Pizarro, Millais, Diamond, and Yali: Our Last Waltz

Below is our last post this time around. It’s been engaging and productive meeting many of you in blogland. Cheers from Fred and Deborah

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The anthropological view of history we present in Yali’s Question is crucially unlike Diamond’s in its emphasis on what needs to be taken into account. Diamond, less by default than by design, denies significance to cultural differences — to particular, historically located visions of the desirable and the feasible. The dissimilarity in our approaches is clarified by what we make of Diamond’s book cover. This cover reproduces a large oil painting by John Everett Millais (1845) entitled “Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru.”

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The painting, hanging in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is part of a collection (begun in 1852) representing the various, often diverse, aesthetic currents of the Victorian age. In the center, Pizarro, sword in hand, is seizing a darkly handsome, grandly exotic Inca leader from his partially overturned palanquin. On the left are massed Spanish soldiers with a priest holding up a cross for their inspiration. In the right foreground, two Peruvian women and a child are clutching each other in fear. In the right somewhat blurred and darker background, Spanish soldiers are putting Peruvians to the sword. The painting (perhaps anticipating Millais’s later anti-Catholic work) seems directly critical of Spanish conquest. Certainly, this is the perspective of Joseph Kestner, who describes the picture (in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies) as an “anti-Imperialist canvas during a decade of British expansionism and colonial defense” (1995: 55).

When we look at this painting and think about the place in which it hangs, we reflect on a particular and complex history — on the range of sensibilities and political perspectives that existed within this age dominated by capitalism and empire. However, when we look at this painting as it appears on the cover of Diamond’s book, we find it interesting because of the extent to which it is decontextualized, and we think, misunderstood. Rather than a historically located castigation of Spanish imperialism, it is offered as a synopsis of human history in general — a history of morally neutral conquest through the use of techniques and technologies of physical domination. In other words, from our anthropological perspective, we see Millais’s vision, itself critical of the dominant expansionist perspective of his age, transformed into a model that justifies as well as universalizes expansionism: one used to explain what happened to “everybody for the last 13,000 years” (1997: 9). Such a transformation of Millais’s critique of imperialism strikes us as consistent with Diamond’s position about the irrelevance of cultural and historical contexts in understanding what people do. Indeed, given Diamond’s view of history, the conquest that he (rather mechanistically) entitles “Collision at Cajamarca” (1997: 67), was inevitable. From his perspective, if it wasn’t Pizarro who had seized the Inca of Peru, it would have been some other European at some time.

Interestingly, in Kestner’s discussion of Millais’s painting, he quotes Bartolome de Las Casas, whose Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552) was a primary source of information concerning the incident depicted in it. De Las Casas, citing eye-witnesses and writing only two decades after the event, conveys the massacre as remarkably cruel and entirely unjustified. From his contemporary Spanish perspective, Pizarro was, even by the standards of the time, a “great villain” whose “cruelty came to outstrip even that of his predecessors…. His wickedness was on such a scale that nobody will ever really learn the full extent of it until all is revealed on the Day of Judgment” (as quoted by Kestner, 1995: 54).

We do not think that Diamond, given his history of grand inevitability, would be much interested in such alternative voices as de Las Casas’s. From his perspective, there is little value in extended conversation to probe the perspectives of anyone. Certainly, the voices of those like Yali would scarcely register: their concerns and sense of injustice would not be heard, their claims to moral worth would not be recognized. Moreover, in the absence of such conversations, voices would be eliminated that might challenge and contextualize our own more familiar ones. And this would come about, in our view, not just as a function of the scale on which history was written — not just as a function of an interest in broad patterns.
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How, then, might we respond to Yali’s question? Why did white people deny equality and full humanity to black people? Our full response would be more proximate, more complex, and more messy than Diamond’s. It would consider, as essential background, the rhetorics, practices, contingencies, and exigencies of 19th and 20th century global expansionism. Such a consideration would involve, among other matters, the often contesting perspectives concerning how human beings might legitimately derive profit through the use of others, at home and abroad: whether used as slaves, indentured laborers, piece workers, or wage earners. It would also consider, as we have done in our book about one PNG sugar plantation, the often contesting perspectives concerning what might be done for Yali and others to achieve worth in an independent PNG. Although our book is only a partial answer to Yali’s question, and one addressed more to the several generations that have followed Yali than to Yali himself, it is, we think, an example of the form any answer should take. It is the kind of answer that anthropologists (and many historians) do provide in its willingness to listen seriously to others and scrutinize their own taken-for-granted understandings.

