Interview with Sherry Ortner

The ethnographic nook is a series of interviews with scholars who participated in a recent, NET-organised workshop entitled “Fakery, Insincerity, and the Anthropology of Humbuggery.” The ethnographic nook is a space of conviviality and intimacy situated in the backroom of a undisclosed café which possibly does, or does not exist outside of the internet. It is furnished with worn yet beautifully-aged lacquered floors. It has comfortable, cocktail armchairs from the 50s – although patrons sometimes choose to sit on the rugged carpet and place their beverages on the Paulownia low-table in front of them. We invite scholars to sit down and talk to us about what makes them tick in their work and everyday life. We talk about a variety of topics such as what they are reading, their writing habits, they opinions about current affairs, and of course ethnography.

See our previous interviews, with Susan Blum, and Sasha Newell.

Our guest this week is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at UCLA, Sherry Ortner. Sherry’s celebrated career combines a variety of ethnographic themes, such as mountaineering, class, feminism, neoliberalism and film.


NET: Welcome to the nook Sherry.

SO: Thank you!  I’m glad to be “here.”

NET: I recall that in a 2014 interview you mention that “patriarchy is everywhere still and yet nobody is talking about it.” Do you think things have changed ever since? We are in the midst of Harvey Weinstein scandal which given your ethnographic work in filmmaking should be pertinent to you. But from your above statement I gather you meant that we should talk about patriarchy as a global condition of sorts, generative of the mundane, and not just specific events…

SO: Let me start by saying that I have been very encouraged from a political point of view by the unfolding of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that has happened since.  It is not just the cascading process of so many women coming forward.  It is the fact that the patriarchal chain of command, in this case, the media industry executives, are not supporting the harassers and abusers.  This is very important, because patriarchy is never just about individual predators, but a system that supports and protects and implicitly legitimates them.

I was also really quite thrilled by the Women’s March of January 2017.  I didn’t go because I had a cold, and also, I get somewhat claustrophobic in crowds. But I gazed in wonder at the photographs afterwards, those vast seas of pink hats, those women in every corner of the world (Paris! Duluth! Antarctica!), an estimated total participation, according to Wikipedia, of 5 million people. So it does seem like feminism as a movement may be getting into gear again, in unanticipated ways.

Of course we need to be cautious about making predictions. I remember having a conversation with Hildred Geertz in the 1970s, in the midst of the counterculture movement and the New Left movement and the Black Power movement, and I said Hillie, the genie is out of the bottle, nothing will ever be the same.  And Hillie kind of waved her hand and said, nah, it’s all going to go back to the status quo.  And there have been too many times in the intervening years when I remembered that conversation and felt she was right.  So it all does go back and forth.  But hopefully it is two steps forward and one step back, rather than the other way around.

And then there is the question of how all this links up to feminist scholarship, especially in anthropology.  For my own work, I have found myself re-motivated by all this to return to the issue of patriarchy, and try to think about it in new ways, especially in its relationship to capitalism and race.  The paper I wrote for the HAU fakery conference, on the Bernie Madoff scandal, is one recent effort to explore the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism.

NET: For some years now you focused your attention to certain interconnected themes – and more specifically how independent filmmaking in the US becomes embedded in contemporary politics of neoliberalism and social activism. What drew you to these topics and this particular ethnographic milieu?

15815549SO: I got into the independent film scene as an ethnographic object in a somewhat roundabout way.  I wanted to study “Hollywood” as a site of the production of “American culture,” in some sense.  I spent a year tapping every contact I could possibly find to get access to people in the Hollywood studios, but to no avail.  However, in the course of that year, I met many people in the independent film world, who seemed to be much more open and receptive to the project.  Their openness was partly related to the fact that they were not inside the studios, which have become completely corporatized.  But it was also related to the fact that they were actually interested in the kinds of things I was interested in, which might be summarized by the word “reality.” Independent filmmakers and producers see themselves as making films about “the real” (albeit sometimes in a very extended sense), as opposed to Hollywood which they say is all about “fakery.”

