Interview

Ryan Cecil Jobson and Kamari Clarke interviewed by Lucia Cantero

Broadway Avenue and 19th Street. Oakland, CA. May 2020. (Photograph by Lucia Cantero)

“Use that anger, you write it, you paint it, you dance it, you march it, you vote it, you do everything about it” -Maya Angelou

Lucia Cantero (LC): Thank you to Ryan and Kamari for joining this conversation with me.

Admittedly, I was really excited by the opportunity to frame this discussion, especially as American Anthropologist moves into new editorial leadership, because—back in 2016—I asked us (also by way of review) to re-evaluate the specters of our anthropological being, to think deeply—even if darkly—about the politics of our production that dehumanizes our work. It was an urgent plea, of sorts, for us to think about the reality of our entanglements as they relate to broader political economies. In some ways, Ryan, I believe you heard that call and your review was a burning response. Indeed, you brought us to the very materiality of the AAA conference in San Jose, which was then on fire, and through this conveyed the weight of critical questions around race and the role of humanisms in anthropology. It was prescient and this conversation hopes to amplify these concerns. We begin this chat culling from a June 2020 image of a mural in downtown Oakland, an homage to the massive unrest set off by George Floyd’s death. The text, drawn from Maya Angelou’s words above, billow over a scene now iconic and familiar, a silhouette of Black resistance surrounded by a building in flames. Her words, to paraphrase, call us to weaponize rage into “everything” we do, to spin affect into action. This chat is a call to think about the moment of reckoning we find us in as both humans and anthropologists. Burning is an apt way to consider practices of transformation in our discipline, and we begin this discussion by asking Ryan Jobson to relay the impetus for his AA review essay, titled “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn.”

What inspired this essay and your repurposing of Mike Davis’s thesis in “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn?”

Ryan Jobson (RJ): Thank you, Lucia, for convening this conversation and offering me the opportunity to contribute. I’ll begin by admitting my efforts to stretch the genre of the year-in-review essay. Paradoxically, my essay on sociocultural anthropology in 2019 begins with a reflection on the AAA annual meeting from the previous November. When I accepted Kamari’s invitation to write the essay in March 2019, I had a more conventional survey of scholarship published during the calendar year in mind. But as my reading list grew, I found myself returning to memories of the AAAs in San Jose. It was an incredibly odd meeting. To this day, I find it difficult to remember the substance of the intellectual conversations that unfolded in panels, plenaries, and roundtables that November. Instead, the sensory frequencies of the meeting linger—the smoke that floated through the streets and convention center and the presence of masks (or relative lack thereof). If I remember correctly, several sessions moved to a shared multipurpose space in solidarity with striking hotel workers, and concurrent speakers were forced to shout over one another to be heard.

Looking back, it was both incredibly odd and incredibly prescient. Not only did the wildfires sound the alarms of climate change, but they brought the now familiar talk of N95 masks and personal protective equipment to the fore. It raised questions regarding colonial exploitation of nature in the longue durée and the conscription of racialized carceral labor to fight the fires themselves. The smoke indicated an uncomfortable distance from the objects of study taken up by anthropologists. Unlike the comfortable distance that the conference typically provides as a carnival of settler bliss, the discomfort of the smoke prompted confrontations and calls for introspection.

This took the form of a number of debates that our community of anthropologists was ill-equipped to contend with. In the essay, I highlight the critique raised by Anand Pandian and others over the monstrous carbon footprint generated by the conference. Zoe Todd theorized how this monstrous investment in the reproduction of anthropology is driven by an incomplete reckoning with its ongoing investment in settler colonialism. Karen Nakamura raised long-neglected concerns over accessibility within the meeting and throughout the association. In each instance, these interventions were initiated by members of our community of scholars, yet the community as a whole—and I include myself in that—was not prepared to rise to the occasion. All of these conversations emerged out of social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, which suggests that conversations in our discipline take shape beyond the confines of our flagship publications. Today, #AnthroTwitter is as robust a source of anthropological theory as any anthropology journal. I wanted to foreground these digital and material spaces of anthropological knowledge production in my year-in-review.

