Understanding Toilet Training around the World May Help Parents Relax
Understanding Toilet Training around the World May Help Parents Relax
For a while, the mega-global corporation, Unilever — owner of Dove beauty products — spoke thoughtfully to the world’s women.
The 13-year-long “Real Beauty” campaign that began in the early ’90s aimed to “change the conversation” about gender by presenting women of many colors, sizes, and body shapes in its ads for soap products. Although the campaign had its critics, it seemed to garner far more admiration than assault. Sure, Unilever also produced horrible Slim Fast powders and skin-whitening creams that undermined the body-positive and multiracial values that the new Dove campaign claimed to promote.
But . . . those images.
Who wouldn’t smile at this anti-one-size-fits-all ad?
But last spring, the latest installment in the campaign that declared itself on the side of women launched a new ad that angered far more viewers. Showing women of diverse sizes and shapes was one thing. Showing bottles of diverse sizes and shapes was another.
And the new campaign for body washes explicitly equated women with those bottles. Ugh.
Oh, we’ve been there before. We’ve had decades of ads equating women with cars.
And bottles of beer.
Feminist media critics such as Jean Kilbourne have been brilliantly critiquing those sorts of offensive ads objectifying women for decades.
Online, some sharp viewers (including one named, intriguingly, Kristina Chäadé Dove) schooled Unilever in the shameful history of soap companies promoting racist assumptions about cleanliness.
The Twitterverse has wondered how this outrageously racist ad could have gotten approved. One blogger has commented, “It leaves one wondering if there are any people of color that make decisions at Dove.”
Well, let’s recall that the Dove’s parent company is Unilever, after all — headquartered in the Netherlands. The Dutch have a long history of denying the racism behind their colonial empire. So, perhaps, no.
Meanwhile, along comes General Mills. A new pair of ads follows in the footsteps of Dove’s earlier successes. Instead of urging women to diet, or binge-eat — or both — these ads actually encourage women to have a normal relationship to food. You know: Eat when you’re hungry. Enjoy what you’re eating.
Or, as one ad concludes: “Own it.”
The new stage directions in the theatre of global advertising: Enter General Mills, Exit Unilever.
But this simple math equation, which seems to evoke only a single solution, raises disturbing ethical questions. Does corporate society have space for more than one enlightened-feminist ad campaign at a time? Will any of these feminist-inspired campaigns affect more mainstream corporations to produce images challenging gender inequity — stereotype-busting images that our society still so desperately needs?
After having recently received a venomous bite by a brown recluse spider in NYC, I’ve spent some time researching my arachnid aggressor and discovering how to recover from the poisonous attack. Along the way, I’ve learned some life lessons.
Statistical odds provide unrealistic reassurance.
Brown recluse spiders normally live in South America and a few southern and midwestern states of the U.S. They’re also loners and rarely approach humans. Yet, somehow, one managed to find its way to Manhattan, and to me.
Rational choice theory is alive and well, even in those who challenge it
When in NYC, if I worry at all about the risks to life and limb, I probably focus (unconsciously) on getting hit by a speeding taxi, or crushed by a collapsing construction site, or shot in a terrorist attack. What I have most certainly neglected to worry about is getting bit by a subtropical spider far from its home territory. In this, my calculations must implicitly revolve around a rational choice model of risk/benefit assessment.
But, really, I should have known better. Back in 1975, my graduate fellowship had me assisting in (and once lecturing to) a course that highlighted Mary Douglas’ theory of risk–a far different perspective that emphasizes individual perception shaped by complex social and cultural factors well beyond “simple” (especially economic) costs and benefits. Mark Twain’s insight is an earlier (and pithier) way of saying: statistical odds, at best, provide likelihood rather than certainty.
, to be honest, there aren’t enough hours in the day to worry about every catastrophe that could conceivably befall us. So, we pick and choose our worries based on statistical odds that turn out not to be all that rational.
Globalization works for creatures beyond humans, too.
From infestations of invasive species elsewhere, we know that humans hardly claim a monopoly on traveling the world. Other creatures manage to hitch rides on ships, in wooden crates and palettes, and even in people’s suitcases. In fact, tens of thousands of species have migrated in this way. In recent years, Mediterannean and tropical spiders have found their way to the British Isles, causing an alarming spike in spider bites.
Knowing that brown recluse spiders rarely hang out on the streets of Manhattan doesn’t rule out the possibility that one just might find its way to a bench in Madison Square Park. Or that, of the 2.9 million people or so who were probably in Manhattan that Saturday, that one spider just might decide to attach itself to my dress.
We are hardier than we may fear.
After surviving a herniated disc/back surgery, 15 months of intestinal parasites, and two unmedicated childbirths (my choice) a couple of decades ago, my pain threshold apparently remains pretty high. Okay, the partly-necrotic tissue now disfiguring a big chunk of my leg might have reminded me of a Green Day song about taking Novacaine. Still, wincing from the throbbing wound on my leg, I’ve managed to keep up with e-mail and other work tasks while popping only a few ibuprofens.
Despite the above-mentioned point: Our life plans are frailer than we may hope.
Scheduled errands, meetings, outings, and dinners with friends are all on hold. My doctor predicts that my bite may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to heal. The Internet warns me it could even be a few months. That’s a lot of iCal events to tentatively reschedule.
I now know what bit me while living in a small village in Ivory Coast.
Back in 1980, a mysterious wound showed up on my ankle that worsened alarmingly, nearly causing gangrene. The local Senegalese doctor prescribed nine antibiotic treatments a day (3 shots + 6 pills) . . . and declared me lucky to avoid amputation of my foot.
In Parallel Worlds, Philip Graham and I wrote that my wound’s origins stumped the doctor, although he thought it might be an allergic reaction to an insect bite. But the symptoms resembled those of my current spider bite so closely that I am now certain it must have been a spider, not an insect, that assaulted me. Perhaps it was a kind of violin spider–the Loxosceles lacroixi, which lives in Ivory Coast and belongs to the same Loxosceles family as my more recent nemesis, the brown recluse. Of the violin spider, one website notes: “Their venom destroys tissue, causing a specific kind of skin necrosis known as loxoscelism in 66% of cases. The danger of secondary infection is high if left untreated.” Yep.
Snakes loom larger in the popular imagination than do spiders.
Ounce for ounce, the hemolytic and cytotoxic venom of a brown recluse spider is more potent than that of a rattlesnake. In fact, “[t]heir venom contains enzymes that have great similarities to the poison found in snakes. These enzymes include protease, hyaluronidase, phosphohydrolase, phospholipase, alkaline phosphatase, and esterase.” (Also, deoxyribonuclease, ribonuclease, and lipase.) And yet, in the US, we have antivenin readily available for snake bites, but much less for spider bites–and only for black widows, not brown recluses.
That could be a sign that Americans (including medical researchers) are more nervous about snake bites than spider bites. Or it could be, as my scientifically minded nephew opines, that it’s because spiders are smaller than snakes, so it’s harder to catch them . . . and harder to catch enough of them to extract sufficient venom to produce antivenin. Plus, their name–recluses.
I am now officially nervous around spiders.
In any case, arachnophobia is a thing (not just a horror movie), and it’s definitely gendered. Until now, I’ve never had much patience for girls who screamed at the sight of a (harmless) spider. Hmm–is it too late for a feminist to enthusiastically embrace demeaning gender stereotypes?
Speaking of gender . . . turns out my poison was probably deposited by a devoted spider mom looking out for her kids’ interests.
That’s what Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Kary Mullis, wrote in his 1998 memoir, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field: “It’s a mother spider that first gets you and she wants a hole in you that oozes and expands and doesn’t ever heal. The females have the most powerful venom . . . . She wants that hole because her babies need a place to feed. They can dip their ugly little heads into the pool of nutrients that you are exuding and suck your vital fluids through their sucking tubes, and they can live. . . After making the hole, she moves away and lays her eggs. It’s elegant biotechnology from the point of view of the spider.”
I find this alarming. As a devoted mother of two, myself, I should sympathize with any mom’s efforts to nourish her children and give them the best foundation she can for their health and well-being. I have certainly tried to do that for my kids. Somehow, though, there’s a cross-species sympathy chasm I’m simply unable to traverse. I guess that’s a second blow to my identity as a feminist.
Brown recluse spiderling on an egg sac (photo by Sturgis McKeever)
Conclusion: Maybe it’s time for a new approach to studying pain.
Pain is a biological fact; it’s also culturally constructed.
Once, when I shrieked and moaned after being stung in Ivory Coast by what I now know was a Campodesmus alobatus millipede (containing hydrochloric acid and cyanide, among other toxins), my Beng friend Yacouba teased me, “Amwé, that’s nothing. If you got stung by a scorpion, you’d be on the next plane back to America.”
Yacouba knew pain. He had withstood several months-long, disabling infestations of Guinea worm, showing me a scarring map of the paths that the worms (up to 4′ long) took inside his legs, starting in childhood. In this, he was no different from most of his village-mates. (Thankfully, Guinea worm is now nearly eradicated, thanks to systematic efforts by health professionals, and spurred on by Pres. Jimmy Carter’s awesome Carter Center.)
Campodesmus alobatus (millipede in Côte d’Ivoire)
When you live with long-term, disabling pain from childhood, how does that shape your brain, your temperament, your world view? Your sense of self, and your sense of being subject to, and capable of overcoming, hardships? By contrast, when pain invades your life only rarely, and briefly, what sort of identity forms surrounding notions of (in)vulnerability?
Anthropologists: We have explored how plenty of other somatic experiences are influenced by factors beyond biology. Pregnancy and childbirth, menstruation, diseases from cancer to mental illness, and sports from walking to basketball have all claimed our attention. Yet, we live in a world of many people who experience pain routinely or even chronically. And when we’re not actively suffering from pain, we may spend much time thinking back on past episodes with amazement that we survived . . . or anticipating future episodes with dread. Puzzlingly, few anthropologists have put that fundamental human experience front and center. True, some scholars discuss pain in investigating particular topics such as childbirth, endometriosis and acupuncture. But to date, the 48 sections and interest groups contained within the American Anthropological Association–which focus on topics ranging from visual anthropology, music, and museums to agriculture, corporations, and tourism–do not include a group dedicated to exploring the world of pain.
In a rundown of selected global perspectives on pain, anthropologist Mary Free has crafted a superb opening for a new subdiscipline. The brown recluse spider that deposited its poison in my leg this past weekend has suggested to me: it may be time for a systematic and dedicated anthropology of pain.
Postscript (Oct. 5, 2017): I’ve now been in touch with two entomologists who specialize in spiders, one of whom is a leading expert on brown recluse spiders. Both are quite skeptical that a brown recluse could have found its way to a park bench in Manhattan. My doctor and I are revisiting the diagnosis. Stay posted.
The lives, status, and image of immigrants may constitute the single-most urgent human issue of our time. In an arresting and captivating new study of Cameroonian mothers now living in Berlin, Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg challenges just about everything we thought we knew about immigrants. Living as migrants in a nation infamous for its twentieth-century genocides against “others,” these educated, often middle-class women demonstrate over and over again the common impulses that define our shared humanity.
Mothers on the Move: Reproducing Belonging between Africa and Europe was recently published by the University of Chicago Press (2016).
Daniel J. Smith calls it
“a wonderful book full of rich and compelling ethnographic cases.”
And Cati Coe calls it
“[a] sensitive, well-grounded, and beautifully written study of the
dilemmas immigrant mothers face when they migrate.”
You can find a Table of Contents here.
Read a free preview from the Introduction here.
The publisher offers complementary desk copies and exam copies to instructors here.
