Revitalizing Anthropology by Nourishing Epistemic Diversity within the Discipline and Beyond
Mycelium can remediate toxic soil. More so, it has played a fundamental role in creating the conditions for all life on the planet in the first place. At the dawn of life on Earth, mycelium transformed a barren rock into soil, formed symbiotic relationships with roots, and facilitated the emergence of plants on land. This process, as we know it, eventuated in the appearance of human societies and subsequently of anthropology. Mycelium weaves mycorrhizal networks, an ever-present sprawling fungal network beneath our feet, facilitating the exchange of nutrients and connecting plants, which continues to play the fundamental role in the existence of all life (Stamets 2005).
We can poetically draw on the ability of mycelium to nurture and propagate the diversity of life, to consider how we can nourish onto-epistemic diversity, the way we appraise and know the world, as a part of the anthropological endeavor. Spores—ideas containing worlds—epistemes may travel great distances to seed another mycorrhizal network. One such mycorrhizal network of epistemic diversity is emerging amid the University of Queensland and its affiliated Anthropology Society. The society carries within it a genome seeded by the episteme-spore of Gina Athena Ulysse’s (2018, 2019) work that itself contains epistemes of the works of Faye Venetia Harrison, Katherine Dunham, and Zora Neale Hurston (see Harrison 2011, Banks 2012).
Although it may seem that colonial, Eurocentric onto-epistemology (a detached way of knowing and being in the world) is dominant, there are innumerable spores seeding otherwise the world over, a reality to which we can open anthropology. Like mycelium, an organism that cultivates ecosystems nourishing its food chains—a process resulting in extraordinary biodiversity—so too, I suggest, artist–anthropologist mutual mentorship networks can nourish spaces where onto-epistemic diversity can proliferate, revitalizing the discipline of anthropology and magnifying its transformative impact on the world.
Anthropology is a body of knowledge and a way of knowing the world—the most holistic of all sciences. Principally, anthropology is a practice that is performed through the methodology of participant observation, interpretation of cultural realities, writing of monographs, journal articles, essays, op-eds, and the delivery of conference papers. Writing is a major part of what anthropology is, and anthropological writing follows a set of academic conventions, a certain kind of language—that of analytic prose. Why analytic prose?
Analytic prose is the language best fitting the detached way of knowing the world that is the hallmark of colonial Eurocentric epistemology (Mbembe 2015). Yet anthropology is not just science, it is a form of art (Madden 2017). Anthropologists are writers. And if anthropology is to have a greater impact on the world, it would help if people with backgrounds outside the field of anthropology would want to read it. Just imagine if nonanthropologists fell in love with how anthropologists write! The reality, as it was intimated to me by several anthropology students, is that there are very few works that constitute an enjoyable read. Corollary, a visiting anthropologist acknowledged that they need the help of another writer who can communicate with a nonacademic audience so as to relay insights to the people outside the academe.
Recognizing the issue of readability, prominent anthropologist Paul Stoller (2010) has critiqued scholars who write to emancipate, yet whose works are written in a disembodied “bloodless language.” Although there were (and are) anthropologists such as Edith Turner, Wade Davis, David Graeber, Margert Mead, and Paul Stoller himself whose writing is brimming with life, they are a vocal minority. This state of affairs is not surprising, since in anthropological training the value is placed on analysis, rather than the beauty of expression. The reading diet of up-and-coming anthropologists is based on research articles and largely, as a fellow student referred to them, ethnographies that are parched of life. Our assignments must fit academic writing conventions and, if not, the students are marked down.
The mastery of analytic prose, rather than evocative writing, is rewarded and expected of future anthropologists to attain doctorates. Future scholars are expected to publish articles in high-ranking journals, writing about humans using scientific, cold, distanced, and bloodless language. Indeed, I spoke to a seasoned anthropologist who disclosed that their article was rejected from a major anthropological publication because he used somewhat poetic language. Such knowledge-production process is akin to freeze-drying fruits, the fruits of living cultures and human experiences. Like the freeze-drying process, the science of humanity ensures that objective observations produced by a detached observer are free from contamination, epistemic or linguistic. Like freeze-dried fruits, the fruits of anthropological knowledge may become an elitist product inaccessible to the most. With the advent of paywall-removing services like www.Sci-Hub.st or www.12ft.io or free book access services like www.libgen.fun or www.b-ok.global, direct financial cost is no longer an issue when it comes to access of anthropological knowledge by the public, but the accessibility of the language still is.
