Saturday, September 22, 2007

Identity Poetics, Culture and the Individual

On his blog, Reginald Shepherd has written an incisive comment on what he terms identity poetics, "Against Identity Poetry, For Possibility." His post primarily concerns identity politics in poetry, but would be of interest to an anthropological audience or anyone else interested in the relationship between culture and individuals.

The following is an excerpt from Shepherd's work:

"Ideally, one writes poetry as an act of exploration, as a venture into the unknown. (As Yeats wrote, out of what one knows, one makes rhetoric; out of what one doesn’t know, one makes poetry.) Too often today, though, writers want simply to “express” the selves they have decided that they are or have, and readers demand to see themselves (or what they imagine as themselves) reflected back to them. In Ann Lauterbach's incisive words, “The idea that the act of reading expands and extends knowledge to orders of unfamiliar experience has been replaced by acts of reading in order to substantiate and authorize claims and positions which often mirror the identity bearings of the reader.” Identity poetics is boring, giving back the already known in an endless and endlessly self-righteous confirmation of things as they are. It is also constraining, limiting the imaginative options of the very people it seeks to liberate or speak for. If one follows the assumptions of identity poetics through, saying “Here are the gay poets, here are the black poets, here are the straight white male poets, and everyone just reads the poets who match their demographic classification,” not only could a white person have nothing to say to a black person, or a straight person to a gay person, but a black person could have nothing to say to a white person, or a woman to a man. So there would be no reason for a white person to read anything written by a black person."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Language Extinction and Global Patterns

National Geographic online has posted an interesting (and depressing) article on language extinction, noting the presence of five global “hotspots” for the extinction of languages currently spoken by only small numbers of individuals. These hotspots are: the Northwest Coast of North America, Oklahoma, Central South America, Northeast Asia, and Northern Australia, which is also to say that Native American, Siberian, and Australian Aboriginal languages in particular are disappearing quickly at the present time. As the article discusses, this is a concern not just in terms of the loss of linguistic diversity, but also the loss of knowledge, e.g. of the natural environment, that was thoroughly embedded in each of these languages.

I’d simply note two things in terms of how these five hotspots reflect underlying global patterns. (These are likely obvious points for anyone who has thought much about culture globally, but worth remembering anyway.)

First, these instances don’t reflect just any random languages going extinct. Rather, they reflect particular sorts of interactional histories between quite different sorts of societies. Each is the end result of a few centuries interaction between societies (Native American, Siberian, Australian Aboriginal) with relatively low population densities and technologies that were less efficient for the specific purposes of armed conflict or intensive agricultural production (capable of supporting larger, dense populations) being faced with colonizers from much larger societies (European and Euro-American) with technologies that gave them a distinct edge in direct confrontation. (In the case of the Americas, especially, diseases brought along with Europeans were another major factor in the process of social disruption and linguistic disappearance.)

Second, the current hotspots of linguistic (and cultural) disappearance do not reflect a new phenomenon. They represent the tail end of a now centuries long process of social disruption, cultural loss, and cultural and linguistic assimilation. These hotspots represent remnant areas. What’s happening now in these areas already happened (often long ago) in other areas of the Americas with dense Euro-American settlement, in more densely populated Southern Australia, or in more westerly Siberian areas closer to the heartland of Russian culture.

Tragically, in all likelihood in the near future, very few Native American, Siberian, or Australian Aboriginal languages will remain. The ones that will remain will also not be random. They will in most cases be languages of cultural populations that had relatively high population numbers and densities prior to colonization (e.g. Mesoamerican or Andean languages and a few other North and South American languages), or populations settled in places where the effects of colonization have been particularly light on the ground.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


My initial reaction upon reading a recent obituary of Tikhon Khrennikov in The Economist (September 1) was a reaction I often find myself having when encountering obituaries – surprise that the person was still alive, or rather had been right up until just now. In this case, my surprise is not surprising, given that Khrennikov was 94 and is probably best remembered, outside of Russia at least (and quite possibly there as well), for events a half century or so ago. The two composers his name is most associated with, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, both died decades ago.

My second reaction, after reading the entire obituary, was to rethink what I knew about this complex individual.

