EPISODE 3 (JANUARY 2020): RYAN JOBSON AND DECOLONIZING ANTHROPOLOGY
This is entreVistas, chat about Latin American politics, culture and history. Featuring faculty, students and visitors at the Center for Latin American Studies at The University of Chicago.
What does decolonization mean withing the academic sphere generally? And within anthropology as a discipline? What does the decolonizing agenda include? Should we expand the canon to include actors whose voices were never integrated or should we avoid canonization in general? In this episode of entreVistas CLAS MA alum Ámber Miranzo engages Ryan Jobson, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Anthropology, in a thought-provoking discussion related to issues raised in Jobson’s article with Jafari Allen entitled “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the ‘80s.”
Ámber Miranzo: The core of Professor Jobson’s research studies the relationship between the modern ideal of sovereignty and modern energy regimes from plantation slavery to carbon-based fuels in the Americas general and in the Caribbean in particular. However, our topic today is decolonizing anthropology, something you have examined in a recent article with Jafari Allen and also the subject of a course you are teaching this Spring. Our listeners can find a link to the article, “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the ‘80s“ in the description of this podcast. But first of all, so we’re all on the same page, what is colonial about anthropology and academia?
Ryan Jobson: That is an excellent question, and thank you again for having me today. I think, before I get to that question, I might talk just briefly about the genesis of this article because it was a collaborative piece with Jafari Allen, and part of the impulse behind the essay was a retrospective on Decolonizing Anthropology, the volume that was originally published in 1992 by the Association of Black Anthropologists. I actually happened to be in attendance at the AAA [American Anthropological Association] meetings in New Orleans in 2010 when Jafari Allen held a round table with a number of the authors from the original volumes. I was an undergraduate at the time, I was applying to graduate school including Yale University where Jafari was at the time, and this began a discussion over a number of years between Jafari and myself that culminated in the essay that was published in Current Anthropology.
For me, it also draws upon a number of themes I’ve been exploring as an undergraduate around the history of anthropology and anthropological theory, particularly around race science and evolutionism in the late nineteenth century and the kind of critics that were expunged from the canon of anthropology when it was formalized in various university bureaucratic units. In a way, this piece represented sort of the collective energies of Jafari’s efforts to recuperate this generation of scholars and my own attention to the history of anthropology more broadly and the question of race.
In terms of what is colonial about anthropology, I think it’s quite important to recognize that we have a lot of critics who have called attention to the complicity of anthropology in various kinds of colonizing projects. We know, for instance, that anthropologists collaborated with colonial administrators and bureaucrats in various spaces around the globe. But I think perhaps even more importantly, in this essay Jafari and I are calling attention to a kind colonial logic inherent to the project of anthropology itself and the formation of academic disciplines in general. There’s a certain extractive logic about field work, about the extraction of knowledge from various field sites, and they’re sort of being brought into repositories in the university. The creation of archives on various kinds of primitive or savage others that underpins the anthropological project in general. So even as we’ve come around to critiquing this notion of the pristine primitive in anthropology, and turned our attention to other kinds of questions and spaces, I think that extractive logic remains at a sort of distance between sites of research and the repositories of knowledge that we call the university. I think that’s the kind of colonial logic or the “what is colonial about anthropology” into the present in particular.
And then, what does decolonization mean?
I think it’s important first of all to emphasize that decolonization is always both an ideal and a material enterprise. I think, often in recent years, particularly intellectuals and other kinds of popular critics have taken decolonization as a kind of metaphor for a variety of engagement with new kinds of theoretics and ways of apprehending the world. But I think that it’s quite important to connect this to a classical definition of decolonization as a material enterprise in response to histories of dispossession and colonization.
