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American Chopper on anthropology

I keep thinking of this American Chopper meme and why it makes me laugh but also bugs me. The argument of the moustachioed man is one that is familiar to me but I find it to be naive. When such pure standards are set for decolonisation, the baby is inevitably thrown out with the bath water. As Graeber and Wengrow put it: “To say Mi’kmaq thought is unimportant would be racist; to say it’s unknowable because the sources were racist, however, does rather let one off the hook.”

American Chopper anthropology

Anthropology may never be decolonised but that fact shouldn’t be taken as permission to avoid dealing in complexity (or dare I say ‘entanglement’) altogether. Anyone who works seriously with archival materials knows that knowledge is distorted by the power dynamic producing it, but it is never completely in its thrall. It has its own mercurial logic that very often eludes the structure that hopes to contain it. Edward Said is easily invoked by those who want to bring the news about how orientalist anthropology is, while his call to action is conveniently ignored. Said’s methodological program is all about how to do the the liberating work of reanalysis, knowing that this work will never be perfect and never be finished. Denying any possibility of reading against the grain, or finding the countersign (per Bronwyn Douglas), is to take colonial discourse at its word and to hand it all the easy power that it pretends to have already.

It’s also a neat pretext for denying Indigenous voices simply because you don’t like the packaging they arrive in, per Graeber and Wengrow’s critique. And quite apart from being a bit self-satisfied and activist-splainy, this denial amounts to accusing black and Indigenous anthropologists of double consciousness, or of being duped, rather than being much better informed about the dynamics of knowledge and interpretation than you are.

To paraphrase Said himself, “read a fucking book” (Said 2004 ,’The return to philology’). OK, well not exactly but that’s the gist.

Years ago, during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, I asked a professor of philology at the University of Cape Town how it was that some non-white students like himself were able to graduate at all under the apartheid regime. He said that it was simple: racist ideology loves to project itself as totalising but it never fully succeeds. This is just the kind of gritty optimism that should precede the troubling task of reading colonial texts.

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The predictable evolution of letter shapes

Our paper on the evolution of the Vai script and its implications for the evolution of writing is finally published in Current Anthropology here. If you can’t get behind the paywall, the preprint is here, but if you want the nice clean published version please drop me a line.

One of the best things about Current Anthropology is their policy of eliciting responses and we have commentaries from Henry Ibekwe, Andrij Rovenchak and Monica Tamariz as well as our collective reply to those responses. Here is an earlier twitter thread about the paper, and there is also a new piece about it by Colin Barras in New Scientist here (paywalled). In the meantime, enjoy Julia Bespamyatnykh’s excellent animation of three Vai letters evolving before your eyes.

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The Summer Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2021

This list gets smaller each year, a sure sign that my idle reading time is diminishing. It was a year of endless pandemic chores, grant-chasing and depression. But I now have job security for 6 years and it feels like a great reprieve.

One piece needs a special mention, just because it was so surprising. This is John Semley’s account of the US postal service that somehow ends up talking about everything that ails us in this scary political moment: America, Ex Post Facto. Also, loved Sharon Old’s poem First Thanksgiving, written 16 years ago but it was new to me and it hit me very hard.

Academia

America

Anthropology/ethnography

Ethics & the examined life

Funny

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How to attract emus with this one weird trick

Years ago when I was contributing to a report for a native title claim in the Pilbara, I came across this passage written by Émile Clement over a century ago:

Clement, Emile. 1904. “Ethnographical notes on the Western-Australian Aborigines: With a descriptive catalogue of a collection of
ethnographical objects from Western Australia by J.D.E Schmeltz.”  Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie 16 (1/2):1-29.

The phrase I enjoy the most is: “[t]he Emu, being a very inquisitive bird…”. Emus certainly have a funny way of looking at you sidewise like a chook calculating the odds that you will drop part of your sandwich. As a child, my sister was about to bite into a whole tomato when an inquisitive emu approached her from behind and snatched the tomato out of her hand. She turned to see a tomato-shaped bulge travelling slowly down its neck.

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The Summer Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2020

It’s much smaller list this year, probably because of all the madness: Covid, homeschooling, a book manuscript, grant applications, illness. For all these reasons I did a lot less of my usual idle and aimless reading. The stand-out article is Married (Happily) With Issues (even though it was published yonks ago), and I loved the poem Good Bones by Maggie Smith. 

Academia

Anthropology/ethnography

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Just published

New blog post at Hiphilangsci: the return of the human in the study of writing

I have a new blog post at History and Philosophy of the Language sciences on how the study of writing is returning to human-centric practice-based framework, and why this is a good thing.

Written production generates new practices but it is also an activity that is recruited into existing social routines. These routines might be concerned with the management of labour and its products, the projection of political power, the elaboration of myth, and the performance of ritual including communications with the supernatural world. In effect, writing is a practice that is seemingly bound up in the reproduction and maintenance of social orders.

Enjoy!

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Message stick news

I’ve been terrible at updating this blog this year, for obvious reasons, but I’m going to spell them out anyway as succinctly as possible: pandemic, homeschooling, book manuscript, funding applications.

A round-up of recent news:

Over and out.

This blog is rarely updated! If you want an email notification whenever there is a new post, click on the follow button right at the top ↑ that looks like this: Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 10.02.26 am  You can also use a service called Blogtrottr.

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Collection fishing

How good curatorial decisions can end up distorting a collection

In this post I wanted to reflect on a couple of my recent experiences of being led down the garden path by later additions or interventions into archival metadata. I don’t want to give the impression that I think curators and archivists are hopelessly ignorant and misguided. On the contrary, these examples illustrate the kinds of things that can go wrong when everyone is ostensibly doing the right thing. So I’m not sure if there will be any clear lessons except to emphasise the truism that interpretation is an ongoing, open-ended process fraught with danger as well as discovery.

To start with, both of these cases were affected by the fact that many collecting institutions make only a very thin layer of information available online for the public. There is no conspiracy here. The sheer person-power involved in digitising catalogues and card files is no doubt well outside of the budget range of most small- or middle-sized institutions. Even those larger museums that have managed to transfer all the hardcopy information onto spreadsheets may not have not taken the next step of turning those spreadsheets into searchable online databases.

This is why, wherever possible, it makes sense to visit museums in-person (global health crises permitting). Quite apart from being able to examine the objects themselves, it allows the researcher to compare the online information with the in-house spreadsheet, the paper card files and the catalogue volumes. Very often information is lost when it is transferred onto a spreadsheet, for example, we lose the hand-drawn diagrams, the queries in the margins and even the different handwriting styles that can tell you if more than one person added to the description.

Catalogue entries of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin

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What I'm reading

The Summer Syllabus: Best commentaries of 2019

Back in the old country after a full and challenging year. In honour of the switch to the southern hemisphere, the list returns to it’s original Summer title. There’s a lot of ‘funny’ this year. Lucky you! I’ve decided to put an asterisk next to pieces that I especially liked for those who prefer a slimmer list.

Academia

Anthropology/ethnography

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