Field Notes (page 1 of 3)

Field Notes is a forum for reflections on the state of the field of history of anthropology, broadly conceived. We welcome a variety of contributions including (but not limited to) short articles, theoretical musings, reports on cultural and academic events and displays, and discussions of intellectual resources of interest to our readers. If you’re interested in submitting such a piece, please email us at notes@histanthro.org.

The Inspiration for the History of Anthropology Newsletter

A few years ago when the History of Anthropology Newsletter (HAN) relaunched as an online publication, a number of articles described how it was started by George Stocking in 1973. More recently, a series of 24 articles has reflected on HAN’s inaugural editorial vision statement, which had the goal of marking out and developing the history of anthropology as a field of inquiry. We know a lot about the purposes which HAN was founded to serve, but we know little about the models that might have inspired it. 

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Special Focus: Canguilhem’s Milieu Today

Canguilhem’s historical epistemology continues to inspire historians and anthropologists to attend to how current and former human practices of science shape our conceptualizations and engagement with natural and experimental environments, non-human beings, and human life. Now, with the publication of a translation of La connaissance de la vie ([1965] 2008), which contains many of Canguilhem’s key works, “The Living and Milieu” speaks with new urgency.[ In the spirit of the History of Anthropology Newsletter’s call for multidisciplinary exploration of novel topographies for the history of anthropology, this Special Focus Section gathers five insightful considerations of reversals and collapses in relations between organism and environment for the history of human and life sciences since their seminal characterization in “The Living and Its Milieu.

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Editors’ Introduction: As Adventurous as Life

Amidst ongoing shifts to our environments and biologies, the traditional anthropological and biological objects—human being and life, anthropos and bios—are today twined together in unprecedented ways. Witness the bourgeoning interest from bioscientists in cultural and human affairs, and the even longer standing interest from anthropologists in things biological, as former disciplinary norms are upended and new relations, forms, and understandings of life emerge.

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The Life of the Milieu

What if we think of a milieu as a medium for living in a strong sense, as in the way that paint or color is a medium for art—both the means of art’s expression and conceptualization and its point of pragmatic-material-noumenal interest, or even obsession? The artist thinks with, in, and about color or sound or lighting or the way musical notes or words relate to each other or build something. Art-thought is a percept (Deleuze and Guattari 1994) fundamentally linked to the things in its milieu because they have qualities like rhythm or intensity, because they react to a prod or a brush stroke or they ring. Conceptualizing a milieu by acting with it and in it is an experiment with a stake, a conceptualizing channeled through form and matter that thereby ventures out, becoming both exploratory and generative. Bruno Latour (2010) tells us this is compositional thought and being, and it extends into all domains of life in which, for whatever reason, there is a sharp, even immersive, attunement to a surround that has become animated or activated enough to create something with what presents. Georges Canguilhem’s “The Living and Its Milieu” moves in this same terrain, deftly mapping out the groundwork. 

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A Living Room

A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. 

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Sitting in her living room. What occurs here, in this space filled up with her? And despite its force, how is it that this space so easily recedes to the background once words are spoken, once words are put to bodily experience and social relations, effaced by the retelling of the things of life that tend to unravel here? These questions are by way of an introduction to moments of coming apart in the household of a woman, Beverly, who I first met in 2002.

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Canguilhem’s Vital Social Medicine

The thought of the living must take from the living the idea of the living.

Georges Canguilhem

To what extent might one consider Georges Canguilhem a scholar of social medicine? Defined as a field of study that examines health and disease from a social science perspective, social medicine has a long and complex history. It has changed over time and has taken different forms in different parts of the world. Social medicine has relevance and significance today as an interdisciplinary endeavor that includes anthropological, sociological, historical, and philosophical modes of inquiry. This piece is not an attempt to reconstruct the transnational history of social medicine and compare and contrast its various manifestations. Rather, its aim is to explore how Georges Canguilhem’s essay “The Living and Its Milieu” might be useful conceptually for contemporary work in social medicine. Given his concern with the social and the vital, we can easily see Canguilhem’s importance for the question of what social medicine might be as a field of study concerned with questions of health and disease.

