Upsetting the Canon

Teaching anthropology offers a site for critical intervention. So what should we be reading with our students?

A critical and reflexive anthropology requires, beyond the self-indulgent condemnation of traditional techniques and tropes, a reappraisal of [the] symbolic organization upon which anthropological discourse is premised.
—Michel-Rolph Trouillot

At my current institution, a group of interdisciplinary faculty gathers every so often to talk about ways to “decolonize” our syllabi. In our meetings, we discuss how the use of “decolonize” remains fraught and even nonviable given our location on stolen land, and I share with them anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla’s use of “unsettling colonial logics and institutions” (2015) as a modus operandi for thinking about and engaging in such efforts. Lately, our group has grappled with the challenges of teaching decoloniality to our students who may actively resist critical perspectives, especially when they challenge disciplinary origin stories they have been taught in other courses. In an era of professor watch lists and anxieties about being doxxed, we ask each other how we, as junior faculty, can unsettle the simplistic both-sideism of public discourse and the “it’s all relative” approach of multiple perspectives.

This contemporary deception of giving “all sides” identical importance operates beyond the pale of history and assumes that we have all arrived to our present location equitably. The project of unsettling colonial logics upends this misleading narrative that inevitably diminishes the ongoing impact of the colonial encounter on anthropology. These interdisciplinary conversations have allowed me to reconsider how I teach anthropology when anthropology’s pedagogical resources seem to reproduce a kind of chronos-inspired pedagogy that disregards the impact of colonial forms of symbolic organization on our present discipline.

This contemporary deception of giving “all sides” identical importance operates beyond the pale of history and assumes that we have all arrived to our present location equitably.
While some scholars resist the approach to read the anthropological canon from the so-called firsts and founders to the present, there remains an almost instinctive insistence that we should organize syllabi, textbooks, and other pedagogical tools using a chronological frame. These choices moralize anthropological knowledge production based on chronos, as sequential time, rather than kairos, which recognizes knowledge that is critical for the particular moment. Many faculty are insistent that students must first understand the “canonical” underpinnings of the discipline. The fact that these earlier theories and ethnographies often reproduced colonialist and patriarchal norms is often treated as a tangential issue to the central anthropological takeaway. One needs to know the canon to understand why we no longer approach the study of culture from these earlier primitivizing and colonizing frameworks, or so the argument goes. To be honest, I am not opposed to this instinct for we can never evade or escape from our colonial past. Instead, we might take up Bonilla’s unsettling imperative and think about the pragmatics of critically upsetting our discipline’s chronos. Which early anthropological texts do we center in a kairos-inspired syllabus? If we think of teaching as a critical intervention, what should twenty-first century students be learning from anthropology?

Last fall, I started my senior thesis course with Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”—a book that has never been part of the canon, a book that was not published until 2018. On day one, I introduced students to the story of why this work, completed in 1931, was not published for another eight decades. As a linguistic anthropologist, Hurston’s fidelity to dialect used by Oluale Kossula, the formerly enslaved man she interviewed for three months in 1927, drew me to consider this as a foundational text to think about methods and ethics in anthropology. In Kossula’s story, she re-voices his narrative of being kidnapped from his village in West Africa at age 19, sold to European slavers, enslaved in the United States for five years before being emancipated, and the suffering that he endured as a free African man during and after Reconstruction. In class, students contended with the heaviness of reading an almost first-hand account of the Middle Passage and post-1865 life. We discussed Hurston’s ethical decision not to change the dialect despite Viking Press’s insistence on “the Life of Kossula, but in language rather than dialect” (Jones 2018). As students prepared to design their senior thesis projects, the book offered an example of a deeply ethical anthropologist who pushed the genre boundaries of the discipline.

Hurston’s account of Kossula’s story allowed students to consider how carefully she presented her relationship to the man. On the day that Kossula explained the attack on his village (circa ~1858), Hurston states that “Kossula was no longer on the porch with me…He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke…So I slipped away as quietly as possible and left him with his smoke pictures” (49). Later Kossula admonishes Hurston for tiring him with “so many questions” and she explains that she was not offended. Rather, she asks when she can come again to which he responds, “I send my grandson and letee you know, maybe tomorrow, maybe nexy week” (57). Students discussed the unpredictability of fieldwork, the need to be patient and wait until participants decide to share (or not), and the privilege it is to share time with people and hear about their lives and experiences. Reclaiming Hurston’s text as part of the canon opens up possibilities for thinking about the ethical dimensions of fieldwork through a tragic episode of US history, while simultaneously appreciating the full humanity of Kossula in a world fixated on his destruction. Hurston tells us how she would catch blue crabs by the bay with Kossula and his friends or his instructions to not return for three days until he fixed the fence broken by a wandering cow. These negotiations between Kossula and Hurston highlight for students that ethnographers must recognize their research endeavors and relationships with interlocutors to be actively engaged but not forceful.

