Category Archives: anthropological theory

Social change (millenarian and otherwise) in Amazonian societies

Depiction of Juan Santos Atahualpa and Asháninka warriors expelling Franciscans, 1740s

A decade ago I participated in a small international symposium focused on indigenous peoples and their strategies for cultural survival.  When someone suggested that it might be useful to undertake a systematic comparison of these strategies, a prominent scholar in the group announced sententiously that comparison is inherently colonialist.  There being no one in the room who wanted to be suspected of colonialist leanings, comparison was swept off the table.

Comparison’s status remains low in cultural anthropology, and yet it is hard to imagine a meaningful or useful anthropology that completely abandons it.  Although comparison may be disparaged in some quarters, anthropologists continue to traffic in generalizing terms (“neoliberal,” for instance, or even “colonialism” itself) that cry out for comparative attention—and sometimes manage to get it.

So it was with considerable pleasure that I recently read “Conflict, Peace, and Social Reform in Indigenous Amazonia: A Deflationary Account,” an essay by Carlos Fausto, Caco Xavier, and Elena Welper (trans. by David Rodgers) published in the journal Common Knowledge (downloadable here).

Fausto et al. grapple with an important question: is there a middle ground between classifications of Amazonian social movements as millenarian or messianic, terminology read by some scholars as implying that social actors are irrational, and strictly political readings of these movements based on the conviction that the people swept up in them must be seen as rational actors?  Fausto and his co-authors shift the focus from dramatic, revolutionary change to what they call “more finely grained processes,” the “deflationary” element in their article’s subtitle.

[Full disclosure: As Fausto et al. note, the contrast between religiously and politically motivated social movements was central to a 2003 article by Hanne Veber that questioned arguments made in a book that I co-authored with Eduardo Fernández, War of Shadows.  WoS traced messianic currents in Asháninka social movements and uprisings over a period of more than two centuries.  Veber contended that studies such as ours exoticize the Asháninka’s motivations, which in her view were strictly political.  Where our book is concerned, her argument is flawed for two principal reasons: (1) We never claimed that the movements were only religious; and (2) Veber’s assertions violate the ethnographic principle that one should take the statements of one’s interlocutors seriously unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary.  So when Asháninka participants in a 1965 uprising said, as they did to Eduardo Fernández on multiple occasions,  “Some of us thought that the guerrilla leader was the Son of the Sun,” Fernández and I felt obliged to honor their view.  This debate is ancient history, and I mention it only to contextualize the essay under consideration, which challenges the notion that religion and politics are always distinguishable categories or frames of reference.]

Fausto et al. attempt to escape the straitjacket of a resistance-focused subaltern perspective that leads to a stripping out of every factor other than the narrowly political: “If one may suspect that a past religious discourse is merely a varnish hiding more fundamental motivations of power, one equally may suspect that our present-day political vocabulary is no more than a varnish hiding more fundamental conceptions about being and agency (which is to say, an ontology).”

Their analysis then reviews in considerable detail several cases of indigenous Amazonian social change in Brazil: among the Parakanã of the Xingu-Tocantins; the Marubo of the Javari Valley, Amazonas; and the Koripako of the Upper Rio Negro.  Two of the cases had strongly religious dimensions, either shamanic or Christian.  But all three were reformist in nature, with results that have served their communities well in later years.

Comparison of these three beautifully documented cases echoes a point that I made some time ago in the context of a similar comparative project: that Amazonian revitalization movements should in some cases be seen as indigenous auto-critique rather than solely as expressions of resistance to colonialism.  But Fausto et al. bring to this observation a more sophisticated and nuanced perspective as well as the benefit of fresh case-study material.  “[W]e need to avoid the Eurocentric illusion that history and social change befall indigenous peoples only when they are subjected to the encroachments of nonindigenous society,” they assert.  Indigenous peoples, in other words, make their own history by asking questions such as “How shall we live?” and then putting the answers into practice.

In works such as this we see the enduring value of comparison and its vital role in countering colonialist assumptions.   If you’re interested in Amazonian history, social movements, or theories of agency, this essay belongs on your summer reading list.

A related article co-authored by Fausto and Emmanuel de Vienne, “Acting Translation: Ritual and Prophetism in Twenty-First Century Indigenous Amazonia” (2014), can be downloaded full-text from the journal HAU.

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:

Open Access and magical thinking

oa_logoIn late May of 2015, the board of the Society for Cultural Anthropology issued a statement about the society’s shift to  Open Access distribution of its journal, Cultural Anthropology. The statement is reasonably judicious  considering that many OA partisans insist  that anthropology has an overriding moral duty to make its findings available at no cost to the world at large and that any distribution model settling for less than this is ethically indefensible.

The SCA deserves praise for its courage and the skill with which it has created an attractive, lively platform for topical discussion and distribution of its articles.  I have considerable respect for the SCA staff and leadership who have undertaken this effort with such élan.

That said, Cultural Anthropology‘s move to OA is not irony-free. The funds used to launch this experiment were the fruit of Cultural Anthropology’s royalties from the for-profit publisher Wiley-Blackwell’s contract with the American Anthropological Association.  In a recent editorial, Michael Chibnik, editor of the American Anthropologist, notes that only two journals in the large publishing portfolio of the AAA realize a profit. Strictly speaking, a few other titles generate modest gains (in the hundreds of dollars), but these gains would not be able to carry the burdens of the 15 titles that lose money each year. Resulting net profits from across the portfolio are shared among all journal-publishing sections of the AAA.  In going OA, Cultural Anthropology is forsaking most future revenue from the Wiley-Blackwell alliance.  Whether the society’s new model will prove financially sustainable remains to be seen; we’ll know for sure in three to five years.  I have my doubts . . . but will be pleased if my skepticism proves to be misplaced.

