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Stephen D. Houston

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

Affiliation at time of award:
Jesse Knight University Professor
Department of Anthropology
Brigham Young University

PROJECT:

Kings of Stone, Bodies of Desire: Experience and Being Among the Classic Maya

The wealth of information left by the Classic Maya, who flourished in the Yucatan peninsula between ca. CE 250 and 850, includes not only an “extraordinarily complicated writing system,” observes anthropologist Stephen Houston, but also iconography from their “extremely active interest in image-making.” The Maya inscriptions and imagery provide details about these ancient peoples that illuminate subjects usually inaccessible to archeologists, such as the senses, emotion, embodiment, consumption, and inebriation. This trove of data from the Classic period is further enhanced by information compiled by Spanish friars in the 1500s and 1600s, as well as rich ethnographic studies spanning the last century into current times.

In Kings of Stone, Bodies of Desire: Experience and Being among the Classic Maya, Houston and co-authors David Stuart and Karl Taube will draw from all of these sources to examine Classic Maya concepts of the human body, from a systematic “mapping” or compendium of the body, to notions of being—what it means to exist, and experience—how sensation was ordered and interpreted. Such a treatment has not been attempted before, and will cover topics including life cycles, impersonation, and concepts of materiality and temporality.

“What’s always fascinated me about working with the Maya, and it’s not doable with many ancient peoples around the world, is that to some extent you can understand how they experienced life; that is, how they thought about it, how they represented aspects as raw as emotion,” Houston says.

Houston challenges what he calls “constructionism,” a group of perspectives emerging from cultural studies that regard the body as “little more than a mental projection, a malleable concept that changes with time and local understanding.” Noting that modern anthropology also tends to focus on “difference and diversity, how everyone is somehow distinct from each other,” Houston observes that while these views must be honored, “the fact of the matter is, we’re all human beings.”

Contending that the body offers a central point of reference for humans across time and cultures, Houston says this book will “present a view of the Classic Maya that is, in current jargon, historically and culturally contingent but rooted in the inescapable facts of the human body.”

Natasha Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll

Weatherhead Resident Scholar

Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley


PROJECT:

Living with the Machine: An Ethnography of Gambling Addiction in Las Vegas

Natasha Schüll conducted fieldwork for her dissertation in Las Vegas, a city commonly acknowledged as the epicenter of late capitalist consumer culture. Through the life stories of local women who consider themselves addicted to gambling machines, her analysis probes the links between lived experience, gender, and the intensifying technological circumstances of life in the contemporary United States. Schüll imagines her project as a response to a question posed by one of the gamblers in her study: “How to live with the machine?”

Unlike traditional slot machines, gambling devices such as video poker involve an element of skill that heightens their appeal. They have been called “electronic morphine” and “the crack cocaine of gambling,” and represent one of the fastest-growing sectors of the gambling industry. Where table games such as craps and blackjack involve social interaction, gambling machines “technologize” the play, creating a direct and isolated relationship between player and machine. Addicted gamblers describe an experience of “machine escape” in which boundaries between human and machine become ambiguous. In the words of one gambler: “You are the machine, the machine is you.”

“The technologized form of addiction that you see in compulsive machine play is a kind of knot through which you can explore larger dilemmas of the contemporary world,” Schüll observes. Over eighteen months of fieldwork in Las Vegas, she conducted research among gamblers, doctors of “pathological gambling,” engineers of gaming machines, and casino managers. Her research seeks to understand the dynamic interaction between gamblers’ lives, technologies of chance, and an economic context in which consumption and addiction are intimately associated.

Drawing from a diverse range of scholars including Foucault, Freud, B. F. Skinner, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Georges Canguilhem, and Sherry Turkle, Schüll is investigating what happens “when acts of autonomy, free will, choice, and agency are pushed to their extremes in environments of intensified consumer excitation, challenging the assumptions of ‘consumer sovereignty’ and ‘rational consumption’ that underlie our economic system.” She asks, “What can gambling addicts tell us about the constraints and possibilities for human life under the increasingly automated conditions of American consumer culture?”

