Sunday, November 9, 2008

Disco Gets Me Down: Things I Miss, 6

I’ve long had mixed feelings about disco. Much of it’s great music that’s fun, upbeat, and uplifting, but I typically have a bittersweet feeling whenever I listen to disco, as it tends to evoke for me a generation of dead gay boys.

(Perhaps ironically, it was not the HIV that took so many of his generation but cancer that took my gay boy. Reginald was quite open about his HIV+ status from the time I met him, and so I always knew that down the road, serious health problems could be part of our relationship, especially since at the time I met him in late 1998, while protease inhibitors were a godsend for many with HIV, including Reginald, no one could say with certainty whether combination therapy would work well in the long term, as those drugs were still relatively new. As it turns out, Reginald never really had any problem with HIV. I do wonder if it contributed to some of the complications that ultimately allowed the cancer to take over after an initially good response to chemo – some of his doctors thought it probably did, others were less sure, though none of them thought it was a good idea to have HIV and cancer at the same time.)

Since Reginald died, my disco emotions have been amplified, and I’ve found it almost painful to listen to disco or most any other dance music. While it’s far from what I miss most with his loss, one thing I do miss is seeing him dance. As most who knew him well know, Reginald could dance like nobody’s business, and probably the most pleasurable thing about watching him dance was the look of sheer joy he had when dancing. Thinking about it as I write, I’m laughing with the joy of that memory and crying as I know I’ll never see him dance again.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Things I Miss, 5

I miss Reginald’s physical presence: his physical touch as lover; holding hands as we watched TV, drove down the road, or in a thousand other settings; the feel of his short cropped hair on my hand; passing or lingering caresses; the feel of his lips on mine when we kissed.

I miss his distinctive smell, the result of the combination of Old Spice deodorant with his particular body chemistry. (Since part of his scent was a fairly common deodorant, when in public, I often catch hints of the smell of others who are similar in scent to him, but that are always subtly “wrong” because of the combination of the deodorant with different body chemistries.)

I miss the sounds of Reginald: his gentle breathing and small snores as he slept; the particular cadence of his steps through which I often recognized him in public places even when I couldn’t see him (e.g. if we were in a store, and he had gone to get some item and then caught up with me from behind); the sounds of his returning home – the thump of his car tires passing over the metal grate just in front of the garage, the opening and closing of his car door, his key in the door lock – that signaled to me that even if he had only been out for 15 minutes, I didn’t have to miss him anymore.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Things I Miss, 4

I miss Reginald’s sleeping.

Reginald didn’t snore loudly, at least not after he had a minor surgery several years ago to correct a deviated septum, but he made precious little snore-sounds, and that gentle snoring is now painfully missing from my nightscape.

I miss his falling asleep in the car. Reginald fell asleep quite easily when I was driving (though fortunately not while he was driving). His same gentle snores were a common companion on long trips, but even on drives to the mall or to Barnes and Noble 10 to 15 minutes from home, he would often nod off, trusting me to get us there safely.

I miss watching him sleep.

Many nights when I couldn’t sleep for whatever reason I took great pleasure simply watching him asleep, the slow rhythmic movement of his chest up and down. Often enough, this was enough to calm whatever anxieties or fears I was suffering at the moment.

His last several months, there were days upon days (both in the hospital and at home) when his pain, nausea, and fatigue were almost too much for any person to bear. I don’t miss that at all, but I do miss watching him in those moments when he slipped off to sleep on those days, his sufferings eased, at peace at least for the moment, but still alive.

The ten days beginning April 16 this past spring were among the worst of my life. Following the abdominal perforation that almost killed him right then, he lay sedated and unconscious for ten days. Most of that time he was clearly experiencing great pain with his body and I presume some part of his mind. His body would twitch and spasm and he would continually clench his fists. But there were times when the pain would ebb, the twitchings and spasming cease, and he would settle into the gentle rhythms of sleep. In the midst of horror, those moments watching him sleep were good times.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Things I Miss, 3

It’s now been a month since my dear Reginald died, and the loss has only gotten harder as the reality of his absence and the realization that I’ll never see him again in this life has begun to fully sink in.

One of the things I miss most is his empathy and generosity.

Reginald was the most empathetic person I have ever encountered. This could bring him pain, as the suffering and sorrow of others hurt him dearly, but also great joy, as the successes and happiness of others brought him great happiness, too.

Although he kept up with the news, it was almost a burden for him, for all the news of suffering in the world depressed and saddened him almost as much as his own personal health problems. Though he loved reading history, reading about recent history was difficult for him – books about the 20th century and all the violence and atrocities therein he often had to read in small doses spread over months because they upset him so.

Obviously, it’s not this suffering that resulted from his empathy that I miss, but his kindness and generosity that were linked with his empathy. One fond memory I have (fond though wrapped within pain) is from mid-April of this year. I had been teaching all day when I got a phone call from Reginald that he had gone to the emergency room with very severe abdominal pain (pain, we soon found out, stemming from the abdominal perforation that almost killed him at that point). I rushed to the emergency room, and when I entered the waiting room I found him stooped over with pain walking as best he could across the room to give a vomit basin to another man who was getting sick. It was so typical of Reginald that of an entire roomful of people, it was he, doubled over with pain more severe than I can imagine from something that very nearly killed him, that took the trouble to perform this small act of kindness. I don’t want to knock the other people there – they were all either sick or injured themselves, or tending to a loved one in that condition – but simply to acknowledge the way in which he was almost as concerned with others as himself even in the worst of circumstances. Likewise, towards the end of his life, while he was certainly scared and didn’t want to die, he was more concerned that I and others were suffering on account of losing him.

Reginald internalized the experiences of others to a great extent, so that suffering in the world caused great pain to him, but the happier side of this was that the successes and joys of those he cared about brought him intense pleasure as well. He was always greatly pleased by the accomplishments of those around him, with so far as I could tell never a hint of the secret jealousy and envy that so frequently accompanies the success of others for many, if not most people.

The many online tributes that have been posted in the past month are full of tales of his generosity to his fellow poets and/or friends. Though he was quick to acknowledge those who had been important to his success in life generally and in poetry and other writing (see his many writings about his mother or the tributes to Alvin Feinman on his blog), he had clawed his way to success as a writer largely through his own efforts without much benefit of patronage or personal ties to bigwigs. While no one is fully the proverbial “self-made man,” he was about as close as they come.

His response to this was to do what he could to help others to success to the extent he could in a way few had done for him. Occasionally he did this when another course of action might have done more for his own career. For example, with his first poetry anthology, The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, Reginald had multiple reasons for selecting the poets he did: they’re all excellent poets, they share certain qualities in their work, making for a coherent volume. At the same time, Reginald knew that he could probably do more for his own career by selecting more established poets (i.e. most everyone likes being invited to be part of such projects, and choosing more established poets would have established or reaffirmed personal connections for Reginald with people more established in their careers and generally more powerful), but he chose to focus that anthology on less established, emerging poets, partly because he thought it would be more interesting for readers, but more importantly because he felt that in that way he could contribute to the success of their careers as writers in a way that wouldn’t have been the case with writers already more established.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Things I Miss, 2

I miss caring for and tending to Reginald.

I miss cooking for him when he could keep some food down – always iffy, since he was on chemotherapy from last December through April, and on multiple antibiotics continuously from then on. I miss getting him cans of Ensure or Gatorade when those were the only things he could keep down.

I miss rigging up and administering IV drip medications, and changing surgical wound dressings.

I miss the rare good days in the hospital – the days when Reginald didn’t have too much pain or nausea, and I would sit reading or working on my laptop while he slept or worked on his own computer.

I miss driving him around town to doctors’ visits – over the last several months, when he wasn’t in the hospital, he saw one or another doctor almost every day.

A few days ago I was talking with someone on the phone and mentioned that there were some health care smells that I’d as soon never smell again, alcohol swabs, wound prep swabs, saline solution. That wasn’t quite right: I long to smell those smells, but while nursing him at home or being with him while nurses tend to him in the hospital. I miss the less pleasant bile and vomit smells, too, and the task of emptying and cleaning vomit basins.

To be clear: I don’t miss the bad smells and the vomit and other fluids themselves. Even less do I miss the suffering, pain, and nausea Reginald felt for so long. But much of the past year, all I could do was tend to him the best I could and show my love by doing so. I often felt miserable to not be able to do more – nursing him often felt like the least I could do when it was the most I could do – but I miss being able to at least do that.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Things I Miss

It’s been a bit over two weeks since my dear Reginald passed. It hasn’t fully sunk in, I don’t think. I know he’s gone, but I find myself several times a day thinking things like, “I’ve got to tell Reginald about that…” At the same time, I miss him profoundly.

Most of all I miss our love. I miss how much he loved me and while I’ll always love him, I’ll miss being able to say it and show it to him. I’ll always treasure the time we had, or for that matter that the last thing I said to him was “I love you” and that the last thing he said was “I love you” to me – but that’s not enough, and I don’t think it ever will be.

One form our love and communion took was conversation, and on a daily level, I’ll miss that about as much as anything. We were nearly continuously together every day, and that because we wanted to be, and we talked all the time about nearly everything.

We talked about writing – about different literary forms, about the skills and experience of writing poetry, ethnography, fiction, essays, blogs, and other forms, about different forms as art or not art, about the relation between writing and society. We discussed music, something we’re both passionate about – from Britten to boy bands, the state of the music industry and music recording, why some people still seem to viscerally react to Schoenberg, what we liked or disliked about various music. We talked about politics and paleontology, generally agreeing that politics was probably more important but paleontology more interesting, finding debates about punctuated equilibrium or whether sauropods were likely endotherms, ectotherms, or homeotherms more interesting than Obama vs. McCain. We discussed race and racism, food in its many varieties and proper cooking of each, The Simpsons, the relative merits of science fiction television shows, whatever either of us was reading (which gave plenty of topics to explore), culture and history.

