Book Review. Consuming Space: Placing Consumption in Perspective edited by Michael K. Goodman, David Goodman & Michael Redclift. Ashgate, 2010.
Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow, Department of Ethnography, Museum of Cultural History, Oslo
Chicken industry in UK, the violent history of luxury teak wood in Burma, boutique hotels in New York, chewing gum and the ‘tropical paradise’ of Cancun, seduction and commodity fetishism, ethical local and organic food, Chilean wine in UK, internet and consumption…Wondering what they have in common? The answer is: they are all amazingly catchy cases for developing a theory of consumption, production and the role of space – and they are all to be found in one edited volume - Consuming Space: Placing Consumption in Perspective.
This edited volume is one of those in which one finds something new and valuable every time one returns to it. It is literally packed with both interesting facts and great theoretical insights. Even though most of the contributors work within the field of social geography, I believe that the volume contains many interesting perspectives for anthropologists.
The focus of the volume is on understanding the ways in which we produce and consume space, as much as ways in which we produce and consume nature – the various case studies all relate to this topic. It looks at the space of social practice, which is “occupied by sensory phenomena, including products of imagination, such as projects and projections, symbols and utopias, which describe and contain consumption cultures” (xi). It looks at how space is made and remade along the trajectories of the social relations of production and consumption, in other words, this volume is an exploration into diverse contemporary capitalist political economies.
I have selected several of the book chapters for the review. It is those chapters that I enjoyed reading the most and that also shed some light on the red thread that goes through the edited volume: the conceptualization of space in relation to consumption and production.
Michael Redclift looks at the ways in which the histories of production and consumption are tied to histories of particular locations in his chapter Frontier Spaces of Production and Consumption: Surfaces, Appearances and Representations on the ‘Mayan Riviera’.
He shows how a place, its nature and social relations were transformed first as a result of the emerging popularity of chewing gum and later on as a result of transforming this place into a globally popular tourist destination. He brings the reader to the Mexican Caribbean Coast and looks at its layered histories that point to the hybridization through which nature and society meet and refashion space.
Redclift weaves together a narrative of chicle – the raw material from which chewing gum was derived – a story that transformed the landscape and ecology of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. He shows that “the boom of chicle production eventually gave way to other forms of production and consumption, notably in the development of international tourism on an altogether more ambitious scale” (86). He then goes on to tell the story of how Cancun, the ultimate tropical ‘artificial’ paradise, was created, how it emerged as a major touristic destination and how it lost its appeal in the 90s.
This chapter shows the importance of setting the space which is consumed in a historical context. He reveals also how the “fortunes of New York are closely linked with those of the Mexican Caribbean, and those of the Caribbean are linked with generations of people elsewhere, especially in Europe and North America, whose daily life depend on connections that they were usually only dimly aware of” (94). The story that Redclift tells is complex and interesting and I encourage anyone with interest in Mexico, Caribbean or the workings of tourist industry, to look into it.
A brief video on the history of a chewing gum:
In The Cultural Economy of the Boutique Hotel: The Case of the Schrager and W Hotels in New York, Donald McNeill and Kim McNamara deal with another kind of space, namely the ‘boutique hotel’. The ‘boutique hotel’ has been one of the biggest stories in the hotel industry since the 1980s and its popularity has spread worldwide. The chapter maps its cultural economy and the processes of the ‘economy of qualities’, where the boutique hotels are perceived as having a life, or a career.
They show how the hotel’s lifecycle is “closely related to the specificities of local markets, the urban economic sectors that dominate central business districts, and the physical structure of existing buildings” (151) and thus how creation of particular spaces is always part of larger processes. They look in particular at the development of Ian Schrager’s boutique hotels in New York, which coincided with the transformation – from the 70s onwards – of the city into a fashion capital and the hub of music, art, design and disco-lit nightlife.
This chapter nicely portrays the shifts in aesthetics and design as much as in consumer demands and the ways in which desires are manufactured. It also portrays how the boutique hotel concept was appropriated by competitors and boutique hotels suddenly emerged all around the globe. I have stayed in many boutique hotels in India and this chapter definitely sets them into perspective for me.
A brief video on boutique hotels:
In Manufacturing Meaning along the Chicken Supply Chain: Consumer Anxiety and Spaces of Production, Peter Jackson, Neil Ward and Polly Russell look at a different dimension of space. They analyze spaces of production in relation to consumption to understand how meaning is manufactured in this process.
They reexamine the contemporary trends of re-connecting producers with consumers, where consumers increasingly wish to make qualified choices, where for instance – those with capital – prefer eggs from free roaming hens, or meat from small local producers. This chapter focuses on “identifying where and how the distinctive cultural meanings of food are created and negotiated” and it argues that “this process of ‘manufacturing meaning’ has direct economic consequences in a commercial climate where food is increasingly ‘sold with a story’” (164).
They thus set out to explore “role of subjective ideas, like myth and memory, within contemporary understandings of food industry” (164). They map the terrain of the intensive (broiler) chicken industry, an industry which epitomizes the recent industrialization of agricultural production.
The interesting question they ask is when and under what conditions chicken becomes perceived as either a sentient living being or as commodity - a question of the commodification of nature. They show how the “food producers are not simply manufacturing a product (broiler chicken) but they are also simultaneously attempting to manipulate the meanings which consumers attach to that product” (169).
They approach this through life history interviews with people who have been for years involved in the chicken industry; some of these interviews are certainly interesting and point to the ambivalent relationships between these people and chickens, which are often understood in terms of profit, as a commodity, but still – a special type of commodity, a living commodity.
These life histories show that “the ‘invisibility’ of chicken production has direct consequences for the way consumers relate to the product” (173) and that “the mechanization and acceleration of poultry production creates a distance from any emotional connection with live chickens intended for slaughter” (174).