But now to the connection between independent film and my interest in neoliberalism:  As I began immersing myself in independent films as part of the research, I was struck with how heavy they were – dark, depressing, full of emotional (more than physical) violence, and often very hard to watch.  There is very little comedy in independent film and almost no happy endings.  And at first I thought, what is this all about?  Why are we being given a picture of the world which is almost unrelieved misery, about the endless cruelties of life, about how almost nothing turns out well?  And the idea slowly crystallized in my mind that we were looking at films not “about” neoliberalism (although there are several good documentaries on the subject) but films that were coming out of what neoliberalism feels like subjectively, to people of a certain generation and class who happen to be in the business of making films.

NET: Your 2015 article in HAU “Dark anthropology and its others” has become an instant classic in anthropology. The article is of course a sort of sequel to another celebrated piece, “Theory in anthropology since the Sixties.” What was the trail of thought which led you to writing the given piece? Did you feel that it was a good time, or even that it was needed to make sense of the conceptual landscape in anthropology at this particular juncture of time?

SO: In a way it just came together on its own.  I had often been asked when/whether I was going to write a sequel to “Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties.”  But when I tried to actively imagine writing it, I never could see where it would go.  I could only write it when it was ready, as it were.  It’s like that famous line in the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked, that people don’t write myths, but myths write themselves in people’s minds.  Some of my papers are like that, including “Theory … Since the ‘60s” and “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture,” and then most recently “Dark Anthropology.”  They kind of write themselves first in my brain.  But I don’t want to get too mystical about this.  A lot of it has to do with teaching.  If I teach the same theory course year after year, but I keep fiddling with it over time to keep up with new literature, then eventually the changes in the course over time start to tell a story of changing theory in the field.

NET: Given your extensive research on the US indie film scene we feel obliged to ask: what are some of your favourite movies?!

SO: I think that’s harder than some of the more theoretical questions!  I watched over 600 movies in the course of the independent film project, and my taste in films changed over the course of the project.  I became very indie-fied, de-Hollywoodized.  I have little patience now for happy endings, for example, which now mostly seem to contrived, “fake.”   But I love documentaries very much, on almost any subject in the world.  That didn’t change; it only intensified.  I am reluctant to name any specific titles; there are so many great films out there, especially in the indie world.

NET: What does a usual writing day consist of for you? Do you have any habits or ‘rituals’ of sorts, which help you write?

SO: I don’t normally write at all during the teaching term, as my time is too broken up.  There was a famous story about Talcott Parsons, to the effect that he could stop writing in the middle of a word, get up and teach a seminar, and then go back to his typewriter and resume his train of thought.  That’s not me. I need long stretches of time in which to concentrate and maintain continuity.  When I do write, it is pretty intense.  I go into my study, close the door, turn off my email, metaphorically fasten my seatbelt, and think/write for about six hours a day if possible.  (After six hours my brain doesn’t function very well.) And when I’m in high writing mode like that, it also interferes with my sleep as I can’t completely turn off my brain. One of the many motivations for finishing a draft of a paper or chapter is so that I can stop thinking about it and get a good night’s sleep.

NET: Many thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule Sherry! Do you want to share anything else with us? Any thoughts or future projects ?

SO: I have various possible projects in mind, both ethnographic and film-based. But I’m reluctant to put anything on paper at this point as it’s all still pretty open-ended.  We shall see…




Interview with Sasha Newell

The ethnographic nook is a series of interviews with scholars who participated in a recent, NET-organised workshop entitled “Fakery, Insincerity, and the Anthropology of Humbuggery.” The ethnographic nook is a space of conviviality and intimacy situated in the backroom of a undisclosed café which possibly does, or does not exist outside of the internet. It is furnished with worn yet beautifully-aged lacquered floors. It has comfortable, cocktail armchairs from the 50s – although patrons sometimes choose to sit on the rugged carpet and place their beverages on the Paulownia low-table in front of them. We invite scholars to sit down and talk to us about what makes them tick in their work and everyday life. We talk about a variety of topics such as what they are reading, their writing habits, they opinions about current affairs, and of course ethnography.


Our guest this week is Anthropology Associate Professor at Laboratoire d’anthropologie des mondes contemporains at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Sasha Newell. He is the author of numerous publications exploring intersections of modernity, fakery and secrecy in Côte d’Ivoire, in including a monograph entitled The Modernity Bluff.

