The year of the weasel

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Giovanni da Col. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.001


The year of the weasel

Giovanni DA COL, University of Oslo


Weasel word: “intentionally evasive or misleading speech; equivocation”

– Collins English Dictionary

At times, one encounters ethnographies recounting dystopian worlds. The fact that they are released at the end of a year is not coincidental, but it is entirely unpremeditated. The 18th December 2014 marked the much-awaited release of the evaluation of the infamous UK REF—which stands for Research Excellence Framework. Non-British academic natives should be reminded that the REF demands from each faculty member the submission of four publications (books are counted as articles) from the preceding five years to a panel of experts who will allegedly read them all and judge their merit—their “value added”—as a criterion for a department’s future access to funding. The keyword here is “research impact” and so much has been written both inside and outside academia on the subject that yours truly does not feel capable of adding anything sensible and unbiased at the moment. While writing this note, I hear rumors that the anthropology rankings have been baffling. Talks of “invisible hands” and aleatory criteria are proliferating while British anthropologists once again face their everyday equivocations and reflect on the multifariousness of the term “impact”—academia’s very risque “I-word.”

The very last month of the year also hosted the last AAA meeting with its demising and rising turns, cliques and schools competing for their fifteen-minute blaze of glory. Here, “impact” assumed the form of performative effects and efforts for subscribing to established fads, criticizing any (previously fashionable) turn, or quoting the latest French or Italian social theorist to gain access to top-tier journals while applying crafted strategies of incestuous referencing with little or no care toward the accidental obliteration of the intellectual history of the discipline. It might be worth recalling that one of the alleged etymologies of “weasel word” lies in the mustelid’s reputed habit of sucking the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell superficially intact. Yet shouldn’t weasel words also be an object of ethnographic theory—being an equivocation, a stranger-concept?

Ethnographies recounting dystopias, the disturbing proliferation of form without content: I find no better expressions to convey the objects of critical reflection proposed by Anthropological knots, the Kantian special section headlining this last issue of HAU in 2014. Pondering on the conditions of possibility of anthropological public interventions, guest editor Sarah Green and her authors ask: “What [exactly] does constitute an intervention?” To the obscene “I-word,” this special section’s contributors respond with critique and an extended reflection on what makes anthropology possible today. In contrast to Fidele Fischetti’s painting on this issue’s cover, which displays Alexander slicing with a single blow the Gordian knot/ quandary, our dauntless group of contributors (Marilyn Strathern, Chris Gregory, David Graeber, and Michael Carrithers) and their sharp commentators (Jeanette Edwards, Joel Robbins, Jane Cowan, and Niko Besnier) offer an alternative to the fierce Alexandrian solution: they attempt to employ the best anthropological tools to unknot the tensions, double-binds, and paradoxes generated by critical issues such as auditing, self-description, and the hackneyed nature-society divide (Strathern), the proliferation of posthuman and thing-centric theories of value visa-vis the emergence of the sub-field of “cultural economy” (Gregory), the rise of a pure-managerial-class and the role of administrative-only “bullshit jobs” (Graeber), and the performativity and ironic nature of ethnography itself (Carrithers). Keir Martin’s extended meditation follows by brilliantly unknotting the crucial tensions that emerge over the course of this deeply entangled conversation.

This issue also showcases four individual research articles. “World: An anthropological examination” is the much awaited second and conclusive installment of Joao de Pina-Cabral’s extended and erudite defense of the notion of “worldview,” which includes a nuanced intellectual history of Oxonian human sciences and their anthropological legacy—from Evans-Pritchard and Collingwood to Steiner, Lienhardt, and Needham. Through an original scrutiny of the literature on fetishism, Sasha Newell investigates the role of accumulative behavior, storage, and possessions in US attics and West African societies. Environment and climate change inform the final two articles. First, David Lipset reflects on the changing notion of “morality of place” resulting from anthropogenic environmental forces that transform localities into sites of impending tragedies. A second and original view on climate science emerges from Naveeda Khan’s article, which muses on the development of indigenous ecological thought in a Bangladeshi riparine society by examining how scientific narratives on climate changes are locally denied and reconfigured in cosmologies of creation.

