The first temporary exhibition at Paris’s Quai Branly museum takes an ambitious look at how the West constructs its ‘other’, Mary Stevens writes in her research blog about the reconfiguration of national identity in French museums:
In the permanent exhibition it is the aesthetic qualities of the objects on display that are foregrounded; what is missing is a critical reflection on how the western aesthetic criteria which visitors are encouraged to apply have developed over time. What makes us see something as art, and why do we now judge as art objects that in the past might have been seen either as silent witnesses to social customs or indeed as curiosities? These are the questions that D’un regard l’Autre sets out to explore.
[H]airy savages carved in wood bear witness to Renaissance man’s desire to position his superior self firmly on the side of culture against nature. However, it is interesting to be reminded that in this period real-live people from other cultures were sufficiently rare in Western Europe to command wonder and a degree of respect. A life-size portrait of an Inuit couple, painted during their visit to the Danish court in the late seventeenth century provides a subtle reminder: the names of these two travellers – Pock and Kieperoch – were carefully noted by the artist. It was only in the nineteenth century that their successors would become ‘types’, documented and classified for the new sciences of anthropology and phrenology and displayed for public instruction in the new museums.
See also earlier on antropologi.info: Indigenous? Non-Western? Primitive? The Paris Museum Controversy
Mary Stevens has blogged a lot about multiculturalism and nationalism in France. One of the interesting recent posts is about the integration of foreign students: What image of France is presented in the introductory courses about French society?
(...) Day 2: the gastronomic map of France (lots of camembert and choucroute - not a lot of couscous and brik) place names (all Greek, Roman, Celtic or religious), family names (every single one of them belonging to the Français de souche, whoever they might be) and - to top it all - "languages, ethnic groups and cultures". Aside from the fact that I thought ‘ethnic’ was a taboo word in French, only regional minorities get a mention and we are told authoritatively that cultural diversity has been in decline since the Revolution, or at least until a ‘recent’ upsurge in regional movements (e.g. Coriscan, Breton, Basque).
So here we have it: ‘le mythe national’ condensed into two short days. Above all the course seeks to inculcate a closed, exclusive definition of national identity that fails to take into account any of the demographic developments of the last 200 years and indeed before.
If anyone was ever in any doubt that there is still work to be done in France in rethinking the ‘collective memory’ - or what I prefer to call the collective or social ‘imaginary’ (the latter after the philosopher Charles Taylor) - then here (with apologies for the poor quality) is the proof.
Related topics are touched in the French movie Indigènes. Mary Stevens explains:
The film tells the story of a group of North African soldiers, fighting on French soil for the liberation of France from 1943. It is explicitly geared toward the re-evaluation of national collective memory; its aim is to address the way these soldiers, who played a major role in the Liberation have been written out of (the Gaullist account) of history. And it looks set to have a major impact.
Anthropologist Cicilie Fagerlid is back in Paris and has also seen the film:
Indigene is the shameful juridical assignation used for Muslims in French North Africa. Muslims, being indigenes and not citizens like the Christians and Jews, didn’t enjoy equal rights until 1945. It’s incredible, isn’t it, in the country priding itself with the slogan libérté, égalité, fraternité?
The first part of the paper Media consumption, conformity and resistance: a visual ethnography of youth culture in Iranian Kurdistan by anthropologist Kameel Ahmady has been published on KurdishMedia. Ahmady wanted to examine the factors which shape a sense of belonging among young people in Mahabad, a town on the north-west periphery of Iran.
His methodological approach is interesting:
I used reflexive visual methods, asking them [the young people] to take their own photographic pieces dealing with themes they saw as relevant to local current events and their place within these processes. The works they produced were then placed in a week long public exhibition in Mahabad, where further data was gathered in a Guest Book of reactions to the event, as well as participant observation notes taken at the time.
UPDATE (15.10.06): Part II of his paper Media consumption, conformity and resistance: A visual ethnography of youth culture in Iranian Kurdistan is out
It might sound deterministic (and essentialising - maybe one should replace "cultures" with "societies"), but Juan Dominguez, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, believes "different cultures" produce "different brains" and that cultural differences reflect different neurological functioning. He discussed the effects of 'enculturation' on the human brain at a recent anthropology conference in Cairns, according to ABC Australia. He said:
In certain societies and cultures there are certain patterns of behaviour, people may make certain evaluations, have certain opinions, there are certain tasks that are culturally specific. We should be able to find that ... the brain would have some sort of bias acquired through exposure to culture.
Douglas Lewis, a senior lecturer at anthropology who is supervising the work, acknowledges this is a controversial area. He explains that the emerging science of neuroanthropology suggests that brains within a group can be 'wired' by common experience, just as individual brains become 'wired' by individual experiences. "What we're looking for are correlates in the brain that anthropologists have in the past thought of as being cultural or culturally mediated," he says.
John Walter, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at Saint Louis University comments:
This kind of work makes some of us in the liberal arts really nervous, but that’s because we don’t understand cognitive studies and neuroscience well enough. (...)
My sense is that there’s a fear that if we accept or find that difference is part of our neurological wiring we’ll be taking a step back to past racist practices of essentializing and differentiating groups. This fear is, I think, rooted in the assumption that there’s some kind of culture-biology duality, that if something is wired into us it is unchangeable, because (...) wiring doesn’t change. Those familiar with cognitive science, however, know that brains are adaptive.
