Category Archives: Learning

Academia

Anthropology and the Muhammed cartoons

Last night, I went to attend a debate at the Department of Anthropology on the much-discussed Mohammed-cartoons. It focused on the anthropological perspective of the reactions and counter-reactions to the drawings and how anthropological theories can help win broader understanding in the current situation.

Now this is a rare thing. In all my time at Copenhagen University, I can’t remember more than one similar meeting that sought to discuss current affairs in an anthropological perspective (that was September 11th). And it was immediately clear that this is the sort of thing that really brings out the Danish anthropologists. The lecture hall was packed with anthropologists and anthro students – with the usual 8 women for every man present, underlining to just what degree anthropology is a women’s field these days.

For this occasion, there were 5 anthropologists (all doing working at the department) who had prepared short presentations on which the discussion were to be based.

First up was Inger Sjørslev who discussed how language is determining the value and sacredness of certain topics. And she went on to discuss how there are things which are sacred outside of the religious sphere of things. And how this silence surrounding things perceived as sacred creates even greater tension when it is broken.

Second presentation was by Morten Axel Pedersen (my advisor!) who argued that what he called “classic” globalization theory such as the idea of five “-Scapes” (ethnoscapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes) as expounded by Arjun Appadurai aren’t capable of describing or containing a situation as the one we’re facing now, where a crisis has made a jump of scale from a local to a global scale. He argues that we need new theories of globalization to describe this new phenomena of jump of scale (in Danish “Skalahop”).
He argued that this crisis has led to a collapse of not only foreign and interior Danish politics but also in anthropology: There is only one big global field – but that field contains several scales, levels and horizons – much like the segmentary tribe structure described by Evans-Pritchard.

He then called for research into the way that these jumps of scale occur and how the different sides of the conflict are constructing themselves and their opponents. He referred to an article by Ole Wæver, a Danish professor of Political Science, who have argued that this is not so much a clash of civilizations and religions as it is a clash between a secular and religious fundamentalism. And he ended by problematizing the fact that we as secular anthropologists only represent one half of this debate.

Third up was Hans Christian Korsholm Nielsen who has done fieldwork in Egypt and actually was in Egypt as the cartoon case grew around him in late January and early February. His presentation was the other extreme of anthropological discourse compared to Morten’s very theoretical and abstract talk. HC talked in anecdotes, small situational references to discussions he’d had with his informants as the crisis grew. And he gave a sense of how these cartoons grew to be the central topic of discussion within a week, propelled by media and the Friday prayer. He also noted that most Egyptians were shocked but not stupid: They all called for the need for good manners in this kind meeting of cultures.

Fourth was Anja Kublitz who’ve been doing fieldwork among Palestinians in Denmark since September last year when the cartoons were published for the first time. She talked about that last week of September as being a really bad week for her informants:
– first: there was the presentation of the Danish ministry of culture’s new culture canon which was introduced in such a hostile tone (one of the central arguments for this canon was that it was central to mark certain values as Danish in order to counter the tendency of “another Denmark” with its muslim ways). Anja’s informants quickly began calling this initiative for the “culture cannon” to reflect this war-like rhetoric.
– second: there was the case of Louise Frevert, MP for the semi-rascist Danish People’s Party, who had published clearly rascist texts on her personal webpage. She denied this, and the whole thing turned farcical when she excused herself by blaming her webmaster, a retired navy colonel.
– third: the Mohammed cartoons themselves. Which Anja’s informants found to be just the last element in a long row of Danish discriminatory initiatives against muslims in general.

What was worse was that all of these things took place during the muslim holy month of Ramadan – which neither Louise Frevert, Danish minister of culture Brian Mikkelsen, nor Arts editor of Jyllands-Posten had been aware of. It was basically like dissing Jesus on Christmas eve – at the point in time when people of a given religion are at their most religious.

