The Zero Anthropology Project

Webfolio for Maximilian C. ForteZERO ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT






Writing for Zero Anthropology

Writing for the Zero Anthropology Magazine—the primary interface through which most people will encounter the Zero Anthropology Project—has probably been the high point of my career, greatly aiding my own intellectual development as I discovered that one of the best methods of learning, is writing. Unexpectedly, it also created opportunities for developing contacts and connections with other writers, researchers, journalists, and activists over the years. However, what remained central was the writing, and what went through it: the exploration of knowledge, the articulation of ideas, and the production of finished presentations.

Formulating an idea, and then trying to articulate it in writing, only to then stumble, grow doubtful, and realize that there were questions I needed to ask (and answer) first, is the great advantage of writing-as-learning. Writing for non-academic audiences, but without pandering to an imagined lowest common denominator, was an exciting challenge. Now it is the way I write all the time, in every context. I cannot imagine going back to the system where one is so fearful of saying anything decisive and meaningful, lest it meet with the disapproval of academics churned out by the criticism-generating machines that universities have become. No wonder that academic writing has degenerated into opaque, jargon-laden prose that masks some very mundane statements behind artificially complex, ambiguous and overwrought writing. Fear of criticism leads some to write about even unremarkable things in a dense and obscure fashion that was designed as a shield against the adversarial forensic analysis of minutiae in which peer reviewers specialize. Rather than be caught saying anything “wrong,” better to say an awful lot of nothing.

In writing for the Zero Anthropology Magazine I discovered that there is nothing I like more than crafting something and giving it shape, and then applying finishing touches—only to maybe undo it all the next day, or redo it. Looking back on the years I have written for Zero Anthropology, I am almost overwhelmed by how much ground was covered: the number of questions; the mountain of ideas, arguments, and insights; the wide range of sources read and summarized; the numerous events and developments that were analyzed and combined into a larger explanatory framework; the diversity of topics, each forming chapters of a bigger “book”. In fact, readers might find that in terms of the overall word count, and the subjects explored, there are several books hidden within the Zero Anthropology Magazine.

Since Zero Anthropology always had a defined mission and program of work (even if it changed in some ways with time), the project did not lack a reason for being. At times the pressure of other commitments threatened to submerge the project, but never succeeded in doing so. There was never any shortage of things to say, and things to talk about—only a shortage of time or energy.

Had I never started the Zero Anthropology Magazine, I can only imagine that my life would have been far more boring, and that my teaching and research career would not have taken so many different and interesting lines. In fact, as many as half of the courses I now teach, and even the contents of some lectures, owe their original inspiration to work that was developed for the magazine. Books I have written were first “seeded” on the site of the magazine. There are people I now know because I first met them via the magazine.

Finally, what is perhaps the greatest lesson of Zero Anthropology for me is a simple one of self-reliance: in the face of whatever you find dissatisfying, you can always choose the unconventional path of doing for yourself, and creating your own space, such that you depend less and less on the “goodwill” of those who are prepared to offer very little, or whose “gifts” and “favours” come with numerous conditions attached, not to mention demands for compromise. This same autonomist approach is the very basis of an anti-imperialist ethic.

History and Statistics

Here are some of facts about the Zero Anthropology Magazine: it first came into being in October of 2007, when it was titled “Open Anthropology”. That name was then changed to Zero Anthropology in 2009, after a conflict with another site that appropriated its name and sought to take over even more. The site began by encompassing what I deemed to be some of the key articles of a previous newsletter/blog that I started in 2000, known as The CAC Review (CAC standing for the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink, which I started in 1998, and which remains online, in stasis). It was meant to be a departure—more a growing out of, or branching off from my years immersed in the study of Indigenous Peoples of the Caribbean. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging; a financial collapse was occurring; and universities were being transformed into something utterly alien to me. Keeping my nose down in my specialist research was not how I imagined a life-long career of learning. It would have been a testament that I had literally learned nothing of any substance from the colonial and contemporary histories of indigenous struggles in the Caribbean, if I had “missed the point” that was staring right at me the whole time: imperialism, and the struggles against it. In 1492 European empire became not only transcontinental, but also transoceanic, and in that milieu the Caribs stand as the original anti-imperialists of the modern world-system.

The magazine has now published (at the time of writing this in 2019), over 1,500 essays. The site has been viewed, directly, more than 1.5 million times. Thousands of persons receive articles by email, and at least a thousand more read the articles through various RSS feed readers. It’s in fact impossible for me to know exactly how many readers any one article receives, especially as some readers circulate articles privately by email. The magazine also spawned various offshoots: a book publishing arm, a document library, and video productions (see the various sites here).


Recognition of Zero Anthropology has been informal, casual, and unusual—but not openly “institutional”. Thus, for all its work, it has not been granted any awards, or even received recognition at the level of honourable mentions from any professional association. Indeed, the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) is more likely to follow American bloggers in Twitter, people who have never paid dues to the society, never participated in its conferences, and never did any service for CASCA.

However, certain other facts are also worth mentioning here. Zero Anthropology Magazine, and specific articles within it, have been formally cited in over a dozen books, and a similar number of journal articles. There are several encyclopaedia articles that discuss Zero Anthropology. (Citations are available if requested.) Major libraries at leading universities list the site as a key resource in anthropology. At least three dozen different courses, in universities around the world, use Zero Anthropology articles as assigned readings in their syllabi. Readers of Zero Anthropology Magazine can now be found in nearly every single country on this planet. Some of its articles have either been reprinted or quoted in newspaper articles, and many of the articles have been translated into other languages. Also, given that it has been consistently ranked among the top sites of its kind internationally, in the English language, the Zero Anthropology Magazine is most likely Canada’s most prominent anthropology website. In fact, the Zero Anthropology Magazine has significantly higher global rankings across the board even when compared to the website of the Canadian Anthropology Society itself:

This chart shows that Zero Anthropology has a higher domain authority, a higher page authority, a great number of links to it from other sites, a higher off-page SEO score, and a higher ranking in Alexa than CASCA. Data was obtained by using Website SEO Checker in 2019.

There are also “unseen effects” of the presence of Zero Anthropology. Encouraged by the methods, scope, and approach developed on the site, some graduate students in anthropology have sought to expand the horizons of their own work, or have questioned the purpose and nature of their research. Like it or not—and for many established academics it is usually “not”—Zero Anthropology has redefined the range of acceptable investigations in the field, while questioning the hegemonic agenda of the centres of academic power and academic capital.

Zero Anthropology’s success in this regard, where its “unseen effects” are concerned, is owing to its ability to take a rather old, even conservative principle, and deploy it in a radical fashion. The principle is that anthropology is in its essence a theoretical and philosophical undertaking guided by large and difficult questions about the human condition, about war and peace, the ability to coexist, and to live fulfilling and meaningful lives under conditions of our own choosing. It is not an exercise that is about methods and places. For ethnography, no subject is too small. For anthropology, no subject is too large. Since imperialism is historically one of the largest-scale processes to affect humanity the world over, an anthropology that does not consider what happens to the human condition under empire, is something that falls short of anthropology. However, the point of Zero Anthropology is not about what it can do for anthropology, which would unnecessarily limit the project to disciplinary ends, but whether we can say what needs to be said especially when few or none dare to say it.


Images: (Top) A close-up of the Black Island Punt featured in the foyer of an office building on Water Street in St. John's, Newfoundland. (Sides) Elements of a long mural in downtown St. John's, Newfoundland, that features the economic history of the island's cod fishing industry. Photographs by Maximilian C. Forte (2018) free for non-commercial reuse, with attribution.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.