January 2009

Barbara J. King


Anthropology Now: Sex Objects, Chinese Food, PTSD, and Margaret Mead

Primate envy! This thought flashed through my mind as I read the editors’ welcoming column in the new magazine Anthropology Now. “Some of the traditional subfields of anthropology, especially archaeology, human evolution, and primatology, already enjoy a substantial presence in popular media,” write Katherine McCaffrey, Emily Martin, Ida Susser, and Susan Harding. “For a variety of reasons, cultural anthropological approaches to current social issues do not often get incorporated in existing media.”

For a moment I was lost in imaginary klieg lights, savoring the thought that my own discipline, biological anthropology/primatology, incites not only popular-media fancy but also this sort of editorial wistfulness. Soon enough, though, the seriousness and substance of the editors’ vision grabbed my attention: “Contemporary anthropology has a way of complicating our understanding of the world by dislodging common sense assumptions and revealing hidden forms and sources of injustice. Anthropology can also delight the reader with its appreciation for the ingenuity and verve with which people live their lives, in whatever circumstances.”  

A fine justification, that, for launching a magazine into the maelstrom that is today’s publishing world. Welcome too, is the editors’ vow to “reclaim a voice for anthropology in public debate” in an “accessible” way marked by “clear and compelling prose.”  

Eagerly, I turned the page, and… was snapped right back to thoughts of primate envy. The kickoff article is “Are Women Evolutionary Sex Objects? Why Women Have Breasts,” by Fran Mascia-Lees. The title is catchy, and sure, sex sells. The focus on permanently enlarged breasts in humans -- versus all other primates -- raises intriguing “why” questions and encourages the use of the fun new vocabulary word “pebs.” It’s great, too, to highlight a cultural anthropologist’s collaborative work with a biological anthropologist and an endocrinologist. But… there’s a but.

Fresh insights are what I expect from a magazine article, and “Sex Objects?” is based on an article written over 20 years ago. Mascia-Lee demolishes ideas from a variety of theorists about early human women’s dependence on men for resources -- ideas put forth in the early 1980s. She also goes after theories on pebs promulgated by Gordon Gallup in 1982 and by the famous Desmond Morris in 1967. Morris thought that pebs came about in human evolution when humans began to walk upright and a frontal analog of sexy buttocks would act as visual attractors for males; Gallup proposed that pebs advertised women’s fertility. Linking pebs to estrogen and thus to fat storage capabilities that would offset food shortage, Mascia-Lees concludes that breasts need not have developed because of their erotic appeal to men.

Is this cutting-edge cultural anthropology? Never mind that the article is about evolutionary matters; bioanthropology has no territorial claims on that. My question’s focus in different: Why is the article oriented towards tired old ideas about evolution of gender put forth by male theorists 25 years ago? My complaint is not with Mascia-Lee’s scholarship: her ideas are smart and they do have relevance for a society where breasts are so often fetishized as erotic and even dangerous objects (think Janet Jackson; think the mommy-nursing-in-public wars). It’s the packaging that’s problematic and in the world of magazines, packaging matters.

Similar worries come to the surface about a brilliantly provocative feature printed further back in the issue, Gerald Sider’s “Is Anthropology Innocent?” Sider quickly wades into the year’s hot topic among anthropologists: the Human Terrain System, the US military’s use of anthropologists on the ground in the Iraq War. Calling this practice “an open betrayal” of the profession, Sider as quickly sets it aside. Although most anthropologists decry the Human Terrain System, the key issue for Sider “is not what our personal political feelings and commitments are -- to think this is to misunderstand fundamentally the issues here. The major issue is: can there be an anthropology which does not lend itself to being bent to the ends of state or capital domination and exploitation of the people we study, whether we want it to be or not?”

In reflecting on how to engage with local people around the world, Sider suggests that cultural anthropologists shouldn’t ask them questions. This proposal I found downright weird, but sticking with his argument, I came to think it merits attention. Along the way, I felt provoked indeed, alternately outraged by and admiring of Sider’s cocksure tone -- and I loved every minute of reading him. But come on, editors, what happened to the twin promises of accessibility and clarity? Sider is writing for fellow anthropologists here; he tosses off terms like “Operation Phoenix” with little explanation and suggests at one point -- this time with zero explanation -- that we “put aside all our Weberian fantasies about social order…” It’s one thing to respect your readers’ intelligence, another to throw concepts at them that are likely to confuse rather than clarify.

