Why the delay

[to explain, since this post is not very self-explanatory, this is a story about how two sections of my thesis have changed drastically over the summer - one section, on self-archiving, part of a larger discussion on open access, discussed the Mana'o Self Archiving Repository for Anthropology, which coincidentally, a day after writing this story, officially announced it is shutting its doors. It is also about my exposure to all sorts of different kinds of anthropology on the OAC. And yes, its been turned into a ridiculous story with absolutely no regard to objectivity or science. Enjoy.]

The thesis could, err… should?… have been finished in June. The topic was clear and arguments were starting to take shape. Yes, it should have been finished.

But as I was writing I was hit in the face with a tweet, which while not quite a lightning strike, ended up burning just the same. It was a news flash – one announcing the new Open Anthropology Cooperative.


Lemmings by Surreal Art
surrealart.com
Within a matter of weeks a thousand members had signed up to the cooperative, and with the encouragement of my thesis supervisor who had sent me an overzealous welcome to the OAC, I began to explore.  A thousand anthropologists in a room? Yes, very exciting. And a fantastic example an idea I had been developing in the thesis: “anthropology in public”. Funny thing is my supervisor bailed out on it after a week, being the wiseman he is.

Through the OAC I have been exposed to all sorts of anthropology. Kinds of anthropology no parent would ever allow their children to witness, and certainly not study. Yes, the OAC hit me head on, and it knocked me right out. Or perhaps I dove in head first and forgot to check how deep the water was. Either way I ended up unconscious floating out into an ocean. When I woke up I found I had drifted far away from home.

I woke up in the south of France. The weather was perfect, the wine was fantastic, and the girls were of course stunning. Anthropology you say? Okay then, let’s get back to the story – no, not the one about the girls. And not the one about the OAC, although I’ll share some of it here (that post will come very soon, once I get home). No, this story is about being delayed, and about why such delays have been exceptionally lucky.

As I said, the OAC hit me pretty hard. All sorts of emotions and reactions stirred as I wandered its classrooms. At first I was ecstatic to see so many anthropologists jump into the water. The thought of thousands of anthropologists sharing ideas openly was incredibly motivating – but I was pushed through that excitement pretty quick. Maybe it was the waves.

“Silent Scream” by Diane Dobson Barton. 15×16″ (38×40.6cm). Acrylic on canvas.
© Diane Dobson Barton 2002

Soon I realized that there were hundreds of shadow-anthropologists around me. Avatars of sorts, but with their mouths sewed shut. I wondered if with the hit to the head I’d lost my hearing. Thankfully a few voices came into focus. Some of these voices I’d encountered before in the blogsphere, others perhaps in my dreams. I listened for a while then decided to sing a few songs of my own. Others chimed in, and pretty soon there was almost a chorus playing along. Whale songs? As I said, I’d been hit pretty hard.

That feeling faded too. Soon the voices wouldn’t stop. I kept hearing the same voices over and over. I shut my eyes and listened carefully hoping to pick up on the chorus again but a louder, harsher voice dominated my ears. I screamed loudly hoping it would go away. It didn’t. My head started to pound, and I passed out again. This time with an empty bottle of rose (from Bandol).

I woke up confused and again on a beach. I felt strange, as I probably should have after dreaming so vividly about an anthropology cooperative. Or was it the rose? I could see a small island a short distance from shore. A red neon sign glowed above it, reading “Repository”. I remember stuffing messages into bottles and casting them off into the waves, hoping they would reach the little island. I remember it being a magnificent paradise, an oasis of hope. But I couldn’t remember if I’d corked the bottles, and I worried they never quite kept float.

And then the strangest thing happened. The big red light went out, and with it I could have sworn I saw the island start to sink.

Yes, this brings us back to my fortunate delay. Well, in time anyways.

I looked out again over the ocean but everything had disappeared. I couldn’t see the island. My head still pounded. Where did those lights go?

Strolling along the beach as one does in the south of France, I found three bottles washed up ashore, all corked. I opened them, tearing out the messages inside. Each paper was titled “Mana’o”. A clue perhaps. But where was that island again? I felt uneasy but comfortable. The air was warm and the sand soft. I lay down, resting my head in the sand.

Then I remembered. I was on an important quest. Travelers had warned me not to stray from the road, and no matter what, that I would tempted away from the path. They had warned me to take notes, to write as many details as possible in a magical book which they called “the field”. With those notes they said I’d find my way home. I surprised myself, looking at it, that I’d even organized the field into numerous chapters.