It is the kind of answer that reveals the differences between the necessary and sufficient causes of historical phenomena — that insists that people who have the power to dominate others in faraway places do not automatically find it desirable to do so. It is the kind of answer that shows colonial expansionism and domination to be the product of the historical and cultural circumstances of capitalism, rather than the product of the inevitable workings of human nature. Moreover, it is the kind of answer that shows capitalism (as well as expansionism and domination) as often justified through narratives about human nature — narratives like Diamond’s of the seemingly inexorable.
This kind of answer would also be appropriate to the question of what Yali and the other PNGuineans might do if they were long the ones with significant power — if various historical shoes had been, as it were, on other feet. In fact, we are often asked by students whether Yali, with such as guns, germs, and steel on his side, would have acted as a Pizarro. Our response must be that it all depends on what conditions — on what contexts — are assumed. If Yali was the product of the sort of history that produced the concentrations of power that made Pizarro’s conquest feasible, Yali would not be Yali. Under such conditions, he might be Pizarro — or he might be de Las Casas. On the other hand, if Yali and the other PNGuineans who feature in our story were the products of the history they actually had, we venture that (at the very least) they would be reluctant to leave kin for lives of reckless and ruthless conquest on behalf of the likes of God, King, and gold. Their preferred world, while doubtless still of assertiveness and contention, would, we think, be one of maximized entailments rather than of maximized annihilations.

It is, as we have said, that people not only make war, but also make peace; they not only employ techniques and technologies, but also think about how these should, or should not, be used. And they not only pursue outcomes, but also evaluate outcomes. To understand all of this — to understand how history happens — requires attentive listening. It requires conversations that probe and interrogate the range of perspectives held by culturally and historically located actors, ourselves included.

31 thoughts on “Pizarro, Millais, Diamond, and Yali: Our Last Waltz

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  3. Diamond’s history is pervasively one of inevitability and consequent non-accountabiity. As such it leaves no room for morality, or even politics. This says nothing about who Diamond is or is not as a person.

  4. In my opinion, the stakes in recent debates about writing are not directly political in the conventional sense of the term. I have argued elsewhere that what politics is involved is academic politics, and that this level of politics has not been explored … Bourdieu’s work would lead us to suspect that contemporary academic proclamations of anti-colonialism, while admirable, are not the whole story. These proclamations must be seen as political moves within the academic community … Those domains that cannot be analyzed or refuted, and yet are directly central to hierarchy, should not be regarded as innocent or irrelevant.

    *Paul Rabinow, “Representations are Social Facts: Modernity and Post-Modernity in Anthropology”
    in James Clifford and George E. Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, University of California Press 1986.

  5. Diamond’s newer book, Collapse, complicates things somewhat (in terms of a representation of Diamond) in that it’s all about his understanding of contingency. I don’t find his version of contingency any more appealing than his version of materialism, but he does at any rate believe that there is contingency and agency in history (but constrains it to be something that whole societies possess, and only in relation to skewing fairly deterministic material outcomes one way or the other).

    The way Fred and Deborah see agency in contrast is something I have many responses to, but I’m still struggling with how to compress those responses here, to make them in reply to things actually said as opposed to some of the larger issues I’m struggling with myself. One way to come at it might be to question how someone like Pizarro can come to stand alonside contemporary Westerners in the context of agency and moral responsibility. If we ought to think about Yali in context, how is it that we can flatten the moral problematics of the last five centuries to place an early modern figure like Pizarro alongside post-Enlightenment individuals? It’s true that Pizarro was seen as a villain by his contemporaries, but both de las Casas and Pizarro were also operating out of a European world whose forms of personhood and subjectivity are not our own, and at moments further from us than Yali, in some ways. This is the kind of argument that I’ve been trying to struggle to identify in this discussion: a flattening of difference in one direction of the reading of post-1500 history, a strengthening of it in another. If it’s a crucial imperative to see Yali in perspective, it ought to be just as crucial to see Pizarro in perspective–unless we want to let some distant cousin of universality back in the picture, this time through ethics and morality rather than through materialism.

    There’s a factual problem, too, and it interweaves with the agency problem. Even extremely non-materialist, bottom-up, contingency-laden accounts of world history since 1500 might agree that had not Pizarro conquered the Incas, some Europeans would have. De Las Casas is in that sense not a point of contingency at all: his moral judgement on Pizarro was passed largely after the mass death of Native Americans was an accomplished fact. If anything, de las Casas has been (inaccurately, in my judgement) credited with a very different kind of contingent intervention in world history, with his suggestion that African slaves be substituted for Native American ones.