Not only did we share wide ranging interests, but he was always smart and knowledgeable about whatever we discussed. (Reginald’s knowledge of world history was particularly formidable. I’ve never encountered directly or indirectly anyone else as knowledgeable about history in general – and I include the writers of world histories. His many world history books are filled with marginal notes correcting the small errors of detail he found.) I don’t think I’ll ever have another conversation as interesting, challenging, or deep as the one we had the last 8 ½ years.

Our conversation, as with that of most couples I presume, was also larded with references that only made sense to the two of us. I miss already being able to say things like “No zombie turkey” or “It’s not yummy” or “Nothing Cake” or “Are you going to the thing?” and make any sense to someone, at least not without such convoluted explanation as to obviate their use as a shorthand – and a shorthand for a range of past shared experience that wouldn’t be explained anyway even with the most elaborate of explanations.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Reginald Shepherd, 1963 - 2008

Reginald Shepherd, who was my partner, best friend, lover, confidante, and so much more, died this past week on September 10 after a fight with cancer. The following is a short piece about Reginald I wrote for his memorial service, which was held yesterday.

Reginald Shepherd, 1963 - 2008

Reginald Shepherd was born April 10, 1963 in New York City and passed away September 10, 2008 in Pensacola, surrounded by people whom he loved and who loved him.

Reginald was the son of Blanche Berry, who was originally from Macon, Georgia. He grew up in Bronx, New York, along with a sister, Regina Graham. He moved to Macon and lived with his aunt, Mildred Swint, after the death of his mother when he was fifteen.

Reginald earned a B.A. degree from Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, and M.F.A. degrees in Creative Writing from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He taught literature and creative writing, most recently at Antioch University and earlier at the University of West Florida, Cornell University, and Northern Illinois University, and he was remarkably dedicated to his students and the craft of writing.

Reginald was a magnificent writer. He published five books of poetry (Some Are Drowning; Angel, Interrupted; Wrong; Otherhood; and Fata Morgana) and a book of essays (Orpheus in the Bronx), and he edited two poetry anthologies (The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries and Lyric Postmodernisms). He recently completed a sixth book of poetry and a second volume of essays that will be published posthumously. Among many awards for his writing, he most recently earned a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 and won the 2007 silver medal for poetry in the Florida Book Awards.

Reginald met his partner, Robert Philen, in December, 1999 in Ithaca, New York, and ever since, their relationship has grown, based in conversation, compassion, sharing, friendship, passion, and profound love. The two have lived in Pensacola since July, 2001.

Over the past year, Reginald faced tremendous adversity and continuous pain from a series of illnesses related to cancer, but he faced it all with profound strength and courage, tenacity, love of life – and gentleness, dignity, and innocence. He fought long and hard against the illness, but as one nurse who worked with him toward the end put it, “He remained a gentleman to the end.”

Any of us who knew Reginald are devastated and heartbroken at this loss, and we will miss his unique combination of verve and vivacity, wit and intelligence, tenacity and strength, gentleness, empathy, and sweetness, generosity and innocence. We will also, despite our profound sadness, remain ennobled, happy, and blessed by the time we spent with him.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Improbability of Being Alive

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the fragility of life (for pretty straightforward reasons – see my previous post). I’ve also been thinking a bit about the sheer improbability of being alive.

Here’s the most dramatic personal example I can come up with of what I mean:

Members of one of the families from whom I’m descended, specifically my father’s mother’s mother’s family, emigrated from Ireland to Virginia sometime in the late 1600s, establishing a nuclear family household there. Sometime shortly thereafter, this household was wiped out in a raid by local Native Americans, except for an infant son, my ancestor, who was left alive, found by other members of the Euro-American community and taken in.

Whatever their particular grievance, whether against the specific family or against Europeans in general moving into the area, and there were likely plenty of grievances to choose from, had this particular raiding party chosen to completely finish off the household, the world today would be little if any different in any big way, but I wouldn’t be here. Likewise if the child had died of starvation or exposure before being found and taken into another household. Even if the Native Americans in question had chosen to adopt the child into their own community, a not unlikely scenario in the circumstances, that child might have had descendants alive today, but I wouldn’t be here.

In many more mundane ways, my mere existence depends upon a highly improbable concatenation of little decisions having been made by untold numbers of people. Upon having his job as an engraver transferred from a paper plant in upstate New York to a new plant outside of Pensacola, Florida in the early 1950s, had my grandfather and grandmother decided that job or not job, they weren’t moving to muggy Northwest Florida in those pre-air-conditioned Jim-Crow-era days, then my mother and my father would have been around, but never met, resulting in no me.

Given that the human species did evolve, and given that the Neolithic transition occurred (both improbable to varying degrees beforehand), I don’t find it particularly improbable that there are people around now, or even that there are 6 billion people around now, but each of those 6 billion people, as individuals, is the result of an astronomically improbable chain of prior human actions and decisions.

Perhaps not the most profound or original thought (it is, after all, a basic premise of the movie Back to the Future), but something I’ve been thinking about lately.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Where I've Been

I’ve been a bit preoccupied lately.

In mid-April, my partner, Reginald Shepherd, suffered a serious, nearly fatal, medical crisis. For reasons still unknown, a perforation opened in his small intestine, leading to severe abdominal infection and peritonitis, blood poisoning (one of the things that nearly killed him), catastrophically low blood pressure (think in the neighborhood of 40 over 20) and a heart attack, kidney failure for a short period at the height of the crisis, about ten days on a ventilator and on hallucination-provoking sedatives, three surgeries over the course of those ten days, two weeks (that included the aforementioned ten days) in the intensive care unit, three more weeks in the hospital, and an ongoing recovery process at home. See Speech After Long Silence, Tiene Dolor?, and Long Hard Road Out Of Hell for Reginald’s account of the ordeal.

Reginald’s medical trials didn’t begin in mid-April. The whole past year has been quite rough for him, with a series of emergency room visits (in three separate states), that led in November to diagnosis with colon cancer, a successful surgery to remove the tumor, but also the discovery of the spread of the cancer to the liver, followed by many rounds of chemotherapy and a process called radiofrequency ablation to cook the two tumors on the liver. In short, the situation that began in April occurred after a very trying year and after we were beginning to think (with good reason – his cancer prognosis looked and looks pretty good) his medical condition was under control. As a result, I have mixed feelings about the timing of this crisis: after the entire past year and everything he and we have been through, especially once things were looking up, it’s frustrating, frightening, even shocking to have something else come along to make “Stage 4 Metastatic Cancer” seem like a walk in the park, while at the same time, if this was going to happen, better in mid-April than a few months earlier when the cancer was very much not under control, when even the best case recovery from the acute crisis of blood poisoning would have meant a long delay of chemotherapy at a critical juncture.

As a result of the past year, and especially the last couple months, I have a somewhat different perspective on health, illness, doctors, nurses, medical care and institutions than I did a year ago, but more on that over my next few posts.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Boring Ethnography

In my previous post (“Some Thoughts on Ethnography”), I mentioned having recently reviewed the various essays in Writing Culture, including that by Mary Louise Pratt, while preparing for a discussion in a graduate seminar.

In Pratt’s essay, shortly after the section I discussed in my previous post, Pratt writes (p. 33; parenthetical added):

“Much must be left behind in the process (the process of converting subjective experience and field notes into formal ethnography, especially the components of ethnography engaged in objectivizing narrative)…There are strong reasons why field ethnographers so often lament that their ethnographic writings leave out or hopelessly impoverish some of the most important knowledge they have achieved, including the self-knowledge. For the lay person, such as myself, the main evidence of a problem is the simple fact that ethnographic writing tends to be surprisingly boring. How, one asks constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books? What did they have to do to themselves?”

I’ll grant that much ethnographic writing is boring, some more boring even than punk rock (see “On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring”). It is usually writing by academics after all, and most academic writing in general is dull in form and style, even when once read the material discussed might be quite exciting.

Still, each time I encounter this passage (I generally encounter it from time to time when I’m prepping for a class for which I’ve assigned Writing Culture as reading), I react negatively. This time around, I reacted a bit differently and with more positive results (i.e. I didn’t just snarkily wonder why someone from a lit theory background would leave the scintillating neighborhood of lit crit and theory to pay detailed attention to something as tedious as ethnography). I think that Pratt, in this passage, is both misperceiving the boringness of ethnography and asking the wrong sorts of questions of ethnography (or rather her questions are good ones, but they’re good questions about virtually any form of academic writing – why must writing about so many exciting topics [quasars, lemmings, market systems, novels] be so often so dreadfully boring?).

First off, as a genre of academic writing, a surprising number of ethnographies are not boring. Virtually every cultural anthropologist has a list of ethnographies that they’re positively passionate about, not because they’re excellent analyses (though that may be another [and ideally overlapping] list of books some are passionate about), but because they’re wonderful, well written, and engaging books.

I said above I think Pratt was asking the wrong sort of question about ethnography. My question is this: Why do we expect ethnographies (as examples of academic writing) to not be boring, and why are we disappointed when they are boring? (And I ask this non-rhetorically, for we [or at least I] do expect ethnographies to be interesting and experience disappointment when this isn’t the case.) After all, there are few other forms of scholarly writing for which we have such expectations (perhaps history writing). No one is disappointed when a physics report or economics article or essay of literary criticism is dull, because no one (I should probably say almost no one) expects them to be otherwise – it’s more a surprise if they’re not boring.

