We are pleased to launch our Dialogues initiative at the same time that Día de los Muertos celebrations sweep the Americas. Fittingly enough, our first conversation is with anthropologist of sorcery Paul Stoller. Stoller is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University and winner of the 2013 Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology from the King of Sweden. Stoller has published numerous articles and 11 books, including his most recent Yaya’s Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World. His writing spans ethnographic accounts of his lifelong apprenticeship with Adamu Jenitongo, a sorcerer in Niger, to political-economic explorations of transnational African traders in New York City, to a memoir about cancer. A pioneer of sensory modes of ethnographic writing, his words evoke the intricacies of place, intersubjectivity, and shared moments of existential understanding.
Over hors d’oeuvres in Paul’s lovely patio, we chatted about the fleeting nature of theory and the endurance of ethnographic storytelling. In keeping with the intent of our Dialogues project, we also discussed how he brings anthropological vantage points to public policy, the attributes of applied work, and the vicissitudes of contemporary academic life. Creative innovation (rather than failure) can result from what Stoller calls “being between,” including being between the university and the public. He also explores some of the themes we discuss here in his Savage Minds post, Finding Your Way. Additionally, you can watch a recent video interview for World101x, a MOOC unit in which Stoller discusses how he found anthropology and its uses in the world (you can also sneak a peek of his lovely patio!). Lastly, don’t forget to catch his writings on the Huffington Post.
Beth: Reaching a wide audience has always been important to you: composing a sensory writing and research agenda, weaving ethnography and fiction into ethnofiction to name but a few strategies. Several years ago, you began to blog for the Huffington Post. When did you decide that having an online presence was an important part of your work?
Paul Stoller: Like most writers, I write ethnographic texts in a way that attempts to appeal to a broad audience. I’ve always thought it was important to write anthropological texts or ethnographies that would extend beyond a specialist audience so that the knowledge that I had gathered could be put to some use or could be appreciated by a wider audience. Otherwise my efforts would be wasted. If very few people are reading what you labor to produce, you are not doing your job as a scholar. To me the greatest obligation of a scholar is to produce knowledge that may lead to some aspect of wisdom, or make people’s lives a little bit better, make them understand themselves or their situation better. I’ve often felt—even though my books have often sold well—that no one was paying much attention. I do know that no one was paying attention to my journal articles. Not many people read those. All they do is they look at the essay and say: ‘Oh I saw that.’ They don’t necessarily read it.
In addition, the sales and readership of my books has been dwindling. From a robust beginning there has been a downward spiral although I feel the quality of my books has gotten better as time has gone on. In my view, the least creative of books have done really well, and the most creative one aren’t doing so well. After some time, I found myself being frustrated. I had lots of ideas. I really wanted to communicate to a larger public what I have learned as an anthropologist. So I decided to do a blog. It wasn’t with Huffington Post; it was just a personal blog. I started doing it when I did some field research in Niger in 2009. And I wanted to do a blog that recorded my impressions – I hadn’t been to Niger in a very long time. One of the blogs I really liked was about visiting Jean Rouch’s grave on the 5th year anniversary of his death. The grave site was desolate. And I got very little response to that, very little response at all. I was getting flooded with spam messages that had nothing to do with my blog.
B: So was that disappointing?
PS: It was very disappointing—not to mention having to deal with all this spam flooding my computer. But I persisted. I did some stuff on politics on the eve of the 2010 election, but didn’t get much response to that either. In time, a colleague, Gina Ulysse, suggested, that I try blogging for the Huffington Post. So I started doing that. What a difference. Now thousands upon thousands of people are reading my anthropologically contoured ideas, which is a real high. Occasionally I would write a blog that would go viral and 50 to 100,000 people would read it. And then they would respond to it; some would be angry, some would be pleased. So I felt, wow, this is an audience far greater than I have gotten for any of my articles or my books. Blogging about anthropological subjects in the Huffington Pose has been really great. But the medium is also limiting because you have a word limit on your blog, usually about 850 words per blog so you can’t really be nuanced in your thinking. Secondly blogs in the Huffington Post have to be tied to some news event, so I can’t write about some of some of the things I really care about. The other thing about blogging is the issue of longevity. So if your blog is really successful it will be live for 24 hours. Then it disappears. Some people will remember this blog or that blog, but it is not the same thing as sitting down and reading a book and discussing it. It’s very different.
B: What other strategies do you imagine might disseminate your anthropological research to a wider audience besides the blog?
