In 1983, Norman Tebbit, a minister in Thatcher’s government, justified cuts to the social sciences by saying that those who study ‘the pre-nuptial habits of the Upper Volta valley’ were not deserving of money. In Tebbit’s telling, a venerable, and vital, branch of anthropological inquiry – the study of kinship – was reduced to the documentation of exotic, native antics; all very well, perhaps, but not relevant, not useful. At the time, Jonathan Benthall – the then Director of the Royal Anthropological Institute – offered a courteous and moderate response to the Cabinet Minister (reprinted in Anthropology Today), pointing out anthropology’s utility to society in general.

But, in recent years, the timbre of criticism has, I think, changed. In Tebbit’s assessment, anthropology came across as daft, but harmless; a whimsical discipline devoted to the study of unreasoning peoples. But, according to the new spirit of criticism, anthropology is itself unreasoning, and not only useless, but also deluded, and even dangerous – the undisciplined savage in the academy.

This animosity towards anthropology is encapsulated in a document recently reported on by the Guardian: a thesis written by Dominic Cummings, former hatchet man and ideologue-in-chief to the education secretary, Michael Gove. Cummings’ paper is a shoddy concoction, a rambling reflection on the future of teaching and learning, in which the author champions the notion of an ‘Odyssean’ education – a kind of heroic, roving acquisition of knowledge, with entrepreneurial associations – that would combine the sciences with the humanities. But what we actually get is something more cyclopean: a squint-eyed vision of human life determined by self-interest, genetic imperatives, and power laws. (As Keith Hart has noted, we get the statistical models we deserve, so it is perhaps no surprise that power-law distributions, with their ‘premise of extreme inequality’, should be so in vogue at this late capitalist moment.) In keeping with this vision, Cummings says that he wants students to read Thucydides and Steven Pinker, but not – I should imagine – Herodotus, and definitely not Marx, nor – god forbid – anything by French postmodernists. (Cummings makes it unmistakably clear that Derrida and co. are dehors-texte.)  

As for anthropology, Cummings – in a move that is exactly the opposite of the expansive and polyhistoric approach that one might assume to be properly ‘Odyssean’ – simply condemns it. It is intellectually suspect; in hock to a dodgy model – the ‘SSSM’ (of which, more in a moment) – that goes all the way back to Boas. Moreover, he flatly asserts that students taking such courses are wasting both their own time and our money. Here, it appears to have slipped the mind of this hectoring Odysseus that, since he is a civil servant, the British taxpayer is in fact funding his own dubious scholarship.

But where does this idea come from that anthropology is so contemptible? It owes to a particular polemic, of recent make, largely developed within cognitive science. Cognitive anthropology, in particular, along with its sister discipline of evolutionary psychology, have been raising doubts about the relevance and premises of long-standing social and cultural approaches. I have commented on this question of relevance elsewhere. What interests me here is the tone and the rhetorical tactics employed, for the critique is carried out with particular derision, and is characterized by such excess, that it amounts to a sort of asymmetric warfare: a discursive offensive – and an offensive discourse – out of all proportion to its target.

The cognitive critique centres on (what it takes to be) anthropology’s most fundamental presupposition, dubbed the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ (SSSM) by Cosmides and Tooby, both evolutionary psychologists. According to this anthropological article of faith, since human nature is so radically plastic, there are, therefore, no universal cognitive capacities; thus, nothing is innate; everything is cultural. Owing to their irrational commitment to this barren paradigm, social-cultural anthropologists have resisted the magnificent shift ushered in by the cognitive sciences. But just how plausible is this picture? Not very, I suggest. There is something shifty about the paradigm as presented, for, rather like Latourian iconoclasts, who, in smashing up idols, demonstrate that they are the only ones who naively believe in their astounding power, cognitive scientists have been monstering a model which only exists in their own imaginings.      

To see that this is so, consider the devastating case presented by Steven Pinker. In his book-length critique of the SSSM, The Blank Slate (henceforth BS) he argues that it is not merely a malign paradigm that has infected intellectuals, but that it has also spilled out into society at large, with the most diabolical consequences. Not only has it legitimized the ‘release of dangerous psychopaths who promptly murdered innocent people’, but, much worse, it has ‘led to some of the greatest atrocities in history’ (BS, x-xi). Indeed, the idea that nothing important about humanity is natural, and everything is cultural, Pinker links to a hodgepodge of modern horrors, from the architecture of Le Corbusier (BS, 170) to the killing fields of Cambodia (BS, 158). And crucially, Pinker fingers anthropologists as key culprits.

