A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘anthropology

[WRITING] “Fast Writing: Ethnography in the Digital Age”

leave a comment »

Savage Minds features an essay by Yarimar Bonilla that takes a look at th interesting question of how to write texts of enduring relevance at speed.

In a recent contribution to this writers’ series, Michael Lambek offered some reflections on the virtues of “slow reading.” In an era of rapid-fire online communication, when images increasingly substitute for text, Lambek argues we would be well served to revel in the quiet interiority and reflective subjectivity made possible by long-form reading.

In this post I would like to think more carefully about this claim and to consider whether we might want to make a similar argument regarding the shifting pace of academic writing. If, as Lambek and others suggest, the temporality of reading has been altered by the digital age, can the same be said for research and writing? How have new digital tools, platforms, and shifts in technological access transformed the temporality of ethnographic writing, and is this something we necessarily wish to slow down?

I recently had occasion to experiment with sped-up academic pacing when offered the opportunity to contribute a piece to American Ethnologist about the protests surrounding the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In brainstorming our article, my co-author Jonathan Rosa and I asked ourselves hard questions about what we could contribute to the unfolding discussion about Ferguson. Both of us had produced academic “slow writing”— the product of years of careful research, analysis, drafting and editing. We had also engaged in some forms of “fast writing.” For example, I had published journalistic pieces on social movements in Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe. But these pieces focused on events not being covered in the mainstream media and for which informed journalism was necessary. The same could not be said of Ferguson. Despite an initial lag in journalistic coverage, by the time we were drafting our article, Ferguson had reached a point of media saturation, indeed it had become a challenge to keep apace with the numerous thought pieces and editorial columns emerging at a feverish pace during this time.

In plotting our article we thus asked ourselves: how can we contribute to this fast moving conversation while still producing a piece that might hold up over time? That is, how could we produce something fast but not ephemeral?

The result was an exercise in mid-tempo research and writing. It was not the product of long-sustained fieldwork, and was very much written “in the heat of the moment,” but it nonetheless tried to anticipate how anthropologists might look back on Ferguson over time—how they might use this event to teach and write about broader issues of racialization, longer histories of race-based violence, the racial politics of social media, and the shifting terrain of contemporary activism.

This process forced us to think about the challenges of being not just fast writers but fast ethnographers. How can we speak to fast moving stories while still retaining the contextualization, historical perspective, and attention to individual experiences characteristic of a fieldworker? Also, how can we engage with emerging digital platforms like Twitter with the comparative and ethnographic perspective characteristic of our discipline?

Written by Randy McDonald

March 31, 2015 at 7:34 pm

[LINK] “Can’t Get There from Here? Writing Place and Moving Narratives”

leave a comment »

Savage Minds hosts an essay by anthropologist Sarah Besky talking about the importance of the ethnographic writer’s awareness of place and movement.

Why should we care about how (or whether) one can “get there from here”? Perhaps because, as Kirin Narayan reminds us, “Reading transports us.” She frames the project of writing place with a question: “How do ethnographers enhance this journey so that readers glean facts about a place and something of the feel of being there?”

The “arrival trope” is, of course, the most common of ethnographic devices. I have one. You probably do, too. But the arrival trope has been rightly criticized for fetishizing the state of finally being somewhere (else), ready to begin anthropological fieldwork. We probably all recall Malinowski’s directive to “Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight.”

This impulse to recount arrivals speaks to the fact that ethnographic narratives are at heart concerned with movement—from place to place.

The primary means by which I move from place to place, both in the field and closer to home, is walking. When I work in Kolkata, the act of winding my way through pedestrian congestion, in and out of markets, and through that city’s metro, is a constant sensorial overload. When I write about Kolkata or Darjeeling, I use the local equivalents of the “wicked huge Radio Shack” to draw readers into these movements—and importantly the sensations of these movements. As Alex Nading has argued, “trailing” the movements of people and other creatures can be a way of carrying place seamlessly from fieldwork into narrative.

When I write about place, then, I close my eyes and re-imagine walking. This is less visualization exercise and more constructive daydreaming. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do I get there from here? How many Dunkin Donuts (or their Himalayan or Kolkatan analogues) do I pass on the way? I find that on my first couple of drafts, these descriptions are way overwritten, but with more editing, place starts to tighten, and even serve to bolster historical and theoretical elements of books and articles as well.