One needs years of specialized training, a combination of social, financial, and cultural capital, to access anthropological insights. Besides the issue of accessibility, the privileging of “the textual” negates the great diversity of embodied practices constituting other forms of knowing. More than accessibility, performance has the potential to disrupt colonial onto-epistemic hegemonies, the ways of appraising and knowing the world (Madison 2011). Yet historically the dominance of texto-centric approach to knowledge greatly benefited colonial powers in silencing Indigenous voices, instituting and reproducing violent colonial ideologies (Smith 2021). Colonial approach to knowledge has rendered Indigenous anthropologists and scholars invisible. Speaking of which, Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (2021) call to decolonize methodologies is ever more pertinent, necessitating profound change to how anthropology is conducted in Australia and beyond. One of the possible ways to address the legacy of colonial knowledge production is to increase the accessibility and epistemic diversity of anthropology by propagating arts, poetics, and performance throughout the discipline, all while transforming relationships between the researchers and the researched, between institutions and communities, transforming how we engage with each other, knowledge, and the world.
Just as mycologists use logs to grow mushrooms, so too, institutional structures can be appropriated to seed and propagate onto-epistemic diversity through the associated clubs and societies. This essay is a response to a question: “What are the specific institutional structures the student plans to change?” The answer is that a single student cannot evoke a profound structural change; there must be a collective. Yet alone is how new future anthropologists may find themselves in a contemporary Australian university, where the students only occasionally share a class. Even if the class is shared, once it ends, living under the dictatorship of time, people scatter to get on with their lives. How can one expect to create new situations, collectivities, let alone change institutional structures from such a place?
I, along with a few other students, have cofounded the UQ Anthropology Society (UQAS) to bring together the anthropology community at the University of Queensland. The idea behind UQAS was to foster camaraderie among anthropology students at the UQ and to fill in the gaps in our education left by the neoliberal cutting of the anthropology courses. Most likely, the University of Queensland is interested in supporting clubs and societies because building a students’ cohort increases student retention and therefore profitability while helping to improve employability—and therefore the institution’s prestige. The university has provided space and some funding for UQAS’s activities.
One of these activities was an anthropological poetry competition, stirring anthropology students to break out of anthropological conventions and creative writing students to dip their toes into anthropological thinking. For its 2021 anthro-poetry competition, UQAS received more than a dozen wonderful entries and started a conversation between the university schools. One of the competition’s winning entries was a creative critique of colonialism that very well could be published as either ethnographic or poetic work in its own right. I helped to host an event to read winning poems. Through the event I befriended one of the authors, whose bid for a political position within the university structure was endorsed by UQAS and turned out to be successful. A mycorrhizal growth of the network.
Another activity co-funded by the university is a three-day writers’ retreat that I helped to organize. The participants—a mix of undergraduate, honors, and PhD students—have explored how to become more evocative and creative writers, experimenting, in a supportive environment, with different ways of knowing and being. The attendees participated in an embodied writing workshop, theater games, and surrealist games. An element of the retreat’s program was the development of a Mutual Mentorship Network (discussed elsewhere in this essay).
How long will UQAS endure? One can ask their favourite oracle. For now, a third generation of anthropology students at UQ, are able to face the ebbs and flows of becoming anthropologists in a collective environment that encourages latitude of thought. By banding together, we, the students, were able to appropriate resources toward activities that in some way tip anthropology toward human ends. The weakness of tethering your community to a single institutional structure, of course, is that the whims of those in charge may change, potentially jeopardizing the collective’s endeavor. To grow the collective’s impact and reach as well as to safeguard its future, it is my hope UQAS and those involved may connect with like-minded groups in other fields and places. I suggest that one way to transcend a structure of a single institution is through the cultivation of Artist– Anthropologist Mutual Mentorship Networks.