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Le Vivant & Partial Pressure Milieus

The breath you just took contains about 400 parts of carbon dioxide (CO2) per million molecules (ppm) of air. 350 ppm is generally considered safe. People living at the start of the Industrial Revolution would have inhaled about 278 ppm. Since then, levels of CO2—the leading greenhouse gas driving changes in the climate—have doubled from the relentless burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is born of cellular respiration in animals and plants. Its accumulation from anthropogenic emissions in the atmosphere and oceans over the past two centuries now poses a direct threat to living beings on Earth. In a worst-case scenario that is increasingly likely, CO2 concentrations will reach 1,450 parts per million by 2150. 

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On the Odor of Rancid Butter, a Twenty-First Century Update

In “The Living and Its Milieu,” Georges Canguilhem tells the story of Jakob von Uexküll’s tick. The tick when mature climbs to a high point, such as a branch on a bush. It falls only in response to a single stimulus, the odor of rancid butter, helpfully explained as a component of the sweat of mammals. If there is no corresponding 37-degree centigrade body to latch on to, the tick climbs back up. Apparently von Uexküll kept a tick in his laboratory for eighteen years before providing this stimulus to it, and it was still able to fall on cue, suck blood, and lay eggs when the opportunity was provided. One has to wonder about the number of ticks, and the frequency of testing. Why eighteen years? There is no detail provided about what happened to the other ticks kept “in a state of inanition” beyond 18 years, if there were any. 

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Special Focus: História dos Índios no Brasil Dossiê


This dossier features seven of the forty papers presented at the colloquium 25 anos de História dos Índios no Brasil: balanços e perspectivas da história indígena. The event was held between December 11 and 13, 2017 in the Guita and José Mindlin Brasiliana Library at Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and organized by the Centro de Estudos Ameríndios (USP) and the Centro de Pesquisa em Etnologia Indígena of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP). For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landmark edited volume, Historia dos Índios no Brasil, assembled by anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, researchers and Indigenous people came together to reflect on the state of the field of Indigenous history in Brazil.

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Editor’s Introduction: Indigenous History and Anthropology in Brazil


The 1992 publication of the volume História dos Índios no Brasil edited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha marked a turning point in scholarship on Indigenous peoples in Brazilian history and anthropology. Featuring works by twenty-seven leading scholars across the fields of social and cultural anthropology, linguistics, archeology, and genetics, it established a new baseline in the rapidly expanding field of Indigenous history.[1] Continue reading

Introduction: 25 years of História dos Índios no Brasil: Balances and Perspectives on Indigenous History


This dossier features seven of the forty papers presented at the colloquium 25 anos de História dos Índios no Brasil: balanços e perspectivas da história indígena. The event was held between December 11 and 13, 2017 in the Guita and José Mindlin Brasiliana Library at Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and organized by the Centro de Estudos Ameríndios (USP) and the Centro de Pesquisa em Etnologia Indígena of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP). For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landmark edited volume, Historia dos Índios no Brasil, assembled by anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, researchers and Indigenous people came together to reflect on the state of the field of Indigenous history in Brazil. Continue reading

Why Did We Publish a Book about Indigenous Peoples’ History in Brazil in 1992?


There are many ways to answer that question. A simple if not simplistic one is to recall that Indigenous history had been largely ignored in Brazil, based on a mishmash of half-cooked ideas. The Brazilian historian, Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen, dismissed its very possibility in 1854 on the grounds that Indigenous peoples were stuck in an inescapable infancy: hence they had no history and were to be left to the care of ethnography. A century later, it was argued that, having no writing systems, they had produced no historical documents. Then, widespread and gross misinterpretations of the notion of “cold societies” led many to position Indigenous peoples against history. Continue reading

Indigenous History and Land Rights in the Rio Branco Valley, Northern Brazil: An Assessment


