23 November 2011

Students Take Anthropology Back Into the Streets: A Report on Off-AAA

Report and commentary by AJP member Maximilian Forte:

From Questions, to Critique, to Protest

Students took Anthropology into the streets on Saturday, 19 November, 2011, in an action that was (in part) designed to protest the exclusive nature of the recent American Anthropological Association conference held inside the Palais des Congrès, with exorbitant registration fees that barred the attendance of most Montreal students. Students occupied the park outside the Palais and took the initiative to mobilize against what some of them called "bourgeois 'science'," and the commodification of knowledge that turned anthropology into an elitist fetish. As natives and residents of this city, they emphasized that this is their space, and the time is one of global ferment against capitalism, inequality, and elitism. Hence, the Occupy Montreal camp sent its banner in solidarity to be put on display at this event, dubbed Off-AAA. As the students questioned in announcing their initiative and inviting participation by faculty, "shouldn't we be generating critical thinking on our own institutional dynamics? Is research only an interest or a tool for social change?"

At the event, while some of the students suggested that they wished they had organized it better, the fact is that the numbers in attendance (on a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon as the semester nears its hectic finale) ranged between 30 and 50, and several faculty made presentations at the event and engaged in debate, including myself, David H. Price (St. Martin's University), Rob Hancock (University of Victoria), and Terence Turner, and others. The students organized in advance using Facebook and Indymedia Quebec, among other sites. They brought coffee for all, chairs, mats, a table, a megaphone, and later even a microphone that seemed to serve no function other than to be passed around to mark the next speaker. There were at least two persons recording the event with video cameras on tripods--but I don't know if their videos will be made available. The students were animated, speaking mostly in French (with simultaneous translation), with a passion for ideas for an alternative anthropology. At different points, some passers-by stopped to hear what was going on--behind us instead, within the multi-coloured glass walls of the Palais, I was stopped on two occasions and asked for my conference badge...the excuse being that the attendants were trying to block access to homeless persons (I was in a suit and tie on one of those occasions).

This was anthropology in public, but with frequent calls by the students for more public anthropology, for more activism, for more research that is undertaken for more than just communicating it to colleagues in closed sessions hidden behind pay walls. Far from the hackneyed, right wing stereotype of students "brainwashed" by their allegedly "radical" professors, here were the students radicalising faculty and drawing the latter out from the enclosure of pay-per-view anthropology, conducted safely and quietly, away from the public's ear.

The Geopolitics of Anthropology: As Seen from the Canadian Periphery

Indeed, we should question the logic behind the AAA locating its event here, as if Canada had no Anthropology association of its own. After some quiet protest by the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA), the local association was given the grand gift of a booth at the AAA event, and allowed to organize a reception. While this assertion of U.S. hegemony is troubling--and one of the main reasons for why I have not travelled to the U.S. to take part in AAA conferences--we have to admit that "Canadian" anthropologists (many of whom are actually American, and many of whom obtained their PhDs in the U.S.*) are part of the problem. Some of these nominally Canadian anthropologists tell their graduate students that if they wish to obtain academic employment in Canada, they should earn their doctorates in the U.S. (thereby invalidating their own positions, and the responsibility to train the next generations of Canadian academics). It seems that our job is to locally produce the part-time sessional instructors, and to import the full-time tenure-track faculty. Many others enforce a dependency on U.S. texts and other assigned reading materials written by their U.S. colleagues. Some departments are even structured on the U.S. "four-field" model, thereby establishing themselves as beachheads of American academic exceptionalism in Canada. Each year, entire departments are vacated in November as faculty make their annual pilgrimage to the AAA, travelling to the U.S. conference venues of their intellectual masters, massaging the ego of the monster as they pay tribute to the U.S. dominance that they reinforce.