I had previously encountered Khrennikov in narratives of the careers of those two most prominent Soviet composers, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. In such narratives, Khrennikov usually appears as Stalin’s stooge in his position as secretary of the composer’s union. As the Economist obituary points out, “he read out a draconian speech which condemned Shostakovich and Prokofiev for their formalism, accusing Prokofiev of ‘grunting’ and ‘scraping.’” Here, Khrennikov served as mouthpiece for Stalin (something he did not deny, only claiming later that this famous denunciatory speech had been written out for him to deliver), and while the official denunciation did not derail the careers of either composer, it did for a time affect their output (e.g. Shostakovich suppressed some of his own work until after the death of Stalin, and there is a good deal of debate about the extent to which his non-suppressed works of the late 1940s and early 1950s reflect acquiescence to Stalin and the campaign against “formalism” or winking irony), and one can only wonder at the chilling effect such denunciations of major figures must have had on less well known and more vulnerable artists.

Khrennikov was a stooge, and he did help to give a veneer of cultural legitimacy to Stalin’s policies and practices, as well of those of later Soviet leaders (he remained secretary of the composer’s union until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991). But he was no Eichmann – he didn’t facilitate the worst abuses of a totalitarian regime as many in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union did. On the contrary, in a context of severe restraint on his possible actions, he did much good. He was no Eichmann both because his actions didn’t facilitate anything so serious as death camps or the gulag, and because he didn’t just follow orders. As the Economist obituary states:

“He was part of a ruthless system; but he did not deliver up Jewish composers to Stalin’s goons, and did not write negative references when the party demanded them. (Instead, he would say that the composer had been warned of the dangers of modernism, as if the lesson was already safely learned.) None of the composers he had charge of was killed; very few were arrested.”

The last fact is particularly striking, especially given Stalin’s personal interest in the arts, especially music, and the personal attention he turned to purging music of “formalism.” Contrast the fate of composers with that of the many Soviet writers who were purged or died under mysterious circumstances.

The standard narrative of Khrennikov is easy to deal with – he’s the bad lackey to be reviled, and it’s easy to feel righteous in condemning his actions. When a fuller set of details of his life is considered, he becomes more difficult. For me, this fuller narrative raises uneasy questions about whether I would act the same in his shoes. He did much that was not admirable, but he went about doing the not-so-admirable in an admirable way, providing cultural legitimacy for Stalinism and facilitating the attack on some artistic expression to be sure, but also effectively keeping his office from facilitating purges of composers and even more privately fostering at least some degree of freedom of expression for composers in association with an artists’ compound he ran.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

HIV and Gay Men

A recent article on Science Daily, “Different HIV Rates among Gay Men and Straight People not fully explained by Sexual Behavior,” discusses recent research pertaining to the continued disparity of rates of HIV infection when comparing gay men (really "men who have sex with men," regardless of whether gay-identified or not) with heterosexuals in the U.S. For example, though a much lower proportion than in the 1980s and early 1990s, men who have sex with men still comprise just over half of new HIV infections in the U.S.

What’s interesting about the research reported on is that it doesn’t attribute the difference in infection rates to different rates of unprotected sex. In fact the research indicates roughly comparable rates of unprotected sex and numbers of partners for unprotected sex by homosexual men and heterosexuals. (I emphasize unprotected because there’s no given comparison for total numbers of partners for protected or unprotected sex. Given what I know of the gay community, I’d also find it hard to believe that the total number of partners per year is comparable for homosexual men and heterosexuals on average, even if the average number of partners for gay men is likely far down from the pre-AIDS heyday of the bath house scene.)

Instead, the research emphasizes different rates of infection for unprotected receptive anal versus vaginal intercourse (in itself, not particularly new news) and what they refer to as “role versatility.” Because many gay men practice both inserting and receptive roles in anal intercourse, it’s easy for gay men to become infected, especially through the receptive position, but also to pass it on to other men, especially when practicing the inserting position. Obviously, there is no analogous situation for heterosexuals, whether practicing vaginal or anal intercourse.

One thing the research doesn’t seem to take into account is the higher baseline infection rate for men who have sex with men. For men who have sex with men, the reality is that any given sex partner is more likely to be HIV-positive than is the case for heterosexuals. My own experience researching HIV prevention has indicated that in the community I studied, gay-identified men were much more knowledgeable of HIV prevention than others and much more likely to take safer sex practices seriously (even if this doesn’t mean they always practiced safer sex), but in cases where individuals did have unprotected sex, the chances that they did so with an HIV-positive individual were much higher than the corresponding chances for heterosexuals.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Joe Zawinul, 1932-2007

It’s another sad day for jazz fans. Keyboardist Joe Zawinul has died at 75.

