Two new podcasts: Charles King and Don Kulick

It’s been a very busy time of year for me and so I’ve done a bad job publicising my podcasts for New Books Network, and this despite my how interesting the authors and book are which I’ve been talking about! So for the record go listen to:

My interview with Charles King on his new popular history of the Boas Circle, Gods of the Upper Air.

My interview with Don Kulick on his new popular ethnography of language loss and the perils of fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, A Death in the Rainforest.

Both authors were great to interview. King’s book is a fresh, accessible history of Boasian anthropology which is clear-eyed about the drawbacks of the discipline but ultimately is very supportive of it. Kulick’s book is a funny, sad, personal, and not too politically correct account of his work in the Sepik and the difficulties he faced there, including some pretty harrowing violence.

That’s it for now. More soon, and I hope you enjoy these interviews!

Go read my new encyclopedia article on mining!

I’m very happy to announce that my new entry on ‘mining’ is now available on the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology. I worked pretty hard on this piece so… I hope you like it!

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (CEA) is a peer-reviewed, open access reference work with some great topics and authors. It does a great job of making anthropology available to the public. The pieces are much longer than a normal encyclopaedia article, they are signed, and they have citations — my piece is basically a condensed literature review. The accessibility of the entries varies widely. Some are really good for the general reader, while others are more specialised. But over all I think the project is very useful and I’m glad I contributed to it.

There are a lot of long, more in-depth reviews of the anthropology of mining out there. I think especially of the reviews by Godoy, Ballard and Banks, and Jacka in Annual Review of Anthropology. But if you don’t have access to that serial, or if you just want something shorter, I hope you’ll take a look at my piece. It was a mind-expanding, exhausting experience trying to synthesise al the literature I had to read for it. In particular, I learned that I will never be able to keep up with the massive streams of work on ASM (artisanal and small-scale mining) issuing forth out of Europe. But it was still a fun challenge to do my best. If you think I totally mischaracterised your work or anyone else’s… let me know. And if I didn’t then hey… maybe this piece will be valuable in the long run to people new to anthropology and mining!

An anthropologist’s guide to Chicago’s 75% off ebook sale

I love ebook sales. They’re a great way to pick up books you’ve always wanted but couldn’t afford. In fact, they’re a great, low-cost way to take a chance on book you’ve never heard of but which looks interesting. Heck, there’s an education to be had just scrolling through the books on sale and discovering new authors. For people without access to an academic library (or who have run out of room in their home libraries *cough*), cheap ebooks are a great way to get more access to knowledge. Radical publishers like Verso, Pluto, PM Press, and others have long had ebook sales (thank you!) and now The University of Chicago has thrown their hat into the ring with a 75% off sale. What are the best ways to approach this sale? Read on!

Think before you buy. Then browse like crazy

Chicago let’s you download spreadsheets of their lists (a ‘list’ is publishing speak for ‘all the books we publish in a certain area’. There are ‘history lists’ and ‘philosophy lists’ etc.). So: Sit there and think about what topics you are interested in and what authors you have to follow. Then download the spreadsheet and look through their list trying to find books that match your interests.

Here is a Google sheet of Chicago’s anthropology list, stripped down to its bare essentials

It’s only about 370 entries, so it won’t take too long to scan. And again, just scanning the list is an education in and of itself.

Then once that is done and you have a sense of what you want, feel free to go crazy and explore Chicago’s website. Browse random-ass topics that sound interesting but that you know nothing about. Who knows what treasures you might find?

One important thing to note about the Chicago website: The “Only General Interest Books” button. Toggle this bad boy to see what the press thinks are their most appealing books. If you are an anthropologist like me, for instance, and want to learn about physics but know nothing about it, this is the way to find non-opaque physics books.

Buy at both ends of the price curve.