Virtually every academic discipline has a corresponding genre of popular writing written for a lay audience that’s expected to be interesting and engaging, but ethnography and professional history writing are the two forms of professional, scholarly writing that many if not most readers expect to be interesting as writing, even if they’re often disappointed. The most obvious, and probably most important reason for this is that these are the two forms of contemporary academic writing that often take the form of narrative, i.e. where we’re told a story. (As Pratt is discussing, the tension in ethnography comes in when the writing shifts from narrative to expository, objectivizing text.)

As I suggested in my previous post, another component of the allure of ethnography for many readers, and what draws many into anthropology in the first place, is the imagining of what Sontag called “The Anthropologist as Hero,” such that the reader expects not just a story, but a story of exploration and heroic adventure.

The popular imagining of “The Ethnographer” is not quite Gentleman Explorer á la Richard Burton or T. E. Lawrence nor Explorer lost in the Wilderness á la Cabeza de Vaca (or the ultimately anthropophagized title character of the film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman); not quite castaway á la Robinson Crusoe (or Gilligan); not quite fictional adventurer á la Indiana Jones or Alan Quartermain; not quite contemporary television adventurer á la Steve Irwin (God Bless Him), Jeff Corwin, or Anthony Bourdain; not quite good feminist anthropologist battling (literally) man-eating cannibal feminists á la Shannon Tweed’s character in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (okay – not even close to that, though it is a movie any anthropologist with a sense of humor should see); but somewhere in the neighborhood of all of these.

Over the past few decades, anthropologists (alongside many others) have thoroughly critiqued most aspects of the discipline – the colonialist roots of ethnography, the major concepts of the discipline, the motivations of ethnographers, and this has been important and good. Like most cultural anthropologists today, I’m wary of any sense of ethnography as adventure, of being or trying to be “The Anthropologist as Hero,” but I’ll also be honest enough to say that the allure of heroic adventure is at least part of what attracted me to the discipline in the first place and no doubt is still a part of why I expect ethnography to be interesting if not positively exciting.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Some Thoughts on Ethnography

I recently read Robert Lowie’s The German People. It’s an ethnography of sorts of German culture, at least in the sense that it’s a “writing of culture” (more on this text as ethnography below). So far as I can tell, it’s a largely forgotten book, certainly much less widely read by anthropologists today than several other Lowie books, such as The Crow Indians, Primitive Religion, or Social Organization.

As I read The German People, I couldn’t help but to think of a more popular and more widely read ethnography, Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and The Sword. The two books have some important things in common. Both were written and published during World War II, and both can be seen as attempts to understand “the enemy,” both for the war and the succeeding occupation. (Benedict’s research was specifically commissioned by the U.S. government for this purpose.) In the processing of making sense of the Germans and Japanese respectively, the two texts also no doubt offered an important humanizing of the two nationalities.

The two works have a very different “feel” in other ways. Neither is the conventional ethnography written on the basis of participant observation field work in the culture in question. Benedict’s work was largely based in extensive interviews with Japanese-Americans (so that there was the use of interview methods typical of ethnography, but without the often more prominent participant observation). Benedict’s work “feels” very much like a conventional ethnography, even if based on for the time an unconventional total methodology. Ironically, Lowie’s experience of German culture was much more direct than Benedict’s of Japanese culture (Lowie was not a participant observer there, but had had extensive first hand experience of the culture as a student earlier in the century), while his text has little of the stylistic “feel” of an ethnography at all, really fitting more into the genre of social history.

Fortuitously, while I was reading Lowie’s The German People, I was also reviewing the various essays in the mid-1980s text Writing Culture for an upcoming discussion with grad students in a seminar on culture theory.

In Mary Louise Pratt’s essay in the collection, “Fieldwork in Common Places,” she writes (p. 32; parenthetical note on “it” added):

“James Clifford speaks of it (the persistence of personal narrative alongside objectifying narrative) as ‘the discipline’s impossible attempt to fuse objective and subjective practices.’ Fieldwork produces a kind of authority that is anchored to a large extent in subjective, sensuous experience. One experiences the indigenous environment and lifeways for oneself, sees with one’s own eyes, even plays some roles, albeit contrived ones, in the daily life of the community. But the professional text to result from such an encounter is supposed to conform to the norms of a scientific discourse whose authority resides in the absolute effacement of the speaking and experiencing subject.”

This quality of the ethnography does several things.

1. It gives ethnography a distinctive feel. Those texts we call ethnography generally do present in some way the ambivalence between personal, subjective narrative and third person, objectifying narrative. The lack of this subjective and personal element is largely what makes The German People feel like it’s not an ethnography, even if it is “writing culture.”

2. The tension between these elements in ethnography is, I think, what is largely responsible for the long history of conscious experimentation with the form of ethnography – something that’s been going on far longer than the writers of Writing Culture tend to acknowledge (see Experimental Ethnography Old and New).

3. This tension is one of the things that makes ethnography continually interesting because it is continually problematic at its formal core – more on ethnography as interesting or boring in my following post.

4. As Clifford and Pratt are pointing out, it’s the inclusion of the personal narrative that grounds the authority of the ethnographic narrator who experienced the culture and gives credence to the objectified narrative. Without such rhetorically established authority, why should we trust the strange things we read about in so many well written ethnographies are true? (Of course, being aware of this source of authority, why trust what we read to be true and not simply an interesting account of something which may or may not correspond to anyone’s lived reality?)

5. The continual presence of personal narrative as grounding authority is the chief means through which field work as rite of passage (as discussed so well, or at least so nicely by Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques) is interjected into the text, creating what Susan Sontag called “The Anthropologist as Hero,” the ethnographer venturing out to where others dare not go and returning to bring us comprehension of the other. Contra the construction of anthropology as the “softest” of social sciences on the part of many other social scientists, we have here an image of anthropological ethnography as the most macho of social science endeavors, and one trafficking in an essentializing division of self and other. All of this is problematic (and silly), but I’d argue it’s still very much a part of the image and appeal of anthropology and ethnography. (In my own socialization into the discipline in a Ph.D. program in the 1990s, this was still part of how anthropologists thought of ethnography. My research along the U.S./Mexican border was suspect as ethnography, because my others might not have been other enough, and frankly because I’d be doing ethnography in places with running water and electricity, and that I could drive there, though ultimately, the fact that I’d be doing participant observation in some specific contexts that were sometimes actually potentially dangerous and always perceived as dangerous made it just acceptable. A friend, who did participant observation on human rights issues at the U.N. in Switzerland, never seemed to be able to shake people’s perceptions that he somehow wasn’t doing “real ethnography,” even if everyone agreed his work was “important.”)

Monday, March 31, 2008

Eqbal Ahmad and Terrorism

I recently read a short collection of essays by and interviews with the Eqbal Ahmad, Terrorism: Theirs and Ours.

In the title piece, “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” I read Ahmad as making two important points about what you could call (Ahmad doesn’t phrase it this way) “the discourse of terrorism” or (if you prefer your terminology non-Foucaultian) “the way people tend to write and speak about terrorism.”

1. One of his important points is that “terrorism” as an entity is generally left undefined, with the result being that the term is arbitrarily applied to “their” political violence and not to “ours.” (If I read him correctly, Ahmad is against the use of violence to further political ends in general.) This creates interesting situations over time. For example, Menachim Begin, Yitzak Shamir, and others were at one time “terrorists,” with the British offering rewards for them as “terrorists,” etc., while later, when they became “ours,” they became “liberation fighters.” Or a converse example, many individuals who were later involved in the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda were “freedom fighters” when fighting the Evil Empire and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and only more lately termed terrorists. I don’t think Ahmad’s point here is to equate Begin and bin Laden, but to say that if we’re going to bandy a term like “terrorism” about, we ought to have a definition of it with some actual content that we then apply consistently (so, for example, Operation Condor would be seen as problematic when engaging in car bombings and extra-judicial killings in South America and not just when the car bombing happens in D.C.).

2. He emphasizes that all instances of terrorism have causes, a point that shouldn’t need to be made (for everything has a cause), but something often studiously left out (or explicitly made verboten) in dominant constructions of “terrorism,” where attempts to understand or explain terrorism are misrepresented as sympathy for terrorism and terroristic violence.

Beyond that, it would be nice if Ahmad had gone further in his discussion of causation. In an email exchange about the work, a colleague wrote me that "he plays the victim card, something like 'If you have been terrorized by xyz, you will become terrorists.'" This colleague went on to point out many of the various groups around the world who have clearly been oppressed, victimized, discriminated against, or terrorized who have not resorted to use of terrorist tactics.

In my reading, Ahmad doesn’t actually “play the victim card” as this email correspondent put it, but I think his reaction points out something crucial about any potential consideration of the causes of terrorism – that there may be certain experiences or structural situations that terrorists of a variety of stripes share in common, but at best an awareness of such factors will indicate contributing, but not sufficient causes for terrorism (because what of all the peoples who have suffered similarly and not turned to terrorism?).

In addition to these points, which I take to be the main points of Ahmad’s argument, as a minor point I did also simply find his take on the PLO to be interesting. He argues that one major problem with the PLO, in addition to the problem of the use of violence for political ends generally, was the lack of any sort of revolutionary ideology, strategy, or practice, such that not only were they terrorists, but ultimately ineffectual terrorists to boot, because of their lack of any sort of program beyond reaction.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jane Hurd, A Remembrance


Jane Hurd, my grandmother, whom I always called Nana, passed away a few months ago. She died after a battle with throat cancer, about which I’ll only say that as much pain as she did suffer from her illness and treatment, I’m thankful that up until almost the very end, she remained cogent and emotionally herself, and that she seemed to have experienced much less pain than is typical with her particular disease.


