From the Center for Peripheral Studies (OAC Branch). After Lance, the sky's the limit!

The papers discussed in our online seminars are often excellent, but this one is apocalyptic, as well as being an exercise in fine writing. Lee Drummond was once a Chicago anthropology PhD specialising in the Caribbean and later in San Diego's tourist attractions. He taught at McGill University for over a decade before retiring to the wilderness (Palm Springs!). July and August there are his winter when he withdraws into his airconditioned study to avoid the heat. The OAC is a principal beneficiary of this aestivation, as witnessed by the paper attached here. All I can say is you gotta read it, whether or not you participate in the seminar.

Lee's point of departure is Lance Armstrong's confession on the Oprah Winfrey show. The man who perhaps deserves to be known as the greatest American athlete ever admitted taking performance enhancing drugs, thereby triggering an intense public outcry. Lee deconstructs what he takes to be a key feature of the American ideology, the opposition of nature to culture, showing that biology and technology have been inextricably woven together throughout human evolution and even before. If it is impossible to identify the unequal influence of technology in sporting performance, what about other areas of cultural achievement, like literature for example? Should Hemingway's Nobel prize be taken away or Coleridge's poetry eliminated from the canon because they wrote under the influence of mind-altering substances?

Not content with this reductio ad absurdum, Lee then launches into a savage critique of American civilization and of the cultural anthropology it has spawned. Drawing on Marx's happy phrasing in the 18th Brumaire, he argues that the American tragedy (New World genocide) now reappears as farce (reality TV shows), one of which actually replayed the former in a grotesque reenactment of the competitive ideal. Anthropology tends to celebrate cultural achievement around the world, whereas in Lee's view, the current state of American society suggests that culture may be a disease killing off its carriers just as their ancestors once killed off the original inhabitants of what passes for the land of the American dream.

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Yes, Lee, the small number of participants in this seminar have made a lot of noise and in no particular order or with much concern for the rules of argument. This is an online variant of a traditional academic form which poses the question of what happens when some of the usual constraints are missing. I would hazard a guess that one important factor in this instance was the time gap between the principal participants: Yokahama, Paris, St Andrews, New York, Palm Springs. Moreover, you tend to post replies at the end of the day in addition to waking up 9 hours or more behind the others.This meant that a 24 hour gap between question and response was likely to be filled by trigger-happy exchanges that had nothing to do with either. The victim of all this was sequence. I waited a week for you to extricate yourself from the rush and, long before you could reply, John and Mark fired off another machine gun burst between themselves. Huon has done a great job to try and bring the discussion back to something orderly, but his eminently sane interventions have been lost in the turmoil. To maintain the level you have in trying to respond carefully has been nothing short of miraculous. But this, your last comment, as we enter the seminar's last scheduled day, expresses the frustration you too must have felt with the speed and chaos of interventions.

I find it useful to ask what sometimes sustained order in the terrestrial version of this form. Generally, if someone asks a question or makes a point, the speaker responds directly, perhaps to two or three taken in a bunch. Second, there is a time limit to how long a member of the audience can speak and the right to intervene circulates with limited opportunity to have a second go. I think this organization of sequence is essential and impossible to replicate online, when the audience is scattered around the world. In both forms, there is the added problem of encouraging participation by lurkers who feel squeezed out by more entrenched and confident participants.

I don't believe that much has happened to the thinking subjects involved in the two seminar forms, just to the social limits that might once have constrained the range of responses (which includes the ability to carry on a private conversation across the speaker and his last interrogator). I am not particularly proud of my own conduct of the session or of my long and windy interventions. Yet, self-flagellation apart, this has been a memorable encounter which has attracted over 1300 visits to date.

How to end this with a semblance of dignity? Lee will, on his past record, have one more shot at responding to us before the seminar closes. He will of course -- and rightly so -- pick and choose. You may want to leave him to pick through the rubble of our chaotic conversation or you could restate, briefly and simply, a point or question that you would like him to answer. This invitation applies, with forlorn hope, to lurkers too. But please no more argy bargy between the contestants.

Lee and others,

Thank you for the wide-ranging discussion of the last few weeks, from one of the aforementioned lurkers. Just in closing, I'd like to ask a provocative question (I hope) about the actual topic of the paper: what if Armstrong's confession was not disruptive, challenging, etc, but were instead what was expected? I'd like to suggest, perhaps for the sake of contrarianism, that the Oprah Winfrey Show functions in part as a sort of public confessional, allowing celebrities to legitimate rumours and speculations - in other words, things that are already known, but which the celebrity wishes to move past in some way. After all, Armstrong's confession was hardly earth shattering - his teammates and others had been saying he was cheating for years prior, and there had been several credible articles in major news sources about the allegations. His confession is part of a pattern of American celebrity behaviour, though. Consider this little listicle, which cites not just Armstrong, but James Frey and multiple "confessions" about sexual abuse, rape, and marital troubles:

Oprah's show is, of course, just a kinder, more grandmotherly version of the confessional press conference, like Tiger Woods chose when it became clear he had to own up to his marital infidelity:

Harking back to earlier discussion, I'd like to suggest that the confessional TV appearance is part of the deep structure of American celebrity. Part of the American celebrity story is feet of clay, and the way those feet are revealed is, ideally, by taking one's shoes off on national TV. Perhaps it is not indicative of a division or fault line, but of a consistent action frame and expectation of the meaning of 'celebrity'. 


Kate:  Excellent point(s)!

The "deep structure" (or "ceremonial grammar") of American society is (arguably) Protestant.  Millenarian Protestant.  Amazing Grace Protestant.  "I was LOST but now I'm FOUND" Protestant.  Or, what some call "Old Testament Christian."