The volume História dos Índios no Brasil (da Cunha 1992) is the hallmark of a theoretical and methodological renewal in the historiography of Indigenous peoples in Brazil, a momentum which we are glad to be part of as authors and contributors. It is also iconic of Brazilian scholars’ commitment to the official acknowledgment of the political and land rights of Indigenous peoples. In circumstances very similar to the birth of ethnohistory in the United States during the 1940s (see Trigger 1982), the academic field of Indigenous history in Brazil consolidated in the 1980s as an answer to the political challenge of proving the historical basis for Indigenous land rights.[1] In those years, the military dictatorship took steps towards a restricted and controversial land demarcation process, which aimed to liberate lands for economic exploration, notably in opening areas of Amazonia. This meant a potential blow to Indigenous land rights claims. In reaction, Indigenous peoples established political organizations and activist movements in the 1980s. Many land demarcation cases were then taken to court, and historical evidence was crucial to guarantee constitutional Indigenous land rights (for a detailed account, see da Cunha and Barbosa 2018). Continue reading

On the Trail of Merandolino


Contemporary distribution of Indigenous peoples in the Lower Tapajos and Arapiuns valleys (Leandro Mahalem de Lima, 2018)

This piece is a case study about river-based communities adjacent to the Amazon River, and an account of their claims for Indigenous recognition since the mid-1990s. I focus on the Lower Rio Tapajos and Rio Arapiuns region, in Santarem, Pará State, Brazil, where I conducted ethnographical studies between 2008 and 2015. I trace aspects of the process of Indigenous political mobilization and its connection to Indigenous history and anthropology, focusing on the legendary and historical shaman, Merandolino, whose rediscovered history is now connecting disparate places and times. Continue reading

Indigenous Labor in Native and Brazilian Colonial History: A Historiographic Assessment


Indigenous labor and Indigenous slavery have occupied a minor place in analyses of Brazilian colonial history. Despite the fact that labor is omnipresent in social relations and is the material basis of the reproduction of societies, historians of Brazilian colonialism abandoned it as an analytic category decades ago in favor of themes such as memory and identity. This phenomenon is neither restricted to Brazil, nor to Indigenous studies, although this essay will focus on examples of Brazilian colonial and Native history.[1] Recent developments in studies of Native history were made possible by the opening of a dialogue between history and anthropology. However, Native history became a field apart and closed in on itself, with practitioners abandoning the analysis of broader historical processes and limiting their aims to the affirmation of Indigenous peoples’ agency. This affirmation fulfilled an important function, but the field should now broaden the range of questions it addresses, seeking a larger dialogue with history to attend to a new political context. Continue reading

Transformations of Mura Territoriality in the Amazon


“The Mura are everywhere,” a Mura leader, or tuxáua, of Piranha village, said to me. This statement, made during my very first days of fieldwork in Terra Indígena Cunhã-Sapucaia, highlighted the paradox of the Mura territoriality in the Amazon. This essay examines questions of Mura territoriality and mobility, and the construction and implementation of the categories used to describe and delimit Mura space. I begin with an analysis of the anthropological literature and its role in documenting bureaucratic state attempts to administrate Mura affairs. Next, I turn to the work of Mura tuxáua, teachers, and activists, who are disrupting and reclaiming old categories in the service of new claims to sovereignty. Drawing on Gallois’ conception of territoriality (2004), which considers the cultural particularities of Indigenous peoples’ relations to space in the context of contact, I explore how Mura conceptions of space are intimately tied up with the memory and mobility of ancestors, kin whose presence is still felt and known through the land. Continue reading

Archives of the Future: Issues for the Custody of Recent Documentation Concerning Indigenous Peoples in Brazil


Twenty-five years ago, Brazilian scholars came together to publish História dos Índios no Brasil. The book consolidated the work of a generation trained in the post-graduate anthropology programs established in the late sixties. While facing the repression of the military regime (1964-1985) these scholars established anthropological and historical methods, valid to this day, that are at the same time theoretically robust and legally effective in securing the rights of Indigenous people to their land and their histories in Brazil. This paradigm was the product of an implicated anthropology (Albert 1995), where scholars and Indigenous peoples fight a common struggle against the deep-seated colonial dynamics of economic expansion.[1] Continue reading

Desconstruindo a história contada até pouco tempo atrás / To Deconstruct the History That Was Told Until Recently


Quem sou, qual minha metade, de onde eu venho?

