Toward a new human universal
Published as Toward a new human universal: rethinking anthropology for our times in Radical Anthropology Journal No. 2, 2008-9, 4-10.
Magellan’s crew completed the first circumnavigation of the planet some thirty years after Columbus crossed the Atlantic. At much the same time, Bartolomé de las Casas opposed the racial inequality of Spain’s American empire in the name of human unity. We are living through another ‘Magellan moment’. In the second half of the twentieth century, humanity formed a world society – a single interactive social network – for the first time. This was symbolized by several moments, such as when the space race of the 60s allowed us to see the earth from the outside or when the internet went public in the 90s, announcing the convergence of telephones, television and computers in a digital revolution of communications. Our world too is massively unequal and the voices for human unity are often drowned. But if the twenty-first century is run on the same lines as the twentieth century, there will be no twenty-second. Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association. I will explore here the possible contribution of anthropology to such a project. If the academic discipline as presently constituted would find it hard to address this task, perhaps we need to look elsewhere for a suitable intellectual strategy.
Immanuel Kant published Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view in 1798. The book was based on lectures he had given at the university since 1772-3. Kant’s aim was to attract the general public to an independent discipline whose name he more than anyone contributed to academic life. Remarkably, histories of anthropology have rarely mentioned this work, perhaps because the discipline has evolved so far away from Kant’s original premises. But it would pay us to take his Anthropology seriously, if only for its resonance with our own times.
Shortly before, Kant wrote Perpetual peace: a philosophical sketch. The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw its own share of ‘globalization’ — the American and French revolutions, the rise of British industry and the international movement to abolish slavery. Kant knew that coalitions of states were gearing up for war, yet he responded to this sense of the world coming closer together by proposing how humanity might form society as world citizens beyond the boundaries of states. He held that ‘cosmopolitan right’, the basic right of all world citizens, should rest on conditions of universal hospitality, that is, on the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility when he arrives on someone else’s territory. In other words, we should be free to go wherever we like in the world, since it belongs to all of us equally. He goes on to say:
The peoples of the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere. The idea of a cosmopolitan right is not fantastic and overstrained; it is a necessary complement to the unwritten code of political and international right, transforming it into a universal right of humanity.
This confident sense of an emergent world order, written over 200 years ago, can now be seen as the high point of the liberal revolution, before it was overwhelmed by its twin offspring, industrial capitalism and the nation-state.
Earlier Kant wrote an essay, ‘Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose’ which included the following propositions:
1. In man (as the only rational creature on earth) those natural faculties which aim at the use of reason shall be fully developed in the species, not in the individual.
2. The means that nature employs to accomplish the development of all faculties is the antagonism of men in society, since this antagonism becomes, in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society.
3. The latest problem for mankind, the solution of which nature forces us to seek, is the achievement of a civil society which is capable of administering law universally.
4. This problem is both the most difficult and the last to be solved by mankind.
5. A philosophical attempt to write a universal world history according to a plan of nature which aims at perfect civic association of mankind must be considered to be possible and even as capable of furthering nature’s purpose.
Our world is much more socially integrated than two centuries ago and its economy is palpably unequal. Histories of the universe we inhabit do seem to be indispensable to the construction of institutions capable of administering justice worldwide. The task of building a global civil society for the twenty-first century, even a world state, is an urgent one and anthropological visions should play their part in that.
This then was the context for the publication of Kant’s Anthropology. He elsewhere summarized ‘philosophy in the cosmopolitan sense of the word’ as four questions:
What can I know?
What should I do?
What may I hope for?
What is a human being?
The first question is answered in metaphysics, the second in morals, the third in religion and the fourth in anthropology.
But the first three questions ‘relate to anthropology’, he said, and might be subsumed under it. Kant conceived of anthropology as an empirical discipline, but also as a means of moral and cultural improvement. It was thus both an investigation into human nature and, more especially, into how to modify it, as a way of providing his students with practical guidance and knowledge of the world. He intended his lectures to be ‘popular’ and of value in later life. Above all, the Anthropology was to contribute to the progressive political task of uniting world citizens by identifying the source of their ‘cosmopolitan bonds’. The book thus moves between mundane illustrations and Kant’s most sublime vision, using anecdotes close to home as a bridge to horizon thinking.