Nana was a good grandmother, both in the sense that she was a good person and a good person to have as a grandmother and in the sense that she was good at embodying an archetype of grandmotherliness.

Much of my experience of Nana, many of my feelings about her, much of our relationship was conventional. My relationship with her was in many ways almost the epitome of what a grandmother-grandson relationship is often thought supposed to be like in modern North America. She was utterly devoted to me and my sister, loving, indulgent even (she taught me to break open Nutter Butter cookies and add peanut butter, because they didn’t have enough peanut butter for her grandchildren), and always proud of her grandchildren (if she was ever not proud of me, and there must have been times, she never let it show). I certainly tried to be as good a grandson as possible for her.

Much of our experience is powerfully shaped by social structure, discourse, and structured expectations, and certainly in our culture today there are fairly clear ideas about what grandmothers and grandsons are like (or supposed to be like), embodied in the everyday discourse of conversation, in greeting cards, in popular culture, so that I can meaningful refer to my relationship with Nana as “almost the epitome of what a grandmother-grandson relationship is often thought supposed to be like in modern North America.”

To recognize that a relationship or set of experiences is strongly shaped by social structure and discourse in no way makes a relationship or experience any less real, authentic, or meaningful. There is a tendency, by many contemporary North Americans at least, to want to see ourselves as purely products of our own actions and to feel cheapened or lessened when actions or feelings are partly due to outside influence. But, the fact that our interactions with one another and our feelings toward one another were in part (but never completely) the playing out of social expectations and structuring doesn’t in any way change the fact that we interacted in certain ways, with accompanying real feelings.


One of the key traits I associate with Nana is hospitality and generosity. She had a great concern to serve others and that others be served.

Especially with me, and my sister, and my cousins, this was probably partly due to her “grandmotherliness.” She was concerned with generosity and hospitality with everyone (it was very difficult to not eat or drink something when visiting her house – a string of questions, such as “Would you like some cookies?,” “Would you like some coffee?,” “Would you like a sandwich,” would generally continue until something was accepted), but she was especially generous with her grandchildren. When I was a child, at Halloween Nana would always have good candy to hand out to all the neighborhood children (not the little packets of two sweet tarts you’d get at some houses, but candy bars), and she’d typically hand out two or three candy bars to each kid. For children she knew, she’d have special bags with extra candy made up ahead of time, but my sister and I would get a veritable mound of candy. For that matter, I don’t think she ever taught my mother and uncle to add peanut butter to Nutter Butters when they were children – not that she wasn’t a loving, nurturing mother, but that being a grandmother was something a little different.

Another part of my grandmother’s concern with hospitality and generosity was, I think, generational. My grandmother and grandfather grew up as pre-teens and teenagers during the height of the Great Depression. They had known severe and widespread scarcity growing up and one thing I often saw in them, and in many others of similar age, was a concern with scarcity and having enough, and in making sure that everyone was well fed. My grandparents were also very much a part of the WWII generation, with the great emphasis on serving country (with my grandfather joining the navy when he was old enough, and my grandmother training as a nurse) no doubt contributing to an emphasis on service and hospitality generally.

At the same time, I don’t think that Nana’s personality can be reduced to social structural factors like her generation or the playing of a social role of grandmother. Her concern with hospitality and serving or helping others was more thorough-going than with many other grandmothers or women of her generation that I’ve met. For example, in her career as a nurse (a career field in keeping with her personality in general), she spent much of her career as a nurse for the local department of public health, in part no doubt because that was an available nursing job, but in part because she saw that as a specific nursing job where she could make an important contribution to the community in serving many poorer members of the community most in need of help.


Another trait I associate with Nana is strength of character, expressed in simple (though never simplistic) unadorned and elegant fashion.

She was not a flashy person. She was never one to call much attention to herself, in how she dressed, or spoke, or did anything else. She was a soft-spoken person. At the same time she had an amazing strength of character and will. For all her soft-spokenness, she was not one to be pushed around, and she always stood firmly for her convictions (truth be told, as with many, or really most, members of my family, myself included, she could be downright stubborn at times – though in her case usually in a non-argumentative way – she’d generally simply do what she wanted to do or thought was right).


These traits come together in something I associate with her: cooking. She didn’t cook much in her later years, but both her sense of hospitality and her simple strength were reflected in her cooking.

I don’t think of that many recipes when I think of her. She didn’t cook a vast array of things, and her food wasn’t flashy – it was simple and good.

There are two recipes in particular, though, that almost always come to my mind when thinking of her, Chicken and Biscuits and Pound Cake, both things she often made when there was a crowd around. During most important family holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, these two recipes would make an appearance, usually not on the day of the holiday itself when some holiday specific meal would be fixed, but the day before or after, when a large number of family might still be gathered.

Her Chicken and Biscuits were not particularly complicated: roast chicken with a chicken gravy, with peas always in the gravy, carrots sometimes added, served with or on biscuits. Anyone who basically knows their way around a kitchen could produce some version of the dish, but her version was always particularly well done, though as with a lot of simple dishes well done, it’s nearly impossible to state exactly what made hers so good.

Her Pound Cake was quite simply the best I’ve ever encountered, and almost anyone who ever tried it wanted the recipe – and another slice of cake.

This was her recipe (she always freely shared it, so I’m not exposing her secret recipe here, and I think she’d be happy if anyone were to see the recipe and use and enjoy it):

Jane Hurd’s Pound Cake

6 eggs
2 ½ cups sugar
3 sticks butter (3/4 pound)
3 cups flour
½ tsp. baking soda
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Cream sugar and butter in a mixer.

Add one egg at a time and beat well. (She always insisted the each egg be given 5 minutes of mixing time in the mixer for a total of 30 minutes of egg mixing. The recipe’s not particularly difficult to make, but she always insisted that you had to take the time to do it right with no short cuts.)

Sift the flour and baking soda.

Alternately add flour mixture and buttermilk to the egg/butter/sugar mixture, mixing each addition well.

Mix in vanilla and lemon extracts.

Bake 1 ½ hours at 325 degrees in a greased and floured tube or bundt pan.

The first time I used the recipe myself, my partner asked if I was going to glaze it. I answered no, that it didn’t need any if I did it right, that it would be moist inside, with a crisp, flaky crust all around the outside. He was skeptical – until he had a few bites, whereupon he agreed that this cake was best left to stand on its own unadorned.


I’ve perhaps presented a too tidy picture thus far. As with most people, Nana could be characterized by a few key traits that run through much of what she said and did as key themes of her personality, and it’s mostly those things I’ve talked about thus far. At the same time, no more than with anyone else could she be completely or sufficiently encapsulated by a few traits or characteristics. There are many aspects of her that I cherish as much as those things I’ve already mentioned that must be left more as loose ends – qualities of her that can’t be so easily wrapped up into a tidy package of grandmotherliness, hospitality, strength of character, and so forth. As such, I’ll simply mention a couple and try to resist the temptation to wrap things up neatly.

She always had an avid curiosity about history and related topics. As far as I know, this was something she mainly shared with me. I’ve had a passion for history since I was quite young, that ultimately led me into anthropology through an exploration of topics related to history when I was an undergraduate. I remember fondly, ever since I was a child, talking with Nana about history. Some of this was her sharing stories of her own experience of the Depression, or World War II, or other events and times, but it was also conversations about the American Revolution, or the Civil War, or other topics of mainly but not exclusively America history. Later when I developed an interest in anthropology, she was one of the few non-academics I met or knew who didn’t necessarily assume that this meant archaeology, or digging up mammoth bones. Instead, her question was “You mean like Margaret Mead?”

She didn’t talk openly much about politics, but she was a strongly partisan Democrat. (Growing up in a liberal Democratic family in a strongly conservative area made for an interesting time growing up. I always had at least a slight sense of outsiderdom at school, something intensified by the fact that my mother and maternal grandparents were “Yankees,” on occasion leading me to be similarly labeled a “Yankee” in elementary school in a semi-rural setting in the South, despite the fact that I was born in the South and my father’s family had been in the South since before the American Revolution.) I remember the morning after Reagan was elected president in 1980. I had had many conversations about the election with Nana beforehand. On the night of the election, it had been my bedtime (I was nine) before the election results were in. On school mornings, my mother dropped me off at Nana’s on her way to work, and I went to school from there. That morning before school, I asked Nana who had won, and I still recall her deep sadness when she told me that “We lost.” This was much in contrast to the triumphal glee in evidence (by teachers and students) that day at school, and I took (and take) more comfort in her sadness. Much later, I remember her anger and indignation at all the attacks directed at Bill Clinton during his presidency. While I had (and have) my own problems with Clinton, I take much comfort in that righteous anger, also.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tips on Destroying the World

Like a lot of people, I worry a good deal about what we humans are doing to the planet, by which I really mean I worry a good deal about what we’re doing to life and the biosphere. Between anthropogenic global warming, ozone depletion, and the threat of nuclear war, as a species we could well end up responsible for a mass extinction event (though we’re be by no means the first organisms to fundamentally alter the planet’s biosphere – all the anaerobic bacteria spewing out oxygen during the first few billion years of life’s history on the planet did far more than we’ve done, or probably can do, to alter the biosphere – which is not at all to diminish the significance of the mass extinction of animals and plants we may be in the process of producing).

