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Posts from the ‘Theory’ Category

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009)

Although we never met, I was greatly impacted by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. I am very saddened to learn of his passing, but I recall how happy I felt upon his reaching his 100th birthday last November. He was a giant.

Don’t Miss Kim Christen’s Account of Returning to Tennant Creek

Don’t miss Kim Christen’s account of returning to Tennant Creek. Its a beautiful account of an important moment. Find it on her website here.

Two Bits by Chris Kelty is Great

kelty_cvr_medA few days ago I finished reading Chris Kelty‘s wonderful book Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008).  During the academic year, I could not get to it but it was a treat to read it at a time in which it could be the only big thing that I was reading (as opposed to reading it alongside course readings).  While I would have benefited greatly from reading it last year (when my involvement in the issues that it treats really began to expand), it will do me much good in the days ahead, as it relates very centrally to the work that I am now doing on scholarly communications issues.  It provides invaluable context on the emergence and present-day life of open source software, but it also offers a range of valuable theoretical, interpretive and methodological tools that are portable to other contexts.  The book also examines, in a very sophisticated way, the manner in which the processes and ideas and values of free and open source software have been extended into projects like Connexions (about which my department held a really fruitful meetup recently) and the Creative Commons license system.  All of this work is done very artfully and in ways that we can all learn from.

This post is no surogate for a careful review, but I want to flag the book’s importance to me and to suggest that it is going to be touchstone work for many of the projects that I am increasingly involved in. More ambitiously, I want to plead with my friends and colleagues to read it so that we can talk about it and draw upon it in our efforts together and in our conversations. It is a great work of ethnography, history, and theory.  It is also an experiment that modulates the very processes that it describes, as is evident on the excellent and innovative website that Chris has built to extend the book.  One can purchase the book the conventional way, but it is also available to freely read and remix in a variety for formats via the website.  Some of the background for this is also provided in the “Anthropology of/in Circulation” project that Chris led and that I particupated in.  Find the article version of that project here in IUScholarWorks Repository.

Thank you Chris.

Public/Private Conference

Congratulations to all of the organizers, funders, presenters, listeners, friends, performers, discussants and others who made the recent Public & Private conference at Indiana University a big success.  Held March 27-28, 2009, this was the second in a projected series of conferences jointly organized by the folklore students at The Ohio State University and the folklore and ethnomusicology students at Indiana University Bloomington. This year’s conference attracted students from a number of different U.S. graduate programs, featured excellent keynote presentations by Jim Leary of the folklore program at the University of Washington and Richard Bauman of Indiana University, and was concluded by a very memorable (sometimes hilarious) coffeehouse featuring a diversity of music, dance and poetry performances by members of the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. There was a first rate poster presentation and undergraduate as well as graduate student participants did fine work with both paper and poster presentations.  There was plenty of food and good conversation. I am really appreciative of, and impressed by, all the hardwork that so many colleagues invested into this big event.

Theoretically, the conference also did significant work, as many of the papers and discussions focused tightly on the conceptual issues evoked by the meeting theme. Some smart brainwork was built upon good ethnographic and historical research and I think that all of the participants came away from the meetings with an improved tool kit with which to think critically about the nature of these productive but slippery conceptions.

The URL will surely no be stable, as information for what was an uncoming conference becomes legacy content, but the program can presently be found online here. Related material should appear eventually in IU ScholarWorks Repository.

Good work everyone.

The Form of Value in Globalized Traditions

Recently, I had a unique and wonderful opportunity to participate in a small conference and workshop hosted by the Center for Folklore Studies at The Ohio State University (in partnership with the Berkeley Folklore Program).  Titled “The Form of Value in Globalized Traditions,” the workshop continued an ongoing series of discussions that were inaugurated in 2007 by Charles L. Briggs at the University of California, Berkeley.  The program for the public presentations (which were held on Friday, March 6, 2009), along with paper abstracts, can be found online at here. The overview summary describing what we were up to read:

This international working group considers the career of vernacular traditions under globalization. As cultural forms circulate ever more widely, recycled, restructured, and hybridized as they travel, regimes of value insist increasingly on point of origin. Since economic value is predicated upon scarcity, in a global framework cultural objects are marked—and marketed—as local. Form itself is fetishized as social interaction becomes attenuated. Rather than contesting the reification of culture into exchangeable goods, the resistance of impoverished groups and social movements increasingly takes shape as a struggle for control over the manner of commodification and the profits thereof. In the face of restructurings of value initiated by the World Trade Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, free trade agreements, and transnational corporations, intellectual property rights become a key locus of contention between distributors and cultural producers. The public component of this year’s group meeting will explore form and value as both categories of action and tools of analysis. We hope that attendees will help us with the work of comparison and synthesis.

