Friday, May 27, 2016

New (and Not-So-New) Endeavors, or "What is Cultural Sustainability?"

This September, my wife and I - and our baby girl, coming this summer - will pack up and head for California, where I will be getting my PhD in anthropology at UC Davis. I'm very excited about this for several reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity to work with some incredible faculty, including Marisol de la Cadena, whose work has been profoundly energizing for me over the last couple of years. This new endeavor will likely lead to more regular additions to this blog and lend some legitimacy to its name. While anthropology has been the disciplinary context of my work and research interests all along, I do not actually have a degree in anthro. My BA from Penn State is in Letters, Arts, and Sciences, and my MA from Goucher College is in Cultural Sustainability. In a sense, my academic journey has taken me from a very broad range of studies to a somewhat narrow discourse among sociocultural fields, and now I am stepping into a more defined discipline with a broader set of questions and concerns. UC Davis is a place where I can be proud of my interdisciplinary background while better equipping myself to do and teach anthropology.
We're already trying to instill our daughter with school spirit, and she's not even due for 2 more months!


When people ask about my undergraduate degree, I explain that it's just another (and perhaps less stigmatized) name for the liberal arts. I took courses in anthropology, African-American literature, music, environmental studies, and gender studies, and completed an honors thesis with an ethnomusicologist as my supervisor. My master's degree is always a bit more difficult to explain; cultural sustainability is often understood as just a sort of preservation, in the same league as efforts to save dying languages. Of course, museums, folklife festivals, and cultural documentation are all within the scope of cultural sustainability, at least as Goucher's program envisions the field; however, the choice of the ecological term, sustainability, is not without utmost significance. In some cases, this is the only word people hear. Upon learning that I have a CS degree, some people have asked for my opinions on permaculture and renewable energy, making me wonder how I might place a stronger emphasis on that also-not-insignificant modifier, cultural. Sure, I have opinions on environmental sustainability, and CS certainly dialogues with environmental disciplines on a number of issues, but it would be far from accurate to describe CS as an intersection of cultural and environmental studies, a particular branch of sustainability studies, or an attempt to reinvent the "cultural ecology" approaches of Julian Steward or Gregory Bateson.

Without suggesting a definition for CS, I can describe a couple of things that CS, as a theoretical approach, does: (1) it applies the ecosystem concept to the study of cultural life and applied social sciences, and (2) like several fields presently concerned with ontology, and indigenous ontologies in particular, it challenges notions that posit Nature as Other. Much of my coursework at Goucher focused on other emphases: cultural democracy, arts and social change, environmental justice, models of social entrepreneurship, and ethnographic methods that facilitate cultural partnership and collaboration. While these are indispensable components of the MACS (Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability) program, I highlight the ecological and ontological aspects of our curriculum because I believe they set it apart from other graduate programs that have similar mission statements and applications. Questions of being, nature, interconnectedness, and place are also central to my own work, and I began to think more deeply about these while taking the Cultural Sustainability Theory Seminar with Rory Turner. I plan to revisit such themes often in the next several years, and I am sure that my studies and fieldwork will provide ample material for this blog.

Last year, I was asked to write a brief explanation of my MACS capstone project. Because CS seems to elude strict definitions, at least for now, I believe it is more instructive to examine the on-the-ground work of scholars and professionals laboring under the pretense of sustaining culture -- or, as I prefer to formulate it, sustaining people through participation in cultural life. In this spirit, I share excerpts from the summary of my capstone, a sort of reflection on the process of fieldwork and writing my thesis.

...my research may be described as an effort to understand belonging. My thesis examines how Rastafarians use and experience sound, both in language and music, to create meaning, to connect with others, and to belong.
Before narrowing down my capstone topic, I had decided to pursue a broad inquiry into the definition of "InI" (I-and-I), a term frequently used in Rastafari dialogue and reggae lyrics. Several scholars have written briefly about this term, explaining its use in place of "we" and analyzing the centrality of the "I" in Rastafari thought. Rather than simply expressing an individualistic resistance against colonial institutions such as organized religion and formal education, referring to one another as "the I" articulates the belief that the same "I" resides in everyone....
To examine more deeply how the InI philosophy informs concepts of self, identity, and otherness, I explored another tenet of Rastafari: word-sound power. According to this tradition, speech effects vibrations that influence social and material realities; for this reason, Rastafarians are especially conscientious of the words and music they use to express their collective identity and goals.... [Their performative] linguistic tradition, known as Iyaric or Dread Talk, has been a significant part of the movement since its formative years, and it includes countless terms used in songs, prayers, and everyday conversation. Rather than a fixed lexicon, Iyaric is a creative practice through which Rastafarians challenge the oppressive language of Babylon -- a term used generally for colonial institutions as well as destructive attitudes and behaviors. As one Rastaman in Jamaica told me, they "speak with fire" in order to burn spiritual wickedness.  
Iyaric is perhaps most often used in the Rastafari practice of reasoning. A loosely structured style of conversation, reasoning typically focuses on spiritual and political issues; in my fieldwork, I have witnessed reasonings on topics ranging from sexuality to African repatriation. In theory, all who are present at a reasoning have authority to speak and interpret the movement's teachings.... 
By reasoning with Rastafarians, I learned about the transformative power of words; I learned that vibrations, typically perceived in musical contexts, are also ascribed to environmental and cognitive phenomena; and I learned about the conflicts within maintaining Rastafari identity in the face of globalization. However, as I learned all of this, I often felt the ethnographic lens being turned back toward me. Reasoning empowered my collaborators to ask their share of the questions, often making powerful statements that burned and humbled me.... I was forced to recognize the repercussions of my questions and vibrations as I toed the line between observation of "others" and participation in their cultural life.
Without pretending that my thesis is a one-size-fits-all guidebook for fieldwork in cultural sustainability, I hope that it will serve as a valuable lesson about the power of words to sustain or destroy people and their cherished ways of life. Cultural workers will continue to enter situations where power is imbalanced, traditions are at stake, and ethnographic representation threatens the self-determination of marginalized peoples. The Rastafari know this all too well, and they are wise to be skeptical of those who would document their unusual way of life. Far from being impenetrable, however, they may be inclined to invite others, as they invited me, to "enter into the struggle" and find ways to communicate productively. The trick, in my case, was to allow my "subjects" ample opportunity to ask their own questions, so that I-and-I -- subject and subject -- could truly reason together.

