As someone with anthropological training, I sometimes find it difficult to read journalists’ accounts of foreign cultures, especially longer ones. GooAs someone with anthropological training, I sometimes find it difficult to read journalists’ accounts of foreign cultures, especially longer ones. Good journalism and anthropology have the same purpose of trying to understand and show life as it is on the ground as opposed to being satisfied with statistics. They both want people to speak for themselves and make their voices heard. But they do it in very different ways.
Anthropologists spend months, if not years, in the community: doing research, yes, but also establishing connections, learning and practicing the language, and analyzing people’s words as well as their actions. Above all, anthropologists try to be as un-judgmental as possible (it’s the ideal that can never be achieved, but as scientists, anthropologists really do make an effort). Journalists can do a lot of preliminary research on the place that they will be reporting on, but then they come and go. This allows them to cover more territory, meet more people from different backgrounds - but do they really understand these people? Maybe. Maybe not.
Laurence Deonna’s work is journalism, and it comes with all good and bad aspects of it. As a French journalist, she travels through Kazakhstan in the end of 1990s and then again in 2001. She is primarily based in Almaty, but she covers a lot of other places briefly: the new capital Astana, southern cities of Shymkent and Turkestan, Aralsk, a small village in the countryside close to Kokshetau in the north. She talks to people of all ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds, and walks of life: famous Kazakh movie directors, state officials, students, traders at the market, an oralman family fresh out of Molgolia, an old German couple whose kids have immigrated...
What made the reading most difficult for me was that the author is very opinionated. Extremely so. And she is not shy about showing it. You get a sense of just how much she despises the new Kazakh elites, the country's president, and global Western corporations, and pities the difficulties of simple folks, by the end of the first chapter. Which is all good and well, expect that it just continues throughout the book, full-speed.
The overall critical tone and big generalizations were also off-putting for me:
[in Almaty airport] But a real life Kazakh doll, dressed to kill in her uniform, stands guard at the foot of the stairs. Only the blinking of her fake eyelashes spoils the illusion that she is a waxwork, and her miniskirt, black stockings and thigh-length boots make her a disconcertingly saucy cop. (10)
“If you are so clever why are you still poor?” That’s the name of the game these days. Lenin Street, just around the corner, may have been renamed Dostyk Street (friendship in Kazakh), but the truth of the matter is that friendship has been overwhelmed by the rule of every man for himself. (114)
The Christian and Muslim burial grounds are separated in a sort of posthumous apartheid... (170)
Seriously. Post-humous apartheid. That’s the kind of critical tone that I’m talking about - and not just occasionally, but throughout the entire text.
All of this being said, I do find that a lot of Deonna’s observations can be interesting and deep. She obviously knows quite a bit about the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan in particular, cares about its destiny, and does a good job of showing the general chaos of the 1990s.
Once in a while, she also has those wonderful passages that really give you a sense of a person she is talking to or a place she is at. My favorite:
We touch down in the golden dust of a Shimkent sunset. The heat that has been oppressing the town all day has begun to relent, the temperature is bearable, and once we get off the tarmac the acrid smells of tar and kerosene give wya to the sweet perfume of apples. For me this perfume is like a deja vu, or should I say, deja smelled, from my previous travels in Central Asia during communist times. Those were the days, when departure lounges were kept cool by the shade of fruit trees! Time had a different meaning then, and patience was a Soviet virtue. Rustic wooden tables were set up under the trees and hours passed peacefully as passengers awaited their flights. Picnics were brought along. From time to time people overcame their lethargy to pick their dessert from a tree. A piece of a fruit bursting with sunshine. (121)
I enjoyed reading this ethnography a lot! It is written in a rather accessible way while still offering a fair amount of theorizing on the subject ofI enjoyed reading this ethnography a lot! It is written in a rather accessible way while still offering a fair amount of theorizing on the subject of virtual worlds and anthropology's role in studying them....more
Paper Tangos is bittersweet. It is beautiful to the point of being painful: its writing, its brilliant little flipbook pictures, its tango verses. ItPaper Tangos is bittersweet. It is beautiful to the point of being painful: its writing, its brilliant little flipbook pictures, its tango verses. It doesn't have a clear structure or line of argument, rather it breathes of melancholy, talks of being a stranger among strangers - and even more so at home (and what does "home" refer to, anyway?), of everyday life violence, of nostalgia for what is lost and what could have been, of profound sadness that can never be cured. Reading it is a constant promise of a papercut deep inside.
Exile is absence, and death, a prolonged absence. Who amongst us has not died a little? The country we left no longer exists.
Tangos: The Exile of Gardel Fernando Solanas (42)
Could the book have been better? Yes, at least as an anthropological piece. It could have provided its readers with broader background of the twentieth-century Argentinian history, the coup, the Junta's rule; engaged into discussion with other academic writings on dance and its meaning - not just for the sake of citation but to distinguish what is specific to tango from what it shares with many other dances (see Taylor's argument about "code language," for instance - I believe tango is not unique here). The relationship of tango and violence, tango and gender (im)balance, tango and national identity - all of these themes could have been explored in more detail, with more insights from people other than the author. Finally, the book could have been less idiosyncratic, less personal, less disrupted - and, I'm afraid, dead. I am so glad it didn't go this way. I will always prefer imperfection to death - one of the things I realized while reading it.