They argue that “in managing the risks associated with chicken production, (…) the food industry is faced with a number of tensions most readily apparent in the desire to justify premium prices through revealing more about animal welfare, quality and provenance without making consumers ‘squeamish’ by providing too much information” (184). According to them, consumer anxiety is “an inevitable consequence of the intensification of the industry, a direct result of the commodification of nature and the increasing distance separating consumers from producers” (184).
For an interview with broiler farmers see this video:
In Consuming Burmese Teak: Anatomy of a Violent Luxury Resource, Raymond L. Bryant looks at how space as much as people’s lives have been transformed and even devastated by the desires of elites for luxury wood.
This chapter brilliantly uncovers how the history of the premier world luxury wood – the teak tree – has been implicated in a history of violence, oppression, exploitation, and civil war. He shows the dark side of the story of this luxury commodity which nowadays adores the yachts of the wealthy.
In Burma, “political interests centered on controlling teak forests and their inhabitants. Burma’s rulers – pre-colonial monarchs, British officials, post-colonial civilian and military elites – have all grappled with this problem, even as forest residents – shifting cultivators, villagers, timber traders – have sought to evade central control. In short, teak has been a perennial focus of struggle” (240).
His version of the story of the teak is certainly not the ‘official one’. He calls the Burmese teak a blood timber – “a resource whose record of exploitation can be viewed as a bad thing” (240). The accounts he argues against in this chapter are those “written by and/or for elites”, accounts that “present one particular version of history that is ‘factual’ in tone, partial in scope and de-politicized in presentation” (240).
In pre-colonial Burma teak tree was preferred by the Burmese royalty and nobility; it was used in ship-building and the 18th and 19th century were marked by a thriving export trade. “As a valued timber, there was a royal monopoly on teak from at least the eighteenth century that was enforced in the forests by specially appointed guards empowered to fine or arrest anyone involved in its illegal extraction” (241).
The British in search for new timber supplies to build war ships discovered the potential of Burma, the home to the largest teak forests in the world. And so “from the mid-nineteenth century to the Japanese invasion of Burma in early 1942, the consolidation of British control went hand in hand with the elaboration of the world’s leading export-oriented teak industry.
As such, teak became prime imperial resource” (242).
Teak was shipped to markets in both Europe and British India, where it was used in everything from park benches, railway sleepers to warships. After 1900 the forests in Burma were ‘privatized’ and became dominated by foreign companies, a fact that generated considerable local resentment. “Official revenue earned from the lucrative teak industry was used to sustain the British Indian colonial administration (of which Burma was a part)” (243).
After Burma gained independence, the situation has not changed much, it in fact worsened. “As in pre-colonial and colonial times, post-colonial teak production generates enormous profits that are not reinvested in the economic improvement of the country, but are rather used to improve the lives of those who control Burmese State as well as their political and economic allies” (243):
“Even as teak wood contributed to imperial grandeur and post-imperial fine living by providing a marker of distinction for both the already well-to-do and the socially up-and-coming, it was also the focus of vicious strife in the forests from where it came. (…) Burmese teak extraction has been a brutal and tawdry tale of state repression, local displacement, popular fear and loathing, and out-and-out murder” (248). This story of production of teak, is a story of production “whose anatomy combines extinction and distinction in a way and to an extent that perhaps only violent luxury goods can do” (253).
An interesting older video:
The last chapter which I have selected is – paradoxically – one of the introductory chapters. These chapters are all theoretically oriented and are definitely a must read. Yet one of them stands out in my view and that is The Seduction of Space by David B. Clarke.
All the above case stories suggest the omnipresence of the commodity and the saturation of space with commodity. There is literally no escaping commodity and the market. In this situation, it is most appropriate to reexamine Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism, and that is what Clarke does in his chapter.
This notion has become over time unpopular among many social scientists that tend to favor the idea of full consciousness of the consumer eliminating thus any traces of false consciousness. Yet Clarke shows that Marx is “undoubtedly far closer to acknowledging unconscious effects than many recent theorizations of consumption” (57).
Taking this as a starting point he then goes on, using Lacan, to focus on the alignment of the pleasure principle and reality principle. In the final section he looks at the way in which “the reality principle and the pleasure principle have been deflected by their due alignment”, which manifests itself in the “deregulation of the reality principle and the consequent emergence of an unprincipled reality” (58).
To reach to this point Clarke uses Baudrillard’s notion of seduction – seduction, and not consumption, is here opposed to production. Seduction diverts, takes aside, it is everywhere and at all times opposed to production. Clarke then argues that “fetishism has come to saturate social space in its entirety” (59), and looks at the shift from the scene of consumption to its obscenity, from the production of space to the overexposure of pornogeography.
Clarke nicely shows through his chapter that “it is simply not the case that these polarized positions – either full consciousness or false consciousness – are the only alternatives on offer. Indeed the particular framing merely reproduces the terms of a longstanding idle debate – by beginning with the unquestioned premise of a pre-given individual who may or may not be duped, and coming down on one side of the argument or other” (63).
He shows the potential of approaching the issue of fetishism through psychoanalysis, which “acts transversally to this misleading opposition by refusing to begin with a pre-given subject. For psychoanalysis, the subject is constituted as much as it is constitutive and it is never fully present to itself” (63).
This discussion then goes on to attack the core of consumerist logic, in which, as Zygmunt Bauman pointed out, “a satisfied consumer is neither motive nor purpose” (66) and at which “heart lies a fundamental contradiction between the promise of satisfaction and the persistence of unfulfilment, the proffering of pleasure and its withdrawal” (68).
He then goes on to talk about the desire, which is created through the creation of something that the subject supposedly lacks – to repair this lack the subject has to go and shop – for Lacan desire is the metonymy of want-to-be. Clarke argues that the fundamental importance of fetishism lies in its “seductive potential, which relates purely to its form” (74) and so as Baudrillard puts it ‘fetishism is actually attached to the sign-object, the object eviscerated of its substance and history, and reduced to the state of marking a difference, epitomizing a whole system of differences (Baudrillard 1981: 93)’. “It is this characteristic that is responsible for the seductive power exerted by consumerism” (74).