He was probably best known for his role alongside Wayne Shorter as co-founder and co-leader of the popular jazz fusion group Weather Report, as well as for popularizing the use of electronic instruments and synthesizers in jazz music. He was as responsible as anyone, save arguably Miles Davis, for making electronic instrumentation acceptable and popular among large numbers of jazz fans.

Zawinul had many highlights in his long career, including 15 years with Weather Report from 1970 to 1985. Among the other highlights of his career were: a stint in Cannonball Adderley’s band in the mid-1960s (including the recordings of the hit songs “Money in the Pocket” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” – both written by Zawinul); a period with Miles Davis’ band in the late 1960s, including participation in the albums In a Silent Way (with the title song written by Zawinul, and possibly the most formidable keyboard line-up of all time with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric pianos and Zawinul on organ) and Bitches Brew (like In a Silent Way, an album featuring a sort of wall-of-keyboards sound with Zawinul, Corea, and Larry Young); and several acclaimed albums after the break-up of Weather Report under his own name or with his band Zawinul Syndicate.

For an obituary of Zawinul, click here.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Vick, Culture and the Individual

If you’ve been following news of popular culture, you’ve probably encountered news and commentary about Whoopi Goldberg’s statements on the television show The View concerning the Michael Vick / dogfighting issue. If not, you can read one news account at this link:;_ylt=AobHyCW1Ii4QsNT3msS74xsPLBIF

Here are two quotations from the article:

“He's from the South, from the Deep South ... This is part of his cultural upbringing," Goldberg said of the Atlanta Falcons quarterback, whose recent fall from grace has been one of the most stunning in the history of U.S. sports.

“For a lot of people, dogs are sport," Goldberg said on the show. "Instead of just saying (Vick) is a beast and he's a monster, this is a kid who comes from a culture where this is not questioned."

I’d like to address Goldberg’s comments in two ways, first in terms of the factual veracity of her claims, and second in terms of a more theoretical issue, the relationship between individuals and culture.

Goldberg’s first statement is reasonable enough – there are specific contexts in the south (and other parts of the country – when doing ethnographic field work in the El Paso/Juarez/Las Cruces area, I encountered allegations that specific sites in one southern New Mexico town were dogfighting sites) where dogfighting is part of the culture. But there’s no place in the south today where dogfighting goes unquestioned – in fact, there’s no place in the south today where most people don’t find it reprehensible.

I’m more interested, though, in the assumptions at play about the relationship between culture and the individual. Goldberg presents Vick as simply a product of his culture. (I’d like to be clear that it’s not clear to me if Goldberg’s intent in doing so was to justify or defend Vick, or simply to contextualize him.)

Culture plays a strong role in influencing all of us and in shaping the ways in which we think and make decisions. That’s largely what cultural anthropology is all about, and I’d be a very strange anthropologist to say otherwise. At the same time, culture doesn’t determine the individual, nor what individuals think and choose to do. (For example, culture doesn’t produce identical individuals.)

If claims like Goldberg’s are meant mainly to contextualize Vick, then I disagree with some particulars but have no basic quarrel about the types of claims being made – Vick isn’t a monster but a human being whose decisions were shaped in part by his cultural context.

If Goldberg’s claims (or anyone else’s similar claims) are intended to justify or defend, then there is a problem, for such a defense only works if the individual couldn’t have decided and acted otherwise on account of the cultural context – something clearly not the case here. Just as culture doesn’t dictate the terms of an individual’s existence, it can’t justify the individual.

Similar sorts of claims could be made about other individuals in the South’s past. Imagine if I or anyone were to say of Bull Connor (or Orville Faubus, or any other famous southern white racist of the civil rights era):

“He's from the South, from the Deep South ... This is part of his cultural upbringing,"

“For a lot of white people, blacks are just inferior."

"Instead of just saying Connor is a beast and he's a monster, this is a kid who comes from a culture where this is not questioned."