This year the CASCA conference in Fredericton, at which AJP launched a symposium and gained new members, was thinly attended by less than a third of CASCA's regular members, most of whom were holding out for the AAA conference in Montreal. The AAA did not cause that, but it did enable it, and the result was a huge plunge in revenues for CASCA. Virtually none of the representatives of Canada's largest Anthropology departments, organized according to the U.S. four-field model, were in attendance in Fredericton. The event became an unintended celebration of our peripheral status, within the Canadian periphery that are the Maritime provinces. So if the AAA event was exclusive and occupied our attention, it is also our fault. We had Montreal anthropology faculty on the AAA's Executive Program Committee--and none of us thought that, as a basic courtesy, the invading association should at least offer free access to students bearing local ID cards--and a public explanation for why the AAA thinks that Quebec comes under its umbrella as a U.S. body.

It is interesting to observe such a phenomenon displaying itself at the same time as some tout the value of "world anthropologies" (as published in dominant U.S. journals). Perhaps the potential for irony is limited by the fact that much of what constitutes itself currently as "world anthropologies" is fashioned by anthropologists based in, trained in, or oriented toward the dominant American centre and its UK counterpart.

[* In a recent survey published by CASCA--Demographics and Opinions of Canadian Anthropologists--it was found that out of 306 respondents with a PhD, 168 (55%) have Canadian PhDs, 77 (25%) have U.S. PhDs, and the remaining 61 (20%) have degrees from other parts of the world--I am included in the latter category, though I did not know of the survey when it was being undertaken and thus did not respond. Narrative responses to the survey tellingly included calls for developing more "Boasian" graduates, and for getting our journal into Anthrosource, which is the AAA's publications database.]

The Speakers: From Corporatization to Militarization to Free Knowledge

I asked David Price to accompany me to the event, since it followed a AAA session in which we both participated, and since my comments would dovetail into subject matter of which he is a leading expert, yet expertise that might not have been familiar to the assembled students. So we performed what I called a duet.

"I am here under an alternate identity," I said, "in there [where the AAA was meeting] I am an associate professor in anthropology at Concordia University...but out here I speak in my capacity as a member of Anthropologists for Justice and Peace." I began by speaking about the increased pace by which private business interests were appropriating the university as a common, public good--in some cases, very directly, with the university hiring individuals from the private sector (in crisis) who had as little as a BA and four years of working experience, and getting paid more than a full professor, for performing obscure and minimally useful administrative tasks. Indeed, the inflation of administration, and the bloating of its operating costs at the expense of the core missions of the university, represents a hidden bailout package for the private sector by essentially handing them lucrative university positions and contracts. Regardless of the current track record of massive corporate failures, the university has adopted corporate management models, led by CEOs of private corporations who sit on our Board of Governors. From there I took the students into research done by a student in my New Imperialism seminar, Laura Beach (see this and this), who shows that several of the members of the Board of Governors of Concordia University are also defence contractors. In addition, it was one of them who pushed through Project Hero, with little in the way of discussion or advance notice. Having established a corporate presence with militarist leanings, I spoke of how the university--while not yet interfering in dictating what we should research, and thus directly curbing our academic freedom--has nonetheless gradually altered the university's reward structure to publicly favour and promote only specific kinds of projects--those funded by the Department of National Defence's Security Defence Forum, for example, to engineering projects dedicated to developing UAVs, better known as drones. (There is no "Canada Research Chair in Studies of Imperialism" nor any Anti-War or Peace Research Institute in Montreal.) Those students who had been to Concordia had not seen any of the drone prototypes suspended from the ceilings in public areas. I also spoke of how the university markets certain "signature areas," one of which is the interventionist, private- and military-funded "Will to Intervene" project (students recoiled at the very name). I noted how the university administration had, seemingly overnight, rewritten its mission statement, from one that emphasized the role of the university as social critic, engaged in public debate, and valuing academic freedom--to one that made no mention at all of any of these, instead emphasizing "harmony" and "strengthening society." From there I proceeded to remark to students that in being faced with limited job prospects, they would be tempted to apply their anthropological knowledge toward well-remunerated, imperialist ends, and I advised them to pay close attention to what David Price would tell them about the Human Terrain System (HTS). I mentioned how just a few blocks away from where we stood, a Montreal head-quartered company, CGI, was doing the recruiting for the U.S. Army's HTS. This is a reminder of how porous is the border between the U.S. and Canada, and how blurred are the lines between the two--making us as susceptible to U.S.-funded and U.S.-inspired militarist projects as we were to the AAA meeting in the edifice that formed my backdrop. Finally, I congratulated the students for their imagination and initiative, and reminded them that without their leadership, little would change, as even tenured faculty for the most part are trained into fearful silence and many are demoralized and thus unlikely to spearhead any movement for change. To date, this Off-AAA assembly is perhaps the most remarkable, encouraging and productive "conference" experience I have had.