Mentorship, a one-on-one passing of knowledge from established to up-andcoming scholars, recognized as vital to success in academia, is needed today more than ever (Yun et al. 2016). Yet one-to-one mentorship can sometimes lead to costly failures, typically for the mentee (Ocobock et al. 2021). I have been in such a situation where an experienced mentor, wielding his superior anthropological knowledge, exploited my eagerness to learn in what became an emotionally abusive relationship. While an aberration, my experience is not unique: egalitarian relationships of mutuality can help to increase safety while widening the mentee’s support network. A study found that, as reflected in the rate of uptake, mutual mentorship networks—nonhierarchical, reciprocal structures—were the preferred mentorship model for women of color (Yun et al. 2016).
Surely, fostering environments that nourish the diversity of the people involved is conducive to increasing epistemic diversity as well. Mutual mentorships create collegiality as well as opportunities to collaborate and exchange knowledge. Mutual mentorship allows people to experience professional, artistic, and personal interactions in a gentler way than the traditional mentor– mentee model. Importantly, mutual mentorship networks result in the growth of tangible positive outcomes for their participants, such as the publication of books and articles as well as participation in conferences (Yin et al. 2016). This in turn enables the presence of works that enhance epistemic diversity.
Artist–Anthropologist Mutual Mentorship Networks are built to follow Faye V. Harrison’s suggestion to be creatively critical and critically creative (Transforming Anthropology 2020). It is a win–win scenario for the discipline and for the production of critical art that poetically transforms inner and outer worlds, while at the same time helping scholars to make scholarship more visceral, transformative, and accessible. Junior anthropologists have something to teach established artists, while young artists have something of value to share with senior anthropologists.
Art and performance, as a way of knowing and being in the world, pries the space open for onto-epistemic diversity. Art and performance have a broad mandate that transcends texts as well as institutional and epistemic structures; it is accessible to and readily drawn on by the public, academics, ritual specialists, and revolutionaries. Art in general, and poetry in particular, is a way to engage in building new worlds. Audre Lorde asserted that “poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action” (Lourde 2000:249). Indeed, following fifteen years of fieldwork, Jarrett Zigon (2017) discovered that successful resistance to the global war on drugs was poetic—the poetic building of new worlds.15 I suggest that like poets, anthropologists can transform worldviews, transcend conceptual categories, imagine and help to build new worlds.
What are some of the weaknesses of drawing art and artists into the anthropological fold? In the delegitimization of anthropology as a science, scholarship may become too artistic and the art too scholarly; the scientists may produce bad art and artists may misuse anthropology. To address these issues, scholars and artists can constructively guide and critique each other’s work. Regardless, scientists already integrate art into scholarship and artists draw on ethnographic insights, with a positive rather than a negative effect (Madison 2011; see also Taussig 2011, Carson 2017, Port 2020, Nakashima Degarrod 2020, Ferme 2021). Finally, artist–scholars may face limited employability prospects. With or without the arts, academic employment is already precarious (Shore and Davidson 2014). Yet by engaging with the arts, anthropologists may find solace, courage, and dynamism in a fight against neoliberalism, while artists may attain more depth, meaning, and relevance, producing works that may help to transform shared cultural landscapes.
Next I explore the Artist–Scholar Mutual Mentorship Network not as a theoretical but as a practical construct inviting epistemic diversity into the world of anthropology. I have found myself amid such a nourishing network, which not only includes scholars and students from my university but also artist–scholars from other universities in Australia and beyond. The network has empowered me to enliven and broaden the epistemic diversity of the discipline in Australia by having had poetry accepted as a valid form of knowledge in my honors course and by having poetry accepted as a part of discourse at the Australian Anthropological Society’s 2021 annual conference. How did this come to pass?