Of course, Mike Davis’s foundational essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” began to recirculate as the wildfires intensified. Understanding the wildfires as a cyclical feature of the deep ecology of the California coast, Davis cautions against technical fixes for a liberal conquest of nature rather than a reckoning with the settler-colonial conceits of liberalism itself. As I read through the scholarship published by anthropologists in 2019, it occurred to me that we as anthropologists are challenged by a parallel conceit in our own discipline—namely, a drive to place our objects of inquiry at a comfortable distance while preserving business as usual in the university and other venues of professional reproduction. Revisiting Davis’s essay compelled me to ask what it would mean for anthropologists to refuse convenient fixes for our own crises of legitimacy through familiar repertoires of ethnographic sentimentalism, Boasian relativism, and cultural critique. In other words, the wildfires in San Jose demanded a rejection of anthropology’s liberal humanist pretenses just as Davis concludes that the fires in Malibu demand a rejection of liberal conquest of peoples and nature.

I should emphasize that the essay is titled “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn,” rather than “The Case for Burning Anthropology Down.” The bad faith formulation of the latter is often levied at the original Davis essay. I think the distinction between the two is important. The former insists that anthropology, like Malibu, is already on fire. The critiques from Pandian, Todd, Nakamura, or myself didn’t spark a crisis of legitimacy. Our discipline’s investment in the human as an uncomplicated and undifferentiated category is the flint that started the fire.

Above all, my essay is an invitation to consider what anthropology can be if we divest from this. In recent weeks, global uprisings against state violence and white supremacy have demonstrated just how far anthropology has to go. The rush to pen departmental and institutional statements of solidarity demonstrated that our existing registers of address were not yet sufficient to the demands of the movement. This is yet another moment for introspection and, I hope, transformation as well.

LC: Absolutely, and these transformations are only made possible through such openings and shifts in the ways we approach how our knowledge is produced. Kamari, you were American Anthropologist’s associate editor in sociocultural anthropology overseeing Ryan’s review. What are your thoughts about his call to action?

Kamari Clarke (KC): Similarly, thanks, Lucia, for this opportunity. It’s good to be in conversation with you and Ryan at this time. I’ll start by saying that Ryan’s call to action represented a welcome response to the “business as usual” approach to anthropologist’s all-too-ready rehearsal of the tropes in our discipline. At the time that I read the first draft of his review, I was preparing to teach the Anthropology of the Mid-Century graduate class at UCLA. I was in the midst of writing notes related to the implications of telling a different story about anthropology of the twentieth century—a story that involved putting the field’s obsession with race and its consequent production of sustained inequality at the center for the discipline. But in doing so I found that to narrativize that story meant not only examining the straightforward nineteenth-century prelude to our racist past but also situating Boas and the Boasian tradition at the center of the problem. And while the Boasian story in anthropology has been celebrated as profoundly critical, to truly tell the story of the discipline I found that I needed to demand of anthropology a more critical lens through which to make sense of the consequent epistemologies that have and continue to haunt the discipline.

My interest in the question of whether “to let anthropology burn,” then, is a desire to see anthropology take seriously the implications of redistributing knowledge, power, and methods in ways that can certainly ignite a reorganization of anthropological theory and practice. I think that Ryan’s essay plants the seeds for such inquiry, and I welcome this conversation.

LC: Ryan, your review ends with the statement that “anthropology cannot presume a coherent human subject as a point of departure but nonetheless must adopt a new humanism as its political horizon.” What are we to do with this as anthropologists? What sort of revisions to anthropological theory and method does this demand in the contemporary moment?

RJ: On this point, I was particularly inspired by Savannah Shange’s call for an “abolitionist anthropology” in her ethnography Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Unlike other conceptual turns, her intervention pushed me to think through how the anthropos that prefixes both anthropology and the Anthropocene can’t simply be taken for granted as a category to defend from the illiberal politics of Trump or right-wing authoritarianism.