PS: The blog would be one thing and writing fiction another. The audience I reached with my fiction is very different from an anthropological audience. My two novels have reached a much broader audience. My first novel attracted a substantial number of African American readers, mostly women, who live in cities and knew some people resembling the African immigrants I describe in the book. These folks would probably not read my ethnographies. So fiction is one thing. Film is obviously another vehicle. Then there’s social media. In addition, I get more response, say, if I publicize my Huffington Post blog on Facebook. I have lots and lots of Facebook “friends.” Some don’t often take the time to read my Huffington Post pieces, but some of them do. But I usually get more response from the photographs that I post, particularly an artistic image that I was lucky enough to capture. I have done a couple of Youtube videos and online interviews. One video was about the ten-year anniversary of Jean Rouch’s death. I got a lot of response to that, and another video was about a friend of mine, Jean Marie Giball, a retrospective of his work 20 years after his premature death. I also did an event that was video streamed at CUNY. I get a healthy response to those.
B: These strategies are more effective in combination?
PS: Yes, in combination. I think the public presence has made me more known to a larger audience – anthropologists, advocates, a wide variety of people out there, most of whom I don’t know but seem to follow me. If I did not have a public presence as an anthropologist, I don’t think I would have that reputation, and I think a lot of the good things that have come my way are not just because I have done field work and written books but because I have this public persona.
B: You have also used your platform on the Huffington Post to talk about changes in academia and higher education in general. Can you speak about your choice to discuss some of your observations about academic changes over time, as you have been in higher education now for a number of years [laughing]?
PS: [Laughing] almost thirty-five years!
B: Almost thirty-five years! And you have seen many changes first-hand. In the past few years, there has been a bit of a buzz online with blogs about people leaving or quitting academia, the adjunct crisis and changes in academic structure. Even in the past year, these narratives are coming out of the woodwork, what some call “quit lit.” People are writing about contingent faculty concerns, the abysmal job market, administrative bloat, and the erosion of tenure. You put a voice to some of these concern as a person within academia. I am wondering about your choice to do so.
PS: I feel very disappointed in academic institutions. I mean not that it was perfect when I started out, but it seems that it has become more impersonal, the corporate model of the university eroding it as an institution. The emphasis is placed on processing students, all this stuff about assessment. I mean consider one of President Obama’s education advisers touting his wrong-headed ranking systems for universities as a way of doling out federal money for student loans, which is a really stupid idea. That person said, well, you know, ranking universities is like evaluating a blender. She actually said that.
B: A product review.
PS: Yeah! A product review. So the university is like a blender or a product and if that is the way it is going to be, then all we will have will be trade schools or job training institutes. This process will erode academic and intellectual life and we will pay a very dear price for it. There will be less innovation and no invention whatsoever. Innovation is possible when people are tinkering with stuff, but invention takes creativity, it takes time. I remember there is a British Nobel Laureate in Physics—I think his name is Higgins?
B: Yes, I read about him, Higgins.
PS: And he said he would not be hired today and he would not get tenure today because he needed time to think about complex issues, which means that you don’t rush to publish. I feel the same way about myself. I had a few small publications when I got hired, but in today’s market I would have a very hard time getting hired. If you look at all the push to have numerous publications in the right places, and you look at the quality of what gets put out there, it’s not very inventive.
B: With the pressure to publish, there often isn’t time be inventive, or the opportunity.
PS: No, there isn’t. So it’s the same problem: the process of academic growth has become like an assembly line, which is part of the corporate model. Although I must say, junior faculty members have to buy into the model because otherwise they won’t get promoted. We have faculty members at my institution who are very into assessment. The problem with the university-as-a-business model, and business models in general, is that they only consider the short term. A business model looks at the bottom line and it doesn’t look at the long-term consequences of taking a turn towards processing students. It doesn’t assess the cost of not encouraging thought, the costs of looking at productivity, of looking at ideas or academic careers as measures of productivity.
B: I think one of the heart-breaking things about what you describe is that even if someone buys into the system, it doesn’t guarantee their participation in the system. In one example, you have junior faculty members—tenure track or not—who are supporting assessment or evaluation, but this doesn’t mean they will or can stay in academia. We have a persistent idea that academia is a meritocracy: if you work hard, if you tow the line, you will get a tenure-track job or secure tenure. We know this is far from the case. Some people have “gone public” about the hardships of being a contingent faculty member, for example. People are putting personal narratives to the academic structure. And some of these people are being met with vitriol for doing so. Yet as anthropologists, as social scientists, part of what we do is to connect lived experiences to the structures that shape our experiences.
B: Given that, why do you think people—including social scientists—persist in believing that there are not larger structural changes that are shaping people’s personal experiences of scholarship? Why does the myth of meritocracy persist?
PS: You mean administrators or the general public?