From the website of Carleton College (where she is the Broom Professor of Social Demography and Anthropology, and Director of Africana Studies), you can find Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg’s institutional home page here.
I recently interviewed Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg online about her new book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PFS = Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg):
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Interview with Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg
AG: Your early research focused on the lives of women in Cameroon. This book focuses on women who’ve left Cameroon to re-start their lives in Berlin. What inspired you–both to switch fieldsites to a new continent, and to write a book on a new subject?
PFS: Each research project has opened up new questions and curiosities. Following these leads has led me to new fieldsites within Cameroon, and then within Europe. Along the way, I am not only following up on questions raised by prior research projects, but I’m also following people from the same ethnic group and region—sometimes even the same people, or their friends and children—from the countryside to the city, and on to Berlin or Paris.
And I’ve always been interested in women’s lives, in reproduction and family-making, and in tensions between belonging and marginalization. Thus, even though I’ve switched fieldsites, there’s a lot of continuity in my work. The transnational migration aspect is new, but otherwise this book is not about an entirely new subject.
Even my next planned research project—about ways in which the contexts of reception matter for Cameroonians’ changing notions of transnational family obligations—continues along these lines, while bringing me to new sites (Paris, Cape Town).
AG: That should be a wonderful new project.
Meanwhile, Western media images of migrants and refugees tend to focus on the poorest of the poor—those in desperate conditions, in need of serious outlays of both aid and
sympathy. The West African migrants you profile are mostly highly educated, and at least middle-class. Did you choose to focus on this group of semi-invisible migrants to challenge stereotypes? What lessons can they teach Western readers?
PFS: Yes, I do aim to challenge stereotypes. I tell one among many possible stories about African migration and family-making in Europe. Other important stories have been told about migration and the search for well-being. I fear that some of these narratives end up reinforcing stereotypes of “the African migrant” as illegal(ized), impoverished, and in need of help.
In dialogue with my Cameroonian interlocutors and colleagues, I became aware of the pain caused by the repetition of a one-sided story of abjection. Stereotypes hurt. However well-meaning, fundraising campaigns portraying poor, helpless African women and children belie the energy, intelligence, and educational resources of Cameroonian immigrant women. Without sugarcoating the hardships of migration, it’s important to let readers know that the story of abjection does not fit the data for Cameroonian immigrants to Berlin.
There are enormous distinctions in women’s lives depending not only on class background and class attainment, but also immigration status upon entering the new country, as well as the ability (or lack thereof) to maintain or obtain regularized immigration status. These critical distinctions often lead to vastly differing reproductive strategies, which in turn are linked to different ways that women seek a sense of belonging in multiple communities.
As anthropologists we look for both patterns and particularities. The former are important for telling a coherent, social-scientific story; the multiple stories of particular individuals’ lives are important to work against typification, which is by definition reductionist.
AG: Your book details examples of daily racism that Cameroonian immigrants experience in Berlin . . . yet, new Cameroonian migrants continue arriving. In the wake of Germany’s role in WWII aiming to annihilate Jews, Roma, gays, and other groups of people that white Germans dubbed “Others,” how do you explain the decisions of these African elites to emigrate, of all places, to Germany?
PFS: There are many reasons that Cameroonian migrants—and as we know from the news, many, many others—choose to emigrate to Germany. Economics is primary—because of the country’s strong economy and job opportunities. Especially important to upwardly-mobile Cameroonians is Germany’s almost-free university education. And, interestingly, many Cameroonians appreciate the fact that it is not France. Cameroonian migrants in both Germany and France—and, as I learned this summer, those who remain home in Cameroon—perceive that immigration bureaucracy works more reliably and predictably in Germany than it does in France. Even if the UN, in its Decade for People of African Descent, finds significant structural racism in Germany, native-born Germans hold a variety of political and ideological positions. Thus, despite the catastrophic history of racism in their country, some Germans are more aware of inherent racism, and eager to discuss it, than are their counterparts in countries with less tainted histories. And, for all its faults (past and present), Germany is certainly more welcoming to refugees than is the U.S. in the current Trump era.
Still, the common question posed often by Germans to immigrants in daily life, “Where do you come from?” haunts Cameroonian parents and their children in Germany, as does the general image of “Africa” that is portrayed in mass media. One Cameroonian mother told me a poignant story about her seven-year-old son’s visit to Cameroon. “This isn’t Africa, mom,” he exclaimed. There were no lions or giraffes, not even a little monkey in the big port city of Douala. Instead, while visiting his urban cousins, he experienced air-conditioned office buildings with elevators, manicured gardens, and schoolchildren in neatly pressed uniforms. None of this fit with the image of game parks and starving, half-naked children that the boy had learned about from television.
AG: Wow, what a moving (and disturbing) story. It reminds me of all the mini-stories you write about the women whose lives you’ve followed in Berlin. These women will feel very much like real people to a reader–individuals with their own idiosyncratic biographies and challenges, rather than what Renato Rosaldo might call the dreaded Group Noun (which, in this case, would be a single kind of person we could categorize as “Cameroonian women migrants”). Why did you decide to feature a number of individual women, and how did you decide on these particular women to feature?
PFS: In this book I aim to portray the voices of individual women, each with her own concerns, challenges, resources, and desires. I mentioned earlier that I want to work against stereotypes and typification. This doesn’t mean that I don’t look for patterns in Cameroonian migrant women’s lives. Of course I do! Migrant women share predicaments of belonging, reproduction, and connection that are created and/or exacerbated by migration. But, shaped by their diverse biographies and circumstances, each woman manages these predicaments in her own way. I decided to feature particular women because they illustrated the diversity of women’s experiences and strategies.
When women told me about their lives, I was just fascinated by how their individual characters came through. I think of Maria telling me her love story—starting with her surprise meeting with a childhood sweetheart in Berlin—while showing me her family photo album. Or of Mrs. Black’s anguish that her white German husband just couldn’t or wouldn’t understand how important it was to her to help her extended family with gifts of cash.
I’d like to add something else about stories. Cameroonian migrant mothers share stories, or anecdotes from their lives, with one another. This is just a normal part of socializing. My book shows how, through stories, individual experiences are communicated and become crystallized into collectively held orientations toward the world, toward a new context.
AG: One of the key concepts you deploy in the book is the notion of “affective circuits.” Can you speak about how you seized on that metaphor from electrical engineering to speak to the issues concerning migration that you are tackling?
PFS: I didn’t invent the term. I got the idea from our fellow anthropologists, Jennifer Cole and Christian Groes, who had invited me to contribute to an edited volume on affective circuits. I loved the layers of metaphors—gesturing simultaneously toward research on migration circuits and toward electrical engineering—so I took the idea and ran with it, developing the notion further. So often in studies of social capital, researchers write as if economic and informational flows along network ties are constant. But the network ties of the women I studied were neither constant nor additive. Women dropped some relationships, gained others, and then renewed old ties, depending upon how their circumstances and their feelings changed. Neither words (whether loving or nagging) nor money nor presents flowed continuously along women’s social connections; the flows stop and start and must be managed. And this careful management that women do is all bound up in the feelings they have toward their families, their fellow migrants, and the German bureaucrats they meet.
AG: Indeed. Moreover, in Berlin, the children of the migrants you’ve followed are growing up in very different circumstances from the childhoods of their parents. You’ve highlighted the term “Belonging” in your subtitle. Can you talk about the different issues that the two generations experience as black migrants in a predominantly white nation?
PFS: What an interesting question, with many layers! Some aspects of belonging are not questioned in Cameroon, but are brought to consciousness in Germany. One difference is that parents, growing up in Cameroon, largely didn’t have to worry about being black. They didn’t grow up as a “minority”—but their children do. On the other hand, the children of migrants grow up fluent in German, and they get early practice in code-switching between forms of behavior deemed appropriate in “German” vs. “Cameroonian” settings. Language learning and cultural adaptation are more challenging and self-conscious for their parents.
Another difference is that migrants who arrived in Germany as adults had earlier experienced challenges of belonging in Cameroon. It may seem surprising that individuals have a hard time belonging in their country of origin, but the legacies of Cameroon’s complex colonial history (which included three different colonial powers—Germany, France, and England) mean that people of certain ethnic groups and regions are disadvantaged on the national scene. These groups—for example, the Bamiléké and English-speaking Cameroonians—make up a large proportion of the Cameroonian diaspora. Their children, by contrast, grow up in Germany with a different view of their homeland—a place of origin, a place to visit, a place where Grandma and Grandpa live.
Still another difference in migrants’ experiences concerns recent historical change in Germany. Earlier migrants faced many more challenges than do more recent migrants, because there are now settled migrants and migrant organizations that can ease newcomers’ transition to life in Germany.
AG: In the US, we now have a president who campaigned on a platform of drastically restricting immigration, and many of his supporters easily denounce whole groups of immigrants. Alongside health care reform, restricting immigration (including refugee applications) has been one of Trump’s major agendas. What do the experiences of Cameroonian immigrant women in Germany have to teach us in the US?
PFS: Immigrants can bring a lot to our country. Overall, immigrants are more law-abiding than native-born Americans, and in terms of college and post-graduate degrees, they are better educated. Immigrants tend to be ambitious, making many personal sacrifices for the well-being of their children and families. We have a lot to learn from them when we consider “family values,” and perhaps even reconsider what family can mean. Providing chances and being welcoming allows these immigrants to contribute to society.
We’ve all heard these trendy mottos, and most of us have probably cringed.
Anthropologists know the world as an infinitely more complex place than such simplistic catch-phrases and predictions can possibly describe.
Yet simplistic catch-phrases and predictions are–well, catchy.
In a new book, instead of dismissing them out of hand, Ulf Hannerz tackles these pseudo-scholarly slogans head-on.
One of our discipline’s most renowned, thoughtful, and witty writers, Hannerz has just published a new collection of tightly interrelated essays analyzing the blockbuster books that have promoted popular yet maddeningly misleading scenarios predicting anything from political realignment of continents to doom and gloom for the world.
Writing Future Worlds: An Anthropologist Explores Global Scenarios (Springer/Palgrave, 2016) appears as part of a new series, Palgrave Studies in Literary Anthropology, edited by Deborah Reed-Danahay and Helena Wulff.
The book’s prologue + nine chapters (some, previously published in different forms) combine to make a case that anthropology is more relevant than ever.
Anthropologist Didier Fassin has this to say about the book:
With his uniquely elegant style and subtle irony, Ulf Hannerz offers a penetrating anthropological reflection on this singular anticipatory genre that simplifies and dramatizes the representation of global tensions. Multiplying examples and crossing perspectives, he proposes an indispensable critical analysis of the way in which our worldviews are shaped.
And Michael Herzfeld cheekily sums up the book’s importance by urging:
This book deserves greater and longer-lasting prominence than those with which it engages.
You can find a Table of Contents and an excerpt from the Prologue here.
And the publisher offers discounted e-books for sale here.
I recently interviewed Ulf Hannerz online. Here’s what he had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; UH = Ulf Hannerz):
Interview with Ulf Hannerz
Traditionally, cultural anthropologists have specialized in local, micro-communities. In this book, instead of a remote village, you train your eyes on a very different tribe: the miniscule set of public intellectuals who have published books claiming to explain everything occurring in the modern world, and predicting what will happen next to our species and our planet. As an anthropologist, what special insights can you bring to this tribe?
