Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Source URL (Archive.org): http://listserv.acsu.buffalo.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0009&L=anthro-l&F=&S=&P=14335

More from Sam Katz on the Neel/Chagnon allegations

Date: Thu, 21 Sep 2000 15:39:37 +0930

Reply-To: John Cook <CookJo@NLC.ORG.AU>

Sender: Anthro-L <Anthro-l@listserv.acsu.buffalo.edu>

From: John Cook <CookJo@NLC.ORG.AU>

Subject: Re: Trouble on the horizon

I really can't comment at all on the specificities of Chagnons research or of the various criticisms that have been levied against him and his associates. I would like, though, to make a couple of other comments which I feel have some bearing on the situation.

When I was a first year undergraduate studying anthropology I remember being given Chagnon as a text. What strikes me is that I don't remember anything about the theoretical import of "the fierce people" and neither do I have the impression that my lecturers of the time even thought that this was important. What I do remember is being impressed with the swashbuckling, pith-helmet wearing, chest beating sense of anthropology that it presented. Needless to say, this was, for me and I suspect many others, a central reason for my continuing in the study of anthropology. Anthropology, through the work of Chagnon and others appeared exotic, masculine and exciting. Perfect for the pulpy but enthusiastic mind of a late adolescent (these days I'm probably just pulpy). Chagnon anthropology was the bait to drag me into the study of anthropology and I believe it was used quite consciously in such a manner by the lecturers of the day(as I myself have used similar texts).

The point is that there have always been certain anthropologists and modes of doing anthropology that have functioned as such baits, as the subterfuge for a much larger and more subtle body of anthropology resting behind it. If I had been able to fully comprehend the difficulty and complexity of anthropology at the time I may have been less eager to throw myself into it.

In a similar way anthropologists such as Chagnon are used a lures for the public interest. The "raiders of the lost ark" image of anthropology has been cultivated shamelessly for years as a means of attracting the public eye and therefore funding and institutional significance. While anthropology as a discipline has tried to reform this image of itself it is still commonly drawn to romantic and colonial imagery as a means of sustaining itself in the institutional and public imagination. Indeed I would argue that "The public" doesn't really want to know about anthropologies efforts to decolonise itself, it is happy rather for anthropology to satisfy a romantic image but to be replaced functionally by other institutions and organisations. Faculties of multicultural studies, native american institutes etc.

My own experience of fieldwork (Caribbean, Australia, SE Asia) is that it is a dirty, complex, morally and politically perilous process that few come through without a couple of skeletons in the closet. It is also the case that fieldwork is rarely the romantic experience (of course it was difficult but that night of the full moon over the paddy field with fresh taken heads rattling in the breeze.....) that it is projected as in the public arena.

My point.... If anthropology as a discipline gets fried over this business it is at least in part because of the difficulty of being a complex discipline struggling to create and then recreate itself in the minds of society at large (interested primarily in five-ten second sound bites). Chagnon, I feel, has for a long been part of this process. That Chagnon has been central to this attack, rightly or wrongly, is not surprising.

John Cook

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Mike Salovesh [SMTP:t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU]
> Sent: Wednesday, 20 September 2000 18:04
> Subject: Trouble on the horizon

> An hour or two ago, I forwarded two messages that sound like the opening
> of a major battle over who has done what and to whom among the Yanomami
> of Venezuela. In this message, I will forward an edited version of what
> I've said off-list to two colleagues who were in the chain of
> transmission that eventually brought the messages to me. (They were
> VERY widely circulated before I saw them.)

> To correspondent 1 I said:

> This is going to affect all of us. The controversy will be deep,
> bitter, and, in all probability, extremely damaging to all involved. In
> the long run, that means all of anthropology.

> The response from Alan Fix raises serious questions. It leads me to
> note that Terry Turner and Napoleon Chagnon have been battling for
> years. Their fight has gone on in private, in anthropology meetings and
> journals, in the general media, and anywhere else they could find an
> audience. It has often been bitter
> and sometimes has reached sheer personal nastiness.

> I don't know the facts of how anthropology/anthropologists have
> interacted, or interfered, with the Yanomamo, or whether some
> anthropologists have or have not been effective in trying to intercede
> on behalf of the Yanomamo. I find Terry more likable than Napoleon, for
> what that's worth -- but that doesn't put me any closer to evaluating
> what either of them says as an anthropologist.

> I can't make a judgment of Tierney's book until I read it. I won't be
> able to assess the accuracy of his allegations without a lot of further
> checking. It's clear that many of us are going to have to learn a lot
> more than we wanted to know about contacts between anthropologists and
> the Yanomamo before we'll be able to know what to make of Tierney's
> __Darkness in El Dorado__.

> In the meantime, I'm left with great cognitive dissonance.

> Suppose the full implications of what Turner, Sponsel, and Tierney say
> turn out to be a fair and reasonable picture of what actually happened.
> I can say I'd be appalled, apologetic, ashamed, bothered, besmirched,
> collapsing, discredited, exasperated -- and on down the whole alphabet.

> Suppose, instead, that the whole scandal turns out to be a continuation
> of the war between Turner and Chagnon by other means. The same string
> of reactions will still be appropriate, even though the targets would be
> those on the other side of this controversy.

> It is hard as hell to know how this will all end up. I can't even guess
> where I'll be when a fuller case is laid before us.

> -------------

> To Correspondent 2, I said the following:

> I remember asking Chagnon -- before he published The Fierce People --
> how come he was sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission, of all
> people. His answers back then left me somewhat worried. It's not that I
> saw anything that was objectionable on the surface in Chagnon's specific
> case: far from it. But I already knew enough about the AEC that I found
> the idea of their sponsorship of anthropological research unnerving.

