I arrived in Santiago yesterday, and so far things seem to be going well! Despite the fact I was flying through Atlanta, and on the 4th July weekend, the trip was pretty easy and remarkably uneventful. I had two little girls kicking the back of my seat and giggling for 9 hours, but hey, that’s the joy of airtravel.

Arrived at my hotel around 9, but then had to hang around till 12 when the room was ready. Santiago is nowhere near as cold as Chicago or La Paz in the winter, but after an hour of wandering about waiting for cafes to open so I could get a coffee I was pretty cold. Not having got much sleep on the plane (thanks to the brats) didn’t help either. I stumbled about as a wide eyed, shivering little bundle of confusion for a few more hours before crawling back to the hostel and collapsing in bed.

Its strange, because I didn’t think I Santiago was that high, but I could have sworn I got a little altitude sick yesterday. I thought at first I was just reacting to that evocative smell of pollution, or maybe having a psychosomatic reaction to the experience of being in a South American city again. But I got that mildly queasy, dizzy, headachey feeling not long after I landed. Weird.

But today I’ve been feeling much more sprightly, and even managed to have my first coherent exchange with a stranger in Spanish! (The guy who owns the shop next to the hostel showed me how to use a payphone, and then we chatted a little. He understood me… ish.) My feelings of total linguistic inadequacy are going to haunt me for a long time methinks, but it makes each semi successful conversation feel like a small victory!

Longer term than working out how to cross the road or use a phone, my first aim is to find an apartment, and so far today I’ve seen two.

The first is a room in a house shared with around 6 other people, that is advertised as gay-friendly and multicultural. The walls are painted various bright colours, the neighbourhood is full of bars, there’s an english language ex-pats drama group that meets downstairs, one of the owners gives dance lessons each evening in one of the larger rooms, the bathroom is small and rickety, they claim to have late night parties only at the weekend, and most of the bedrooms had either tie-dyed wall hangings or burning incense when I visited.

The second is a room in the house of a Swedish-Chilean couple, who live on the 10th floor of a luxury apartment building that has two pools, a gym, and a very sweet concierge. Its calm, clean and very stylish. The building next door is a designer wedding dress shop.

While the pool is enticing, I’m perversely tempted by the first. It could be the hippy student experience I never had. A have a few more to see later, but want to make a decision by the morning so I can move in as soon as possible.

I’ve had a long, exhausting day moving house. no energy left to type the posts I wanted to write today. But I just came across something to share.

There’s an application on facebook where you can search to see how many sex offenders live in your zipcode. It gives your their photos. To quote from my facebook news feed (please excuse the edits):

“C found 982 sex offenders living near [zipcode]. Here are the five closest. [shows five photos] See how many live in your area. You may be surprised!

[comment from K] You win – so far you have the most SOs living near you!! No way can someone tell me that “you never know” – look at these peders and tell me you wouldnt now! Especially that last guy? Come….On…..

[comment from C] I hope none of my ex’s are on this list….”

holy. fucking. shit.

I was woken up a few nights back by my neighbours, which is no surprise. It happens all the time, but not usually as late as 3 in the morning. My apartment building and theirs face each other over a small garden that, rather annoyingly, has perfect acoustics: pretty much any conversation held on the balconies overlooking the garden travels directly into the windows on the other side, making it sound like the speaker is standing over your bed having a little chat. Its creepy.

So, having been woken up at 3 by them pulling up chairs and popping open the champagne, I then lay awake the next few hours trying not to listen to their conversation. It seems one of the girls had recently broken up with an errant boyfriend. He said this, she said that, then you’ll never guess what she said to him!!

Well I didn’t have to guess, because I heard it all intimate detail through my ear plugs. I can inform you that her ex really was a naughty boy. But I don’t care what he did with that girl from over the road. when sleep deprived I have very little sympathy. Being a light sleeper has turned me into a terribly grumpy neighbour.

Anyway, it was a few days later that I worked out why they were sitting on their balcony at that time of the morning. It was the solstice! And I totally missed it!

Last year I spent the solstice at the ancient site of Tiwanaku, waiting for the sun’s rays and Evo Morales alongside several thousand Bolivians. They year before, I was in Peru celebrating the neo-indigenous ritual of Inta Raymi at Cusco. The previous two years before that, I was at Stonehenge, dancing the night away. This year, I passed the solstice in bed in Chicago, listening to teenagers lamenting their love lives. It was a bit of a let down, to say the least.

I should have known it was getting close though, as I’d read in the media a few days before that the police were going to be cracking down harder on visitors to Stonehenge this year. Because that’s what’s really needed in the wake of all the great press the police have had recently: more aggression. If they were being heavy handed its a pity, because the two times I went to Stonehenge for the solstice the already over-intimidating police presence was the only blight on an otherwise incredible experience. Right up there on my top ten things I think everyone should do is spend a solstice at Stonehenge, while you still can.

Its strange to have spent this year’s solstice in Chicago though, and even stranger to have missed it altogether. Its made me feel a little despondent about still being here so late. Over the last few years I’ve made my annual visit of pseudo-pagan/neo-indigenous/reclaimed solstice celebrations at archaeological sites into something of a tradition. At some point I wanted to write something about the contemporary uses of archaeological sites in this way, but researching it is a tad tricky when you only get one night a year to compare with. Missing out on this year’s example is a bit of a faux pas.

As a result, however, the solstice has turned into a personal marker for me. Not a marker in the “welcome the sun”/”connect with mother earth”/”mark the new year”/”blah blah blah” kind of way. Its just that, every year for the last four, its been a little bit of reoccurring research for me. That I missed it this year just reinforced the sense of frustration I’ve had for the last six months, hanging around in Chicago waiting for the bureaucracy to work out so that I can leave and go do my fieldwork. That I’m still in Chicago for the solstice, and hence missed it, becomes just another sign of having wasted too much time waiting this year. So in my mind, the solstice has become a ritual that marks me being “in the field”, doing research. Where ever I am that day, it reminds me of where I was that day for the previous few years. The solstice doesn’t mark the middle of summer so much as marking me watching other people marking the middle of summer.

My friend Keith, the one who spent last year at the South Pole, was telling me last week that the mid-winter solstice is a really big event there. Given that they really are affected by the turning of the seasons there, the midwinter marks the point when they can start to look forward to some sunlight returning in a few months time, and eventually to going home. I’ve always been a tad skeptical about the archaeological tendency to interpret every damn monument built anywhere in the world and at any time in prehistory as a calender for the solstice. Partly because I think there has to actually be some reason for caring about the middle of summer/winter.

The South Pole experience I can understand. My reason is a bit off-the-wall and personal. The usual explanation given in the archaeological interpretations is that its necessary for agricultural communities to know when to plant and so on. But I wonder if that’s really the case. Do farmers really need to know the exact date iof the middle of summer in order to be able to plant? As opposed to, say, being able to judge the weather that particular year? I heard on the radio this morning, for example, that farmers in Illinois this year have been totally fucked by the torrential rain we’ve had in the last few weeks, which means they are struggling to get crops planted this week while its still just about dry enough and warm enough. So I’d assume there are so many variables to growing crops than the exact date of the middle of the season isn’t really that important. I’d be interested to ask some contemporary farmers who live somewhere that doesn’t have an extreme climate whether they even notice the solstice. Maybe our contemporary tendency to think every archaeological site is somehow aligned to the solstice has more to do with our own obsession with accuracy and dating.

This time next year I’m not sure where I’ll be. Quiet possibly back here in Chicago, enjoying a break after a year of fieldwork. Where ever I am I’ll make sure I pay more attention. If only because, if I’m going to miss it, I might as well get a decent nights sleep.

I’ve been hearing a lot of exciting things about Amazon’s Kindle recently, and as the time comes to leave for the field – and therefore leave behind all my books – its been sounding increasingly attractive. The $350+ price tag for the latest version aside, however, on doing some research I don’t think I’ll be getting one just yet. Although it sounds like it ought to be an academic’s dream, there are some serious drawbacks that, unless resolved sharpish, mean this product really won’t ever be an option for people like me.