The case for letting anthropology burn is a call to dwell in the odd scene that was San Jose rather than to treat it as a momentary departure from business as usual. This reframes the anthropos as a horizon not yet realized, something that anthropologists have to act deliberately to make possible rather than a position to passively endorse. I should add that this is not an ad hominem attack on individual scholars. Even the most well-intentioned or radical scholars are beholden to the methodological precepts and professional codes of anthropology. Michel-Rolph Trouillot characterized codes of this sort as the “electoral politics” of the discipline. It should come as little surprise that San Jose is a short distance from Shange’s fieldsite in San Francisco that she theorizes as a “progressive dystopia.” Writing from a cityscape that self-consciously fashions itself as a multicultural exception, Shange reminds us that we should be cautious of fashioning our discipline as an exception of the same order.

I’m hesitant to offer prescriptive solutions and, in doing so, my own set of “fixes.” For sure, this will require dedicated conversations on the research methods we adopt, the written registers and modes of ethnographic authenticity we value, and the politics we are authorized to voice in our journals, monographs, and professional associations. Most of all, this is a challenge for myself to rethink the values that guide my own scholarly writing.

This has become more pressing in the time of COVID-19, where many of us are forced to suspend or postpone fieldwork. One of my graduate students, Rachel Howard, concludes from her own experience of suspending fieldwork that this moment has collapsed a rigid distinction between the field as a site of extraction and the university as a site of synthesis. If the pandemic is an impediment to ethnographic thickness, it is also an occasion to consider what motivates our desires for thick description and ethnographic authenticity. Shange and Roseann Liu tackle this as well in their proposal for a “thick solidarity” that refuses to make our interlocutors legible to an academic audience called upon to validate their agency or humanity.

In my own work, this involves what Yarimar Bonilla calls “being a good Caribbeanist” by taking seriously the fact that all social and political formations exist in the wake of Indigenous dispossession and plantation slavery. This observation isn’t new to many anthropologists of the Americas, but for others it may not be immediately obvious that we are still contending with the legacies and aftershocks of a contingent project of the human that took shape in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—what Sylvia Wynter describes as the “overrepresentation of Man as the human.” Wynter demonstrates the futility of any effort to expand this colonial genre of the human through what we have come to know as diversity and inclusion. Despite the contributions of Black and Indigenous anthropologists, in particular, this logic continues to predominate.

To be clear, I’m not saying that we need to abandon ethnography and become historians—though there is a tradition of historical anthropology that can and should be resuscitated—but to take Shange and Wynter’s provocations seriously requires that we mind the language we use to make sense of our current predicament. Regardless of the areas where we conduct research, we all practice anthropology in the midst of an ongoing colonial project—we either confront this explicitly and materially or risk complicity with it. The necessity of this project is made abundantly clear by the demands of Black and Indigenous liberation movements today. Our theory should be derivative of these uprisings rather than the inverse. If the knee-jerk response to the demand for abolition is to rehearse the anti-racist bonafides of famous anthropologists, then we have a profoundly mistaken understanding of what an anthropology for liberation demands.

Adeline Street. West Oakland, CA. June 2020. (Photograph by Lucia Cantero)

LC: If I’m understanding you right, Ryan, an anthropology of liberation involves much more than a rehearsal of anti-racist platitudes from our greats, and in its stead a deployment of practices that consider the production of culture—whatever the field might be—in relation to power and materiality. That we, as anthropologists, are not exceptional in our management of white supremacy, even if we may be interested in cultural differences or continuity. Kamari, as we find ourselves mired in precisely the kinds of crises that amplify the real and material conditions of (contagion and) racialized dispossession, why is this moment particularly ripe, as things burn, to “let things burn?”

KC: Ryan has so nicely recapped the contemporary crisis related to the real and material conditions of racialized dispossession by connecting it back and forward to the forms of historic inhumanity that have constituted Blackness and that continue to haunt its potentiality. I’ll just add one thought to this line of engagement.