This chapter is all in all a great mixture of Marx, Lacan, Baudrillard and Bauman, and though this little tasting does not do it full due, I hope that it at least draw your attention to it.
Here is a nice video on commodity fetishism:
Baudrillard, J. 1981. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign St. Louis Telos.
Tereza Kuldova has written several book reviews for antropologi.info. Some of her recent ones are Lookism: Why we don’t want to be perceived as “ugly” or “different”, No fashion outside the “West"? and Religious globalization = Engaged cosmopolitanism?
Antropologi.info was recently voted as one of the best anthropology blogs.
Jason Antrosio, editor of Living Anthropologically and Anthropology Report asked his readers to pick their three favorites among 120 anthropology blogs. I’m especially happy about the result as I haven’t told anybody about the survey and I don’t use facebook og twitter to “promote” this blog. And his list included also several popular blogs within physical / biological anthropology and archaeology.
So, thanks a lot to everybody who voted for antropologi.info!
It has been quite quiet recently here on antropologi.info. The main reason is that I’m still in Cairo, and this city etc has consumed most of my mental bandwith.
Now, my time in Cairo is about to finish, I will be back in Norway next week. There, I will have to spend most of my time on finding an affordable flat and getting back in my freelance business. Nevertheless, I’ll try to resume blogging and hopefully will be blogging more frequently than last year, including more shorter posts.
We are living in a visually biased society. Bonnie Berry has written a book about prejudice and racism based on looks. Antropologi.info contributor Tereza Kuldova has read the book. Here is her review.
By Tereza Kuldova, PhD Fellow, Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo
The Power of Looks deals with one of those topics that impact all of us in our everyday lives every single day, one way or another. Namely our prejudices and conceptions of beauty and attractiveness and the ways in which we act on those and discriminate people based on their looks.
“When we consider the disparity in what we spend our money on, we find the depressing fact that, in the US, more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services. This fact shows the vacuousness of our society, but also may explain why we persist in the mainly pointless behaviors of buying beautifying products and services. If we are not educated, we may believe that physical appearance is more important than being learned, and we may rely on looks to accrue power instead of using our brains” (p.69).
Bonnie Berry calls this phenomenon ‘lookism’, which is one of the many ‘isms’ we have to deal with in our world, such as racism, or colorism.
The book shows very clearly how the bias towards attractiveness and beauty creates profound social inequalities and determines our access to both social and economic power. It is not news that people who ‘look better’ have better chances to succeed, get jobs, pass oral exams and so forth. In the same way in which beautiful people are positively ‘discriminated’, those not beautiful enough are negatively discriminated.
This appearance bias, the beauty ideal created and supported and perpetuated by the media, advertising and cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, creates a feeling in ourselves, a feeling of ‘not being good enough’, the result is anxiety (p. 57). We tend to constantly fix ourselves, be it through make up, clothes, plastic surgery, liposuction, teeth whitening (and more), in order to be perceived as ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’, if not beautiful. Being perceived as ‘ugly’ or different often leads to social exclusion, isolation, economic, social and romantic discrimination as well as lack of access to social and economic power.
What distinguished The Power of Looks from other popular books on this topic, such as the Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf or Beauty Junkies by Alex Kuczynski, is that it has a distinctively sociological take on the topic. This is a great advantage over the book Bonnie Berry published earlier, Beauty Bias, which was much more ‘popular’ and part of the same discursive realm as the books mentioned above. The Power of Looks has even two chapters on theory, method and possible approaches to the problem of social stratification based on our looks and to what she calls ‘social aesthetics’, from functionalism to symbolic interactionism. It is no doubt that this book can serve as a great introduction into the topic for students of sociology and anthropology.
For greater awareness about lookism
The most important aspect of this book in my view is however not its originality or its bravado of writing, but it is its message and the aim to build awareness about social stratification and discrimination based on looks. This is a message of acute importance in our world that is too often driven by media images of what is beauty and what it means to be beautiful, messages that fuel our continual sense of inadequacy and force us to recreate ourselves according to these images through consumption of products that often do very little to improve our looks. In the worst cases, these images, ideals and messages drive us under the scalpel where many have died. (See for instance this ABC news story Mother’s Death Highlights Dangers of Plastic Surgery).
The book is important in its focus on and analysis of these phenomena. And since it adopts a sociological approach, it not only builds our awareness about appearance bias and the way it shapes hierarchies and inequality, but it also gives us a conceptual apparatus to grasp these phenomena, to be able to conceptualize them, pinpoint them and talk about them. This is what I consider the greatest contribution of the book. And in line with the message of the book, I wish to draw your attention, in this review, to certain issues that the book raises and that I feel are interesting to think through and reflect about.
The topic of discrimination based on skin color is going through the whole book and it is interesting to think in this respect of the work of Nina Jablonski – Skin: A Natural History, which is a more evolutionary take on the topic of skin, yet definitely interesting – particularly the fact that from a biological perspective, white skin which is considered socially superior is in fact biologically inferior, in that it is easily prone to cancer and other environmentally caused damage. For more you can view a TED talk by Nina Jablonski here
Bonnie Berry also refers on many occasions throughout the book to facial and bodily disfigurement and what life can be like for those people in such a visually biased society. The awareness around this issue seems to be growing. Take for instance the popular show by a British fashion designer Wan Gok called Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice, which speaks directly to the topic of this book
For more on facial disfigurement see this video:
Skin lightening cream commercials - The intersection between racial ideology and capitalist consumer culture
The role of media and advertising in shaping our tastes, likes and dislikes has been already well documented. The interesting thing is how these commercials try to associate a whole universe of meanings with the products they are trying to sell us. The paramount example is the Indian Fair & Lovely commercial for the most popular Indian skin lightening cream. All of the company’s numerous advertisements follow the same logic which we will see in the example below. These commercials reflect and shape notions of beauty and therefore we should be aware of how they are constructed. Let us look at one of their commercials, as this might ‘flesh out’ the book for its future readers, since it tends to focus little too often on the structural and does not include many concrete examples.
