In a 2018 Theorizing the Contemporary series for Fieldsights titled, “Speculative Anthropologies,” contributors pondered what “epistemological humilities” might emerge from taking speculative fiction seriously as archive, analytic, and method for creating new kinds of scholarship. As Ruha Benjamin (2016) writes, fiction is not a “falsehood” but rather, a “refashioning.” For anthropology, fiction may be a vehicle for realizing the otherwise, for inhabiting and interrogating new subjectivities not wholly constrained by traditional data sets or the genre of the peer-reviewed article. However, these fictive worlds, even those populated by tentacled aliens or nanobots, reveal a great deal more about their authors and the societies that produce them than may appear on the surface (Helmreich 2012). The other of fiction is always drawn from the prism of the observer, the writer, the scientist, and so fiction is not only an opportunity to differently represent and imagine the Other that is the subject of anthropology but also a chance to think reflexively about the anthropologist and their place in the world (Haraway 1988).
The most recent entry in Fictions, “Dinner with an Anthropologist,” does just that by staging a parodic encounter between anthropology and intolerant ideology. It challenges us to consider the ways that anthropology participates in, reifies, or is constructed through intolerances of various kinds. There is a great deal at stake in our response to this challenge. We find ourselves at a moment of escalating white supremacy and police violence against BIPOC people, in which anthropologists must act on our own institutional failures while renewing our public engagement against racism. In the midst of a pandemic, where broad practices of denial are legitimated by increasingly authoritarian leaders, we must simultaneously critique and defend biomedicine. Barred from our classrooms, anxious about our futures, we struggle to express something meaningful to our distant and distracted students. And yet, the author invites us to look for our answers to these questions in a scene that seems both unremarkably familiar and painfully remote: a dinner party. As anthropologists, we should not be surprised that our investigation has brought us to a domestic space, one in which we are both completely at home and lost among strangers. Perhaps there is no better place to think reflexively about the intolerances that charge our everyday lives, to critically examine our own positions, and to decide how we can and should act.
An Anthropologist for Dinner
I’ve always dreaded family meals. A few hours before they start, I always get this lump in my throat that burrows its way down through my chest and into my stomach. With family, you have to eat. But just thinking about it makes me lose my appetite. I feel like I’m about to be force-fed like a goose with a tube stuffed down my gullet.
Anyway, I’m telling you all this because I met Lola. A beautiful, intelligent, funny girl who talks loudly and smokes too much, a self-proclaimed feminist who works in a clothing shop. We met at a conference run by Mathieu Ricard, the Buddhist monk-cum-neurologist lionized by all those whom capitalism has left desperate and disconsolate. Not that I’m a disciple of self-improvement, but I’d gone out of curiosity to understand what made the faithful crave words like “relax” and “accept.” It almost seems like these stress-management gurus exist to mollify us into accepting the violence of the modern world. I fell asleep as soon as we were invited to meditate and breathe, only waking later to the audience’s applause. And there was Lola next to me, giving the whole thing her full attention. She welcomed me out of my inner depths with a big smile framed by electric-fuchsia lips.
We’ve been joined at the hip ever since. We love getting together to read in my apartment in Saint-Gilles (an artsy neighborhood of Brussels), where she tells me about her favorite writers—Woolf, Despentes, Butler—and I do the same back. I love the fact that she isn’t looking for a man to protect her. In her view, you don’t need to love us much to put up with us. She finds men insufferable with their so-called hormones and their masculine certainties, and she lives the way she feels. Behind her small, almost fragile exterior stands an Athenian warrior. And odd as it may sound (and I doubt she’d appreciate being objectified like this), she has the most incredibly slender feet. While she was sleeping this morning, I took the time to observe them as they poked out from under the covers. Fine, delicate little things in perfect harmony with the rest of her morphology. No lumps, no bumps, not one unflattering detail. Perfectly straight toes with carefully trimmed nails. How could anyone not love a woman with feet like that? I wondered with a certain irony, before getting up to make a pot of coffee.
