Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kenneth Neal Wood 1933 - 2013

A person is a sort of place. In fact, a person may be a truer, more abiding place than any geographic location.

I have not relied on my father and mother for shelter in nearly forty years. But they have been that deep safe harbor. Even when I was far away, I knew that if I had to I could set a course and find shelter, strength, love.

That harbor lost its tall lighthouse last Saturday. We are all now at sea.

From his obituary: 

Kenneth Neal Wood spent his life teaching himself and others to seek out and pay attention to experience. He was a farm boy who grew up to be a minister, then turned to education before becoming director of experiential learning at Davidson College. In his last years he was a gardener and abiding friend of nature. He died Saturday. He was eighty years old.

The cause of death was amyloidosis, a rare disease involving the buildup of amyloid proteins in organ tissues, particularly the heart and digestive system, eventually causing their failure. He had been an exceptionally healthy and robust man. But for the disease, his family and friends had expected him to live another decade or more.

He was a quiet giant. He stood six feet four inches tall, all of it broad and muscled. He grew up milking cows and baling hay, hunting and fishing on days off. Once, hunting for meat on a distant relative’s ranch in Wyoming, he shot and killed a bull elk with a royal rack two inches off the Boone & Crockett record. Yet he gave up hunting altogether when his young children could not bear the carnage of the rabbits and pheasants he brought home for dinner.

He was a minister who eventually left the church because he felt it had failed to be the liberating institution it promised to be. As a minister he worked in the trenches of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s. He spent much of his professional life with young people encouraging forms of education that freed them to think for themselves.

After high school and before college, he and a friend spent a year driving around the American West in a Model A Ford, working on ranches and farms. For the rest of his life he would urge others to pursue their own adventures and learn firsthand from them.

In one of his early sermons as a Presbyterian minister, he celebrated the value of adventure.

“Late Wednesday afternoon,” he wrote in 1963, “I parked the car in front of the manse, stepped out, and was greeted by the excited little voice of my two-and-a-half year old daughter: ‘Hi Daddy, look where I am!’

“The voice was coming from an unfamiliar location, high up somewhere. I looked in all the upstairs windows, and then at the same instant the panic button was pressed. I spotted her fully twenty feet up a tree in the front of our house. A young eaglet on its first flight out of the nest couldn’t have been more proud and thrilled and excited than my little daughter beaming down at me from her perch....

“Pity the adult that cannot look upon a child straining to reach a perch far above what the adult world considers safe and not envy the reckless courage and the sense of victory that belongs to the young climber.... Pity the adult without an inner tree to climb.”

Ken Wood participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and two years later was arrested with others, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, on the Selma-to-Montgomery March. He organized his church in Orchard Park, New York, to work against inequality. He and other community leaders convinced Saul Alinsky to bring his Industrial Areas Foundation to organize Buffalo’s impoverished eastside.

Once one of his sons was told by a stranger in a pickup to go get his father and tell him there was a man outside who was going to “kick his ass.” When the son reported this news, his father assumed it was someone upset with his Christian politics.

Turned out it was a long-absent favorite cousin pulling everyone’s leg.

Ken Wood was born in 1933 in Buffalo, N.Y., and grew up on farms at Evans Center and Sturgeon Point, on or near the shores of Lake Erie. After the year traveling out West, he studied history and psychology at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa. He spent summers earning money for college at farm and construction jobs, even stints on freight boats on the Great Lakes.

At Westminster he met Sandra Jean Colman, who became his wife, love, and life-long companion.

He studied theology and counseling at Princeton Theological Seminary and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church. In 1959 he became founding pastor of Northway United Presbyterian Church in Williamsport, Pa., and then in 1964 an associate pastor at United Presbyterian Church in Orchard Park, N.Y. There he developed PACT, or Park Action, a citizen’s organization for racial justice.

In 1968 he became director of the Lansing Area United Ministries, where he continued work on race and justice issues. These led him from church to school interventions. Throughout this period he worked with school dropouts and alienated teens. He helped create the People’s Learning Center. In 1971 he joined the Youth Development Corporation in Lansing. The following year he became a fellow with the National Program for Educational Leadership at Ohio State University.

Much of his professional life had been focused on youth, cultivating in them capacities for freedom, critical thinking, and learning from experience. In 1974 he became director of experiential learning at Davidson College, where he counseled students about lives and work they envisioned for themselves and helped them gain real-world experiences to explore their dreams and build competencies.