This COVID-19 moment has elucidated the fault lines of inequality in our world in ways that have required that we interrogate the real costs of privilege in this world. And, as a result, we’re seeing the logics of the modernity of inequality playing out in the racialized logics of everyday life. For those of us who have been able to shelter at home with the security of an income and savings and the ability to work at home and conduct meetings and research interviews on Zoom with the assumption that one day we will have an office to which we will return, this luxury must be seen in relation to what conditions enable such privilege. It doesn’t mean that middle- and upper-class comforts don’t have their own challenges. But it also means that we need to recognize that these privileges come at a high price that are sometimes invisible for those who still believe in the myth of freedom and self-determination. They aren’t willing to see how their ability to order groceries and food online and get them delivered, or their ability to pay $20 for something that if fair trade were exercised would actually cost them $60, is part of the same cycle of entitlements, dependencies, and violence that keep the system going.

But the reality is that inequality is becoming more visible publicly because of work and health disparities, labor insecurity, breathing while Black, and electoral racist rhetoric is on the rise. Then adding to it the violence of everyday police brutality against Black and Brown bodies is forcing us to reckon with the lingering effects of historic inhumanity of plantation slavery that has undergirded the forms of contemporary racial capitalism that permeate contemporary life.

Yes, this moment is truly ripe for “letting things burn.” But what do we mean by that?

By “burn” we are referring to a process of implosion and retrospection, a process of disaggregation and reformulation that allows for the reconfiguration of particular social orders and the establishment of new baselines for alternate possibilities. In anthropology, part of the process should presume that the assumptions of subjectivity, ownership, interpretation, and knowledge itself require a new modality of recalibration for telling the story of humanity. For anthropology “to burn” metaphorically means we reimagine new ways of telling, organizing, and recognizing the history of the discipline that marks a moment when we agree that we will set to rest the principles of knowledge production that are self-serving but that won’t help to reconcile knowledge and power injustices in our world. On the contrary, it simply reinstates it and returns us to “business as usual.”

LC: To push past this “business as usual,” Kamari suggests we innovate new—more equitable—ways to conceive our production. Ryan, in what ways do the discipline’s colonial fantasies demand the array of “fixes” you discuss in the essay alongside other teleologies of an anthropological other (or other grand narratives, progress). Following Savannah Shange’s call for an “abolitionist anthropology,” what does this kind of abolition look like?

RJ: I want to underscore that, at least in my reading, an abolitionist anthropology also necessitates the abolition of anthropology. Again, this doesn’t mean that we should abandon rigorous study or critical thinking on the unresolved question of the human. It does mean that we need to properly situate anthropology as a field still mired in a colonial genre of the human and as a principal vehicle of the ongoing “overrepresentation” that Wynter describes.

An anthropology that truly serves the ideal of abolition, meaning an end to coercion and exploitation in all their forms, necessarily strives toward a world in which our specialized status as professional anthropologists is made obsolete. I think we generally agree on this point in principle. It’s another matter entirely to divest from the hierarchies of rank and prestige that govern our discipline and academia in general.

This is where letting anthropology burn requires an active role on our part as anthropologists. It certainly requires more than a cursory reflexivity or a checking of our respective privileges. Instead, the abolition of anthropology entails a commitment to its democratization in which we extend the practice of knowledge production beyond the realm of professional scholars. I mentioned earlier that #AnthroTwitter is a rich source of anthropological theory today. The same can be said for many activists and critics who have built platforms on social media to engage in their own practice of knowledge production. I think we often look to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as archives for our own analysis, but less so as sources of theory in their own right. As professional anthropology retreats behind paywalls and overpoliced campuses, anthropological theory is thriving beyond our community. I genuinely want to consider what it would mean to treat organic intellectuals not as archivists or informants but as colleagues, coauthors, and co-conspirators.

In other words, how do we make abolition a constant practice rather than a professional enterprise limited to our articles, monographs, and classrooms? This is already happening around us, so either we can join in and strive to make ourselves obsolete or risk being made obsolete all the same.

LC: There’s a very important element to “joining in,” as you say, Ryan. Indeed, that is the standing principle behind not only solidarity but also the practice of our very own participant observation. A constant corrective to this form requires we consider subjects as subjects, not just objects, as much of this discussion intimates. It might be ripe to align our discipline with broader discourses of activism and social transformation that strive to reconfigure this kind of humanity if we are to make our production a reflection of the human(s) we are today and the forms of liberation that might be possible. Kamari, what is at stake for movements like Black Lives Matter in relation to a radical humanism?

