Thursday, December 17, 2009

AAA Roundup, Part 1

So I’m back in San Diego, done (more or less) with end-of-the-quarter stuff, and finally have time to actually write something other than random tweets about the American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual meeting, which happened Dec. 2-6 in Philadelphia. (Only, what, two weeks late...?)
It was great being home, relatively speaking (I grew up in Pennsylvania, but on the other side of the state, in the Pittsburgh area)...I even got to see some snow while I was there. This does not happen in San Diego (although we have been having some rather un-Southern California-like rain this past week). Unfortunately, I didn’t get to do much sight-seeing while in Philly…any time not spent at the actual conference was devoted to either getting ready for our presentation at the “Africa Remixed” panel on Friday afternoon or finishing up papers and studying. Still, I saw some fascinating talks, and there were even more talks and panels (as well as film screenings, workshops, etc.) I wish I’d gotten to attend…there were just too many interesting things going on at once to see them all (as is usually the case with the AAA). So, here are a few summaries of the panels I did attend. (I am, unfortunately, working from notes that are two weeks old, so if I’ve gotten anything wrong or left anything important out, please let me know and I’ll update these!)
On Friday, I went to the “Creativity and Labor: Artists, Anthropology, and Knowledge-Making” session. Unfortunately I got there a bit late and missed the first talk. Zhanara Nauruzbayeva’s paper on commercial artists in Kazakhstan discussed how post-Soviet artists there have distanced themselves from Soviet trends in art; Soviet commercial artists were trained to create a particular style of art which contained elements of realism, but asserted Soviet ideology despite everyday living conditions. Contemporary artists, according to Nauruzbayeva’s paper, tend to reject the Soviet-trained style of art in favor of a more democratic style of artistic production and to work in forms such as new media and photography. Eran Livni’s paper on Bulgarian pop-folk discussed the “trashy” and “kitschy” quality of this genre of music and its relation to Bulgaria’s problems in adopting democracy and modernity. Bulgarian pop-folk performers often play recorded music rather than performing live; this is one way to decrease cost and attract concert attendees. Whereas politicians in Bulgaria are careful not to be associated with pop-folk, according to Livni’s paper, it is employed during election campaigns, and many Bulgarians identify with this music and its meanings. Thet Win’s paper, “In the Company of Artists,” in contrast to Nauruzbayeva’s and Livni’s, focused on artists in the San Francisco Bay Area. Win’s presentation dealt mainly with one informant, Diane, a Bay Area artist. For her informants, a societal opposition between art and labor (such as working in commercial art) complicates their subjectivities and affects; they live within these oppositions even as they struggle against them. According to the discussant, Christopher Steiner, all of the papers examined the fairly recent distinction prevalent in the U.S. and Europe between art and other forms of material visual culture, such as religious material culture and utilitarian craft. Another thing that tied the papers together, according to Steiner, was the theme of the shift from ordinary capitalism to neoliberal capitalism, which is associated with new definitions of art and labor, the status of artists, and related political anxiety being played out in these conflicts.
