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Anthropology, apocalypse, and unconventional teaching

24 August, 2009

A while back I was talking with a couple of people in the department about theorists in anthropology.  The subject got onto Michael Taussig and the fact that he was teaching a new course to do with the apocalypse with some radical approaches to teaching.  Taussig had apparently done away with term papers and instead students had to keep “apocalypse diaries”.  Unconventional presentations were also encouraged.  We even heard a rumour that a student had burst into class naked, clutching nothing but a book by Taussig (I’m not sure which one) and proceeded to rip pages from the book and stuff them up his arse, a performance which earned him an “A”.  I have no way of confirming whether this is true or not but it is a good example of the sorts of stories which seem to spring up when the conversation turns to Taussig.  So it was an interesting coincidence to learn that almost at the same time we had that conversation an article in the New Yorker was published on Taussig and his apocalypse course, full title: “Preëmptive Apocalyptic Thought: The Angel of History Reconsidered in Light of Climate Change, the War on Terror, and Financial Meltdown”.  Talk about engaging anthropology!  Here’s an excerpt from the article giving a bit of a sense of the character of the class:

He decided to teach a class on the apocalypse, he said, because “now seemed like a good time.” He had to turn away more than a dozen students. Halfway through the semester, he abolished final papers, replacing them with “apo diaries,” in which students were to note omens of the apocalypse around them, using the scrapbooks of William S. Burroughs as a model. One student’s included an image of the wrestler Jake (The Snake) Roberts, snake in hand, juxtaposed with a glaring Jesus, also snake in hand, who is saying, “Don’t fuck with the Apocalypse.”

Topics during the semester have included Glenn Beck, an R.V. that can go two thousand miles without stopping for gas, Walter Benjamin, 9/11, Las Vegas, and apocalyptic Yiddish poetry, which reminded Taussig of a song by the Fugs called “Septuagenarian in Love” (“Every time we have some sex / it almost breaks my balls”). Some students confessed that after a while the material had started scaring them. One developed insomnia.

Hmmm, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t possible to teach a course like that at Macquarie.  Besides anything else, in the current regime of bureaucratic therapeutics scaring the bejeesus out of students might be deemed a breach of out duty of care.  Despite the unconventional teaching style though, it strikes me that imaginations of the end of the world is a very timely subject matter.  I certainly spend a decent amount of each day contemplating the End, although I might be unusually morose.  But it seems we’re never without one disaster scenario or another on the horizon, providing grist to the media’s mill.  There is also of course a whole sub-industry of films dealing with the end of the world, the most recent including the abominable Knowing and the soon to be released 2012.  Just this afternoon (after I began this post, I should add) my 8-year-old son gave me an uncanny chill when he matter-of-factly asked me if I thought the world would be destroyed one day, “when everything becomes completely scientific and people all melt (because of the sun)”.  He postulated that an “ozone machine” could be built to protect the whole earth from the sun, meteors and other threats.  So there we have it: ozone depletion, meteor strikes, climate change and technological armageddon/salvation, and the image of a small, limited and fragile Earth, all rolled into one child’s imagination.

Apocalyptic thoughts aside, the article also got me wondering if there are any other unusual or experimental anthropology courses being taught out there, either in terms of the subject matter or teaching methods.  Maybe readers can chime in with some examples of teachers pushing the boundaries of anthropology?

— Jovan Maud

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 August, 2009 9:07 pm

    Awesome post, you know I’m the one who spreads that story about the pages up the arse, and I’m going to keep spreading it as long as I live, along with the one I heard from Chris about someone shaking shit-covered hands with Marilyn Strathern at a party.

    I await the day when everything becomes completely scientific. Poor kid, was he traumatized by the idea, or was it just abstract spectacle?

    Meanwhile, you owe CM a post about bejeweled penis enhancers, J.

  2. 24 August, 2009 10:40 pm

    Sorry Lisa, I didn’t want to out you with that rumour, but if you’re willing to out yourself? Well…

    Don’t worry about Luka either; he didn’t seem all that traumatised. What was striking for me was the unconcerned way he asked the question, like he was asking if he might grow up to be an actor or painter. It brought home though how much the end of the world is part of the everyday.

    As for penis enhancers: it’s on my to-do list!

  3. 25 September, 2009 3:42 pm

    Hi there! I’ve been reading this blog for some time with great interest. I’m a Macquarie Cultural Studies graduate, currently working my way through a Psychology degree, also at Macquarie.

    Taussig’s course sounds fascinating, and it would be fantastic if less traditional methods of teaching and assessment could be incorporated more widely into social science curricula.

    I did a part of my first degree at UTS. One of the Cultural Studies subjects there was taught in a similar (although less outrageous) way to what you described here. There were no lectures – only seminars, in which the course convenor would talk about apparently unrelated cultural phenomena in Australia – murders, Luna Park being on fire, the gay bar scene and machismo, magazine publishing in the 50s, etc. While it’s quite difficult to recount the content of this unit to anyone who wasn’t there, and while I can’t pinpoint its direct relevance, I can certainly say that it’s been very influential in opening up the field for me.

    For assessment, we were encouraged to submit non-traditional pieces. I put together a short pulp magazine, which was a lot of fun.

    When I was doing Hons in Cultural Studies at MQ, we were allowed to submit non-traditional pieces for the Hons coursework (not sure about the thesis itself, though). For one of the courses I ended up putting together a photojournalism essay looking at a nomadic trip through a Sydney suburb.

    So it is possible to design really interesting, engaging assessments that stay with the students for a long time without resorting to shock tactics 🙂


  1. Ozarks Unbound » Blog Archive » Gonzo anthropologist teaches apocalypse class at Columbia

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