Lost is Found: notes from the underbrush

Shhh! Please don’t say anything. Don’t even look. Pretend you’re watching that family haggle with the waiter over their check. Yeah, that’s better.

You seem like someone I can trust. I can tell by the way you looked at me…like you understood why I was here. That it wasn’t my idea.

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At first, I was irked at the grubby-fingered troublemaker who shoved me here because he was bored. What a histrionic little jerk, right? Didn’t even do him any good…he practically had to scream his head off to get his parents to drag him outside, and by the time the waiters had cleared up the mess, no one thought to count and see if I was missing.

The longer I’ve been stuck here, the more I get to feeling it isn’t so bad. The thought of going through that scalding bath and then the sanitizer that strips me of what precious metal I have left…only to be handled and smudged again and again… Just remembering my former life makes me want to burrow deeper and wait it out. Maybe they’ll replace these pots soon and I’ll get to go on an adventure! You never know how things might work out.

So if I must be found out, I’m at least glad it was you. I know you won’t tell. You’ll take your photograph, declare me art, and move on to let me live my new life among the rocks and ruined leaf husks. Discarded, forgotten. At last content.


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A Case for Applied Anthropology: Let’s Get Personal


In honor of the first National Anthropology Day, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and write something anthro-related. Or rather, type something anthro-related that I scribbled down in a tiny notebook nearly 2 years ago. 

Imagine, if you will, that it is spring 2013. I’m headed back from the first of a two-day conference of California Cooperatives. I’m neck-deep in a sustained effort to start a community-owned grocery store. I’ve just landed a dream job working with and for people two generations ahead of me at a local non-profit.

My days of suffering through thankless customer service jobs are over. I’m high on collective action. I’m still livid about my graduate school experiences & failures. All these feeling coalesced in a frenzy of brain-waves. The following are the thoughts I rushed to get on paper every which-way as I metroed back from the church basement in Los Angeles where the conference had holed up, ravenous for the life I was experiencing as well as a proper dinner.
Applied anthropology gets a bad rap. Partly for fair reasons, but I’m here to talk about things we don’t think of when those who have the luxury of working the ivory tower use the term pejoratively.

Full disclosure: I am making this case partly as a way to defend the work I do as a natural and positive way to use my academic training.

I consider the work I do to be applied anthropology. Not this blog, which is armchair anth to a fault, but my real-world work. I have the great fortune of being involved in the following projects:

  • At a local history museum, I’m collecting and curating personal memories as part of a virtual exhibit of community stories. Last year, I re-wrote a docent training manual to make room for those groups discursively erased from dominant historical narratives.
  • I am contributing to the start-up phase of a food co-op.
  • I’m working for a non-profit that creates a support network enabling people to stay in their communities of choice as they age.
One of these projects pays me, but I spend arguably more time on the volunteer projects. All of them are local and community-oriented to some degree. And in everything I do for them, I apply my anthropological lens. My training informs my work.

I use the tools and perspectives of cultural and linguistic anthropology to navigate all of this work. I don’t consider this “selling out,” and while it may be an impure form, I do not see it as a bad thing that I’m using the knowledge I and others (have) produce(d) to do very real things. To effect the type of social change we anthros always seem to be advocating for.

I suppose that makes me an activist anthro–another pejorative term. I’m working with folks to address and solve the social problems that anthropologists are so good at identifying. There may well be harm in this endeavor, but there is also a great deal of good.

For example, I use linguistic anthropology for good, not evil. Yes, I’m referring to marketing, but this is marketing for a better future! I haven’t sold out to a corporation, here (unless you count the food co-op). I’m taking the collective will of the people and packaging it for even more people. “Selling” folks on the very ideas they helped to create.

But that’s not what people mean when they snark at those of us who aren’t masochistic enough to be in a PhD program. I admit that I don’t have the temperament to hack it. I’m not into feeling overwhelmed and mentally inferior. I’d much rather be fulfilled, using my skills to engage with my local community and make it a better place.

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Collective production of paper mache’ floats trafficking in mixed metaphors totally makes the world a better place.

 

All of these are reasons why I like the CCC’s better than the AAA’s. There’s a commitment to putting theory into practice. Turning idealism into action and ideology into reality at a grassroots level. Joining pragmatism with idealism to forge unstoppable forces for good in the world!

Besides, if we sequester ourselves in the ivory tower, if we don’t retain ownership of the knowledge we’ve produced, it has a higher risk of being co-opted and used for evil, rather than the good we intend. There’s nothing shameful in seeing something through, in applying theory to practice.