KC: Gosh, Lucia—How might we think about the conjunction between Black Lives Matter and radical humanism—this is the key question! The call in this discussion thread is a call for anthropology to abandon its liberal suppositions and adopt a radical humanism as its political horizon. And abandoning anthropology’s liberal suppositions involves eradicating the types of anthropology that eschew an “exceptionalism” by placing itself outside of its histories of epistemological, interpretive violence. It means that we need to reckon with the way that anthropology, as a discipline, has not only participated in particular exclusions to humanity but that, as Ryan says, an anthropology that continues to presume a coherent subject that can be known, documented, and spoken for and later translated.

Black Lives Matter as a social movement reflects a call for a reckoning with a history in which not only were Black lives deemed irrelevant but they weren’t even deemed human. But beyond the humanity of humanness, if Black lives matter, it means that we need to reckon with the institutional structures that connect substandard living conditions with drug and alcohol abuse, with mental health and physical health challenges, and with social injustices around incarceration. These institutional solutions also need to burn. We need to rebuild them from the bottom up. And anthropology is not immune from the enabling of such logics of poverty and dispossession. We study it, we document it, and reflect on it. We offer no solutions, we offer no visions for a new future.

LC: Kamari gestures at an “exceptionalism” that is familiar to the argument you make in your review, Ryan, which draws from critical intellectual histories about humans, race, and modernity. For Paul Gilroy, as he conveys in his Tanner Lecture, the Anthropocene remains sutured to a discourse of human exceptionalism that takes for granted the liberal subject of the modern nation-state as its central protagonist. How is anthropology guilty of this same exceptionalism? Is a posthuman anthropology possible or desirable?

RJ: I was in the audience for Gilroy’s lecture in New Haven and remember it well. I should add that his lecture arrived at a moment when the “posthuman” was the theory du jour. Many fellow graduate students and I were grappling with questions of ecology and the Anthropocene that led us to seriously question the category of the human. The posthuman discourse is one I remain sympathetic to, but presents a decidedly different critique than the Wynterian critique I mentioned earlier. I think this is what Gilroy is getting at in his lecture. I am not interested in reclaiming or vindicating the human as such. But to flippantly declare ourselves posthuman as if that provides an exit from the prevailing racialized and gendered genre of the human is another matter entirely.

The moment of insurgency we find ourselves in today demonstrates that a leap to the posthuman was premature, if not misguided. The persistence of anti-Black violence and Indigenous dispossession demonstrates that we can’t take the category of the human for granted as a stable object marked by only incidental or epidermal regimes of difference. This is what I mean when I say that our foremost anthropological theorists are not professional anthropologists. The limits of the human are being revealed and challenged in real time by mobilizations in Minneapolis, Rio de Janeiro, and Port of Spain, for instance. Yet, the participants in these movements are largely nameless and receive no credit or compensation for the theory they produce.

Not unlike how we talk about Marx turning Hegel on his head (or standing him the right side up), Black studies—as a body of theory that in its ideal form is derivative of Black insurgency—turns anthropology on its head by demanding that it match its discursive investment in the human with a material politics of abolition.

LC: To begin to “turn anthropology on its head,” as Ryan insists, starts with locating agency in studies that might bypass a coherent human subject. Kamari, in what ways do contemporary studies of technopolitics, Anthropocene, and interspecies ethnographies fabricate an undifferentiated human? Thinking beyond that, how can a radical humanism reconfigure emergent subjectivities and their production?

KC: That’s a great question because it forces us to consider what the potential is for a radical humanism that demands that we take the human seriously at the same time that we repudiate an Anthropocene that Ryan so nicely reminds us takes the human as a stable point of departure.

