Talking Shit

By Rebecca Marshall • MSc Medical Anthropology

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This blog entry is a review of the UCL Medical Anthropology Evening Seminar entitled ‘Three Achievements of Excrement: Disgust, humour and emphasis’ given by Professor of Anthropology, Sjaak van der Geest (University of Amsterdam), Thursday 12th October 2017, Darryl Forde Seminar Room

If one were to argue that faeces (yes, that’s poo to you and me) is a powerful tool of disgust, humour and rhetoric – you’d be sure to reply that they were talking shit. Correct?

Yet during Professor Sjaak van der Geest’s engaging talk – ‘Three Achievements of excrement: disgust, humour and emphasis’ – he waded through an anthropological journey knee deep in dirt and shit, persuading his audience otherwise.

Starting with a colourful exploration of Mary Douglas’s concept of “matter out of place”, Van der Geest argued excrement has a cultural meaning. When thinking about what defines excrement, we need to view it in its social place, its context. He indulged us in a thought experiment. You and I are storing poo in our colon right now and we will flush it down a toilet later. Yet this doesn’t stop us living our day to day lives, we are not continually disgusted by this process or thought. It’s not “out of place”. But then put yourself in the shoes of a patient who has undergone a colostomy and has a stoma bag to contend with. Their internal becomes external. (During my Colorectal Surgical rotation as a medical student, I observed this scenario daily.) This was a patient’s own faeces transported “out of place” by a technical shift. Then consider the profound stigma associated with this change and the impact this has on a person’s relationship with their environment, their peers and their own identity. The anthropological conceptualisation of “faeces out of place” starts to take shape. The meaning of excrement becomes constructed by its place, where it is in time and space.

Yet this is not a one-way street. Whilst the meaning of excrement is formed by context, poo itself can be utilised as a reaction to socio-cultural and historical contexts. Its very stuff, its materiality and associated disgusting properties, can be transformed into a rhetorical device. It is no coincidence that the word “revolt” signifies both the act of protest and the feeling of being disgusted. Van der Geest recounted striking examples where poo, the unlikeliest of accomplices, has been transformed into a political weapon. Take the example of the 1980 “dirty protest” in Maze Prison, Northern Ireland, in which IRA prisoners smeared excrement over their cell walls. This foreshadowed the later (and infamous) 1981 hunger strike and the amplification of violent tensions in this region. More recently, the play on words “poopootov cocktail” in Caracas, Venezuela has been utilised as a protest against President Maduro’s government and a symbol of the struggle for democracy. As one protester exclaimed “they have tear gas, we have excrement.”

Tit (or more aptly shit) for tat.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, Van der Geest illustrated the comedic potential of poo. Drawing on the work of Douglas, whose essays on Humour describe joking as a “play upon form” and a kind of “ritual pollution”. Poo has the power to subvert and to highlight “alter-realities”. Reflected in works of Freudian thought, too, in the sense that jokes can bring together seemingly incongruous themes in order to highlight hidden patterns in society.
Sjaak recounted examples of proverbs and wit from around the globe. His vast research in Ghana sparked a fascination with faeces; encountering proverbs such as “efi aka no” (literally, “dirt has stuck to him”), which signifies someone who has committed a moral sin. In Malawi, the proverb “eating in the toilet” signifies a “greedy person” and the phrase “life is like a chicken coop ladder” is a popular (and admittedly amusing) allegory one can hear echoed around communities.

Douglas herself drew on Western anthropological studies of the Dogon tribe in Africa, to show how humour (like dirt) is culturally defined and context specific (cf. 1968). Ethnographers viewed the exchanges of the Dogon tribe describing them as “gross insults”, yet to the local discourse – this was merely a mechanism of joviality and wit.
So, just as poo can shock and disgust, “toilet humour” and rhetorical shit is also a means of playing with dirty and taboo subjects to provoke a response.
And the audience’s response to the entertaining seminar ‘Three Achievements of Excrement: Disgust, humour and emphasis’?
A definite hit.

