Mathers, K. (2010). “Introduction.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 1-9.
From the collaborate volume of Auto-Ethnographies (Meneley and Young 2005) to the singularly authored “Reversed Gaze” (Ntarangwi 2010), the works explored thus far in our seminar are each characterised by a gaze on and critique of Western academic lives and practices. In the next book central to our discussion, Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa (Mathers 2010) we continue gazing close to home at the conceptual and lived ideals of Americans, specifically those formed by United States national(ist) discourse. However, the context of this work is outside the domain of academic institutions. Katheryn Mathers tracks the movements of tourists to and from South Africa to explore her questions of American identity and its connection to and contingency on an idea of ‘Africa’. This anthropological work explores the ideas of ‘Africa’ and ‘African’ imagined by America, and how the particular idea of Africa sought after and acted upon by media and tourists are formed by and contingent on the shared ethos of Americaness. Mathers’ interest is in the meeting places of these ideologies and images; the meeting of the ‘real’ and the ‘imaged’ and the effect of the collision. The ideas and ideals of ‘Americans’ confront ideas and realities of Africa, and by this intersection personal and national perceptions are revealed.
This book is based on Mathers’ PhD fieldwork which was conducted in Cape Town, South Africa between 1999 and 2002 and affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. Originally from Cape Town, she completed her masters degree at University of Cape Town. She then moved to the United States for graduate studies only to return home to study America.
The introduction to this work begins and ends with reference to Barack Obama, aptly so as he captures, physically and in oration, the American ethos of interest to and complicating Mathers’ research. Obama embodies intersection, which is central to the author’s research question and its direction. He also represents the intersection of America and Africa which characterises the history of colonialism and present neo-colonial socio-political relationship. Obama also vocalised the US’s motivated national ideals of “democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope” (9); abstract values which are hard to conceptualize and materialize, though are encouraged to life through capitalism.
In a nation that combines insidious remnants of a protestant work ethic with a capitalist spirit it is not surprising its ideals promote creation or industriousness; action oriented ideals with value only realisable through productivity. Individuals must seek out channels through which to enact these values, and in the process of performing them feel to discover (or create) a collective American definition. However, a discourse of consensual difference challenges notions of national collectivity and unity, but the intersection of these differences coheres in ‘doing’. The search for identity within the framework of national values took on a new tone post 9/11. This political environment amplified the need to fulfil the expectations of productivity through goodwill, which stirs memories of missionary projects. The mass produced and circulated image of a despondent ‘Africa’ was useful and opportune The continent offered Americans the chance, economically or physically, to enact (not exclusively) secularized redemption (see here for a provocative political commentary on this topic). Though not all the subjects in Mathers’ study missioned to the continent, she states there was always an element of caring involved in their choice of travel, a choice informed by the above mentioned images of ‘Africa‘ which were normalized in American media.
Mathers engages the tourist’s journey in order to explore Americans’ confrontation with their identity as it collides with Africa the continent and ‘Africa’ the reality beyond imaginings. Through their reception by South Africans the tourists came to understand the collective sense of Americanness indiscernible from a subjective, individualistic point of view, but which is a concrete and potent idea held by non-Americans. The study of synchronic experiences in bound, dissociated contexts was not useful to Mathers’ research. Rather, her fieldwork focused on the full range of tourist experience, including the course of travel from home to away and the banal quotidian of the journeys. She followed closely in her informants’ tracks, through the familiar, the uncomfortable, across borders and the “spaces of awkward engagement that caught friction between the idea of Africa and the idea of America” (Tsing 2005 in Mathers 2010).
The tourists, and tourist culture, she studied appears to extend the historical legacy of self-exploration through ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’. This reflects the discussion in our previous reading, “Reversed Gaze”(Ntarangwi 2010), of the centrality of Africa in the history of Anthropology, the discipline which formalized the search for the individual and collective “I”, and the discipline which has maintained a steady, but productive, degree of identity crisis (maybe best resolvable by an appeal to the words of Jean Rouch, “je est un autre”). Mathers reflexively maintains this tradition and probes simultaneously two dimensions of two national identities; the subjective and objective ‘African’ and ‘America’.
