Returning recently from a funeral in Oklahoma, I purchased a copy of Harper's Magazine in an airport newsstand. I do not read it every month, but I have always enjoyed and benefited from those issues that I pick up along the way. This issue was surprising for the amount of anthropology and material culture studies found within. The cover story, "Moby-Duck Or, the Synthetic Wilderness of Childhood" is by Donovan Hohn. It tells the story of huge shipment of rubber ducks (and other animal effigy "floatees") lost at sea only to be tracked and collected by beachcombers and oceanographers as they circulate around the world. The story of the lost ducks provides him with an opportunity to reflect on a wide range of topics of current interest in material culture studies, and anthropology more broadly--the materiality of plastics, the cultural construction of animals, the passions of collectors, the nature of childhood, the archaeology of middens, etc.
The duck story is preceded by a compelling essay by anthropologist David Graeber "Army of Altruists: On the Alienated Right to Do Good." Extending his work on theories of value, he explores political life in America through the lens of class and military service. Along the way, he reflects upon the social constitution of egoism and altruism and offers up, to a general audience, a compelling account of the lessons learned through the anthropological study of gift economies. I cannot do justice to the essay, but I think that it would be a compelling starting point for a discussion with students or with colleagues in other fields. It is a fine piece of public access anthropology.
As always, the ads and photographs in Harper's are telling. There is a beautiful full-page ad, facing the "Harper's Index," promoting heritage tourism in Romania. The key line is "25 UNESCO World Heritage Sites" suggesting they ways that the paradoxical and problematic UNESCO list is being operationalized in tourism promotion aimed at educated audiences. (On UNESCO heritage policy, see MUA editorial board member Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's great essay in the new book Museum Frictions (Durham, Duke University Press, 2006). Photographs on pages 24, 27, 65, and 66 are especially evocative vis-a-vis material culture studies. There is also an beautiful essay (I cannot tell if it is ethnographic reportage or ethnographic fiction) on hopping freight trains ("Catching Out" by William T. Vollmann) that brought to mind, for me, a wonderful classic ethnography of Chicago School sociology, Nels Anderson's The Hobo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1923).