When I Stress, I Sculpt

Grants are coming due soon. It’s the cyclical ebb and flow of academia as we know it. But as I contemplate fieldwork plans superimposed over the possibilities of funding, I can’t help but think I should have stuck with pillow forts, coloring books, and scribbling outside the lines. We all ask ourselves the same questions; how can I spend so much time so far away and pay my bills here, how will I afford my travel and research expenses above and beyond the day to day, will my dog remember me when I get back, will my partner? It is a stressful time for everyone.

And when I stress, I sculpt. Today, I have two mummified fairies just waiting on their wings (dried butterfly wings when they are ready).

Mummy Fairies Mummy Fairies

Mummy Fairies Mummy Fairies Mummy Fairies Mummy Fairies

Eat, Pray, Shop

The article is called “Preserving Nepal’s Soul” and it appears in the March 19th edition of the Nepali Times. “For many of Nepal’s development partners, the priority is poverty-reduction, health and education.” Stéphane Huët begins, “But as Nepal makes progress in literacy and mother-child survival, some have turned to preserving Nepal’s unique and rich cultural heritage.”While it is interesting to note that literacy and mother-child survival are excluded from Nepal’s otherwise rich cultural heritage in this set-up the gist of the article is actually about the particular interest the United States has taken in Nepali cultural preservation projects over the past decade or so. For the most part, this interest involves funding for the architectural and artistic restoration of ancient shrines and temples as well as programs for eco-tourism that promote the reinvigoration of cultural performances. For example, the article continues: “In 2012, the program supported Alliance for Ecotourism for the preservation of intangible heritage, the Kartik Nach dance which had not been performed in its full form since 1949. Ambassador Bodde says he was touched when he sat through the performance and watched hundreds of young Nepalis proud of a revival of a nearly-lost part of their heritage. “If we can help do that, we’ve done something special,” he said. ”

It might be confusing as to why my tone here appears circumspect. After all, doesn’t this sound exactly like the kinds of helpful, culturally-sensitive, partnerships we should be engaging our post-colonial, globalized, dollars in? In light of recent tragedies showing the destruction of museums and artifacts by extremist groups in the Middle East, is this not the noble way to ensure the cultural continuity of marginalized peoples? In principle, that would be the hope but unfortunately, such is not always the reality. In Sienna Craig’s “A Tale of Two Temples: Culture, Capital, and Community in Mustang, Nepal,” we’re introduced to a more sobering account of preservation efforts through the case of Thubchen Lhakhang, a temple built in 1472 and located in the heart of Monthang in Mustang District. Bringing together a veritable Greek chorus of characters (a US-based preservation foundation, a couple of Nepalese conservation and development organizations, a Kathmandu-based international architecture and restoration firm, a host of foreign and Nepali subcontractors, and the “rather nebulous category of “community support”” (15)) the project to restore and conserve Thubchen Lhakhang had something of an unanticipated result. The Loba people who once used it, now can’t.

It’s true, the physical monument has been restored (for the time being, at least) and a gripping NOVA documentary has been produced and shown world-wide. But that “intangible heritage” so lauded by the Nepali Times just moments ago seems to have gone missing. The Loba people of Mustang, the “cultural owners” of the monastery, somehow became antithetical to their own culture in the process of saving it. What I mean by this more plainly is that the crumbling edifice of the building itself had been taken to mean neglect by the people, now culturally-bankrupted by the forces of modern society. In other words, the peoples of Mustang, in their efforts to reconcile their lived realities with pressures to “modernize,” became agents in their own cultural demise. For the agencies involved, Loba culture needed to be saved from Loba people. What was important now was preserving culture; a culture that now existed within the construct of a 15th century religious complex. As Craig describes it, “the socio-economic, political, and even aesthetic underpinnings of Thubchen’s neglect – as well as the place of Mustang’s people as agents of this change, is rendered superfluous to the larger mission: to preserve, protect, and restore cultural heritage as a catalyst for what the arbiters of this perspective see as “positive” local practice.” (16).