Still, the muslims in Denmark wanted to show that even though they’d been hurt by all of this, they were still very much willing to live in Denmark, to work towards reconciliation. They arranged a demonstration for peace and for tolerance which ended at the central square in Copenhagen where they had a prayer for peace.
The people arranging the demonstration had been very concerned that the demonstration would be looked upon as something aggressive and had made sure that only 3000 people attended – even though they could have mustered maybe 10000. They didn’t want to intimidate the Danes. The demonstration took up only one lane of traffic and even stopped at all the red lights in order to create as little inconvenience as possible. Yet, even so – Danish media and Danish passersby managed to mis-interpret the entire thing.

The slogan for the demonstration was “Islam er fred” (Islam is peace), but because not all of the participants spoke fluent Danish, some misheard this as “Islam er vred” (Islam is angry). A very unfortunate misunderstanding. Further, the demonstration ended with a prayer for peace – because, as the muslims reasoned, “a prayer is the most peaceful thing imaginable”. Yet most of the Danes misunderstood this public act of faith, and one passersby even asked: “Are you going to war?” As the whole act of prayer seemed so demonstrative and foreign to him.

In general, the Palestinian informants don’t see the cartoons as something especially bad – but they’re simply a symptom of the bad climate for understanding that there is in Denmark today.

Finally, the was Mikkel Rytter who talked about how this situation has come about in Denmark. He created a timeline beginning in 1991 with the fall of the iron curtain and how US foreign policy now needed a new enemy to focus on. They chose islamic terrorism which was supported by the “self-fulfilling prophecy” of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”.
In Denmark, nationalism rose to a new high in 1992 with the referendum against the Maastricht treaty and the victory in European football Championships that summer.
In 1995, the Danish People’s Party was founded to capitalize on those currents of nationalism and localized fear, and it was well-supported by the 1997 campaign called “the Strangers” which ran in the Danish tabloid daily Ekstra Bladet.
Rytter argued that we in this way can see the effect of the globalization in Denmark: As a negative and scary effect resulting in an unknown inner enemy – the muslim immigrants – as seen by a majority of the population whose only contact with these immigrants is through the media. The positive effect of globalization as seen and experienced by the cultural elite is less in focus in this period.

This polarization becomes central in Danish interior politics. The liberal-conservative government that is elected in 2001 uses the warlike rhetoric of a “battle of values” and a “battle of culture” while Danish People’s Party compares their struggle against immigration to the Danish resistance in WWII. This results in a basic dichotomy between modernity and traditionality, betweeen Danes and muslims (disregarding the fact that many of these muslims are in fact Danish citizens).
Rytter argued that many Danes look upon the muslims as an anachronism – and he suggests that we challenge this dichotomy through solid ethnography – to explode these notions.

***

Based on all of this, a discussion ensued which had a fair few interesting insights and few more anthropological anecdotes. Especially the questions of how to study and represent religion, how, whether and if anthropologists should take part in the public debate on the matter, and how this would impact the anthropological field as such. A conclusion was that is more important than ever to study nationalism and religion – things that are easily exotic to us cosmopolitan anthropologists – not only abroad but also in Denmark. And that is also relevant to study how virtual media and telecommunications play part in the escalation and “scale jumping” of crises like the current one.

The Ideal University?

Over at the Apophenia Blog the local resident, Danah, is pondering how she would spend a billion dollars to design a university. If you had the money and the opportunity, how would you design your dream institution of higher education?

I think this is a fascinating question, and one that more people should consider. It is not enough to simply complain about how education works today, but also offer constructive (though maybe rather idealistic) ideas and input.

I wrote an article about the problems of the Danish university system, though it was turned down by the one newspaper I ended up sending it to. To me, the central problem of education is that we have divided up into three seperate sections that hardly seem to be coordinated or even share the goals.

In Denmark, we have the basic school from age 6 to 15 or 16 (ten years). Then we have the Gymnasium (or some other “youth education”) – age ~15-16 to 19-20 (3 years), and on top of that the university or some other “professional training” which can take anywhere from 3 to 10 years, depending on how you prioritize your time.