If for Kant the two divisions of anthropology were physiological and pragmatic, he preferred to concentrate on the latter — ‘what the human being as a free actor can and should make of himself’. This is based primarily on observation, but it also involves the construction of moral rules. The book has two parts, the first and longer being on empirical psychology and divided into sections on cognition, aesthetics and ethics. Part 2 is concerned with the character of human beings at every level from the individual to the species, seen from both the inside and the outside. Anthropology is the practical arm of moral philosophy. It does not explain the metaphysics of morals which are categorical and transcendent; but it is indispensable to any interaction involving human agents. It is thus ‘pragmatic’ in a number of senses: it is ‘everything that pertains to the practical’, popular (as opposed to academic) and moral in that it is concerned with what people should do, with their motives for action.
In his Preface, Kant acknowledges that anthropological science has some way to go methodologically. People act self-consciously when they are being observed and it is often hard to distinguish between self-conscious action and habit. For this reason, he recommends as aids ‘world history, biographies and even plays and novels’. The latter, while being admittedly inventions, are often based on close observation of real behaviour and add to our knowledge of human beings. He thought that the main value of his book lay in its systematic organization, so that readers could incorporate their experience into it and develop new themes appropriate to their own lives. Historians and philosophers are divided between those who find the book marginal to Kant’s thought and those for whom it is just muddled and banal. And the anthropologists have ignored it entirely. I hope to show that this was a mistake.
The anthropology of unequal society
Following Locke’s example, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was animated by a revolutionary desire to found democratic societies to replace the class system typical of agrarian civilization. How could the arbitrary social inequality of the Old Regime be abolished and a more equal society founded on the basis of what all people have in common, their human nature? The great Victorian synthesizers, such as Morgan, Engels, Tylor and Frazer, were standing on the shoulders of Enlightenment predecessors motivated by a pressing democratic project to make world society less unequal. Seen in this light, the first work of modern anthropology is not Kant’s, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1754).
Here Rousseau was concerned not with individual variations in natural endowments which we can do little about, but with the artificial inequalities of wealth, honour and the capacity to command obedience derived from social convention which can be changed. In order to construct a model of human equality, he imagined a pre-social state of nature, a sort of hominid phase of human evolution in which men were solitary, but healthy, happy and above all free. This freedom was metaphysical, anarchic and personal: original human beings had free will, they were not subject to rules of any kind and they had no superiors. At some point humanity made the transition to what Rousseau calls ‘nascent society’, a prolonged period whose economic base can best be summarized as hunter-gathering with huts. This second phase represents his ideal of life in society close to nature.
The rot set in with the invention of agriculture or, as Rousseau puts it, of wheat and iron. Cultivation of the land led to incipient property institutions whose culmination awaited the development of political society.
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.
The formation of a civil order (the state) was preceded by a Hobbesian condition, a war of all against all marked by the absence of law, which Rousseau insisted was the result of social development, not an original state of nature. He believed that this new social contract was probably arrived at by consensus, but it was a fraudulent one in that the rich thereby gained legal sanction for transmitting unequal property rights in perpetuity. From this inauspicious beginning, political society then usually moved, via a series of revolutions, through three stages:
The establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second, and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorized by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the stage to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether and bring it back to legitimacy.
One-man-rule closes the circle.
It is here that all individuals become equal again because they are nothing, here where subjects have no longer any law but the will of the master…
For Rousseau, the growth of inequality was just one aspect of human alienation in civil society. We need to return from division of labour and dependence on the opinion of others to subjective self-sufficiency, Kant’s principal concern and mine. This subversive parable ends with a ringing indictment of economic inequality which could well serve as a warning to our world.
It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities.
Lewis H. Morgan drew on Rousseau’s model for his own fiercely democratic synthesis of human history, Ancient Society. If Rousseau laid out the first systematic anthropological theory and Kant then proposed anthropology as an academic discipline, what made Morgan’s work the launch proper of modern anthropology was his ability to enroll contemporary ethnographic observations made among the Iroquois into analysis of the historical structures underlying western civilization’s origins in Greece and Rome. Marx and Engels enthusiastically took up Morgan’s work as confirmation of their own critique of the state and capitalism; and the latter, drawing on Marx’s extensive annotations of Ancient Society, made the argument more accessible as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Engels’s greater emphasis on gender inequality made this strand of ‘the anthropology of unequal society’ a fertile source for the feminist movement in the 1960s and after.
