Anthropology as Storytelling

Transformational Storytelling Anthropology

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This is a modified transcript of discussant comments for panel on “Anthropology and Storytelling” at the 2014 Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association. Many thanks to Coralynn Davis, Carole McGranahan, Gina Athena Ulysse, and fellow discussant Mary Steedly. Sorry to miss John Collins, but I attempted in my remarks to fulfill his paper title and “clear a room (of anthropologists).”

Stories that must be told

In 2003, Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote that anthropology’s relevance depended on the degree to which we could spell out the stakes for a wider audience, rather than basking in “the aestheticization of theory” and “spinning in a proselytical circle” (2003:137). Paul Stoller spells out a similar agenda in Welcome to the Anthropocene:

Enter anthropology and anthropologists. Most of my anthropological colleagues have been passive rather than active players on the sociopolitical stage. In our discipline the institution has long celebrated arcane theoretical contributions for which practitioners receive research grants and endowed chairs. These times require a shift in emphasis. Given the political, social and ecological crisis we face, anthropologists are uniquely positioned to demonstrate in clear and concise language and image, how market fundamentalism, which generates climate change, social inequality, racism and the defamation of difference, has brought us to the social precipice. By moving from passive to active voice anthropologists, among other cultural critics, can provide the insightful information needed to construct a groundswell of change–a course correction on a path to social apocalypse.

Spelling out those stakes does require, as Trouillot put it, identifying the ultimate listeners, the people in power who most need the message of anthropology. This storytelling must make the “hegemonic hear” (a phrase from Margaret Mills via Davis 2014:35) new and different narratives.

Such storytelling would pay close attention to the native competency of interpretation (from Kirin Narayan via Davis 2014:25), which may lean somewhat against a Geertzian view of anthroplogists as reading over the shoulders of the natives. Instead this allows natives themselves to jump into the discussion–not as data, not as local color, but as real storytelling interlocutors. These are the stories that must be told or tell themselves.

Anthropology as theoretical storytelling

And so, anthropology is indeed theoretical storytelling, borrowing a phrase from Carole McGranahan, although I wonder if we actually need to claim the validation of the theoretical. Rather, drawing on Tim Ingold, anthropology is transformational storytelling. Anthropology is where the stories of descriptive ethnography become transformational in intent, for teaching, for writing, for an engagement which once again constantly moves and morph beyond bounds (Davis 2014:23,27). Put differently, there may not be a need to argue for narrative occupying a central theoretical role in the discipline when we can argue for storytelling as inhabiting an irrepressible role in the ongoing human transformation that anthropology enjoins. This is exactly how McGranahan concludes: the stories are the point.

And hey, with Merriam-Webster declaring culture to be the #1 word of the year (should I just give up Trouillot’s notion of Adieu Culture and jump on the bandwagon?). Then there’s uber-blogger economist Tyler Cowen asking Are anthropologists better than you think? Are we in for the crush of the wider public, some Black Swan Anthropology?

And Yet

But as McGranahan also says: “And yet.” And yet. Or as Trouillot said about spelling out anthropology’s relevance to a wider audience: “That will not be easy” (2003:137). As I look over the scene at the end of 2014, can’t help thinking: Anthropology Is Over. We Lost. The discipline that built a legacy of attacking the myth of race, meant as a counterpoint to racism. And yet. 2014 brings us Nicholas Wade. As Paul Stoller says, we are Racing Away From Ferguson. Gina Athena Ulysse Can’t Breathe. Widening real inequalities while anthropology is still white public space.

Or as Brittney Cooper writes (via Gina Athena Ulysse): “If I have to begin by convincing you that Black Lives Matter, we have all already lost, haven’t we?” (I am utterly undone: My struggle with black rage and fear after Ferguson).

What to do with an American Anthropology, a discipline that cannot seem to prove to wider audiences that anthropology matters. While internally a notion that Black anthropologists matter (if that ever gets off the ground, although see the recent Sources on St. Clair Drake), seems eternally trumped by “all anthropologists matter.” Here channeling a tweet from @Arther_Affect via Ulysse:


Which in anthropological practice seems to mean all white French male theorists matter. [*see note below*]

So yes, let anthropology be transformational storytelling, but that leads us smack back into the middle of power:

Whose stories?
Who gets to tell them?
Who is listening?
Who can understand?