Fair skin is in India often associated with higher status. Now watch how this is played out and reconfirmed in the commercial.
It begins with a father sitting and reading newspaper, then he asks for a tea with milk. His wife looks back at him with her sad big eyes and says that there is no milk, since there is no money. The father then goes on to complain: ‘I wish I had a son’ – meaning someone who would be able to provide for them. His daughter overhears the comment and starts crying, then the TV in her room features a Fair & Lovely facial cream commercial. At that moment she spots a newspaper job advertisement for an air hostess. She connects the two together (the same way as the audience is supposed to). After applying the cream, she is beautiful and fair, and therefore empowered. She gets the job and the surroundings suddenly turn glamorous, at the end she sits with her parents at what seems to be an airport coffee shop and her father with a happy face comments: ‘now we can get a tea, I guess’. The message is simple, beauty and fairness equals higher status, happiness and success. This nicely portrays the “the intersection between racial ideology and capitalist consumer culture” (p. 40).
Watch the commercial here:
The book itself points to many examples of prejudice and racism based on looks. An interesting one comes from Japan and the apparent racism against Koreans and Chinese prevalent in the popular Japanese comic books, such as manga. It is especially physical features that are being mocked in these comic books. (see for instance Asia Rivals’ Ugly Images Best Sellers in Japan or Racist Cartoons in Asia - An Example of Japanese Racism Against Koreans).
Looks, poverty and power
It is not a coincidence in this respect that, as Bonnie Berry points out:
“South Korea, incidentally, has had, as part of the new economy of Asia, the largest group of aesthetic surgeons practicing in Asia in the 1990s, primarily doing nose and eyelid alterations. (…) These westernizing surgeries, as undertaken by the middle-class Japanese, Vietnamese and Koreans, may be more about signs of achieving middle-class status than achieving and “American identity”, confirming once again that the desire to look a certain way is motivated by the pursuit of economic and social network power” (p. 41, emphasis mine).
This last sentence is possibly the most important here. If you do not look certain way, if you do not conform to the beauty ideals or at least try hard to approximate them, you are prevented from acquiring social and economic power. As Bonnie says:
“For those of us who are not naturally attractive, which is most of us, we must spend time, energy, and funds to make ourselves as acceptable as possible if we want to capture social and economic power” (p. 51)
It is instructive to see how the problems of obesity are correlated with poverty and lack of access to social power:
“The thin ideal is also maintained by social network mobility. Notably, thin women are more likely to marry in an upwardly mobile direction. Heavier women marry men of the same social class or lower” (p. 45).
Another important topic is the surgeries people surrender to in the name of beauty and improvement.
“There have been a growing social acceptance of plastic surgery and growing numbers of people engaging in it. The stigma is gone. Many of us are unhappy with our appearance and we greatly exaggerate to ourselves what we consider to be defects, with this dissatisfaction very likely culturally and socially generated. We compare ourselves to mass media images of beauty; indeed we want to look exactly like them, as it turns out. If full lips are in fashion, we can have them. High cheekbones? Tan skin? Blond hair? Blue eyes? Full lips? No problem” (p. 57).
In her book, Bonnie mentions French artist Orlan who has throughout her career experimented with surgeries and her own body. It certainly does raise questions. That all I leave up to you after watching this video
Succumb to lookism?
As a conclusion, I wish to ask you a question together with Bonnie:
“Should we feel pressure to change and succumb to this pressure? Of course not. But until or unless we are no longer judged and stratified by our appearance, only the bravest of us will not ‘fix up’” (p.63)
“If history is any judge, based on social reactions to other ‘isms’, lookism will remain a discriminating social attitude and behavior, even as it declines in social acceptability. There are signs that appearance bias is being at least discussed. There is greater social awareness. There are a few public policies leveled against lookism. And there are social movement organizations that are making small inroads into consciousness raising and legislation. It will take a long time. Most major social changes do” (p. 125).
Among the books that encourage critical thinking about contemporary world, this one is of those you might like to read.
It’s Open Access, Copy Left, and Peer Reviewed: Hau. Journal of Ethnographic Theory. Only ten days left, then the first issue will be available online. Yesterday, the preview (=table of contents) of the inaugural issue was posted at http://haujournal.org/
“By drawing out its potential to critically engage and challenge Western cosmological assumptions and conceptual determinations, HAU aims to provide an exciting new arena for evaluating ethnography as a daring enterprise for ‘worlding’ alien terms and forms of life, by exploiting their potential for rethinking humanity and alterity", it is stated on the journal homepage.
Many well-known anthropologists (from the US and Western Europe only, unfortunately) are among the contributors of the first issue. Will HAU become one of the most important Open Access journals in English and promote Open Access publishing or will it end up as a “One Hit Wonder” as the maybe similar journal project After Culture did?
Nearly every hour an anthropologist somewhere on this planet publishes a blog post in English. The antropologi.info overviews over the newest blog posts in English are now updated with several new blogs. I’ve also removed some blogs that haven’t been updated for a while and tried to fix some bugs.
It’s not the edited overview with hand picked posts that Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology is looking for, though (and I hope will be realised somehow in the near future as well). I haven’t included all anthropology blogs, though, so there was some editing.
I’m sure I’ve missed some blogs, so please let me know if there are anthropology blogs that should be part of the overviews:
Overview over anthropology blogs and their latest posts: http://www.antropologi.info/blog/
Overview over the latest anthropology blog posts including blog search http://antropologi.info/feeds/anthropology/
Now, only a few days before the largest gathering of anthropologists in the world, it’s time to take up again the banner of the well-prepared, well-written, well-presented conference paper, writes Rex in his post Defending the form at Savage Minds .