Unlike many students in the MACS program whose capstones involved the implementation of community-based projects, I relied almost entirely on interviews, participant-observation, and reasonings for my analysis. Although I also enjoyed the applied aspect of my fieldwork, efforts to spearhead a community farm project in West Philadelphia, I have always been more successful in the realms of thinking and writing than in organizing and leading. I intend to improve my skill and confidence in the latter, but recognition of my own strengths and weaknesses has contributed to my sense that an academic career in anthropology is the best fit for me.

As I continue to learn about Rastafarian notions of vibration and "burning" things with words (a concept I am calling pyrolocution), as well as Afro-Caribbean religion and expressive traditions more generally, I look forward to sharing these and other fun things on this blog. I plan to keep this platform somewhat laid back and informal; for writing of a more scholarly sort, I will most likely use my Academia.edu page. My main goal with benthropology is to stay in the habit of writing, but I would also be thrilled to receive some comments and perhaps "reason" with my readers. So, please, comment away!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Of Sex and Cannibalism

I began class yesterday by writing on the dry erase board a quote attributed to Margaret Mead: "Mothers are a biological necessity; fathers are a social invention." Naturally, my students found this absurd. In their understanding of the world, a father is required to fertilize the mother's egg, at the very least. Unfortunately, none of them understood my reference to the Tralfamadorians' claim that there are, in fact, seven sexes among Earthlings, all of which are essential for reproduction. We did, however, have a brief but interesting discussion about the role of fathers within kinship structures, and many seemed surprised to learn that, in many societies, the biological father has little to no responsibility in child rearing. In some matrilineal groups, the father has a relationship to his children that is quite different from that of the "head of household" figure in Western society.

In the Trobriand Islands, for example, children have an important relationship with their mother's husband, but he is seen neither as an authority figure nor as a blood relative; it is their maternal uncle who has authority over them in their youth. According to Bronislaw Malinowski, who spent several years living among the Trobrianders in the early 20th century, the father does play a role in procreation, but it is not he who impregnates the woman. Instead, he loosens the vagina in order that a spirit, a baloma, might impregnate her; intercourse stops the menstrual flow by pushing the blood into the woman's head, where the spirit of one of her ancestors enters the blood stream, flows into the womb, and is reborn within the maternal bloodline. The child most likely bears a resemblance to the father, but this is the result of the father spending time with the mother during pregnancy and with the child in its infancy, shaping the child in his image.

Most students in their first anthropology course - and perhaps most of us who hear this version of "the birds and the bees," having learned otherwise in our secondary schooling - might react to the Trobriand denial of biological paternity with laughter, disgust, or somewhere in between the two along the superiority spectrum. One of the things I love about anthropology is that it challenges us to consider these elaborate stories with an appreciation for the human imagination as well as a willingness to rethink the absurd as a truth that is indispensable within a particular life-world. Michael Jackson (the anthropologist, not the late King of Pop) writes of the ethnographer's task,
[T]he alleged rationality or irrationality of a practice is beside the point; what matters is the positive difference it makes to our lives, personal and collective. Consider the Christian doctrine of the Virgin Birth and the Australian Aboriginal denial of paternity - beliefs that contradict our scientific knowledge of the facts of human procreation. In both cases, a logical problem is posed: how to simultaneously stress Christ's humanity and divinity in the first example, and how to simultaneously stress that one's human identity is determined by where you are conceived and born as well as who physically nurtures you in the womb and brings you into the world. In the Christian example, God displaces Joseph as genitor; in the Aboriginal case, patrilineal country is genitor, though in both cases, the pater is the person who provides for the child and helps raise him or her to adulthood.
Context is important in considering each unique ethnographic account of creation or procreation stories; however, if we allow ourselves to look for a common, human thread in such traditions around the world, we might find that our species has often, if not in all times and places, been preoccupied with a rather sexual and cannibalistic question: what are we made of?

Jackson's mention of the Virgin Birth is appropriate here for two reasons. First, this biblical cornerstone resonates with a Trobriand tale in which the mother of a legendary hero becomes pregnant after her vagina is loosened, not by sexual intercourse, but by water dripping from a stalactite in a cave where she sleeps and lives a rather solitary life. While their stories are different in many respects, Christ and Tudava share a uniqueness that comes from the absence of a man in the reproductive process. The role of water in Tudava's conception might also be a noteworthy parallel to the role of the Holy Spirit in that of Christ, not to mention the significance of water in Christian regeneration; however, the value of water among Trobriand societies is certainly not unique. Water is a universal necessity, and if we are seriously considering the substance of human being from a variety of perspectives, we should remember that, chemically speaking, our bodies consist of water more than anything else.

Second, the Virgin Birth is significant in that, in the context of Christian tradition, it is the beginning of a salvific work that is sustained through a sort of cannibalism, albeit (perhaps) symbolic. I believe it to be no literary coincidence that the same god-in-flesh who commanded his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood was first laid down in a manger. While many church communities maintain that the eucharistic bread and wine are merely symbolic reminders of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, most or all share the central tenet that the faithful may partake in the divine nature because, and only because, that nature became flesh: flesh that grew in a womb, experienced the transformations of youth and adulthood, suffered pain and mutilation, died, was buried, and returned from death. Throughout all of this, his earthly father is notably absent from the moment of conception and the events that lead to his death; however, like the husbands of Trobriand mothers, Joseph fulfills an important role during Mary's pregnancy and Jesus' formative years.

