American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting

14-19 November, 2018

San Jose, CA

Reviewed by: American Ethnological Society


Between Imperial Pasts and Humanoid Futures: A Session in Dialogue with Jennifer Robertson


10:15 AM - 12:00 PM

In this retrospective roundtable, we celebrate the career and revisit the field-redefining interventions of Jennifer Robertson. Across four decades of fieldwork in Japan, Robertson has engaged the temporal, aesthetic, material, ideological, scientific, and political parameters of everyday life to demonstrate the possibilities of a vibrant, critical Asian anthropology. Through ethnographies that foreground the conceptual language developed by Japanese communities and scholars, Robertson has pushed us to reconstitute theory as emerging from particular places, starting with Japan. That is, by grounding analysis in lexicons and frameworks distilled from the local, Robertson herself has centered the contributions that East Asian anthropology can make toward generating new theories in the discipline at large. Moreover, bringing an artist’s eye to the field, Robertson has honed an ethnographic approach that condenses, composes, and creatively orchestrates the textures of social practices, thereby introducing a compelling approach for understanding how communities make sense of their ethnographic lifeworlds. Her meticulous bricolage has worked to break down monolithic categories and business as usual, inspiring anthropologists in diverse geographic contexts far beyond Japan and East Asia to connect the dots between phenomena. Robertson’s early efforts to center painstaking archival work as requisite to embarking on ethnographic research led her to develop a diachronic approach that locates the past within the present, always aware of how this is simultaneously part of the political project of imagining the future. As such, nostalgia for communally shared pasts shaped village-making projects in Japan’s postwar suburbs in the 1980s, as she wrote in Native and Newcomer (1991). Likewise, present-day fantasies of Japan as ethnically and socially homogeneous mold visions of Japan’s roboticized future, with humanoid robots reproducing a gendered division of labor and even obtaining rights before flesh-and-blood humans, as Robertson argued more recently in Robo Sapiens Japanicus (2018). The discipline-bending Takarazuka (1998) boldly explored theater as a technology of imperialism, and demonstrated the ambiguity and ambivalence of its gendered and sexual politics. In this roundtable, presenters representing diverse fieldsites across East Asia and Asia writ large, and whose work encompasses religion, tourism, migration, dis/ability, militarism, nationalism and right-wing revival, human-animal relations, family and gender politics, environmental justice, and labor, human, and indigenous rights movements, will explore the breadth and depth of Robertson’s insights as they have contributed to the field of East Asian anthropology over the last four decades.