And here we are, off to dinner with her family. I was hardly keen to come along, but I wanted to make her happy. I haven’t met this tribe before, but what Lola’s told me about them in the two months we’ve been together (“a little on the conservative side”) doesn’t exactly thrill me. She gives me a brief breakdown of all the major characters: brother Thomas, pragmatic and ambitious telecoms engineer; similar in nature to father Jean, who made his fortune in aluminum roofing (“exported across the universe,” she chuckles), recent stroke; mother Alessia, originally from Italy, retired graphic designer, in remission from cancer; and Sarah, Thomas’s partner, nurse, a few months pregnant. Lola’s grandparents will be there too. They used to have a clothing workshop, all but forgotten thanks to Alzheimer’s.
“God, I’m nervous,” I tell Lola on the doorstep.
“Just don’t bring up politics, don’t make a scene, and everything will be fine,” she says with a smile, and she turns the key to open the door to this lovely building.
Her brother is first to greet us. He gives me a firm handshake; I worry mine is too limp. Thomas is a big, blond, athletic-looking guy in a checkered shirt and linen sweater. His arms are as thick as my legs. He drops a few consonants and throws in the odd “’ey?,” but not enough to mask where he comes from. But there’s a sadness about him, too. He has the drooping eyelids of a cocker spaniel. I have to remind myself that Jews don’t have a monopoly on melancholy. Next, it’s his girlfriend’s turn to welcome us: Sarah has chestnut hair and remarkably large breasts. Her teeth are immaculately white. She throws her arms open to us like a Madonna, seeming genuinely interested. Last to join the proceedings are the father (Thomas didn’t fall far from this hulking tree) and mother (Sarah could be her daughter they look so similar). Everyone is warm and pleasant. Lola seems to be in her element, though I get the sense her enthusiasm might be exaggerated. I wonder if she also popped a Valium before coming.
The bourgeois drawing room we adjourn to is just how I imagined: clean and simple; large, white, modern furniture; silky beige carpet; shelves filled with art and travel books; conservatory looking out onto a long, beautifully kept garden; open fireplace; and a blue-eyed Burmese cat. We all sit down at the table with wine glasses full, and the first thing we talk about is food. It astonishes me that anyone can spend so long talking about recipes. In my family, with (radical!) feminist mother and sisters, politics and social issues come with the starter; and the plates start flying before the main course has even been served. Thomas tell us about the delicious leg of lamb he made last week in abundant detail: the spices he used, how long he cooked it, how the butter trickled down over the golden-brown crust; his mother interrogates Sarah as to the provenance of this succulent haunch; Jean asks which wine accompanied the beast; Lola jumps in to champion her organic basket. She squeezes my hand under the table with a loving smile. She can see I’m bored. Then, between soup and steak, conversation turns to the latest gadgets. The father shows us his smart TV, recently acquired, which gives him access to hundreds of channels and lets him check his vitals on screen at the same time. I wonder if it checks his hemorrhoids for him, too. So much fuss over nothing—the way people fetishize new technology! Jean looks like a child proudly showing off a new toy. He looks at me intensely, as if seeking the approval of a fellow man. If only he knew how much I loathe male solidarity.
Despite everything, I’m relieved no one seems to be taking too much interest in me this evening. I laugh when it’s called for, exchange a few polite words, ask the right questions, and get drunk alongside them. Part of the conversation, but not the subject. I chew on my steak in peace. And that’s when pater familias turns to interrupt my divine quietude, adopting a serious air as he inhales a mouthful of steak—while I choke down the lump in my own throat.
“So, my daughter tells me you’re an anthropologist?”
Both Lola and I flinch. The fateful question has been dealt. I watch it play back in slow motion out of the father’s mouth, anticipating the usual confusion between anthropology, skulls, dinosaurs, tribes of savages, and Indiana Jones. I don’t have anything against people who don’t understand what I do, I know academia is an elitist pursuit, but still . . . The memories of a dozen ruined dinners spent trying to explain my vocation flash through my mind, my failure to rouse people’s interest, though certainly some surprise, curiosity, and sometimes even hostility. What’s anthropology? Anthro-what? What’s the point? How far can it get you? How did you end up studying that? Do you really believe all cultures are equal? (I’m not a racist but . . . ) what did Africans ever invent? Aren’t people in Asia meant to be much kinder than here? And the look of (hopefully eternal) regret on one poor soul’s face after he asked me if Lévi-Strauss was “the jeans guy.”
