Monday, February 21, 2011

Anthropology: after ‘Bitter’ comes ‘Sweet’

Recently American Anthropologists had a little tiff about “science” in their profession.  A good summary is here and I had a few words about it as well (here).

That discussion is still playing out as some have turned to redefining (and marketing) Anthropology (here and here).  Concurrent with that discussion is a “What does Anthropology mean to me” discussion.  As a Valentine’s Day effort Rex asked folks to write loves letters to Anthropology as a way to get passed the bitterness of the previous tiff.   It is a good idea as it offers catharsis.  Here are some responses:

Living Anthropologically writes Loving Anthropology
Barbara King writes Why I Love Anthropology
There are probably others with more to come in.

My intent here is to be participant observer.

Note that the two web sites Savage Minds and Neuroanthropology are leading these efforts. These two sites, and the OAC, are currently leaders in the Anthropology blogosphere.  Both sites are collaborative projects by people who are roughly in the same age groups, generally known in the US as Generation X.

I cannot reiterate the Generations Model as it would be too long (see here for a summary).  Basically, America is in cultural crisis, a era that will last about 20 years; we have many years to go before it is done [1].  The leadership of one generation, idealists/prophets (in this case Boomers), starts the crisis.  Idealist generations are the recurring polarizer’s of American culture and they have begun every major crisis in our history (Glorious Revolution, American Revolution, slavery debate-Civil War, depression-WWII, and today).

The crisis era closes as the next generation, the reactive nomads, our Gen X, leads the way out. During the crisis era, some nomads become commanders who take pragmatic leadership roles in many institutions and politics.  If they arrive too early and push too hard like autocrats, they eventually get vilified and burned [2].  If they go slow they can become great leaders who will be much admired.  I discussed this for archaeologists here.

However, reactive nomads make poor visionaries.  The one example of a reactive visionary is Hitler, obviously not a good role model for Gen Xers.  Reactive commanders do best when they have a clear destination in mind and are allowed to go after it. They themselves likely will not conceive of the destination but will receive it from another. 

The latter half of the crisis era instills a vision of the future that becomes the founding principles of a reborn culture.  In the past, that vision has always been provided by an idealist known in generational theory as the Grey Champion (John Winthrop, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and ??).  In our current national crisis the GC has not emerged; it’s not Bernanke as he is one of the culture destroyers. Maybe Hilary Clinton or Ron Paul will get to play the role but I suspect it will be someone less well known.

Institutions also need their Grey Champions.  Anthropology currently needs one.  Anthropology died and was reborn previously in the years 1925-1945; the Boasians were marginalized as the modernists with their general system theories and evolution became mainstream.  Their GC was likely Ales Hrdlichka.  Today, the modernists have been marginalized but no one is standing up offering a prophetic vision for the future of Anthropology.

I have looked hard at the Boomer class of Anthropologists and none seems to stand out.  Too many of them want to fight the culture wars or they are jaded from the battles.

The title of Lende’s essay sounds like its offering a vision. But, in true Xer fashion, he can only say  

We are pragmatists – we recognize the need to rewrite an outdated long-range plan and the need to be inclusive. We are sadder-but-wiser, ready to get on with things, but not really clear where we need to be getting to...Anthropologists do seem to be searching for a new identity, something to lend us vision, a plan of action for the future.

His essay is more a quest than a revelation. He’ll make a great commander but not a prophet.  

Anthropology needs direction and a destination.  I offer these humble clues to what the destination is.

1. Let the Enlightenment go--it is no longer needed.
2. Say No to Descartes—the mind/body is one system; nature/culture is one system.
3. Embrace chaos and complexity—the world is rarely linear.
4. Embrace the philosophy of Pragmatism
5. Create an inquiry of situational behavior (includes non-situational and desituated)
6. Enjoy the next 50 years of Dionysian dance; Apollo can return after that.
7. Our goal is to develop Old Masters, and, we can enjoy the young geniuses as they do their one-hit-wonder routine (Galenson).

How do we get there?  I don't know; I'm not the GC and don't want the job.

There are Boomers out there that offer a way forward.  Lakoff and Johnson’s magnum opus Philosophy in The Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought is a place to start.  Johnson followed it with The Meaning of the Body:  Aesthetics of Human Understanding.  (Lakoff has returned to being a culture warrior).   The Strauss and Howe model mentioned above is also useful, as is the work of Robert Shiller in economics.  There must be more out there but I don’t see any Boomer Anthropologist that fits the role of GC.  Let’s hope that someone steps forward and publishes the path ahead.

1.  Some argue it started with 9/11/2001, others in August of 2007 with the credit crisis that becomes the global financial crisis.  Either way we have many years to a resolution, circa 2022-2027. And, hell lays in between. Remember, the culture has to ritually die before its reborn.
2. Think of Michelle Rhee for DC and maybe what’s coming for Scott Walker in Wisconsin; and never forget Jacob Leisler, a nomad of the Glorious Revolution. Obama has been less forceful; all he knows how to do is jump from one idea to another, like a fart in a skillet. The GC will have strong convictions and will hold fast when facing hell, something a nomad is unlikely to do.

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