Anthropology vs. Anthropologie
This article was published in: Portland State University Vanguard, 8/11.2004.
ANTHROPOLOGY VS. ANTHROPOLOGIE
By Jason Damron
[This article was published in: Portland State University Vanguard, 8/11/2004.]
A new addition to the Pearl District is opening later this month. The boutique Anthropologie is set to bring the trinkets, treasures and tufted fabrics from around the world to your condominium. For $198 you can cozy into a "toile village quilt," or, for $58, the matching "toile village shams." What village? Who really cares? This is not a sphere, nor any type of anthropology, that cares to educate anyone about anything that has to do with any village, anywhere. This is a world that un-ironically sells the most egregious language of "old world" mystique, orientalism and poverty-chic to the most un-ironic of U.S. consumers searching for some cozy comfort. And what in the world does this have to do with being a student at Portland State?
I study anthropology, along with nearly 100 anthropology majors and thousands of other students. We, along with other students in many other disciplines, shred our beliefs, ideas and arguments in class (at least, the good classes) all the time. We struggle to understand our community. Gradually, we understand that this community extends beyond its borders-borders which have been whispered into our ears through years of basic education and feeble journalism, whispering fear, whispering worry, whispering the morality of our own economic superiority. And then, one day, we are not sure what to believe about the "toile village quilt."
Anthropology, the discipline - not the store - is not innocent.
It has been called, by sound reckoning, the "handmaiden of empire." Anthropology is as much the plundering of statuary to be marveled at in imperial museums, the supposedly objective whispers of the academy and the endless television specials on exotics, as it is the sincere search for illumination on the similarity and differences regarding humankind. In this way, anthropology is analogous to the student's search for likeness, for community, for ethics to match new knowledge and for the words that construct dialogues across seemingly vast "cultural" differences. And this is why Anthropologie, the store, is analogous to what greets our efforts once we depart the university. It seems to lament nothing, to take our concerns as peculiar and to view the most serious issues of global stratification as charming niches of marketing.
Yet, I write this opinion not to claim some intellectual distance or elitism. There is no anthropology versus Anthropologie. They (we) are in it together, and the lessons students learn from the university must feed our idiosyncratic city and state and world. There is no time, really, for protesting Anthropologie in the Pearl, because it merely represents a perfunctory response to consumers' improvident longings.
I write this opinion to recognize that a time may come when the ridiculous "village quilt" will be un-quilted and its fibers will disclose a very real struggle for fairness, equity and just labor conditions. And leading this effort will be students who have not yet forgotten the lessons of the university. They are, and have been, fierce allies to those who resist chaotic unfairness in so many of the world's places (including the United States). And even if they grow weary when faced with this unending exertion, losing their way in the mysterious aisles of baubles and bamboo in the land of Anthropologie, I hope they are overcome at the cash register with some tropical illness called "ethics."
This is a thought that I may be able to cozy up to.
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