Human Terrain in Oaxaca

This essay was originally published Jun 5, 2009, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Mexico - troops in Calle de Revilladigego [i.e...

Mexico – troops in Calle de Revilladigego [i.e. Revillagigedo] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

For the past several years, my research has led me further and further into the world of counterinsurgency, military anthropology, human terrain, and other aspects of a military regime of knowledge. What concerns me, most of all, is the way that knowledge generated by social scientists can be used (and, if the past is any indication, will be used) to the disadvantage of the people on, from, and with whom anthropologists and other social scientists generate that knowledge.

This issue is hardly limited to anthropologists, though we have traditionally held a kind of loose monopoly on the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Nowadays, social scientists of every stripe traipse through the same terrain anthropologists once considered their own – and we, of course, have no problem returning the favor.

So when a friend forwarded me a story about geographers in Oaxaca mapping the “cultural terrain”, my disciplinary ears perked up. At issue are many of the same issues at play in debates over anthropologists’ and others’ involvement with HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan, although in many ways I find the situation I’m about to describe more frightening still, as it presages wars or conflicts as yet unfought – even counterinsurgencies to insurgencies yet to surge. [Continue reading] »

In the Flesh In the Museum: Representations of Indians in American Natural History Museums

This long essay was originally published Aug 8, 2006, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Ishi (1860-1916), last surviving member of the...

Ishi (1860-1916), last surviving member of the Yahi Indian tribe of California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“There are Indians in the Museum of Natural History,” writes Danielle LaVaque-Manty (2000: 71) “And there aren‘t any other kinds of people.” The particular Museum of Natural History LaVaque-Manty is speaking of is the Ruthven Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan, but she could easily be describing any number of natural history museums throughout the United States—the American Museum of Natural history in New York City, the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the Phoebe Hearst Museum in Berkeley, the Field Museum in Chicago, and so on. Since their respective inceptions, mostly in the latter half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, the American natural history museum has played a privileged role in the presentation and representation of American Indians* to an American public largely defined in ambiguous counterpoint to the savage mannequins held at bay behind the plate glass of the museum display. Whether cast as the noble Redman sadly disappearing before the onslaught of civilization or as the savage heathen to be forcibly converted or eliminated entirely, the removal or disappearance of American Indians was a necessary prerequisite to the occupation by white settlers of the American land. The museum became, oft times literally so, the last refuge of the “wild” Indian, at the same time that the possession of the Indian in the museum came to stand for exactly the possession of the land that made the “wild” Indian an anachronism, an echo of a time not before the settlers came, but of a time entirely removed from the history of America, a time when America was, indeed, an entirely different and new world.

This paper deals with the presentation of Indians in the American museum. Where LaVaque-Manty is speaking figuratively, though—of the representation of Indians through their artifacts, relics, and bones—this paper deals literally with the presentation of living Indians in American museum settings. The most famous of these awkward denizens of the museum was Ishi, “the last wild Indian” (Kroeber 1961) who, from 1911 until his death in 1916, lived and worked in the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology under the auspices of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. But Ishi was only the most famous of a number of Indians put on display in museums and museum-like setting. Kroeber’s teacher and mentor, Franz Boas, had exhibited a dozen Kwakiutl in the “ethnographic zoo” he supervised at the Columbian Exposition two decades before, and Kroeber himself had studied the Eskimos housed, at Boas’ request, in the American Museum of Natural History in from 1897-1898. Indians were displayed at dozens of World Fairs and Expositions, many times in exhibitions sponsored and curated by the Smithsonian.

This history must necessarily be situated in relationship to the wider context of museum display, a context which includes not just the living but also the dead and the (apparently) lifelike, such as the Indians of mannequins and dioramas, and which includes not just the museum but also the museum-like, the Expositions and traveling show which aim to sugar coat science with a veneer of entertainment and spectacle (or should that be to sugar-coat entertainment and spectacle with a veneer of science?). The final aim is towards grasping the essential objectification, the “waxworkification”, that lies at the heart of the ethnographic display and that captures the Indian as an object of display in the American museum. As a final examination of the ways in which this history continues to shape museum practices (both those of curators and of visitors), and ways in which this history can be, and is, subverted, I will briefly examine the recent exhibition/performance piece Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992) presented at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian (among other places), in which two Mexican artists performed the part of newly-discovered Indians while locked in a gilded cage on display in the Museum’s rotunda. This piece highlights some of the ambiguities and ambivalences inherited by the museum space, which Indians—suddenly empowered by the passage of the Indian Gaming Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, among other factors—must deal with in constructing their own self-representations. [Continue reading] »

Thoughts on the Mass Killing in Newtown, CT: A Rant in 11 Tweets

This is a series of posts I made on Twitter following the shooting in Newtown, CT yesterday. I could flesh them out, but I like them as is, sketchy and  impressionistic as they are. Edited simply to correct two typos and expand abbreviations.

