Over two decades, I have watched Warlpiri friends perilously navigate increasingly volatile life circumstances. I observe through what are now conventional forms for anthropologists: news reportage, phone calls, text messages, social media posts, and the work of colleagues, as well as face-to-face interactions across an expanding mobile life. In-person visits often follow a flurry of dramatic Facebook posts, a terse phone call, or notable headlines. These striking glimpses of life deeply color my expectations of what will happen when I visit people in the flesh. Invariably, I get it wrong.
Our social-mediated engagements with contemporary suffering and crisis, our participation in political campaigns such as #MeToo, and the controversy surrounding HAU similarly propagate a sense of urgency and immediacy. The common sentiment of social media is outrage. It stokes instantaneous interactions, at times fostering new forms of solidarity among those similarly enraged. But outrage is fleeting, fickle, and fragile in its affinities. It quickly moves on to new campaigns. It also steamrolls the slow, critical thinking that is the hallmark of serious scholarship.
The hot-take rhythms of social media are reinvigorating longstanding calls to decolonize anthropology departments, curricula, and publishing practices. Yet, just as frustrating as the lack of institutional response to such calls is the predicable impasse into which efforts to explore these questions so often devolve. Accusations of dispossession, misappropriation, disempowerment, and exploitation all too often land us anthropologists in a place of mutually exclusive commitments. The hot take entrenches rather than transcends this deadlock.
A recent case from Australia illustrates my point. Colleagues recently published a piece about the Aboriginal names for ten Melbourne suburbs, the result of painstaking research with the notebooks of nineteenth-century anthropologist Alfred William Howitt. The published article acknowledged the Wurundjeri Council, the local traditional owner representative body for Melbourne.
But immediately following its publication, a series of Twitter posts angrily dismissed the research for using terms like lost and forgotten rather than naming colonial brutality as the practice through which languages and place names were forcefully and deliberately erased. “Forgotten fuckoff,” tweeted one respondent. Fair enough. But must the decolonizing urge dismiss research that is itself conducted in the spirit of decolonization?
Here is my point: at a time when settler-colonial nation-states are brutally bearing down on Indigenous people with neoliberal force, is it possible to transcend the standoff between anthropology and Native/Indigenous standpoints? What would it take to establish different engagements between substantial scholarship and decolonizing critique?
One optimistic response lies with collaborative experiments on the margins of the discipline, where anthropology is being refigured as a fragile but hopeful space of new knowledge production (see also Biddle and Lea 2018). Yet these experiments often turn away from long-form analytic writing to privilege visual media.
I am interested in pushing beyond an acknowledgement of this impasse, creative collaborations, or Indigenous scholars’ strategic adaptations of disciplinary methods to ask more baldly: what might be left of anthropology on the other side of a serious reckoning with Indigenous critique?
Or, to put it another way: can anthropology hold together a genuinely refigured relationship to Indigenous communities and local knowledge, and to its own appropriative tendencies, while at the same time championing the role of critical, abstract techniques for analysis and comparison? I want to suggest that it can, but only so long as anthropologists stay with the trouble and acknowledge incommensurability as integral to our endeavor.
The tension I have in mind is captured to some extent by George Marcus’s (1997) provocation, now two decades old, that complicity rather than rapport best characterizes the complicated, ironic, and morally ambiguous nature of the fieldwork relationship. More recently, Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz (2018) has called out the distinction between complicity and allyship as vital to the disruption of the racialized boundaries of innocence and criminality.
Yet complicity indexes a further tension. By taking up the role of outsider, anthropologists necessarily have distributed allegiances. We cultivate commitments not simply to interlocutors and the organizations mediating their interests, but also to abstraction, analysis, and comparison. This necessarily puts our ambitions at odds with the intimate relations we develop in fieldwork. It distinguishes anthropology from Native studies, and at times our scholarship from our advocacy.
The present moment is particularly challenging for any anthropologist working with Indigenous communities. In Australia, Aboriginal people contend with shifting governmental and public attitudes, as well as with the sedimented wreckage of several decades of policy experiments. Across the world, struggles over basic terms of life and the politics of its representation are intensifying. In this context it is not surprising that anthropologists encounter heightened wariness, if not hostility, as they approach communities with research proposals. Future models of anthropology will need to be wrestled mutually and creatively out of these quagmires.
As both a buffer against the hot take and a tool for understanding its place in our world, we would do well to renew our commitment to the long, slow read and the long, comparative perspective. In doing such work we gain insight into not only colonial complicities, but also processes of modeling social formations and, vitally, the limitations of the concepts we deploy to comprehend our transforming world.
Equally challenging is the question of how to cultivate such a scholarly attitude among students, especially the generations who enter our classrooms steeped in fast-paced, social-mediated interaction and online learning. These modes of (in)attention are conducive to flimsy interdisciplinarity, hodgepodge assemblies of ideas, and superficial critique. This is in stark distinction from the process of working through a problem until meeting the limits of disciplinary thinking and then consciously, creatively pushing through.
In teaching students how (not what) to think, we give them powerful tools for interpreting the social and political conditions of their lives. We also lay the groundwork for cultural critique that might even morph into compelling activist research, and in turn into newly invigorated anthropologies.
Biddle, Jennifer L., and Tess Lea. 2018. “Hyperrealism and Other Indigenous Forms of ‘Faking It with the Truth.’” Visual Anthropology Review 34, no. 1: 5–14.
Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. 2018. “The Complicit Anthropologist.” Journal for the Anthropology of North America 21, no. 1: 36–37.
Marcus, George E. 1997. “The Uses of Complicity in the Changing Mise-en-Scène of Anthropological Fieldwork.” Representations, no. 59: 85–108.