B: Both, but I also think people within the tenured academy. If you read these blogs—post-academic blogs and firsthand accounts on Chronicle or Vitae—some of the comments are from tenured academics and are about how the author must not be good enough to get a tenure track job, that the person is not working hard enough or simply isn’t smart enough. In other words, something about the person is a failure because they are a contingent faculty member or did not get tenure or chose to leave academia even with tenure. People write such pieces in the first place to give attention to the structures that have shaped their experiences with academia. Yet others seem very reluctant to talk about those structures, preferring instead to place blame on perceived personal failures.
PS: It is the same reason why people don’t want to talk about or admit to painful circumstances. I mean we don’t talk about social class in the United States at all. The realities of it are very troubling. We don’t talk about race for the same reason. These are subjects that are pushed off to the side. Nor do we talk about corporatization of the university. I mean some people do, but most people are buying into what the business class or administrators say, many of whom have no experience in the classroom. The assessors have never been assessed. It’s not pretty.
B: It feels, in part, like academic reluctance to trust personal narratives as revelatory of social realities. To reveal the personal is to compromise your objectivity, your expertise. Don’t put your name on your testimony kind of thing. What is your opinion on that?
PS: My first book was very personal, very experiential. And so some people loved it and other people panned it. They said it was not serious scholarship. In the book, I admitted to all sorts of personal failings. The book didn’t have any footnotes in it. I am happy I wrote it, but I did pay an academic price for writing a memoir about sorcery.
B: There remains a risk in telling your story.
PS: That’s right.
B: And using narratives.
PS: A big risk. Even in this day and age and even after an epistemological move toward narratives and storytelling. I gave a plenary address at the European Association of Social Anthropologists in August, and it was about voice and storytelling. Whenever I get a chance, I talk about that sort of thing. I like to stress how important it is. And people say, oh yeah, that’s inspirational, or that’s fantastic. Even so, at this point, narrative and storytelling don’t have much of an impact on the structure of the system.
B: Even though narrative and voice are part of anthropology, people remain afraid to talk about them in their own lives. We can go somewhere and do fieldwork there and talk about other peoples’ narratives, but there is a fear when we talk about our own experiences, when use the personal to reveal the structures that we live.
PS: It’s true. When I talk publicly about my own health and the impact it has had on my orientation to anthropology I sometimes get awkward responses. I remember I was at Harvard for a conference and I gave a talk about my experiences as a cancer patient and how they had an impact on how I write and the way I approach things. A few people were moved to tears. But other people found it awkward. You know?
PS: So afterward people said it was moving and other people just kind of avoided me. They didn’t know how to talk about it; people have a hard time with that sort of thing. I will give you another example: my book The Power of the Between, which doesn’t really fit any anthropological category although it is all about anthropology and reading and theory and stuff like that. That book has only been reviewed twice: in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and in American Ethnologist. That’s it. It’s a book about the craft of anthropology.
B: People don’t know what to do with it.
PS: They don’t know what to do with it. It’s emotional. There’s feeling in it. My new book may share the same fate. It is about the nature of human relationships and well-being and frustration—fundamental things that are central to anthropological understanding. But it’s probably not going to be reviewed very widely. People don’t know what to do with it.
B: We have a fundamental contradiction here: the very things that make your work accessible, the things that draw people to it, are the very same things that make it confusing for academia to know how to deal with.
PS: Yes! The received categories are undermined through a lot of things that I do. In some sense, my work doesn’t fit. My most boring works are the ones that are most cited in the literature. My most interesting works, at least in my view, are hardly ever cited at all.
B: But your ability to be personable, your ability to share yourself is also what makes you have the following that you do have, and also what makes you a fabulous mentor, I think.
PS: Well, thank you.
B: You have written that “mentorship is magical, it can be the difference that makes a difference; it can be the tonic that sweetens life in the world.” I have learned this directly from you because you have mentored me for years, and your mentorship continues to enlighten me. I have also learned the joy of reciprocating from you. Mentoring undergraduate students is one of the most rewarding things I have done in the past few years. Yet mentoring is discouraged in practice. It may be an expected component of an academic job, but as a contingent or junior faculty member in particular, it is, practically speaking, not necessarily where you can or should put a lot of your energy. In many places, teaching and mentoring are less valuable than publishing. Do you feel mentoring is undervalued in general? Why is it so difficult to find good mentoring even when it is valued?
