A New Way of “Staging” the History of Anthropology

Jennifer Cool, Assistant Professor (Teaching) of Anthropology at the University of Southern California, is both a social anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that she has spent the past few years experimenting with staged performances and film in an attempt to draw out what she has described as “the performative entanglements of media.”[1]

In 1976, Stewart Brand recorded a conversation with Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson about cybernetics, feedback loops, and their photographic work in Bali. Brand is best known as one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and editor of the famed Whole Earth Catalog. The conversation between this popular counterculture figure and two eminent anthropologists was transcribed and published in 1976 with the title “For God’s Sake, Margaret” in 1976. Four decades later, Cool created a script, Tripod, drawn from that published transcript, as well as excerpts from Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972). Cool staged Tripod at the 2016 American Anthropological Association annual meeting in Minneapolis and at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2017, incorporating Balinese music and dance by local artists and a Q&A period that merged audience responses into the performance itself. In 2019, Cool released the short film, Tripod: Feedback, which drew on these Q&A exchanges to showcase the insights that emerged from drawing actors, dancers, musicians, and audience members together in dialogue.

Cool has most recently published the essay “Tripod: Performance, Media, Cybernetics” in the September 2020 issue of American Anthropologist, reflecting on the experience of researching and creating the Tripod project. Anyone interested in what a multimedia, multi-layered approach such as Cool’s can produce would be well advised to read the essay or watch the film.

And if you can’t get enough staged performances inspired by Margaret Mead, check out this recording of Lynne Kaufman’s recent one-act play, Exposing Margaret Mead, produced at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, California.

[1] Jennifer Cool, “Tripod: Performance, Media, Cybernetics,” American Anthropologist, 122, no. 3 (2020): 684-690, p. 684.

Sarah Pickman: contributions / sarah.pickman@yale.edu