While this ideological split is frustrating in and of itself, the final result was that, in the end, new centers of Loba cultural identity and activity now no longer appear in Mustang District, but in the urban center of Kathmandu, where many groups located in outlying districts have begun to relocate. As for the preserved centers of “culture” still located in ancestral lands, they’re now visited only by tourists. A new kind of “cultural zoo” has come about; traditions frozen in time and space, set aside for the paying interests of foreign visitors, donors, and trekking agencies.

By designating specific sites as places of “cultural heritage” indigenous peoples are often erased or removed from notions of universal heritage, especially in cases where money, government agencies, and international collaboration are centered around an idea that culture is, somehow, going away (even though, ironically, it is as more and more people leave Mustang District behind for the less destitute opportunities of urban life). And what is more, that which is preserved is no longer produced by the practices and traditions of the peoples located there. Instead, it is produced through an Italian conservationist’s paint brush, an American development specialist’s spreadsheet, and an Indian architect’s blueprint. It may not be their intent, but this culture is different than the one that came before it. This is culture for sale.


Craig, Sienna. 2002. “A Tale of Two Temples: Culture, Capital, and Community in Mustang, Nepal” http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ebhr/pdf/EBHR_27_02.pdf

Huët, Stéphane. 2015. “Preserving Nepal’s Soul.” Nepali Times. 19 March 2015 http://nepalitimes.com/article/Nepali-Times-Buzz/ambassador-fund-cultural-preservation-nepal,2092

Collecting Dust

At some point, I had already planned on composing a post discussing the topic of looting (and its more abstract companion, cultural appropriation) when I came across an article in an issue of Archaeology magazine called The Looters Next Door. It’s a conversation with Utah-native archaeologist Winston Hurst, a staunch advocate of archaeological preservation, regarding his hometown’s notable local culture of pot hunting.

What struck me most about this particular article was this quote “Some archaeologists think this bust (referring to a recent arrest on charges of looting) is going to make the looting problem worse, that it’s like hitting a beehive. Do you feel that way? A certain segment of the population will use it as another excuse to justify their collecting. I grew up in this town. Collecting artifacts is in the water here.” (Archaeology, September/October 2009 pg. 16)

Collecting. That’s the word that trips us up. It’s because the real issue comes down, not just to obfuscating the problem in linguistic chicanery, but to a question of ownership. Who owns those bits and bobs scattered on the back lawn or in the field down the road? We, as products of a Western way of thinking about property, have trouble with conceptualizing the archaeological record as a public record. The big picture in this sense tends to escape us and it seems insignificant that we would walk home with that arrowhead or this pot sherd. But if we were to see the world around us as museum or even as a book, full of stratigraphy pages, artifact words, and soil and pebble letters; perhaps it might make it much harder to tear out the sections we like and put them on our shelf.

In some ways, it’s a natural reaction to being told that ‘you too can own your own little piece of history.’ Throughout our lives we are encouraged to collect. The ‘buy this, buy that’ mentality of retail culture admonishes us to collect everything from rocks to art, but it also has the consequence of fueling black market demand for artifacts and that, in turn, drives looting.

The reverse of this is, in some sense, the drive towards cultural preservation. Unfortunately, while swinging widely to the other side of the spectrum, for many the internal drive to parse, partition, and accumulate has remained. In Mustang District, Nepal (where my own ethnographic focus lies) for example, it is not unheard of for European, American, or even South Asian NGOs or other organizations to swoop in on ancient sites or temple complexes, close them off in the name of “cultural preservation,” and lay claim to a mission of “saving” the culture in question through the protection of places and things. Aside from the critique that this assumes culture to be a bounded object frozen in time or that culture exists within objects and not through the actions of those who produce them, this has also had the effect of alienating the actual peoples who built and continue to use these sites from their own material cultural existence. In other words, preservationists have tended to throw out the local peoples right along with the foreign tourists; endemic babies in the sight-seeing bathwater. The irony then is that there are more indigenous Himalayan communities appearing in urban centers (such as Kathmandu) as there are in the actual lands such peoples currently live in. Things were taken, they just weren’t moved. If you’re curious, Sienna Craig’s “A Tale of Two-Temples: Culture, Capital, and Community in Mustang, Nepal” discusses this issue at some length. (http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/journals/ebhr/pdf/EBHR_27_02.pdf)