[NET]: Welcome to the nook Sasha. Skimming through the title of your work one can locate words such as “theft”, “bluff”, “hoarding”, “criminality” “sexual economy” and so on. All these indicate, at least to my mind, that your work focuses on the ‘dark’ dimensions of human sociality. How did this come to be: were such elements of the evident during fieldwork, or is this also a theoretical stance of yours aimed at ethnographic themes which are, arguable, underdeveloped in anthropology?

[SN]: Thank you for having me, Theo. What a charming locale for our interview! I certainly did not set out to investigate the dark side of human sociality, though I confess to being fascinated by witchcraft from early on in my undergraduate education. I will point out that as much as I explore the obscured, hidden, and masked in my research, I have been equally drawn to display and the spectacular (though as we know from the art of magical illusion, that which draws the eye often serves the purpose of hiding something else). In any case, I went to Côte d’Ivoire primarily to study style and postcolonial identity, within necessarily expecting to be investigating crime, cons, or bluffs. I’m from a small town of 350 inhabitants in Vermont, so I am basically a gaou (country bumpkin, sucker, mark, ignorant) by the standards of the Abidjanais I worked with, even if my origin in the U.S. gave automatic yere status (cool, savvy, capable of tricking or conning, streetwise, modern). I was quickly schooled in how to defend myself from everyday acts of deception which make up part of the fabric of sociality in Abidjan. I wouldn’t want to imply that everybody in Abidjan is dishonest, but rather that widespread economic desperation combined with a creative survivalist ethos make it very difficult for anyone to live there without navigating a daily barrage of scams, schemes, and exploitative entanglements. I suppose these are characteristics of many places. But I will say that there was a generalized anxiety about even the most intimate of relationships just under the surface of things – after all, the most likely people to bewitch you in this region are your own kin.

[NET]: Did your prolonged exposure in milieus of fakery, fraud and deception in Côte d’Ivoire reconfigure your personal stance regarding such traits of humanity? Do your view and understand deceit differently in your everyday life and outside your field site?

[SN]: I would have to say that yes, it did. Aside from the fieldwork I did in Paris just before arriving in Côte d’Ivoire, I had mostly lived within small social circles where it is much easier to maintain the illusion of transparency and honesty in social relations. As dramatized in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, small towns are rife with open secrecy, but people work collectively to keep up appearances and deceive themselves about their honesty. Anonymity allows deception to come to the surface more readily. I had only had dalliances with urban life in which identity must be continuously performed to relative strangers, providing opportunities for more profitable forms of deception and secrecy. Coupé-Decalé, the most popular genre of music in Côte d’Ivoire, means something like “scam and scram,” indicating the popularity of criminality even amongst those who only experience it vicariously.

[NET]: Do you like gambling?

[SN:] I like all forms of games, especially board games, which are miniature worlds where you can watch structure and event crash into each other. I guess I enjoy taking false risks, where, as in Geertz’s cock fight analysis, everything appears to be at stake, but in reality little is changed by the outcome. So I enjoy gambling, but I’ve never felt comfortable losing money for fun, which is what happens most of the time. Otherwise the aesthetics of roulette would be very alluring (see image from Baie des Anges by Jacques Demy). I do find poker fascinating, which is the only form of gambling I know of where skill (at deception) has a chance of outweighing the odds, such that good players can consistently come out ahead. But I am not very good at bluffing, so my poker experience has mostly been made up of friendly games with very low stakes, where $5-10 could keep you in for an entire evening.

[NET]: What are the broader implications of you work on modernity and bluffing? It seems to me that the quest for modernity is very much active even in “modern” societies, and that what we call modernity – and everything ‘bad’ which comes with it such as capitalism, neoliberalism, etc. – create worldwide conditions in which deceit and competition flourish. Not only that, it creates conditions of doubt and duplicity that people are not even sure that they deserve their title or position in this global system – as in the case of the so-called impostor syndrome in academia!

