Brian Hochman. Savage Preservation: The Ethnographic Origins of Modern Media Technology. 312pp., 18 b&w photos, 12 color plates, notes, bibl., index. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. $82.50 (cloth), $27.50 (paper)
The turn-of-the-century idea of salvage ethnography—that indigenous cultures were doomed to disappear in the face of modernization, and therefore were in desperate need of permanent, objective preservation—played an important part in the development of modern media and technology in ways that were directly pertinent to race. This is the main contention proposed by Brian Hochman in his book Savage Preservation, where he argues that we should not only think of media as shaping modern understandings of race, but that notions of race were fundamental in how new media were employed in the early twentieth century. Continue reading
Thomas Karl Alberts. Shamanism, Discourse, Modernity. 286 pp., refs., index. New York: Routledge, 2016. $122 (hardback), $54.95 (e-book). First published 2015 by Ashgate.
Alberts, of Cape Town, South Africa, chooses “shamanism” to be the linchpin of a detailed history of an anthropological trope increasingly popular and politically engaged. Because “shamanism” is universalized as a component of “the primitive,” its usage closely followed the development of anthropology within imperial regimes, and its current proliferation ties in with indigenous rights and environmental projects. Alberts goes farther, citing Foucault at numerous points about modernity’s universalizing epistemologies versus its acknowledgements of contingencies. The term “modernity” seems to refer to an Enlightenment search for new knowledge as the means of establishing universal types and laws, forever pushed on by contingent particulars brought up to critique these projections (14-15). The strength and value of this book is in its critiques, packed with historic and contemporary detail.
Carolyne R. Larson. Our Indigenous Ancestors: A Cultural History of Museums, Science, and Identity in Argentina, 1877-1943. 232 pp., 29 illus., notes, bibl., index. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015.
Argentina, more than almost any other Latin American country, has been associated with a white, criollo identity. The longstanding scholarly narrative held that the formation of this identity relied on strategic erasures of the presence of indigenous and African-descended peoples from the nation’s history, a project that crystallized in the late nineteenth century during a surge in European immigration. More recently, scholars and intellectuals such as Monica Quijada have pointed to the presence of indigenous peoples in nineteenth-century literary texts or museum practices, adding complexity to the narrative of erasure and opening space for historians to explore the multivalent roles of African-descended and indigenous peoples in Argentinian nation formation after independence from Spain in 1818.
Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography. xi+249 pp., illus., notes, bibl., index. London: Pluto Press, 2015. $99 (cloth), $35 (paper)
Fredrik Barth was a creative and outspoken theorist, an indefatigable fieldworker and world traveler, and he was fortunate in his biographer. Thomas Hylland Eriksen is not only obviously devoted to Barth, but he is also thorough, comprehensive, fair—pointing out problems and occasional failings of his subject—and not too much over the top in his admiration. Above all he does an excellent job presenting and explaining Fredrik Barth’s many works and his innovative methodological and theoretical positions as well as contextualizing his work in the anthropology of his time.
Fernando Vidal and Nélia Dias (Editors). Endangerment, Biodiversity and Culture. 264pp., 11 b/w illus., index. London: Routledge, 2016. $163 (hardback), $52.95 (paperback), $52.95 (eBook)
In Endangerment, Biodiversity and Culture, editors Fernando Vidal and Nélia Dias bring together scholarship on what they compellingly label the “endangerment sensibility”: that is, “a complex of knowledge, values, affects and interests characterized by a particularly acute perception that some organisms and things are ‘under threat,’ and by a purposeful responsiveness to such a predicament” (2). The volume features nine contributions split equally into three sections. These sections consider: the affects, values, and science that are interwoven in this sensibility (Part I); the situated politics of endangerment discourses and practices (Part II); and technologies of preservation, which help constitute endangerment and have ontological consequences for the entities they aim to preserve (Part III).
