Go read my review of Varel’s “The Lost Black Scholar”

After quite some time — and without a chance for me to review the final edits (!) — History of Anthropology Review has published my review of David Varel’s The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought. I thought that the book was well-written and well-researched, but what I really appreciated about it was the way it bought Allison Davis back into my life — an extraordinary scholar whose Deep South I now teach regularly in my History of Anthropology course at both the undergraduate and graduate level. I also interviewed Varel about his book on The New Books Network anthropology channel . And now, The University of Chicago is planning a conference and distinguished lecture series in Davis’s name. It’s great to see Davis getting the recognition that he deserves.

Website Refreshenating

I’ve done some refreshing of this website, adding a new background (a cc’d image of a William Morris floral textile print, iirc), updating my about page, and, most importantly…. reactivating my timeline of the history of anthropology!

I’ve been working on this timeline continuously for years now but the online version stopped working for some reason and I’d gotten lazy about uploading the source files. But now my timeline page has everything back on it again. You can view the web version online or else download the source files which you can use with Aeon Timeline, the best timeline program I’ve found to date.

In the (almost) words of Walter Benjamin, I am unpacking my website. Yes, I am.

The history of semiotics in anthropology

Someone in one of the my email lists was asking about the history of semiotics in anthropology, and that made me realise that I didn’t know very much about the subject, so I spent some time googling it. I got particularly interested in Milton Singer, who is interesting to me because he was hugely influential at Chicago, but afaik is basically forgotten today in my field.

A quick google seemed to confirm much of what I already suspected about semiotics: After Worlds War II many people were interested in abstraction and communication — concepts like ‘cybernetics’ and ‘information’ were in the air. As the more humanistically-inclined dug for sources they saw Saussure and Peirce as dual sources for what we now call ‘semiotics’.

In the US Thomas Sebeok was the academic entrepreneur who worked to create semiotics as a new and embracing discipline. In fact, one obituary called him the “pioneer, pathfinder, mentor, midwife, pied piper, kind Midas, gold standard, magician, troubadour, trickster,” and “friend” of semiotics. A more staid LA Time Obituary has further details and no pay wall. Linguistics as a discipline was clearly key here.

According to a short history the first major conference on semiotics was in 1966, around the same time the journal Semiotica was founded. Sebeok was involved in this and a ton of other series, often published by De Gruyter Mouton. It was a highly international affair (as many of those things were in those well-funded days) with American (and Canadian) institutional supports in people like Sebeok, as well as many European anchors. Greimas’s name appears in this literature frequently, for instance. There was also a strong Eastern European influence as well.

To me, ‘semiotics’ in anthropology means ‘Chicago anthropology, especially the work of Michael Silverstein’. Silverstein however, is just part of a larger movement. Today, this approach is well-established in other powerful departments — there is for instance Webb Keane at Michigan and Asif Agha and Benjamin Lee at Penn, Paul Kockelman at Yale, Nicholas Harkness at Harvard, and many others. So by now this tendency in anthropology has the potential to be institutionalised in most of the major departments of anthropology in North America, and seems to me to be a North American phenomenon — I can’t think of many Oxbridge types who think of themselves as doing ‘semiotics’ in this sense. Silverstein was hired by Chicago in 1971. His ground-breaking “shifters” paper was published in 1974.

But Silverstein was not the only person to discuss semiotics at Chicago. Milton Singer (useful obit here) did a philosophy degree at Chicago with Carnap in 1940 and ended up turning into a South Asianist and major force behind Chicago’s Centre for South Asian Studies, often working with Robert Redfield on projects driven by large external grants (here’s another Chicago-based obit). I am guessing war service sent him in that direction? I am sure if I read some of the sources I googled it would all be clear to me.

At any rate, in the late 1970s Singer returned to an interest in earlier questions of meaning, beginning (afaik) with the paper “For a semiotic anthropology” in Sebeok’s edited volume Sight, Sound, and Sense. Other way marks here are his 1984 Man’s Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology and 1991’s Semiotics of Cities, Selves and Cultures. While some authors have revisited this work on the whole I at least haven’t heard much about it. I do wonder about his relationship with Silverstein — the two authors were at different ends of their careers.

As a grad student in the 1990s I was assigned works such as Semiotic Mediation (1985) and Signs in Society (1994) (and the earlier papers in it) as examples of the tradition. The 2013 creation of the journal Signs in Society seems important to me as a sign of the continued vitality of this tendency. When Paul Manning joined the editorial board of Language and Communication in 2004 I feel like I started seeing several semiotic-style special issues appearing there.

There is more to say about all this, but I wrote this mostly to dump all my open browser tabs into my (outboard) brain, so I’ll stop here for now and let this cursory sketch stay cursory.

Honey and Poi featured in USCJ’s “Journeys”

Honey and Poi is a history of my synagogue in Hawai‘i. I helped research it and Matt, my collaborator and friend, wrote it. In a short column for USCJ’s online magazine Journeys we talk about being Jewish in Hawai‘i and the lessons we learned about keeping our community strong and vital far from traditional American centres of Judaism on the East Coast. Check it out!

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!