University of Toronto Press Blog

  • Adventures in Blogging: Bringing Anthropology to the World

    For World Anthropology Day, we asked Paul Stoller to share his thoughts on the urgent need for a more public anthropology, as well as his ideas about blogging as one particular way to reach that public. Paul’s forthcoming book, Adventures in Blogging: Public Anthropology and Popular Media, will be available in April. Read an advance excerpt here

    We live in troubled times. In North America there is a wholesale assault on science, which, following longstanding practices, produces “inconvenient truths.” These truths stand in stark contrast to “alternative facts,” a patchwork of “big lies” that create a tapestry of untruth on media and social media. Taken together, these untruths have created an alternative universe of meaning. In this alternative universe, up is down, fiction becomes fact, and the truth, the ultimate objective of science, no longer matters. We are fast entering a seemingly limitless Orwellian space in which conspiracy theories are used in the blunt exercise of power that trumps the quest for truth and wisdom—the foundation of scholarship in the world.

    You can’t fight big lies with small truths.

    In this distressed environment, it is time for scholars, guardians of inconvenient truths, to meet their fundamental obligation: to produce knowledge that makes life a little bit better for us all. Although the pursuit of wisdom has long been the central obligation of scholars, we now live in a different climate than in years past. Most anthropological insights, for example, have been conveyed by way of scholarly essays and/or monographs. These texts have usually adhered to a strict set of rules. In science you are expected to present your findings and analysis in the bloodless prose of plain style. In so doing, we have let the power of our findings and our analyses—the facts, if you will—speak for themselves in an abstract and inaccessible language. For some time now, the persistent presence of deadly academic prose has meant that the public has little, if any, knowledge of our rigorously derived insights—insights that are important in the contemporary battle for truth.

    How many people, for example, know about important anthropological insights regarding climate change, racism, the re-emergence of Social Darwinism, the nature of religion and belief systems, the linguistics and cognitive science of propaganda, or the courage and resilience of peoples from what the American President has referred to as “shithole” countries?

    Not many!

    It’s true that anthropologists are waking up to the political and epistemological realities of a socially mediated world. An ever-increasing number of anthropologists now convey their slowly developed insights in documentary film, in drama, in poetry, in museums, and in media installations—all accessible ways to spread anthropological insights about a wide range of issues of social, economic, and political importance.

    I am one of many anthropologists who have felt the need to go public. In 2010, I realized that very few people had read what I had laboriously written in a narrative style designed for a broad audience. Despite my best efforts I understood that fewer and fewer people had the inclination to read anthropological works, including, of course, my own books and articles. I didn’t think it wise to abandon my professional writing, but felt compelled to blog anthropology by transforming complex ideas into simply stated and crisply written posts of 750 to 850 words.

    Could I do it?

    At first it was difficult to simplify tried and true academic prose, but after some false starts I found my blog rhythm and moved forward.

    I pitched an idea to HuffPost.

    They signed me up.

    I’ve been blogging anthropology ever since. In eight years of HuffPost blogging, some of my posts have spread far and wide in the blogosphere where readers liked, favorited, shared, and re-tweeted them. In some cases, 50,000 to 75,000 people would read my posts, meaning that the blogs had informed them of anthropological insights about US politics, the practice of social science, trends toward corporatization in higher education, critiques of shallow media representations, and narratives about the texture of human wellbeing.

    These days there are increasing numbers of scholars who are blogging anthropology. Most of them write skillfully about more or less anthropological subjects—especially emerging topics in archaeology and biological anthropology. In my blogs, by contrast, I have tried to bring anthropological insights to newsworthy events—the Presidential campaigns of 2012 and 2016, the dysfunction of the US Congress, the anti-intellectual war on science and social science, climate change, superstorms, and social dislocation. In the blogs, I make sure to highlight examples of apt anthropological concepts and demonstrate the wisdom non-western knowledge.

    I wrote Adventures in Blogging to show—rather than tell—anthropologists how they can use the medium as a powerful tool for mass education, a platform that connects disparate audiences. In this way, the book underscores how blogging anthropology increases cross-cultural understanding in a globally inter-connected world.