After serving for three years on the AAA’s Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing, my feelings about the role of OA in anthropology have moved from strong support to far more tempered enthusiasm.

Before I explain the roots of this apostasy, let me make two things clear.  My expression of doubt about OA fundamentalism should not be interpreted as a defense of the excesses of some for-profit publishers.  At their worst, they have turned the work of writing, editing, and peer-review (“service to the profession”) into a Southern plantation in which we academics work for free and the publishers and their shareholders reap handsome profits from the fruits of our unpaid labor.  (Apropos of which, check out this wonderful spoof article: “Taylor Swift Announces She Will No Longer Review for Nature.“)

Second, thanks to my involvement with the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA), I’ve seen how digital-only OA can offer an attractive solution to the scale problems of small-society publishing.  SALSA’s peer-reviewed journal, Tipití, which published for seven years as a conventional print journal, was losing money at an unsustainable rate, in part because of rising international postage rates and the difficulty of managing subscriptions. (SALSA is a truly international society, with many members in Latin America and Europe.)  Once the journal shifted from paper publishing to digital-only, gold OA, its viewership increased from the hundreds to the many thousands in a matter of weeks. That welcome change has not been without financial challenges, however. The journal’s viability depends on free web hosting, no-cost access to the bepress publishing platform, and technical support offered by Trinity University in San Antonio.

Continue reading Open Access and magical thinking

Reflections on Nick Bostrom’s Lecture, “Can We Reshape Humanity’s Deep Future?” 7 June 2015, Santa Fe

superintellAs part of a series of occasional lectures that we’re calling Dispatches from the Edge, on June 7 the School for Advanced Research sponsored a public lecture by Professor Nick Bostrom (Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, UK), “Can We Reshape Humanity’s Deep Future? Possibilities & Risks of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Human Enhancement, and Other Emerging Technologies.”  Bostrom’s talk was a snapshot of his research on existential risk, large-scale events or processes that could lead either to complete extinction of humanity or some form of “permanent stagnation.” bostrom-podium-6588

Bostrom opened his lecture with a thumbnail history of our species: our emergence as bipedal primates living in small, mobile groups of foragers; the role of the agricultural revolution in supporting larger populations and fostering the emergence of social hierarchy; beginning roughly 250 years ago, the transition to industrial economies and their acceleration of technological innovation; and finally, the digital revolution, which along with the rise of new genetic technologies makes possible (and in Bostrom’s view, inevitable), the emergence of “superintelligence,” cognitive assets that surpass those of contemporary human beings.

Although Bostrom couldn’t rule out the possibility that existential risks can arise from natural phenomena such as supervolcanos or asteroid collisions, he argued that in light of the absence of near-extinction events during the last 100,000 years, the odds of such natural catastrophes presenting a significant existential risk are low.  Far more salient, he argued, is anthropogenic risk, the possibility that our own technological activities will prove uncontrollable and ultimately lethal to humankind.

Superintelligence could conceivably emerge in human form through systematic use of enhancement technologies that would increase human IQ to levels significantly in excess of current norms.  But Bostrom leans toward machine AI as the more likely site of superintelligence, perhaps emerging as early as 2050. In this scenario, AI agents approaching human cognitive levels launch a self-perpetuating process that would quickly bring them to a point at which they could assert their own survival priorities over those of their human creators.  As the situation was described by Elon Musk in a Washington Post interview, “If there was a very deep digital superintelligence that was created that could go into rapid recursive self-improvement in a non-algorithmic way … it could reprogram itself to be smarter and iterate very quickly and do that 24 hours a day on millions of computers . . . .”

Continue reading Reflections on Nick Bostrom’s Lecture, “Can We Reshape Humanity’s Deep Future?” 7 June 2015, Santa Fe

Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”

bureaucracy Today anthropologists talk constantly about the need for “public scholarship.”  There are programs that promote it and a handful of anthropologists who successfully publish in popular venues such as the Huffington Post (e.g., the indefatigable Paul Stoller).  The problem is that the textual tics and high-mandarin vocabulary  of contemporary social science are hard to unlearn after decades of trafficking in them.  This makes it especially challenging for academics to write theoretically rich accounts capable of engaging ordinary readers.  We think we know how to do it, but few of us succeed.

An exception is David Graeber, an anthropologist and self-described anarchist who moved to a position in the UK after a high-profile departure from Yale a decade ago.  Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, was widely reviewed in the trade press and is described as an “international best-seller,” although what that means in actual sales isn’t clear to me.  Perhaps it’s enough to say that it doubtless beat the average lifetime sales of a typical work of anthropology (well under a thousand copies these days, I’m told) by several orders of magnitude.  Not every review of Debt was glowing—a book covering so much history is bound to violate the understandings of some experts—but many reviewers found it witty, accessible, and convincing.

What is distinctive about Graeber’s writing, aside from its anarchist underpinnings, is its conversational quality.  He sometimes grapples with the work of major theorists (Lévi-Strauss, Jameson, Weber, Marx, etc.) but always manages to represent their thinking with refreshing clarity.  Whether critics find his arguments right or wrong is less interesting than is his ability to make the ideas seem worthy of contemplation because of what they tell us about contemporary realities, including the multiple ways that capitalism shapes our experience and understanding of the world.  And he’s often funny, which helps.

These gifts are on display in Graeber’s latest work, The Utopia of Rules, a collection of  essays on bureaucracy—its history, key features, and impact on societies and individuals.

Continue reading Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”