Review of “Upriver” in Indian Newspaper . . . and More

pioneerThe Indian newspaper The Pioneer published an interesting review of Upriver on July 26.  The reviewer, Kumar Chellappan, uses the book to make explicit comparisons to the situation of India’s “tribals.”  “Suppression and oppression of the Awajún by the city folks who come to the Amazonian region for plundering the forest wealth and rubber cultivation are no different from the sufferings of the tribals in India at the hands of city dwellers who colonise the tribal territories for monetary benefits.  Whether it be in Peru or India, the evangelists subjugated and destroyed the tribals and their culture under the pretext of introducing civilisation among them,” Chellappan writes.

There is much truth in this, although here we see a smart reviewer, whose heart is in the right place, miss the book’s principal message:  The Awajún have most assuredly not been “destroyed” by missionaries or resource-seeking outsiders.  Damaged and disoriented, yes.  But destroyed?  Hardly.  Upriver is above all about Awajún resilience, grit, and resourcefulness in the face of formidable odds.

Months after it appeared in February 2015, I discovered another review of Upriver in a blog post written by Chad Thatcher, who is involved with production of a documentary video called The Primary Source that focuses on Peru’s Marañón River.  (Scroll down a bit to find Thatcher’s assessment of Upriver, which doesn’t have its own URL.)  In many ways this review is more nuanced and thorough than trade reviews the book has received elsewhere.

Can Academic Writing Be Like Jazz?

Kenny Barron. Munich, 2001. Image by Sven Petersen, Wikimedia Commons.

Last night I caught a memorable concert by Kenny Barron and Stefon Harris at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, part of the annual New Mexico Jazz Festival.

When witnessing the awe-inspiring chops of a master pianist such as Barron, I sometimes wonder what it would take for writing in academic disciplines like anthropology to offer the visceral pleasures of jazz.

To some degree this is a preposterous question. Jazz has an intellectual and analytical dimension, but when it swings it has a fully embodied quality that leads audience members to tap their feet or move in time with the rhythm–behavior not commonly observed at academic conferences nor, I suspect, when people read academic essays in private. An ensemble such as Barron’s is also fundamentally interactive. One of the great pleasures of jazz is watching performers respond instantly to subtle shifts in time or timbre explored by another member of group.

Jazz typically starts with a theme—perhaps one from the Great American Songbook—then tears it apart via improvisation, new voicings, and chord substitutions, only to put it back together in the closing bars.   When listening to any proficient jazz artist, the audience grants the performer license to do this—expects and demands it, in fact. Kenny Barron doesn’t have to stop in the middle of the piece and say, “Okay, you’ve heard the theme.  Now I’m going to change the meter for awhile and perhaps throw in a few references to something by Ellington.”  He just does it, and we take pleasure in the creative variations.

Academic readers grant such license grudgingly, if at all.  We typically expect relentless sign-posting on the order of, “First I did this and now I’m going to do that.”

My tolerance for the tedious quality of most academic prose has declined over the years. This is in part the result of working with Joyce Seltzer, a demanding, experienced editor of non-fiction who refuses to allow her authors to be boring.  I remember vividly my first project with Joyce, at the beginning of which she told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to traffic in such tired formulations as “In this chapter I will . . .” or “In this chapter I did . . . .” The challenge was to begin and end convincingly without shifting to the didactic meta-level or posting a billboard that tells the reader where the project is headed.  At first the task seemed impossible, then it became habit, and now I find myself unable to stop the mental equivalent of eye-rolling when I see pedantic signposting in the prose of others. The worst cases drift down to the paragraph level: “In the last paragraph I looked at X; in this one I’m turning to Y,” which assumes that readers are too dense to follow the argument without a helping hand.

That’s one reason why I started using space-breaks in place of chapter subheads in long-form writing. They signal a change of direction without beating the reader over the head. The challenge, of course, is to convince the reader that the jumps make sense. A reviewer once complained that chapters of one of my books seemed to be organized “randomly.” That prompted a ROFL response from me, since absolutely nothing about the chapters in question was random. But it did suggest either that the reviewer had a low tolerance for narrative fluidity or that I failed to make the implicit case for my narrative transitions.

Another way to emulate jazz is to pay attention to the rhythm of phrases and sentences. Reading drafts aloud is a good way to test this.  Does the prose swing, however modestly, or does it plod down a dusty road like the Bataan death march?

Finally, there’s the question of silence, of things not said. Miles Davis famously complained that another ambitious jazz musician “played too many notes.”  I once attended a concert by the aging drummer Max Roach and was struck by the strategic way he used silence to make his musical point, a rare quality among percussionists. Perhaps age had cost him some of his dexterity, but he managed to turn that into a virtue that I’ve never forgotten. In academic writing, as in jazz, less is often more.

