Robert R. Desjarlais

on leave spring semester

BA, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. MA, PhD, University of California-Los Angeles. Special interests in the cultural construction of experience, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, death and mourning, and the political economy of illness and healing; ethnographic fieldwork in the Nepal Himalayas, with the residents of a homeless shelter in Boston, and among competitive chess players; author of Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas; Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless; Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths Among Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists; and Counterplay: an Anthropologist at the Chessboard. Recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a Howard fellowship. NIMH postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School. SLC, 1994–

Undergraduate Courses 2019-2020

Anthropology

Life, Death, and Violence in (Post)Colonial France and Algeria

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Fall

But we must try to look more closely at the reality of Algeria. We must not simply fly over it. We must, on the contrary, walk step by step along the great wound inflicted on the Algerian soil and on the Algerian people. —Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, 1959

This course attends to the multiple and complicated effects that French colonialism has had on the lives, bodies, institutions, and social, cultural, and political circumstances of Algerians and others living in Algeria and France. In attending to a number of important key historical events, colonial practices, and forms of domination, violence, and resistance—from centuries of French colonial rule in North Africa to the Algerian war of independence—we will consider a number of key conceptual themes, including colonialism and postcolonialism, state violence and terror, symbolic violence, personal and cultural trauma, personal and intergenerational memory, and the politics of traces, effacement, recognition, death, burial, and martyrdom. We will also give serious thought to literary, photographic, and filmic representations of violence, recovery, and creative renewal. Along the way, we will engage with a number of highly significant thinkers and writers—including Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Mouloud Feraoun, Kateb Yacine, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Assia Djebar, Leïla Sebbar, Tahar Djaout, Albert Memmi, and Achille Mbembe—and watch and discuss a series of important films, including The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontocorvo, 1967), Chronicle of the Years of Ember (Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina,1975), and Caché (Michael Haneke, 2006). Students will be asked in their conference work to undertake a concerted research and writing project related to the themes of the course.

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The Anthropology of Images

Open , Seminar—Fall

Images wavered in the sunlit trim of appliances, something always moving, a brightness flying, so much to know in the world.—Don Delillo, Libra

A few cartoons lead to cataclysmic events in Europe; a photograph printed in a newspaper moves a solitary reader; a snapshot posted on the Internet leads to dreams of fanciful places; memories of a past year haunt us like ghosts. What each of these occurrences has in common is that they all entail the force of images in our lives, be these images visual or acoustic in nature, made by hand or machine, or circulated by word of mouth or simply imagined. In this seminar, we will consider the role that images play in the lives of people in various settings throughout the world. In delving into terrains at once actual and virtual, we will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world create, use, circulate, and perceive images and how such efforts tie into ideas and practices of sensory perception, time, memory, affect, imagination, sociality, history, politics, and personal and collective imaginings. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the fundamental human need for images, the complicated politics and ethics of images, aesthetic and cultural sensibilities, dynamics of time and memory, the intricate play between the actual and the imagined, and the circulation of digital images in an age of globalization. Readings will include a number of writings in anthropology, art history, philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, and critical theory. Images will be drawn from photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, videos, graffiti, religion, rituals, tattoos, inscriptions, novels, poems, road signs, advertisements, dreams, fantasies, phantasms, and any number of fabulations in the worlds in which we live and imagine.

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Previous Courses

Understanding Experience: Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology

Open , Seminar—Spring

How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a deaf person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists in recent years have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular “lifeworlds” in order to understand—and convey to others—the nuances and underpinnings of such worlds in terms that more orthodox social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology entails an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. Phenomenology, put simply, is the study of experience. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, emotions, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try her or his hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific subjective or intersubjective lifeworld through a combination of interviewing, participant observation research, and ethnographic writing.

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Paris, City of Light and Violence

Open , Seminar—Fall

So they had begun to walk about in a fabulous Paris, letting themselves be guided by the nighttime signs, following routes born of a clochard phrase…. —Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch

For centuries now, the city of Paris, France, has held an actual and imaginary intensity in the lives of many. In this seminar in cultural anthropology, we will explore a number of themes and forces that have shaped the cultural and political contexts of life in Paris through the 19th and 20th centuries and on into the 21st—from great works of art to transformations in urban design to the politics of colonialism, migration, racism, marginalization, and police surveillance, as well as critical events of state and collective violence. In walking (conceptually) about a Paris at once fabulous and haunted, we will come to know various signs of being and power in this renowned city. In attending to key events in the recent history of Paris—in 1942, 1961, 1968, 1995, and 2015, for instance—we will work toward developing a comprehensive sense of the many social, cultural, and political dimensions of urban experience in la ville lumière, the “city of light,” in both its central arrondissements and its peripheral banlieues. Along the way, we will consider a number of important literary writings (Hugo, Balzac, Baudelaire, Breton, Modiano, Cortázar, Perec, Sebbar, and Bouraoui), films (Godard, Truffaut, Marker, Varda, Tati, Kassovitz, Haneke, and Sciamma), and scholarship (Benjamin, Dubord, Harvey, Kofman, Fanon, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, and Latour). Students will be encouraged to undertake conference work on artists, writers, and thinkers associated with Paris or to develop their own anthropological reflections on Paris or another intensive city known to them.