Michael Dietler

Weatherhead Resident Scholar

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago

PROJECT:

Biography and the Luo Material World: Relating Lives, Objects, and Memory in Rural Africa

At the core of the archeological endeavor is a fundamental problem: Without access to the people who lived in past societies, scholars must piece together information about these cultures from the remnants and shards of objects left behind. “Basically everything we have to say about the past is based on some kind of inference from the material objects that we find,” says Michael Dietler. “In order for us to make valid inferences, we really have to understand the relationships between the material and non-material aspects of a culture and society. And, unfortunately, we still don’t have a good theoretical grasp of that.”

As part of the recent revival of interest in material culture within anthropology and the development of “ethnoarchaeology,” Dietler and his collaborator, archeologist and ethnographer Ingrid Herbich, are writing two books this year based on extensive fieldwork among the Luo people of Kenya. By conducting ethnographic studies of material culture in living contexts “where both sides of the relationship can be observed,” Dietler explains, a set of theoretical tools might be developed that can craft “a more adequate window of entry for perceiving social relations and processes in ancient societies.”

“Because the Luo make pots for their own consumption, not for an art or tourist market, studying their active pottery system offers fascinating possibilities for archaeologists,” Dietler observes, noting that “pottery constitutes about ninety percent of the evidence we have from societies of recent periods.”

The Luo study is unusual among ethnoarchaeological projects because of its scale and temporal depth, covering a region of over 10,000 square kilometers and lasting three years. Focusing particularly on the lives and works of potters, the study illuminates “the dynamic interrelationships between the life histories of craftspersons, of the objects they produce and consume, and of the social, material, and conceptual landscapes they inhabit.” Drawing from the work of Mauss, Bourdieu, and the French tradition of technologie, Dietler and Herbich trace the “biography” of pots and settlement patterns among the Luo, returning to these basic questions: How does material culture originate in its social context and how does material culture reciprocally condition social structures and processes?

The scholars have geared one of these books toward ethnographers interested in biography and material culture; the other, “more data-heavy” book is directed at archaeologists using ethnography to understand pottery.

Lynn M. Meskell

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor
Department of Anthropology
Columbia University

PROJECT:

Material Biographies: Object Worlds from Ancient Egypt and Beyond

A sculptor in New Kingdom Egypt (1539-1070 BC) barters for a block of wood, takes it home, and begins to craft a shape. From the rough wood emerges the form of a figure; from the figure, a statue resembling a deity. At some point in this process, the statue is animated by the actual spirit of the deity depicted, it is bartered again, and the new owner begins to worship and petition the deity. Lynn Meskell is investigating how “things” in ancient Egypt such as statues, votives, memorials, and images drawn on potsherds transcended the category of object and were treated as if they had spiritual agency. Her new book, “Material Biographies: Object Worlds from Ancient Egypt and Beyond,” explores how the material world was experienced by the Egyptians, and particularly how the material became personified, moving from thing to being.

“How are things not objects?” Meskell asks. “They’re objects when you make them, and are not necessarily embued with the divine when you craft it, but all of the sudden through a series of ritual practices, it is not a representation of the god, it is the god. I’m interested in that shifting terrain, the moments of processing and transforming that turn objects into subjects.”

Meskell contends that Cartesian dualistic models such as mind:body, and reason:emotion are inadequate to describe the “multiplicity encompassed by the whole” perspective of the New Kingdom Egyptians. “I argue that we have to re-think our taxonomies for antiquity since things, persons, deities, and spirits were permeable classifications that could have temporally specific meanings and existences,” Meskell says.

Her book is an interdisciplinary work that draws from a varied scholarship on materiality including Marx, Hegel, Mauss, and Baudrillard. Each chapter will sketch sets of things that transcend the category of object, such as the “false doors” in homes that provided “a portal between the world of the living and the dead,” and statues that were bathed, fed, and worshipped as deities. Finally, Meskell applies her analysis to contemporary relationships to Egypt’s past, noting the modern fetishization of Egyptian culture. “Why do we find Egyptian things so seductive,” she asks, “and why is their particular aesthetic seemingly timeless?”