A radical humanism requires that we abandon the liberal rights-bearing capitalist subject model that is enshrined with constitutional rights, citizen claims, and human rights protections that sets us against each other and demands forms of individualisms that defeat the purpose. It starts by recognizing that the forms of human exceptionalism as undifferentiated categories and the rights and entitlements that shape human regimes of value are part of the problem. To take radical humanism as a point of departure involves putting the liberal settlement for personhood at bay and being open to reconceiving how we can “be” together in a world that is burdened with things—subjectivities, identity boxes, qualified entitlements, property, measures of value.

The reality is that these racial, gender, nationality, and sexuality categories that the most radicalized activists among us use to claim authority and voice must also be put to rest. Because once we recognize that even those subjectivities continue to reinstate a humanity that separates rather than unites, we will see that they, too, will need to be eventually abandoned.

What might replace it? A conception of humanity that starts not with the pain and hurt that causes us to wear identity as a badge but a form of humanity that takes us where we are—naked, flawed, wounded, desirous, insecure, hopeful, and so forth. If we can take up humanism from what Naomi Aeon (formerly Pabst) offers, through her conceptualization of alchemy, which involves questioning the answers rather than answering the questions, we can begin to engage in the personal journeys that enable the transformations that radical humanism requires.

LC: Radical humanism, as Kamari suggests, demands that we transgress classic identity politics in favor of forward-thinking categories that do new and important work. Anthropology is guilty of its own internal tensions and identity politics. Ryan, a glance at anthropological production and resultant ethnographic imagination over the past few years signal “turns” that relentlessly auto-cannibalize, self-flagellate, and indulge in a crisis of reinvention. As you mention in the review—whether through crisis talks that ultimately reify order or epochal shifts that might reimagine new futures and sovereignties—how might a burn push these limits of reinvention?

RJ: What strikes me about your question is that there’s a professional currency that follows each of these successive turns in the discipline. They create opportunities for publications, book contracts, and academic employment. My year-in-review essay is no different. Kamari can speak to this in greater detail, but I know that this platform is a result of my long-standing connections to the current editorial board and my undergraduate mentor, Deborah Thomas, who is the outgoing editor-in-chief. There is a potential scenario in which, despite my best efforts to the contrary, this moment will principally serve my own career advancement but do little to shift the practice of anthropology at all.

This is another motivation for letting anthropology burn. I am very aware of my own capacity to profit from this critique. When I reflect on my own indebtedness to the tendency we know via Faye Harrison as decolonizing anthropology, I’m also trying to be clear about how I benefit from the currency that follows its partial incorporation into select anthropology syllabi and bibliographies.

At the time Jafari Allen and I wrote our 2016 essay, “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties,” I was still a graduate student in anthropology and African American studies at Yale. Jafari and I had several conversations about my willingness to claim this critique without the security of a tenure-track position. In our essay, we traced more than a century of decolonial criticism in anthropology and meditated on the practices of hiring, tenure and promotion, publishing, and citation that effectively sideline its critical interventions. Elsewhere, Lynn Bolles writes more extensively about the racialized and gendered politics of citation in our field, and this was the context in which I entered anthropology as an undergraduate in 2007 and as a PhD student in 2011. My choice to move forward with the article stemmed in part from my own skepticism that I would wind up in an anthropology department. We point out in the article that so many Black anthropologists that do remain in the academy wind up in departments and programs of Black studies, ethnic studies, and gender and sexuality studies and are not fully engaged by the discipline of anthropology. I have noticed a clear shift of late. Many of my friends and colleagues who I came to know through the Association of Black Anthropologists and completed their doctorates over the past five years are now employed in departments of anthropology.

I touch on this ever so briefly in a footnote that scrutinizes my own status as a Black junior faculty member in a department whose doctoral program is singled out for its “unparalleled dominance” in the academic job market in anthropology. I will speak only for myself here, but I certainly have benefitted from the newfound appreciation of the decolonizing generation through the work of Faye Harrison, Ted Gordon, and many others. It certainly paved the way for me to join the faculty in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. I have to say that since joining the department, I’ve been heartened by the thought and consideration my colleagues have devoted to considering what it would even mean to decolonize anthropology at Chicago. It’s an absolute privilege to be at Chicago particularly at a moment in which the discipline as a whole is grappling with long-neglected critiques. In making the case for letting anthropology burn, though, I am reminding myself and others that decolonizing anthropology is not about creating an opening for me to work at the University of Chicago. I describe the pitfalls of this line of thinking as a “decolonial fix” that offers the diversification of faculty lines and curriculum as a cosmetic fix that further entrenches institutional hierarchies and prestige in place.