During his time at Davidson he volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. In part because of that work he won the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Davidson College. He and Sauni gutted and renovated the family’s old house on Main Street, where they continued to live.

Wood retired from Davidson in 1995, and spent his remaining years tending bees in his backyard, negotiating garden rights with woodchucks and deer, tramping Western North Carolina mountains in search of old-growth forests, reading, listening to music, attending to birds, visiting with family. He could watch a spider build its web for an entire morning and consider it time well spent.

Asked about high points of his life, he remembered volunteering with Sauni at state and national parks, climbing snowy mountains, hitchhiking in Newfoundland and going out to sea with its fishermen. He remembered adventures, abroad and at home.

He was preceded in death by parents, Christian Witmer Wood and Bessie Emily Wertman Wood; sister Janice Wood Tonder; and son Scot Kenneth Wood.

He is survived by his wife of fifty-eight years, Sandra; children, John Colman Wood and wife, Carol Young Wood, of Asheville, N.C.; Melinda Wood and husband, Irvin Wardlow, and daughter, Rosa, of Decatur, Ga.; Peter Neal Wood and wife, Patricia Sierra, and sons, Scot Salomon and Esteban Nathaniel, of Coral Gables, Fla. He is also survived by sister, Nancy Wood Mackenburg and partner Ron Smalt of Orchard Park, N.Y.; brother-in-law, sister Jan’s husband, Robert Tonder of McCaysville, Ga.; brothers-in-law, wife Sauni’s brothers, George Colman of Oaxaca, Mexico; Samuel Colman of Binghamton, N.Y.; Robert Colman of Montpelier, Vt.; and David Colman of Middlebury, Vt.; along with many loving nieces and nephews.

“Education,” he once wrote, “...should function to free people and thus enable us to act toward the solution of our personal and corporate problems. At times I am discouraged by the complexity and intractability of the problems. But I find within myself, my family, and in youth, abundant cause to hope and to work for both a better present and a better future.”

Ken Wood spent his life climbing such trees.

A celebration of Ken Wood’s life will be 2 p.m. Saturday, January 11, at the Davidson, N.C., Friends Meetinghouse on South Street.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Zen Anthropology

I teach a class called “Zen Anthropology.” It’s a methods class. Zen methods? Meta-methods, actually.

The class is about attitudes more than techniques. In it we ponder how to learn deeply from experience.

What cultural anthropologists do is ethnography. What ethnographers do, at least at the start, is fieldwork. Ethnographers carry out fieldwork among communities of people and then write up what we’ve learned.

The problem is that when we teach methods, we emphasize techniques – participant observation, interviewing, systematic observation, discourse analysis. But we seldom teach students about cultivating proper field attitudes, frames of mind, points of view.

Ethnographic knowledge is channeled through an ethnographer’s mind. So why don’t we talk about mind in our classes? How does one become open to others? How do we cultivate the capacity to notice what others are doing? How do we become mindful of ways our minds (and cultural sensitivities) color understandings of others?

These are matters of subjectivity that, as a discipline, we tend to leave up to the field worker or pretend will be eliminated by proper methods, or techniques.

I teach Zen anthropology because Zen has been around a long time and has over millennia developed texts, practices, teachings to help students become aware of their own minds and the minds of others.

Zen sometimes strikes my students as negative, nihilistic: Zen talk is full of expressions like “no self” or “no mind.” It is a Zen way of talking that Americans struggle with. But it is not so negative as people imagine.

I recently re-read Donald Barthelme’s essay “Not-Knowing,” in which he writes positively about the need in any art not to know, at least at the outset, where the work is going.

“The not-knowing,” he wrote, “is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

The ethnographer is not, at least at first blush, an artist. The ethnographer does not, should not, make things up in the way a fiction writer, such as Barthelme, makes things up.

On the other hand, the ethnographer must set aside some of her or his own cultural dispositions if she or he is to make sense of the cultural dispositions of others. In that sense, the ethnographer too must “not know.”

This is where Barthelme’s attitude of not-knowing would come in handy for an ethnographer doing field work, and where Zen has an entire canon to help students cultivate the capacity.

Hence, Zen anthropology.

This morning I was thinking about how to talk to students about “no-self” in a way that helped them understand the notion without simply dismissing it as crazy or nihilistic. The self is one of the great western certainties. How can these Zen masters talk about no-self?

It occurred to me that “not-knowing,” at least at the start of a project, may be intuitively comprehensible to my students in ways that “no-self” is not.

