Participant Observation from a First-Timer at the AAA Conference 2018, San Jose

I had the privilege of attending the American Anthropological Association annual meeting in San Jose this year, for the very first time. Whether you enjoy big conferences or not, or oppose their existence from a political or a climate-change standpoint, I think we can agree that attending one is still a privilege, made possible in my case by a handy chunk of leftover research funding, and some flexibility granted to me by my supervisor and my family. I’m not the only person who felt compelled to write up some reflections following the AAA this year (notable examples here and here). We are anthropologists, after all, and what do most of us do but head out someplace new, hang around feeling like outsiders, then retreat to our laptops and reflect? With that venerable tradition in mind, here’s my own offering of reflections on this year’s conference.

The smoke

Darkening the sky, hanging in the rafters of the convention center, and stinging the throats and eyes of everyone who came, the smoke of the major fires ravaging California was an inescapable presence. The AAA president, in his opening remarks, acknowledged the forensic anthropologists from Cal State Chico who were at that moment assisting in the recovery and identification of bodies from towns destroyed by the fire. Zoe Todd was among many who commented on the smoke, calling it a kind of message: the land itself telling us about the violence of the settler colonial structures on which California is built.

I was reminded of Kim Fortun’s recent interview on The Familiar Strange podcast, in which she talked about living in toxic times. She argued that anthropologists can respond as a disaster unfolds, and not just in the aftermath. I also thought of a recent workshop at Deakin University in Melbourne, called “Writing Slow Disaster in the Anthropocene.” As the organizers wrote in their call for participants:

‘Slow disaster describes the long process of environmental and infrastructural degradation produced by inadequate risk assessments, industrial regulations, and the political narratives that shape design decisions of human-environment relations. The longer temporal perspective provided by slow disaster can help index political, infrastructural, and social dynamics in relation to the new terrains and atmosphere emerging in the Anthropocene. Writing slow disaster draws attention to, and works through, the entanglements of climate crises, structural violence, and the legacies of industrialism.’

San Jose, after all, is basically an adjunct to Silicon Valley, home of techno-utopians and their confidence that every problem can be solved with a technological solution, and a concentration of wealth like the world has never seen before. The fires that sent up the smoke choking San Jose were distant still, but creeping ever closer. No blue-sky thinking could dispel the haze.

The space

The convention centre was cavernous, and many of the meeting rooms had ceilings that were inexplicably high, giving the panels a feeling of taking place at the bottom of a mineshaft or a well. This was particularly the case in panels that were poorly attended, which sometimes had a sense of projecting words and ideas into a profound emptiness. Or you could say, on the more positive side, of finding companionship in the most remote and unlikeliest of places.

A labor action had caused AAA to remove all of the events it had planned for the Marriott hotel to an enormous space within the convention center, which resembled a gymnasium, and provided some of the most dystopian images of the entire conference. The space had been subdivided into more than a dozen cubicles, each with panels going on inside them. Sound spilled out of these cubicles, over and through their thin and low walls, echoing off the distant roof and the polished concrete floor to create a cacophony, through which it was extremely difficult to make out what any one speaker was saying.

There were a lot of obvious comments about the incongruity of anthropologists, most of whom study disempowered or subaltern people and do their fieldwork in various levels of discomfort, coming together to share their knowledge in a plush convention center and the ballrooms of ritzy hotels. Given that we’re a bunch of people who believe in situated knowledge, the dissonance was hard to miss.

The exhibition hall

Wandering the book exhibits, where the various university presses had stocked their stalls with piles books, I was overcome with a strange mix of emotions. There were so, so many books, with candy-colored covers and artful titles. At moments, this made me feel hopeful: all that anthropological knowledge! These books could have the power to change minds, to show students or policy makers worlds and concepts they never imagined.

But I also felt a certain sadness. Because it was an absolute flood. So much. Who could read it all? Who could synthesize it? It was hard to see how this enormous volume of research could ever be contributing to a single body of knowledge, because no one could engage with more than a sliver of it. Sometimes it seems like even a published and promoted book isn’t read much more than an unpublished thesis languishing in an archive somewhere. It compounded the feeling I got from those well-bottom panel presentation rooms: the sense of shouting into emptiness. The chaos of it was beautiful, though. Such glorious noise.

The #Hautalk panel

One highlight of my time at AAA was the #Hautalk panel–indeed, the only packed room I was in the entire week. There was an energy shared among the participants, some of whom seemed to have met in person for the first time at the convention, after months of conversation and collaboration online. There were senior scholars and journal editors in the room, there to show their faces and hear what people had to say. A community had come together, and empowered one another to make their own space in the discipline: to refuse some conventions, and look forward towards an anthropology that everyone could be proud to take part in.

On the other hand, outside the room, where the topic of Hau Journal never came up inside my earshot, I had to ask: does what happens on Twitter matter? It wasn’t clear that this vocal and dedicated group of junior scholars had the power to topple or reform institutions outside of themselves. What they did have was the power to create and nurture new institutions and communities, to grow inside and alongside AAA, university departments, journals, and the other frameworks that we’re all navigating as anthropologists. Will the energy of #Hautalk and Footnotes Blog survive another year? When the current crop of voices graduates, or moves on from anthropology, will a new cohort of junior scholars keep up the controversy?

How to have a productive AAA

My first AAA was productive in some ways–I organized one panel, chaired another, did a bit of podcasting, and met some interesting people. But it was far from the blockbuster, career-building event that it could have been. I feel like this first time at AAA gave me an idea of a better way to take advantage of the meetings next time I have an opportunity to go.

Setting up a panel of like-minded scholars way in advance, and even planning to turn our panel into a special issue or an edited volume, may be one better option. Organizing meetings in advance with the senior scholars and other people I’d like to meet, rather than approaching them cold after their presentations would be preferable. Not being ridiculously jet lagged, and so better able to go out with people for dinner or drinks. (I heard stories of some great late nights, none of which I was able to participate in. Too tired.) Really perusing the program and making a proper schedule, instead of winging it all week. Introducing myself to more strangers. The list could go on.

What does AAA make me want to do next?

This first experience of a really big conference makes me want to go to smaller conferences, where it would be easier to find the people who share my own interests. But it also makes me want to engage with AAA more as an institution. Why isn’t there an interest group for anthropology communications? Call it public anthropology, engaged anthropology, public pedagogy, whatever you want: there could really be an official group for people interested in bringing anthropological research and methods to the broader public. Going to the 2018 meeting made me want to start whipping up interest in a group like that – at a AAAs or elsewhere. So I’m talking to you now, all you podcasters, op-ed writers, bloggers, and TV talking heads: who’s in?

   [Image by Julia Brown]

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