I also attended the panel “Intellectual Activisms and the Making of the New Europe,” reviewed by the Society for the Anthropology of Europe, where one major theme seemed to be the interconnections between national identities and the European Union. Douglas Holmes’ paper introducing the panel, “Ends of Identity,” discussed the challenges being faced in developing a multi-cultural identity for the European Union, among them the rise of extreme-right parties and movements that define themselves in terms of sentiments against minorities such as the Roma. William Schumann’s paper, “Integrating through Resistance,” discussed strategic engagements of local development assistance in Wales, including issues of determining what is legitimate development work and how local people engage with national and international organizations in this area. In Neringa Klumbyte’s presentation on European integration and the politics of laughter in Lithuania, she talked about the emergence of “political buffoons” – politicians who build their platform on laughter, irony, and cynicism – in Lithuania and argued that laughter can be used as a political mechanism that reshapes values, identities, citizenship, action, and the relationships among them. The politics of laughter, according to her paper, is an example of “antagonistic democracy” informed by difference and solidarity, intolerance and tolerance, and it defines the European political landscape. Jaro Stacul’s paper, “Shaping the New Europe in Post-Socialist Poland,” explored the meanings Poles attach to Europe as a cultural and political domain, particularly in the context of material sites and objects. Stacul’s fieldwork took place in Gdansk, site of the Gdansk shipyard where the Solidarity (Solidarność) trade union movement was founded in September 1980. Poland, at the center of Europe, represents a place where some of the continent’s ideological conflicts have been played out in extreme form. Poland’s EU accession is understood by many as a return to rather than a joining of Europe, and Gdansk is seen as a city with a European identity. Gdansk’s redevelopment in the context of postsocialist and EU accession is meant to revitalize a city in a state of decay, but it has also taken on political meaning as it has served to rewrite the city’s recent history at a time when the Polish economy is being reformed. The Gdansk shipyard, originally a material embodiment of socialism, came to symbolize Polish freedom after the Solidarity movement came about there, and it, too, is being redeveloped as part of a long-term project to revitalize the city’s image. The current revitalization of the history of Gdansk and Solidarity serves to establish a relationship of continuity between these events and Poland’s modernity. Discussant Douglas Holmes, in a response to this paper, elaborated on this theme of establishing continuity between past and present, discussing this initiative and the planned building of a “European Solidarity Center,” a museum that will commemorate the activities of Solidarity and other opposition movements, at the site as part of a larger vision of European modernity. Discussant Noelle Mole talked about the European identities that are being created through both material (such as the site Stacul studied) and immaterial (for instance, the collective sentiments and memories mentioned in Klumbyte’s and Stacul’s papers) dimensions. According to Holmes, many of these European identities are future-oriented. However, unsettling dimensions are also being revealed; for instance, movements that focus on ridiculing and/or vilifying the “other,” such as the groups Holmes mentioned in his introduction. Holmes also raised the question of what, with regard to these new identities, is taking place in youth culture as a possible direction for interesting future research.
Later that afternoon was a panel titled “Reflections on Subjectivity, Psychoanalysis, the Virtual, and the Imaginary,” which was reviewed by the Society for Psychological Anthropology. As it turned out, this panel included a diverse range of interpretations of this theme. One paper was by Lynn and George Vincentnathan, who studied a YouTube Eucharist desecration site. A major question was, “was this Web site an expression of hate?”, as well as questions of why the site’s creator would have posted these videos. Commenters on the Web site expressed a variety of opinions from support on the grounds that the site’s creator had freedom of speech, to offense on religious grounds, and various positions in between. The presenters’ analysis dealt with this phenomenon’s relation to identity on the Internet in a postmodern context of multiple identities. Another question raised dealt with whether militant atheists can be considered a community, as this community, it could be argued, constitutes itself around a lack or negation of belief rather than a belief system. A related question was how, then, activism is mobilized around this identity. Patricia Gherovici’s paper “Why Trans-Disciplinarity is Necessary to Deal with Transgenderism: From an Anthropology of Gender to a Psychoanalysis of Sexuality” argued that to understand the experiences of transgender people, we must look at the conjunction between the body and material reality from the perspectives of the individual, the psychosocial, and the historical. Yoram Bilu’s paper “‘We Want to See our King’:Virtuality, Iconophilia, and Apparitions in Messianic Chabad” argued that participants in the Chabad messianic movement is guided by a “virtuality” – a making of the absent Rebbe, identified as the Messiah, present through the use of objects and practices such as visual images, dreams, and apparitions.
The extremely fascinating, but unfortunately sparsely attended due to the 8 p.m. time slot, panel “Are the Sacred Tropes of Anthropology Worth Keeping? Lessons from Information Technology Studies” looked at traditional anthropological concepts including ritual, the superorganic, and memory in light of studies from computer technology and digital media. One of the major challenges to anthropology in the digital age is how our discipline, traditionally oriented toward cultural specificity and the local, will handle the multi-sited contexts becoming increasingly possible, and increasingly common, due to digital media. Panelists focused on specific concepts historically important to anthropology, linking them to phenomena in information technology. Thomas Malaby’s paper “Making Room beyond Ritual” argued that the rise of digital technology had made the institutional use of games possible on a broader scale, and this institutional use of games may be replacing the use of ritual. There is a distinction between the mode of experience known as playfulness and the cultural form of the game; however, in recent years, game-like elements and playfulness have increasingly entered into environments traditionally associated with work. Malaby argued that we can use ritual to study this phenomenon; in doing so, previously unknown insights might be possible. Games are understood by reference to their indeterminacy, whereas rituals are supposed to bring about a desired outcome; however, ritual can go wrong, and its outcome is thus likewise contingent. Some test cases Malaby gave for his argument included Linden Labs’ Second Life, a virtual world which provides users with a mixture of constraints and possibilities, and Web sites such as Google’s image labeler game and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, in which companies get Internet users to do work (e.g., in the case of Google, tagging its images) by framing it as a game for participants. The question of open-endedness versus authority in games is a long-standing one; anthropology, Malaby argued, is ready to contend with it.