[SN]: In the conclusion of my book I argue that there may be a link between modernity and the obsession with fakery. This partly emerged out of my exploration of Ivoirian performativity and examples in which the distinction between the fake and the real seemed to be explicitly undermined, suggesting that the opposition may be variously shaped by cultural schemas. I linked the anxiety about authenticity to the emergence of the fashion cycle as a result of open markets of consumption in early phases of capitalism. I particularly like the work of historian Jean-Christophe Agnew on the parallel emergence of the market and the theater as in England in the Elizabethan period, where we see a change in the concept of performance from one in which the boundaries between performance and ritual, between histrionic fabrication and world-making were porous to one where theatrical performances are strictly bounded and removed from their audiences – precisely at the time that the market moves into the heart of the city. I link this to Simmel’s analysis of how imitation and differentiation become hooked to capitalist consumption and social hierarchy to suggest that the anxiety about authentic selves comes from a need to constantly bluff one’s way to success in capitalist societies. In the contemporary, this is endemic both to the financialization of the economy (as in Karen Ho’s work) where the depiction of success and growth is the most important part of achieving it and in interpersonal life, where consumption and self-mediatization remain crucial aspects of how we construct and interpret the person. In other words, the defining characteristic of modernity is its performance. We are all bluffeurs.

[NET]: What are your reading nowadays? Any ethnographers or novels?

[SN]: In the realm of fiction, I am reading (so seldom that my reading might be regarded as fictional) a novel by an old friend Bob Proehl called 100,000 Worlds about comic book conventions, and on my phone I’m taking intermittent stabs at Moby Dick, mostly to help me fall asleep. I recently finished and highly recommend I do not come to you by chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, which is a wonderful account of the Nigerian 419 world.

[SN]: In the world of ethnography, I just got Julie Soleil Archambault’s Mobile Secrets, which I started at the African Studies Association after finding the opening pages so spellbinding I couldn’t put it down. I’m also reading Achille Mbembe’s A Critique of Black Reason, though that is more philosophy than ethnography. And probably one of the more inspiring ethnographic pieces I’ve read this year is Jennifer Deger’s article “Thick Photography.”

[NET]: Thank you very much for your time Sasha! Is there anything else on your mind? Any other projects you are working on, or plans for the future?

[SN]: I continue to hoard material for my project on hoarding and storage in the U.S. I hope to release more of it into the world as soon as possible.

Interview with Susan Blum

The ethnographic nook is a new series of interviews with scholars who participated in a recent, NET-organised workshop entitled “Fakery, Insincerity, and the Anthropology of Humbuggery.” The ethnographic nook is a space of conviviality and intimacy, situated in the backroom of an undisclosed café which possibly does, or does not exist outside of the internet. It is furnished with worn yet beautifully-aged lacquered floors. It has comfortable, cocktail armchairs from the 50s – although patrons sometimes choose to sit on the rugged carpet and place their beverages on the Paulownia low-table in front of them. We invite scholars to sit down and talk to us about what makes them tick in their work and everyday life. We talk about what they are reading, their writing habits, opinions about current affairs, and of course ethnography.


Our guest this week is Susan Blum, professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. Susan’s rich corpus of ethnographic work in China focuses onaspects of alterity, deception and ethnicity, and how people construct and enact their identities in relation to those of others. Her latest work is a critical exploration of education and in the US and elsewhere, and focuses on dimensions pedagogy, learning (and its relationship to schooling), and authorship.

[NET]: Welcome to the nook Susan! Your book My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture is a fascinating exploration of cheating and plagiarism in US colleges. What made you interested in these particular topics? Do you understand cheating and plagiarism as something confined in college culture, or are these practices that can unveil more foundational dimensions of human behaviour?

[SB]: I was interested for a number of reasons. One was that I had previously studied truth and deception in China, and I was interested in the ideologies connected with following prescriptive rules about the referential nature of language, where some version of the truth conditions governed evaluation of utterances—despite a century of anthropological research on “phatic communion” and the last half-century of focus on pragmatics. In some sense I was interested in ideologies of “how to do things with words,” in different times and places.

One of the common human affordances of language is the possibility of lying, and our ability to predict others’ responses, or what is sometimes called Theory of Mind, means that we can easily deceive others. The rewards for cheating, deception, and lying are often great, and the punishment may or may not suffice to keep people on the straight-and-narrow path of truth telling. Human cheating, deception, conning, lying, and more are found in every society alongside prescriptions for honesty. The specific guidelines for who deserves what kind of truth and why always require fieldwork to uncover.

