Jonathan D. Hill reflects on his career

Jonathan Hill featured on BBC's "Science in Action" | Anthropology

What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?

While doing fieldwork in 1981 for my doctoral dissertation, I was using my stereo cassette player and pre-amped external microphone to make audio recordings of a shamanic curing ritual in an indigenous Wakuénai (Curripaco) village. As usual, the shaman had set up his bench, hallucinogenic snuff, maraca, tobacco, and other materials facing the eastern horizon. That day was sunny and hot without a cloud in the bright blue sky. I recorded songs and took photographs all morning. The shaman looked straight up through the feathers of his maraca at exactly twelve noon, and soon a patient and several curious villagers gathered in the space behind the shaman. As the ritual progressed, the shaman repeatedly blew tobacco smoke over the heads of everyone present, including the patient, her family, the gathering of villagers, and even the visiting anthropologist and his tape recorder. After another two hours, I began to feel a kind of energy that I can only describe as exhilarating. It was a hot afternoon less than two degrees north of the Equator, yet I wasn’t sweating or even feeling hot. I hadn’t eaten since early morning but didn’t feel hungry at all. In the mid-afternoon, as the shaman sang and chased after shadow-spirits in the eastern sky, a powerful thunderstorm became visible in the distance and quickly approached the island village. But when the storm began dumping heavy rains on the manioc gardens just across the east channel of the river, it stopped approaching. The shaman was standing up and singing to the thunderclouds in a sort of antiphonal musical dialogue with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. I had interviewed shamans, other ritual specialists, and non-specialists who claimed that powerful shamans had the ability to control weather events. Later in my fieldwork I learned that the reason shamans blow tobacco smoke over the heads of all people present is to gather up the life force of their bodies to help bring patient’s lost soul back to the world of living people. My tape recorder was also said to be pulling in the patient’s lost soul, so it was also included in the effort. I still wonder about that day, the energy I felt, and that mysterious thunderstorm.

What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

Probably the hardest essay for me to write was the chapter in the Cambridge History of Native Peoples of the Americas:  South America, Volume III, Part 2 (1999, “Indigenous Peoples and the Rise of Independent Nation-States in Lowland South America,” F. Salomon and S. Schwartz, editors, pp. 704-764). I had been invited to contribute a chapter on this topic but not given clear guidance on how much of lowland South America was to be covered. I realized immediately that the topic would be unmanageably huge if it were to include all of Brazil in addition to the Guyanas, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Fortunately the group of anthropologists and ethnohistorians at Universidade de São Paulo (Núcleo de História Indígena e do Indigenismo) organized by Manuela Carnheiro da Cunha agreed to cover Brazil, and the volume’s editors were kind enough to accept this division of labor. Yet that still left a huge swath of lowland South America and an incredibly diverse assortment of Indigenous peoples with a multitude of culturally specific histories. I realized then that as an ethnologist I had detailed knowledge of deep histories for a finite number of specific Indigenous regional communities but needed to find some way to connect them all into a broader, macro-level history of the profound political transformations taking place in South America as the colonial power structures began to unravel after the expulsion of the Jesuits and official abolition of indigenous slavery in 1767.  Also, the newly independent states of the 19th Century needed to be interpreted as new systems of power that used rationalist social theories of the Enlightenment to radically dehumanize Indigenous peoples and to justify the erasure of their territorial rights and cultural identities. Finding a way to write about these macro-level transformations while still being able to hear culturally specific histories in which Indigenous peoples understand themselves as the agents of their own transformations was extremely challenging.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

For me, a productive writing day cannot be measured in quantitative terms. Productive writing can only result from clear and coherent thinking. Scribbles, notes, outlines, and fragments of ideas are important prerequisites to translating complex and often ‘fuzzy’ thoughts into effective prose. It is important to think what one is going to say rather than just say whatever one happens to be thinking at any given moment. Likewise, it is essential to think what one is preparing to write rather than vice-versa.

Which class did you most enjoy teaching, and why?

