In The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850), the scarlet letter “A” was a badge of shame. But not here, not in the wonderful world of anthropology. So, a word now from Scarlet A (anthropologist):

In a recent issue of the American Anthropologist (December 2010), John Comaroff has an essay about the purported “end of Anthropology.” Comaroff presented this topic in a lecture in the Penn Anthropology Department some months earlier (and in various places around the world in the past few years) and the essay (“The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline”) provides the same illuminating examples and arguments that his lecture did. Comaroff does not believe anthropology is ending and in fact points out how more than ever we need the insights anthropology offers to make sense of the strange things happenings around us.

I can’t do justice to his nuanced and detailed arguments and I can’t pretend to understand everything he references. But because I want to get these ideas about the value of anthropology involved in the current Penn Museum discussions, I will try to summarize some of the valuable points here.

Here is what anthropology offers each and everything it touches, looks at, considers, and contemplates, in what Comaroff calls five operations:

1. Operation One: A different take or a different point of view on how something works. This questioning of how things are done “normally,” how decisions are made, what the conventional wisdom is, why things have “always been done that way,” why certain things are acceptable and other things horrifying and taboo, who controls what gets said and why, who controls what decisions are made and why, all these things an anthropologist would question not in order to be simply contrary but to be critical in the academic sense of that term. This critical stance does not let secret decisions stay secret and hidden agendas stay masked; it does not let exercises of power go unquestioned and it does not take sides in order to drown out other voices. In the question of a museum exhibit, Scarlet A would ask why this exhibit and not some other, who has a stake in making this exhibit happen as planned, who made compromises and made deals and expects something in return for turning a blind eye to questionable practices or oddball decisions. Who is protecting whom, and why?

In Comaroff’s more elegant words:

“What is it that actually gives substance to the dominant discourses and conventional practices of that world, to its subject positions and its semiosis, its received categories and their unruly undersides, to the manner in which it is perceived and experienced, fabricated, and contested?”

2. Operation Two: How does the world we live in get produced and come to seem inevitable and natural? How does a process, like defining ethnicity, actually end up creating ethnic categories and the resulting human behavior: biases, segregation, wars, genocide. Scarlet A asks how does a process like creating a museum exhibit make selections and decisions that result in the production of knowledge that is anything but transparent and inevitable. Anthropologists don’t take these things as a given, they investigate how they came to be and in doing this point out that what seems inevitable could have ended up being any number of other things. This is an amazing action that anthropologists take because it pulls the rug out from under our smugness, our certainty, our sense of superiority, our sense of rightness and goodness. It is humbling and empowering all at the same time.

This time, in Comaroff’s more difficult words, which I hope I read correctly:

“The second operation involves being-and-becoming: it is the mapping of those processes by which social realities are realized, objects are objectified, materialities materialized, essences essentialized, by which abstractions—biography, community, culture, economy, ethnicity, gender, generation, identity, nationality, race, society—congeal synoptically from the innumerable acts, events, and significations that constitute them.”

3. Operation Three: Anthropologists often look for those moments or situations when there is a break in the facade or a rupture in the routine or a failure in an enterprise or a problem that suddenly gets revealed. These moments of rupture often, remarkably, lay bare all the structures and processes that have been keeping a well-oiled machine from revealing its squeaks and its rusty bits. These moments when things as they have been or things as they should be are suddenly cracked open are a brilliant source of illumination. They show what has been concealed in order for things to seem normal. And once the rupture occurs, it is hard to put all the junk back in its previous place (and we would also watch carefully the process by which that was attempted). Scarlet A takes notice of those moments when things fall apart and says, “Wow, how did that happen, why did that happen, and who is trying to make it go away?”

In Comaroff’s words:

“The third operation is the deployment of the contradiction, the counterintuitive, the paradox, the rupture as a source of methodological revelation.”

4. Operation Four: Situating what we are studying in multiple dimensions of time and of space. If we are studying something, we show how the particular occurrence we are looking at has analogies or parallels in other places and other times. This comparative layer to our work brings it back to some of the discipline’s basic concepts: that nothing humans do is done in isolation, it is done in patterned forms. The symbolic has economic and historical dimensions at the same time and in previous and future times; the religious is not divorced from the commercial or the political; a decision that seems local has connections to so many things and incidents that are global. Trying to tease these out of what seems to be just a local phenomenon or just a global situation is the power of an anthropological perspective and ignoring this perspective renders any analysis dangerously vapid. Scarlet A points out that museums, above many other institutions, are ripe settings for looking at these intersections.

In Comaroff’s words:

“…the fourth epistemic operation: the embedding of ethnography in the counterpoint of the here-and-there and the then-and-now—in a word, its spatiotemporalization”

5. Operation Five: We move back and forth between things and ideas, the abstract and the concrete, the theory and the practice. This continual movement not only provides a sort of self-correction to both data collection and its theorizing but it places the anthropologist in a responsible position: to not let one overwhelm the other, to not let observations run rampant over theory, to not let theory beat down observations. We care to reach not a balance but a never ending dialogue so that we don’t get stuck in the same “conventional wisdoms” that we so dearly love to unpack. Scarlet A promises to try to stay in motion but when faced with museum exhibits that are atheoretical, that only want to revel in the material for their beautiful materiality, she sometimes has to put her foot down and stomp a bit!

For Comaroff, this means:

“…the founding of the discipline on grounded theory, on an imaginative counterpoint between the inductive and the deductive, the concrete and the concept, ethnographic observation and critical ideation; also, in a different register, between the epic and the everyday, the meaningful and the material.”

Anthropology, Comaroff points out, has principles, and these principles not only makes it a unique contributor to any analysis but also make it a crucial component of any intelligent operation or presentation. To ignore anthropology is to laugh at these principles which give a humane insight into any kind of practice.

It also, not incidentally, would make any museum show that followed these principles much more interesting, less crass, more significant, more engaging, truly interactive (without unnecessary buttons), mesmerizing, fascinating, thoughtful, stunning, and yes, beautiful. And, to show that it would not cost two million dollars, I will design some such virtual museum exhibits in a future post called, “If I Were a Rich Man…”

But I am not a rich man, I am….Scarlet A.