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On the one side, ladies and gentlemen, what passes between the ears of a puny self; on the other, a vast unknowable universe that could come crashing down around your ears at any time — and will when you die, as everyone must. How to bridge the gap? This is an existential question that goes far beyond the claims of a minor twentieth century academic discipline currently down on its luck. But it is one that anthropologists might address, if we wanted to.
Traditionally religion performed this task and, as long as those governing society acknowledged its role, there was a tangible bridge between men of power and the masses. A fraudulent one, perhaps, but civilizations were built on it. For over a century now this link has been broken in the societies with most influence on world history. Rather, science presumptively rules and social science has replaced the humanities. It is worth recalling the method of the humanities — truth of potentially universal significance was sought through the exercise of personal judgment on particular cases backed by scholarship and rigorous thought. Kant’s Copernican revolution consisted in this (but we could just as easily attribute the movement to Michel de Montaigne): “Hitherto we have made our knowledge conform to the world of objects, but perhaps the objects should conform to our knowledge”. Great literature was always the main vehicle for this approach, but also history, law, philosophy and, let it be acknowledged, ethnography.
There is a common method to all this which exceeds the limits of academic inquiry. We need to scale the world down and scale the self up so that they can meet somewhere with the prospect of making a meaningful connection between them. That is the problem and anthropologists could throw light on a great variety of ways that people have tried to solve it. The classic means to this end is prayer. Religion is, among many other things, an attempt to maintain a binding link between something deeply personal and subjective inside each of us and the impersonal world out there that we inhabit. I can talk to God, privately or collectively in public. Marcel Mauss made prayer the topic of his unfinished PhD thesis because “speech is the unity of thought and action”. Many people in our world still bridge the gap this way. Continue reading ‘Scaling the world down, scaling the self up, bridging the gap’ »
Anthropologists have given up on speculating about the unity of humanity and simply chronicle the diversity (as Lévi-Strauss put it in his UNESCO paper on race). Everywhere we look these days, the question arises of why anthropology has so weak a public profile. This is my answer, some parts tongue in cheek, others less so. My case study is the one I know best.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. Continue reading ‘Why is anthropology not a public science?’ »
In 1993, in Cambridge, England, the anthropologists Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart started a small press called Prickly Pear. Inspired by the eighteenth-century figure of the pamphleteer, their goal was nothing less than to revitalize a stagnant academy. Together, they published a series of ten pamphlets by a range of authors — young, old, unknown, and famous — on a range of topics in anthropology, the history of science, and ethnographic film. “We emulate the passionate amateurs of history who circulated new and radical ideas to as wide an audience as possible,” they said. “And we hope in the process to reinvent anthropology as a means of engaging with society.” In 1998, Matthew Engelke and Mark Harris took over the press, expanding its operations in the world market and adding a few titles to its list.
In 2001, Prickly Paradigm established itself as a new incarnation of Prickly Pear, edited by Matthew, with Marshall Sahlins as publisher. In 2003, Mark Harris began publishing essays under the name “Prickly Polemics” in Critique of Anthropology. In 2004, Justin Shaffner scanned the original pamphlets into a PDF format and made them freely available for distribution on the Internet. The pamphlets may be downloaded below, with the exception of two that were republished by Prickly Paradigm.
Check out this recent notice in Savage Minds. Continue reading ‘Prickly Pear Pamphlets’ »