The question for me is: to what extent can anthropology be placed in service of that project? Is anthropology up to the task? And I think that requires that we decolonize the field. So if we take for granted that decolonization is sort of inherent to the discipline (as I mentioned earlier) in this separation of spaces of knowledge acquisition and the repositories of that knowledge, this requires that we open up the anthropological project in a variety of ways, to see it as something that extends beyond the confines of the university that extends to works that are not necessarily recognized as anthropological. I think that kind of opening in service of a project of material decolonization, meaning a sort of “return to the commons” bot of knowledge itself—making knowledge more open through different kinds of open access programs, opening of the university to various kinds of publics—and also these sorts of critical questions around land, sovereignty, and liberation that have always sort of driven decolonial movements around the globe.
You have mentioned a few already, but if we had to build a decolonizing agenda, what does the practice of decolonizing anthropology means? What items would you put on it?
I think in terms of decolonizing anthropology, it would explore these prescribed boundaries between disciplinary regimes of knowledge. If you look at the early radical proposals for what anthropology could be, including Anténor Firmin, the nineteenth-century Haitian anthropologist…In a curious way, it was always thoroughly interdisciplinary that Firmin believed that anthropology had to embrace the full gamut of the human and the natural sciences, and I think that’s sort of required for the kind of work that we want to do today. We see debates emerging around climate change in the Anthropocene, questions of land and geography. This requires that we actually look to this original radical proposal, which is not to see anthropology as simply one of a number of prescribed disciplinary sites of inquiry but rather as inquiry into the human condition itself. That’s part of the efforts to reclaim anthropology at all, the piece with Jafari and I.
On the one hand it is a condition of possibility. A number of us were trained in anthropology, we work in anthropology departments. This is the space in which we conduct our work. But at the same time, there is something about the history of anthropology that lends itself to a decolonizing project that can be recuperated if we are able to look to certain critics like Fermin and hold them in tandem with a lot of the so-called founding fathers of the discipline, like Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, or Franz Boas.
You look at black scholarship and how it has been systematically neglected, underrepresented, and misused in anthropology. I wanted to ask you, what scholars would you add to canon syllabi, and why?
That is an excellent question. Of course I have to make my obligatory remark that I resist the notion of canonization in general. But I do think as this debate has resurfaced in anthropology, as some of my own colleagues have insisted that students need to continue to read the classics, that it is important for us to read old texts. It’s actually important to think about who were the other actors at the moment—again as Radcliffe-Brown, Tyler, Franz Boas were putting forth their formative statements on the discipline of anthropology.
I think Antenor Firmin, who I mentioned, and W.E.B. Du Bois are sort of central to that project. They were both progenitors of a certain kind of social science and they were making proposals for what kind of anthropology, or in Du Bois’s case sociology, could be. And that requires us to think differently about how we narrate our own field of study and also potentially if these texts were not sort of neglected or unpublished—as in the case of Sociology Hesitant by Du Bois—, what could these fields of inquiry have been. Or if these scholars were actually offered tenure-track jobs at a number of universities, predominantly white universities, at the time that they were barred from.
I’d also say there’s another impulse that I would take around expanding the canon. I think that it is also important to think about scholars who didn’t identify as anthropologists in any way, shape, or form. I am thinking about Frantz Fanon, Josina Machel, or C.L.R. James, and other kinds of scholars of critical theory, of the black-radical tradition is Cedric Robinson. I think their works are quite anthropological in scope, particularly if we take up Fermin’s radical agenda for what anthropology can be.
So by thinking about placing a scholar like C.L.R. James, in a text like the Black Jacobins, or Josina Machel’s The Mozambican Woman in the Revolution, alongside classic anthropological texts—like Boas statement on what is anthropology, Sid Mintz’s work, or Richard Price’s work on the Saramaka maroons or around the question of plantation slavery and anthropology—, we actually arrive at something decidedly more radical and I think these connections have always been there. Sid Mintz himself cited James and Erick Williams Capitalism and Slavery as sort of two key influences on his intellectual development. That is not something we necessarily find in an intro to cultural anthropology syllabus, but I think its’s quite fitting if we think of it in that way. And that requires that we again extend the canon to both scholars who have been omitted from it, who were themselves trained as anthropologists, but also to think about what is distinctly anthropological about other kinds of scholars and other kinds of work that have never fit within this distinct definition of the discipline.