PS: It’s really unfortunate because no one can proceed on his or her path alone especially in professional circles. If you are fortunate enough to have a really magical mentor as I have had, if you have had that experience, it stays with you and it makes you want to do the same thing for other people. I think it is a kind of skewed thing. On the one hand, you get rewarded for bringing grant money in, or publishing such and such a text, and there is a degree of satisfaction to that. But the most satisfying thing is to see people that you have mentored come into their own. I got it from Jean Rouch and from my teacher Adamu, but also the Songhay think that mentoring is part of a system of learning, sort of like master-apprentice kind of relationship. That takes a long time to develop. If you become someone’s mentor, it’s not for the short term. It’s a life-long thing. It’s a good thing. In the classical sense, for the scholar, that’s our greatest obligation. Not to bring in grant money or to write in inaccessible prose, or even to teach classes, it is to find people to guide. And not in the direction you think they should necessarily go. As a mentor your job is to point them in a direction and let them come into their own. And to do it their own way! But everyone needs that guiding hand. It’s a more traditional system of learning, that’s what elders do. It’s a very personal kind of thing.
B: It’s an organic thing.
PS: It’s emotional, it’s personal and it is not something that is given great value. Which is a shame because the rewards of it are good for the mentor and good for the mentee.
B: Recently you have written about how tired you are.
PS: “T” “I” “D” “E,” tide, like the title of Joe Louis Walker’s blues song.
B: Yes, tide. And I am curious, how are you able to be a productive scholar who is also very accessible and humble, and deal with things that make you so tired in the academic world? How do you maintain hope?
PS: I think the key is not to be focused not on the short term but on the long term. Be focused on the future. So maybe I do things that are unappreciated or I can’t believe how stupid some of our public officials are, or how narrow minded our administrators can be, or how petty our colleagues can be from time to time. It’s extraordinary how much time we waste on petty things. All of that makes me tired but not enough to silence my voice; it’s not enough to make me want to not write. Right now I’m working on a blog. And I realize it is not going to make a whole lot of difference. Forbes Magazine rates anthropology as the worst college major. I have written about this before, but every time they bring it up, I want to counter it. And maybe some people say, oh he is doing this again, but who knows, maybe I will reach someone new. And if I reach one or 2, maybe 5 or 10 people and I make them think about this sort of thing, maybe they will major in anthropology, or maybe their parents will encourage them to do so, and that is worth it. It’s very tiresome, but then my sense of obligation is such that I feel like I have to keep at it. This is why I have this new book project. I want to write about the spaces between anthropology and sorcery, I want to write about what happened to my friend, and discuss the limits of the possible. I don’t know how many people will read it or not, but I feel like I have labored my whole life doing this and I need to do these sorts of things as a way of pay back for the opportunities I have had.
B: You have told me that you think the role of scholarship in the world is to increase human understanding. I wonder if you think this also can be applied to anthropologists who find themselves or choose to work outside of academia? Do you see “increasing human understanding” as an imperative to all anthropological work?
PS: Absolutely, fundamentally. I think as time goes on, anthropologists who work outside of academia are going to have more of a public impact. The impact of the anthropological vision and orientation and methods of research will be substantial vis-à-vis people confronting very real problems in the world. In so doing, you enhance human understanding but you do it on the ground level, in a very fundamental way. Applied work is more concrete than academic endeavors—more tangible.
B: Even though it is sometimes given a bad rap by academics.
PS: Applied stuff is always given a bad rap. It’s not serious, it’s not academic, but ultimately, if you take the long view of things, the impact of applied work is going to be much more substantial than non-applied work. In the academic world, the shelf life of any academic theory is limited. People get all excited. When I was doing graduate work, French structuralism was our religion and Levi-Strauss was God. We had a couple of faculty members where I studied who had been to Paris and studied with Levi-Strauss. They were very excited about structuralism. For my post-doc I went to study with Levi-Strauss as well. When I met him and the people around him, I decided that structuralism was not for me [both laughing]. I had been a real convert. That was in the late ‘70s and Levi-Strauss was still the Professor of Anthropology at the College de France. Alas it is now 35-40 years later and no one is doing French structuralism. Several anthropologists many be doing it but calling it the so-called ontological turn, which as far as I am concerned is a kind of reinvention of structuralism.
B: Yes, we were talking about this at the AAA meetings.
PS: I mean the ontologists have some positive things to say but I’ve been around long enough to see many other “isms” come and go: ethnographic semantics, ethnoscience, cultural materialism, Marxism, political economy, globalization—all have come and gone. What about human rights discourse [both laughing]?
B: Yes, I am intimately acquainted with that one [laughing].
PS: It is still there, but there is not as much fervor about it. All these meta-discourses make contributions to the anthropological record. Even so, applied work makes a more tangible and lasting contribution. People like you, Beth, are affecting people’s lives directly.
