“Important Ideas” in Anthropology

Back in 1989, Edmund Carpenter joined in a particularly visceral polemic occasioned by the release of Robert Gardner’s film, Forest of Bliss. I will not recapitulate that debate here, which in part centered on Gardner’s art versus anthropological science, on Gardner’s visual poetry versus anthropological theory, on Gardner’s evocative imagery/imagination versus steady narration…I will just say that Carpenter endorsed Gardner’s film and was responding to a particularly heinous set of attacks, in print, from Jay Ruby. This is what Carpenter (1989: 12) said:

“Professor Ruby speaks of the need to ‘make films as a means to [sic] exploring important ideas in anthropology.’ The difference between ‘important ideas’ and ideas important in anthropology is often considerable. Don’t blame Gardner for choosing the former.”

Among the many, innumerable, statements we came across in that Visual Anthropology course, perhaps few other statements made the students pause for so long, and quietly, as if they were being faced with an uncomfortable “truth” in an unlikely setting, coming at them unpredictably.

What makes certain ideas “important” in anthropology?