Jim Igoe

 

On his book The Nature of Spectacle: On Images, Money, and Conserving Capitalism

Cover Interview of February 11, 2018

A close-up

I would like a “just browsing” reader to turn to one of the personal stories that open some of the chapters, such as my childhood fascination with nature shows and science fiction (Chapter 7), encounters with elephants in Northern Tanzania (Chapter 3), and my family’s reflections on the Teddy Roosevelt Statue outside the American Museum of Natural History (Chapter 6). I wrote these stories in an effort to situate my experiences in relation to the book’s larger arguments, but also hopefully to intrigue a curious reader and invite them to explore.

The Museum of Natural History, for instance, is a fascinating, and in some senses disturbing, space to explore. The Roosevelt statue at its Central Park entrance is difficult to read as anything other than a celebration of empire and white masculine supremacy. Inside, taxidermy elephants and dioramas of conquered peoples are intermixed with interactive video experiences, theaters, restaurants and gift shops. At the same time, the museum also features the Northwest Coast Hall, created by anthropologist Franz Boas, as an exhibit that would celebrate indigenous cultures on their own terms. In 2008, I attended a two-day symposium on biocultural diversity in an auditorium adjoining the Northwest Coast Hall. The symposium argued for indigenous people’s rights to land and cultural self-determination, and the importance of indigenous knowledge to biodiversity, in relation to the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. I encourage curious readers to explore these often-conflicting aspects of the museum, or many other similar spaces, in person and via the Internet. I also recommend Claudia Pierpont’s excellent piece on Franz Boas, in the New Yorker (March 8, 2004) and Tom Spanbauer’s breathtaking novel, In the City of the Shy Hunters, which situates the museum in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

This is a bit of an aside, which reflects not only this chapter, but also my continued explorations since writing the book. The main concern of the chapter has to do with how efforts to save the planet, including in connection with indigenous struggles, are intertwined with consumerism and the reproduction of capitalist relationships. The chapter ends with a discussion of a humorous video in which a socially-conscious American consumer leaves his life behind to join indigenous struggles to save the rainforests in Central America. In the process, he learns that the best thing he can do is stay where he is and work to be a better consumer. This chapter is full of similar vignettes, which I hope will prompt readers – particularly social-minded consumers – to consider the ways our lives are entangled and implicated in the very problems that we hope to solve. What is the potential for positive transformation in the midst of these entanglements, and what are the arrangements that predispose us to believe that better consumerism is the best solution? By now the curious reader may wish to know what any of this might have to do with colonialism in East Africa, tourism, international policy making, or science fiction. Check some other chapters for details.