When Jesus, prior to his ascension, leaves his inheritance in the hands of Peter, he commands the apostle to feed his sheep. Diversity of interpretations aside, the choice of a feeding metaphor seems a fitting way to punctuate a life story in which flesh and blood, food, wine, and water are of central importance. The gospel, like many creation, procreation, and salvation stories, responds to the most material of human questions: what is the stuff of life? What am I made of?

In some totemic systems, members of a clan are forbidden from eating the totem animal, which is believed to be the embodiment of a common ancestor; however, a sacrificial celebration periodically allows clansmen to join in consuming this animal as a means of asserting their common material identity shared between kin and their deities. Freud imagined the origin of the totemic feast was an act of cannibalism. Several brothers, angry with their father for keeping all of the women for himself, killed and ate him; this savage act, which Freud connects to his Oedipal theories, is commemorated in animal sacrifice, both a means of reenacting the original patricide and preserving the presence of the father in the flesh and blood of the people. While anthropologists have found significant problems with Freud's mythology, I believe something about his imagination resonates with all of us in some way. We all seek a deep, material connection with our kin, including our ancestors and offspring; whether we attempt to make this connection through sex, reproduction, animal sacrifice, or cannibalism, our efforts evidence a structuration of our bodies as sites of material and cultural identity, perpetually torn and reborn through the identity work of individuals and collectives.

One of my students stayed after class yesterday to discuss his research on cannibalism. We discussed some of these ideas, the animal and human sacrifices as well as the mystery cults and sacraments that may be interpreted as vestiges of cannibalistic systems. While I cautioned him against writing his own imagination of prehistoric societies, I encouraged him to look for types or parallels of cannibalism in places where he might least expect it: consumerism, Catholicism, and pornography. I should be careful how I phrase this sort of advice to my students, but I also want to be careful not to leave out a vital aspect of the study of humankind: our bodies, and what we do with them, as tangible (and edible) culture.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Disciplining Our Discipline

In an effort to increase the frequency of my blog posts, I have asked my students to send me questions or discussion topics that I can address in a few short paragraphs. My summer course ended about three weeks ago, but I want to answer a question from that class before I appeal to my current semester students for more topics. I believe this question emerged in response to our brief discussion of how the anthropologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries were closely connected to colonial oppression and notions of racial and cultural superiority.

"How do anthropologists feel about the past history of their profession?"

My immediate response to this was, "Not as optimistic as we feel about the future history of our profession." Pedantic, I know, but I am determined to help all of my students become better writers.

As I have given this some thought, I have decided that I should first address how I feel about anthropology's past, before attempting to address how "anthropologists" see it. While I have enjoyed learning about cultures around the world for a long time, I am relatively new to the field, so my perspective may not jive with that of other anthropologists. In my understanding, there are several charges commonly brought against our discipline, including:

  • the role that social evolutionism played in classifying societies along a spectrum between "primitive" and "civilized" (e.g., James George Frazer and Lewis Henry Morgan). 
  • attempts to rank the intellectual capacity of so-called "races" by measuring cranial structure and capacity (e.g., Pieter Camper and Samuel George Morton).
  • the role of anthropologists in Nazi Germany and its genocidal policies based in eugenics and misunderstandings of evolutionary theory.
  • common associations (however unfounded some may be) of anthropology with colonialism, Orientalism, and objectification of "Others" all around the world.
Illustration from Indigenous Races of the Earth (Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon, 1857)

I make it no secret to my students that I consider Franz Boas' introduction of cultural relativism into the American anthropological vocabulary a triumph for our discipline. We are not championing a perfect social science, if there could ever be such a thing, but we are increasingly conscious of our biases, our taken-for-granteds, and our ethical responsibilities in the field. One might enter into an anthropological career, as I have, in the present state of the discipline, and completely disown those embarrassing predecessors from over a century ago. As for me and my anthropology, I cannot neglect my share in the responsibility for what this academic tradition has stood for, both good and bad. This is not a share of the guilt, although I have no problem apologizing to those communities anthropology has harmed in the past (just as I would have no problem apologizing if my family had been inhospitable to a stranger, just as I had no problem when Obama offered so-called apologies for America's past behavior, and just as I had no problem when Pope Francis apologized for the sins of Christian colonizers). Rather than guilt, I believe my share in the responsibility for anthropology's past is to be humbly aware of the ability to abuse my power in research situations and to make conscious efforts to empower communities to represent themselves in the ethnographic record.

That is how I presently feel about the history of our profession. But what about the feelings of those who have been marginalized, injured, misrepresented, exploited, objectified, or nearly wiped out because of anthropologists? Surely, their feelings on the subject are more important than mine, no?

I have written about the skepticism many people have regarding the true motives of anthropologists who study and document their culture. One of my interviewees in Jamaica convicted me by pointing out that, while I may not earn any money from my research, it would earn me recognition among the institutions that profit from knowledge about people who remain in poverty. I could go on about the importance of collaboration and mutual trust (and I will in an upcoming post on cultural sustainability), but I think that the question of how our Others perceive anthropology is more perfectly articulated by Floyd Red Crow Westerman in his song, "Here Come the Anthros":



"And the Anthros still keep comin' like death and taxes to our land
To study their feathered freaks with funded money in their hand.
Like a Sunday at the zoo, the cameras click away,
Taking notes and tape recordings of all the animals at play."

My student's question seeks an explanation of how anthropologists feel about all of this, not how I feel, and not how our "disappearing feathered friends" like Red Crow feel (perhaps this is all too obvious). The problem with this question is that I cannot begin to speak for "anthropologists" as such; even if I were a more seasoned anthropologist, I would still be unable to deliver an account of the feelings of individual scholars who authoritatively speak for the world of anthropology, as no such scholar exists.