Although he allows that Franz Boas was no mere ‘blank slate’ subscriber, he states that, nevertheless, ‘Boas had created a monster’ (BS, 23), the all-consuming culture-concept, subsequently pushed to the limit and peddled by his students, Kroeber, Mead, and Benedict. This Boasian monster-concept is supposedly based on two premises: the first, that there is categorically no relationship between biology and culture; the second, that the notion of culture, because it elevates analysis towards the level of the collective, is wholly indifferent to the lives of individual human beings.

As for the latter, Pinker singles out Kroeber, and his concept of the ‘superorganic’, which clearly demonstrates, he says, ‘Kroeber’s insistence that individual human minds are not worthy of attention’ (BS, 156). And, having put the finishing touches to this sinister, straw man figure, it is, then, a simple business to suggest that such a callous idea of the primacy of social and cultural totality – an ‘anti-life, anti-human theoretical abstraction’ (BS, 421) – should find its ultimate expression in the gulag, and its fictional equivalent, Orwell’s Ministry of Love (BS, 426-27).  (It is, incidentally, worth noting that Pinker, in his preface, remarks that his approach ‘will be coolly analytical’ (BS, xi). But this is surely a funny way to describe a form of argument that can insinuate some sort of connection between Alfred Kroeber and mass death in the twentieth century.)

With regards to the first premise – the anthropological axiom, as Pinker has it, of the ‘absolute separation of culture from biology’ (BS, 28) – he aims to substantiate his claim by means of a handful of devastating citations (BS, 23-26). For instance, this, from Leslie White: ‘Much of what is commonly called “human nature” is merely culture thrown against a screen of nerves, glands, sense organs, muscles, etc.’ Or this quote from Kroeber: ‘Civilization is not mental action but a body or stream of products of mental exercise.’ Then there is the following from Clifford Geertz:

‘Our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions, are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products – products manufactured, indeed, out of tendencies, capacities, and dispositions with which we were born, but manufactured nonetheless.’

But let us observe that the quoted words, so apparently damning, in fact refute the interpretation Pinker wants to put on them. What these authors are actually asserting is obviously not that there is ‘an absolute separation of culture from biology’ – who would defend such an absurd position? – but, rather, to cite Sahlins, that while biology ‘is an absolutely necessary condition for culture, [it] is equally and absolutely insufficient’.

So, what of the second premise, that the anthropological commitment to holism entails a lack of concern for individuals? Pinker’s paraphrase of this position is that it dictates that, ‘we should forget about the mind of an individual person like you, that tiny and insignificant part of a vast sociocultural system’ (BS, 26; original emphasis). But what Pinker fundamentally misunderstands is that this claim about the autonomy of culture (or, for that matter, society) is not some dubious moral assertion about the irrelevance of individuals, nor yet a denial about the singularity of human lives; it is an elementary, analytical point about the scale of phenomena to be investigated.

Indeed, Pinker himself shows that he respects this principle when he comes to discuss ‘levels of analysis’ in science. Taking the example of language, Pinker quite rightly observes that, to study it as a totality is to posit ‘an abstraction that pools the internal languages of hundreds of millions of people living in different places and times. It could not exist without the internal languages in the minds of real humans conversing with one other, but it cannot be reduced to what any of them knows either.’ As a consequence, ‘The English language was shaped by broad historical events that did not take place inside a single head.’ (BS, 71).       

Now, compare Kroeber (writing over half a century ago): ‘the English language is a piece of culture. The faculty of speaking and understanding some or any language is organic: it is a faculty of the human species. The sounds and words are of course made by individual men and women, and are understood and reacted to by individuals, not by the species. But the total aggregation of words, forms, grammar, and meanings which constitute the English language are the cumulative and joint product of millions of individuals for many centuries past.’ (Anthropology: Culture Patterns and Processes, 63)   

In other words, in spite of all the blustering and bad-mouthing of anthropology elsewhere in The Blank Slate, here, Pinker and Kroeber are talking the same language.

In Japan, there is a well-known genre of ‘special effects’ (tokusatsu) films and TV dramas, such as ‘Ultraman’ (pictured above) which generally end in a titanic battle between colossal alien protagonists – enacted by performers in rubber body-suits, who thrash around in a Lilliputian landscape of office blocks. Something very like this shows up in the rhetorical policy employed by cognitive science in its critique of anthropology, for, in making its case, it constructs what Owen Chadwick once called ‘balloon duellists’: massively expanded, dirigible positions that crudely caricature the attitudes and arguments they purport to represent. Hence, the ridiculous picture of open-eyed, inquiring scientists versus close-minded and intransigent culture-mongers. So it is that, all the while cognitive science has imagined itself to be engaged in a righteous war against a monstrous anthropology, it has actually been wrestling with an enemy whose body is limp and lifeless, because there is no one inside the monster costume. And there never was.     