However, I don’t believe that the solution lies in laws and law enforcement. Chains, handcuffs, and public humiliation will not curb the cultural desire to collect. Education is, while the slowest solution, the better solution. It’s about reaching the hearts and minds of people, in showing them the value in the human history they encounter each day. When everyday people can look at the relics, artifacts, and ruins around them and then walk away, happy that the next generation will do as they have done, then the victory of “preservation” will have been won. Truly this is a challenge. We tend not to collect experiences. We collect dust.

A Road Less Traveled By…

I am off to Nepal soon, to begin my next round of ethnographic fieldwork in Mustang District (along the Himalayan Annapurna mountain circuit). As often happens when I am deep in the anxious and muddy terrain of travel planning, I sculpt. In the theme of Hindu pilgrimage (as my current project addresses), I have been practicing techniques in murti sculpting acquired from my time among the Vaishnavas (Krishna devotees) of West Bengal, India. Though my own journey takes me to the pilgrimage temple sites of the Muktinath Valley, I leave behind Radha-Krishna and Garuda Panchami to look after the place while I am gone.

Radha-Krishna and Garuda Panchami murti

Radha-Krishna and Garuda Panchami murti

Radha-Krishna and Garuda Panchami murti

Radha-Krishna and Garuda Panchami murti

A Theory Relatively

In most modern day feminist circles, opposing the practice of female circumcision is a given. To oppose female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM) as the practice is often called, is to oppose the very definition of gendered oppression and the restriction of female sexuality under patriarchal rule. These views tend to go against the more classically relativist approach of social science which typically seeks to understand female circumcision on local terms without immediately imposing obvious agendas to eradicate the practice. To say then that I am against female circumcision might then appear to be in line with typical Western ideas of individuality, political autonomy and freedom, and notions of bodily integrity and the self. But I do not oppose female circumcision as a practice in and of itself and, in fact, do not advocate for blanket bans of the practice at all. This is because I do not locate the problem of female circumcision in concerns about sexual function (Ahmadu 2007), in its short term or long term health implications (Al-Hussaini 2003 and Sayed et. al. 1996) or in its cultural symbolic value (Boddy 1982 and Ahmadu 2000). Instead, I locate the problem of female circumcision in the problem of choice. Just as we recognize the meaningfulness and cultural validity of marriage as a cultural institution, most anthropologists would likely still oppose instances of forced marriage, particularly among young children. Similarly, female circumcision per se is not the problem, forced circumcision is. While for many of us this reveals our own distinctly Western position and dedication to discourses of human rights, it does not negate the traumatic experiences of many women who have undergone female circumcision without consent and who now speak out against the practice and the harms it can and does cause. Acknowledging the positive and affirming aspects of female circumcision also does not mean anthropologists cannot oppose its darker aspects. In this way, we must seek an altruism that is not grounded in “othering,” but in a universalized principle of choice. This principle of choice is not unproblematic, however, grounded as it is in homogenizing rhetorics of global human rights. But the point here is not to seek a one-size-fits all policy regarding female circumcision but to use choice as a method for guiding global responses to local practices that produce both cultural meaning and injury.

