Re: AnthroFuturism

Christopher Pound (pound@IS.RICE.EDU)
Thu, 7 Apr 1994 02:28:51 -0500

> I am wondering why anthropologists seem
> stuck in the past

Because you haven't read enough contemporary anthropology. There will be
a large contingent of anthropologists at the SSSS meetings in New Orleans
this fall ... Some papers I've seen abstracts for will discuss things like
women in space, Sim* software, satellite technology, fetal surgery, etc.

(You may want to read things like Benedikt (ed.), _Cyberspace: First Steps_;
Traweek, _Beamtimes and Lifetimes_; or any number of medical anthro articles
on technology, drug therapy, etc. Also, you can anticipate forthcoming works
by Rabinow on the biotech industry, Fischer on science & autobiography,
Stone on virtual cultures, and Tyler against cyborgs.)

And, I think you need to realize that there's more to the non-past than just
technology. There's plenty of anthropological material out there that tries
to tease out what might be emergent in the social, political, and economic
changes going on in the world.

> (It could have something to do with the fact that
> early 20th century Futurism was a nasty fascist, speed-obsessed European
> artistic movement. Maybe.)
Right, and it wasn't a movement that art or modernity ever really got over
with entirely (see Perloff, _The Futurist Moment_).

> The future approacheth.
A "modernist myth" if I ever heard one. But then, to call it such is to give
anthropology too little credit, isn't it? Or have you missed out on the much
older literature on the cultural and linguistic bases of time as well?

> I am wondering if any anthropologists are
> considering the cultural impacts of such things as:
> 1. Space migration.
Oh come on! Hasn't this been studied by a prof in your own department?
I recall, at least, that there was a course to be offered on anthropology
in space the year after I graduated (from UF ... not so long ago).

> 2. Life extension ...
Do you think that, just maybe, the reason the anthropology of aging has
become such a common issue that, again, a course was taught on it in your
own department is because there is such a large percentage of people over
65 *today*?

> 3. Neurological modification ...
Urgh. Here's a terrific example of why anthropologists should (and do) keep
science-fiction out of their approach to anthropology. Your questions are
ridiculous because (among other things) they're founded on a Cartesian
conceptualization of 'experience,' because neurobiologists are well on their
way to debunking the 'myth of the neuron' (or so I read in the pop science book
_Mapping the Next Millenium_), and because language is a lot bigger of a nut
to crack than you seem to think.

> 4. Artificial intelligence ...
Sherry Turkle (a psychologist/sociologist/STS type, so sue me) asked similar
questions about artificial intelligence in _The Second Self_ without having to
resort to such utterly fantastic scenarios. (See chapters 1 & 7, especially,
I think; isn't she going to be the discussant at your AAA panel?)

> 5. Genetic engineering ...
No adequate references come to mind, but the anthropological literature on
the rhetoric of authenticity is, I believe, sufficiently large to handle
such questions should they arise. Plenty of people are, indeed, looking at
things like the Human Genome project (I know one graduate student using it
as an ethnographic "site," and I'm certain I could dig up several other
references if you really need them).

It's easy to lament the backwardness of anthropology, considering how often
you see people claiming to be "Tylorians" (as someone on this list once did)
or whatnot, drawing kinship diagrams, romanticizing the field experience, or
proclaiming that cultural materialism is alive and well (where "well" must
mean something like "valetudinary"), but in fact, quite a large number of
(well-known and otherwise) anthropologists participate in the study of
contemporary social, economic, and technological developments. I also think
that these people are often more aware of the positional ins and outs of
avant-gardist social theory than you seem to be, and I think that a refusal
to become "stuck" in the future is not only wise but necessary if we are to
avoid always only imagining ourselves to be products of a modernity that
has already past us by.

Christopher Pound ( | They think they are Parisians, but
Department of Anthropology, Rice U. | they are nothing. -- Pierre Bourdieu