In the pages that follow we will read how Mathers’ anthropology sought after Americans’ perception of their own Americanness, as well as their perceptions of Africa. She seeks to understand what constitutes that perception and how it comes to be confirmed and reified by engagement with ‘Africa’, the idea and the lived experience. Further, she wants to explore how it is that “even after visiting southern Africa, the continent remained, was cemented even, as a homogeneous space of helpless people who just needed a little push from a well-meaning American” (7).
In our discussion of the book we argued that the perceptions of America Mathers sought were as essentialised and reductive as those of ‘Africa’, but perhaps this was an intended and implicit point of commentary in her work. We understand Mathers’ informants were from a particular American region and this may inform the basis of her generalizations of American identity. But we cannot discount individual life trajectories and are certain Mathers was cognisant of these diverse variables. However, our comments must be contextualized in a preliminary and partial reading of the book and an understanding that further reading will clarify these ideas. I believe, though, there is reason to her framing and seeking (the idea of) collective Americanness. It is such an identity, formed by politically and socially mediated and circulated national values, which promote ties to places like ‘Africa’.
By consuming the African landscape, Mathers argues, it amalgamates with part of a wider American one. Our consumption also continues to create the African, according to Achille Mbembe (5) and in so doing we create (and enact) the equally absurd and reductive idea of the American. These are a sampling of the political and social problematics of the tourist journey we hope, along with the idea of ‘America’, will be taken seriously by Mathers in the pages to follow.
Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “A New Paradigm for Twenty-First Century Anthropology?” In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (p.126-151). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.
By the end of Mwenda Ntarangwi’s book, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (2010), the journey towards American anthropology has gone full circle. An investigation into the history, theory, and practice of anthropology and ethnography in America led him back to his home continent, tracking a thread of connection left by imperial histories and contemporary globalization. He comes to understand how, and why, American anthropology has never been (far) removed from Africa, in objectives and theories of alterity. In this chapter, A New Paradigm for Twenty-First-Century Anthropology?, Ntarangwi explores the geographic, national, political, and epistemological chasms that characterise dynamics between institutions of knowledge production generally, and between anthropologies in particular. He draws from his intimate and rich experience in Kenya and Kenyan educational institutions to problematise the projects of world anthropologies and their lack of pragmatism. This chapter shows that Ntarangwi’s critique on Western Anthropology leads him to a critique of the world, aptly so for the dominating and dictating role of Euro-American culture in the domain of knowledge production. He encourages the development of new forms of collaboration which account for varying realities of anthropologists and their institution, and believes the continuation of the discipline is contingent on these rearticulated transnational, trans-epistemological, and trans-social ties (151).
Ntarangwi’s ethnography ends with much inconclusiveness, an expected point of arrival for an ethnography which thoroughly complicates a context and wades through the mess. The title of the chapter is in question form and foreshadows the many points he raises for further consideration, those questioning the objectives behind historical and contemporary anthropological action which provoke reflexivity of our ethnographic thoughts and movements and the objectives of the anthropological discipline (American and otherwise . To address these questions Ntarangwi turns to the history of imperialism and anthropology. This helps him, and the reader, make sense of the present circumstances and current disciplinary trajectory which hopes to reorient.
His questions are influenced by Faye Harrison’s (2008) objective for the “’reworking of anthropology in the global age” (Harrison in Ntarangwi 2010:126). He agrees with but problematises the objective of “developing a commitment for decentering Western epistemologies and promoting genuine multicultural dialogue in the study of humanity” (Ibid) which in anthropology, most recently and tangibly, has culminated in world anthropologies projects. The WCAA, IUAES, CWA, and WAN are dominant world anthropology organizations with the objective of creating dialogue between anthropologies, applied and “pure” (sic) (145). It may be argued that they hope to dissolve the status associated with these labels and cultivate equivalent legitimacy across varying forms and contexts of anthropological education and practice. The world anthropology groups have admirable theoretical and ideological goals, but those which hit concrete realities of socio-economic disparities unpreparedly, making the projects as yet wholly unrealisable.