First off though, what do I mean by “people like me”. Well academics in the humanities and social sciences whose jobs depend on reading a hell of a lot of books every day. In an average week I probably read about the equivalent of five books in their entirety, plus or minus a few hundred pages, but this is usually spread out over about 10-20 books or journal editions, each of which I might read a few chapters of. And I’m a lazy and slow reader in comparison to my friends. Most of these are library books, but in the four years since I moved to the US I’ve also collected a personal library that takes up 4 huge floor to ceiling bookcases: the essentials I just had to have my own copy of. And again, I’m lagging behind most other academics here.

So I’d assume that I’d be an ideal market for a Kindle. There can’t be that many other professions that require quiet so much book ownership and reading?

I’ve always been a little disparaging about my dear colleagues attitudes towards books. It frequently verges on the fetishistic, and tends to go hand-in-hand with a Luddite fear of computers. It amazes people that I prefer to keep all my journal reading to pdfs rather than printouts, try to write all my notes electronically rather than in notebooks, and never brought coursework books unless, having finished the course, I was really sure I’d want to read it again. Hence why my four bookcases are rather pathetic looking in most anthropologists’ eyes. I love a nice paperback to curl up with, but don’t have that dreamy-eyed attachment to the nostalgia of the printed page. (And don’t get me started about personalised name stamps…) Bring on the e-revolution, as far as I’m concerned!

But I’ve been noting a sense of palpable excitement among anthropologists about the Kindle, even though its out of most of our price ranges, and goes against the fuddy-duddy waffling about the joy of dog-eared coffee-stained 1st editions. I put it down to the fieldwork: one of the many, many things that makes fieldwork so annoying is not having access to any of your books. A Kindle could change that. Not only let you have the right reference book when you need it, or the timely copy of the book on interviewing techniques you never realised you would need.

But also the novels. The things that stop you going absolutely crazy when you’re holed up in your little house on your own trying desperately to escape from the reality that there are several more months to go and you hate everyone you’re meant to be studying. Or something like that. For when you need escapism, pure and simple, but its two days drive away from the nearest internet connection.

So anyway. Thinking this might be the answer to all my mounting anxieties, I started asking about and checking it out, and so far there seem to be two major, insurmountable problems:

1) The page numbers don’t stick.
2) The range of books on offer is crap.

The first relates to citation practices. Apparently in a Kindle book you can zoom in and out to make the font larger, but this changes the pagination of the whole book. Total disaster! Unless you can place a citation exactly so that someone else can find the same thing on the same page you are referencing, then its useless. Academic citation practices are not going to change in any hurry. I mean we still have to include the town where a book is published in citations for goodness sake! (something that always conjures up images in my mind of quaint 19th century scholars having to personally travel to New York/London or Cam:Mass to find a copy of a book I cite) Kindle’s gonna have to sort that one out before it can become usable for academics.

The second, though, makes me wonder more about whether the makers of Kindle even realise the market they are ignoring. A quick browse through Amazon’s site today revealed that, as of today, there are only 2,207 anthropology books available (not counting archaeology). In comparison, there are 3,239 books on cooking, 4,190 sports books, and 6,064 erotic fiction books (incidentally, all topics I would have assumed are better just practised, rather than read about… but there you go).

When I actually checked out the kind of books listed under “cultural anthropology”, most of them were utter crap anyway. Lots of Jared Diamond. A bit of Latour. No Sahlins.

As a quick test, I looked up everything I had on my desk at the time. So this is a roughly accurate reflection of what I’ve been reading this week, and whether I’d be able to find it on Kindle:

Biocapital, by Sunder Rajan – No
Alien Ocean: Anthropological voyages in microbiology, by Helmrich – No
Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers, by David Turnbull – No
Space in the Tropics, by Redfield – No
Opening Pandora’s Box, Gilbert and Mulkay – No
Nuclear Borderlands, Joe Masco – No
Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, Stern – No
Landscapes and Labscapes, by Kohler – No
Science and an African Logic, H Verran – No.
Ella Minnow Pea, by MacAdams – No.
The Dictator’s Shadow, by Heraldo Munoz – Yes.
The Biographer’s Tale, by A.S. Bryatt – Yes.
Ethnography through Thick and Thin, Marcus – No!

So all I could get would be one of my novels, and the one biography I had on my desk. At the moment, then, its a bit of a let down. Ok so some of these are pretty obscure, but even the Marcus wasn’t available, and I don’t think any anthropologist can really contest that this is not a classic.

What I did find, though, is that for those that are available the price is bizarrely high. Lets say I was going to buy Latour’s Reassembling the Social. The paperback (new) price is $24, but the Kindle price is $18.56. How does that make *any* sense? Once the book is made, there’s barely any production cost at all. No paper, no printing, no shipping.

There has been a lot of discussion in academia about the demise of the academic press, the rising costs of producing the monographs that are a loss-maker for publishers, but that serve as the lifeblood of the humanities and social sciences. The print run of the average academic monograph is in the low hundreds, so the prices go up beyond the average grad student price range… . Less books are brought and production costs go up in a vicious circle.

Electronic books seem like the obvious solution out of the problem. The same few hundred hard copies would be sold to libraries and book fetishists. But the digital copy could be sent out at a fraction of the cost. It has the potential to totally revitalise the academic book market.

Yet we could take it even further. Over on the WAC mailing list in the last few weeks there has been a raging row about moving the contract to publish WAC’s journals and books over to Springer from Left Coast Publishers. The row started over whether working with Springer, a large corporation, undermined WAC’s ethical principles. (For more background on what WAC is and what it stands for: see here.) But it soon turned into a debate about the gulf in opportunity to access all academic publications between academics in richer and poorer countries. As temporarily employed adjunct faculty in the US complained they couldn’t afford WAC’s $40 books, professors from African nations pointed out they needed to take second jobs to get together the $20 membership fee.

WAC, like many anthropology organisations, tries to solve the disparity by having two tiers of membership fees, depending on where in the world you are coming from. This extends to journals as well, with two (sometimes more) tiers of pricing. With digital books, if the production costs are cut to a minimum, could we do the same thing?

Well. Only when Kindle and other e-book makers realise that we exist as a market. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for it – but I’m not holding my breath.

Another passing-on-a-link post here. Via Jodi Dean, I just came across a great essay on Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism. Basic principle:

Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers.

Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.

… Any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media – it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test – if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable.

Its well worth reading the essay in full, and the events in Iran over the last few days make it even more pertinent right now.


I found the discussion of China particularly interesting: not only because of the kind of punning that would warm the cockles of Professor Silverstein’s heart; also the observations on the acceptability of certain forms of censorship (politics yes, cute cats no).

Some Chinese bloggers have responded by being extremely creative in their use of images. Some Chinese bloggers began posting images of river crabs on their blogs. The joke is that the term for “river crab” sounds very similar to the word “harmonize”, a term that had become slang for “censored” – “My blog just got harmonized.” The term “harmonized” became so popular that it became blocked. So Chinese bloggers began to refer to their blogs as having been “river crabbed”. The watches are a pun on “the three represents“, a political philosophy put forward by Jiang Zemin. This is also a commonly blocked term, so has been rewritten as “wears three watches”… which explains the oddly dressed river crab.

Here’s the thing – for the vast majority of Chinese internet users, they’re encountering a much more free information environment than their parents experienced. Michael Anti argues that Chinese society is much freer than the US in terms of personal behavior, especially around premarital sex and homosexuality. The vast majority of young Chinese are enjoying these personal freedoms and are willing to accept a world in which political freedom is somewhat constrained.

China’s censorship genius is that they’ve found a way to let people have their cute cats and have censorship as well. While China will block sites like Human Rights Watch, they won’t block domestic Web 2.0 sites, and hence the collateral damage from blocking banal content doesn’t draw non-activists to become aware of activist issues.

Just thought I’d share this straight up as I’m going to be taking a few days to mull over all that’s in there. Any thoughts from people more up-to-date on the crypto/censorship world?

[Soundtrack to this post – sorry, couldn’t resist]

I ran into my friend Keith a few weeks ago, who I hadn’t seen in a long while. The main reason for us losing contact was that he had spent most of 2008 living in almost complete isolation in a research centre at the South Pole. I spent a few hours talking to him about his experiences, and think its one of the most fascinating stories I’ve heard in a long time.

He kept a blog while there, which captures some of the weirdness and beauty of the place, as well as his incredible enthusiasm and sense of wonder at being, in effect, locked up in a tin can on ice in total darkness for a year.

You can read it here. My favorite bits: the 300 club, the tomato slices, and the giant puff balls!