What we can do, however, is look at what many anthropologists are doing now: upholding standards of informed consent and ethical documentation; developing partnerships with marginalized communities; applying their research toward solutions for improved quality of life and sustainable economies and environments; and seeking ways to collaborate with ethnographic subjects in order to gain recognition and representation for communities on their own terms. If it is true that what we do is what we believe, then it is fair to examine the current work of anthropologists to deduce a general idea of how we feel about our past. Fortunately, anthropologists do just this, holding each other accountable by scrutinizing our methods and approaches in the field.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

I, Racist: Mechanized Interpretation and Manufactured Discontent

In the spirit of several humble confessionals I’ve seen and heard over the last several days, I will begin by admitting to a few attitudes I’m not very proud of: 

I quietly judge Asian tourists for carrying around more equipment than professional photographers. I sometimes lock my car doors while driving through parts of West Philadelphia. I resent Italian-American men for being so handsome and successful with the whole “bad boy” image (I blame The Godfather and Jersey Shore). Around this time last year, I was getting fed up with restaurants in Puerto Rico for taking so long to prepare my food; I may or may not have drawn the conclusion that Puerto Ricans, much like Jamaicans, have no sense of time. And I’ve judged plenty of immigrants, not because I fear that they’re going to dilute white American culture (God, I hope they do), but because I’ve seen them actively reject their own beautiful cultural traditions. Assimilation saddens me, and although I know I should blame the circumstances that coerce the assimilation, I often blame the assimilators, instead.

Do these attitudes make me a racist or a xenophobe? Keep reading. I’ll try to answer that later.

I began with a far-from-comprehensive glimpse into my prejudices, not to express guilt — if “white guilt” is an actual thing, it is certainly not my motivation for anything I say and do with regard to race, (post-)colonialism, or injustice in general — but to remind myself and my reader that I am human. Despite the claims I will make with regard to how our opinions and behaviors are programmed into us, I do not believe that we are robots, nor do I believe that prejudice is an inevitable or incurable part of the human psyche, however difficult it may be to self-diagnose. Our biological and psychic constitution make us just as capable of self-awareness and adaptation as of empathy and forgiveness, and our individual and social health depend immensely on these capabilities.

Furthermore, if my opening admissions did, in fact, warrant a “racist” label, it would not be the worst thing that could happen to my reputation. I could be a rapist, a murderer, a cheater, a thief, an abusive husband and pet owner, a dishonest educator, or any number of identities earned by one or more criminal or unethical decisions. Fortunately, other than my very infrequent music piracy and some victimless criminal behavior (all in the past, of course), I have not done anything that has brought great shame to myself or my family. And while my family may be somewhat embarrassed by my crude sense of humor, my flatulence, and my financial shortcomings, I am quite confident that any shame brought upon them by my opening paragraph will quickly dissipate as they remember the many, many reasons why they love me. Whether or not they brush it off with a trite refrain of “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” they will not consider my “racism” to be in the same league as a lynch mob, a slave owner, a politician who knowingly supports legislation that negatively affects minorities, a business owner who refuses to serve people based on their ethnicity, a restaurant patron who tips some servers more than others because of race, or Donald Trump.

I wish more people understood this. Instead, when they sense that they are being accused of racism, many people respond as if their entire reputation and credibility are at stake. They refuse to hear anything else from their accusers, who may have some valid points to make, because they fear that to do so would be an admission of guilt and a permanent smear on their character. They then accuse their accusers of “playing the race card,” of oversensitivity to microaggressions, of fanatical political correctness, or of trying to win an argument with unfounded ad hominem slurs. Many of my conservative acquaintances tend toward this defensive posture when faced with charges of racism, and I often wonder if heated argument could become more constructive dialogue were these people to stop and ask themselves, “Is my opinion perhaps ever so slightly informed by racial biases?”

To be clear, these conservatives have never given me any reason to think that they are bad people. I may detest their political views, and in a few cases, I have no doubt in my mind that they unknowingly harbor some very racist beliefs. Despite my use of the word “very” to modify their racism, however, I do not believe that they are evil or dangerous people, and I wish that they would stop equating accusations of racism with utter condemnation of their souls.

Before I elaborate on some of my points of disagreement with these conservatives, I need to address some of the liberals in my life. 

Although we agree on many things, liberals, there are some tendencies you and I need to nip in the bud in order to be more effective in our struggle against racism. I hope you will find that these three efforts make a difference in your conversations with conservatives, not limited to discussions of race.

  • We need to stop equating conservatism with bigotry. While there may be quite a bit of overlap between racism, sexism, greed, and conservative politics, people often identify as conservatives for reasons you and I might embrace. The most obvious example might be the caution against government overreach; while conservative fear of the government seems to have increased in recent years (maybe or maybe not having anything to do with a black president), it is a reasonable concern, one that our country was born with. Our differences, many of which are vast, lie in the specific issues into which the government is overreaching. Many of us deeply feel that our elected leaders should make some extra effort to help communities that are still suffering from centuries of being treated like second-class citizens. When conservatives criticize such efforts, let’s stop assuming they don’t care about the minorities who we’re trying to help; even if they’re not suggesting alternative paths toward equality, maybe their condemnation of liberal policies contains some legitimate hesitations worth considering.

