Less Than Zero Anthropology

“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.

28 thoughts on “Less Than Zero Anthropology

  1. John Allison

    Eliza, Good shot! Indeed, separating our personal anthropology, letting that other train roll on without us; wantdering into the Hobo camp outside Redding, where everyone else is also waiting in their tin shacks for the opportunity to sit upon the Throne of a Job, … “you may call me “Professor Allison”, if you please.
    So, this was part of the soup from with I decided that I shall have dignity, not be longer indignant, but claim my dignity as an Itinerant Anthropologist.
    You, Eliza, might borrow that title the next time you decide to give up and apply for a “position”.
    However, at this moment, you are following Gary Snyder’s advice, “Find a Place and Take a Stand.”
    We can hope that longer boats are coming to get us, but we gotta be ready to row when they arrive.
    Still waiting with you.

  2. Eliza Jane Darling

    Thanks John. Funnily enough I have an article languishing on the back burner about “itinerant anthropology” that will probably never see the light of day, but so it goes. I’m content. Scared shitless in some ways, but content in the certainty of uncertainty, if that makes any sense.

  3. downwiththisshit

    Thanks for this Eliza.

    “If the Big One ever hits, I’ll be the one standing in the road debating the hermeneutics of apocalyptic discourse with the zombies” .
    I laughed.

    With this one and the other recent essays here, I’m really enjoying the return of activity on this website. Well done people !

    (im note quite sure how to configure a gravatar profile, so, in case it did not work, I meant to sign this comment as “jérémy”)

  4. Maximilian Forte

    There is so much to be said here, especially as I personally think this is by far the best biographic essay on anthropology that has yet been written. One of the things that first came to mind, is what has always come to mind. How do people find themselves stuck in a position of needing “a job”? All the time, the incessant talk is about “jobs,” “getting a job,” “having a job”–needing a job. The creation of this need is what has always irked me especially, and the realization that this dependency on others for one’s own sustenance comes from a process of proletarianization and dispossession that has reached such an extreme that it ends up making capitalism itself no longer viable (well, then there is a silver lining after all), and it renders citizenship utterly meaningless. One’s birthright is what exactly? The good fortune of being born a citizen of a nation means you have what?

    I have said it many times to friends and family, and I will say it here: give me land, and I am out of here. Then reality strikes, not just the student loans that took a decade as a full-time, tenure track and then tenured professor to pay off, but that one is never allowed to escape this system. Property tax means forever being forced (thanks again, “democracy”) to be a part of the cash economy, or you lose everything, and are back at where you started: with nothing…and this is even if you are a “citizen” of the second-largest country on earth, and most likely its most uninhabited one. Imagine that though, to have rendered self-sufficiency legally and economically impossible unless you opt to live on the streets. And then you get insulted to your face by people who tell you that you have the good fortune of living in a “free” country.

    I would strongly advise students that if you enter anthropology, with the hope that one day you can “get a job” as a reward for reading some of the most boring books ever written, and taught by some of the greatest and most pretentious dullards to have ever worn a name badge, that you do yourself a favour by slapping your own face–with intense ferocity–until you finally awaken. If it’s “a job” you want, there are many other avenues that are available–think of obvious needs that are never exhausted (food, house construction, etc)–and that do not require surrendering years of your life, without income, with the added wounding of debt, to maybe one day get a job that will allow you, with much more white hair now that you are in your mid-40s (or even older), to enter the houses of rosy-cheeked 20-somethings as you search for your first house, and as they move on to their second or third one. This is is also a very rough, very frank riposte to that endless supply of dimwittery and petty dipshittery that likes to imagine the glorious privilege that is at the base of academic employment–“oh but they are in the classroom only 6 hours a week, and that’s for just half the year”. Of course some fall for this nonsense, and man do they pay for the mistake even more.

  5. John Allison

    So true, Max. I also have been through several stages of that realization. If you recall the 60’s (they say, then, that you weren’t part of them) you might remember communes. Those fundamental realizations about needing cash to “live off the land” because there were land taxes. So, to pay the taxes someone had to have a “job”. To have a job, there are “dress codes”, so you go to Walmart and buy presentable attire. Then, to get to work, you need a car, $$$, and car needs gas, $$$, and so on until you realize you are merely living in captivity again and yourself and all your commune mates have come to realize they don’t really cooperate as well as they compete, due to being raised in the public schools of a capitalist “nation” (which is really just a human capital brooder).