The first thing to note is that this is only a 75% off sale, and not a 90% off sale, like Verso’s. And alas, Chicago’s ebook prices are higher than Verso’s as well. This sale is not about buying a US$15 ebook for 90% off. It is about a bunch of ebooks at US$35 for 75% off.

To me, US$5 is the maximum I’d pay for an ebook ‘on sale’. After all, these days its not unusual for academic titles to go for US$10 to US$20 (which is what the print price tends to be). Paying more than 5 bucks doesn’t feel like a deal to me. It feels like the real price of an ebook, and the list price of US$35 feels too high. 2 bucks is the price point at which I start buying stuff just because I might read it someday. I don’t change my behaviour for any price underneath that. To me paying 1 buck for an ebook is basically like paying 2. But I’m a rich first worlder, so ymmv.

Overall, I think it makes more sense to buy at both ends of the price curve: find expensive books you really want and can’t get elsewhere, but then also snap up some cheapies (I highly recommend the Chicago Guides to the Academic Life and Writing, Editing, and Publishing) that are a steal at 75% off. Go big for a big discount, or go small for a small final price — the books priced in the middle are kinda just an ok deal at 75% off.

Make sure the book you want isn’t available elsewhere

If you are a student or professor, make sure your library doesn’t already have the title you’re looking for as an ebook. Chicago is not a speciality press — lots of libraries carry their titles. If you haven’t already, get a public library card. your local public library probably has a pretty good selection of ebooks, including academic ones.

You should also check Google and Amazon, the two main vendors of ebooks. Chicago books are cheaper on Google than they are on Amazon, so check Google Books or Google Play. Depending on how Google marks down its ebooks, and how Chicago marks them up, I think there are a few cases where it is actually cheaper to buy the book on Google than it is to buy it from Chicago, even at reduced price. Or the difference is negligible.

Google Apprentice Alf

Chicago’s ebooks come with DRM, or digital rights management. This makes them difficult to read and annotate on your preferred ebook reader. It also makes it difficult to share the book for teaching. Afaik, it is ok to share 10% of a book, or 1 chapter, with your class (this is called ‘fair use’). But DRM makes this a pain in the butt to actually do. I’d recommend using a tool like Apprentice Alf to free your ebooks of DRM so you can read and annotate them as you like.

That said, this post is about how to give the press your money. Chicago is huge by university press standards, but it’s not Elsevier — it’s not unreasonable to ask you to actually buy recent in-print books from them instead of downloading them from some Russian library site, especially if you are relatively well off by global standards. DRM removal tools about making your books easier to use, not easier to circulate. Which brings me to…

And finally… don’t forget to read your new books!

Learning is different from downloading. No matter how many PDFs or ebooks you download, you will not learn much from them until you actually read them. I know, I know, sometimes it feels if you download enough of them, and very quickly, somehow the experience is educative. But really, we all know better than that. The best thing to do with your books is read them. So turn off your social media feed, force quit your email, deactivate the alerts on Bubble Witch Saga 2 on your phone, and enjoy the fruits of all your sorting, browsing, and clicking by actually reading the books you’ve purchased. The people at Chicago are a weird lot — I know, I’ve met them! — they aren’t driven by avarice. They genuinely are more interested in having their books read than they are in filling a bathtub full of gold doubloons and jumping in. Make them happy and read their authors.

What books would you recommend from the sale? Any advice I’ve overlooked? Reach out to me on Twitter and let me know!

Christina Thompson on Prehistorians of the Pacific

My new episode of New Books in Anthropology is up — it’s an interview with Christina Thompson on her book The Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. It’s a history of European attempts to understand the prehistory of Polynesian and Austronesian migration. It’s a very well written and well-structured story that starts with the Spanish discovery of the Marquesas, goes through Kon Tiki and Hokule‘a, and ends with contemporary work. I was impressed by the amount of work that it covers, and how easily it goes down, and it was blurbed by Pat Kirch at Matt Matsuda so you know most of the details were right. I think this will be a go-to book for people who want to get started understanding the prehistory of the Pacific.

