Tag Archives: connection

Avatar and Anthropology

I must be one of the last people to see Avatar (in full 3D, which made me quite dizzy), so I have missed out on some interesting discussions about its portrayal of indigenous people and military politics.  The most interesting of these is David Price questioning the ethics of ’embedded’ anthropology.   http://www.counterpunch.org/price12232009.html

However, I have some other bones to pick about the film’s portrayal of ‘the others’  and – spoiler alert – I may have some issues with the ending!

1) Why are tribal societies always portrayed as ‘primitive’?  And why are we fascinated with precisely those aspects of their culture that make them seem more childish and irrational?

2)  Why is primitive perceived as being closer to nature and therefore inherently better?  Hunters/gatherers can be quite ruthless plunderers of the forests as well.

3) Why are the Na’vi studied and examined like exotic butterflies to be pinned down, even by the scientists who are supposedly so empathetic?

4) Why are the Na’vi not invited to the negotiation table and treated as equals?  Because they do not have a programme for building nuclear weapons?

5) Can you think of one happy ending when a tribal culture has been discovered by us Westerners?  As such, I agree with the film’s expert consultant, Dr. Nancy Lutkehaus, that it is an elegy to a lost world… http://uscnews.usc.edu/arts/a_world_all_their_own.html

but the operative words here are ‘lost’ and ‘irrecoverable’.

One issue the film does address and which deserves to be discussed more is the ambiguous fascination and danger of ‘going native’  (although they do reduce it to sexual attraction). It’s not just anthropologists, but also many expats who, once they become familiar with a different interpretation of the world, feel so changed by it that they can never go back to being their old selves.  I happen to think that this is a very valuable quality in a human (or even alien) being, that this ‘switching between worldviews’ leads to really in-depth communication, understanding and connection.  But in a world where the majority value clear-cut answers and black-and-white solutions, this is clearly tricky terrain.

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Homesick for a place to call home

We are gearing up for a ski trip to France in less than a month.  Which in our household not only means getting the ski suits and gloves out of the loft, but also practising French so the kids can understand the ‘moniteurs de ski’.  So the other day I had a CD with French songs on and found myself suddenly overwhelmed with homesickness for our little flat in Geneva, for the view of Mont Blanc from our balcony, for the chat with the boulanger as I buy those essential croissants…

I started musing how my whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them.   I love exploring new places but I also like settling in, making those places my own, getting that intimate connection with them that can only come from repetition and routine.  When it’s time to move on, I am excited about the new adventures I will have, but I am also sad to leave a certain part of myself behind.  With each encounter with a different country and culture, I become richer in experience, but somehow also poorer when I leave.  Does anybody else feel like that?

It’s difficult to explain – but it’s like my soul has been bereft to a certain extent.  I keep the experience locked up somewhere tight within and remember it with such delight from time to time.  But the experience is unrepeatable.  Even if I go back to that country, it will never feel the same again.  If you go back as a tourist to a country where you were once resident, it can be exhilarating as long as you don’t think about it too closely.  Or you can feel shut out, a stranger once more.  It will certainly never again feel like home.

I was very lucky a few years ago to return for a couple of months to Vienna in almost exactly the same conditions I had lived there before during my childhood.  I stayed with a friend who had known me since I was three, she lived just a few streets down from where I had grown up.  Vienna itself is a city that changes subtly rather than rapidly, so I found myself remembering even the tram routes and little shops.  I met up with old friends and slipped easily into dialect.  And yet… I am not that same person, I am not the same age, I do not have that same attitude and innocence.  Vienna was lovely, welcoming, filled with nostalgia for me…   All the externals were right, but it was no longer home.

People do ask me:  ‘Don’t you feel bad about having no place to call home?’ and I often laugh it off, saying: ‘But I feel at home anywhere!’  And I certainly do believe that and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to call so many beautiful places home.  (Also, any place that is home becomes beautiful, even if it didn’t look so promising to start off with – that includes you, Drumul Taberei!)

But sometimes I do wonder if, by leaving little chunks of my heart in so many different places, I will end up in smithereens.  And why I couldn’t  spend more time in those places where I have been happiest.

What place do you call home?  Do you feel you can repeat your experience of living in a certain place, or is it best to just wallow in unfulfilled nostalgia?

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Ignorance is bliss

After the economic crisis erupted, many people asked: ‘Why did no one see it coming?’   Of course, it now emerges that some individual voices did raise some concerns (and, with the benefit of hindsight, their sometimes bland general comments seem almost uncanny).   But on the whole, the response was a deliberate wallowing in a collective pool of blissful ignorance.

Because it is easier to bury your head in the sand than face uncomfortable truths.  Because it is easier to say it’s not your fault if you don’t know too much about certain matters.  Because if you don’t know for sure, you can still fool yourself into believing things will work out fine.

We all know that pleading ignorance will get you nowhere in a court case, but I started wondering just how valid an excuse it is in other situations…  Here’s what I mean, some examples are more morally sticky than others and I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.

If you set really aggressive sales targets for your team, but don’t really want to know the details of how they achieve those targets, can you be held responsible if some of them don’t adhere to the official company policy?

If you are worried about your child’s behaviour but resist taking him to the doctor or psychologist for fear that he may be labelled for the rest of his life, are you responsible if he then hurts another child?

If you suspect your boss may be fiddling expenses, but you would rather not investigate it too thoroughly for fear of the negative effect it could have on your career, can you honestlysay you were unaware of this when the shortfall comes to light?

Thomas Jefferson said ‘Ignorance is preferable to error…’ and all too often we would rather say we don’t know enough about a situation rather than take sides.  And then be proved wrong.  

I am one of those born facilitators and mediators who wants to hear all sides of a story, who refuses to commit categorically to a position before looking at it from all angles… and yet I wonder if sometimes that is not just another way of using ignorance as an excuse for lack of action.  If I don’t know everything about a situation, that doesn’t mean I am ignorant and therefore not to be blamed.   Sitting on a fence can be a downright pain at times…

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Explore. Connect. Discover.

I read somewhere that Mark Twain said that in twenty years’ time we will be more disappointed by the things we DIDN’T do than by the things we did. And he urges us to leave the safe harbour and  ‘ Explore, dream, discover!’

How well that encapsulates my own philosophy of life!

Except that I would add something with a cross-cultural slant to it (of course – you will soon find out that everything is cross-cultural with me!). It’s only when we connect with other people, other ways of thinking, other cultures, that our enjoyment becomes complete. So that’s my motto: ‘Explore. Connect. Discover.’ And I hope, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, you won’t mind me appropriating it, changing it and making it mine.

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