    Then some of the next stage realizations begin to appear. So, one thinks, “I will go to college and at least have a good job with some personal dignity. Well, once upon a time there WERE jobs in anthropology; even vacant thrones that one could have a ghost of a chance of occupying.
    Now, things have changed alot.

    Well, not really, but, we now seem to see how it has been all along; not just in the Old Folks Homes at the College, but throughout the military industrial complex.
    We have arrived impotent at the truth.

  6. Eliza Jane Darling

    Another thing about going off-grid is that it generally requires massive capital outlays to acquire the technologies for self-sufficiency, and then you’re hooked into that system for maintenance/repair. We’ve been thinking about it a lot because we do own a bit of land out here in the sticks (thanks for the downpayment, Redneck Ma) and there are some resources (geothermal, solar) that in combination have some real potential, if you’re willing to commit to lower consumption rates. Most households in my area, at least the ones dependent on the local wage market (i.e., not the second-home owners), can’t hope to accrue the kind of savings it takes for a solar array or a well-based HVAC system, and many won’t qualify for that large a loan, either. We’re able to consider it at all (maybe) because the husband (an engineer) has a good job down in Manhattan. If I were on my own – forget it. If I were on my own with a kid, double forget it; I’d be scrambling for ANY job that covered Eliza Jane Jr.’s health care. What few public subsidies exist (the vast majority go to dirty energy) still require big up-front costs and get gobbled up so fast that the money runs out before the application deadline does (see New York State’s Green Building Initiative for an example, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the 30% TARP clean-energy rebate goes the same way).

    And so, as with a lot of green initiatives, we’ve got a highly individualistic, consumer-based strategy in which relatively wealthy people can to a certain extent exploit the resources of land ownership and capital/credit availability to make themselves even better off. Not so the renters, or even the land poor. And you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the argument that dirty energy is cheaper. Not when you figure in the cost of trillion-dollar wars, it isn’t.

  7. ZonaRachell (@ZLRB9)

    As a lowly post-undergrad, I don’t have much to add — other than that I’m happy I came to these same realizations before even applying to grad schools. Max your comment, as always, struck a deep chord with me. I feel that, rather than suffocating in a miasma of confusion and self-pity, I should take this up as a personal challenge to see how I might be able to do ‘what I want to do’ (academic-ish/nonprofit work) without playing ‘the game’ exactly as set up by ‘the man’. I’m sure I won’t be the first disappointed hippie when that fails, but perhaps at least the journey will be interesting and I won’t be walking the anthro grad school plank fully knowing there are sharks in the water and I have an open wound.

    1. John Allison

      Excuse me, Mr Marsters, but I think perhaps it would be good to pause and consider the underlying message in Eliza Jane’s essay. If the underlying problem is with the nature of a social order that puts “Business/Commerce” before personal values and personal integrity, not to mention compassion for all living things, have you really reflected enough on this issue, after having thoroughly researched it personally, to decide that you are committed to give your life to the orders of your executive in Business/Commerce

  8. Jason Baird Jackson

    Yours is a powerful and important essay. Thank you. I do not want to be glib, just encouraging in a grim era. Anthropology was important before it found a center of gravity in academia and it will be important after that center has finished giving way. New Yorker Lewis Henry Morgan transformed anthropology from outside academia in the 19th century. I hope that you find a way to transform it from outside academia in the 21st.

  9. Giulia Pia

    Thank you for a beautifully-written piece, and for stating so eloquently what is on all our minds. I am just recuperating a rather overwhelming first year of Ph.D and about to embark on the second. A few things you made me think about:

    1) Perhaps academia is not imploding, but just transforming. Newspapers and other traditional media were running amok when social networks and bit torrents challenged their hegemony, but they now realize that, by tweaking their strategy and waiting through the initial stormy transition, they might just be able to use these as platforms to reach more people than ever before. Perhaps the stolid security of the tenure-track job will need to give way to a more fluid, mosaic-type of employment, a combination of university lecturing and research, free-lance writing, consulting for businesses…some waitressing if need be… :)

