Ads, Fads, and Editorial Bads

John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Thu, 6 Oct 1994 15:42:39 EDT

1) RE: "Ad Man" and associated responses: I was taken aback (like lots of
folks) by the sheer vituperative force of Aaron Fox's explosion, but also
cheered by the plethora of well-balanced responses (esp. by John M. and Trish
Clay) to his assault. I was also really happy to see Aaron's response, but I
agree with Rick Wilk that (a) we should be able voice our opinions, (b) we
shouldn't be afraid to do *some* venting over the net, (c) we all can get along
within this particular realm of disembodied discourse. Like Aaron, I am not a
fan of "big business" and I've met several advertising execs who are real
skanks. Much of advertising seems to be either a scam or an exploitation of
the economic system, another remora sucking on the big capitalist shark. But
John M. doesn't strike me as any of the above, and even as I oppose what >I
see to be the pernicious forces of economic avarice and mean-spiritedness, I
try to keep an open mind and not begrudge anyone their trade. I've also met
a few folks in advertising who are in it to help people, either as activists
or as concerned creative people trying to give their clients effective voices
in a cannibalistic economy. A local radio and newspaper commentator by the
name of John Carroll is one of the sharpest critics of business and politics
in my neck of the woods, and he's in advertising (oh the contradictions!).

A have a more ambivalent view of fusing anthropology and business than John
M. does however. My little Cynic alarm goes off when people talk about
"using" anthropology to sell products. I think it's because I believe in
the powerful analytical qualities of the "anthropological perspective" and
because I've been taught that certain ideals should be inherent in "being an
anthropologist." In reality, anthro is a form of knowledge like many others,
one that many secretly believe is more good and wholesome and transformative
than other disciplines. This is not true; I've met just as many idiots and
scumbags in anthropology as I have in, say, religious studies or when I
worked in law. It is the person that matters, not the training. Training
and perspective inflect the person, but in the end it is the person who
decides how to use their training and how to reconcile that usage in the
world. Like many of us, John M.'s doing that, and as a student still trying
to figure a good, right path to the future, I empathize with him. How *should*
I use my education and skills?

Maybe I should do what Michael Taussig, a sort of Zennish "criticizing without
criticizing" which is vogue in some circles. It was interesting to read John
M.'s latest response, where he compares Tom Clancy and Taussig's methods. To
me this reinforces what I just said about the person: I have a feeling that
most people do not read Tom Clancy to see the "patterns of thought and
emotion characteristic of people" in military/political occupations. I agree
with John M. that we need to study that particular "Other" more, but they're
not really others, are they? They are members of our culture who are many
times held up as ideals, patriots, and commanding presences in our society.
They aren't Cunas or Lakotas or Maoris; despite the haphazard demilitarizing
trend of the past several years, they are still a large component in the power
structure, and I think that they are far easier to understand. Also, Taussig
is talkinhg about something different. he's addressing oppression and
appropriation, two things that a lot of people in Clancy's novels do not
suffer from. In some way it's an apples and uranium comparison.

But I agree that Taussig also embodies the problem of responsibility and denial
that infect some strains of postmodern thought. I like it when people say,
"here's what I think." But I also like seeing people peel back the layers of
an anthropological/epistemological grape and reveal new things under the skin.
That's how you get to the fruit. The value of a solidly contextualized,
positioned, and uncompromising postmodern-inflected analysis is that it helps
you see new things, maybe not "truth" as an object, but some truisms about the
subject before you, some insight into something that you thought had been
explained. In stripping away or reconfiguring representations, I think that
Taussig (esp. in *Mimesis and Alterity*) gives us a chance to see. . . maybe
not *new* things, but more clearly see what is already there. OF course,
the price of this method is the ease with which one can descend into incom-
prehensibility or intellectual masturbation (deconstruction is, after all,
little more than the blow-up doll of thinkers who can't bear to acutally
engage the full implications of their work or subject). But once you realize
that reality is culturally constructed, and constantly being shored up or
reconstructed or torn down or whatever metaphor you find useful, then you
have to acknowledge that we must question the representations we create, and
work to consistently refine them. The center cannot hold because its not
there; we put it there.

That may be a tad nihilistic, but I think I made my point.

This ideaology spills over into the definition of "fiction." No, nothing is
completely "made up," but the literal definition of fiction is that you've
made something up; that is, taken events and, without regard for their actaul
progression or significance, reworked them to produce the story as you want it
to be. How does this differ from, say, Taussig's work? You don't change the
story; you just make a new tale out of it. You take Columbus the hero and make
him Columbus the lost explorer who opens the door to five hundred years of
European expansion and genocide. If I took Columbus and said that he repelled
an alien invasion and discovered the lost tribes of Israel and starred in porn
films, I am making up a fiction; I have changed the story. But if I take
Columbus' journals (which may not be his journals, I heard recently) and from
that story make a new tale, that Columbus was not fulfilling some Western
manifest destiny but was a bad navigator with no talent for diplomacy, I have
created a fiction in Taussig's sense, I believe. Actually, I take more cues
on this from Greg Dening, who has done some wonderful work on history and
"presenting the past." The only true tale is the one that happened in 1492
when Columbus got sand in his shoes; everything after that is *a* fiction, and
some of it is just plain make-believe.

Does that work?

When anthros (or anyone) purports to tell a story and changes the story, they
are being dishonest. But to tell a new tale from that story. . . is a
different story. You must honor the story; you are then being far more
accountable to whomever's story you are retelling, and you are probably doing
better anthropology.

* * * * * * * *
One more thing: regarding the latest issue of *American Anthropologist*.
Having read everyone's comments to date, I think that:

1) Part of the editorial hegemony being debated is part of being a new
editor, of showing people who you are and what you want to do with your
journal. It seems to happen a lot. Of course, that doesn't mean you
should remove whole paragraphs from people's works; that *IS* dishonest.
Having actually read the issue in question (I'm a big Paul Stoller fan), I
can only say that, yes, this was definitely the Tedlocks' dream issue. But
I hope that they realize what journal they're running, and return to a more
balanced format with later issues. It's funny, but this issue struck me as
more of an issue of *Cultural Anthropology* than *AA*

I also agree with Trish Clay that the disturbing aspects of this bit of
editorial "sculpting" aren't bad; it's good to be rocked from your
complacency, especially in such a grand old organ. And since some of it
was my "style" of anthropology, I appreciated seeing the exposure. But
hopefully future issues will highlight the fact that innovative, cutting-
edge scholarship (as well as the human side of anthropology) takes place
in all of the subfields. That's what I'd like to see in the future.

Thanks for reading; you've been a great audience.


John H. Stevens
University of Massachusetts at Boston