    It seems to me that the kind of argument we have to offer back to an account like Diamond’s is not that Pizarro’s individual agency makes the difference between a conquered Incan Empire and an unconquered one. Instead, it is about the importance of small differences. As far as I can see, the late 19th Century “Scramble for Africa” (and the rest of the “new imperialism” elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific) were inevitable: I cannot imagine the turning points of the counterfactual that allows them not to happen, the kinds of agency or politics that would have led to a completely different history.

    The difference is in the shape, character and feel of what happened in any particular place. An Incan Empire destroyed by Pizarro was destroyed in a more grotesque and rapacious manner than it might have been destroyed by some other Spaniard. A Botswana that was claimed by the British Empire because of strategic political maneuverings by Tswana chiefs, the tactical mobilization of Christianity by one of those chiefs, the actions of missionaries, the activities of the British South Africa Company and Afrikaner leaders, and so on, is a different place, with a different feel, than Zambia. Human beings live under the tyranny (and freedom) of small differences, of little actions and ideas that grow into intricately unforeseeable structures.

    That’s what someone like Diamond (or for that matter, Wallerstein or Blaut) doesn’t see, at the scales he operates at and the kinds of drivers he credits. It’s also what evolutionary psychologists talking about human agency in the here and now don’t see: how small variations and little choices have significant consquences which are asymmetrical to and emergent out of the initial scales at which agency operates.

  6. Ok, some stuff I don’t understand.

    1) Why do you keep misinterpreting Diamond’s “inevitability?” As I’ve written before, Diamond’s “inevitability” is the sort of inevitability one refers to when claiming that a wide proliferation of handguns makes a few murders “inevitable.” Its one that says, human nature being what it is, when the means are available to a great number of independant actors, at least some will make use of them.

    2) Why is making that sort of argument a denial of culpability on behalf of the people involved? Diamond isn’t saying that human beings are automatons. He’s saying that, deep down, a lot of them are kind of jerks. And given the ability to conquer, at least some will. And it only takes a handful when the power differential is as high as it was. How does this excuse those cultures which actually do it? Using the handgun example above, would you claim that someone who explains a high murder rate in terms of easy access to lethal weaponry was “excusing” the people who chose to pull the trigger? It seems obvious that both positions can exist alongside one another.

    3) A related issue- why can’t people see that there can be multiple but-for causes? There’s two here. But-for the decision to conquer, it would not have occurred. But-for the availability of the means to conquer, it would not have occurred. Diamond argues that the first was extremely likely to occur in at least one culture with the means, and probably several. He argues that the second was prompted by various historical circumstances that he finds in geography. Why is this a problem? If you mean to attack either of these, you need to actually DO it. Stating merely that its possible to not decide to conquer doesn’t work once you realize that Diamond is arguing likelihoods, and concluding that they are extremely high given the numbers involved (in the “its inevitable that someone will win the lottery soon, now that its risen this high and this many tickets are being purchased” sense), not computer-like slavishness to unseen and morally unculpable guiding hands of geography. Merely citing the hypothetical chance that an extremely unlikely event could have occurred does not negate an argument about likelihoods.

    4) Why is faulting capitalism inconsistent with Diamond’s thesis? The particular cultural circumstances of a particular conquest aren’t really relevant to his argument. Again using the gun analogy, this is like taking a particular murder, seeing that it was done to get drug money, and saying, “see, it wasn’t guns, it was the desire for drugs!” The whole point of the argument is that human nature being as it is, it it wasn’t the desire for drugs, it would have been something else eventually.

    5) Is the citation of various individual conquistadors supposed to undercut Diamond’s argument by suggesting that individual actors were more responsible than other effects? In other words, that minus Pizarro, things might have been different? This section isn’t very clear, its mostly tossed in there for the reader to draw a conclusion. If thats the intended conclusion, its problematic, because Pizarro wasn’t present for every single european imperial conquest. The “if it wasn’t him it would have been someone else” argument therefore still stands. The details might have been different- probably would have, in fact. But the basics of imperialism would probably still have occurred.

  7. What we try to do in our book – and not just in our argument about Diamond – is to move from what we see as Diamond’s position that events such as the conquest of the New World can be adequately understood in terms of a 13,000 year course of history set by significantly geographical determinants. As our first step, we want to argue that such events were critically shaped by more specific contexts – such as the views of what the desirable and the feasible were at a given time. Thus, we wish to locate the conquest of the New World in terms of ideas about God, King, Gold, Glory that made it seem reasonable to leave family and home to go to the other side of the world – a venture which, to be sure, was made feasible by guns, germs and steel. But we don’t want to leave the argument there – especially since we wish to raise issues of responsibility. So, while moving from “history’s trajectory made me do it” to “specific historical contexts made me to it” is an improvement, it isn’t’ enough — especially since measures of choice are present in specific historical contexts. In this regard, we agree with Tim, that small differences that made a difference (as in colonial regimes) are very much worth attending to.