At the same time, I can imagine that some of my colleagues would take fault with the decision to write a book about white people studying the Pacific rather than just focusing on Pacific Islanders themselves. Christina has defended this choice — which I feel is a legitimate one — and notes that she covers people such as Nainoa Thompson and Te Rangi Hiroa. But I still felt this book read very much as a story of a Western project of knowing into which Pacific Islanders were eventually incorporated. I don’t know — maybe this reflects my own concern about how we conceptualise and tell anthropology’s history. Another shortcoming is the inevitable ‘what got left out’ question: While historical linguistics is mentioned, that story doesn’t get told in the detail it could. But of course it’s inevitable that a book tells some stories and not all others (at least, this is a problem all non-infinitely long books have).

My favourite aspect of this book is that it turned me on to the work of the wonderfully-named Willowdean Chatterson Handy. Christina’s section on her inspired me to read Handy’s Forever The Land Of Men, her memoir of doing fieldwork in the Marquesas in the 1920s alongside her husband and Ralph Linton. It is a hidden gem of a book and if you can find a copy I’d highly recommend it. I was particularly interested to see how thoughtful Handy was about the impact of colonialism in the Marquesas and her own positionally as a researcher. Inspired, I asked a friend of mine who studies the Marquesas what he thought of Willowdean.

“She was smarter than [her husband] Handy,” he said to me.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Everything the co-wrote is better than his solo publications!” He replied.

In sum, I recommend Christina’s book very warmly although I recognise it might not be framed in a way that will please everyone. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation!

Edward Westermarck on ‘English Conditions’

Today most anthropologists remember Edward Westermarck as one of Malinowski’s two main teachers at the London School of Economics. In fact, I think Malinowski owes a lot to Westermarck, and shared a great deal with him. Both were imperial subjects: Westermarck was a Swedish speaker who grew up in Finland when it was part of the Russian empire, while Malinowski was a pole who grew up with his country under the control of the Prussians. Both were also deeply influenced by the Brits, enough so that they relocated to the UK: At university, Westermarck discovered the work of English evolutionists such as Darwn, Huxley, and Spencer, and became interested in how marriage and morality evolved over time. As a result, he spent several years studying in England and was eventually appointed to a position at the LSE.

While Westermarck is best known for his large comparative studies and his early ethnographies of Morocco (where he lived for over two years — far longer than Malinowski spent in the field), few people have dipped into his autobiography, Memories of My Life. It’s a quirky little gem. My favourite part of the book is the photographs: few of the captions explain which person in them Westermarck is. I think the publisher assumed that readers would be able to pick him out! Westermarck also has a slightly acid predisposition and a gimlet eye. For these reasons, Westermarck’s passages on ‘English conditions’ — the customs and mores of the English — are quite delightful. They give a lovely sense of Oxbridge and British culture in around the turn of the twentieth century. Here are his recollections of the (lack of) intellectual life at Oxford:

“The hospitality in Oxford was extraordinary both in private life and at the common college dinner… To be sure, the social life is not neglected in favour of intellectual pursuits; and amongst the undergraduates sport and politics seem to play a more important part than do their studies. Many Englishmen of high position or great wealth send their sons to Oxford, not so much to drink from the springs of learning as to give them, rather, the opportunity of inhaling an atmosphere that will strengthen their lungs for a future climb to the topmost peaks of society. The training on Oxford and the acquaintances made there are an invaluable equipment for many a young man’s career at home or in the colonies.” (p. 103-104)

Of course, Oxford is not the only university in the planet where young people spend their time Not Studying, so this is hardly an indictment of that institution in particular. But does help reinforce the sense that academics have (which nonacademics do not) that Oxford is famous for being famous, reproducing the elite, and looking like a college, not necessarily for its excellent in research.

