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2012-2013 Anthropology Courses
First-Year Studies: The Anthropology of Time and Memory
The way we perceive, reckon, and experience both time and memory is far from universal or static. Drawing on historical and philosophical texts, critical social theory, and literature, as well as on anthropology and cultural studies, we will begin this first-year studies seminar by exploring diverse time systems in pre-industrial Europe and non-Western societies. We will look at calendars—Mayan, Dogon, Gregorian, French and Soviet revolutionary, Hindu, and many others—as sociopolitical institutions, and we will consider the gradual regularization and standardization of time that took place during the Industrial Revolution and up to the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). We will explore the contradictions that arise between linear progressive time and cyclical or ritual time, think about representations of time in narrative and rhetoric, and ask questions about the relative experience of time. Finally, we will consider the importance of time concepts in modernity and postmodernity, as we engage with such topics as repetition, durée, Nietzsche’s eternal return, and Mbembe’s “time of entanglement.” Turning to the question of memory, during the spring semester, we will consider individual, collective, and national remembering and forgetting and explore such themes as trauma, nostalgia, memorialization, false-memory syndrome, ghosts and haunting, and the relationship between memory and history. By way of our ongoing engagement with cultural analysis and reflection, students will become fluent in the discipline of anthropology, as they improve their ability to read closely, write effectively, and think critically.
Kinship: An Anthropological Story
A common feature of human societies is the enforcement of rules that determine social relations, particularly regarding kinship: With whom may one be sexual? Whom may a person marry? Which children are “legitimate”? To marry a close relative or someone of the same gender may be deemed unnaturally close in some societies, but marriage across great differences such as age, race, culture, or class can also be problematic. Social rules govern the acceptance or rejection of children in particular social groups, depending on factors such as the marital status of their parents or the enactment of appropriate rituals. During the colonial era, European observers imagined that “primitive” societies had sparse social regulation. as they reported cases of “marriage by capture,” “primitive promiscuity,” and “paternity uncertainty.” In the postcolonial world, anthropologists and everyone else are deeply engaged in questions about kinship—which, in fact, strongly echo 19th-century concerns. Now we frame the topics as queer families, gay marriage, unmarried mothers, interracial families, the absence of fathers, transcultural adoption, and new reproductive technologies. In this yearlong lecture, we will draw upon many different kinds of sources, including ethnography, historical accounts, memoir, literature, archival documents, and film. Case studies will include transnational adoption, polygamy in East and West Africa, cross-class marriage in Victorian England, American kinship systems, incest regulation cross-culturally, and same-sex marriage in Southern Africa. To make sense of such topics, we will draw upon a number of different conceptual approaches, including those from classical kinship studies, theories of evolution, cognitive anthropology, feminist theory, queer theory, and postcolonial theory.
Anthropology and Photography
Walker Evans once referred to photography as offering “searing spots of realism.” This course attends to the cultural and experiential glint of photographic imagery by way of an anthropological exploration of the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of photography in a range of distinct cultural settings. We will be engaged in two main efforts: an anthropologically informed inquiry into the phenomenon of photography and photographic endeavors that might be called “photoethnography.” In terms of an anthropology of photography, we will develop an understanding of how peoples throughout the world use, relate to, circulate, and perceive photographs and how such uses and perceptions tie into ideas and practices of vision, time, memory, family, sociality, history, politics, and personal and cultural imaginings. As for photoethnography, we will consider the ways in which photography and film can portray well (or not) the lives and concerns of particular peoples. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the complicated ethics and politics of documentary photography, the sense of differing cultural aesthetics informing the creation and evaluation of photographs, pacings of time and memory, the intricate play between text and image and between interpretation and invocation, and the circulation of digital images in a transnational era. Readings to be considered include: Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s Balinese Character, James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let us Now Praise Famous Men, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Robert Frank’s The Americans, and Christopher Pinney’s Camera Indica. We will also view a number of ethnographic films which mine questions of photographic representation, including Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours, Judith and David MacDougall’s Photo Wallas, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass.
The Power of Words: Language, Hegemony, and Social Inequality
Language is such a pervasive component of our everyday lives that we often tend to forget the complex power dynamics that are always embedded in humans’ engagements with language. We tend to naturalize and overlook the power-laden nature of communication and to assume that language is a neutral and objective system of signs apt at enabling the transmission of information. But what is the relationship between language and social status? What is the role of certain discursive representation of reality in reproducing or challenging the status quo? Why are certain languages considered to be better and more prestigious than others? How can certain conversational practices contribute to the reproduction of gender inequalities and racial stereotypes? What were the implications of colonization for the indigenous languages of the populations that experienced Euro-American colonial domination? What is the role of world Englishes in today’s globalized world? Through a series of readings, we will discuss the varied and sometimes surprising interconnections among language, power, and social inequality. Students will explore topics such as the role of linguistic ideologies in the colonial enterprise; the historical production of an official standard language and the construction of hegemonic power; the unequal power relations often at stake in multilingual contexts; the role of language in crafting representations of people’s identities; the contemporary debates on the loss of indigenous languages, linguistic revitalization movements, and other activist efforts; the impact of language-based discrimination and the role of linguistic parodies as a form of cultural resistance; as well as the social and political life of words as they travel across global networks of power and meaning.
