Anthropology, Politics, and #OWS (in light of recent events at UC Davis)

When I see videos like this:

...it makes me think about the borders between academia and politics. Specifically, I'm thinking about anthropology. I don't think that anthropology can be defined in any one way, and I certainly don't think that the discipline (in its many manifestations) is some sort of political party. I don't think that's what anthropology needs to be. At the same time, I am interested to see how some of you anthropology-minded folks out there are reacting to incidents like this, and what you think anthropology can bring to understanding (and maybe even interacting with) situations like this. Are we better off sticking to concentrating on academic conferences and producing tidy journal articles, or are there times when anthropology (and academia) can be something more, or something else?

Just wondering.

In related news, check out this open letter from Nathan Brown, an assistant professor in English at UC Davis (where the above even took place).

You know, one of my profs once said that academia can be a "convenient place to put inconvenient people" (I know this saying comes from elsewhere, but it was a particularly apt point). I think about this quite often, especially when I spend hour after hour working on some academic document while the world keeps happening all around. Sometimes I wonder what I am actually producing, and what I am actually doing with all of this academic effort. Do you?

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Comment by Nicole S. Soto Rodríguez on November 28, 2011 at 11:55pm

Ryan Anderson:

For me "The Academia" is not the space I personally would praise or defend because being a student of an academic discipline such as Social anthropology has its down sides and has made me think outside of the academic sphere. Neither I suggest that the Academia is like a bubble that can be used as "eyeglasses" in order to understand what happens in society. On the other hand I do think that what we call Academia (which has shaped the way we elaborate our critical thinking)  has given us tools to handle (as professionals of social matter) social analysis, therefore it has its functionality.    

 

 I agree with you that the Academia is already a part of the dinamics of society and that it has its own hierarchies and social politics. But on the other hand I do not make the academic sphere responsible of shaping what the society should be, or for it to be a space where we would go to better our situations in societies. This is an excellent discussion because we (wether we like it or not) are part of the academic sphere and knowing this dinamics of the ACADEMIA, we as anthropologist can make a way (with or without the academia) and find the place were we could do both the academic work that enables us to do our interpretive work, and our social work were we could put in practice our social action with the information we are using all the time as social investigators. 

Yes we are all responsible of shaping our Universities in someways but with what intentions? For it to become what?

Comment by ryan anderson on November 23, 2011 at 5:52pm

@Nicole:

I don't think I would argue that anthropologists are somehow responsible for making academia a space for social action.  I'd say that we're all responsible for shaping our universities in some ways.  I think your point is interesting though, if I am reading you right.  Is academia a place for studying, learning, and trying to understand our social worlds, which allows us to take knowledge and participate in the social sphere?  In a way, it sounds like you're saying that academia exists somehow outside of our social lives--it's a kind of bubble where we can stand outside and try to understand social life.  This sounds a bit like Keith's argument about the importance of seclusion, and I think it's an important point.  At the same time (as this case at UC Davis shows), academia isn't exactly some perfectly detached social world, and there are plenty of ways in which external social worlds are interwoven with the academy.  And then there's the fact that academia is laden with its own social politics, hierarchies, etc--despite some of the more romantic stories we like to tell ourselves.  Anyway, interesting points.

Comment by ryan anderson on November 23, 2011 at 5:43pm

Typo!  I wrote:

"People on all sides so easily for that, well, there are people on all sides. You're right about all the loops all looping together."

Should have said: "People on all sides so easily FORGET that, well, there are people on all sides. You're right about all the loops all looping together."

See what I get for not previewing my comments?

Comment by Nicole S. Soto Rodríguez on November 23, 2011 at 4:10am

For me the question would be, is the Academia the place where we would go to establish social action towards the problems we are facing in the societies? and on the other hand, Are anthropologist responsable of making the universities and what we call "Academia" spaces the place for social action. Or is it possible that the place of the academia can become a place for trying to understand and explain social phenomenas in order for us as individuals (not merely academics) to go and act as part of the society but this time as actors in the social place we are already members of?.

Comment by ryan anderson on November 22, 2011 at 3:20am

Keith,

Ya, I get your point, and I think it's a good point to keep in mind. There are differences in all these kinds of incidents, and can't just sweep them aside.