All this to say, I am worried about decolonizing anthropology being reduced to merely another theoretical turn or conceptual fix. The case for letting anthropology burn considers what’s at stake if we follow the decolonizing critique to its logical conclusion—if we refuse to take up decolonization merely as a metaphor and place our work and labor in service of its material demands and politics. Again, this is why I appreciate Savannah Shange’s intervention so very much. An abolitionist anthropology makes the personal and political stakes (or personal stakes as political stakes) so abundantly clear.

BART station, 19th Street. Oakland, CA. June 2020. (Photograph by Lucia Cantero)

LC: For many anthropologists, the personal has long been the political. Both Kamari and Ryan, I think it would be great if we could show fellow anthropologists the importance of this revision given the moment we are in. How can we deploy this kind of radical humanism, which departs from a Marxian ethos such that solidarity can be mobilized toward structural shifts in our discipline? Part of this work entails that we don’t just see “activist,” “engaged” or “action” anthropology as errant forms of our tradition, but also that (as Ted Gordon and others have reminded us) our subjects are not passive and/or neutral objects. If—as is often the case—these are racialized subjects, then the work calls us to move from solidarity to racial sincerity What does this look like? Why are the slough of solidarity statements for racial justice by no means enough?

KC: Great reflections from Ryan and another excellent provocation from you, Lucia. Let me start from my exhaustion with the solidarity statement form that has become pervasive and a way for our colleagues and departments to signal, “I’m with you” during an extraordinarily toxic period in our world. But if I have to read and edit another solidarity statement, I don’t know what I’ll do!

On one hand, these solidary statements reflect speech acts that are important because they do a particular kind of work. On the other hand, to stop there, with the solidarity speech act, would be a travesty because that’s a symbolic act that we know from semiotics produces signaling and the production of a stance.

We’ve spent a lot of time over this hour reflecting on hierarchies of inequality that pervade intellectual life. But if we are going to actually take solidarity seriously, one example of what that might involve I would say is that we need to reconceive solidarity by interrogating what we’re willing to give up in order for that solidarity to be real, to be transformative. For example, for those of us who have languished in the Ivy Leagues for too long and benefited from funding, research assistants, subsidized conference travel, sabbatical time to think and read, and platforms for deploying expert authority—this is one site for pondering how solidarity looks.

One way to start is to begin with our own labor contradictions across US anthropology institutions and look at our complicity in these spheres of educational inequality. This involves restructuring the luxuries that we’ve enjoyed and, instead, overturning what Ryan has called our “academic star system,” which privileges particular ways of talking, citing, engaging, and socializing.

This may seem counterproductive to some because of the nature of university, college, and state institutional governance, but the reality is that power really does reproduce power in ways that have real impact in the material, psychosocial, economic, and political spaces of knowledge reproduction. So, if we’re not able to imagine the types of institutional demands that can make knowledge production across our institutions viable, then we’re not really ready to contribute to the kind of solidarity that can reconfigure power, knowledge, and cultural authority in our world.

We can go no further than considering the funding and time disparities among those in anthropology who are teaching in community colleges and state universities where the course loads are higher—3:3 or 4:4—and where the labor relations put our colleagues face to face with more first-generation and economically challenged students and deprive them of research funding and support possibilities and sabbatical time. If you compare this to those of us in so-called R1 or research-intensive institutions, where we have a 2:2 course load, luxurious sabbatical opportunities, students who enter university with spectacular writing skills, and a system of academic value that is measured according to your research contribution, then dynamics are different. And your ability to shape the future of anthropological knowledge is different.

Reshaping the future of the discipline involves radically reshaping the way that knowledge and authority in our various institutions are recognized. This involves reconfiguring not only who sits at the table, but restructuring the table in the first place.