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Comment by Keith Hart on November 14, 2013 at 12:17am

Lee, I'll offer you my explanations, in no particular order. Anthropologists have given up on speculating about the unity of humanity and simply chronicle the diversity (see Levi-Strauss cited by Huon). You can fill in the gaps for American cultural anthropology, but between the wars British social anthropology had a coherent object, theory and method. The object was primitive societies (as a sort of metaphor for complex societies), the theory was functionalism (whatever they do adds up to something) and the method was fieldwork-based ethnography. So you lived in exotic places and observed what they did there. Since then we have dropped both the object and the theory, retaining only the method which leads to short-sighted localism.

Foucault has an interesting observation towards the end of The Order of Things. He ended his “archaeology of the human sciences” with some reflections on why psychoanalysis and social anthropology (ethnologie) “…occupy a privileged position in our knowledge…because, on the confines of all the branches of knowledge investigating man, they form a treasure-hoard of experiences and concepts, and above all a perpetual principle of dissatisfaction, of calling into question…what may seem, in other respects, to be established.” “[They] are not so much two human sciences among others, but they span the entire domain of those sciences, they animate its whole surface…[They] are ‘counter-sciences’; which does not mean that they are less ‘rational’ or ‘objective’ than the others, but that they flow in the opposite direction, that they lead them back to their epistemological basis, and that they ceaselessly ‘unmake’ that very man who is creating and re-creating his positivity in the human sciences."

Foucault attributed anthropology’s originality to its being both “traditionally the knowledge we have of the peoples without histories” and “situated in the dimension of historicity”, by which he meant “within the historical sovereignty of European thought and the relation that can bring it face to face with all other cultures as well as with itself”. He was sure the human sciences had reached their limit and this was doubly true of a discipline whose premises were being undermined by the collapse of European empire. Given the disappearance of the traditional object of anthropology, we have to find not only a new one, but also a theory and method appropriate to it. This means identifying the historicity of our own moment, as well as complementing ethnographic fieldwork with world history and humanist philosophy.

When I joined BSA at Cambridge in the mid 60s, I soon learned that I was being inducted into a cross between a cult and a lineage, specifically into a double descent group whose twin founding ancestors were Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. The idea was to get within two degrees of separation of one or both of these, which wasn’t hard. Malinowski stood for ‘fieldwork’ (I have been there and you haven’t), Radcliffe-Brown for ‘theory’, a kind of theory I was unfamiliar with which had nothing to do with western intellectual history, but rather seemed to have sprung, like Athena from Zeus, out of the foreheads of initiates after they underwent prolonged exposure to the lives of exotic peoples.

This apparent disregard for the Western canon gave the social anthropologists a reputation for being as illiterate as the barbarians they studied and they had only recently won significant acceptance as fellows of Cambridge colleges. Even so, they had a fairly prominent public profile. Edmund Leach wrote pyrotechnic reviews for the New Statesman and later gave acclaimed BBC Reith Lectures. The humanities dons were beginning to use their concepts and cite their books.

The common curriculum was very narrow, despite the intellectual adventures that our teachers went in for themselves. I once asked in a supervision, “Why are the Lele matrilineal?” and was told, “We ask how, not why. That is evolutionary history. We are only interested in the functional consequences for Lele society that they are matrilineal.” Yet Jack Goody had already embarked on his wide-ranging historical inquiries and wrote articles in places like New Society saying that social anthropology was after all comparative sociology; Meyer Fortes gave public lectures incorporating the legacy of Freud and Judaeo-Christianity; Edmund Leach came into the lecture room one day waving Le cru et le cuit and told us that anthropology would never be the same again.

It was confusing, but the adepts among us realised that being intellectually retarded by the official syllabus was necessary if we were to be admitted to the secret society. And the big secret was that it was a holding company for those with the right credentials to do whatever they like and call it ‘social anthropology’. Meyer Fortes, who took the spirit of the guild and made a trade union out of it, said “Social anthropology is what social anthropologists do” — and he had a way of controlling who they were, the Association of Social Anthropologists. He once told me with more than a hint of irony, after I complained about the mindless empiricism and factional disputes that animated the Cambridge seminar, “Your problem is that you are too rational, Keith. Anthropology is irrational.”