Yet his fourth achievement – namely, putting us off our food just before dinner time – may not have gone down so well.


References:

Van Der Geest, Sjaak (1998) Akan Shit: Getting rid of dirt in Ghana. Anthropology Today 14(3):8-12.

Douglas, Mary (1966) Purity and Danger. London: Routledge.

Douglas, Mary (1968) The Social Control of Cognition: Some factors in joke perception. Man (N.S.) 3(3):361-376.

The Guardian (2017) ‘They Have Gas; We Have Excrement’: Venezuela protests take a dirty turn. Wednesday, 10th May 2017. Accessed online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/09/venezuela-protest-poo-poo-tov-cocktail-nicolas-maduro

 

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Anthropology Has Lost Its A-Level, but Not Its Students

With the New Year fast approaching, it seems appropriate for us to reflect upon the past but also to look towards the future. Today, we are posting an essay written by sixth form student Cherise Jarret, who is special not only for her writing talent but also because she will be amongst the last students in the country to sit an Anthropology A-Level alongside their other exams in the summer of 2018. Many dedicated individuals— most momentously within the RAI – committed four years of precious time and resources to launch this A-Level but sadly, just as it was gaining credence and popularity amongst students, it was axed within the series of cuts made by ‘the government’s reform of A-Levels’ in 2015. In the wake of this event, and as a precursor to Anthropolitan’s spring video series on this topic, we hope this article will inspire readers and stimulate discussion into whether this was a justified move

Editorial Note (Shosha Adie)


Cherise Jarret on the topic ‘Why is Anthropology Important to Me?’

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Figure 1: Cherise’s Anthropology ft. their teacher Tomislav Maric , who co-wrote the A-Level textbook for their course. Photo credits: James O’Donoghue

As I walked into the sixth form room as a shy Year 11, rocking thick rimmed glasses and a jumper two sizes too big, I came across a rather tall man standing next to an array of photos from different cultures with the bold heading: Anthropology. With my inner child nudging and prodding at my gut, I made my move to the stand, rather timidly, in what was later to be one of the best decisions I have made. ‘Anthropology is a beautiful, absolutely beautiful subject!’ he said, with a grin wider than his build.

That was me two years ago, and now I can honestly agree and say that Anthropology is a beautiful, culturally stimulating subject that engrosses you into learning about other people’s stories, which we all have. Despite me still rocking the glasses and bed hair look, I feel as though I have crawled more out of my hobbit hole and become more confident within myself to pierce through my protective bubble and interact with people to enrich my curiosity about other ways of life, from past to present.  Anthropology to me is one of those subjects which makes you stop in your tracks and wonder about questions such as, “What makes us human?”, “What other systems of thought are there?”, “How can fragments of objects tell the stories of cultures?” and so forth, allowing your imaginative, inner Curious George to be manifested once more.

However, us A-Level Anthropology students are unfortunately the last to board this train, since as of 2018 it will be axed off our examination board. I was surprised and utterly speechless, as I suppose most people are to this outcome, as Anthropology pinpoints on important topics such as discrimination, racism and prejudiced views which we need to take drastic actions on to allow equality in today’s world. Anthropology allows you to be a more open-minded person and quench your thirst to explore the horizons, find out what is happening in our world, stop exploitation and to provide a voice for people. I always believed that Anthropology should be taught for everyone of all ages, as you are able to walk in another person’s shoes and become less judgemental, as there is much more to a person than what is merely perceived on the surface.

My journey into Anthropology will always continue, as I’d rather be a thinker than a sheep.

