Anthropology of the Contemporary Moment

[Rick Salutin argues][], in a column in the The Toronto Star, that:

> The strength of anthropology at the moment, I’d say, comes when it turns its eye to our own society as just another tribe or collection of humans trying to make symbolic sense of their experience — rather than looking back on other collectivities as if we alone have reached some satisfying, inevitable progress toward which those primitive versions are striving. It’s less about making sense of the past than casting an anthropological gaze on the present. This seems to unbewitch the level of “achievement” we’ve reached. We start looking like just another weird bunch of human creatures trying to make sense of their odd predicament, like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes when he finally gets it.

I’d agree with him, obviously, as someone working within the sphere of American ethnology, but I am also reminded of something an apprentice anthropologist once observed while we all waited in a classroom for our seminar with Dick Bauman to begin: “Have you ever noticed that the people we send to study other cultures don’t fit very well into our culture in the first place?” It was a brilliant bit of insight, if not entirely true because there were a fair number of rather normal people in the room and in the two programs, cultural anthropology and folklore studies. (The assertion of normalcy will have to be qualified by the fact that the two fields are both highly synthetic and neither offers firm job prospects in the same way that, say, linguistics or paleontology or communications do, so they do tend to attract people with perhaps a little less intellectual and economic focus. Whether that’s good or bad is a debate external to the current topic.)

The same can probably be said who go on to be artists (painters and poets all): they are individuals who at some point in their lives felt or perceived or imagined there was no ready place, desirable place, for them in what we call “the norm” and sought an alternative. How you negotiate that alienation is itself wildly variable. Some people feel the need to rebel really hard; others are just looking for a comfortable place to have a relationship with the perceived center of things. (I’m probably more on the latter end of the continuum, though no doubt my parents would assure you that I passed through some stage of firebrandry.)

It’s a kind of common metaphor to refer to artists as “antennae” of a society, picking up on undercurrents and missed opportunities that larger, more assured forces cannot detect. I would argue that a good chunk of the social sciences and the humanities operate in much the same fashion — which would explain why all three are under such constant attack by conservative organizations. Salutin’s point is, I think, that what anthropologists are doing well is peopling the abstractions that economists discuss and by peopling them, they actually get at the living, breathing dynamic behind all forces in our social world(s).

Tip of the hat to [Jason Jackson]( for the link on Twitter.

[Rick Salutin argues]:

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