Who am I, what is my moiety, and where do I come from?
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Can Humanity be Mapped? Adolf Bastian, Friedrich Ratzel and the Cartography of Culture


Introduction: Image and Science in Early Ethnology

During the second half of the nineteenth century, in German circles linked to anthropology, a movement of scientific systematization arose from the need to cope, scientifically and institutionally, with the great masses of data that had been collected over nearly a century of colonial enterprises and geographical discoveries. The most important German cities—Berlin, Bonn and Leipzig—laid a foundation of museums, learned societies, academies and scientific journals to set the agenda and limits for a new discipline: ethnology. Ethnology was supposed to develop a new knowledge of man as a being capable of culture. Mediating between ethnographic practices and anthropological science, ethnology at this time was difficult to distinguish from physiology and the study of man as a physical being , which were part of the natural sciences. In the struggle to attain the status of “science,” anthropology had credentials as good as any nineteenth century discipline, because of its early commitment to physiology and adoption of statistical tools. But it was also the first human science to question substantially the adequateness of the scientific method and the pretension of objectivity as it involved very unstable research materials focused on human culture and behavior.[1]

This essay will analyze the case of two founders of German anthropology, Adolf Bastian (1826-1905) and Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), and examine the challenges they faced in creating images to use as scientific tools in their ethnological approaches. The absence of descriptive, paradigmatic and documentary image tools in the major ethnology handbooks of the time stands in contrast to the clear awareness of anthropologists of the urgent need to codify a coherent and comprehensive system of representations, and to give a symbolic account of the complex results of their discipline.

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“Laying the Cards on the Table”


Michel Leiris. Phantom Africa. Translated by Brent Hayes Edwards. Africa List Series. 720 pp., 37 halftones, 3 fascimiles, 1 map. Calcutta, London, and New York: Seagull Books, 2017. $60 (cloth)

Editor’s Note: This essay—an extended commentary on the recently published translation of Phantom Africa—is HAN’s first joint production of Field Notes and Reviews. The Editors welcome and encourage future submissions that combine reviews of recently published works with reflections on the history of anthropology.

Cover of the first edition of L’Afrique Fantôme, published by Gallimard in its series ‘Les Documents Bleus’ in 1934.

Phantom Africa is the diary that French writer and ethnologist, Michel Leiris, kept for almost two years, from May 1931 to February 1933. During this period, he was the secretary-archivist of the Dakar-Djibouti mission, an important ethnographic expedition financed by the French government, supported by several private donors, and organized by the University of Paris and the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The main goal of the mission was to collect a large number of ethnographic objects in order to renew the collection of the museum. The years between the world wars were a critical period for French anthropology because it was the moment of its emergence as an independent discipline. As a highly publicized event attached to the Trocadéro, the Dakar-Djibouti mission in particular played an important role in this process, paving the way for other ethnographic expeditions throughout the 1930s.[1] The original French edition of the diary was published by Gallimard soon after the mission, in 1934, and now it has been published in English, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards. Continue reading

Living Monuments: Imagining Ancient Gene Pools in the Middle East


In 1927, the Polish-Jewish physical anthropologist Henryk Szpidbaum published an account of his recent expedition to Mandate Palestine on behalf of the Polish Society for the Exploration of the Mental and Physical Condition of the Jews. He had traveled to Palestine not to investigate the Zionist settlers, but rather the Samaritans, an obscure religious group of no more than 150 members living in the town of Nablus. In the introduction to his study, Szpidbaum described the Samaritans as “a living monument [Denkmal] of the biblical period. This tribe can be traced back 2800 years, during which it should be noted that the Samaritans have never left their country of Palestine. Detailed knowledge of this tribe will hopefully help to solve many difficult problems concerning the anthropology of the former inhabitants of Canaan and partially [also of] today’s Jews ” (Szpidbaum 1927). Unfortunately, he warned, the community might soon disappear forever: “The Samaritans believe themselves to be a vanishing tribe [due to] the insufficient number of women. [Footnote:] In order to counter the extinction, the Samaritans try to enter into mixed marriages with Jews. For the time being there is only one such a marriage.”

