Father Christmas rejuvenated

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons   Giovanni da Col, Sean M. Dowdy, and Stéphane Gros Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.000


Father Christmas rejuvenated

Giovanni DA COL, Sean M. DOWDY, and Stéphane GROS


We should reflect on the tender care we take of Father Christmas, the precautions and sacrifices we make to keep his prestige intact for the children. Is it not that, deep within us, there is a small desire to believe in boundless generosity, kindness without ulterior motives, a brief interlude during which all fear, envy, and bitterness are suspended?

– Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Father Christmas executed”

Perhaps some readers are familiar with an essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss that appeared in Les Temps moderne in 1952 with the title of “Le Père Noël supplicié”—or “Father Christmas executed.” For the ones who are not, there are a few points worth remembering that bear significance to some timely disciplinary considerations. Taking inspiration from an event in Dijon where Father Christmas was burned and deemed guilty of paganizing the Nativity, Lévi-Strauss muses on this “immutable being” that Santa Claus is—one who punctually returns every year, like a deity. Santa Claus is thus the putative deity of an age group, a group paradoxically defined by the belief in this figure. Adults do not believe in him, yet they encourage children to do so, and they maintain this belief with a number of quite resourceful tricks. Yet the point is, Lévi-Strauss reasons, by giving gifts to children, adults offer—via them—gifts to the dead: “The belief that we help to perpetuate in our children that their toys come from ‘ut there’ gives us an alibi for our own secret desire to offer them to those ‘ut there’ under the pretext of giving them to the children. In this way, Christmas presents remain a true sacrifice to the sweetness of life, which consists first and foremost of not dying” (Lévi-Strauss [1954] 1993: 50, emphasis added). We are struck by the face-value of the essay because, at HAU, we have been alternating between the two roles, having played the non-initiated children— receiving gifts from those whom we once, in our innocence and classrooms, regarded as deities—and the initiated adults, bestowing gifts “out there”—in our version of open access, to the anonymous, countless, and often silent mass of readers, who we perceive mostly as figures and statistics in our Google analytics, as numbers of downloads, or as strangers on Facebook and Twitter. Lévi-Strauss’ punchline also speaks volumes to us. One edits and conceives an intellectual project anew (like HAU) because one does not want something to die. In our case, that is anthropology. It is a brutal revelation but two years after HAU’s launch—168 unique articles and 202 contributors later—we still believe, like many of you, that we are a discipline in danger and in need of rejuvenation.

We are tired of podiums, careerism, REF, productivity assessments, and the alarming growth in restriction of academic freedom. HAU was created to be a platform where intellectual gifts would be always free and independent, where Christmas would happen at least thrice a year, and where fear, envy, ambition, bitterness, and scholarly selfishness could be suspended. We hold steady to that cause. Relentlessly, even; we are all working on the day before Christmas to bring you a new issue, a new website, new projects, a revamped and professional editorial team and staff, and many more developments. We listen carefully and consistently to your critiques and suggestions. One such criticism tends to make the rounds: HAU showcases too many deities and dignitaries. Today, we hope this criticism will meet the wayside. We give you a present: brilliant works not only from a few initiated masters, but a whole host from the non-initiated, from junior scholars and rising stars, who are, of course, the future of the discipline. We take rejuvenation seriously.

