What Do We Want Anthropology to Resemble?

This was, in many ways, the question which was driving the organizers of this year’s SVA/AES joint conference, hosted in Philadelphia, PA, this past March. The conference theme “Resemblance” is, according to the organizers’ call for proposals, “at the very heart of anthropology, as its practitioners have sought to demonstrate the commonalities of all people.” What the conference revealed, however, was that our anthropological future will really only be a reproduction of the past if we can’t directly confront the living legacy of our discipline and develop new speculative futures that, perhaps, do not always resemble the discipline’s past.

The beautiful possibility of anthropology’s synchronicity starts with the contemporary as the lens by which to reckon with the then, the now, and all the political possibilities therein.
I am sipping a drink and speaking to a friend, an anthropologist whose anthropology department has been shut down. “They’re shifting us, or at least some of us, to Global Studies,” he starts with a mix of uncertainty and pragmatism. He is one of the lucky ones, he reasons. Others, even those like him who have tenure, were being forced out of their jobs that the university—whose corporatized model no longer saw any “add-value” from anthropology departments or anthropologists—deemed irrelevant. The trend to make redundant particular social sciences and the humanities is well documented. The tentacles of corporatization and racial capitalist-value creation have embattled anthropology, even calling into question the very viability of the discipline.

Of course, these problems aren’t just about the imposition of the sinister invisible hand of the corporate university imposing itself on the poor, do-gooder anthropology community. That would be too simplistic. Anthropology’s own past is part and parcel of its current crisis of character.

I am speaking to a group of scholars about the keynote we have just seen by Sherry Ortner. In laying the foundations for practice theory in anthropology, Ortner’s work has been absolutely critical for generations of anthropologists who have sought to understand the workings of cultural reproduction and transformation in everyday life. Her keynote was on Newark’s police violence, going through archival documents from the 1960s and 1970s to show how race, patriarchy, purity, and impurity form the bedrock for how biased policing occurs. These themes are all very timely, and the audience is eager to engage with the material. However, during her lecture Ortner read documents that included the n-word, enunciating the word in full as she worked through the document. As Anar Parikh (2018) wrote quite nicely in her piece for Anthrodendum: “In a talk about the different forms of violence done to black bodies, it was unsettling to hear these violences redeployed under the guise of analysis.” There was much consternation from those who heard her speak. “I’m still just trying to figure out why she could think that’s okay,” says one graduate student of color who is clearly trying to find some explanation for the use of the n-word by a white women during a public lecture.

Clearly what the lecture revealed was that “anthropology is still white public space” (Brodkin, 2014) and that anthropology has yet to catch up to the many discussions happening in our social world about how we should be talking about, theorizing, and understanding our own positioning vis-a-vís race, class, and gender. What was once an effective strategy or tactic can no longer work (see, in another instance, the controversy surrounding Lawrence Rosen at Princeton). For me, the beautiful possibility of anthropology’s synchronicity starts with the contemporary as the lens by which to reckon with the then, the now, and all the political possibilities therein. Would that we could remind a past generation of scholars that there is no possibility of a speculative future when ensnared in the nostalgic trappings of a past that we may no longer resemble quite as much as we think.

Part of what many in the crowd wondered was if these multimodal products were deluding us into forgetting just how static our anthropological processes can be when left uncritiqued.
Enter Elizabeth Chin and her keynote talk. Chin began by placing herself in her role as an anthropologist in a design school. Part lecture, part performance, part fun-filled critique, Chin took the audience through a discussion of how design and anthropology were related by a history plagued by white capitalism and colonialist knowledge productions. Technology and techno-futurism, she reminds, have been deeply imbricated in these racio-colonial histories: tools developed by white people to exploit white people and everyone else. How, then, can we imagine and create speculative futures beyond whiteness?

Her answers were ever more creative multimodal productions that were designed to challenge how we see and what we could see. Mainly focusing on wearable technologies, Chin presented a series of dazzling new ways of imagining them, starting with the AfroGoPro, a GoPro created to blend in with African aesthetics. The GoPro was bedecked in Swarovski crystals, mounted on a headband, and then woven into a headwrap. The effect was striking, challenging the white, masculinist aesthetic that has typically shaped the GoPro genre of technologies.

Chin’s beautiful productions and presentation almost made me forget all of the troubling histories that were the raison d’etre for Chin’s productions in the first place. I wanted to see these multimodal re-fashionings as “what is” rather than “what might” or “could be.” Indeed, part of what many in the crowd wondered was if these multimodal products were deluding us into forgetting just how static our anthropological processes can be when left uncritiqued: writing, fieldwork, the canon, all still holding sway in ways that make this multimodal ideal seem far fetched for those not already in positions of academic power.

But for me, the most compelling moment in Chin’s presentation was her imagining of an alternative university—Wakanda University, which she plans to unveil at the upcoming AAA Annual Meeting. Wakanda, in my interpretation of Chin’s imagining, is a space for experimentation, for collaboration, for presentation of that which does-not-quite-fit and in its lack of fit might actually unsettle, wedge between, and crack open the taken for granted of our academic enterprise to open new possibilities for our anthropological curiosity.

I’ve always feared that our imaginations have been permanently eroded by the disciplining we have undergone both from within and outside the university system. Is my imagination so eroded that I cannot even comprehend such a place as Wakanda University anymore? What would a university like this feel like? How would it change the structures of value in which we are so deeply embedded? Who would get included?

Or, as many have pointed out by now, perhaps Wakanda is an imaginary that is still not radical and revolutionary enough, constrained as it is within the Hollywood-ized boundaries of what blackness, masculinity/femininity, global solidarity, and nationalism can be. Might Wakanda merely be a well-disguised version of the same old, same old?

This, I think, is the problematic that a speculative future forces us to reckon with.

Arjun I. Shankar is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Hamilton College.  

Cite as: Shankar, Arjun I. 2018. “What Do We Want Anthropology to Resemble?” Anthropology News website, September 7, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.960

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