Archive for the ‘Anthropology’ Category

Sometimes it seems like documenting ones life publicly has become the cultural norm. With blogging, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and more, it seems as if everyone is there, putting their lives out for the world to see.

At uni I did a unit on autoethnography, which I really enjoyed. I feel like blogging is the autoethnographic form for the 21st Century, and something I’d quite like to do. Except for the minor technical hitch that life tends to get in the way. It’s not surprising that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr all tend towards short text or image based content. Long form, thoughtful writing – which, I think, autoethnography ought to be – takes time and concentration, both of which are scarce in the chaos of daily life.

Which is how, despite my initial grand plans for documenting and reflective writing and so on, I find myself 36 weeks pregnant, with not one word written about the experience. Even though writing about it was something I wanted to do all along, even though I thought of things to write about, even though I haven’t been working for three weeks now. When I stopped work unexpectedly early, thanks to a rather unexpected redundancy, I had grand plans for what I would do with all that “extra time”, but alas, writing was just one of a host of things that moved from the “I wish” list onto the already crowded “to do” list. The complex logistical project that is preparing for a baby is just one of those things I wanted to write about, but I also have to implement that project – researching, shopping, getting educated, making decisions, clearing out and reorganising the house, jumping through bureaucratic hoops (lookin’ at you, myGov), jumping through medical hoops (yay, gestational diabetes), etc, etc.

So, yeah.. I think the hardest part is getting started, which I’ve kinda now done. Will that do the trick and get things rolling? Or will the looming (but uncertain) deadline push all but the essentials off the list? Hopefully I can manage a bit of both.


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I am severely hampered by my academic training when it comes to writing blog posts. I feel the need to go search the literature, find some sources, substantiate my comments with references, nearly every time I think of something to write about. I also feel the need to explore a topic in some depth – a short post just doesn’t seem enough to get into the complexities and substance of whatever it is (and there must be complexities and substance, because I can’t just describe, I must analyse). And then there’s proof-reading and re-organising and general fixing-up, because I do that by reflex now, even in a three sentence email (and then there’s pondering my misuse of the em-dash, an eternal conundrum).

But these are processes that take time and effort – and that vague thought about other people’s relationships with my relationship with caffeine is just not important enough to get to the top of my todo list. Sigh.

Ideas that are in the works: what is it with caffeinated people judging un-caffeinated people? How did we ever plan holidays without social media – and how has social media changed how we work? Ethics and independent scholarship – how do you work (and get published) without an institution and an ethics committee? (Short answer: second author w/ institution, I guess – but what does it mean for my work?) And how did my fabric stash get so huge? … Wait, I know the answer to that – I’m a procrastinator who can get free fabric from work – never mind!

That is all.

(PS- this was meant to be one short paragraph. Whoops!)

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Library Privileges!

I went to uni today to get Alumni library membership. It seems as though they don’t get many people signing up, as the folks at the front desk seemed a bit bewildered. I don’t think they get many people paying by cheque either 😛

I came home with three anthropology of birth books, for my project at CMWA, and one about shibori, for my upcoming dying adventures. Yay! But next time I ride my bike to the library I need to remember to take a backpack instead of just a shoulder bag – it was a very uncomfortable ride home – with 5 books (one quarto sized), plus notebook, diary, wallet, etc, my bag was pretty heavy, and very hard to balance. But I now have plenty of reading matter to keep me occupied, and soon I will also have journal access – sweet, sweet journal access.

I’m more excited about this than most people would think healthy, but it’s very frustrating to be used to having all this information available, and then suddenly it’s not, and you’re stuck swearing at websites that ask for ridiculous one-off payments and don’t even put the abstract up for you. Not that I would pay anyway, but it’s still annoying. But no more! Now I can read journal articles again, hooray! And all those books… I feel like a kid in a sweet factory.

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This year’s Burning Man theme is “Rites of Passage”. Burning Man is always so full of rites of passage that this theme seems both perfect and redundant. I’ll probably go on at length about Burning Man’s rites of passage at some point, but today I’m looking at one specific ritual, and a different interpretation of it that comes from my anthropological perspective (I suspect that throughout my Burning Man journey I’ll find things that I see differently from my “lay” co-travellers).

Burning Man is held on the Black Rock Desert – a old dry lake bed, called the ‘playa’ (why? I don’t know). The weather is windy and temperamental, and the temperature oscillates between nearly 0 and above 40 degrees Celcius. The playa surface is dust, made of the fine silt of the old lake. It’s very very fine, and a bit alkaline, and gets everywhere. The dust is a major feature of the Burning Man experience.