In “Searching for Voices,” Christine Walley proposes one way to get beyond the binary and polarizing viewpoints commonly expressed toward female circumcision in the West (either moral outrage or hyper-relativistic tolerance) in an attempt to reconcile a feminist with an anthropological response. It is Walley’s contention that both humanist critics and cultural relativists share an unacknowledged common thread:“a hardened view of ‘culture’ based on a rigid essentialist notion of difference that can be historically linked to the colonial era” (Walley 1997:407). Addressing the deeper nuances of the practice, as she advocates, can then stimulate a more productive feminist and anthropological debate that moves past binary limitations of “us” and “them.” By noting the powerful presence of African voices on both sides of the debate as well as the continued realities of global communications, multinational corporations, migrant communities, refugees, and tourists, Walley demonstrates that global transformations “are breaking down what has been a pervasive, if always problematic assumption—namely, that internally homogeneous First and Third Worlds exist as radically separate ‘worlds'” (1997: 406). This also means that the increase in the permeability of national, cultural, and ethnic boundaries does not unfairly place female circumcision within global discussions of universal human rights or consent and the treatment of minority populations. But I take to heart the danger in continuing to frame the discussion on female circumcision in terms of Western and Imperial notions of sex, sexuality, gender, and power. Therefore, I agree with Walley that altruism and activism must be based on “alliances and coalitions” (1997: 430) so that when communities request or welcome assistance from outsiders, aid workers and anthropologists alike will be “capable of critiquing practices such as clitoridectomy and infibulation without resorting to neocolonial ideologies of gender or denigrating the choices of women who support such practices” (1997: 430). The role of choice then, is to focus aid and activism efforts specifically on those in need and not on an any kind of essentialized or naturalized category of “victim”. By attending to issues of individual and group consent versus protest, people who intervene in a spirit of altruism might better avoid vilifying societies where female circumcision takes place and denigrating those cultures as primitive and backward. Failing to understand the cultural and social needs that female circumcision fulfills and undermining the culture of practitioners is, ultimately, unproductive and will do nothing to improve the lives of women and girls who are harmed by or refuse the practice of female circumcision.

In the end, we must get beyond the basic dilemmas of ‘ban completely’ or ‘allow unfettered’. Far too many case studies become mired in questions of medical imperatives, criminalization and punishment, or cultural backwardness and “tradition”. If we are to take a position of altruism, then it must be an altruism of support, an “other” altruism where we the Western, the educated, and the feminist are “othered” in relation to the selves of indigenous women as they distinguish their own boundaries of certainty, uncertainty, identity, and meaning. This means supporting the choices of those who seek refuge from forced circumcision without imposing a necessity for these women to assimilate to Western modes of thinking. It also means giving resources to those harmed by female circumcision without demanding a complete eradication of the ritual or leveraging judgments of inferiority. Through the discourses of choice and consent, the focus is shifted from social action to its effects and from demonizing women who find significance in the practice to caring for women injured by it. Choice means accepting nuance and affecting a kind of humanitarianism that doesn’t automatically imply authority. As Kenyan anthropologist Achola Pala-Okeyo cautions, quoted in Walley: “the role of [Western] feminists is not to be in front, leading the way for other women, but to be in back supporting the other women’s struggles to bring about change” (1997: 430). This is the other side of altruism, the side that gives its power so that others may speak.

Works Cited:

Boddy, Janice. 1982. “Womb as Oasis: The Symbolic Context of Pharaonic Circumcision in Rural Northern Sudan.” American Ethnologist (1982) 9(4): 682-698.

Ahmadu, Fuambai. 2000. “Rites and Wrongs: An Insider/Outsider Reflects on Power and Excision,” in Female “Circumcision” in Africa, Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund, eds. (Lynne Rienner Publishers 2000): pp. 283-312.

Ahmadu, Fuambai. 2007. “Ain’t I a Woman Too? Challenging Myths of Sexual Dysfunction in Circumcised Women,” in Transcultural Bodies: Female Genital Cutting in Global Context, Ylva Hernlund and Bettina Shell-Duncan, eds. (Rutgers 2007): pp. 278-310.

Walley, Christine. 1997. “Searching for Voices: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations,” Cultural Anthropology 12(3): 405-438.

Al-Hussaini, Tarek. 2003. Female Genital Cutting: Types, Motives and Perineal Damage in Laboring Egyptian Women. Medical Principles and Practice, 12, 123-28.

Sayed, G., M.A.Abd El-Aty, and K.A. Fadel. 1996. The Practice of Female Genital Mutilation in Upper Egypt. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 55.3, 285-91.