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A month after the so-called “ontological turn” made its début officiel in American anthropology (almost a decade after the corner was turned, as it were—cf. Viveiros de Castro, this issue—perhaps Santa Claus knows where it’s heading next), HAU responds with more “ethnographic theory,” our version of questions of translation and betrayal, conceptual disjuncture and rejuvenation. This issue includes part one of Amiria Salmond’s masterful analysis of translation and the cultural politics of Māori digital archiving—a journey that takes readers (now and in the next issue of HAU) from whakapapa to Quine, from taonga to Kuhn, from digital ontologies to Sapir. We also showcase some rather breathtaking works from linguistic and semiotic anthropology. Paul Kockelman’s exceptional contribution, and Bill Maurer’s mindful meditation on the former, take us into the anthropologically remote social life of Bayesian statistics, which, by way of algorithms such as the “sieve” (which we encounter in everyday life in objects like “spam filters” and pasta strainers), illuminate how a little Peirce and some good ol’ fashioned analytic rigor can demystify some hackneyed deployment of the term “ontology” and elucidate its stakes for anthropology. We also present Paul Manning and Ilana Gershon’s lively exploration of Goffmanian interaction via Terry Silvio’s notion of animation, which, in true form to ethnographic theory, takes conceptual cues from the animated (and animistic) realms of cosplay, MMOGs, manga, and other digital media. The feast then continues with sorties into the moral dimensions of humananimal relations (Jean Langford) and indigenous formulations of alterity and kinship that challenge tropes of isolation and contact, and perhaps help “explain” events of dramatic violence (Casey High). David Rodgers’ marvelous article weaves the relevance of the concept of topology in anthropology—i.e., where does a “society” begin or end? —with shamanic initiation rites and shows how the recent interest for “multispecies” encounters does not only concern STS communities but ties in with classical anthropological engagements with ritual and shamanism. Casper Bruun Jensen’s playful essay on Castaneda and Blanchot continues the topological analysis by reflecting on where the “outside”—which feeds our concepts of alterity and intersubjectivity—begins.

In the spirit of rejuvenation, we also present four outstanding articles from the field of historical anthropology, each proving a version of our ethnographic theory. Bringing the archives to life, we present in this issue the work of two ascended masters, Stanley Tambiah and Bernard Cohn, and two promising young scholars. First is Anand Vivek Taneja’s development of what he thoughtfully calls “jinnealogy,” a concept that explores how genealogy, theology, and forgetting coincide in the urban spaces of postcolonial Delhi where both Hindu and Muslim city-dwellers petition jinns. Second is Robert Blunt’s study of oaths and ritual ideologies in colonial Kenya that uses ethnographic theory in and through historical sources to build a substantial anthropological critique of Giorgio Agamben’s theory on oathing.

Our new book symposia bring you more treats and feats of conceptual disjuncture. First off, we have Marshall Sahlins’ much awaited (and sharp-as-ever) rebuttal to last issue’s symposium on What kinship is—and is not (Chicago, 2013). We follow with a symposium on Tanya Luhrmann’s critically acclaimed When God talks back (Alfred E. Knopf, 2012). Here, symposiasts take on questions of cognition (Boyer), theology (Jenkins, Eriksen and Blanes), and perceptual training (Stoller, Vilaça), ending with a brilliantly pointed conversation with God himself (Mayblin). Our symposium rounds out with a set of eight provocative responses to Matthew Hull’s Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan (California, 2012), which take on questions as timely as the semiotics of the state (Verdery, Richland), political life in postcolonial bureaucracies (Khan, Gilsenan, Lyon and Henig, Gupta), and the concept of materiality itself (Nakassis, Fraenkel).

Here at HAU, we are quite fond of the Maussian aphorism that “one good turn deserves another.” So, while the discipline is now trying to figure out whether to praise or bury the “ontological turn,” we think a good turn deserves not only one but at least four others. In this new issue, we present articles that offer at least four potential turns that the discipline could take: a turn to Bayesian anthropology (Kockelman), an “infrastructural turn” (Maurer), a delightful turn to Romantic anthropology and its “quixotic” subversions (Maskins and Blanes), and a final detour toward an anthropology of surprise, sperheaded by Jane Guyer’s 2013 Munro Lecture. This is truly a feast with plenty of food for thought.

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Still and all, we shall not risk hubris and wish that HAU’s own greenness, like that of Christmas holly, will be everlasting. But we will risk suggesting that the spirit of HAU and the spirit of Christmas are kindred. While Fox News and other crazed American right-wingers try to “save” the holiday from death by multiculturalism, secularism, atheism, or what have you, we here at HAU are busy working in the spirit of Father Christmas himself to keep the sweetness of anthropology’s life within reach. We’ll try to keep the gifts coming, year after year—standing between the living and the dead, to stay the plagues, the bitterness, the envy, and the fear— all in modest hope that our contribution will slowly allow for an anthropology rejuvenated.

Season’s greetings and a happy and prosperous new year to all.


Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1952) 1993. “Father Christmas executed.” In Unwrapping Christmas, edited by Daniel Miller, 38–51. Oxford: Clarendon Press.