Nobody Cares About Anthropology

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She won’t like stories
About how you became less of a man
About how you only take photos on 35mm film
About how you found yourself and they found you
About ghosts and your parents and what it means to remember

Stories of tribes and archipelagos and you and them
Stories of theories
Of paeons wound tightly around your thumb
Of diesel engines and dust in your boots
Of days where you didn’t wash and sat with your thesaurus
Trying to find new words for the past
Gone by, over and done

Fabian Broeker • MSc Digital Anthropology


Photograph by Edwin Rosskam

 

Reflections on Fieldwork: A Recollection of My K-pop Experience

By Elaine Wong • BSc Anthropology

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Post-it notes containing messages of affection to contestants in an idol competition left on the wall by K-pop fans in an underground train station in Seoul

Following my last article on the inspiration for my undergraduate dissertation, I would now like to present an updated account of my research after completing two months of fieldwork in South Korea. Shifting from my previous emphasis on infrastructures, I now turn to a new title: “How to produce a Pop Idol: the co-shaping of the K-pop body”, which focuses on the body. In other words, my project aims to find out how the bodies of K-pop (South Korean pop music) idols, their producers, and their fans shape each other through processes such as structured training, marketing strategies and fan activity.

July: Introduction to South Korean culture

Over the first month, I attended a summer program at Sogang University in Seoul to learn the Korean language and take a module on Korean culture. Although classroom-based learning does not count as fieldwork, I gained valuable insight into the historical context of South Korean politics and performing arts culture. Buzzwords such as ‘visuality’ and ‘aurality’ that are found in traditional Korean performance studies resonated with my investigation into K-pop. At the end of the program, there was a graduation ceremony where students performed various traditional and contemporary Korean performances that we learnt in the course. Whilst the traditional performances – pansori (판소리) and sogo drum dance (소고춤) – were course assignments, a few of us students took initiative to do a K-pop dance cover – we named our group ‘Sogang K-Bangerz’. Many credits to Noelle, my dancer classmate, for taking on the role of choreography director. Rehearsals involved learning the general dance moves of the songs and familiarising ourselves with our own parts. Practice took place in a large study room on campus and started at 9pm every other night, sometimes ending as late as 1:30am. Those of us who lived off-campus always bought ice-cream on the way back home (I typically ordered a large Americano on the way to class the next day every morning). While I was already aware of K-pop’s worldwide popularity, it felt somewhat surreal to actually meet fans from countries other than my own; China, Russia, Sweden, and the US, just to name a few.

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Sogang K-Bangerz rehearsing at night

August: Training as an idol and an anthropologist

After the summer program, I entered the entertainment company where I would spend the next month collecting most of my fieldwork data training as K-pop idol. Despite being reunited with some of the staff who recognised me from the previous year, it still felt alien as a researcher rather than a tourist this time. Firstly, being more spatially aware, I noticed things that I failed to before. For instance, the lack of windows in the practice rooms that warped my sense of time during training. Secondly, the need to maintain a reflexive mind-set (not just in training but in informal conversations or any potential source of data as well). This also applied to the interviews, especially with the trainees. It was obvious that most of their answers were prepared ahead of time, which interestingly shows how communication is highly managed in the company. I was given a name card attached to a lanyard hung around my neck, which I often removed during my training for practical reasons. However, I was told I had to wear it when going to the loo to avoid being suspected as a crazy-fan intruder (사생팬). Thirdly, I had a new dance trainer whose teaching methods were novel to me. She sat me down in the middle of a lesson, took a piece of scrap paper out and started drawing lines and numbers. Teaching me how to count beats 1 to 4, she explained, “you need to keep the audience guessing. Make them wonder what’s coming next. It’s not about being late for the beat though. Move your body at the end of 1, not after 1.” Thankful for my decent sense of musicality, I somewhat understood what she meant. Still, it was excruciatingly difficult adjusting my body to move accordingly by microseconds.