I was recently at a (reform) Jewish Yom Kippur ceremony and then went to a class at the synagogue titled "What Ever Happened to Sin?" in which the rabbi said, "We Jews confess in public, whereas the Catholics confess in private."  He then handed out copies of four different versions of the "central" prayer in the service, each of which has a (somewhat) different list of "sins" for the congregation to recite.

In "grammatical" terms, what Lance (and the others) did was make a public confession -- consistent with the Protestant/Old Testament "deep structure" of much of American culture (i.e. the television audience), recognizing that "celebrities" are *formally* caused by their audience.



     Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, your . . . lurkers.

Hey, I’m all for lurking.  That was pretty much my undergraduate major – when I made it to class at all.  And, let’s face it, when we all got big and became anthropologists (or something like anthropologists), regardless of what hot commodities we may have been as students, didn’t we become first-class, Grade-A lurkers, hanging on the fringes of groups, poking and prying into things that did not concern us?  I’m quite simply blown away if over thirteen hundred people were interested enough in our seminar to give it a look (a click?).  If their experience, however fleeting, sparks a thought or two, starts the gears turning, going somewhere, anywhere, then that’s good news.   Granted, we’re a long way from going viral like that inspiring character, Hungry Dog, on YouTube, but it’s a start.  I’d even wager that the seminar’s thirteen hundred lurkers tops the number of people who actually read a page of the latest issue of American Anthropologist

    Keith, John, Huon, Mark, Kate (our quasi-lurker), you’ve been great.  The whole experience has been enormously stimulating for me, not at all frustrating.  It seems that life is by its very nature a set of scattered, contradictory events.  Huon, even with her efforts to acknowledge this aspect of society, Marilyn Strathern may have set the bar too high with her account of “partial connections.”  Probably the same for me with my adaptation of the creole continuum. 

    Kate and Mark:  Kate’s comment about Oprah’s show being a “public confessional” is not at all contrarian; it is the point I made in calling it “America’s Confessional and Oprah the Grand Inquisitor.”  Her comment is interesting because it does point to the formulaic nature of the show.  As with supergrosser movies, Oprah has not achieved her remarkable fame by going against the grain of American sensibilities.  She is, in Tom Wolfe’s phrase, part of the Main Vein.  Her celebrity confessions satisfy an American appetite to see the high brought low (which has at least a “partial connection” with the Caribbean metaphor of “crab antics”).  With his penchant for grammar, Mark sees this phenomenon as an aspect of the “deep structure” of predominantly Protestant American culture: “I was lost but now I’m found.”  Yes and no.  I’d agree with the lit crits that The Oprah Show is an (incredibly successful) example of a “genre” we might label “the American confessional.”  But, if I am to be true to the notion of “cultural continuum” (which, again, Huon has held me to) and the fundamental role that notion assigns to internal variation within a “system” (read: “deep structure”), then we should do a little ethnography (!) of the American confessional.  And internal variation there is, even on The Oprah Show itself.  Lance Armstrong’s “confession” was incredibly flat; it was the sort of question-and-answer session you might find in any courtroom (an ordinary courtroom, devoid of the histrionics of high-priced, Dream Team-type lawyers).  His performance could very well have been scripted: some of Lance’s people probably “took a meeting” with some of Oprah’s people and they fixed on the narrative.  Other celebrities have broken down and cried.  Perhaps at the extreme end of this little continuum, in which Lance’s deadpan admission forms the other pole, was the totally viral performance by Tom Cruise, in which he professed his love to his estranged wife, Katie, while jumping up and down on Oprah’s sofa like a madman.  If you range further afield, you indeed encounter confessions of the sort Mark identifies as Millenarian Protestant.  The televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was famous for these (he staged a couple): through spasms of bawling he admitted to having sex with whores and asked God and, especially, his millions of contributors to forgive him. 

    However, even that sort of  from-the-heart display of raw emotion has limits, operates, shall we say, along its own continuum of acceptability.  It’s late in the seminar; let me inflict another long, drawn-out joke on you.  The scene is a “camp meeting” in the deep, rural South, where the faithful would gather and sometimes stay (camp) for days, listening to fire-and-brimstone preachers harangue them for hours, pleading with them to repent and find Christ.  Members of the throng would jump up, often rush to the stage, and declare they had done just that.  Mark’s Millenarian Protestantism in neon. 


    This happened to one man.  He ran up to the stage and declared that Jesus had entered his soul and turned him away from his evil ways:

    “Brothers and sisters, before I found Jesus I was a sinner!  Though I was married, I used to fornicate with women!”

    And the crowd responded, “Oh, yes brother!  Tell it all!  Tell it all!” 

    The man continued, “And, brothers and sisters, before I found Jesus I used to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day!”

    The crowd, “Oh yes, brother!  Tell it all!”

    “And, brothers and sisters, before I found Jesus I used to drink a pint of whiskey a day!” 

    The crowd, “Oh yes, brother, tell it all!”

    “And, brothers and sisters, one night, when I’d been drinkin’ the Devil’s whiskey, I fornicated . . . with a sheep!”

    A stunned silence falls over the crowd.  Then, in the loudest chorus of the evening, “Oh no, brother!  Don’t tell that!”. 


    I don’t think this one made it into Mythologiques, although it is as highly patterned as any of Propp’s folktales (didn’t make it into Propp either).  Even the grammar of deep structure comes bump up against it sometimes (though hopefully “it” is not too wooly). 