Westermarck also ruminated on the antagonism between class and intellectual work:

“Science also feels honoured to have members of the aristocracy amongst its patrons. It would certainly be beneath a lord’s dignity to become a university professor — I heard that expressly stated… — yet there have been one or two exceptions to the rule. On the other hand a lord may be permitted to follow science as a private hobby; in sport, also, great emphasis is laid on the difference between amateurs and professionals. But it cannot be said that intellectual work is at a premium amongst the upper ten. One of my friends, who belongs to an old family with many connections amongst the aristocracy, has told me how strongly his grand relations disapprove of his scientific occupations, although he has never filled any post nor earned the smallest sum by his writings — to make money by working is not really comme il faut either. But a lack of intellectual interests cannot be considered as a special sign of the nobility with that mania for sport and dislike of mental effort that distinguishes, I believe, the majority of Englishmen. Even amongst the ranks of the learned science does not always secure the first place in their esteem. An Oxford friend once confided to me that even there greater value was attached to a drop of blue blood than to a reputation for scholarship.” (p. 105-106)

That said, Westermarck was not unkind to the English and did not mean these remarks to be mean. He explained to readers that they should not be but off by English aloofness:

“The intercourse with my colleagues has been a source of much pleasure to me and naturally given me a much deeper insight into the English character. We often hear how stiff and unapproachable Englishmen are, but their reserved manners, which are connected with their habit, established by education, of restraining their emotions, must not be considered as evidence of their disposition of mind. On nearer acquaintance a great deal of warm-heartedness may be discovered under a cool exterior. In the social circles with which I have had the most to do, I have found an unusual amount of gaiety, frankness, and cordiality, combined with much consideration for others and good-breeding.” (p. 203-204).

Westermarck singles out this ‘habit of restraining emotions’ with a more general pattern of adherence to custom, rather than his Scandinavian tendency to scoff at the ridiculous:

“As regards Englishmen’s sense of humour, my experience is that such unkind jokes as are considered by many among ourselves [the Swedish] as the refinement of wit do not appeal to them at all. On the other hand, they have plenty of humour and a sense of the the comical which often strikes us as naive. A slight divergence from what is usual is often enough to cause unrestrained merriment… The ridicule or, in more serious cases, the contempt to which an individual is exposed when he does anything contrary to custom is one reason why the typical Englishman is so afraid of not acting as others do that he has become a slave to convention. He is a creature of habit, and one, moreover, who allows himself no deviation from his habits even when he is staying in a foreign land…” (p. 204-205)

In a long passage (which I have cut down here) Westermarck notes that much of English custom is focused on what not to do:

“The rules of English convention, as compared to ours, largely resemble the Ten Commandments in their negative character…. Thou shalt not ask personal questions of any but intimate friends; English folks like talking about themselves — it is not only for the fun of the thing that they write of themselves with a capital I — but they avoid indiscretion in their attitude to others… Thou shalt not talk shop; an English scholar told me of his amazement when, at a dinner in Berlin, a German professor at once began to cross-question him on his special branch of knowledge.” (p. 203-205)

There are also other interesting reflections. Here are his thoughts on writing a book:

“I have always found that it takes much less time to collect the material for a book than to write it, although the general public seem to be more impressed by the multitude of facts. The task of the writer is not only to draw conclusions and give them adequate expression, but to construct a building where every stick and stone shall have its right position, where the different parts shall form an organized whole with no unnecessary excrescences nor deficiencies either, where there shall be due proportion and symmetry on every hand. A book must be an architectural creation, an author at once its architect and builder.” (p. 102)

I don’t mean to imply that Westermarck is completely correct in his analysis of English mores (Kate Fox’s Watching the English is probably the best National Character Study I know of) nor do I mean to have a go at the English by posting these notes. I was just charmed by the frankness and vibrancy of Westermarck’s prose. Readers of his heavy fin-de-siecle tomes would never imagine that there was a personality underneath them. Memories of My Life helps us see Westermarck — and his English contemporaries — as real people.

