Anthropology No More
Hagen, L. Kirk, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
A Review of Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects, and the End of Anthropology. Edited by Neil Whitehead and Michael Wesch.
University of Colorado Press, Boulder. 2012 264 pp. $27.95 ISBN-13: 978-1607321897
IT HAS BEEN MORE THAN A DECADE since anthropology endured its worst-ever humiliation following the publication of Patrick Tierney's Darkness in Eldorado, which brought infamy to anthropology with its accusation that the iconic American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon had committed genocide in Amazonia. Tierney, along with collaborators Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, falsely claimed that Chagnon had unleashed a deadly epidemic among the Yanomamo by administering a contraindicated measles vaccine as part of some sinister experiment in eugenics. That was just the most outrageous of Tierney's innumerable fabrications, which inexplicably slipped past the fact-checkers at W. W. Norton and New Yorker magazine. Over a year ago, medical historian Alice Dreger published what may be the final word on the Darkness scandal, and the news was not good. Dreger argues persuasively that anthropology's premier North American professional organization, the American Anthropological Association (AAA), had been complicit in the promulgation of Tierney's calumnies. (See Mice Dreger, "Darkness's Descent on the American Anthropological Association; A Cautionary Tale." Human Nature 22 (2011): 225-246.)
Since then, as the editors of Human No More acknowledge, anthropology has been trying to reboot and move into terrain free of the ethical quicksand that comes with ethnography in the old school style of Bronishw Malinowski. The discipline is now at "a critical juncture" writes lead editor Whitehead, and failing to address its problems "has led others to question anthropology's purpose" (220). Whitehead and co-editor Wesch propose to "stake out new anthropological fields and take us beyond the human" (219) by studying the "discursive panorama" of the unhuman, the subhuman, the nonhuman, and other marginalized or digitized beings (6). Part of this hazy objective is to establish an agenda that recognizes humans as "part of much larger systems that include relationships with animals, insects, microorganisms, spirits, and people who are not always considered human by others" (9). This is the End of Anthropology, as the book's subtitle says; a double-entendre hinting at either anthropology's grand new objective, or its coming demise. Unfortunately, it is not clear from Human No More which is the more likely outcome.
There is much to recommend this book. In Chapter 8 "Technology, Representation and the E-thropologist" Stephanie Aleman skillfully analyzes the "collision" between modern technology and traditional culture among the Waiwai of Guyana and Brazil. She reminds us that, on the one hand, exotic technologies often co-opt pre-industrial cultures long-term. On the other hand, to purposefully withhold from those cultures things like computers, shotguns, and yes, measles vaccines, is to consign them to the status of performers who, to their own detriment, fulfill some perverse fantasy of the well-to-do. "[W]e may not consider that they may actually want to be like us," Alemam writes (149). James Hoesterey gives another example of this persistent shame in Chapter 9, "The Adventures of Mark and Oily," where he explains how the producers of the Travel Channel's Living with the Mek invented a caricature of Papuan cultures in order to slake their viewers' thirst for the bravado of "extreme tourists" confronting the "untouched savage" (162). In a somewhat similar vein, Kent Wisniewski's chapter "Invisible Cabaclos and the Vagabond Ethnographers" reflects on the tensions between ethnographer and the voices of informants, and how anthropologists often "agonize over how to represent those voices to others" (179). He comes to accept his informants as collaborators. His chapter is a sincerely introspective work that should serve as a model for ethnographers. …