Last week I was talking to some people who hadn’t really heard about Burning Man and what it was, and they asked why it was held in such a challenging location. To me, the location is a vital part of the event. Burning Man is about creating a new city from scratch, but it’s not just the physical city that is created. The society of the city is made over new as well: the philosophies of radical self reliance, the gift economy, etc – these are all aspects of the new and different social order which is the essence of Black Rock City.

There’s a thing called communitas, that often happens at ritual events, where the usual rules of society are turned upside down or disappear. When the usual structures that categorise and separate people are not there, they are free to interact as whole human beings, and form new (usually temporary) relationships based on personal rather than structural attributes. Burning Man is all about communitas.

I see the desert is a symbol of burning Man’s blank social canvas. Through its emptiness it signals to Burning Man participants that this is a place wholly outside the strictures of normal life, the ‘default’ world. From nothing, participants are free to build from scratch both physically and socially. The immense emptiness of the playa is an important part of what makes Burning Man what it is.

Apparently, if it’s your first time at Burning Man, one of the things the Greeters do when you arrive is get you to roll around in the dust – because you have to learn to “love the dust”. From what my friends have told me, they interpret the “love the dust” ritual as forcing you to accept that the dust will cover you, and will get everywhere – that there’s no point trying to keep it off you.

I also see this ritual, and the admonition to love the dust, as encouraging participants to embrace the playa and its dust as a vital part of the event – as a participant in the shared act of creation and rebuilding that is Burning Man. Rolling in the playa dust connects you to the playa – your new home (the traditional Greeter greeting – to new and old burners alike – is “Welcome Home”). It also connects you to the Burning Man community, through the shared dustiness of the other 50 000 burners. It is a rite of incorporation, re-creating you as a member of the community and a resident of the playa that holds that community.

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This morning I had coffee with my honours supervisor. As he did at practically every meeting we had during my honours, he was encouraging me to write. I’ve been feeling the need to write for the last few months – now that my brain has recovered from thesis writing – but I’ve been struggling to figure out what to write about.

During our coffee conversation today I was talking about Burning Man – as I tend to do in many conversations these days. I was talking about how full it is of anthropologically interesting things – rites of passage, rituals, communitas – the whole event is packed with fascinating stuff.

So I’m planning now to try to write my way through my Burning Man experience, from planning and sewing and making bookings, though the event itself, to decompression and reflection after it. I’m going to get some notebooks and make fieldnotes. I’m also hoping to acquire some books and articles and do a bit of theoretical reading – like van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage, some Victor Turner, hopefully some other things I haven’t seen before.

And maybe, hopefully, I’ll find at the end that I have some interesting stuff to turn into an article. Either way it should be fun for everyone to follow along, and maybe pick up some anthropology along the way.

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I was talking with a friend at work about rites of passage last week. I was explaining how rites of passage are used to manage the transition between two different social states – for example, the rituals of a wedding mark the transition between the unmarried and married states.

Moving between social states is kind of like that physics thought experiment about the train that is going forward and then changes to going backward – at some point between the two it must have been stationary. At some point between social states, you aren’t in either – you have no clear status, role, position. A good example of this is flying: between being-in-Australia and being-in-Fiji, you aren’t in any country at all. There are rituals involved in this status transition: check-in, customs and immigration, and the journey itself all have the attributes of ritual.

There are rituals on either side of the plane journey, managing the mini-transitions between being-in-Australia and being-in-no-mans-land, and then being-in-no-mans-land to being-in-Fiji. Between each airport carpark, you are in what’s called the ‘liminal’ stage of your rite of passage – the part where you are inbetween states. Other liminal stages include engagements, pregnancies, that part between where you’re offered a job and when you sign the contract, etc.

The thing about liminal states is that they are dangerous. Plane trips, pregnancies and waiting-for-the-contract are all states where Things Can Go Wrong. Liminality is sometimes physically dangerous, but it’s almost always socially and emotionally dangerous – sometimes to you, sometimes to others, sometimes to society as a whole. You are not fully and safely categorised, not contained by social definitions and expectations. You are outside your society’s standard way of being in the world, and this is a risky place to be.

(And finally I get to the point…)

In the course of the conversation with my friend, I explained that I was in a liminal stage of my life at the moment, the transition from student life to the working world, from Not Quite Adult to Proper Grown-Up. I hadn’t realised this explicitly before, but it’s turned into a helpful insight. I’m struggling with this transition. My working and financial life is still that of a student – several part time jobs that don’t add up to quite enough to live off. My mind and desires are being tugged towards the future, as they have been for the last few years – thoughts of houses, babies, long-term health, trips to take before having babies, financial security and how to achieve it. I have spent the last few years making Plans. But I can’t yet implement them, because without a Proper Job, I’m not a Proper Grown-Up.