  • We need to stop talking down to conservatives as if they were stupid, backward-thinking sheeple. Okay, “sheeple” is a word I hear much more often from conservatives describing the supposed cult of Obama. But just because they constantly stoop to calling you kool-aid drinking libtards does not mean you are justified in being derogatory. No, I don’t care who called whom what first. Name-calling is just the surface of a much larger project of alienation, however. When we militant anti-racists talk about inequality, we often quote public intellectuals, past or present, like Angela Davis, Cornell West, Malcolm X, Noam Chomsky, Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. DuBois, Edward Said, Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, or Charles Mills. And why wouldn’t we? These scholars have penned brilliant challenges against cultural hegemony, spoken truth to power, and inspired many of us to dig deeper into the sad, daily realities of America’s impoverished Others. The problem arises when we start using our critical race theory and sociology syllabi, not as helpful guides for dialogue, but as credentials that somehow elevate our intellects above those of conservatives. Yes, it is unfortunate when conservative commentaries demean our years of study as meaningless at best, evidence of communist brainwashing at worst; still, we’re just as guilty of polluting the conversation when we demean people for not having the same titles on their bookshelves.

  • We need to stop demanding regret and apologies from those who exhibit racist attitudes. It’s easy to feel insulted, even disgusted, by the way some conservatives address black people. We bring up racially motivated violence against blacks, and they deflect: What about black-on-black violence? Why aren’t black people trying to fix their own communities instead of destroying them? Blacks kill whites all the time, and nobody ever complains about that! These are some relatively tame examples, I suppose, but they understandably invoke in many of us a righteous anger over the apparent implication that African Americans are culturally inferior and therefore have much to learn about how to behave in a civilized country. This very well may be the implication, and even when it is preceded by “Sorry if this sounds racist,” it can sound rather harsh; however, we must resist the urge to tell people that they need to feel sorry. Plead with them to change their minds. Respectfully educate them. Tell them their opinions bother you. Raise your tone of voice, if you must. But above all, do not attempt to inflict guilt upon them. Guilt is counterproductive. What we need are real, solid steps toward mutual respect, not dwelling on how horribly wrong we’ve been. Apologies must come freely and with full awareness of damage done, or not at all.


Now, to my conservative friends, if you’re still reading, I offer a few thoughts for your consideration. Each of these points are ideas I have struggled with over the years, from my childhood in Chester to my early reggae days when I began to realize a few things about intangible cultural heritage. None of these realizations came easily, but I do not mean by “realization” that I have arrived upon some profound discovery; rather, I have found it immensely productive to consider these points of view, which I have learned through African diaspora literature as well as meaningful discussion with black people in the US, the Caribbean, and West Africa.

  • The knowledge that your ancestors, one generation or ten generations removed, were enslaved, subjugated by imperialism, disenfranchised and alienated through segregation, and disadvantaged by various post-integration policies, all because of their physical features, can be paralyzing. Rather than expecting people to get over the past, consider that trauma, low self-esteem, anger, addiction, despair, and suspicion of the dominant cultural groups in society can all make it especially difficult to move in this world. America may have made significant strides toward racial equality, but minority identities have deep, complex histories that are difficult to ignore. Of course, this is not to say that there is a black cultural pathology (or “a tangle of pathologies”) that excuses African Americans from bad behavior or entitles them to reparations; but neither should we act as if any black individual can become the next Ben Carson or Barack Obama, if only they would just channel all of that angst into something positive.

  • Try giving black people the benefit of the doubt, even if they’re making claims that seem completely unrealistic to you. Maybe you find it difficult to believe that police throughout the country are constantly profiling, harassing, and using unnecessary force against black people. Maybe you’ve never met a business owner who would deny a black job applicant, treat black employees unfairly, or show favoritism to white clientele. But if black people tell you that they experience this sort of discrimination on a regular basis, even if they take on an accusatory tone, don’t dismiss what they have to say as an incoherent rant. Don’t assume it’s just their paranoia or reverse racism getting them all upset over an imagined oppression. Maybe the reason they “make everything a racial issue” is because they are often reminded of their racial identity, one that they didn’t choose for themselves.

  • #BlackLivesMatter does not mean that other lives don’t matter. Yes, we know that blue and white and Christian and Muslim and rainbow lives matter, too. And we know that #BlackLivesMatter even when black lives take other black lives. But please try to see this slogan as a rally cry against the forces in society that seem to be diminishing the value of black lives. When people are more eager to vilify dead black teenagers than to investigate the police who shot, strangled, or rattled them to death, black people might be somewhat justified in feeling like their lives don’t matter as much as white lives.

  • The mainstream media (which is far from liberal, by the way) is not trying to start a race war. The struggle for racial equality has been going on in this country for quite some time, but social media — and yes, media sensationalism — is bringing this struggle to your newsfeed on a more regular basis. One of my non-black friends recently told me that the hype over race-related violence in our country has him worried that black people might retaliate against him. It’s true that some black people passionately hate white people, and I’ve heard a few of them speak out angrily against the “white devil.” But here’s the thing about all of the news of racial violence in the mainstream media: none of this is news to black people. This supposedly “race-baiting” news coverage is far less likely to make us the enemy than it is to provide ample opportunities for us to speak out against racism, let black people know that their lives matter, and deeply listen to what they’re saying.

  • Race is not a distraction from more dangerous things going on in the world. Yes, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is most likely going to be a disaster, and it’s true that people are focusing more on the Confederate Flag and Dylann Roof than on the latest shady deals our politicians are dealing. But three things here: (1) To quote my friend Earl Grey Summers, “Well, how come you never brought up TPP BEFORE the flag became an issue? And in a two-day span… what realistic plan did YOU have to stop it? Signing an online petition?” In other words, is race really distracting you from what you’d rather be talking about, or would you just rather choose the less difficult discussion topic? (2) We spend a lot of time talking about TV shows, sports, and celebrities’ lifestyles, most of which are, unlike racism, entirely inconsequential to our lives. (3) I’m not entirely sure we can talk about the potentially oppressive repercussions of a trade deal (or a SCOTUS ruling, or the militarization of police, or the minimum wage, or net neutrality) without talking about the racial wounds that still fester across our cultural and political landscapes. All forms of oppression are connected, and speaking out against the ones that hit closer to home is not distracting — it’s practical. So if you see me bringing up race more than other issues that ultimately impact me, please remind me of those, but realize that my priorities are arranged according to the real lives I encounter on a regular basis, black lives whom I take seriously when they tell me they are still dealing with racism, both from individuals and institutions.

