The dark, the joyful, and the parodic

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Michael Lambek and Amira Mittermaier. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.001


The dark, the joyful, and the parodic

Michael LAMBEK, University of Toronto

Amira MITTERMAIER, University of Toronto


Having stepped in as interim editors of HAU for a few months, we feel we have a tiger by the tail. HAU is a huge and powerful beast of a journal. It is full of exciting articles and debates. But while it seems to leap ahead on its own, this is of course an illusion. It depends on its contributors, authors, respondents, referees, associate editors, production staff, copyeditors, and editorial assistants for its success. Most of this structure was put in place by the founding and permanent editor, Giovanni da Col. Indeed, most of what you see in this issue and will discover in the next had already been prepared at one stage or another by him. Giovanni has dedicated himself full time to HAU and he put together an exceptional staff from and in whom he has expected and discovered professional standards and a work ethic intense as his own. As interim editors we remain in awe of the achievements and are extremely indebted to all members of the HAU crew.

We appear at the masthead so that Giovanni can take a short break from HAU, which he has invented, published, and especially, edited, with exceptional dedication. He has imagined, recognized, invited, cajoled, and nurtured writing of exceptional quality and he has given anthropology a renewed confidence in its intellectual identity and mission. HAU burst on the scene and has continued to sparkle due in no small part to his focus, brilliance and intensity. We would not be here were it not for our admiration and the fact that Giovanni continues to work back stage, not least as publisher but also as continuing instigator and advisor.

HAU comes to you, as Giovanni has put it, as a gift and it is fully open access. But it arrives at some cost, both financial—for which sources continue to be sought by him and other advocates—and human—from the exceptional dedication of [ii]Giovanni and his team. We are in fact still learning about the work accomplished by the team. It has been headed by the extremely dedicated managing editor Sean Dowdy, who has put his life into the journal and who is in good part responsible for what is positive in this issue. Sean has also been busy training his own replacement, Ellen Kladky, who some readers will know and admire for her work at the University of Chicago Press. Ellen has jumped in with great dedication and verve, while beginning a doctoral program in anthropology as Sean is completing his. And behind them are a team of associate editors, professional copy editors, and young editorial assistants all of whom work very hard to ensure the quality of what we put before you. Thanks to them we are able to review submissions quickly and to provide feedback of very high quality. All the articles published in HAU have received three to five double blind reviews and the pieces in the other sections have each been carefully reviewed and read as well.

We have no illusions of replacing Giovanni in the long term, nor fully in the short term either. Whatever marks we make as editors on the journal will be gradual and will be supplementary to the core mission and format as established by Giovanni and maintained by him and by the staff. HAU is sustained also by its contributors and its readers and so we invite you to continue to send us your best work and also to offer your ideas and suggestions for our debates, colloquia, book symposia, and lecture sections. As an open access journal HAU is also open and responsive to its wider community of actual and potential contributors.


Turning to our current issue, we follow up Sherry Ortner’s incisive essay on “Dark Anthropology” that appeared in the previous issue (and still accessible online!) with a debate: a series of responses by Arjun Appadurai, David Graeber, Carol Greenhouse, James Laidlaw, and Danilyn Rutherford—all prepared with the thoughtfulness and acuity we expect from them—on this timely article. The debate concludes with counter-reflections from Ortner herself.

We are also pleased to offer you a lecture by Janice Boddy that turns the debate on genital cutting in a radically new direction, from practices that may be declining in Africa to those on the rise in North America, Europe, and indeed globally and that speaks to the unpredictability of cultural change as well as the ways such changes are linked to media and profit. Boddy’s lecture, originally delivered to the symposium “The Surgical Re-construction of Sex,” at the University of Zurich in June 2013 (and revised here), also illustrates the way that a kind of pure and classic anthropology can speak forcefully and with relevance to interdisciplinary audiences and wider publics, thereby perhaps transcending the alternatives that Ortner has laid out.

We turn next to an appreciation of political comedy. Written before the US presidential elections we cannot promise this will remain a laughing matter, but Kira Hall, Donna Goldstein, and Matthew Ingram turn an eye to the surreal aspects of the presidential campaign in the United States and consider the way Trump’s attraction to a certain public is related to his antics on stage. It is hard to parody and hard to critique, they argue, what is already so (deliberately?) foolish. Trump’s buffoonery is complemented by an article from Marianna Keisalo on ritual clown [iii]performances in Mexico, reminding us how things can look on the other side of his imagined wall.

