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Travels in Weblogestan

Reading the scholarship devoted to the phenomenon of blogging sometimes calls to mind a comment that Jackie Gleason is said to have made about people who review TV programs -- that it's "like writing about a car wreck for an audience made up entirely of  eyewitnesses."

Not that researchers shouldn't gather data from LiveJournal, or make connections between the blogosphere and Jurgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, or whatever. But even the most impressive work tends to tell you something you already know, more or less.

For example: A recent number-crunching analysis of political blogging during the 2004 election demonstrated, among other things, that conservatives have created a dense online social network -- one with strong links among sites, that is, making them an effective medium for focusing on a particular topic or message.

Bloggers to the left, by contrast, have created a much less compact and efficient network. The tables and charts that the researchers prepared to demonstrate this are impressive enough. Even so, it all adds up to something slightly less incisive than an observation made, sooner or later, by anyone watching American political life: that there is an almost instinctive tendency on the part of self-identified "progressives" to cooperate just long enough to form a circular firing squad.

To be fair, the ideas and methods used in blog scholarship are sometimes more thought-provoking than the immediate results. That's especially true, it seems to me, with research using models of how networks emerge and function. (Then again, there is always something a little awesome about finding that "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" that Eugene Wigner pointed out in the natural sciences also applies to human behavior en masse.)

But with an awful lot of work on the content and context of blogging, you have the Jackie Gleason effect in purest form. It isn't anybody's fault. The problem, arguably, is endemic to just about any kind of qualitative (that is, non-statistical) research on a new social phenomenon. In short: how do you get from offering a description to forming concepts? The conundrum may be even tougher with an emergent cultural form such as blogging -- one prone, that is, to incessant labors at self-definition, self-promotion,  and self-mockery.

So what would a really interesting and exciting piece of qualitative research on blogging look like? And how would it get around the problems of overfamiliarity with the phenomenon (on the one hand) and blogospheric navel-gazing (on the other)?

To get an answer, it isn't necessary to speculate. Just read "The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging: On Language, Culture, and Power in Persian Weblogestan," by Alireza Doostdar, which appears in the current issue of American Anthropologist. A scanned copy is available here. The author is now working at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where he will start work on his Ph.D. in social anthropology and Middle Eastern studies.

"Weblogestan" is an Iranian online slang term for the realm of Persian-language blogs. (The time has definitely come for it to be adapted, and adopted, into Anglophone usage.) Over the last two years, Western journalists  have looked at blogging as part of the political and cultural ferment in Iran -- treating it, predictably enough, as a simple manifestation of the yearning for a more open society. Doostdar complicates this picture by looking at what we might call the borders of Veblogestan (to employ a closer transliteration of the term, as used specifically to name Iranian blogging).

In an unpublished manuscript he sent me last week, Doostdar provides a quick overview of the region's population: "There are roughly 65,000 active blogs in Veblogestan," he writes, "making Persian the fourth language for blogs after English, Portugese, and French. The topics for blog entries include everything from personal diaries, expressions of spirituality, and works of experimental poetry and fiction to film criticism, sports commentary, social critique, and of course political analysis. Some bloggers focus on only one of these topics throughout the life of their blogs, while others write about a different topic in every new entry, or even deal with multiple topics within a single entry."

He notes that "a major factor in the widespread adoption of blogging" in Iran "has been the Unicode standard, which has made it possible for people to write and publish easily in the Persian script." Nor does it hurt that it is easy to set up a blog -- or to use a pseudonym. The result has been the creation of a medium that cuts across social and geographic boundaries. In his manuscript, Doostdar says that his work bought him into contact with "high school and university students, journalists, literary critics, Web designers, women's rights activists, and statesmen, living in Tehran, Toronto, Berlin, New York, London, Prague, and Paris, along with numerous other anonymous and half-anonymous bloggers scattered around the world."

Except for the part about writing Persian script using Unicode, this is a familiar picture of the blogging world. It is, in effect, a neighborhood within what Manuel Castells identified, some years back, as "the network society" -- a global "space without a place."  And Doostdar's account of the routine practices among Iranian bloggers will also ring a bell with their American cousins. There are group blogs, "trackback pings," comment fields, blogrolls, and even emoticons (the horror, the horror ;-).

