Tag Archives: anthropology

The Progressive Roots of American Anthropology (versus the Tea Party last time)

Two seemingly unrelated evens have occurred in my life the last two days which have caused me to think. I spent the day yesterday helping out with the campaigns of some of the local candidates here in Southeastern Michigan. Obviously the overall effect was not as successful as I would have liked. I can’t say, really, how much the election results had to do with the “Tea Party” phenomenon–compared with some of my experiences last year in Central Massachusetts I have to say I ran into relatively few of those types. What I have run into, though, is the idea that, especially in America, things do not get better; and, usually voiced as a more general principle, that any attempt to make things better on the general level (versus on the level of individuals or nuclear families) is impossible.  The immediate effect of these ideas on political will, for example, is that projects like building bridges, formulating a system of universal health care, or, you know, creating and protecting agencies that might help regulate food, education, safety or financial standards for the collective good–all of these are seen as at best misguided fantasies spouting phony accomplishments, at worst infringements of individual liberties.

The other thing that happened was that I sat down, perhaps for the first time, to really read (as opppossed to do the grad seminar preparation for) Lewis Henry Morgan‘s Ancient Society. I had no real reason why, besides it was the first book on my iBook shelf (so thank my iPad and The Gutenberg Project, or was it Google Books?). Now, I’ve taught LHM several times in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology courses, usually using him as a foil that sets up Boasian Anthropology and, later Malinowskian fieldwork.  But what I don’t think I ever fully appreciatted was both the context in which Morgan’s work was written, and specifically what it was written against.

The first part, the context, is made explicit in the very first words:

The great antiquity of mankind upon the earth has been conclusively established. It seems singular that the proofs should have been discovered as recently as within the last thirty years, and that the present generation should be the first called upon to recognize so important a fact.

Wrap your head around that.  What must have it been like to understand oneself as among the first generation to realize the enormous antiquity of homo sapiens?  There are at least two directions one can move out of that fundamental fact: either you could view that long history as one of gradual decline–a Biblical Fall–or you can take the tack that Morgan believed was supported by the evidence.  In fact, Morgan frames his preface with two epigrams, the first from Whitney’s Oriental and Linguistic Studies:

“Modern science claims to be proving, by the most careful and exhaustive study of man and his works, that our race began its existence on earth at the bottom of the scale, Instead of at the top, and has been gradually working upward; that human powers have had a history of development; that all the elements of culture—as the arts of life, art, science, language, religion, philosophy—have been wrought out by slow and painful efforts, in the conflict between the soul and the mind of man on the one hand, and external nature on the other.”

The second from Kaines’ Antkropciogia:

“These communities reflect the spiritual conduct of our ancestors thousands of times removed… Our wondrous civilization Is the result of the silent efforts of millions of unknown men, as the chalk cliffs of England are formed of the contributions of myriads of foraminifera.”

The point here, and of Morgan’s anthropology, is a certain optimistic vision of humanity, of what makes us human: that bit by bit, generation after generation, together, humans can, and do, inevitably (if only eventually and through purposive  human action), make the world better for themselves.  He is, in other words, a Progressive.

Now, there are of course many things wrong with Morgan’s approach (which any graduate student in anthropology, or attentive undergraduate, will be able to tell you): the surety and singularity of his vision of what is “good” turns out to be both ethnocentric myopia and racist exclusion; his faith in the inevitability of unilateral progress over the long term seems questionable at best (although I’m beginning to wonder how much of that was rhetorical fireworks, marking out his position vis-a-vis the opposite).  But what I appreciate is his fervent insistence on its possibility.

And that’s why when I said earlier that I never fully “appreciated” what Morgan was writing against, I chose that word carefully.  “Known” would too strong a word here–I would have been able to recite most of those theoretical and political nuances before– but now I appreciate it.  And that suggests to me also, a potential place to quarry for answers to  to our current Progressive perplexities: what now?

Some further readings:

Hersey, M. (1993). Lewis Henry Morgan and the anthropological critique of civilization Dialectical Anthropology, 18 (1), 53-70 DOI: 10.1007/BF01301671

White, L. (1960). : Lewis Henry Morgan: American Scholar . Carl Resek. American Anthropologist, 62 (6), 1073-1074 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1960.62.6.02a00220

Michael A. Elliott, . (2008). Other Times: Herman Melville, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Ethnographic Writing in the Antebellum United States Criticism, 49 (4), 481-503 DOI: 10.1353/crt.0.0041

Service, E. (1988). : Lewis Henry Morgan and the Invention of Kinship . Thomas R. Trautmann. American Anthropologist, 90 (2), 443-444 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1988.90.2.02a00410


Ypsilanti, Here I Come!

I just thought I’d let readers of this blog know, and perhaps warn the denizens of the greater Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti-area, that I will officially be assuming a tenure-track position in the Fall as Assistant Professor of  Criminology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at Eastern Michigan University.

I’m excited by the opportunity to join such a thriving and dynamic department.  I’m especially looking forward to being in an interdisciplinary and theoretically rigorous research and teaching environment that should push my work in new directions and for which, hopefully, I’ll be able to contribute my own combination of interests and expertise.

In any case, I’m sure I’ll be blogging more about the move to a new city and institution… so stay tuned!