For a Gun Control

Most of the responses to today’s mass shootings, from people I mostly respect, boil down to 1) gun control! 2) crazy people! 3) evil!

Some things I haven’t seen get much attention as factors in today’s killing: 1) masculinity, 2) poverty, 3) individualism, 4) market economics.

Masculinity 1: There’s a reason most mass killers are male. We value men who are visibly powerful and use violence to solve problems.

Masculinity 2: Build your identity around self-reliance, providing, and mastery of violence, and when something’s taken away, boom!

Individualism: We have become a nation where needing help is seen as weakness and dependency and offering help is an affront.

Poverty: There are very few resources for people who need help, and fewer still for identifying those in need: financial, mental, emotional, etc.

Market economics: The market provides, where there’s profit. Much greater motive to provide tools for violence than provide help.

Gun control is probably not the answer to this kind of tragedy, though it might make a dent in the ~10k US gun deaths annually.

Greater mental health resources are obviously needed, but not all mass killers are demonstrably crazy. Killing is often the only sign.

Not all mass killers are evil, either (except by tautology). Killing is a casual part of daily life in our society (e.g. industry, military).

In the end, mass killings are product of a society willing to trade tragedy for low taxes, the illusion of independence, and traditional gender roles.

Things I’ve Learned at BurlyCon 2011 (Final Edition)

[UPDATE: I cut a section which I want to post more in-depth on later. Miss Astrid’s “State of Neo-Burlesque” raised some really important points bit I’m not sure I’m the right person to address them.]

Back home today after an intense, amazing, mind-expanding, soul-filling, heart-warming long weekend at BurlyCon 2011 in Seattle, and boy is my mind racing!  The first two days were great, but Saturday and Sunday were simply magical. I’ve had so many amazing conversations with so many amazing people, I can hardly make sense of it all.

But I’ll try.

1) Despite Neo-Burlesque’s feminist, all-sizes-welcome ideology, big-bodied burlesquers don’t always feel the love from their smaller sisters. They get booked as “token” plus-size performers — a fact brought home when the only two in a show find themselves performing back-to-back, over and over and over. They have to listen to thinner sisters express their own insecurities and body issues in phrases like “uck, I feel so fat today”. They don’t get booked as often as thinner dancers. And people feel licensed to talk about their bodies much more than they do with slimmer women. So here’s the deal: y’all gotta get some self-awareness up in ya. Pay attention to what you say, how you act, and who you book. Because big gals enrich this community. Anyone who witnessed Rubenesque Burlesque’s off-the-hook performance during peer review can attest to that.
[Continue reading] »

Things I’ve Learned at BurlyCon 2011 (Half-Time Edition)

For the past two days I’ve been attending BurlyCon 2011 in Seattle. BurlyCon is a non-performance burlesque invention, meaning that unlike most burlesque gatherings where the foocus is on stage performances, burlesque dancers gather here to take classes, socialize, and get feedback from their peers on troublesome routines.

Two days in and with two days left, I thought I’d share some quick observations.

1) In a culture that fetishizes youth, burlesque’s openness to older women provides powerful role models on aging gracefully or, as Jo Weldon put it, “DIS-gracefully”.

2) White people can still be horribly insensitive to performers of color. Fellow whiteys: urging a black performer to do a jungle girl act or a Josephine Baker act or anything else simply because she’s black is not ok. A routine should emerge from the totality of a dancer’s experience, not from the incidental fact of her skin color.

3) There is a higher percentage by linear foot of beautiful red hair in the Sea-Tac Doubletree right now than in any other population on Earth.

4) Well-intentioned feedback can be the greatest gift a performer can give another performer. It can also be terrifying. The peer review process here, where selected performers do their routine, then sit silently while a dozen or so peers comment, is almost perfect at emphasizing the gift and downplaying the terror.

5) I already knew this but it has come back to me in a million different ways the last two days: sexy is a state of mind, not of physical appearance.

That’s it for now – gotta focus on the next two days now!