In the following text, antropologi.info contributor Tereza Kuldova and Jan Martin Kvile explain why we need more spectacle in academic presentations:
Tereza Kuldova & Jan Martin Kvile
PhD Fellow in Social Anthropology at Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo & The Ultimate Math Teacher, Holmen High School
Have you been recently at a conference? How many people could you count dozing off at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the presentations? Or maybe, you too were dozing off, unable to even count your fellow colleagues who shared that miserable state of existence at an utterly boring presentation…
Or, maybe, you are one of those who really try to give people a chance and engage with their ideas, but you are on a verge of becoming disinterested in even the most spectacular and thought provoking subjects just because the presentations kill it? Or maybe you are the presenter who makes people doze off? In that case, you need to learn something from wrestlers.
So here we are, at yet another anthropological conference. We, anthropologists, write about incredibly interesting, exciting things in the world, cultures, myths, religions, hierarchies, imaginations from all corners of the world. Yet, when you come to an anthropological conference, with some exceptions that merely confirm the rule, you will see a room full of people with almost disinterested expressions on their faces - these are possibly intended to signify the seriousness and depth (oh yeah, the anthropological obsession with ‘depth’) of their intellectual endeavor (however, it is enough to wait for the dinner and a little wine and, before you know it, you are listening to stories from the very same people’s bedrooms /possibly a way how to get ‘deeply’ familiar with each other/).
Better to get back to the conference room now. So they have a script and a plan. Each gets 20 minutes to present a paper. For some reason very few understand the simple concept of 20 minutes (yet all of them seem to be heavy users of watches) and for some even more miraculous reason most do really believe that presenting equals reading. Some basic arithmetic would make this clear immediately, if 2=2 and an apple is an apple, then presenting and reading can hardly be equal. These are namely two very different concepts.
Reading ≠ Presenting
Reading means comprehending and understanding the written word, deciphering its meaning and interpreting it while engaging with the text and its ideas. It is a relation between the reader and the text, a private and intimate relation too. Reading paper out loud disrupts this. It intends to invite the listener in, yet at the same time it never really succeeds, and by the very nature of this awkward relationship it cannot. Reading out loud does not invite the listener into a dialogue, the listener is not part of that exclusive bond between the reader and the text, and is rather ambivalently included and dis-included at the same time.
Presentation on the other hand stands for performance, act, demonstration, display, exposition, giving. Reading a paper out loud is hardly a performance (if it is, then it must be a really bad one), it is not a demonstration, not an exposition, not a show that invites participation.
And so we are sitting in the conference room, another speaker is being introduced. Interesting topic, the title sounds amazing. We sit back on our chairs and wake up a little. Then the word goes to the speaker himself.
First thing that he says, “eergh, I was rushing to the airport yesterday, was a bit delayed and had to catch the flight, so it happened I forgot my USB somewhere, still have not figured out where and with it the presentation, and it is not even in my laptop or on my email, so I am left without it, but I will really try to make up for that, I promise” (‘so you promise, eh’, we think to ourselves).
And he goes on (as if this was not already enough), “my paper is a little longer, so maybe I talk into the discussion time, but that is fine I guess, it is important” (we are beginning to sense frustration, which is the first stage of dozing off later on). So he sits down (‘oh no, not one of those again’, crosses our minds), and puts his paper right in front of his face and starts reading, as if reading for himself, no intonation, no enthusiasm.
We try really hard to follow with the fast flow of unintelligibly long sentences, five minutes into the reading we lose it, look out of the window and watch the birds outside, think of our lovers or our deadlines, suddenly our minds re-enter the room and we try to re-focus. Impossible, we lost it. This ‘reader’ does not know what highlights and repetition are, we are done and our imagination flies back to our lovers (or deadlines). Thirty minutes into the talk we start wondering, wasn’t he supposed to be finished by now, hell, what’s the time.
Around the 35th minute the speaker starts blabbering something about finishing off soon, we sharpen our ears, we get one sentence. We match it fast with the title of the paper, get the picture of what was probably going on and then we manage to formulate few relevant questions. Then one of us says, “thank you for the very exciting and stimulating lecture” (though the only thing that in reality really excited and stimulated us was probably the thought of our lovers) and add, “I have one little remark…”.
And so we go on with the theatre.
After the speaker is done the others start coming to him, “very good presentation, you have some nice points, see you at the dinner”. Do you want to know what they really think? “It sucked and I am definitely not going to read your paper, but I am going to pretend I will”.
Good reasons for that, the moment our speaker stepped in on the stage and wasted five minutes on diminishing himself giving us a story of lost USB, he was doomed to fail. The moment he started reading while hiding himself behind the paper, he confirmed that. The moment he went over his time, he showed he does not care for others. Yes, it is disrespectful. And yes, it shows your disinterest in discussion. Creating engaging dialogue should be the aim, yet, instead you fear, fear the questions. Grow up, the questions are there for you, through engaging with others’ reflections you will emerge as a transformed person! Stop fearing what others have to say! Embrace it instead.
‘Argument is war’ is one of the famous metaphors we live by (Lakoff and Johnson 2003). It is through dialogue and juxtaposition of different voices that meaning emerges (Bakhtin 2004). In knowledge, disruption is the goal! If dialogue ends, everything ends, as Bakhtin says. What is the ultimate spectacle of violent conflict, the ultimate metaphor of an argument? Wrestling! Yes, we should learn from wrestling and that too on more than one level!
Can We Academics Learn Something from Wrestling?
A wrestler is charismatic, has a stage presence, he is there to please the audience and that is how his success is determined. His performance is designed to create desired effects. He is a “a self-promotional device to draw the crowds and build reputation that would precede his entrance in the town” (Mazer 1998: 24) – not unlike an academic in this respect. Now don’t you want to be more like that? And less like the one who makes the audience doze off?
