Less Than Zero Anthropology

Posted on 21 August 2012 by


“Sometimes,” remarked a wise colleague of mine many years ago, “It seems all I know how to do is critique.” We were postgraduate students, I in anthropology, she in sociology, but our paths crossed several times in the classes of a VFM whose task it was to bathe us in the critical light of dialectics. He, and the other damnably brilliant teachers at CUNY – feminists, anarchists, commies, critical race theorists, all manner of ragtag radicals – approached this undertaking so exhaustively that many of us eventually reached critical burnout. We were condemnation machines with a Darwinian expertise in the taxonomy of human failure, scientific misanthropes programmed to catalogue the orderly inadequacy of the world and destined to bitter disappointment when the fire of our own Promethean forays into positive struggle – activism, trade unionism, protest – fizzled in defeat, a repetitive tutorial that only added ethnographic detail to our growing analysis of historical entropy. When I became a lecturer myself, I passed the same tradition on to my own students. I taught them how to tear things down, but I never taught them how to build things up, because I didn’t know myself.

Her observation sticks in my craw these days. A few weeks back I turned 40, the age at which I once pledged that if academia didn’t throw a real job my way, I’d kick it to the curb and do something else with my life. It was an arbitrary number based on the calculus of shame, a countdown to the break point of infantilisation tolerance that reached Anthropology Zero in early August and is now ticking away into negative figures. From my perspective on the launch pad to a brave new world beyond the university, it dawns on me that I’ve left my mid-life crisis a bit late. The problem with spending twenty years learning how to do anthropology is that it doesn’t leave vast amounts of spare time to learn how to do anything else. I’m worse than most. It’s not just that I don’t know how to be a nuclear physicist, or bluegrass fiddler, or a forklift operator, or any of the other things I might’ve done with my life if I hadn’t done this. It’s that I am utterly lacking in fundamental knowledge about the material basis of my own existence. I can deconstruct the daylights out of the auto bailout but I can’t change a flat tire. I can provide an immanent critique of the subprime crisis but I couldn’t build so much as a doghouse. I can wax poetic about the technological implications of capitalism’s tendency to transcend space by time but I haven’t a clue how my mobile phone works. I’m not only jobless; I’m functionally useless. If the Big One ever hits, I’ll be the one standing in the road debating the hermeneutics of apocalyptic discourse with the zombies while more productive people sort out the generator and the canned soup. Such is the province of the “independent scholar.”

I remember the first time I ever used that term. I was filling out job applications in Bristol, my paperwork having finally arrived in the post giving me the nod to seek gainful employment in my new country. I was flummoxed at the entry for “Current Position.” It was the first time I’d ever applied for an academic gig from the flat-out nothingness of post-PhD unemployment; in the past I could’ve at least said “student.” The literal truth was undignified at best. At that particular moment, my current position was sitting in my underpants polishing off a bag of Twiglets and watching an Eastenders marathon, but that wouldn’t fit in the space provided, and at any rate didn’t make me sound particularly fit for the noble industry of intellectual labour. So I wrote “independent scholar” instead, despite the fact that I’d rarely been more dependent in my life – on my new husband and his income, on my meagre savings which were utterly dwarfed by my student debt, on the British welfare state which kindly saw to my health care despite my never having paid a dime into it, on the good grace of the Home Office to let me stick around at all. Several decent if temporary jobs later, here I sit on the other side of the water (though readers will be relieved to learn I’m wearing trousers this time), with a different set of dependencies and nothing but the same old bullshit to describe my current position to search committees too precious to read the word “unemployed.” Except I’m not going to write it anymore, because the very last job app went out months ago without so much as a squeak in return. That’s all she wrote.

I’m not exactly heartbroken at this predicament. Looking back, my motivations for joining the business were less than noble. I signed up for anthropology because I wanted to be Indiana Jones. It was more than the hat and the whip; those silly movies – I kid you not – gave me my first glimpse of anything beyond the borders of America, even if it was fabricated in some Hollywood backlot. Egypt! India! Wherever; at least it wasn’t Bleecker, with its three bars, two streetlights and one church. And look how grateful those brown folks seemed when the white guy showed up to save them from themselves! I’d never heard the terms “Orientalism” or “colonialism,” because they didn’t teach that sort of thing in redneck high school. For that matter, I’d never heard the word “anthropology.” It’s not the sort of thing you banter about in casual conversation out here in the sticks. By the time I reached college, I was far more earnest but no more informed, at least about anthropology, though by then I’d at least cottoned on that Dr Jones was a bit of a prick. But I still wanted to travel, and save the world. So I drifted into university on an international studies cruiser and jumped ship a term later, all but drowned in the tepid waters of “social entrepreneurship” and “zero-sum games” when a passing anthropology junk threw me a line, and took me aboard. It’s always been difficult to explain to prospective anthropology students how that early amnesty on the high seas of academe saved my life when they keep asking lubberly questions such as, “Will I get a job at the end of this tour?” and “How will I repay my indenture?” I wish I’d considered those questions more seriously when I weighed anchor, but the fact is, I would’ve sailed on anyway. Because anthropology was, and is, brilliant. I wouldn’t trade the education it gave me for all the tea in China, or any of the other ports of call to which it never wound up taking me in the end.