A new professional cadre, tightly controlled by a few acolytes of the founding fathers, had numerous battles to fight in order to preserve their hard-won independence. At first it had been the amateurs — the missionaries, the racists, the folklorists, the district commissioners, the Rosicrucians. Then there were the leftovers of Victorian evolutionism, the vigorous cell of diffusionists, all the non-sociologists who cluttered up the Royal Anthropological Institute and its publications. And of course there were the Americans (Rockefeller, of course, Mark) who actually funded Malinowski at the International African Institute to promote studies of the sun setting on the empire (“the dynamics of culture contact”) and who always threatened to overwhelm the British demographically (“I just don’t care for their kind of writing”, wrote Evans-Pritchard. Well, Clifford Geertz got his own back with a vengeance). The empire itself posed problems. After all, we couldn’t let those Australians, South Africans and Indians adulterate our brand name by doing their own thing, even if they trained more students than we did. No wonder the rallying cry was ‘theory’ with Gluckman as cheer leader.

It was only when I met an old West Indian revolutionary, C.L.R. James, that I realised how seriously biased my education had been when it came to the anti-colonial revolution. It seems obvious now that the end of empire removed the institutional basis from any claim that “the sociology of primitive peoples” was a universal discipline. Indeed, the question of the relationship between social anthropology and empire became a hot topic in the 60s and 70s after the event. It was a way for a new generation to differentiate itself from the elders who were, I think, rightly aggrieved over being misrepresented. They had always sided with the liberal establishment in London against the racist regimes of the colonies they worked in. Had they not fought evolutionary racism as strongly as Boas and the cultural relativists? Alright, they stayed out of the UNESCO report on race in the 1950s, but that was to protect the discipline’s scientific standing in the universities by steering clear of ‘controversy’. It was misleading to say they had assisted in the subjection of indigenous peoples to imperial rule. No, social anthropology did not do much for the cause of empire. Its main contribution was to shore up the nation-state at home.

The British could reasonably claim to have launched ‘ethnography’ as the dominant worldwide paradigm of social and cultural anthropology in the twentieth century. And Malinowski was its prophet. He got the model from Central European nationalism: the ethnographer describes the timeless customs of a peasantry living close to nature and bound together by kinship, the living soul of a Volk seeking a state to match its culture and territory. His timing was perfect. Wilson supervised the Versailles project to replace empire with a system of nation-states. The new academic ethnographers reproduced that political model in their ‘primitive sociology’, lending to a war-ridden and fragmented world the appearance of timeless universality. Moreover, Radcliffe-Brown’s contribution, structural-functionalism (a label exported to American sociology by Talcott Parsons), claimed that the simpler societies replicated in microcosm eternal principles of social order, as manifested in corporate states of the inter-war period. Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown shared Durkheim as a precursor because their discipline was implicitly conceived of as a means of defending the nation-state and its ‘organic’ division of labour against revolution. The social anthropologists had more important ideological priorities than merely shoring up the peace in the colonies.

The model of fieldwork-based ethnography that is still sacrosanct for most social anthropologists thus had a specific historical origin and a contemporary social function. It was appropriate to insist that social anthropology was distinctively British. This was after all the nationalist century. But the model and its social matrix, national capitalism, came out of something else and they have been giving way to new forms for some time. It is hard for us to see that ‘ethnography’ reflects the central tendency of 20th century world society, just as its predecessors as the dominant paradigm for anthropology reflected theirs. We pay lip-service to our discipline’s origin in the Enlightenment as a quest for the principles of human nature with which to replace the arbitrary inequality of the old regime. But we generally ignore the fact that Kant coined the term ‘anthropology’ for modern purposes, as part of a cosmopolitan liberal project that still has much resonance for us. The next stage we know mainly in order to denigrate it, as our founders did in their struggle to get established. The Victorians explained their easy conquest of the world as a result of a superior culture linked to biology and the method of evolutionary history helped them to organise the ongoing development of a universal racial hierarchy. The age of nationalism, our own, likewise needed a vision of the world as a medley of isolated cultures and the social anthropologists provided one. It is unlikely to be the last in the sequence.

You pointed out, Lee, in your Lance paper, that American cultural anthropology bowdlerized genocide in the Americas. Twentieth century anthropology was in full flight from its actual history or war, urbanization and massive dislocation of peoples, choosing rather to study yam growers on Pacific islands as if they were not part of that world history. "Stop the world, I want to get off". After the Cold War, something new has happened. Anthropologists do fieldwork anywhere in a world unified by capitalism, but they still stick with the restrictions of the method.We get studies of "knowledge practices" in a Tokyo stockbroker's office, but receive no insight into where the money goes or why. How could the public be interested in amateur studies of contemporary finance without the money?

