Hypocritical hyperreal sharks

Dan Jorgensen (dwj@JULIAN.UWO.CA)
Thu, 9 Dec 1993 09:22:04 -0500

In one of his nastier passages, Said once questioned the existence of a
critic (in Critical Inquiry, natch), suspecting he may have been dreamed
up by one of E.S.'s betes noires. I personally suspect seeker1 (or 1 +/-
N) has a Bakhtin fantasy, and such cutesiness leads to musing about what
a bargain hiring seeker1-N on a starting assistant prof's salary would be.
Interviewing Seeker1 -- which, by the way, would be one of the ploys used
to separate hyper- from other sorts of reality -- could be lots of
polyphonic fun.

Anyway, I seem to have gotten lots of people's dander up in ways that
surprise me (and that takes a fair amount these days). A couple of people
seem to have taken my remarks to mean that I am happy to see anthropology
departments close down, and that I don't fight to maintain what we've got.
So without further ado, let me say that I have, am in the middle of, and
will continue to try to keep anthropology afloat in my neck of the woods,
and have even had a modest hand in proposals for expanding our graduate
program (with some reservations, to be honest).

I might also add, for those unfamiliar with the way university
administrations operate when budget cuts come, that continuing to practice
my craft in the best way I know is a prerequisite for keeping the spot I
occupy available for one of the many now queuing up for it (so someone
should be grateful for the hypocrisy, I suppose). I would, however, be
less than honest if I suggested that this was my main reason for doing so.
My first reason is I do it because I love it. After that, I would
mention an obligation to the folks who put up with me for so long in the
field, and (surprise) to the taxpayers and general public who have given
me a privileged position on the understanding that I actually *do*
something for it. (If you wanted an easy ride, life as a tenured faculty
member is not a bad bet, especially if you don't want to become rich.
Given the life circumstances of most other people here [and elsewhere], I
think coasting is unconscionable -- but maybe this reflects the prejudices
of a working-class background. I do know that there are more than a few
colleagues who suffer no such pangs, and they of course fuel justifiable
sentiments against privileged academics.) I also feel that anthropology
is intrinsically valuable on both intellectual and moral grounds, and that
teaching it well to a large audience is one real way of discharging our
obligation to the wider world. I do not, however, see anthropology's main
mission as self-reproduction -- if we do well on other scores, we'll be in
good shape -- so I don't think the goal of instruction is primarily

Having said all this, let me say again that there really *are* too many
people out there looking for work in academic anthropology. For the last
several years the difficulty has *not* been a matter of finding a suitable
candidate to fill any particular job we've got. Instead, we are always
faced with an array of people, *all of whom are good* but only one of whom
will get a job with us. We routinely turn down good people, and this says
nothing about our standards as much as it describes the general academic
job market for the last ten to fifteen years. I don't know that it's
different anywhere else.

Now, back to the tank.... A good look at demographics, paying attention
to what has happened to public economies, and a few other things suggest
that founding more academic departments or expanding existing ones lacks
two critical ingredients (apart from imagination): (a) the resources
and public willingness to bankroll such a move and (b) a coherent
rationale for why this would be desirable. In the meantime, until and
unless anybody comes up with a bright idea for, say, doubling the number
of departments and programs, it seems to me not only foolish but
irresponsible to (a) keep pointing as many people as possible towards
the academic job market and (b) concentrate efforts on marketing
strategies associated with the fabrication of new isms, post-isms, and
anti-isms. A malthusian look at this might bring cold comfort to the
survivors, but this is really only a rationale for eating our young
*[see note at bottom]. Anyone interested in finding more work for
anthropologists should take a closer look at Steve Maack's list of
undertakings, which will likely be more use in this regard than florid
Baudrillard tub-thumping. (It seems Baudrillard and P.T. Barnum share
more than just their hunches about what easy marks the general public
are, but Baudrillard's minions may find that the public is a tougher
customer than they think.)

Somebody asked a question in another context about how to evaluate
effectiveness that is relevant here. Seeker1 has epistemological
worries (or is instead worried that others aren't as worried about
epistemology as he/she/it/they are, but, as others have said,
anthropology has enough epistemological angst, if not jobs, to go
around). Seems to me that one difficulty we may have in persuading
others that the various things we do are valuable is that nobody has
expressed much interest in judging the effectiveness of anthropological
knowledge, and all sorts of people seem to have vested interests in
claiming that these questions for anthropology are undecidable. Now if
one looks at the volume of talk about ethics and anthropology, there's
all kinds of stuff about being on the right side (see the recent AAA
Newsletter story about how this persuaded a B.C. judge to treat
anthropologists as advocates rather than expert witnesses) and precious
little about professional competence, or guaranteeing the standard of
work or seeing to it that anthropologists will get things right. One
way of looking at this is that we eschew judgments of effectiveness
because anthropology has none in anybody else's world. Another
alternative is the suggestion that it's simply a way of insulating
ourselves from critical scrutiny. Can't blame other folks if they smell
something fishy here.

* * *

*Note: An evolutionary sideline, drawn from cellular biology... It
seems that in a number of organisms stress produces changes making for
rapid mutation rates. This is because cell-repair functions are some of
the earliest to be impaired, with the result that the equivalent of
cells with three heads or opposable thumbs or mottled camouflage appear
in a blossoming profusion, like a meadow full of wildflowers. This
makes a neat evolutionary story-line, and serves as an interesting
analogue to academia under pressure -- but we shouldn't forget the fact
that most of the wonderful new forms never get to see the light of day,
let alone live comfortably tenured lives.

Dan Jorgensen Email: dwj@julian.uwo.ca
Department of Anthropology Voice: (519) 661-3430 x5096
University of Western Ontario FAX: (519) 661-2157
London, Ontario
Canada N6A 5C2