Intro to Anthro #6 – from evolution, to Japanese hip-hop, via Soap Wars…

Damn this is the way to satiate my pathological curiosity. Find a recent introductory text book aimed at undergrads and just read from cover to cover over the course of a week or so. Already have my eye on a book on systems ecology… But, getting ahead of myself.

So, today the first few articles were on evolution, disease and migration. These were of course fine, but are not my thing (though I did LOVE William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples back in the day. Fiona Coward in “Ancestral Migration Patterns” makes the excellent point that

“Fewer edible plants in particular mean that hominins living in these regions would have had to rely increasingly on animal protein from scavenged or hunted animal prey for food. However, such foodstuffs were scarce and hotly contested by other carnivores. To compete successfully, our ancestors needed to plan ahead and move over much greater geographical distances, requiring sophisticated ‘mental mapping’ skills. In addition, the complex social skills that allowed them to work together to share resources and information would have been crucial. The use of fire, both to keep warm and also to cook animal protein to gain the most energy from it, was probably also important.” (p. 191-2)

Yup – for more on the importance of protein, see Marvin Harris’s “Cannibals and Kings.”

Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s stuff on Globalisation, that fraught term, is very good. The stuff on disembedding and re-embedding is good, and this was crystal clear-

“Does globalization, by increasingly exposing us to each other’s lives, lead to enhanced solidarity, tolerance and sympathy with people elsewhere; or does it rather lead to ferocious counter-reactions in the form of stubborn identity politics – nationalism, religious fundamentalism, racism and so on? This question has, perhaps a short answer. Globalization does make it easier for us to understand each other across cultural divides, but it also creates tensions between groups that were formerly isolated from each other, and it creates a need to demarcate uniqueness and sometimes historical rootedness.” (p.211)

He also gives a shout out to “the indigenization of modernity”… “showing how modern artefacts and practices are incorporated into pre-existing worlds of meaning, modifying them somewhat, but not homogenising them…” (p213). Yep, it’s all hybrids, palimpsests, timey-wimey. That freaks everyone out some of the time, and some of us out all of the time…

My favourite bit was his reflection on what he expected to find in Mauritius and what he ACTUALLY found –

Also good stuff on identity politics usefulness to demagogues (though he doesn’t explicitly name names like that).

“Internal difference are glossed over and, for this reason it can often be argued that identity politics serves the interests of the privileged segments of the group, even if the group as a whole is underpriivileged, because it conceals internal class differences.” (p216

I think this is polite academicspeak for “populism is the proles and peasants getting played by the plutocrats.”


The next time some idiot tries to tell me that “carbon literacy” is the answer to any question other than “how can middle class people feel smug and superior while having enormous carbon footprints and a pathological dread of confronting either the roots of their own privilege or the system that sustains it” I am gonna

a) scream

b) remember Elisabeth Croll and David Parkin’s 1992 piece “Anthropology, the Environment and Development.”

“As concepts, the environment and development together presuppose an interest in the management of natural resources. Anthropology adds to this a concern with the ways in which peoples bring their cultural imaginations to bear on the utility of such resources. Here, the relationship between humans and their natural surroundings often appears paradoxical. Humans create and exercise understanding and agency on their world around them, yet operate within a web of perceptions, beliefs and myths which portray persons and their environments as constituted in each other; with neither permanently privileged over the other…” (p.228)

The piece by Jamie Cross and Alice Street “Anthropology at the Bottom of the Pyramid” was absolutely fascinating.

Need to read C.K. Prahalad’s “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid”, clearly.

There’s great stuff on triclosan, an anti-bacterial agent that Unilever were putting in soap, and its different meaning in the US and India. The article traces Unilever getting a punch on the nose for trying to be, as Tom Lehrer sang in “The Old Dope Peddler” “doing well by doing good.”

What is fascinating is that Unilever picked itself up, dusted itself off and went in to another part of India with a new strategy – disarming honesty-

“In relationships with public partners and consumers the company now made a complete disclosure of its commercial objectives and presented this as evidence of trustworthiness.”

No doubt Zizek has written two or three books about how this symbolises Badiouan or Baudrillardian or Berlusconi-esque post-political praxis or some such. Like I care.

Final piece is an interesting take on Japanese hip-hop and ethnographical methods. I quite liked how yes, even when you are hybridising/filching/twisting someone else’s cultures (is cultural appropriation a thing in Japan?), you’re still, well, you.

“Japanese cultural practices do not disappear just because everyone is wearing their hip-hop outfits and listening to the latest rap tunes. To give one example, at the first Kitchens event after the New Year, I was surprised to see all the clubbers who knew each other going around and saying the traditional New Year’s greeting in very formal Japanese; “Congratulations on the dawn of the New Year. I humbly request your benevolence this year as well.” There was no irony, no joking atmosphere in these statements. This is a good example of the way that globalization may appear to overshadow Japanese culture, but one needs to spend time in clubs with the people to see how surface appearances can be deceiving.” (p246)

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