I’m a podcast host! Go listen to David Varel on Allison Davis

I’m proud to announce that I’ve become one of the hosts for the New Book Network’s New Books in Anthropology podcast! In my inaugural episode, I talk with David Varel, the author of the first-ever biography of Allison Davis. Davis (1902-1983) was a pioneering anthropologist who did ground-breaking fieldwork in the Jim Crow south,  challenged the racial bias of IQ tests, and became the first African American to be tenured at the University of Chicago. In this episode in New Books in Anthropology we talk about Davis’s collaboration with authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Edward Sapir, John Dollard, W. Lloyd Warner Warner, St. Clair Drake, and many others. We also discuss how Davis pioneered concepts such as structural racism and explored the relationship between race and class. David Varel talks about the choices he made as a White academic writing about an African American life, and the importance of widening intellectual genealogies by including ‘lost’ figures such as Davis. I hope you enjoy it!

George Washington’s Letter to the Jews

I recently returned from a trip to New England to visit the affines. While there, my children received a gift from one of the aunts — a printed copy of George Washington’s letter to the Hebrew congregation in Newport. I think most American Jews, like me, have heard about this letter and understand its importance: It makes clear that Jews were in America before it was the United States, and were welcomed into our polity by perhaps its most famous founding father. A copy of the text of the letter is available at the website of the synagogue it was addressed to (they also have the text of the letter to which Washington was responding) , and there’s a more scrupulously sourced version online as well. This Fourth of July, it’s worth reading not just for what it says about Washington or Jews, but what it says about our country and its ideals.

The first thing to notice about the letter is that it is very short! So it doesn’t take too long to get through. The central sentences of letter read:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Today my children and I take it for granted that we citizens of our country and that we enjoy the exercise of our rights naturally, without the indulgent toleration of a religious majority… at least more or less. And our privilege in this regard is not shared by everyone in this country, much less the world. The United States, like most institutions, fails to live up to its ideals. Holidays like the Fourth of July are a time for us to remind ourselves of our ideals and to commit ourselves to realizing them. America is not and probably has never been a place where the government gives to bigotry no action and to persecution no assistance. But this has always been our goal, and it is worth continuing to fight for. Happy fourth of July!

Why ‘Anthropology Yesterday’

After taking a break from social media for a year, I’ve finally settled on a suite of projects I want to pursue for the next couple of years. I’ve decided to name this new set of projects ‘Anthropology Yesterday’. There are four reasons.

First, the name is an homage to George Stocking, the famous historian of anthropology. Although I had come to Chicago with a keen interest in academic genealogy and intellectual history, it was really Stocking’s seminar in the history of anthropology that helped me see I was interested in the history of ideas and not ‘theory’ (if you can see the difference). When I met Stocking he had already had a remarkable career. He started writing the history of anthropology at its beginning, in the early 19th century, and had steadily worked his way forward. When I took his seminar, it was entitled ‘anthropology yesterday’ because he had written so much of the discipline’s history the only topic left to study was… himself! Well, not technically himself. But colleagues and contemporaries like Sol Tax. Labelling my work ‘anthropology yesterday’ is both a sly reference for insiders as well an homage. It also recognises that most histories of anthropology break down in the 1960s or 1980s… so there is a lot of recent history to do.

That said, I don’t want to lionize Stocking or claim to have taken his mantle. Stocking was a remarkably successful academic entrepreneur, but he was hardly the only person to do history of anthropology. Also, frankly, I was not particularly close to him. Moreover, he had feet of clay. His head was a complicated place (his autobiography documents this at length) and he could be difficult with people. Stocking deserves a lot of credit — and he’s gotten it. I want to acknowledge my connection and indebtedness to him, but that’s about it.