What’s the point of research if it doesn’t have real-world implications? And who are we if we don’t see the value in implementing those implications of our research?

Instead, let’s embrace the practical applications of our research. Let’s retain ownership–sharing the burden, to be sure, with those who have the experience and power to implement our ideas. Not just handing it off, but sticking around to be active participants. Taking action!

In the two years since this breathless tirade against academia for poo-poo-ing applied anthropology, I’ve mellowed a bit. My involvement in the museum and the co-op has lessened, and my work in the non-profit world, while still rewarding, is definitely work. I’m not quite as bitter about my negative experiences in graduate school, and instead enjoy gazing through nostalgia-tinted glasses at the wonderful undergraduate experiences that drew me to anthropology in the first place.

There is peace. There is still action. The museum endures. The co-op is open, now, thanks to the efforts of many talented people. There is still a case for applied anthropology.

 

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Poetic Interlude the second

 

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Ode to the Misplaced

Left askew, asunder

Aging allowed

unfettered

Laid bare to the elements

tame

Portal to the past

enduring

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Rhyming as Credibility: General Truths in Early Childhood

During the elementary school era of childhood in the United States, rhyming carries with it a certain authority. It gives the meaning behind words a type of magical credibility. Speaking in rhymed verse becomes a stand-in for truth-telling, lending the verse the authority it needs to go unchallenged. It can be used as a retort, an argument in and of itself. Rhyming verses are the aphorisms of childhood.

I’m still working through the mechanics of this phenomenon, but I’d be willing to posit that rhyming, and rhyming verses especially, occupy a privileged position in children’s language. Rhyming is a type of authoritative discourse. Consider a few examples:

  • Snitches get stitches
  • Sticks and stones may break my bones…
  • Easy cheesy/ Easy-peasy lemon squeezy

Each of these sayings are tossed about the playground like so many punch-balls, and even find their ways into the classroom and the mouths of adults who wish to speak on the child’s “level.” To reach them with an authority they will understand, master, and even be able to take ownership of. The easy-peasiness of it, if you will, provides children with a short-hand for the final word on a subject. A commonly held belief among their peers that cannot be challenged.

The rhyming appeals to the authority of truth, because the rhymes have been repeated, are ingrained into the consciousness of the average American school child. They hear these often from one another and the adults on positions of authority within knowledge production and dissemination. Even upon hearing a rhymed phrase for the first time, the fact that the phrase rhymes lends it an aura of believability.

Children repeat these things to one another ad nauseam. The phrases, by virtue of their rhyming qualities, are easier to remember, and thus more likely to be repeated. The repetition itself lends an element of truth–would these phrases be repeated so often if they weren’t true?

And so this becomes, if I remember correctly, an instance of second-order indexicality. The type of speech (rhyming verse) becomes a marker of the very quality from which it derives its power (truth). Or maybe I’ve been away from the text books too long and can’t remember how to use “second-order indexicality” correctly. Perhaps I’ve argued myself into a merry-go-round death-trap.

In any case, something is going on below the surface of these agonizingly trite childhood chants.

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Lost is Found: taken with the streets

Last night I missed an opportunity to photograph a bike light, blinking red in the middle of the dark street. It was the same type of safety device Flaming Bike had attached to the seat of my pants before literally carting me off on a grand tour of Lake Merritt that quiet night in Oakland. After our apple pie supper, chased with an apple galette dessert. I was thrilled to be her cargo that night. Grateful for the beacon attached to my rear that signaled our safe passage.

The lonely beacon wasn’t the first lost object I had come across that day. Hours before, a discarded draft of a thank you note had been in my walking path. It’s simplicity was touching. I hope the author remembered their words; wrote & sent it for real.

Forgotten thanks, or discarded draft?

Forgotten thanks, or discarded draft?

Not many steps later, a cyclist in serious spandex cased the gutter, riding slowly up and down the half-block, looking left and right, against traffic, clearly missing something. He stopped astride his mount, bent to retrieve a glove, shoved it down his shirt for safekeeping. Then carried on.

The day before, on a walk to the food Co-op, I passed a seemingly abandoned lot, gated and threatening electrocution for the unidentified, absent owner’s safekeeping. Upon closer inspection, I saw defiant plantings of vibrant succulents strewn about. The land had been reclaimed, I imagined, by its neighbors. Given life, if temporarily.

Resistance Gardening

Resistance Gardening

Documenting lost objects is not a new idea, but it intrigues me still. I look forward to sharing future findings as part of a series, “Lost is Found.”

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Lost is Found