Distraction Free Reading


  • Stefano says:

    Dear professor,

    I am an Italian Phd student in cultural anthropology and I’d want to thank you for your reflections. After reading it, I decided to share your post on my Facebook wall because it gives a point of view which is far from a quite sterile debate concerning the possibility that the Ice Bucket Challenge could be, or not, the expression of a narcissistic self. At the same time, it rejects some reactions, spread for example in Italy, which criticise this viral campaign focusing on the “waste” of water it causes.
    This reading, however, forced me to think over our public role as anthropologists and the ethic and political perils of an armchair anthropology in the 21st century. You write you thought that “saying something” over the Ice Bucket Challenge was an occasion as well as an obligation, since we, as anthropologists, are called to participate in the public debates concerning contemporary social facts, even those apparently more “pop”.
    And yet, I think you reflections lack of an evaluation over the importance of the campaign and the cause it sustains. To be more concrete, and a bit provocative: What do you think about the engagement people showed over an experience such as the ALS? Did you participate in the challenge before writing your post? I see a risk in a reflection realised without participation – participation, not research: that, analyzing every social fact from an “armachair pespective”, we could ignore that viral mechanisms, first of all when spread by the Internet, have different levels of political and ethic concern, social impact, and cultural “goodness”.
    What is the difference between an apparently silly game such as the Ice Bucket Challenge and other apparently leisure-time activities like, for example, planking? Here we have a cause which is jugded as socially good (and I think we could agree with this attribution of goodness), and we can not avoid declaring our positioning when seeking to theorize, or just to reflect over this kinds of facts. Reflection without engagement (and without an overt explication of our judgements and evaluations) could also lead us to miss other analitically relevant questions as, for example: why the ALS? Why did people decide to engage theirselves in financing the research over this specific disease? What can the Ice Bucket Challenge tell us about the way people perceive the self, the body and their definition of a “good life”?
    I wonder if making a good public anthropology is just a matter of “saying something” publicly over what happens in social groups, or if aren’t we called also to engage in the facts and to declare our positioning in relation to the specific issues we are decided to talk about. So, the question I pose could be: Is it possibile a (good) public anthropology without engagement? Can we say something avoiding to sustain or, on the contrary, to contrast and criticise the social facts we are interested in?

    Thank you,

  • Dear Stefano,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response and provocative questions. While critique is certainly central to the good public anthropology of which you speak, is it the only permissible practice of our anthropological craft? Is there no place in the process for comparative and textual analysis (the videos) without participant-observation?

    This challenge was not something I had researched when I was first asked to comment on it. As I said in the blog post, I knew it only from my media feeds (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), which is a kind of participation, however removed or passive or facile or corrosive one might argue it is. Still, as I emphasized, this was an exercise in “Aeron chair” anthropology (the office chair at the desktop having replaced the armchair in the study). In taking this approach, I did not “reject” critical reactions to the Ice Bucket Challenge—as water-wasting, narcissistic, an indication of the civic public dissolved into eyeballs and clicks. It’s just that I don’t think critique is the place to begin answering the question that was put to me, namely, “Why has the ALS Challenge gone viral?”

    While critique is central to my work, it is not always productive to begin with questions of judgment. In this case, I thought the place to start would be to ask, “What is this?” This question led me to see the ritual dimensions of the phenomena and it’s particular power in the context of U.S. social media (the ALS Challenge has not been anywhere near as popular in other countries). I think that perspective—which stands out precisely for a refusal to jump to critique before stepping back to think more inquisitively about the parts that actualize the phenomenon—has value. Rather than merely “saying something,” I wanted to show the Challenge as a ritual and argue that this is central to its appeal. That seemed to me a valid anthropological contribution. In the end, even that didn’t make it in to the Huffington post piece that was written. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/19/ice-bucket-challenge_n_5692307.html#)

    Definitely, I do not reject critique. Your questions of “What can the Ice Bucket Challenge tell us about the way people perceive the self, the body and their definition of a ‘good life’?” are excellent. They get at the intriguing issues in this case. They are not, however, the question that was put to me. Yet, I believe my “arm chair” analysis suggests lines of thought for such inquiry, and even hints at a critique of the Challenge as a kind of “costless” form of activism despite the symbolic self-sacrifice of enduring cold water.

    I appreciate your provocative questions and the spirit in which they’re asked and will keep them in mind as things develop.

    Thank you,

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