Like the notes in the bottles I’d found on the beach, one chapter read “Mana’o”. I opened the book to that chapter, and before me was a beautiful rendition of an island and with it a picture of the glowing sign “repository” that had disappeared. But none of the field notes made sense. Where was this place? How would I ever find it now that I could not see it? Was it even real?

And so I set off once again, wandering in search of a road, and I started writing again – this time painting the larger ocean.

“all those who wander, are not lost.” were the words of another traveler I’d met somewhere along the way.

“Bullshit” I thought.

I was bloody hell lost, and worst of all, I was lost in France. And my head hurt like hell…

[all that = OAC has proven to be an exceptional, and exceptionally depressing, field site - which while sometimes feeling like a kick in the face, has proven to be quite rewarding - funny how being kicked in the face can be appealing. I'll be developing this much more soon, as after a few months of existence, some of the more terrible things have turned into quite positive ones...  and if you haven't already go check out the OAC - i'd love to hear your thoughts!]

[my chapter on self-archiving proved to be way too naive, given that the Mana'o anthropology repository has gone under - servers broken, and manpower lacking, and well, overall willingness to keep it afloat - nonexistant... or at least.. i don't know the story and hence can't write about it hence its a wonderful thing to have delayed the thesis over the summer. ]

[sun and wine are nice. taking a break from anthropology lets you see just how unexciting it is, which is good when you are trying not to exaggerate in your thesis].

[all images copyright by their original owners - which each image links to...]

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17 responses to this post.

  1. [...] related posts: “Why the delay” http://nodivide.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/why-the-delay/ “Self Archiving and Anthropology [...]

    Reply

  2. Great post, and you really don’t sound all that lost if you can write about it like this. In fact, with this post, and numerous other posts, you have some great segments for the thesis itself, right here, already written.

    Maybe I misunderstood, but it seems like you had planned a chapter about Mana’o, and saw it evaporate as Mana’o shut down? I would still have that chapter, even if now it becomes an exercise in historical ethnography. I have also written about things that would change drastically, that would disappear, and in one case I made it disappear. It doesn’t have to be alive, vital and vibrant to be a good subject of analysis.

    I love the writing, this is great!

    Reply

  3. Dear Max,

    It’s not so much that the chapter evaporated with Mana’o, but that the communities response to the issues Mana’o faced didn’t jive with how I had expressed the importance of a self-archiving repository specific to anthropology.

    One would assume, that if Open Access to anthropology articles was truely important, that more people would have said something about the lackluster server performance, or at least peeped up after a month of continuous down time.

    As far as I can tell, not very many people noticed. This has me rethinking the importance of Open Access to past anthropological writing, and it has emphasized at least for me, the importance of creating new forms of anthropology. [ala the public anthropology you are doing].

    Do people miss the Mana’o repository enough to invest the time to keep it going? I could certainly help do this, but is there really a demand?

    On a similar note, I felt quite comfortable writing specifically to anthropologists. This made sense since they are the community I have been researching.

    But with the OAC, we have thousands of anthropologists, visiting occasionally, but the vast majority remain completely silent on numerous important issues that have popped up. They aren’t blogging, and they aren’t posting. Why is that?

    There is talk about creating a small press at the OAC, to publish material. But these talks seem more a way to motivate people to produce ideas, than about ways to share them. If there was something to say, any anthropologist on OAC could simply post it in a blog post. But most do not… This again stressed the importance of new forms of anthropology – as so many anthros simply remain silent (perhaps because they get sick of the same debates being rehashed over and over… but beyond that, why aren’t they sharing and promoting their work? Do they not feel its important to share?)

    Reply

  4. hey owen,

    i can relate to some of your experiences with the OAC. at first i was pretty excited about it all, but then it became a discussion between just a small cast of characters…and then it seemed to just go a little flat. you’re right though, not many people actually take part. there are indeed all kinds of silent anthropologists who have joined but who don’t really say anything.

    at this point, i am not sure what the OAC is supposed to be doing. i also heard about them wanting to create a press–but why create something where you can write for free in order to mimic print media? i don’t get it. as you say, why not just post something there?

    anyway, i enjoyed reading your post here.

    Reply

    • Posted by Stacie on August 28, 2009 at 3:13 am

      Hi Owen,

      Thanks for the post – I enjoyed it.

      On blogging, the overabundance of blogs and articles and other written pieces on the internet makes me (personally) wonder if it’s worth adding to the jumble. There are also many ways to work other than through writing and not all seem useful to share with an amorphous mass of internet users. A work, for instance, may be of importance/value only to a specific group of people in a specific geographic location.