The traditional home of inequality is supposed to be India and Andre Beteille (e.g. Inequality among men) has made the subject his special domain of late, merging social anthropology with comparative sociology. In the United States, Leslie White at Michigan and Julian Steward at Columbia led teams, including Wolf, Sahlins, Service, Harris and Mintz, who took the evolution of the state and class society as their chief focus. Probably the single most impressive work coming out of this American school was Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History. But one man tried to redo Morgan in a single book and that was Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship. We should recall that, in Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss acknowledged Rousseau as his master. The aim of Elementary Structures was to revisit Morgan’s three-stage theory of social evolution, drawing on a new and impressive canvas, ‘the Siberia-Assam axis’ and all points southeast as far as the Australian desert. Lévi-Strauss took as his motor of development the forms of marriage exchange and the logic of exogamy. The ‘restricted reciprocity’ of egalitarian bands gave way to the unstable hierarchies of ‘generalized reciprocity’ typical of the Highland Burma tribes. The stratified states of the region turned inwards to endogamy, to the reproduction of class differences and the negation of social reciprocity. Evidently, the author was not encouraged to universalize the model, since he subsequently abandoned it, preferring to analyze the structures of the human mind as revealed in myths.
My teacher, Jack Goody has tried to lift our profession out of a myopic ethnography into a concern with the movement of world history that went out of fashion with the passing of the Victorian founders. Starting with Production and Reproduction, he has produced a score of books over the last three decades investigating why Sub-Saharan Africa differs so strikingly from the pre-industrial societies of Europe and Asia; and latterly refuting the West’s claim to being exceptional, especially when compared with Asia. Goody found that kin groups in the major societies of Eurasia frequently pass on property through both sexes, a process of ‘diverging devolution’ that is virtually unknown in Sub-Saharan Africa, where inheritance follows the line of one sex only. Particularly when women’s property includes the means of production — land in agricultural societies — attempts will be made to control these heiresses, banning premarital sex and making arranged marriages for them, often within the same group and with a strong preference for monogamy. Direct inheritance by women is also associated with the isolation of the nuclear family in kinship terminology, where a distinction is drawn between one’s own parents and siblings and other relatives of the same generation, unlike in lineage systems. All of this reflects a class basis for society that was broadly absent in Africa.
The major Eurasian civilizations were organized through large states run by literate elites whose lifestyle embraced both the city and the countryside. In other words, what we have here is Gordon Childe’s ‘urban revolution’ in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, where
…an elaborate bureaucracy, a complex division of labour, a stratified society based on ecclesiastical landlordism…[were] made possible by intensive agriculture where title to landed property was of supreme importance.
The analytical focus that lends unity to Goody’s compendious work is consistent with an intellectual genealogy linking him through Childe to Morgan-Engels and ultimately Rousseau. The key to understanding social forms lies in production, which for us means machine production. Civilization or human culture is largely shaped by the means of communication — once writing, now an array of mechanized forms. The site of social struggles is property, now principally conflicts over intellectual property. And his central issue of reproduction has never been more salient than at a time when the aging citizens of rich countries depend on the proliferating mass of young people out there. Kinship needs to be reinvented too.
A new human universal: the unity of self and society
A lot hinges on where in the long process of human evolution we imagine the world is today. The Victorians believed that they stood at the pinnacle of civilization. I think of us as being like the first digging-stick operators, primitives stumbling into the invention of agriculture. In the late 1990s, I asked what it is about us that future generations will be interested in. I settled on the rapid advances then being made in forming a single interactive network linking all humanity. This has two striking features: first, the network is a highly unequal market of buyers and sellers fuelled by a money circuit that has become progressively detached from production and politics; and second, it is driven by a digital revolution in communications whose symbol is the internet, the network of networks. So my research over the last decade has been concerned with how the forms of money and exchange are changing in the context of this communications revolution.
My case for global integration rests on three developments of the last two decades: 1. The collapse of the Soviet Union, opening up the world to transnational capitalism and neo-liberal economic policies. 2. The entry of China’s and India’s two billion people, a third of humanity, into the world market as powers in their own right and the globalization of capital accumulation, for the first time loosening the grip of America and Europe on the global economy. 3. The shortening of time and distance brought about by the communications revolution, linked to a restlessly mobile population. The corollary of this revolution is a counter-revolution, the reassertion of state power since 9-11 and the imperialist war for oil in the Middle East. As Kant said, conflict is the catalyst for seeking a lawful basis of world society. Certainly humanity has regressed significantly from the hopes for equality released by the Second World War and the anti-colonial revolution that followed it. On the other hand, growing awareness of the consequences of our collective actions for life on this planet might be another stimulus to take world society seriously. Society is caught precariously between national and global forms at present; and that is why new ways of thinking are so vital.
