by Carla Freeman and Carla Jones

Becoming a feminist scholar is never a matter of individual will alone. It is only possible because of the feminist minds and mentors who precede us, who model what feminist scholarship can be and what feminist mentoring looks like. For us, that model is Catherine Lutz. For each of us, Cathy’s turns of mind and way of being have been a stable, inspiring touchstone as we have navigated our own intellectual journeys. There are few moments that don’t benefit from asking ourselves, “What would Cathy think, do, or say?”

Cathy Lutz, circa 1995

Cathy’s feminist scholarship is as remarkable for its breadth as for its razor-sharp analytical focus. From the ‘unnatural’ everyday emotion-worlds of Pacific Islanders to the masculine infrastructure of the U.S. military industrial complex and the ‘car-system’ as an engine of desire and inequality, it is hard to think of another anthropologist who has tackled a wider range of social problems. Spanning her wide-ranging projects are Cathy’s signature: the capacity to excavate her subject, layer by layer, exposing in exquisite detail an intimate evocation of the forces within which human lives are imagined, felt, and lived. As an ethnographer and theorist she is as fearless and passionate as she is scrupulous and determined. And those qualities define her research and her relationships. They also inform her voice as a teacher, collaborative researcher and public intellectual. We note that these are also, at their best, fundamentally feminist qualities.

For each of us, Cathy’s 1995 essay, “The Gender of Theory,” has been one of those rare and meaty ‘think pieces’ that has fueled our own lines of inquiry. For Carla Freeman, it provided the wedge with which to analyze and debunk the masculinization of globalization such that ethnography is both feminized as local and denied its theoretical merits. For Carla Jones, it remains assigned reading in the first week of every graduate seminar, no matter the subject, as a provocation and an invitation to attend to the relationship between ethnography and theory. Applying incisive critiques of labor and masculinity to the cultural sphere of the academy, Cathy argued that close ethnography is not just the foundation for theorizing, it is the very core of knowledge production. Simultaneously a critique of the ways that theory circulates and immensely theoretical, it is a singular example of Cathy’s exceptional capacity to see and say things that, once said, are so profound as to feel that we must have always known them, yet we hadn’t. Only Cathy could pull those threads together.

Her gifts for making sense of the smallest details of everyday life through the perspective of history, politics, and economics is evident in her earliest work. In her book Unnatural Emotions, she related the tenderness of social bonds among her friends on Ifaluk, conveying their knowledge that to be human is to be embedded in feelings that will potentially bring pain, and yet to also know that the only way to salve that pain is to dive back into more sociality. Though still young herself, Cathy captured that double-bind of life wisdom elegantly and respectfully. Decades before affect theory rediscovered the idea that feelings are intersubjective, Unnatural Emotions quietly made that point.

Her work over the next few decades further demonstrated her gift for linking the intimate to the systemic and structural. Never daunted, she turned her eye to some of the most powerful institutions in the USA, refusing to be told she could not access or analyze them. In Reading National Geographic, she and Jane Collins showed how the magazine became America’s window to the world, translating difference for its readers into soothing national narratives of race, gender, and class that reinforced a story with the modern USA at the center. In her work on the car-system, she traced how compulsory car ownership in the USA is at the heart of overlapping interests: the oil industry, the financial system, and municipal governance, all of which activate the role of cars in producing inequality. In her work on the costs of war, she tenaciously countered rhetoric that institutions (like the military) and historical events (like wars) are beneficial solutions for American social problems. She continues to argue that living in a world in which those assumptions cannot be questioned is expensive in the broadest sense. Considering veteran trauma or high rates of domestic violence within the military alongside the high financial and environmental costs of maintaining a permanent military, she does exactly what the best ethnographers do, connects the dots between the private and the political.