      On a related note, a colleague recently joked to me that “email is a spectator sport,” this just following an email he sent out to the group cryptically entitled “throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.” People over and over again wanted to be kept updated about our work but wouldn’t engage in a dialogue about it.

      Of course, I have always been a person with 1-4 close friends, a number of close acquaintances who come and go in my life but who are always accessible in the background, and an even larger number of contacts who are, more-or-less, just “there” if we want to get in touch about something. I’m not sure if it would do you, me, anthropology, or anyone else any good to extend beyond that range. Sharing ideas is valuable, I give you that, but not if it’s only a nominal sharing of ideas.

      My best friend and I argue all the time, heated arguments, but it’s only because we highly value each others opinions and seriously want to get to the bottom of the issue we’re discussing – and, most importantly, each of us is fully aware of that. I don’t feel anywhere near the same way about the arguments that go on in the OAC, although at times it’s been entertaining – but no more entertaining than watching the news, or listening to the radio, or reading the local gossip column. However, I may be more desperate than most for entertainment because I live on an isolated mountaintop, my neighbors being a field of cows.

      Reply

  5. As is often the case in “the field,” not all the voices you can’t hear are silent.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Owen Wiltshire on August 28, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    Enkerli,

    Yup I certainly didn’t catch everything going on on the OAC… but I find i’ve been missing even more out in the blogsphere. Lorenz site for example keeps anthropology alive and refreshing. Impossible to take it all in, even when you try!

    Stacie,

    I agree not all anthropological work needs to be shared in such a public fashion, but doesn’t most scholarship? If all this research ends up being published in a journal eventually, thats the kind of stuff I’m talking about sharing publicly…

    As opposed to casual banter, I thought mroe people would talk about the projects they were working on right then. Like students talking about papers they are writing, researchers on whatever subjects interest them etc…

    But it’s like all that stuff is saved for professional life, and it never made it onto the OAC (very much anyways… there are some good examples of it on there though).

    That mountain top must be wonderful. Say hi to the cows for me!

    Ryan,

    I think another big issue for OAC discussions is the lack of anonymity – as Wesch’s recent project into anonymity online touches on. I wanted to say a hell of a lot more in response to certain discussions, but didn’t want to open up my professional self in that kind of way. I think peoples professional goals are getting in the way of responding.

    And when you look at the kinds of discussions on there, you can see that anonymity couldn’t make things any worse!!!

    Reply

    • I agree with you on anonymity. There were certain discussions on there that I really wanted to say something, but decided not to for some of the very same reasons.

      I actually think there is a similar issue with the AAA blog. Notice how nobody comments there (or relatively few)? I think this might be in part because people are worried about the repercussions of writing the “wrong” thing there. Maybe.

      I agree with you though that politics and professional goals are getting in the way of responding. That why, I think, some large sites like DKos have a ton of people who write under pseudonyms.

      Hmmm. There might be something to that too, since there is one user who has been getting chastised for using another name. Funny how it’s ok to use assumed names for “informants”, but those who participate on the OAC are expected to use their real name no matter what.

      Reply

      • Posted by Igor Alcyon on August 31, 2009 at 8:34 pm

        As the chastised persona, I want to say that it was not an easy choice (anonymous vs real name), and it had originally nothing to do with the “name” debate. But it showed to be not only useful, legitimate, but also great fun.

        Do you know that here in France, a law has just been voted that forbid people from wearing scarfs or hoods during demonstrations ? In my mind, it is quite telling, and quite worrysome.

        “”Let me know who you are, so that you have to shut the fuck up.””

        I hope your work will go fine.
        And thank you for your thoughts here and there.

      • I’m a big believer in anonymity being essential to letting people express themselves online.

        Sure anonymity leads to ridiculous, brutally cruel, responses, but I think with this OAC experience, we can safely say that no anonymity is even worse.

        Igor,

        After having visited France a few times, I am starting to better understand how people use terms I found quite “racist”, quite openly and easily. But at least people are talking about it. Here in Canada the streets are dangerously quiet (ie, plenty of prejudice but its kept hidden), whereas in France people talk a lot about it! [edited to clarify what i meant by "Racist"]

        But banning scarfs and hoods in street demonstrations? Uggh.

        Ryan,

        I’ve been far to quiet on the OAC, at least if we argue that people should respond to discussions that enrage/stimulate them. But I’m pulling the professional card myself, and ducking back to the blogsphere and my thesis.

