An Interview with Allen Abramson

Dr. Allen Abramson (Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology, UCL)
interviewed by Man Yang (Departmental Information Officer, UCL Anthropology)

How did you become an anthropologist? Tell us a bit about your career so far?

Becoming an anthropologist was a bit of an accident. I graduated from amateur explosions in (somebody else’s) back garden shed to a Life Sciences degree at Liverpool University. I did enjoy biochemistry, ecology and genetics, but momentous stuff was happening on campuses – I was part of the student occupation of the admin block in Liverpool – and I felt a bit side-lined in Biology. I ended up spending as much time studying politics, society and history as Hardy-Weinberg and the structure of DNA and became especially interested in Marxism and the history and philosophy of science. Influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (which is still one of my all-time favourite texts), I applied for Masters courses in the History and Philosophy of Science at the LSE and UCL, was accepted in both places, but then frustratingly found there was no funding.

Fortunately, I’d gotten to reading Levi-Strauss on structural models and ‘a science of the concrete’, and though I didn’t understand completely what he was saying, I savvied enough to know that Social Anthropology was what I probably ought to be doing. I hurriedly applied to UCL, was interviewed by Mary Douglas and M.G. Smith in the Darwin building (where the department was then), and was offered funding for an intensive two-year transfer diploma, followed by a PhD place.

My initial PhD project – a study of Palestinian class structure on the West Bank of the Jordan – was scuppered late in the day by the outbreak of war. Admiring Stone- Age Economics, I wrote to Marshall Sahlins in Chicago indicating that I was interested in aristocracy and economy and where would I go if I went to the Pacific? Fiji, he replied. So, supervised initially by Phyllis Kaberry and then Phil Burnham, off I went to the mountainous, very green eastern interior of Fiji to study the early development of capitalism. Influenced by French structural Marxism and Polly Hill’s studies of rural capitalism in West Africa, I was especially interested in how chiefly power over commoners was both reproduced but transformed in the transition to urban markets, where small-time finance and occasional wage- labour had surfaced.

Overall, I spent 2 years doing fieldwork in a large village-chieftaincy, taught a course at the University of the South Pacific, played cricket for the university, hung out with urban radicals, and became intimately acquainted with a large Pacific Island town. Returning home, I spent 3 years or so lecturing in Scotland, before returning eventually to UCL.

What have you done, and are you currently doing research-wise?

That Fiji project was both problematic and productive: problematic because, no matter which way I tried to conceptualise Marxist base/superstructure relations,
I couldn’t figure out how different elements of the village superstructure (origin myths, rituals, hierarchy, forms of kinship and marriage) fitted together. Nor could I understand why, having discovered significant transformations at the socio-economic level, traditional forms seemed to largely endure rather than correspondingly alter. Productive, because, as I subsequently crashed out of Marxism for the structural analysis of cultural practices and cosmologies (losing several good friends in the process), some Marxist concepts sort of stuck, and that turned out to be analytically beneficial. My PhD thesis was called ‘Structure, Transformation and Contradiction in the Life-World of an Eastern Interior Fiji Chiefdom’. And whilst, looking back, this seems to me to be about as pompous as academic titles get, actually it was modelled on a Jonathan Friedman model of a Maurice Godelier model of a Levi-Strauss model: and that was one of the places you could be theoretically at the time.

Several papers and a couple of edited books emerged from those Fiji years as well as a short trip to South Pentecost in Vanua Aatu. One of the studies to emerge focused on the loan-led mutation of classic ritualised pig economy into a market-oriented dairy cream ‘development’. Deemed a failure by the local Ministry of Agriculture because so many cows were being killed for feasts (weddings, elopements, funerals), local people thought it was a great success because they could simultaneously sell and sacrifice, commodify and ritualise (also making me the fortuitous recipient of milky tea in the field)! Another paper and edited book explored the tensions between overlapping land rites and land rights in the context of ‘development’ which meant zooming in on the differences between ancestral land defined by sacred centres and legally-subsumed land defined by measurable boundaries. My final engagement with this Fijian material (including a paper written for a collection co-edited by Ludo Coupaye) has involved exploring a strong symbolic correspondence between the village-chieftaincy of humans and the legendary first society of anthropomorphic tree ancestors and animal gods. Chieftaincies seemed to be organised as ‘paradise machines’ rather than life-giving systems, a finding that, if true, makes it much easier to explain the periodic emergence of cargo cults and other millenarian rites in the area.