> How come? Well, in part because of my Army training. My outfit, a
> general medical lab, sent me off for special training in "CBR" Defense.
> (Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Warfare.) Back then, I knew
> something about nuclear chemistry, since it was my ambition to
> specialize in that field if I survived the army and got back to school.

> In CBR training we were told how the army had sent whole units to the
> proving grounds in Nevada for "training" around nuclear tests. They'd
> be in trenches a mile from Ground Zero. As soon as their teeth stopped
> rattling after a blast, they would come out of the trenches and march
> straight to (and across) Ground Zero. They were assured, of course,
> that there was no danger.

> Even though that was a long time ago, and there hadn't yet been a lot of
> publicity about the dangers of nuclear fallout, I knew that had to be a
> lie. The stories we were told in CBR defense school about troop
> participation in the Nevada tests, and what I knew about navy people who
> had to stand out in the rain of fallout from tests at Bikini and other
> Pacific sites, made me mad as hell. What happened in Nevada and in the
> Marshall Islands was wrong as hell.

> I also was scared to the core. At CBR Defense school, they scattered
> radioactive point sources with wild abandon. We were supposed to locate
> them, estimate their dangers, and neutralize the contaminated areas.
> They told US there wasn't any danger in what we were doing, either. I
> knew better . . . as a lab tech, I had to be aware of the dangers of
> radiation exposure because I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood of
> X-ray machines. You had better believe that I was extra super careful
> that my personal radiation counters were reset and working properly
> whenever I had to go to the training area for radiological defense.

> Before my army service, I was at the U of Chicago, where Fermi first
> produced a self-sustaining chain reaction back in 1942. Enrico Fermi's
> daughter was an old classmate from high school, so I had met Fermi on a
> number of occasions. He was a really great man, even above and beyond
> what you'd expect from a Nobel Prize winner. When I started college, I
> went to a lot of his public lectures just to hear the guy. He used to
> tell stories about what happened when they were about to start that
> first chain reaction. According to Fermi, they really had no idea how
> far it was likely to go . . . so they had people all over Chicago with
> Geiger counters on the day he activated that first chain reaction. If
> the whole thing blew up, those spotters who survived the explosion were
> ready to measure the effects at various distances.

> None of that filled me with much confidence in the conduct of those in
> control of U.S. atomic studies. I was particularly dubious about the AEC
> because I knew most about them. I concluded that the Commission was not
> a model of ethical behavior . . .

> This was decades before I heard of the deliberate experiments in which
> they injected heavy doses of plutonium and other radioactive substances
> into prisoners, patients, schoolchildren, and others without informing
> their victims -- oops, don't editorialize, "subjects" -- about what was
> going on. Informed consent just wasn't something the AEC cared about.
> I do. That's what sent danger signals to me about Chagnon's sponsorship
> on the Yanomamo studies. I am still convinced that one can do clean work
> for a dirty sponsor. Since I believe that an accused is innocent unless
> proven guilty, I have simply assumed that Napoleon Chagnon does not
> deserve to be dismissed because I don't like his sponsors.

> I was not raised in a proselytizing tradition. I believe that people
> should choose to do what THEY can live with, not what I would prefer. I
> didn't condemn Chagnon for accepting support from the AEC then, and I
> don't now. I would not have asked for AEC support, myself. (Not that
> they would have offered it! I was, however, offered a chance to
> participate in what turned out to be Project Camelot. I said no,
> thanks, even though I was desperately searching for another job and they
> would have paid twice what I could get elsewhere.) I haven't changed my
> judgment (rather, refusal to judge) for or against Chagnon's accepting
> AEC support, as such. That was his business, not mine.

> But if these current reports hold up, we're not talking about the
> patterns of the sponsoring agency any more. We're talking about what
> Napoleon Chagnon did or did not do himself, and that's a whole nother
> question.

> --------
> From here on, what I say is something I haven't shared with anyone
> before.
> --------

> If we're going to assess "guilt" or "innocence", I have no well-founded
> answers. I have to have a fair handle on the relevant facts before I
> make judgments. So far, there aren't very many of us who know enough
> about the actual facts on the ground in Venezuela to open our mouths on
> one side or another.

> Terry Turner and Leslie Sponsel go lots farther than present the facts.
> Theirs is a strong polemic, full of propagandistic twists, unsupported
> allegations, and wild conclusions out of left field. I can't make any
> reasoned judgments about what happened in Venezuela on the basis of what
> they say in the message I forwarded.

> I can, and do, judge that their communication itself goes way beyond the
> bounds of what I can accept as good practice in anthropology.
> Regardless of what may or may not have happened in Venezuela under AEC
> sponsorship, what their communication does is extremely and
> unnecessarily harmful to anthropology in general and to the American
> Anthropological Association in particular. I don't need any information
> beyond the content of their letter to condemn the manner in which they
> present it. It stinks, and I have no hesitation saying so.

> It may very well be true that Napoleon Chagnon, or the AEC, or somebody
> else who has been involved with the Yanomamo could have done terrible
> things. If they did, they deserve universal condemnation as the first
> step in a long road of consequences. It doesn't really matter whether
> the nefarious activities implied by Turner and Sponsel do, or don't,
> harm anthropology. What counts is the absolutely unforgivable harm they
> allege was done to the Yanomamo.

> For the time being, the course of wisdom would be to look for facts from
> parties who are more concerned with figuring out what happened than they
> are with destroying each other.

> And that's what I'm going to do.

> -- mike salovesh <salovesh@niu.edu
> PEACE !!!