    I want to thank Huon and John for drawing my attention to a bit of anthropology’s intellectual history I had missed: the role of the Rockefeller Institute in shaping the discipline in its formative days.  I realize the topic of  the Lance essay made it a reach for me to launch a critique of American cultural anthropology, but I did try to erect a set of bridges (L. S. style “transformations”?) leading from reality television to the inherent conflict in an American value system and cultural anthropology’s failure to identify and analyze those conflicts (coupled with the discipline’s scholarly cover-up of New World genocide).  That aspect of the essay got sidelined for the most part.  In closing, I’d like to follow up with what may be a more coherent version of that critique.  It is the “prefatory note” I added about two years ago to a seemingly unrelated piece on kinship categories.  I should apologize for inflicting it on you at the last, but I don’t think many people have seen it and it does present, better than the Lance essay, what I’ve found to be the dubious past of American social thought. 

    I thank all of you again.




“The Transatlantic Nanny:  Notes for a Comparative Semiotic of the Family in English-Speaking Societies” 


Prefatory Note:  A Little Whiff of Carrion


   Could it be that wisdom appears on earth as a raven, inspired by a little whiff of carrion?

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols


            The following essay is a somewhat edited and revised version of one published in a special issue of the American Ethnologist in 1978.  The issue addressed the topic of American kinship, and specifically in the context of David Schneider’s path-breaking work on that subject.  While I have great admiration for Schneider’s work, the circumstances of the publication of the AE issue troubled me.  In retrospect I see that my uneasiness was triggered by a nascent concern for the legitimacy, really, the intellectual honesty of the discipline of cultural anthropology as a whole.  I believe it was on the occasion of the issue’s publication that I caught that first whiff of carrion of which Nietzsche speaks; I caught it and, just possibly, at that point began to grow a bit wiser.  Let me explain.

            My essay examines kinship categories in several English-speaking societies, and in the process attempts to make some fundamental points about the culture of kinship and about internal variation within a cultural system.  Those ideas have been developed further in American Dreamtime and “Culture, Mind, and Physical Reality: An Anthropological Essay.”  While I think the essay makes some valid arguments, it is, at bottom, a semiotic juggling act – a waltz of the categories.  Of the several papers presented at the symposium which gave rise to the AE issue, I found one in particular a dazzling, profound piece of work.  Its author was Ted, or Theodore, Kennedy (the Afro-American anthropologist, not the late senator), and it dealt with the culture of kinship in Afro-American families. 

            Kennedy’s piece was a radical analysis, a genuine bit of heresy uttered in the sanctorum of Cultural Anthropology, where a formal celebration of Schneider’s work was underway.  As Geertz (I believe it was Geertz) said of Malinowski’s diary when it was published, Malinowski committed an unpardonable sin: he spoke the truth in a public place.  In the modern classic, The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes a favorite theme among his test-pilot subjects: Chuck Yeager and his cohorts were fond of talking about “breaking the envelope” when they tested experimental airplanes.  Mach 1, Mach 2, Mach 3, as each envelope approached there was a natural resistance and fear that it was unbreakable, that a “demon lived out there at Mach 1,” etc, which would spell disaster for the hapless pilot who challenged it.  At that symposium on American kinship, Ted Kennedy pierced that envelope.  And, indeed, it appeared that there was a demon out there to thwart him. 

            The context needs to be understood.  Schneider’s work on the culture of kinship was indeed revolutionary, but like all revolutions it retained considerable baggage from the Old Order.  That baggage was tagged with a familiar label, one that persists to this day:  whatever kinship was or, more importantly, was not (actual genealogical ties), Schneider claimed it was characterized by “diffuse, enduring solidarity.”  Despite great diversity in kin terms and behaviors, kinspeople were said to subscribe to a generalized, warm-and-fuzzy feeling toward one another which they did not manifest toward outsiders.  It is important to know that Schneider’s idea was firmly rooted in the theoretical framework of Talcott Parsons, at whose renowned Department of Social Relations at Harvard Schneider was a graduate student.  Steeped in Weber and Kant from his studies in Germany, Parsons crafted an entire social theory around a Gemeinschaft / Gesellschaft – like set of “pattern variables,” which were in turn later codified into his famous two-ply paradigms of AGIL boxes.  Schneider’s “diffuse, enduring solidarity” fitted snugly into the best-known pattern variable, ascription vs. performance.  All social action, Parsons claimed, could be parsed into behaviors in which individuals relate to one another either on the basis of some assumed, intrinsic, shared commonality (ascription) or of an assumed distance and difference (performance).  Kin ties are ascriptive: regardless of your behavior, you remain a member of your family.  Blood is thicker than water.  In the wider world of work, school, and society in general, however, people evaluate you on the basis of your performance: you are what you do.

            The symposium and subsequent publication celebrated variations on the theme of kinship as diffuse, enduring solidarity.  That was the mostly unquestioned background of the individual papers.  Except for Ted Kennedy’s.  On the basis of his fieldwork in a rural Afro-American community and of his personal experience as an Afro-American, Kennedy presented a paper entitled “You Gotta Deal With It” in which he proposed that the dominant force in the black family is performance, not ascription.  Historically and through the present day, life for most American blacks is a day-to-day struggle, and being perpetually up against it they have little time for individuals – whether “relatives” or not -- who do not contribute to the domestic group.  A birth mother who is a drunk, addict, or just hopelessly downtrodden and who leaves her child with her own mother or another female relative, a biological father who abandons mother and child or merely drifts in and out of their lives ceases to be a member of the family.  Someone who, for whatever reason and with whatever genealogical connection (if any), is prepared to shoulder the burden of caring for an infant or child, who appears to give a damn, becomes the principal kinsperson.  “Kinship” is all about performance, not ascription.  Sitting on the panel in that crowded conference room as Kennedy delivered his paper, I could feel the air being sucked out of the room.  He had just punched a large, ragged hole in the “diffuse, enduring solidarity” envelope and the gas bag that is cultural anthropology was collapsing around us. 