Let me contextualize and historicize a bit. There was a time when most social science and humanities disciplines were quite Eurocentric, and anthropologists seemed to have much of the world more or less to themselves, as far as the production of scholarly knowledge was concerned. That began to change in the Cold War era with “area studies programs” and the like, and then toward the end of the twentieth century, terms like “globalization” and “transnational” entered our vocabulary. Some time in the 1990s, after periods of field work in a Nigerian town for one thing (and finding “creolization”), I began to take an overall interest in the landscape of transnational knowledge production, in and out of academia. I did a first conference paper identifying three categories of professional people who, like anthropologists, had been pioneers in that field: spies, missionaries, and foreign correspondents. Their objectives and working circumstances were, of course, quite different from those of anthropologists. And, characteristically, the relationships between them and the anthropologists have tended to be complicated. I described that effort as “studying sideways,” and that is what I have been doing since.
“Studying up” and “studying down” in anthropology have involved mostly differences in power and privilege. “Studying sideways” is more a matter of looking at groups on more or less parallel tracks of knowledge production–in the scholarly disciplines, in the media, or wherever. I turned first to news media foreign correspondents, and a book came out of that – Foreign News (2004). Incidentally, when I first made contact with some of them, introducing myself as an anthropologist, they responded, “So we will be your tribe.”
Now, what can I bring as an anthropologist, studying sideways into the genre of global future scenarios? For one thing, a knowledge of relevant ethnography. Even when the writers in question do touch ground somewhere in the world, you may get eloquent, impressionistic reporting, but often shoddy, misleading description. And that reporting is very uneven – people’s everyday life can be very important in generating their futures, and the scenario writers tend to give little attention to that. Probably they have seen little of it, in other parts of the world.
I would also compare their concepts with ours. For one thing, a number of them use the culture concept in ways that few anthropologists would now accept. Indeed, they may be inclined to what, within our discipline, has recently been described as “cultural fundamentalism.” Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis stands out as one example. I know there are anthropologists who feel that as the concept is often misused, we should just give up on “culture.” I think that is an ostrich policy. The concept will not go away just because one academic discipline turns away from it. If it is a key notion in understanding human life, and involves matters where we may still be recognized as having some intellectual authority, let us use that in whistleblowing when we feel that the culture concept is misused. So I use it above all as a matter of understanding the organization of human diversity, varying in scale between the global ecumene and microcultures, and always in motion in time and space. That matters, whether you are dealing with “soft power” or “Jihad versus McWorld.”
The authors you profile in this book propose models for understanding human societies that most anthropologists would dismiss as hopelessly reductionistic. Besteman and Gusterson (2005) and others have already scorned these “pundits” for having gotten everything wrong. What made you decide to spend more time commenting on their simplistic (often binary) models?
Part of the answer is that I had already started on this before Besteman’s and Gusterson’s Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong came out. I fundamentally agreed with their and their collaborators’ critiques. But I also felt that there was much more to be said. For one thing, there was that title. Certainly, these “top pundits” may have been American, and addressing primarily U.S. readers – a general audience, but sometimes not least the White House, Foggy Bottom and Pentagon.
Even in the American context, the place of the “scenarios” in public culture seemed interesting. The writers inhabited a complex terrain of academia, media, think tanks and politics, and there was an interplay between the long-term views of the scenarios they proposed, and that daily coverage of international news that I knew about from my study of foreign correspondents. Since I came from an anthropological interest in the ways that networks weave in and out of institutional contexts, that probably intrigued me.
But then, the simplistic “scenarios” that those scholars and journalists proposed actually found quite a lot of readers just about everywhere. A number of these authors appeared on ranking lists of “top global public intellectuals.” I soon found their books, in the original or in translation, in airport book stalls all over Europe and Asia—often, next to how-to-succeed-in-business type books.) When Samuel Huntington died in 2006, one obituary noted that his “clash of civilizations” book had been translated into three dozen languages. For that matter, I could read in Swedish newspapers that the leader of the growing Swedish neonationalist, more or less xenophobic, political party had talked about the “clash of civilizations” as if it were an established fact, at campaign meetings in 2014.
That first generation of America’s top pundits, too, was in large part based somewhere on the stretch between Cambridge, MA, via New York to Washington, DC – with some trans-Atlantic commuters from Britain. This is the home ground of a lot of American academic, media, and political power. I add some number of writers from that group, like Joseph Nye, Robert Kagan and Niall Ferguson. Then, however, I go on to consider the contributions of a number of other, mostly later writers. Some of them resemble that prominent cohort of anthropologists, particularly in the United States, who have sometimes playfully described themselves as “halfies”: people who have some of their personal background linking them to other parts of the world. This includes people like Amy Chua (actually more famous for her “Tiger mother” book on tough-minded parenthood) and Fareed Zakaria – with his Harvard Ph.D. (advised by Samuel Huntington) but more recently a CNN talk show host, and a Washington Post columnist.
But I also consider a number of contributors to the scenario genre from elsewhere in the world: including Bernard-Henri Lévy and Amin Maalouf from France, and Kishore Mahbubani from Singapore. These, again, are global public intellectuals, with mixed academic, political, and media involvements. With people like these, the “global future scenario” genre really becomes part of a world-wide public culture. I would like to see it as a space of conversations about the future of the world. Yet the trouble is that there is not a whole lot of dialogue. Those European and Asian writers are frequently familiar with the American pundits and comment on them, but the Americans do not seem to pay much attention to these far-away others. That, of course, is another, dubious, aspect of American soft power.
Most anthropologists do face-to-face ethnographic fieldwork with live humans living in communities. You’ve done plenty of this sort of fieldwork yourself. But in this book, your interlocutors are authors, many of them fellow Ph.D.-bearing scholars in the social sciences who you’ve never met (notably, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Joseph Nye, Thomas Friedman, among others). Moreover, unlike your book about foreign correspondents—who you interviewed—for this book, your data set is the corpus of books, not their authors. What was it like to do this sort of virtual fieldwork in the “virtual community,” if we might call it that, of quasi-scholarly books, without doing a single interview, let alone “participant observation”? Or, do you consider the act of reading the books you discuss here, a literary form of “participant observation”?
With the foreign correspondents, I had interviews of a kind I like to think of extended, free-flowing conversations, and I liked many of them as persons. I tend not to feel comfortable in the role of adversarial interviewer – I suspect many anthropologists don’t – and talking to writers of whose work I am in large part critical, that is what I would have to have been.
Moreover, I have heard people who have interviewed veteran interviewees complain that these would tend to drift into their routine responses, without listening very carefully to the questions. I suspect that might have happened too often, had I been given a chance to talk to the stars of scenario writing. So, in my book I really don’t say very much about the writers themselves. Instead, concentrate on the texts and their reception–their impact both nationally and transnationally.
I did conduct a set of interviews with academics in Tokyo about how the “scenarios” were received in Japan. As far as the texts are concerned, I found them interesting not only in terms of content, but also with regard to style. Writing about the future is necessarily at least semi-fiction, so I place the scenarios next to other such varieties of writing, like “subjunctive reporting” and “counterfactual history.” There is also the way their various key messages are summarized as fast food for thought, often through more or less counterintuitive catch phrases, like “the end of history,” or “the world is .”
Ha, yes–more like marketing slogans than analytic concepts. There’s an argument to be made that these “future scenario” books really belong more in the genre of science fiction than social science.
Then, certainly, there is also the issue of the success or failure of the scenarios in anticipating what would really happen in the world, and the relationship between texts and coming realities. A hundred years ago, you had the famous commentator-muckraker Lincoln Steffens proclaim, “I have seen the future, and it works.” He made that remark about the young Soviet Union. Well, it did not really. That cohort of future scenarios that started appearing after the Soviet Union came to an end has also been a set of clear failures and mixed successes.
But what part did they play in shaping the future? Some commentators feared that Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” scenario might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So far, that has hardly happened – at least not on any major scale.
In fact, if you see the scenarios as in large part dystopic, early warnings, you may see them as the opposite–possibly self-destructive. People read them, shake their heads, and do something about the threats.
Again, I would think one can most usefully see the scenarios as a kind of global conversation pieces. But then, it helps if they are really well-informed, and manage to reach out at the same time.
The books you analyze all claim to predict the future. This past year has caught many “pundits” in the prediction business by surprise. Looking back on two of the biggest political surprises to “experts” in the UK and the US—the Brexit and Trump votes—can you say that any of the authors you discuss in your book would have predicted these outcomes?
I suspect Robert Kaplan, who stands out as a conservative anti-elitist–in a way, a populist–might be least surprised, given the books he’s written reporting on his travels in the US. Samuel Huntington, rather anti-Muslim in his “clash of civilizations” scenario (“Islam has bloody borders”) and warning of Mexican immigration in his last book, Who Are We? (2004), could just have fit into a Trump administration if he had been alive.
Probably most of the others would have been fairly surprised. If there had ever been an “end of history” of the kind once sketched by Fukuyama, Trump seems more likely to start it going again – intentionally or unintentionally. Thomas Friedman certainly shows in his New York Times columns that he is no Trump admirer. And Joseph Nye’s program for “soft power” will not get much funding from Donald Trump.
Given your vast reading of world history, what surprised you the most in 2016?
In October 2016, before the election, I did two commentaries on the election campaign, one for a Cultural Anthropology blog–presumably mostly for an American audience—and another one in Swedish for the new blog site of the Swedish Anthropological Association. It was an interesting experience, writing about the same thing for two different audiences.
Looking back at them, I see that I did not take a Clinton victory for granted. But then, I had been reading some “early warning literature” relating to the American scene – beginning with Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2005)–a fair number of years ago, and then, coming closer, Mark Leibovich’s This Town (2013), about the Washington, DC elite, and George Packer’s The Unwinding the same year, an account of a country coming apart, to mention some. And then, around mid-year 2016, one book quickly became a bestseller: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, basically an auto-ethnography. In large part, these are books by journalists. I was only a little sorry not to find more anthropologists contributing some visible grassroots ethnography to this literature.
Indeed, that’s a real failing on our part.
Then I might add that some time ago, I wrote a piece titled “The American Theater State,” inspired by Clifford Geertz’ interpretation of the precolonial Balinese state. This essay just appeared in the book, America Observed, edited by Virginia Dominguez and Jasmin Habib (2016). Changing the notion of the theater state into a traveling and comparative concept, I suggested that Americans had turned it over sideways: if the Balinese had celebrated hierarchy, the ruling obsession in American political culture became one of a dramatization of egalitarianism – no less urgent when real social inequality actually grew. As I see it, in the campaign phase of American party politics, each candidate must build his/her own campaign apparatus, and create his/her own personal “brand.” A presidential candidate should be someone to identify with: someone with appealing interests and personality. But again and again, it helps that the boundaries of politics are porous, so that existing symbolic capital can be imported from other domains: the entertainment industry, big business, televangelism, the drama of warfare.
So Donald Trump may be an extreme case, but he is not the first one to move in his career from show business into politics: remember Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson. And at present, there is a senator from Minnesota who came into politics from “Saturday Night Live.” My favorite case here is really George Wallace’s third-party campaign in 1968. Governor Wallace, a populist in his time, tried to recruit John Wayne from Hollywood for the vice-presidential slot – Wayne was just then on the screens in Green Berets, the Vietnam War epic. But Wayne stayed loyal to the Republicans. So then Wallace reputedly attempted to get Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), to take on this part, before ending up with General Curtis LeMay. Which was a disaster.
Ha, you probably have a better memory of these strange nooks and crannies of American political history than most Americans.
Well, however much they disagree on particular points, all the “scenarios” you discuss in this book share a broad look at global politics. By contrast, both the US and the UK have recently voted for a candidate or a policy, respectively, that would drastically close borders and limit immigrants. Beyond these leading Anglophone nations, one might suggest that the opposed forces of globalization and xenophobia are at war in many nations these days. Or, perhaps, that’s yet another simplistic binary scenario. Regardless: who do you think best explains the current moment?
