Vision of a Possible Anthropology

I want to see an anthropology that works, not one that merely functions.

Immersed in the world, it rolls up its sleeves, digs into the dirt, laughs, cries, sweats, and bleeds. It lives amongst the people and never above them, is dangerous to those in power, and powerful for those who are not. An anthropology that makes them quiver in their high-rise office buildings, and their gated communities.

This is an anthropology that doesn’t belong only on the manicured lawns of the academy. It’s a wilderness anthropology – at home on the city streets, in the country fields, the forests, deserts, mountains, and rivers, the highways, underpasses, train tracks, and bridges. It can be found in the dark tunnels, the murky swamps, the ghostly ruins of the world – comfortable with monsters and capable of communicating with the creatures who lurk in both the light and the shadow.

I want to see an anthropology that is not only open access, but also open source. A hacker’s anthropology that enables people to crack into the structures that surround them, link up, redirect, disconnect, and shut down. I want ethnographic methods and theories to be unburdened by the strictures of expertise and professionalism. Forged into tools for everyone to use, no matter if they are called “anthropologist” or “ethnographer.” It’s an anthropology that cannot be bought or sold – it is both priceless and free.

This is a possible anthropology. The pieces are available, and there are many willing to work to make it real. It will only take a little assembly… but the instructions have been misplaced…

 

 

Imaginary Futures

I’m imagining futures: There’s one in which I have finished my PhD and found a job as a professor at a university, teaching and doing research. That’s the obvious one. In it I’ve become an influential anthropologist and other academics cite my work, and look to me for guidance or support. Then there is another future where I’ve failed to finish the PhD, and am forced to find work in some office doing other people’s research. I don’t get to enjoy intellectual freedom, but am doomed to simply reproduce the same old narratives using the same old methods over and over again. Once in a while, when I’m feeling anxious, I imagine a future in which I am poor and struggling to keep myself and my family fed, clothed, and housed. I live on the streets and am always on the brink of disease, hunger, and death. Sometimes when I’m driving, I imagine my car’s wheel flying off in the middle of the highway causing me to crash and be crushed under the weight of a 23 car pileup.

At times my imagination extends beyond myself. I imagine a world where all the problems have been solved, everyone has everything they need, and the environment is healthy and strong. I distrust this image. Other times, I imagine a future where we all keep on doing exactly what we are now only with different technologies, new clothes, and more people around. This one feels real, but I can see a breaking point. There’s also a future where civilization has collapsed or the world has ended. In that one, I’m dead.

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I don’t believe in the future. Capitalist, communist, utopian or apocalyptic – no future is real. Maybe they exist in some kind of virtuality waiting to be “realized.” Or maybe they all exist in layers of multiple universes, and we only have access to one at a time. Maybe they don’t exist at all, and every moment is a singularity, collapsing once its time has passed. In any case, what I believe in are people here and now working to survive, and, at times, struggling to make things a little better in whatever way they imagine that to be. Surviving and struggling, it’s all we ever do.

But, of course, our minds are modeling machines running simulations and scenarios non-stop. Imagining the future is one way we navigate the present, and enact alternatives – it’s part of the work of surviving and struggling. When I imagine my horrifying death on the highway, maybe that prepares me for a time when the wheel actually does fly off. Maybe then I’ll be able to remain calm enough to bring the car to a slow stop and guide it off the road to safety. When I imagine a future of war and catastrophe, maybe that makes me better equipped to survive. When I imagine a world of peace, justice, and ecological prosperity, maybe that makes me better able to bring that future into existence.

They’re only imaginings, though. All futures are possible, there’s no telling which are probable, and not one is proper. Neither optimist nor pessimist, I see my futures as tools – that one turns a screw, this one drives a nail, and the other one… well, I’m not sure what it does yet. Time will tell – or not.

Life Work

This morning I’m at home. My eyes are fixed on Facebook and Twitter, but I know I should be doing several other things at once. Piles of books await my time, my gaze, my thought. Articles, half-finished, whimper from neglect. There are more urgent things to do, but I must also manage my life online – the multiple blogs I write, the myriad social medias I maintain. This is my work, my life, my time. Time spent – every hour one less I can get back.

On other days I go out. There is field work to be done. Interviews. Some of these – the dissertation ones – are easy. I know the questions, and I can improvise like a snake weaving its way through the grass. They are coordinated, arranged ahead of time, made to order. The others are difficult. They are haphazard – no one wants to talk for long when they’re fishing! Acceptance takes me by surprise and I fumble to ensure that I get all the questions asked and answered, taking notes on an oversized clipboard weighed down with forms and maps and papers.

Back home I manage the data. I download the wav files, and the jpegs to my computer, rename, recode, restore, upload, encrypt, inform. Sometimes I put this off…too long, and I forget, so it takes more time to figure out what I’m doing and where the digits need to go. When I do it right, the work pays off and I have a shimmering pool of data from which to drink.

Then comes the writing – field notes, blog posts, sometimes an article fragment that gets filed away and then brought back later only to be disassembled and started from scratch. There is always some task more urgent, or some distraction more demanding. On good days I write. On the best days I write with ease. Most days I pretend to write but the words don’t make their way from thought to paper (or screen, more likely). Once in a while, all of these fragments and isolated thoughts get pushed together, and something valuable emerges – something I can share with the world.

Amidst all this I have to arrange my life. I have to clean, I have to cook (or pay for someone else to cook, but I can’t afford that often). I have to go to the store, and look for jobs, and eat – don’t forget to eat! I have to go to the gym (to work out) because otherwise I would turn into a blob on my bed. I have to see friends and spend time with the people I care about and who care for me or else I’d be a lonely blob wondering where my life is going. Now and then I draw or scribble, I write fragments of poems, I take photos, I read fiction. Otherwise I would be a structured blob with no room to move or escape. I don’t want to be a blob of anything – I want to do my work. This is the work that lets me do my work.

I don’t have a “work ethic.” I’m not obsessed with work, and I don’t hate it either. I have an understanding that everything I do is work – even my play – and so my work is not confined to one part of my life. My work is my life, and my life is my work. It’s a process of assembling, of putting things together, taking things apart, making something new, or reproducing something old. This is how I build myself and my life or how the world builds me. For I know that “my work” is never all my own. I depend on others to work with, for, and even against me. Without them my work would be just movement and frantic gesticulating in the void. It’s our work together that makes it more. After all these years and all this work, what have we produced? I don’t know, it’s never finished.