            But not to worry.  When it came time to edit and review symposium papers for publication in that august journal, American Ethnologist, (whose myriad readers number in the hundreds) Kennedy’s piece did not make the cut.  I really don’t know what happened, what discussions took place between the convenor of the symposium and the AE editor, and, of course, what the all-important anonymous peer reviewers had to say.  I’m confident, though, that the ludicrous process of peer review returned a negative verdict; Kennedy’s paper was the very opposite of the safe, pedantic, unimaginative stuff that chokes anthropology journals.  I doubt many anthropology reviewers have read that literary critical essay by Coleridge in which, responding to peer-reviewer types of his day, he declares “there are still fountains in this world.”  An irony here is that other reviewers, in the wider world of book publishing, took a different view: two years after the AE issue appeared (and instantly disappeared into the dusty oblivion of library shelves), Oxford University Press published an excellent, very well- received work, You Gotta Deal With It: Black Family Relations in a Southern Community by one Theodore Kennedy.  

            If this little episode, a trivial matter when you think about it, gave off that whiff of carrion I describe, what was behind it, where was the actual carrion, the rotting corpse that gave off its stench?  Not to mince words, I would suggest that rotting corpse was the entire edifice of American social research which took shape immediately after World War II.  I believe future intellectual historians will look with amazement and horror at the formation at Harvard in 1946 of the Department of Social Relations and its official platform, if you will, as embodied in the major work of its first chairman, Talcott Parsons: The Social System, published in 1951.  In that work Parsons launched the scheme of pattern variables to describe all social action, and embedded them in a systems-theory framework mostly derived from Norbert Wiener and his concept of homeostasis.  Society, the social system, possessed a well-defined set of sub-systems which interacted to produce homeostasis or stability.  The structure functioned to maintain itself as a well-integrated, stable whole.  This doctrine of “structural functionalism” as it came to be called spread from the temple of Harvard University to nascent sociology and anthropology departments across the United States; it became the gospel for indoctrinating future generations of social researchers.      The horror, the sheer intellectual outrage and travesty of all this, is that Parsons and his eminent cohorts (including an elder statesman of anthropology, Clyde Kluckhohn) advanced their theory at a time when the smoke had hardly lifted from the great killing fields of World War II and when the stacks of rotting corpses still gave off a stench that should have been discernible even on the Harvard campus.  Some seventy million people were killed in that war, and surely at least an equal number left maimed or with permanently blighted lives; how could any rational person advance the grotesque idea that human society possessed an inherent rationality, coherence, systematicness?  In the shock and shambles of the immediate post-war years it was incumbent on social thinkers to produce accounts of how social processes could lead. over the course of a few years, to cataclysm and horror.  Even if they lacked a sense of smell, Parsons et al should have had the rudimentary vision to see that human society is inherently unstable, conflict-ridden, forever teetering on the edge of chaos.  Things just don’t make sense; events can’t be slotted into neat analytical categories.  Humanity is the very opposite of system theory’s favorite metaphor, the thermostat, which operates on the principle of change things a little bit this way, then change them back the other way, and keep going so that you maintain, yes, homeostasis.  A far more accurate metaphor for the nature and  fate of humanity, as I have suggested elsewhere, is a runaway train: it’s barreling down the tracks, completely out of control, and God knows what it’s going to hit.  But instead of anything like this, the entire academic establishment labored mightily, and at the highest levels, and came up with the totemic AGIL four-square box to describe all social action.  It bore a suspicious resemblance to a university campus quadrangle.  

Well, Lee, you have left us with another seminar paper to consider. I can't thank you enough for the combination of high seriousness and low humour that you bring to your fine writing. A significant proportion of the 1300+ hits would be by the principal participants, but it is heartwarming to think that your work might be a tad more accessible as a result of this event. It's all at The Center for Peripheral Studies, folks.

I can't bring myself to close this thread, even though I absolve Lee from his daily duty of responding to it and I will retire from moderating it. Perhaps we have given Lance Armstrong his due, but now Lee has opened up massive questions concerning American cultural anthropology (and not just American), the universities, kinship, the empire of reason etc. There are also some interesting issues that were posed and then lost in the hurly-burly of our discussion. So I have removed the dates and leave it open as long as anyone wants to add something.

I would like to add three things:

1. A Bulgarian joke. "I went out on a date with my girlfriend last Friday, but her mother came too." "What did her mother say?" "Baaaah".

2. I lived in a Norfolk village once. My neighbour was an old widow, Mrs Cullum. She had four married daughters living in Norwich, but every Sunday a young woman came with her husband and kids to take her out on a car ride. Mrs Cullum called her "my relation". One day I was walking with her in the main street and we passed another old woman: "Good morning, Mrs Cullum" "Good morning, Mrs Green". After we had passed, she said "That's my sister." I was shocked: her sister, living a few doors away and addressed in this way! Mrs Cullum explained. "The only time she came in my house was when my husband died and I will go in hers for her husband's funeral." I asked her if this was unusual and she said no. She had a brother she hadn't seen since the Second World War and he lived a mile away. It turned out that her father had two wives and exhausted them by having 12 children with each. Care for every new baby was allocated to an older sibling aged say 8. Of the two dozen siblings, a special relationship developed with the one who brought you up and the one you brought up. "My relation" was the daughter of the child (now dead) that Mrs Cullum brought up.

3. I once attended a protest meeting in Chicago against the launch of the Iraq war. The only mode of argument available to most participants was personal testimony. We heard about how Medicare had denied an old man his drugs and how the army had jailed someone's brother. Only the organizers made a case against the war and that was couched in the language of an obscure Leninist sect. I left early.



   Please accept my deep thanks for featuring my Lance Armstrong essay in an OAC e-seminar and for extending its run for anyone who might like to participate in its wide-ranging discussions. 

