In contemporary fast culture, we need a slow anthropology—for everyone.
In my last blog post I discussed how the spread of digital technologies and the pervasiveness of social media have presented us a bevy of unintended social and political consequences. Increased on-line connectivity has resulted in the expansion of social disconnection. The bombardment of on-line information in 24-hour news cycles has made us more partisan, less tolerant and increasingly ignorant about the social world. In our era, political, social and cultural ignorance is celebrated as we deny the existence of extinction-threatening climate change and champion the wonders of dirty energy production. Such is the perfect storm that helped to set the conditions that enabled Donald Trump to be elected President of the United States. Our love affair with digital technology, according to Sherry Turkle, among many other scholars, has made us less empathetic. In The Age of Trump, are we becoming less social, or worse yet, less human?
I cannot provide a fast and facile answer to this profound question, but can sugges that a more anthropological approach to the world of social life and politics is one way of reclaiming our humanity. I’ve been doing anthropology for many decades. I’ve conducted years of research in West Africa and in New York City. I’ve read widely in the social sciences and in philosophy. During this long and wide-ranging journey, I’ve made many discoveries. I’ve also come to terms with my own errors of judgment and interpretation. Having logged many miles on the journey, I’ve learned that anthropology—at least for me— is a slow social science based not so much on sophisticated analytical frameworks but more on the quality and depth of the social relationships that we have developed over long stretches of time. From this perspective, doing anthropology is, to borrow from my mentor Jean Rouch, a profoundly “shared” practice. A truly shared anthropology foregrounds conversation in face-to-face encounters. Over time those unpredictable and entirely human encounters bring joy as well as sorrow, embarrassment as well as pride, dead ends as well as paths toward greater insight. Shared anthropology is a profound co-production of knowledge that refines our comprehension of the human condition. It reinforces our shared humanity. If we open our being to others and to the world, we can all practice a shared anthropology.
What are the social and existential rewards of shared anthropology? What happens If we slowly move forward against the grain of fast culture?
The rewards of a slow and shared anthropology are wonderfully underscored in the life work of my colleague and friend, Lisbet Holtedahl, a Norwegian anthropologist and filmmaker who embodies a slow and shared approach to her scholarship and her films. Holtedahl has spent more than 40 years building relationships with people in West Africa—Niger and Cameroon. The intimacy of her shared anthropology is palpable within and between the frames of her films.
In the remarkable film, The Sultan’s Burden (1995) Holtedahl takes us deep into the corridors of Sultan Issa Maigari’s palace. From the very first frames, we see the Sultan, who is the spiritual and political leader of the Adamawa Province of Northern Cameroon, walking slowly among his wives, his children, his advisors and his praise-singers. It is an intimate glimpse—the result of years of shared anthropology—into the character of a proud, traditional leader who is confronting the irrevocable loss of prestige and power as Cameroon begins the process of secular democratization. The film evokes a profoundly human theme: what are the existential dimensions of love and loss?
In her latest film, Wives, which was ilmed between 1992 and 2015, Holtedahl brings her slow and shared anthropology into the compound of an Islamic scholar, Al Hajji Alkali Ibrahim Goni,who was for 45 years a traditional judge in the aforementioned Sultanate of Issa Maigari. The film showcases the uneven textures of relations between Al Hajii and his many wives, some of whom he divorced, some of whom died, and some of whom he divorced and remarried. In Holtedahl’s words, the film describes the… “various household scenes of everyday life events and interviews. With this, I hope to identify the audio-visual material’s contribution to my understanding of marriage, love and dependency of six of Al Hajji’s wives and their husband.” At the end of the film Al Hajii Goni, tired and old, is approaching death. From the intimate inside we see the how the spread of death’s shadow cuts to the core of Al Hajji Goni’s humanity and how it changes deep-seated feelings of love and loss in a household so far removed from our experience. In so doing, Holtedahl makes the strange familiar. In so doing she uses slow and shared anthropology to create emotional and social connections in an increasingly disconnected world.
In the Age of Trump a slow and shared approach to human social relations fosters knowledge in a time of ignorance. It creates webs of social and emotional understanding that transcend our social and cultural differences. By way of edifying conversation, a slow and shared approach to human relations goes a long way toward reclaiming a humanity that fast culture threatens to decimate.
As my West African teachers liked to tell me: the way forward is long, sinuous and slow, but it is a path well worth taking.