Later in the book, Kossula recounts the story of his children, especially his sons, who were harassed and abused by other children and called “savage” because of their father’s more recent kidnapping to the United States. In class, students took up this perception of Kossula’s children as more African than other children of formerly enslaved parents to consider the ways in which historical events must be understood longitudinally, beyond the moment and the individual. For students working on ethnographies about international students and their experiences in college or the effects of gentrification in New York City, Hurston’s book allowed them to analyze the consequences of any social or historical event on the family as the analytical unit. It provided an example of how the limits of an ethnography must be based on ethnographic engagement and not any preconceived notions about topic or people or place.

We are presented with an opportunity every semester to re-evaluate our pedagogy based on the possibility of teaching an anthropology that addresses, critiques, and dismantles contemporary systems of power through a more sophisticated reading of our discipline’s more radical antecedents that have been deliberately relegated to the sidelines.
Hurston closes the text with a section on getting Kossula’s permission to photograph him. She may, but only if she brings a copy for him. Kossula puts on his best suit, removes his shoes, and poses among the graves of his family. In class, we made sure to focus on her attention to his choices of self-presentation and her emphasis on consent and reciprocity in the ethnographic exchange. Barracoon gave the thesis students an opportunity to engage with the complex and intricate relationship between researcher and participant. Hurston’s lucid account contains all these aspects of anthropological research but with a humility and generosity not often found in other early ethnographies. Her deeply feminist commitment to situate herself in this particular way deepens her intellectual insights and demonstrates how reflexive anthropology has a much longer history in our discipline than is often acknowledged or recognized.

My attention to anthropological pedagogies draws on earlier kairos-style work that posits methods by which to reframe our approach to anthropology as a discipline and as disciplining. In Johannes Fabian’s classic Time and the Other (1983), he explicitly lays out how the various uses of time in the history of anthropology set specific parameters between power and inequality in anthropology. Faye Harrison’s indispensable contributions to this conversation first in Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation (1991) and later in Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age (2008) offer resources through which we can critically reconstruct the discipline to better attend to issues of gender and race. In Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology (2005), editors Daniel Segal and Sylvia Yanagisako question anthropology’s historical four-field configuration and argue that a nostalgic allegiance to a “golden age” of holism actually restricts a more critical anthropology. Such anthropologists and interventionist literatures have pushed the discipline to reflect its reliance on the “savage slot” and its refusal to “directly address the thematic field (and thus the larger world) that made (makes) this slot possible, morosely preserving the empty slot itself” (Trouillot, 2003). Trouillot’s contention demands a confrontation with and reconsideration of the “symbolic organization upon which anthropological discourse is premised” (9). For those committed to troubling the “canon,” revising syllabi offers an immediate course of action to unsettle and reinvigorate the critical works that have been consigned to our disciplinary margins. Scholars writing for the anthropology blog Footnotes recently offered a more comprehensive set of readings to remake anthropological social theory and suggest beginning with Hurston’s Barracoon as an opportunity to “discuss which kinds of stories are canonized and which are abandoned”(Buell et al. 2018).

In Jonathan Rosa and Yarimar Bonilla’s “Deprovincializing Trump, Decolonizing Diversity, and Unsettling Anthropology” (2017), the authors extend this argument and suggest that rather than ask what anthropologists can and should do in response to the rise of Trump and increasing fascism around the world, the questions should be, “What have anthropologists already done? And why have past critical interventions in the discipline failed to gain broader traction?” We are presented with an opportunity every semester to re-evaluate our pedagogy based on the possibility of teaching an anthropology that addresses, critiques, and dismantles contemporary systems of power through a more sophisticated reading of our discipline’s more radical antecedents that have been deliberately relegated to the sidelines. One way forward is to assess the utility of chronos-inspired pedagogical material and syllabi. Instead, we can attend to the current moment and consider what course materials we center as a way to reappraise the purpose of anthropological discussion. A kairos-driven approach recognizes the necessity to unsettle the colonial and patriarchal logics that undergird our discipline and draw on both earlier scholarship and recent scholarship that acknowledges this heritage and seeks to upset it.

Thank you to Arjun Shankar and Gabriel Dattatreyan for reading early drafts of this column and to my editor Natalie Konopinski for insightful feedback during the revision process.

Mariam Durrani is an assistant professor of anthropology at Hamilton College.

Featured image by Emily Thiessen, an illustrator and community organizer with a fire for creative troublemaking. She recently graduated with a degree in anthropology from the University of Victoria. You can see more of her work at emilytheissen.ca or @archipelagic on Instagram.

Cite as: Durrani, Mariam. 2019. “Upsetting the Canon.”  Anthropology News website, April 8, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1134

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