"This text itself, then, is contradictory, performing the eruptions with which it deals." (120) Indeed. It should also be noted that Julie Taylor has approached the dangerous, blurred line of becoming a native much closer that most academics would feel comfortable with. This also might have contributed to the lack of "normal" structure in her book: the closer you are to your "subjects," the more difficult it becomes to view them as Other and analyze their experiences or their lives from a safe distance. Perhaps you can only write of them indirectly, through discussing your own experience of dancing your pain, your frustration, your fear, - and yes, your love.
Paper Tangos is one part ethnography, one part memoir, one part mourning song, and two parts love letter to Buenos Aires and the tango. Stir well. Or don't. Voila!
"Buenos Aires. Arbitrary city like all cities… But seen from Argentina, once there, a definitive point on the map… Arbitrary point, but not absurd. Not absurd in my life like Villazon, Bolivia, or La Quiaca, Argentina – where once I thought I might die and where the thought made me desperate a the absurdity of dying for nothing in places that were nowhere to me. It was not that I thought I might die in Buenos Aires: Rather, it was in Buenos Aires that I knew for the first time that I shall die." (58)
One of the best edited volumes in anthropology I've come across. Highly recommended. Nearly all of the chapters are well-written and pursue interestinOne of the best edited volumes in anthropology I've come across. Highly recommended. Nearly all of the chapters are well-written and pursue interesting subject matters. My particular favorites are these three articles:
- Erotic Anthropology: "Ritualized Homosexuality" in Melanesia and Beyond by Deborah Elliston
- No by Don Kulick
- Transsexualism: Reflections on the Persistence of Gender and the Mutability of Sex by Judith Shapiro
Since I'm a newbie to the topic of sexuality (somehow I missed on it being an anthro student), here are some of the general ideas about studying sexuality across time and space that I drew from this book:
- Sexual preference does not necessarily have to become an identity state, and people who engage into same-sex acts are not (self-)identified as homosexuals in all cultures.
- Sexuality and gender should be distinguished as two intertwined yet separate social constructs. The degree to which they blend, as well as the exact nature of their blending, depends on the sociocultural context.
- Not all sexual acts have to do with erotics (or at least not in the first place).
- Current 'scientific' claims about sexual preference being grounded in biology are highly problematic.
Of course, these are just main threads of the volume. Each of the articles makes its own subtle point on these general issues....more
Some very helpful practical tips, especially for newbie ethnographers like myself. I wish I had read it before I did my first field research - it woulSome very helpful practical tips, especially for newbie ethnographers like myself. I wish I had read it before I did my first field research - it would have saved me some time and efforts.
It is also a great book to come back to if you are in the field and have zero motivation to jot little things down promising yourself to write them down later or being sure that you will just 'remember' them. The authors do a very good job of convincing you to write them down NOW - a part that I often find challenging....more
I really enjoyed reading several chapters in this book: Marie-Benedicte Dembour's article on female genital cutting and French legal system (#3), HeatI really enjoyed reading several chapters in this book: Marie-Benedicte Dembour's article on female genital cutting and French legal system (#3), Heather Montgomery's piece on child prostitution in Thailand (#4, probably my favorite in this volume despite the hard subject matter), Thomas Eriksen's critique of the UNESCO concept of culture and the concept of culture as such in the contemporary world (#6) and Colin Samson's chapter on the Innu's rights to land in Canada (#10). So, the book was definitely worth reading.
Overall though, I couldn't give it more than 3 stars. The entire volume deals with the problem of universalism versus cultural relativism in the human rights discourse, which is interesting at first but gets old after a while when you encounter a universalism-relativism bit in every chapter. Also, I found the introduction to be unnecessarily lengthy and complicated. I mean, is it really necessary to go on for twenty pages and invoke four pages worth of references to come to conclusion that universalism and relativism are not necessarily antonymous and mutually exclusive? I think that Dembour's concept of a pendulum motion from universalism to relativism and back (chapter 3) explains it all. Or at least it does for me....more
The introduction and the first chapter had a soporific effect on me, so for a while I couldn't move any further and thought that this book was reallyThe introduction and the first chapter had a soporific effect on me, so for a while I couldn't move any further and thought that this book was really boring. However, as I went on I found myself enjoying many chapters. My favorite was chapter 5 on nationalism and cultural survival by Benedict Anderson (but then, of course, I like anything by him). Some other pieces I liked: Indigenous Rights and the Politics of Identity in Southern Africa by Richard Lee, Interethnic Relations in Siberia by Marjorie Balzer, Gender Hierarchy and the Politics of Ethnic Mobilization among the Urarina, and Australian Aboriginal Struggle for Self-Determination by Ian McIntosh. All in all, a good volume on indigeneity, indigenous people and the struggles they face today. I might even go back to the introduction and reread it - maybe I misjudged it at first....more
This was a required reading for one of my anthro classes. All I can say is - don't waste your time on this book! While I like the idea of juxtaposingThis was a required reading for one of my anthro classes. All I can say is - don't waste your time on this book! While I like the idea of juxtaposing two views on an issue to promote discussion in the classroom, the actual book was a huge disappointment. The articles chosen often had nothing to do with each other, most of them were terribly shortened and therefore missed important points that were crucial to the authors' arguments, and finally, not all of the articles lived up to the standards of an academic text. I think the only two issues that were worth reading at all were Transatlantic Slave Trade and Female Genital Cutting....more
A text that has been classic in the social sciences for a reason. If nothing else, it's worth reading for its laconic and beautiful definition of a naA text that has been classic in the social sciences for a reason. If nothing else, it's worth reading for its laconic and beautiful definition of a nation: "an imagined community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign." Perfect.
Examples come from Europe as well as South America and Southeast Asia. (Alas, not much on Central Asia except for some blanket paragraphs on 'Russification')....more