Dr. Hoffstaedter—an anthropology lecturer at the University of Queensland, my honors supervisor, and a champion of public anthropology—has made a series of anthropology interviews for a MOOC (massive open online course), openly available via YouTube and Edx. While looking through those interviews, my classmate and UQAS cofounder, artist Nabil Sabio Azadi, came across Gina Athena Ulysse, an artist–scholar, who serendipitously was coming to create an art installation and perform at the Sydney Biennale 2020. Azadi organized VIP tickets to the Biennale for our then smaller UQAS membership group. We met with Ulysse, who kindly gave us a tour of her installation and shared anthropological, artistic, and personal insights. Conceptualized by Faye V. Harrison as anthro-performance and by Victor Turner as Performance Ethnography, Ulysse’s work is a true embodied learning experience (Harrison 1990, Madison 2011, Ulysse 2019).
Bringing people into the field of embodied presence, the anthropologist wields the craft of performance ethnography. A sight to behold, the performance left the crowd in tears, with people hugging each other. In this instantiation of epistemic diversity, anthropological knowledge was not just an intellectual exercise but instead experienced with one’s whole body. Seeing Ulysse’s anthroperformance made an indelible impression on me, opening vistas on what anthropology can be. Having to leave Australia due to COVID shortly after her performance, Ulysse asked me to document her art installation at the Biennale and I readily agreed.
The anthropologist was pleased with the outcome, sharing my work on her Instagram account. This relationship grew into a collaboration, a poetic short film capturing the spirit of Ulysse’s art installation—now featured on the anthropologist’s website. The film has helped to bring a glimpse of the artist–scholar’s work to those unable to see it in person. I have maintained contact with Ulysse, who shared with me books and ideas that have helped me to grow as an artist, scholar, and human being. If ours were a traditional top-down mentorship, we would miss out on these mutual benefits.
Why is mutual mentorship support crucial for challenging onto onto-epistemological hegemony? Closer to home, I met a brilliant artist and an anthropologist who did not receive the support they needed to challenge onto-epistemic hegemony by walking the unconventional path of an artist–scholar. The result is that while undertaking their research, the scholar had to conform and compartmentalize their endeavors, keeping the worlds of art and science apart, which, if they had proper support, they would not. Supported by Hoffstaedter, Ulysse, and others, I have managed to embed poetry into my honours thesis, winning Anthropology Honours and Donald Tugby Anthropology Prizes despite breaking the established conventions.
Furthermore, with Hoffstaedter’s encouragement, I pitched a first-of-its kind poetry lab at Australia’s largest anthropology conference. Ulysse kindly provided invaluable feedback on my pitch, which was subsequently accepted. I authored a paper exploring the role of poetry in helping to make anthropology a household word, which was also accepted into the conference. My photography portfolio, a short film, a conference paper, a poetry lab, not to mention winning the Graduate Challenge from the Center of Public Anthropology, within one year, are all results of unwittingly tapping into an Artist–Scholar Mutual Support Network. To break conventions and challenge the epistemic status quo, we need to engage in mutual support, which has been a factor of our evolution all along (Kropotkin 2011).
If your university has an anthropology society or mutual mentorship network, get involved. If it does not, start one! It does not have to be a formal, structured relationality. Truly organic, fluid, and convivial spaces of mutual support are wonderful. It is my hope that we can foster epistemic diversity through the mycelial-like growth of artist–anthropologist mutuality. I hope that we can nurture cooperation among poets, theater-makers, filmmakers, and anthropologists in the creation of anthropologically informed works, making anthropology into a vibrant experience that captures people’s imaginations that may lead to profound personal and worldly transformations.
Yet, a distinction between an artist and an anthropologist may be fluid or simply nonexistent: we can be both—artists and anthropologists, critically creative and creatively critical. At heart, we, much like mycelium—an organism that cultivates ecosystems nourishing its food chains and producing astonishing biodiversity as a result—can nourish one another and spaces where onto-epistemic diversity can take root and proliferate, revitalizing the discipline of anthropology and magnifying its transformative impact.
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Ivan Levant is a surrealist and an art worker, whose approach is grounded in anthropology. He most recently founded MirrorSurrealists