Did you know that young wrestlers have only twenty minutes in the program of the day to impress the audiences and create ‘heat’? Well, they happen to stick to the time. And most of them create considerable amounts of ‘heat’. Now next time you go out there, think about your audience first and about yourself as a wrestler! You want your audiences’ brains to heat up! You want them to focus their attention on you and what you have to say! Talk briefly but with impact, like a wrestler – Bang! Get your point across – Bang!
You have been researching for ages and you know your stuff, so how come you have to read it (that is just suspicious by the way)? Talk to your audiences, get them engaged in your ideas and thoughts, and create a dialogue instead of killing it. Maybe you are the enemy of yourself in this staged performance that we call ‘presenting a paper’.
Our whole endeavor in anthropology is like wrestling. We wrestle with others and their ideas, for ourselves and for others and when it comes to presenting we have to wrestle with ourselves for others, for the audience. Show the world the power of your ideas, be bold, talk loud and rehearse your stage performance, give us the spectacle! We want to remember what you say and we want to get interested in what it is you do. Get me interested and I read your work, those 20 minutes, those are a teaser, a commercial, an advertisement. So start writing down your punch lines (it is not a coincidence it is called a punch line, come alive wrestler!).
Now to the more profound importance of ‘wrestling’, Roland Barthes once said that “wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result” (Barthes 1993).
Maybe, we should like a wrestler turn our presentations into a sequence of little spectacles, open these up with a puzzle, engaging paradox or ambiguity. Maybe the inevitable ambiguity of the worlds we research and try to describe and thus the ambiguous nature of our findings should be understood as a productive force. The world is dirty and fuzzy; full of artificial categories we create to grasp this fuzziness and mess. Oh yes, and to top it, we create other categories intended to describe these ambiguous cases, such as hybridity and creolization.
We should get rid of those statements beginning with “I argue that” or “I conclude that” (note that wrestling is not about winning, it is about the process) and maybe we should instead open possibilities and let ambiguous voices speak. We are dealing with dialogical materials we are in dialogue with, how can the product be anything else than an invitation into that dialogue, a dialogue that is a part of the ongoing dialogue of humanity?
Maybe loose ends should never be really tied up, never really resolved for the sake of further dialogue and for the sake of knowledge, which itself is only a sort of metadialogue. Words are power and they can carve us versus them very easily, they objectify and transform what is fluid into something static. Categories thrive on pollution and love for purity. The more pollution the stronger the desire for purity (Douglas 2002).
But can it be that tidying all dirt is not such a good idea? Maybe we need to deal with garbage and dirt differently (Eriksen 2011). This struggle for perfect labels and neat categories is no more than an act of violence against life that is an unending and ambiguous dance of merger and division (Anton 2001). If that is so, the question is, could we think of hypocrisy and wrestling as a virtue?
Anton, C. 2001. Selfhood and authenticity. State University of New York Press.
Bakhtin, M. M. 2004. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Barthes, R. 1993. Mythologies. London: Vintage.
Douglas, M. 2002. Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge.
Eriksen, T. H. 2011. Søppel: avfall i en verden av bivirkninger. Oslo: Aschehoug.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. 2003. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mazer, S. 1998. Professional wrestling: sport and spectacle. University Press of Mississippi.
Sources of original images: unknown
They beat children and adults during apprehensions and in custody, they deny people with life-threatening medical conditions treatment, separate family members and confiscate their belongings.
“We were held with another woman who was coughing so badly that she threw up violently, over and over. The others in the cell called for help. An officer came over and said, ‘Que se muera!’ - ‘Let her die!’”
Two months ago anthropologists Rachel Stonecipher & Sarah Willen alerted the public on the Access Denied blog about the abuse of migrants on the U.S–Mexican border.
Now, anthropologist Randall McGuire draws our attention to a recently published report “A Culture of Cruelty” that documents the “systematic abuses of human rights” by U.S. Border Patrol along the U.S.-Mexican border.
McGuire, who is the author of Archaeology as Political Action, writes:
This report demonstrates that the Border Patrol systematically abuses people in short-term custody and that existing policies and standards inadequately address a culture of impunity within the agency. Rather than these abuses being the work of a few rogue agents, the Border Patrol has become a rogue agency. The report draws on interviews with almost 13,000 deportees conducted over 2.5 years. (…)
Despite this fact, inadequate procedures exist within the Border Patrol for identifying and correcting systematic abuse. The abuses continue as part of United States border policy. The border wall forces migrants into perilous deserts and mountains.
Since 2008, the number of migrants crossing the border has fallen precipitously. But, the number of people dying in the desert has remained constant. The systematic abuses of human rights and the culture of cruelty in the Border Patrol directly reflect a border policy designed to maximize the risks to migrants’ health and lives.
The report was produced by the organisation No More Deaths. One of its members is anthropology student “Corbett” who on his/her (really good!) blog “The Wild Anthropologist” gives us a summary of the findings.
The whole report can be downloaded from the website http://www.cultureofcruelty.org
It hasn’t received much attention from mainstream media. And when Reuters writes about the report, they use the authorities’ perspective and describe the victims of abuse as “illegal migrants”, as criminals. The difference to the coverage in the independent media publication In These Times is striking.
The term “Illegal” serves to dehumanize people who, even though they are within the country without the approval of the US, are guaranteed human rights by the 14th Amendment: “…nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”.
By Aleksandra Bartoszko. Oslo University Hospital, Equality and Diversity Unit
Nancy Scheper-Hughes is currently working on finishing her book, which will summarize more than ten years fieldwork on organ trafficking. In this interview she tells us about A World Cut in Two: Global Justice and the Traffic in Organs and she shares her reflections on challenges of doing and disseminating multi-sited research.
AB: What is your upcoming book about?
– It’s about trafficking - trafficking kidneys and other organs and tissues from people living on the edges of the global economy.