That was my own fault, sort of. In fact I blame it on Arkansas. I was walking down the high street in Fayetteville one day, where I was holed up for the summer with my U of A partner before setting off for fieldwork back home in the Adirondacks – a warm-up, in my mind, for the “real” work I would eventually do in the mother of all forests, Amazonia. It was one of those dreamy Dixie afternoons where the heat builds to a fever until the skies break and rain down pitchforks and hammer handles while the gutters rise to rushing cricks. I ducked into a record shop to wait out the storm, and was flipping through the wares when I came upon a face that was a dead-ringer for my stepfather, a trucker, Teamster, mechanic and casual troubadour who crossed the bar when I was sixteen but lived fondly in my memories. Whoever it was, he was a redneck for sure; you could tell by the devil-may-care inclination at which the cigarette dangled truculently from the corner of his lips and the lean, World War Two cut of his jib. I bought the CD and took it back to our flat to give it a whirl. And then, I had a Lucy moment – you know, that point in one of the Narnia books where the wardrobe kid awakens to a voice, but can’t figure out where she’s heard it before, and knows only that it’s her favourite voice in the world. I recognized snippets of the tunes, but it was that voice, and what it said, that grabbed me by the gut. It was Woody Guthrie. I’ll bear the full weight of the metaphor. Lucy heard Aslan and Aslan means Jesus. I don’t believe in Jesus or any other deity, but what I heard that day was as close as I’ve ever come to epiphany. Hillbillies had politics? Socialist politics? Why in Sam Hill didn’t anybody tell me? I was one! Why didn’t I know? At that moment I felt like a foreigner in my own country, and as everybody knows, nothing baits an anthropologist like the seduction of the exotic other, even if it happens to be yourself. So, like many an anthropod before me, I went native, and I never looked back. Later, when I read Vine Deloria Jr’s superb essay “Anthropologists and Other Friends” (from Custer Died for Your Sins, required reading for all anthropologists everywhere for all time), I was glad I did. Sort out your own shit before you come running to save us, is the short version, and that’s a credo of anti-hypocrisy I could get behind. But the truth is the decision was entirely selfish. Anthropology had been a way for me to escape my heritage of shitkicking crackerism, an exercise in self-loathing. Now it was an exercise in auto-pyschoanalysis.

It’s taken a bit longer to apply the heal-thy-self edict to the individual scale. For me, that’s meant finally separating anthropology from academia. And hold on to your hats because I’m going to let the cat out of the bag here – a lot of the time, academia’s a drag. The bureaucratic busywork, the public vilification, the endless struggle for meagre funding, the mousy obeisance to those who occasionally chuck a dime our way, the manic publishing treadmill which favours quantity over quality and pushes all production toward mediocrity, the incessant big-fish-in-a-small-pond dick-waving, the self-consuming spiral of endless, imperious critique. I’ll be more than pleased to drain that dingy bathwater while I struggle to keep hold of the baby. And I certainly won’t miss the ritual humiliation of the job hunt, a process calculated to test the subservience margins of prospective applicants, and one that invariably seems to turn otherwise decent human beings into the most inconsiderate boobs on the planet. I once learned I lost out to the other guy on a short-list of two when the department welcomed him as the new faculty member on their website. Another time, after being flown all the way across the Atlantic for three full days of wining and dining and grilling and fawning, a search chair engaged in the ethically-dodgy task of selecting his own retirement replacement refused to even answer my emails inquiring whether I got the job, leaving me to sweat it out like a wallflower after a blind date until I finally got the straight dope from a dean. And don’t get me started on committees that require three full letters of reference from all 500 candidates for a low-wage sweatshop replacement in East Bumfuck before they’ve even glanced at a CV. I can only presume they do it to torture their colleagues, but it’s a ballache for everyone involved.