Culture, Power, and Violence in Latin America
This course takes up questions of violence through the anthropological study of Latin America, a world region with a long history of civil wars, coups d’états, military interventions, guerrilla movements, and political repression. Considering violence as it relates to social and political power, the course explores overt and discreet violence in a variety of forms, including both the corporeal violence of genocide and torture, for instance, and symbolic violence of ethnic conflict and state neglect. Our readings will address topics such as the aftermath of ethnic genocide in Guatemala; the legacy of torture and disappearances in Argentina; the politics of vigilance and surveillance in the militarized zone of the US-Mexican border; and the everyday resonances of hunger, poverty, and infant death in Brazilian favelas. Considering the confluences and consequences of violence portrayed in these accounts, we will attend, as well, to how violence is lived and experienced through engaging anthropological conceptualizations of suffering, trauma, subjectivity, and personhood. Finally, we will explore a range of personal and collective responses to violence—such as social practices of commemoration, political engagements with human-rights struggles, and state-sponsored practices of truth and reconciliation—in order to understand the linkages among violence, suffering, and social justice.
Migration and Experience
This seminar will engage an emerging body of anthropological research that asks how the broad sociocultural, political, moral, and economic structures and processes that produce transnational migration affect the thinking, feeling, and sensing of people whose lives play out in the balance. Through our readings and seminar discussions, we will grapple with a series of questions that probe the contemporary experience of migration, such as: What are the felt consequences of living in between “home” and “host” societies and between “traditional” and transformed ways of being? How is the migrant/transborder condition differently shaped by the particular intersections of ethnic, class, state, and other boundaries that are crossed? How do different forms of power shape and constrain migrants’ subjective and intersubjective experiences of time, space, embodiment, and self? In what sense is “illegal” versus “documented” status critical to the everyday politics and poetics of migrant life? In our exploration of these and related questions, we will attend to the ways in which migrants draw on cultural resources to create spaces and practices of connection, protection, and continuity despite the disruptive potential introduced by migration. Latin American and indigenous migration will focus prominently in our selection of readings, which will also include forays into ethnographic contexts such as West African and Filipino migrant experiences in Israel and Yolmo Nepali life in Queens. Students may opt to conduct fieldwork or engage in service learning for their conference projects. Prior coursework in social sciences is required.
Cultures of the Colonial Encounter
Spanning several centuries, colonialism imposed Euro-American domination over vast areas of the Earth and over three-quarters of its population. In addition to transforming the world economies and geographies, colonialism produced complex and traumatic cultural encounters between indigenous peoples and the newcomers. Contrary to the common representation of colonial cultural contact as a process that resulted in the univocal transformation of the indigenous world, this course will try to show that colonial encounters reshaped the structures of practice and the systems of knowledge of the colonized, as well as of the colonizers. This approach will enable us to discover the hidden vulnerability of colonial power. We will learn that in order to understand the complex phenomena of domination, resistance, and mutual cultural mimicry prompted by the colonial encounter, it is essential to treat—as Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper suggest—“metropole and colony in a single analytic field.” Through a series of readings, we will explore how Europeans’ engagements with the inhabitants of the overseas colonies resulted in complex and ambiguous cultural formations that reveal the contested, fragmentary, and anxious nature of colonial knowledge and power. In addition to challenging traditional frameworks that represented the empire through a hierarchical geography of center and periphery and depict colonial encounters through a simplistic narrative of cultural loss, this course will argue for the need to analyze local histories, particular sites, and connections. Ranging from accounts of the encounters between Spanish Catholics and Yucatec Maya, Dutch Calvinist missionaries and Indonesian highlanders, Northwest Coast Indians and Euro-Americans to the study of colonial photography in the Philippines during US rule, the transformations of the caste system in India during the British rule, and the dynamics of labor relations between white managers and Asian workers in a Sumatran rubber plantation during Dutch colonialism, the selected readings will offer concrete cases of colonial encounters. Drawing on visual documents, ethnographic and historical accounts, novels, and critical theory, students will explore how local bodies of scientific knowledge, moral and aesthetic philosophies, cultural theories of sexuality, language usages and ideologies, and social identities, as well as religious notions and practices, were transformed through the asymmetries of the colonial encounter. This ethnographic journey will help us understand that, while colonialism was a global system, the study of its local-specific modes of operation is key to avoid creating a unitary narrative for diverse experiences and realities. Unearthing the durability of colonial history in our contemporary world, this journey will also enable us to appreciate the importance of a critical study of colonialism for the understanding of how colonial pasts bear on people’s present lives and future options.
Understanding Experience: Phenonenological Approaches
How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a deaf person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists in recent years have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular lived realities in order to understand, and convey to others, the nuances and underpinnings of such realities in terms that more orthodox social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology entails an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try her or his hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific social or subjective reality through a combination of interviewing, participant observation, and ethnographic writing. Intermediate.
The Anthropology of Life Itself
“Life is ecstasy,” wrote Emerson. This course will explore the intrigues and problematics of such a statement. What is life? What is a life? How do human beings value the gist of life (or not) in particular situations? In this course, we will consider these fundamental questions through the prism of anthropological inquiry. By delving into what life means for people in distinct cultural settings, how they perceive and engage with it and live it amongst others, we will be able get a better handle on the many social, biological, historical, and political dimensions of constructs of life—and death. In particular, we will read a number of recent ethnographic and philosophical writings that take measure of the subject. We will consider bare life in zones of social abandonment in Brazil, ideas of well-being and existential dissatisfaction in Sierra Leone, the survival techniques of heroin addicts in San Francisco, the pull of suicide among Inuit youths, violence and memory in India, and generative fashioning in the Nepal Himalayas. Along the way, we will give thought to some key writings by important theorists of life, such as Benedict de Spinoza, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Gilles Deleuze. In so doing, the course will offer students an intensive introduction to the field of sociocultural anthropology.