Probably there is no simple explanation. Above all, there is probably the fact that globalization has had its winners and its losers – which is not only a matter of competition, but also of technological changes. And established political elites have tended to pay too little attention to this, which has left a wide field open to protest parties and politicians, strong in declining areas, and combining economic messages with xenophobic scaremongering. I actually have a chapter on this in Writing Future Worlds, focusing on an early phase with such scenario notions as “Eurabia” and “Londonistan,” and Huntington’s anti-Mexican book. Islamist terrorism seems to me to be a mirror image of this, in the Middle East and in the banlieus of western Europe.
But then, one should see that 2017 has also brought some reasonably good news. It is true that xenophobic populism is now on the scene more or less everywhere in Europe, with political parties that are among the larger in many countries–but that has been in large part because the opposition to them is divided into so many parties, from establishment conservatives to Greens and post-Communists. They are mostly far from a majority of their own – the elections in the Netherlands, France, and Britain have shown that. In part, of course, that may be a reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency. And that in itself is a result of that peculiarity of the American electoral system whereby the loser of the popular vote has become president in two recent elections out of five.
One more thing: the early cohort of scenario writers paid little or no attention to the new media, which then grew and diversified extremely quickly in the period that followed. Obviously, social media have played a major role, everywhere from the abortive 2011 Arab Spring to the 2016 election in the United States. That is a real revolution, penetrating social life just about everywhere.
Indeed–and we anthropologists, like other scholars, have been slow to catch up with those horses long out of the gate.
In many other arenas, you’ve been on the vanguard. You’ve produced one of the first urban ethnographies of African-American communities, you’ve pioneered the anthropology of transnational flows, and you’ve interrogated the contemporary moment in anthropology. What’s next?
Actually, I also have another new book, Small Countries: Structures and Sensibilities (2017), co-edited with Andre Gingrich, my friend and colleague in Vienna. We deal largely with countries up to 10 million inhabitants or so. That includes some European countries like the Scandinavian countries and Austria, but we also have contributors writing about Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Israel, Singapore and New Zealand. A major point is that smallness may be both absolute and relative: the size of the population, on one hand, with its implications for the structure of social relationships; but also, perhaps, the presence of some large, more or less dominant neighbor, on the other. Ireland next to Great Britain, for example; or Austria next to Germany; or New Zealand next to Australia.
Mostly, in my anthropological endeavors, I have not written much about my home country of Sweden, but in this case, in a concluding chapter, I get somewhat auto-ethnographic: I try to show how Swedish smallness is reflected in my own encounter with His Majesty the King, in the context and aftermath of the assassination of a prime minister, and in the festivities surrounding Nobel Prize awards.
After this editing project: well, I am leaning back a bit, but playing with different possibilities.
AG: Any time you want to take a break from well-deserved relaxation, your many fans await.
Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki chronicles a charming and, indeed, remarkable friendship that developed between two five-year-old boys—one (Sadiki), the son of a traditionally pastoralist Samburu family in Kenya working as a wage laborer for wealthy British landowners; the other (Colin), the son of a white American couple of means, both students, living in Kenya for 15 months of graduate research.
Kisisi was published in cloth, paperback, and e-editions by Wiley Blackwell in 2016
When they first met, the age-mate boys found themselves drawn to one another . . . but frustrated by their lack of a common language. Slowly, they developed their own language (dubbed “Kisisi” by Colin’s mother, Perry Gilmore), combining bits and pieces of Swahili and English into a constantly-evolving pidgin that they, alone, understood. Narrating the development of this unique pidgin, the book combines the engagingly personal voice of a proud and loving mom with the sharp observer’s eye of a trained anthropological linguist.
Renowned linguist, Deborah Tannen, has this to say about the book:
It’s part linguistic analysis, part gripping story of culture contact, part deeply moving memorial to a life tragically cut short. This book will fascinate anyone interested in language, children, or human experience.
The 136-page book has five chapters, and Gilmore writes like a dream. Once you start it, I dare you to put it down.
You can find a link to a sample chapter here (“Uweryumachini!: A Language Discovered”):
If you’d like to request an exam copy for a course you teach, follow this link.
You can find Perry Gilmore’s contact information here.
I recently interviewed Perry Gilmore online about the book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PG = Perry Gilmore):
AG: In the Prologue, you write of Colin and Sadiki:
[T]heir invented language helped them construct new identities and resist, transgress, and transform the marked postcolonial borders and harsh inequities of economics, race and culture that engulfed them and dominated the social power relationships and language ideologies that engaged all aspects of their daily lives (xvi).
As such, you call the book
a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and the politics of language and oppression . . . an ethnographic exploration of young children’s critical and resilient discursive agency in their innocent yet effective quest for language equality and a place for their friendship on the rigid borders of their vastly different language and cultural worlds (p. xix).
Similarly, in the final chapter, you write:
“the children’s language . . . [created] opportunities for them to cross deeply entrenched colonial borders as effective change agents and as an official effective language policy makers” (p. 95).
Those are impressive claims. How would you respond to skeptics who might doubt the ability of five-year-old children to disrupt the intertwined and entrenched legacies of colonial domination and racism in East Africa?
Sadiki (left) and Colin (right) planning a pretend-hunt
PG: I agree that these are impressive claims! But I am convinced that they are reasonable and accurate insights about the social dynamics that Colin and Sadiki’s border-crossing friendship generated – for them and for those around them.
In the early pages of my book, I express the hope Colin and Sadiki’s story will be able to amaze the reader. The boys’ story urges us to look more closely and see all children with a little more awe, wonder, and respect.
I, myself, was almost incredulous when I first discovered that, before two months, the children were communicating non-stop and with great facility in a Swahili- sounding language that only the two of them understood. My own shock, disbelief, and curiosity prompted me to record their language carefully and document the full range of their social interactions. In 1975, when these events occurred, I, myself, was doubtful that Colin and Sadiki – at only five years of age – could actually be displaying such creative linguistic virtuosity, strong agentive social roles, and active resistance to the existing language ideologies and conventions that surrounded them.
Having been an elementary school teacher for six years, a language and literacy curriculum developer for school-age children, and a graduate student in developmental psychology with a focus on language acquisition, I had a strong background in child development and behavior. All that I had ever read about children and about language at that time completely defied what I was witnessing.
In Kisisi, I present what I hope is a range of convincing contextualized behavioral evidence to demonstrate not only the children’s language virtuosity but also their effective and impactful social agency. No doubt, some might be skeptical about the ability of two five-year-olds to interrupt an entrenched and oppressive colonial order. I, myself, initially struggled with these more speculative ethnographic insights. For example, I could answer questions about “what” they were speaking with empirical linguistic descriptions that identified specific lexical innovations and new syntactic constructions. I could answer questions about “how” they constructed meaning and negotiated shared information in an empirically detailed discourse analysis that, line-by-line, examined their turn-taking utterances. However, to answer questions about “why” they chose to invent and continue to use their own private pidgin language instead of the Up-Country Swahili that they were expected to use, I used an ethnographic analysis that is necessarily more exploratory in nature and more interpretive in identifying underlying meanings.
A skeptic – or any reader, for that matter – could, and probably should, question my ethnographic interpretations about the children’s resilient and transformative agency. It was my task in the book to provide enough of their story to convincingly demonstrate their effective resistance in a rich description. I hope I accomplished that. As with all ethnographic work, however, I did not and cannot “prove” my analysis; instead, I explore its underlying meanings.
The case of the boys’ friendship, and the ephemeral invented language that helped create and sustain it, presents a provocative extreme along a continuum of possibilities in examining language choices and behaviors in social practice. The example also provides a lens for understanding how young members of language communities use and think about language – how they clearly exercise language choice, change, and possibility.
It is only in recent years, especially in the new and growing field of the anthropology of childhood, that children’s agentive behavior and early language ideologies have been recognized and explored. In earlier anthropological studies, children had generally been seen as the recipients of generational cultural transmission, rather than seen as contributors to and co-constructors of their own worlds. The role of children as language innovators and de facto language policy makers has been largely understudied, undocumented, and even ignored. This case of language invention provides documentation of children’s language creativity; gives insight into the agentive roles of children as language innovators in multilingual contact situations; and sheds new light on questions of language genesis, change, shift, and maintenance.
Even two-year-olds make their own decisions about language choice in multilingual settings. For example, in my Indigenous language work in Alaska, I saw young Yu’pik mothers in tears when their two-year-olds could understand everything their mothers said to them in Yu’pik, but would only answer in English. Somehow, much to the pain of their families, these very young language learners had made their own decision to choose the dominant English language over their Alaska Native heritage language. Examples like these are widespread and clearly demonstrate that very young children can and do resist existing language ideologies and exercise their own language choices.
Colin and Sadiki’s isolated and remote rural situation contributed to their more extreme language innovation, collaborative language choices, and social practices. I have argued that the children, by choosing to sustain, expand, and develop their own private language, resisted the dominant language ideologies that represented the hegemonic, racialized, post-colonial order of newly independent Kenya. Their public uses of their private language made a symbolic statement about what I describe as their “cultural critique” of an oppressive regime in which their own cross-racial friendship was considered by many as a violation of social norms. The boys refused to docilely participate in the existing colonial order and rejected the Up-Country Swahili language that was designated to keep that order in place. They resisted being socialized into a language ideology they rejected, and instead created a new language ideology that allowed a safe and celebrated space for their friendship. Sadiki and Colin used their language to deconstruct a colonial culture of fear and silence and reconstructed their own counter-culture of courage and voice.
Their resistance and language ideologies may not have been articulated with theoretical vocabulary, but they were boldly enacted. The boys did not resist through anger or aggression. Instead their effective, border-crossing agency was accomplished through loving verbal art and play. Their joy-filled language practices challenged the oppressive colonial culture that surrounded them, identifying them as a distinct and separate speech community that valorized its own social justice values and allowed a space for their treasured border-crossing friendship.
Colin (left) and Sadiki (right)–proud pretend-hunters
AG: What a persuasive response! I dare a reader to remain unconvinced. . .
In the book, you point out that, until recently, scholars of language overlooked children’s linguistic experiences as unimportant. How does your book contribute to developing scholarship about children’s language practices? Does what you observed about the development of Kisisi suggest anything about the origins of our species’ linguistic abilities?
PG: For centuries, speculations about the origins of human language and the genesis of new languages have presented daunting questions for philosophers, language experts, historians, and scientists. These questions had always fascinated me. My primary reason for being in Kenya in the first place was to study baboon communication. This type of ethological fieldwork was in part driven by a fascination for primate studies and its potential for illuminating the origin of language in the human species. The study of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat was a relatively new research practice at that time. Naturalistic, long-term primate studies promised to be a valuable source of information concerning possible models of early hominid behavior and communication. I had no way of predicting that it would be my son’s unplanned and serendipitous close friendship with his Samburu neighbor that would offer me an even more provocative language origin story!
Ethnographic studies of young children’s language socialization were just beginning to emerge as an area of interest and significance. In striking contrast to earlier widespread Piagetian language studies, which characterized children as developmentally egocentric and incapable of modifying their speech for an interlocutor, newer observational studies showed strong socio-centric abilities of very young children and even babies. For example, Elinor Ochs (1977) demonstrated that her infant twins were able to take conversational turns and repeat each other’s pre-linguistic babbling utterances. These findings in the late ‘70s defied the long-held Piagetian claims of egocentrism. Of course, Ochs’ work had not yet been written or published when I witnessed Colin and Sadiki’s socio-centric language invention.