    2) Yes there are some serious structural issues at the foundations of these phenomena, some cutting across disciplines (“The Economy,” policy), some within (anthro’s post-modern anomie, blah blah). What I find almost sinister, though, is the complicity of our professors in maintaining the illusion. Perhaps the relief of having succeeded in the game clouds their vision, or is that a pact they have to make (sign in blood on the dotted line) when they are hired – do not promote jobs out of academia. Do not even acknowledge their existence. Vilify and black-box them. Isn’t it very suspicious that, in a discipline so hell-bent on critique (and your disillusionment with this, in the first paragraph, I found to be profoundly moving), the prestige of this system is so unquestioningly upheld? This really hit home for me when, in the ethics section of a Methods course, we read essays lambasting these nebulous “professional anthropologists” for their mercenary, “money-minded” ways, but were not presented with a single rebuttal from that camp. Talk about partiality.

    Anthropology is about asking good questions and being ok with the shifting complexity of the answers. But I strongly believe that we need to find a way to use these skills for “building” (as you put it) again, rather than merely producing.

  10. Maximilian Forte

    Interestingly between August 20th and the 22nd, we see a few articles published close together that deal with some of the same phenomena, especially academic labour as far as anthropologists are concerned, the state of adjunct work, and the political economy of higher education more broadly. I was particularly struck by one of the observations made by Sarah Kendzior (link below) about anthropologists so critical of social injustice and social inequalities, and yet they practice the very same with their own peers. This is very true and it is a situation with which I am very well acquainted–I wish more of us would speak up about it, especially on those rare occasions when we have the choice to promote to full-time and tenure track a person whose labour we have repeatedly exploited, rather than to hire outside by giving a job to someone who already has a tenure-track or even a tenured position already. I also wish we were not so eager to develop new PhD programs, and recruit students knowing full well what kind of future awaits them. This has broader and very difficult implications for some of our recent debates against the Human Terrain System–one thing we cannot fault HTS applicants for doing, is trying everything possible to get paid work and climb out of a deep hole of debt, and over the wall of unemployment, as is the case in some instances. We need to reflect more honestly, I think, on how we ourselves–determined HTS opponents–have done so much to make HTS possible, or at least to make the conditions ripe for it, in more ways than just as far as remuneration is concerned.

    Anyway, interesting coincidence to see these articles coming out separately and yet together:

    The closing of American academia
    The plight of adjunct professors highlights the end of higher education as a means to prosperity.
    Sarah Kendzior

    Anthropology is the worst college major for being a corporate tool, best major to change your life
    Jason Antrosio

    Anthropology minus one and counting
    Ryan Anderson

  11. Alberto Corsin Jimenez

    Thanks, Eliza, for writing this piece. A sobering wake-up call. I also think, with Max Forte, that this is one of the most poignant autobiographical pieces I have ever come across in anthropology. And I hope that your decision to leave academia is not accompanied by a decision to stop writing and blogging. Your itinerary and intellectual migration index the future residences of serious critical thought. Thanks again and best wishes.

  12. Eliza Jane Darling

    Cheers all. I often wonder if anthropology isn’t reverting to its pre-professional historical formula. If I’ve got my numbers right, the golden age of jobs-aplenty wasn’t a very long one, and coincided somewhat with the rise and fall of the welfare state itself. If you think that Malinowski was trying to legitimise anthropology as an academic discipline in the late 20s, that even in the late 40s when Herskovits penned the Statement on Human Rights the AAA itself was mainly subscribed by amateurs, that many in the US (including Eric Wolf, I believe) rode to uni on the massive postwar wave of the GI Bill, and that the market began to contract in the early 70s – it seems we’ve built our expectations on a slim 20-year margin of prosperity that is beginning to look like the exception rather than the norm.

    The question is what to do about it: continue fighting for our place in the academy, which means taking a stand for the legitimacy of academic social science itself, or give up the ghost and make an anthropology beyond the academy, which means taking a stand for anthropological identity beyond mere absorption into contingent markets (development, government, military, and so on). Otherwise, it seems to me we’re left with an I’m-alright-Jackism in which we individually use our flexible skills (which Guilia is right to point out are, after all, considerable) to survive but anthropology as a social effort fades away.