In one second, I’ve mapped the situation on the ground like a soldier in an ambush. I’m ready for battle, my mouth fills with saliva, my pupils dilate, my irises streak red. I prepare my usual repertoire: It’s a bit more complicated than that; You’re essentializing there; It’s different in some societies. Lola knows what state I’m in, no doubt getting ready herself to jump under the table to avoid the conflagration.
“Yes, that’s right, an anthropologist,” I say quietly, as if talking about some shameful illness.
I’m met with curiosity more than animosity: ten bright eyes turned on me, waiting for a sign. Am I supposed to explain something? Make a joke? Change the subject? Throw on a pair of moccasins, headdress, eagle feathers, porcupine spines, climb onto the table, and perform a First Nations powwow? I’m frozen. The grandparents, blissfully unaware of the question, continue to chew their food in peace.
“So, what does an anthropologist do exactly?” mother Alessia chimes in. I’m ashamed to find myself half-resenting her remission.
“Well . . . ” I say, clearing my throat.
“Anthropology—study of anthrax, right?” the sad cocker spaniel interjects, guffawing at his own joke. I offer a polite chuckle, but deep down I want to shrink his head, Jivaro-style.
“I know!” exclaims Sarah. “It’s the study of distant tribes. I took a course in nursing school. It was fascinating!” She goes ten points up in my estimation. “You know those TV shows where they send celebrities halfway round the world? It’s a bit like that, right?” She looks to me for validation. Twenty points down.
Lola is staring into her plate, no doubt plotting a thousand different distractions to contain my impending explosion. Time to take matters into my own hands. Apart from my colleagues and students, no one knows how to define what I do, not even my parents, let alone the people I actually study. Sometimes, I even struggle to work it out myself, so I say I’m a historian or a sociologist, both of which have a better ring. We all know what an economist is looking for. No one ever asks if what he does is useful. I want to ask Thomas what the point is of inventing ever faster, ever cheaper phones; Alessia, why she spent her whole life designing pretty logos to sell more and more products? The moment I utter the word “anthropology” to people, their faces glaze over as if I were talking about some terra incognita inhabited by weird and wonderful creatures. In practice, I often get called a spoilsport, a snob, intolerant. Or, conversely, a tolerance tyrant living in my own little bubble shut off from the real world outside. Why don’t you come down from your ivory tower, Derek!
Having an anthropologist at the dinner table is having someone who gets himself and everyone around him worked up, threatening to undermine convictions and shake people out of their existential comfort zones. Someone who flies off the handle about racism, antisemitism, islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, the list goes on. Someone who gets profoundly offended by social and cultural caricatures and the lack of nuance with which people talk about others. Someone who puts curbs on language, because anthropologists know the violence of words and the murderous effects they can have. The struggle lies in making people see that, sometimes, those others are right. Although the tribe I currently find myself with tonight doesn’t know it yet, my life consists of feeling out of sync with the world around me, a killjoy to my own kind, flying in the face of political evidences. But, although the steak, the wine, and the direction the talk is taking are starting to darken my mood, I pull myself together. I’m an educator after all. Don’t make a scene. Deep breath.
“What I’m interested in,” I say, calmly, “is culture. And cultural diversity. Not necessarily faraway populations,” I add with a glance at Sarah, “but all humans. Anthropology is a scientific study of man as a cultural being.”
“Derek writes books,” Lola chimes in.
Translation: I’m an intellectual snob.
“He’s a university lecturer.”
Implication: He looks down on people.
“And he’s traveled a lot. Asia, Africa, America.”
Thank you, darling, now they think I spend my life trotting round the globe at the taxpayer’s expense for some worthless elitist project.
“Well, I try . . . ” I say with false humility. Lola gives me a complicit smile. She loves my neurotic aloofness, grand and mediocre in equal measure.
“So, you get around a lot?” asks Sarah.
“Not that much to be honest. My students must think I’m always off in some remote corner of the world. I imagine they’re hoping to find a ticket to the tropics stapled to their final degree. I actually pretty much just live in the library.” My comments elicit a smile from the audience. And yet it’s true: I do spend much of my life reading books. My way of deciphering reality. And escaping it too. Books are my shield against the violence and urgency of the present.