They know what it means not to know. They can imagine the value of suspending judgment. Perhaps this was a way to get at the meaning of no-mind, and thus, no-self.

Hence a formula: No-self : Self :: Not-knowing : Knowing, or put another way: no-self is to self as not-knowing is to knowing.

The attitude of “not-knowing” might really be a matter of openness, or receptivity. It doesn’t mean idiocy. It doesn’t mean a person must be a vacuum. Rather it means that for a time a person suspends a knowing attitude in favor of a not-knowing one, in which the person might discover something she didn’t already know.

Not-knowing may in fact be necessary if one is ever to learn something outside one’s own world view.

Barthelme’s “not-knowing” does not mean the writer gives up knowing altogether, just that for the project at hand one becomes open to other possibilities. One may know and not-know at once. We can imagine that. We can see how a painter or short story writer could set out on a project not knowing where it will end up, all the while knowing who she is, where she comes from, and where she’s got to be tomorrow.

Similarly, a person could adopt an attitude of no-self. It may in fact be the same sort of thing as not-knowing.

No-self does not have to mean no self. One can be self and no-self at the same time. It is not negative or positive. It simply is the case that all of us are just that, whether we think it or not: self and no-self.

We each have a body, a name, an identity, a set of memories, desires, hopes, frustrations, and so on. Yet each of us is related to everything else, dependent on an environment, a set of social relations, infinite interactions with others. The idea of a separate self is, in the final analysis, a fiction.

Like not-knowing, no-self is a platform from which we may realize our connection to others, cultivate our openness to others, discover our empathy for others.

They are really the same: mind and body and other. That is what interactionist theory teaches us in anthropology and what Buddhist teachings point toward in Zen. The aim, whether we are anthropologists or Zenists, is to be open to and learn about the reality of ourselves and others through personal experience.

That is why I teach Zen anthropology.

This, of course, is only speculation.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A matter of interpretation

The poststructural stereotype of structuralism, or modernism, was that the latter presumed certainty and correctness, that it was the right way to know and interpret the world.

The reciprocal stereotype of postmodernism is any view is as good as another.

These are extremes, of course. Neither structuralism nor poststructuralism is or ever was monolithic. Both are more complex than their critics like to admit. Still, stereotypes linger and inform arguments.

William H. Gass, in a review of essays by the noted literary scholar M.H. Abrams (and Gass’s former professor), characterizes the poststructural critique of literary theory in just this way: anything goes.

“But suppose,” Gass writes, “as has been proposed by followers of Jacques Derrida, there is no right reading of the work, no correct sense for it. Out of a cage of calculations, suppose we are free to choose the pigeon we like best.”

Perhaps that is the way it goes in the literary world (though I doubt even there you get to pick your pigeons). But these arguments needn’t always retreat to the corners.

The poststructural turn grew out of (or was at least cognate with) anthropology’s idea of cultural relativity. This assertion is a matter of interpretation. But it makes sense historically.

Contact with other societies over the 19th and 20th centuries (coupled with misgivings about slavery and colonialism) eroded the West’s confidence that it had things right, had a privileged view of others, let alone humanity.

A gross extension of this uncertainty is there is no better view: one pigeon is as good as another.

But that’s a leap: it’s one thing to say the culture of my family has nothing privileged to say about your family, quite another to say that the culture of your family has no privileged platform from which to think about itself.

One family may eat food with silverware; another with hands. The fact that these practices are relative to respective families does not mean there is no right way to eat, just that their views about each other must be taken with a grain of salt.

This might smell like I’m saying that a culture critique may only be mounted from within. That may be so. But I’m not making that argument.

I’m suggesting that the challenge to modernism of cultural relativity was more specific than general: a European could not hope to understand an African from a European perspective alone.

That doesn’t mean any view goes, or that there is no basis from which to interpret and evaluate cultural forms (such as literary texts). It’s only to say that a person from one culture is likely to get another culture wrong if she relies on her own cultural resources alone. It does not deny the possibility that there are better and worse interpretations.

There is, in other words, a middle view between a) modern certainty and b) postmodern uncertainty.

One can make better or worse interpretations from premises, and perhaps complex and nuanced variations with other premises, and that a critical “post” modern perspective is not "anything goes" but that "it depends" on the premises, it depends on perspective. Each interpretation is a function of its location relative to what is being interpreted.

Derrida’s project was not to say anything goes. If that was all, why would he have bothered to say anything? His aim as I see it was to expose the reality of multiple possible interpretations, to open up the possibility of richer, more nuanced readings. This is something I think Gass would applaud.