I’m not particularly worried that humans will ever wipe out life on the planet, or even our own species, though I do think it’s possible. Probably the best strategy to attempt to wipe out life on the planet, or simply the human species, would be to incite global thermonuclear war. The trouble with such a strategy is that in any conceivable actual situation, including at the most dangerous moments in the history of the Cold War, while the vast majority of individual human beings might be wiped out through the utter obliteration of the populations of the primary targeted regions (obviously a tragedy far beyond anything human beings have managed to do to one another thus far, even over the course of the bloody 20th century), far too many areas would go untargeted to wipe out the species. It’s hard for me to imagine ICBMs being targeted to wipe out all human life in the many rugged valleys of the highlands of New Guinea, or in all areas of the Amazon Basin, or on all the many small islands of the Caribbean or the Pacific, etc. Fall out, Nuclear Winter, and the like might do many of them in, but it’s hard for me to imagine a “naturally occurring” nuclear war wiping out the human species, much less life in general. To wipe out all humans, and much of the rest of life on the planet, I think you’d really need to engineer a conspiracy to end all conspiracies (in the metaphorical and literal senses) cutting across all the nuclear states to give you access to the world’s total nuclear arsenal so that you could target even the smallest Pacific island and every last valley in New Guinea. With access to the world’s total nuclear arsenal, this might be technically possible, though clearly utterly implausible to implement.

Alternately, one could attempt to wipe out the human species via a bioengineered epidemic. While killing billions in such a manner is potentially feasible if you have the ability to engineer and deliver the disease, wiping out the species would likely run into the same sort of mopping up problem as above.

I hadn’t before given much thought to destroying the planet, figuring that was simply not a possibility. Apparently it is possible, even if highly, highly implausible, as I found out when I read this highly entertaining essay on top ways to destroy the Earth. (I’d note that destroying the Earth would certainly destroy all life on the planet, too, though it wouldn’t necessarily wipe out the human species, as many of the methods for destroying the planet require technologies implying that at least some humans would not be confined to the planet.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

More on Taste and Quality in Art

I initially wrote the following, in very slightly different form, as a clarifying comment on my recent post A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But Not Quality). It's long enough, and I put enough work into it, that I didn't want to simply leave it relegated to the comments section of a post where it's less likely to be seen.

My concern in that earlier post was not to promote any sort of unitary or definitive hierarchy of the arts nor the idea that there is any single way to discern, appreciate, or evaluate art.

For instance, the following selection from the post in which it’s clear that there are a variety of potential criteria, the choice of which leads to different evaluations or appreciations:

“If we compare Beethoven’s Symphony # 9 or Mozart’s Requiem with the Ramones’ “I wanna be sedated” or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” by most criteria, whether originality, synthesis of complex themes, etc., the Beethoven and Mozart are of higher quality, even if you prefer the punk songs. There may be criteria on which the punk songs rate higher, e.g. reduction of music to its minimal components…”

If you’re uncomfortable with the use of terms like “higher” in this context (and to be honest, on further reflection, I’m a little uncomfortable with the way I phrased that myself), think of it more that certain works are actually, empirically more a certain way than others, regardless of personal taste.

I’m certainly not in favor of any sort of (re-)instatement of some simple high art/low art division that’s arbitrary at best and reflects/reaffirms a stratified class system at worst. I think one of the best and most important consequences of postmodern theory over the past several decades has been to open up serious consideration and reflection on a much fuller array of artistic production. This is reflected in my own thinking, e.g. the way in which in the earlier post and other recent posts related to the topic the discussion has readily considered together as if not unusual Beethoven, the Ramones, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, free jazz, John Cage, Slayer, etc., something that would have been intellectually improbable if not almost impossible a few decades ago. One thing I resist in some varieties of postmodern thinking is a flattening of criticism, discernment, evaluation, and ultimately the appreciation of art or ideas for their own qualities.

Taste may be subjective. (I do question the extent to which even taste can be properly regarded as subjective. I know that my own taste in classical music, for instance, is partly the result of my experience with it. Prior to dating the person who became my partner, a man with a great passion for certain varieties of opera and classical music, as well as for other particular musics, I had not had a great deal of exposure to classical music, and didn’t really have a taste for it. It’s over the past eight years that I’ve cultivated a strong taste for that type of music, though at the same time, simple exposure to and experience of a variety of classical music doesn’t really explain why I have strong preferences for some classical music and not for others. To the extent that most of us are largely unaware of the sources of our preferences, I think it can be said at least that taste largely operates as if largely or wholly subjective.) But while taste may be subjective, the qualities inherent in a work are not subject to our particular tastes.

One thing I’m against is the “anything goes” approach to art appreciation, the sentiment of Family Guy’s Quaqmire that is can mean anything I want because it’s poetry (see the earlier post for the context here), or the sentiment that I’ve heard all too often at cocktail parties (really more at receptions or other semi-formal gatherings, since I rarely go to cocktail parties) or in seminars that because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whatever thoughts I might have while viewing a painting are in the painting or are the painting’s meaning. Most of us probably have had the experience of having a long chain of thought initially prompted by some work of art, an often pleasurable and intellectually stimulating, and thus important, experience. Once such thought strays beyond any significant correspondence to the work (a grey matter, of course, but an important distinction nonetheless) we’re no longer thinking about the work. I can think what I want when I read a poem (and that’s a good and often enjoyable thing), but I engage in fabulation, inventing a fiction, if I think and claim that anything I think is the meaning of the poem.

Everyone can like what they want. One can prefer, for example, the drumming of Max Roach or Elvin Jones or the drumming of 6025 or Ted (drummers at different times for the Dead Kennedys) or Paul Cook (of the Sex Pistols), or like them or dislike them equally. At the same time, the various performances (recorded and not) of these distinct drummers had particular qualities. The drumming of Elvin Jones was often polyrhythmic, and that’s not a matter of taste, but a quality of his music, and if one chooses to ask whose drumming was typically more complex (which is simply one among many possible empirical criteria for discernment or evaluation) between Jones and Cook or any other set of drummers, that’s a matter of looking to actual empirical qualities, not of taste.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

On Why Pro-Feminist Men Are Not Traitors To Their Sex

A few months ago at a conference, I was involved in a conversation with a few other scholars and the topic of men and feminism came up. One individual (who happened to be female) argued that men couldn’t be feminists, while another (who happened to be male) argued that they could.

I pitched in that it didn’t really much matter to me whether I could be a feminist as a man or not. I’m against sexism and gender inequality; I’m sympathetic to feminism; I attempt to actually incorporate gender and issues related to feminism and gender inequality in my teaching; I’ve done at least a few things over the years to try to do my bit for gender equality; and I figure those are the sorts of things that are important. Whether someone wants to refer to me as a feminist, a pro-feminist man, a feminist man, a man sympathetic to feminism, or whatever else is more incidental. I also figure that as a man it would be a bit odd at best for me to dictate to feminist women whether or not I can be a feminist (i.e. I wasn’t going to argue against this person’s saying I couldn’t be a feminist, but I also wouldn’t argue against another feminist woman’s saying I was).

That whole set of issues isn’t really the point of this post, though, but just a setting. Next, the female colleague said something I felt was simply wrong, that pro-feminist men are traitors to their sex. I didn’t voice my disagreement at the time, mainly because the conversation shifted gears before I could do so, but I’ve mentally come back to it a few times since.

Pro-feminist men aren’t traitors to their sex (or gender) because they can’t be. Neither maleness nor men constitute anything like a coherent social group or entity that they could betray.

Still, “maleness,” “masculinity,” “men,” remain useful labels or categories for some descriptive purpose. I began to wonder how this was the case given that males or men in no sense comprise a single, unitary group. There’s no way that one can realistically speak of the interest of men as a group, for instance, given the divides of culture, race, ethnicity, class, family, religion, etc. (The same point can obviously be made of “femaleness,” “femininity,” or “women.”)

There are social groups comprised exclusively of one gender. Fraternities on university campuses are one example. They constitute distinct groups, capable of acting collectively as a coherent social entity for specific purposes. But recognizing that a group of men (or women) can in a delimited context comprise a social group is a far cry from recognizing men as a whole (especially cross-culturally and trans-historically) as a group. One can speak realistically of men in groups or groups of men, but not Men as a group.

Cross-culturally, within the context of specifically delimited cases, there are instances of gender as social group. For example, in the ethnography Women of the Forest, by Yolanda and Robert Murphy, Mundurucú men are described as constituting such social groups on the basis of gender. All the men of a particular community live collectively in a men’s house, and they act collectively as a gender group from time to time, for certain ritual purposes or on occasion to act punitively toward particular women, exercising power over women as a collectivity, not as individual man or individual patriarch or head of household. In such a setting, a man could potentially be a traitor to his gender, e.g. by handing over to a woman the sacred horns seen by Mundurucú men as a critical source of their collective power over women. Situations such as this, where men do constitute a social group (I’d argue from the evidence presented in the Murphys’ ethnography that the same doesn’t apply to Mundurucú women) occur in specific contexts, don’t characterize men in general, and so far as I’m aware have no analogues in contemporary Western culture.

Instead of constituting social groupings, sex and gender are primarily categories of quality. It can be meaningful to speak of males or men, despite the fact that such terms don’t refer to any real social group (again except in specifically delimited contexts, none of which is present in contemporary Western culture), because they speak of qualities that tend to be shared by individuals that the terms pertain to, without such individuals in any way comprising a distinct social group or entity.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some Books By Non-Anthropologists For Cultural Anthropologists To Read

Like most scholars, I have a passion for books. Having enjoyed putting together two posts (here and here) on my favorite books from last year, I’ve decided to begin a semi-regular feature of discussing books I’ve found rewarding that I think other cultural anthropologists (or anyone else) might also find engaging, interesting, provocative, or otherwise worth reading.

