Does Wade Davis Do Gaza?

A former student was kind enough to draw my attention to the following video, a very interesting TED talk by anthropologist Wade Davis, a National Geographic “Explorer-in-Residence”:

I have a lot of respect for Wade Davis and I have long been an admirer of his work on zombification in Haiti, which he calls the “ethnobiology” of the Haitian zombie. Indeed it seems that biological metaphors and comparisons are interwoven throughout his entire talk above, a talk that raised many problematic issues for me, which I want to address but not in any particular order.

One problem has to do with the fusion of elements of conservative and evolutionist notions of cultures as natural organisms, fragile at that, weak in the face of Western development because it is “beyond their capacity to adapt to it” — a view that privileges “our” position as Westerners, at the apex of progress. Aside from the imputed holism which suggests peoples cut off from the wider world-system, one in which they have been active participants for centuries, Davis also suggests that cultural change is cultural loss — these are endangered cultures after all. This reminds me of Marshall Sahlins‘ observation (following Margaret Jolly), that “when we change it’s called progress, but when they do — notably when they adopt some of our progressive things — it’s a kind of adulteration, a loss of their culture.” The conservative aspect goes back to the influences of Edmund Burke and Bronislaw Malinowski, the latter writing:

every item of culture…represents a value, fulfills a social function….For tradition is a fabric in which all the strands are so clearly woven that the destruction of one unmakes the whole. And tradition is…a form of collective adaptation of a community to its surroundings. Destroy tradition, and you will deprive the collective organism of its protective shell, and give it over to the slow but inevitable process of dying out. (source)

Wade Davis is taking us back to these older conceptualizations of anthropology’s most favoured others, as if several decades of criticism had never happened, while imparting to his audience that this is what we anthropologists do: we study primitive, endangered others. From them we collect precious bits of unique wisdom which we assemble into a cabinet of curios that can then be shown to enthusiastic TED audiences, streamed on the Web.

This takes me to the second jumble of problematic points — the National Geographic Explorer approach to indigenous peoples combined with Wade Davis’ statement that at National Geographic they do not engage in politics and polemics, look at the awful decisions made by politicians (the audience applauds…except they are really only applauding as much as the statement applies to the other person’s favourite politician). Davis talks about ethnocide, which is the result of political decisions. Davis also speaks about indigenous peoples fighting for survival — are they able to do so without politics, without political ideas? There is a desire, that I find occasionally among students, to depoliticize the other — let’s just talk about their “cultures,” their magical beliefs, and how plants sing to them at night. Tell us what they eat, what they wear, but don’t tell us about what makes them so angry and what they are doing about it. The expectation of a few is that a course I have inherited (and revised), “Indigenous Cultures Today,” will be a brochure-like traveler’s exposé of bits and pieces of indigenous knowledge and practice minus their politics. The Zapatistas barely figure as indigenous for National Geographic — after 15 years they have an item on a musical band and a film announcement, that’s all.

Yet while the Zapatistas do not earn the attention of National Geographic and its “explorers”, Tibet certainly does, as you heard Davis speak. Indeed, Davis has written about Tibet, but not the Zapatistas. This takes me to the lead question for this post:

If Wade Davis is interested in cultures endangered by violence, marginalization, and conquering occupiers then why does he not speak about Gaza or the West Bank?

Do the Taliban count as another culture, fighting for survival? Don’t they have a unique belief system and distinctive way of life too?

Or is it that “we” are only interested in other cultures–struggling, endangered cultures —as long as they do not threaten “us” (even if maybe they threaten others)?

Finally, do we need Wade Davis to speak for these “others”? Does the Indian not ever speak for himself? Yes, he does, but “we” just fired him for saying nasty things about us and 9/11, and besides he is a “fake Indian” (as judged by us white racists).

But surely, cross-cultural understanding is important for world peace, one might assert. That takes me to my next post.

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3 thoughts on “Does Wade Davis Do Gaza?

  1. David Delony

    Judging from that speech and your commentary, I suppose that Orientalism is alive and well. I wonder if “marginalized” cultures did ethnographic research on us, what they would discover.

  2. dat

    From wikipedia’s Michael Taussig’s article:

    “He thus concludes that anthropologists should study peoples living on the periphery of the world capitalist economy as a way of gaining critical insight into the anthropologists´ own culture. In short, this polemic shifts the anthropologists´ object of study from that of other cultures to that of their own, and repositions the former objects of anthropological study (e.g. indigenous peoples) as valued critical thinkers.”

  3. Bradley Tatar

    This is a truly insightful comment about how indigenous peoples are represented as innocent savages who embody cultures that are more “authentic” than our own but somehow pre-political or apolitical. In contrast, those societies with whom the U.S.A. has a conflict (such as Palestine or Taliban) are not given a similarly noble status.

    Ironically, in the epoch of westward expansion, the noble and admirable American Indians were seen by anglo-americans as being a terrorist threat equivalent to the way Americans view the Taliban today. It seems that their conversion into colonized subjects has paved the way for them to become ennobled.

    I agree that Wade Davis did great work on Haiti and he’s a good example of how a good anthropologist can be sold out to the established institutions for the study of domesticated others.

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