Having just seen–I am among the last persons I know who can say this–Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and his update–and in spite of some of the criticisms I have head of Gore’s approach, I think there is a great deal to be learned from both his presentation and his overall campaign, in terms of making a “new anthropology” for a new and hopefully better world. I have several reasons for saying this, and for highlighting some connections that need to be made.
First, in orthodox and disciplined anthropology, the emphasis on micro-specific research methods (such as participant observation), as many have recognized, does not allow us to make an easy jump to discussing macro phenomena, such as colonialism, global climate change, and other mass transformations, all of which are reaching critical new heights. When making the jump to the macro-world, we do not do very well: we come up with very weak concepts such as “flows,” or “transnational belongings,” nothing really that can explain change or guide social action. To make matters worse, some of us then resent those who at least try to develop comprehensive analytical frameworks, such as World Systems Analysis–many anthropologists have rejected it, and offered absolutely nothing in its place.
By associating and identifying the discipline with a specific set of methods, we are ensuring our increased irrelevance to what is taking hold of the world, and what is taking hold of people’s imaginations and worries. Many of us continue with our many little micro-projects as if the world were a stable place that permits us to safely pursue our (perhaps self-indulgent) niche projects, to advance our careers amidst the growing prospect for complete ruin. I am not saying that this is only socially irresponsible, it is plainly self-destructive. At the very least, niche research is the manifest expression of a bourgeois social science.
Second, with reference to what I called, for current lack of a better term, amorphography: many of the critical phenomena of the global present do not present themselves in terms of “society,” “polity,” “economy,” and “culture.” These are disaggregations whose effect is to prevent one from seeing a more complete picture–instead all we have are pixels. Amorphography is an attempt to get the picture beyond the pixels. It involves recognition that most complex phenomena can only be apprehended if we break down disciplinary barriers and overcome petty methodological bigotries.
(I allude to something being “amorphous” not because I surrender and feel the world out there is “just one big blob” and all concepts entail the meanings of all other concepts–but as a way of reintroducing holism without precluding understandings of what that whole might be and how that whole might be studied.)
Al Gore was not bogged down by disciplinary limitations. He freely mixed discussion of “science,” with culture or “civilization,” and ideology or ways of thinking. The emphasis of his presentation was, of course, on the transformation of the natural world by human activity and the dissemination of data. It could be superficially read as an endorsement of disciplinary boundaries, I concede that much.
Third, forms of expression: Al Gore was exceptionally effective at being plain and direct. That is part of what makes his presentation compelling, and as academics we must recognize that fact. His presentation, in the hands of many of my colleagues, would have seen crystalline statements replaced by ambiguities, ambivalence, unnecessary pluralizations (“globals climates changes” seems like a likely candidate), a vast fog of references to other sources (usually preserving the full name of the authors to which a writer is showing deference to), multiple contradictions, and an idiom that defies easy understanding and practical conversation. This too is a political choice: seeking to be distanced from any need to practically and politically engage the world, the bourgeois academic resorts to obscurantism, to hermetically sealed specialist languages, and to inconsequential research topics.
When Al Gore simply stated, with the use of a slide,
old habits + old technologies = predictable consequences
old habits + new technologies = dramatically altered consequences
he achieves the highest success that a communicator and educator can hope to achieve: to take complex, interlinked phenomena, and make them open to understanding, and to make meaning memorable.
Any of this other pedantry about “sophisticated” analyses is mere bourgeois vanity, and its time is coming to an end.
So I will add my own little formula, for an open anthropology:
direct statements + practical engagements = open anthropology