Anthropology ruined my life. After three years of not having time to finish a (fiction) book for pure pleasure, despite my habit of always carrying one with me, I went into a bookshop the other week to pick up something to read while travelling. I found myself stopped dead, captivated, and struggling to choose two from a selection including Hegel’s Philosophy, Aquinas, Kirkegaard, Aristotle’s Nichomadean Ethics, and even titles such as Leviathan and Wealth of Nations. I have just graduated (maybe that’s part of it), and here I am sitting in a patisseries in my free time, reading “Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs!”. I don’t know whether to embrace it, or kick myself in the head.
However, that is not the main part of it. Anthropology has changed me, fundamentally. It has given me new eyes and a new mind, and now I simply can’t function in the world without my brain launching a critical analysis of the most basic or mundane things that may go on in front of my eyes. Actions, events, sentences, marketing campaigns…. I describe film endings as “problematic” and flinch at portrayals of “the poor” in charity videos. When something like this happens (which is a couple of times a day), I either suffer the frustration of a suppressed polemic in my head, or I say to the nearest person who will listen, “As an anthropologist…” and proceed to describe The-World-According-to Sahlins/Affect Theorists/The Subaltern Studies Group/Strathern [the possibilities are endless] and why they and/or the subject in question are right, wrong, peculiar, fascinating. happening, impossible, or really about something entirely other than they appear.
I have to laugh at myself when I do this now, not least because I hadn’t noticed that I did it until one friend quipped, “Don’t you ‘As an Anthropologist’ me!”, and another burst into hysterical laughter. Apparently, I do it all the time. In fact the raison d’être of this blog is not least to be an outlet for those frustrated and out-of-place thoughts that constantly disrupt my experience of everyday life, and which when voiced threaten to disrupt my company’s patience – among other things.
I think that the problem is well approached by thinking about what Martha Nussbaum said about teaching anthropology. I quote extremely loosely from I-can’t-quite-remember where, but she said that the aim of teaching anthropology is to get students to rethink and challenge pretty much everything that they have taken for granted about the world. As the trusty formula goes, the role of the anthropologist is to “make the strange familiar, but to make the familiar strange” (Miner 1956). Which is great. Anthropology opens your eyes to a million and one things you never even knew how to see before – some of which you grow to wish, at times, that you never had. On the other hand, this can make it extremely difficult to have a basic conversation with somebody.
The thing is, once you have deconstructed the taken-for-granted, familiar concepts of daily life and human culture, you find yourself having new taken-for-granteds that are different to everybody else’s. After that, you start to take for granted those deconstructed taken-for-granteds, in all their strangeness, without even noticing. You don’t know how to think of nations as other than imagined, or of geography as any kind of real other than a politico-historical ‘hyperreal’, not to speak of how you think of ‘history’ and the ‘politico-historical’. Anthropologists do not (generally) take for granted (these days) that ‘sexuality’ is always a meanginful and locatable concept, that ‘biology’ and ‘sex/gender’ are self-evident, immutable, concrete and infallible referents. Anthropologists even question the idea that there is such a thing as an individual or personal ‘self’. However, when you make a reference to one of these concepts in everyday conversation it can in fact stop the conversation dead – like the time when my family friends, around the dinner table, were talking about birds as if they had human-style family relationships, and I pointed out that it was arguably only possible to think in such a romanticised, detached way about animals because of the emergence of the middle class in the late medieval period, before which both peasants and the aristocracy had, at opposite ends of the scale, closer relationships with animals and maintained no illusions about animals’ actual behaviour. The table was silent, almost comically, for a full two minutes…
This is not the only such incident. When you make use of these concepts, putting them back into the world you took them out of, you can feel the discomfort and confusion around you (after all, you are flash-bombing peoples’ taken-for-granteds, without so much as having the presence of mind to think twice about whether it is appropriate or called for). In fact, you feel like, look like, and actually are, the idiot in that situation. In that situation, you are the one who cannot see the obvious and is talking nonsense. By some bizarre twist, what you “know” not to precisely be the full story is still very much “the case” in the actual world, and still holds as if it were the full story without an anthropologist talking nonsense. And what nonsense it is, too!
Despite this, I hold that it is the very same kind of critical deconstruction of given assumptions that makes anthropology so valuable in its own right. I maintain that, of any one discipline, it has the most potential to contribute meaningfully to the world, to society and to human life. Anthropology has the potential to provide explanations, interpretations, translations, reflections, critique, and expose grossly generalising and sometimes damaging assumptions where nobody had hitherto noticed there were assumptions being made at all.
How to realise this potential is, of course, the subject of sore debate, undertaken with crippling embarrassment among anthropologists. Anthropologists are uncomfortably aware that for the most part, it is only other anthropologists who read ethnographies (anthropologist research). When policy-makers do get their hands on anthropology, it tends to feel more like appropriation and twisting of words than the otherwise desired engagement, leading sometimes to what are ‘disastrous results’ from the anthropologists’ perspective. Worse still, the anthropologists and anthropological concepts which parts of the general public may have heard of – such as Lévi-Strauss or Cultural Relativism – are often grossly misunderstood, outdated, and/or completely unrepresentative of the discipline now. Whence this irony whereby anthropology, the discipline that is supposed to be least disjunct from the ‘real’ world, often lands me in a situation where I realise just how little my own now-taken-for-granted (post-deconstruction) view of the world is not only unusual and profoundly off-the-wall, but at times quite absurd?
There is something anthropologically fascinating about the ways in which the ontological position I take within or in relation to a taken-for-granted world when I speak [less as a person than] “as an Anthropologist” so often leaves me outside that world, or misunderstood, creating jarring moments within it (sorry guys. That one was for the anthropologists – it’s supposed to be funny, honest). However, I am more than happy to suffer a few nodes of confusion and disjuncture in my daily life. I don’t often feel that way at the time it happens, but the thing is, when you habitually stop taking the taken-for-granted for granted, you realise something that takes your breath away: there is no such thing as “the mundane” or “the ordinary”. Everything is extraordinary – such that the ordinary itself is impossible to find once you really start looking.