What I'm reading

Best Journalism of 2016

Welcome to the Winter Syllabus™ for 2016. I’ve gone with ‘Winter’ this time, in honour of my change in hemispheres.

A very interesting year in digital journalism. I loved Nieman Lab for its commentary on journalism, Quartz for being consistently good, Shortlist Daily was masterful, Reductress was hilarious and even Meanjin was no longer crap (just in time to lose its funding). And through it all, Apple News continues to suck as if trying its hardest to be terrible.

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Laurie Penny pictured here being younger and more talented than you

Some stand out pieces for 2016 are ‘Fear of a feminist future‘ by Laurie Penny in The Baffler, ‘Get mad and get even‘ by Eleanor Robertson in Meanjin, ‘The arrangements‘ by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie in The New York Times (though it was perhaps more poignant before the Turd Astroid hit the US), ‘Uncanny valley‘ by Anna Wiener in N+1, and the ‘Voyeur’s Motel‘ by Gay Talese in The New Yorker. And one more, because I can’t help myself: ‘The Unbelievable tale of Jesus’s wife‘, by Ariel Sabar in The Atlantic. 

As always, the pieces are listed if they made me think differently about something but I do not agree with everything that is written. This is a syllabus, not a manifesto! For those who want more, you can read up on 2013, 2014 and 2015 by following the links.

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What I'm reading

Academic texts I have known and loved

I have a habit of telling everybody what I’m reading online, but not so much about what I’m reading for research. Here is a short list of books and papers that I’ve come across over the last ten years and that I consider to be personal landmarks for one reason or another.

Looking back over the list, I’m almost disappointed in myself. If I was really out to impress others I would have added lots of monumental tomes staking out various important paradigm shifts and intellectual turns and been more attentive to diversity.

But that wasn’t the aim of the exercise. Texts are listed here because the authors have influenced my thinking in some way, or presented a Big Idea that has captured my imagination, or they may simply have an engaging writing style that has sucked me in despite making poor arguments for which I have decided to forgive them.

These are all the works that I can think of off the top of my head. I will update this post as I think of more.

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What I'm reading

Best journalism of 2015

Welcome to the 2015 edition of the Summer Syllabus™. For those who came in late, this is my wrap up of the most interesting things I read online over the past twelve months. This year’s list is really long, for some reason. Next year I promise to be more selective. Looking back I can pick out a few themes that have caught my attention this year but which I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted: cultural appropriation, nerd hubris (still! see last year), capitalism and public anthropology. I’ve also been fascinated by the various college-based social justice movements that are emerging on some US campuses that I suspect nobody really understands regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum or how much insider conviction they bring to their arguments.

My reading recommendations are not an endorsement of the opinions contained within – if a piece of writing makes me think about an issue in a different way then I may included it even if it also makes my blood boil. And if you read nothing else on this list, I recommend you have a look at: God Tier: Facebook moms run the meme game, The Chinese Lingerie Venders of Egypt, and The 40-Year-Old Reversion.

Architecture and aesthetics

Authors and fiction

Biography

Children and parenthood

Cultural appropriation

The curious thing that is happening on US campuses

Effective altruism

Ethics and the examined life

Ethnography

Feminism

Funny

History

Journalism

Language

Nerd hubris

Politics

Relationships

Research and higher education

Science

Technology

Terrorism

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What I'm reading

The best ethnographies, as judged by ANU anthro students

When I was new to anthropology I really wanted some kind of ‘best of’ list of ethnographies to get me started. For the most part when I asked anthropologists to tell what work had influenced them the most, they had to stop and think about it or they gave equivocal answers.

So I’m pleased to circulate a recently drafted ‘best of’ list produced by anthropology students at the Australian National University. I am not endorsing the list, but simply making it available. It’s encouraging that so many were published in the last fifteen years. Perhaps this is a sign of intellectual progress and generational change within the discipline.