    In the essay and elsewhere I do make some harsh remarks about the present state of the discipline of anthropology.  Please know that I do not intend these as a counsel of despair; rather, my remarks issue from a sorrow that a field of inquiry with so much promise should fail to realize that promise.  When Edmund Leach wrote his classic work,
“A Runaway World,” in the late 1960s – which we both admire very much – it seemed to hold the promise that anthropologists following his lead might engage the problems he identified and provide analyses geared to understanding and ameliorating them.  Decades later that runaway world has not only picked up speed, so that human society seems to teeter on the precipice at every turn, but the enterprise of anthropology has at best taken only tentative steps to confront the looming problems of contemporary life. 

    The disappointment I feel and sense in others over this state of affairs issues from the fact that the program of anthropology is marvelously suited to take up the enormous challenge of understanding a chaotic world.  Alone among other fields – as you’ve emphasized in your powerful theory of the human economy – anthropology, through the practice of ethnography, operates at the level of individuals, and not of slapped-together abstractions (the social actor, the rational man, etc.).  And anthropology couples that concern with the particular, the concrete, with a commitment to pursue the analysis of human existence at the highest level of abstraction possible.  Our best thinkers have done that.  Sadly, they are not much in evidence now (or perhaps I have been too long underground to take due notice). 

    During the course of the seminar I’ve advanced a proposal, a call, for a Nietzschean anthropology which would advance anthropology’s classic commitment to identifying universals of the human condition in the particulars of daily life.  Without advancing any specific content or results of that enterprise here, let me urge OAC participants and readers to consider, and hopefully employ, the three basic perspectives of a Nietzschena anthropology in their own work:

    1)  Humor.  Keith nicely describes my work as a combination of “high seriousness and low humour.”  I cannot think of a better phrase to describe what I try to do.  It is an application of Nietzsche’s maxim that any serious argument should be accompanied by at least one joke.  There is far too much of the mirthless – and shrillness – in what now passes itself off as “anthropology.”  Let me make a suggestion, from one who has long since abandoned academic anthropology:  Rather than plow through journal articles until your brain begins to grow numb, go to YouTube and watch a few of George Carlin’s old routines.  He was a master at combining high seriousness with (very) low humor; his analyses of contemporary social issues transcend anything our TV talking heads or academic critics produce.  Also check out D. L. Hughley on YouTube and Bill Maher on HBO.  As for writing that is highly serious and hilariously funny, read a bunch of Tom Wolfe – that’s how the ethnography of contemporary life is done, folks. 

    2)  Passion.  Try to make Nietzsche’s famous exhortation, “Write with your blood!”, your own credo.  Unless you feel deeply about something, why bother sitting down at the keyboard?  It will only cause you pain and frustration and, when you’ve finished and sent the result off to be published by some obscure journal or press, will inflict that pain and frustration on others.  With the way things are going today, I don’t see how any thinking person (granted, that cuts the field down a whole lot) can draw a breath without some background sense of joy or, all too often, outrage.  Go with that sense.

    3)  Lucidity.  This is probably the toughest of the three, and made tougher by the awful writing presented to us as “anthropology.”  I’ve had too many experiences, as I’m sure other OAC participants have had, of giving up on a book or article which actually purported to deal with a subject I found important.  It was just too painful to try to continue reading (maybe I just have a low pain threshold, or a low tolerance for, well, you know).  I think constructing a lucid account of an ethnographic situation or theoretical position is made much easier if one first accepts and employs the first two perspectives I’ve outlined: humor and passion.  Without those, I think you’re doomed before you start. 

    Writing in anything like a lucid fashion about anthropological topics is so devilishly hard because our subject matter, human society / culture, is such an incredible tangle of contradictory actions and ideas.  If we were writing a treatise on crystals, our work could be a brilliantly clear monograph in the field of crystallography.  But we’re not (although some thinkers have peddled that line).  Again, Keith has hit upon a marvelously descriptive phrase:  In writing about human affairs, we’re describing an “existential soup.”  As with acquiring a humorous perspective, I think the best way to achieve clarity and precision in anthropological writing is by example.  Opinions will differ on this matter;  taste is subjective.  I draw most inspiration from those few writers who have mastered the genres of both fiction and nonfiction, who can create a compelling account of a fictional social world in one work, then in another work produce a brilliant description and analysis of actual events.  It is a rare gift, and we have much to learn from them.  Here I would recommend close and frequent reading of V. S. Naipaul, our old friend Tom Wolfe; Peter Matthiessen, even (a surprising candidate given his subject matter) Joseph Wambaugh.


    Finally, I’d like to say that I think the OAC is a bold and valuable experiment in an area of inquiry that promises so much but has of late delivered little.  I am happy to contribute to it in future polylogues.    


Thanks for the seminar, Lee. I got a lot out of it. And thanks for the tip about Theodore Kennedy's book - the findings as you describe them strike a note with my experience in the Caribbean.

Which makes me wonder if there is something about working in the Caribbean itself that is involved in the point of view you are outlining. There are a number of interesting books which dabble with modelling the Caribbean as chaotic/fractal (Benitez Rojo/ Baker). A friend of mine Joanna overing, (I think you would enjoy her paper in the OAC series on Amazonian Ironies), told me about an anthropologist who went to work in, I think it was St Vincent. He was used to East Africa and had studied age set systems there - which despite their anomalies are fairly predictable and stable. When he arrived on the island he couldn't pin down any meaningful structure whatever - either social or cultural - only vague regularities of behaviour and a lot of music, story-telling and of course a lot of humour.

When I wrote about my fieldwork up as a book it struck me as nonsense to elaborate some highly abstract construction of the facts since this would blind people precisely to the performative - the fact that people go about making things happen with what they have to hand. And the discussion of your seminar had, in that sense, a flavour of the rum bar; either way, you certainly allowed all concerned to 'sound' their 'barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world', as the man says.