But what anthropology might be able to do as transformational storytelling is to bring the stories that no one else is willing to get:

The populations we traditionally study are often those most visibly affected by the ongoing polarization brought about by the new spatiality of the world economy. They descend directly from those who paid most heavily for the transformations of earlier times. . . . We are particularly well placed to document these effects on the lived experience of real people everywhere, but especially among those who happen to be the ones most disposable from the viewpoint of capital. The need to renew our topical interests is real, but it should not lead into the temptation to aestheticize the native or to study only natives that suddenly look like us. We cannot abandon the four-fifths of humanity [seen] as increasingly useless to the world economy, not only because we built a discipline on the backs of their ancestors but also because the tradition of that discipline has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind. (Trouillot 2003:138)

*Note on the Ontological Anthropocene, Political Economy, and Storytelling

The line about “all white French male theorists matter” was a dig at Bruno Latour, who basically headlined the 2013 American Anthropological Association meetings with the notion of the Ontological Turn, and then really did headline the keynote speech for 2014 Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene. When I wrote my comments, I expected more controversy, such as what Paul Stoller had written in 2013 regarding an ontological turn-off (see Narrative and the Future of the Social Sciences), or what one political economist at the 2013 meetings called “the struggle for the soul of the discipline.”

Strangely, in 2014 the anthropological anthropocene, the ontologists, and the political economists seemed to turn together, unexpectedly coalescing on shared political positions. I’m hoping to examine this (possibly imaginary) coalescence in a follow-up post. Although it is foolhardy blogging to promise two more posts, perhaps one additional follow-up about a possible reason why the Anthropocene Ontologists and the Political Economists can get along: a shared interest in the demise of Geertz-inspired anthropology.

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  • r.a.

    This is good stuff Jason. After my own fieldwork and write up, I have thinking about these issues a lot lately–especially how and why we use theory as part of the anthropological project. I think a lot of what we do gets in the way…of what we’re trying to do. We have a bad tendency to foreground THEORY so much that it almost completely gets in the way of the stories we have to tell. And that’s part of what makes anthropology “boring” or unappealing for outsiders. Hell, it’s what makes it boring for ME. For some reason we have a hard time separating our INSIDE conversations (ie shop talk) from our attempts to communicate with other audiences.

    I think that’s part of what Tyler Cowen was talking about…and that’s OUR problem. He recognizes the value of anthro, but it’s really our job to do the work to make others realize this as well.

    I do think the stories are the point, and we need to find ways to get back to that. It’s not that theory should not be part of the stories we tell–it’s just that we have to find ways to tell our stories without a bunch of obscure references and in text citations so that what we do write is interesting and readable. Hell, even obscure references can work if they are done well…so maybe a lot of it comes down to how we write. Style etc.

    Stoller nails is. We’re spending all of our time writing to ourselves and chatting about arcane theoretical traditions, getting grants and chairs, and not actually engaging much with the world around us.

    “But what anthropology might be able to do as transformational storytelling is to bring the stories that no one else is willing to get.”

    Yes. And those stories might be in surprising places..some of them far away, and some of them right around the corner. We don’t always have to go far to find stories that no one else is willing to get, or take the time to understand. I do think we need more “studying up,” but I also agree with Trouillot that we can’t abandon that 4/5th of humanity that so many others do abandon. Good thing there are so many anthros out there, because there’s a lot of work to be done.

    Thanks for this.

    • Hi Ryan, thank you for the great comment. I agree with a ton of this. I do think that while “the stories are the point,” there has to be a way to transform them from descriptive ethnography, because sometimes they seem as (or more) dull on the page as inside-baseball theory. I’ve been going back to Tim Ingold’s Making:

      An anthropology that has been liberated from ethnography, however, would no longer be tied down by a retrospective commitment to descriptive fidelity. On the contrary, it would be free to bring ways of knowing and feeling shaped through transformational engagements with people from around the world, both within and beyond the settings of fieldwork, to the essentially prospective task of helping to find a way into a future common to all of us. When we go to study with great scholars in the course of our education, we do so not with a view to describing or representing their ideas in later life, but to sharpening our perceptual, moral and intellectual faculties for the critical tasks that lie ahead. Why, I wonder, should it be any different for anthropologists when they go to work with other people? The truth is that in finding ways to carry on we need all the help we can get. But no one – no indigenous group, no specialist science, no doctrine or philosophy – already holds the key to the future, if only we could find it. We have to make the future for ourselves. (2013:6; and also Teaching Cultural Anthropology)

      And in general, I just don’t think anthropology is there yet (somewhat in contrast to Rex’s recent How much public anthropology is enough public anthropology?), in the sense of really participating in the “prospective task of helping to find a way into a future common to all of us.”

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  • Collin237

    Telling stories doesn’t help anyone. The domain of our culture has an extreme surplus of material wealth. The job of anthropologists should be to spread that wealth throughout the world in whatever way necessary. That means firstly they have to accept some basic concepts: there is only one earth, the earth is round, the way to fly is with an airplane, etc.. And secondly, they have to stop being an academic department and become a service agency that actually gathers the materials and takes them throughout the world.

    And that doesn’t mean collecting donations. That means, in some sense, physically confiscating our modes of production and arranging for large-scale production and export.

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