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Nancy Mattina on Gladys Reichard

My interview with Nancy Mattina on Gladys Reichard, ‘America’s least appreciated anthropologist’ is now live over at the New Books Network. Go take a listen! Nancy’s carefully-researched book re-captures the achievements of Gladys Reichard, a woman whose achievements, Nancy persuasively argues, was erased by her contemporaries. Perhaps the closest discipline of both Franz Boas and Elsie Clews Parsons, Nancy presents an image of an incredibly productive scholar with a zest for living whose work was disparaged by the sexism of men like Edward Sapir and Clyde Kluckhohn and the classism of blue-blooded women such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. It’s easy to be put off by Sapir’s misogyny today, but what I thought made this book and our interview so fascinating was Nancy’s portrayal Benedict and Mead not as feminist heroes but as envious of and less-successful than Reichard. In the middle we ask the question: What would have happened to American ethnography if Reichard, carrying Boas’s and Parsons’s style forward, had become hegemonic. It’s a fascinating question! And with Reichard’s wonderful ethnography Spider Woman now available for free download, hopefully more people will be able not only to ask this question, but answer it.

Copious Free Time: UCL, Chicago, NYU, Melville House, Harvard kinda

Where to start?

Dulam Bumochir’s book from UCL Press, The State, Popular Mobilisation and Gold Mining in Mongolia looks promising. Not familiar w/the author, but love the press and the topic! 

Chicago has a monthly free e-book deal (‘free’ in the sense of ‘harvest your email’ free). This month’s offer, Pictures from an Institution looks interesting. They are also offering their top novels for just a few bucks, including UH emeritus prof Lee Siegel’s Love in a Dead Language.

I love NYU’s monthly specials. Their press hits some weird sweet spot with me where they have titles on topics I care about but never have time to read. This month they have an Earth Day theme, and are offering titles which tend to focus on environmental justice. I highly recommend them if you study that are, or are even just curious. The price is perfect for exploratory reading. Just check to make sure your library doesn’t have it online for you already!

Melville House is doing ’round 2′ of its academic books give-away, offering Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass, Molander’s The Anatomy of Inequality, and White’s The Science Delusion for free download. You need an academic email address and the code (moral, inequality, and delusion respectively).

Also, if I can take a moment for a slightly critical note, let me provide an example of a less-than-ideal response to COVID-19: Harvard University Press’s Loeb Classical Library has made its online books free to schools and universities. You just need to email them for more details. I appreciate the impulse to help, and I recognise the high quality of Loeb editions and of the website more generally, but I think Harvard should have just opened up the collection to anyone who wanted to read it. Most of the texts are already thousands of years old and there are open access translations of them already. I know Loeb’s editors add value to these texts in a real way but asking schools to go through a process to get access to these is putting your light under a bushel, in my opinion. Most of these free offers are really attempts to build marketing lists already, and I doubt there are hordes of Seneca heads who are going to bulk download your work in some unethical way. And if there are then… isn’t that success for an imprint whose goal is to get these ancient authors into modern hands?

Ok there have been some scholarly publications which I want to highlight which have come out soon but I’ll take a break for now and come back with more later.

Copious Free Time: Rutgers and Melville House

More ebooks for your Copious Free Time! Rutgers is offering free ebooks related to COVID-19 and, unlike some offers, these books are actually tightly related to this topic, not surprising given Rutgers’s strength in medical anthropology.

Melville House also has some cheap ebook options. These include two buck ebooks of their ten top selling novels (they look great but I probably am too much of a nonfiction reader to ever get to them) as well as free download of Utopia of Rules, Culture as Weapon, and Trainwreck: The Women We Love To Hate. To get the discount you have to enter a secret code which is simply the first word of each book’s title (Utopia, Culture, and Trainwreck). Graeber’s book will be especially relevant to anthropologists.

I will not lie, though — today the deeply-discounted time-killer I splurged on was Endless Space II.

Copious Free Time: The Verso/Haymarket Edition

I like ebook sales because they give me an opportunity to obsessively comb through publisher’s lists — which is obviously an incredibly healthy and normal thing to do, of course. Today I spent a few minutes looking at the latest from Verso and Haymarket, two very lefty presses. The occasion was their generous and excellent offer of free ebooks during the COVID-19 crisis. Haymarket’s free ebooks include works by Angela Davis, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and my colleague Yari Bonilla. Verso’s “Free Quarantine Books” include Nancy Fraser and what I suspect is a ruthless takedown of Joe Biden from Branco Marcetic. In addition, Verso is having an 80% off sale on its ebooks, so each one is about 2 bucks US. Verso features these sales pretty regularly. I have a bookmark file with new Verso titles that interest me, and then when the sale pops up that’s when I pick them up.

To be honest, I rarely have a chance to read the ebooks I buy — they are sort of like games on Steam: You buy five for twenty bucks and then it turns out you spend hours and hours with one of them. But just perusing these publishers’ lists is good for keeping up your awareness of your intellectual surroundings. And even just being able to browse these books on your computer can help expand your mind and make some new intellectual connections. As someone in an apartment on an island, I ran out of room for physical books long ago, I’ve learned to let go of the idea that I need a large library. But when I do start worrying that the air to book ration in apartment is skewed too high in the air direction, buying ebooks help me cope. They’re the equivalent of a nicotine patch for compulsive bibliophiles. So if you are looking for a fix, check out Verso and Haymarket.

Copious Free Time: History of Anthropology Addition

The joke is that we are supposed to have more free time because we are stuck indoors. But in my case — and I’m sure I’m not alone in this — taking my normal load and then adding child care and moving my classes online is not exactly what I’d call creating free time. Just. The. Opposite.

Of course, I’m very fortunate: I’ll still getting paid, and I’m shut in with other people, not unemployed and trapped alone in my studio apartment, or worse. I recognize that. But there is something tantalizing (as in Tantalus) about the current situation: More and more people in higher education and other realms are ungating more and more content during COVID-2019.

Case in point: Project Muse is ungating huge amounts of content. They’ve always been a good organization with good values who publish good stuff, so the list is long. But I’m particularly interested to see that Oklahoma University Press’s Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology series is now open access. Holy cow — that’s a lot of great work. Long-overdue biographies of groundbreaking female anthropologists like Ruth Landes and Cora Du Bois, the new (and only) biography of Franz Boas, the collected essays of Stephen O. Murray, who passed away not too long ago — the list goes on and on.

So if you have all that Copious Free Time that I wish I had, go take a gander at these and all the other great offerings at Project Muse. You’ll see the history of anthropology is far more complicated than just evil dead white men, although to be fair there are a few of those featured in the book as well! It’s a great resource that spans hundreds of years and most of the continents. Go check it out. And… thank you, Project Muse and Oklahoma!

Go read my chapter on ‘Leviathans’

My chapter on ‘Leviathans’ is now available in the new volume Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon from the awesome open access publisher Punctum Books. I’ve long been a fan of Punctum so I was very excited when my editors Cymene and Anand decided to turn our series of blog posts at the journal Cultural Anthropology into a book (you can read my original entry on Leviathans on the CA website). I think of a lot of what I do to be very intellectually dense and ethnographically detailed so I was delighted to be included in this very experimental, humanistic, and artistic endeavour. In fact, if I may say so I think the contributors list to this volume really reflects the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-decade anthropology so… I guess I made the cut! If you like the book, please consider donating to Punctum Books. The spice must flow, if you see what I’m saying.

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!