Alessia returns to the fray: “I always thought anthropology was all skulls and cavemen. I saw a documentary once about the origin of humanity.” I tell her calmly this is a common misconception, mentioning Yuval Harari’s bestseller Sapiens. She’s going to order it on Amazon, she tells me.
“Lola’s mother and I were in Senegal a few years back. Club Med. Charming people. Friendly. And of course, they live so authentically over there.”
“And life’s so cheap,” Alessia adds. “A scrumptious rice plate for half a euro!”
My mind jumps to the men and women I’ve met all over the world for whom half a euro was a considerable amount of money. I once stayed with a family where eighty-four euros had to feed thirty people for a month. I think about the violence of colonial history: chopped-off hands in the Congo, human zoos, French Algeria, lower races, the Code de l’indigénat and its humiliations, Saartjie Baartman the “Hottentot Venus,” plundered natural resources, civilizing mission, Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans—the list of shame goes on; about our Western obsession for authenticity and exoticism; about how lucky we are to travel when and where we want—imagine if Jean and Alessia had been born in the Congo! I think about those too who, with the best of intentions, romanticize difference and believe that elsewhere is always better. But what if we stopped daydreaming for a minute? Everywhere in the world, humans drink, eat, sleep, fuck, dance, talk, consume. Everywhere in the world, men dominate women and other men. Everywhere in the world, there are people in love and people who are depressed or afraid. Inuit, Pygmy, or Aboriginal; from Bangkok to Dnipro, Bogota to Jerusalem, there are always assholes, idiots, crooks, perverts, fraudsters, and people who lust for power. Just like here, no better, no worse. Just like us: humans and different. But we’re not supposed to think that way about alterity!
“Derek’s interested in trader culture.”
“Traders?” father asks with surprise.
“That’s right. How they work, their business culture, their values, their contradictions too.”
“How to earn more money?” spaniel-eyed brother exclaims.
“No, to study them.”
And let’s not forget how they’re bringing our world to ruin, darling!
“Oh,” he says, disappointed.
I nod along, when suddenly grandma falls into a coughing fit at the corner of the table. Everyone gets worked up, busying themselves to make her spit up the culprit potato. Everything alright, grandma? Luckily, Sarah is a nurse and knows the Heimlich. The maneuver takes a few minutes to work. It looks like I’m off the hook, and true enough, I’m allowed to return to my light torpor for the rest of the evening. My anxious bones relax a little. No more talk of anthropology or cultural diversity. The show’s over. The volcano—me—didn’t blow its top. I have to admit, all told, Lola and I made it through pretty well. Situation salvaged. As usual, I’d expected the worse. Maybe I even made a good impression! Conversation turns to Sarah’s pregnancy, a little boy due in a few months’ time. And I stop myself from interrupting to explain why I think the only solution to the world’s runaway demographic crisis is anti-natalism (or at least adoption, let’s be environmentally responsible, for Christ’s sake!). Killjoy I may be, but not a lunatic.
Alessia, Sarah, Lola, and grandma retreat to the kitchen. As is the case in certain families, a strict sexual division of labor in enforced after dinner: the women clear the table and rally to wash up and tidy; the men sprawl across the drawing room. I feel like I’ve gone back in time. Each of us has a glass of whisky in hand, an expensive scotch, and Jean regales us about its taste, origin, and age. For the second time that evening, he turns to me and beckons me over, as if he has a secret for me. Thomas now has an “I Love New York” baseball cap on (though I’ve no idea where it came from), fiddling away on his phone in between sips of his drink, while grandpa snoozes.
“Culture is important, you’re right.”
I nod along.
“Especially today, don’t you think? Young people have lost their way. They need structure. Isn’t that right?”
I offer a mumbled “maybe” without conviction.
“We’re living through an era of civilizational decline, don’t you think?”