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Specters of the Subject: Hauntologies of Ghosts, Phantasms, and Imaginings in Contemporary Life

Advanced , Seminar—Year

“The future belongs to the ghosts,” remarked the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1996. As his interlocutor Bernard Stiegler phrases the main idea behind this statement, “Modern technology, contrary to appearances, increases tenfold the power of ghosts.” With the advent of the Internet, various forms of social media, and the ubiquity of filmic images in our lives, Derrida's observations have proven to be quite prophetic, such that they call for a new field of study—one that requires less an ontology of being and the real and more a “hauntology” (to invoke Derrida's punish term) of the spectral, the virtual, the phantasmic, the imaginary, and the recurrent revenant. In this seminar, we consider ways in which the past and present are haunted by ghosts. Topics to be covered include: specters and hauntings, figures and apparitions, history and memory, trauma and political crisis, fantasy and imagination, digital interfaces, and visual and acoustical images. We will be considering a range of films and video, photography, literary texts, acoustic reverberations, Internet and social media, and everyday discourses and imaginings. Through these inquiries, we will be able to further our understanding of the nature of specters and apparitions in the contemporary world in their many forms and dimensions. Students will be invited to undertake their own hauntologies and thus craft studies of the phenomenal force of specters, hauntings, and the apparitional in particular social or cultural contexts.

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Ethnographic Research and Writing

Advanced , Seminar—Year

Prerequisite: Previous course work in anthropology.

Javanese shadow theatre, Bedouin love poems, and American ordinary affects are but a few of the cultural realities that anthropologists have effectively studied and written about. This is no easy task, given the substantial difficulties involved in understanding and portraying the concerns, activities, and logic of lives other than one’s own. Despite these challenges, ethnographic research is generally considered one of the best ways to form a nuanced and contextually rich understanding of a particular social world. To gain an informed sense of the methods, challenges, and benefits of just such an approach, students in this course will try their hands at ethnographic research and writing. In the fall semester, each student will be asked to undertake an ethnographic research project in order to investigate the features of a specific social world—such as a homeless shelter, a religious festival, or a neighborhood in Brooklyn. In the spring, she or he will craft a fully realized piece of ethnographic writing that conveys something of the features and dynamics of that world in lively, accurate, and comprehensive terms. Along the way, and with the help of anthropological writings that are either exceptional or experimental in nature, we will collectively think through some of the most important features of ethnographic projects—such as interviewing others, the use of fieldnotes, the interlacing of theory and data, the role of dialogue and the author’s voice in ethnographic prose, and the ethnical and political responsibilities that come with any attempt to understand and portray the lives of others.

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First-Year Studies in Anthropology: The Anthropology of Images

Open , FYS—Year

A few cartoons lead to cataclysmic events in Europe; a man’s statement that he “can’t breathe” ricochets across North America; a photograph printed in a newspaper moves a solitary reader; a snapshot posted on the Internet leads to dreams of fanciful places; memories of a past year haunt us like ghosts. What each of these occurrences has in common is that they all entail the force of images in our lives, be these images visual or acoustic in nature, made by hand or machine or circulated by word of mouth, or simply imagined. In this seminar, we will consider the role that images play in the lives of people in various settings throughout the world. In delving into terrains at once actual and virtual, we will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world create, use, circulate, and perceive images and how such efforts tie into ideas and practices of sensory perception, time, memory, affect, imagination, sociality, history, politics, and personal and collective imaginings. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the fundamental human need for images, the complicated politics and ethics of images, aesthetic and cultural sensibilities, dynamics of time and memory, the intricate play between the actual and the imagined, and the circulation of digital images in an age of globalization. Readings are to include a number of writings in anthropology, art history, philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, and critical theory. Images are to be drawn from photographs, paintings, sculptures, drawings, films, videos, graffiti, religion, rituals, tattoos, inscriptions, novels, poems, road signs, advertisements, dreams, fantasies, phantasms, and any number of fabulations in the worlds in which we live and imagine.

Faculty

Understanding Experience: Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology

Advanced , Seminar—Fall

Previous coursework in anthropology is required.

How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a blind person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists in recent years have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular lived realities in order to understand—and convey to others—the nuances and underpinnings of such realities in terms that more orthodox social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology entails an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try her or his hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific social or subjective reality through a combination of interviewing, participant observation, and ethnographic writing.

Faculty

Anthropology and Photography

Open , Seminar—Fall

Walker Evans once referred to photography as offering “searing little spots of realism.” This course attends to the cultural and experiential dimensions of photographic imagery by way of an anthropological exploration of the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of photography in a range of settings. We will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world use, circulate, and perceive photographs and how such uses and perceptions tie into ideas and practices of vision, time, memory, family, sociality, history, politics, and personal and cultural imaginings. We will also consider the ways in which photography and film can portray well (or not) the lives and concerns of particular peoples. Each student in the course will engage with these issues through practical research, writing, and photographic endeavors. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the complicated ethics and politics of documentary photography, the sense of differing cultural aesthetics informing the creation and evaluation of photographs, dynamics of time and memory; the intricate play between image and phantasm, and the circulation of digital images in a transnational era. Readings to be considered include Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s Balinese Character, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men, and Robert Frank’s The Americans. We will also view a number of ethnographic films that explore questions of photographic representation.

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