So last night I was watching TV—a British show called Hustle which is a very well-made, complex-charactered, witty cousin of the TNT show Leverage—Hustle came first, and I can see no acknowledgement in the official record of the connection between the two, but come on now—and at one point (not for the first time) the characters disappear into an office somewhere. I turned to Philip and said: “What is it with these glass offices that you see on TV these days? When did people start working in fishbowls?” (I don’t think fishbowls was actually what I said—in fact, I know it wasn’t—but it was in my head, so I’ll put it out there.) He turned back to me and asked: “Why are you obsessed with offices? This is the fifth time you’ve asked me that question.”
And you know, he’s right. I am obsessed with offices. And I have asked the question often. I ask it every time I see a new TV show with a new set of offices.
People in the USA in particular seem to have taken to working in, yes, fishbowls.
All right, I know that many of you have no idea what the title means. And it doesn’t matter terribly. I’ll decode: ASA stands for Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth. I’m currently attending a conference in Belfast and am struck by the centrality of one recurrent theme: the theme of peace, of terror, of reconciliation.
Of course it’s no accident that these themes recur in Northern Ireland, where the peace settlement is gaining history of its own. What is striking me, though, is that Europeans (and others) are deeply engaged in the process of peace and reconciliation, so much so that they have provided fertile ground for study at the anthropological level. Again, I realize that that doesn’t mean a whole lot for many of us, but I’ll do my best to explain.
Maybe, first, I’ll try and explain why this concerns me. part of it is the sense — which I’m finding remarkable — that groups of people who perpetrate mass injustices, violence, terror, oppression on other groups of people are now for some reason taking responsibility for those actions, are now working out a course of reconciliation, attempting healing so that their states, their societies, can move on. For example: the Australian government officially apologized to the Aboriginal people for their oppression during the early colonial period; the South African government carried out Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals in the post-apartheid period; the British government recently apologized to Africa and the Caribbean for their involvement in the transAtlantic slave trade.
I want you to know that, before the earthquake, things in Haiti were normal. Outside Haiti, people only hear the worst — tales that are cherry-picked, tales that are exaggerated, tales that are lies. I want you to understand that there was poverty and oppression and injustice in Port-au-Prince, but there was also banality.
The writer of the above is Laura Wagner, an American PhD candidate in anthropology who was studying in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. She was injured in the quake, which killed at least one of her friends, and she still does not know what happened to the rest of them. Read the article. It gives a far more balanced account of what happened — and what still is happening — than most other writing, which focusses on the sensational, the (mostly foreign) heroics (because of course poor black people are incapable of their own heroism) and the predictable — “looting” and “social breakdown”.
If the Day of Absence is really about tourist’s pleasure, if this is
what we really care about, let us at least be honest about it. I
sincerely believe that we should deal with our own cultural hunger
before we worry about how to provide better shows for our visitors.
Confusing the two will eventually bring us right back to the same
emptiness, no matter how much money we throw at the problem.
Ward Minnis, “Trying to Make a Dollar out of Fifty Cents”, p. 7
Now I’m not really sure where the idea comes from that Day of Absence is about the tourists’ pleasure. Perhaps it comes from my own vagueness about the idea, which Ward has very succinctly dissected and served up, but I’m not so sure about it. I’m not so sure because the tourists are rarely in the back of my mind when I think about Bahamian art and culture. I happen to be of the view that we need to create for ourselves, and that visitors will appreciate what we create for ourselves far more than they appreciate what we make for them. For one thing, we know ourselves a little better. Whenever we think we know what the tourist wants, we generally end up holding the wrong end of the stick.
The simple answer is no. Why should anyone respect bad poetry, bad writing, bad painting or poorly organized festivals? … Allow me to suggest that there are perhaps two reasons why Bahamians, on the whole, have not received much in the way of international (or local) acclaim for their art. The first is that average Bahamians, and the rest of the world, don’t understand us. The other, and more interesting, reason is that we are not that good.
Lest it be thought that by calling for a Day of Absence in honour of artists and cultural workers I’m seeking in any way to recognize those who produce poor work, let me say right now I’m not.* We Bahamians have cultivated the habit of supporting certain cultural endeavours simply because they are produced by Bahamians, regardless of quality. We have suppressed our critical faculties in these arenas, clinging to the idea that (somehow) because we are all Bahamians, we should not point out failures or weaknesses. The result is that a whole lot of sub-standard stuff gets lauded and magnified in our country because we have one standard for Bahamians and another standard for everybody else. The further result of that is that we come to expect sub-standard work from Bahamians, so much so that (whether we admit it or not) the very adjective Bahamian stands for mediocrity. The default assumption about, the knee-jerk reaction to, all Bahamian cultural endeavour is Ward’s reaction — we are not that good.
I want to turn this around. Yes, it’s true that we Bahamians produce a lot of crap and pass it off as “art”. But it’s equally true that we Bahamians produce quite a bit of stuff that is world-class as well. Rather than starting from the common default, that we aren’t that good, I want to make it a question. Or rather, two.
Her Day of Absence clouds over and conflates many different and unrelated ideas while advancing an awkward historical agenda and a cumbersome theory of cultural development. It is political and apolitical, about something and about nothing, clear and blurry, all at the same time.
he’s got a point.
So I figure that if I’m going to begin to answer him, I’d better make my assumptions clear. I’m not so convinced that the ideas that Day of Absence floats are either “different and unrelated” or entirely deserving of the adjectives “awkward” and “cumbersome”, but that could just be me. What I will admit is that the way in which the concept was presented mashes together all sorts of concepts in what could be read as an unholy mess; and so the first part of the response will attempt to address this issue and to clear a couple of ideas up.
Just in case you might be thinking that male/female was a god-given thing—
A couple of Swedish parents have stirred up debate in the country by refusing to reveal whether their two-and-a-half-year-old child is a boy or a girl.
Pop’s parents, both 24, made a decision when their baby was born to keep Pop’s sex a secret. Aside from a select few – those who have changed the child’s diaper – nobody knows Pop’s gender; if anyone enquires, Pop’s parents simply say they don’t disclose this information.
In an interview with newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in March, the parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction.
“We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”
The child’s parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.