I wonder, Huon, if the uniqueness of the Caribbean can be overstated. It used to be contrasted with stable and normative portrayals of African and Pacific societies. But there is always the problem of what anthropologists are comparing, given the attempt to establish functionalist accounts of "primitive societies". I don't offer it as God's truth, but there is also CLR James's point that the Caribbean peoples have a universal significance as the world's first modern proletariat -- ripped out of their homelands, exposed to the middle passage and then made to work on industrial plantations as advanced as any in the world, with racist imperialism thrown in. Of course they don't have much to do these days, short of tourism, marijuana and emigration. But when Ray Smith wrote up the matrifocal family, his comparisons were with the British working class. And when I read about Kennedy's book, I immediately thought of the rural working class in East Anglia, for whom kinship is no more rule-bound than it is for African-American families in the northern cities. Lee has already identified himself as a cracker who went West. I am uncertain why you think he had to become a Caribbean ethnographer in order to acquire the world view he has laid out for us here.

It was a question to Lee, rather than a claim I was making about any 'actual' uniqueness of the Caribbean. It is not something we talk a lot about at OAC because this medium is quite uncentred and doesn't allow much in the way of boundary maintenance: but for practising anthropologists, the concept of the ethnographic region is important. No one can seriously claim to know about the anthropology of West Africa without knowing something about matrilineal kinship, or about East Africa without recognising the significance of age sets - however reified these concepts are. The Andes has foregrounded core questions regarding inter-ethnic state formation, long-distance trade, alternative forms of literacy and bureaucracy. And so on. 

That said, in absolute terms, the idea of a culturally distinct region is a fiction - the basics of matrifocality exist in the Andes, in London slums and in Ghana. But, working within the intellectual constraints of the region has allowed people to develop particular problems. This is something well-recognised by anthropologists, though it probably adds to the general confusion about, and distaste for, anthropology more widely. Perhaps fairly so, since anthropologists constantly switch levels of abstraction and concreteness, blur the difference between one place and another and between concept and reality, make claims on the basis of their singular experience alone, then say that something most people take to be universal is not true where they have done their fieldwork, or is, in addition, a result of 'Western' bourgeois false consciousness etc., before finally claiming that something highly specific to their own experience in one locale or at one moment is relevant everywhere. Anthropology is tricky that way; though probably more honest in its practices than most of the rest of the humanities and social sciences.

Either way, however fictional (or ideal typical, if you prefer) the concept of the Caribbean region is, it has also enabled a very interesting dialogue to develop around the encounter with modernity and, amongst other things, the problem of creating cultural meaning vis-a-vis a chaotically shifting political-economic terrain. In other words, those problems have produced some valuable ethnographic insights and anthropological ideas.  'American culture' in any kind of gross terms is also a fiction in the same way, but, as such, it can produce a useful arena for discussion, as Lee has shown. So, that was what motivated me to ask Lee that question. 



Huon and Keith,

On the Caribbean as a Region / Theoretical Abstraction / Folk Category  


    Your comments and debate about the status of the “Caribbean” interested me greatly; the issue has been with me for a long time.  Keith, I didn’t know CLR James’ take on the issue; it corresponds with mine although I’ve come at it from a different perspective (I tend to think that “the proletariat” has gotten lost in the global craziness of contemporary life). 

    The creolization and social / cultural heterogeneity represented in our various renderings of the “Caribbean” is one arm or pole of a deep, very deep paradox of human existence.  The other pole is that alongside the rampant variation and fluid change of our creole metaphor / model of society there is the all-too-well entrenched doctrine – an institutionalized fanaticism – that the world is a certain way and its human population is divided into absolute types of people, an Us or Them opposition which corresponds closely, both in concept and action, to Human or Inhuman.   That fanaticism fueled the genocide of New World conquest, supported by Papal Bulls issued just years after Columbus’ first voyage which declared that aboriginal Americans were beyond the pale of humanity.  After that genocide was well underway the notorious Debate of Valladolid argued the question to a draw: maybe Amerindians were human and maybe they weren’t, so keep on keeping on.   Although the world of today is an unrecognizable place if viewed from the perspective of early 16th Century European thought, the fanatical credo of that time lives on.  The certainty behind the obscenity of the West Bank Barrier and its storm trooper enforcers is in exact counterpoint to the certainty of the Islamic guerillas of Al-Shabaab who bring their divine truth to a Kenyan shopping mall. 

    I hesitate to inflict another piece of memorabilia on you, but the passage below does seem to resonate exactly with your comments on the “Caribbean.”  It is from an essay, “”The Vanishing White Man: Myth and History in Guyanese Culture.”  Although Wenner-Gren deemed the essay unsuitable for publication, I’ve always thought it captured something of importance in contemporary experience.  Happily, now that we’ve left the world of print in our rear view as we cruise the Information Highway, my little ditty will merely burn up a few electrons.  Thank you again for your perceptive comments, and your patience. 


From “The Vanishing White Man . . .” :


            Caribbean history is a curious, thoroughly reflexive topic, for it is really in the Caribbean, or more specifically in the islands of the Bahamas, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica that modern history began.  There Columbus and his men learned for the first time what was involved in contacting and subjugating peoples who had been isolated from the great movements of populations, inventions and ideas that bridged Europe, Asia, and Africa.  And the Arawak and Carib inhabitants of the Bahamas and Antilles who received those Spanish explorers and conquerors learned the first and fatal lesson of the colonized.  In less than a quarter of a century hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million Arawak died in the Greater Antilles, scrubbing the land of a complex society in a genocidal and ecocidal disaster whose proportions are only now, with the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus's landing upon us, becoming established (Carl Sauer, Henry Dobyns).  The blood and ghosts of those Arawak clung to the Spanish as they penetrated further into the New World, visiting now familiar horrors on the Amerindian societies and civilizations of the mainland. 