RJ: I really appreciate the framing of restructuring the table, Kamari. It pushes us beyond the institutional common sense of diversity and inclusion very productively. One thing I’ve noticed in this moment is that solidarity statements or even institutional commitments to diversity and inclusion in the form of graduate fellowships or faculty lines are receiving greater pushback than they did at prior moments of upheaval. I think part of this is a product of a select group of us attaining even provisional seats at the table. Some groups who were previously excluded from this now serve as chairs of departments, editors of flagship journals, and faculty at PhD-granting institutions. My sense is that we are being called on to make better use of the kinds of luxuries we are afforded by this seat at the table, but we are also confronted with the limits that this sort of institutional access presents. We’re finding that luxuries do not always come with institutional power and are arriving at a better understanding of the transaction or bargain that this entails.

On the same note, I participated in drafting my department’s statement on state violence and white-supremacist vigilantism. I deliberately tried to avoid the detached register of the solidarity statement in my contributions. Firstly, for the several Black and Indigenous faculty members in the department, myself included, we don’t experience this violence at a distance. Several of our graduate and undergraduate students were involved in protest actions in Hyde Park and throughout the Chicago area, so it was critical to ensure their protection from any punitive action or discipline. Most of all, I wanted the statement to reflect the deeply charged relations between the university and the South Side of Chicago, between UCPD and Black students, faculty, and staff, and the history of our own department and discipline. Making these connections explicit, between anthropology’s own epistemic baggage and the conditions that complicate the university as a site of knowledge production, were key.

For me, the movement from solidarity to sincerity involves being accountable for the various seats we’re afforded at the proverbial table. I don’t mean to put John Jackson on the spot here, but as the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn, he is now one of the highest-ranking Black anthropologists that we’ve had at an Ivy League institution in recent memory. I’ve known John since I was a seventeen-year-old freshman at Penn, and watching his trajectory through that institution has been an incredible lesson on sincerity in practice. Often quietly and always deliberately, John has created dozens of additional seats at the table (sometimes seemingly out of thin air) through his work across several institutions and professional associations.

If this moment represents the fruits of a long-standing war of position in anthropology, so to speak, then it follows that the conversation needs to shift from one of creating additional seats to one of restructuring the epistemic foundations and professional codes of conduct that have defined anthropology. As you point out, Lucia, our interventions in anthropological theory and method have often been tolerated as appendages to a classical paradigm in which activist, engaged, or decolonizing tendencies receive tacit endorsement but lack institutional support—with the “Austin School” at the University of Texas as one noteworthy exception. I’ve been told that one of Ted Gordon’s favorite questions to pose to students at UT is, “What are the politics of your work?” In making activist or decolonizing anthropology hegemonic, this question becomes primary rather than ancillary to an abstract commitment to anthropological theory. Letting anthropology burn, in some respect, is a restructuring of our modes of intellectual address away from the latter preoccupation with what we might call “anthropology with a capital-A.” This, I think, is the task ahead for those of us who now occupy seats at the table.

LC: Thank you, both, for convening to consider some harder questions that are specific to our discipline and the academy in this critical moment, especially as we wrestle with such complex issues that affect our everyday lives. As anthropologists, our tool kit needs to be reshaped and refashioned, a process that hinges on more than merely staging new concepts with limited emancipatory practice. What seems especially urgent, in this case, is that we salvage the “decolonizing” process from the fires of these trendy turns and relentlessly push the conversation toward structural interventions. We must, as Maya Angelou’s words in the mural that inaugurated this conversation insist, “use that anger.” We don’t have a program, per se, but hiding behind our subjects as apolitical actors of anthropology is a burning form of complicity. Both of you have outlined in this discussion how and why this process is also a dehumanizing one and that letting anthropology burn might make space for new forms of analysis that can birth new life and fan the flames of more equitable anthropological practices and production. Thanks again.

CITE AS
Jobson, Ryan Cecil, Kamari Clarke, Lucia Cantero. “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn? Reflections and Considerations.” American Anthropologist website, July 20.

 

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