To lead this change of decolonization, you regard that the interdiscipline of Black studies itself can have some potential to lead this change. Why?
I think I’ll start by reminding myself that Black studies are not reducible to the kind of bureaucratic units of African-American studies or Africana studies that have emerged in universities over the past four decades or so, although many of those units do support the project of Black studies.
I think by looking to the pre-history of Black studies before the formalization of these departments and programs, we’ll notice that this project of Black studies is filled with autodidacts, with revolutionaries who are animated by the material demands of their time. I think that is precisely what Black studies insist that anthropology, the academy, and intellectual work must do. A text like the Philadelphia Negro, which W.E.B Du Bois wrote in the late nineteenth century during an appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, is one example where he was within the academy. Black Reconstruction was published in 1935 when Du Bois had sort of turned away from the academy, particularly from the predominately white academy, to pursue other endeavors. This is where Black studies has always emerged from.
Following Cedric Robinson’s notion of radical tradition, Black studies is not simply the province of elite intellectuals, it’s the province of people who are always theorizing and doing this kind of work. That’s something that I think anthropology is uniquely attuned to in ethnographic methods, our attention to the contours of everyday life. But it’s something that Black studies has always insisted is essential to the production of knowledge and thought in general. So, there’s the question: has Black studies been more anthropological than anthropology? Is this precisely where the attention to those contours of everyday life in its totality, embracing the totality, rather than prescribed understandings of what Black social life, or social life in general, looks like? I would say that Black studies are actually where the radical project of anthropology—as Fermin and Du Bois have posed it—has lived and that’s where it has some of the greater potential to grow.
What I am getting, from what you have said in the last questions, is that academia has to have a different relationship with the outside. What kind of relationship do you imagine would be the best, or a better one?
It’s a very difficult question. Again, I work in a university, and these are the conditions of possibility for our intellectual work, where the university can be accepted as a place of refuge but it can’t be held up as a sight of enlightenment. Meaning we always need to be skeptical of the university precisely because of the histories of dispossession, of property theft, land theft, and wage theft that sort of support these institutions today. I think that is only exacerbated as we see many institutions, including this one, absolve themselves of the project of intellectualism, of education, and pursuing off-shore investment and other kinds of mega-projects in the South Side of Chicago.
We really need to think critically about what the university represents today. Does it serve the interests of education, of intellectual work, of liberation? Or is it about the consolidation of capital? Perhaps that is what it’s always been about and for that reason we need to think very expansively about what the university would look like in a liberatory project. I think that necessarily requires that we think about different cracks that allow us to place our work in service of the public to make it more accessible to the public.
Again, like I said, there are open access programs, we can even think of the tragedy of Aaron Schwartz, our comrade who gave his life to try to make knowledge accessible to all. I would encourage anyone who is not familiar with Aaron Schwartz to look into his story because he really was pioneering a different way of looking at knowledge and the university. So that is really where I would ground my own critique of the university today.
Can I ask you what happened with this person?
Aaron Schwartz was one of these tech-oriented individuals who—if I remember the story correctly—linked up a computer to the library at MIT and essentially downloaded all of the articles available to the library and made them openly available. He paid a strong price for it because he was imprisoned on federal charges and eventually took his own life in federal custody.
I think that represents the very high stakes of this kind of project. We all desire to place knowledge in the service of these very kinds of public, but at the same time there is an ever-present specter of state violence that undergirds these projects, and the university is no exception. I think that is the most important lesson to recognize: that we can’t fall back on the university as a space that sits outside of these concerns, outside of the material imperatives of both the realities of state violence and the material imperative of decolonization. So that is precisely where I would start.
So, with this we are finishing. Ryan Jobson, thank you so much for joining us.
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