            Behind the waves of conquistadors the Caribbean remained, devastated, unrecognizable, swarming with the vermin (human and animal) of Europe, the cultivations of its former inhabitants choked by weeds of European soils.  The Caribbean had become a kind of social and cultural Ground Zero, the point of impact of a destructive civilization that proceeded to reshape the two American continents in the image of its accomplishments in the Antilles.  When Magellan sailed, when Cook went ashore, when Livingstone traveled, they took the Caribbean experience with them.  As the first killing ground of Western colonialism, the Caribbean established a precedent for events that followed.  It witnessed and shaped the birth of modern history. 

            The Spanish quickly used up and abandoned the fragile islands, but what followed continued the desolation and disequilibrium they left as their heritage.  The buccaneers, slave masters, rum runners, refugees of North American wars, and today’s drug and gun smugglers, offshore bankers, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and tourist hordes have maintained the fragmentation of the area as though it were a cherished institution.  From the disdain of early travel writers to Naipaul's heartsick portrayal of his island home as a place of shipwreck, the Caribbean has consistently been described as a ruined land.  Its unshakable forlornness has even cast a pall over anthropologists’ descriptions of its societies.  

            Until fairly recently, Caribbean anthropology was a part-time or temporary undertaking for scholars who were either just finishing graduate school in North America and needed a convenient place to practice or who were completing one field work phase of their careers and wanted to move on to study the “root” cultures of Africa and the archives of Europe.  The fragmented and ahistorical societies they had studied in the Caribbean field would give up their secrets by placing them in an orderly, historical context — whether that be the living history of African tribes or the documentary records of European colonial administrations.

            I believe this trend in Caribbean anthropology (which is alive and well: prominent scholars are busily publishing the results of their archival searches) skirts the most intriguing feature of Caribbean societies: they are lands whose people have turned their backs on history.  The past was too chaotic and painful to remember, and even if forgetfulness itself works to bring it back (but recall that it was the Reverend Jim Jones who nailed that particular adage above his jungle throne) people would rather think about other things.  With the past forgotten or ignored it is possible for Caribbean peoples to give all their attention to the principal mythic undertaking of any culture: creating the present; embroidering that world of here-nowness discussed earlier in this essay.  It is the very fragmentary, incomplete, and transient nature of Caribbean societies — features that have caused historian, anthropologist and novelist alike to turn away in despair — which reveal themselves as generative devices that impel what Roy Wagner has called the “invention of culture.” 

            But what do the mythic processes of Caribbean thought keep inventing?  Surely not repetitious versions of tired old themes — the institutions of colonial society, the oppression of black by white — nor even the political and cultural formations of the present.  “Guyana,” “Jamaica,” “Trinidad,” “Barbados,” “Cuba,” and two dozen other names of sea-washed, sun-bleached scraps of land may well prove as mutable and therefore forgettable as the social worlds of buccaneer encampments or sugar plantations (many of the latter have already been converted to tourist resorts, their stench of blood masked by the perfume of sun tan oil).  These tiny societies are the stuff of processes of cultural identity formation today, but what will guarantee their place in “history”?  Nothing. 

            Guyana in particular, probably because I know it better than other Caribbean societies and have chronicled the comings and goings, the appearances and disappearances of its red men and white men, strikes me as highly unstable and likely to become a relic of history alongside its predecessor, British Guiana.  Abandoned by its whites and abandoning them in turn — remember that the ethnic category is dropping out of use — the social discourse of the country has become at once listless and shrill.  While those who can go (the most productive members of society) get out, leaving the poor, the elderly, children, and the government’s henchmen behind, State repression and petty meanness ride a wave of propaganda that tirelessly boosts all things “Guyanese.”  The nation is bankrupt, its cynical politics in disarray, and Venezuela waits in the wings, nourishing an old claim to two-thirds of Guyana’s present territory. 

            The mythic processes that generate cultural and national identity and, along the way, constitute history, take back as much as they give, eradicating systems of difference and propping up new ones in their place.  Guyana, and too many places like it, are mythic constructions that appear to be cultural dead-ends, societies that are simply not working out and whose driving force, in this case the intense tension of desire and repulsion among the races, will come to seem as curiously antiquated as Arawak myths of clan origin.  One system of ethnic sensibility may be replaced rapidly by another, as evidenced by the phenomenon of the vanishing white man chronicled here.  Cultural change sometimes occurs quickly, and sometimes the change just doesn’t take.  Tiny, impoverished nations like Guyana, whose people are evacuating them and whose remaining citizenry is held captive by cynical and greedy rulers, have little chance of lasting very far into the next century.  If they do survive, it will be as relics of a past world, as life in the ruins. 

            In its tragic, and rather pathetic flirtation with oblivion, however, Guyana offers its most significant message to the world at large (and to anthropologists, those watchers of miniature social worlds, in particular).  The metaphor of the Caribbean as a cultural Ground Zero applies to the future as well as the past: the short-lived, bizarre social mutations that occupy the region today have experienced in concentrated form the forces of colonialism and nation building that have gradually shaped all of the modern world, and they therefore hold clues to what is in store for the rest of us.  The pervasive sense of dislocation, the intense feelings about ethnic identity and intermixture, and the certain knowledge that things are changing forever are features of everyday life in Guyana and much of the Caribbean that may well portend far more than the disappearance of a few insignificant national boundaries.  As one of the more vulnerable and preposterous societies in the world today, Guyana reveals the inevitable outcome of every nation-building process: dissolution. 