    In regard to Patrick, we find his analogy with hand guns and the omnipresence of jerks somewhat off target. We are interested in broad patterns of colonialism, conquest, slavery, contempt for those deemed inferior. These become socially instantiated (though alternate voices/perspectives are present) and as such move beyond the individualistic and the random. (There may be those with hand guns who shoot people in the US but this is not currently acceptable practice – and does not in and of itself lead to genocide. If and when it does, additional explanation would be required.) Our concern with capitalism – for instance – is that this provides a context such that certain objectives seem feasible and desirable and that rhetoric about these objectives has a particular salience – a particular bite – leading to widespread (but not universal) pursuit of particular courses of action. We are reluctant to see (e.g.) capitalism subsumed, as Diamond does, into just another epiphenomenon, another passing example, of his more general schema. And, we reiterate in all of this that central to our objection to Diamond is that he is monocausal – that while often focusing on the necessary, neglects consideration of the sufficient.

  8. Patrick, as I read your comment it seems to me that your reading of Diamond’s argument is that, given guns, germs, and steel, someone will inevitably conquer someone else. What bothers me (I don’t know about anyone else) about this kind of argument is that it presents conquest as *following from* the availability of technology and disease immunity. In response to the question, “why did the Spanish conquer Mexico?”, we get “guns ,germs and steel” as if that alone explained it. If the European expansion after 1500 were the only example of conquest in human history, I suppose we’d have to grant that argument, but in many ways human history is an ongoing succession of dominations and conquests, both between groups and within them. A history of Spanish conquest has to ask not only why the Spanish were ahle to conquer the Mesoamericans, but why the Spanish had risen to power in Europe over the French and English and Germans and North Africans — none of which can be explained with recourse to guns, germs, and steel. Is it satisfying history to insist that, had Spain remained in Muslim hands, today the Americas would be speaking Arabic, because given their technological position the people of the Iberian Peninsula simply *had* to conquer the New World? Diamond’s argument seems to me that the Spanish, and Europeans in general, succeeded in colonizing the world because they were the ones that bought a gun to a knife-fight — which explains their victory but not why they were in the knife-fight to begin with. What bothers a lot of anthropologists about this kind of “bigger gun” theory is that while it may explain a handful of outlying cases, it doesn’t explain the similarities we find between many different kinds of domination, many of which simply cannot be explained by recourse to technological superiority or disease resistance — from the conquest of East Asia by Europe to the domination of workers in a factory or plantation to the hierarchization of genders, races, and ethnicities within Western societies to the conquest of Mesoamerica by the Aztecs and the conquest of the Andes by the Inca to the conquest of much of Asia plus North and East Africa by the Arabs to…

    I’ve been following this debate and it seems to me that the only incident of conquest Diamond’s thesis can really begin to offer expanations to is the one that his defenders keep saying he explicitly does not get into — the expansion of Western Europe after 1500. The conquest of the New World was clearly aided by the “germs” component of Diamond’s thesis. And the technological superiority of the Europeans clearly facilitated their expansion, at least in the early years of their expansion. But even there, neither is sufficient to explain how they conquered the New World — by the late 19th century, when colonialism was massively intensified to secure resources for the emerging Industrial Revolution, guns were not mysteries to many of the people colonized, and in fact earlier colonized peoples such as the South Americans were using the guns they’d inherited from their colonizers to de-colonize themselves. What abetted this new wave of expansionism and domination was not technological superiority per se, but things like the political unity necessary to mobilize technology in the service of colonial expansion — and an ideology that justified and even mandated it (which, as Tim Burke points out, was not wholly shared within “the West”, but was shared widely enough that those opposed to colonial expansion were able to be marginalized, just as de las Casas was marginalized by the Spanish centuries earlier).

    Given the number of questions that GG&S does *not* answer, I think Ozma’s original question (reiterated by Fred and Deborah these last several days) is incredibly relevant: what does GG&S offer its readers that makes it so popular? Why is GG&S the best-selling explanation of conquest and domination and not, say, Todorov’s _Conquest of America_? You may not agree wth Ozma’s answer — that Diamond reassures readers of their superiority without resorting to racial arguments — but that doesn’t change the fact that people read and respond to Diamond’s argument for *some* reason (or, more likely, some *range* of reasons, perhaps encompassing Ozma’s hypothesis among them). But it remains relevant to ask what makes a book popular that offers a general explanation of domination and colonialism that is often flatly contradicted by the facts of each specific case and that almost entirely bypasses the question of human agency and cultural difference. Now, it may simply be, as Ozma has repeated ad nauseum, that Diamond’s thesis is popular because it is right (although that would make GG&S an incredibly rare instance of a large number of people responsiding favorably to the truth, which is highly unlikely). I don’t think so. The explanatory power of GG&S seems to me incredibly limited — but then, I’m not it’s target audience. What answers does it offer to those who defend it?