The infamous “forbidden experiments” recounted by Herodotus and others, the failed and poignant attempts to teach feral children to speak (e.g., Itard’s Wild Child, and the case of Genie), questionable research proposals designed to create a new pidgin language by isolating speakers of different languages on a small island (e.g., Derek Bickerton), the study of a new sign language created by deaf children in Nicaragua, twin languages – all these cases were seen to hold the promise of finding the secrets of language origins and genesis. The study of pidgin and creole languages has similarly been seen as a fascinating place to see language develop and change over time.
The study of Colin and Sadiki’s language adds to this literature in captivating ways. It is a rare, first-hand account of an emerging language-in-the-making. Most of the examples of “new languages” are anecdotal and discovered after the fact. I was in an unusual situation whereby I could document the boys’ language practices as they occurred over time. Invaluable also was the benefit of seeing all of their behavior in social context. The ethnographic details of their situated everyday language practices were unique compared to other studies. These ethnographic data allowed for a more “emic” interpretation of the functions, uses, and meanings of their communication in context. This “ethnography of communication” approach enabled me to describe the children as members of a vibrant (if tiny) “speech community” who used their new language for specific purposes and in specific situations. I did not simply provide a structural description of their “language” in a vacuum but in the context of their complex, multilingual social life.
What can Colin and Sadiki teach us all about human language and about children’s language? One reviewer, a linguist and pidgin/creole scholar, has commented that Kisisi “shows that two five-six year old children can create a new grammatical system” and it “can happen fast.” I suggest that the boys can teach us many things about children and language. What seemed to me at first to be a small and simple story of two children inventing a language turned out to be a story that was complex, nuanced, and multilayered. Their experiences raise many profound questions causing us to rethink common assumptions about children and about language. Their “not-so-simple” story provides provocative insights about some very big ideas concerning language origins, children’s innovative language competencies, and the significant role of play and verbal art in language genesis. Their experience provides compelling evidence concerning the agentive roles that very young children can exercise in language and culture resistance, choice, and change.
Sadiki and Colin’s language began in response to a pragmatic need to understand each other in order to be playmates and friends. Their early genesis of an original, simplified Swahili pidgin served that immediate function, facilitating their play and budding friendship. As time went on and their close bonds deepened – even as they had learned and used other local languages – they continued to use and expand Kisisi, its linguistic form and structure, and its semiotic functions. It was fun. It was secret. It was theirs. It was an artistic verbal spectacle that surprised and captivated unsuspecting audiences. Their new language bonded them as much as it reflected their bonds. They created a secret language with a public function. Through their language use, they carved a new, exclusive, and symbolically resonant space, a separate universe for their controversial friendship.
Their experience taught me that we scholars of childhood need to view all children’s language, in its many complex forms, as inevitably intertwined with the lives and meanings of the children who use it.
Colin (left) and Sadiki (right) closing the paddock gate
AG: You lived in Kenya, where the events described in this book occurred, some 40+ years ago. Some people might think that the data are too old to be relevant; others might think you’ve forgotten too much by now to write accurately about the events. Can you talk about the advantages of waiting so long to write about past events?
PG: Producing what Johannes Fabian would describe as a “late ethnography” that (re)presents and interprets historically situated events and practices, I have written this account forty years after I experienced it. I had deliberately accumulated a substantial archive during my time on Kekopey Ranch in Gilgil, Kenya. Like so many who had come before me, I intended to write a book about my time in Africa–although I originally thought my book might be about my life with the baboons I was studying. With that in mind, I was very meticulous about keeping lengthy journals and records. I also kept carbon copies of all the letters I wrote to friends and family back home. And I kept copies of the audio cassette voice letters we regularly sent back and forth to the States. Those voice letters included rich descriptions of our activities and environment, as well as many instances where Sadiki and Colin told jokes, recounted events, and sang songs for Colin’s grandmother, other relatives, and close friends. Because I was fascinated with their new language, I made regular tape recordings of Sadiki and Colin’s language interactions in a range of contexts and kept detailed notes about and translations of their developing language.
At the time, I was a professional writer for a nationally funded educational laboratory, Research for Better Schools, Inc. (RBS). I was on leave to do the baboon research but was able to do freelance writing for RBS drawing on my Kenya experiences. I mostly wrote children’s poetry and short stories for an anthology for a reading and literature curriculum we had been developing. (I had a wonderful supervisor at RBS who arranged for me to continue as a long distance writer on our project. This was amazing since it was long before fax machines, e-mails, Skype and scans! The international packages took six to eight weeks to arrive at their destinations.) I did this writing for the entire time I was in the field. The poetry and stories I wrote were largely focused on the boys and necessarily captured many subtle details and evocative descriptions of their daily life events.
The letters, journals, notes, recordings, and RBS writings all provided an extremely rich archive for me to draw on, decades later. Even forty years on, the accounts seem vibrant and vivid, and the now-digitized recordings bring the children’s giggling voices right into the room. I also maintained a growing library of local books, newspapers, documents, and articles that captured the local colonial life of the period. Furthermore, I drew on the parallel memories of many colleagues, friends, and Sadiki and his family, who lived with us in Kenya at the time. Many of them were kind enough to read early drafts of the book and/or talk with me about these past times and events.
You ask about the advantages of waiting to write about past events. One of the most exciting advantages of writing the book now is that over these decades, the field has grown so rich theoretically, and that has allowed me a range of theories, concepts, and language to work with that did not exist before. When I was first examining their behaviors, we didn’t really have the theoretical frameworks or the critical language to fully describe or understand what the boys were doing. Post-colonial studies, critical ethnography, language socialization, power and hegemony, decolonizing methodologies, agency, resistance and language ideologies didn’t yet exist as areas of study. I was better able to capture all aspects of their profound and complex story by relying more heavily on more recently developed ideas as central issues in telling their story. It was as if the field finally caught up to the boys!
AG: Ha, yes. We sometimes talk about scholars being “ahead of their time.” In this case, two five-year-olds proved “ahead of the scholars’ time”!
In that regard, in the Epilogue, you suggest that Kisisi offers pedagogical implications for language learning (including bilingual education) that could prove useful to teachers of students at various levels and in various contexts. Can you share some specific ideas you might have along those lines?
PG: Ethnographic inquiry about children’s language practices can inform and often enlighten educators. Ethnography can expose children’s language competencies that hide in plain sight, often unnoticed and unimagined. Kisisi can provide one ethnographic account of young children’s competencies that might help teachers look at their own students differently. Teachers might be encouraged to use an ethnographic lens in their own daily pedagogy. An ethnographic eye can reveal otherwise unseen or unrecognized competencies. Ethnographies like Kisisi can present strong counter-narratives to a dominant, destructive, deficit discourse that unfortunately persists in many educational settings. In a time when deficit arguments continue to hang heavy in US educational circles – fueled, for example, by the so-called “30 million word gap” research (Hart and Risley 1995, 2003), which falsely argues that low-income children in the U.S. at three years of age have been exposed to millions of fewer words than have been their wealthy counterparts – it’s a good time for teachers to use an ethnographic eye to confront the unequal power arrangements that obscure the potential linguistic talent, virtuosity, and strength we need to recognize and nurture in all children. By paying close attention and documenting children’s everyday talk, teachers can identify competencies and start to work from from a resource-rich stance rather than a deficit bias. All students come to schools with naturally creative and flexible multilingual and translanguaging capabilities. Colin and Sadiki are not unique. They demonstrate the fluid language abilities that all children are capable of. What is needed is a safe and respectful space to use language(s) in ways that enhance rather than threaten children’s identities and ideologies. When teachers create those meaningful contexts, language learning and use will flourish.
AG: Speaking of which . . . President Trump began his presidency with an executive order founded in deep suspicion of immigrants and refugees. Your book seems founded in the opposite aim: the urge to find the common humanity linking young children from radically different cultural traditions, historical contexts, economic resources, and life options. Have you had any reactions to your book from readers who might have approached it from something closer to Pres. Trump’s position of skepticism? More broadly, do you think your book, and others like it, can make inroads among those who hold deep convictions about the unbridgeable divides separating people via discourses of “otherness”?
PG: In an era of division, I have had very positive responses to Colin and Sadiki’s story. I believe the boys touch a place of hope and optimism in the hearts of those who have read the book. In this Trump era, Sadiki and Colin’s story reinforces a vision of building bridges, not walls. I think it sparks a yearning for deeper human connections with the “other.”
Perry Gilmore, Colin and Sadiki walking through tall grasses
AG: Who do you hope will read this book—among scholars/students, policy makers/politicians, and the general public? What’s your fantasy for the impact that this book could have, if it were read by the right people?
PG: I hope a wide array of people will read the book. The two boys offer us a beautiful lesson in humanity. Love and play are at the heart of their creative language virtuosity and their healing, social justice transformations. I hope those who read the book will forever after watch all children with more awe and wonder! Linguists, anthropologist, educators, policy makers, and the general public can all find something in the book for them. The boys have left us a unique gift – a rare language legacy; and a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and resilience in challenging the politics of language and oppression.
And, finally, I wrote this book as a memorial tribute to my son, Colin Gilmore, whose life was cut short by a drunk driver when he was only 18 years old. One clear hope of mine is that readers will remember Colin and the courageous and loving lessons he and his dear friend, Sadiki, left us.
AG Update: Check out the fabulous review of Kisisi here.
Adrie Kusserow is one of an increasing number of anthropologist-poets. Or maybe more anthropologist-poets are just willing to come out of hiding.
Either way, I was delighted to catch up with Adrie and interview her about her wonderful book of poems, Refuge, that was published by Boa Editions (a leading literary publisher) in 2013. Although the book is now a few years old, the subject of its title poem, and many others collected in its pages, remains all too relevant. For more information, and a sample poem, check the publisher’s website here.
If you’d like to find out more about Adrie Kusserow’s work as a researcher, an author, and the founder of an NGO, check out her website.
Her latest, short book that I’m featuring here contains 61 pages of 30 poems. In other words, it’s a quick, easy read—yet packs a richly moving punch.
“Kusserow’s splendid verses bring us devastatingly close to the recent horrors of the southern Sudan and its lost boys. Her ethnographic gaze is compelling and her poems plunge us into unfamiliar social worlds, bringing us the news we need to know. Both anthropology and poetry stand enriched by her work.”
I recently talked with Adrie Kusserow about her new book. Here’s a record of our e-conversation:
Interview with Adrie Kusserow
Alma Gottlieb (AG): As a scholar trained in anthropology, what motivated you to write and publish this book of poetry?
Adrie Kusserow (AK): There were many reasons, but mostly I didn’t have a choice. Poems are always able to handle the emotions and subtle nuances of bodily habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term) that I encounter in field work. Poetry is also something I prefer to write and comes quite naturally. Once I had tenure I felt I could risk not writing as much academic prose. This is my second book of poetry, so I knew I could write another, and hopefully publish with the same great publisher (BOA Editions, New American Poets Series).
Ever since college I’ve had one foot in poetry and the other in social science, feeling like each “side” really needed more of the other. When I was in graduate school, anthropological writing seemed stiff. It was fascinating but not always engaging. At this point in my life, I write more poetry than I do academic writing. Poetry can take us into places of nuance and subtlety that can get pounded out by academic jargon. I use poetry to take me to places of insight and truth that I couldn’t get to through regular prose. For me it’s like moving from one- dimensional reality to three-. I wanted to write poetry because I felt it could hold all of the subtle dynamics and emotionality of doing work in South Sudan in a way that academic prose couldn’t. I also don’t just view it as trying to accurately reflect any given situation or ethnographic encounter. It is a tool for me that I use to get to places of deeper understanding. Connections and insights come up for me about my “data” in the process of writing a poem. I’m also a big fan of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, and poetry allows me to depict the tremendously subtle nuances of habitus.
