May 7, 2022

Practicing anthropology without a license

 From a speech delivered in 2001 at the 100th anniversary conference of the Berkeley School of Anthropology

Sam Smith -  Ever since I got the invitation to speak to you all I have been bragging because to an anthropology BA this is a bit like an ex-con being asked to address a conference of the American Bar Association. At a seminal moment in my career planning - which is to say around sophomore year - the sainted Cora Dubois wrote of my analysis of the Nagas, "This is pretty good journalism but it is bad anthropology," revealing a disorder which, as you may notice, plagues me yet.

Part of what had attracted me to anthropology in the first place was a search for a society that would find my personal traits and rituals acceptable enough for membership. Like, I suspect, many real anthropologists, I was a subculture of one looking for my lost tribe. I began this search for the lost tribe of Sams at an unusually early age thanks to the fact that my school - Germantown Friends in Philadelphia -was one of only two high schools in the country that offered a course in anthropology.

And in ninth grade. At this precise moment of teenage alienation and confusion, the school offered the reverse of a Pandora's box, for when opened, anthropology freed not evil but hope and possibility, leaving locked safely inside the myth of the single, homogeneous cultural answer. In the middle of the stolid, segregated, monolithic 1950s, Howard Platt showed us a new way to look at the world. And what a wonderful world it was. Not the stultifying world of our parents, not the monochromatic world of our neighborhood, not the boring world of 9th grade, but a world of fantastic options, a world in which people got to cook, eat, shelter themselves, have sex, dance and pray in an extraordinary variety of ways. Mr. Platt did not exorcise racism, and he did not teach ethnic harmony, cultural sensitivity, the regulation of diversity, or the morality of non-prejudiced behavior. He didn't need to. He taught something far more important. Mr . Platt opened a world of variety, not for us to fear but to learn about, appreciate and enjoy. It was not a problem, but a gift. Of course, one of the difficulties with a school that teaches such things is that you can come to think the rest of education is like that, an assumption of which I was quickly disabused at Harvard U.

Whatever intelligence I possessed did not seem the sort required to excel at Harvard. Long afterwards I would figure out that much of what Harvard was about was a giant game of categories, in which real people, real events and real phenomena were assigned to fictitious groupings such as the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or the Freudian Tradition. If you were brazen enough to examine evidence with as few paradigms and as many questions as possible -- in short to use one's innate capacity to imagine, to dream and to speculate -- you risked being regarded as ignorant, or at least odd. In Harvard's cataloging system, the accidental, the chaotic, the imagined, the malevolent, the culturally unfamiliar, and the unique often got misplaced.

I would later learn that Washington wasn't much different: education was something one received, rehearsed, and regurgitated. You didn't play with it, experiment with it, and you certainly didn't make it your own. If I had chosen one of the conventional majors, I might never have made it through. Fortunately, or inevitably, I found my way -- academically and geographically -- to a backwater of the university: the anthropology department, which lived like an Amazonian tribe well off the main campus in the dusty, dim recesses of the Peabody Museum.

 Out of some four thousand undergraduates, only about 20 majored in anthropology, five of them former students of Howard Platt. To be sure, there were plenty of Principles, Theories, and Categories, but the greater time was spent on observation and reporting, not so far removed from my journalistic interests. Further, once among the artifacts stored with faded labels in long, ancient, wood rimmed cases, or passing a canoe or totem pole en route to class, you felt distinctly free of Harvard, fully liberated from the Major Ideas of Western Civilization. In those dark corridors was the path to a world of variety and exploration, a field trip into all that lay beyond Harvard Square.

 Now I had no intention of actually becoming an anthropologist. There were practical problems such as a sybaritic streak that made unappealing the thought of living months with strangers and without radio, bars, or jazz. I admit to having thus taken up good space at the Peabody Museum and wasting the time of some excellent teachers. I used anthropology much the way a student headed towards law school sometimes uses the English Department, as a last quick look around the world before entering the endless dark tunnel of specialized proficiency. Those who taught at the time included such figures as Clyde Kluckhohn who would pace up and down the lecture hall stage in combat boots. Steve Williams' classes were as well organized as Kluckhohn's were anarchistic. Cora Dubois strode into class in a trench coat as if just off a flying boat from the Pacific. I believe it was Dubois who told us of a Pacific tribe that thought a woman could only conceive as a result of multiple acts of intercourse, thus allowing the semen to accumulate in sufficient quantity to produce a baby. I liked this idea given a growing concern over the precipitous potential of personal relations and I thought it a considerable improvement over those arrangements actually in place.

On the first day of my freshman anthropology class, the professor  drew an invisible evolutionary time line on the wall of the lecture hall. As we twisted in our seats the eras, periods, and epochs of musical name and mystical significance boldly circumscribed the room. Finally we came back to where the professor stood and when there was nearly no place further to go, he announced that this was the beginnings of us. We were only inches from the first fire maker. My relationship with that fire maker, and with the creator of the stone ax, the inventor of the spear thrower, and the first potter, would never cease to be both humbling and glorious. Humbling because our true evolutionary insignificance daily mocks our pretensions. Yet also glorious because without the endless random reiteration of individual creation, choice, and imagination, we might still be shivering in the dark instead of reading a book with our feet up and wondering whether there's another beer in the fridge. We are nothing and everything, inexplicably and inseparably bundled together. Thus armed, I went out into what we call the real world. I did not understand the influence of anthropology on me and I make only a marginal pretense of understanding it now…

There is, for all of us the problem that the nature of culture is drastically changing from being something in which the individual is indoctrinated and absorbed, towards something the individual must preserve, restore or recreate in order to avoid the destruction of all culture save that of the corporate market and the political systems that support it. Whether we like it or not - as reporters or anthropologists we are forced every day to join others in either strengthening or destroying culture. We can write about it dispassionately later but this afternoon we are all part of the problem. We must find ways to blend the detachment of our trades with our existential responsibilities. We live in what Marshall Blonsky has called a semiosphere which bombards us with the UV rays of advertising, propaganda, and interminable sounds and sights devoid of meaning - and which is controlled in large part by multinational corporations whose intentions include the destruction of both culture and individuality. Their goal, well described by the French writer Jacques Attali, is an "ideologically homogenous market where life will be organized around common consumer desires."

This new world is unlike any in human history - a world in which the destruction of cultural and individual variety is high on the agenda of the earth's political and business leaders; our human nature being to them not a reason for existing but just another obstacle in their path to power. The strategies by which this onslaught can be countered depend on the imagination, passion, obstinacy, and creativity of ordinary people who refuse their consumptive assignments in the global marketplace, who develop autonomous alternatives, and who laugh when they are supposed to be saluting.

The business of constructing culture is no longer an inherited and precisely defined task but a radical act demonstrating to others that they are not alone and to ourselves that we are still human. We badly need you in this. Join the fray, remember that objectivity is just another religion, celebrate what you have found, help us to preserve all our various selves, help us to replace what has been lost, and help us to avoid ending up with nothing but dead bones and still shards - the archeology of human hope that no longer exists.

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