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Diagram drawn by my dance trainer on when to move within a beat

As the weeks went by, I became more self-conscious of my position as a researcher within the company. I stood out more than I expected (having overheard a lot of staff gossip), but this attitude towards me stemmed more from curiosity than hostility. The company employees were very keen in giving me many opportunities to get to know about their daily lives. Alas, every day was different and fast-paced. From getting food poisoning after a corporate dinner to drunkenly befriending the CEO’s right-hand man, language and cultural barriers were not a problem in bonding with the staff.

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Vitamin supplements taken in my 3rd week of training

Overall, my fieldwork in South Korea over the summer has raised a lot of interesting questions for my research. Linking to anthropological themes (e.g. phenomenology and technologies of enchantment); relationships between K-pop idols, producers and fans seem to be constantly co-produced through conceptual and performative activities. At the same time, the investigation teases out greater implications in the much wider context of making music ‘tangible’ for the training performer and the perceiving audience.

Thin Description: Storyteller Giles Abbott and the Power of the Imagination

By Annamaria Dall’Anese • PhD Anthropology

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Courtesy of Giles Abbott’s Facebook

As anthropology students, we are often taught the benefits of ‘thick description’. Writing down all the minute occurrences of life in the field, we are told, is the key to noticing social patterns, and to gaining an insight into a different community. Regardless of whether those minutiae make it to the final text, they are the soul of ethnographic notes, the foundational details without which no sound anthropology can be constructed.

The realm of storytelling, though, has a completely different approach to ‘thick description’. It uses it sparingly, to avoid smothering the listeners’ creativity and making of their mind a dense, Mimmo Rotella-style décollage rather than a blank canvas. A storyteller prepares his story as Michelangelo sculpted his statues: removing all superfluous matter so as to reveal only the essential form inherent in the material. The listener’s imagination should begin where the storyteller’s words end. The most beautiful woman in the world should be presented simply as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’, because depicting the colour of her hair would restrain the audience’s creative power, and describing her voice would muffle the one conjured in their mind’s ear.

You can learn all this from professional storyteller Giles Abbott, who regularly performs for the Last Tuesday Society in the Victor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, located in Hackney, London. It is difficult to tell what the walls of these cramped rooms regurgitate, until after one’s eyes have slowly pierced the darkness. All available surfaces are upholstered in the macabre, the funny and the erotic, in the shape of shrunken heads, medical curiosities and other objects collected by the museum’s eponymous founder. In the basement, away from the noise of the upstairs bar, this grotto of material culture houses Giles’s performances, art at its most ethereal, reduced to its bare bones by lack of any accoutrements. His essential narrative style is in stark contrasts with the richness of the setting. Nevertheless, each story accompanies the listener through a range of emotions that are as diverse as the objects on the walls are disparate. Besides, his stories are ethereal because they are conveyed only through his magnetic voice, but not ephemeral: they are hundreds if not thousands of years old. Still, they continue to powerfully resonate with his 21st century London audience.

Seven or eight people, mostly young couples, gather around a transparent surface that reveals a skeleton underneath. Communal table or coffin? In the intimate atmosphere of the show, the stories echo the diversity of the objects on the walls, and can in turn encourage a different interpretation of these eccentric memorabilia. Giles’s repertoire draws on a variety of traditions, ranging from classic mythology to Nordic sagas, and is rich enough to cover the different themes that he presents each month, such as tainted love or rebirth.

While everyone sits still, each story unfolds within the mutual listening occurring between storyteller and audience. The words should not be set in stone, but respond to the mood of those present. However, their facial expressions, which are softened by the candle light, are ungraspable by Giles. As a visually impaired person, he has learnt to pick up clues from held breaths, gasps, as well as the sound of body movement. His visual impairment is also what led him to develop a career in storytelling in the first place. In his personal life, imagination has played as crucial a role as it does today in his relationship with his audience. In fact, deprived of the pleasure of reading when he lost his sight at the age of 25, he cultivated that of revisiting in his mind the books that had nourished him the most in his childhood and youth. Coupled with thorough voice training, this allowed him to start his career as a storyteller and voice teacher, which has brought him to perform regularly all over the UK at clubs, libraries, arts centres and festivals. He has also worked at residencies and consultancies in national museums and galleries, and appeared in Holland, Germany and India, among other countries. While developing his career, Giles encountered stories resonating with his personal history, which gave him the strength to overcome his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. This same palpable strength he now transmits to his audiences in London, where he performs regularly, as well as across Britain and overseas.