Its an embarrassing time to be British right now. This “expense scandal”? Its humiliating. Particularly in Chicago, of all places. The reaction I keep getting from friends is unanimous: You British are so backward you can’t even get political corruption right.

Illinois recently earnt itself the quote: “If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States it’s certainly one hell of a competitor” (Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office). Yes, from the perspective of a US state that has two governor’s in jail for corruption and one on the way, and a Mayoral oligarchy that has seen the Daley father and son team rule the city for 40+ years with virtually no opposition, quibbling about expense claims that were, after all, legal, seems a bit ridiculous.

As a dear friend so kindly (and gleefully) pointed out to me, the sheer pettiness just reinforces every annoying stereotype of quaint British eccentricity.

Headlines in Italy: Berlusconi holds debauched parties with gaggles of teenage girls and pin up models, flying them in on airforce jets and appointing the most attractive to his cabinet.

Headlines in Britain: Cameron claimed £947.29 more than he ought to, but will pay it back.

I’m not saying that I condone corruption. Chicago’s famously laid back ‘who gives a shit’ attitude to being robbed blind by its public officials stopped being amusing around the time I noticed the open wounds of poverty that are ripped into the face of the city. The dirt. The decrepit public transport. The third world standard roads. The weekly fatal shootings in public schools. The segregation. The accusations of police brutality and torture.

No, I’m not saying Britain needs to step up to “compete on the world stage” when it comes to crooked politics. My point is that that calling this farce over expenses “corruption”, dignifying it with status of a “scandal”, is to seriously misunderstand both what corruption really is, and where the real problems with British politics lie. So knowing what we are doing right (i.e. not being like Illinois), and what we are doing wrong.

The problem with the expenses is that MPs were not able to vote themselves a higher salary, and so civil servants created a way to give them some other form of compensation. There is nothing wrong with the concept of a second home allowance: on the contrary, it means that people other than millionaires can, potentially, be politicians, which I’m entirely in favour of. Anything that proactively enables more diversity in our political representatives should be encouraged.

Were the MPs “greedy”? I think its hard to say, because its difficult to condemn the impulse for personal profit when it is, after all, the underlying principle of capitalism (and in particular neoliberalism). Its also impossible to call them “greedy” when they were actually doing what they were told they should do. Besides which, if it really does seem like they were being greedy, the solution lies in taking a more nuanced look at the kind of politics we have right now, rather than voyeuristic pawing over receipts in the press to the accompaniment of some cliched class-tinged indignation.

This situation came about because it was not politically expedient for MPs to give themselves a pay rise. As long as decisions are made on the basis of whether or not it will lose or gain votes, then our politics will be superficial, shallow and hysterical. Beyond this issue of pay, why are politicians so afraid of making decisions that, while unpopular, need to be made in the name of social justice? For humane immigration laws. For gay marriage and abortion rights. For supporting the NHS and free education. Because it might cost them votes, and losing votes is more important than having a fair and free society.

But above all, what really depresses me is that this whole farce with expenses has caused more debate about the political system, and come closer to bringing down the government, than any other issue in the last decade. An illegal war couldn’t do it. The insidious undermining of the right to free education hasn’t raised the slightest whiff of a protest. Two police murders of innocent men passed without problem. Even the economy crashing down around our ears at the same time as a a global pandemic hasn’t caused as many problems as this cuffufle over legal expense claims!

But a duck house and a few dvd players? If this is what the British public really want to get angry about, then we really do have a problem.

Police blogs seem to be much in the news these last few days. When Britain’s Bobbies aren’t accidentally killing protester’s by beating the shit out of them, or punching someone they just tasered in the head, it seems their blogging about it.

One such detective is in the news for having just lost the right to keep his blog anonymous. I’ve only just heard about this case, and must admit to never having read the (now deleted) blog, but I expect that its going to generate some interesting discussions over the next few weeks about the concept of anonymity and privacy on the internet.

In a nut shell, it appears that Richard Horton (aka NightJack, the author of a popular exposé on his life in the force) has just lost an injunction against The Times that would have prevented them from exposing his real name. Horton had protested that if they did so, it would put him “at risk of disciplinary action for disclosing confidential information about prosecutions within the force”.

My immediate reaction to this is to find it just a little bit ironic that its a law enforcer who is seeking protection from the law for being exposed for doing something potentially unlawful. I don’t blame the judge for turning down his request. His case for anonymity is built on an argument that he thinks he’s done something wrong he should be punished for.

But the intelligence of this particular copper aside, there’s the bigger debate about internet anonymity, and blogging in general. Given that I’m all still excited about getting back into the blog zone, here’s some half baked thoughts on the topic.

I see this as falling somewhere in that googy grey zone of morality that usually comes up in discussions of paparazzi intimidation of famous people. The argument is always that people who choose to step into the limelight can’t expect to have privacy. By opening up one’s life, one looses all rights to not be photographed 24 hours a day, to not have people camp out on your doorstep and scream abuse at you, and so on. There’s something utterly obnoxious about this argument, but its an argument that seems to stick.

For bloggers, or any writer in fact who chooses to share some aspect of their life, I guess the same argument could be made. Putting yourself up on a public stage means giving away some rights to privacy and anonymity. Long before the internet, a pseudonym was no guarantee one’s identity wouldn’t be discovered either. I assume that the journalist didn’t have to work too hard to find out who he was. Damned by his own keyboard, so to speak. The closer it is to an authentic expression of reality, the easier it is to find out who the “real” person is.

The question taken from the oppostie direction would be, does it make a difference if we know that he is Richard Horton as opposed to NightJack? Why did the Times want to expose him? The hunt to find the “real” person seems to be something peculiarly urgent: if we find out Shakespeare was really Marlow, or Bacon, or Elizabeth I, this somehow will make his/her poetry and plays more or less real? I’m sure there’s a world of literary and authenticity theory that we could conjure up here. Still. At some point does it only matters who Pauline Réage was as opposed to Anne Desclos, when we think we know either of them beyond the page. What is this urge to uncover the “real” person, the truer experience, the concrete behind the spectacle.

And then there is also the accusation, made by The Times, that in writing about real, ongoing cases, he put police investigations at risk. The failure to properly anonymize his own writing seems remarkably stupid, up there with the infamous, ongoing Jared Diamond case, and makes me wonder whether bloggers and journalists need their own form of an IRB.

Maybe, in the end, the simple answer is that he should have just called it fiction. There’s a thriving tradition of writing first ‘novels’ that are thinly disguised biographies.

Ok folks. So I’m back. After nearly a year of hiatus, I’ve decided to deal with my “issues” and relaunch the Wrong Side of The World.

Perhaps to start off I should give an apology for disappearing. I’ll be honest about it: I was having a nine month sulk. I think I got a little dispirited with the idea of blogs, a little over enamoured with the quick fix potential of facebook, a little over-anxious about being labelled an “anthropology blog”… in all, it was complicated. And rather petty at the same time.

I spent the last nine months concentrating on some other projects: doing some creative writing, taking up painting again, that kind of thing. But I realised I missed writing here and so have decided to give it another go. First, though, I want to take this opportunity to talk a little about some of the things that made me start writing this blog in the first place, the direction I hope to take it in the future, and some more general musings about academic and internet writing. Partly as an explanation for the sulk, but partly as a way of clarifying my own thoughts on what I want this blog to be in the future.

When I first started the Wrong Side of the World back in 2003, I was just about to start grad school, and very sad about leaving behind a wonderful community of friends in Cambridge. I wanted some way to keep in conversation with them, some way to keep a connection other than sending awful group emails. I envisaged the blog as a way of carrying on the kind of informal, friendly debates about life, love and politics that I knew I was going to miss.

Grad school can be, particularly at my university, an isolating experience that slowly tears your sense of humour and self confidence into a thousand tiny little pieces. Particularly here in the US, I find, people are wary of what they write or say in public, cautious about what they feel prepared or able to defend. In writing the blog I wanted a space in which I could speak more freely, throw some ideas around and talk shit without necessarily having to worry so much about whether I could back it up with the requisite collection of citations.

As the name of the blog suggests, I also needed a space to deal with some of the total cultural confusion that I encountered in moving to a new country. Talking about the bizarre situations I found myself in was perhaps also a way of dealing with the loneliness that comes when you’ve just moved somewhere new and don’t have any deep friendships yet.