At one level, then, it sounds like a new chapter in the worldwide spread of homogenizing mass media. The more globalization-friendly spin on this would be that blogging is a tool with which Iranians are creating a culture that challenges the fundamentalist social order.

Fortunately, Doostdar's work does not stick to either of these scripts. His paper in American Anthropologist looks at a controversy that raged during the final months of 2003 -- the bahs-e ebtezaal or "vulgarity debate," a heated discussion of the place of blogging in Iranian culture. On one side were members of the roshanfekr class -- meaning those writers and intellectuals possessing an "enlightened mind," but also a certain degree of education, sophistication, and social prestige. The term, writes Doostdar, "has historically come to represent one who is conversant with modernist or postmodernist discourses, is a humanist, feels a certain commitment toward the well-being of his or her won society, and continually and publically [criticizes] the values, norms, and behaviors of that society."

There are members of the roshanfekr classwho write for blogs, but they have other outlets as well, including newspapers and magazines. On the other side of the debate were Iranian bloggers who were "not intellectuals by social function or profession." The practice of blogrolling and cross-referencing allowed some of them to gain "popularity and a reputation within the community of bloggers."

But it was precisely the "focus on a contextual constitution of self" (with its attendant rituals of backscratching and mini-celebrity) that made blogging a venue for "a radically different set of priorities" from those of "the more 'noble' genres of traditional journalism and literary composition" practiced by the roshanfekr class. "In blogging," writes Doostdar, "speed often takes precedence over thoroughness, outlandishness over rigor, and emotive self-expression over dispassionate analysis."

In October 2003, Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi. a prominent journalist and literary critic, referred to "the stink of vulgarity in Weblogestan" -- complaining about the spelling errors, sloppy language, and low argumentative standards prevailing among bloggers. And as a nice touch, he did this on his own blog. The effect, as Doostdar put it, was to unleash "a cacophony of blog entries, online magazine articles, comments, responses, and counterresponses that continued for several weeks."

Some of the non- roshanfekr who denounced "intellectualist pretense" appear to have taken extra care to make errors in spelling and grammar when they replied. (As Doostdar puts it, they tried to "metapragmatically index themselves as linguistic and cultural rebels by being deliberately careless.")

And you can feel the seething bitterness of one blogger who denounced a prominent journalist and short story writer: "Keep mistaking this place as a literary conference when others consider it to be an informal and safe place for chatting. Come sit down wearing a suit and tie and mock those who are wearing jeans."

The populist tone is familiar. Change the accent, and it wouldn't sound out of place on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. And yet the lines in the Iranian vulgarity debate were not drawn for the convenience of American pundits.

For one thing, it isn't the familiar story of democratic reformers versus fundamentalist mullahs. It's more complicated than that. The liberalizing influence of the roshanfekr intelligentsia, "although significant, is still small relative to the dominant traditionalist clergy," writes Doostdar. "Their strongest cultural and political leverage is most likely among academics and in the domain of print media..." Going online gives them "a much less restricted environment for publication and cultural-political action" -- but in a space where "just about anything can (and does) get published and there is no authority to enforce linguistic and cultural standards."

The result? Well, consider the case of Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi, who launched the initial salvo against  "the stench of vulgarity in Weblogstan." Shortly afterward, he created a Web page with links to online editions of fiction that is censored in Iran. But according to Doostday, some "charged that he wanted to stifle free speech" with his criticism of vulgarity, "and compared him to government censors."

On Thursday: Using a Soviet dissident theorist's work to think about the blogopshere Also: is there a "pious spirit of blogging" in Iran?

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Lazy Me

The café, located one block west of the University of Texas at Austin, was called Les Amis. Which, when pronounced with a certain drawl, or after a few Shiner Bocks, sounded like “Lazy Me.” It was just around the corner from the house where, as legend has it, Janis Joplin had lived during her student days. It would be nice to imagine that she might have visited Les Amis, but that is a stretch: It only opened its doors in 1970, about the time she died. In principle, though, yes, it was her kind of place. The café was the definitive landmark of the area known as West Campus.

