Friday, December 4, 2009

Why publish "Obama's mama's book" at all?

Why publish “Obama’s mama’s book” at all?

That’s probably one of the most dismissive and derogatory ways of phrasing a question that at least a few anthropologists are asking at this year’s AAA conference, and in just such disparaging terms. I know that some of my colleagues won’t agree, but I can’t help but think about such a query (even in its less choleric/unflattering registers) as a somewhat non-anthropological way of framing the issue.

Duke University Press officially launched S. Ann Dunham’s Surviving against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia yesterday, which included a noontime press conference where the only question posed actually pivoted on a differently pitched version of the same theme music: Is Duke University Press only publishing this book because it was written by the President’s mother?

I received a similar e-query over the summer from a colleague, a sociologist, responding to my post about what other anthropologists had been describing, optimistically, as President Obama’s potentially anthropological sensibilities (as a function of being an “anthropologist’s son”). The sociologist started with an excerpt from my posting and then succinctly offered his rejoinder.

I wrote the following, which he cited:

Anthropologists often get lampooned and dismissed by other social scientists (and by those outside of the academy) for their (our) assumed epistemological and presentational excesses: opaque jargon, solipsistic navel gawking, the politicization of research, and on and on. But even though she didn’t raise Obama for the entirety of his childhood, his mother seems to have imparted in him a degree of thoughtfulness and genuine appreciation for cultural differences (as partially manifested in his campaign’s inclusively “multiracial” ground game) that I want to embrace as the best of what the discipline of anthropology can share with the rest of the academy and beyond.

He responded: I agree with John L. Jackson! (But would you go as far as to publish her unpublished dissertation as Duke is doing?)

Why not publish it?

I can understand some of the skepticism behind the sociologist's question. If it wasn’t published before Barack Obama became President Obama, it probably isn’t worthy of publication. It probably isn’t very good. So, why pander to the depravities of the market?

Deborah Thomas and I had a different thought. We were gearing up for last year’s AAA conference, and we heard that Dunham’s colleagues at the University of Hawaii (including Alice G. Dewey and Nancy I. Cooper) were already in the process of trying to get the dissertation published. The research was based on fieldwork in Kajar, a blacksmithing village in Indonesia, and we thought that it might be interesting to have a panel on the work (and the book) at this year’s AAA meeting.

Deborah called up the folks at Hawaii, and she found out that they’d been working to get this dissertation turned into a book for quite a long time, almost since Dunham’s death. Deb also discovered that although a few publishers had shown interest, they were dragging their feet. So, we started to read through bits of the dissertation. It is super long (in the general vicinity of 1,000 pages), and we didn’t get through all of it. But it seemed like an intriguing mix of old-school ethnographic holism and a relatively newfangled analysis of a rural Indonesian industry that Dunham characterized as "surviving," despite some anthropological predictions of its inevitable demise. She also placed her study (an “ethnography of microfinance” before microfinance was cool) within robustly historical, analytical, regulatory, and cultural contexts, which accounted for her manuscript’s daunting length.

If anyone was going to consider publishing the manuscript, it would have to be edited substantially, cut by more than half. That’s when we went to Ken Wissoker at Duke. We asked him to look at the manuscript, to talk to Dunham’s colleagues at Hawaii, and to consider publishing the work. And we wanted him to do all of that quickly enough so that it might be out and available in time for this year’s conference.

Duke was interested in publishing the book because it was written by President Obama’s mother. That is also why Deb and I were interested in it. We had even thought that President Obama might be willing to attend this year's conference and talk about his mother’s ethnographic research and its impact (if any) on his own politico-cultural outlook. He didn’t take us up on that invitation, but Dunham’s daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, graciously agreed to talk about her mother’s anthropological exploits.

But this idea that Dunham’s publication should be marked with a scarlet letter because its relevance is inflected by the fame and significance of her progeny seems strange to me.

Don’t all publishers weigh the merits of the books they produce with recourse to the potential audiences they might entice, especially university publishers increasingly being asked (by central administrations) to pay their own way? It was published because she is our President’s mother. And because that means that more readers might be interested in reading it. And because it is a bold critique of a certain Geertzian spin on the region. And because the stars aligned in just such a way that a stalled publication process got re-energized by some outside interlopers. And because it is a very solid manuscript.

The implicit presumption that that latter fact alone (or something close to it) ostensibly explains why more “legitimate” manuscripts are published by academic presses seems like an unproductive and disingenuous fiction to me, a scholarly fairy tale of Santa Clausian proportions.

This book should have been published before Obama moved into the White House. If Dunham hadn’t died prematurely, maybe it would have been. To dismiss it out of hand because it is being published now, so long after she completed the dissertation, as a function of its situated-ness at the trickster-haunted crossroads where scholarship meets “politics” (in many senses of that latter term) is, I think, a tough position to hold. Without such “from the ashes” reclamations (political and intellectual in the selfsame instant), Zora Neale Hurston, for one, wouldn’t be on any anthropological syllabi either.