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Cultural Subjects and Objects: The Legacy of Franz Boas and Its Futures in Anthropology, Academe, and Human Rights

In April 2008, I had the honor of participating in a symposium organized for the spring meeting of the American Philosophical Society held at the APS’s campus in Philadelphia. The APS Library holds many archival collections of great relevance to my research and its Phillips Fund has been a crucial source of support for my work and for that of students with whom I work. The symposium was titled: “Cultural Subjects and Objects: The Legacy of Franz Boas and Its Futures in Anthropology, Academe, and Human Rights” and it was organized on behalf of the membership by Carol Greenhouse and timed to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Franz Boas’ birth. Boas’ papers are curated by the APS and they are absolutely crucial sources for the history of anthropology and American intellectual and political life more broadly. The APS thus has a long history of engagement with Boas’ work.

Professor Greenhouse generously recruited me to the symposium relatively late in the planning process, after a previously committed (and much more senior and distinguished) scholar needed to withdraw from participation for personal reasons. This was a wonderful opportunity for me. I was eager to reflect upon the contemporary salience of Boas’ work for my own and attendance at an APS meeting is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was able to share my reflections with an audience that included not only distinguished anthropologists such as Ward Goodenough and Regna Darnell but also the leaders of intellectual life in the United States more broadly. It was simply amazing to be listened to respectfully by a hall full of APS members and to be asked questions by scholars of such breadth and sophistication. Howard Gardner was among those who posed questions after my talk and, because I was speaking of a legal questions, Judith Resnik and Judge David S. Tatel were among the jurists who kindly invited me to join them for lunch to struggle with making sense of cultural property issues and to discuss cases in American Indian law. As a speaker at the conference, I was a guest of the society and was able to enjoy other presentations on the program. I heard amazing presentations on a staggering range of topics. The most memorable was by Bonnie L. Bassler, a molecular biologist whose presentation on cell to cell communication in bacteria was a revelation and a demonstration of how good an effective teacher can be. (She went on to make a similar presentation as a TED Talk in February 2009.)

The Boas Symposium included a moving introduction by Professor Greenhouse and four presentations. Lee Baker spoke on “Franz Boas and His “Conspiracy” to Destroy the White Race.” James A. Boon presented “On Alternating Boasians: Generational Connections.” Nicholas B. Dirks offered “Reflections on Fieldwork in University Administration: The Liberal Arts in Global Perspective.” My own presentation was titled “Boasian Ethnography and Contemporary Intellectual Property Debates.”

I am recalling all of this history now because I am happy to report that the symposium has now been published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. It appears in the April 2010 issue, which is volume 154, number 1. While the Proceedings eventually appear in JSTOR, they are available freely and immediately online from the APS website. The APS publication staff does a wonderful job editing the Proceedings and they are beautifully produced. Articles are provided to the world (open access!) in PDF format. (The titles of Professors Baker and Dirks presentations are somewhat changed in publication.)

My thanks go to the members and officers of the APS, as well as to Professor Greenhouse, for including me in these efforts. If anyone is interested in my own paper, it can be found here (pdf). It is my first real attempt at discussing intellectual property issues in light of my Oklahoma ethnography and Boasian work on “incorporeal property.”

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