Here it is, with thanks to Shiori Shakuto and the Anthropgrad list:

Abu-Lughod, Lila 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honour and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Allison, Anne 1994. Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Anderson, Benedict 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

Bourgois, Phillipe 2002. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press.

Bourgois, Phillipe and Schonberg, Jeffrey 2009. Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.

Casaro, M Christina 2007. ‘Polo, Laughman, So Say: Situating Uyghur Food between Central Asia and China’. In Beller-Hann et al (eds) Situating the Uyghurs between China and Central Asia. Ashgate.

Gammeltoft, Tine 2014. Haunting Images: A Cultural Account of Selective Reproduction in Vietnam. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Golub, Alex 2014. Leviathans at the Gold Mine: Creating Indigenous and Corporate Actors in Papua New Guinea. Duke University Press.

Gordillo, Gaston R. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Duke University Press.

Graeber, David 2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography. AK Press.

Gupta, Akhil 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Duke University Press.

Ho, Karen 2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ingold, Tim 2007. Lines: A Brief History. Routledge.

Kohn, Eduardo 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Lea, Tess 2008. Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts: Indigenous Health in Northern Australia. UNSW Press.

Lora-Wainwright, Anna 2013. Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village. University of Hawaii Press.

Margold, Jane 1995. ‘Narratives of Masculinity and Transnational Migration: Filipino Workers in the Middle East’. In Ong, Aihwa and Peletz, Michael (eds). Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia. University of California Press.

Messick, Brinkley 1996. The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society. University of California Press.

Miller, Daniel 2008. The Comfort of Things. Polity Press.

Mueggler, Erik. 2001. The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, Violence, and Place in Southwest China. Uiversity of California Press.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh 2013. Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Durham, Duke University Press.

Paxson, Heather 2013. The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy 1992. Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Trawick, Margaret 1992. Notes on Love in a Tamil Family. University of California Press.

Tsing, Anna Lawenhaupt 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press.

Turner, Victor 1970. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Vankatesh, Sudhir 2014. Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy. Penguin Press.

Wacquant, Loic, 2007. Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. Oxford University Press.

Wardlow, Holly 2006. Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society. University of California Press.

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What I'm reading

The politics of imagination

I’ve often thought that the very worst clichés beloved of highschool English teachers are ‘Write from your experience’, followed closely by, ‘An argument always has two sides’. This is the perfect one-two punch: stifle the imagination then stamp out any residual feeling for nuance. Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing about what you know, and occasionally arguments do have two sides as opposed to three or seventy or just one. The problem arises when these ideas are formalised into ethical principles.

Against this, a recent article by Aminatta Forna is the best defence of the imagination that I have read in years. It also serves as a literary rebuke to the politics of identity taken to extremes, where well-meaning efforts to be ‘inclusive’ of minority perspectives and create ‘safe’ discourses end up essentialising those perspectives to the point where individual experience is erased. I’m going to quote from it below, but go and read the whole thing if you have time.

Some years ago I was invited to speak at Oxford University, and I was perhaps naively surprised to find my book taught by the African studies department and nobody from the department of English literature in attendance at my talk. Everyone in the audience was an Africanist.

[…]

All this classifying, it seems to me, is the very antithesis of literature. The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply “writer”.

[…]

So where should a bookshop shelve a novel set in Croatia and written in English by a Scottish Sierra Leonian author? Over the years I have posed the question of classification to many writers about their own work and the answer is invariably the same: in bookshops, fiction should be arranged in alphabetical order.

[…]

Writers do not write about places, they write about people who happen to live in those places. This is something that the labellers and their labels don’t understand either. Achebe did not “write about” Africa, he wrote about people who happen to live in Igboland. Likewise, I do not “write about” Sierra Leone or Croatia, those places are the settings for my characters.

[…]

The Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie, whose novel Burnt Shadows featured a Japanese character, agreed: “It’s about authenticity. When I was at uni in America in the 90s there was a lot of criticism around the idea of ‘appropriating’ other people’s stories. What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.”