Dominic Boyer (and others) on neoliberalism and “neosocialism” at Savage Minds

Just thought I’d give a shout out to what’s turning into an interesting conversation over at Savage Minds.org.  Guest blogger Dominic Boyer argues for greater anthropological attention be paid to “neosocialism” because:

If you look back on the entanglement of liberalism and socialism in modern European social theory and political philosophy, it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about the one without the other. If we think there’s something neoliberal out there then by goodness (!) there’s bound to be something neosocialist loose in the world as well. I admit that this is counterintuitive. We’ve all been schooled (not least by liberal and socialist theorists) to assume that liberalism and socialism are antithetical to one another. And, at some level, of course, there’s oppositionality there. But I’d argue there is also a strong relationship of complementarity between the two.

via Why not neosocialism? | Savage Minds.

Now this is an interesting enough kind of argument, and one I definitely agree with, but the discussion has also been particularly interesting, with Chris Kelty suggesting that perhaps the greatest example of the strength of this neosocialism might in fact be Walmart and (with a little provocation from your truly) Boyer making the claim that Bruno Latour, author of Reassembling the Social, is not in fact a social theorist (I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one to figure out if I agree or disagree).

Where the ‘Balloon Boy’ Is: incitement to an anthropology of knowledge

Linda Holmes, over at NPR, has an interesting reaction to yesterday’s “Balloon Boy” story (which I too followed, on the TV screen of the local cafe where I was grading papers).  She writes:

Like a whole lot of other people, I watched for a while yesterday as the helium balloon in which a 6-year-old was supposedly flying made its way through the sky, landed softly on the ground, and turned out to have nobody in it. And, like a whole lot of other people, I was relieved when it turned out that he was in the attic of his own house the entire time.

(My favorite part of the news coverage: a CNN commentator using a fancy touch-screen gizmo to zero in on a satellite photo of THE KID’S HOUSE in order to dramatically demonstrate the outcome.)

And finally, like a whole lot of other people, I hoped that perhaps something might be learned from the entire sequence, and that it might be remembered for … I don’t know, perhaps a few hours. The point being: If you don’t know what’s going on, don’t say you know what’s going on. Yes, this was fed by 24-hour news channels, and it was fed by Twitter (which, at least for me, performed with a certain uneven twitchiness the entire time this was unfolding).

But it was also fed by the fact that we who live with so much information are no longer used to admitting that we don’t really know what’s going on. Surely someone knows what’s going on; how can it be otherwise? I don’t have to be driven crazy anymore about song lyrics, or who played the best friend in a movie from 15 years ago, or what my old neighborhood looks like these days. Thanks, Internet!

via Whatever The ‘Balloon Boy’ Lesson Is, We’ve Apparently Already Forgotten It – Monkey See Blog : NPR.

there’s something more to be said about this via the anthropology of knowledge, but i think the image of millions of people watching an empty balloon, and the engines of information that circulated around it, is a good starting point… I’ll have more thoughts later

Critical (Bio)security

The weight of a summer course, cross-country move and the need to expand the “Publications” portion of my CV is upon me, but even still I’m working towards formulating a more or less coherent instigation for an anthropology of liberalism (look for that, probably via On the Assembly of Things in the upcoming week or so).  Until then:

Paul Rabinow of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, discussed the potential risks of insufficient public dialogue in more specific terms.

“Given the access to this material through the internet, there are unquestionably going to be accidents and malicious uses. That’s a given,” he said.

“But then what? What is the reaction to that going to be? Shut down biology? That’s what Dick Cheney would have done. I don’t think the biology community is prepared with answers to that question yet. But they need to be.”

via The Great Beyond: ‘Shiny happy biology’. (subscription required)

How is Anthropology Going? Redux.

I came across the following elucidation of Foucault’s concept of governmentality.

Legitimate sovereignty is about ensuring the common good, which Foucault points out, consists of a state of affairs where all subjects obey the laws, accomplish the tasks expected of them, respect the established order. “This means that the end of sovereignty is circular…The good is obedience to the law, hence the good for sovereignty is that people should obey it…” With government, we see “emerging a new kind of finality. Government is defined as a right manner of disposing of things so as to lead not to a form of the common good…but to an end which is ‘convenient’ for each of the things that has to be governed. This implies a plurality of specific aims: for instance, government will have to ensure that the greatest possible quantity of wealth is produced, that people are provided with sufficient means of subsistence…In order to achieve these various finalities, things must be disposed…” (94-5)

from Foucault and Indian Scholarship by Nevidita Menon

This made me think back to a panel a helped co-organize (along with Chris Vasantkumar and Mattias Viktorin) at the last American Anthropological Association Meetings.  It was called “How is Anthropology Going?” and was, in part an attempt to think through movement in anthropological text and praxis as a type of ethics or politics.  We argued, in the end, that the discipline’s diverse valences were its politics, not a result of its politics (or of any kind of cognitive or theoretical dissonance).

What struck me in particular from the above passage was the word “convenient”.   The word means, at base, “to come (along) together,” does it not?  Conveniency as the Ends of Governance… interesting.

Does this mean that anthropology is a form of governance?  Not the anthropology of governmentality, but anthropology as governmentality?