Thursday, June 9, 2011

Anthropology By the Wire: A Public Anthropology?

At the moment, 12 community college students are sitting in a classroom on our campus getting visual anthropology reports ready for Monday.  They are here to work on multimedia anthropology--perhaps the public anthropology of the future.

Our NSF-funded project is an effort to bring together anthropological methodologies with multimedia production and community activism. In that, it seems to fit in well with the tenets of a “public anthropology” which, over the last decade, has transformed the rhetoric (if not the structure) of anthropology in the United States. As Robert Borofsky (who claims to have coined the term) defines it,
Public anthropology engages issues and audiences beyond today’s self- imposed disciplinary boundaries. The focus is on conversations with broad audiences about broad concerns. Although some anthropologists already engage today’s big questions regarding rights, health, violence, governance and justice, many refine narrow (and narrower) problems that concern few (and fewer) people outside the discipline. Public anthropology seeks to address broad critical concerns in ways that others beyond the discipline are able to understand what anthropologists can offer to the re-framing and easing—if not necessarily always resolving—of present-day dilemmas. The hope is that by invigorating public conversations with anthropological insights, public anthropology can re-frame and reinvigorate the discipline.
It is hard to object to these goals; they certainly speak to the desire of many of us to combine our academic interests with our responsibilities as educators to speak out on issues that affect all of our lives today. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? Let me suggest (and I am not the only one to do this) that there may be a tension between addressing “broad critical concerns” and efforts to “re-frame and reinvigorate the discipline”. The one concerns our duties to contribute to public discourse, the other to draw attention to the discipline itself—or, perhaps, to the work of a select group of elite “public anthropologists”.
So is our project “public anthropology”? Yes, although I think of our effort as distinctly different than the “pundit” model of public anthropology. In other words, this isn’t an effort to become a contributor to the Nation, the Huffington Post and NPR. It is, however, an attempt to utilize anthropology for a critical re-framing.
Let me start with a parable, one that Michel Serres employs to great effect in his “The Parasite”:
A poor man is starving with an empty belly. He approaches the kitchen door of a restaurant. The smells of the fine food inside and finds that his hunger is somewhat sated. An angry kitchen hand come out and demands that the poor man pay for having taken his fill, for the services rendered. An argument
ensues. A third man arrives and offers to settle the matter:
‘Give me a coin, he said. The wretch did so, frowning. He put the coin down on the sidewalk and with the heel of his shoe made it ring a bit. This noise, he said, giving his decision, is pay enough for the aroma of the tasty dishes’ (p.34-5)
This is Serres’s theory of the “third man,” a noise that interrupts a system and transforms discourse. Picture a network map—lines (edges) link together people, ideas and institutions (nodes) in a structured, directed way. This person calls me. I use this form to communicate with this city bureaucracy. I go here on the weekends (but not there). But here comes a “third man”--another node in the network. Perhaps a new idea, new infrastructure, new conditions. These have the effect of transforming the value of all of the “links” (edges)--not, perhaps, in a revolutionary way, but with a measurable impact. The third man shifts emphasis from one path to another, opens up new paths, closes down others.
Multimedia anthropology intervenes in just such a way. Rather than be “transformative” in some absolute sense, anthropology here creates new linkages, new paths, shifting discourse, different understandings. But not in some monolithic way. The new meanings and possibilities only exist as a function of the nodes and edges that went before. They elaborate, qualify, re-connect. Also, this is not another narrative of the anthropologist-as-hero. Here, anthropologists are just more people joining a crowded social and discursive field: one more person to the table, to be sure, but also one who relies on the connections that preceded her. And one, ultimately, beholden to the other people at that table.  

And in this, "social media" is both metaphor and medium.  "Metaphor" because social media emphasizes the connectedness of what we do--even more, it structures the content of what we say and the way we communicate.  "Social media" implies that we are not collecting, interpreting and analyzing in a vacuum.  It reminds us that we are connected to many nodes--other people, other anthropologies, other histories--and that the weight of those connections not only shapes what we do, but enables it.  And "medium" because a social media anthropology is always already a public anthropology--an anthropology inextricably embedded in an audience.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Korean multiculturalism?

A journalist contacted me about race and racism in South Korea, and I summarized some of my thinking (and prognostications) for him.  You may not believe it, but I think some of the most interesting (and potentially positive) things are happening right now with attempts to address race and multiculturalism in South Korea.

Is there racism in South Korea?  Absolutely, although the real question here is: what is the context for Korean racism?  And how is it different than other countries?  “Minjok" is a neologism borrowed from the Japanese that refers to a national ethnos.  It’s not the same as US operationalizations of race—nor would it be accurate to simply gloss it as “Japanese”.  Instead, it needs to be contextualized in the colonialist past—that is, while Korean minjok makes some of the same historical claims as Japanese minzoku (ancient, homogenous lineage, glorious destiny), Korean nationalist/ ethnic discourse develops first in the crucible of resistance to Japanese imperial ambitions, and then again in the wake of US occupation, partitioning (bundan) and the Korean War.  This is why you might find heavily nationalist rhetoric on both the Left and the Right—there are both conservative and progressive messages there.

But there’s another kind of “race” as well—this one very much the result of occupation by US forces during the USAMGIK period.  This “race” is, perhaps, more familiar to Westerners: the hierarchy of perceived phenotypical differences institutionalized in government, citizenship, employment, media representation, etc.  Koreans adopted this system as well.

But prior to the 1990’s, most people outside of Korea had little opportunity to experience either system—the resident foreign population was negligible.  But as that population has ticked upwards to 2%, so have opportunities for people to define themselves vis-à-vis racial others, and, in particular, guest laborers (who, whatever the complaints of expat American and Canadian English teachers, really bear the brunt of racism in Korea).  People from South Asia or Southeast Asia bear the double, racial burden as being defined both as non-Korean and dark-skinned.

As far as addressing these issues, there are all kinds of things going on right now in Korea, from lots of Korean academics studying multiculturalism, to lots of governmental and non-governmental organizations working to mediate discrimination and prejudice.  So I absolutely see things changing in South Korea.  But some of the more deep-seated (and hence more serious) problems are probably the same factors that contribute to deep racial inequalities in the US: not the incidence of hate speech itself (which, of course, still proliferates here), but in the access to networks of contacts that, in Korea, are invaluable for anything from education and employment to housing and marriage.

This sounds insurmountable—and it is certainly is challenging to progressive elements in South Korean society.  But it’s also exciting, because it means that whatever “multiculturalism” emerges in South Korea will be uniquely Korean—not, in other words, a recapitulation of the sometimes shockingly hollow US-style multiculturalism.  That is, it will address not only racial discrimination and differential citizenship, but also the post-colonial relations that reproduce these powerful inequalities. 

So, I continue to follow this issue, not just because of my Korean research, but to get some ideas for building a more inclusive society in the US.