Of course, these bugs can be worked on, and worked out, in subsequent issues. Anthropology Now’s promise is present and accounted for in articles like Kenneth J. Guest’s “All-You-Can-Eat Buffets and Chicken with Broccoli to Go.” Guest invites us to a street called East Broadway in New York’s Chinatown. Through his eyes we come to see a world of opportunity laced with exploitation: new immigrants smuggled in from China flock to that area, which services a national network of Chinese restaurants, and is a “key staging ground for mobilizing capital, labor, food, and restaurant supplies… Workers flow between restaurant jobs along an elaborate transportation system” graced by those now-famous “Chinatown buses” that operate up and down the East Coast.

Guest rejects the notion that all this capitalism rests on a warm and fuzzy foundation of ethnic solidarity; he points instead to the gritty reality of Chinese-on-Chinese exploitation. His final paragraph models good writing for a non-academic audience: “So next time you dine at an all-you-can-eat buffet in Des Moines or Asheville, or order chicken with broccoli from a Chinese take-out in Sheboygen or Tampa, think about the intricate system of entrepreneurialism and cheap labor that goes on beneath the veneer of fortune cookies and fried rice.”

In “Becoming Monsters in Iraq,” Matthew Gutmann and Catherine Lutz adapt their forthcoming book to article length. They profile three American veterans of the Iraq War who have rejected a medical diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insisting it’s wrong to create a disorder from a healthy and human response to horror. As veteran Ricky Clousing tells them, soldiers with PTSD “have tapped into their human and spiritual and emotional side enough to feel the effects of [the war]. They’re not numb enough to just blow it off like it doesn’t matter.”

Gutmann and Lutz use the soldiers’ own words effectively, but, like Guest in his article on Chinese food, they also craft a compelling closing paragraph: “[These veterans] do not want their post-traumatic stress to be neatly boxed off by a medicalized diagnosis that separates their condition from the total experience of the war in Iraq and from a moral and political critique of its impact on the people of that country.”

The breaking-news nature of Gutmann and Lutz’s work is just right for the magazine format. In this vein, Ida Susser and Richard B. Lee’s article “Women’s Autonomy Combats AIDS in the Kalahari” conveys in equally compact prose an enlightening bit of comparative research. In parts of Namibia where women are empowered to insist on using condoms in intercourse with male partners, the HIV-infection rate is lower than in places where male attitudes and power relations among the sexes make women’s autonomy hard to assert. The beauty of the work is in the details offered, and their implications for local management of the HIV-AIDS crisis.

Now… Margaret Mead! Of course she’s included here, the most famous American anthropologist ever. Nancy Lutkehaus reviews the astonishingly varied career that Mead enjoyed, then assesses why Mead communicated so well with a broad public. We are unlikely to encounter another Mead, Lutkehaus believes, in part because history has moved on: no longer are we as preoccupied with questions of race, sex, gender, culture, and civilization. Interesting but highly arguable, I’d say; perhaps Anthropology Now will solicit a counter-argument to the “never another Mead” prediction and its reasoning.

Anthropology Now rounds out with a collage of creative items, among them an emotional and well-written “story from the field” by graduate student Emily Yates-Doerr, dispatched from Guatemala (with fascinating resonance to Sider’s essay on anthropological innocene), and a brief recognition that the U.S. is about to inaugurate as President the son of an anthropologist, the late Anne Dunham. Poetry, visuals essays, and a piece about insects and nightmares are here too.     

Anthropology Now’s quartet of editors, along with Paradigm Publishers, is to be congratulated for launching this magazine. Will they accept some advice? Please edit your fledgling publication boldly! The “clear and compelling” writing you seek comes only with fearless editing, editing that refuses tired references and excises jargon and repairs passages like, “Workers’ limited English skills and their lack of familiarity with the local community and culture leave them sticking close to work…” No writer can perfect his or her own prose; unleash the red pens or their cyber-equivalents on the next issue!

-- Barbara J. King invites feedback to her columns at bjking09@gmail.com