Fifteen January 28, 2014Posted by The Typist in 365, New Orleans, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
Last year I read Righteous Dopefiend and thought if I were 20 years younger I could change majors to anthropology. A magnificent collaboration between author Philippe Bourgois and photographer Jeffrey Schonberg, it examines the situation of street heroin addicts living in an area of San Francisco. I think I fell in love with the book partly through the influence of David Simon. I remember posting in this online class after reading one chapter, “everything I just read I already learned from Bubbles,” the street addict character in The Wire. Once you plow through the Marxian preface and digest the concepts of anthropological agency (people form their own lives through their own choices) and structure (people are formed from choices limited by social circumstances), you are treated to a poignant and painful picture of the lives of two dozen addicts, with particular focus on a half-dozen. It is not a dry tome but a strong narrative arc and elucidation of character that was irresistible. If you loved Bubbles, or watching or reading The Corner, you should pick up this book immediately. I have not read The Corner, only watched the film, but I think I’m going to read it and re-read Righteous Dopefiend, because Simon’s film had it so right.
The best part of the class was watching the evolution of attitudes among my forty some-odd classmates, mainly self-identified in their early reactions as young, suburban, and completely unexposed to the subject. A few bravely recounted stories of addiction battles in their own family. Somewhere between those two threads, the majority these mostly twenty-somethings set aside their conventional, judgmental attitude toward street people in general and addicts in particular, and discovered compassion. It was a fundamental lesson for me in one of the functions of anthropology, of the liberal arts, and the power of a well-done book to change the world.
I was excited to take the Visual Anthropology class partly because of my experience of the intersection of Simon’s film and Bougois and Schonberg’s fieldwork. There’s a great deal of reading in the class, but the primary work is viewing films and three of four grades will be short papers examining the films we watch. (I already touched on Nanook of the North in a prior post). Aside from Susan Sontag’s On Photograpy the reading is proving dreary. I just finished a paper on the social relations of the Neur people of Sudan written in the 1930s. A turgid bore, the only interesting thing was a reference to Mahdist prophets which led me to read about that Suffi sect and the origins of jihad as an obligation ahead of haji–the pilgrimage to Mecca–in their theology. As I type this the United States has drones circling over Sudan looking for targets, the descendants of the anti-colonial Mahdist movement, operating under the loose umbrella of al-Qaida. The paper itself is an almost incomprehensible account of the tribal governance structure of what the author admits is an “organized anarchy”, with a lot of explanations along the lines of a member of Tribe A and Tribal District B and Clan C can still go kick the shit out of someone from Clan Din Tribal District B. The accompanying charts are not much help.
Anthropology, I discover, is like everything else. You get a first taste that sinks the hook only to discover–yarn–it’s another Theory contorted academic discipline.
I tried another article which I thought might be fascinating, on indigenous people producing their own video. The article opens with a quote that put me immediately in mind of the debate over cultural ownership of derivatives (mostly photography) of Mardi Gras Indian culture. Instead, I am half-way through a rant over whether the introduction of cameras and video editing equipment violates the Prime Directive or whatever it is called in anthropological ethics.
Then I reread how the Kayopo people of the Brazilian Amazon were using video, and the skills in video and production they were learning, to stage telegenically their protests against a dam that would drown much of their land. I thought of this picture that was widely circulated on the Internet not long ago of Chief Raoni crying when he learned that the President of Brazil approved the Belo Monte dam project on the indigenous Xingu people’s land.
Just when I thought I might check HBO GO and Yahoo video to see if I can watch The Corner the rest of this frigid night, Or check the syllabus and see if the next film we would watch tomorrow night if class weren’t cancelled is online, I suddenly linked back in. I remember the powerful emotions I felt when I saw that photograph and suddenly this monograph on the Kayopo people was interesting again. If giving cameras to the Kayopo violets the Prime Directive, so what? Should we give them AK-47s instead to protect their land against development? Something clicked . And I was reminded of the dramatic conversion of attitude among my young fellow students reading Righteous Dopefiend. I thought about listening to drumming on tribal radio when I was in western North Dakota, of trying to explain Mardi Gras Indians to the drum circle that came to the Katrina benefit in Fargo.
The world became a little smaller, the picture a bit clearer, these distant people with their brilliant feathered ritual capes a bit closer, as close as Bayou St. John–just blocks from my house–on Super Sunday.