If you attend one of his shows, you will realise that his stories feel attractively anthropological: in spite of their contrasting approaches to ‘thick description’, anthropology and storytelling share a keen interest in the human. Emotions, norms, encounters, spells, sanctions, feasts… Inescapable index entries for anthropologists, the ‘stuff that things are made of’ for storytellers.


Links:
www.gilesabbott.com

Stories On A Sunday at The Last Tuesday Society is held on the 2nd Sunday of every month at 6 & 8pm
Tickets here
Prices: GBP 11.00; concessions GBP 5.95.

For info on gigs and workshops follow Giles on Facebook 

The Position of the Anthropologist: Field Notes from a Field Trip

By James O’Donoghue • BSc Anthropology

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There we were one winter night, half-naked and barefoot in a muddy West Country field, stood amongst fellow first-year anthropology students staring into a fire, all the while our lecturer stands in his speedos spinning a bull-roarer under the starry sky. This, for many of us, was our first hands-on experience of anthropology, and for all of us, an unforgettable one.

That lecturer was Dr Jerome Lewis, Reader in Social Anthropology, who once a year for new-coming anthropology undergraduates, organises a field trip into the West of mainland Britain, to push us out of our comfort zone, to create some ‘anthropological bonding’ and to show us that we don’t need to travel 8,697 miles to Papua New Guinea to meet a shaman.

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I will be purposely vague in my description of the field trip, so as not to spoil the surprise for the next first-year students awaiting their very own otherworldly experience (located just East of the M5). What Jerome wanted to show us in this unassuming place, was that something so foreign could exist so close to home. A place where we could, in his words, ‘realise that even when things appear the same they may not be the same’, due to the all-mystifying, all-complex phenomena that is ‘culture’.

For four days around forty of us lived, breathed and—very memorably—ate in the ways of our warm and welcoming hosts. Each day provided us with a new experience, teaching us valuable lessons in anthropological study. The first evening saw us introduced to the ‘plain-clothed shaman’, Great Grandfather Jem, a traveller and teller of stories. There we sat, like Nursery school children, gathered around at story time, listening to the tales that Great Grandfather Jem had acquired through his interaction with peoples across the world. Day two saw half of us engaging in heated staring competitions, to gain the approval of an appointed monarch, and the other half of us swapping pleasantries and line dancing—all with the ultimate aim to experience and understand the role of an ethnographer in an alien culture. On day three, we walked into the past and tried to connect and dance with our ancestors under the gaze of a large, looming papier-mâché dragon. The final day held the culmination of our experiences, where we put into practice all we had learnt over the few days. In a few words, it involved amateur architecture, slippery muddy floors and glowing hot, red rocks—a health and safety nightmare.

By Kyri Antoniou (top left), anonymous (top) and Lana Hall (bottom)

However, the ultimate purpose of this trip was not what we had whilst we were there, but what we would take away. Post-trip, the Anthropology group-chat was alive with people pitching in to give their experience of the trip, and what it was to them. Everyone had their own unique interpretation and stance on what we went through, and one way this was expressed was in the poems we were asked to write just before we left, to personally sum up our experiences. I have selected four of said poems for this article.

The trip brought up what Jerome considers ‘one of the biggest struggles’ one would face as an anthropologist – how does the anthropologist negotiate their position in what they are observing and experiencing? Sometimes as an anthropologist you may experience or witness something you believe is ridiculous or untenable from your worldview, but as Jerome says, ‘we still have to study them, we still have to learn about them’. Do we try to understand what we are seeing ‘from their perspective’ or do we ‘report what we see as faithfully as we can’? Perhaps we may just see it all as people ‘pulling wool over peoples’ eyes’.