What this adds up to is the possible formation of a new human universal. By this I mean making a world where all people can live together, not the imposition of principles that suit some powerful interests at the expense of the rest. The next universal will be unlike its predecessors, the Christian and bourgeois versions through which the West has sought to dominate or replace the cultural particulars that organize people’s lives everywhere. The main precedent for such an approach to discovering our common humanity is great literature which achieves universality through going deeply into particular personalities, relations and places. The new universal will not just tolerate cultural particulars, but will be founded on knowing that true human community can only be realized through them. There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relationships. Much of modern ideology emphasizes how problematic it is to be both self-interested and mutual, to be economic as well as social, we might say. When culture is set up to expect a conflict between the two, it is hard to be both. Yet the two sides are often inseparable in practice and some societies, by encouraging private and public interests to coincide, have managed to integrate them more effectively than ours. One premise of the new human universal will thus be the unity of self and society.
Marcel Mauss held that the attempt to create a free market for private contracts is utopian and just as unrealizable as its antithesis, a collective based solely on altruism. Human institutions everywhere are founded on the unity of individual and society, freedom and obligation, self-interest and concern for others. Modern capitalism thus rests on an unsustainable attachment to one of these poles. The pure types of selfish and generous economic action obscure the complex interplay between our individuality and belonging in subtle ways to others. If learning to be two-sided is the means of becoming human, then the lesson is apparently hard to learn. Each of us embarks on a journey outward into the world and inward into the self. Society is mysterious to us because we have lived in it and it now dwells inside us at a level that is not ordinarily visible from the perspective of everyday life. All the places we have lived in are sources of introspection concerning our relationship to society; and one method for understanding the world is to make an ongoing practice of trying to synthesize these varied experiences. If a person would have an identity — would be one thing, one self – this requires trying to make out of fragmented social experience a more coherent whole, a world in other words as singular as the self.
Kant is the source for the notion that society may be as much an expression of individual subjectivity as a collective force out there. Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement for physics into metaphysics. In his Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason he writes,
Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects… but what if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?
In order to understand the world, we must begin not with the empirical existence of objects, but with the reasoning embedded in our experience itself and in all the judgments we have made. This is to say that the world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to unite the two poles as subjective individuals who share the object world with the rest of humanity. Knowledge of society must be personal and moral before it is defined by the laws imposed on each of us from above.
Kant’s achievement was soon overthrown by a counter-revolution that identified society with the state. This was launched by Hegel in The Philosophy of Right and it was only truly consummated after the First World War. As a result, the personal was separated from the impersonal, the subject from the object, humanism from science. Twentieth-century society was conceived of as an impersonal mechanism defined by international division of labour, national bureaucracy and scientific laws understood only by experts. Not surprisingly, most people felt ignorant and impotent in the face of such a society. Yet, we have never been more conscious of ourselves as unique personalities who make a difference. That is why questions of identity are so central to politics today.
Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control (the market). Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the inside (home). This institutional dualism, forcing individuals to divide themselves, asks too much of us. People want to integrate division, to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being the means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between the two. That is why money must be central to any attempt to humanize society. Today it is both the principal source of our vulnerability in society and the main practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful.
How else can we repair this rupture between self and society? Mohandas K. Gandhi’s critique of the modern identification of society with the state was devastating. He believed that it disabled citizens, subjecting mind and body to the control of professional experts when the purpose of a civilization should be to enhance its members’ sense of their own self-reliance. He proposed instead that every human being is a unique personality and participates with the rest of humanity in an encompassing whole. Between these extremes lie proliferating associations of great variety. He settled on the village as the vehicle for Indians’ aspirations for self-organization; and this made him in many respects a typical twentieth-century nationalist. But what is most relevant to us is his existentialist project. If the world of society and nature is devoid of meaning, each of us is left feeling small, isolated and vulnerable. How do we bridge the gap between a puny self and a vast, unknowable world? The answer is to scale down the world, to scale up the self or a combination of both, so that a meaningful relationship might be established between the two. Gandhi devoted a large part of his philosophy to building up the personal resources of individuals. Our task is to bring this project up to date.