    The other question is how to reproduce outside the academy those conditions the academy is supposed to protect. A big one is time; time to think, time to write, time to travel, time to research. Another is of course funding. In a certain sense ethnography lends itself to such adaptations; you can do it anywhere, including on the job. If ethnography mimics the process of living in some ways, why can’t it just *be* living without the mimesis: an examined life, as it were? But the crucial one is autonomy, or what some call academic freedom. That’s the primary reason I’d prefer not to sell my anthropology to anyone willing to pay for it, because generally what they’re buying isn’t anthropology in the critical scientific sense, but legitimacy, or selective knowledge (again, see military uses, or development). Without the autonomy to question the legitimacy of entire processes, selling generally means selling out.

    I guess what we need is an Anthropology Underground, an off-grid network of anthropology survivalists who continue to think and write and research and analyse from their own bunkers but somehow find collective space to share and debate and partake of all the general alchemy that makes science social and thereby pushes it forward. As for teaching, well – leave that to the tenured, I suppose. Let them shoulder six units of Intro to Cultural per term and see if things start to change.

  13. Jason Baird Jackson

    The discussion of the essay has been strong too. Thank you. The historical analysis of the academic market just offered squares with larger trends beyond anthropology. A recent version was offered in August 12, 2012 essay by “Dean Dad” at Inside Higher Education. Among the things that he wrote (in assessing the option of graduate school in the humanities) were the following two paragraphs:

    “There was a time, long ago, when the indentured servitude of graduate school made some degree of sense. For a brief period in the 1960’s, there were academic jobs aplenty. At that point, one could argue fairly that an early-career period of material sacrifice would pay off well over time. (That same argument worked for law school until about five years ago, and it still mostly works for medical school.) But that hasn’t been true for a long time. At this point, graduate programs exist mostly to generate teaching assistants and research assistants. When it comes time to try to make an adult living, you’re on your own.”

    “The puzzler, to me, is that the system has survived as long as it has. I’ve seen references to the “forty-year job crisis,” which strike me as self-refuting. After forty years, it’s not a crisis; it’s the way it is. It’s normal. In fact, over the longer sweep of American history, the flush academic job market of the 60’s stands out as the aberration. The mistake academics keep making is to keep assuming that the exception was the new rule, and that two generations of regression to the mean are flukes. Yet smart people continue to pour into graduate school, convinced that they’ll be the exceptions.”

    Even with student members in the mix, only half of American folklorists (as measured by AFS membership) do their work on college campuses. I do not know what the numbers are for social and cultural anthropology, but they are surely large. The scale of non-university archaeology in the U.S. at least is well known. In the years since museums were eclipsed by campuses, we have never been as fully college-based as elites in the field have perceived. There are multiple and significant alternative centers.

    Its just one enabling condition for scholarly work outside of academia (as well as inside it), but open access to the scholarly literature is the part that I have tried to work on.

  14. Eliza Jane Darling

    The British academic predicament is similar. During the 2010-2011 fightback against privatisation (about which I wrote in my very first post on this site), one of the things Iain Pears among others pointed out is that the centralised, publicly-funded model of UK higher education we were defending was relatively young, 20th century certainly and postwar at best. And so with much of the welfare state, which is why neoliberalism isn’t terribly neo after all. I suppose the question is the extent to which elevated expectations matter in terms of struggle, particularly when they are chipped away rather than crashed out.

  15. Gregory Reck

    Forty years ago anthropologist Dell Hymes asked, “Will the departmentalization of anthropology be its coffin or its chrysalis?” I think the answer is in: the final nail is in the coffin.

  16. Pâticheri

    Beautiful essay, especially in its combination of utterly delightful and profoundly moving, dead-on-point descriptions. I wish you’d been around for our discussion on Savage Minds in July, which was also muddling around with a similar predicament/ set of issues, though coming at it with some different questions in mind. Sitting myself at something of a distance from the academy (literally, in India) though I am discovering just how much has changed since I was in graduate school—the discipline is everywhere and respectably so (that was emphatically not the case as I remember it from grad years). You’re absolutely right about the pedestal on which critique gets placed, which is bad for our already-too-competitive professional relations, and then leaves us with no sense of how to build or what to build. But lots of others are figuring that latter part out (in such fields as UX, design, food, technology and more), and many new graduates and the otherwise sidelined (ha!) appear to be joining these new bandwagons. Part of me is quite relishing this shift–both of the new possibilities and ther newfound acceptance. I just wish (1) that I’d known, from within the academy, to speak more to these other worlds than simply to study them (at best) or pretend they didn’t exist (at worst); and (2) that there were more conversations on-going on teaching to build, rather than to critique. Perhaps then we’d be participating more in creating the bandwagons that sustain us, rather than in just being carried along by them?–Deepa