David Price then stood up in the circle of assembled students, cold wind blowing, and remarked--using the metaphor of the drones hanging from our ceilings, which are there and which we do not see--about the insidious spread of war corporatism in the university. He spoke of his work in uncovering the CIA connections to anthropologists, and of the use of anthropologists in counterinsurgency, giving a brief history of HTS. It's not over, he noted, as we had just come from a panel where some of the papers were about creating sympathy for the CIA or its local agents, and casting the CIA as a "humanitarian" actor. David Price also remarked on the fact that just because the students are in Canada, not to think that they are immune from the current wave of university militarization, which has proceeded apace in the U.S. (and, in fact, he is right--not least because some of our military research in universities, such as in fuel air explosives at McGill, is directly funded by the Pentagon, with the university's code of "ethics" revised to suit). David added that many students like those assembled, faced limited academic employment prospects, especially with the tendency toward hiring only temporary and part-time faculty, and that many such individuals are motivated to join programs such as HTS for monetary reasons. When David mentioned how much HTS employees get paid when deployed, circa $225,000 U.S., there was a loud gasp of disbelief from the students, some laughing at how extraordinary the salary appears. An American student in Montreal (from Ohio, if I recall), asked to interject--and told David that in the town where he came from, the sole source of employment, a mine, had shut down, so that really the only available employment presenting itself is to join the military. David concurred, noting the same is true of the town he came from. In fact, a number of the Montreal students assembled are themselves from the U.S., and tend to be both highly critical of U.S. foreign policy and very much committed against militarism--so that David somehow managed to speak to what was partly a "home crowd" even in Montreal, and a home crowd as well for sharing his concerns about militarization. David was very well received, but unfortunately had to leave soon after his talk.

Rob Hancock then stood up and made the point of welcoming those assembled to traditional, unceded Mohawk territory. In this welcome, noting that we are on Aboriginal land, Rob made the point that this land has been "occupied" by settlers for too long, and he took some issue with the naming of the "Occupy" campaign currently spread across North America. This was not an incidental point, as Rob then proceeded to talk about how he and others worked to make accessible anthropological knowledge around Indigenous rights in Canada. In this vein Rob outlined an absolutely remarkable project in which he is engaged, known as the Free Knowledge Project (also see their Facebook page), with at times many dozens of members of the wider public taking their free classes offered at local cafes in Victoria, BC. This is the kind of public, and very open access anthropology (open in cyberspace, and open in physical space), which met with very obvious approval from the assembled students.

Unfortunately, in the cases of the remaining speakers, I have forgotten the name of one (from Vermont) who made some very profound comments about being a fully embodied anthropologist and activist, and Terence Turner who spoke at the very end, after I had already left.

Student speakers took turns to build ideas for a more public, activist anthropology. One of the event organizers, devoted particular attention to the Quebec Public Interest Research Group at Concordia--QPIRG-Concordia--and to its sponsorship of Community University Research Exchange (CURE), as concrete examples of already existing projects that students could support and carry forward. Indeed, in some respects QPIRG appears as the embryo of a new university, growing within the shell of the old university, one deemed "corrupt" by one of the speakers.

I left the event feeling both inspired and very proud of our students here in Montreal, and I am looking forward to more such events.
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