This entry contains discussions of spiritual tourism, exploitation, and body shaming.
First, in many of the contentious passages, I’ve got to consider why Mar considered that okay to write in the first place. She had the interest and the means. She’s honest about her standpoint and perspective, which I can’t condemn, and evidently hasn’t had those challenged before publication, which is one reason that criticism and discussion of any work after publication is so important. (Although Mar’s lousy attitude and not to mention skeevy approach probably wasn’t challenged before publication precisely because those would go largely unchallenged after publication. I hope I’m wrong.)
Wildermuth compares Mar’s “duplicitous insertion into a culture or community to which they have no vulnerability (and towards which no obligation)” to spies, opportunists, and colonialists.
Since I’ve been sitting in on anthropology classes, I would compare Witches in America, as I have, unfavorably, to an ethnography. One important difference is that anthropology has had decades of re-evaluation of its ethics that, in the classes I’ve sat in on at least, come up for discussion frequently. Pseudo-ethnographers have the interest and the means, but perhaps not such persistent reminders of the genre’s history, nor the forum for debating the method of data collection.
Only relatively recently in the history of anthropological study have major shifts to the entire discipline been put forth, such as queer autoethnography and anthropological indigenization. Every basic or beginner anthropology text I’ve read has dedicated a huge chunk to Marxism and Feminism as influential to anthropological theories, but categorized separately from anthropology proper (whatever it would even be by now: science, political platform, or body of knowledge.) Anthropology also facilitated the publication of such works as Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, now infamous for its lack of academic integrity, and numerous similar works that reflected the problematic intellectual climate of the time.
Anthropology was colonialist, and perhaps remains so. The rankings of First World (democratic world powers), Second World (communist world powers), and Third World (developing nations with lower economic power or less global importance) remain relevant in anthropology because a common area of study is the Fourth World (for lack of better terms within this structure, the Fourth World comprises of: primitive, uncivilized, and/or isolated peoples).
The discussions that I’ve read and heard about the limitations of an anthropologist as a human being with specific experiences and interpretations and evaluation methods, combined with the freedom to outright fabricate, balanced against the academic duty to document the cultures of people accurately and completely, and that balanced against the ethics of keeping such reports incomplete for the personal safety of the anthropologist’s informants (especially when the community expresses that a specific feature of their lives is not public)…these are important to consider. These are so important. Even though anthropology might largely remain a bourgeois infatuation with the exotic, the structures for checking that infatuation should be at least as accessible as the products of ignorance or disregard for those structures.
When it comes to spiritual tourism, Elizabeth Gilbert has received a lot of criticism for her autobiography, Eat, Pray, Love and this serves as another passing comparison to Alex Mar’s Witches in America. I haven’t read either. I have watched Gilbert’s TEDtalks on the mystery of creative inspiration that involved mention of daemons, genii, and the transfer and adaptation of cultural traits during the Moorish invasion of Spain, and the unfortunately wry response to her critics in a later talk she gave about success, failure, and persistence (“I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat, Pray, Love; and all of those people who had hated Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next…because it would provide evidence that I still lived.”)
My impression was that Gilbert offered a more benign form of infatuation with the exotic: that what would be classified as “exotic” exists in a world shared with “normative” and it’s the purpose of life to experience humanity in all the ways we can, and help others to situate themselves in a shared world and a full life experience. From Gilbert, I receive the impression of an inevitable failure to shake one’s approach (as that is the result of a lived experience as much as it changes new lived experiences, and as dangerous as that privilege may be) but above all a willingness to give of herself as much as she receives.
To offer a more benign form of inevitable objectification and distance isn’t assurance of sustained benignity. Criticism is as important as enjoyment, because Gilbert and Mar don’t relate as individuals to equally-empowered individuals, and there can be no mutual respect for boundaries (and thus representation, as a result of permission granted at that boundary, would never be unskewed) without equal empowerment.
As for the excerpts of Alex Mar’s writing…those weren’t even benign. I might sit down to read Eat, Pray, Love one of these days, but there’s no way I’m ever touching Witches of America.