Thursday, December 3, 2009

Day One at the AAAs

The anthropologists are finally here!

Philadelphia's Downtown Marriott is housing the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, which started last night, and The Chronicle of Higher Education has already run a story on one of Wednesday night's panels.

"A Critical History of the Darkness in El Dorado Controversy" was organized around Alice Dreger's scathing critique of Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, which was equally scathing in its criticism of how Napoleon A. Chagnon (author of, amongst other things, Yanomamo: A Fierce People) and geneticist James Neel conducted their research in the region. According to Tierney, they actually exacerbated a measles problem, failed to acquire true "informed consent" for research, and even (in Chagnon's case) allegedly fomented violent conflicts among community members. I remember the AAA meetings in 2000, 2001, and 2002 when the book's accusations first surfaced.

Conducting research for a book that she is currently writing, Dreger revisited Tierney's assertions. Not only does she claim that Tierney's work was sloppy and inaccurate (his accusations mostly flat wrong), but she also criticizes the AAA for throwing Chagnon and Neel under the bus in its 2002 report about the matter. I missed the session, but I'm sure that I'll hear anthropologists talking about it for the rest of the week.

I missed that particular panel because I was teaching my grad class yesterday afternoon (goxewu will appreciate that). And then I stayed on Penn's campus for two AAA-affiliated events.

Penn's Anthropology Department joined forces with two AAA journals (Anthropology and Education Quarterly and Transforming Anthropology) to throw an opening-night reception in the Penn Museum's Chinese Rotunda. 90-feet high, it is one of the largest unsupported masonry domes in the entire country. One of the most amazingly breathtaking interiors that any college campus can boast, it was a spectacular setting for the fete.

I left that reception early enough to attend an intimate performance of Pouring Tea, a one-man show by ethnographer E. Patrick Johnson (also, like Dreger, from Northwestern University). The performance took place at Penn's LGBT Center in The Carriage House. Vocalist Joya Jones and poets Nina Harris and Joshua Bennett (of HBO's Def Poetry fame) sanctified the space with three blistering performances. Then Johnson spent the next 40 minutes performing excerpts from interviews he conducted for his most recent book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay men of the South. He has played much larger venues with this show (and is currently preparing a more expansive stage version for a May opening in Chicago), but this tiny, cozy space was a perfect way start to a week that will be chock full of ethnographically inflected conversations. As Johnson himself described the event in his post-performance Q&A session, "it felt like I was bringing you all back with me into those small and intimate living rooms where I conducted the interviews."