    Blogging anthropology is a different way of sharing anthropological knowledge.

    In today’s world, it’s a difference that makes a difference.

    Paul Stoller is Professor of Anthropology at West Chester University. He has published 14 books, including ethnographies, biographies, memoirs, and novels, and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Robert B. Textor Award for Excellence in Anthropology. In 2013, King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden presented him the Anders Retzius Gold Medal in Anthropology. In 2015, the American Anthropological Association awarded him the Anthropology in Media Award. He lectures and conducts writing workshops in the United States and Europe.

    This piece is cross-posted on our Teaching Culture blog.

  • Rogue Lawyers or Rights Lawyers? Strategies of Legal Activism during Africa’s Decolonization

    Written by guest blogger Meredith Terretta.

    In November 1959, Ernest Ouandié, the Vice-President of the Union of the Populations of Cameroon (UPC), wrote from exile in Cairo to Ralph Millner, British Queen’s Counsel and activist lawyer who had defended Kwame Nkrumah (later Ghana’s first president) against allegations of inciting labour riots in late 1940s Accra. Ouandié asked for Millner’s assistance in an upcoming trial in British Cameroons of two UPC organizers and labour activists from French Cameroon who had been detained in the British territory for overstaying their transit visas by a mere 24 hours. Based on the outcome of previous trials of UPC activists in British territory, Ouandié believed that if Mayoa Beck and Louis-Fernand Yopa were found guilty of the charges against them, they would be declared “prohibited immigrants” and escorted into the custody of Franco-Cameroonian security forces across the Anglo-French boundary. Here they would certainly be arrested again for posing a threat to state security. Convictions for crimes such as these in the politically charged atmosphere of French Cameroon’s decolonization resulted in the severest of punishments including life imprisonment with hard labour, and execution. Ouandié asked Millner to defend Beck and Yopa on the charges against them, but also to prepare a request for their political asylum in British territory, or their deportation to independent Ghana — rather than to French Cameroon — in case they were convicted.

    I discovered Ouandié’s letter in 2016 at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies Library among Millner’s personal papers and was excited that it backed up what I already knew: lawyers who defended Africans in colonial courtrooms throughout Africa during the age of decolonization worked together across national and imperial borders. Looking at these activities from a cross-border perspective entirely reshaped my historical understanding of Africa’s decolonization.

    Since 2010 I had been interested in how anticolonial activism across the African continent linked to networks elsewhere, as well as how it brought together internationalists who had adopted the then-novel concept of universal human rights. As I started this project, I knew I wanted to prioritize sources other than the usual official colonial records in order to gain access to the views of those who stood apart from imperial authorities. I began with the case files and correspondence of activists such as African political agitators, anticolonialist lawyers, and leaders of the first transnational NGOs such as International League of the Rights of Man, the Movement for Colonial Freedom, or the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. I learned which lawyers had devoted the height of their careers to the anticolonial cause, and read their trial records and memoirs.

    The most exciting letters I found were the ones that revealed that French and British activist lawyers corresponded with each other, and that African inhabitants of French-controlled territories engaged British citizens as defense lawyers; that Indian lawyers represented Africans in colonial Kenya and Tanganyika; and that Caribbean-born lawyers with British or French citizenship were among those who took up the anticolonial cause through law. I also found plenty of evidence that showed how British and French officials saw coordinated, international legal activism as a threat. This is starkly clear in the recently discovered and released Migrated Archive of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of Great Britain — the colonial records that the British took with them as the empire decolonized.

    My array of sources presented Africa’s decolonization as reaching beyond the imperially-bordered stories historians have gathered from research in state and colonial records. I realized that if I reconceived of Africa’s decolonization as an international legal strategy, I could demonstrate that activist lawyers and their African clients implemented this strategy to transform the law — upon which colonial administrators had, until now, relied to govern — into an instrument of contestation and ultimately liberation.

    African political leaders and their anticolonialist defense lawyers contributed to three internationally transformative projects gathering momentum after the Second World War: decolonization, the Cold War, and human rights. Because of my new perspective on the transregional legal activism in Africa at this time, I reached three ground-breaking conclusions about the way that anticolonial legal activism worked with these factors.