My own presentation considered the current reshaping of the system of scholarly communications in which folklorists and ethnologists circulate (and find expanded publics for) their work in an era of corporate enclosure, media consolidation, and library crises on the one hand and open source technologies and open access movements on the other. The participants were a great group. In addition to many wonderful students and faculty members from the OSU folklore program, the participants were: Sadhana Naithani (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), Lee Haring, City College, CUNY), Mbugua wa-Mungai (Kenyatta University, Nairobi), Galit Hasan-Rokem (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Candace Slater (University of California, Berkeley), Amy Shuman (The Ohio State University), Dorothy Noyes (The Ohio State University), Javier León (Indiana University), Diarmuid Ó Giolláin (University College Cork), and Charles L. Briggs (University of California, Berkeley).

Thanks to everyone who helped bring this great event into existence. Thanks especially to the OSU folklore students who brought great energy (and a great Saturday lunch) to the event.

The Anthropologist as Hero: Claude Lévi-Strauss on his 100th Birthday

A brief note to celebrate the life and work of Claude Lévi-Strauss on the occassion of his 100th birthday. Lévi-Strauss was born on November 28, 1908. As a graduate student I had the good fortune to have excellent teachers–especially Joelle Bahloul, Henry Glassie and Ray DeMallie–who encouraged me to engage with Lévi-Strauss in a serious way and I wound up reading a great deal of his work during the time of my training. In my fieldwork I have had the honor of living among peoples who practice forms of dual organization and Lévi-Strauss’ work on this theme was exceptionally useful to me in a very grounded ethnographic sense. (I sometimes think that some of the difficulty experienced by readers of Lévi-Strauss who came of age in the post-structuralist era is attributable to the fact that few among them have first-hand experiences in societies like those that figure so centrally to his work.) Among my earliest published works is an article that explores dual organization in Southeastern Native North America. A high point in my career is the kind note that Lévi-Strauss wrote to me expressing satisfaction that my account supported his position. This paper appeared not long after the English translation of The Story of Lynx, in which Lévi-Strauss returned to the problems of dualism and dual organization in Native America. The book remains one of my favorite works in anthropology. I continue to draw upon the full range of Lévi-Strauss’ writings regularly in my own research.

In the teaching of anthropology and folklore graduate students in North America, I fear that Lévi-Strauss’ work has moved into the precarious liminal zone that my colleague Richard Bauman and I have come to refer to as “theories of the middle age” (a play on Robert K. Merton’s theories of the middle range). In the teaching of “core” theory courses in these disciplines (and this must surely be true in sociology and other fields as well), historical courses start with, and work forward from, classic social theory of the 19th century (or earlier), which means careful attention to Marx, Weber, Durkheim, the Grimms, Herder, Freud, etc. These courses seemingly always seem to run out of time and/or steam before attending to the post-World War II era. If such classes must come to the present, they skip the middle 20th century and take up, often in rushed fashion, the contemporary scene.  In classes that are not historical in frame, this same post-World War II era work is also often neglected. It is frequently only glimpsed through its impact on more recent scholars. This dynamic is regretable to me and is something that I have tried to address in my own work as a teacher of graduate students.

With respect to Lévi-Strauss’ work, I often teach The Way of the Masks in my Theories of Material Culture course and The Story of Lynx in my Native American Folklore and Folk Music course. I have taught the later book in a general folklore theory course as well, combing it with key essays from Structural Anthropology I and Structural Anthropology II. If I were teaching a different set of courses, I could easily see teaching The Savage Mind and Triste Tropiques. A discussion of the Elementary Structures of Kinship would remain, for me, essential to a class on kinship and social organization. These are all works that I hope that the students withwhom I work will become acquainted.

To reach 100 is a heroic accomplishment for any human being. In this spirit, I drew, in my post title, upon the subtitle of a collection of essays–well known in its day–dealing with the work of Lévi-Strauss–Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Anthropologist as Hero. May we all live as long and as productive lives as Claude Lévi-Strauss. Happy birthday Professor.

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