But, of course, the internet is not really a cozy night in the pub, and conversations take on a life of their own when they are overheard by the whole world. My biggest worry was always about whether I was writing something too personal, or something that wasn’t respectful of a friend’s privacy. (Or, lets be honest, that I would tell a stupid story about someone and they would then find it and be pissed off…) What caused my extended time-off (aka “sulk”), however, was more to do with me re-evaluating my relationship to the idea of a blog tself.

My initial reasons for blogging were to look for a safe space to share ideas, a space away from the rigours of academic speech/writing. But blogs are not that really that space. There are some pretty terrible stereotypes of academia that many people (inside and outside) share. The image of a bunch of egotistical arseholes constantly getting into cat-fights over obscure remnants of triviality, waving their dicks about, ready to crush any sign of weakness. I don’t believe in this stereotype. Or at least, I think that such images are a very tiny portion of the bigger picture. Yes, we all have to learn how to play the game to get ahead – its not some utopian community of lofty, idealist thinkers striving for truth and knowledge. But in that respect its just like every other profession or community. And so yes, there are styles of speech one has to adhere to in academia, and these can be limiting if one has no other outlet to speak in. Such was the situation I found myself in when I started the blog: wanting another venue to talk more freely in. The problem is that the blogosphere is also not a utopian space of free expression and shared ideas either. Instead, it can resemble nothing more than the worst of the dick waving cat-fight stereotype of academia, without the minimum requirement of some intelligence or knowledge.

Not always of course. But it happens. (particularly when one dares talk about politics.) And when it does, it sours my lovely naive idea about nice open spaces to talk about ideas without worrying that someone will flame you.

Anyway, the last few years blogging and my time off thinking about blogging have taught me two things.

Firstly, that I have a very thin skin. In fact, this was something that one of my informants told me rather forcefully a few months ago, when I was trying my best to convince him that my thesis wasn’t going to be at all controversial. I am a classic middle-child I guess, desperate at all costs to avoid conflict*. I’ve got to deal with that head on.

Secondly, that its really not possible to keep my academic and my personal life separate any more. My mind has been colonised by anthropology as much as my life style has. In the same way that my day-to-day schedule is dictated by the open-ended nature of research and my ability to have a relationship is undermined by the propensity to spend several months a year doing fieldwork, I now can’t read a magazine, or go to a store, or meet someone at a party without anthropologizing the encounter. Its insidious. So the idea that I would somehow write about my life or my thoughts and have it not be anthropological is wishful thinking.

Which is why I was so uncomfortable with the idea of being an “anthropology blog”. Not because I have something against them: I am an avid reader of several, particularly the excellent group blog Savage Minds. But instead because I wanted that separation, that safe space. I’ve realised, however, that its not going to happen.

So… I’m going to embrace it. Here, you will hopefully see over the next few months, the new and improved Wrong Side of the World. It might not work. Then again it might.

I have a few aims.

I’m going to avoid as much as possible talking about my informants, or explicit aspects of my fieldwork. My reason for this is mostly to protect those relationships and the ethic obligations to privacy that are embedded in fieldwork. Besides, I’m going to be doing so much field note writing already I probably won’t want to be writing additional things about it.

I want to keep this as a space I can write informally in. My biggest challenge in my professional development has been learning how to reign in my over-colloquial writing style in my academic writing. Learning how to cut out the cute phrases, sarcastic asides, over-enthusiastic effervescence and unsubstantiated rants. Gradually I’m getting there, and think my academic writing is improving as a result. But I miss them sometimes. Expect the usual chaotic, incoherent ramblings here instead, plus some.

I probably won’t be able to stop myself from me!me!me! posts, so you’ll have to bear with me on that. Though as Jim put it, when I talked this over with him a little over the Christmas vacation, the personal is still political so there’s no reason to exclude it all. Besides, if I stopped telling long-winded stories about my own stupidity, that would be half my conversation gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about whether its possible to make cultural anthropology accessible and/or relevant to wider audiences. So there may be some experiments in that. Other people have done it better before me, and are doing it better now, but we’ll see what happens. Its a challenge.

I’m about to move to yet another side of the world, Chile, so I’ll be writing a lot about that. However, for the first time I’ve decided to let my parents know about my blog, which will probably add a whole other level to the self-censorship ;)

So. Here goes! Thanks for reading, feel free to hang around leaving comments, and lets see what happens!

A few more links on Bolivia that you may find interesting to read. Some may be a little out of date now – I meant to be writing more this week but have been ill. I’ll keep adding to this as I find more over the next few days.

BOLIVIA:”Twenty Families Are Obstructing Governability” By Franz Chávez. Some background and analysis of possible solutions.

It is precisely this avalanche of votes, the greatest proportion won by a president since the restoration of democracy in 1982, that raises questions for sociology Professor Joaquín Saravia, who told IPS that “The government appears insecure, because it has overwhelming social and political support, but this has not translated into real control of the country, which is alarming,” he said.

The head of the governing Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) parliamentary group, César Navarro, said that democratic changes being promoted by the government are resisted by the elites, who are accustomed to lives of privilege and benefiting from the state.

Elite Backlash, by Nick Buxton. Commentary on Monday’s conflict, including a translation of an account from Bolivia.

What they nearly always fail to mention are any of the following facts:

– that the opposition is led by business elites and big landowners who have spent vast amounts of money, tactics of intimidation, and violence to push the message that regional autonomy will improve people’slives
– despite this fierce campaign and the almost complete absence of central government, the opposition’s popular support is still limited to the cities whilst the central government’s support grows ever more
– that the central government’s nationalisation more than doubled the revenues for the Eastern regions
– that the Right who fought the Constitutional Assembly for a year saying everything had to be approved by two-thirds suddenly don’t want any further popular votes now that two-thirds backed Evo in a referendum in July

Definitely worth reading, this is the reaction of the Center for Juridical Studies and Social Investigation, the organisation whose building and records were destroyed on Monday. “Violent Groups Take Over Human Rights Organization In Bolivia”.

The offices of CEJIS, along with its personnel, were attacked more than 15 time in the last five years. In the last months the institution suffered two attacks with molotov cocktails (in November 2007 and last August). In its 30 years of work, CEJIS has provided legal assistance to indigenous, landless and peasant organizations in the process of titling their lands and territories. It has been a permanent ally of the social movements in the legal codification of their rights in national legislation, and advised and accompanied the progress of social organizations in the Constituent Assembly. This work has implied a permanent risk on the personnel and offices of CEJIS, threatened by the sectors of power that have historically controlled the region of Eastern Bolivia, who now feel menaced by the advance of the rights of the most marginalized sectors of our society.

As always, for ongoing analysis check out Jim Shultz in Blog from Bolivia (in the links to the right). In particular he reported last night on one piece of good news and potential hope for a solution other than civil war:

Tarija’s Governor Heads to La Paz for Negotiations with Morales

The one good piece of news today is that Tarija Governor Mario Cossío announced that he was headed to La Paz this afternoon to open a negotiation on the current crisis with the Morales government. Radio Erbol also reported that Santa Cruz Governor Ruben Costas has endorsed the negotiation effort. “I am completely convinced that this is the last opportunity to begin a process of reconciliation and leave behind the process of confrontation,” Cossio told reporters.

His piece from yesterday (Friday 12th) is worth reading in its entirety.

The Gringo Tambo blog reports on “8 dead in Pando overnight”, giving a brief summary which links to an article in Spanish:

Again according to La Razón, eight people were killed in Pando in “armed clashes” between autonomistas and masistas. Venezuela is threatening to intervene. Brazil and Argentina have said that they will “not tolerate” a coup and that they fully support the Morales government. Meanwhile, Evo is mobilizing military and police troops. No word yet on what is happening today. From what I understand things in Santa Cruz are tense but calm, with members of the UJC still occupying buildings.

Following that, there is more historical background on these clashes from the political scientist blogger Miguel Centellas.

The sad thing here is that these are not military units, which should be the forces (along w/ the police) used to restore state authority. The consequence—assuming they actually do march on Santa Cruz & other opposition-controlled areas—will be a higher casualty count. For all their bravura, Ponchos Rojos (like the UCJ) lack military discipline & training. That means their clashes will be bloody, like the clash in Pando that left at least 8 dead & 80 injured.