The theme of water returns in the first Colloquia section of this issue, where the transcript of Stefan Helmreich’s eminent 2014 Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture on the place of waves (in science, yet also in acquatic ethnographies) is followed by Anne Salmond’s examination (commented by Atsuro Morita) of the political agency of fresh waters in Maori society and the extraordinary case of bestowing legal person-hood to the Whanganui River. The second Colloquia section presents a new essay from Jeanne Favret-Saada juxtaposing and critically engaging the Roman Catholic Church’s ideology of anti-Judaism, the emergence of anti-Semitism, and Walter Benjamin’s critical historical materialism. David Kertzer responds to Favret-Saada’s brilliant essay with continued reflections on the link between modernity and anti-Semitism and more recent historical knots. This Colloquia section ends with another new translation from Favret-Saada on the “fuzzy distinction” between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. David Zeitlyn’s contribution to this issue’s Forum follows with an attempt to untangle the knots of theories of representation by means of the classical Greek concept of ekphrasis.

Since its inception, the HAU Book Symposia aimed to showcase texts capable of sparking critical debates and achieving a transdisciplinary impact. There are more than four ontologies to Philippe Descola’s Beyond nature and culture (BNAC), which may rather be read as the most recent installment of that distingushed intellectual genealogy marked by Levi-Strauss’ Totemism (an ode to Rousseau’s musings on “nature”) and Foucault’s The order of things. Rather than focusing on the genealogy of the concept of man and “life” as Foucault did, BNAC dissects the social and historical conditions that lead to the emergence of the caesura between nature and culture across times and cultures. Morever, unlike Latour’s We have never been modern, BNAC focuses on the comparative cultural and historical emergence of this caesura itself, rather than the entities composed, constituted, and generated by the divide. In this spirit of refocusing the terms of the nature-culture debate, this Book Symposium for BNAC includes a brilliant set of contributions from Gerard Lenclud, Stefan Helmreich, Stephan Feuchtwang, Bruce Kapferer, Christina Toren, Michael Lambek, and Marcela Coelho de Souza, with a dazzling response from Philippe Descola.

The translation section showcases the first English translation of a crucial lecture by one of the most important Cuban public intellectuals in the twentieth century and a critical interlocutor of Malinowski: Fernando Ortiz. Translated by Joao Felipe Goncalves and Gregory Duff Morton—and accompanied by a comprehensive preface by Goncalves—this lecture reveals Ortiz as a brilliant ethnographic theorist of ethnicity and its keywords. Ortiz aptly distinguishes cubanidad—”the specific quality of a culture, the culture of Cuba”—from cubania—the consciousness and attachment to that culture—by meditating on the place of mestizaje and creolization in Cuba by way of the metaphor of the ajiaco, a complex stew made by multifarious ingredients that never stop cooking.

This winter HAU also brings you a reprint of Irving Goldman’s timely ethnography of the Winter Ceremonial of the Kwaikiutl Indians. First published in his magnificent The mouth of heaven, this excerpt reflects on shamanic tricks, clever manipulation, and the role of deception in ritual communication. Perhaps not all deceptive words belongs to weasels.

To anthropologists, perhaps, the symbolic choice to release our latest issue in coincidence with New Year’s Eve might appear quite ethnocentric. While our new year begins on January 1st since 46 BC by the will of Caesar, we all are well aware that most societies’ calendrical anniversary falls on a later date. There are, however, universally shared tasks one performs at the end of each year: clean the house (or the body), generate prosperity, renew commitments. On their new year’s ceremonial, Babylonians committed to renew their vows to gods; Roman soldiers renewed their sacramentum and loyalty to the Emperor. But nowadays, secular resolutions seem utterly doomed to failure. In 2007, Richard Wiseman interviewed over 3,000 people attempting to achieve resolutions such as losing weight, quitting smoking, and working out regularly. The following year only 12% achieved their goals. One of the most effective solutions for maintaining one’s resolution was, however, to go public, to share the resolution with relatives and friends rather than keeping it private. In 2014, HAU sought to make its resolutions more public as well. This year saw the birth of HAU Books through our new partnership with the University of Chicago Press. With an expanding investment on the development of the Society of Ethnographic Theory, our ongoing efforts in securing our infrastructure, indexing and archiving facilities, and the implementation of a streamlined and user-friendly editorial and technological structure—which can be learned and adopted easily by future editors and staff—2015 will focus on HAU’S survival, longevity, and sustainability. As we renew our commitments and rejuvenate our editorial program, we also vow to generate more prosperity, more feasts, and more free gifts in the coming years.