A tribute to Dr. Roy Wagner (1938-2018)

September 11, 2018

“To a degree that we seldom realize, we depend upon the participation of others in our lives, and upon our own participation in the lives of others. Our success and effectiveness as persons is based upon this participation, and upon an ability to maintain a controlling competence in communicating with others." 

- Roy Wagner on culture shock and making culture visible in "Invention of Culture" (1981).

 

In late January of this year, I reached out to a previous mentor of mine, the renowned coyote anthropologist, Dr. Roy Wagner. I asked Roy if he remembered me, sent him my very first blog post on the passing of Ursula K. Le Guin, and thanked him for inspiring me to pursue Anthropology. In my short tribute to Le Guin, I explained how my undergraduate education in Anthropology at the University of Virginia started with Roy's "Fantasy & Social Value" course, which then persuaded me to continue with the discipline. In Spring 2015, I decided to finish my undergraduate education the same way I had started, through enrollment in "Don Juan & Castaneda" as my final Anthropology course. The class was at 8:30 AM sharp and I commuted 25 minutes to get to Grounds. Roy was the only person who I would happily take an early class for. By 8:30 AM, Roy had already made his long commute to Charlottesville, often dressed up in a colorful suit and tie, and full of enough energy to compensate for the overwhelming grogginess of his students.

 

After getting past the initial self-loathing for enrolling in an early class, Roy reminded you why his courses were worth it, as each class with Roy was incredibly unique; you truly did not want to miss his lectures. He delved into course topics wholeheartedly, with creative asides to his fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Australia, New Ireland, and North America (as well as hilarious personal anecdotes). Roy taught us about theory and ethnographic accounts that we students were eager to learn more about, many of which I continue to pursue today - dialectics, symbolism and order, human consciousness, power, linguistic anthropology, and the political implications of popular culture. Sometimes, Roy would lose us in his deeply intellectual thoughts - his talks on impersonation / ex-personation of the social person, figure-ground reversal, dream objectification, holography and fractality.. all subjects which were a bit lost on my fledgling academic ears, until years later, when I unearthed my old notes from his classes and was able to relive some of my favorite lectures.

 

Anyone who knew Roy fondly remembers his preference for typewriters. Every class handout was typed by Roy, and he got quite creative with his diagrams and framing. To my surprise, Roy responded to my email the same day I sent it off; perhaps it was his insistence on his typewriter, but I did not know him to be fond of email. In his message, he talked of how he remembered me as his student, thanked me for thinking of him in the passing of Le Guin (his favorite Science Fiction author), and then ended his message with a statement that will always remain important to me:

"I think [Le Guin's] father, Alfred Lewis Kroeber, would be very proud of you as well - she was, after all, his best work.

Yours, Roy."

I received Roy's email in the thick of my first year in graduate school, and I recall really, really needing those words of affirmation that day. I had been frustrated because as a first generation student, academia was still an entirely new world for me and though I was excited to rise to the challenge, I sometimes let the inevitable imposter syndrome get the best of me. Roy's encouraging words meant so much, for he exemplified the kind of anthropologist I had always wished to be. Roy was lauded in academia for his immense contributions to the field, but his students knew him well for his marvelous wit, impeccable fashion sense (my favorite was his bright blue suit with matching paisley tie and umbrella), captivating teaching style, and willingness to talk with each and every student after his classes ended. I have always credited Roy with inspiring me to study Anthropology, but moreover, he inspired me to teach Anthropology with the same passion, rigor, and humor that he so embodied.

 

In the past few months, as I begin to create my own teaching philosophy, I reflect on the work of my mentors and seem to find new reasons to appreciate them each and every time:

A course handout from 2014 by Roy Wagner, entitled, "What is reasonable about reason / What is humorous about humor?" This remains one of my favorite study sheets from his courses.


Each time I look back on Roy's typed-up notes, I realize how little I understood them the time before, and how much his work continues to provide me with brilliant new ways of understanding our world as I grow into my own kind of anthropologist.

 

It was Roy who first introduced me to the idea that critical studies of the cultural could mean so much more than what I had initially imagined "culture" to be. Roy's theoretical training engaged in ideas that are well-understood by cultural anthropologists today, but were completely new concepts when I first engaged with the field - that we as humans construct our own realities, we must be critical of so-called "human universals" and instead look to cultural relativism, and that there is power in meaning-making and the representations we as humans create. These ideas, though seemingly foundational, were concepts I had not yet considered until meeting Dr. Roy Wagner, and I could never thank him enough for being that person for so many of his students and colleagues.

 

Roy was a truly astounding individual, mentor, and professor. I will forever be grateful to call myself a student of Roy Wagner, and he will always be remembered at the University of Virginia and within the Anthropology community. After all, Roy Wagner was truly one of a kind.

WORKS CITED:

Wagner, Roy. 1981. The Invention of Culture (Revised and Expanded Edition). University of Chicago Press, page 15.
 

 

 

 

 

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