Regna Darnell and Frederic W. Gleach (Editors). Local Knowledge, Global Stage. Histories of Anthropology Annual Series 10. 354pp., 25 illus. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. $40 (paper)
As a historian writing about late-nineteenth century anthropology who is also interested in contemporary anthropology, I learned a lot from this book. The tenth in the series Histories of Anthropology Annual, this volume is in conversation with the work of two influential, and recently deceased, historians: George Stocking and Henrika Kuklick. Yet this collection of essays, like its predecessors in the series, locates itself more in the field than the archive. The editors believe, rightly so, that what emerges from fieldwork can inform us about larger issues of knowledge production. But history also has a role to play. Good work calls for methods “transcending the customary distinction of past, present, and future and replacing the static repetition of events, dates, and feats of great men (sic) representing the story from the standpoint of the victors with a more nuanced collation of histories in the plural” (xiii).
Chip Colwell. Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture. 336pp., 10 halftones, notes, index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. $30 (cloth), $18 (e-book)
During highway construction, twenty-eight sets of human remains are found. Twenty-six of the bodies are reburied in a nearby cemetery but two skeletons, a woman and her baby, are not—instead, they are given over to the state archaeologist. What accounts for the difference? Is it that the skeletons of twenty-six white people are not interesting to archaeological study? Or is it that the thought of reburying Native American remains when they could be studied is somehow a violation of our dedication to knowledge of the past?
Han F. Vermeulen. Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. 746pp., illus., notes, refs. cited, index. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. $75 (hardcover)
You will not find much curiosity among the Norse settlers in Greenland to observe, describe, and understand the clothing, tools, rituals, and legends of the skraelings. This derogatory term for the Greenlandic Inuit practically bracketed curiosity, signaled that there was nothing there to learn at all, but only a people to be feared and, one hoped, defeated. This has been the default stance toward other peoples, particularly peoples at an apparently lower stage of social and technical development, throughout most of human history, with classic works such as Tacitus’s Germania, in which the northern heathen tribes are described in some detail, standing more as an exception than a rule.
Marc Flandreau. Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science. 421pp., 12 halftones, notes, sources, works cited, index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. $105 (cloth), $35 (paper), $10-35 (e-book options)
Note: This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement (no. 5943, 24 February 2017, pp. 9-10) with the title “The Cannibal Club: How Victorian Anthropologists Tried to Defraud the Financial Markets” and is reprinted with permission of TLS and the author.
When the American railway engineer George Earl Church visited La Paz in 1868, it was to lay the groundwork for a grandiose scheme to build a railway through Bolivia’s rainforested border with Brazil, allowing its natural resources to be exported via the Amazon River. After several more stops, Church was in London where he got himself elected to the Royal Geographical Society, lending a sheen of scientific credibility to what was in fact a financial scam. No railway was built, but the scheme was a marvel of financial engineering. After Church signed the loan contract in Bolivia’s name, bonds to fund the loan were sold to English investors. These bonds traded on the London Stock Exchange.
Audra Simpson. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. 280pp., 4 illus., app., notes, refs., index. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. $89.95 (cloth), $24.95 (paperback)
Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of the Settler States (2014) explores the complexities of Mohawk sovereignty along the U.S.-Canadian border offering critical insights into the fraught past and present relationships between Indigenous and settler societies. Focusing on Kahnawà:ke, a Mohawk Indian reserve located in present-day Canada with ties to the Iroquois Confederacy whose territories interrupt the current settler-colonial nation-state border, Simpson begins her inquiry with three interdigitating claims that reemerge throughout the book. First, Simpson challenges readers to see that a sovereign entity can exist within another (10). This “nested” conception of sovereignty compels us to recognize that when Indigenous political orders prevail in the present, they do so, seemingly paradoxically, “within and apart from settler governance” (11). Second, Simpson offers a critique of the dominant and narrow politics of recognition that confines Indigenous peoples and their rights to essentialized and discernable forms of cultural difference (11, 20). Throughout the book, we see cases in which Mohawk peoples “refuse” this paradigm and the inherent power asymmetries that it works to reproduce and naturalize.