Miguel’s summary post from this morning is also very useful, describing the Bolivian military’s reaction to Venezuela’s ‘offer’ to send their army into Bolivia to defend Morales at a time when the US ambassador has been forced to leave the country for interference in Bolivia’s affairs.

Via Overthinking It (my new favourite blog) I just came across Chris Marcil’s blog following his attempt to read the entire Harvard Classics. Marcil is a comedy writer, better known for penning such pop culture classics as Beavis and Butthead and Frasier than for his knowledge of Cicero, Byron and their ilk. The result is an idiosyncratic combination of humour and intellectual analysis that makes for great reading. For example his thoughtful comments on Darwin are particularly apt at a time when stooopidness seems to be making another attempt to spread beyond the US to the UK.

Last night I went over to my friends’ house, and saw TV for the first time in months. She had heard about blocados up in El Alto so was tuned to the news to work out if the rumours were true. But all we saw was reports on Santa Cruz. For the last few months I have been repeating what everyone in La Paz knows – things are calm and peaceful in the highlands because all the violence this year is in the South. But for the first time I actually saw what this looks like.

Each channel we switched to was showing the same thing. Crowds of young men dressed in shorts and t-shirts, some with surgical mask on their faces but many with nothing covering their wide grins, attaching buildings with sticks and stones. The sound of glass breaking and clouds of curling black smoke above, a tear gas canister being kicked down the street by a teenager who gives it one last aim at a small huddled group of riot police. The rocking camera follows the shouting young men into the building, into an office. It picks out groups pulling stacks of paper out of filing cabinets, yanking computer screens off desks, ripping even the chairs and the telephones out and carrying everything into the street. The beam of the camera rests on two young men, perhaps in their late teens but certainly no older than 21, as they lean over an opened computer on the desk, pulling out wires at random. Their backpacks bounce on their backs as they run out to join their friends, and somewhere in my head I wonder whether the bags show they came prepared or just straight from school. Behind them a boy of about 12 is riffling through a cabinet in someone’s desk.

Outside in the street again. Everything is set alight. Desks, screens, telephones and endless stacks of paper make up the bonfire. A shot of the outside of the building, and half its windows are broken. Out of them more paper flutters to the ground through the rising smoke. The crowd is cheering and shouting and suddenly the camera picks out another young man, but this one is in army fatigues. He is curled up on the floor with his hands around his head as a growing crowd takes it in turns to kick him till the blood runs. His uniform is torn, and as he is dragged to his feet and turns to the camera we see a blank expression of fear and utter confusion. His soft brown skin traced with blood stands out in the sea of white faces around him, but like them he is barely out of his teens. The camera cuts to three men marching through the streets, green and white flags held high and one with a gun slung over his shoulder. The crowds part to let them pass through, cheering them on as they hold their heads high and faces stern for the mass of television cameras.

The building being destroyed was a government building responsible for dealing with land reform. In the same day other government buildings were destroyed in the same manner, along with the offices of Entel (a telephone company), and Canal 7 (a television station). Soldiers in Bolivia are conscripts, but the rich can usually buy their way out so they are predominantly young, poor men from the countryside. The young men attacking the building are members of the Santa Cruz Youth Movement, the ‘Autonomy’ movement’s foot soldiers. The green and white flag is the flag of Santa Cruz, in contrast to the red, gold and green of Bolivia.

What other images did we see?

Older men with round white faces standing in the plaza talking fast and furious into the expectant microphones. Morales is a dictator he says. We are men and women standing up for our freedom. We will stay here in the plaza all night holding our peaceful vigil. Another reporter shouts out a question and he turns. We go back to the studio, and then cut to another plaza a long way away. Outside the presidential palace in La Paz another crowd is gathered. Trilby hats and darker faces – the men have come from the highlands to the city to tell Evo he needs to use a strong hand against the right-wingers in the South. At the bottom of the screen they are described as ‘indigenous vigilantes’. The camera pans to the large crowd standing on the steps of the Plaza Murillo, facing the palace and chanting “Strong Hand! Strong Hand!”

We cut back to images of youths in the streets of Santa Cruz. They are kicking a police motor cycle in the street, eventually setting it alight. Then we go to an interview with someone who says that the governor of Santa Cruz has been paying the police not to intervene. Another cut to lines of people queuing in El Alto to buy cooking gas. The department of Santa Cruz contains the gas supplies, and their blocados are finally taking affect. There is not enough gas in the cities for people to cook with. A minister appears who says that his aim is to have gas lines connected directly to people’s houses to avoid this problem in the future. He asks for patience for another year – after all, in the previous 25 years of government no-one even considered this idea. I make a mental note that we only filled our gas canister a week ago, but that the previous one had had a leak and run out far too fast. We need to be more careful. My friend sitting next to me suddenly notices the minister is wearing a Che tie.

I’m watching all this with my two good friends: Anna, who is a liberal and a passionate Obama supporter from the US, and her long time boyfriend, Eduardo, a Bolivian anarchist. Anna is furious. Why aren’t they doing anything? What is Evo doing? Why don’t they send the army down there to arrest those men? How can they get away with doing this so blatantly, so publicly? It’s all there on the camera!

We wait, along with the camera men and the crowds looking up at the lights in the windows of the presidential palace, hoping to catch Evo Morales’ speech in reaction. We wait, and nothing happens. We argue backwards and forwards about what he could do, but eventually Anna is frustrated and asks us to turn the television off. We go out to eat.

Over pizza we discuss the options. The governor of Santa Cruz is paying off the police, so Evo should send the army. If he sends the army then he will be accused of acting like Goni, the last president, who sent the army against the crowds of protesters trying to throw him out of office. People died, and Evo can’t be seen to be comparable. Anna thinks the international community should get involved – if the soldiers are from another country then he won’t face that accusation. Eduardo disagrees. He has to use the army. He is the state, and this is what the state does to enforce it’s will – it uses violence. But Evo is reluctant, because he wanted to do be different, or maybe because he knows he is in an impossible position. Could they dialogue?, Anna asks. They say that the last time Morales and Ruban Costas, the governor of Santa Cruz, met, Costas ripped up a cheque Morales was giving him in an official meeting and threw it in his face. He calls Morales a monkey. They say his personal land ownings are larger than the entire department of La Paz. How can you ‘dialogue’ with that kind of racism, that kind of entrenched interest in maintaining the status quo?

Anna is frustrated because to her it makes no sense that there can be no reaction. But for me, and I think for Eduardo, there is something more complicated going on. We all have reached a point of stalemate – Evo can’t react with force against the violence without replicating the reaction of Goni and being accused of being the same.

The images I saw on television were familiar. Riot porn. We on a particular part of the left have seen similar images before and have viewed them as resistance and rebellion. Indeed, in 2003 and 2005, when it was campesinos and miners marching through the streets of La Paz and overthrowing Goni, we cheered it as a great victory of the people over the oligarchs. I still believe it was, but the absolutely crucial problem now is that the oligarchs are using the identical tactics to achieve the opposite politics.

Where does this put us on the left, those of us who have supported Evo? I would never have though I would find myself in the position where I would be distressed by the burning of the government, sympathising with the riot police, and advocating sending in the army. This is a very weird position to find myself in.

The paradox of Bolivia, Eduardo argues, is that we have seen it as a revolution when it is not. I also am beginning to see it as this. Evo took power through the ballot box, and although he is indeed a different type of politician, he sought power through the existing system and became the state. The power of the state comes through the use of violence, and the legitimation of elections. While 68% of the country support Evo, there is still a minority, and if they don’t accept the rule of law then the state has no means to enforce it other than through violence. We believed in Evo as if he were something different, and by his reluctance to send in the army perhaps he is proving he, too, still sees himself as different. He still thinks he is not the state. But he is, and ultimately he will only be able to keep hold of his power by using the weapons of the state.

There is one last piece of pizza, and I let Eduardo and Anna split it. Anna thinks that they should let Santa Cruz burn. If they want to destroy their infrastructure, let them! The international community will not support them, and Bolivia relies on Brazil and Argentina to buy its gas. Isolated and without infrastructure, cut off from their customers, they will soon give in. Eduardo dismisses the idea. They would build new institutions. It would serve as an accusation that Evo was trying to starve the people. Evo wanted to be head of state and he is – now he must act like one and crush his opposition. This is not a revolution – whether on the left or the right, he still has to act like an overseeing power that imposes its will on the minority who don’t agree. Anna gets angry. Anarchism is not a viable solution, she says. You really think that is the answer?