“The Samaritans of Nablus,” early 1900s (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

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Arsenic and Old Pelts: Deadly Pesticides in Museum Collections


All museums use pesticides and preservatives, though their health impacts are not always known; ethnographic collections can thus pose a health risk. Here we  open one cold case file, in which we believe a prominent American anthropologist may have directly suffered from such effects. Our own experience and inquiries confirm this hunch.

Clark Wissler fell ill in 1905, soon after he began working in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At some point during the period of Wissler’s illness, Museum Director Henry Fairfield Osborn recommended that his own physician examine Wissler. But despite this additional medical consultation, the illness persisted and was never successfully diagnosed—making him appear frail until 1928 when it mysteriously cleared up. The symptoms were severe enough to cause Wissler to give up his fieldwork on the Blackfeet Reservation. Continue reading

‘Cultures in the Body’: Dance and Anthropology in Revolutionary Cuba


The short documentary Historia de un ballet (History of a Ballet, 1962) dramatizes an ethnographic encounter central to a creative process. Director José Massip followed Cuban choreographer Ramiro Guerra and his company of modern dancers as they researched, created, and premiered a new work, Suite Yoruba (1960), about Afro-Cuban ritual music and dance. The film depicts dancers actively engaging with anthropological methods as they conduct fieldwork and share their findings with a wider public through performance. Though not formally trained as anthropologists, dancers traversed disciplinary and social boundaries to create work that animated political visions of revolutionary collectivity. Continue reading

Editors’ Introduction: Fields, Furrows, and Landmarks in the History of Anthropology


In 1973, the first issue of the History of Anthropology Newsletter opened with a statement of purpose from the editorial committee, called “Prospects and Problems,” by George Stocking. The editors were self-consciously defining and claiming a field. They let loose with territorial metaphors: occupation, soil, furrows, forays. Now, as we continue our relaunch of HAN, we return to this 40-year-old manifesto as a starting point for thinking about the past, present, and future of the field.

The 1973 essay noted a sense of disciplinary crisis as a spur to growth; it asked whether this history should be done by anthropologists, intellectual historians on “one-book forays,” by “anthropologists manqué,” or by a new generation of interdisciplinarians; it announced the need for “landmarks” including lists of archival holdings, bibliographic aids, research in progress, recent publications—which HAN would provide. It ended with a call for participation from readers.

Seeking to continue HAN’s role as a site for debating the field’s present state and shaping its future, in late 2016 we invited a series of scholars from various fields to respond to this manifesto. In February 2017, eight distinguished authors responded with generosity, insight, experience, good humor—and impressive speed. Continuing our reappraisal of Stocking’s inaugural editorial statement, in August 2017 we added nine additional surveys of the field’s potential terrain. These contributions covered new ground, unearthed skepticisms, and sowed a set of new questions. Now, in October 2017, we close the series with a third set of reflections from an impressive group of early career scholars. They imply a rich future for the study of anthropology’s past.

We encourage HAN readers and subscribers to make use of the comments section to respond to individual pieces, or to the section as a whole. Dig in and leave a mark.

 

This editorial was originally published on February 1, 2017. It was updated on August 15, 2017 and on October 21, 2017.

 

Collaborations: Envisioning an Engaged Multimodal Future for Anthropology


 

“The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.”
Zora Neale Hurston

 

I asked two colleague-friends to collaborate in this exercise of envisioning the future of the field: visual anthropologist and filmmaker Patricia Alvarez and medical anthropologist and playwright Ugo Edu. We first circulated written ideas and then Edu suggested a conversational format à la Hartman and Wilderson (2003).  With the limits of time and space, we reproduce only parts of that conversation here. To render this collaborative work visible, see our transcript. Continue reading

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