As I said earlier in response to Heesun, anthropologists used to have to address a wider public in order to get books published at all, but since the 1980s, the academic market has expanded to let them publish only for each other and their students. But the main reason we have become introverted and shy of exposing ourselves to outsiders is that the fundamental method of anthropology doesn't stand up to scientific scrutiny. We make ethnographic observations and build up a picture of social wholes from them, but the evidence can never substantiate the claims we make. So we hoard our field notes away from the public gaze and only talk to other anthropologists who, as members of the club, never ask awkward questions about our dirty secret. The irony is that because we draw on social immersion to make intutive generalisations, we are more often right than other practitioners whose methods are more strictly positivist. If we could own up to our real method and make a virtue of it, we might feel more confident about addressing the general public. That's why I like Foucault's argument above. As insiders, we could probably come up with a better one.

It is a truism that no-one knows what anthropology is about. I would claim that this applies to the professionals too. We lack a coherent object, theory and method. If it were up to me, I would have as our object "the making of world society" (or "the new human universal", not an idea, but 7 bn of us trying to live together on this planet, now with th ebenefit of universal media for the first time) and our methods need to be more eclectic than they are. The theory can wait. But I haven't had many takers so far, especially from academic anthropologists.

Maybe, at an important level, anthropology, like great literature, is irrational after all. And it has escaped from the grasp of the old imperial centres -- Britain, France and the US -- to flourish in many places that defy summary, such as Brazil, Scandinavia, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Southern and Eastern Europe, Japan and India.

Comment by Lee Drummond on November 13, 2013 at 11:13pm



    Your piece on “The Monstering of Anthropology” is an incisive, if depressing commentary on the beleaguered state of anthropology, what Keith calls “our dear anti-discipline.”  I thought I’d chip in with a couple of observations on that unhappy topic from my side of the Atlantic.  Since this is Steven Pinker’s stomping ground (and he does stomp), and since American anthropologists are far more committed to Pinker’s arch villain – the awful concept of “culture” – than are British social anthropologists, you can rightly expect that my report will be no more positive than your own. 

    First, though, let me air a general concern, one that has long puzzled me.  [I believe I mentioned this here in a Comment on Keith’s “Selling Anthropology.”]  The puzzle is why cultural / social anthropology has no public intellectuals on a par with Steven Pinker and, that closet anthropologist, Jared Diamond.   On the face of it, our field’s adventurous program of journeying to faraway places and living among savages, then returning with grand ideas about human nature should guarantee places on the bestseller list, even cinematic stardom.  After all, look at Indiana Jones.  He was no cognitive psychologist (in fact, there was absolutely nothing “cognitive” about Indy).  Yet, for decades, Diamond is as close as anthropology has come to having a large audience.  At the same time, thinkers from the most improbable fields show up on those bestseller lists, demonstrating that the public is not brain dead, just not very interested in anthropology.  Astronomers, theoretical  physicists, mathematicians (mathematicians?), and biologists join Pinker and his cognitive cohorts in apprising us about the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it.  Why the cold shoulder?  The floor is open for suggestions. 

    The opinionated party hack you discuss, Dominic Cummings, is, as you note, mostly parroting Pinker et al.  It would be nice to suppose that, having vented that bile, some parties to the grand conversation would now move to redress the slight, or slap in the face, delivered to anthropology.  However, that is not happening.  A recent example is a series of video lectures organized by John Brockman for his prestigious think-site, Edge, on the topic, “What’s New in Social Science?”.  

As Brockman describes the conference,


In July, Edge invited a group of social scientists to participate in an experimental project, a dry run for a possible annual Edge event focusing on the state of the art of what the social sciences have to tell us about human nature. For want of something more serious, I called it "The Head Conference" or "HeadCon  


Of the ten conference participants (who present in one lecture each over ten weeks), one is an economist (at least Keith’s clan is represented) and most of the others are cognitive / evolutionary psychologists.  The number of anthropologists or sociologists?  Zero.  Apparently not much is new in their fields.  However, there may be a ray of light in the conference, literally at the end of the tunnel, for the last video lecture is to be by Daniel Dennett, on the topic, “The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change.”  As Dennett describes his future lecture,


Think for a moment about a termite colony or an ant colony—amazingly competent in many ways, we can do all sorts of things, treat the whole entity as a sort of cognitive agent and it accomplishes all sorts of quite impressive behavior. But if I ask you, "What is it like to be a termite colony?" most people would say, "It's not like anything." Well, now let's look at a brain, let's look at a human brain—100 billion neurons, roughly speaking, and each one of them is dumber than a termite and they're all sort of semi-independent. If you stop and think about it, they're all direct descendants of free-swimming unicellular organisms that fended for themselves for a billion years on their own. There's a lot of competence, a lot of can-do in their background, in their ancestry. Now they're trapped in the skull and they may well have agendas of their own; they have competences of their own, no two are alike. Now the question is, how is a brain inside a head any more integrated, any more capable of there being something that it's like to be that than a termite colony? What can we do with our brains that the termite colony couldn't do or maybe that many animals couldn't do?