Riding a wave of momentum, father launches into what it turns out is his favorite hobby: lamenting the decadence of European societies and the loss of Christian identity, threatened as it is by creeping Islamization. A real-life adherent of the great replacement theory! He rails against champagne socialists, political correctness, bleeding-heart liberals, single-mindedness, and globalism. Long live the people and freedom of expression! In a matter of minutes, this retired entrepreneur has transformed from polite family man with a perfectly ironed shirt to ideologue! I can hear the rumble of distant drums, the mob clamoring, the old women singing. Ochre dust and a strong smell of coal pervade the room, the fires crackle. Thomas and grandpa seem oblivious. Jean suddenly leaps up from his armchair. Violent spasms course through his body in waves. His eyes roll back in his head. His voice becomes high-pitched, like the piercing cry of a little monkey deep in the rain forest.
“They’re coming! They’ll invade us all!” he bellows. “Muslims!” He rocks back and forth. His arms flail as if no longer attached to his body. “Gays! Lesbians! Feminists!” The frantic rhythm of the drums increases. Jean stamps the ground with his feet and the dust cloud intensifies around him. He thrusts his limbs into space chaotically and leaps like a mountain goat on LSD. “Jews! Freemasons! They’re coming, I can see them!”
He stares into the fire, drool foaming in the corners of his mouth. Suddenly he stops and turns back toward me, sticks his tongue out and twists it around like Gene Simmons. He fixes me with the look of a rabid rottweiler.
“I’m not a racist, you know!”
And with that he falls back into his trance. The force of his convulsions brings his sizeable carcass down to the floor. He’s crawling on all-fours now, rolling around on the ground, contorting, screaming to high hell like a pig to the slaughter. It’s the same frenetic energy as Angus Young at the peak of a guitar solo, going around in circles on the floor.
Jean continued to spew invective, each more extreme than the last. “They all want to invade us!”
Drool mixed with big globs of sweat rain down on the plush beige rug. Jean rushes at the cat basking in the conservatory.
“Snowflake!” he screams in its face.
The poor beast looks up at him with love in its blue eyes. Is he about to feast on its blood? To sacrifice the innocent creature on the altar of “Our Values”? In his continuing possession, he falls back to the floor alongside the purring kitty, drenched in sweat, face puffy, his carotid arteries throbbing a samba. Breathlessly, he ends his lamentations with one last cry:
“Not compatible with our culture!”
He waves his hand in front of my eyes.
I return to reality.
“We need people who have the courage to say out loud what everyone else is thinking, don’t you think?” he says before knocking back a mouthful of scotch.
Yes, of course, Jean, that’s just what we need, a good old-fashioned Mussolini! There’s a frightening sense of certainty pouring out of this man. He talks to me as if I must be of the same mind. As if everyone must, necessarily, share his opinions. Have you noticed how liberally and naturally racism likes to express itself these days? On the bus, at the dentist, between educated people, on social media. Just like going a month without drinking alcohol or eating meat, maybe it’s time we tried “forty days without racism”—a new challenge for citizens to reflect on the impact of their prejudices! Jean uses his rhetorical don’t you think as a way of refocusing his stream of consciousness, locking his gaze on mine to drive me further into his corner. His train of thought brings him to the refugee crisis, concluding with the classic mantra of “It’s not up to us to fix all the world’s problems, don’t you think?” This last point stirs grandpa from his slumber. He watches on looking a little lost. A great quote by Pessoa springs to my mind: “There is but one remedy against provincialism: knowing that it exists. Provincialism thrives when left unacknowledged.” And Jean is provincialism incarnate: incapable of traveling outside one’s beliefs. Barricaded inside oneself. Reflexivity—zero.
So many times, I’ve fought to defend my vision for this planet: an open, inclusive, plural, welcoming, introspective, complex, empathetic, and multidirectional world like the values of a martial art’s kata. Paradoxically, such a world requires me to be aggressive in my choice of words to counter natural human tendencies. Will I, today, be forced to do battle once more, unpick father’s certainties, hold a mirror up to his contradictions, try to show him the position from which he’s speaking, make him more flexible in his thinking? Will I need to bring out my anthropological bazooka and risk reducing my new girlfriend’s family home to rubble? Don’t make a scene! Don’t make a scene! Don’t make a scene! Poor Jean just had a stroke after all. I remember Lola’s words and consider escaping to the bathroom for another Xanax. Or I could just launch into a warrior dance right in the middle of the drawing room? One of those menacing routines that Rwandan intore, spear-wielding warrior dancers in long white headdresses and leopard-skin robes, perform as part of their military training. But first I’d need a tom-tom and a shield! And to swallow magic powders to suppress the violence of my enemies! Or maybe a haka, complete with guttural cries and grimaces to intimidate my opponent in his bourgeois dining room! I could borrow some of Alessia’s make-up to paint my face like a Maori. I can picture dog-faced brother’s astonishment and hanging jaw, the amused look on his girlfriend’s face. Or perhaps, more understatedly, I should just use my family’s guilt techniques that I know so well (tried and tested on generations of Jewish children)—an appeal to his emotions. But would that work on a goy?