Indeed, Gass once did in a great essay called “In terms of the toenail: fiction and the figures of life.” Here he spoke of the power of metaphor to model (and interpret) the world. Metaphors matter. Perspectives matter. Some metaphors work better than others. We make choices; our choices matter.

In the Jones family they eat with their hands, in the Smith family, with a fork. It’s not “anything goes.” It's a matter of tradition, presumption, culture, point of view. Pluralistic rather than relativistic.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The texture of things

As I get older
It is the texture
Of things that matters
The rub of wind
On my cheeks
The feel of a pencil
Between fingers
The tongue of bitter coffee
These once trivial
Facts I comprehend
While the politics
Of idealism
Theories of aspiration
Are inconsequential
As a recipe.

A matter of orientation

This morning, while I was sitting against the wall, a mosquito began to buzz my ears. I let it be, and it went away.

Then I heard it buzzing my coffee cup which rested on the desk nearby. The cup was warm from the coffee I’d just finished before starting my meditation. I suspect it was warmer than I, for I think it was the cup’s warmth that drew the mosquito away from my ears. I made this hypothesis quickly and returned my attention to the wall.

Then I corrected myself, for to ignore the mosquito and face the wall then was, in a sense, a failure to be present. The mosquito was here, resting on my cup, and I had not really observed it.

So I quietly lifted my reading glasses from beside the cup on the desk, put them on, and watched the mosquito. The mosquito landed on the outer wall of the cup, its front legs splayed out before it like the curved runnels of an old sleigh. Finding nothing to bite it hovered and landed again. For a few moments it probed the porcelain surface of the cup with its stiletto proboscis, and eventually finding no pore, lifted off. In a moment it was buzzing again around my ear.

The experience got me thinking afterwards about my habit of making quick assessments and moving on – I rarely really observe anything but glance, quickly “figure out” what is there, what is going on, and then turn my glance upon the next thing.

Of course, I prefer close observation, to stop myself and see – study  – what is there rather than to see briefly, noticing only what I expect.

Not that I observed the mosquito all that well. The room was dimly lit in the morning dark by a single bulb the other side of the desk. But I’m glad to have looked again at the mosquito, for I did notice that it wasn’t simply a little slit of gray wings resting on the side of the cup, but that it had the hunched head and shoulders of a microscopic stork and the front legs of a winter sleigh, and I wouldn't have noticed those features if I’d relied simply on memory, the prototype of a mosquito I had carried around in my head.

I read the following passage from Shunryu Suzuki. He was quoting the Zen master Tozan: “The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud. The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain. All day long they depend on each other without being dependent on each other. The white cloud is always the white cloud. The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.”

This passage reminded me of a poem by Dogen:

All my life false and real, right and wrong tangled.
Playing with the moon, ridiculing wind, listening to birds…
Many years wasted seeing the mountain covered with snow.
This winter I suddenly realize snow makes a mountain.

The Tozan quote helped me make new sense of the Dogen poem, the idea of both independence and dependence, that the mountain depends on the snow, just as the snow depends on the mountain, and that a snowy mountain is made by snow just as much as it is made by mountain.

I suppose the self is a parallel case – being utterly dependent on everything in its sphere (and all spheres beyond), and yet distinct, itself. The self is and is not. It is independent and dependent. It is distinct as a wave in water: we can point at a wave and understand its being in a sense separate from the water generally and yet also know that it is not separate from the water at all but part of it. Likewise, we can speak meaningfully of a self, and act accordingly. We do it all the time. We must do it or perish. Even so we are simply separate waves emerging for a time upon an ocean of water only to slip back into it eventually.

The contrasts between dependence and independence, mountain and cloud, snow and mountain, self and not-self serve to orient us. They are, like many of the oppositions we decorate our lives with, useful distinctions, good (albeit distracting) to think.

They are like the contrasting white and black keys on a piano. There is nothing in the color of the keys that is essential to the sounds they make. There is nothing about the contrast that is essential.

Except for one thing: the contrast, the difference – or rather the différance of Jacque Derrida – the contrast orients the player’s hands to the keyboard.

This matter of orientation is the key thing, and returning to the idea of the self, is the deciding difference: the idea of a separate self orients us vis-à-vis the rest, the not-self, but does not exist in itself any more than the contrasting keys of a keyboard exist in the sounds that they make. The idea of the self (as the “idea,” the contrast, the différance between the keys) is orientational, helps us make the next move.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Hurt hawks

I am drawn to hawks. A sighting makes my day. So when crows mob a hawk, and crows hereabouts are never far behind a hawk, I sympathize with the raptor. What do crows have against hawks?

