Anthropology vs. Anthropologie

A new addition to the Pearl District is opening later thismonth. The boutique Anthropologie is set to bring the trinkets,treasures and tufted fabrics from the around the world to yourcondominium. For $198 you can cozy into a “toile village quilt,”or, for $58, the matching “toile village shams.” What village? Whoreally cares? This is not a sphere, nor any type of anthropology,that cares to educate anyone about anything that has to do with anyvillage, anywhere. This is a world that un-ironically sells themost egregious longings of “old world” mystique, orientalism andpoverty-chic to the most un-ironic of U.S. consumers searching forsome cozy comfort. And what in the world does this have to do withbeing a student at Portland State?

I study anthropology, along with nearly 100 anthropology majorsand thousands of other students. We, along with other students inmany other disciplines, shred our beliefs, ideas and arguments inclass (at least, the good classes) all the time. We struggle tounderstand our community. Gradually, we understand that thiscommunity extends beyond its borders – borders which have beenwhispered into our ears through years of basic education and feeblejournalism, whispering fear, whispering worry, whispering themorality of our own economic superiority. And then, one day, we arenot sure what to believe about the “toile village quilt.”

Anthropology, the discipline – not the store – is noinnocent.

It has been called, by sound reckoning, the “handmaiden ofempire.” Anthropology is as much the plundering of statuary to bemarveled at in imperial museums, the supposedly objective whispersof the academy and the endless television specials on exotics, asit is the sincere search for illumination on the similarity anddifferences regarding humankind. In this way, anthropology isanalogous to the student’s search for likeness, for community, forethics to match new knowledge and for the words that constructdialogues across seemingly vast “cultural” differences. And this iswhy Anthropologie, the store, is analogous to what greets ourefforts once we depart the university. It seems to lament nothing,to take our concerns as peculiar and to view the most seriousissues of global stratification as charming niches ofmarketing.

Yet, I write this opinion not to claim some intellectualdistance or elitism. There is no anthropology versus Anthropologie.They (we) are in it together, and the lessons students learn fromthe university must feed our idiosyncratic city and state andworld. There is no time, really, for protesting Anthropologie inthe Pearl, because it merely represents a perfunctory response toconsumers’ improvident longings.

I write this opinion to recognize that a time may come when theridiculous “village quilt” will be un-quilted and its fibers willdisclose a very real struggle for fairness, equity and just laborconditions. And leading this effort will be students who have notyet forgotten the lessons of the university. They are, and havebeen, fierce allies to those who resist chaotic unfairness in somany of the world’s places (including the United States). And evenif they grow weary when faced with this unending exertion, losingtheir way in the mysterious aisles of baubles and bamboo in theland of Anthropologie, I hope they are overcome at the cashregister with some tropical illness called “ethics.”

This is a thought that I may be able to cozy up to.