Like any real neighborhood, West Campus was not just a place but a state of mind. It was a pole of attraction for people who endured living in Texas only by going into a kind of internal emigration. And Les Amis was a vital part of the cultural infrastructure. For one thing, the food was cheap. Generations of semi-successful musicians, struggling artists, and would-be writers budgeted their lives around the bowl of beans and rice (with cheese, if you paid extra). And because the entire wait staff seemed to be on perpetual cigarette break, it never felt like you were being rushed out the door. You could read a book without being hassled. Or write one, for that matter.

It was not, strictly speaking, a part of UT. But in no sense did it exist apart from the university. Les Amis was, so to speak, a non-academic outcropping of what Pierre Bourdieu called skhole -- that is, the open-ended space-time of scholastic life, in which questions can be raised and explored in a free discussion that evades any outside demands.

It's not that Les Amis was a unique outpost of this. On the contrary, any decent campus must have such pockets of creative impracticality -- places where people mingle, where loitering is permitted, even encouraged. They are the laboratories where conversation becomes a kind of experiment, and where you can opt out of normality for a while. (Maybe forever.)

Many a dissertation got drafted at Les Amis, or at least studiously procrastinated over. In the corner sat Rock Savage (at any given time, the drummer for five different bands) having breakfast at two in the afternoon, inscrutable behind his shades. At a table facing the sidewalk -- a few feet from the skinheads with skateboards -- you might find a Habermasian and a Derridean making an elaborate show of tolerating one another’s pathetically inadequate arguments. Meanwhile, inside, the ambience was forever that of an unwashed ashtray. In the booth near the door was a young couple that had recently broken up, doing a post-postmortem on their relationship, in lieu of burying it and moving on.

Such a life has its own tempo, its own logic. It can be liberating, but it can also be stultifying. You might leave it with a sense of relief -- only to find, years later, that a moment of nostalgia will blindside you.

I left Austin in 1988. Ten years later, meeting a fellow Les Amis alum at a party in Washington, D.C., I learned that the café had gone out of business in 1997. It was a shock to hear this: In some vague way, I always expected to return one day for a visit. There had been something sustaining about the fantasy of once again ordering the rice and beans with cheese, and the pot of coffee they brought to your table -- then spending the afternoon trying to get the bill from the waiter.

Now that was impossible. I felt grief, but also disgust and anger. There was no imaginary escape route from a life of ambition, responsibility, and deadlines.

And things got worse. The spot where Les Amis had once stood, my friend reported, was now occupied by a Starbucks. Fate was really laying it on thick.

But thanks to the efforts of Nancy Higgins, a young filmmaker in Austin, some of the memories have been preserved in a documentary, "Viva Les Amis." For now, the film doesn’t have a distributor, though it is available for purchase on DVD through a Web site. Higgins also indicates, in an e-mail note, that she is selling it “out of the trunk of my car.”

I can well believe she means that literally: "Viva Les Amis" has the feel of a labor of love – something made without much thought for whether it could be marketed. Higgins spent four years and something close to $40,000 making it. “No one ever got paid for their time,” she says, “including me and the people who helped me shoot it.”

Breaking even on the project would be nice, but it may take a while. “I have debt from the movie,” Higgins told me. “But I’ll pay it off someday.”

For now, though, she has earned the glory that goes with retrieving something valuable from the wreckage of progress, so called. Drawing on interviews with staff and customers, video footage shot during the 1980s, and a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs taken by Alan Pogue across the café’s three decades, Higgins evokes the feeling of community that, for many people around the university, made Les Amis a home away from home.

Almost literally so, in some cases. One of its denizens indicates that his record for hanging out there was 12 hours. Another interview subject recalls sleeping on the floor after it had closed for the night. The inner mysteries of Les Amis are revealed to outsiders. There was, for example, a walled-in area behind the café where the staff enjoyed beer, various smokable substances, and the occasional moment of fornication. (That would certainly tend to explain some things about the service.)

Higgins clearly has a feel for the place, so I asked her how she came to make the film. As a philosophy major at UT, she says, she spent a lot of time at the café, whether studying or otherwise. After graduating in 1994, she faced the perennial question of what you do with a liberal arts degree. You can probably see where this is going: For the next three years, she waited tables at Les Amis.