The Riddle of the Dinosaur, by John Noble Wilford, Knopf, 1986.

I read this book when I was just beginning to organize the writing of my dissertation. I was reading a wide variety of non-fiction pertaining to an array of topics and disciplines to get a sense of the diversity of ways of organizing the presentation of a topic (a strategy I’d recommend for anyone now writing theses or dissertations). This book didn’t particularly influence my writing in any formal way. Instead it influenced my thinking about my relation to ethnographic data. (It’s also a fun read for anyone with a fascination for dinosaurs.)

You’ll learn a lot about dinosaurs from this book, but you’ll also learn much about the history of the paleontology of dinosaurs. Wilford’s account is essentially an epistemological history, tracing the history of the development of conceptualizations of dinosaurs and methods for studying them (I tend to think of methodology as applied epistemology – and I’ve found thinking about research methods a lot more interesting ever since I started thinking about it that way).

In most ways, paleontology and ethnography have little in common. In reading Wilford, I realized that one thing they have in common, albeit for different reasons, is that they’re both scholarly endeavors that tend to foreground epistemological concerns, if not to exist in a perpetual state of epistemological crisis. As I said the reasons for this are different: with paleontology, one is faced with a paucity of information and a real concern about what can legitimately be reconstructed about the anatomy and physiology, much less lifeways, of these creatures from 65+ million years ago with in most cases minimal and highly fragmented information; with ethnography, the researcher is generally overwhelmed with data, but with concerns about the effects of the researcher’s own prejudices and predilections on interpretations and even observations, and the reader is left with the task of attempting to discern the merits of the ethnographer’s text with no ability to engage in anything like laboratory replicability.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Pantheon, 2003, and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, Pantheon, 2004, both by Marjane Satrapi.

Although I’m no expert on the Middle East, much less Iran or Persian culture specifically, I’ve read quite a few books about Iran in recent years, several of them excellent, including Fredrik Barth’s minor class Nomads of South Persia (an ethnography from the 1950s), Michael Fischer’s Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (an ethnography written right after the revolution, and one of the more insightful accounts of it), and Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi’s Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution (another insightful account of the revolution focusing on the use of media technology by the revolutionaries).

Satrapi’s two volume graphic memoir (probably already familiar to fans of graphic novels and non-fiction, and recently made into a movie) is the one thing I’ve read, though, that gave me a sense of growing up and being in contemporary Iran (not that the memoir is confined to Iran alone – it also entails an account of Satrapi’s years in a European boarding school, for example).

Reading Satrapi’s memoir, as well as other graphic non-fiction, such as the various works of graphic journalist Joe Sacco, makes me wish I could draw. I don’t think any particular medium is the best way to write or present culture, but the form used here does have the unique ability to draw on the strength of the word and the image and to avoid to an extent some of the pitfalls of each, e.g. the way in which so much ethnography feels enervated, missing so much of the sensual reality of culture (though of course even here, the sounds, smells, and even colors [it’s in black and white drawing] are still missing), or the ambiguous quality of many images – lacking in context and conceptualization without commentary, yet coupled with an often overbearing sense of reality deriving from their visual impact.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

I may be one of the few cultural anthropologists who likes this book. Many cultural anthropologists have criticized this book, mostly as being geographically determinist (which is an incomplete charge at best, given the importance of the availability or absence of domesticated animals to societies in Diamond’s argument) or for reducing the highly various tapestry of cultural diversity to a simple narrative.

If you take Diamond’s account as a sufficient explanation of everything cultural, then it’s a disappointment, because it doesn’t do that, as if any theoretical framework could. Perhaps I’m overly charitable, or just plain wrong, but I don’t think Diamond claims to have explained everything in any case, but just to have laid out a set of arguments that explains much about human cultural history in general.

Insofar as Diamond draws our attention to factors many anthropologists might have otherwise not considered, such as the presence or absence of domesticated animals, directional orientation of trade and other cultural contact networks, or relative ease of transportation over long distances in different world areas, Diamond’s account is useful in making us aware of patterns that over long stretches of time have significant impact on the particular histories of specific societies.

Part of many anthropologists’ resistance to Diamond probably stems from the longstanding particularist bent of American cultural anthropology, the important emphasis on detail on cultural uniqueness, but also a sometimes corresponding resistance to identification of general patterns. (See Kerim’s post on the Savage Minds blog on this topic from about two months ago.)

Part of the resistance likely also stems from an academic turf-war mentality and a resistance to non-anthropologists poaching on anthropological territory. (There’s reason to be wary of the variety of sociobiologists, chaos theorists, meme theorists, economists, etc., who attempt to explain better than anthropologists the topics conventionally seen as anthropologists’ own. [If it makes any difference, Diamond, trained as a geneticist, is also poaching on geography’s turf.] Still, poaching doesn’t always make them wrong.)

There’s also a bit of internecine anthropological squabbling in disguise going on here. Though Diamond’s synthesis is highly readable and insightful, it is ultimately a synthesis of a lot of many scholars’ work from the previous few decades, notably William McNeill’s The Rise of the West, as well as Europe and the People without History by anthropology’s own Eric Wolf. I suspect a lot of the anthropological resistance to Diamond comes from anthropologists opposed to the more generalist approaches within the discipline, whether in the form of political economy, cultural materialism, or structuralism and their various progeny.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In The Long Run, Our Culture Has Good Taste

The continuing fascination with Britney Spears’ apparent meltdown. The success of pop songs like “My Humps” or “The Thong Song” (just to pick two from the past decade) or of movies like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo or Alvin and the Chipmunks (over $200 million at the domestic box office and counting).

There are also examples of pop culture in its various forms that are clearly (or at least debatably) high quality and that are popular. I’d never suggest that popularity is a sign of bad art (or bad or faddish scholarship), but at the same time, no one could accuse contemporary North American culture of having impeccably good taste. (I’ll leave aside for the moment issues of whether cultures can have taste – I’m really talking about the aggregate taste of millions of North American individuals. I’d also note that North America is by no means alone in having a fondness for a mixed bag of profound faire alongside tacky, or even godawful ephemera.)

People often have the impression that pop culture and the arts used to be better. This impression comes from the fact that in the long term, we actually have good taste, and this skews our memory of the past.

In contemporary society, whether you want to call it the society of late capitalism, the postmodern era, or something else, novelty is relentlessly marketed to all of us as consumers of popular culture and commodities generally. (And I think this basic argument applies as much outside North America as to North America.) Most of the novel things have very short shelf lives, momentarily amusing us or catching our eye, until something else does.

Objects of creative expression (and I would include scholarly expression as much as art here) that maintain the interest of many for very long, though highly various, tend to have objective qualities that reward repeated reflection and rumination (i.e. they’re actually at least somewhat profound) and that are not overly determined by the moment of their creation, allowing them to communicate across temporal contexts.

The art objects and scholarship that we continue to go back to over long periods of time are generally first rate stuff (though I’d leave room for exceptions – and it’s crucial to note that I’m not arguing that over time all instances of good art or scholarship come to be appreciated for what they are, but simply that creative expression that is appreciated over long periods of time is generally worthy of the appreciation).

We can have the impression that movies were better in the 1930s or 1940s because we mainly continue to watch and remember Casablanca or Citizen Kane, and compare them to the full range of good and schlocky movies being made today, forgetting about equally schlocky early movies like Gold Diggers of 1935 or Earthworm Tractors. We remember Frank Sinatra, but most don’t know, or have forgotten, a novelty song he sang with a singing dog, and most who do know about that have probably never actually heard it.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Susan Brown, Women, Men, and Agency

The following is something I wrote for the blog I keep for a course I teach, "Peoples and Cultures of the World." I wrote it in response to an in-class discussion I had with students, but I thought it might be interesting here, too:

In “Love Unites Them and Hunger Separates Them,” Susan Brown’s mid-1970s study of family organizational patterns and women’s agency in rural, impoverished sectors of the Dominican Republic (from the collection Toward an Anthropology of Women), Brown argues that many of the choices made by women regarding their households (such as to enter into serial monogamous relationships in a matrifocal household, rather than the more highly valued formal marriage) were not irrational or dysfunctional as they had often been represented by earlier (mostly male) scholars, but involved rational choices to make the best of things in the context of extreme poverty.

Men in this poverty sector don’t come off looking so good in Brown’s account. They seem mainly a lot of drinking, gambling, philandering, cock-fighting, macho lay-abouts. The main criticism I have of Brown here is the lack of a sense of proportion. We’re left with no sense of whether this description characterizes all, most, many, or few of the actual men. Still, it seems from the impressions of women and the choices they make that we’re talking about some sizeable number of men that could be so described, regardless of their proportion to the larger set of men in general.

Part of this pattern, which I’ll simply call “irresponsibility,” lacking a more convenient label, can no doubt be written down to the effects of coping with the physical and mental stresses of extreme poverty, and not always coping in the most functional way possible.

I’d like also to suggest, though, that, just as with Brown’s arguments that women are making choices that may seem superficially dysfunctional but are actually functional in the circumstances, despite the apparent and obvious dysfunctionality of much of what many of the men are doing, for at least some, there may be a rational and functional strategy at play.

It’s useful to keep in mind some of the dynamics of Latin American peasant communities. Eric Wolf described two basic types of Latin American peasant communities (as well as several other minor varieties): the closed and open peasant communities.

