Reflections on the AAA, Part 1: On Speculative Anthropology

Editor’s note: This year, two of our people (the Linguistic One and the Cultural One) went to the American Anthropology Association’s Annual Meeting in San Jose, California. This is an optimistically titled “Part 1″ of their reflections on the conference, since they are undoubtedly returning to their ‘”real” lives as we speak and staring at the pile of grading that did not magically diminish while they were otherwise occupied learning new things, sharing their own work, and meeting with old and new colleagues and collaborators. 

A few days before I left for San Jose, members of the AAA got what was honestly a very surprising email announcing a special guest lecture that about five hundred people would be able to attend. Tickets were free, but were scooped up within a few hours of this announcement, because while we are used to getting excited about academic rock stars, it is pretty rare for someone who is truly famous in the rest of the world to connect to such an event.

The guest was George Lucas, and the near universal reaction to this announcement was…wait, what? What does Lucas have to do with anthropology? (An alternative

DsAF7hcUcAA7HW2
A less-than-spectacular photo proving that George Lucas did indeed have a conversation with Deborah Thomas, editor of American Anthropologist, and that I watched from a balcony seat.

reaction was recounted to me by a colleague, who had a graduate student ask her about the famous anthropologist George Lucas and what he worked on, because the only George Lucas he could think of was “the Star Wars guy”, and that didn’t make any sense). Well, Lucas studied anthropology in college, before finding his way into filmmaking somewhat, as he tells it, by accident. The themes he explores in his films are, in some ways, rooted in what he learned in that context – most famously, the theory of mythical journeys associated with Joseph Campbell, and the imagining of the archaeologist as hero-adventurer, but also the ethnographic lens that he took in American Graffiti, which documents what he then saw as a disappearing rite-of-passage in American life. The event was billed as a way of thinking about storytelling in anthropology in discussion with a “Master Storyteller”.

So how did that turn out? Well….not great, honestly. Lucas was never trying to be an anthropologist, or to be rigorous in thinking through anthropological ideas, or, of course, to stay current within anthropology. He made quite a few references to “primitive” cultures, and invoked a general view of the “universal journey” that was a) highly masculine (as Campbell is known to be) and b) …not actually universal at all. While some praised the moderator, Deborah Thomas, for navigating his problematic highly offensive statements (seriously, there were audible winces a few times), I myself felt a bit frustrated as she continually turned the discussion back to asking him to comment on anthropology. The thing is, no one in that audience had anything to learn about anthropology from George Lucas. He was in his element talking about stories, and about his educational outreach initiatives with the new Museum of Narrative Arts. For me, the most interesting recurring theme was about the twelve-year-old as the site of imaginative potential. There was a thoughtfulness about the idea of coming-of-age (though not at all based on actual knowledge of coming of age rituals around the world), human creative potential, and hope, that was quite beautiful. But even that was undermined by his “encouragement'” of anthropology as, essentially, a really good way to learn to do market research (which, ok, it can be), and eye-rolling at “ivory tower” academics who refuse to admit that the “real world” is all about capitalist wealth accumulation. It is quite something, as a group that includes many people who try, however imperfectly, to walk with and understand a huge range of human experiences, including severe economic and political marginalization, to be lectured by a kajillionaire about being “out of touch”. Applauding when Lucas was given a lifetime membership in the AAA – when an annual one is difficult to afford for many active, passionate, graduate student and precariously employed anthropologists – left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

At the conference itself, I attended a panel that presented an interesting counterpoint to the talk by Lucas. After the death of author Ursula K. LeGuin earlier this year, linguistic anthropologist Bernard Perley organized a series of talks reflecting on her work and its anthropological legacy/roots. LeGuin was the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, a foundational figure in North American anthropology (which, as one of the panelists noted, is not necessarily reported as a compliment, given the colonial roots of our discipline), and she was raised in a world steeped in anthropology. The speakers on this panel were diverse, both in terms of their identities and their anthropological specialties. They talked about different aspects of LeGuin’s stories, sometimes positively, sometimes critically, but always with an eye to how she used her fiction as a kind of (what she called) speculative anthropology. How do we understand our own world through the lens of another one? How do we move as ethnographers through characters like Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness, or the narrator in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas? How do we understand ourselves as sharing responsibility for the stories that shape our world, and what do we owe to the peoples whose stories have been colonized by others?

There were reflections, through these lenses, of both the limitations of LeGuin’s imagined worlds (rereading The Left Hand of Darkness in the context of teaching Language & Gender, Jocelyn Ahlers analyzed how gender markings actually crept in, in ways she hadn’t seen previously – as LeGuin herself also conceded a few decades after writing it, at least with respect to the “generic he” pronoun) and of anthropology (archaeologist Lee Bloch used the journey of The Dispossessed to ask provocative questions about the techno-scape of the temporal paradigms on which the field relies, and the colonial logic of these frames in themselves). There was engagement with the contemporary political moment and how examination of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas – always a challenging story – resonates in a time and country in which children in cages is not even a little bit metaphorical.

It was interesting to me to contrast these two different genre of anthropological conversation with two different creative minds’ uses of an anthropological imaginary. At its best, anthropology allows us to see universality refracted across radical difference. At its worst it tries to reduce that difference into a universalizing narrative of progress and improvement. I left California with a desire to imagine more, and in their own way, both these discussions are helping me to do that.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s