By Emma Bider, Carleton University
I was not particularly surprised when I read Culture’s latest theme and call for submissions. Anthropologists tend to be critical and analytical, to ask more questions than it is always possible to answer. The cohort of Carleton anthropology students and faculty that attended CASCA’s latest conference in Santiago de Cuba are especially culpable of this. Our graduate coordinator developed a course on the topic of auto-anthropology, examining how we as anthropologists engage with each other, and why, as a Canadian contingent of scholars, we were having a conference in Cuba.
During the conference there was a lot of discussion regarding the conference setting, as well as a lot of sly eye-rolling while sipping on mojitos. Many of us instinctively understand the political tensions that abound when a group of privileged, largely white academics descend upon a country that is not only poor, but also forced to rely on tourism to shore up its economy, due to a long history of quasi-occupation, cash cropping and slavery (Chomsky, 2011).
This my cohort and I discussed at length. But I think the deeper question in all of this, is why have a Canadian anthropology conference at all? What compels us to return year after year to a large and at times overwhelming function that we all critique and that is potentially problematic when hosted outside of (English speaking) Canada? If we only attend when there is the possibility of a vacation, as some cynics implied, then why have one at all.
I am quite sure the annual CASCA conference took place in Cuba primarily because its organizers suspected such a venue would garner more memberships. They guessed correctly. I was a volunteer at CASCA in 2017 when it was in Ottawa and at one panel I was one of two audience members. In contrast there was always at least a minimum of five or six people at any given panel I attended in Santiago.
What does it mean when, as anthropologists and academics generally, our most effective gathering occurs outside Canada? I have been to several conferences in the past two years of my MA, but most of them involved doing my talk, maybe hearing one more panel and then leaving. I witnessed much the same thing in Ottawa as a volunteer.
This year I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with a great deal of fellow students and professors from across the country and I was pleased at the caliber of many panels I attended. In fact, I was particularly surprised at how many scholars of Latin America there are in Canada and glad when I attended panels that included Latin American scholars in their midst, though translation and the consistent dominance of English remains an issue, even in conferences occurring in Canada. In part because of the course I was taking, I went to many panels, tried to go to CASCA events and, because most of us were in the same hotel, got to spend the majority of my evenings chatting with other anthropologists.
To me, this is the ideal manifestation of a conference, though it is rarely seen, and I have heard enough stories about the AAAs to know that when it is seen, it should be cherished. Had you been looking, there were ample opportunities to complain. One of the more comical irritants was the way some of the Universidad classrooms seemed designed as echo chambers, making it virtually impossible to hear anyone who didn’t have a masterful command of their diaphragm. These are however, minor and even inevitable at most conference settings.
My favourite parts of the panels I attended were the Q and As. We got to have discussions with each other as academics, which as we all know, doesn’t happen that often. We got to talk about our research! Which, in case of students, we also don’t get to do very often, at least in front of professors who are not our supervisors and students from other universities. And while some discussions were inevitably derailed by one rambling person asking a long winded “question” (there’s always one) most of these discussions were fruitful and interesting.
Christina Holmes of St. Francis Xavier University, suggested in her CASCA talk that conferences constituted “temporary communities” in the sense of Ulf Hannerz, and deserved ethnographic attention for this reason (Hannerz, 2003). To see academic anthropology be performed in Cuba was, indeed, a worthwhile sight for ethnographic eyes. We all perform our anthropological selves, be that the cynic, the careerist, the “wizened” seen-it-all anthropologist, or the sincere believer in anthropology’s future.
At a time when it is painfully difficult for PhD’s to find jobs or are given little direction besides the one that leads to academia, when we can all see anthropology slowly crumbling and being sloughed off by other disciplines before our eyes, there is an urgent need for a community. The fact that we had an anthropologist who works in Britain as one of the keynotes for our conference, beautifully illustrates this need. There is a great deal of self-deprecation amongst all social scientists. We need not add to it by considering our own scholars and schools sub-par.
CASCA is a cross-Canada operation. We gather once a year, we leave right after our own panels, or we do not bother attending in favour of higher profile conferences. If, as critical scholars. we want to reflect on why our national association had to have a conference in Cuba to get us together, we should be asking ourselves why as individuals, or as departments, we are so reluctant to foster a community and why we allow cynicism, disciplinary politics and professional disagreements rule the day. CASCA Cuba inspired a belief in me that Canadian anthropology can become a vibrant intellectual community, even if the conference location is not in a “cool” and “exotic” place.
Chomsky, A. (2011). A History of the Cuban Revolution. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hannerz, U. (2003). Being there…and there…and there! Reflections on multi-site ethnography. Ethnography, vol. 4 no. 2. p. 201-216.