Second, I decided to name these projects ‘Anthropology Yesterday’ because I’m now a mid-career, middle aged professor. As you get older you can find the silver lining in ageing or you can rage against mortality. I thought I’d get started early on the former by embracing my new non-relevance, lack of a cutting edge, and love of outmoded technologies like blogging. When I look at anthropology today, I ask myself: what can I offer that fifteen thousand twitter bots can’t? The answer is: context. Historical perspective. Not just from my own personal history, but also from the history of our discipline. And of course, the nice thing about a name like ‘anthropology yesterday’ is that it gets truer every year! So when I celebrate my fiftieth blogversary in my dottage, I won’t have to come up with a new name for my blog.

Third: only fools try to shape the future by changing the present. At the moment our discipline is seriously rethinking itself, especially on the mainland. When people ask ‘what is anthropology’ they are always also asking ‘what was anthropology’? Decolonizing involves having a story of a previous, more colonized past. We tell these stories about our past to justify our attempts to remake our future. I’d like to be part of this process by help reminding our discipline what it was — what it actually was, not a simple narrative of a rise from the muck of Pure Concentrated Evil. The past was always more than just PCE, and the present is not perfect either. I’d like to help us see the complexity and variety in our discipline’s history so we can find anchor points for new genealogies. When it comes to the history of anthropology, what is the opposite of ethnographic refusal? Ethnographic acceptance? Admittance? Consent? Sign me up for those.

Finally, beyond the politics of our genealogies, there is one more reason to remember anthropology ‘yesterday’: to remember what we have already figured out. Somehow we don’t have textbooks which summarise what we’ve figured out the way biology does, especially not beyond the introductory level. When we ask ‘what is anthropology and what could it become’ we need to remember the intellectual substance of our discipline, not just its racial politics or political economy. When we ask what makes anthropology a distinct discipline we can find the answer in our history. I’m a big fan of distinctness. Not because of a need to purify the discipline or police its boundaries, but because interdisciplinarity (which I like) requires disciplines. We can recognize the plurality and blurred edges of our tradition while still discerning its distinctiveness. If I can keep even one person from reinventing the wheel, intellectually speaking, then I’ll have made a contribution.

In sum, I like the title ‘anthropology yesterday’ because of its connection to my genealogy, the arc of my biography, and the importance of history of changing the discipline while recognizing its intellectual contribution. Now all I need is a fancy icon and a mission statement and I’m ready to go…!

I finished reading Incomplete Nature and really liked it

It took me eight months but I finally finished reading Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter by Terrence Deacon. It’s pretty impressive. The guys starts with some gas in a pressurised chamber and a heat source, and six hundred pages later… consciousness! I got interested in Deacon’s work when I interviewed Eduardo Kohn and realised what an influence Deacon had on him. I regret that I didn’t study science or math more when I was in college, and over the years I’ve shifted from being interested in Big Issues as they are expressed in continental philosophy to being more and more interested in what scientists have to say about them. Partially this is a result of my being in a ‘four field’ department, partially its just the expansion of my interests away from my original speciality. Although I’m not really in a position to be critical of Deacon’s work due to Not Understanding All Of It, I am very impressed. It was particularly useful to connect Peircean semiotics with the natural sciences. If you are interested in giving it a shot, you might want to read Neither Ghost Nor Machine, which is half the size and is, I gather, a much easier secondary source to get through. Frankly if I had known that it existed before I read it, I might have just gone for that one instead. Still, I’m glad I took the time to read Incomplete Nature. I feel my brain is much stronger having been made to do exercises on this one.

Now that that is done, I’m looking for another Big Book to go through slowly. Have recommendations? Reach out on twitter, email, or Facebook. Thanks!