As a linguistic and cultural anthropologist, I am of course interested in authorship: Where do our words come from, and where do we think they come from?

6203491._UY400_SS400_It is a cliché from Bakhtin that “the word in language is half someone else’s.” In contemporary White Anglo-American middle-class society, we have a celebration of originality, of uniqueness. But it is also obvious, as for example when I type on my phone or iPad, that a lot of people have constructed sentences a lot like mine. I am scarcely original, most of the time. Yet not only are our words not our own entirely, we have this absolutist rule—impossible to follow—that we must give credit to anything we ourselves did not create, as an individual. I had come to suspect that students did not have quite the same strict ideas about tracing all influences of our utterances that govern academic notions of citation and “academic integrity”—ideas that actually vary considerably from field to field, even within academia and in the world of letters. But grown-up academics forget ever having learned this, and take it as natural and obvious.

The relationship between speaker and self similarly gives rise to longstanding interests of mine in the nature of the self and the person—whether in terms of ethnic identity in the context of an authoritarian nation-state or in terms of performing a certain version of selfhood for a certain perceived good—a high grade, in the case of school.

I also had come to want to understand my students better. All around me colleagues were either complaining about student writing and entitlement, or they were celebrating their stellar achievements. (I’m at a high-achiever-filled institution.) I wanted to see both what they were doing instead of re-writing their drafts, in terms of their preoccupations outside classes, and what they thought was happening in classes.

One of the biggest surprises to me, as someone who had always focused on the academic side of things, is how little I—not generalizing entirely to all college faculty—shared with my students—about their understanding of writing, authorship, the importance of reading, the goals of college, and the importance of a singular(-ish) sense ofself.

But I could understand them, once I got over judging and used my anthropological perspective. Isn’t that the classical outcome of ethnography? But in some ways it was even harder to accomplish in that I was living in my fieldsite, all the time, but carried with me judgments from another universe.

This led me on to my subsequent book, “I Love Learning; I Hate School”: An Anthropology of College, which sent me deeply into the anthropology of learning, which is really a classic anthropological topic, though it surfaced in the early days in terms of “socialization.” Language socialization and the linguistic anthropology of education were rich sources of my thinking, and I ventured once again, as I had in Lies That Bind, into studies beyond the human.

[NET]: It must also be said that the aforementioned book does not vilify plagiarism and cheating but rather problematises the disconnect which often exists between pedagogical structures and social dimensions of learning. As a professor and teacher yourself, do you go about doing things differently than what is ‘normally’ expected in a university classroom? Do you think that a teacher can address the concerns you have with college pedagogy through a particular style of teaching, or are we faced with a larger, structural problem?

[SB]: The problems are large and structural, and my deepest wish is that we completely overthrow the conventional types of schooling that have been naturalized over the last hundred and fifty years. Meanwhile—and there are many profound experiments being done at all levels of schooling from preschool to medical school, and at all different scales from a single exercise to entirely new movements such as unschooling or new colleges being created (I highly recommend Cathy N Davidson’s new The New Education)—in addition to writing about all this, I’ve experimented hugely in my own classes. I’ve revolutionized the ways I think of students, of “the material,” of what I want them to get out of it, how we do it, how it is assessed, and the student-teacher relationship. Doing this in the context of a conventional college where students arrive with standard expectations means I’ve had to become very explicit about what I’m doing and why.

One substantive shift for me has been to completely get rid of the idea that my job is to sort and rank and evaluate, and to focus on really creating conditions for every student to learn. For many, that requires some effort at identifying goals beyond just “it fulfills a requirement” or “it fits my schedule.” I also ask students to assess their own work, and I provide feedback. I just don’t do any grading of any assignment. I try to meet students where they are as best I can, and have lots of conversations with them. At the end of the semester we meet for a portfolio conference.

It is not as good as having the learning motivated by need, use, or passion—as we find IRL, outside schools—but it has helped me avoid a focus on what I call “the game of school”—something I thought I’d invented, but as is so often the case, something that must be in the air, because I’ve subsequently encountered others using the same phrase. Plagiarism? It’s what our early anthropological ancestors called “independent invention.”