  • There is no black or urban cultural pathology that keeps black people trapped in a cycle of poverty and crime. While the sensationalist media prefers to air footage of black looters and rioters, there are in fact many black people working hard to improve their communities, protesting peacefully, and engaging in constructive dialogue about race. I have worked with black people in West Philadelphia who have looked deep into their cultural heritage for resources that have enabled them to grow their own food, rear healthy children, and organize life-changing artistic programs. So when I hear comments that seem to imply that blacks suffer from cultural shortcomings, or that there are no good black role models, I have to object. There is far too much positive black heritage, there are far too many engaged citizens in the black community for us to ignore. If only the media, Hollywood, and the record labels would promote these individuals and their valued traditions.


Over the last several months, I have found myself in the midst of heated arguments about race relations in America. I have said and written some things I regret, and I have heard and read many things that upset and worry me. I have addressed some of these problems here, but I’ll close with a brief thought about what may be the biggest obstacle to productive dialogue: our mechanized interpretation of social phenomena. It’s good that we more and more recognize systemic racism, and it is healthy to draw attention to how the media capitalizes on emotion to drive up ratings. However, many of us are stuck in our habits of understanding and responding to current events in terms of party lines and ideological loyalties. Rather than seeing where some of these identities might find some common ground, we react in ways that we think we are supposed to: blaming police or demonizing their victims, connecting specific injustices to political platforms or cultural pathologies, bandwagon hashtagging, returning insult for insult, or provoking others just because we woke up on the righteous side of the bed. While these reactions are often based in our deeply held beliefs and passions, they are also conditioned by social discourses which limit our ability to see the organic connections between communities, cultural heritage, psychology, behavior, identities, politics, economics, and our natural and social environments.

I am guilty of this tendency to simplify race issues rather than search for ways to nurture collaboration and reconciliation. What prompted me to write this was a recent series of facebook arguments in which my conservative and liberal friends tore into each other over racial issues in current events. While I think I succeeded in being more civil than I have in the past, many of the comments exchanged by my friends, all of whom I care about, were hurtful and unproductive. I found it pointless to return to these chaotic conversations, so I submit this post in hopes of laying a more sustainable foundation for discussions of injustice, racial or otherwise.


If you skipped to the end to see if I would answer the question, “Am I a racist?”, I’ll let you decide that for yourself. As for everyone else, I’m going to try my best to avoid calling anyone a racist from now on. Whatever racism manifests in our discussions, I’ll attribute it to ideological programming, human error, or a combination of the two. Both leave plenty of room for teachable moments and mutual interpretation of our overlapping worlds.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Art, Adjuncting, and Alienation

Cameron Conaway is a much braver man than I. Yesterday, he posted an "Open Letter" on the Huff Post College Blog, going public with his resignation from Penn State Brandywine, where I work as adjunct instructor of anthropology, assistant to the honors program coordinator, and writing tutor. Although I only have one semester of teaching under my belt, I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the most fulfilling (except, of course, in the financial sense) job I have ever had. Despite the many institutional shortcomings outlined in my colleague's blog post, Brandywine is a great work environment full of students and faculty (including administrators) who genuinely want to make a positive difference in the world. This is not to say that Mr. Conaway's grievances are illegitimate; certainly, the system has failed him, but I want to make clear that I see this as a systemic issue rather than the malevolence or greed of specific individuals within our campus community. Still, this is an issue that needs to be discussed openly; those of us who fail to do so are complicit in this gross inequality.

I count myself first among the guilty. Rather than joining in this bold demonstration of contempt for the corporatization of academia, I am prepared to sign a contract to teach another semester of cultural anthropology. I will give it my all, putting in more time and effort than the compensation warrants, because my students are paying too much to receive less from me. I will appreciate every minute of this experience in a job that I was very fortunate to receive immediately after earning my MA, hoping that it improves my chances of full-time employment in the not-too-distant future. I will spend what little spare time I have trying to get published, applying to PhD programs, and making music, keeping my eyes and ears open for more lucrative opportunities. I will do my best to raise awareness of inequalities in universities across the country, paying special attention to ways in which the social sciences might effectively address these problems. However, I will do all of this while gratefully accepting any work I can get from Penn State and other local universities, along with any public assistance I will need to supplement the lowest-paying job that requires a master's degree.

I feel powerless. I feel disillusioned and lost. Most of all, I feel guilty. I am taking work from much more qualified scholars for a fraction of the pay they would receive as full-time, tenure-track professors. I feel like a scab and a hypocrite.

The shame began to set in immediately after I finished reading Mr. Conaway's letter this morning. A few days ago, I scolded a young musician for soliciting unpaid labor from other musicians via Facebook. In a few sentences, I (not disrespectfully, but not kindly, either) explained to this artist that, when performers accept little to no pay from venues, they perpetuate a few dangerous notions that should disturb anyone who values creative expression. These beliefs include:


  • Art is fun or play, as opposed to work.
  • Musical talent is something that some people naturally have, not a skill they have honed for years and years.
  • The value of entertainment in the public sphere is proportionate to the revenue it can bring in to the host establishment. (e.g., "How many fans can your band bring to buy drinks at my bar?" I call this model the alcohol-entertainment-industrial complex.)
  • Unless you're a touring, label-signed artist, music is a hobby for your spare time, not a part-time job with a decent hourly rate. And you've got to be kidding if you want to make a career out of playing several nights a week at local venues.
  • Familiarity is profitable and therefore preferable. Original music is nice for small, niche venues; however, Top 40 will keep people drinking and singing along (funny how the two go hand-in-hand), so DJs and cover bands should be paid accordingly.