It seems to me that we do actually know some of the answer, and it has to do with mainly what Fiery Cushman was talking about—it's the importance of the cultural niche and the cognitive niche, and in particular I would say you couldn't have the cognitive niche without the cultural niche because it depends on the cultural niche.


    It would be interesting to hear the reaction of the other HeadCon participants to Dennett’s parting thought that “you couldn't have the cognitive niche without the cultural niche because it depends on the cultural niche.  But, alas, there will be no other lecturer to discuss that “cultural niche.”  “Culture” will be like the famous “uninvited guest” Lévi-Strauss described at that long-ago Bloomington conference. 

    There is a crucial difference between Cummings’ exercise in “monstering anthropology” and what goes on over here.  Our monsters are cannibals: U. S. anthropologists are avidly dismembering and devouring their own kind.  I refer, of course, to the decades-old and still blazing conflict over Napoleon Chagnon’s work among the Yanomamo.  Don’t let anyone tell you the “science wars” are over – just ask Marshall Sahlins, who recently resigned from the National Academy of Sciences in protest over Chagnon’s admission to that august body.  Or ask Chagnon himself, who responded in kind with his latest book describing his life among two violent tribes, the Yanomamo and American anthropologists.  As though it were needed, anthropologists have added fuel to that fire by officially declaring (through the AAA’s executive board) that the “science of humanity” is no longer science. 

    There is another aspect to our cannibalizing anthropology, which I can only call “trivializing” or “prostituting” the discipline.  Having abandoned any official pretense at constructing and debating theories of society / culture, American anthropologists have recast themselves in the role of social worker to the world; they prefer being advocates and helpers to being anything like scientists (which is now a term of opprobrium).  And while some good intentions bear fruit in ameliorating social conditions, far too much of the effort involves an attempt to “develop” non-Western countries in the image of Western capitalist societies.  “Development anthropology” is perhaps the most active arm of the discipline in North America, and without question the best-funded.  Why fret over meager university paychecks when you can pimp your discipline out to “native” leaders and corrupt foreign governments and collect fat consulting fees?  The sad, ironic thing about much of that activity is that it does not escape theoretical blinders in favor of pragmatic action; rather it recycles the tired old ideology of the Cold War, which was dedicated to making Them more like Us and thereby warding off the Red Peril. 

    Prostituting anthropology is not as dramatic an instance of “monstering” the field as the tandem activity of cannibalizing anthropology, but its effects, still much in evidence today, are far more fateful in the affairs of our shrinking planet.   


Comment by Huon Wardle on November 13, 2013 at 6:10pm

It sounds a little like the Situationist programme, Heesun.

Comment by Huon Wardle on November 13, 2013 at 12:48pm

It was Nietzsche who was able lay bare the condition of judgement

My understanding of Nietzsche's writing, from my own reading, which is biased by my own Kantian tendency, is that Nietzsche's is a form of Kantian critique minus Kant's notion of the universally human, just as Foucault's work is Kantian where the transcendental deduction is replaced by an epistemic archaeology. The 'God is dead' revelation in Nietzsche is what leads to the pessimistic 'me and (with qualifications) my (aristocratic) friends' against the chaos of the world viewpoint which is everywhere in his aphorisms. So, no, he does not apply the same critique towards atheism etc. as he does toward belief and this is what allows Cummings to develop his friendships with nuclear residues or to imagine himself as a dog wandering around a city absent of human beings like Kafka (I wax literary)

Comment by Huon Wardle on November 13, 2013 at 12:29pm

Heesun, Graeber writes very vividly and in a register that is highly accessible to people unfamiliar with anthropology as a technical field; I think because he moves around a lot, he sometimes relies on memory more than he might. I noticed that in a recent discussion of the Lele of Kasai which might have been written a little differently had he perhaps had the book in front of him. I think, in this case - the 1958 essay (Gellner quotes it as a 1952 paper on Race and History written for UNESCO; I forget if it is in SA too), that the issue is about re-rendering someone else's work for different ends in a different register. This of course is translation of a kind, and it is what makes mutual comprehension so difficult. 

