A moment of serendipity. Over on Savage Minds, a debate about academic publishing is the topic de jour. That debate is an offshoot of a wider debate spurred by an article by George Monbiot in the Guardian. The Zite Reader on my iPad shows me a fabulous article "Routes/Worlds" by Elizabeth Povinelli, whose work I am reading for the first time. It is, by far, the most interesting piece of anthropological writing I have read in a long time—and it appears in an online e-journal devoted to art. e-flux is that journal, and, another serendipity, the issue in which Povinelli's article appears leads off with an editorial on "Alternative Economies." I am dazzled. I think I'm in love. 


Whether your schtick is state of the art continental theory, ontology, things, the history of anthropology (Povinelli's summary is brilliant), or alternative economies, i.e., alternatives to the webs of patronage in which the arts are now embedded, you owe it to yourself to take a look. 



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Comment by John McCreery on September 9, 2011 at 3:57pm

Eugene, thanks for asking. I've pretty much answered that question in one of my replies to Huon, but perhaps rephrasing a bit will help.

  1. What I like most is reading something that opens up new angles on whatever I'm thinking about. This often involves images that challenge conventional assumptions. In this case, I think of endless discussions of whether cultures are open or closed. The string bag is a whack on the head—yes, of course, they are both! 
  2. If, in addition, the image is what we who work in advertising call "campaignable," lending itself to development in a variety of directions, that's even better. In this case,
    • Since my interests include social network analysis, the density of the weave instantly becomes an interesting issue. 
    • Since, moreover, Ruth and I have, just this week, been working on a catalogue for an exhibition of textile art, I sense all sorts of possibilities in that direction.
    • But what instantly popped into my head was the observation that a bag can collapse or be torn while remaining much of its original topology. What if cultures are like that? Neither hard-edged fragments in a mosaic nor easy to pop bubbles, but, instead, string bags, which can be tossed and twisted in all sorts of ways while retaining their basic integrity? That's a really "good-to-think" idea.
  3. There was also the elegance with which Povinelli traces the genealogy of what she is talking about, from Malinowski to Lévi-Strauss to currently active theorists, drawing us into a conversation with considerable historical depth. I'm a sucker for this kind of thing.
  4. Finally, I enjoy good writing. As a wordsmith, I admire good examples of my craft, and I like Povinelli's style very much.

Hope this helps.

Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on September 9, 2011 at 3:23pm
I read the article by Povinelli.  I would be interested John if you could expand on what you found interesting in this.  I must say it was a bit abstract and far out for me.  What did you bring away?  I ask because I have read your stuff and respect your opinion.
Comment by Huon Wardle on September 9, 2011 at 10:45am
She footnotes Strathern's work.
Comment by Huon Wardle on September 9, 2011 at 10:40am
On Pound, you could read it lots of ways, but I just thought it was funny as a comment on a general view of things - often encountered amongst people, including anthropologists, who take themselves too seriously.
Comment by Huon Wardle on September 9, 2011 at 10:38am

I didn't notice her mentioning Strathern's work on Papuan string bags - bilums - but the connections are there if anyone wants to follow them up.



Comment by John McCreery on September 8, 2011 at 3:43pm

Huon, on a different topic, I thought Povinelli's image of the string bag particularly apt, since it is both an enclosure and more or less open to the outside, depending on the density of the weave. It is also, unlike a bubble or balloon, unlikely to be popped. 

I enjoy a certain frisson felt when encountering an apt image, when "the logic in tangible qualities" (Lévi-Strauss, "Overture" to The Raw and the Cooked) points in unexpected directions. In this case there was also the added bonus of reminding me of Annette Weiner's reanalysis of the Kula, in which she pays attention to the string bags exchanged by the women while the men are strutting their stuff with the necklaces and armbands. Malinowski, Lévi-Strauss, string bags, new ideas—that arc makes the article irresistible.

Comment by John McCreery on September 8, 2011 at 3:35pm

Huon, just out of curiosity, how do you interpret Pound's "Dead already"?

My first impulse was to read it in a snarky, ironical voice, with the implication "Why don't we just give up and die?" Then I began to think about various Eastern mystical and martial arts perspectives from which it might be read as "Liberate yourself from fear of dying," a necessary precursor for enlightenment, the perfect sword stroke, shaking off the red dust, that sort of thing. 

That, oddly enough, spun on to the observation that ancestor worship is, in many cases, an effort to keep the ancestors alive, hoping for their protection or preventing them from becoming hostile, demonic ghosts. Where the mystical traditions sever ties, popular religion aims to keep them alive.

I'm curious how these musings would look from a Haitian perspective.

Comment by Huon Wardle on September 8, 2011 at 1:26pm

The Lawrence Lang piece is worth it just for his quotation of this hilarious mickey take by Ezra Pound:


O woe, woe,
People are born and die,
We also shall be dead pretty soon
Therefore let us act as if we were
Dead already.

Comment by Huon Wardle on September 8, 2011 at 1:12pm

eflux looks good; though the title has the slightly odd connotation of waste matter disposal. Povinelli's article turns out to be serendipitous for me since I have just returned from trying to explain some of the consequences of a Latourian view of cosmopolitics at a conference in the Czech Republic. Somewhat intuitively, ex tempore, I likened Latour's view of cosmology to living in a bubble. Tereza Stockelova pointed out that the bubble metaphor is not Latour's but has been used by Sloterdejk. As Povinelli points out, Sloterdejk uses it to give a three dimensional version of Latour's flat network. So, now I know more about Sloterdejk than I did before but it doesn't reduce my concern with cosmopolitics... So, thanks for this.


Of course, our very own Open Anthropology Press is also a response to the absurd policing and monopolising of academic activity.

Comment by Keith Hart on September 7, 2011 at 6:11pm
Thanks for bringing e-flux to our attention, John. Lawrence Liang, the Indian-Chinese author of the main article the editorial refers to, is a lawyer committed to the open source movement and crusader against intellectual property. I have known his work for a long time and I recommend it just as warmly as you have e-flux.


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