Neither the content nor the form of such an argument would wash with almost anyone today, and though I’m sympathetic with Goldberg’s attempt to contextualize Vick rather than demonizing him (if that was her intent), the form of her argument is problematic.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Mann and Wagner, Art and Culture

I was intrigued by a recent essay by Wolfgang Schneider on Sign and Sight, “Mann and his Musical Demons.” The following is a quotation from Schneider’s essay:

“Nazism used the dominant Wagnerian culture as a gateway into the educated bourgeois classes. Thomas Mann's major essay "The Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner" was an attempt to offer an alternative to the official Bayreuth version of Wagner – as "patron saint of the what-is-German solipsism." Mann tried to take an artistic, psychological, cosmopolitan view of the composer.
“Words like "dilettantism" were enough to shake up the Wagner establishment. In March 1933, there was a "Protest of the Wagner City Munich" in which Thomas Mann was accused of muddying the reputation of "upright German cultural giants." It was initiated by Bruno Walter's successor Hans Knappertsbuch and was signed – among others – by Hans Pfitzner and Richard Strauss. It was Munich's cultural bourgeois and not the Nazi authorities that drove Thomas Mann out of Germany (and that in the name of Wagner!) The Nazis praise the "folk's will" with sardonic joy. The "national Ex-communication" was a mortifying trauma, the worst that the writer ever experienced from the German public, and, like the story of Bruno Walter, a significant motivation for "Doctor Faustus," the novel on the connection between music and politics.
“Music, more than any other art form, served the cultural image of the Nazis. The Bayreuth Festival was a showcase for the Third Reich. Concerts by Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler reached listeners all over the world. Even Thomas Mann the emigrant clung to his radio although not without qualms: "we shouldn't have listened, shouldn't have loaned our ears to the swindle," he wrote in his journal after a broadcast of "Lohengrin" in 1936. For him, Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler was the most powerful example of an artist who thought he could maintain his culture in a political vacuum. And the embodiment of German musical arrogance, expressed in comments such as "a real symphony" has "never been written by a non-German."”

The addendum I would add is this. While music (Wagner in particular) and culture may be inextricably linked for German culture, at least through the Nazi era, as Mann is essentially arguing, though he seems to want that to not be the case, the same need not be and is not true for others.

For Germans in the 1930s and 1940s, Wagner may well have been inextricably tied to a whole slew of associations now viewed as unpalatable by most (and viewed so by at least some Germans like Mann at the time), but as something with its own objective qualities that can be experienced in any number of sociohistorical contexts (and so independently of any specific context), art is not determined forever by a specific context of its creation (the mid-to-late19th century for Wagner) and/or use (the Nazi use of Wagner).

I’m aware of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, aware of Nazism’s primitivism and use of Wagner, Orff, and other composers’ music to help ground an aural image of German nationality, aware of the potential for the Nibelungen to serve as a cipher for Jews, but my awareness of these things is an awareness of the historical contexts of 19th and early-to-mid 20th century Germany. They’re not part of my experiential repertoire when experiencing the Ring operas, but more something I’m aware of at an historical distance.

For me, or for anyone else without the direct cultural ties of Wagner’s era or the Nazi era, it’s a story about a ring, love, heroes, redemption, and dwarves with a weakness for gold and power. These are things that are not inherently anti-Semitic or inherently fascist. For example, all these things are pretty similarly presented in Tolkien’s Ring series.

It’s one thing to say that Wagner clearly intended the Nibelungen to serve as cipher for Jews (or that the Nazis utilized certain musical works in effective ways to present and ground certain conceptions of the nation). It’s quite another to say that the Nibelungen are clearly a cipher for Jews (or that the music of Wagner, Orff, Strauss, etc., is inevitably tied to fascist conceptions of the nation). I see no reason to allow Wagner (much less the Nazis) to determine the ultimate meaning of the operas just because he wrote them. Once created, a work of art has a concrete existence as independent of its creator as of any other individual. Wagner was a brilliant composer, but otherwise a repulsive individual with repulsive views not worth being taken seriously.