On this ground, I agree with John that Levi-Strauss' project foundered in its capacity to mimic the rigorousness of natural scientific models. Particularly when he entered the terrain of myth, it probably would have been better for Levi-Strauss to have been more vigorously Vichian than Cartesian. I disagree that we need a more 'scientific' anthropology, if by that we mean models that look more like and attempt the same kind of rigour as laboratory science done with the full range of laboratory technology. When it comes to human beings in their social aspect the kind of science developed as natural science in Euro-America yields very little except high sounding words. If we have to use the equivalent of humoral theories then so be it. Most popular psychology is made up of humoral theories of one kind or another. The job of anthropology is, at least in part, thoughtful translation; and this in turn requires an entire person who is thoughtful - who has indeed a good grasp of and is well-equipped with their own literary conceits, metaphors, dialectical analogies and also idees fixes - and they can see those abilities and deficits too in the people they are working with. This is opposite of the grandiose scientism of the cognitivist enterprise; which as Mark has pointed out is still looking for the Cartesian man-machine. By the way, I agree entirely with your assessment of Cummings' deeply unpleasant anti-humanism, Heesun.

Comment by John McCreery on November 13, 2013 at 1:41am

The essential task taken on by anthropology is to overcome the apparent antinomy between the oneness of the human condition and the inexhaustible plurality of the forms in which we apprehend it.

We should also note that structuralism, as L-S conceived it, was an attempt to overcome this antinomy. By postulating a "Mendeleevian Table of the Mind," a periodic table of elements of which all cultural manifestations are molecular combinations, he was attempting to move beyond the taxonomical approach, which founders when faced with an apparently endless variety of cultural particulars. The work on the elementary forms of kinship and the Mythologigues can both be read as attempts to implement this basic idea, first mentioned —at least in my reading— in Tristes Tropiques. 

Unfortunately, for both projects a largely metaphorical use of mathematical group theory, cobbled together with Hegelian dialectic, did not produce the equivalent of modern chemistry. Asserting dialectical relations between hydrogen and oxygen does not result in even a basic understanding of the molecular structure of H2O, let alone an underlying theory based on atomic structure, electrons in orbitals, and similar concepts. The same is true of the raw and the cooked, a fact that should be evident to anyone who reads cookbooks or works in a kitchen.

This isn't to say, though, that Levi-Strauss' vision was wrong. What we need now is anthropologists equipped to move beyond the various humoral theories and literary conceits that constitute our current stock in trade.

Comment by Huon Wardle on November 12, 2013 at 9:11pm

I was looking for the 1958 essay by Levi-Strauss that Heesun mentioned which I remembered as being an essay on race for UNESCO. I also remembered that Ernest Gellner said rather sarcastically that according to Levi-Strauss definition 'barbarism should spread like wildfire' or words to that effect. Anyway, as I was looking, I found this little essay in the UNESCO website which strikes me as catching the spirit of a number of recent OAC conversations.


Ethnology - or anthropology, as it now tends to be called - takes the human being as its object of study, but differs from the other human sciences in that it seeks to apprehend its object in its most varied manifestations. Hence, the notion of human condition remains marked for it by a degree of ambiguity. With its general nature, the term seems to reduce differences that ethnology essentially seeks to identify and isolate, not without postulating an implicit criterion - that of the human condition itself - which may alone enable it to circumscribe its object.

All intellectual traditions - including ours- have been up against this difficulty.

From its beginnings until the first half of the 20th century, ethnological reflection was extensively concerned with discovering how to reconcile the postulated unity of its object with the diversity and often incomparability of its particular manifestations. To do so, the notion of civilization, connoting a set of general, universal and transmissible capacities, had to make room for that of culture in a new accepted sense, for it denotes as many specific and non-transmissible lifestyles perceptible in the form of tangible embodiments - techniques, mores, customs, institutions and beliefs - rather than virtual capacities, and corresponding to observable values instead of truths or supposed truths.

Now the notion of culture immediately presents problems that are, if I may say so, those of its use in the singular and in the plural. If culture - in the singular and, if need be with a capital C - is the distinguishing attribute of the human condition, what universal traits does it include and how is its nature to be defined? But if culture is reflected only in prodigiously diverse forms illustrated, each in its own manner, by the thousands of societies that exist or have existed on earth, are all these forms equivalent or are they open to value judgements, which, in the affirmative, will inevitably affect the meaning of the notion itself?

The essential task taken on by anthropology is to overcome the apparent antinomy between the oneness of the human condition and the inexhaustible plurality of the forms in which we apprehend it. This task was present from the outset among Unesco’s concerns and has, in the Organization as well, grown in importance.

For its part, Unesco has always recognized the existence of a link between cultural diversity and biodiversity. The 1972 Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage even then brought the two aspects closer together by associating with the cultural heritage ‘habitats of threatened species of animals and plants’. Unesco has moreover established worldwide some 500 biosphere reserves to safeguard remarkable cases of biodiversity.

