Sunday, July 5, 2015

Disgorging books

The ceiling of our bedroom slants downward with the pitch of the roof, and creates a triangle of de facto storage space behind the bed's high headboard.  I'm clearing out some of the stuff, including boxes of books.

When you're an academic, you keep a great many books, not because they have something to teach you, but because they offer up analyses that you can argue with or they represent people you can cite in your bibliography - whether or not they were useful to you in the end.  Now that I'm not in academia, those books are easy to let go.

I also have too many anthropology books - the publishers give them to you when you're teaching in hopes that you'll assign them in your classes.  Some I've read or skimmed - many more I haven't.  I've hung onto them, but come to realize that I simply don't read much if any anthropology anymore.  I came to feel that anthropology wasn't trying to teach me anything that I didn't already know - that it had fallen into a rut in which myriad richness of detail was mustered toward the same old arguments:

The argument is some variation on the notion that power acts on people's lives - in that people's lives are circumscribed the actions of the more powerful.  Equally true is that power is creatively evaded in that people are actively managing the system to do some approximation of what they want to do.  And the official stories (ideologies, histories, sciences, journalisms, myths) of the powerful never tell the full tale of what is actually happening in this collision.  Anthropologists for the most part step in to tell this underlying, untold story.

But anthropologists mostly translate their important insights into an academical jargon - a language of the powerful.   That is, after all, the coin of the academy.

I still think anthropology has a more accurate understanding of human beings than other disciplines, but I'm no longer so interested in fitting those insights into academic writing and reading.  First of all, it seems a way to avoid helping the people you are supposedly listening to and speaking for.  (Though in fact, every anthropologist I know does help the people they work with - though it often has little to do with what they publish.)

Second of all, if we were to  come up with another truly useful concept - like Gramsci's hegemony, Goffman's total institution, or Freire's  banking model of education - what use would that be put to?  It's customary to complain that anthropologists are ignored when it comes to policy, but the goals of much policy making these days is to suit the powerful.  In fact, people wonder why Americans haven't taken to the streets.  In my more paranoid moments, I think it is entirely possible that an increasing subtlety and sophistication of "soft power" is in part a result of our academic studies of power - being used toward ends opposite of what ethnographers and others hoped.

In my less paranoid moments, I see a spectacle of bread and circus and fear-mongering that would be familiar to despots throughout the ages - and I know there's no real mystery about our complacency.