“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.
Pondering the past and future of anthropology (re)presents a formidable and fascinating task, necessitating a conception of what it has meant, and now means, to be human. That is, the future of life, “life itself,” and how anthropologists create and theorize these as concepts, becomes more complicated–and thus even more crucial as a quickly heating planet and political toxicity are transforming the terrain on which we think and act. As young scholar-activists, we ponder anthropology’s “problems” and “prospects” as entangled with political futures. What is the role of the (Western-trained) anthropologist who chooses “science as a vocation” (Weber 2004 ) but also has an eye to the artistic, and considers the lines between “fieldwork” and “homework” (Williams 1995) to be rooted in the field’s colonial past?
Edu suggests a constant questioning of these colonial roots, along with how and why we continue to produce anthropological knowledge with such a heavy emphasis on text: “How does asking such questions open up the possibilities for imagining a future for anthropology? Or allowing for cross-pollination?” For Alvarez, questioning the high value placed on textual knowledge resonates. Yet she asks: “While anthropologists may acknowledge that there are many forms of knowledge-production, is it really cross-pollination when different modalities (film and theater) must be translated into a textual one?” The monograph still reigns.
Our intention with our collective thoughts is to engage a discussion on “the discursive field that is an inherent part of the West’s geography of imagination” which Michel Rolph Trouillot found so important to examine. Trouillot saw anthropology’s dependence on the “savage slot” as demonstrative of “the historical weight… that the discipline inherited at birth” (2003, 8). He reflected that this “burden of the past” can only lighten when the “sociohistorical conditions” have changed so much that “practitioners face a choice between complete oblivion and fundamental redirection” (ibid). The “savage slot,” for Trouillot, is the problematic terminology of “natives” and “informants” that then ingrains a particular set of “expert practices in the field.”
Alvarez raised a related series of questions about “expert” practices and the “slot” of the individual genius along these lines: “What would anthropology be like if we did away with the figure of the lone ethnographer—a figure we still hold onto, which is undeniably colonially rooted? …. Following Strathern’s call (2006), what if we discussed what triggers our different analytical modalities and practices, in the hopes of moving away from the idea of a mode of knowledge production that comes from an isolated moment of individual creativity?” In moving away from “isolated creativity,” we mean not simply working with other Western-trained anthropologists but also with our colleagues with whom we interactively research “in the field.”
Following this line of thought, we discussed politically engaged and collaborative work, like that of Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert’s opus (2013), as well as how to do this with ethnographic film and theater. What if anthropology truly embraced collaboration and a critical multimodal approach? This would change the anthropological questions that we ask and allow for applied anthropologies to count as valued forms of knowledge production. It would also, we hope, promote deeper connections of ethnographic responsibility. Thinking about putting political action and creative modalities at the center of our ethnographic endeavors led us to consider teaching—the future that our students not only represent, but will also encounter.
Returning to Hurston’s framing of the present and Trouillot’s thoughts to alleviate the burden of the past, the Sankofa bird and a Quechua cosmology of time came to mind. In these temporal landscapes, the past stands in front of us because we already know it. The future, unknown, is behind us because we cannot see it. As we imagine and craft a future for our discipline, we keep the past in front of us, forging new directions.
Read another piece in this series.
Hartman, Saidiya V. and Frank B. Wilderson, III. 2003. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle 13(2): 183-201.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1939. Moses, Man of the Mountain. New York: J.B. Lippincott, Inc.
Kopenawa, Davi and Bruce Albert. 2013. Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Translated by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stocking, George Jr. 1977. “Prospects and Problems.” History of Anthropology Newsletter 4(2): 1-2.
Strathern, Marilyn. 2006. “A Community of Critics? Thoughts on New Knowledge.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12(1): 191–209.
Trouillot, Michel Rolph. 2003. “The Savage Slot.” In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. New York: Palgrave.
Weber, Max. 2004. “The Vocation Lectures.” Translated by Rodney Livingston. Indianapolis/Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing Company.
Williams, Brackett. 1995. “The Public I/Eye: Conducting Fieldwork to Do Homework on Homelessness and Begging in Two U.S. Cities.” Current Anthropology 36(1): 25-51.