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Stephen Nugent ’72

November 13, 2018, in London, England.

Celebrated for his work in Amazonia, in many ways Stephen defied quantification as an anthropologist. Combining materialism and scientific quantification, he saw anthropology as the best approach for analyzing world-systems even as he was critical of it for creating an industry that commercialized culture.

At Reed, Stephen wrote his thesis, “Damaged Goods,” with Prof. Gail Kelly [anthropology 1960-2000] and met his future wife, June Wyer ’73. He went to the London School of Economics for postgraduate studies. With June, who was also studying for a PhD, he settled for fieldwork in the city of Santarém on the main trunk of the Amazon River in Brazil, then under military dictatorship. For an anthropologist interested in the Amazon, it was an unusual place to study because it was undergoing a series of modernization projects, including the building of a road that connected the city with central Brazil and the construction of a large Caribbean-style hotel.

Seeing beyond these, Stephen developed an appreciation for the history of this riverine city, the commercial hub for a forested region once governed by Amerind chiefs. It was a place of ancestral mummies and continental connections. Stephen and June gave voice to the people who made their living in the city and the neighboring rural districts from fishing, domestic, and retail work. The involvement of these people in a capitalist network, commanded by state incentives and private finance, set the scale of Stephen’s ethnographic gaze to a much wider set of considerations.

He joined the anthropology department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 1981 and twice took on the role of head of department. From the early ’90s, he also taught at the Institute of Latin American Studies in London.

 Stephen’s theoretical work often drew on his early Amazonian experience, and he returned to the Amazon frequently until 2002, when his doctors advised him not to travel following a serious illness. Drawing on his vast knowledge, he wrote four books. The first, written for a popular audience, was Big Mouth: The Amazon Speaks (1990), which follows a summer spent along the Amazon River, each place or encounter a spur for a revision of established thinking. Amazonian Caboclo Society (1993) provided a systematic, theoretical frame for understanding diverse societies, in this case the Brazilian Amazon, cutting across place and time. Scoping the Amazon (2007) was a historical critique of the visual representations of indigenous Amazonians in both popular culture and academic work. His last book, published the year before he died, was The Rise and Fall of the Amazon Rubber Industry (2017). Illustrated with contemporary images, advertisements, and maps collected from various archives, it is the kind of patient historical anthropology that is born from a life’s engagement with the subject matter.

Stephen felt that anthropology needed to reassess its object of analysis and its status. It was pointless referring to entities that existed only as idealized notions. He joined an influential group of anthropologists in London who formed a journal entitled Critique of Anthropology. Refusing to follow convention, he forged a personalized technique of analysis in his incisive and critical interventions in peasant studies and political economy, Brazilian anthropology, historical anthropology, ethics, environmental anthropology, cognitive psychology, cultural studies, and visual anthropology.

At Goldsmiths, Stephen set up the MA in visual anthropology, the BA in anthropology and visual practice, and also founded and directed the Centre for Visual Anthropology. His interest in the visual was both theoretical and practical and in the last decade of his time at Goldsmiths he made three films: Where is the Rabbi? (2001), about Sephardic communities living in Amazonia; Waila (2009), focused on a Tohono O’odham musician from Tucson, Arizona; and Sounds Like a Vintage Guitar (2012), an exploration of the business and craft of making and faking historical electric guitars.

After more than 30 years, Stephen retired from Goldsmiths. His contributions to anthropology were wide-ranging, and he had a keen interest in music. Marrying these two interests, he and Charlie Gillette put together a compendium of the Top 20 British and American singles and albums of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, titled Rock Almanac (1978). He also collaborated with musician Ian Dury and wrote the song “Billericay Dickie.” He was as accomplished on the tennis court as in the halls of academia. Stephen is survived by his wife, June Wyer, and his daughter, Zoe Nugent.

Appeared in Reed magazine: September 2020

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