Back to the Anthropological Future: Reflections on the Annual Meetings in Vancouver

Many decades ago, I traveled to the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in San Francisco.  Still a graduate student, I accompanied three fellow anthropologists-in-training in a rundown Volkswagen Bug with a broken heater.  Our 1500-mile folkloric trip from Texas to California featured many mishaps.  We shivered during a long desert night, ran out of gas in the Sonora Desert, suffered an engine breakdown on top of a mesa near Needles, California.  Somehow, we persevered.  At the end of a thirty-six-hour trip, we lumbered into San Francisco exhausted, but thrilled to be attending our first anthropological event.  We soon found our flea bag hotel in the Tenderloin, unpacked, and with the dispatch of deep anticipation, made our way up to the summit of Nob Hill–our convention venue: The Fairmont and Nob Hill Hotels.  I had never seen so many anthropologists in one place. One of my colleague turned to me:

“Can you smell it?”

“Smell what?” I asked.

He took in a deep breath: “Anthropology!”

That became my AAA Annual Meeting mantra.

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Every year that I attend the annual meetings, I walk into the venue—and there have been many of them–look around, take in a deep breath, and say:

“Anthropology!” 

This year I recited my anthropological mantra just inside the entrance of the cavernous Vancouver Convention Center.  During my time as an anthropologist, the number of people attending the annual meetings has grown exponentially—far too many anthropologists for the small and elegant scale of the Nob Hill and Fairmount Hotels, or, for that matter, the other hotels that have long housed our annual conventions.  At those Nob Hill meetings, the discipline was small enough to have—it seemed to me, at least—a unified sense of purpose, and a connective vibe of holism that you could feel in the hallways and in the jam- packed meeting rooms. Perhaps that feeling emerged from the smallish scale of the event. Perhaps it emerged from an impressionable neophyte’s excitement of discovering the intellectual rewards of attending his first professional meeting.

Time, of course, has transformed the AAA Annual Meetings. 

Vancouver’s City Center Photo by Paul Stoller

To participate in the 2019 Annual Meetings, I weathered a full day of air travel, a breeze compared to my road trip to San Francisco, and arrived in Vancouver late at night  When the taxi entered the city center, a towering mass of imposing, partially illuminated high-rise condos compelled me to think of Ridley Scott’s classic film, Blade Runner. In a flash, I saw myself as Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and wondered if I would encounter “Replicants” bounding about in this other-worldly space. Filled with excitement at first light but still surrounded by soaring waterfront condos and whiplashed by flash scenes from Blade Runner, I descended toward Canada Place and the East and West pavilions of the Vancouver Convention Center—a massive space with wonderful views of the Vancouver waterfront. I entered the convention space, took my customary deep breath, smiled, and said:

“Anthropology!” 

Seeing no one I knew, I made my way to the registration booths, noticing a place where photographers volunteered to shoot head shots.  I passed on that opportunity and registered for the meetings.  Given the vastness of the “hallways,” the flow of anthropologists, in comparison with previous meetings, seemed more like a trickle.  I had a few minutes before my first mentoring session that morning, so I found a chair that looked out on the harbor and looked up sessions on my smart phone.  I quickly discovered that many of the sessions I wanted to attend either coincided with previously arranged meetings with colleagues and/or mentees or with the two sessions in which I was a participant—too many sessions on fascinatingly important subjects.

Vancouver Waterfront. Photo by Paul Stoller

Our small group meeting of Society for Humanistic Anthropology mentors and mentees proved to be deeply satisfying.  We had a wonderful exchange of ideas about writing, editing, public anthropology, tenure and promotion and the institutional pressures that constrain creativity.  As part of the AAA Op Ed project, I also met with two mentees, who, as public anthropologists, will soon be conveying their anthropological insights in the public sphere.  What’s more, the originality and depth of the fast and furious 15-minute papers I did manage to hear impressed me, which gives me hope for the anthropological future.

And yet I had to wonder if convention-going is a bit out of sync in a era defined by social media. As wonderful as they have been, I worry that large international meetings are a bit anachronistic. They are expensive in times of constrained funding for departments, professors and especially graduate students.  They leave an increasingly large carbon footprint. They feature too many panels squeezed into short time segments that limit debate on important disciplinary issues. They also showcase a wide variety of high quality, thoroughly researched new and not-so-new books. Even so, I wonder how many of those works will appeal to readers beyond a limited audience of specialists.

My Blade Runner flashes in Vancouver didn’t dissipate as the 2019 Annual Meetings came to a close.  In truth, they did provoke a measure of disciplinary alienation, which flooded my mind with a strong stream of Back to the Future thoughts.  Yes, my first AAA meeting in San Francisco was wonderful—an atmosphere of holism and cohesion that in hindsight also produced the strong scent of elitism and privilege.  Those meetings, like the classic works in our discipline, have underscored no small amount of political, social and cultural imperfection.  Despite these drawbacks, the small, cohesive and imperfect professional gatherings of the past usually produced worthwhile rewards—new ideas, new professional connections, and new opportunities for mentorship. Why not continue to save, savor and configure those elements in the present? The Blade Runner scale of the 2019 Vancouver Meetings may have been a bit alienating, but the array of workshops, theatrical events, and off-site installations, did, indeed, provide a felicitous sense of productive cohesiveness and disciplinary excitement.

I, for one, will continue to travel Back to the Future of Anthropology, seeking new friends and new ideas at a variety of professional happenings–some small, some large, some face-to-face, some remote–all tonics for anthropologists living in troubled times.

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