Genre and audience are important, of course. I don’t claim that all academic writing should aspire to the improvisational quality of jazz. There is a place for explicitly didactic writing and relentless clarity. Still, one of the charming attributes of ethnography is the latitude it offers for genre-bending and imaginative forms of writing. This is not without risk, and one can think of a number of less than convincing experiments in literary ethnography. But this space for creativity, however risky and given to self-indulgence, is one of ethnography’s enduring gifts.

Addendum, 9/11/2015

As usual, John McPhee says it best.  Read his New Yorker piece, “Omission: Choosing What to Leave out.”

“Uncontacted? “Voluntarily Isolated”? “Sovereign”?

bowmanA lively debate has erupted on the listserve of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA, registered members only) and elsewhere.  It builds on long-simmering tensions involving Amazonian indigenous groups living on the border between Peru and Brazil. In press reports, these peoples are almost always referred to as “uncontacted” because they lack most items of industrial technology, change the the location of their settlements frequently (if they have stable settlements at all), and mostly avoid contact with outsiders. In a few instances they have had violent encounters with more settled indigenous peoples as well as non-indigenous outsiders.

The most recent debate was sparked by the publication of an editorial by Robert S. Walker and Kim R. Hill in the June 5, 2015 issue of Science under the title “Protecting Isolated Tribes.” It was published in association with a longer cover story addressing the same topic. Walker and Hill focus largely on the known vulnerability of such populations to Western epidemic diseases to which they presumably have had little prior exposure. The authors advocate the initiation of systematic contact focused on providing vaccinations and, when needed, appropriate medical support to protect isolated indigenous communities from the high mortality that will almost certainly afflict them when epidemics arrive.

Their editorial provoked a critical response from Stephen Corry of Survival International. Corry argues that the kind of “protection” proposed by Walker and Hill misses the point: that the risk faced by these populations is primarily the loss of territory in which they can continue their way of life. Their land and livelihood are being taken from them by the expanding Amazonian frontier, which includes miners, road-builders, loggers, and farmers. Corry feels that indigenous peoples deserve protected lands in which they can live any way that suits them. “It’s time to stand in resistance against those who just can’t abide that there are some who choose a different path to ours, who don’t subscribe to our values and who don’t make us richer unless we steal their land,” he writes.

The choice, then, comes down to humane—some would say “paternalistic”—interventionism (“Intrude in their lives to save them from catastrophic epidemics”) versus Corry’s insistence on honoring indigenous sovereignty and a people’s right to remain free and independent on their own terms.

Although the latter position has a powerful moral resonance, it is undermined by two major flaws. First, there’s little reason to believe that the lands currently occupied by such groups represent their ancestral territory. The evidence suggests that these are refuge communities that moved into zones vacated by previous indigenous occupants. Second, and more importantly, the relevant nation-states have exhibited neither the political will nor the ability to defend such communities from invasion. Is this just? Absolutely not. But I wouldn’t bet a nickel on the likelihood that Peru and Brazil will do what needs to be done to seal off these indigenous territories to protect their isolated occupants from outsiders.

The SALSA debate most recently focused on whether these populations should be called “uncontacted,”“voluntarily isolated,” or perhaps something else altogether. “Uncontacted” turns out to be improbable: they most likely have had some prior contact with outsiders, probably hostile. To call them “groups in voluntary isolation,” in contrast, suits the current push to acknowledge agency, a people’s ability to make their own decisions, however constrained by circumstance. Both options strike me as having romantic undercurrents. “Uncontacted” implies that these people are the last vestiges of societies uncontaminated by capitalism, processed foods, and Sponge Bob. “Peoples in voluntary isolation” suggests that they have made a conscious choice to maintain their traditional ways and collective independence at any cost even though there are reasons to believe that these are communities on the run, however resolute and resourceful they may appear to be.

Experts with considerable knowledge of frontier realities have checked in on both sides of the debate. From my vantage in the high desert of New Mexico, I can only encourage readers to explore the issues on their own. Whether we like it or not, this is a human last-stand: resisting the final step toward a fully interconnected world.

For more on the ethical and practical dilemmas presented by uncontacted/voluntarily isolated peoples in Amazonia, listen to the podcast interview of Professor Jonathan Hill (Southern Illinois University) on BBC radio, beginning at about the 7 minute mark.  [A tip of the snap-brim fedora to Glenn H. Shepard’s blog for the BBC link.]

August 10, 2015.  See this article in the New York Times, which does a decent job of assessing the situation:

September 21, 2015.  Indigenous groups issue a statement on this contact issue: