Archive for April, 2008

The Archaeology Behind the Crystal Skull (sort of)

Posted in Uncategorized on April 24, 2008 by salul

Some geekish coolness over at Archaeology mag.


(yes, I am a sucker for Jonesy…even if it is obvious that we only ever REALLY enjoyed the first film because we were proto-teenagers at the time, and then hated Spielberg for dropping Karen Allen from the subsequent flicks; perhaps this time things will be slightly better…)

Anthropology and Old School SciFi

Posted in Uncategorized on April 19, 2008 by salul

Shortly after I returned from Vanuatu and was down with malaria (for which no definitive results regarding the specific strain that hit me, except that it MAY have been doxy resistant, which is to say we may never know), I spent several days in idle convalescence. During that time I caught up with some of the storytelling provided by one of my regular leisure podcasts, Escape Pod, which sometimes provides really great storytelling. On this occasion I began to listen to a retelling of an old classic sci-fi short story by Robert Silverberg titled “Schwartz Between the Galaxies”.

(At right, the cover of a 1986 anthology in which this story appeared).

Silverberg book

The blurb on Silverberg’s quasi-official homepage summarises the story thus:

It’s not easy to be an anthropologist in the 21st Century. All the primitive cultures are gone, assimilated into a neo-Western global socio-economic sameness. Professor Thomas Schwartz is that useless anthropologist, globe-hopping from lecture to lecture, from Montevideo to Port Moresby, New Guinea, and all the cities are the same. But in his fantasies, he travels on a great interstellar liner surrounded by the representatives of many alien cultures–something to study!

A thoughtful rumination on the possible demise of cultural diversity written for Judy-Lynn del Rey’s first Stellar anthology [1973]. The story was a conscious effort at 1950s-style “conservative” storytelling, and earned a Hugo nomination.

Unfortunately, the story itself actually stinks (IMHO), and I switched off after less than 10 minutes.

The catch is, the story line constitutes a variation of the tired modernist myth that, in its most recent guise, feeds off of the notion that “globalization” is a tangible threat and will McDonaldise us all in the end. The notion of impending cultural homogeneity is about as silly today as it ever was, because the very real planetwide connectivity and scale that characterise our present moment have nothing to do with the “degradation” of perceived cultural purity or stability.

Overall, I found the story itself to be quite dull (as well as anachronistic, misogynistic, and slightly racist) at times. No news here; one has to take Old School SciFi for what it was – even though that doesn’t really excuse its writer, given that 1972 is not that far removed from us. In this respect, the fact that it was ever nominated for a Hugo just goes to prove that said award has never been a guarantor of quality. However, the responses it got from listeners in the EP site constitutes a lively, if probably ephemeral, public debate regarding various misperceptions, contradictions and issues related to anthropology. So I thought I might point readers to it.


Of course, you may have to listen to the story. Or not. Your choice. I did not find it was indispensable in order to get the gist of the various arguments being presented.

Blindsight, the movie

Posted in Tibet on April 9, 2008 by salul


I apologise for the relatively slow output of the past week. I have several topics waiting to be posted about, not least a serious news update about the developing Olympic Torch protests. I’ve simply been too busy, though, and it may have to wait another couple of days before I get down to some serious updating.

However, I simply had to publish a quick post in support of Blindsight, a new documentary film based on the true story of how several blind Tibetan children, in the company of their mentor, Sabriye Tenberken, and Erik Weihenmeyer, a highly experienced blind mountain climber, managed to climb up Lhakpa-ri, a 6,000 mt peak situated close to the north face of Chomolangma (Everest), hence on the Tibetan side of the Himalayan border.


At 6k, that qualifies for “high altitude” mountaineering. ‘Nuff said.

(That there is me striking the inevitable pose at Rongbuk Monastery, a few klicks to the fore of Everest North…mostly hidden by clouds in this pic).


Sabriye and her partner Paul Kronenberg are the founders and admins of the amazing NGO Braille Without Borders. I have not yet ranted about my cynicism towards most things to do with international aid and development…but for now I’ll just say that BWB is, in my opinion, one of the most uniquely successful NGOs operating in Lhasa…and believe me, I do not say that lightly.


Mausse class

(at left: students from “Mouse”, i.e. beginners, class at the Centre in Lhasa, photo by BWB)

My connection here? In late 2003 I worked briefly for Sabriye and Paul, when they needed an evaluation report for their Rehabilitation and Training Centre for the Blind in Tibet (based in Lhasa). It was as a result of that experience that I really became a total fanboy of these guys, and their amazing pupils and teachers.

But why go on reading me? Visit some of their sites and judge for yourselves, here and here.

Sonam and Nyima

Sonam & Nyima (photo by BWB)

From my field diary: Dealing with secrecy and ethnographic knowledge

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia) on April 7, 2008 by salul

When is it important, imperative even, to keep certain kinds of local knowledge secret? By which I mean absent from the ethnographic data that one publishes and/or otherwise makes available to a broader public?

This is an age-old question that has been addressed in various ways at different times, in both private and institutional contexts, and is constantly pondered and discussed in anthropological circles (see here and here, for instance).

In this post, however, I want to get specific and refer to a particular instance of ritual secrecy in the Torres Islands, and the ways in which my thinking and acting on this issue have evolved over the past decade.

5 Day Mortuary Ceremony

During my first period of fieldwork (1998-2000), I became aware of some of the workings of the local status-alteration rituals that are constitutive of the hukwe, which is the name given to the group of men who have acquired a title and rank within the gemel, more commonly known as nakamal in Vanuatu, which is basically the “men’s house” that is reserved for initiates of a system of ritualised authority by which special types of secret knowledge are transmitted (the image at right shows a simplified “dress rehearsal” of the initiation ceremony that these children will undergo when they are selected to enter the hukwe later in life).

Members of the hukwe are considered to be “powerful” insofar as they are capable of consorting with primordial spirits and can become – after years of acquired learning and proper deportment – capable of manipulating magical forces. The most powerful and highly ranked persons may eventually master the art of traveling on shamanistic-like journeys to the Land of the Dead (these are extremely powerful persons known as temetrong, men who can “hear/perceive the spirits”).

The point here is that even the summary information that I have just presented is the result of a very long and extensive learning process which came to a surprising climax during my most recent stint of fieldwork. In essence, I was given privileged access by some of the highest ranked men and chiefs to ritual knowledge that I had never previously known existed. This knowledge is considered “taboo” insofar as it is meant to be transmitted only within the confines of the nakamal to members of the hukwe. During this past visit I was unexpectedly awarded a rank and title within the hukwe, and was thereby exposed to specialised forms of ritual knowledge.

[Above: The entire membership of the hukwe of the Torres Islands during a mortuary kava-drinking ritual]

Why am I telling all this? Because I think that the context which I am describing represents precisely the kind of extremely difficult situation that some of us face when presented with forms of knowledge that are meant to be kept secret, but might offer crucial insights into the workings of local cosmologies and value systems. That is, in fact, the case with some of the ritualised knowledge that was made known to me; in other words, it allowed me to clarify some important and outstanding issues having to do with notions of agency, causality and effect proper to the worldview of the Torres people. Specifically, I was able to clearly decipher the basic dynamics of the relationships between the living, the dead and the primordial spiritual forces that have a decisive and constant influence on the course of everyday life.

So. What to do? Basic common sense and ethics dictate that I keep this knowledge secret, notwithstanding its possible relevance to academic debates. And that is exactly what I intend to do: keep it secret. However, that does not preclude my being able to discuss the insights that I have gained as a result of this knowledge.

And I suppose that that is what this (highly self-reflexive and self-indulgent) post is all about, which is to argue that there are ways of discussing and making use of privileged knowledge without violating the specific terms in which it was presented; in other words, without making that knowledge public and violating its secrecy or sanctity. I have no need or intention of revealing the specific type of knowledge that I was offered (i.e. a translation of verbal or non-verbal formulae, etc.). Nor do I have to: it is enough to be able to state, on the basis of intimate authority, the broader implications that it carries for the manner in which the value system and socio-spiritual dynamics of the Torres work.

That, anyway, is my conclusion at this point. It is worthwhile stating that in the past I have been extremely concerned about not revealing more than I thought I should, to the extent of having restricted access to my PhD thesis at Cambridge University (for which I was chided by the authorities – to no effect). At the time, I was operating on the basis that there might me some unintended consequences arising from my mentioning certain names (toponyms, ancestors, what have you). This was no exaggeration, and still holds true in many respects. However, I have since then been able to discuss the contents of my thesis with the people of the Torres Islands, and even though I am under no illusion as to the misinterpretations that can still arise from its circulating freely, I am satisfied that as much has been done to respect their sensitivities as I could manage. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that ethnographic knowledge, even when presented with the best of intentions, often takes on a life of its own that can come back to bite us in unpleasant ways.

But the point is that there are always possibilities of finding a middle road that satisfies most of the limitations imposed by our own personal and institutional codes of ethics, while fulfilling the declared intention of our scholarly. It is towards just such outcomes that we must always direct our efforts, and make the best of it when things happen to go wrong. To do otherwise, for instance by shying away from all controversy, would be to abandon critical thinking completely, and give in to the notion that research, insofar as it is about a critical exercise in cultural interpretation, is an absurd enterprise.

I, for one, am not there yet, and probably never will be. To take a leaf from the book of Robert Harrison, this is about owning up to the fact that the academy is precisely the home for critical analysis and hermeneusis. To hand this recognition over to an exercise in feel-good, confessional self-limitation may, in effect, feel good, but it will hardly resolve the problem at hand.

Since this issue (and my own developing position in respect of my fieldwork) are hardly uncontroversial, I welcome any comments or critique.

Meanwhile, in Xinjiang…

Posted in Tibet on April 6, 2008 by salul

For a few days now I have been thinking of writing a follow-up piece to my recent comments regarding Tibet, mostly as a reply to people in the Savage Minds blog who seemed either curious or displeased that I did not make my own insights into the Tibetan issue a bit more clear.

At this point, I may or may not do so. This blog, after all, is intended to be of an anthropological bent, in the main, and I feel that banging on about Tibet will simply make the overall content of my infrequent posts more political than anthro in nature.

However, I recently ran into this uplifting reminder of the situation in East Turkestan, otherwise known as Xinjiang, and this related essay, and realised that I really should try to put in at least a brief post regarding Xinjiang. Once again, as with Tibet, I feel that I have little to add in terms of specifics. The situation in Xinjiang is, to my mind, clearly far worse than it is in Tibet. Has been for a long, long time, and the amnesia that has been habitually practised in respect of Xinjiang in Western circles is truly astonishing, and is begging for greater engagement, both scholarly and humanitarian/activist.

I intend to visit Xinjiang in the not too distant future. For the time being, and in relation to the strange ways in which politics and repression are often related across the broader regions of Western China I found this comment – by a reader with the alias of monotony who responded to Cumming’s essay – to be quite telling of the turn for the worst that politics has been taking in Tibet for the past two or three years:

“I agree that Zhang Qingli was the worst thing that could have happened to Xinjiang, and now he’s in charge of Tibet and look what’s happening there. His repressive policies just serve to radicalise the minorities. His “wolf in monk’s habit” comment to describe the Dalai Lama is just embarrassing. I can’t believe they gave him the Tibet job. Where he goes next will tell us which way the party authorities are really leaning.” 

Breve entrevista sobre el Tibet en el Canal 11 de México

Posted in Tibet on April 3, 2008 by salul

Para aquellos hispanoparlantes que se asoman ocasionalmente a este blog, incluyo una liga para mirar

una breve entrevista que me hizo Gabriela Calzada en el noticiario matutino del Canal 11 el pasado lunes 31 de marzo.

Confieso que me apabulló la torpeza de mis respuestas a las primeras dos preguntas. Pero ni modo. Por algo se empieza (es mi primera entrevista de tv en vivo) y creo que eventualmente se pudo salvar el asunto. Ya dirán ustedes si mejor me retiro a una cueva o me vuelvo a poner al tiro cuando lleguen los bárbaros medios a llamar a la puerta.

Bromas aparte, es importante reiterar que mi experiencia como tibetólogo es incipiente y secundaria a mi trabajo como antropólogo de Oceanía, por lo que no me considero experto ni mucho menos. Pero en el país de los ciegos el tuerto es rey, y cuando la situación internacional pone de relieve un tema que se vuelve atractivo para los medios , a veces se dan estas situaciones.


EDIT: The link above is no longer functional. Sorry folks, I’ll have to see if I can dredge up this interview file from somewhere else.