Listmania: A Few Thoughts on One Page From a 6,500 Cubic Feet Collection

Listmania: A Few Thoughts on One Page From a 6,500 Cubic Feet Collection

For much of my work, archival records provide important context for interpreting the documents I receive under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  This context takes different forms in different circumstances.  These archival documents provide information on the personal or daily lives of individuals of interest, on interactions with other anthropologists, on the larger social context shaping research, or sometimes archives hold parallel unredacted documents complimenting those appearing in FOIA document releases.

Like any detective work, by far most of my time is spent chasing leads that don’t pan out—with a ratio of probably fifty to one, but I learn a lot while searching for things I want to find but can’t be found.  What we think we’re looking for when we began a great search is almost never the great unknown treasure we may eventually find, and if it were, research would be somehow less rewarding.  I find that as long as I can remain not overly concerned about whether an archive has the exact documents I’d hoped it would hold, there’s usually something significant to learn from whatever records I work through. It helps to have few expectations beyond hoping to learn more about the general milieu and mundane background of the subject of your research.  I find myself trusting some sort of abstract faith in probability that grows with years of archiving: a faith, informed from past successes (and many more failures), that three or four hours (sometimes days) of apparently sterile archive reading will eventually, and suddenly, be followed by eureka moments.  But as often than not, these eureka moments happen months after I first read a document, sometimes my understanding of what an apparently simple document means comes only after rereading it several times, letting it sit for months, and then thinking about it some time later while off on a bike ride letting my mind wander.

A year and a half ago, I spent several days of my spring break working through some collections at the Rockefeller Foundation Archives Center, located in Sleepy Hollow, where the papers of both the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation are held. The building housing these papers is a beautiful Hudson Valley mansion, with wooded grounds still blanketed in snows during my visit.  While some archives are housed in old Quonset huts with rusty hand-cranked compact shelving, this was a slice of stately Wayne Manor.

Months before my visit, I had ordered online, and received, several documents of interest to my project, but I wanted to browse through the collection I had sampled, and to read some other collections related to my project.  After a couple of days, I finished with this work, and I branched out into collections unrelated to my project.  One of the things I then read were materials relating to Clifford Geertz Indonesian research, including both Ford and Rockefeller records of correspondence and funding applications.

As is often the case, there were specific records and sides of correspondence that I hoped to find but did not locate—in this instance, I was looking for specific Modjokuto Project records I’d found parts of at another archive some years earlier.  But reading the files I accessed provided useful context on a variety of things; context of how a powerful funding agency helped shape research questions; context on the portrait of the artist as a young(ish) man, context of backchannel foundation communications; and context of ways that McCarthy era political vetting shaped funding opportunities in ways that narrowed the range of political actors could be funded by this central sponsor of academic research.

During this trip, while looking through a folder with forms, foundation backchannel chatter, and internal checklists, I was surprised to find the below document.  This was a single page document, labeled as an “Official Indices Check” (Rockefeller Foundation Papers, Series 200, Box 532, folder: MIT-Indonesian Study, Geertz, Clifford and Gertrude [sic.], 1955-1959). This document cataloged various McCarthyistic indexes listing activist organizations that were consulted during the 1950s by Rockefeller Foundation personnel prior to making funding decisions. These lists were consulted to make sure applicants were not involved in “subversive” political activities—consulted in part, because the foundation did not want to be accused of supporting Communists, but these lists help limit research in ways aligned with other Rockefeller projects.  As seen in the below photograph, this was an extensive collection listing grassroot & national groups.

Below is a list of the specific indices marked as having been checked for Clifford and Hildred Geertz’s names by Rockefeller while considering their funding application:

  • Cumulative index to publications of the Committee on Un-American Activities.
  • California cumulative ’51 index.
  • Cox-Reece committee index. ’53-55.
  • IPR composite index. ’53.
  • McCarran-Jenner Committee on educational process. ’53.
  • McCarthy Committee composite index. ’53.
  • Attorney General’s lists.
  • McCarran Committee on aliens in U.S. ’51.
  • American Committee for Cultural Freedom. Latest letterhead membership.