Artist, speak up

David Wojnarowicz

Image via Wikipedia

In a recent post, I explained that artists have no particular insight into what their work means — and in fact are often profoundly mistaken — and so we should stop asking them so often to explain the meaning of their work. Though seemingly directed at artists, that post wasn’t about artists at all — it was about the rest of us and our unwillingness to take interpretive risks, our profoundly undemocratic desire to rest secure in the shadow of authority.

Talking about the meaning of your work as an artist is demeaning — it reduces the artist by forcing him or her to reduce the possibility of meaning in their work. But that doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t speak out, and speak loudly. There are lots of things artists should and even must speak about — the meaning of their work just isn’t one of them.

[Continue reading] »

Artist, hush

If you’re around me for any length of time, sooner or later you’ll hear me declare that artists should never talk about their work. This may seem a little ironic in an art world where artists are expected to produce an artist’s statement before they are even considered for a gallery show, when artist’s talks are the best way to draw an audience to a show, when visiting artist lectures are a mainstay of the fine arts curriculum, and where much of the appeal of the art world is the chance to meet and talk with artists about their work. But it’s true.

All of which does a great disservice to the art audience, the artists, and to art itself.  [Continue reading] »

Dear Companies: Stop Doing That!


Image by misteraitch via Flickr

Sometimes I get fed up. It seems like every day companies are acting more and more cavalier with my time and attention, wasting an ever-increasing part of my day to accomplish absolutely nothing.

Last night I reached into my mailbox to find a plain white envelope, probably five inches by eight, no logo, no return address, just an expanse of white with my address slightly off-center. Out of the mailbox and whoosh! straight into the trash. I know what it was — a Cox cable ad. The third one I’ve gotten in the last week or so, packaged exactly the same, ostensibly so I wouldn’t know it was a Cox cable ad. Even Cox knows I don’t want to see a Cox cable ad.

The thing is, I already get Cox cable — it’s provided by my HOA. Which is nice, it means my TiVO can record The Daily Show and the occasional movie on TCM. So I’m not going to pay again for service I already get. Meanwhile, Cox is spending what, a buck or two a month, sometimes more, to send me mailings that will never entice me to buy. If I wanted cable, of course I’d call them — who else is there?

Anyway, it got me thinking about the myriad ways companies waste my time, and the money they spend to earn my ill will. Here then, in no particular order, is a list of 10 things companies just shouldn’t do. [Continue reading] »

Anti-Anti-Women’s Studies (An Open Letter to Jan Oller)

Feminism ephemera

Image by cathredfern via Flickr

My former colleague in Women’s Studies, Jan Oller, write an op-ed piece in a local alternative weekly attacking WMST as a discipline and supporting recent budgetary decisions to terminate the program. Since I don’t have a current email address for him, I’ve decided to post my response here as an open letter. I hope he sees it!



I don’t say this very often, but after publishing your anti-WMST piece in this week’s Citylife, you oughtta be ashamed of yourself. First for very personal reasons: you’re trying to take jobs away from nearly two dozen people, many of whom you know and were, at one time, friends with. Let that sink in a bit before we move on to more substantial issues. Next time you see me, I want you to look me in the eye and tell me why you issued me a great big “fuck you” in the pages of the Las Vegas Citylife.

The more pressing issue here is how profoundly and painfully dishonest your piece is. You’ve done, in fact, the exact thing that both you and I have spent so many years trying to help students learn not to do: to abstract and generalize about a group as a whole from the behavior of a limited number of persons at very specific moments. In a department of roughly 20 people, there is one hardcore immigration rights advocate and one hardcore prostitution rights advocate, both of whose activism flows directly from their own research. [Continue reading] »

Teaching WMST While Male


Image by Getty Images via @daylife

I was asked by Laurenn McCubbin, the curator of the show Feminist/Las Vegas which opened at the Barrick Museum last night, to write a presentation for the opening reception of the exhibition. The show is intended as a reaction to the casual sexism that is the bread-and-butter of Vegas tourism and nightlife. Since my interaction as a feminist with Las Vegas occurs first and foremost in the classroom, I decided to write about being a male Women’s Studies professor, and how that effects both my students perceptions of me and the rest of my day-to-day life. This, then, minus any on-the-fly edits I might have made in the performance, is what I ended up saying.

I hear a gasp behind me as I step through the cluster of waiting students and unlock the classroom door. Up until just that moment, I was just some guy, another student maybe, or some other professor. But when I step up to the door and swipe my key card, it comes clear: I’m the professor. The Women’s Studies professor.

The dude Women’s Studies professor.  [Continue reading] »