Re: a dissident voice

Thu, 9 Feb 1995 12:29:24 EST5EDT

Regarding Robert Johnson's post (below)....

I have been lurking behind this debate since his first posting of the
6 Propositions (or however many it was). While the issues he raises
are relevant (although a bit extreme even for me) -- and we all know
they are relevant because they wouldn't have pissed off so many
people if they hadn't hit home -- the largest problem I have with
them is, *they are not constructive criticisms*.

Mr. Johnson, you have made your point: how about proposing actions
we could take to do something about it? Posting inflammatory
criticisms of a discipline which is already hyper-self-conscious
about its role in the world doesn't seem to help the matter much.
Perhaps the suppression of dissent really does occur as you describe
(below) more often than we would like to admit -- but hasn't
anthropology been more sensitive to it than lots of other
disciplines? I'm not saying this to excuse whatever faults may still
exist, but to point out that in the context of Western social
institutions, the discipline of anthropology really ain't so evil.
Is it more productive to fight a relatively small amount of
colonialism in a marginal discipline, than it is to use the
resources of that discipline -- problematic as they may be at the
moment -- to fight colonialistic tendencies in larger segments of
Western society?

But to my original point -- academic anthropology
works within the larger framework of academia, with its rules,
constraints, and codes of behavior; academia operates within the
larger framework of society, partly through governmental control of
purse strings. Given the larger context, what do you suggest
anthropology do to fix the problems you find? I have been thinking
long and hard lately about my own position as an anthro grad student.
I find myself sceptical of *everything* I read, critical of that of
which I am sceptical, and becoming cynical about the ability of
anybody to say anything meaningful outside of particular contexts. I
once heard this referred to as *debilitating scepticism*, and that's
just what I find it to be. It seems to me that anthropology is a
particular way of creating an understanding about the world, with its
own traditions and contexts. Maybe the problems you have identified
stem from a contextual specificity of anthropology, which prevents us
from engaging in meaningful dialogue with alternative points of view.
If so, is the radical decolonisation you propose really a viable
solution? I could see anthropology fragmenting even more than it is,
becoming an anarchic assemblage of parties who associate as
anthropologists because they share a particular rejection of other
disciplines' ways of knowing more than they reject each others, rather
than because they have a positive set of shared knowledge, method,
and theory. Anthropology would not be a community, rather a
confederation of groups who identify as anthropologists not because
of what they are, but because of a shared sense of what-they-are-not.
What good would this do anyone? Anthropology would be even more
marginal than it is now, and the efforts made to include the
disenfranchised through your decolonisation would be for nought: no-
one would listen to them, either. The only real solution to problems
as extreme as you have posed them, is to create an alternative
discipline. Maybe the journal which you mention as if it were a
threat would be a new beginning.

I confess, I am insanely curious about your motivation for this
particular tack on this issue. What do you think might be
accomplished by inflammatory statements (and from your experience
with HISTARCH, you must have known what the reaction would be) that
couldn't be accomplished by addressing the issues in a manner more
appropriate within the discipline? If you're trying to change the
System from within, you have to work by the System's rules.
Otherwise, why don't you begin your journal? With respect to the
*tackiest form...of failing undergraduates* -- I mean, geez, if
you're teaching hominid evolution, the creationists in the class
don't have to believe it or like it, but they are in that class of
their own volition, they are therefore responsible for the material,
and if they don't become familiar with that material, they have not
fulfilled their responsibility and have therefore failed on their
own. When you're trying to explain a particular idea, alternative
ideas are irrelevant to understanding it (accepting it is another
matter). I am not trying to formulate an *ad hominem* rebuttal to
your posting, but I really don't see how your position can be clearly
understood without also understanding your vehement contempt for
anthropology. And I really think you need to start offering
constructive criticisms, with potential resolutions, rather than
simply feeding the fire and leaving it up to those who you might
consider guilty of the actions you find problematic to find ways of
putting it out.

------- Forwarded Message Follows -------

>Date sent: Thu, 9 Feb 1995 06:18:32 -0700
>Send reply to: Robert Johnson <johnsorl@COLORADO.EDU>
>From: Robert Johnson <johnsorl@COLORADO.EDU>
>Subject: A Dissident Voice
>To: Multiple recipients of list ANTHRO-L
> <>
> For years now, Anthropology as a discipline has been the hot
> house flower of the sciences. Not that it hasn't come under
>some rather scathing critiques from those it studies, which
>in its elitist pomposity it has for the most part ignored,
>but rather because there have been certain mechanisms
>available to deal with the occasional dissident within the
>Anthropological community. These mechanisms have included,
>from the top down, denial of employment within the applied
>field or university sphere, rejection of grants applications,
>blackballing from professional journals, denial of tenure or
>derailment of tenure tract, rejection from doctoral or
>masters programs, or, in its most tackiest form, failure in
>undergraduate course work. Those days are over. While at most
>this forum of Anthro-l can only generate at best tempests in
>a tea cup for now, the ability to criticize this discipline
>without these forms of retaliation is going to grow. And its
>going to start right here. If for some reason this forum
>can't take it, as the HISTARCH group and its listowner
>couldn't, I have the ability to publish a journal which
>will be open to all regardless of opinion or lack of
>"acceptable" credentials. If it becomes necessary just send
>your submissions to me care of University of Colorado,
>Department of Anthropology, and we'll carry on from there
>until its worked out in the courts as to what are the legal
>obligations of open forums on government supported Internet.
>Just make sure you send your submissions registered mail,
>because we wouldn't want any of them to get lost. Oh yes, one
>more thing. I have been debating for the most part the peanut
>gallery around here but now that lines will be drawn over this
>development I'm sure some of the more illustrious among you
>might "ave a go at me." I think it only fair to warn you that
>Clifford Gertz and I have had a run in before during a conference
>and the best thing he could come up with was to call me a utopian
>and then shake his head and let some matra chanting sociologist
>who's claim to fame was to have pinned the flag on her rear in class
>or burned it field the question he should have had the ability to
>answer. If you doubt it we can go to the video tape unless of
>course there's been a recent accident. Maybe Gertz doesn't strike
>fear in the hearts of some of you but consider yourselves warned.
>Now, and I want to be serious about this...
>Shall we begin the decolonization of Anthropology?

Rebecca Lynn Johnson
Dept. of Anthropology
University of South Carolina