    First, revolutionary African anticolonialism was expressed in a practice of legal activism that sought to make the law accessible not only to elites, but to the colonial subjects who, until this moment, the law had subjugated, controlled, and guaranteed fewer rights. The International Association of Democratic Lawyers articulated this strategy most clearly in using the phrase “human rights,” in 1947, to orient its vision of the law’s potential to dismantle imperial power.

    Second, the Cold War front in 1940s and 1950s Africa was much smaller — although no less potent — than the armed struggles and proxy wars that characterized it in the 1960s and 1970s. In the earlier period, the Cold War took root in the lawyers who represented the interests of Africans seeking to shape how the law would look once territories decolonized. Here, the figure of Dudley Thompson, the British-Jamaican lawyer who seems to have served as unwilling informant for the British colonial government, depicts poignantly how the Cold War front fissured personal relationships and subverted loyalties.

    Finally, though in 1940s and 1950s Africa the international legal strategy that most successfully invoked human rights operated in the service of a revolutionary, socialist and Pan-Africanist agenda, in the late 1950s the formation (with CIA funds) of the International Commission of Jurists gave rise to a new international legal strategy to neutralize that of activists. In the ICJ’s international legal strategy, human rights and the rule of law — rather than its democratization — were the primary objectives. It was a strategy that preserved the law’s power to uphold the status quo rather than undo it. Its emphasis on individual rights weakened the ability of collective projects — like those explored in my article — to transform the structural inequalities that colonialism had established.

    The exciting possibility that arises from these findings is that decolonizing Africa may be where human rights were first transformed from a project for economic, social, and racial equality into the liberal project of individual rights protections that emerged in the late 1970s. My article only gestures toward this possibility, but the empirical evidence I’ve mustered here is sufficient, I hope, to encourage further investigation.

    Meredith Terretta
    Meredith Terretta holds the Gordon F. Henderson Research Chair in Human Rights and is an associate professor of history at the University of Ottawa. She is currently working on a book tentatively titled Activism at the Fringes of Empire: Rogue Lawyers and Rights Activists In and Out of Twentieth Century Africa. She is Vice-President of the Canadian Association of African Studies. Her latest article, “Anti-Colonial Lawyering, Postwar Human Rights, and Decolonization across Imperial Boundaries in Africa,” appears in issue 52.3 of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’histoire and is available here for FREE for a limited time: https://doi.org/10.3138/cjh.ach.52.3.03.

  • January Round-Up

    Here's what we were up to in January.

    Conferences:

    • Acquisitions editor Mark Thompson and Suzanne Rancourt attended the annual Modern Language Association convention in New York from January 4-7, 2018.
    • Len Husband and Natalie Fingerhut was at the annual meeting of American Historical Association in Washington from January 4-7, 2018.
    • We were a part of the Ontario Book Publisher pavilion at the Ontario Library Association's super conference from January 31-February 2, 2018.

    Media Highlights:

    New Releases:

  • Grounding Ourselves: On Bill C-16 and Symbolic Legislation

    Written by guest blogger Florence Ashley.

    Stylized sculpture of woman's head, top seperated from mouth up to reveal text insideImage by Nelly Wat

    I was presenting at the Pride Canada National Conference held in Montreal less than a year ago. My presentation centered on my paper “Don’t be so hateful: The insufficiency of anti-discrimination and hate crime laws in improving trans well-being” which was recently published by the University of Toronto Law Journal in what I believe to be the first-ever special issue on trans law in Canadian history. Without going at lengths about the content of the article—I hope you will choose to read it in its entirety—it may be characterised as highly critical of Bill C-16. More particularly, I paint the bill as largely symbolic and as promising but meagre payoff for pan-Canadian trans well-being.

    In the questions period, Susan walked up to the microphone and asked me a question. I must admit that my recollection is rather fuzzy, but two bits of information stand out. Firstly, she called me the next Viviane Namaste which, in my book, is one of the highest praise to be received. And secondly, she questioned the binary labelling of laws as symbolic and substantial, highlighting how laws which are purely symbolic on the surface can be effective educational tools.