“You know, Jean, I’m a Jew myself, the son of immigrants. My parents weren’t born here.” The word “Jew” prompts Thomas and grandpa to sit up in their chairs with ears pricked like two fennec foxes in the desert.
“Ah, the Jews! Don’t they just bang on,” he says to me without batting an eyelid. “Always whining . . . ”
Always whining: the last words I remember when I think on my discussion with Lola’s father. In that moment, my brain disconnects for a few seconds. I feel K.O. Speechless. Drained. Like on the brink of some cataclysm and powerless to stop it. Hopeless. Like Zweig exiled in Brazil, frozen before impending catastrophe. What a time to be an anthropologist! Unable to react against the torrent of gibes and dogma pouring forth, I retreat to the past and think of my immigrant grandparents, whom I never knew. Their hopes and fears. What they lost. Their vulnerabilities. Looking at the other grandfather before me, I can’t help wondering what he was doing in 1940: resistance or collaborator? I want to bring my poor ancestors back to life, take them reassuringly in my arms, and say: “Look, we survived.” We survived barbarity, but even now, we still have to put up with the likes of Jean. We endured totalitarianism, but nothing in life is certain. The ghosts of the past are looming. There still persists a great divide between the normals, the many, and those who find themselves marked from the start by the seal of alterity: the mad, the cracked, the crazies, the colorful and the eccentric . . . anyone who has to co-exist with the Jeans of the world. I beg forgiveness of my revived ancestors for not doing more to create a better, fairer world. Anthropology is a work-in-progress utopia. But is it truly feasible?
When Lola finally returns from the kitchen with the other women, she glides up to me. She gave up hope long ago in arguing such things with her father. I must have the look of a psychiatric patient fresh from a calming wash-down with a power hose.
“You survived, then?” she whispers softly in my ear. “It wasn’t all that bad, now, was it?”
“We have to go,” is all I can say back.
“Yes, darling, we’re going.”
The evening regains its original ambiance, relaxed and good-natured. Jean, Alessia, Thomas, and Sarah are all chatting away merrily, accompanied by one of Chopin’s nocturnes in the background. The cat lies splayed on its back in the middle of the drawing room, paws in the air. As we gather our coats, preparing to make our goodbyes, grandpa shuffles over to me and, with a quaver in his voice, says:
“You know, young man—in eighty-two years, that’s the first time I’ve ever dined with an Israelite!”
What a time indeed to be an anthropologist . . .
* * *
Born in 1969, Derek Moss is an author and essayist. His DNA test reveals a mixed bag of Scandinavian, Iberian, African, French, Balkan, Scottish, and Middle-Eastern heritage. He currently lives in Brussels.
This short story was first published in French under the name Un anthropologue à la table by Editions Lamiroy. I would like to thank Eric Lamiroy for granting me permission to republish it in English. Many thanks to Thomas Hylland Ericksen, Miriam Grossi, Jean-Yves Pranchère, Marco Di Nunzio, Vinciane Despret, Jean-Christophe Attias, the spirit of Kurt Cobain, Paul Stoller, Adeline Masquelier, Dan Sperber, Emmanuel de Vienne, Jacinthe Mazzochetti, Thibault De Meyer, Ruy Blanes, and the editors of Cultural Anthropology for their encouraging words.
We would like to thank Steven Gonzales for his invaluable contributions as editorial assistant for Fictions.
Benjamin, Ruha. 2016. “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 2, no. 2: 1–28.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3: 575–99.
Helmreich, Stefan. 2012. “Extraterrestrial Relativism.” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4: 1125–39.