I really had fun creating and teaching a graduate seminar on “Narrative Practices, Music, and Social Cognition” in Fall semester 2009. At the time I was participating in an interdisciplinary research and publication group of linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and anthropologists who were working to understand the importance of narrative practices known as folk psychological narratives in the development of human social cognition. I had just published a book on Trickster Myths, Music, and History from the Amazon (U. Illinois Press 2009) and was co-editing a major comparative study of indigenous Amazonian instrumental music (Burst of Breath, U. Nebraska Press 2011). In addition to the close fit between the topics covered in the graduate seminar and the research I was doing at the time, the graduate faculty and doctoral candidates in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale had reached an unprecedented level of quality and productivity. It was a time when a group of junior and senior scholars, each having their own unique research interests, were able to find common ground that allowed for openly sharing ideas and knowledge and significant intellectual growth.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an academic?

Yes. In the fall of 1989, the start of my fourth academic year at SIUC, the Chair of the Department of Anthropology suggested that it was time for me to assemble a dossier in order to be considered for an early promotion and tenure decision. My first book had come out in 1988 while I was on a postdoc fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, where I had written the first draft of my second book. In the summer of 1989, I had been invited to participate in a research project in Colombia and to present a paper at a Wenner-Gren International Symposium in Brazil. I had been working since 1986 as a contributing editor for the Handbook of Latin American Studies, U.S. Library of Congress, and the new Editor of American Anthropologist had recently appointed me to serve on the editorial board. I felt strongly supported by the senior faculty in the Department, and their support in turn motivated me to keep expanding my professional and intellectual horizons with the knowledge that what was good for my development was also good for the faculty and students in the Department.

Regna Darnell’s reflections upon retirement

Copy of Darnell preferred image

What is your morning routine?

I’m a night owl with frequent insomnia.  On a good morning, the CBC radio alarm plays local and global news from 7:30-8:30.  I frequently wake up when it stops playing and turn it back on to catch the news again at 9 while doing a modest exercise routine supervised by my two manic cats.  I wander downstairs, feed them and make a pot of tea before reading the Toronto Globe and Mail and doing the morning crossword.  Then it’s time to check the e-mail.  With an overview of what has erupted there overnight, I adjourn to the kitchen to scrounge breakfast, usually leftovers.  Back to the e-mail for what can be done fairly easily.  By 11 or 12, I’m ready to face the office or various meetings.  I can manage earlier if I set extra alarms, but then I fade mid-afternoon and ruin my customary evening spurt of productive work.

What is the favorite thing you have written? Continue reading

William Leap’s Reflections upon Retirement

William Leap is retiring after being a professor of anthropology at American University for 46 years. Ilana Gershon asks him to reflect on his career.

What article or book that you wrote are you most pleased with?  Could you talk about the story behind writing it?

Easier than citing a single book or article, I’d prefer to talk about how I am most pleased to find how I have maintained certain consistencies of argument over several years of inquiry, despite my changes in research topics and theoretical paradigms and despite academic and broader politics.

For example, my current studies of language and sexuality have moved far from the ideas outlined in Word’s Out , but one issue addressed there still haunts my research and writing:  how do people learn to talk about same-sex desires, practices, and sexual sameness when such talk is so often assigned negative values by peers, parents, news media, political officials, officer co-workers, department chairs, and other regulatory sources.

I addressed similar regulatory questions in my earlier studies of American Indian English (AIE), when I suggested that AIE fluencies helped maintain ancestral language receptive competence in settings where ancestral language fluency (and fluent speakers) were widely despised. The parallels between AIE and the discussion in Word’s Out were not exact, but the processes of overhearing, and the ensuing accumulations and conditions of hyperdiversity were similar.

I did not pursue those parallels in Word’s Out, but I began to do that in subsequent writing, beginning with “Language socialization and silence in gay adolescence,” a revision of a (truly dreadful) article that first appeared in a special issue of The High School Journal. Thinking about gay language learning as language socialization prompted further thoughts about processes of linguistic accumulationtextual refusalaudience reception as well as the global circulations of North Atlantic gay language(s)  and their impacts on localized sexual discourse(s).

So how did your research in Cape Town fit into these continuities?