  17. Eliza Jane Darling

    Thanks Deepa. To a certain extent I think the “how” and the “what” is influenced by the question of “where.” Anthropology is a vagabond discipline, with the double-whammy of job migration and (for many) fieldwork movement as well. Before I shifted into the area of critical white studies, my original specialty was political ecology, a field which you’d think (if any!) would lend itself to some form of concrete material action, both individual and social. But I found myself moving around so much (for the next degree, or the next job, or just pushed out by increasing urban rents) that no sooner had I got to know a neighbourhood than I was moving on again. I’m not knocking anthropological wanderlust as such, but “building” implies things like foundations and roots and structures, a process somewhat contravened by the weightlessness of perpetual intellectual tourism.

  18. gardenplot

    Hi Eliza ~

    Perhaps you will be slightly comforted by my own course in life, following my withdrawal from academia after twenty years teaching as a part-time instructor. Soon after relocating in the sticks, I was introduced to a family which had practised homeopathy sub rosa for three generations. Having no institutional entanglements or publication deadlines (and admittedly with some inheritance money in my pocket), I was able to go very deeply into their story and to follow out leads in every direction until the trail at last got cold. Nothing other than my own limitations prevented my work from offering a generous and respectful treatment of the Hardinge family’s struggle to provide proscribed medical services in an encapsulated bush community.

    It is true that the resulting monograph was not received with open arms by my erstwhile colleagues, yet it sold like hotcakes in the local community, even though it was cast partly in academic discourse. This provided me with the deepest possible satisfaction. Since I had not taken on the work out of careerist motivation, I experienced a partial healing of the participant/observer dualism which had bedeviled my life and spirit till then. Undeniably an expession of authenticity, for me this ex cathedra research proved – I’ll risk the word – redemptive.

    And just last week a slim volume appeared entitled “Zen and the Art of multiple Sclerosis”. The narrative structure is fully the work of a local man, Jeff Pinney, who has been afflicted with MS for over thirty years. Yet I provided heavy editing services, writing in addition some continuity, to the point where in certain passages it is hard to distinguish his voice from my own. Under the circumstances it could not have been otherwise. For me this little work shines as a further healing of the split between observer and observed, because in this text an actual merger of the two was effected, not by appropriation but out of tragic necessity.

    The book launch will be held today at 7:30 PM at the Dominion Hotel in Minden, Ontario. As the distinguished emcee I’ll be making some anti-authoritarian remarks as to the benefits of medical marijuana. The hour is indeed late, but since you seem at home with rebel ways, you are most welcome to join the festivities.

    One love

    ~ Doug Smith

  19. Maximilian Forte

    The latest addition is this gathering of links to related articles this week on adjuncts and related issues:

    Anthropology: the major, the career
    AAA Blog

    I think they may be having some difficulty understanding Eliza’s title.

    Update: later I also noticed this from Sarah Kendzior’s site, as the author of one of the articles in this week’s dispersed series on inequalities and the political economy of higher education:

    “The Conversation Continues”
    Sarah Kendzior

  20. Eliza Jane Darling

    Ha! Looks like someone is paying attention over at AAA.

    Thanks for that Doug, and good luck with your launch. I haven’t been entirely intellectually dead since I moved back; in addition to tying up loose academic ends (writing up old research, etc.) I’ve been getting into the whole public history thing, working with our local historical society. The whole process gives me the very eerie feeling that my town, like a lot of North Country burgs, doesn’t have a lot left except history: we lost 40% of our children under the age of 14, for example, between 2000 and 2010. Although housing is comparatively cheap, there’s not a lot here for young families by way of employment, so like much of the ‘dacks, we’re greying.

    Just to round off my post-academic cliché, I’m also writing a novel. Sometimes I entertain the notion that someone will give me money for it, and once I’m done falling off my chair laughing, I really enjoy it for its own sake.

