Today this blog marks its second year of existence, with so many unanticipated outcomes that I think a post-mortem will possibly take years (or hours) of reflection and will likely not appear on this site. Today also marks the start of the final phase of this blog, which I hope to conclude before the year ends, with a return to its origins as it begins to devour itself. For the remaining time the blog will be dominated by that which served as the more or less final “spark” that impelled me to launch it, and thus I return to Decolonizing Anthropology, the graduate course I have now taught twice at Concordia University. Most of the posts to come stem from what I prepared for that course, and should I offer it again (who knows), their availability online will help me to shorten the lectures considerably and allow more time for all of us to talk and listen. Before I move on, I thought it best to have an elaborate conclusion, rather than the abrupt kind of departure of the author that I see on most defunct blogs, whose unexpected final post essentially states, “I’m fed up,” or “I’m too busy,” or even “I hate you people, get lost.” Some do not offer even that much. I have chosen to use the symbol of the Ouroboros to mark this transition, and to connect it only symbolically to a project that departs from this one and which will neither seek to be construed as part of an online anthropology “community,” nor address itself to anthropology.
The blog and the project, named “Open Anthropology” to date, have had their names altered to suit this final phase. The larger project has been retitled, “An Openly Post-Anthropological Project,” with some major revisions. The blog is, as you can see, now called “Zero Anthropology” in part to represent this phase of counting down to zero posts. That is the simplest aspect. Select pages have been revised as well, such the project page, and to some extent, “new world.” More complicated and difficult to convey through two words alone, was the long-stated aim of this project to get past anthropology as something that one “does” and more toward engaging anthropology as something to be transformed by shedding its ‘disciplinariness,’ going outside of professionalization, withdrawing from it in some key respects while also regarding “anthropological knowledge” as useful when seen from the right angle. That right angle is, in my view, to study anthropology as a Western knowledge system, as a mode of consuming the world by what are by and large white middle-class persons, and as a means of producing that world for other privileged consumers and for the authorities. As I have been arguing all along, it is no accident that colonial administrations and contemporary militaries have made use of anthropology — they used it because it can be useful. My aim has been a contrary one, to make it more “useless,” also represented by “zero” as valueless. The desire to move on, and start afresh, also marks this as a “zero” moment. The anomalous nature of zero as a numeral, as a place holder, also made it attractive.
To start this final phase, a roughly hewn opening statement:
As someone whose research in anthropology was originally focused on indigenous peoples, and specifically contemporary indigenous peoples in the Caribbean, coupled with a history of interest in imperialism and colonialism, certain dimensions of anthropology and its development became ever more apparent to me, and ever more troubling. One of these is that since its inception as an amateur activity that pre-dated its institutionalization in universities, anthropology has consistently sold itself as, one, a science, and two, one premised on the long-standing assumption that indigenous peoples would (or should) disappear or be diminished. Self-identified anthropologists in the mid-1800s, lusting for recognition and influence, tried to make a name for themselves in various commercially organized freak shows, ethnographic exhibitions, and museum displays. The desire to sell anthropology to the powers that be, as a science of the other, has never disappeared.
Anthropology was not just built on the backs of indigenous peoples, as if the survival of the latter were needed to guarantee the survival of the former. Instead, when one looks more closely and more critically, it is a discipline that has always been premised on the expected extinction of the indigenous. Since that has not come to pass, and indeed we instead witness worldwide indigenous political and cultural resurgence, we note that anthropological theories began to treat these resurgences as virtual pathologies: symptoms of capitalism, instrumental means of gaining power, with traditions that are invented. Politically, anthropologists have frequently found themselves set against the interests of contemporary indigenous peoples, whether with respect to the continued possession of indigenous remains for “scientific” purposes, or in disputing the appropriate representations of indigenous cultures. Not surprisingly, American Indian Studies, First Nations, and Indigenous Studies programs have sprouted across North America, alongside Ethnic Studies, African-American Studies, and so forth. Suddenly, the peoples presumed to be at the heart of anthropology, began to flee its control. In a tailspin, anthropology either pretended to continue business as usual, or began to develop autobiographic tendencies, or was practiced in the home society of the anthropologist, and there it began to look more like ethnographic sociology.
To this day, anthropology in North America remains the whitest of all disciplines in the social sciences, in terms of the ethnic background of the vast majority of faculty and students. Anthropology has always been a mode of knowledge-making chosen by Westerners as a reliable means of consuming knowledge about the colonial world, and for producing knowledge of that world for the authorities back home. Turned on itself, an anthropology of anthropology becomes an interesting journey of exploration into one of the Western world’s premiere colonial knowledge systems.
Also and still to this day, anthropology retains the same terminology of instruments of foreign policy, whether the diplomatic corps or intelligence gathering agencies: time to spent with living human beings in another society is called being “in the field,” and closely identifying with one’s hosts is treated as a problem, called “going native”. The methods of “doing fieldwork” continue to be based on a routine, accepted, and usually unquestioned duplicity: one is to establish rapport, build trust, and negotiate access, and purely for the purpose of extracting knowledge that was otherwise private. One’s “informants” (just as spies refer to them) were not to receive compensation, which would be seen as buying information: they were to be satisfied with knowing they were contributing to knowledge about humanity, presumably a good in and of itself with certain unproven assumptions about this leading to greater mutual understanding, respect, and peace. In return, however, anthropologists advanced their personal careers, and not necessarily the cause of peace since activism and advocacy were widely frowned upon as eroding the objectivity and legitimacy of anthropology in the eyes of the powers that be. To be sure, some anthropologists have challenged this state of affairs vigorously and directly, and to be sure, they remain a minority.
Zero Anthropology is about knowledge after anthropology, after its extinctionist, Eurocentric, and scientific premises, an anthropology so decolonized that it is no longer recognizable as anthropology. This project began by emphasizing the value of opening knowledge production to reciprocal and collaborative engagements between academics and broader publics, while trying to put that into practice online. It was about building on ideas and examples of ways of speaking about the human condition that look critically at dominant discourses and that challenge the status quo of global capitalism. The project was therefore oriented toward contributing to non-state, non-market, knowledges and participating in a public practice that suited the project. The project was also an invitation to critically reexamine the institutionalization of knowledge, looking for ways to reintegrate anthropology with other knowledge systems, and other disciplines, while criticizing the “disciplining” of the social sciences. What was initially called, for lack of imagination perhaps, the “Open Anthropology Project,” was explicitly about decolonizing knowledge, combined with a pronounced anti-imperialist orientation. (continue reading here)
As I look forward to turning and turning further, the next posts will involve me in an activity which I have grown to like least on this blog, and that is to write about anthropology. Let’s see how it goes, especially the challenge of turning away from more important “distractions.”