My article was inspired by another couple of articles which had discussed both the basic shool and the gymnasium, and I meant to follow up on that and discuss the problems of Danish education and the Danish university system in particular.

I was quite inspired by the American writer and anarchist, Paul Goodman whose book Compulsory Miseducation I had just read. The book was originally published in 1964, even before the student rebellion of the late 60’s, but even so, Goodman’s arguments seem fresh and inspired even today. His main point is exactly that you can’t divide education into different institutions and sectors, because the way these institutions educate, form and even raise children will affect their further path through the system.

His solutions generally work toward making school less like school and more like real life. If you are sheltered away from everything until you’re 20 or 30 – how much would you know about anything apart from studying?

This situation may be very special in Denmark with our generous SU-system (free, tax-paid grants for all students for up to 6 years of study), but the general basis remains.

Here‘s my article, and here‘s one of the articles which inspired it – both are in Danish.

The beginning of a new semester..

So, the new semester has started, and my courses are well underway. I’m taking my final anthropology course – Field Method – the purpose of which will be to prepare me (and help me prepare) for my exciting fieldwork next year.

The specifics of this mythical fieldwork is still not completely clear, but it will involve some the problems hinted at in my essay on various ways of perceiving computers (I’ll get around to uploading that essay shortly).

In order to prepare myself for this challenge, I’ve managed to be allowed to take two courses at the IT university of Copenhagen this semester. One is the Digital Rhetorics course mentioned below, the other is called Interaction Design.

Originally, I had planned to take the Digital Culture and Sociologycourse instead of the Interaction Design one, but it happened to take place in exactly the same timeslot on Tuesday afternoons as the Field Method one, so that was a distinct “no go”.
But I don’t mind much – the Interaction Design course seems very promising, among other things focusing on how ethnographic methods can be used to further the design process: Basically by talking to the users instead of just imagining what they might want. Brilliant.

All in all, my courses look very promising, and will keep me busy. The prospect of going on fieldwork is still quite daunting, but I guess it will lose its intimidating demeanor as I manage to make it more concrete and focused through my choosing the research questions and a specific setting.

We’ll see.

David Graeber, ph.d

One of the few radically politically active anthropologists today is David Graeber, currently of Yale University. He has written some brilliant articles on the new generation of “anti-globalization” radicals, among who he has been doing some informal fieldwork of late.

Among his articles I can recommend his look upon the role of anarchism as a leftist ideology in the 21st century, his analysis of the original meaning of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ classic article on reciprocity and his review of the development of a global anti-capitalism movement.

All of his writings are fiercely anti-capitalistic, wonderfully passionate, witty, honest and unusually easily read for such heavy academic material. I read his small book, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology last year, and I found very it well worth the time.

If you like his articles, even if you do not agree with all of his ideas, maybe you would be interested in signing the petition started by local students to keep him at Yale, where the administration and faculty have refused to renew his two year teaching contract – apparently because of his political views.

Essays, he says

I’ve just finished my third of four essays. Leaving me with just one. Of course, since I haven’t actually turned any of the first three in yet (they’re not due until the 13th of May), there’s still ample room and chance for improvement.

Therefore, I’ve made the three essays I’ve finished available in .pdf-format. Helpful comments, criticism and the odd bit of slander are all welcomed at: lloydinho (at) gmail (dot) com.

Montage, Ethnography and Representations of Post-socialist Realities – is mess but a constructive one at that. It is a rather hopeful and curious attempt at examining the cinematic principle of montage in ethnographic representations through a montage of its own.
It is written for my Images, Text and Fieldwork course which has a regional focus on post-socialist Siberia and Mongolia, so the ethnography are based on those regions.

Technology and Western Perception of Time – is also overly ambitious, but is at least stuffed with interested facts about the history of western perception of time. It is a Longue Durée view at how time technologies and measurement have influenced western everyday perception of time. In 10 pages or less. Argh.