– There is also a chapter on the body of the terrorist, which is about cases of the medical abuse of enemy bodies harvested for usable tissues and organs at the Israeli forensic institute, as well as in Argentina during the dirty war and in South African police mortuaries during the anti-apartheid struggle when Black bodied piled up in the morgues.
– So I’m looking also at the harvesting of the dead body during periods of warfare and other conflict, a story that is a hidden subtext of modern warfare. Sometimes this is done as a kind of retaliation or retribution or as a punishment or as way to reinforce the fabric of individual bodies and the Body Politic.
– Since Margaret Lock did such a wonderful work on brain death, I also tell some stories about the very different ways that brain death is calibrated and understood from country to country. You can be brain dead in one country and not in the country next door. Or in US, you can be brain dead in one state, but not in another.
– So this is a very indeterminate form of death and this continues to contribute to people’s anxieties about donating organs. People sense this indeterminacy. How do you know he’s really dead? And the answer might be: “It depends on whether you are in Philadelphia or in New York City how dead you are”. And that is not very consoling answer.
AB: When can we expect your book?
– I am completing two books next year, one in January and the other in June. Right now I am working on a small monograph based on one of the chapters, which was too big for the organs trafficking book. It is about a war within the dirty war in Argentina, a war against the population of mentally and cognitively impaired at the war national asylum, Colonia Montes de Oca. It is called: “The Ghosts of Montes de Oca: Naked Life and the Medically Disappeared”.
AB: The working title of your trafficking book, “A World Cut in Two”, which refers to the countries of buyers and the countries of sellers, the rich and the poor, but also the world of the body, as you said. Speaking of body – if we move back to your article on three bodies you wrote with Margaret Lock in 1987. Has your view on the body in anthropology changed after your work with organ trafficking?
– Well, I always said that three was simply the magical number. People remember it. But I liked what Per Fugelli said – about the “missing body” in anthropological writings – the body in nature. And that would be not a naturalized, universalized body but the body as it is lived /interpreted in different times and places, as part of, and responding to, the given natural world. And I think that’s more important than all the promises inherent in genomics, biotechnologies and biosocialities.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Photo: UC Berkeley
– Nonetheless there was a truly radical breakthrough on the particular day in Berkeley that Paul Rabinow had an a-ha! moment when he recognized following a particular class meeting on the AIDS epidemic as it was emerging in San Francisco that people in afflicted communities, who grappling with an epidemic that was not yet well understood, were forming social movements, alliances, identities, and affinity groups based on their T cell counts, that is on something that was invisible and unknown to them about human biology prior to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Thus, bio-sociality.
– So these other understandings of the body go beyond the ‘three bodies’ that Lock and I wrote about in ‘The Mindful Body’. Foucault anticipated it, of course. But I think that were I to revise the ‘Mindful Body’ today it would definitely include the body in nature, as both Per and Benedicte Ingstad have paved the way in their writings.
– And of course I would have to talk about biopolitics and biosociality and its effects. The advent of genomics, personalized medicine which also connote a different kind of body, a body that is potentially infinitely malleable. And in case of organs and organs transplant, which has been with us already quite a long time, the idea of the body is seemingly endlessly renewable.
– My colleague Lawrence Cohen refers to bodily “supplementarity”, this is the idea that I can supplement my body with your body parts and with all the bio-available materials I can get, legally or not, ethically or not, from the living or the dead.
– Bio-supplementarity is a more theorized version of what I called neo-cannibalism, to refer to the conditions under which I may have permission or assume the right to cannibalize you. While neo-cannibalism or compassionate cannibalism derives from a long anthropological tradition, it proved quite offensive to some readers, as you might imagine.
– And I suppose if I wanted to add a fifth body, it would probably be the body in debt. Because everywhere I go on behalf of the Organs Watch project I find that debt, debt peonage, debt to family, debt across generations is the cause of the redefinition of the duty to donate organs while still living, a phenomenon I have called the “terror and the tyranny of the gift”.
– The duty to survive and the duty to deliver organs has created a new and alarming form of embodied debt peonage. The debtors are the kidney sellers who, even as they dispose of their organs, no longer feel that they own them, there are claims being made on their bodies that they are unable to resist.
AB: Do you think these books will change anything or you feel that you’ve done enough and people who should know about the situation of the organ trade already have this knowledge?
– Well, I don’t know. What I really wanted to challenge and to change was the international transplant profession. I wanted them to acknowledge what was happening within their field, how it was being transformed by organs markets. And I think that that I have accomplished that.
– Indeed, I know I have gotten the profession to move beyond its initial denials – first that it was an urban legend that did not exist at all; then that it was the result of a few bad apples in the field; and third, and the most dangerous, the problem is small and we have corrected it.
– Now, since the Istanbul Summit on Organs Trafficking in 2008 (in which I, as director of Organs Watch, participated) the transplant world reached a consensus that accepted the reality of human trafficking in organs and the role that surgeons have played, knowingly or not, in its development. They acknowledged that trafficking in humans for organs is not like other forms of medical migration or medical tourism. It is unique.
– But as for the general public, so to speak, I think there are many people who still think this trafficking in organs is surreal, that is grist for horror movies not for scientific study. I have worked on several excellent documentaries on various dimensions of human trafficking in organs, but many people say: “I’m so surprised”.
AB: Who do you see as readers of your upcoming book?
– We used to say that we wanted to aim for a broadly educated public, “the readers of the New Yorker Magazine”. Easier said than done because we have dual obligations to write for anthropologists and social scientists, to develop social theory, and at the same time to educate and engage the public. To be a good citizen, to be a public intellectual. And these dual obligations often come into conflict.
– So, my book combines narratives within narratives, some aimed for the anthropologist and some for the public. It has plot, character development and is an anthropological detective story, you might call it a social thriller, perhaps. A new genre of ethnography. And why not?