By @hdword (find more of their work on Instagram)

The specific questions raised on this trip are far too complex for me to get into at this moment, and, frankly, beyond my field of knowledge for now. But what I can understand and explain was Jerome’s main reason for organising these trips. He tells me, ‘at the basic level’, it’s for some anthropological bonding; some bonding for people who may well pass through three years of study on the same course and never get to know each other. An opportunity to get to know each other through being put through some unusual situations—unusual situations that do push us a bit, and through that pushing, we become more closely connected to those we pushed through with. This was surely one aspect where everyone didn’t differ on opinions.

Overall, a lot was taken away from this trip: imperishable memories, closer friendships and of course, full stomachs. But, we also learnt a lot, not just on the trip, but also in the revelations that came afterwards. We now know that in the field, we won’t turn up with just pen and paper, but a whole history of personal experience that will shape the way we understand and interpret what we see in front of us. The anthropologist’s position is never set—it should be plastic and fluid—as we must contest our own position as much as we try to understand the lives of others.

Day of the Dead (London Style)

By Sonia Singh • MA Ethnographic and Documentary Film

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“Day of the Dead” (Dia de los Muertos), celebrated primarily on November 2nd, is a day to honor and celebrate the dead. Colorful sugar skulls, bright face paint, flower decorations, candle-lit altars with food offerings and loud mariachi music are just a few staples of this famous Mexican holiday. Dia de los Muertos offers a different perspective on how to respectfully honor our ancestors. Instead of inundating ourselves with grief and misery, it offers the chance to connect with the departed by celebrating their journey between earth and the afterlife. By talking to others about lost loved ones rather than avoiding the discussion, this holiday brings solace and happiness to an otherwise historically depressing topic.

Celebratory rituals honoring dead ancestors have been practiced in Mexico for thousands of years. One major tradition is to visit the graves of loved ones, and fill altars with the deceased’s favourite candies and beverages. It is believed that their souls are on a continuous journey, and can revisit earth when summoned. Blankets and pillows may also be placed near their graves, to offer rest for their ancestors after their tiring journey. Streets are filled with color, dancing, music, and happiness. It is a time to celebrate, not to dwell in mourning.

This year the owners of Milagros, a Mexican shop selling textiles and other decorations, decided to throw an early Dia de los Muertos celebration on Columbia Road in Bethnal Green, London. Tom, the shop owner, has traveled extensively through Mexico, and has fond memories of celebrating Dia de los Muertos abroad. He describes the holiday as a way of, ‘dealing with death.’ Londoners would typically avoid the topic altogether, he says, bottling up their emotions rather than expressing their grief in a healthy way.

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This Mexican tradition encourages those who have lost their loved ones to embrace the thought of death, celebrating the belief that the soul is eternal and can travel back and forth without bounds. The English school of thought, which treats death as a final, formal, and crushing farewell to loved ones, stands in stark contrast to the ethos of Dia de los Muertos.

The countless Londoners visiting this year’s Dia de los Muertos festival on Columbia Road, could be seen as a positive step towards the embracing and acceptance of these beautifully diverse traditions and worldviews that coexist in our sprawling city. The positive experiences these festivals have to offer not only promote inclusion, but also individual growth. At the end of the day, witnessing a new perspective on an otherwise ‘touchy’ subject can be a beneficial and valuable experience. For most Mexicans, this year’s celebration will be an especially moving event. With the recent earthquakes wreaking havoc and pain throughout their country, Mexicans are standing united to help rebuild the land and honor the many lives that have been taken.

People around the world facing adversity and loss could find comfort in the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. As the Mexican saying goes, ‘Al mal tiempo, buena cara.’ Translation: when the going gets tough, keep on smiling. Positivity will bring light into our lives.