A closed peasant community is definitely not what we’re dealing with with Brown’s study community. Closed communities tend to occur in highly isolated areas, e.g. in rugged rural terrain in places like Mexico or Peru. While not completely isolated from regional market systems and state intervention (or else they’d be “subsistence farmers” and not “peasants”), they produce primarily for their own subsistence and tend to promote an ideology of social harmony and equality within the community (but see also the enormous literature focusing on such communities and relation between harmony ideology and practice, the idea of limited good and social equality and tension, etc.).

Open peasant communities, as the name suggests, are more “open,” specifically more open to regional, national, and even global economic networks. Making a living more often involves a combination of subsistence farming, small cash crop farming, and wage labor when it’s available. (With the irregularity of wage work typical in such contexts, many men are “shifty” in part because they must always be “shifting.”) Social inequality, and the open expression of it, is also more part of community life than in closed communities.

The route to upward mobility, even slight improvement of livelihood, is difficult, especially in an environment when, especially prior to Grameen Bank and the micro-loan experiment, access to external capital (to buy another plot of land to farm, to buy a truck, etc.) is generally absent.

The route to upward mobility, at the same time, is fairly clear for men – to cultivate loyalty among other men of the community so that one can draw on their labor (in capitalist terms, to be able to extract surplus value from their labor). How is this done? Largely through active socializing, buying drinks generously, and a variety of other “irresponsible” activities – a strategy that will inevitably fail for most, often at the price of deepening poverty, but that for a few is not only not a dysfunctional strategy, but one of the few that will pay off in expanded production and an enhanced standard of living.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Democracy of Creation and Taste (But not Quality)

I’m writing this post partly in response to a comment by the.effing.librarian to my earlier post, “On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring.” I decided to post this as a new post rather than a comment, in part because I had more to say than I’d usually want to stick in the comments section, and in part because while my thoughts here are prompted by the.effing.librarian’s comment, only part of what I have to say here directly responds to that comment.

The.effing.librarian writes that one of the important things that punk rock did was to make the point that anyone, regardless of talent or skill, could create, could be involved in the production of art or other creative expression.

I take this point and wholeheartedly agree with it (perhaps my only caveat with regard to punk rock would be to note that though most punk rock is pretty simple music and often sloppily played, most of the notable bands have not been as talentless as they’ve often presented themselves to be – the member of The Ramones or The Sex Pistols consistently played things recognizable as songs, hitting the right notes and chords most of the time).

As the.effing.librarian suggests, I appreciate this in part as a blogger myself. One of the wonderful things about the current online environment is that almost anyone with access to the basic technology (which unfortunately is not as many people around the world as would be ideal) can express what they have to say about things through a blog, on a MySpace page, in online discussion forums, etc.

In much of the world today, there is something like a democracy of creative expression, where most everyone can say what they want about whatever, even if some people are better able to have their voices heard and are more influential. In places where this doesn’t exist, I certainly wish it did and think it should.

More people should be more involved in more creative thought and expression in more forms more of the time.

This raises the related issue of taste and quality.

When it comes to taste or preference, there is a similarly democratic situation, reflected in clichés like “To each his own,” or “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Anyone is entitled to their own preferences, likes and dislikes. I find punk rock boring (even if as I earlier noted, I do find small doses of some punk rock entertaining), while other people love the stuff.

It doesn’t follow that the discernment of quality in creative expression is or should be equally a simple matter of democratic opinion. (Note: I’m not at all suggesting that the.effing.librarian is suggesting this. This, especially, is where my thoughts here were prompted by the comment but are independent of it. I have more in mind sentiments such as that expressed by the character Quagmire on a recent Family Guy episode in discussing a Robert Frost poem and in response to a book club member’s comment on his commentary that because it was poetry, he could think whatever he wanted.)

There’s no single way to evaluate the quality of art, but art and other instances of creative expression do have objective qualities – meaning that they are objects in the world with empirical qualities.

From this follows at least two things:

First, and more obviously, any interpretation that doesn’t systematically pertain to the objective qualities of the object in question (such as Quagmire’s) is no interpretation of the work. It may be a thought prompted by the object (much as most of this post was prompted by the.effing.librarian’s comment, but doesn’t pertain directly to it), and may be a legitimate and interesting thought in its own right, but isn’t an interpretation of the work (just as this post, except in a few places, isn’t a commentary on the.effing.librarian’s comment).

Second, the fact that there’s no single way to evaluate the relative quality of works of art, doesn’t mean that all creative expression is the equal of every other. (You don’t need talent or skill or knowledge to express yourself, but you generally need one or more of these to produce anything of high quality or sustainable interest.) We need criteria for the evaluation of quality, and such criteria are various, but once we have criteria in hand, we can and do make important distinctions between quality.

If we compare Beethoven’s Symphony # 9 or Mozart’s Requiem with the Ramones’ “I wanna be sedated” or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” by most criteria, whether originality, synthesis of complex themes, etc., the Beethoven and Mozart are of higher quality, even if you prefer the punk songs. There may be criteria on which the punk songs rate higher, e.g. reduction of music to its minimal components (though here, John Cage’s aleatory music, free jazz, some serial music, or the music of the band “Suicide” mentioned by David Thole in a comment to the earlier post on punk rock would rate higher still).

The important thing is that criteria pertain to the real sensible qualities of the objects at hand, and that an important democratization of expression and preference not override or destroy a discernment of the qualities of creative expressions in themselves.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Identity Politics and Faculty-Graduate Student Relationships

A short while back (a couple months ago if memory serves correctly – which it may or may not), there was a nice section of essays written by anthropology graduate students on the topic of graduate student – faculty relationships published in Anthropology News.

There was one sentence in one of the essays that particularly struck me. (I won’t say which essay, in part because as is typically the case, once I had finished reading the issue, I left it in my department for someone else to pick up and read, and as a result I don’t have it in front of me, and in part because it seems nasty to me to single out a graduate student as if for attack – not really my intent anyway – on the basis of one sentence out of an otherwise nice essay – and in any case, my reactions are more to the sentiment expressed there, which I’ve encountered among other students, too, while the rest of the essay seemed more original or unique in its content.) The sentence basically argued that faculty can’t really understand or fully relate to graduate students because they’re not in the structural position of being graduate students.

Even though I discarded the copy of the issue, I’ve kept mentally coming back to that statement since. I have three sorts of reactions to the sentiment expressed in it.

1. My initial and immediate reaction (and one I still hold, though it’s no longer my sole reaction) was to think something along the lines of, “That’s ridiculous. Of course, faculty can relate to graduate students.” One thing virtually all faculty have in common is that we’ve been graduate students. Many, if not most, faculty can relate to the experiences of current graduate students because we had similar experiences when we were graduate students. And if (a big “if”) understanding or relateability derive from experience of a structural position, faculty are in an ideal position to understand graduate students, even if the reverse is not true, at least not most of the time (I add this last qualification, because part of the experience of graduate school is often the gaining of things like “teaching experience” by partially occupying the position of “faculty member” – the division between graduate student and faculty is more of a graded continuum than a clear and absolute line).

2. My second reaction is that this is a strange position for an anthropologist to take. If direct experience in occupying a particular social position or structural position is a prerequisite for understanding or relating, then the discipline is in serious trouble (and there are many who think it is for many reasons, with a long line going back at least several decades at this point of worrying [or anticipating] that the discipline of anthropology is immanently going to fly apart, implode, disintegrate, deteriorate, or otherwise have big troubles).

If we take the sentiment that faculty can’t relate to or understand graduate students and extend it logically at all, we might wonder how graduate students might relate to one another – they don’t occupy the same exact positions and have the same exact experiences, or indeed how we might really understand anyone at all – a longstanding and still significant philosophical question. If we take philosophy and psychoanalysis at all seriously (and I do – at least much of the time), we might, even must, conclude that we don’t really understand or relate to our selves.

All of this is true, though in a sense operationally and pragmatically false – no one who functions in the world operates as if it is true. Put another way, this is to confuse total understanding with understanding at all, total relateability with ability to relate at all. In pragmatic terms at least, most of us relate to ourselves at least tolerably well; we relate to and understand those around us not absolutely but well enough to function almost as if we did; ethnographers understand something, even much, about their research subjects’ lives without, and without need of, total understanding.

3. I think what the student might have meant was that faculty members might not be able to relate to students in the here and now because being a grad student here and now is different from faculty member’s past and usually spatially/institutionally different experiences.

I often can relate quite well to my students, but it might be provisionally wise to proceed as if my first reaction is not true, and to attempt to relate to graduate students in the same way that anthropologists attempt to relate to research subjects – to stop, look and listen carefully.

Structural positioning doesn’t determine consciousness, experience, or actions deterministically, but it does matter, and my students don’t have the same experiences as I did as a student. Like a lot of scholars, I had experience in more than one graduate institution, in my case earning degrees from one quite large state university (the University of Georgia) and one medium-to-large private institution with lots of money (Cornell University). In some ways, my grad student experiences parallel those of the students I now work with – there are certain commonalities to the grad student experience the characterize most institutions of higher education – but teaching at a mid-size regional state university (the University of West Florida) with much less student funding available than at the graduate institutions I attended (just to identify one, albeit an important, variable – student funding), the students I work with in some ways have very different experiences and concerns than I did as a student.

