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Professor Andrew Lattas: A man of many parts

KULA KULA MAGAZINE (March 2011, extracts)

Lattas_Prof AndrewIT IS ON A RAINY OCTOBER AFTERNOON that we meet Professor Andrew Lattas in his office at the Department of Social Anthropology in Bergen, Norway.

But he doesn’t mind the rain, he tells us. “I like Bergen, even though it rains a lot here. Many people complain about this, but I don’t mind it, really.”

Andrew Lattas comes from a family of Greek peasant background. He was born and raised in Australia, and has done extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea.

Lattas was appointed to the University of Bergen three years ago, and was recently promoted to Professor. Lattas is a highly productive anthropologist, and his career includes two sole authored books, three edited collections, about 40 refereed articles and an award-winning anthropological film Koriam’s Law and the Dead who Govern.

Dreams, Madness & Fairy TalesHis most recent book, Dreams, Madness, and Fairy Tales in New Britain, was published earlier this year. He is a cheery contribution to the Anthropology department, his catching laughter often resonating through the halls of the 8th floor. But how did he end up in Bergen?

I came here through being told about a new vacancy by my old professor, Bruce Kapferer, who had already been at the department for some years. He supervised my PhD thesis back in Australia. I had also visited Bergen a couple of times as a visiting researcher before I took up the position three years ago.

The University of Bergen is a very good place to do research, which was the main attraction for coming here. The intellectual scene in Australia was quite good perhaps ten years ago, but this has changed in that the workload has become much less centred on doing research and now involves a very heavy teaching load.

And Lattas likes doing research, we learn. He has done extensive anthropological work on various subjects in Papua New Guinea. He is especially known for his work on cargo cults – millenarian movements that focus on obtaining the material wealth (the “cargo”) of more technologically advanced cultures through magic, rituals and religious practices.

He has focused on their experiments with new technologies for governing and transforming people. But Lattas has done research in Australia as well:

Actually I have done about the same amount of research work on Australian society as on PNG. I have always combined the study of different fields in my research. I find it more productive to work on different topics at the same time. In that way you get a better perspective on things, and you don’t get bored with what you’re doing.

You can only work so many hours on one particular topic before you become exhausted or unproductive. I find that if you combine the subjects you study you can work much longer and more effectively.

- Do you do the same thing here, then; study the Norwegians?

Oh, I’m quite puzzled by the Norwegians, they’re an enigma [laughs]. The strong egalitarianism of Norwegian society is very interesting and actually quite different from Australian egalitarianism. I’m still trying to figure this out. I would like to do some research on Norwegian society eventually if I get the time and if I find the right project.

Lattas’ initial interest in anthropology goes all the way back to his teenage years in Adelaide, Australia. When we ask him how he got into Anthropology, he laughs:

When I was in High School I had a girlfriend who studied Anthropology at the University, and I would follow her around, even to class. Bruce Kapferer was lecturing at the time, and he was a very charismatic lecturer. I wouldn’t take any notes, just sit there and listen, but afterwards I would remember everything. I found the subject really interesting from the start, and automatically began studying it when I started University a few years later.

In addition, Lattas explains, being raised in an urban Australian environment by parents from rural Greece, made him sympathetic to the fact that different bodies of knowledge could exist side by side, and he grew up with a sympathetic understanding of various social logics.

- What do you do when you’re not working?

Well, I like doing manual work. I spend so much time thinking and writing that I like to do something completely different sometimes. When I’m in Australia I especially like to work in my garden. I also like to do stone work, cutting out stones. It is dusty, hard work, but I really enjoy it.

And I love cooking. When I’m with my family back in Australia I do most of the cooking. Here, where I live in Bergen, I meet all these PhD.-students from around the world, and I like learning new ways to cook; Indian, Nepalese or Iranian for example. I find cooking to be a nice way of relaxation too. And I especially like cooking Greek food.

When we ask him if he likes cooking Papua New Guinean food, Lattas shakes his head and exclaims in Tok Pisin: “Ah no, mi les long hem! (“No, I’m tired of that”). They eat so much taro cooked in coconut milk…and rice! I miss the fruit in PNG though, the fruit there is fantastic; fresh mangoes and papayas…"

Lattas recently published an article where he criticized the Australian state’s interventions in remote rural communities, and is still actively writing about these things.

I find it very important to be a political intellectual, to be active outside the academic circle, he tells us. – If you publish only for anthropologists, not as many people are going to read it. It makes more sense to publish for a broader audience. Working with cargo cults, for example, it is impossible to avoid themes such as race; re-invention of race; ways of being white or of being Melanesian. It is also important to be able to explain practices that may appear strange to outsiders; to give justice to people’s thinking.

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