Below is a composite photograph, cut and pasted together from sample entries of some of the anthropologists showing up in the first of these indices checked by Rockefeller, The Cumulative Index to Publications of the Committee of Un-American Activities.  These are not the only anthropologists appearing in the index, but these activist anthropologists sampled here (Franz Boas, Harold Hickerson, Melville Jacobs, Ashley Montagu, Bernhard Stern, Gene Weltfish—this is an historic index, so Boas and others already deceased are listed—if you want to read more about the anti-racist activism of these and other anthropologists take a look at my book Threatening Anthropology) shows names of individuals involved in activist groups largely fighting for racial equality in America.  These lists mixed correct and erroneous claims about organizations’ communist of socialist links; and in an era where Dixiecrats muted racial activism in the Democratic Party, such claims were easily distorted and communist and socialist organizations led the way in organizing activists confronting American racism.  Rockefeller’s use of these lists stigmatized activists working to change America’s rampant racism of the 1950s, and marginalized activists chances of receiving funding.

This mundane document in the Rockefeller Archives shows how the routine, rarely mentioned step in the processes of funding 1950s academic research radically shape the knowledge scholars produced and consumed.  Consider what it means that a decade of Rockefeller grantees weren’t the brave individuals out fighting segregation, and what happened to unfunded academic ancestors who were on those lists, or to anthropological theory when left to those who knew to disengage from such activism. Such screenings mattered, and shaped the production of anthropological knowledge.  This document also adds a small accent to the critiques, by Nancy Scheper-Huges and others, that arose after Geertz published his After The Fact (1988) acknowledgements of the political realities he had written out of his Indonesian research narratives; omissions of the sort that would have been far less likely by activist anthropologists showing up on these blacklists.

Other scholars have written about Rockefeller’s routine use of these crude political screenings during this period (see for example, Parmar’s working paper on “Selling Americanism, Combatting Anti-Americanism” ), and Inderjeet Parmar‘s  remarkable book, Foundations of the American Century provides further analysis of how Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie Foundation funding patterns help curate and ignore specific forms of knowledge (Columbia Univ. Press, 2012). I also found other instances of these lists being used this way in Rockefeller files.  Ironically, at least one of the organizations listed in this index, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, would later be revealed as running on CIA funds.

The meanings of such documents are not simply confined to the past.  Last month I delivered the Distinguished Anthropology Lecture at the University of California, which examined the history of anti-fascist anthropology in America—drawing on our disciplinary anti-fascist roots as a way of considering anthropological responses to the rise of White Nationalism in Trump’s American.  Among the connections I discussed are parallels between McCarthy era attacks on antifascist anthropologists, and today’s new wave of anonymous social media attacks targeting outspoken academics, sometimes using alumni to pressure our university deans, provosts, presidents, and boards. During the McCarthy period, like today, lists targeting activists were compiled by individuals and groups and used to taint and pressure anthropologists into political disengagement.  These are old moves, using new technologies (in the 1950s those fighting for racial equality were Communists; today supporters of Palestinian rights are portrayed as racists; gun control activists as anti-American, and so on).  We can assume some of these new lists will be used in similar ways; and it will take vigilance to not give in to theses bullying calls.

This single page is but a small list of little significance.  Certainly of little significance for Clifford Geertz and his body of work.  Yet, to consider the towering power of these damn lists we need only imagine the impact on Geertz’s career had he been more participant than observer in the pre-incipient civil rights struggling to be born in the 1950s. Which begs the other inevitable question let loose by such thought experiments: what might have anthropology become had other, more politically radical, brilliant anthropological voices not been blacklisted from such opportunities?

One Reply to “Listmania: A Few Thoughts on One Page From a 6,500 Cubic Feet Collection”

  1. David, your question, “What might anthropology have become?” is a good one. I want to suggest, hoping that I am wrong, that anthropology as an academic discipline would no longer exist, and that negative reactions from the powers-that-were would be onl part of the story. Trained in the late sixties , I remember anthropology as a haven for people with peculiar interests brushed aside by political concerns, a place where people who studied Daoist rituals, West African folktales, baboon troupes and kinship systems could hang out together, pursuing their hobbies, and hoping to find something about the fundamental nature of humanity in them. Briefly a member of SDS, I remember a meeting in Ann Arbor, where I was attending the Summer Institute of Linguistics. The Anti-Vietnam War movement was peaking. Many of us harbored Trotskyite/Maoist dreams of crashing the system. At one particularly heated moment, the fellow chairing the meeting asked, “How many of us are in school because we like to study, not just as a way of avoiding careers in business or government?” In a room of fifty or sixty people, three hands were raised.