“My parents were so pleased,” she recalls (sarcasm mode on). “I took history and theory film classes at U.T., and read and did yoga and lived the relaxed Austin life. I stopped thinking about the future and just lived for awhile.”

She then headed to Emory University to do graduate work on avant garde and documentary film -- returning to Austin in 1999 with a master’s degree. After two years of watching other people’s films, she wanted to make one of her own.

“So,” she says, "I began working on a documentary about Les Amis -- a place that I missed terribly upon returning to Austin. Sometimes it's just the perfect night to go there, and you can't. That makes me really sad. I just wanted to preserve some of Les Amis before it disappeared from everyone's collective memory. I knew I wasn't the only one who grieved the loss.”

While various still photographs and home videos helped document the history of the café, nothing really captures the mood of the place like Richard Linklater’s " Slacker," which was a breakthrough independent film when it was released in 1991. That film had the misfortune to get swept up in the whole “Generation X” phenomenon, which had the effect of making the quiet and idiosyncratic enclave of West Campus seem like some kind of prefabricated lifestyle.

A few of the most memorable scenes in "Slacker" were shot at Les Amis -- and Linklater gave Higgins permission to use those clips in her documentary. “He knows how hard it is to secure rights,” she says. “At the time I asked him, he owned the rights to "Slacker," so we signed the paperwork and he let me use the scenes.” Linklater also included an extensive promotional spot for "Viva Les Amis" when the DVD edition of "Slacker" was released.

Higgins has done more than put together a video scrapbook. "Viva Les Amis" is also an essay on development -- on how the texture of life changes when a small business disappears, replaced by a corporate chain.

She interviews employees who work at the Starbucks that now occupies the block. They’ve heard rumors that another coffee shop once existed in the area, but don’t know anything about it. Sic transit gloria mundi, of course -- no surprise there. But it is certainly striking to listen to the young baristas as they describe what it is like to work there: the exacting dress code, the precisely formulated rules for interacting with customers, the system of corporate spying that makes sure each drink is served at the same temperature.

You can’t imagine a poetry reading taking place in such an environment. No doubt it is more efficient and profitable than Les Amis ever was. But the drive to uniformity and perfect top-down control seems joyless, no matter how much Bob Marley they play over the loudspeaker. I kept thinking of a scene from "Slacker" in which a local eminence named Doug the Slug stared into a video camera, announcing: “Every commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”

I haven’t been back to Austin, and wondered about the changes reflected in "Viva Les Amis." It seemed like a good time to reconnect with Michael King, who was an assistant professor of English at UT when I met him in the early 1980s. Today King is the news editor for The Austin Chronicle, the local alternative weekly.

He remembers long lunches and late nights at the café, “drinking and talking with students and friends or other faculty, talking in the way that only a college community can do. I miss it.” But the city has grown, and the university helped drive the transformation.

“Austin and UT were simply much smaller then,” he says. “Although 30,000 students were plenty, they did not overwhelm the UT area in the way that 50,000 do.... It meant that sidewalk life around the university was a little sleepier, a little friendlier.... West Campus in particular has just been overwhelmed by numbers. The high-rise private dorms pour out students, night and day, and the street crowds can seem like Manhattan, without any of the amenities.”

He points out that there are new venues with something of the old Les Amis feel, such as Ruta Maya or Café Mundi -- the latter, for example, being the scene of a recent literary reading/oil-wrestling contest. But such places have, he says, “been physically pushed away from the campus, which, close in, is very much a crowded, rushed, gritty place.” In "Viva Les Amis," Nancy Higgins interviews the proprietor of Café Mundi, who says she worries that Starbucks will decide to open a shop down the street.

So far, the documentary has not been screened at film festivals -- and Higgins says she can’t afford to apply to any more, because doing so is expensive. It seems like a film that will find its audience, over time. “I like the idea of taking it on a tour of campuses,” she told me, “mainly to college towns like Austin that may be experiencing similar growing pains. But I haven't had a chance to try that yet.” 

Scott McLemee
Author's email:


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