[NET]: In your website you have a photo of Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society teaching while standing on his desk. Did you try something like that?

[SB]: I haven’t stood on the desk (yet), but I’ve sat on the floor and I’ve talked to my students facing away from them and we’ve turned off the lights and spoken in the dark and we’ve gone to a farm. Does that count?

But actually the thing about Robin Williams’s model is that he is still the charismatic center of the class. I prefer having my students’ learning occupy the central space. (I don’t say that only because I’m less charismatic than Williams, of blessed memory; the whole point of school is for the students to learn, not the teacher to teach.) The anthropology of learning does not only show teaching. Pedagogy is a particular invention. You can read Basil Bernstein on the “totally pedagogised society” (TPS) [1] that he critiques.

[NET]: Your book Lies that bind provides a nuances explana9780742554054tion of the importance of lying and deception in Chinese culture. With the rise of ‘fake news’, the need for people to develop a sixth sense of sorts, of whether something they read or hear is true seems more important than ever! Do you think the way ‘fake news’ circulate amid the global media zeitgeist and everyday conversations reconfigures our anthropological understanding of lying and deception? Should we, as anthropologists, or ordinary citizens, do anything about it??

[SB]: In both our roles we should do a lot!

This current era, beyond the “truthiness” of the 2000s and into the era of Trump lying 5.5 times a day, on average, according to The Washington Post, where people shout “fake news!” whenever they don’t like what the media report, where we have PolitiFact and and Snopes, and evaluations by numbers of Pinocchios, “pants on fire”—citing, quoting, invoking the English child’s rhyme “Liar, liar, pants on fire” of which most origin stories are lies—in this climate it is almost impossible to analyze quickly enough, when we are pulled in amazement each hour, it seems, to absorb yet another blow to honor, decency, truth….Yes, there is much to do as anthropologists and as citizens—and, I’ll add, as teachers.

We need to keep a record of what is happening and what the reactions are, in order to capture the motivations and gains and risks of bald-faced lying. There are quite a number of anthropologists working on this, such as here and here and here and here. I think we all realize that we are living in an unprecedented moment where really significant history is happening, and a lot of people are paying attention to what is “not normal.”

I am puzzled by the utterly brazen way people like our current resident can say “there were record crowds” and the evidence is there that there were not record crowds and yet nothing terrible happens, except a kind of cheer by supporters. I believe we are seeing people recognizing the constraints of social interaction and rejecting them—almost as if the id threw off the shackles of the superego and celebrated some kind of pre-cultural desire for boorish impulsive behavior.

I’ve been amused that for many drawn to social construction and post-objectivity approaches, the current anti-fact and anti-science administration is moving a lot of them into the arms of science and fact.

Librarians, journalists, and others are doing heroic work trying to teach people how to sort out legitimate (not to say, “objective”) from “fake news,” news that is sponsored by corporations. The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has done groundbreaking work. Here are some other sites: here and here and here and here. Here’s an infographic on “How to spot fake news” based on a longer version put out by

The ubiquity of information and the ability to select sources that already express our own position mean that we have to have mechanisms for assessing their makers and intended audience. Anthropology should provide tools for that, as we try to make sense of things people tell us—and why. Don’t forget Charles Briggs’s classic book, Learning How to Ask. It’s about interviewing, but it’s also about being critical of asking and hearing answers and focusing on the relationships, contexts, rules for speaking, and the usual nuanced details of human society.

[NET]: Anthropologists tend to specialize in regions and ideas. You possess a particular skill set of linguistic, cultural and cognitive anthropology and, despite focusing on particular topics, you often mention that your work is about larger, universal behavioural aspects and patterns of human sociality. How do you go about addressing and grounding these ‘broad’ topics and projects – a task which most anthropologists find quite daunting?