"I will stick, however, with my observation that similar stuff has long gone on routinely in areas of society that attract less media attention. That doesn't make this episode any less brutal, but it does point to the shift in class conflict."

Definitely. Some of these cases definitely get more attention and media coverage than others. Actions like this are pretty routinely ignored in many places--you're right about that. But none of it is good, that's for sure. And overreaching state power is overreaching state power, whether at UC Davis or elsewhere. Maybe if people start paying more attention HERE, they will also pay attention to similar abuses of power elsewhere. Maybe. I'm not counting on it, but who knows. Overall though your point is well taken.

Comment by ryan anderson on November 22, 2011 at 3:14am

John/p>

"On the other, the visible difference between the cops and civilians are exaggerated, intensifying the paranoia evident in right-wing leaning mass media. So many loops, all looping together."

That's an interesting point about the exaggerated difference between the police and civilians. It's strange to me. People on all sides so easily for that, well, there are people on all sides. You're right about all the loops all looping together.

Comment by Keith Hart on November 21, 2011 at 7:18pm

Ryan, In retrospect I got it wrong by choosing to say "Who are these white kids to complain, when low-class blacks of the same age are routinely terrorized?" I switched my attitude after reading this brilliant article. Of course he is right that the assault on what was once the best public system of higher education in the world (probably just the best of any kind) must be resisted, especially by people like us. And the militarization of police tactics is as systematic these days as it is shocking, with uncomfortable echoes of what the Egyptian army did in Tahrir Square this weekend. I will stick, however, with my observation that similar stuff has long gone on routinely in areas of society that attract less media attention. That doesn't make this episode any less brutal, but it does point to the shift in class conflict.

Comment by John McCreery on November 21, 2011 at 5:45am

Other factors may include the arms race that pits relatively lightly armed police against criminals (drug gangs, militias, etc.) equipped with high-powered, military grade automatic weapons. Thus the emphasis on protective gear that makes riot police and SWAT-team members look like Robocops. On the one hand, the military-industrial complex prospers by selling its wears to police as well as military forces. On the other, the visible difference between the cops and civilians are exaggerated, intensifying the paranoia evident in right-wing leaning mass media. So many loops, all looping together.

Comment by John McCreery on November 21, 2011 at 5:23am

I'm no expert on the police. I am speculating, however, that the riot gear, pepper spray and batons and, in extreme situations, similarly trained SWAT teams is, among other things, an outgrowth of the Powell doctrine, which became the fundamental premise for the application of force by the U.S. military while Colin Power was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The doctrine, created in reaction to the policies and outcome of the Vietnam War, says that if force is used, it should be overwhelming force, used with the goal of quick and decisive victory. The high point of the doctrine's application was Desert Storm. My sense is that a lot of cops are ex-military, and the doctrine was quickly transmitted from the military to police forces. 

Comment by ryan anderson on November 21, 2011 at 4:26am

Keith,

"Both of them thought of their political engagement as vital, but actually they are remembered for changing how we all think now, not for their political achievements."

Now that's a good point. Thanks. This is good to think about, especially in times when it seems like academia can be so detached from everything that's happening all around. I like your points about Marx and Locke--it's important to remember why being somewhat separate from certain events can be beneficial. We already have enough reactionary politicians--that's also good to keep in mind.

"I don't see any special reason for an anthropological take on this; but I do wish that anthropologists would pay more attention to what is going on."

I definitely agree with you there.

John:

"This anthropologist, a passive supporter of OWS, wonders if we will ever approach situations like this with the tools of our trade, instead of stock ideas and overblown metaphors."

Ya, I know what you mean. There really is no sense in comparing this with things like Kent State, etc...but at the same time there is meaning in all of this, especially when police are continually being used to sweep away the annoyance that is OWS. This case in UC Davis is disturbing to me because of how small it was--what, really, was the need to resort to this to deal with a relatively small student protest? Why the need for riot gear, pepper spray, and batons. It all seems a bit over the top. I agree with you though about the need to approach this without the crutch of exaggerated and overblown comparisons/metaphors.

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