Jim Writes an Email to an Anthropologist

If you are ever in the market for some great, current anthropology reading, head on over to Savage Minds. It’s a now 10 year old blog that “is devoted to ‘doing anthropology in public’ — providing well-written relevant discussion of sociocultural anthropology that everyone will find accessible.” I have found myself fascinated by many of their posts of late, by guest bloggers like John Hartigan, and Zoe Todd. So fascinated have I been, in fact, that I have been cold-call emailing the likes of the two aforementioned anthropologists, just to tell them I think they are awesome. Well, that, and to rant and rave.

In my mental perambulations around the globe and my own living room, I find certain issues to be rather sticky. Not as in terribly confusing, necessarily. More like duct tape or glue: I can’t shake them. They are perennial ponderings, and they have to do largely with my own identity and the colorful (read: fraught) history of anthropology. If you have a few extra minutes on your hands, you really should read “The We and Them of Anthropology.” It eloquently sums up some of the major mental roadblocks I have dealt with for years now. Things like the face of anthropology filled by white European males, sailing to distant ports and studying primitive peoples in the darkest jungles. And the post is totally not just about anthropology: it’s about sovereignty of the state, the individual, the identity of “aboriginal” peoples, and so much more. It’s really good.

Anyway, I decided to write the author, Zoe Todd, an email. The title this week, then, could be called something like “Jim Writes an Email to a Real Anthropologist” or “Jim Ponders the Meaning of Jim.” I post this today because I feel that so much of what I spend my time reading, writing, and thinking about revolves around many of these major themes: identity, cultural dissatisfaction, the search for truth, my guilt around being a white man. Does all of this have anything to do with fatherhood? Yes and no. No, because I’m not talking directly about fatherhood, but yes (resoundingly) because it has so much to do with my own father (how I was raised) and myself-as-father (how I will raise my son.) There will be plenty of overlap between the two, and plenty of divergence. But one thing is certain: my son is going to be one screwed up dude.

Below, you’ll find the contents of the email I wrote yesterday to Zoe Todd, a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. She also happens to be a member of the Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak ethnic group from Canada, so she writes, obviously, from what one could call an “aboriginal” perspective.


Dear Zoe,

First, thanks for taking the time to read what follows. Noting that you are a PhD candidate, I realize your time is probably constantly under fire on multiple fronts. You’ve certainly got much better things to be doing with your time than reading stray emails from random strangers. So, thanks for taking a bit of time out of your schedule.

Second, thanks for your recent guest posts on Savage Minds. I’ve been eagerly devouring your words of late. Your writing has dredged up some questions that have long lain dormant, and that now are begging to be answered.

I was hit especially hard by your post entitled “The We and Them of Anthropology.” It discussed a number of problems/concerns that I personally have been unable to satisfactorily solve for myself. It has to do with anthropology as “white public space” and the notion of “white men as buildings” and the concept of “committing anthropology.” It also has much to do with your statement “We don’t need anyone to give that (‘the ontological’) back to us, because we’ve held it all along” and, really, the whole piece.

I have been interested in anthropology for years now, though I’ve never formally studied it – it’s just never been the right time, the correct confluence of life puzzle pieces. I’m a white male, early 30’s, married to an amazing woman (the daughter of Argentine immigrants), and have an 8 month old son. (He’s also amazing.) I’ve done the Peace Corps, worked for NGOs, learned some languages, done shit tons of reading, blah blah blah blah. The usual story. I probably don’t have a whole lot to offer the world as concerns anthropology. Smarter people will do smarter things and have much more influence than I ever could. And the topics you raise make it that much more obvious: white men need to get the hell out of the way, possibly for good.

Every time I consider applying to graduate school in anthropology, these themes pop up. (Which is to say, every fall.) It’s been 8 years now, and I keep circling back, wanting to study anthropology. And I feel. like. an. impostor. You so eloquently said many things I’ve thought for years. And I’m torn right down the middle: between wanting to go back to school to selfishly study anthropology, and accepting the fact that the last thing anthropology (and indeed, myriad other fields and practices) needs is more middling white dudes pacing the halls.

I don’t even really know why I emailed you. I suppose I’m looking for someone to dialogue with on the matter. I suppose, too, it has something to do with my identity crisis – how I would love to have that sense of pride that comes with having a heritage that means something. I have spent the better part of my life wishing that I could be anything but American. Anything but the product of a “culture” that has left its people more tattered, fattened, mollified, entertained, padded, and isolated year after year. That’s probably what draws me to anthropology: the aspect of escapism it has traditionally offered. The exotic. The far-flung. The foreign. The exciting, harrowing, dangerous, unknown. (Though I do know that anthropology is changing, and is less often about the lone scholar hacking through rainforest to meet the lost tribes.)

Ugh. I don’t even know where all of this is going. I guess I just wanted to reach out to someone about my dilemma. And when you wrote that piece, it really hit me. Like a bell had been struck, reanimating suppressed yearnings, aches, questions. I suddenly needed to share this with you, because it felt like you had written that piece just for me.

Anyway, I would kill to hear some of your thoughts on the matter, but I understand that might not be a possibility. Either way, know that I’ve been really moved by your posts, and have been quite seriously chewing on all the sustenance you’ve provided of late.

Thanks again for reading this nonsense.

Sincerely,

Jim Kasper


If Ms. Todd ever responds, I will post her response here. (Provided she is okay with that.)

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