When the young teach the young, what is the emerging order? Where are the controls? How would we find out?

A while ago, I found a way to keep my sanity at the AAA meetings: play “session roulette.”  I recommend it.  The rules are simple: walk down any corridor and, without paying attention to any signs about the title of the session, or the timing of presentations, enter the room, seat at the back, listen for a while, and then leave before frustration or boredom overwhelm.  Playing this (not very deep) game, I made wonderful discoveries: Chuck Goodwin reporting on a conversation with his aphasic father about importing California oranges to Florida (“No!”), hot disputes around the “Eve hypothesis” (one of the rare times I actually heard anthropologists passionately argue with each other during a session!), or, this year, wonderfully detailed accounts of “liturgical dancing” around the world (I actually stayed for the whole session: I could imagine myself as Marcel Mauss reading ethnographies of ritual performances!).

But mostly, I listen to the courageous efforts of young women and men (mostly women actually) who tell other young women and men (same caveat) “giving” a paper.  I am sure the association someplace has the statistics about the relative seniority of presenters.  My altogether not random sense is that they are mostly at the very beginning of their career.  Since I have the privilege to teach quite a few of the presenters, I experience the pressure all actors (stakeholders, those entangled in this web, or caught by the spider) are under: individuals have to build up their curriculum vitae, professors must advise them to present early and often, professional associations (journals, etc.) must provide the opportunities for public displays.

In the best of all worlds, there is nothing wrong about the young presenting themselves in the public that they hope will be theirs for years to come.  Apprentices must be given the occasions to display their craft beyond the boundaries of their workshops, and in the relative safety of “meetings” where little is immediately at stake (unless a potential employer is in the audience).  Apprentices cannot reach mastery unless they can practice on the public stages even before they have become, in skill and formal status, “full” participants.  The old must give the young the opportunity to teach each other—and they can, also, worry about the curriculum.

One problem with all this, if there is one, does not only lie in the paradoxical teaching that the young give each other.  I’ll return to this later.  The problem also lies in the practical reality that Anthropology (the association, journals, professors, etc.) is indeed caught in the ancient School injunction: “Publish or Perish.”  Actually, not to perish one must publish earlier and more often than peers.  And so, in Lave and McDermott’s term, Anthropology must “alienate” the intellectual labor of the apprentices to the political economies of (higher) education as it builds and reproduces its labor forces and their places with larger competitions for survival.  I wrote something in that vain elsewhere (“On Entry into Anthropological Publics” 2003).

But what moved me to write this had to do with the possible emergence of new discursive orders for what is to be considered anthropology for future anthropologists, and the controls for the maintenance of this order.  Who is going to tell whom “Stop screwing around with anthropology!” (The readers of this blog should recognize who I am paraphrasing…)  Whether for good or for bad (I am playing “ethnographer of cultural production” here, not aging white male), most apprentices to the task of making anthropology public to itself will only hear, in their first public outings, each other (and altogether gentle “discussants”—mostly).    In this process, not surprisingly, new conventions for presentation, honorifics, usual phrases, etc., will emerge—sometimes through deliberate instruction (“your paper does not address power, gender,…”); and at other times through many other forms well worth investigating.  Other conventions will fade away (“social structure” is not an entry in the 2014 program).  The exact description of this emerging (or already well established) order awaits detailed ethnographies of the manipulation of discursive possibilities (possibly starting with a content analysis of the Program, a formal analysis of selected presentation, etc.).

But I have a doubt an ethnographic of public presentations might not settle: who is in charge here?  Is there a spider at the center of this web of meaning?  Where are, as far as the discipline as object in history is concerned, the collective (not individual, of course) controls?  Are they now in the hands of the apprentices?  Or are they hidden, perhaps through symbolic manipulations of status displays (the shift to first names on tags, the almost universal disappearance of neckties on men, and other methods that hide differentiations of who can establish that this is anthropology)?  How might we answer these questions, ethnographically, given the kind of theoretical approaches I advocate?

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