Credit or Debit? – is a short essay analyzing the history and impact of plastic cards on consumer culture. Pretty straight forward, really. Both of these essays are for my Technologies of Everyday Life course

It may be noted that true to form, all of these essays are slightly longer than they ought to be, mostly because whenever I delve into something interesting I would like to write rather wide-spanning analyses combining all sorts of interesting stuff than merely the short elements suggested by my lecturers. It feels like I’m trying to write the synopsis for a book everytime I begin on an essay.

Not good, I know, I promise to do better on my last one which is due on the 16th of may. It’s for my high brow Perception, Knowledge and Cognition course, and plan to “Discuss to what extent, and in what ways, language may structure our perception of the world”. Now, the world is relatively big, so I’ve decided to just focus on computers, programming languages and the differences of perception between programmers and ordinary computer users. Sounds good, no?

Learning to learn

I’ve just attended a guest lecture with Gayatri Spivak, an Indian scholar of some repute. It was very much in the spirit of “Lettre Internationale”: Cosmopolitical intellectualism, working for the common good in ways that ordinary people cannot comprehend. A true and dedicated intellectual, she has mastered being intellectually funny in such a way that a whole lecture theatre can be left unsure of when to laugh. She constantly refers to her professor and author colleagues in such sentences as “as I discussed recently with my friend Jim Clifford in Santa Cruz” or “I touched upon this very issue with dr. Mukherjee last week”. It’s very relaxed and worldly knowledgable, but you have to be on your toes to follow it.

I was (obviously) not on my toes, when she began her talk, and I spent the first 10 minutes of the lecture wondering just what “saboltant” meant, because she used that word again and again, even though the title of her talk was “Learning to learn” which was what had interested me in the first place. It wasn’t until I had sneaked a peek at the notes of the diligent student next to me that I realised that the word was in fact subaltern.

By then, Spivak had been trying to define the term between the use in both Gramsci’s and Marx’ terminologies. In the end, she settled for saying that “Subalternity is the contentless nonrecognition of agency” – meaning that you’re a subaltern if you’re not recognised as anything else. She then went on to argue that it is a sign of power and social maneuverability to be able to dismiss parts of your identity, leave your differences behind. She cited Derrida for saying “I am sometimes European”, and I suspect most europeans feel the same way: Sometimes we would like to dismiss our western outlook and try for another perspective. Spivak’s point is that this is not possible for the subalterns of the world. As she put it: “Our religion is convenience” – if we took notice of the subalterns, they wouldn’t be subaltern anymore.

By now, you are most likely thinking as I were: Who the hell are these subalterns, anyway?
Well, Spivak refused to give up the term to describe specific groups, claiming that different groups of subalterns have nothing in common and thus subalternity cannot carry any inherent meaning of its own (except, of course, the very general one she gave above). The group of subalterns that she has identified is apparently somewhere in India where she’s teaching them. Hoping that they can learn to learn. Exactly what it is that she’s teaching she was rather loathe to discuss, but she did put own position as a teacher into a catchy phrase:

“A teacher: something like a servant, rearranging desires (both in the elite and the subaltern)”

Her hope was that through her teaching them, these nameless unwashed masses of India one day would ask her: “Why are you here?” thus leaving the subaltern mindset and thinking for themselves.

I don’t think it will happen the way she envisions it. During the lecture I noted that words such as “Subaltern Studies“, “Subalternist” and “Subalternisation” were being thrown about in a quite casual manner. How can she ever teach people to think for themselves if she’s maintaining her knowing better to people who, as she says herself, cannot even disagree or represent themselves?

I find it difficult to believe that a woman who is clearly at her best talking to an academic audience, punning and referring to various high brow obscurities, can help any “subaltern”, whatever they may be, to a more meaningful position.

*Sigh* – maybe I underestimate her, but I just can’t take that cosmo-intellectual “let’s-write-a-paper-on-subalterns-to-make-things-better-and-to-earn-my-fat-salary-at-my-elitist-American-university” attitude. It’s just so.. bogus.

.. my brain hurts now.