Happy Thanksgiving Part 1

I have so much to be thankful for a sweet and loving family, my fiance and future in-laws included, and dear friends. I am thankful I’m in a great graduate program and almost done with coursework, at least from the perspective of Arkansas and Texas it looks like the economy is mostly recovering just in time for me to think about the job market, and that I live in a beautiful country that provides me, my family, and friends with more security, liberty, stability, comfort, and convince than many people around the world will ever know.

But all that said, I can’t help but feel like these grateful utterances once on “paper” (ie facebook post) look a little more like bragging especially if you consider that they are being broadcast throughout our social networks and into the global space of the Internet. Thanksgiving has always felt like a very American holiday to me, but pondering its origins and meaning leaves me somewhat unsatisfied with what we are celebrating. Gratitude aside, are we celebrating Gluttony and Manifest Destiny? And if Thanksgiving is the day of Gratitude, Gluttony, and Manifest Destiny … are we ok with that? After all they play a big role in America’s past and present.

This blog entry is an expansion of a facebook post I made earlier today.  I am going for time’s sake, I’m going to split it up into 3 posts.

As far as holidays (holy days) go Thanksgiving seems to be a new world take on the traditional European harvest festival.  Considering how few of modern North Americans are still involved or connected to agriculture it seems a little strange the holiday is still such a big deal, however, in the United States Thanksgivings continued relevance seems to be tied to its more recent association with commercialism.   In the days following Halloween, we decorate with fall leaves and turkeys dressed a pilgrims.  We coordinate with family and friends to ensure we each have our own massive feast fit for a medieval king, except they didn’t have turkey or mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie because they are new world foods.   I watched my mother fret over orchestrating this massive feast for my extended family for years.   Family members drive or fly very long distances to be together on Thanksgiving day.  By the time it is actually time to eat, at least half the people at the table are exhausted, annoyed or at their wits end.

For many, the meal itself is only second place to the Macy’s Day parade and the afternoon packed with football games. Overstuffed with mom’s best stuffing, everyone half-passes out in front of the TV.  While all of the family’s big shoppers get busy circling the Black Friday Ads and go to bed early so they can wake up at mid-night.

The big question I want to ask is what exactly are we celebrating here and what does it say about our culture.  How is a holiday designed to express gratitude also a celebration of Gluttony and Consumerism?  And in what ways is this holiday ritual vital to the American economy.

Remembering Zora, Writing Women’s Worlds

Feminist anthropologists striving to bring women’s voices forward through life histories and personal narratives and auto ethnography are “walking in Zora’s shoes” as Irma McClaurin’s title suggests (McClaurin 2011).  Although, in some circles of anthropology Zora’s work is forgotten and ignored, she pioneered important realms of anthropological study and writing.  Anthropologically informed creative writing can be traced back to Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God (McClaurin 2011: 120).  McClaurin situates her own work with women in Belize as an attempt to “witness gender through life histories” and she draws on Zora’s work as a guideline for doing so. McClaurin presents life histories as a writing technique which allows for women’s voices to come through with the anthropologist’s role as a writer becoming the finder of “de inside meanin’ of words” as Zora called it (McClaurin 2011: 122).  Zora Neale Hurston’s work represents a different way of doing anthropology which individual anthropologists have returned to in their own way.  Geertz’s interpretation of meaning through thick description, James Clifford and George Marcus’s writing worlds, and the utilization of life history and personal narrative by feminist anthropologists such as Ruth Behar, Caroline Brettell, Marjorie Shostak, and Irma McClaurin all draw upon methods and writing techniques pioneered by this frequently forgotten student of Boaz (McClaurin 2011: 121; Brettell 1999: 224-225).

For anthropologist and writers who were impacted by Zora’s work, her writing carries a personalized form of authority rooted in “situated knowledge,” which stands in sharp contrast to the “view from nowhere” or authoritative generalizations employed by many anthropologist of her era (Kirksey 2009: 150).  Zora’s “integrated strategy” of presenting situated knowledge is powerful in its own way, however, is leaves readers with a personalized sense of the author which is demonstrated by McClaurin’s as well as my own use of Zora rather than Hurston in our references to her (Emerson et al 1995: 179; McClaurin 2011; Hurston 1935, 1937, and 1938).  What degree does her personalized style of writing influence what Dr. Brettell refers to as “the politics of audience reception” (Brettell 1996: 3)?  Can feminist anthropologists of the 21st-century successfully walk in Zora’s shoes without diminishing their position within academia?  Or as the professor of my Current Anthropological Literature course, Nia Parson, asked me in response to the first draft of this post (which was an assignment for her course), can we walk in Zora’s shoes at all?