Perhaps the scene reminds me of old playground dramas of insiders ganging up on one or two of us outsiders.

The other day, in a breezeway amid the athletic buildings on campus, I heard the familiar “scree” of a red-tailed hawk, looked up, saw one. And then another. A mating pair perhaps, or courting.

Then a swoop of crows. And my heart hardened – until I saw one of the hawks lift off the roof with a baby crow in its talons.

Suddenly I understood why crows are so murderous of hawks.

Even so, my sympathy for the crow family hardly diminished my admiration for the hawks and their “... old implacable arrogance.”

They are a kind of royalty, and even as we despise kings, we do look on them with envy and pride.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why anthropology?

There’s a telling scene in last week’s Times Magazine story on Napoleon Chagnon.

The anthropologist, having thrown in with a politically corrupt Venezuelan foundation to gain access to the Yanomami Indians, has been tossed out on his ear.

But Chagnon is unrepentant: “I got a year’s worth of data,” he said. “It was worth it for that reason.”

In the swirl of debate over the publication of his latest book, Noble Savages, which refers in equal measure to the Yanomami and his critics, the question that’s been missed is Why anthropology?

What might an answer to that question tell us about how to do anthropology?

The debate over Chagnon himself will never be resolved. The Yanomami love a fight. So does their chronicler. No doubt Chagnon is pleased with all the attention.

The arguments about him turn on matters of fact, which are now too cold to prove, or matters of principle, such as between positivism and interpretivism, which divide the discipline more deeply than Chagnon himself.

They are, in my view, beside the point.

I didn’t get into anthropology to learn about uncontacted people living in a state of nature (as the naïve Nicolas Wade fantasized in the Science Times). Uncontacted people don’t exist. If they did, they wouldn’t be interesting.

Human beings are interesting not for what they are in some pristine, static, or removed sense, but for what they do with other human beings. The Yanomami aren’t interesting because they represent original humanity. They are interesting for how they understand and manage their affairs with each other and their neighbors.

They are interesting – that is, they are human – for how they solve the problem of their humanity.

I am suspicious of the impulse to study so-called “uncontacted” people. They are trees falling alone in the wood without anyone to hear them. Anyway, they are lost, like Vladimir Nabokov’s butterflies, in our encounter with them. They are logical impossibilities.

I am just as suspicious of the impulse to extract knowledge from other people, whether it is pharmacological or textual, just to learn what the other knows.

That model of knowing assumes that knowledge is content, that others have something, and we want it, too. It is a naïve and exploitative understanding of knowledge.

I’d rather think of knowledge as a process, an encounter with the world. Such a view of anthropological knowing is not extractive but collaborative. We know with others, not from others. This is what Johannes Fabian meant when he described the ethnographic relationship as “agonistic.”

Our ethics of informed consent insist on a collaborative view: if the Yanomami don’t want us, then we shouldn’t study the Yanomami. We follow Immanuel Kant here: the Yanomami are ends in themselves. To view them as data, to view them as means to data, is unethical.

It was disheartening to read Chagnon’s selfish justification for his slippery associations in the Times Magazine. He simply misses the point.

I understand the confusion. Anthropology is a field discipline. Cultural anthropologists do field work with living people. We come back with notes, and having worked hard to collect them, we come, if we’re not careful, to value the notes more than the relationships that produced them.

Our careers, it seems, are made from our notes, not our relationships.

A romance with the idea of “heroic” anthropologists setting off for exotic locales and returning with a treasure of data has displaced what gives our data value: not the exotic, not the data themselves, but the human-to-human encounters.

In reality, the “field” in our discipline is not some far-flung place. The field is the space between us, the meeting of one human with another. That is where anthropology occurs, and it happens wherever there are humans.

The field includes South American rainforests and African deserts. It also includes suburban households, downtown coffee shops, Midwest farms – wherever humans do business. That is the anthropological frontier, the area we explore. We needn’t travel half way around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. There are cats right here in our backyard.

The exotic, the distant, the remote: these have become distractions.

Anthropology ought to shed its reputation for knowing strange people. Basing our work on the exotic – rather than the human – trivializes what we do. We are not in pursuit of strangers. Our job is making each other familiar.

The photograph above is from Noble Savages by Napoleon Chagnon via The New York Times.