    Although I continue to believe that purely symbolic laws should be criticised, the underlying critique stays with me to this day. The symbolic is one of the most characteristic traits of human societies. We lead symbolic lives, and deal in symbols every day of our lives. What does it mean, as activists who aspire to a grounded approach, to demean symbolic change?

    Indeed, the very same activists who seek to radically alter the arrangement of society oftentimes spend significant amounts of time analysing the minutia of language on the grounds that linguistic changes are an integral part of social change. Nowhere is this truer than in trans activism, where critiques of language are omnipresent—I myself contributed a chapter on transantagonism in the French language to the acclaimed book Dictionnaire critique du sexisme linguistique.

    Can I with one hand critique legislative focus on symbols while writing chapters on symbols and linguistic sexism with the other hand?

    To quote from the great G.A. Cohen, “The present paper has no conclusion.” I do not have a satisfactory answer to this question. But as I think of how I stand vis-à-vis the issue, I also wonder if consistency and coherence is something we should ask of ourselves.

    Perhaps the best we can do is be incoherent. Perhaps the value of the critique of symbolic legislation is not so much to highlight the limitations of symbols, but to recall us to the very real lives of trans people who aren’t helped by our laws. People who, like Sisi Thibert, didn’t find survival in anti-discrimination and hate crime laws. People who need us to do something else, to do more.

    Florence Ashley is an LLM Candidate at McGill University in Montreal. Metaphorically, a cyborg witch with flowers in her hair. Read her article in the latest issue of the University of Toronto Law Journal here: https://doi.org/10.3138/utlj.2017-0057

  • The Order of the British Empire after the British Empire

    Written by guest blogger Toby Harper.

    2017 was the centenary of the Order of the British Empire. Lloyd George’s war government created it in 1917 to recognize the voluntary civilian war effort in Britain and throughout the British Empire. At the time it was without precedent in the British honours system. It was distributed on a far greater scale and to a wider social range than any previous honour, most of which had been reserved for a narrow band of social and political elites. Today the Order is still the most numerically-important of all the state honours given out twice a year by the British Crown to citizens who have been judged worthy of recognition.

    Since the 1950s politicians, journalists and potential recipients in both the former empire and Britain have argued that the name is offensive, inaccurate, and anachronistic. This debate flared up again last year at the Order’s centenary. One of the main objections to changing the name at the centenary was that it was difficult or impossible to formally change the name of an order. This was not true: the Order was an invented tradition which had changed multiple times, evolving with changing requirements of British and sometimes even colonial governments. Yet this has been a common defense of the name, along with numerous other objections: that the name was popular; that Australians liked it (a decade before they dropped it); that only the wrong sort of colonial subjects disliked it; that those who disliked it were in a minority; that those who disliked it did not understand it; that Prince Philip (who proposed a name change) was a meddler; and that the name had historic, traditional weight.

    My article in the Canadian Journal of History charts the sporadic debates about the name in parliament, the press, Whitehall, and the Palace. It shows how a small group of civil servants defended the name against objections from a range of people who worried that it compromised the Crown or the Government in their relationships with colonial, former colonial, and British citizens. At the core of this defense of the name, I argue, was a nostalgia for empire that sought to defuse its legacy. The name was not problematic or offensive, its defender’s argued, but quaint. The Order was transmuted almost overnight from an imperial to a national one, in the process forgetting its roots in imperial politics and ideology. By the beginning of the twenty-first century this meant that British citizens of imperial descent were effectively offered a deal: accept this nostalgic version of empire in order to be included, or reject it and be alienated from a widely publicized and generally popular national institution. In other words, the Order of the British Empire now offers official inclusion at the price of forgetting empire.

    Toby Harper
    Toby Harper is an assistant professor of history at Providence College, Rhode Island. His latest article, “The Order of the British Empire After the British Empire,” appears in issue 52.3 of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales Canadiennes d’Histoire and is available here for FREE for a limited time: https://doi.org/10.3138/cjh.ach.52.3.05

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