Relevance and Nothingness

John H. Stevens, Jr. (jhs14@CORNELL.EDU)
Mon, 5 Feb 1996 11:09:05 -0500

John McCreery has brought up an interesting point, I think, with this
observation at the end of his latest posting"

John asks
> whether we are ready to move beyond
>carping and consciousness-raising (which seems to be what
>"critical theory" amounts to these days) to more serious
>participation in the policy debates in which we are, alas, at
>present only a minor presence.

He raises this question in the context of a discussion of "organizational
CAUTION) as a sort of riposte to recent discussions of politics we've been
having, not so much criicizing them as asking why we don't have these sorts
of discussions about, say, the politics of international peacekeeping, or
(my new interest) the discourse and practice of international human rights
law and NGOs, esp. in relations to indigenous peoples and other enveloped
groups. It occured to me that in the recent Hodenosaunee discussion that
little was said about the Iroquois' predicament, and the larger issues of
representation, masking, and appropriation in the suffragettes' activities,
or even the difference in social and political contexts between "then" and

To riff a little further on Mr. McC., I also noticed that there was
little activity around his "Do We Read What We Write?" proposition (my
excuse is a screwed-up modem), and this reminded me of a neglected thread
from last summer on folks' favorite works in anthro. True, it was
*summer*, but other topics got much more discussion, and I couldn't help
but ponder John's rhetorical question, not only in its obvious sense of
reading the productions of our colleagues, but also in our individual
processes of writing this stuff. What are we thinking when we compose our
articles and reviews and chapters? What is our awareness of audience,
purpose, and implications in our own work? What is this knowledge that
we're all cranking out??? What is our understanding of our function as
scholars? Are we as politically perceptive or analytically salient as we
believe? Some of us say we're scientists, some of us social critics,
others both or neither, but at the end of the day, what *is* the relevance
of our work?

I'm pondering this as a first-year grad student who is becoming rapidly
disenchanted with academia and is thinking ahead to the culmination of my
rite de passage, the dissertation. Do I really want to produce a
Foucaultian analysis of tropic inconsistencies in Bongo Bongo laundry
songs? Do I want to take an applied stance and analyze ways to alter
attitudes towards tobacco companies for RJ Reynolds or the U.S. Government?
I could make up lots of other examples, but you get the idea. Our work
labels us, although one (or even a life's) work cannot sum up our
interests, positioning, or knowledge. What my work is going to do "out
there" is of paramount importance to me, because that's how I perceive the
duty of an intellectual/scholar/social critic. And from what I've seen of
the dissertation terrain, you get pushed in a single direction, which is
becoming poison not just in the job market but in preparing you for a world
as weird as next Tuesday that consistently refuses to sit still for us to
analyze it.

Obviously, I'm talking about more than just policy debates, but the
location(s) of anthropology as a part of the social and political
structures within which it exists and works. I'm talking about our
assumptions, our cherished and ambiguous tradition, and our visions. If we
are indeed a "minor presence" in spheres of politics, yet hot stuff in lit
crit and cultural studies, why is that and how do we change that? How do
our practices affect these processes, and how much of it is out of our
control? Was anthropology really just a discipline created to organize
difference and "the foreign" (as John Borneman contends in the latest
*American Anthropologist,* a generalizing but provocative article) for the
powers-that-be, or is more than that, something other than that? If so,
can we or should we strive to change that, and how?

Your comments or reflections would be greatly appreciated.

Best regards,

John H. Stevens, Jr.
Department of Anthropology
Cornell University

Student Area Coordinator, Amnesty International (Central NY)
Co-Chair, Urgent Action Coordinator, and Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator,
Cornell Student Chapter

snail: c/o Dept. Of Anthropology, 265 McGraw Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853
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