I went to Switzerland and Learned about Transparency

I was very lucky to visit Switzerland last week for the first time. I have a lot of positive things to say about the country (pluses for me: mountains, cheese, beer, and the SBB transit app), but I want to focus here on the intellectual content of my trip, which was to attend a two day conference on the concept of transparency organized by Filipe Calvao at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

Geneva was lovely. The weather was perfect (too hot for fondue, but perfect for aperol), and the venue was in the middle of a park, so we could sit outside in the sun and read and discuss our papers in a friendly and leisurely manner. At first I felt it might be a bit too leisurely for my taste, but then I realized two things. First, I am just a very intense person and need to calm down so other people around me can feel comfortable. And second, when you don’t live near the equator, there are five extra hours of daytime to get work done in the summer!

I won’t comment too much on the papers we discussed since they are still in process, but I did want to vaguebook a little about the concept of transparency. I don’t actually study transparency, so experts might find these remarks obvious, but writing them will help clarify things for me, and might be interesting to others who are, like myself, non-initiates.

First, I was struck by the way that ‘transparency’ is a coherent cultural syndrome or culture trait — there is clearly out there called ‘transparency ideology’. This term was coined by Andrea Ballestero in her special issue on transparency, and connects well with other similar ideas like language ideology and semiotic ideology. This is ‘transparency’ in a narrow sense: a reflexive project of actors (typically the governing and bureaucratic sort) which aims to gain accurate and complete knowledge of some state of affairs in order to better govern or monitor them. Think sustainability reports in the mining industry or companies hiring consultants to demonstrate to outsiders that they don’t have child slaves making their tennis shoes.

Much of the literature I read in preparation for the conference gave several reasons to be critical of the concept of transparency. First, many authors criticised the coercive nature of transparency claims. Because transparency is supposed to be a good thing, you can’t argue with anyone who claims to be doing it — even if what they are doing is not good. The hegemonic, bludgeoning force of transparency was something that many people complained about.

At the same time (second) there are a lot of people who have been successfully critical of transparency discourse. So if someone argued that you can’t argue with transparency, I’d recommend they look at this work. Rachel Hall’s critique of airport checkpoints convincingly shows us how our democratic rights as citizens are transformed into temporary freedom of movement after we have submitted to transparency. Journalists who protect their sources are both opposed to transparency and in the right. Indigenous people who object to the depiction of private information in ethnographies are opponents of transparency, and rightly so. In fact, any sort of discourse of privacy is an anti-transparency discourse. So I think in the branding war against transparency there are a lot of allies and a lot of good criticisms of bad transparency. Most of us don’t think of doxxing as a brave act of transparency.

Third, I was struck by the suppression of ambivalence that accompanies transparency. Transparency projects often spend lots of time and money compiling massive amounts of documents, but the rhetoric of transparency is that it can ‘see through’ obstructions to the unmediated truth. Somehow all those documents, all those mediations, disappear. Much of the literature on mediation has noticed the ironies, silences, and disavowals that these sorts of transparency projects require, the unintended consequences they raise, the harm they do by claiming to do good etc. — call it the Kafka critique of transparency.

Fourth, Transparency thus strikes me as a very ‘sincere’ cultural project, in Seligmann et. al.’s terms: a kinds of cultural system that has trouble admitting that there is always more than one way of doing things. It seems a very Protestant system to me, in the sense that Keane describes Protestantism as a project of sincerity and authenticity that both inevitable requires representation, but also wishes it didn’t. I’m reminded here, for instance, of Fielgelman’s book Declaring Independence which opens with a description of Thomas Jefferson practicing sounding natural when he reads the Declaration of Independence. Practicing sounding natural: that’s the pairing of rhetoric and logic that transparency wants to unburden itself of. It also reminded me of the line from The Importance of Being Earnest to the effect of ‘being spontaneous is so exhausting’ but of course now I can’t find that quote. Ultimately, transparency is a semiotic ideology in Keane’s sense, and as Mazarella’s excellent article on mediation (which I’ve only just now gotten around to reading) demonstrates, this ambivalence about mediation is not just something linked with Protestantism, but a central part of semiosis and something which all cultures have to deal with (in saying this, Mazzarella is making an argument similar to Seligman).