Heather Horst’s paper dealt with kinship and social networks in the digital age, and her questions dealt with whether new media produce social connectedness, fragmentation, or both; despite the increased possibilities for communication, these media may not compensate entirely for broader shifts in which society is characterized by isolation. Her paper featured a case study of “Ann,” an 18-year-old girl in Silicon Valley. Ann’s personal space on MySpace resembled her room at home appearance-wise, decorated in the same colors and themes. Although her parents forbade her from using MySpace on the grounds that it was a bad influence, she experienced pressure from her friends to have one; they made one for her, but as she looked forward to going to college, she lost interest in MySpace in favor of Facebook. For North American adolescents, individuality and its development are particularly valued. Social-networking Internet sites, for teenagers, represent spaces for interplay between the private and the public. Sites like MySpace and Facebook shape the way adolescents express their individuality. For them, the use of social networking sites is intertwined with everyday life; online and offline lives reaffirm one another. The self in this context, according to Horst’s paper, is constructed as an “aesthetic” based on balance and continuity among relationships, places, and objects. The paper argues that this seems to be part of a wider normative order encouraging participation in the public sphere.
F. Allan Hanson’s paper, “New Wine in Old Skins: Resuscitating the Superorganic,” discussed the idea of the superorganic as an alternative to methodological individualism, or the idea that social phenomena can be explained by reference to individuals. However, since superorganic phenomena did not have a shared physical substance in the same way that individuals did, the concept of the superorganic eventually lost favor. New phenomena, Hanson argues, necessitate new ways of thinking and thus call for its resurrection: for instance, genetically hybrid plants and people whose bodies incorporate prosthetic devices. Where, in light of these phenomena, are we to draw the boundaries of the individual? The idea of the superorganic, Hanson argues, has parallels with actor-network theory, distributed cognition, composite agency, and other theories. A problem lies in the fact that although all components of such a system are taken to have agency, not all have moral agency, and only those with moral agency can have moral responsibility. Even so, the majority of the actions that define our lives cannot be completed by individuals alone; Hanson thus argues that the superorganic has always been with us, and remains useful to think with for thinking about these new phenomena.
Lina Dib’s paper “Sensecams and Furry Robots: Information Technology’s Bid to Transform Memory” was based on her fieldwork in the UK. Machines, she argues, are redefining what counts as memory – does our memory, for instance, include digital and technical objects, or recording devices? She discussed “lifelogging” – an idea epitomized by Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits project, in which he records virtually everything he sees and does. The underlying ideal seems to be perfect memory; however, as is pointed out in, for instance, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s recent book Delete, human forgetting has historically served important purposes. The challenge facing multiple disciplines, then, is how to understand human memory and to augment it with technological support. In this context of digital memory, Dib’s paper points out several important questions arise, including questions of how the relationship between public and private is being redefined with regard to memory; who these digitally captured memories belong to; what happens to memory when it is separated from the body; and how agency and moral competence are being redefined.
Jan English-Lueck was the discussant for this panel. She pointed out that these concepts are metaphors we think with, and studying digital technology allows us to refresh these “sacred tropes.” In addition to her specific comments on the papers, she pointed out that some questions anthropologists need to ask in this context concern the beliefs and practices revealed by these technologies, and what this tells us about the use of these tropes.
Well, that’s it for Wednesday’s panels (finally)…more to come!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this summary. I had wanted to make it to Thomas Malaby's panel (Are the sacred tropes of anthropology worth keeping) but was still enroute to Philly at the time.

    This seems like a theme that was explored at a number of panels this year (including mine). I guess that's to be expected with the theme of "Ends of Anthropology."