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.