I also wanted to have a book that I could use in my teaching. I very often use fiction, plays, and poetry to help students understand and appreciate core anthropological themes. Most of the courses I teach (on refugees, medical anthropology, and inequality) have a social justice current running through them, and I always try to get readings that will move my students not just intellectually, but viscerally and emotionally.
I also love writing poetry because it can sometimes help me reach a wider audience than I might with a scholarly journal that attracts readers who are, in a sense, already converted to anthropological jargon.
AG: For most people, poetry inhabits a different universe from a social science such as anthropology. Yet Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict, two of our discipline’s most illustrious American forebears, were respected as published poets, and we’ve had plenty more anthropologist-poets since then. Like Sapir and Benedict, you’re a scholar who writes and publishes in both academic and poetic genres. Do you see your two kinds of writing as fundamentally linked, or fundamentally discrete?
AK: Fundamentally linked….I have no interest in writing solely confessional poetry that has no insight into the role that culture plays in shaping individual lives, hence I tend to gravitate toward ethnographic poetry. I also have no interest in writing the kind of straight ethnographic prose that has no metaphor, rhythm, color and vivid imagery in it. So I am perpetually writing both. I see ethnographic poems as taking me to a powerful, liminal place that can harness both “sides,” rather than each having its own territory.
AG: You’ve done research in places ranging from New York City and small-town Vermont to Bhutan, India, Nepal, Uganda, and war-torn southern Sudan. What’s inspired you to research life in such wildly diverse fieldsites?
AK: I’ve always been drawn to the Himalayas. After my freshman year at Amherst College, I left school and lived in Nepal with Tibetan refugees and then in Dharamsala, India, the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile. From there, I became a religion major studying Buddhism with Robert Thurman, and then I went to Divinity School to study Buddhism. The landscape of the Himalayas, and Buddhism, are what pull me back time and time again. I love how small the ego feels there, the lack of a kind of hyper-individualism.
I never had an early interest in going to East Africa. It was the Lost Boys of Sudan that pulled me there and changed the course of my work for a time. I became so close to them in Vermont that I followed them back to Sudan to try and find their families, interview their friends in refugee camps, took students with me, and interviewed refugee girls about the challenges they faced. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, we had built a school for refugee girls in the very southern part of Southern Sudan on the Congo/Ugandan border.
The whole time I missed the Himalayas. And now, I’m unable to set foot inside of Southern Sudan because of the brutal civil war, so I’m back to working in India, which I love. In April I’m making a film to raise awareness on trafficking of girls from tea plantations in rural Himalayan villages around Darjeeling, which will be used by a local NGO with Nepali subtitles. I’m very excited, as I will get to combine my love of trekking with applied anthropology. The film is going to document the trek along the Indo-Nepal border as I follow a local NGO/Stop Human Trafficking team.
AG: You write poetry, you publish scholarly articles, you teach college students, you founded and run an NGO based in the Southern Sudan, and now you’ll be working on a film. How do you perceive these very different activities? Do they all feel part of the same project, or independent from one another?
AK: They all feel part of the same project, a kind of obsessive exploration of inequality and how people cope with suffering.
I teach not only because I love it, but I feel students need to wake up to and be challenged by worlds larger than themselves. I believe this leads to tolerance and compassion.
I co-founded an NGO (Africa Education and Leadership Initiative) because I couldn’t witness the extreme inequality in access to education that girls face in South Sudan, and not try and do something to help try and even it out.
I write poetry because I have to, and it centers me into a place of truth (the truths of what exist under the generic conventional wisdom that often parades as truth). It brings what is most meaningful and challenging for me to think about, into a kind of sharp, almost meditative focus. Poetry lets me describe and awaken to the world in all its true complexity.
AG: Some of your poems are obviously “ethnographic” in that they’re “about someplace else,” but others are more “personal,” about your children or your husband. Do you see those as “ethnographic” as well?
AK: No, I don’t really see those as ethnographic, but at the same time it would be hard for me to describe the exact line where a poem becomes officially ethnographic. When I write about my children, I am still writing about them from a white, American, upper-middle-class perspective, and I often try and convey this in a poem, so the personal is often intentionally depicted as seeped in the cultural. And yet, sometimes, I just write personal poems, like a love poem to my toddler son. I try not to force myself to write either kind of poem, but I’m noticing that most often these days, I’m writing ethnographic poems. It is a way to process and sift through all that I’ve experienced doing field work in another country in a way that I cannot do when I am there in the midst of participant observation. When I’m in India or South Sudan, I write in a journal and don’t attempt to edit at all, just pouring out impressions and reactions and observations. When I come home, I start the weighing and sifting and looking at the entries in a slower, more creative way, and that’s often when more insights come.
AG: In a poem titled “What to Give Her–A Confession,” you write:
In our clumsy home of incense and dog hair,
I crave the weight of old cultures,
Cranky and outdated as they may be.
I crave sediment,
whole layers of history upon us
like a wet blanket, but without the stink,
the itchy suffocation.
Some anthropologists might see that sort of cultural nostalgia as old-fashioned. Did you feel more comfortable writing about it in a poem rather than in a scholarly text?
AK: Yes, I did. In poetry, I can say things I’m not supposed to say as an anthropologist–visceral, gut feelings that don’t obey anthropological theory or political correctness. In this poem, I am describing a mother who feels lost, and without the guidance of an orthodox religion. Motherhood now involves hearing hundreds of different perspectives on the best way to raise your child. Sometimes this can feel dizzying and overwhelming, and I crave one solid Bible telling me what is right. Indeed, I can know on an intellectual level that the weight of old cultures is……..but that doesn’t keep it from rising up from the gut into a poem.
AG: What’s the one question you’re most hoping interviewers will ask you about the book?
AK: Oh, actually I love to be surprised. I love it when someone asks me a question that sheds a whole new light on the book or makes me think about field work or the writing process in a new way. I love when a question forces me into new terrain instead of the same old generic answers and stories about ourselves we come to rely on and just automatically offer up. I like when questions make me question some of the narratives I get used to giving. It’s important that narrative not become too predictable and one-dimensional; after all, it’s just a story, and no story can encapsulate any one reality .
AG: Since this book has been published, the US has elected a president in good part because of his hostility to immigrants and refugees, especially those from the Muslim world. You’ve worked intimately with refugees, who have already been targeted by our new president’s two restrictive executive orders. What are your thoughts? Do you plan to teach classes educating students about the issue? Write more poems responding to the issue? Write more scholarly articles about it? Write Op Ed pieces? Something else?
AK: I plan to keep teaching courses on refugees, working with refugees in Vermont, introducing my students to refugee field work, and promoting internships and careers for my students in refugee-related fields. Beyond that, I will continue my work with AfricaELI.org, and supporting refugee students in South Sudan when the civil war allows us to. (The refugees I work with are almost all Hindu or Buddhist, from Bhutan, or Christian, from South Sudan.) On a more personal front, I have lots of work to do with supporting my South Sudanese family here in Vermont, one of whom is struggling in a psychiatric hospital and the other just had another child who they named after my mother, Suzanne, which was a great honor. I also support a young Nuba student in a camp in South Sudan who is trying to just stay alive and be able to return to school some day.
In general, I’m tending towards writing that gets published in more mainstream journals and magazines, as I like the wider audience.
AG: The American Anthropological Association has embarked on many new initiatives to promote anthropology to a broader reading public beyond our students and colleagues. Do you see your poetry as contributing to this goal? What about your NGO?
AK: Yes, I do see my poetry and my NGO as contributing to this goal. Reaching a broader reading public is extremely important to me. I recently wrote a short story called “Anthropology” for a magazine called THE SUN which has a much wider circulation than many of the journals I’ve published in. I am in full support of trying to reach a broader reading public!
The novel, Euphoria, by Lily King, published in 2014, became a national best-seller and won several major literary awards. Based loosely on a brief period in the life of Margaret Mead as she hesitated between Reo Fortune (to whom she was married) and Gregory Bateson (who the couple met while conducting research in New Guinea), the book brought wide attention to the iconic figure of 20th century American anthropology. How did the novel shape up as a piece of intellectual history?
I should say from the outset that I enjoyed Euphoria (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014). I read it in a week. At the literary level, it’s wonderfully written. I didn’t wince at awkward language or edit paragraphs in my head. I understood why the book became a national bestseller and won several literary prizes.
Nevertheless, a few days after having finished it, I found myself increasingly critical and disappointed.
Spoiler alert: The rest of this review is all about the book’s ending.
Sorry about that. But for me, as an anthropologist, the ending is what really stuck with me as the book lingered in my mind.
So here’s the basic storyline.
Margaret Mead (“Nell Stone”) and fellow anthropologist, the New Zealand-born Reo Fortune (“Sedgwick Fenwick,” nicknamed “Fen”), meet on a ship and fall in love. Margaret Mead and another fellow anthropologist, Ruth Benedict (“Helen”), have an affair. Reo Fortune gives Margaret Mead a choice of him or Benedict, and she chooses Fortune. Mead and Fortune marry (in 1928) and travel to New Guinea to conduct fieldwork with two ethnic groups (in 1931-33). Their marriage is problematic. The more we get to know Reo Fortune, the more odious he seems. It’s easy to imagine why Mead is looking for an excuse to leave him. Enter yet another anthropologist, the British-born Gregory Bateson (“Andrew Bankson”).
Bateson, Mead, and Fortune in Sydney, Australia (1933)
The rest of the book works out this steamy, jungle–based love triangle (sometimes morphing into a love quadrangle, with Ruth Benedict lingering like a shadow in the background, half a world away). The local New Guineans serve as exotic and useful backdrops, with cameo appearances and disappearances of individuals but, unfortunately, no well-sketched characters rounded out the way Mead, Benedict, and Fortune are.
The plot is basically Boy Meets Girl (interspersed from time to time with Girl Meets Girl), Second Boy Meets Girl, Girl Agonizes over which Boy to Choose, Girl Gets Pregnant by Boy #1, and . . . Girl Dies in Childbirth?!
Anyone who’s familiar with the four protagonists knows how this story ended in real life. Reo Fortune lost, Ruth Benedict lost, Gregory Bateson won (he and Mead married in 1936), and Catherine Bateson was the result (born in 1939), attesting to this love tri/quadrangle’s outcome. At least, that’s how things turned out until Bateson left Mead in 1947, later to be replaced by fellow anthropologist Rhoda Métraux as Mead’s partner from 1955 until Mead’s death in 1978 of pancreatic cancer.
Mead and Bateson among the Iatmul in New Guinea (1961)
But not in Lily King’s book.
In this alternate reality, before Margaret Mead has a chance to decide to leave Reo Fortune, she miscarries while on a ship to New York, and she dies at sea from hemorrhaging. Gregory Bateson learns of the tragedy while preparing to sail to New York to try once again to convince Margaret Mead to leave Reo Fortune and spend the rest of her life with him.
Well, Lily King is a fiction writer. By definition, she’s allowed to make stuff up. In fact, she could make everything up. That’s her stock in trade.
But she’s decided to craft a novel populated by characters based on actual people whose actual lives are actually documented. She’s taken pains to conduct meticulous research on the lives of Mead, Fortune, and Bateson while in New Guinea. Of course, the love scenes are imagined, but the basic contours of what they were doing, and where, hews closely in many ways to their known biographies. Up to the bizarre ending, King has painted an entirely plausible portrait of three people’s lives based on their documented experiences. But then she suddenly switches gears to imagine a substantially alternate reality for these real people who lived real lives in the public eye. If King had good reason for doing so, I could have remained a fan of the book. But she never clarifies, at least for me, why she suddenly fictionalized the basic facts into a drastically alternate scenario.
