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.  

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