As I look back on 2012, I think it was a year particularly ripe for devoting fresh analytic, ethnographic, and discursive energies to the substance of human diversity around the globe. Remembering the popularization, fictionalization, and decontextualized promulgation of the Mayan calendar and belief system; the limits, the dimensionality, the granularity, and the raw essence of our existence on Earth as humans appeared to be in closer view. As members of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, how does the recent past and its cultural productions challenge us to re-examine underlying sets of assumptions about culture? Moreover, what can the anthropological toolkit offer to a critical and careful assessment of the production of a collective set of existential anxieties that might encourage a deeper exploration and reflection on the substantive category of meaning?
I think we can agree that cultural anthropology is particularly poised to provide insights into how the various understandings of one’s existentiality are embodied and produced in tandem with other complex systems. One question that emerges is, how can these nuanced and sophisticated understandings of culture in its most contemporary expressions help to renew more established disciplinary frameworks that have oriented our thinking about the world, our worlds, or at least particular corners of it? We might begin to ask questions like, is there a qualitative experience associated with the essence or the raw materiality of life? What are the somatic, existential, metaphysical, teleological, and ontological properties involved in engendering and sustaining life? And how can these questions challenge us and guide us on the road towards greater knowledge and understanding?
How can cultural anthropologists access the substance of these matters of culture in this year of the millennium? I think that 2012 serves as an optimal hermeneutic for illuminating how the technologies of the anthropological discipline can promote an even more rigorous approach. I imagine that the conferences, lectures, books read and written, ethnographic and classroom experiences will aid in unfolding a robust set of new possibilities.
As I continue to reflect on 2012 as a year filled with newness and change, it certainly has had an effect on my own analytic production resulting in deeper and richer analyses. Change has also manifested in political, economic, social, and cultural systems across world, which will undoubtedly be written about by cultural anthropologists. What then, can we make of the interpretations and misinterpretations of the Mayan calendar that seemed to envelope 2012? Was 2012 in fact a year of transformation, as promised by predictions, especially for cultural anthropologists and ethnographers around the world?
The 2012 release of Rebecca Hardin and Kamari Maxine Clarke’s Transforming Ethnographic Knowledge reveals that indeed 2012 was marked by transformation of which the volume utilizes as an opportunity to reflect on these transformations across time as a method and an intellectual approach. I understand the volume as an offering, an outline, a discussion of the things hoped for, the capacity that exists for future transformation of the practitioners of the method and approach. Similarly as scholars who came of age in a writing culture moment define their own moment, transformation is a preeminent component of the moment. John L Jackson Jr, in his new piece in Cultural Anthropology (2012) “Ethnography Is, Ethnography Ain’t” focuses in on the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem while making the claim that the foundation upon which the ethnographic project sits must be recaliberated due to the jagged edges of nonlinearities like digitality, which if taken seriously, demands a redefinition of what ethnography is and is not. Moreover, I surmise that transformation has been signified in the works of these authors and others as a stating of what has come and will continue to be a reality in what emerges as we write, examine, theorize, and produce in 2013.
As we get comfortable with this year of transformation writ onto this year, what has and do you imagine that 2013 will render cultural anthropologists and those who consume, engage with and critique their work? Here’s a sneak peek of some of what I am looking forward to as ‘the culture of transformation’ as I am labeling it, is integrated into the field. I am anticipating the release by Ruth Behar as she explores the weight of journey home in her Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeys. And for those with an interest in American society then perhaps Sherry Ortner’s new book, Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream will satiate ethnographic appetites. Or perhaps the genre bending and blending work of those like editors Purnima Mankekar and Lousa Schein in their work Media, Erotics, and Transnational Asia, or Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method edited by Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce and TL Taylor will appease. Maybe 2013 demonstrates that our priorities have shifted as João Biehl and Adriana Petryna highlight in their new volume, When People Come First: Critical Studies in Global Health.
I am proposing that 2013 might reveal to us that the objects, informants, cities, phenomena and theories we have been studying, wrestling with, and examining are blossoming with new fruits for us to harvest. The 2013 release of Marcia Inhorn’s, The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East can perhaps direct us to a closer proximation. Certainly, there are others as well. What things do you imagine will have the greatest impact on the field? Whatever direction the field takes, I hope that the transformative energy of 2012 has prepared us for where 2013 will take cultural anthropology.
Diana Burnett is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is interested in broadly in race, political economy, religious strategies, spiritual technologies, and health with a specific focus on nutrition and dietary practices.
Contributions to this column should be sent to Deborah A Thomas, Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, University Museum 335, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6398, firstname.lastname@example.org. The SCA website is found at http://sca.culanth.org/index.htm.