To historically and (geo)politically situate the anthropology and its problematics, Ntarangwi gives a comprehensive survey of the development of African American studies and the Africanist school, and this history illuminates the long and insidious colonial, and post-colonial imperialist relationship between anthropology and Africans in and out of the continent. The legacy of these dynamics lingers in epistemological and socio-economic divides, and the difference of anthropological practice between West and the rest.
Since the beginning of Anthropology’s institutionalization the discipline has been relegated to the realm of alterity and otherness, but the expertise of the practice outside Euro-American domains has not been made equally legitimate. Ntarangwi explores the disciplinary divides that developed over the decades between anthropology and other disciplines, American and ‘alternative’ anthropology, and particularly the tension between anthropology and Africa, and African studies and Africanist pursuits. In shadow of this discussion is the notion and reality of the subaltern and dominant, center and periphery, and the apparent panacea of decentralization which Ntarangwi problematises. The well-meaning, seemingly innocuous initiatives of anthropology and world anthropology projects, those towards disciplinary inclusivity, are not pan-globally favoured. For one reason, anthropology is a tender subject and complicated presence in Africa, one that is suspect, criticized, and not warmly embraced by all African academies and scholars. This is apparent in, for instance, the structure of Kenyan university departments.
This discordant relationship may be amplified by particular training in and use of anthropology. Ntarangwi critiques the cooptation of anthropological tools by other disciplines. He argues that the reputation of ethnography is degraded by its adoption and uncritical use by non-anthropologists where it cause many of the harms anthropologists have been trained to circumvent and have crafted their methodology to avoid. When adopted by other disciplines ethnography is not always undertaken with the same rigorous reflexivity and critical consciousness as anthropology (not to say all anthropologists are the quintessence of the discipline’s ethical canon). Related to the issue of ethnography’s misuse is the scarcity of anthropology education in many African institutions. Departments supporting anthropology do so to a minimum, and as annex to training in other disciplines. Where anthropological education is offered, Ntarangwi argues it is not an appropriate form of training. The applied component being most suitable for addressing the social realities of Kenya, and African continent in general, and is not prioritized.
Addressing contextual suitability leads us to Ntarangwi’s broader critique of world anthropology projects. Applied anthropology as he has experienced in Kenya addresses the problems associated with local socio-economic conditions, those which also effect the banal but foundational mechanisms of the university institution. There is very limited access to resources such as as computers and internet connection, journal subscriptions, printing paper, and textbooks. This effects the quality of educational instruction, research pursuits, and engagement in global academic conversations. At once these are quotidian challenges of practising anthropologists and anthropologically concerned social scientists (individuals and departments), and also reflect socio-economic focal point of much local research in African regions. World anthropologies must take these realisms into consideration in the pragmatic component of their collaborate initiatives. The problems being addressed by scholars in Africa, for instance, must be considered by world anthropology projects in order to create (read: enable access to) a realistically inclusive global disciplinary conversation.
Critical and pragmatic consideration of context, that to which anthropology should be attendant beyond the abstractions of discourse, subjectivity, and all things meta, are often absent from educational development plans and intervention into Africa and other non-Euro-American spaces. Education reflects the preoccupations of Western academia (privileging and valuing theory over application), which alone is ineffective. Interventions themselves, when contextually uncritical, can impact the reciprocal relationship characteristic of anthropology. An unbalanced and harmful dynamic which takes more than gives further disreputes anthropology and it’s international presence. These problems are foreseeable, however, given that most world anthropology projects are ironically centralized in Euro-American domains.