Over the years, it gave this link ever greater importance in seeking to understand its reasons.

Cultural diversity and biodiversity are, therefore, not just phenomena of the same type. They are intrinsically linked, and we are made constantly more aware that, on a human scale, the problem of cultural diversity reflects a much broader problem whose solution is still more urgent, that of the relations between humans and other living species; and we realize that it would be no use seeking to overcome it in the first instance without also addressing it in the other, given that the respect we wish to obtain from individual human beings towards cultures different from theirs is but one particular case of the respect they should feel for all forms of life.

Comment by Keith Hart on November 12, 2013 at 11:57am

The basic point you make is an even more fundamental reason for going directly to the source rather than read through second-hand interpreters. The latter would not write a book unless they thought they could do better than the original somehow, even if their purpose is mainly just to abridge and make it more "accessible". With the best of intentions, this makes it impossible for the reader, since the two sources get mixed up and you can't tell which is which. Sometimes the commentator reads the classic in a deliberately perverse way. This is true of Leach's little book on Levi-Strauss, for example.

Before the 80s, there weren't enough students to make a market for anthropology books nor enough books by anthropologists to satisfy student demand for texts. This meant that anthropologists had to write for wider audiences and students had to read works by non-anthropologists. Since then, however, it has been possible for anthropologists to write books just for themselves and their captive students and the discipline has become introverted as a result.

Another trend is that anthropological writing used to be based on detailed ethnography. Now the bulk of our writing takes the form of journal articles, book chapters and conference papers. There is no room for extensive ethnographic analysis or description, so these take the form of an argument with "the literature" relying on soundbites from fieldnotes and short quotes that support the writer's argument. As a result, anthropology has become a species of writing that might be compared with journalism if it were not generally so bad.

Comment by Keith Hart on November 12, 2013 at 11:34am

Heesun, I was trained as a classicist and this conditioned me to read original texts written by authors who we know made a big difference to how we think. I have a number of observations to make along those lines.

I was teaching at Yale in the late 70s and my students wanted me to discuss the controversy between the Columbia and Chicago schools at that time. One day in the shower (I swear I am bipolar, but not schizophrenic) a voice said to me "Why read Marvin Harris when you haven't read Immanuel Kant?" I listened to that voice.

Students have an interest in keeping up with the fast-breaking stuff because it can give them an edge over their teachers who generally don't keep up. It can be daunting to be told to read the classics all the time.

This is related to another point: you can never tell when you are ready to read a great author, since it depends on what else you have read and what your current intellectual interests are. I tried to read Marx Capital Volume 1 four times between the ages of 19 and 35 when I succeeded. I read Mauss's The Gift next (I had found it elusive and confusing before) and made 25 pages of notes over a weekend. The two of them have been yoked together in my imagination ever since. The sequence matters because reading is a highly creative act and it depends on what you bring to it in the way of unresolved questions, other current passions and more or less fixed prejudices.

Finally, there is some virtue in reading the text just for itself as a dead thing, but when I lecture, I try to give some sense of who the author was, what their political purposes were and what historical context they wrote in. This is because I want the students to place themselves imaginatively in the position of the author and reflect on the possibility of doing something similar themselves one day.

Comment by Lee Drummond on November 12, 2013 at 9:07am



    Nietzsche and Lévi-Strauss make a volatile cocktail, don’t they?  One best served without benefit of a Tiki cup or cute little paper umbrella – just the raw spirits blending or warring with each other.   Let us know what you come up with in exploring their (un?)happy union.  About the best I’ve been able to suggest is that both were intrigued by bridges:  Lévi-Strauss with his notorious “transformations” that connected or bridged one form of thought (wistfully called “a culture” ) with another, often on a different continent; Nietzsche with his persistent metaphor of übergehen in which one form of (post-) humanity triumphs, goes over the squalor of everyday existence. 

    In a couple of earlier Comments you discussed Cummings and his/her (I’m unfamiliar with the writer) version (“interpretation”) of Nietzsche.  Although I’ve read and reflected on some of Nietzsche’s works for a while, I had a difficult time in knowing whether you were quoting or referring to Cummings’ work, Cummings quoting Nietzsche, or Nietzsche’s works themselves.  Please know that I’m about the last person to play the scholar’s trump card – since everybody here knows I’m not one – but could you please give references (no need for page numbers; you’re among friends) to the works you cite?  That would be helpful, at least to me.  Thanks very much, and best of luck as a cerebral marriage counselor (Claude and Fritz – lots of fireworks there!). 



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