now on. The site is called The Model and The Territory – recalling the now-cliché Korzybski saying – but, hopefully, suggesting the idea that, in some significant ways, the model is the territory, and we need to be attentive to that.

The Long, Slow Death of the University

This past week, we got word from the President of the University that our budget from the state is being cut severely. In response, he is implementing various money-saving policies that affect everyone at the university. Merit and cost of living raises have been suspended, employees are being furloughed, and budgets are being cut. It is a distressing time to be an academic-in-training, and makes me concerned about the future of academia.

I am fairly convinced now that the university as a public institution is dying. It’s not just dying, but we are killing it, slowly and methodically like the killer who slips a little bit of arsenic into their elderly family member’s food to get early access to their inheritance. Except – the ironic twist revealed after the murder is successful – there is no inheritance!

Perhaps, it is time to begin thinking of alternatives – radical alternatives that don’t simply give in to the neoliberal wet dreams of those who are slowly killing the university. Let academia be reborn as a new method and practice with a critical edge that cuts through the forces bringing about its demise today. I don’t know what those alternatives will look like – no one can know – but we are beginning to see possibilities emerging. In the meantime, we have to figure out what to do with the dying shell of the university.

Some – even academics – would welcome the demise of the university. But the harsh reality is that the institution provides a lot of people with a living, and it would be a devastating blow to not just intellectual pursuit in this country but to the material well-being of a lot of people. It makes me think – following my friends at Synthetic_Zero – that we need some kind of academic triage. Letting the university die with dignity and grace and ensuring that the people who it supports are let go easily and the worst of the material consequences are avoided.

Alternatively, we could fight for the life of our institution, resuscitate it, feed it, bring it back from the brink of death – a death which is, after all, not natural but imposed from the outside. Rage, rage against the dying of the light! But maybe that’s too optimistic.

Is the right to free speech threatened?

The answer is yes, but it is not threatened by who you might think it is.

Racist or bigoted claims are simplistic, over-generalizing, and lacking in nuance or subtlety. They unfairly paint large swaths of the population as being at fault for something more reasonably blamed on individuals or other causal factors. For example, some of the discourse around Islam in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack can be characterized in this way, as can some of the views of many fundamentalist Muslims towards the West. But increasingly the accusation of racism or bigotry is taken to be an imposition on one’s right to hold and express an opinion. It is an argument – created and proliferated by conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly who condemn political correctness, but now making its way into certain kinds of liberal discourse – that portrays those who victimize others as the real victims simply because they are unable to make simplistic claims without being criticized for it.

If someone calls your claim “racist” or “bigoted” that does not impinge on your right to free speech – it means you have said something stupid and you have three choices: 1) retract your claim, 2) provide more nuance to explain why it is not racist and/or bigoted, or 3) acknowledge and accept the fact that your claim is racist and/or bigoted and attempt to explain why your particular form of racism or bigotry is justified. In other words, it is a way of extending the conversation and enabling further discourse. If, instead of doing one of those three things, you claim that your right to free speech is being attacked, then what you are effectively saying is that others do not have the right to criticize you – that you are above critique. In other words, you are misusing the notion of “free speech” to shut down debate and close off discourse, and that is the real threat to free speech. In a society in which we are guaranteed the right to free speech, we not are guaranteed the right to make stupid claims without being criticized.

After Charlie Hebdo

If I was home, I would pull a quote from Judith Butler’s Precarious Life or Frames of War as a preface to this post. But I am traveling at the moment, so I don’t have those books on hand. I would encourage anyone taking an interest in the current discourse around Charlie Hebdo to take a look at those two books.

Tragic as the Charlie Hebdo attacks are, I think they – as with any extreme event – provide us with an opportunity. If we can overcome the urge to condemn others, and recognize that these attacks are symptoms (borrowing the concept from Arran) of a dysfunctional relationship, then, maybe, we can begin to build a world in which we can all coexist. My concern is that, in our zeal to criticize, blame, and condemn Islam for these attacks, we will miss the overarching relational problems that underlie them. Instead of working together to fix those problems – in which all parties must accept some responsibility for change – we will retreat to our corners and make the entire situation worse.

We have all failed so far. We have had many of these opportunities in the past, and we have failed in every instance. We are all Charlie Hebdo, but, because we failed all those times before, we are all also complicit in the deaths of those journalists. I am afraid that, given the discourse that has emerged around these attacks, we are failing once again and that this will not be the last of these tragic opportunities.

A Reminder for 2015


“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.”

-Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

There is no ground. Everything you know is at best partial, and probably entirely wrong. You are not what or who you think you are, and the world refuses to fit your image of it. Nothing that is ever had to be, and could always have been otherwise. Nobody can know what the future will look like and there is nothing inevitable about where we are headed.

What do we do now? Let us forget our ideologies, forget what we think we know, and start fresh. Every moment (not just a new year) is a new beginning. Let us look around this vastly empty landscape, see what’s left, what we might salvage. Finally, let us struggle together to build something wonderful out of the ruins and the ashes. That’s what life is, what it has always done.

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