– As in my previous ethnographies, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics and Death without Weeping, I want there to be food for thought for people who want to read ‘thick description’, thick interpretation, and others who will skip that and go for the action. I hope they will enjoy reading about some of the unforgettable characters that I have had the good fortune to meet along the organs trafficking trail.
– The hardest thing for me was that there were so many sites and so many countries I visited that the book was fragmented. Is there such a thing as a multi-sited over-load factor? If so, I have certainly suffered from it. And then, the world of transplant trafficking was always in flux, always moving to new sites, new organs, new arrangements. So I have written the book three times. I am now revising a fourth version. And some of it is still a bloody mess because I am jumping from Turkey to Israel or to the Philippines, to Europe.
– It’s like seeing the world through the animated kidney. Part of the book is also a reflection on the role of the anthropologist in studying organized crime and kidney pirates.
– A friend and former owner of a famous book store, Codys, in Berkeley, that (like so many other bookstores) collapsed under the pressure of Amazon.com suggested that I change the title of my book to “Kidney Hunter”. That is with reference both to the kidney traffickers and to the anthropologist who is another sort of kidney hunter. Or Notes of an Apprentice Anthropologist-Detective”. So I am playing with writing a sequel along those lines.
AB: But aren’t you afraid that when you are jumping from one place to another that we don’t get enough knowledge of each of these locations?
– You get to know enough about what you need to know to understand the meaning of transplant and the body in that particular location or country. I am not an ethnographer of Turkey or of Israel or Moldova, or of Argentina, or South Africa but I am an ethnographer of global organized crime, an ethnographer of global outlaw transplant. So perhaps it’s not traditional ethnography but it is anthropology, if you can accept that distinction.
– It is not a Malinowskian ethnography and has no pretence to be that. But it is using all the tools of anthropology and of ethnography, which is approaching people as having local worlds, local ethics, local morals, local bodies, and those are the ones that I have to understand, having at least minimal empathy for everyone involved which I always have.
AB: In many occasions you, as well as other anthropologists doing multi-sited fieldwork, have been accused of not being anthropologists for that anymore. How do you meet these comments?
– The problem for traditional ethnography is globalization, of course, which impacts all of our former research sites and populations. The people want to study are in movement, small communities are in flux, they are influenced more by what goes on outside their villages and slums and cities than what goes on inside them. So, we follow different objects.
– If I am following kidneys, others are following migrant labor, or looking at other forms of border crossing, at tourism, or financial markets, or humanitarian workers, or soldiers of fortune, all the ways that people are involved in maintaining lives at all levels of society.
– What’s happened to the practice of traditional ethnography is also the legacy of the savage attacks on the authority of the anthropologist and on the history of our discipline and its links to colonialism and, in USA, the relationships of some anthropologists with defense work and collaborations with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and so forth. We weren’t always on the right side of things.
– Beginning in the late 1960s we tried, my generation in particular, to “reinvent” anthropology, to address colonialism and imperialism and the Vietnam War as critics. Then, in the 1980s we began to turn those critics on ourselves as agents and to engage in brutal self-critical reflexive writings, deconstructing the objects and aims of anthropology.
Video: Already in 1998 George Marcus wrote a book about multi-sited research: “Ethnography through Thick and Thin”
– In the end we were deconstructing ourselves, as anthropologist, as Americans, as gendered persons, as social classes, to the point that we became so self-conscious of our personal, cultural baggage that many anthropologists simply gave up doing ethnography and became moral philosophers of a different sort.
– The idea that fieldworkers could, in fact, become friends, co-producers, co-workers, colleagues and even comrades, was thrown out as an affectation an artifice of the anthropologist. How could you really develop anything more than methodological empathy with the people you were studying? Younger scholars became uncomfortable with the idea of the anthropologist as both “stranger and friend”, as my mentor, Hortense Powdermaker put it. Where does the authority of the ethnographer come from, what gives one the right to infiltrate a community and to use intimacies to generate theories?
– Well, I still think that doing traditional fieldwork is essential, but I would say in the last few generations of our graduate students think that ethnography is an archaic approach. The world is no longer localized. There are always local communities but they are more influenced by what goes on outside of it than what’s going inside of it. So you have to engage these communities through what my colleague Laura Nader calls vertical slice, that is looking at power relations, at relation to the state, global relations.
– Today, in medical anthropology many graduate students now do science studies and they do so for variety of reasons. They believe that biotechnology is totally transforming bodies, psyches (the inner life), what is means to be human. Ethics, power, meaning – all of these seem linked to the possibilities of biotechnology. They also feel, following Paul Rabinow, that the only way to truly have a friendship with ones informants is to share knowledge experience and a social class relation.
– So the idea of studying up as Lauren Nader called it many years ago became the fashion. You studied Wall Street, insurance companies, bankruptcy courts, and global pharmaceutical companies, not the underdog, the exploited and the oppressed. But that was a misrepresentation of what Laura Nader was really saying. She said, study both. Don’t just study sugar cane cutters. Study the owner of the sugar plantations. Don’t just study the sweat shops workers in Asia. Study the American corporations that are using, buying and consuming their products.
– So as result of all these different forces, how you situate yourself, who you are, your class position, your historical background, it almost naturally emerged that people would do much more fragmented, partial and mobile approach to ethnography.
– So maybe the idea that we now engage in studying global assemblages and leave behind traditional ethnography is an over reaction. But it’s a real reflection of what the world looks like now. And, personally, I think it would be completely tragic to give up the Malinowskian approach altogether. I tell that to my students all the time. Some of the students of Benedicte Ingstad said: “What I learned from Benedicte was to write about what you know, and what you know well”.
– In that empirical, interpretive and Clifford Geertzian notion of thick description you cannot do thick description doing multi-sited anthropology. You can do thick theoretical analysis, you can do a lot of analytical work, but the thick description requires that you just dig in your heels, as we say, and stay. Stay as long as necessary. With many happy returns.