Faculty Profile: Thor R. Anderson, PhD


Adjunct faculty Thor Anderson offers perspective on bringing ritualized action to SFAI's community as an anthropologist and cultural advocate.

You are a one of a kind teacher. What insight and perspective do you bring to the artists and scholars you work with at SFAI?

Thankfully, we are all “one of a kind.” And, fortunately, we have a real network (albeit small) of anthropologist/cultural advocates on campus, including Associate Professor Robin Balliger and our new President, Gordon Knox. There is a profound intersection between anthropology and art, both in theory and practice, so I would like to think that our presence here is hardly coincidental.

I think the anthropological perspective offers, or perhaps emphasizes in unique ways, three important dimensions of inquiry. We are deeply interested in time, whether it is a straightforward longitudinal study or, on a larger scale, for example, the social effects of colonialism. Secondly, while we as anthropologists do specialize (for example, I study ritual and what we call, rather inelegantly, “ritualizing action”), anthropology is a holistic enterprise, and we strive to make sense of systems, networks, and the wielding of both power and resistance. Thirdly, anthropology is concerned with the integration of scientific inquiry and the ethos of humanism and human rights: this means we must be at once skeptics in terms of scientific “advances,” and devoted to the principles of dignity and respect for our fellow beings, cultures, and world views. Naturally enough, applying these principles of dignity and respect are essential to building our community, and are also key to creating a nurturing, open, transparent, and reasonable classroom.  

Do you see your teaching practice as relevant to your anthropological research?

Yes and no. In many ways I keep my roles as teacher and researcher separate, since there are different processes, practices, and priorities at work in teaching and research. And each realm generates its own, distinctive set of questions and challenges. There is overlap in skills and a shared knowledge base, and of course each realm informs and even inspires the other. So “relevant,” absolutely; interdependent to some degree, but also independent. The essential difference is that in the classroom we consciously create a shared culture—a set of understandings and expectations. In doing fieldwork, whether, as in my case, in the inner-city or rural Mexico, my principal role is to discover and, to the best of my ability, explain these understandings.

You often participate in students’ happenings, performances, and plays. Tell us more about this communal process.

Another wonderful connection between anthropology and art is our mutual concern with teasing out and revealing the social construction of reality. Who, exactly, made up all of these silly rules? Many kinds of ritual and performance can, through exaggeration, satire, or general tomfoolery, elucidate something of this social water in which we all, for the most part, unknowingly swim. So yes, when I can, I try to assist in student work. And I would emphasize the word “assist.” My main purpose is to create and hold a space that feels limitless in terms of potential, yet exposes and renders powerless prejudicial judgments, faulty and false arguments, and interpersonal skullduggery.

How long have you taught at SFAI? What do you like best about being surrounded by artists and the SFAI community in particular?

We’re just edging past ten years now. It’s a deceptive number in a way, though, because it took me a good while to understand how things work (something I still do not quite understand), and even longer to see through to what small ways I can contribute to this culture and community. Of course SFAI inevitably reflects the contradictions and inequities of society at large. I believe there is an alternative view of sociality in which we as individuals are less caught up in the trappings of self, and more imbued with how our acts and actions affect the complex, living world around us. Another important aspect of this community is that we are actively interrogating some of the mainstays of our intellectual heritage. For example, the Cartesian body/mind duality has served us well for three centuries and counting, but we can look towards and investigate more integrative approaches to materiality, our physical bodies, and being. And the list goes on: understanding and putting in place feminist principles; tracing the rise of corporate mega-states; seeing our cities as sites of activism rather than “just-so” parables of capitalist excess. So what is best about all this? “Best,” for me, is getting closer to our truths: multiple, sometimes contradictory, always fascinating.

Image credit: Performance stills from A Living Thing Lives: Closing Reception and Party for A Living Thing / Mel Ziegler: Flag Exchange on April 4, 2017; Photos by Marco David.