Novels and movies allow us to span actual and possible worlds. They bring history down in scale to a familiar frame (the paperback, the screen) and audiences enter into that history subjectively on any terms their imagination permits. The sources of our alienation are commonplace. What interests me is resistance to alienation, whatever form it takes, religious or otherwise. How can we feel at home out there, in the restless turbulence of the modern world? The digital revolution is in part a response to this need. We feel at home in intimate, face-to-face relations; but we must engage in remote, often impersonal exchanges at distance. Improvements in telecommunications cannot stop until we replicate at distance the experience of face-to-face interaction. For the drive to overcome alienation is even more powerful than alienation itself. Social evolution has reached the point of establishing near-universal communications; now we must make world society in the image of our own humanity.
Anthropology and the crisis of the intellectuals
The universities have been around for a long time, but they came into their own in the last half-century, as the training grounds for bureaucracy that Hegel envisaged. Most contemporary intellectuals have taken refuge in them by now and human personality has been in retreat there for some time. In Enemies of Promise: publishing, perishing and the eclipse of scholarship, Lindsay Waters, humanities editor for Harvard University Press, claims that the current explosion of academic publishing is a bubble as certain to burst as the dot com boom. Publishing, he says, has become more concerned with quantity than quality and mechanization ‘has proved lethal’. He warns academics, in the face of the corporate takeover of the university,
…to preserve and protect the independence of their activities, before the market becomes our prison. (…) Many universities are, in significant part, financial holding operations (…) The commercialization of higher education has caused innovation in the humanities to come to a standstill.
Because Waters blames the humanities’ decline on money and machines, his call for resistance has no practical basis in contemporary conditions. Anna Grimshaw and I, in the pamphlet that launched our imprint, Prickly Pear Press, once tried to locate anthropology’s compromised relationship to academic bureaucracy in the crisis facing modern intellectuals, as identified by the Caribbean writer, C.L.R. James in American Civilization. We held that intellectual practice should be integrated more closely with social life, given their increasing separation by academic bureaucracy. The need to escape from the ivory tower to join the people where they live was the inspiration for modern anthropology. But this had been negated by the expansion of the universities after 1945 and by the political pressures exerted on academics since the 1980s.
Edward Said, in Representations of the Intellectual, without ever mentioning anthropology, made claims for intellectuals that could be taken as a metaphor for the discipline. He emphasized the creative possibilities in migration and marginality, of being an awkward outsider who crosses boundaries, questions certainties, a figure at once involved and detached. Narrow professionalism poses an immense threat to academic life. Specialization, concern with disciplinary boundaries and expert knowledge lead to a suspension of critical enquiry and ultimately a drift towards legitimating power. The exile and the amateur might combine to inject new radicalism into a jaded professionalism. Said credited James with being an intellectual of this kind, but James placed intellectuals within a historical process that had aligned them with power and made them increasingly at odds with the people. Said did not identify how and why intellectual life had been transformed from free individual creativity into serving the specialized needs of bureaucracy.
For James there was a growing conflict between the concentration of power at the top of society and the aspirations of people everywhere for democracy to be extended into all areas of their lives. This conflict was most advanced in America. The struggle was for civilization or barbarism, for individual freedom within new and expanded conceptions of social life (democracy) or a fragmented and repressed subjectivity stifled by coercive bureaucracies (totalitarianism). The intellectuals were caught between the expansion of bureaucracy and the growing power and presence of people as a force in world society. Unable to recognize that people’s lives mattered more than their own ideas, they oscillated between an introspective individualism (psychoanalysis) and service to the ruling powers, whether of the right (fascism) or left (Stalinism). As a result, the traditional role of the intellectual as an independent witness and critic standing unequivocally for truth had been seriously compromised. Their absorption as wage slaves and pensioners of bureaucracy not only removed intellectuals’ independence, but also separated their specialized activities from social life.
One anthropologist who addressed these questions of intellectuals and the public, of ideas and life, knowledge and power, was Edmund Leach in his prescient BBC lectures, A Runaway World? There he identified a world in movement, marked by the interconnectedness of people and things. This provoked the mood of optimism and fear that characterized the 60s, when established structures seemed to be breaking down. The reality of change could not be understood through conventional cultural categories predicated on stable order. Moral categories based on habits of separation and division could only make the world’s movement seem alien and frightening. An ethos of scientific detachment reinforced by binary ideas (right/wrong) lay at the core of society’s malaise. Leach called for an intellectual practice based on movement and engagement, connection and dialectic. In short he was calling for the reinsertion of ideas into social life.