And here is where Eduardo and I are stuck. We believe in anarchism, but support “realistic” alternatives in the belief that it is unlikely that we are going to be able to bring about the kind of world we would rather see. So we supported and still do support Evo. But now the opposition are using the same means of resistance to the imposition of state power that the left used 3 years ago, and we have a problem. Evo is the state – he sought and gained power through the existing systems of electoral politics backed up with the legitimate use of violence. The fact that he gained power through acts of violence that directly challenged the state’s monopoly on violence only complicates the matter further, in that now he is trying to be a state at a time when the legitimacy of the state remains in question.

The cracks are beginning to show. We have supported compromise in order to be realistic, but the compromise is not viable. We have looked to Bolivia as an alternative, as a place where radical and positive change can really come about through the ballot box. We have swallowed all our objections and criticisms to this form of politics in the hope that it would work. Now when that support involves us advocating sending in the army to crush the resistance, when the only way we can convince those who oppose us is through violence, it causes prickles of unease. That unease is only going to grow. Can we – must we – go back to believing another world is possible?

The last few week have been spent in the slow lane over here on the wrong side of the world. Most days I am taking Spanish classes, going to the gym (well, almost everyday), watching a lot of Buffy, slowly working my way line by line through Strathern’s The Gender of The Gift, and spending too long on the internet. Having realised that my Spanish was not yet up to the task of doing the research I wanted to, I set aside the last month of this year’s trip to taking classes and actually doing all that verb conjugation and vocab practice I don’t usual have time for. Its been oddly peaceful, which is handy because as soon as I get back to Chicago next week the world will explode again.

My Spanish teacher is a rather nervous young woman. We are getting to know each other quiet well, though I tend to find that’s often the case with such classes: you spend an inordinate amount of time having to talk about your personal life or express your personal opinions. We have argued over Bolivian politics, discussed our views on globalisation, ranged over my thoughts on my colleagues, my family, my love-life, my research and my recipe for moussakka. It makes me a little uncomfortable. (especially the moussakka part)

It doesn’t help that we’ve been covering the subjectivo, something that doesn’t seem to exist in English but is used to express doubt or opinion in a sentence. So I end up with exercises like the following:

Express whether it is/is not important/just/necessary that:
– we have much work
– parents discipline their children
– we help the poor
– children respect their elders
– there is contamination in the air
– that Man is civilised
– the US helps other countries
– the US makes peace with Russia

(Yeah that last one was a bit of a give away about the age of the textbook.)

The pedantic anthropologist in me can’t help but squirm. Alas I can’t give “well that depends on the context and how you define the concept of justness or civilisation” as an answer every time, even if I do use the subjunctivo to say it. I know, I know – they are just exercises. But until my Spanish is good enough to explain the concept of cultural relativism, these exercises are going to be tricky.

The number of personal questions can tend to make you start feeling like you’re in a therapy session. I remember one doomed introductory German course I took as an undergrad where even the basic statements, coming as they did at a rather complicated time in my love life, reduced me to tears. My poor study partner soon learnt to stop asking the marital status question and to stick to asking how many brothers and sisters I had.

Last week we were using a lot of airport based vocabulary, and I ended up trying to convey my airport rant (see a few posts below) in Spanish to my poor teacher. She got an even more confused and blabbery version than I wrote down there, given that it was in Spanglish. Recently airports and the mystic alchemy that is buying plane tickets has been somewhat on my mind though. Having followed the various rules for finding the cheapest fare (look before a tuesday because that’s when the prices go up, don’t use the same website too often for the same fare because they raise the price depending on how often people search for it, check out the secret student discount fares on the secret student website, pick an odd day to fly, stand on one leg bathed in the light of the full moon singing “she’ll be coming round the mountain” backwards while searching) I finally found a flight. And then of course it went up by $100 in the space of the 5 hours I was waiting to hear back from my relatives in the UK.

(Here’s an interesting maths question while we are on the subject. If a flight on Virgin Airlines between Chicago and London is advertised on the first page after searching as $630, but then when you click on the link to buy it, the cost break down on the next page is $288 fare each way, $462.31 tax and $750.31 in total, how much of the original price was tax, how much fare, and how much bullshit?)

But I brought it anyway. Sadly I was too late to make it back to the UK in time, and given that airlines don’t even like to give refunds when its their fault, I don’t think I will be getting my money back. So all I can hope for now is that the funeral can be arranged to coincide with the flight I brought. Its left me a bit up in the air about where I’ll be once I leave Bolivia – another reason to savour the calm here this last week.

The thing about a language class other than a normal conversation is that you the student tend to do most of the talking, rather than the teacher. So they get to learn a lot about you, but its hard to gauge what their personal reaction to your opinions is as opposed to their professional assessment of your grammar. The last class I had ended with a discussion on Bolivian politics in which I asked my teacher to tell me what she thought instead. She started to tell me how corrupt Evo Morales is, and how he is ruining the country, how the poor people in the countryside need to be taught and led because they can’t make decisions on their own in their best interests. Makes me wonder what she thought about my inarticulate replies to her questions on globalisation, international travel and politics. And makes me a bit more reluctant to try and express myself and my personal opinions in the last few classes.

Looking for love can be hell. This strangely poignant story of a 67 year old woman working the personals really got to me for some reason. Perhaps because I think she’s still braver than I am.

Facebook is usually my networking and gossiping space, rather than for conversation, so I’m transplanting a mini-discussion that got going there over here.

A elderly relative of mine is ill in hospital, generating a stream of emails and phone conversations from me to various family members back home. Sadly they are the horribly practical kind of conversations that go along the lines of ‘will he make it to Christmas, or should I drop everything and come home now?’. This is the kind of situation I have imagined having to deal with ever since I moved abroad, as I suspect every person who emigrates for some period of time does. One of those horrible cases where your normal sense of helplessness is compounded by being unable to do anything from a distance. There’s not much you can do other than send flowers and wait for someone closer at hand to make a judgement call.

Anyway, its looking like things are getting bad, so I started to browse flights last night with the aim of seeing how feasible it would be to go home for a few days before the quarter starts. And that’s what generated my immense shock at the discovery that taxes on flights have gone up an astronomical amount in the last few months. In some cases, the taxes were triple the cost of the flight! A non-last minute flight, even, is looking at being around $200-300 for the flight and $400-500 in tax on top of that. (And before anyone dares say to me that its not that much in pounds, I get paid in dollars. $800 is nearly two months rent, and over half of my termly wages for a graduate student teaching job.)

Partly the reason it seems so bizarre is the intensely annoying policy of not listing the tax as part of the cost. Something that, incidentally, makes budget shopping for anything in the US difficult if you are not particularly maths savy. On all purchases the price on the ticket is without tax, so its always more when you get to the till. Three years later and I still can’t make accurate guesses about how much the tax will be and so still get surprised at the till each time. Very annoying, especially if you are trying to stick to a budget. The only advantage I can see is that at least it makes it more obvious how much of the cost is, actually, tax.

Jim’s joke about my comment on the rise in tax on facebook was that it was socialism. Sadly I think that it probably is not. Tax is a sore point for me. On top of the normally high taxes here in the US, I get the ‘you’re a dirty foreigner tax’, which means that all my stipend and wage cheques in the US are taxed by a third. A third of my already below the poverty line income goes on taxes. And for that I get no health care, no decent public transport, if I had kids they would be in disgracefully bad schools and still have to pay for university, no free public cultural institutions… and so on. I do get a to help pay for a war though. And as a dirty foreigner, of course, I have taxation without representation because I can’t vote. Unlike in the UK, where you don’t pay tax until you reach a (admittedly very low) level of income, and students don’t pay tax at all other than NI, here its the rich who get out of paying taxes.

So yeah. While I’m in favour of taxes, I’m also in favour of them being fairly applied and spent on something other than a war. Each time I look at my pay cheque and my health insurance bill I get quiet bitter about the fact that this is not the case. Taxes alone do not make socialism.