Having read Escobar and Restrepo’s “Other Anthropologies and Anthropology Otherwise” (2005) and the online mission statements of the main world anthropology organizations, it would seem that the projects are still bound by the same “abstrusive” (147) language which Ntarangwi and Tejumola Oliniyan critique as the main limitations of Western post-modern anthropology (Ntarangwi 2010:147). Ntarangwi underscores that the Western fixation on discourse and narrative does not translate, or transfer, to all ‘African’ (and non-Euro-American) anthropology. It seems to be the absence of clear, pragmatic objectives that has since 2009 stalled the movement and realization of world anthropologies beyond the conceptual, theoretic, and virtual.
The above examples are not exhaustive of the barriers to the successful collaboration of contrapuntal anthropologies. At the closing of this chapter Ntarangwi serves a final, and surprising critical point: the problematic chasm in African anthropology between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ anthropology. He argues that a joint dialogue, the bridging of theory and practice, in anthropology education in African institutions can better prepare social sciences to meet and address the local, but globally implicated, social, cultural, and political realities of many African regions. Though there is no room for preoccupation with theory and abstraction, they are critical tools to strengthen praxis. He encourages his African anthropology colleagues to begin, when resources allow, to prioritize “the life of the mind” (151). His suggestions are admirable, much like the objectives of world anthropologies. However after the strong discussion of material and economic limitations, they read as aspirations for a distant future and leave our seminar group questioning how they might ever be realized
From his ‘native’ perspectives of both continental and transnational Other, and his continued experience with the institution of American anthropology, Ntarangwi sees the need for integrated anthropological conversations, inclusive projects, and objectives which can realistically transcend and work above problematic disciplinary and socio-economic divides. He sees this dependent on “individual connections and relations among anthropological networks across racial, geographic, and class boundaries”, and which will “lead to more sustainable collaborations” (136). Ntarangwi might argue that it is in communicatory media such as this blog, and our seminar classroom, where we should begin dialectically determining the pragmatics to realize these collaborations. As budding Canadian anthropologists we are gaining the lived experience of ‘otherness’ within academia, albeit not the same degree as our non-Euro-American colleagues. What we do have in common with them, though, is the pivotal choice between marginalization or assimilation into the American corpus of anthropology. However, for many of the reasons argued by Ntarangwi throughout his ethnography, most of us in the graduate program at Concordia are in the position to forge a third way, to give momentum to the changes long overdue in the global anthropology discipline and in academia more broadly. We have a fair degree of economic, epistemological, and material liberty to reorient our practice and disseminate rearticulated theory; the capacity to make our anthropology happen otherwise, as Restrepo and Escobar would say (2005). These alternative courses of action are “intricately tied” to the collective fate of anthropologies (151). Our “individual connections and relations”, as graduate students and immanent professionals, are privileged to help develop the network of critical and collaborative exchange for which Ntarangwi hopes and to reinvent anthropology’s future should we choose to do so (151).
Escobar, Arturo, and Eduardo Restrepo
2005 “Other Anthropologies and Anthropology Otherwise: Steps to a World Anthropologies Framework.” Critique of
Swedenburg, Ted. (2005). “Chapter 9: White Devil as Expert Witness.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto- Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (143-157). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.
Anthropology’s life outside academia and apart from academic objectives often forms and moves in ways unlike its traditional counterpart. Ted Swedenburg shows in “White Devil as Expert Witness” (2005) that the process of alternative anthropological work challenges academically legitimized practice. Anthropology and ethnography in alternative domains protrudes from and destabilizes orthodox frameworks. His piece highlights anthropology’s awkward translation into extra-academic domains, ironic for a discipline which prides itself on the ability to translate, and transfer across, differences. Swedenburg’s critically reflexive piece is a strong example of the problematics of ethnographic intervention, where discipline finds effective application only by disrupting or departing from its characteristic tenets. The work also prompts us to reflect on the success of anthropology’s efforts and the limitations and deficits of its traditional academic template.