Ironically, to insist too hard on the anti-Semitism of the Ring operas is to unwittingly slip into anti-Semitism in the guise of combating it. It’s worth remembering that the Nibelungen could serve as cipher for Jews in certain cultural and historical contexts, as well as the other unsavory associations with Wagner’s music that held in certain specific contexts. But for any variety of other contexts, the only way it can be clearly the case that the Nibelungen are a stand-in for Jews and that the Ring is anti-Semitic is by assuming that Jews really are driven by lust for gold and power.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Lady Di as Magic Monarch

The columnist Bagehot, reflecting on the continuing allure of Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, ten years after her death, writes in The Economist:

“In 1712, aged two, Samuel Johnson was brought to London by his mother. Almost blind and ill with scrofula, he was taken to St James's Palace to be “touched” by Queen Anne. Rationalist though he was, Johnson always wore the “touch piece” bestowed on him by the queen, whom he later hazily recalled as “a lady in diamonds and a long black hood”.
"The practice of “touching” the sick, with its potent associations of magic and semi-divinity, flourished among the medieval and renaissance kings, but seemed to have died out by the beginning of the 19th century. Yet it lived again, until almost the end of the 20th, in the shape of Princess Diana, albeit with the long black hood exchanged for a little black dress.
“During her short, sad life, Diana was seen as a scandalously modern princess; after her sadder death, and as its tenth anniversary approaches next week, she has been enlisted as a posthumous poster girl for various progressive causes. “She wasn't seen as posh. She was one of the people,” argues Time magazine, hailing her as “the princess [who] transformed a nation”. She wasn't—and she didn't. Beyond her roles as fairy-tale princess and floundering, suffering divorcee, Diana's appeal rested in part on an ancient archetype: the monarch who walks among the people, working miracles, in her case among the lepers, AIDS patients and maimed children she unsqueamishly embraced. And just as her draw was in part atavistic, the legacy of her death has proved a surprisingly reactionary one.”

I’ve long shared a bit of the common fascination for Lady Di and the British royals generally. I’ve also been a bit baffled by it – why should I or any non-Brit, or even British residents nowadays, feel any fascination for what is for most purposes an anachronism – though to be honest hadn’t given the phenomenon a whole lot of thought. I’d like to thank Bagehot, writing in The Economist of all publications, for triggering me to think anthropologically about the continuing fascination of Lady Di and the other British royals.

What makes them fascinating is “simply” the possession of something akin to Polynesian mana without which most of them wouldn’t be interesting in the least. (How the British royals came to have mana and why they haven’t lost it is a matter for cultural historical analysis beyond the scope of a single blog post. I will say they’re not the only royals to still have “it” – the Russian Romanovs do, too, even if they’re dead, e.g. continued interest in occasional speculations about whether any of Nicholas II’s immediate family survived the Bolsheviks.) Not all the royals are fascinating to the same degree, but in each case it is mana that makes them interesting at all. Lady Di is especially interesting as someone who lived an interesting life on its own terms, as someone who embodied an archetype of not just a royal but a miracle working monarch, as an attractive woman, etc., but if she had simply been a wealthy woman who traveled the world doing good, very few people would have “known” her, much less remain fascinated ten years after her death. On the other hand, many royals are not interesting years after their deaths (which is to say that the special attention to Lady Di results partly from her particular personal qualities and actions), but the fact that they attract our attention and fascination at all results from their royal mana. Really, a man like Prince Charles would intrigue almost no one without being Prince Charles. This is not to knock him, but as a person, he’s simply not interesting, but as a royal, he continually draws attention despite the fact that people tend to find him uninteresting.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

John Prendergast on Darfur

John Prendergast, who has written extensively on Africa generally and lately about Darfur specifically, has an essay worth reading posted at, “Can Europe and China Save Darfur?”

Prendergast’s essay addresses global inaction in the face of ongoing genocide in western Sudan, as well as the possibilities for action on the part of the U.S., Europe, and/or China. The following is from the essay:

“What is needed isn't exactly rocket science. I've been working in Africa's crisis zones for 25 years, and contrary to popular perceptions, the continent is ripe with success stories about countries that have been ripped apart by civil war, but have been able to resolve their issues and move on. Mozambique, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, and others can attest to the formula: a serious peace process combined with the deployment of relevant force works.

“A quartet of President Hu, President Sarkozy, Prime Minister Brown, and President Bush should pursue a peace and protection initiative that would prioritize a peace deal between the regime and rebel groups, and enforce the rapid deployment of the Security Council's authorized multinational forces to Darfur and eastern Chad. They should be prepared to back targeted sanctions in the UN Security Council (President Putin, you are welcome to join in) against anyone - government or rebel - who tries to obstruct these objectives. Not only would Darfur be "saved," but transatlantic and transpacific cooperation would also be enhanced at a time when such multilateralism is desperately needed.”