The solution to anthropology’s problems cannot be found in increased specialization, in the discovery of new areas of social life to colonize with the aid of old professional paradigms or in a return to literary scholarship disguised as a new dialogical form. It requires new patterns of social engagement extending beyond the universities to the widest reaches of world society. We must acknowledge how people everywhere are pushing back the boundaries of the old society and remain open to universality, which has been driven underground by national capitalism and would be buried forever if the present corporate privatization of intellectual life is allowed to succeed.
The recent expansion of academic bureaucracy has accentuated the objectification of thought as a marker of status and reward. Ideas have become commodities to be possessed individually, traded and stolen. An intensified focus on the formal abstraction of performance has led to the academic labour market being driven by the empty measures of print production that Waters rightly denigrates. Subjective contributions, like the qualities of a good teacher, inevitably carry much less weight. And so the academic intellectuals, who might have offered a critique of the corporate takeover of the universities, find themselves instead drawn passively into a vicious variant of the privatization of ideas. Something must be done to reinstate human personality in our common understanding of how the world works. But this should be through the medium of money and machines, not despite them. Kant’s cosmopolitan moral politics offer one vision of the course such a renewal might take.
Anthropology now and to come
Anthropology can no longer be summarized as what a few luminaries in the centres of imperial power think and do. Americans dominate a much larger profession, for sure, while British and French anthropology are in decline and the European Association grows in stature. The annual AAA meetings have become a global gathering point where anthropologists are more likely to meet national colleagues than at home, rather like the African politicians of the interwar period who got to meet each other in Paris or London. The second largest annual meetings are in Brazil, where anthropologists have expanded from their Amazonian base to offer informed commentary on all aspects of national society and culture. Scandinavian anthropologists draw on their social democratic tradition to exhibit a high level of public engagement. Countries like Nigeria and India sustain large numbers of anthropologists in the more conventional study of ‘tribal’ areas. The discipline appears to be flourishing in the lands of new settlement, such as Australia, Canada and South Africa. New varieties of national anthropology are springing up all over Eastern Europe. I could go on, but the point is made. ‘Anthropology’ has slipped its colonial bonds and is now many things all over the world.
The same cannot be said of the institutional setting for anthropology. Like most other intellectual activities, the discipline has become largely locked up in the universities. Anthropology’s modernist moment — the commitment to join the people where they live in order to find out what they do and think – became ossified as the professional mantra that we do ‘fieldwork-based ethnography’. The universities themselves, in most countries outside the United States, are centrally organized by the state; and the ethnographic model of society –indigenous, culturally homogeneous, bounded territorial units – uncomfortably mimics the nationalism that it was originally design to promote and, worse, dissolves world society into a plethora of local fragments, each aspiring to self-sufficiency. If cultural relativism was once a legitimate reaction to racist imperialism, the legacy of the ethnographic turn has been to make it impossible for the bulk of academic anthropologists to respond effectively to our own ‘Magellan moment’. We generate fine-grained accounts of human experience, but without the aspiration to universality that still animated the discipline up until the 50s. The only people we address now are ourselves and our students.
This is not to say that anthropology sits well with the modern university. We retain the will to range freely across disciplinary boundaries; the humanism and democracy entailed in our methods contradict the bureaucratic imperatives of corporate privatization at every turn. Anthropology has always been an anti-discipline, a holding company for idiosyncratic individuals to do what they like and call it ‘anthropology’. This strategy is coming under heavy pressure today. Increasingly, academic anthropologists turn inwards for defence against all-comers and this often leaves them exposed and without allies in the struggle for survival within the universities. We can’t assume that the identification of anthropology with the academy in the previous century will continue in the next. It is now harder for self-designated guilds to control access to professional knowledge. People have other ways of finding out for themselves, rather than submit to academic hierarchy. And there are many agencies out there competing to give them what they want, whether through journalism, tourism or all the self-learning possibilities afforded by the internet. Popular resistance to the power of disembedded experts is essentially moral, in that people insist on restoring a personal dimension to human knowledge. The anthropologists’ current dependence on academic bureaucracy leaves them highly vulnerable to such developments.