My next fieldwork was far less remote but still exotic and cosmological. I’d become a facilitator on a new outdoor skills course for PhD students at UCL. This involved taking groups of students around courses containing a sequence of symbolically extreme tests like Toxic Time-Bomb, Poison Worms and Travellator. The pedagogic emphasis was on performing and auditing team skills, leadership and critical thinking: actual solutions to the tests (like saving the world or rescuing Teddy Bear from disaster) weren’t deemed important. The fieldwork showed though that, ‘on the ground’, most of the students were really into saving Teddy and the world, converting tasks for critical review into epic missions rather than experiential learnings. I topped up this research with annual visits to a giant Outdoor Management Course jamboree at Olympia in Earl’s Court, and became increasingly fascinated by the contrasting convergence of skills training and extreme predicaments, epic dispositions and knowledge-horizons within the university. Similar attractions seems to link latter-day charity with epic ordeal, notably moneys collected for medical research to urban marathon, triathlon and skydives.

What is next?

Next is an ethnographic study of climbing walls which I think is interesting because, like many other artificial environments, climbing walls begin life as a simulation of ‘the real thing’ and then become ‘the real thing’ themselves. Interesting, too, because again ‘the real thing’ is an epic passage towards an extreme where people become obsessed with performing and producing ‘at the limit’. Strip away the misleading ‘leisure’ label, and you’re left with a democratic cult of bodily instability and difficult technique (‘anthropotechnics’ according to Slotterdijk) that, dangerously inflected and testily serious, become less an escape from reality than a playful traversing of what might be newly ‘real’.

Generally, I’m wondering whether it’s too mad to hypothesise that activities that have been neutered by being labelled ‘sport’, ‘leisure’, ‘recreation’, in their own liminally telescoped space-times and ludic worlds, have actually acquired a profound type of seriousness and power to complement the mobilisatory power of politics.

What current projects are your students working on?

I’ve been primary supervisor or co- supervisor to about 15 students and secondary supervisor to many more. In the beginning, our projects were linked to Oceania (Fiji, Tonga, Micronesia) but, for some time now, most of the research I’ve supervised has been in areas of edgework or cosmology.

Projects in edgework have included amateur gliding and perceived risk (focusing on a year where 10% of Italian gliders died gliding); Oceanic skin-diving and masculinity; British fox-hunting and politics; Brazilian capoeira and authority; Australian hurricane risks and normality; Turkish masculinity and transgression; Israeli enculturation of air-raid shelters, sirens and borders; Irish surfing and affect; and, most recently, ‘super-bodily’ subjectivity in skate-boarding.

‘Cosmological’ students have looked at Chinese ancestral shrines and overseas monies, contemporary Chinese divination, and Pentecostal conversion in Brazil and South Sudan. Currently, Raffaella Fryer-Moreira is researching significant shifts in the worldview of Guarani-Kaiowá people in Amazonia as more and more of their forest environment is taken and capitalised.

Are you only an anthropologist?

To the extent that anthropology tends to follow you home, I’m tempted to answer, yes. But, of course, that would only be part of the story. Family (including two demanding cats) justly make equal claims, as do climbing and white-water kayaking which, to improve and stay alive, also demand some attention. Over the years, I’ve climbed in Britain, the Alps, Andes, Rockies and Himalayas and paddled (often under water) on a host of rivers. In fact, come to think of it, life outside of Anthropology has been equally dense, intense and defining. Edges and limits anywhere seem to have kept me reasonably happy.

Music (Renaissance and modern ‘classical’) has been a constant, as has fiction (digested just before I drop off at night) and theatre (not as much as I’d
like these days). I’m a fan of the opera or, to be more precise, of squawky modern ones like Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, Strauss’s Elektra, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Berg’s Wozzek, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. I’m also a well-known fan of Man U which, after a year of false dawns and outright jealousy, has been a little difficult.

I’ve bought a flashy bike that needs more riding. We have a small back-garden that needs more TLC than I give it, and I’m compiling a bucket list of climbs and rivers that grows by the day. How to handle it all? More greens, less wine? Possibly. More greens certainly.

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