  21. Amie Gabry Perea

    I am closer to 40 than 30, and am not too far off from an “arm-chair anthropologist” and I found your article very moving. As someone who “just” has a masters in Ethnology/Cultural Anthropology I left my aspirations of a PhD when my husband and I discovered I was pregnant in the middle of graduate school. Now with $43,000 in deferred student loan debt, three children and a lack of “real-world” work experience, I find myself nearly unemployable in today’s marketplace. A mom with what is percieved as a useless degree and virtually no transferrable skills, I find myself railing against the current cultural trends in America. In order to cope with my inability to find support for parents, as well as anthropologists, I started my blog; http://thetwopennysoapbox.blogspot.com/
    And like yourself, Eliza, sometimes I entertain the idea of someday making a monetary contribution to my family with my writing, but then I too laugh and come to my senses.

  22. Eliza Jane Darling

    Amie, in Britain we’d call that a “terminal” masters and it usually is, for one’s career. I’ve always wished there was more of a place for anthropologists with MAs (especially since I ran an MA programme for three years as a sub for a colleague in the field), but in general the degree seems to be subscribed as follows: by people from other lines of work who want to add some anthropological insight to their intellectual mix, by some who want to study more deeply and more specialised than the BA but aren’t interested in doing fieldwork themselves, by those who use it as a taster to see if they want (and can afford) to pursue the PhD, and by those, like you, who planned to do the PhD but for various reasons could not. Departments, on the other hand, seem to treat them largely as cash cows (at least in the UK, I can’t speak for the US). And you’re precisely right that there’s no small about of snobbery about it – more so I think than the undergraduate degree; undergrads have to major in something, but the MA is considered entirely superfluous, reflecting Max’s point above that intellectual pursuit has been reduced to the bottom line of getting a job. Heaven forfend anyone should think for the sake of thinking. As I said over on Savage, the ultimate problem is one of value, and critical disciplines are endangered by modes of production in which value is measured by the yardstick of profit.

    There’s a quote by William Morris that I love (and once carried on a placard during the British protests): “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” I sometimes wonder if those who insist on the pecuniary profitability of all human labour would really want to live in such a world.

  23. leakygrammar

    Hi Eliza, thanks for writing this post. It’s nice to read something that is honest, clear and that made me stop and think about what I am doing with my life. Re-reading that last sentence of mine, it sounds a bit simplistic, but I mean it in a very sincere way. I am at the cusp of tipping into the land of Phdness. I was planning on ‘disappearing’ next spring, most likely South America to see some good friends, and roam Patagonia, Chile and Peru, with no aim except to have new experiences, learn Spanish (and surf), but was recently offered an opportunity to stay on a semester more, to prolong my M.A. with free tuition and a small pittance for my existence. I am applying now for PhDs next year in the fall. This means it would be straight through to the Phd, with no ‘break,’ that is if I get in. But as you said, at least I’m not a starving child in Alabama, so I’m not here to complain about my woes. What I wanted to say is that, as much as my education the past few years has been more or less about linguistic anthropology, it has been more about navigating the bizarre bureaucracy of academia and its childish affiliations and rivalries. I even started a blog as a way to vent some of my intellectual frustration that I didn’t feel I had a venue for. Anyways, I tend to rely on quotes now to communicate my general malaise at times, so I feel that if I continue this treacherous path towards a friggin Phd, I’ll need ‘to learn to live with difference.’

    “One of the effects of “postmodern” discourse in social science is to draw into the limelight experiences that hitherto may have been rather sidelined. In particular, it is now quite often suggested that being marginal is actually a crucial experience in late modernity. Being neither on the inside nor on the outside, being affiliated but not fully belonging, is said to be a normal condition, and in line with this, it is often said that the key imperative of our times is for people “to learn to live with difference,” for people to learn to live happily with their own exclusion from groups that they actually like and interact with daily (Ben Rampton, 1995).”

    Oh, this is my blog, http://leakygrammar.wordpress.com I’m embarrassed a bit now to tell you, but if anything, finding Zero Anthropology has given me more reason to up the ante on my intellectual honesty, as trite as that may sound…

  24. Eliza Jane Darling

    “…the bizarre bureaucracy of academia and its childish affiliations and rivalries.” I hear you there. Of course most lines of work entail such pettiness at one time or another, but I’ve never been able to suss how it works among anthropoids given that social skills are supposed to be among our methodological repertoire. I’ve more than once found myself at a talk or a seminar watching two grown men shouting the house down over some minor point, and thinking, “how do you do ethnography?”

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