Monday, November 28, 2011

Blogging like a Beast?!

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film about a young woman trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) to recover from her traumatic stint as a member of a rural cult, sexual concubine of its charismatic spiritual leader. It is one of those “art house” movies that ended with surprisingly little warning. When the closing credits began, audience members gasped. “What?” “You’re kidding me!” “Is that really it?” That’s only what I heard in the theater seats nearest my own. And I laughed, because I knew exactly what they were reacting to.

The writer had taken us on a complex and nerve-racking journey with the film’s female protagonist (who, at different moments in the story, answers to each one of the names that make up the film’s title). By the “end” of the story, our filmmaker hasn’t really provided us with any resolution. There is no simple (artificial?) closure to the narrative, just a final tension-filled scene rife with unanswered questions and uncertain outcomes.

It isn’t necessarily the way we’re taught to write screenplays, but it was a valuable reminder of what some good storytellers try do accomplish. And how.

Many people have made the claim, but it bears repeating: Good writers write like beasts. They don’t worry about the “audience” in any simplistic and condescending sense. And they certainly don’t care to placate them. They write without self-consciousness (at least, without the kind of self-conscious anxiety that allows for any too-precious preoccupations with making readers happy).

As I craft one of my final few Brainstorm blog postings this week, my final week as a Brainstorm blogger, I can’t help but think about all the interesting and energizing exchanges I’ve had with Chronicle readers over these past few years. From posts about the potentially racist underpinnings of “Obama-as-anti-Christ” rhetoric back in 2008 to a knock-down blog-brawl (played out over several postings) sparked by some comments I made about attending an academic conference, from defenders of Michelle Malkin keen on rebutting my (passing) characterization of her work to more recent debates about Herman Cain’s theories of race and class, one of the most conspicuous features of the blog (as platform and/or genre) is its almost immediately dialogical linkage of readers and writers.

Anthropologist Johannes Fabian has discussed the possibility that on-line exchanges between researchers and research subjects, exchanges modeled on the back-and-forth interactions between bloggers and blog readers, might be the beginning of the end for traditional forms of ethnographic writing, differently configuring those conventional relationships in radically new ways.

At its best, the interactivity of the blog format clears space for the rehearsal of real debates and differences of opinion, especially when the anonymity of the Web doesn’t help foment the worst forms of unproductive incivility. I really have enjoyed my time on the blog, and I feel like it taught me to think about writing in a very meaning-filled way, especially when readers made good-faith efforts to challenge some of my positions. (Even the responses that I’d describe as more like “bad faith” offerings were sometimes useful.)

At the same time, however, I realize that I used to feel as though I wrote (or, at least, tried to write) like a beast, with a cultivated indifference committed to getting my point across as honestly as possible (come what may). Although I have always tried to be honest in my Brainstorm posts, I certainly didn’t feel the freedom to write without self-consciousness, without having to worry about which readerly eyes stood in my path. On the contrary, I feel like I have gotten increasingly more self-conscious over the course of my blogging stint, which I know isn’t necessarily how everyone responds to this platform and its many possibilities (and may not, ultimately, be the worst thing). Sometimes that heightened self-consciousness found me pandering to the gods of sensationalist punditry, trying to be purposefully provocative (even unnecessarily harsh and fairly mean-spirited) as a way to drum up more explicit comments from readers. Any response seemed better than none.

At other times, I started (or conceived of) many posts that I never finished/published, all too mindful of how many colleagues actually look at the Chronicle‘s blogs. If some of these same sentences were tucked into a book that few people ever read, I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a series of emails and phone calls after the writing, which also became a kind of immediate gratification that was, at times, far too intoxicating.

All of this meant blogging less and less like a “beast” every single day. It would be the equivalent of being a filmmaker forced to sit in the theater and listen to audiences complain about the inexplicable ending to your latest movie. You experience that immediate feedback often enough (the audible gasps, the palpable disappointments), and you start to hear those same complaints at your computer screen as you work on the next project. Even positive responses, received as the film’s final credits roll, over-determine a self-conscious writer’s subsequent decisions. Such hauntings can be the kiss of death to any would-be author, and they are incredibly hard to exorcise.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sacred Bundle 2.0: Anthropology Online

Oxford University Press has launched a new and ambitious on-line project, Oxford Bibliographies Online, which attempts to provide scholars, students, and other interested readers with introductions to important topics and themes from many academic fields/disciplines. Atlantic History, Criminology, Communication, Philosophy and Sociology are among the modules already available. Later this month, Political Science and Psychology go live, with Education soon to follow.

Anthropology is slated for release early in 2012, and I have agreed to help editor that particular module. Oxford was able to put together a strong editorial board for the project, which included scholars from all four of American anthropology's major sub-fields: archaeology, linguistic anthropology, physical/biological anthropology and cultural anthropology. These nine scholars helped to select and vet the entries on various topics (including Applied Anthropology, Cultural Evolution, Public Archaeology, Language Ideology, and Globalization). All in all, OBO's Anthropology site will launch with 50 entries penned by scholars from across the country and the world, including Michael Herzfeld on "Nationalism," Vernon J. Williams on "Franz Boas," Jeremy Sabloff on "Public Archaeology," Neni Panourgia on "Interpretive Anthropology," Kudzo Gavua on "Ethnoarchaeology," "John Trumper on "Ethnoscience," and Christina Campbell on "Primatology" (just to name a random few).

Once the site launches, four anthropologists (Marcus Banks, Maria Franklin, Jonathan Marks, and Bambi Schieffelin) have signed on to help read new entries (about 25 or so will be added every year), and our authors and editors will all update entries as necessary (when new titles merit inclusion or emergent debates in specialties demand discussion). The idea is to make these entries living, breathing documents that morph with ongoing reconfigurations of our discipline.

I only agreed to assist in this effort because I was intrigued by the idea of re-familiarizing myself with the so-called "four fields of anthropology" mentioned above. As a graduate student at Columbia in the 1990s, I was trained in a four-field department, even though I could get away with doing coursework in only two of those sub-fields. And after teaching for four years in Duke University's Department of Cultural Anthropology (where we all seemed to be in the same scholarly conversations), I am back in a four-field department that demands grad students pass exams in all of the sub-fields, one of the few programs in the country with such a stipulation.

Although I don't consider anthropology's four fields a "sacred bundle" never to be dis-assembled under any circumstances, I am intrigued by the idea of forcing myself to learn more about the four farthest corners of this sprawling and hubris-filled discipline that imagines itself to cut across the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences.

Oxford's new initiative will allow anthropologists to think about how much (or how little?) we might really gain from conversations across the intradisciplinary domains that often divide us. OBO's intervention will help us to see how Physical Anthropologists and Cultural Anthropologists might differently approach topics such as "race" or "gender." Or we can determine what kind of reviewer an urban anthropologist working in contemporary Latin America would make for a piece on the histories of cities crafted by an archaeologist.

I'm intrigued to see what (hopefully productive) sparks might fly from such contact, and I've already learned so much about those other anthropological spheres during the build-up to near year's OBO launch. So, if you are an anthropologist gearing up for this month's AAA meeting in Montreal, please know that I might be asking you to contribute to this attempt at a somewhat experimental four-field rendering of our discipline's scholarly world. And please consider taking part.