Swedenburg’s alternative anthropology began when we was called to serve as an expert witness in a court case pertaining to prisoner’s rights. The suit against the New York State Department of Correctional Service was filed by the inmate Intelligent Allah Tarref who sought to have his religious rights legally recognized (143). This required first that the plaintiff’s community, the Nation of Gods and Earths, be recognized and instituted as a religion. It was Swedenburg’s role to draw on his anthropological expertise, perspective and practice, to convince the judge and jury that the Nation of Gods and Earths was not a gang, not a “security threat”, but rather a religious group “according to conventional understandings of the term” (146).
One blaring irony of this intervention speaks through the title of Swedenburg’s essay and its discussion should be premised by an introduction to the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE). The NGE is a community, ideology, and way of life emerging from the syncretism of “Afro-centrism, pan-Africanism, and Islamic cultural and religious influences” (144). Clarence 13x, a former Nation of Islam member expelled for his heretical teachings, was its founder (145). After leaving the NOI he changed his name to Allah and took to the streets of Harlem to a preach and proselytize his philosophies. In brief they held Black Men collectively as God and Black Woman is Earths (145). Those who recognize their divinity constitute 5 percent of the population and are the members of the NGE, hence the community’s alias Five Percent. Caucasian “white devils”, created by a malevolent scientist Yaqob, constitute 10 percent of the population who, among other evils, were spreading the teachings of Christianity and Orthodox Islam (145). The remaining 85 percent is the poor ignorant population who are exploited by the devilish 10 percent. Swedenburg, according to a fundamentalist Five Percent perspective, is a “white devil” connected to devilish academic and state institutions which confront and criminalize the NGE (145). Yet it is these institutions which supported Swedenburg in challenging the state on behalf of the Five Percent and legally legitimizing their community.
NGE membership is not easily identified, though can been seen in their rap music by a critical observer. Some of their lyrical messages are overt but most resemble apocrypha (Swedenburg 1997). Noting the signifiers of NGE membership requires familiarly with Islam and the Qur’an (Ibid). Aside from commentary on socio-political climate, NGE music is full of prayer. However, this actually sets them apart from orthodox Islamic faith which forbids sacred messages to be sung (Ibid). This illustrates one of many ways in which the NGE reflects familiar religious institutions yet differs from them radically. These unique variations complicated the state’s definition and incorporation of the NGE into legal frameworks. As NGE messages were also a challenge to identify, their textual and sonic messages could not be easily controlled, censored, or persecuted. Likely this illusiveness, along with racialisation and post-9/11 moral panic, prompted the classification of the NGE as a threatening group.
Swedenburg’s work contested the hegemonic classifications such as “gang”, which denied the recognition and rights of unorthodox collectives (143). However, this merely asserted other classifications which kept the NGE bound by hegemonic persepetives. Despite anthropology’s critique and re-articulation of the outdated classificatory system and its evaluative criteria, Swedenburg, as any other ethnographer might have, had to appeal to old discourse to communicate effectively outside the academic domain.
The intervention of the term “religion” into NGE’s identity is another point of irony. NGE is self-proclaimed a “way of life” and association with the category ‘religion’ is often protested (153). Though many of the members are Muslim they set themselves apart from the orthodox Islamic faith and the structures of religious institutions. However, they must lean on this legally recognized categorisation in order to gain recognition and (supposed) rights and protection by the state.
Swedenburg was one of many resources the judge used for adjudication. His anthropological expertise was put to the analysis of written documents rather than traditional fieldwork. However, previous research on Franco-Algerian Rai music, ‘Islamic’ African-American rap, and Isreal’s Mizrahi dance music, “’border’ musics of the middle east as well as middle eastern-inflected musics of the west” (Swedenburg N.D.) gave him authority over NGE’s evaluation. His data was selectively incorporated into the expert report, omitting some of the data which complicated the NGE’s position and was not translatable into an objective, legal vernacular.