That is, just as I do think the student writer was incorrect in arguing that faculty can’t relate to or understand graduate students (understanding or relating doesn’t depend on experience of the same exact structural positioning, and in fact in any case faculty have had structural experience as graduate students), having occupied a social structural position or having had experience of a particular identity category (in this case “faculty” or “student,” but the point could apply to identity categories and politics generally) doesn’t translate into automatic or necessarily easy understanding of others occupying the category.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An Interesting Piece on Race in Barbados

I just encountered an interesting discussion of “Race/Colour in Barbados” on the blog What Crazy Looks Like.

The epigraphic quotation from Rihanna, “I was bullied at school for being white…Now I’m in a much bigger world,” was fascinating to me largely in clearly illustrating a fundamental difference in the social organization of race in the U.S. and in the Caribbean, for “being white” is one of the last things Rihanna would be likely taken to be in the U.S.

At the same time, the following quotation from the blog post is a useful set of statements about race anywhere in the Americas, even while the particular details that are relevant in any given place will vary:

“Even when we remind ourselves of just how fluid and contested race is we fail to reveal that race is in itself a fiction.
When we refuse to see the difference between historical racial privilege and racial slurs we foreclose on any opportunity to dismantle the fiction of race.
And when we recognise race as constructed we refuse to see its construction does not make it any less ‘real’.”

Friday, February 8, 2008

On Why Punk Rock Is So Boring

I don’t hate Punk Rock.

I don’t even actively dislike most of it.

I’m sometimes momentarily amused by Ramones’ songs like “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” “I wanna be sedated,” or even “The KKK took my baby away.”

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I was quite amused by Agent Orange’s deconstruction of surf rock (I didn’t actually think of it in terms of “deconstruction” though I think I thought of it in terms not incongruent with deconstructionism).

Mostly I’m terribly bored by most examples of punk rock. The one band that’s sometimes lumped in with the punk label that I’ve consistently liked over the years is The Clash, a band not really fitting the genre, and certainly not confined to it. The other main icons of punk, The Sex Pistols, have always struck me as a snot-nosed, put-together boy band that didn’t even have the virtue of cuteness – and they’ve struck me that way because that’s what they were.

Earlier today I was having a nice conversation about music with my good friend Jonathan Means. We began talking about historic concerts. I decided that if I could have been at one concert ever, I would have liked to have been there for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

I remembered having watched a documentary in honor of the 40th anniversary of the festival last year on VH1. Some of the most interesting footage was of the audience reactions to The Who and to The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

There had been some buzz about both groups among rock insiders in the U.S., but aside from those who had seen them in London, no one in the U.S. had yet seen or heard these two bands when they came on stage in Monterey.

As The Who’s set came toward an end, and guitars began to be smashed and drum kit demolished (ridiculously cliché now, but totally new then), many in the audience appear in a state of shock and fear, unsure whether they’re seeing an act or whether the high-energy band they’ve just seen and heard has gone bonkers. (The only filmed reactions I’ve seen that are similar can be found in the anthropological documentary First Contact, specifically footage of interior Papuans encountering a landing airplane up close for the first time in the 1930s. The degree of apparent shock and fear is more extreme in the First Contact footage, but not dissimilar in appearance.)

The Who were the ultimate manifestation of the Chuck Berry vein of rock and roll. Musically, they rehashed and developed anything left to develop in the Johnny B. Goode variety of hopped-up blues progression based rock and roll, and so were “ultimate” partly in the sense of the end of a line of development. Visually, The Who were the apotheosis of the raucous or “raw” energy so often associated with rock and roll.

Then Jimi Hendrix strode on stage with something completely different, a different rock sound (and if The Who were one of the last to play older style rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix was one of the first to play a musically different rock, largely referred to without the “and roll”). He was, of course, visually stunning as well, playing guitar behind his back, with his teeth, symbolically ejaculating on his guitar with lighter fluid and lighting it, and all the while sounding good. The audience reactions are again telling – a different reaction, not so much shock or fear as looks of wonder or bafflement.

Then the Mamas and Papas came onstage for one of the stranger denouements ever.

In any case, after Hendrix came along, rock was different. Not that he single-handedly changed everything, though he was a major influence on a variety of rock musicians and even Mile Davis in his creation of fusion, but he did present one new way of playing for a musical genre in need of new ideas.

What tends to bore me most about most punk is its intrinsically conservative quality – not that those who played it or who like it are conservative people, but that it’s musically conservative. Musically, most punk songs are a rehash of The Who’s rehashing of Chuck Berry, just sloppily played. In visual style, most punk is again a rehash of The Who and similar bands who acted out aggression and “raw energy.” Mostly punk trafficked in tropes of rebelliousness (with the fact that many punks self-consciously parodied this about themselves not making it any less true), though I would give punk credit for the introduction of at least two new tropes of rebelliousness, Mohawk haircuts and safety pins used as piercings.

Punk Rock was a genre of reduction, subversion, and negation. Those are fine tools, but as tropes or ends in themselves, they’re meaningless. If punk did help subvert prog rock to bring its over-seriousness and pomposity down a notch in the mid-1970s, that was a good thing, but mostly it seemed to consist of reducing rock to its minimal elements, badly played at that, something actually pretty old hat by then. For many, punk simply provided the tropes of rebellion or subversion, while not really doing anything new – musically much less politically.

What music isn’t boring? Music that works positively, not in the sense of “Shiny, Happy People,” but in the sense of producing something new, even if on a modest scale.

From the early 20th century Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, engaging in new rhythmic uses for the full orchestra, or the 1920s recordings of Louis Armstrong on songs like “West End Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” or “Heebie Jeebies,” staking out both a new way to improvise within small band ensembles and a new form of popular singing are prime examples of positively-working non-boring music.

More contemporary with punk, and within the broad purview or rock, there’s Hendrix whom I already mentioned, or a bit later, the guitar style of Eddie Van Halen, which like it or not, produced a new sound and new way of playing the electric guitar (put to best use, in my opinion, on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” where Van Halen’s more restrained than normal playing is impressive enough while hinting at a sort of pent up but boundless energy). The speed metal of groups like Metallica and Slayer beginning in the early 1980s, like it or not, represented a new way of playing rock, that was if anything more akin to Stravinsky’s Rite than other ways of playing rock in using the entire band to focus nearly exclusively on the exploration of rhythm.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Central Tendency Measurement and Non-Enumerative Data

As I suggested in my previous post, statistical measures and concepts are one set of analytical tools that can be useful for a variety of research purposes. This can even be true with regard to research on phenomena that, while quantifiable (all phenomena have quantity), are difficult or impossible to measure in a highly enumerated fashion. (Take the example of kinship. One could measure the presence or absence of matrilineality. One could count up the number of households or family groups practicing matrilineality in a given community. One could assess in rough terms whether filiation is strongly or weakly matrilineal. It’s difficult to imagine how one would precisely measure matrilineality on a numerical scale, though.)

One important statistical concept is that of central tendency, and central tendency measures can be usefully applied to a variety of quantities, including some non-enumerable entities.

For example, in his textbook Traditional Cultures, Glenn King uses the notion of modal patterns as a central measure of broad cultural patterns for a variety of world areas. This is not a “normative” approach to the representation of cultures and culture areas in the sense of presenting universal patterns that inevitably essentialize and homogenize the areas in question. Instead, King is careful to point out the identification of a modal pattern simply means to identify for any particular component of culture the pattern that is more common than any other for the spatial frame of reference at hand, and that almost by definition, to speak of modal patterns is to recognize that there will be exceptions, perhaps copious exceptions, to the identified central tendency.

The mode is a particularly useful central tendency measure for phenomena that are hard or impossible to enumerate. Take kinship again. One could say (and King’s textbook does) that among Eastern Native North Americans prior to European contact, matrilineality was the modal pattern, and that’s a useful piece of information. On the other hand, with this and much other information anthropologists are interested in, I’m not sure how one would usefully apply other central tendency measures – so I’m definitely not arguing for over-statisticalization of the discipline. For example, what would a mean or median kinship system be? (I suppose one could take possible rough measures of degree of filiation, rank them on an arbitrary scale, e.g. 1= strong patrilineal filiation, 2= weak patrilineal filiation, 3=bilateral or bilineal filiation, 4= weak matrilineal filiation, 5=strong matrilineal filiation, and collect mean or median tendencies on that basis, but that strikes me as exceedingly artificial and I’m at a loss to imagine the use for such figures.)

Even in cases where statistical concepts and measures (whether in basic terms as I’ve been discussing or through the use of more complex analyses and tests) are useful, scholarship remains simultaneously intrinsically qualitative.

To assess modal tendencies is to first define what entities are to be assessed as present or not and counted. With something like kinship, different tendencies could potentially be measured depending on whether one focused on individuals, households, or families (with those last two needing careful definition in research planning and interpretation as well). To create a hypothetical situation, I could imagine that many Iroquois communities experienced transformations in the early 19th century, through influence of things like religious conversion and revitalization, inter-marriage with Anglos, the encroachment of white settlers, etc., where within communities there may have been co-presence of many small bilaterally-trending neolocal households alongside a small number of large matrilineal matrilocal households. In some communities at certain points of time, there may have been no clear modal pattern – or rather multiple modal patterns might have co-existed. For example, the modal household may have been small and neolocal, while the modal individual may have lived in a large matrilocal household. For such a purely hypothetical context, both would be important measures that would depend on attention to qualitative details in order to be assessable.

Lastly, I am arguing for transcendence of the false qualitative/quantitative divide in social science and humanities research. I’m also arguing that as part of this statistical concepts and analysis can provide one set of tools for many research purposes, including with data that are not particularly amenable to enumeration.

I’m not arguing at all that statistics are the answer to everything. As with any task, the proper analytical tools to use depend on the task at hand. Something statistics are the wrong tool, and sometimes it’s overkill.