If your imagination hasn't been dumbed down from your weekly Top 40/PBR cocktail, you might have noticed the parallels between each of the attitudes listed above and the attitudes regarding the production and dissemination of knowledge in higher education. Rather than prioritizing the cultivation of young, inquisitive minds, universities are increasingly treating students like customers, enticing them with promises of job market competitiveness rather than expansion of mind, retaining them by coddling them rather than challenging them to engage in meaningful research. Rather than valuing faculty for their knowledge, wisdom, life experience, and teaching skill they bring to the classroom every day, universities are increasingly alienating a growing workforce of professional educators who might otherwise inspire their students customers for generations to come.

What can we do to fight this trend in higher education? Not all of us adjuncts have the charm, charisma, and publishing credentials that Mr. Conaway boasts, so I'm not sure if resignation is the right path for all of us. I'm not even sure I can begin to answer the question, so I'm putting this out there to keep the discussion going:

What can we, especially adjuncts (hopefully with the support of full-time faculty), do about this growing inequality?

As a musician, I am quite familiar with disappointment and injustice; the Philadelphia music "scene" is rife with underpaid artists. Still, I have to be optimistic. My band has been fortunate in finding a few venue owners and promoters who pay us fairly for our time and talent on a regular basis, giving me hope that the love of music will triumph over the love of money at the end of the day.

And currently, there is a push toward fair pay for musicians in Seattle. Civic leaders are behind this effort which, if successful, could influence cultural policy throughout the country.

We clearly have a long way to go, with many hurdles to clear, not the least of which are the cultural trends that diminish the inherent value of knowledge and creative expression. But if we continue to make bold statements, whether in the form of a public resignation or a blog with a much smaller audience (yes, you're probably the only one reading this), I believe the perseverance of this conversation can change hearts, minds, and budgets.

Don't give up the fight.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Vibration as Being

Over the years, I have heard many musicians and avid listeners describe music as a religious experience; “Reggae night is like church for me,” people have often told me at Steppin Razor's weekly residencies. While I certainly relate to these sentiments, I might prefer to express my own experience conversely: religion is a very musical experience for me. In fact, most of the things I do, as well as my various identities, possess musical qualities. In my writing and tutoring young writers, I think of cadence and percussion; in my gardening and walking in nature, I sense rhythm and harmony; in my being American and human, I struggle with dissonance, crescendos, and decrescendos; and in my impressions of friends and celebrities, I experiment with tone and timbre. 

If I had never received any formal musical training, I believe that I would still be inclined to think of experience in these sound-centric ways. Whether it is my nature or an acquired disposition, this mode of thinking and listening recently has led me into a study of sound/vibration-as-being. Steven Feld's ideas of acoustemology and anthropology of sound have informed my recent inquiries about the power of music and speech to effect and alter realities, and I look forward to engaging in further dialogue with scholars who are also thinking about sound and performance in new ways inspired by the "ontological turn" and recent discussions of vital materialism -- see Bruno Latour, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marisol de la Cadena, Jane Bennett, Philippe Descola....


It was Jeff Todd Titon, however, who introduced me to the emerging field of ecomusicology, encouraging me to discuss some of my thesis research in the form of a conference paper at the Ecomusicologies conference in Asheville, NC, this past October. When I began trying to organize a panel session with the suggested title, "Vibration as Being in the Environment," I received enthusiastic responses from Andrew Mark (York University), Sonia Gaind-Krishnan (New York University), and Jeannette Jones (Boston University), and our panel emerged as a wonderful discussion about the significance of vibrations in relationships, identity, groupness, healing, spirituality, and deaf experiences of music. I hope to write more about this panel in a forthcoming post. 


One of the most important ideas in the development of our panel was a suggestion from Andrew: changing the name of the panel to "Dialogic Vibration as Being (in) the Environment." Prior to the conference, I had already considered the dialogic nature of sound (see "Vibration as Dialogue"), but this notion of "being the environment" challenged my imaginings of "the I" as an entity-in-place, and I have begun to consider the experience and creation of sound as phenomena within an actor-network, rather than I-and-[other object or collectivity within an arbitrarily delineated "space"]. As a musician, I find it rather easy to think of the deep connectedness within a music scene, a performance venue, or a performance event. One could even argue that the liminal awareness of this interconnectedness is an essential characteristic of a serious performer. As an ethnographer, I suspect it will require a great deal more effort to develop such an awareness; however, my experience during the soundwalk at the conference in Asheville taught me about the power and the benefits of intentional listening.


UNC Asheville's campus is beautiful. I wish they had a PhD program I could apply to.


As we quietly sauntered around the UNCA campus, I realized first how my perception of sonic relationships was impacted by my movements and positions. Harmonies waxed and waned as various tones came in and out of range. The feeling of my feet touching the ground, as well as the sound, altered the way I experienced the rhythms of the machinery, the busy noises of birds and squirrels, and the reverberations of the walls.


About halfway through the soundwalk, I heard the sounds of a car's motor purring and its tires rolling along the wet road. Suddenly, the question of who or what was making these sounds became an adventure: the driver's foot on the gas pedal, the rubber on the asphalt, the moisture on the ground and in the air and trees that absorb and reflect these vibrations; the car manufacturer, the committee who determined the speed limit, the planners who determined which trees would stay and which would be replaced by the buildings, the stairs, and the road; the driver's reason for being on campus, the groceries to pick up on the way home, the speed bump or stop sign up ahead; us, our bodies, walking, wet.


The massive air conditioning units between us and the building, growling and whizzing: no one was standing there turning the motors and switches inside; someone designed these machines, someone else set the thermostat, and many others have determined how warm or cool it should be inside the building. The weather played its part, as well, through its noisy and silent powers, influenced in part by our own impacts on the air and water.