Jennifer Nez Denetdale

Katrin H. Lamon Resident Scholar

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of New Mexico

PROJECT:

A Study of the Navajo Past: Reclaiming Chief Manuelito and Juanita, 1868 to the Present

“When we talk about history, we are also talking about the power to produce and disseminate knowledge,” says historian Jennifer Nez Denetdale. “It still is the case that non-Navajo scholars publish Navajo history and although they consult Navajos and consider Navajo perspectives, only certain kinds of histories and stories are told and retold and conveyed to our children and into popular culture.”

Denetdale’s comparative study of Navajo history focuses on her great-great-great grandmother Juanita and her husband Manuelito, the 19th century Navajo leader, and examines how they are represented in American historical accounts and Navajo oral tradition. The only biographies of Manuelito, Denetdale notes, are articles that rely on military and Indian agent reports. “Given the sources, we can only understand Manuelito in relation to American expansion. Further, these short biographies reflect assumptions about American Indian leaders including ideas about ‘noble and debauched savages,’ the inevitable decline of native societies, and agreement to assimilation,” she says. Denetdale contends that such accounts reveal more about the beliefs of the dominant society than the reality of Manuelito’s life or Navajo history.

In her examination of how Navajo women are represented, Denetdale traces the story of Juanita through historical photographs and sparse documents. Her use of oral tradition sheds light on Juanita’s life. “Although Juanita, like many Navajo women, held a significant amount of authority in her society, almost nothing is known about her life experiences,” Denetdale explains. By placing the stories conveyed through oral tradition in a historical framework, Denetdale’s research offers “rich insight into Navajo perspectives on the past and especially on the authoritative roles of women in Navajo society, past and present.”

Her examination of the interrelationships between oral traditions and history “belies the distinctions conventionally drawn to divide them,” Denetdale says. “Story and history cannot be separated because storytelling is a valid form of historical production.”

Gelya Frank

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor
Departments of Occupational Science, Occupational Therapy, and Anthropology
University of Southern California

PROJECT:

Repatriating a Story: The Case of U.S. v. Whaley

Salt Lake Pete, a member of the Yaudanchi tribe of Yokuts Indians in late 19th century California, was appointed by a tribal council to execute a shaman who had spiritually poisoned and killed Hunter Jim, a well-liked tribal leader. This process was not unusual as a traditional remedy against shamans who abused their power. In an unfortunate clash of cultures, however, Salt Lake Pete and the three men who assisted him were accused of murder under a newly enacted federal law, then convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned for carrying out this task for the tribe. Months earlier, the matter would have been outside federal jurisdiction because the conflict was between Indians only and on Indian land.

In Repatriating a Story: The Case of U.S. v Whaley, Gelya Frank delves into this incident to uncover the motives among the Tule River Indians and their U.S. Indian agent who reported the crime. Her reconstruction illuminates tribal identity and tribal sovereignty among Native Californians during a period when traditional institutions were actively suppressed by the federal government. “The Yokuts and Western Mono in this case were among the tiny percentage of California Indians who survived the most rapid disruption and devastation experienced by any native people in North America,” Frank observes. She has been associated for over thirty years with the Tule River Indian tribe, many members of which are descended from principals in this case. Frank notes, however, that not even direct descendants of Salt Lake Pete have knowledge today of the compelling events of the Whaley case.

Using intertextual analysis and a range of narrative and critical approaches, Frank is piecing together the case from federal court records, unpublished field notes of anthropologist A. L. Kroeber and his student A. H. Gayton, census records, and published sources about the Yokuts and Western Mono tribes. “From a native point of view,” says Frank, “the Whaley incident involved a challenge to chiefly authority by an out-of-control shaman. Federal repression of traditional institutions made it also a crisis of order and succession.”

Frank, an anthropologist who helped found the new academic discipline of Occupational Science, considers her work with the Tule River tribe a model for what she terms direct cultural interventions. “Anthropologists and other scholars now have the ability and even the duty,” she observes, “to restore past cultural information to the communities of origin. The process of returning an American Indian history of survivance to collective memory is central to this story.”