A local news story that might say something more general about why anthropology isn't more present in the news? The results of University research between April 1 and June 30 show high school athletes often get 4 to 8 times the media coverage of an academic all-star, Minnesota Daily reports.
"We're not ignoring good stories; we're not being told good stories," Maureen McCarthy, Star Tribune education leader, said. "It's unrealistic to expect two reporters to know what is going on in all area high schools."
Sometimes, readers send call for papers or job announcements to me. Therefore, I've now "relaunched" the forum. After registering, you may post there your announcements if you want.
Now, there are two new posts:
PhD scholarship at the Department of Organization and Industrial Sociology, Copenhagen Business School
Call for entries: European Documentary and Anthropological Film Festival Budapest, Hungary, April 2007
The New York Times called it "Bin Laden's Low-Tech Weapon": Islamic cassette sermons are often associated with terrorism. They are rather a medium for democratic activism and ethical selv-improvement, anthropologist Charles Hirschkind argues in his new book "The Ethical Soundscape. Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics".
There is an book excerpt on the website of Columbia University Press. Hirschkind writes:
To read the cassette sermon primarily as a technology of fundamentalism and militancy reduces the enormous complexity of the lifeworld enabled by this medium, forcing it to fit into the narrow confines of a language of threat, fear, rejection, and irrationality.
On the contrary, cassette sermons frequently articulate a fierce critique of the nationalist project, with its attendant lack of democracy and accountability among the ruling elites of the Muslim world. The form of public discourse within which this critique takes place, however, is not oriented toward militant political action or the overthrow of the state. Rather, such political commentary gives direction to a normative ethical project centered upon questions of social responsibility, pious comportment, and devotional practice.
For those who participate in the movement, the moral and political direction of contemporary Muslim societies cannot be left to politicians, religious scholars, or militant activists but must be decided upon and enacted collectively by ordinary Muslims in the course of their normal daily activities.
These sermons are a key element in the technological scaffolding of what is called the Islamic Revival (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya), he writes. The cassette sermon has become an omnipresent background of daily urban life in most Middle Eastern cities:
In Cairo, where I spent a year and a half exploring this common media practice, cassette-recorded sermons of popular Muslim preachers, or khutaba' (sing. khatib), have become a ubiquitous part of the contemporary social landscape. The sermons of well-known orators spill into the street from loudspeakers in cafes, the shops of tailors and butchers, the workshops of mechanics and TV repairmen; they accompany passengers in taxis, mini-buses, and most forms of public transportation; they resonate from behind the walls of apartment complexes, where men and women listen alone in the privacy of their homes after returning home from the factory, while doing housework, or together with acquaintances from school or office, invited to hear the latest sermon from a favorite preacher.
During his stay in Egypt, he spent much of his time meeting both with the khutaba' who produced sermon tapes and with young people who listened to them on a regular basis.
One of the central arguments of his book is, he writes, "that the affects and sensibilities honed through popular media practices such as listening to cassette sermons are as infrastructural to politics and public reason as are markets, associations, formal institutions, and information networks."
Charles Hirschkind: What is Political Islam? (Middle East Report)
Charles Hirschkind: The Betrayal of Lebanon (tabsir, 1.8.06)
Why haven't there been such blog posts about the recent EASA-conference (European Association of Social Anthropologists)? Anthropologist Grant McCracken has presented a paper at the EPIC-conference (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) and written three blog posts, among others about his presentation (and the usefulness of ethnography):
In my presentation on Monday at EPIC 2006, I proposed that we might want to take advantage of the "extra data" effect. Ethnography is often most useful when we don't know what we need to know. The method is good at casting the net wide. We ask lots of questions. Collect lots of data. Apply lots of theory and interpretation. Eventually, we begin to see what it is we need to see. At the end of this process we find ourselves in possession of a lot of data we cannot use. This "extra data" is an opportunity.
Now the film has made its way to the International Film Festival in Toronto and to movies across Canada. In an interview with the Edmonton Journal, Kunuk tells about how film making has contributed to a revival of Inuit shamanism:
"For our Inuit audience and for our young people, we're showing that we survived 4,000 years under shamanism: Be kind to animals, use only what you need. We had everything -- food, clothes. You had to be a good hunter to be rich. Christianity came, all that was put aside. Growing up, the minister was telling us don't do drum dances, don't tell legends because they're the work of the devil. It's brainwashing. It happened in New Zealand, Australia, Africa. It probably all happened the same.
"I wanted to put it down on record. For 4,000 years of our history, it is only the last 85 years that Christianity came. It doesn't balance. We traded 100 taboos -- laws of nature -- for Ten Commandments, which now I don't have any trust for after looking at where they came from. Love thy neighbour? They're bombing the hell out of each other! But we had to throw away all these rules of the land, taboos we just dumped so we could go to heaven."
"Shamanism was here, and it's going to be here, that's what my elders tell me. After Atanarjuat [an earlier film], the elders started to talk about shamanism more. With this film, because their families are in this community, people learned about their namesakes. We live by namesakes. When I was born, I was given five names, but the government couldn't pronounce them so we were given tags and family names."