Wonderful writing on writing, this.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 26, 2015 at 10:36 pm

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links

leave a comment »

  • Gerry Canavan produces his own compendium of interesting links.
  • Centauri Dreams speculates about the colours indicative of extraterrestrial life, and ecologies.
  • Crooked Timber takes a look at Northern Ireland and the legacies of past violence.
  • The Dragon’s Tales reports on a hominid fossil that may indicate a much greater diversity in our ancestral gene pool than we thought.
  • A Fistful of Euros’ Edward Hugh wonders when the European Central Bank will start to taper interest rates.
  • The Frailest Thing warns that the promises of tech giants to free people from the shackles of the past should be seen critically.
  • On St. Patrick’s Day, Joe. My. God. and Michael in Norfolk both note the extent to which attitudes towards GLBT people in Ireland have changed.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money wonders about the good sense of going off of anti-depressants.
  • Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen proclaims Scarborough to be one of the world’s best food cities.
  • Savage Minds makes the case for anthropologists to aid the post-cyclone people of Vanuatu.
  • Spacing interviews the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair on urban issues.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy’s David Bernstein is unhappy at the consequences for Israel of Netanyahu’s reelection, while Lawyers, Guns and Money looks at income disparities in Israel.
  • Window on Eurasia argues that high inequality and low social mobility in Russia will doom the country, notes the potential for water-driven conflict in Central Asia, and notes Russian interest in acquiring more slots of Muslim pilgrims after Crimea’s annexation.

[URBAN NOTE] “Why Do Severed Goat Heads Keep Turning Up in Brooklyn?”

leave a comment »

New York Magazine‘s Adrian Chen takes a look at the phenomenon described in the title. The goat heads may, or may not, have connections to any number of Latin American and Caribbean folk religions. Chen’s engrossing investigation on the ground is fascinating journalistic ethnography.

At the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in Brooklyn, the heart of Park Slope’s tree-lined prosperity abruptly gives way to grittier windswept blocks that march south to Sunset Park and west to the Gowanus Canal. Trucks and cars speed down Ninth Street as dusty construction workers, sharply dressed professionals, nannies with strollers, and roughhousing teens hustle across Fifth Avenue, all on their way to somewhere else. Perhaps this neither-here-nor-there-ness explains why two skinned goat heads that appeared without explanation above the intersection last November remained there for days. The heads were tied together at the base of the skull with twine and slung over a light pole on the intersection’s northeast corner. After at least four days, an employee from a nearby car service knocked the goat heads down with a pole and threw them in a garbage can.

Or maybe the sluggish reaction to the Park Slope goat heads signals the extent to which such discoveries have become a routine occurrence in the area. Severed goat heads keep turning up in nearby Prospect Park. Last year alone, readers sent the blog Gothamist photographic evidence of three goat heads found in the park. (In all of these cases, the goat heads had their skin still attached.) Gothamist seems to be experiencing something like goat-head fatigue, judging from the increasingly nonchalant tone of its goat-head coverage. Pretty soon it will probably take a cow head to get them excited. “It’s New York,” one spectacularly unimpressed passerby told DNAinfo. “I’ve seen the towers come down, so beyond that, nothing really stings that bad.”

But while repeated exposure to goat heads may have inured some local residents, others have sensed an unsettling trend. Many news reports about the Park Slope goat heads suggested a dark link to the goat heads discovered in Prospect Park. “Residents have questioned whether the incidents could be connected to religious animal sacrifice,” The Wall Street Journal wrote. The specter of Santería was invoked. The Drudge Report picked up the story. The goat heads went global. As I read all this in my apartment a few blocks from the site of the hanging goat heads, I was riveted. A mysterious flood of goat heads is the only interesting thing that has happened in Park Slope since I moved to the neighborhood three years ago. Yes, the rush to blame a little-understood religion practiced largely by immigrants smacked a bit of lazy xenophobia, but the idea of Park Slope as a hotbed of animal sacrifice, in addition to child-friendly bars, was undeniably intriguing. In a city where everyday occurrences are casually weighed against the events of September 11, 2001, it was shocking to find that so many of my neighbors and I were actually shocked. The goat heads seemed to rear out of some shadow New York City that was even gnarlier than the pre-Guiliani version I’d seen in the movies, and at the edge of Brooklyn’s most thoroughly gentrified neighborhood, to boot. When New York asked me to investigate the goat heads, I leapt at the chance. I wanted to see if the world they hinted at lived up to the hype.

I quickly learned that any answers would not be forthcoming from official channels. The NYPD opened an investigation into the hanging goat heads back in November, but a public information officer with Park Slope’s 78th Precinct informed me that “no further information has been found out.” A spokesman for the Prospect Park Alliance said, “I don’t think anyone in the park is going to have that much to say about it.” A FOIL request I filed with the New York City Parks and Recreation Department (for “all records related to reports of decapitated animal corpses and animal heads found in New York City parks between the years 2010–2014”) didn’t seem to be at the top of their list of priorities.

[LINK] “The Ecology of What We Write”

leave a comment »

Savage Minds features Anand Pandian’s essay arguing that writing is necessarily embedded in the dynamic environment of the writer.

One day last summer, a caterpillar dropped from the rim of my desktop monitor. A peculiar little creature—no more than an inch long, clothed in a jacket of wispy white, a jaunty pair of lashes suspended well behind a tiny black head.