Brettell (1997: 224) explains that the recent “reconsideration” of the utility of life history in anthropological writing has emerged from feminist anthropology.  Life history brings to life women’s voices which had been previously silent in ethnographic writing (Brettell 1999: XVII).  In Writing Against the Wind: A Mother’s Life History, Caroline Brettell tells her mother’s story.  She situates herself both personally as her mother’s daughter and academically as a scholar who can provide context to Zoe Browne-Clayton Bieler’s life.  She writes, “I have both the proximity and the distance to see interest in her life and to set it into the social, historical, and literary contexts that it deserves” (Brettell 1999: XI).  Both in We Have Already Cried Many Tears and Writing against the Wind, Brettell utilizes life history to demonstrate women’s lived experiences.  In these two books, she inserted her anthropological voice and in the later her voice as daughter throughout the text creating clear distinctions of life history, anthropological analysis, and personal narrative (Brettell 1997: 227; 1999; 1982).  This multi-vocal style of presenting “situated knowledge” and analysis by employing an “excerpt strategy” gives Brettell’s writing in Writing against the Wind both personalized authority and analytical authority throughout her presentation of her mother story. Maintaining both these forms of authority is ideal for contemporary feminist anthropological writing. 

What is the Place of Emotion in Humanistic Empiricism?

Recently, someone close to me drew the connection between the demand for the removal of emotion from scholarship and the continued presence of underlying masculine bias in academia. I was taken aback by the implications of this connection and my blindness to it.  In reading Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer and “Believing in Anthropology as Literature,” the relevance of this masculine bias and its demand for anthropology to be devoid of emotion becomes all the more apparent as do the distinct limitations it creates.  Behar warns, “Most efforts to bring emotions and feelings, including love and gratitude, into our work are likely to be dismissed as ‘feminine sentimentality’” (Behar 2011: 110).  Personal narratives, and even life histories of our informants, can be seen as risky within anthropological forms of writing. These forms of writing often have clear emotional components which are paradoxically seen as compelling and unreliably subjective.  In a discipline struggling for a humanistic empiricism, objective detachment is clung to as a means of laying claim to a scientific ideal. Yet experts from any of the hard sciences openly display emotions over their research. Scientists get excited when they make monumental discoveries; their work can also disappoint them, worry them, and even disturb them. The influence of a scientist’s passions for their work over the particular research questions posed receives little critique within the “hard” sciences.  While a geologist’s zealous passion for his or her research rarely impacts the chemical test results run on soil samples, an anthropologist’s empathetic sorrow can influence analysis of interviews. As anthropologists do we claim our fears, our sorrows, our joys as evidence of observable responses to human realities of the worlds in which we work or do we ignore those unquantifiable internal experiences so that we can focus on our observations of the people and phenomena we study?

Maynes, Pierce, and Laslett argued that the motivation behind including life histories and personal narratives in research involving both the social sciences and humanities is connected to the particularly apparent humanness of this data and its ability to generate a direct dialogue between people and the theories written about them (Maynes et al 2008). They write, “One primary motivation is the desire to examine varieties of individual selfhood and agency ‘from below’ band and practice, as constructed in people’s articulation of self understandings” (Maynes et al 2008: 1).The impact of macro-level forces on an individual lives at the micro-level are brought to life, through life histories which can be employed to try the very human realities of macro policies and forces.  Well utilized life histories can be a powerful tool for anthropological literature which allow the author to provoke emotion without being seen as overly emotional him or herself. Life history becomes a “testimonio” in feminist and activist work, which utilizes such stories to empower a person’s story to become a symbol of the movement (Behar 1996: 27). Life histories and personal narratives have the potential to invigorate ethnographic writing with the type of evocative testimony which directs emotional response and supports social change.

The reality of Behar’s struggle over how much of her to include in “Death and Memory” epitomizes the academic compulsion to remove all hints of emotions.  She warns, “to write vulnerable is to open Pandora’s box” (Behar 1996: 19). Often, the human reality of emotional truth is the story we, as anthropologists are unwilling to tell.  As Behar’s Aunt Rebeca reminds us, anthropology is “the study of people” (Behar 1996: 4). If that is true, then how do we tell the story of people devoid of a basic component of what it means to be human? If the anthropologist is the instrument through which human realities are observed and cultural data is collected, then emotional responses which they shape the anthropologist cannot be ignored.