[…]

At question time a woman raised her hand and asked how I felt about writing characters “who have experiences different from your own”. I answered that all my characters had experiences different from my own and though it was generally assumed by western critics that I had a great deal in common with my west African characters, I had never in fact been an 80-year-old peasant woman, a university dean or a surgeon. I remarked that while this kind of anxiety seemed to focus on writing outside one’s own ethnicity or gender, class was often overlooked and by far the most challenging in my experience. My male characters were for the most part middle class and middle-aged, like me, but to write a peasant woman born at the turn of the century, to imagine what it might be like never to have read a book or seen a film, I found the toughest act of all.

[…]

A novel is a work of imagination, it is not a dissertation. When a writer writes a book, he or she makes a pact with the reader. For a writer of non-fiction the contract is clear. The author pertains to objectivity. The reader may rely on the facts contained therein, the writer promises (to the best of their ability) to provide a factual truth. A writer of fiction makes no such promises. Fiction is subjective: it comes from within the writer, and, not only that, the story itself is composed of a sequence of lies. The writer of fiction says to the reader only this: come with me on a journey of the imagination and I will try to show you something you have not seen before. This is the gift of the writer to the reader. The reader’s gift is to bring to this alchemy their own imagination and their own experiences.

Her article puts me in mind of the outrageous art of Yinka Shonibare, who was once advised at the beginning of his career to take inspiration from his ‘own culture’. Largely raised in a British context Shonibare began draping his work in bright Dutch-manufactured African textiles. My favourite sculpture of his is ‘How to blow up two heads at once’ (2006):

shonibare

There is always something dangerous about the art and its capacity for subversion and ambiguity. To foreground Shonibare as ‘Nigerian’, ‘British’ or ‘disabled’ (he is all of those things) strikes me as exercise in making his work intelligible, controllable and ultimately less exciting.

The value of Roland Barthes’ manifesto ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967) was that it provided a timely corrective to a culture in which writers were given full authority on the ‘true’ interpretation of their work, a tradition that lives on in boring Writers Festival questions like “So how much of yourself did you put into your characters?”.

That is not to say that the author’s experience is irrelevant, it’s just that any interpretation that treats biography as the primary frame of reference is putting the cart before the horse. There is an implication that we enlightened consumers of art can somehow know the contours of the artist’s experience ahead of schedule by extrapolating from the categories we ourselves assigned to them. The author is alive and kicking. It’s our idea of what it means to be an author that needs to die.

On the other hand, I’m not willing to take Forna’s ideal of the transcendant imagination at face value. One of the things I love about the New Philology is that it brings good old ethnography back into textual criticism. If, after all, an anthropologist is obliged to ask basket weavers in Central America about their experience and sources of inspiration, then why can’t don’t we ask Salman Rushdie, or indeed Aminatta Forna? Books, like baskets and sandwiches, are also cultural artefacts produced by people with intention. Ultimately this means that authors deserve to have the particularities of their experience recognised but it also means that they cannot be absolved of responsibility when they use their imaginations to inhabit the experience of others. Thomas Kenneally said that if he were to write The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972)  today he would not have been so presumptuous to write it from an Aboriginal perspective. This is both a political and an aesthetic decision. To ventriloquise and exoticise does not always necessarily make you a ‘bad person’. It does make you bad at imagining.

The imagination is not a transcendent space, but perhaps its necessary to believe that in order to write at all. As Forna put it to her students: write what you want but write it well.

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What I'm reading

The research academic as entrepeneur

I have been reflecting recently that research academics are in a similar predicament to musicians: there is no ‘middle class’ for either group. Either you are part of the majority struggling at the bottom from gig to gig, or you are straight-up famous.