So the issue of anthropology’s future needs to be couched in broader terms than those defined by the profession itself. I have been building a case that ‘anthropology’ is indispensable to the making of world society in the coming century. It may be that some elements of the current academic discipline could play a part in that; but the prospects are not good, given the narrow localism and anti-universalism that is prevalent there. Rather I have sought inspiration in Kant’s philosophy and in the critique of unequal society that originates with Rousseau. ‘Anthropology’ would then mean whatever we need to know about humanity as a whole if we want to build a more equal world fit for everyone. I hope that this usage could be embraced by students of history, sociology, political economy, philosophy and literature, as well as by members of my own profession. Many disciplines might contribute without being exclusively devoted to it. The idea of ‘development’ has played a similar role in the last half-century.
Disciplines thrive when their object, theory and method are coherent. In the eighteenth century, anthropology’s object was human nature, its theory ‘reason’, its method humanist philosophy. In the nineteenth century, anthropology’s object was to explain racial hierarchy, its theory was evolution, its method world history. The object of British social anthropology in the twentieth century was primitive societies, its theory was functionalism and the method fieldwork. We need a new synthesis of object, theory and method suitable to conditions now. The ethnographic paradigm has been moving for half a century in response to the anti-colonial revolution and other seismic changes in world history. But anthropologists have retained the method of face-to-face encounters while dumping the original object and theory. Paradoxically, while the anthropologists have rejected philosophy, history and anything else that could give meaning to the purpose of their discipline, the idea of ethnography has been adopted in everything from geography to nursing studies. Of course the anthropologists claim that the others don’t understand what ethnography is really about or how it is done by the people who know, themselves. But they have forgotten what it is about ‘anthropology’ that makes their version of ‘ethnography’ special. They no longer ask the basic questions that launched anthropology — what makes inequality intolerable or how people can live together peaceably. So they can’t explain what is missing when others take up ‘ethnography’. A renewal of the anthropological project in the terms I have suggested here would at least force them to do so.
I have made much of Kant’s example here because he attempted to address the emergence of world society directly. He conceived of anthropology primarily as a form of humanist education; and this contrasts starkly with the emphasis on scientific research outputs in today’s universities. We could also emulate his ‘pragmatic’ anthropology, a personal programme of lifetime learning with the aim of developing practical knowledge of the world. In his Preface to the Anthropology, Kant recommended, apart from systematic observation of life around us, that we study ‘world history, biographies and even plays and novels’. He sought a method for integrating individual subjectivity with the moral construction of world society. World history, as practised by the likes of Jack Goody and Eric Wolf, is indispensable to any anthropology worthy of the name today. The method of biography is particularly well-suited to the study of self and society and I would predict that its use will be more commonplace in future. No-one, in my view, better exemplifies the vision and methods needed for anthropology’s renewal than Sidney Mintz. Apart from his record as a Caribbean ethnographer, he has produced an outstanding biography in Worker in the Cane and in Sweetness and Power world history of the first rank. The ‘literary turn’ in anthropology, symbolized by the publication of Writing Culture two decades ago, has also opened up anthropology to fiction — novels, plays and movies. This is surely for the good. It would perhaps be too much to urge ethnographers to revisit the philosophical roots of their discipline
The rapid development of global communications today contains within its movement a far-reaching transformation of world society. ‘Anthropology’ in some form is one of the intellectual traditions best suited to make sense of it. The academic seclusion of the discipline, its passive acquiescence to bureaucracy, is the chief obstacle preventing us from grasping this historical opportunity. We cling to our revolutionary commitment to joining the people, but have forgotten what it was for or what else is needed, if we are to succeed in helping to build a universal society. I grew up in an education system designed to prepare graduates for the Indian civil service, so I have had to retool late in life with the help of younger and more skilled companions. The internet is a wonderful chance to open up the flow of knowledge and information. Rather than obsessing over how we can control access to what we write, which means cutting off the mass of humanity almost completely from our efforts, we need to figure out new interactive forms of engagement that span the globe and to make the results of our intellectual labours available to everyone. Ever since the internet went public and the World Wide Web was invented, I have made online self-publishing the core of my anthropological practice.
It matters less that an academic guild should retain its monopoly of access to knowledge than that ‘anthropology’ should be taken up by a broad intellectual coalition for whom the realization of a new human universal – a world society fit for humanity as a whole — is a matter of urgent personal concern.
Center for 21st century studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Lecture in the series ‘Disciplinary dialogs: past knowing’, September 7th, 2007