The charisma of the coronavirus: Teaching cultural critique in a global emergency
I have been teaching the first of two introductory classes in anthropology this semester, ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology. We had to improvise a lot midway through when my campus suspended all on-site classes. We got over that, and I think we still managed to give students the same opportunities to encounter new ideas and to develop their own ability to reason about social behavior through the concept of culture. Still there was always something eerie about teaching the fundamentals of cultural anthropology at a time when nothing seemed normal, and everything indicated that the world was not going to achieve what people call “the new normal” (whatever that means) any time soon. Cultural anthropologists have many important insights into how societies around the world practice public health, and how infectious diseases are mediated by social and cultural forces, but anthropology did not feel like it had anything meaningful to say about the pandemic landscape itself. And then I started to think that the pandemic was challenging me in exactly the way I want anthropology to challenge people’s common sense. At its best, anthropology spurns the role of the expert in favor of the cynic; the current global pandemic makes a mockery of routines. Much as Wagner (2000) argues, the pandemic is “our very own cargo cult.” I devoted my final lecture, well, self-produced monologue, for class to this topic. You can read it here: The charisma of the coronavirus.
Wagner, Roy. 2000. “Our Very Own Cargo Cult.” Oceania 70 (4): 362–72. doi:10.1002/j.1834-4461.2000.tb03072.x.