Of course, there are significant differences too. Musicians are mostly operating in a market economy, while research is still largely done within a patronage model. But it’s clear that academia is becoming more market-based with the end of permanent positions coinciding with weird innovations like crowd-funded research and three-minute presentations. We are increasingly expected to be spruikers of our own brand and to perform labour in exchange for social capital as opposed to, you know, grubby old money. (Read especially everything by Sarah Kendzior on the adjunct crisis as well as relevant readings listed towards the bottom of this post).

There are no doubt problems with the old model as well as potential advantages with the new. Patronage offers security and dignity but had a funny way of institutionalising anti-meritocratic hierarchies. (Among other things, late-career researchers are almost exclusively male, and not always as productive and collaborative as might be hoped.) The neoliberal academy, on the other hand, is at least closer in its structure to the ‘real world’, meaning that if we want to change the way things are going we can count on having allies in other industries who feel our pain. They may even have the imagination to suggest ways of doing things that didn’t occur to us.

Above all, an accurate diagnosis of our situation as researchers—and our particular place within a wider context of social and industrial change—is certainly going to be more important than justified-but-futile whingeing. We don’t have to accept the status quo, but we are obliged to understand it.

This brings me to a fantastic article that appeared in The Atlantic recently: William Deresiewicz’s insightful and non-ranty,  ‘The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur‘. Lot’s of parallels here to the research sector.

Professionalism represents a compromise formation, midway between the sacred and the secular. A profession is not a vocation, in the older sense of a “calling,” but it also isn’t just a job; something of the priestly clings to it. Against the values of the market, the artist, like other professionals, maintained a countervailing set of standards and ideals—beauty, rigor, truth—inherited from the previous paradigm. Institutions served to mediate the difference, to cushion artists, ideologically, economically, and psychologically, from the full force of the marketplace.

[…]

The institutions that have undergirded the existing system are contracting or disintegrating. Professors are becoming adjuncts. Employees are becoming independent contractors (or unpaid interns). Everyone is in a budget squeeze: downsizing, outsourcing, merging, or collapsing. Now we’re all supposed to be our own boss, our own business: our own agent; our own label; our own marketing, production, and accounting departments. Entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity. It is, by and large, a necessity. Everybody understands by now that nobody can count on a job.

Still, it also is an opportunity.

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What I'm reading

Best journalism of 2014

Another year, another round-up of things I read online that I found amusing, though-provoking, challenging to my world view or simply validating of my smug sense of being right about everything. As with last year’s list, a piece will make the cut if I’m still thinking about it the next day (even if I’m thinking about it angrily). Some pieces are included simply because I enjoyed the writing style. The stand out publications for 2014 are The Appendix and Aeon.

This year I’ve introduced categories to make it easier for readers to ignore what they know is unlikely to interest them. The categories are fairly arbitrary but they have the advantage of showing up my biases. (Who would have thought I was such a cynic to have a whole category dedicated to the best writing on ‘nerd hubris’, and another for ‘activist hubris’? Alert: I do not think believe activism or nerdery is inherently hubristic.)

And if you only read two things from this list, make them:

  •  Andrew O’Hagan’s Ghosting: Julian Assange (London Review of Books, 6 March 2014). This is a superb piece of work from a brilliant writer who was commissioned to produce a biography of a narcissist and failed. The story of the failure becomes an eloquent biography in its own right.
  • Gene Weingarten’s The Peekaboo Paradox (The Washington Post, 22 January 2006). Technically not published in 2014, but this is when I read it. I enjoyed this piece because it reads like a fine piece of fiction.

Best writing on journalism and publishing for 2014

Best writing by or about writers and writing

Best writing on politics

Best writing on wealth inequality

Best historical writing

Best ethnographic and travel writing

Best writing on ethics and the examined life

Best writing on nerd hubris

Best writing on activist hubris

Best writing on children and parents

Best writing on sex

Most amusing writing (and photographs)

Best writing on feminism

Best writing on education and academia

Best writing on science

Best writing on language

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