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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

It must be decades since I saw a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon which depicted “tribal”-looking people (bones through noses and so forth) scrambling to hide electrical appliances, while through the window of their hut two lumbering figures in safari gear approach. The text was: “Anthropologists Anthropologists!”

That single frame of genius stayed with me, and I’ve seen it repeated again and again in Trinidad. The natives love putting on a show for the anthropologists, and many anthropologists come expecting the golden oldies, the equivalent of bones through the nose (it not actual bones in noses), grass skirts, and quaint customs. (These include the most ingenious invention in the history of the world, the steelpan; and the wonderful authenticity of jouvay and mud mas’—that sort of thing.)

By far the most prolific anthropologist to visit here, Daniel Miller, has written perceptive and insightful books and articles about Trinidad. From his studies of the Internet, Facebook, modernity and Trini consumption of American soap operas in the 1980s, Miller’s work has shown locals things they otherwise wouldn’t have seen if they had to depend on local academic production.

The same is true of Ivar Oxaal (Black Intellectuals Come to Power), Peter van Koningsbruggen (Trinidad Carnival: A Quest for National Identity), and Steven Vertovec (Hindu Trinidad), among others. But sometimes things go wrong. Foreign academic/journalistic visitors come and are “captured” by various groups competing for their attention. It’s quite deliberate: the visitor is taken to approved places, shown approved sights, and hears approved conversations and opinions, which he/she often reproduces as fact. Arthur Calder-Marshall in his Glory Dead, about a sojourn here after the 1937 labour riots, describes much the same thing.

The locals have their reasons: the capturing group wants their story to be exported so when it appears in foreign books and magazines, they use those publications to validate their politics locally. It’s unnerving to read an “anonymous” reviewer’s report which ignores solid archival evidence and directs you to someone’s book (at least parts of) which they dictated. I could name names, but not today.

Such capture was the experience of US anthropologist David McDermott Hodges, whose book, Oil Without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change and Complicity, about Trinidad’s ambivalence to climate change, was published this year. (A review should be published in today’s Guardian.) The book is worth a read for those who read. Hodges has a good point, and he argues it with passion. He sees and ingests enough of the local landscape and history for an understanding adequate for his task. The book is contestable, but can’t be dismissed.

What I find most interesting about the whole project is how it features the worldview of the Trinidadian group by which McDermott was captured—the St Ann’s-Cascade, uhm, tribe—as national. While his primary research (on the oil industry) took Hodges out of their grasp, his apprehension of the society was shaped to an astonishing degree by them.

These are the black/brown Creole middle class who believe the island and its culture are theirs to describe and deploy. They surf—a necessity of grassroots activity. They think Earl Lovelace is the national writer and The Dragon Can’t Dance is the national novel. They’re still angry about Naipaul and The Middle Passage. They think Eric Williams was great and was the president. They see Indians much as Lovelace sees the in Dragon—pesky, distant, and of little importance. They think Naipaul was a “teenage novelist” who “moved to England in 1950,” not a national scholarship winner who went to Oxford.

Much of this is reproduced in Hodges’ book. But some details come out unconsciously, like his description of a member of that group at Carnival time: “dancing with herself, with her body, blissed out and oblivious to the world.” (Which describes the tribe outside of Carnival too.)

At any rate, this is a great example of what can go wrong with anthropology. The local political dangers of representing one group’s views as universal are obvious. Not so obvious is the danger of exporting these narratives. Anthropologists are not the only targets. Foreign missions, journalists and international agencies are also susceptible, and they can shape policy decisions far out of scale with the informants’ integrity.

Another interesting consequence of this deliberate distortion can be found in Hodges’ pre-existent ideas about Trinidad. He makes no pretense at detachment or disinterest. He came here with a question and answer already framed. His first contacts (as they’d call them in Star Trek) confirmed his pre-existing biases brilliantly—these were not very smart people, and needed to be spoken down to. And he proceeded to do just that. Nothing he saw changed his mind, but no one tried.

A question does arise: are there any local anthropologists? Yes. My pal Gab Hosein, who writes in these pages on Fridays, is an anthropologist. She publishes on gender and is all over the activism map. I understand UWI employs other anthropologists, but haven’t seen actual evidence.

Evidence would be things like original studies of local reality outside of Carnival and slavery. From Patrick Hosein’s professorial lecture (see last week’s column), local academics seem to be good at getting in the way of people who want to do original research. I wonder if any of these scholars is capable of even framing questions like Hodges’: clearly the nation’s deep dependence on oil has blinded its population to its moral consequences. What does that say about local morality? In this case, the foreign anthropologist gets the last laugh. Morality is a first world thing, apparently.


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