The visitation was unexpected. It’s not as though I work in a natural wonderland. The walls of this office are made of painted cinderblock. The window is fixed firmly in place, completely sealed from the outside. Peculiar odors sometimes drift from the vent above my desk, possibly from the labs upstairs.

The caterpillar seemed unhappy with the windowsill, where I placed it for a closer look. So I scooped up the errant traveler and stepped outside the building, wondering, for a moment, whether there was anything more palatable in the turfgrass. Then I went back to writing, back to whatever I could forage for my monitor that day.

We tend to think of writing as a lonely task. “The life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation,” Annie Dillard writes. “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.”

There is, no doubt, a limpid truth to so much of her prose. But this, though, how could it be? Whether Dillard’s Venetian blinds slatted against the vista of a graveled rooftop, or some other more porous and inviting space, writing always happens in a sensible world of sounds and textures, an atmosphere of tangible things and diaphanous beings.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 3, 2015 at 11:21 pm

[LINK] “Real Paleo Diet: Early Hominids Ate Just About Everything”

leave a comment »

At IFL Science, Ken Sayers notes that, far from cleaving to the paleo diet in vogue now, early hominids have a diverse omnivorous diet.

Reconstructions of human evolution are prone to simple, overly-tidy scenarios. Our ancestors, for example, stood on two legs to look over tall grass, or began to speak because, well, they finally had something to say. Like much of our understanding of early hominid behavior, the imagined diet of our ancestors has also been over-simplified.

Take the trendy Paleo Diet which draws inspiration from how people lived during the Paleolithic or Stone Age that ran from roughly 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago. It encourages practitioners to give up the fruits of modern culinary progress – such as dairy, agricultural products and processed foods – and start living a pseudo-hunter-gatherer lifestyle, something like Lon Chaney Jr. in the film One Million BC. Adherents recommend a very specific “ancestral” menu, replete with certain percentages of energy from carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and suggested levels of physical activity. These prescriptions are drawn mainly from observations of modern humans who live at least a partial hunter-gatherer existence.

But from a scientific standpoint, these kinds of simple characterizations of our ancestors’ behavior generally don’t add up. Recently, fellow anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy and I took a close look at this crucial question in human behavioral evolution: the origins of hominid diet. We focused on the earliest phase of hominid evolution from roughly 6 to 1.6 million years ago, both before and after the first use of modified stone tools. This time frame includes, in order of appearance, the hominids Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, and the earliest members of our own genus, the comparatively brainy Homo. None of these were modern humans, which appeared much later, but rather our distant forerunners.

We examined the fossil, chemical and archaeological evidence, and also closely considered the foraging behavior of living animals. Why is this crucial? Observing animals in nature for even an hour will provide a ready answer: almost all of what an organism does on a daily basis is simply related to staying alive; that includes activities such as feeding, avoiding predators and setting itself up to reproduce. That’s the evolutionary way.

[. . .]

Researchers Tom Hatley and John Kappelman noted in 1980 that hominids have bunodont – low, with rounded cusps – back teeth that show much in common with bears and pigs. If you’ve watched these animals forage, you know they’ll eat just about anything: tubers, fruits, leafy materials and twigs, invertebrates, honey and vertebrate animals, whether scavenged or hunted. The percentage contribution of each food type to the diet will depend (you guessed it) on the energetic value of specific foods in specific habitats, at specific times of year. Evidence from the entirety of human evolution suggests that our ancestors, and even we as modern humans, are just as omnivorous.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 2, 2015 at 10:18 pm

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links

  • The Broadside Blog’s Caitlin Kelly talks about the good and the bad of freelancing.
  • Centauri Dreams wonders about the technical issues associated with the Encyclopedia Galactica.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper speculating on how Jupiter would appear if it was an exoplanet.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes a paper examining the tumultuous planetological history of Venus.
  • A Fistful of Euros argues that Cyprus’ engagement with the Euro has been marked by the government’s willingness to hide shady behaviour at all costs.
  • Joe. My. God. notes the death of out 60s pop icon Lesley Gore.
  • Language Hat deservedly celebrates its author’s return to health and blogging.
  • Languages of the World’s Asya Perelstvaig notes that sdhe has an online course on languages available.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money looks at the lessons of Uruguay’s José Mujica for the left, and suggests that putting populists on pedestals is a losing strategy.
  • The Map Room’s Jonathan Crowe approves of the recent book Unruly Places.
  • Marginal Revolution shares a revisionist take on the 1943 Bengal famine.
  • Personal Reflections’ Jim Belshaw considers the role of community gardens in modern-day Australia.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer wonders if Grexit will be triggered over so little.
  • Savage Minds shares tips on better writing for students of the social sciences (and all people, really).
  • Window on Eurasia notes the shattering of the post-Soviet space, suggests further advances into Ukraine are unlikely, argues that Lithuania would be much more likely to face conventional aggression than Estonia or Latvia, and notes Russia’s outlook to the European far left as well as the far right.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 418 other followers