The other articles in this section take us from parody and comedy to prophecy, spirits, and the (re)making of values. Arkotong Longkumer follows the journey of a prophetess’ cryptic notebooks from the Pitt Rivers Museum back to Northeast India, inviting us to think about a text that cannot be read “cold” but that is grounded in mystical experience. Casper Bruun Jensen, Miho Ishii, and Philip Swift reflect on Japanese perspectives on the ontology of spirit worlds. Sandra Calkins shows the social and moral implications of the use of metal detectors in gold prospecting in Sudan. Our cover image, drawn from her article, nicely provokes thinking about the relation between darkness and light.

If Ortner’s essay points to what is dark in the world today, the guest editors of our special section, Bhrigupati Singh and Jane Guyer, turn things around, pointing to joy and offering us what they call a “Joyful History of Anthropology.” This history is not only joyful but resolutely heterodox, offering fresh take ups and original readings of Boas (Holly Swyers), Frazer (Victor Kumar), and Mauss (Stephanie Frank); appreciations of important but under-recognized figures like Elizabeth Colson (Shannon Morreira) and Alfred Métraux (Edgardo Krebs); as well as an unusual reading of Lévi-Strauss as a successor to the German romantics (Andrew Brandel). One of the exciting subthemes here is the way each of these scholars is located with respect to their different milieux and habitats, from colonial and postcolonial practice in Central and Southern Africa, to high culture in Argentina, to the undergraduate classroom in the United States. See Singh and Guyer’s inspired introduction to the section for further discussion of this remarkably fresh set of papers.

Thinking about the great anthropologists of the century, we might also take a moment to salute the passing of Elizabeth Colson who died on August 3 at age 99 at her home in Zambia. See the following informative article, though it gets the country wrong in the title: http://news.berkeley.edu/2016/09/08/anthropologist-elizabeth-colson-dies-in-zimbabwe-at-99/.

More a work of art than an article, “The figure game” by Jason Price serves to accompany the special section on “The Joyful History of Anthropology,” for which it was originally produced, as a colloquium. This piece is frankly experimental—on Price’s part, on ours, and on the reader’s—and it must be read through to the end to fully appreciate the beginning.

In our colloquia section Paul Kockelman provides a sharp and original essay on comparative evaluation, the facility of human language for making comparative distinctions, and the relation of linguistic practices to natural and social forms and processes of gradation and degradation. This is a revolutionary move away from the focus on binary distinctions that lay at the heart of structuralism. And Kockelman manages to speak of grading practices without ever turning to our most dismal experiences as teachers. Thus this is another refraction of what we could call the joyful practice of anthropology.

We have, as always in HAU, placed attention on recent books. In our forum, Roger Sansi-Roca and Marilyn Strathern engage in conversation about Sansi-Roca’s book on new practices in the art world and how they may be enlightened by Strathern’s anthropology. Following this, we have a book symposium on David [iv]Price’s Cold War anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology (Duke University Press, 2016), an important recounting of anthropology’s collusion, witting and unwitting, with the US government, thus taking us back with a thud to the Dark Side. The book symposium has been edited by Carole McGranahan and contains her useful preface as well as insightful contributions from Katherine Verdery, Ilana Feldman, Donna Goldstein, and Laura Nader, and a response from David Price.

For our unedited section, we present a previously unpublished essay by James Woodburn. This essay is a treasure unburied by the joint efforts of Giovanni da Col, Rane Willerslev, and Rita Astuti, and includes a set of ethnographic accounts on that bewildering human practice that P. J. Hamilton Grierson (also cited by Mauss in The gift) famously promoted as “silent trade”—i.e., the exchange of goods between two parties who will never meet face to face, never communicate directly, and never discuss the nature of their trade (Grierson 1903). Woodburn’s manuscript, written in 1988, but including an updated introductory note by the author of “Egalitarian societies,” is a superb contribution to the discussion of this system of economic and symbolic “human intercourse” (to use Grierson’s term), which was until recently mystified as a “primitive” form of barter.

Finally, we release Michael Gilsenan’s reprinted classic “Lying, honor, and contradictions.” This essay speaks to our parodic, ostensibly “post-truth” Zeitgeist and shows a creative side of “lying” as an expression of vitality rather than the obverse of truth. According to the author (pers. comm. to Giovanni), the original title of the essay was “The vital lie” and was meant to be an intimation of Simmel’s work on lying and secrecy. The title was later changed by the editors but the essay still preserves today its formidable vital force. Among the Lebanese Muslims studied by Gilsenan in the 1970s, what we could call the “will to lie” (kizb) is a leisure activity, an index of skills, wit, and inventiveness. Here lying appears an instance of the subjunctive and the playful rather than the instrumental or the wicked.

Both the lie and the parody return us to the uneasy line between the dark and the joyful, which this issue of HAU, like perhaps the metal detector, can perhaps help us discern and traverse.


Grierson, P. J. Hamilton. 1903. The silent trade: A contribution to the early history of human intercourse. Edinburgh: W. Green & Sons.