            For where, if one truly has to pinpoint it, is this country named “Guyana”?  It is not simply that strip of drowned coast and ragged jungle perched on the hump of the South American continent.  “Guyana” is a welder in Toronto, a schoolteacher in Los Angeles, an illegal immigrant in Bedford-Stuyvesant just as much as it is a cane cutter in Bush Lot, a rice farmer in Elmira Village, a prospector in Paramakatoi.  Like the quantum particle I have argued that it resembles, “Guyana” is not a fixed, determinate entity occupying a particular time and place; it is rather smeared across a swath of the cultural universe.  Those who have fled and those who remain do not stand on opposite sides of the boundary of Guyana; together they constitute its non-spatial, non-temporal social and political reality.  They, and the mercurial polity they represent, are paradoxically bound together by the thought that “Guyana,” along with its white spirits and white men, is vanishing from a world in which the whole enterprise of “nationhood” has just about exhausted itself, reduced to absurdity with the advent, on one hand,  of giant corporations operating on a global scale and, on the other hand, of dozens of island states, microscopic in size yet containing people from all over the world.  “Guyana” is history in the making, myth in progress.

This was a lot of fun -- not only did I get to meet some *very* smart people but I also got some pointers to some others also!

Particularly interesting for me is the work of Prof/Dean Marietta Baba at MSU, whose paper on the Rockefeller involvement in pre-WW II anthropology and her questions about the "rules of the game" seem very relevant to the seminar.

I have written her a note, a part of which says -- "Since the history you recount in this essay refers to a period of still expanding industrial economics, I was wondering if the more recent parallels that you mention might have considered that the US economy has been "post-industrial" for the past 40+ years?  As I suspect you would agree, business today operates in a very different context than it did when Ruml was such an important instigator. The effects of automation that Wiener discussed in his 1950 "The Human Use of Human Beings" -- which then led to the early 1960s concern over "Cybernation" and, indeed, a 1964 Congressional Commission on "Technology, Automation and Economic Progress" -- has now become front-page news. Oxford researchers seem to believe that 45% of current American jobs are due to be automated out of existence, while those I've spoken with at MIT place this at more like 80%."

This, in turn, reminds me of Keith's comment about how so many in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) now have "little to do" (other than tourism and marijuana, if I recall correctly <g>) and it also points back to my earlier comments about the situation in many "primitive" societies, which may themselves be the "devolved" remnants of previously expanding (and even "dominant") cultures/empires.

I'm wondering how anthropology deals with cultural/economic expansion and contraction?  How much consideration is taken to the longer-term historic circumstances of those who are being discussed?  Are they on the way "up" or the way "down" -- if those distinctions are even relevant to anthropology?

It seems to me (perhaps naively) that the anthropological analysis of those who are living/working in a expanding industrial society would necessarily be quite different from looking at the "same" people in circumstances of overall cultural/economic decline and/or transition to another radically different set of social conditions.

If these concerns *are* relevant, then how do anthropologists try to sort out overall historic/cyclical situation of the societies it studies?

Mark Stahlman said:

If these concerns *are* relevant, then how do anthropologists try to sort out overall historic/cyclical situation of the societies it studies?

One of Lee's principal arguments is that American (read Western) anthropologists have consistently airbrushed out (whitewashed? bowdlerised?) the actual historical processes whereby civilisations have risen and fallen, often at each other's expense. Each country's anthropological history is different, but in Britain 19th century evolutionists were replaced by diffusionists who were in turn replaced by "scientific ethnographers" from the 1920s. The first studied world history in order to explain how and why white people won control of the planet (by a superior "culture" linked to race). This account was largely triumphalist and ignored issues like genocide. The second traced the spread of civilisation from its putative home in Egypt while developing salvage ethnography as a secondary concern. The third, whose epigones dominated 20th century social anthropology, studed "the people without history" outside world history by means of fieldwork. In a century of urbanization, total war and successive waves of capitalist development, they usually found something else to write about. This has changed somewhat in recent decades, when anthropologists discovered that we are all living in one-world capitalism and decided to study that everywhere. But they are able at best to place their ethnographic investigations within national history and have no practice or expectation of studying the rise and fall of civilizations, even less the prospects for world civilization.

In a February 2009 public lecture, I said "The surest and permanent loser in the current world economic crisis will be Europe". This week, the Cameroonian writer Achille Mbembe said, in the course of promoting his latest book: « L’Europe ne constitue plus le centre de gravité du monde ». That's really socking it to them! What happened to the American century, never mind Asian capitalism? The Europeans are in full-scale denial of their own decline. They can't reproduce or defend themselves any more and they take out their depression on the immigrants who work for their pensions. They can just about accept the idea that China is on the rise, but they resist violently the idea that Africans may not always be at the bottom of the racist world society they themselves made. The British have even airbrushed the British empire out of the secondary school history syllabus. A recent prime minister said that the British empire stood for truth, honesty and justice. For half a century they have clung to the US' imperial coat-tails in order to retain the facade of still being a world power. The story in France is similarly depressing.

Only the winners write history and modern anthropology has been written by winners who have been losing for quite a while now. I know that you are deeply engaged with the early decades of the postwar American empire. Presumably the story of inevitable ascendancy has been retained today, but with much less intellectual rigor. Believe it or not, I have written a book on the consequences of the digital revolution in communications for money and exchange today. But the machine revolution barely figures in contemporary anthropology at any level, certainly not as an explanation for the shifting fortunes of the world's major civilisations. I suspect that historians are a better bet, but they are not immune to reactionary ideology either.

I think it would be profitable to write off 20th century social science as mere ideology, papering over the cracks of western civilization in its decline. Interestingly enough, the best-selling anthropology text of all time -- Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture (1934) -- was heavily influenced by Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918).



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