I revised the “language socialization paper” while in residence at the Centre for Rhetoric Studies at University of Cape Town. I heard many stories about language/sexuality socialization from people living in Cape Town’s City Center and in the nearby Coloured and Black townships, thanks to the support of the Triangle Project, a Cape Town area AIDS advocacy group. This was my introduction to the uneven inflections of language, sexuality, gender, race, and class that were reshaping sexualities as apartheid transitioned to representative democracy in the western Cape. I was tracing how those inflections impacted sexual language learning in the late apartheid period and this disclosed details of Cape Town area sexual geography. I could locate moments that language shift exposed competing loyalties between sexuality and place. The book project I am now finishing explores the not-so-secret “secret codes” linked to homosexuality before the Stonewall moment in the US, and was inspired in part by the Cape Town research, especially its demand that linguistic history engages with racial and class diversities and the material conditions that sustain them, instead of ignoring these diversities.

What article or book was hardest for you to write, and why?

Every article and book has been difficult for me to write. I grew up in a small town in North Florida in the early 1950s, so Standard English was not my first language, either for speaking or for writing. Many of the conventions of standard speech still elude me. Plus, what might fashionably be termed late-onset dyslexia ensures that revising, editing and proof-reading become time-consuming tasks. But even if writing takes much longer to complete than the assigned deadline allows, writing is still an exciting activity. Writing gives me a chance to experiment with ideas and it always leads to unexpected outcomes. I learned long ago to stop trying to create a detailed outline in advance of the first draft: I sketch out three or four intended themes, assemble some data, and see where it leads—hopefully to successful, if at times unexpected, outcomes.

 You started the Lavender Languages Conference in 1993 and are the founding co-editor of the Journal of Language & Sexuality. What motivated you to do this important organizational labor?

The Lavender Languages Conference has been creating space for conversations about language and sexuality since 1993, and it still does as, I explained elsewhere. We named this event “Lavender Languages” to avoid taking sides with people doing “lesbian/gay studies” or “queer theory,” a hot-button issue in the 1990s that probably doesn’t matter so much anymore. The phrase remains because of name recognition, but that too might change as time passes. The point is to maintain a space where people can discuss language and sexuality without fear of risk or retaliation. People already face enough of that in everyday settings, inside and outside of the classroom.

The Journal of Language & Sexuality is “indebted to queer linguistics” as an orienting theme, as my co-editor (Heiko Motschenbacher) and I explain in the journal’s mission statement. And queerness is always about messiness and irregularity. The Journal is a site where discussions of language and sexuality need not be contained within traditional disciplinary (or similar) boundaries. Our reviewers draw heavily on those criteria as they read and evaluate manuscripts, and so do the editors as we make final decisions regarding the contents for each issue.

What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it and/or record it?

Doing linguistic fieldwork in sex clubs in the 1980 and 1990s. There were those (in anthropology and in the federal government) who said such work could not be done; and even if it were attempted, the results could not have any claim to scientific validity, and thus no impact on AIDS-related (or other) policy-making. Following ethnographic work of Ralph Bolton and Michael Clatz, I insisted that there had to be ways to conduct linguistic research in the erotic moment, a point which a group of us confirmed in the publication of Public Sex, Gay Space. For me, this meant conducting linguistic fieldwork at cruising sites, although as always, linguistic inquiry soon moved far beyond the scope of the linguistic moment.

In one instance, the cruising site data provided a basis for expert witness court testimony on behalf of a bath house which local government had designated as a health hazard and was seeking to close. My field data demonstrated that activities at this site were no more a “threat” to public health than were activities in the saunas and steam rooms in the area’s upscale health clubs and gyms, sites which local government had never attempted to raid or regulate. Why, I asked, was the category “health hazard” being applied so selectively to the health club I was defending? And whose long-term real estate investments were being secured as the uneven inflections were applied?

What piece of furniture do you most often talk to or about?

My swimming pool. This was my retirement gift to my partner and me. There are no Esther Williams-type water features or Olympics-like illuminations. This is a simple 25’x16’, cobalt blue-tiled, heated structure, providing room to float on a buoyant raft while enjoying the south Florida sun and listening to thematically appropriate CDs.

Cite as: Leap, William. 2018. “William Leap’s Reflections upon Retirement.” Anthropology News website, August 13, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.943