But then back to airfares, because I’ve often heard the argument that I ought to be boycotting air travel because its damaging to the environment and a luxury. No doubt many argue that higher prices will serve as a deterrent and stop people flying so much. Well I disagree. Higher prices when there is no viable alternative will not make people stop travelling, it will just make it harder for poorer people to travel, and generate bigger profits for those in the loop. Travel should not be a luxury, in the same way that communication with the rest of the world (internet, telephones, mail services that work and so on) should not be a luxury. Luddite laments that life was grand when we all lived in our place and thought people from the next town were foreigners are something I will never have much sympathy with. Then again, the howls of derisive laughter over statistics that show Americans hardly ever travel outside their country are rarely balanced by approval that they are saving the environment either.

Air travel should be regulated, because its a disastrous and wasteful mess. But the answer is neither to make it more expensive nor to call for it to be boycotted altogether. I would rather see the moral outrage channelled into generating alternatives that don’t mean we all have to sit in our own backyard the rest of our lives, trapped in the jobs, lives and socio-cultural circumstances that fate happens to have thrown our way.

So lets think of alternatives instead. For a start, everyone who has ever had to do it knows that short distance air travel is ridiculous. It takes hours longer than advertised (a half hour flight involves at least 3 hours in waiting, delays and ‘security’), is – like all air travel – hideously uncomfortable and intrusive, and could easily be replaced by a more convenient, cost effective and environmentally sound alternative. If some of those taxes were being spend on developing train systems that made it actually possible to travel across the US by any other means than plane or car, then that would be a viable alternative.

Air travel is hopelessly inconvenient, stressful, and disorganised. It needs to be better organised and run for the purposes of allowing people to move around rather than for making profits. But there we run into that same old problem again, the one that begins with a big ol’ capital C. And we won’t get any closed to S for socialism through boycotts and taxes.

When asked by a judge at the beauty contest to name the person she would most like to meet, Camille replies, “I would meet Einstein because he never washed his hair, and nobody ever listened to him when he talked about a lot of important things that the military could have used in the United States.”

From a review in the NY Times of the otherwise uninspiring sounding “Queen Bees” reality TV show

The latest edition of Adbusters has an article on hipsters which has generated a bit of a punch up in the world of blogs. The article itself is, unfortunately, drawing comparisons to the Dan Ashcroft character in Nathan Barley, though probably rightly so.

(I was urged to see Nathan Barley by a friend of mine, but couldn’t get into it beyond a few episodes. Perhaps momus is right in that it only appeals to those who are its satirical targets. But then I’m not entirely sure, because I’m getting lost in the meta – if the show is about satirising people who criticise a subculture based on ironic satire, by revealing that they themselves are part of the world they are criticising, would the satirical targets of the show be the subculture or the critics? Anyway. I found the whole thing kind of boring.)

As VoYou has pointed out, Adbusters is itself riddled with contradictions.

(An aside for another post: would Adbusters appear a little less hypocritical if it was based on the internet rather than a glossy magazine designed to lie nicely on your coffee table? Would it appear to be based less in consuming anti-consumerism if you could not consume it in public, but instead only within the privacy of your laptop? I’m wondering if there is something less public about consumption on the internet than in the ‘real world’, that takes away from the performativity so inherent to consumptive practice. Or is there, perhaps, an internet equivalent of the performativity of flipping through a copy of Adbusters in your local coffee shop, nonchalantly adding it to your shopping cart along with the latest Chomsky, or leaving the back issues casually strewn on the sofa when your friends come round? Perhaps adding it as a link to your blog would fulfil the same function in the internet world.)

And those contradictions can’t help but bring on the Dan Ashcroft critiques. But that’s the problem with hipsters. You can’t criticise them because they are so, like, ironic?, right, that any assault can be counter-played with the well, dur, you’re just too uncool and jealous, and you don’t, like, get it. Coz you’re boring. Its like being back in school again.

Luckily, most of us who had to deal with the scorn of the cool kids at school grew up to discover that, a decade later, the cool kids are all still living in the same town they grew up in, and are stuck in dead-end jobs and unhappy marriages. While the geeks, freeks and losers went on to become interesting people who conquered the world.

(I saw Bowling for Colombine last week for the first time. It amused me a lot that the guy who created South Park said exactly the same thing.)

Painfully cool people tend to be painfully dull conformists. But aside from this, K-punk is spot on with his point that there is indeed something more pitiful and pathetic about hipsters than other groups that have come and gone. Its the whiny lament of rich white middle class kids from the suburbs, who think they have a grievance with the world because Momma wouldn’t give them a bigger allowance.

But I’m afraid all my attempts to try and rationalise my intense dislike of hipsters tend to descend into diabolical cursing about their stupid haircuts, pretentious posing, and the fact its impossible to find anything other than shops selling hand knitted iPod warmers in my neighbourhood any more.

When I started my field work a few months ago, a good friend of mine told me that during her year of field work she had read more novels than in any other point in her life. Hardly what they tell you in Ethnographic Methods 101, but several other veteran ethnographers I know agreed: when you do field work you have a lot of time on your hands. Unlike the rest of their graduate school experience, where most of them don’t do anything other than study for 10 years straight, the one or two years in the field stand out in the stories I was told as extravaganzas of fiction consumption and loafing about.

Well they all did it a few years ago without the joys of laptop computers and a thriving black market in DVDs. I’ve read a hell of a lot of novels in the last few months, but I’ve also watched an almost astonishing amount of DVDs. (And perhaps only people who know how many movies I watch back home in Chicago already can appreciate what that means.) Although I usually pride myself on keeping up with my movie and novel consumption back in the US, the last few months I have indeed found myself on several occasions with more time on my hands than I know what to do with. A few days ago I even starting doing some sketching again – something I used to do regularly and haven’t had time/energy to do even once in the last three years.

As lovely as it is to catch up on all these lost past times, I quiet like being as busy as I usually am. Reading a hundred novels because you have nothing else to do is fine if you never usually do, but not if you’re lying there thinking of all the other things you’d like to be doing instead. The problem is, that reading novels about the exciting lives of other people is all there is to do, because there really isn’t that much else to occupy you at the end of the day when you’ve already pestered your ‘informants’ as much as you can, and you’re living in a little town in the middle of the nowhere. When I go home to the US in a few weeks and reflect on my time in the field, one of the things I will take with me is a profound reassurance of my long held suspicion that living in the countryside sucks. Its hell!

While holding a good relativist position that my opinion is only that, my opinion, and not something that I would expect other people to share – I still think that I would rather like in a mental intuition than have to live in the country side longer than a few months. That great expanse of nothingness… What else is there to do of a night, other than curl up in bed with a novel/movie and be fast asleep by 9? (Well, those are the healthy options… The high rates of teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and drug taking in rural places only supports my argument here I would guess.)

In recent weeks I’ve found myself reduced to a state of paralysing ennui. I know there are things I could be doing with my time and work I should be getting on with, but something about the quiet and the dullness of a small town just takes all the life out of me. I end up counting the hours till I can go to bed, weighing up the time I can kill be walking to the plaza and buying something – even just a bag of bread – from one of the tiny shops there. At home when I feel restless of an evening I go for long walks through the city, not really caring what direction I’m going but just walking up and down endless streets trying to become lost. I watch the people hurrying past, look in brightly lit windows and imagine the lives inside, hunt out odd architecture or compare how two once identical houses have changed, discover new corners of the neighbourhood I never knew existed – hidden graffiti, gradual changes, strange buildings. I find I can sometimes just walk for hours as it soothes my mood – I always feel reluctant to return home no matter how exhausted I’ve made myself. Feeling all that life around me makes me feel better somehow.

In the small town I can walk as far as the plaza, or maybe down one of the country roads, and all I see are fields. Its so hideously depressing to me that I have begun to invent elaborate timetables and excuses in order to take the 2 hour bus journey back to the city at night. And I don’t think there is anything different between this small town in Bolivia and any other small town or village anywhere else in any part of the world. I’ve got the same chilly feeling of fear on road trips in the US, or during my childhood summers in rural France. My long held aversion to “market towns” in the UK springs from the same sense of doom and foreboding of being trapped in one of these places. I particularly think of a road trip I took with two good friends from Chicago to Virginia last summer, where we drove through an endless landscape where only a single house would stand out against the great expanse of fields. At one point we got utterly lost in a tiny suburban hole, going endlessly round and round the same narrow streets, past the same isolated houses, giggling uncontrollably in our fear of never being able to find the highway that would take us out of that dump again.