It’s of course absurd to complain about such trivialities when there are starving children in Alabama, but if you’re going to bust your tits sixty hours a week with no guarantee of a job next year no matter how well you do this one – as I and many other precarious workers have done, over and over again – then putting your own house in order means relinquishing the chumpdom of the “vocation” and admitting that no matter how noble the work, nobility doesn’t pay the rent. That may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a tricky call when you’ve been generously subsidised, financially and otherwise, for long years by kith and kin with a considerable stake in your intellectual pride quotient. My mother was happier about my PhD than I was, and owns a collection of t-shirts from every university I’ve ever attended or worked for. My brother recently introduced me to some loggers from whom he was purchasing a dump truck as “the thinker in a family of woodchucks” and explained to them (very accurately) the difference between sociocultural and other kinds of anthropology. My other brother reputedly had to excuse himself to the bathroom to blow his nose years back when, on Christmas Day, the family read my dissertation acknowledgements thanking them for their support. It’s their anthropology as much as it is mine, and you don’t just casually disown other people’s emotional investments. Fortunately, I have an out: geography. The decision to move back to the sticks, and stay here to meet the kinship obligations my siblings have been shouldering for years while I’ve been off on my great global critique tour, means I’m about as far from an anthropology job as one gets in this country, though that goes for just about anywhere these days. The American Anthropological Association recently released a nifty new app that utilises the GIS signal in a smartphone to search for jobs in your neighbourhood. The last time I tried it, it spat out a position at the American University in Cairo. Precarious intellectual workers, a subset I once heard Linda Chavez-Thomson describe as “the new migrant labour,” get used to making tracks for pennies on the hour, but a 5,774-mile commute would test the patience (and the purse) of the most seasoned adjunct.

Max Forte describes Zero Anthropology, in part, as an attempt to “move anthropology beyond its current confines, beyond the constraints of professionalization and institutionalization,” quoting Claude Lévi-Strauss, who once said that “anthropology will survive in a changing world by allowing itself to perish in order to be born again under a new guise.” Anthropology is accomplishing that feat on its own these days, battered by its general unprofitability in the external market of capitalism and its commitment to acute class stratification in the internal market of academe. But the new guise of this old discipline is still up for grabs. I’m not sure what my own private Zero Anthropology will look like, because it’s tough to make a buck in any manner in these parts. This isn’t just an academic predicament, it’s an Adirondack one. It’s been a hustle to scrape a living up here in the back of beyond since the first Frenchman stumbled upon the mountains in the early seventeenth century (the Mohawk and Algonquians were smart enough not to make a permanent home of these hills; it took dumb white people to look at a six-million acre, tangled, swampy, snowy, skeeter-infested forest and say, “Let’s live there.”). My hometown is a particularly hapless corner of the Tristes Frigides. The last sawmill burned down years ago, and with little tourism to speak of, we are now effectively a bedroom community for the poorest city in New York State. My own peculiar anthropological predilections have rendered me less than employable on the off-campus market; as an expert in redneckism I can’t even sell myself to the state, unless the FBI comes knocking on my door in the throes of the next Ruby Ridge. So I’m left to jerry-rig the bits and piece of my anthropology into a wholesale subsistence strategy, patching up my capacity for dour intellectual critique with some sort of creative material skill. I’d like to hear in the comments how others, and especially those travelling the circuitous route of what Steve Earle, the closest thing to Guthrie my generation ever produced, has called the Hillbilly Highway, have navigated the terrain of ground Zero, because I’m hardly the first anthropologist to make landfall here, and I certainly won’t be the last.

The thing about Guthrie is, he wasn’t really very good at any of the things that made him famous. He wasn’t exactly a crack musician and his voice, while not quite as preposterous as that of his erstwhile prodigy, Dylan, was nothing to write home about. He was a fair poet but none of it rings quite the same on dead paper. His blithely unsystematic politics came straight from the gut. Take that voice singing different songs, or those songs sung by different voices, the poetry without the politics or the politics without the poetry, and the magic disappears. Guthrie was that rare thing Engels sought in vain: dialectics personified, not as a method but as a force of nature. The whole was more than the sum of its parts. If another Guthrie ever comes along I certainly won’t be it, but I think that wholeness is something to strive for. It’s the kind of thing I really sought, and found, in the anthropology of the mind rather than the anthropology of the institution, the thing that led me full circle from Dogpatch to Orientalist pretension and back to Dogpatch again. And Dogpatch is where I shall remain, so I’ve got to figure out how to live here and now, an organic intellectual with all the literal trappings. I’m going all Marvin Harris, off to build some infrastructure. I’m not much of a poet, so I’ll let Woody speak my swan song.