Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Coming of Age in Economia

I am helping to plan this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, and the title for the meeting is “The End/s of Anthropology.”

That is not simply meant as a cheeky way to argue that the field has outlasted its usefulness. Not at all. If anything, it is a call for anthropology to recast itself as an important perspective from which to engage some of the most pressing questions of the day. For example, as Congress votes on Obama’s choice for Treasury Secretary today, I’ve been trying to think about all the many reasons why anthropology could be a useful voice in the deafening debates about a “global economic crisis” that he is being enlisted to help fix.

Anthropologists aren’t highlighted or invoked in such conversations, at least not as much (or as often) as they could be. Economists debate the merits of various fiscal vs. monetary policies, and our new President has assembled an experienced team of them to help him figure out the government’s next few moves. But where are the anthropologists?

There are many reasons why President Obama didn’t initially think about an anthropologist or two for his economic team. Indeed, anthropology has long been lampooned as an obscure and eccentric academic discipline with little practical purpose. Truly academic (in the rather dismissive sense). However, many anthropologists have always been sleeves-rolled-up scholars. And some of its practitioners have been pushing to expand definitions of “the economic” in ways that might prove useful today, offering definitions that more properly and accurately contextualize economic transactions with respect to differently configured cultural and political domains. Anthropologists proffer cogent critiques of reductionist treatments of economic actions/relations, treatments that too easily decouple economic logics from the cultural logics within which they are embedded -- and that provide the semiotic/interpretive engine for their permutations.

Why are important anthropological insights often marginalized in such debates, and would a robust reincorporation into such larger political and intellectual disputes be a turn of events that anthropologists should condone or condemn?

The field continues to grapple with some volatile and complicated subjects, from structural violence to neogenomic ideologies, from indigenous rights to cosmopolitan subjectivities, from questions of “war and peace” to invocations of post-raciality. And all of these themes provide valuable points of entry into potential strategies for dealing with a global recession by way of its inescapably and robustly localizable manifestations.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Oakland Shooting and Its Aftermath

Oakland ushered in 2009 with a controversial police shooting. Officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed a 22-year-old African-American, Oscar Grant, while taking him into custody on a BART station platform January 1st. This would have been a tragedy no matter what, but the stakes were raised enormously as a consequence of one relatively new technological innovation: the cellphone video camera.

As Mehserle and his fellow officers were handcuffing Grant, nearby straphangers decided to use their cellphones to videotape the arrest. What they captured, now available all over the Internet, is the actual moment when Mehserle fires his gun. Nuanced details are out of focus and hard to make out. It is a low-quality video image. But the broad strokes are pretty clear.

The officers had Grant face-down on the ground when Mehserle’s took out his gun and discharged a bullet into his body. (The youtubed news report above contains two different cellphoned video recordings of the incident, along with a reporter’s blow-by-blow discussion of what is transpiring on screen.)

Speculation is that the Mehserle might have thought that he had taken out some kind of stun gun or taser (not an actual gun), which the reporter‘s abovementioned reading of the video seems to imply.

The BART police have almost concluded their initial investigation into the shooting. They’ve interviewed many of the witnesses, including the other officers on the scene. Mehserle, however, has yet to be interviewed and actually resigned from the force last week.

Many Oakland residents are extremely upset about the shooting of this unarmed young man, and they read the event as yet another indication of more structural and systematic disregard and hostility (or maybe just reckless indifference) for poorer African American communities. Protesters quite explicitly describe Grant as just the latest vulnerable victim of excessive law enforcement.

Given how much we are all focused on our Great Recession, the Gaza conflict, America’s first black president, and the ongoing threat of global terrorism, the Oakland issue might seem relatively inconsequential to some, a throwback to some bygone (pre-Obama) era when Jessie Jacksons and Al Sharptons controlled the terms of America’s racial debates and turned such shootings into national news. But that is completely the _wrong_ way to think about what is happening in Oakland right now. It is not some vestigial holdover from the 1980s and '90s, the last gasp of antiquated and dying racial logics in a quickly postracializing world.

Race is a global issue, but it is lived/experienced locally. And the local is still political. It has implications for how we might address larger national and international questions. Moreover, "the local" is much more likely to go global with the advent of more compact mechanisms for capturing the tiniest crevices of social life, crevices that can be subsequently broadcast (and virally Webcast) for all the world to see.