In the end Intelligent won the law suit. But this was not primarily on account of the objective evidence produced by Swedenburg and the other witnesses. Rather, the verdict was drawn based on precedent and the judge’s subjective evaluation of sincerity of belief (152). While Swedenburg strived to translate anthropology into the criminal justice domain, the judge drew on what is a crucial but under-acknowledged part of anthropology’s practice: listening seriously to an(other); meeting them human to human.
Though this case would set a precedent for the legal status of NGE communities, individuals, and their sonic and textual communications, it did not necessarily alter public perception. No longer an “unauthorized group”, the NGE’s members on the street and in prison could practice and preach their way of life without persecution (143). But this did not disrupt the “dominant…discourses which treat young male blacks as dangerous, pathological, and violent” (150). It did, however, give to street-rapping NGE members, their Allah School, or circulated publications legal recognition and rights which would serve them in confrontations with the criminal justice system.
During the trial Swedenburg faced the question ‘have you been there?’ (149). This prompts the anthropologist to consider the criteria by which their work is legitimated. Is the discipline defined by perspective or method? Can the veteran anthropologist translate the wisdom of their field experience to understand other contexts? These are questions I cannot fully explore here, but rather I’d like to respond to the question of the Department of Criminal Services. Though Swedenburg had not been to the field referred to by the defendants, he had indeed conducted fieldwork, and a multi-sited project no less.
In order to “make effective arguments that might persuade the court to accord NGE members the same religious rights accorded to other recognized faiths” (147), Swedenburg traversed the NGE’s sonic and textual fields and, by the translation of many differences, brought them into conversation with the criminal justice system. To liaison the vernaculars, Swedenburg had to enculturate to legal language, customs, and practices, and underwent hours of ‘expert’ witness initiation. He observed and participated in the compilation of legal and cultural data, its scripting into legal narrative, testified at trial, and produced a 9 page report substantiating the plaintiff’s argument. He also studied the Allah School’s publication “The Five Percenter” (146) and drew on his own research on NGE Islamic hiphop (Swedenburg 2002a). Swedenburg had “been there”, in the fields relevant to context’s demands (153).
The ironies of Swedenburg’s anthropological intervention leads us to consider the weaknesses, limitations, and deficits of the current academic paradigm and expectations of the discipline. The knowledge produced must often be transmuted for its consumption or application in legal, state, or public domains. This may indicate that anthropology’s critical conversations about ‘otherness’, difference, and similarity are not having the impact they could, and should, beyond the academy.
Where is anthropology missing the mark? How is it that its conversations and practices, mostly relevant to critical socio-political issues, are belittled and dismissed outside the towers and texts (111) while other sciences are enticing the public with popular journal publications which broadcast discussions such as How Did We Get Four Limbs? Because We Have a Belly (Science Daily 2014), Low semen levels in mice make for fatter sons (Science News 2014), or A turkey’s wattle inspires a biosensor’s design (Science News 2014). I am not dismissing the importance of the discoveries of ‘hard science’. I only urge anthropology to find equal space in the public’s interest where it can speak to, and perhaps change some minds and discourses about difference. If this could be so, perhaps the anthropologist’s professional experience would differ from Swedenburg’s. Rather than needing to reify the constructs of its harshest critiques, the discipline could engage other domains in a dialogue open to alternative “way[s] of life” (153).
2014 How Did We Get Four Limbs? Because We Have a Belly. January 24. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140127112729.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+sciencedaily/top_news/top_science+(ScienceDaily:+Top+Science+News), accessed January 25, 2014.
2014 A turkey’s wattle inspires a biosensor’s design. January 28. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/scicurious/turkey%E2%80%99s-wattle-inspires-biosensor%E2%80%99s-design, accessed January 28, 2014.
2014 Low semen levels in mice make for fatter sons. January 28. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker/low-semen-levels-mice-make-fatter-sons, accessed January 28, 2014.
1997 Islam in the Mix: Lessons of the Five Percent. http://comp.uark.edu/~tsweden/5per.html, accessed January 27, 2014.