[SB]: I have become impatient with small, possibly trivial answers to questions. (No offense intended here. I’m not naming names.) I haven’t written a general Humans book, but in most of my work I try to introduce the tension between universals and particulars, between our nature as parts of a species and an order that contrasts with others, and as very specific individuals quite unlike any others, though with some shared characteristics. Some people talk about macro, meso, and micro perspectives. I like the kitchen sink approach—all of the above. But I’ve been profoundly influenced by my colleagues who are biological anthropologists and am deeply committed to the idea that we are biological—biocultural—biosociocultural—psychobiosociocultural. Et cetera. There is never a generic human being. But we are never biological first and cultural second, or psychological first and biological second. If anthropologists have anything to contribute to the world—and I’ve devoted my life to this pursuit in the conviction that we do—it is that we are extremely complex and that everything matters. We can’t take an individual as a unit of analysis. I’m currently obsessing over the notion that while humans are nearly infinitely malleable, as our colleagues have delighted in demonstrating for a century or more—to show that we are not genetically or racially determined—there may be limits. We see the limits in human suffering, such as what happens when people are given conflicting goals that they as individuals must champion but which hurt them—as Lauren Berlant shows in Cruel Optimism, or when solitude is taken to the extreme of solitary confinement. We can also look to older work such as Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (whatever its flaws) to see that we do not all live in the best of all possible worlds.

There are development organizations trying to improve the lives of people around the globe, and the Human Development Index tries to get at the nature of life according to many measures. For an anthropologist this may be problematic, but it does acknowledge that it is better to live in some social formations than in others.

I’ve also been influenced by ideas of permaculture and ecological perspectives. We need to look at humans this way too. For me the posthuman perspective includes not only other animals but also the very planetary context within which all is constrained.

[NET]: As you mention in your blog you are also an avid reader of fiction! Do you see any benefits  for your thinking, writing and/or teaching in engaging with non-academic literature in your everyday life? Do you have any other particular habits or hobbies in which you find inspiration for your work?

[SB]: Don’t you think academic writing is sometimes boring and sometimes way too impenetrable? Come on, be honest! I’ve studied lying and deception, after all!

Given my teaching, and my aim to communicate outside academia, it is really important to me that I be able to write and speak to people who are not experts. Having at least one ear on beautiful writing, I try hard to explain myself, so that my audience—live or on the page—is not insulted by an implied value that says some of them aren’t worthy or respected.

I’ve grown to love blogging, and very short messages. Twitter. But of course like all good academics I can go on and on, in an academic vein, when given the proper audience.

And in my spare time (hah!) I do dabble in creative pursuits….

I have a few habits that help me, when I remember them. (I tend to re-learn them a few times each semester) I make my most important project my first priority of every morning; I keep a log; I use the Pomodoro technique to help me focus. I try to exercise and go outside and when I’m really good I stay off the Internet and keep my phone in another room….

[NET]: Thank you very much for your time Susan – is there anything else on your mind? Any other projects you are working on, or plans for the future?

[SB]: First, thank you so much for the tea! It was lovely, fragrant, and just warmed the soul. We should meet again soon. Conviviality is a topic that not only food theorists have addressed; it also has to do with warm social interactions, and we could all use more of that.

Second, my mind is always way too full. But the thing I’m working most directly on right now is a book, the third in my College Trilogy, called Wellbeing, Suffering, and Schooling, in which I address more directly the non-cognitive effects of schooling. I’m looking especially at notions of meaning and alienation, and emotion and affect. I’m maybe halfway through the first and messiest draft, which I’ve been comforted to read about in John McPhee’s new book, Draft No. 4. This prolific writer, who has been teaching writing at Princeton for decades, writes: “You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you ‘just love to write,’ you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” [2] So maybe I’m not a writer—or maybe thinking I’m not a writer is proof that I am a writer. You’ll have to figure out the truth of that confusing statement.

Third, my responses are far from a blog post! I’ve rambled on, invited by your hospitality and perhaps the hygge nature of this ethnographic nook. I look forward to learning what other guests have to say about our collective obsession, filtered through their own particularities.

Finally, you are a great conversationalist! Thanks for asking such great questions and for listening so carefully. Let’s do it again soon!


[1] Bernstein, Basil. 2001. From Pedagogies to Knowledges. In Ana M Morais, Isabel Neves, Brian Davies, & Harry Daniels (Eds). Towards a Sociology of Pedagogy. The Contribution of Basil Bernstein to Research (pp. 363-368). New York: Peter Lang.

[2] McPhee, John. 2017. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 158.