I’m sure there are people who love the countryside, and I’m glad they exist because it means I don’t have to. But I wonder how all the romantic glorification of the countryside may make it harder for people born there who like me can’t wait to leave. I remember reading back in school a piece about the industrial revolution that, while acknowledging all the evils it brought, pointed out that it allowed a lot of young people (and particularly young women) from rural backgrounds to leave their families and the rural towns they would otherwise have had no choice but to live in all their lives. While agreeing that conditions were usually very hard, it suggested that some people may have been drawn to urban life and the possibility of not only having a small disposable income of their own (rather than their families) but things other than the local Sunday market and the occasional visiting circus to spend it on. Now I realise there are a whole gamut of problems with this argument, but whenever I hear people lamenting the flight from traditional rural villages to cities – no matter how grim and slum-like they are – a little bit of me can understand the attraction that pulls young people away.

I’m prepared to be slaughtered for suggesting this – as I have in arguments with others before hand on the same topic. But why is it that the countryside is always presented as this idyllic paradise?

And in case you didn’t get the reference in the title: one of my favourite novels that I should really have brought with me this summer is, of course, Cold Comfort Farm.

From a discussion of sexism in Australia…

Then there was the men’s magazine Zoo Weekly, which ran a competition inviting men to send in pictures of their girlfriend’s cleavage, to win them a $10,000 (£4,500) boob job. Following an outcry, the magazine’s editor announced that they were running a new competition, this time to find “Australia’s sexiest feminist”, a contest that was also known as the search “for the hottest girl in sensible shoes”. “If you hate men, we want to see photos of you in sexy lingerie,” read the competition ad.

I’ve been told on a couple of occasions by anthropologist friends who work in Chile that I should avoid mentioning the fact that I’m at the University of Chicago when I’m doing field work there. So its with some interest that I’ve been catching up on the latest saga in my home turf. After the last year of protests, meetings and mud slinging over the under funding of graduate students in the Humanities and Social Sciences, we were all rather dismayed to discover that although the good ol’ powers that be can’t afford to give us health care, they can afford to build a whopping great big new centre for the economists. Because those guys are in such a precarious position they need a little extra cash.

Aside from being pissed off at the unfairness of it, though, there are some more fundamental objections to the new centre. There are other departments at the UoC that have great reputations, but all of us carry this collective milestone round our neck that threatens to disrupt and discredit us at any moment: the reputation of the Chicago School of Economics. That the new centre will be actively continuing the work, as well as baring the name, of Milton Friedman has been a bit of a kick in the teeth. Having seen the new president, Robert Zimmer, slip and slide his way through the “negotiations” with the graduate students, however, I suspect he will be equally dismissive and arrogant on this issue. Anyway, there is a lot of info about it here, and a petition doing the rounds which I am coping below.

Chances that this will all be sorted before I start my field work in Chile? Low.

Chances I will be pretending I’m a student at UIC? I’d say they’re pretty high.

For one or more of the following reasons, we, the undersigned, oppose establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute (MFI) in the form that has been proposed (To sign, please go to http://www.stat.uchicago.edu/~amit/MFI/).

1. The scale of the University’s investment in the MFI seems disproportionate to other endeavors in the Social Sciences and Humanities. This is not a center like any other, but threatens to be a flagship that will define the way our University is perceived by the public at large. It is not credible to claim that the MFI bears Mr. Friedman’s name only in recognition of his technical accomplishments as an economist.[1] Rather, it will be widely understood that his political positions are also being celebrated and contributors will expect the MFI to champion, advance, and refine them.

2. In May 2007, the President appointed an ad hoc committee with the broad charge of creating “a major new institute at the University on economics and society.”[2] However, the committee, five of whose seven members teach in the economics department, proposed instead an institute whose stated goal is to provide vast resources to the economics department to improve its competitive position relative to its rivals in the field.[3] The committee’s report ignores approaches to the interdisciplinary theme of “economics and society” that originate in disciplines other than economics or that diverge from the particular approaches of the Chicago School. We welcome the President’s initial interdisciplinary vision, but want it realized in its full breadth.

3. We know of no other unit of the University whose research findings are as predetermined as this one’s apparently are, given the MFI’s stated intention to follow Friedman’s lead in advocating market solutions to policy questions, while regarding the state, NGOs, and all non-market actors with distinct suspicion.[4] Presumably then, to take one example, the question of whether to privatize Social Security would be moot; the only reasonable question is how.

4. The proposal ignores the many critiques of Friedman’s views that have been offered and the problems, including state terror, crony capitalism, declining life expectancy, food shortages, etc., that have arisen where he and his disciples implemented those views (Chile, Argentina, the post-Soviet republics, e.g.). We acknowledge that Friedman’s ideas have been influential, but are uneasy at the prospect of their constituting a new orthodoxy that will define the Institute for years to come. Ongoing critical interrogation of all theories ought be an essential part of this, like any other part of the University.

5. The level of donor/corporate control over this Institute seems unprecedented in University history or policy. It has been announced that donors of $1 million or more will become lifetime members of the Milton Friedman Society, “a highly selective group of contributors who will have special access to the people and work of the Institute.”[5] Establishment of a club where the wealthy gain privileged academic participation does not strike us as consistent with the principles of this, or of any self-respecting University.

6. Such arrangements also suggest increased privatization of the University and the cultivation of a symbiosis between scholars whose theories produce profits for a set of donors who then reinvest in those theories. This seems to us less a “free market of ideas,” than a cartel designed to promote certain academic products at the expense of others that might be intellectually — or morally — superior, but promise less return on investment. The analogy of research sponsored by drug and tobacco companies is not exact, but is too close for comfort.

7. The proposal makes clear that the MFI will engage issues of policy and not limit itself to matters of academic theory.[6] We are troubled by the prospect that it could come to play a role similar to that of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, or think tanks that lack the legitimating imprimatur of great universities.

8. Among the more worrisome details embedded in the proposal is the idea that beyond providing funds for visiting faculty, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate fellows, the MFI will also use its assets to recruit and mentor undergraduates.[7] Given other aspects of the MFI’s mission and profile, we are alarmed at the possibility of selection on ideological grounds and the cultivation of activist cadres, trained at Chicago and networked via the Milton Friedman Society.

Given the serious nature of these concerns, we welcome President Zimmer’s decision to convene the University Senate this fall as a venue for open debate on plans for the MFI. We intend to raise these issues in principled fashion and to propose substantial changes, as we passionately hope — for the University’s sake — that the MFI does not come into being as it is currently envisioned.

[1] Consider the following thought experiment. Would the Economics Department or the University imagine it could raise $200 million by founding a George Stigler Institute? George Stigler was a long-time colleague of Friedman’s in the Economics Department, was also an unambiguous supporter of pure laissez-faire economics and, like Friedman, was a truly distinguished scholar who won a Nobel Prize. But because he limited his publications to scholarly venues, rather than supplementing his scholarship with a free-market ideological crusade, his name would have considerably less value. The additional value of the Friedman name derives from his role as public champion of the free-market doctrines whose adoption in the United States and elsewhere has vastly increased the earnings of the very wealthy. Presumably, it is the latter who will be the prime contributors to (and investors in) the MFI.
[2] A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” submitted by the ad hoc Committee chaired by Lars Peter Hansen, p. 1, available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/pdf/mfi.final.pdf.
[3] Ibid., see esp. pp. 3-4.
[4] Ibid., p. 2: “Following Friedman’s lead, the design and evaluation of economic policy requires analyses that respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services. As Friedman and others continually demonstrated, design of public policy without regard to market alternatives has adverse social consequences. The intellectual focus of the institute would reflect the traditions of the Chicago School and typify some of Milton Friedman’s most interesting academic work, including… his advocacy for market alternatives to ill conceived policy initiatives.”
[5] “Milton Friedman Society,” available at http://mfi.uchicago.edu/society.shtml. What kinds of access and influence members will have is not made explicit, but those schooled on Friedman’s dictum “There is no free lunch” may be expected to anticipate some commensurate return on their money.
[6] The concern for “policy” appears on every page of the proposal, as in the programmatic recommendation “to create one of the world’s most vital and visible institutes for economic research and policy analysis and evaluation” (“A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 1, emphasis added).
[7] “A Proposal to Establish the Milton Friedman Institute,” p. 7.

the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile

Farming in the desert: the subsistence-based economy of the Tarapaca valley in the North of Chile