This existential dilemma, combined with the fact that you can’t search Seek.com.au for ‘anthropologist’ and expect to find much, combined with a severe lack of money, is adding up to considerable chaos inside my head. I have a Plan for reaching my long term goal of working in maternal health as an anthropologist, but that plan doesn’t account for my other goals, ie Pay The Bills. Or should I leave that for later and go for the Real Job? (Advantages: $$$, legitimate claims to adulthood, ability to rent a non-leaky house; Disadvantages: incredibly hard to find one that I actually have the skills for and won’t suck at (also: working all day)). It’s quite a conundrum, and has been claiming most of my brain power for the last few months. This is one of those times when I kind of wish I believed in The Secret, instead of thinking it’s illogical, materialistic, badly written magical-thinking crap.

But at least I can now tuck my situation into a nice conceptual box, making it a slightly less worrying situation to be in. And I’m finally writing again. Bright Side, I has found it.

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It’s been a bit frustrating this year, not doing any anthropology. There isn’t really any required in my work, and recovering from honours and stressing about money kept me too brain-dead for any “on the side” anthropology for most of the year. So when I had some thoughts last weekend, I was fairly pleased…

I’d been feeling really crappy on Saturday afternoon – I’d been running around all day, had a bad week at work, generally feeling pretty sorry for myself. I’d spent a couple of hours on the computer listening to the Mountain Goats*, playing endless games of Bejewelled, generally moping, and thinking about how much I didn’t want to go to that night’s gig…

But at 6:30 I closed Bejewelled and toddled off to get ready for the gig. After changing into my costume, carefully doing my hair into the least-spiky (least flammable) bun I could manage, applying my makeup, I was a bit surprised to find myself in a much better mood, and with a much more positive attitude about the gig.

In the car on the way there I was thinking about the rituals of preparation we do before gigs both at home and at the venue. My ritual generally consists of grooming, while Steve’s consists of finding and gathering together all the necessary stuff (costume, gear, lighters, etc). I keep my stuff all together in a bag, but perhaps if I did less grooming I would need something else to do instead, and would spread my stuff out.

Because the important thing about preparation rituals isn’t what you actually do – it’s about what it’s for: to effect the transformation from random-Saturday-person to professional-fire-performer. And the attributes of a professional fire performer (or any performer) are not just costume, props and skills, but also an emotional state. I can’t be sad or grumpy as a performer. I also can’t be neutral – I have to smile, I have to engage with the audience. The process of getting ready for a gig gives me time to get into that headspace.

So in the car on the way there I was pondering this, and explaining to Steve the concept of emotional labour, which is work that requires the worker to maintain the appearance of a certain emotional state. This is one of those concepts which I learnt about at uni that formalised and clarified stuff which I did or understood in my own life. Working as a tutor and doing science outreach with kids, I had been doing this for a few years already…

I think that the magic of anthropology for me is when it shines a light on my own life, clarifying for me “how things work”. Having always been a shy child, and then moving countries at 13, and then being even shyer, I never got the hang of a lot of those “how things work” rules and guidelines. Studying anthropology has given my the remedial social navigation skills I missed out on as a kid.

Rituals, as a transformation from one social state to another, is another of those light-bulb-like concepts, and one of my personal favourites (along with liminality and reciprocity). Arnold van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage is the first (and possibly only) anthropological classic that I’ve read right through. I love it. Perhaps that’s why my attention was drawn to the ritualistic nature of last Saturday’s transformation.

Perhaps I should focus on that as a way to get more anthropology happening in my life – it’s always been these concepts that have drawn me, fascinated me. Maybe I can keep an eye out for more examples of real life ritual, transformation, liminality, reciprocity. I’m coming up with ideas even as I type this – more about learning to be a professional fire twirler? (I touched on this in my thesis), an upcoming baby shower for a friend (pregnancy as a liminal period between childlessness and motherhood – does this come up somehow during the ritual of the baby shower?), etc, etc. It’s pretty exciting to feel my brain working again. More anthropology and more writing – I need this, I just haven’t known how to get started. I hope that this inspiration helps me get going…


* When I’m depressed, I can listen to the Mountain Goats for hours and hours, and it makes me feel better. When I’m happy, too much Mountain Goats makes me sad. This is one of my test cases to tell when I’m getting a bit down. 😛

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