B: You have often told me that the work that is most cutting-edge or inspiring to you comes from the margins.
B: What’s been inspiring you lately? Anything new, or have you revisited old inspirations? What’s keeping you going?
PS: The experience of my own life keeps me going. I was reading an interview with this guy who wrote How Forests Think, Eduardo Cohen. His work is cited as ontological but it is not really. His research and his implication in things lead him to ask certain kinds of questions. It has been things that have happened in his own life, personal and professional, that have led him to ask these kinds of questions. Powerful work emerges from the personal, not the other way around. More often than not it is the other way around. Folks say I have this theory and I’ll use it to explain data and my experience. They play down the importance of the personal. In my own life the juxtaposition of sickness and health has changed the way I do anthropology. It has also changed me as a person making me more humble. Serious illness has also made me prioritize things in different ways. As a younger anthropologist, I would have never considered doing an applied book on cancer, a guidebook, and a work that is totally non-intellectual. I’d never do that. Now I see it as an important thing to do because it will apply anthropological insight into illness and will be readily available to lots of people. Illness has also made me more aware of the importance of mentorship. I have been fortunate to have mentors who have guided me in a certain directions. People who have been wonderful to me, my life, knock on wood, have been quite wonderful in terms of meeting people in New York and doing things in Niger and meeting lots and lots of people all over the world. At this point in my life I am driven by my sense of obligation as a scholar. I feel obligated to try to produce works that increase knowledge, but knowledge that makes an impact on someone’s life.
B: So “the margins” to you means crossing disciplinary boundaries, it means pulling from your life experiences?
B: You’ve written about Toni Morrison, you’ve written about other fiction writers, you have written memoirs and novels, you have crossed all of these intellectual and disciplinary boundaries. Crossing boundaries, having a wide reach, enhances scholarship; it enhances its accessibility and its readership. And yet, here we are again with contradictory academic messages, in this case the idea of “branding” yourself as a scholar, having a specialty. Karen Cardozo has written about this idea of “tenurecentrism”—if you are going to get tenure, or have a place in the academy, you must be incredibly focused in your scholarship, very narrow. You must publish in very specific ways to brand your expertise. With that model, there are so many things potentially lost.
PS: Oh, absolutely.
B: Exploration, growth.
PS: Creativity. It’s a dead hand of competence, to quote Clifford Geertz.
B: Exactly. So what do we do with the reality that “tenurecentrism” is the name of the game?
PS: So, ultimately, if you take the long view and pursue what you feel is right and what excites you, things can often work out for the best. Early in my career, I was up for a job at the University of Chicago. I went for an interview but was number two. But had I gone there, I don’t feel that I would have been able to develop the body of work that I was able to develop at a place like West Chester University. At West Chester people left me alone, and I didn’t have to fight any theoretical turf battles. Being at a small university provided an environment where I could pursue my own path and feel good about it. And in a sense, the path that I pursued was that which was consistent with where I was in my life honoring and paying homage to the people who taught me, to think: what would they think about my writing, my representation? The freedom to write what you want in your own style is something very special.
I can’t write journal articles anymore. I just can’t do it. I try. I have just been reading this book manuscript for Penn Press by this woman who did a beautiful study about the lower Congo. She’s an African American woman doing research in Lower Congo. She’s from the South Bronx. She went to Brown University, got scholarships, and went to the University of Michigan, got a PhD. She grew up in the projects and went to the Lower Congo. I mean that’s a fantastic story. In her book, she writes a little bit about issues of identity, because often she was taken as Congolese, which meant that she was treated by some of her Embassy friends, or the people who worked for them, as a Congolese. This part of the text—so complex, multilayered—absolutely grabbed me. As an African American she didn’t want to make the book about being an African American. She wanted to demonstrate her considerable competence as a scholar. It is really a fantastic piece of work. Even so, she cannot elude the personal and so she creates a delicate balance between the personal and the professional. My recommendation to her was: put a few pages of the complex issue of being an African American scholar doing research in Congo. I also suggested that she write a memoir. I hope she does. How did I get off on this tangent?
B: I don’t know, I don’t remember [laughs].
PS: Okay [laughs]. I used this example to demonstrate the power of the institution to constrain how we think and how we write. One of the things that I would suggest is to write your material like a composer. Writing it in a playful ways. You have to sit down and start doing it, and then all of a sudden, if it is right, then the story takes hold of you, and it pours out.
B: I agree. So trust ourselves, write playfully, and take the long-view, that is what we need to do.
PS: Yes, definitely trust yourself. Trust your instincts, and your sensibilities. And don’t let other shit undermine that.