Had King’s fictional scenario come to pass, the history of anthropology in the 20th century would have looked different. If Margaret Mead’s life had been tragically cut short in the 1930s, as this fiction proposes, what might have been the result? After the years chronicled in the novel, the actual Margaret Mead became the only true public intellectual American anthropology has yet produced–with household name recognition, thanks to her monthly columns in the Ladies Home Journal. If Mead had died in the 1930s, the discipline might well have languished with far less funding, far less prestige, many fewer students taking courses, fewer departments in universities, and far fewer women entering anthropology (and maybe other social sciences as well). Mead not only publicized anthropology, she forged and publicized the possibility of a major female scholar gaining international attention.
Mead speaking on United Nations Radio about the Seminar on Mental Health and Infant Development sponsored by the World Federation of Mental Health (1952)
Mead on the steps of the US Capital with the staff that created her signature look in her later years (Jan. 1, 1973)
Of course, we can’t ever know, for sure, what the discipline of anthropology might have become without Mead’s last forty years —that’s the nature of counterfactual stories. But it would have been intriguing for King to speculate on this “What-if” scenario that she postulates. Instead, the story stops short at Mead’s untimely death, with only a brief postscript of sorts, decades later–recounting a brief scene with Gregory Bateson in the American Museum of Natural History in New York (where the real Margaret Mead in fact worked as a curator of ethnology for most of her career, as sexism kept her from a tenure-track or tenured position in any university).
Absent any speculation about how different anthropology would have looked without the giant figure of Margaret Mead, who publicized our discipline as no one, before or since, has ever done, the book’s ending thudded hard for me, with a crashing weight. Lily King hasn’t gifted us with her vision of how her counterfactual narrative might have played out. Right at the moment when the book promises to get insanely interesting, the story aborts.
And why did Lily King even imagine an untimely death of Margaret Mead, preventing her character from having the impact both on the discipline, and on American society, that she went on to have? Again, with that abrupt ending, that question is never answered.
Okay, fiction writers are allowed to pose questions they don’t answer. But, why this question for this character?
This reader was left frustrated.
Meanwhile, young women seeking professional role models could do far worse than to read the works of Margaret Mead, memoirs of her life (1901-78) by those who knew her, and Mead’s own early autobiography (Blackberry Winter) and her fascinating Letters from the Field. She was an amazing woman, ahead of her time on so many levels. King starts to show us how. I wish she’d finished the job.
Women (and some men) with signs, as far as the eye could see.
In my first post about the Women’s March of January 21, 2017, I chronicled the social and emotional ties I saw created in this space of massive communitas, feminist style. Here, I offer a textual analysis of the posters I observed.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Above the sea of pink knit hats, thousands of posters claimed the sky. Their messages ranged from instructive to witty, from loving to outraged. Let’s browse through a small selection of some of the most creative and impassioned, and see what they can tell us about this extraordinary moment in America’s still-young democracy.
Photo by Linda Seligmann
At the entrance to the event, a team of independent filmmakers documented the day’s events. They didn’t need to pester people to beg them for interviews. Instead, they staked out a prominent spot and simply held up an appealing sign: “Tell us why you came.”
Everyone had her story, and these filmmakers wanted to document as many as they could.
Mine was simple. I told them: “I came as a feminist dedicated to the radical proposition that women are human.”
Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post
Later, I was gratified to see a man bearing the same conviction. The strategy behind the motto works best when men are on board, too.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
I like the multiple layers of this poster.
The long lashes and bright blue eyes evoke women’s beauty—a classic subject of men’s gaze.
But the message below up-ends that practice and puts women in the active position of viewer rather than viewed. That message challenges the gross misogyny of Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about women (the infamous “pussy-grabbing” remark being only one of many).
More broadly, this poster announces that women are paying attention to any gross misdeeds Trump may attempt. The women’s movement that re-birthed on January 21st, 2017 attests to this poster.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
This poster adds another sense modality to the sentiment of the last one. Not only are women watching the antics on the House and Senate floors, they are also listening to the outrageous speeches. And they are not forgetting. Trump’s bank account can’t buy amnesia for the rest of the world.
This poster implicitly evokes the power of the Internet. Pre-Digital Age, politicians could conceal their misdeeds, their offensive statements, and even the bills they introduced into the legislature, far more easily. Now, digital cameras and cell phones-turned-tape-recorders document politicians’ back-door dealings; investigative reporters “follow the money”; and any citizen can hold police accountable with a simple snap of the shutter.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Donald Trump’s infamous comment resonated everywhere that day in Washington. In case anyone had been living under a rock all fall and needed help decoding the pink knit caps with “cat ears,” this poster reminded everyone of the odious Say what?! statement that outraged even Republicans.
“Pussy” used to be an X-rated term used by men to refer insultingly to women’s genitals. With a president as an avowed, enthusiastic sexual harasser, women have now re-appropriated the metaphor and turned it against would-be “pussy grabbers.”
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Photo by Mina Cooper
“Pussy”-as-vagina and “pussy”-as-cat have now combined such that women are re-claiming their gendered identity as a space of agency rather than victimhood. Effectively using the strategy of the gay rights movement, which re-appropriated “gay” and “queer” as terms of pride and self-identification, feminists have re-appropriated “pussy.” Not only was “pussy” a degrading term for women’s genitals; “Don’t be a pussy” previously meant, “Don’t be a coward,” with the vagina standing in synecdochally for cowardice. The thousands of cat-pun-themed posters and -knit hats in view everywhere in D.C. signaled a powerful message: these women would not be bullied into submission. Rather, women own their genitals and feel empowered to push back against the sexist agenda of the Trump regime.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
This poster distressed me more than all others I saw. I kept finding myself somehow compelled to look at it, then compelled to look away.
The idea of a sexually harassing president is odious enough. Taking that image as a metaphor for raping democracy, as symbolized by the feminized Statue of Liberty, is, if such a thing is possible, even more disturbing. Whether from direct experience or from hearing about it from friends and relatives, all women know what it is to be sexually assaulted. Imagining our collective polity and shared values assaulted in this symbolically resonant way is almost too painful to contemplate.
Yet Trump’s abhorrent statement from long ago, now immortalized, has spawned a new generation of feminists. The feminist artist who visualized this metaphor has created a powerful image that is bound to speak for months and years to come, for all who so much as glimpsed her horrifying poster.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Donald Trump’s personal history as a proud sexual harasser may even include rape—several accusations have been neither fully proven nor discredited. As such, the individual representing our nation to the world is deeply problematic. How can such a person have been chosen as Time magazine’s “person of the year”? This poster mocks Time’s decision by applying a new, degrading title, along with an iconic image of evil–the horns of the devil in Christian iconography (inherited from the satyrs of Greek mythology)–to our commander-in-chief.
Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post
Why does everyone like Dr. Seuss? Because he distills complex concepts into simple rhymes that even young children get.
This brilliant poster takes advantage of that strategy. Donald Trump’s disturbing history of sexual aggression towards women is protested via a child’s rhyme—not to belittle the seriousness of our president’s outrageous misogynist history, but to insist in the clearest and simplest possible terms on the basic fact of its unacceptability.
And, in case anyone missed the Dr. Seuss connection, the poster mad that inspiration explicit with a signature red-and-white-striped hat.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
This sign echoed hundreds of others referring to so many issues important to America’s women. Having a “pussy-grabbing” president terrifies young women, who keenly appreciate the battles their mothers and grandmothers fought to keep abortion legal and safe, breastfeed in public, name sexual harassment as a crime, and put rapists behind bars. In other words, “My Body. My Choice” resonates across multiple registers. It indexes the many struggles women have waged across multiple centuries and communities to assert somatic autonomy; the battles that have already been won to achieve this aim; and the precarity of those successes in the new U.S. administration.
This particular sign was silk-screened, along with hundreds of others, by members of an arts collective who donated their expertise and services at the Nasty Women Exhibition, a six-day art fair held in Queens, NY, the week before the Women’s Marches. All artwork at that exhibit sold out, and the entirety of the $42,000 raised was donated to Planned Parenthood. In this photo, my daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, doubled as sign-holder and photographer as she observed and marched.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Another devastating combination of 2 words + 1 image.
Roe v. Wade represents just one of many rights that people at the Women’s March aimed to defend. But it epitomizes the anger that women feel at the life-threatening medical risks they would incur if Roe V. Wade were reversed.
This poster speaks poignantly to my own family history.
My maternal grandmother had thirteen dangerous and illegal abortions.
Or so my mother once told me. Out of a combination of shock and embarrassment, I never asked my mother any details. And I certainly never queried my beloved grandmother about what must have been painful memories, as the topic was entirely taboo during the years when my grandmother was alive. But from what I know of my grandmother’s life, I find the claim entirely plausible.
As Jews living in extreme poverty in shtetls of Eastern Europe, both my maternal grandparents had only managed to attend grade school, through maybe the third or fourth grades, before they managed to flee religious persecution and make new lives for themselves in the U.S. Once here, they found religious freedom but continued to live in poverty: they rented the same three-floor-walk-up, one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for 50 years. They both worked long, hard hours for decades—my grandfather, as a waiter; my grandmother, as a licensed practical nurse.
My grandmother had two daughters, but the second (my aunt) was born with a serious kidney disease, and the doctor wasn’t optimistic about her chances for survival. My grandmother devoted herself to her sickly daughter’s health, and through her love combined with her basic nursing training, she managed to keep her daughter alive.
According to my mother, this medical and emotional trauma, combined with the family’s poverty, convinced my grandmother to put an end to her childbearing years after my aunt was born in 1923. But reliable birth control methods were still decades away. My grandmother’s only recourse to thirteen more pregnancies was to have thirteen back-alley abortions. Here’s where my pre-anthropological days fail me. I don’t know the details of who did the work, where, and how much they charged, although I imagine that coat hangers might well have been involved.
Until Jan. 21, 2017, this old family story, while a part of my maternal lineage, seemed worlds away from the lives of modern American women. As we await the drama unfolding in the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, images of coat hangers sometimes invade my dreams.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
A personal favorite. This poster says so much with two words and one powerful image.
So many women–in the U.S. and elsewhere—are sexually assaulted. So few rapists are ever even tried, let alone convicted and jailed. And in recent years, so much legislation has been proposed by Republican politicians at both state and federal levels in the U.S. that aims to curtail women’s hard-won freedoms.
Moreover, in middle schools, girls across the U.S. and elsewhere view textbook drawings that make the inside of their bodies seem like alien territory.
The net effect of these efforts is that, to some young women, it feels that the simple state of being a woman is being criminalized.
The artistic creator of this poster has used warm colors to draw the uterus as an object of beauty. Along with the über-short and über-clear text, she declares that a woman’s genitals should be the source of pride, not fear, much less invasion–whether physical, symbolic, or legal.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
And this poster individualizes the determination to protect women’s bodies by evoking a veritable vagina dentata motif. Here, we see an empowering response to Trump’s threats to women’s reproductive rights and sexual autonomy.
Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/The Huffington Post
For many years, “Grow a pair” or (more explicitly) “Grow some balls” has served to urge men and boys to gain courage. In that idiom, testicles function as a metaphor for all that is stereotypically associated with masculinity — physical strength, emotional steadiness, tenacity.
This women’s march not only challenged the economics of patriarchy. With posters such as this, the protest challenged our deepest assumptions about gender.