        Where I did engage the OAC, I found it quite helpful. I am thankful to have met more anthro bloggers through the Ethnographic blogging thread.

        And as I mentioned before, I found it incredibly stimulating, often in a bad way. But this really kept me thinking about anthropology, so this is probably a good thing. It will be interesting to see what ways the OAC moves now.

      • Posted by Igor Alcyon on September 2, 2009 at 2:29 pm

        Hi Owen,
        A little misunderstanding I think, my fault. I talked about “scarfs and hoods forbidden in demonstrations” to indicate a symptom of a larger trend of heightened surveillance, not of racism. That is, in a sense, anonymity forbidden in demonstrations.
        I guess I was not clear :)

      • Thanks for the clarification Igor. I probably added the racism angle into the discussion, as I always do when I talk about France. Mostly based on memories of one bad vacation and I really have no idea whats going on there. Sorry about that.

  7. Posted by Stacie on August 28, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Maybe the focus of the group is also too broad?
    More people seem to be taking part in discussions in the group forums, although these are also more “hidden,” supporting your point on anonymity. The most interesting/useful discussions that took place for me were within the environmental anthro group. We had a good discussion about Josh Reno’s research in his blog entry way back.

    Anthropology does include a ton of different specialties and agendas, and even though “culture” is the concept supposedly linking them all (at least in the American sense of anthro), anthropology is scattered on definitions of culture. There’s also not a strong body of theoretical works/discussions as in literary theory or philosophy, although of course there are some. Anthros draw on these other fields, but that’s not the same as having solid discussions w/in our own field about culture. When we did have theoretical discussions in OAC, half the time I ended up not being able to make heads nor tail of the others’ comments because the body of literature that they based their work on had almost no overlap with my own, especially when they only used authors’ names and took knowledge of the authors’ writings for granted.

    Reply

    • I’ve been working on this issue of specialization and anthropology for a while, trying to turn it into an answer for the question “what is anthropology?” which I’d been exploring on this blog. Somewhere on here I have a juicy quote from Talal Asad commenting on the diversity in anthropology.

      But having a diverse, conflicted, group of people to bounce ideas off wasn’t a terrible experience. I could never have asked for a better example of “anthropology in public” (the OAC). The audience is limited to anthropologists, as opposed to finding new audiences (public anthropology).

      In terms of online collaboration, I’ve had a lot of success with the blogsphere, which provides much more autonomy to individual authors. In the blogsphere each blogger has control of his or her site, and people read and comment on blogs when they have time and are interested. The networking is up to the bloggers, as opposed to the site itself.

      The OAC however brings everyone into one spot, and allows people to force feed each other. Where people might be ignored in the blogsphere, the OAC in some ways gives them a stronger voice.

      With RSS feeds I can choose the kinds of feeds I’m interested in. With the OAC, I can feel I have less control over this – which again is a good thing if you want diversity (some studies of politics and the internet I read pointed out that people create their own internet, never engaging with opposing political opinions.. ie how I am never exposed to Fox News). I could hide from anthropological positions I don’t like, but with the OAC its imposed in some way.

      So I guess I can either respond to it, or push my own agenda, or quietly ignore it.

      As for the culture concept, I find it so sticky I just avoid it. I’m happy with identity, sameness and difference, and other equally complex (or vague?) concepts. basically I need to write this thesis and can’t handle anymore theory :P

      Reply

  8. In case it wasn’t clear, I wasn’t saying that you weren’t paying enough attention to what was going on. It’s more of a comment on the “silent majority.” Even among so vocal a group as academic anthropologists, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.
    What may have surprised me the most about the OAC, apart from the fact that I only learnt about it after hundreds of colleagues had registered, is that there are so many anthropologists in different parts of the World who join this group and can be reached but hadn’t come up in my online activities. In other words, it’s not just about the usual suspects.
    And it’s not just about English-speakers in North America.
    Sometimes, with North American anthropology, it seems as if every anthropologist on the planet is somehow related to the AAA. What the OAC shows is that there’s a lot more to the discipline than that.
    We pride ourselves to be reaching people throughout the World. But, sometimes, there are blind spots and grey zones in our networks.
    I personally feel guilty for not knowing more colleagues than I do, especially those who don’t tend to communicate in English.

    Reply

    • While most of the people I met on the OAC I’d previously encountered in the blogsphere, there are still a bunch more that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

      But I haven’t seen that diversity come out in the discussions. I’ve got to join more groups, and quit reading the main forum – as clearly the main forum is now a place to impose discussions, and the more private groups a place to foster them? (okay overstated a bit, but an idea anyways).

