Knowledge, Luxury, and Identity (SYNTH) - not short

John H. Stevens, Jr. (jhs14@CORNELL.EDU)
Tue, 13 Feb 1996 08:50:07 -0500

In response to several folks' suggestions that we put handy tags on our
subject lines, I have introduced a new one, SYNTH, for folks like me who
want to try to put together reflections on several threads and synthesis.
Hopefuly, when folks see this they won't dump the message because it does
not have an immediately recognizable connection to a thread.

Anyway, we've been talking about several things: Defending Anthropology and
Creating or Contesting Identity, Authority, and Bias; the Lucky Pleasure of
"Useless" Knowledge versus the Need For Relevance; Language, Consciousness,
and Rhetoric in the Discipline and Social Life; and the Work and Life of
Anthropology. These really aren't far apart from each other, and I see in
the words of John McC., HJ Martin, Jay Kotliar, Keith Dever, Ralph
Holloway, and Ronald Kephart (hmmm. . . lots o' extra chromosones here. . .
:-) a debate that illustrates the fusion of identity, knowledge, and
practice that is probably the heart of anthropology. However, this is not
a clean fusion, which accounts for the discipline's generational crises and
suggests that the bias and blockages that seem to keep anthropology from
"breaking out" into relevance (by which folks seem to mean it is viewed
like public policy or [shudder] sociology, as a toolkit) are in fact part
and parcel of its practice.

Pardon my meta-scissors, they're about to fly.

The last first: John McCreery's recent comments on anthropological practice:

>I'll stick by my own opinion that long-term field research can
>be extremely valuable, but the second half of the proposition
>"the unique ability of academic anthropologists to perform it,"
>is debatable

He also cites
>the value of that remarkable luxury, one
>or two years in the field paid for by someone else.

Finally, and most pertinently, his observation about academics:

>At the end of the
>day, they don't have that much more time for research and
>writing than I do, working in an advertising agency. The one's
>with drive and discipline get a lot done. Others don't.

With these three comments, John sums up the debates. First, he defends
anthropology as a discipline without one methodology or institutional
positioning, which, as he points out, has been part of doing anthro (in the
U.S., at least) since the ole Sage of Rochester hunkered down with the
Hodenosaunee and gave Engels something to crib from. The anthropological
identity that John has created relies less on methodology than perspective;
it relies on a well-honed mind, voracious drive and curiosity, and innate
talent more than the rather stereotyped transformative experience of
fieldwork. I too have met longtime fieldworkers who are mediocre anthros
at best, and others who haven't been to the field in years but are doing
smashing work. But many anthopologists defend a rather exclusive notion of
the discipline as being centered on this particular experience.
Now, this method is indeed a large part of the anthropological
endeavor, but this has *never* been the exclusive core of the
anthropological identity. What is central to the anthropological identity
(and thus its practice and knowledge production) is the topic which it
addresses, which is human social life and culture. Stealing from Kirsten
Hastrup's new book title, ours is a discipline that mediates *between*
theory and experience; it is a practice generated in the tensions between
expectations and actuality, between intimate contact and abstract
conception. Fieldwork is one part (often important) of the endeavor, and I
have yet to find that one particular positioning is the best one.

What creates the bias that people have noted, and also I think
creates the selectivity with which other disciplines poach from our theory
and ethnography, is both this mediative tension and the uncomfortable
insight that this tension can sometimes generate. In large part, this
problem is one of history, since anthropological fieldwork was conducted
amongst the primitive, the savage, the underdeveloped, and (worst of all)
the discontented. While other intellectuals used our conclusions, the rest
of the world rejected the notion that studying the backward, the oppressed,
or the strange could tell us anything about how the world works, or
anything about themselves, unless it was some sort of self-congratulatory
affirmation of their assumptions. What anthropology was good for was
acquiring privileged information at close range; the experience
communicated was accepted, but generally not the theory. Experience and
theory were separated, which has lead to a de-authorization of anthropology
and a strange twisting of its methods and possibilities by some strains of
cultural studies who think that talking about yourself equals ethnography
and gives you permission to distort (insert favorite theorist here) and
overlay his/her theory on the subject at hand.

Which is why anthropology, perhaps more than other disciplines, has
to craft its language so carefully. We often talk about secret things, and
have to act as synthesizers, filters, and organizers of our subjects'
knowledge and what that knowledge has stimulated in us. We then have to
make that knowledge (in varying proportions and importance) relevant,
comprehensive, reflexive, interesting, and powerful in its arrangement and
delivery. This means having to know about language and rhetoric, about how
our minds work, how our subjects' minds work, and how our audiences' mind
works. It means being able to be a professional stranger, a multiple
insider, a social critic, a wordsmith, and a snoop, all at the same time.

Thus, the work and living of anthropology is clear!! Just kidding.
No, the work and living of anthropology is hazy, contested, odd, and often
makes you wonder what the heck you're doing. But how else can we study
some of the most ephemeral and nutty spheres of life? How else do you talk
about a government killing its own citizens (see the excellent,
gut-wrenching essay "Killing Ethnicity" in the recent *Cultural
Anthropologist*) in a way that addresses the politics, the culture clash,
and the little boy you played with in the field who, while you were
teaching bored nineteen year olds about the world, had a bullet driven
through his brain? Game theory? How else do you attempt to talk about
3-day rituals, infanticide, gossip, the gendered division of labor (and its
dissolution) and development, but from such a shaky platform?? How could
we work in such implicated conditions without these constant debates?? We
have to keep wondering what position is best, what perspective is
insightful, what explanation is fruitful, because, like human social life,
this stuff keeps changing. Anthropology, to be anthropology, has to
continue to be a chameleon, because that is the nature of its subjects and
its demons.

I seem to recall someone once calling anthropology "the
uncomfortable discipline," which was meant as a backhanded swipe. But it's
true, not just because we are uncomfortable, but because anthropology talks
about uncomfortable things and make us question what we take for granted.
Most people don't want such destabilization in their lives, and many don't
see such a practice as "relevant" because they can't see its experiential
or constructive aspects. But they are there, and I think we have to
embrace that discomfort, that need to constantly validate our conclusions
and question ourselves as well as our informants, because that is the power
of anthropology.

Your comments are, as always, welcome.

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
phone and fax: 607.256.1829 (call first!)
alternate fax: 607.255.3747

"The Earth you cannot remake
Put your stormy soul to rest
Only one thing you can do:
good to another man

But even this is so great
The stars themselves smile
One hungry man less
means one brother more"

Stig Dagerman (with apologies for the universalized "man").