“Grow a vagina” as an exhortation to be brave urges girls and women to think of their genitals as organs of strength. Any woman who has ever menstruated gets it. So does any woman who has lost her virginity to a man. And what about childbirth? There’s a reason Asante women of Ghana liken childbirth to going to war. And don’t even get me started about rape. As every woman knows, women’s genitals are the site of almost super-human strength.
Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post
This poster expands the notion of female strength from the genitals. Here, women are depicted categorically as strong. The poster’s motto overturns two phrases commonly used to encourage boys to be strong: “Don’t cry like a girl” and “You fight like a girl.” Here, fighting like a girl is taken as a badge of honor, with girls depicted as a model to emulate, not avoid.
Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post
In this poster, the beloved fictional character of Princess Leia stands dramatically for women’s ability to defend themselves. The double-entendre, single-word text packs a powerful punch. With those eight letters, women are at once offered Princess Leia as a role model for resistance, and a vision of sisterhood both with that fictional character, and with one another.
Years ago, the renowned anthropologist Ashley Montagu argued that men are, intrinsically, the weaker sex. His book, The Natural Superiority of Women, first published in 1952, was an inspiration to the founders of the National Organization of Women in 1966.
The set of posters just analyzed suggests it might be time for Ashley Montagu’s book to become required reading in high school social studies classes across America.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
If the hundreds of posters I saw shared an overarching theme, it was probably, “Intersectionality.”
Unlike the “second wave” of (largely white) feminists of the 1960s, feminists of the 21st century understand that the fates of the world’s women are interlinked, and, moreover, that our struggles are also interlinked with those of other marginalized and oppressed populations. At the Women’s March in Washington, everywhere, I saw religious minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically vulnerable—both in person, and represented on signs.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
I took the “bridges” on this sign both in the literal sense, concerning the US/Mexican border—and as a metaphorical sign urging political alliances to link the many marginalized and vulnerable groups now targeted by the Trump administration.
Photo by Alanna Vaglanos /Huffington Post
This poster makes ironic ties to another bitter controversy in the contemporary era: the rights of gun owners vs. the need for public safety.
Are women really less valued than guns in American law and American society?
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
These young Latina girls probably ranged from 13-16 years old, but their posters testified that they already identified as women. And their posters signaled their early understanding that in 21st century America, this identity comes with political baggage, and demands solidarity and pluck.
The energy and positivity of this cheerful but powerful young group felt infectious.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
This young Muslim women displayed a dazzling understanding of intersectional issues. Islamophobia, reproductive rights, racism, misogyny, ignorance, hatred, climate change, the school-to-prison pipeline, the Black Lives Matter movement, and love all found a place on her packed poster. As such — and in contrast to her own headscarf-wearing body — her poster proclaimed a subliminal retort to the common American stereotyping of Muslims as “other.” Through her poster, this young woman asserted her common humanity with so many “others,” thereby deconstruction the “othering” impulse itself.
Photo by Linda Seligmann
If the protesters understood acutely the ways in which seemingly disparate issues intersect, the same cannot be said for Republicans who see these issues as unrelated. This poster in effect offered a meta-critique of those conceptual blinders. The ironic result it pointed out: the unborn have more rights than many groups of people outside the womb.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
The movement began with women, and attracted over a half a million of them in Washington, D.C. alone. But men joined in as allies, often pointing out the intersections with other issues.
The legal right to protest Trump’s policies was on people’s minds early on. The button I spotted on this man’s hat proved prescient.
With a president who has declared that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” the ACLU — staunch defender of free speech — should become a major player in the next four years.
Thankfully, in the weeks following the inauguration, the American Civil Liberties Union attracted unprecedented donations by ordinary Americans. According to a report published by CNN on Jan. 31, 2017:
“The American Civil Liberties Union said it received $24.1 million in online donations over the weekend.
In a normal year, the activist group makes about $4 million in online donations. In one weekend, it raised six times as much money.”
The ACLU will doubtless put these funds to important use.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Another personal favorite.
Back in Aug. 2015, Fox news journalist Megyn Kelly moderated a debate among Republican primary contenders. Kelly was especially tough on Trump for his anti-women agenda. After the interview, Trump dismissed Kelly’s challenging questions by referring to her genitals: he implied her questions lacked legitimacy because they must have been produced by menstrual processes — “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her . . . wherever.” Reverting to an age-old patriarchal habit of delegitimizing women’s claims for equality by suggesting out-of-control hormonal processes signaled that Trump’s misogyny was unlimited.
This poster revisits that moment and turns it against Trump. The sign holder owns her anger, and even associates it with her menstrual cycle. As with the pink knit “pussy hats,” in so doing, she is, in effect, using the logic of the gay rights movement, once activists re-appropriated the previously insulting terms used against them–“gay” and “queer.” This sign-maker’s menstrual anger does not control her; rather, she controls it, and for a political purpose: to push back against the sexist agenda of Donald Trump and others of his ilk.
Note, too, the angry tampon in the upper-right corner. Animating that piece of menstrual technology gives life to an inanimate object that is an intimate part of many modern women’s monthly bodily regimes. As such, the angry tampon re-channels the anger of all women, everywhere, who were denigrated by Trump’s insulting dismissal of Megyn Kelly’s professional journalism.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Not all posters were grim or angry. Even through their outrage, some protesters found ways to make us laugh. This clever Miller analogy offered a bitter chuckle for Jewish protestors.
Photo by Linda Seligmann
Another punster targeted not Trump, but his Cabinet picks.
At the time of the Women’s March, Trump had already announced many outrageous choices for top Cabinet positions, including Betsy DeVos for Education, Rick Perry for Energy, Tom Price for Health and Human Services, and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development. Just a day after the inauguration, reasonable people educated about these picks were already furious.
Nevertheless, this protester’s play on words earned a smile wherever she went.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Another poster offered a different play on words. The time for Cyndi Lauper’s celebration of girls protesting against sexism via partying is over. With the assault on women’s bodies on many registers, today’s girls just wanna have fun-damental rights.
Even in the most urgent of political crises, a joke can keep us sane. As H. L. Mencken once said, “What restrains us from killing is partly fear of punishment, partly moral scruple, and partly what may be described as a sense of humor.”
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
The last theme I want to signal is the set of inter-generational conversations that abounded on many posters.
Women who remember earlier women’s rights struggles displayed their frustration with old battles that they thought they had won, only to see them re-appear with new force and Hydra-like terror.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
In the U.S., Republicans often point to the 1950s as a Golden Age. Women, and minorities of all sorts, know better.
American schools were still segregated, and Jim Crow laws were still on the books and followed across the South. Gays were still either closeted or bullied. Women were still expected to marry, have children, and devote themselves exclusively to their families while abandoning all career aspirations. The “military-industrial complex” was just being born. The Cold War divided the world into “us” and “them” while starting to outsource military conflicts to the global South. No concept of rights for the disabled even existed. Public awareness of any religions beyond Christianity was nil. Industrial expansion produced unprecedented toxins polluting the water, air, and land, without nary a protest.
Today, our nation is far from utopian, yet the gains made over the past half-century in rights for women, for minorities of all sorts, and for the earth, are undeniable. The Trump administration’s efforts to turn back the clock and undo those significant gains reminds women old enough to remember the 1950s of a nightmare that, until now, seemed like it was just a distant memory.
Photo by Alanna Vaglanos/Huffington Post
This poster reminds us of a far longer timeline. Evoking the Massachusetts’ Salem witch trials of 1692-83, the women carrying this set of posters performed a sort of moving political theatre.
Feminist scholars such as Isaac Reed have argued that the Salem witch trials must be understood as a component of gendered history — rooted in patriarchal institutions and mindsets of colonial America. These contemporary protesters argued that the Puritan patriarchal mindset is still with us. They also saw the accused witches as early feminist rebel-heroes — and themselves, as their heiresses.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
As a feminist grandmother, I can relate to this one.
If women in general are supposed to demonstrate infinite patience, that gendered stereotype applies tenfold to grandmothers. They’re the ones kids turn to when parents are mad. If even Grandma is pissed off to the point of making a crude hand gesture, something is seriously amiss.
This poster highlights issues of special concern to the elderly — having enough money to live on after retiring, and a good enough medical insurance policy to cover the increasing costs of staying healthy.
And, yes, the poster also reminds us: old women are also vulnerable to sexual assault.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
Finally, lurking at the back of all our minds that day was the unstated question: “Now what?”
Posters abounded proclaiming, in one way or another, that the sun would not set definitively on that day. The momentous event — with its global impact — will be hard to dismiss or forget.
Although the Washington protest was the largest and, because of its location, the most symbolically most potent, it inspired sister marches around the country, and across the globe. Crowd estimates by scholars tell us that something like 4.5 million people marched in 915 individual events around the world.
These extraordinary numbers suggest two striking facts: a great deal of passion, and a great deal of coordination. When passion and coordination are harnessed, a powerful cocktail is created.
Which brings me to the next poster.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
During the campaign season, Donald Trump’s campaign motto, “Make America great again,” resonated with many white voters who feared global flows. But others saw in that slogan an unrealistic effort to close our borders to the world, and a dangerous evocation of earlier nationalist moves that produced imperialist invasion/expansion in places ranging from Vietnam and the Philippines to Iraq and Afghanistan.
This poster bitterly mocks that motto. Here, “Feminism” substitutes for “America” — thereby, implicitly, challenging not only the nativist/xenophobic agenda of Trump, but his longstanding misogyny, as well. This especially subversive slogan is bound to irritate Trump (and his supporters) greatly.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
What to do with all these posters at the end of the day?
Many marchers felt reluctant to ditch them in trash cans.
A spontaneous art exhibit formed at this metro station, as protesters donated their signs to thE subway floor-turned-impromptu art-gallery that expanded by the minute.
Only two days later, museums and libraries around the world, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. to the Royal Alberta Museum in Vancouver, announced that they would start collecting the posters.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
While museum curators soon presented exhibits protesting President Trump’s executive order against Muslim immigrants and refugees either by removing (or covering over) all artwork by immigrants, or by featuring such works, political activists forged their own plans.
Across the US, a new organization has formed: “Indivisible.” Already, 7,000 chapters have been created. Members are busy protesting the Trump agenda, while mindful of the numbers necessary in Congress for Democrats to reclaim the national agenda. The most effective way is to “Mobilize for Midterms”—that is, the “mid-term” elections that will take place in 2018, in the middle of the current presidential term.
This poster featured the pragmatic side to the march, complementing the poetic and the artistic approaches featured in the posters highlighted above.
All approaches were in full force in Washington, and equally welcome.
Photo by Linda Seligmann
The joy of raising a feminist.
My daughter, Hannah Gottlieb-Graham, had accompanied my husband and me to smaller protests over the years, but this massive scene made an impression like no other.
To plan for our trip to Washington, she’d bought us matching t-shirts. No offense meant to men, but given the past few millennia ruled by patriarchy, redressing the balance seems in order.
Photo by Alma Gottlieb
When Hillary Clinton was still running for president, people from Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama declared their allegiance by announcing, “I’m with her.” The un-referenced pronoun easily stood for Hillary Clinton because she was the first woman ever to win the nomination of one of the two major political parties of the United States. T-shirts supporting Hillary didn’t even have to mention her name—the “her” in question was obviously Hillary.
At the march in Washington, these simple three words took on a powerful new meaning when added to multiple arrows pointing in every possible direction. Once Hillary lost, “I’m with her” referred not to one woman, but to Every Woman. The power of a gendered political movement was born with those arrows.
The official Women’s March on Washington has called for a national Women’s Strike on March 8th. Let’s join them!
Can ten-year-olds be feminists?
Feminism is not a radical world view. It’s simply the proposition that women and girls are human. These ten-year-old boys and girls in New Jersey got it.