Not only were all of these noises and movements appearing more and more connected; they also revealed a complex sort of agency, distributed broadly and perhaps infinitely. In this moment -- one which was, of course, connected to all other moments -- I began to realize the implications of my new, if only temporary, awareness: my world of cause-and-effect was breaking down; I was no longer I-in-the-world; everything was vibrantly everything, and "I" was just a momentary intersection of movements and intentions. The "space" between my body and other bodies, human and non-human, living and non-living, was not really space at all; it was vibration, a realm in which all were co-present, participating in the life of the world together.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Word, Sound, Power, and I

[The Rastafari] have a slogan that says, "WORD, SOUND and POWER," a trinity. To them the word is both sound and power. It is sound not only because its effect is aural but also because it is capable of quality, capable of being "sweet," of thrilling the hearer. It is power because it can inspire responses such as fear or anger or submission. The articulateness, tonal variation, pitch, and formalisms are the Rastafari version of the sweetness of the sermons in lower-class churches, and to describe this level of expression they use the word "to chant" (Barry Chevannes, in Rastafari: Roots and Ideology, 1994, p. 227, italics mine).
The quality of sound, rather than the qualities (measurable and transcribable aspects), may be understood in terms of perception, how the vibrations of a particular act are heard or felt by minds and bodies rather than recording instruments. In a phenomenological ethnography of linguistic and musical expression, while there is certainly room for transcription and technical description, it is within this particular notion of quality that we can frame an experience of expressivity in order to inform an analysis of cultural life. Word-sound power (alternatively written as "word-sound-power" or "word, power, and sound," in addition to Chevannes' usage above) is a Rastafarian concept that signifies the shared experience of sound quality, the agency and spiritual potential of a speaker, and the collective resistance against linguistic forms imposed by colonial rule. When a Rastaman "sounds" (speaks, chants, or beats a drum), quite often he is cognizant of the layers of meaning beyond the indexical definitions of his words or the theoretical components of his musical performance. His tone, rhythm, and timbre are all significant, along with the wordplay involved in "I-an-I consciousness," the creative linguistic practice of Rastafari.

Manipulation of words is among the well-known aspects of Rastafarian cultural life, as it has been used extensively in reggae music, in which the oppressor (up-presser) is known as the "Downpresser Man," understanding becomes overstanding, and the objective "me" is frequently replaced with an "I" that retains the individual's self-determination. Central to this way of speaking is the InI (I-and-I) concept, the idea that all people share the same Iniversal (universal) I, which asserts equality while making a statement about the sort of objectification that, for example, the early Rastafari movement resisted in colonial Jamaica. Yasus Afari, a Rastafarian dub poet and scholar, writes, "Consistent with the RASTAFARIAN philosophy of one love, self, family, inity (unity), oneness and humanity, the I and I language reflects the RASTAFARIAN concept of one-in-all and all-in-one; the one-for-all and the all-for-one"(Overstanding Rastafari, 2007, p. 114, emphasis in original). In some cases, this re-creation of words is aimed at replacing syllables with word-sounds that reflect Rasta ideas: for example, me-ditation becomes I-ditation, u-nique becomes I-nique. In other cases, however, the beginning of a word is replaced with the letter I for no other reason than to reiterate the centrality of the I within the Rasta worldview.

Afari keenly observes that the spoken word is a means by which "thoughts, minds and persons can be transported" to the world that is being expressed through the sound (115). As he demonstrates within his own writing and performance, the word-sounds of Rastafarian discourse "re-mould, re-shape, and re-direct the perception of both the Jamaican and the English language and... revolutionize and re-calibrate the mentality and psyche" (125). InI language strives to create or restore a harmony between the various components and meanings of spoken words, which Rastafarians assert has been lost or suppressed by the Babylon system (a term generally used for institutionalized oppression, especially colonial rule, but which may also refer to any sort of evil in societies and individuals). More than merely symbolic expressions of an imagined ideal, Rasta speech acts are intended as transformative energies, sounds that constitute a new reality. As performative communication, "Dread Talk" may certainly be described as a means of constructing a desired social order; however, Rastafarian perspectives seem to attribute a more tangible creative power to the performance of sound, the vibrations of which have a measurable effect on the cosmos (see my previous entry on Vibration as Dialogue). I will be exploring this aspect of word-sound power in my forthcoming fieldwork, as I consider this creative process of communication with the Iniverse as an extension of the socially transformative power of performative speech. Placing the material world within the scope of linguistic communication, we can see how the environment and all living things might fall within "RASTAFARI's responsibility to free the people with the positive vibes, language, music and the creative energy of the Rastafarian Livity" (127).

In another useful definition of "Word-Sound-Power," R.A. Ptahsen-Shabazz draws a connection between this Rastafarian principle and the Dogon concept of Nommo, which I will explore in a forthcoming post. Noting the importance of "the accurate and proper use of the spoken word in defining, describing, and communicating reality," the author writes, "the Rastafari overstand that language in significant ways creates and governs external reality and should be used to bring spiritual clarity, positivity and further overstanding/innerstanding to that external reality" (Black to the Roots, 2008, p. 216, italics in original). Much in the same way that God/Jah spoke the world into existence (consider the repetition of "Let there be" in Genesis 1, along with the "Word" of John 1), a human agent "creates and governs" reality through word-sounds. Cosmology aside, even in a strictly social sense, the Rastafarian articulates a new order in which individuals are no longer placed into a hierarchy of "I and Thou," but rather given equal consideration and identical agency. The "InI vibration" is one that resonates among the "members of a new race" for which Haile Selassie I appealed to the United Nations in 1963. As this word-sound, "I and I," becomes more commonplace among Rastafarians and people around the world, perhaps it can ring in (either literally or on a conceptual level) an era in which common ideas about "you" and "others" no longer hold the human intellect captive to selfishness and discrimination.