Now, I don’t want to essentialism Protestantism or transparency. These are big labels and there are lots of different versions and variations of these things. In fact, I was struck by how some of the papers at the conference didn’t seem to be about transparency projects and transparency ideology at all.

For instance, first, some criticise transparency projects because they focus on one thing and not something else. Thus they can ignore the things that you wish they would focus on. But this isn’t really a critique of transparency projects in particular, it’s a critique that could be levelled at all cultural projects, since they are all inevitably selective and omitive. This is, to me, a Neokantian or Weberian point.

Second, just because transparency is all about visibility doesn’t mean that all visibility is about transparency. Nor are all concealments and secrecies about transparency. I feel like it is important to distinguish between the particular cultural project of transparency and other things which seem vaguely connected to it because they revolved around secrecy and openness. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be considered alongside transparency, but that the true value of a wider or metaphorical use of the concept of transparency is that it should be able to show us connections and the disconnections between these different projects.

Third, (and this was the topic of my own paper) we need to be a little reflexive when it comes to critiquing transparency. Much of the literature I’ve read on transparency seems very sure of its ability to know the truth… about how transparency projects don’t know as much as they think they do. Critiques of transparency should be subtle and reflexive, or else they end up replicating the false omniscience they denounce. Luckily, as anthropologists we’re good at ‘doing reflexivity’ so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem for us.

Fourth, and finally, much of the literature on transparency that I’ve read doesn’t like transparency because it has been used to do evil. This is doubtless true in many cases, but it’s not a criticism of transparency ideology itself. Sadly, there is no concept or idea that has not been used for evil at some point or another in world history. Love, compassion, hope, solidarity, empathy — all have been used to justify the worst excesses of human nature at some point or another. For instance: We love our children, which is why we must eradicate the Jews who seek to prey on them. Ultimately, we need to be clear that when we dislike transparency projects, it is because we dislike the broader political project which has pressed it into service. We should also be clear about why and how much we dislike these projects. I’m very cynical about the success of these projects in the mining industry, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that I’d prefer to have an industry that is completely unregulated and unmonitored. Norms are at the core of many of our concerns about transparency, and we should be honest about that.

In closing:

A few more notes about Switzerland. I was also able to get out to Lucerne to visit Bettina Beer’s group there which studies mining in Papua New Guinea — thanks to all of them for their hospitality and especially to Tobias Schwoerer who helped organize my stay. I didn’t get a chance to sight-see much on my trips. However, I did get a chance to see the Musée Barbier-Muller in Geneva and the Ethnographic Museum in Basel (and, as a result, Basel’s lovely historic downtown). The former had a small collection of beautiful pieces displayed in a pretty traditional ‘arts premiers’ way. The latter had a fantastic 3 story high entrance to a Sepik men’s house, along with strong collections from the Sepik and New Ireland (among other places). There were a couple of installations there or in-process when I visited so I couldn’t see all of the museum, but I was intrigued to see how Basel solved the perennial problem of ethnographic museums: How to display a collection gathered under one out-moded premise (natural history of ‘primitive’ people). Their solution was to have each of the floors of the museum dedicated to a different dimension of the human experience: agency, ‘bigness’ (space, extension, and volume), and so forth. Or at least this is what I gathered — one thing I confirmed on this trip was precisely how little German I spoke. I liked the idea of addressing the Human Condition, but of course this also led to very little contextualization of the objects from PNG. And, if I may so, I was a bit shocked at the number of skulls on display. I think in the US displaying human remains is not the done thing anymore.

One final thing: if you’re into iconoclasm, I highly recommend the cathedral in Geneva. It’s remarkable how unadorned a cathedral can be! I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything else from the town John Calvin called home.

Overall, I had a great time in Switzerland and it was well worth the twenty frickin’ hours it took to get there. Thanks to everyone who hosted me and made my trip possible — it is much appreciated!