      Back in the day, in response to my “Why do anthropologists blog” paper, you wrote:
      “Even though a lot of people talk about blogging as a “community” activity, blogging tends to be quite ego-based in the sense that it positions individual authorship at the centre of the writing enterprise. Contrary to, say, mailing-lists, newsgroups, Web forums, and even nanoblogging, blogs aren’t really oriented toward conversation. Sure, conversations are possible and some blogs have numerous comments connected to each post. But even those conversations are typically author-controlled, author-centred, and authority-driving. In this sense, blogging is in fact the open version of “scholarly publishing.” But to make this point as strong as possible, you might pay lipservice to other online activities done by your informants.”

      How do you feel about the OAC in this context, given the lack of anonymity, and your experiences on the network? Personally, I’ve found my experiences on the OAC have mimicked those I had on the Media Anthropology Network. I tend to hold back, and find it rather uninviting as a place to play with ideas. I think anonymity would help a lot with this… on both the listservs and OAC…

      But the media anthropology network has survived through a lot. And now, while casual conversation is dead, it continues to host very productive seminars on working papers. I wonder if something similar will happen to the OAC.

      btw: this quote really started to make more sense now that I’ve started to consider how the ability to moderate conversations can be used in bad ways… Before I had the naive assumption anthropologists wanted people to speak back, now I realize only some want that.

      Reply

      • Our experiences of the OAC differ a bit. I haven’t bit very active and I don’t look at the main forum. But I did notice a number of “unusual suspects,” people who hadn’t been on my radar. Not that they appear to be very active on the forums, but I interpret the OAC to be more of a discipline-based social network than a set of forums. As with mailing-lists, the main events happen outside of the main channel. People who met on OAC and connect on Twitter and/or Facebook. Private messages. Small gatherings. Ideas going from one site to the other based on prior interactions.
        I’m thinking, for instance, about people I’ve met on Anthro-L, LingAnth, and SEM-L. Some of these I’ve been interacting with through diverse channels, including through conferences. A few of them appear on either blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or the OAC Ning. Though these aren’t necessarily “friends,” in the strict sense of the word, it’s like reconnecting with friends. Because of prior interactions, discussions can start again, relatively quickly, and the sense of “community” developed in prior groups might carry over, to a certain extent. At the same time, there’s a lot of negotiation over rules for the new groups. As I said then, I feel that blogs are more author-focused. Blog authors steer the conversations. There may be a sense of belonging to a “community,” but it’s mostly based on individual rapport with the author(s). There isn’t that much obvious negotiation since the authors are so central. Even between blogs, there’s nothing like the conversations on long-standing mailing-lists. Unless it’s within a “blogging community,” in which case negotiations may happen outside of the blogs themselves, anyway.
        The OAC is a kind of this hybrid form because it has some pre-established rules but it’s not really author-focused. It tends to work like a set of Web forums, in this sense, but the social network dimensions are probably more important in the long run. Especially given the set of tools which are available at this point.

        Now, on anonymity. It’s something I find interesting for academic reasons, as part of the broad topic of “digital identity.” It’s also something which was very common online in the mid- to late-1990s and which tends to clash with new tendencies in online behaviours. Including social networking, radical transparency, social marketing, etc.
        Again, mailing-lists provide the backdrop for some of my thinking on this. On mailing-lists, anonymity is very difficult to maintain in part because email addresses are typically visible. Some people do have anonymous email addresses, but it’s not a common practise. Some mailing-list archives are private but most are public. Membership is often open to everyone. So, in a sense, most mailing-lists are on the more public side of things. But there is a sense of privacy. People often act as if the lists were indeed private. This has more to do with contacts with the outside world, but it has some significance in terms of relationships between list subscribers/members. People talk rather freely, with relatively little fear of losing face in terms of the wider world. But there’s also a lot of tricky internal dynamics with people trying to establish status within the group and some discussions being the source of animosity.

        Soooo… I’m not sure that the OAC’s relative lack of anonymity is, in and of itself, that much of a determining factor. But it does take part in the whole model. As positions are established and bonds are formed through the OAC, it’s quite likely that group dynamics will change significantly. Tuckman’s model was much more relevant in task-oriented groups (“teams”), but it does seem like the OAC goes through the “storming” phase, right now. If it ever gets to “performing,” the discipline as a whole might benefit. Even if it doesn’t, it has already served a number of purposes.

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