  9. I think you confuse the inevitability of physical and social processes. A society that depletes its ecological resources to the point where callapse is inevitable will collapse. That is a consequence of physics, not social processes.

    I do not see Diamond making claims about determinism in social processes, in fact quite the opposite. The opening chapters of collapse makes it very clear that the outcome is determined by political decisions. Different societies facing similar ecological problems have made different decisions and this has led to different results. The Easter Islanders were not pre-destined to chop down every tree on the island.

    The claim you are making here seems to be driven by the belief that the job of a historian is to judge the morality of historical actors rather than to provide a description and explanation of the facts. The failure of earlier historians to do just that is precisely why their histories are now found to be so unsatisfactory.

  10. “The claim you are making here seems to be driven by the belief that the job of a historian is to judge the morality of historical actors rather than to provide a description and explanation of the facts.”

    I wouldn’t argue that, and I think I’m the most vocal advocate on SM of considering the moralities of our disciplinary practices. But I *would* argue that at least part of a historian’s (or anthropologist’s, or any social scientist’s) job is to provide a thorough enough explanation so that her/his *audience* can judge the morality of the actors described. (And here I find myself sounding more and more like Rex…) Many acts come off as seeming moral when we provide an adequate explanation of those acts — but, and here’s where the rhetorics come in, often an explanation that seems thorough can make actions that might otherwise be judged harshly seem moral. That said, I don’t think the argument here is on whether Diamond thinks colonialism, domination, expansionism, etc. are moral or immoral, but whether his account is thorough enough to even begin to evaluate the things he is trying to explain. As a by-product, his argument seems to find a certain resonance with some readers as a way to “explain away” the moral consequences of colonialism. And if none of us has really done an empirical study of the reception of GG&S among its readers — who would fund it?! — the comments on SM and on other weblogs that have engaged the arguments made here certainly provide evidence that this is the case in at least a largish group of Diamond’s fans.

  11. Oneman: that is precisely not the sentiment that I see in most of the postings about Diamond over at Brad DeLong’s message threads. Sure, a lot of them are full of seriously excessive and even nasty vituperation at “anthropology”, which in many cases is just a holding category for those posters, they don’t really have a specific idea of what it is that they’re condemning. But very few of them seem to value Diamond because he provides moral absolution from responsibility for colonialism. In fact, a decent number of the most negative DeLong commentators don’t even like the book that much. What’s at stake for quite a few of them has to do with the nature of authority and evidence in scholarly argument, about what represents data, proof, evidence, truth and so on. Arguing that what’s really motivating them is pique at being deprived of a moral alibi would at the least require an argument that what they’re saying explicitly is not what they actually mean.

  12. Phill — I’d be interested to see a list of these nameless “earlier historians” who carried out the unsatisfactory, moralizing work now swept aside by the Diamond method. I was under the impression that rather a lot of solid historical scholarship had been carried out previous to the advent of Diamond.

    Henry — I wonder if you’d be willing to specify your comments a bit? This sentence in particular is a bit murky:

    “Those domains that cannot be analyzed or refuted, and yet are directly central to hierarchy, should not be regarded as innocent or irrelevant.

    I *think* your reference to Bourdieu is a little swipe about the accumulation of symbolic capital, or the elaboration of distinctions between fields of academic inquiry, but I can’t be sure.

  13. Timothy: I thought I was being careful in my last several comments to point out that there are several, very likely conflicting and even contradictory, motivations for reading and defending Diamond’s work, and that the deflection of moral and/or political responsibility was only one among those several. I’ve seen the evidentiary argument, which I think is pretty weak — you can pick apart at any point of his argument, as Fred and Deborah have been doing with the part their expertise is relevant to, and the overarching edifice will still be in place for those for whom the argument meets some need. I’ve seen the academic jealousy/rivalry argument, which is even weaker but which almost demands a closer look (which, alas, I’m not prepared to offer at this time) for what it says about perceptions of academia and research in our society. And I’ve seen more serious questions raised, by yourself and others, about episemological concerns raised, about authority and rhetorics. I suppose there’s even an argument to be made about the value of Diamond’s work as an explanation of history, although I haven’t seen much of that. But alongside these arguments, I’ve seen an awful lot along the lines of “those SMers dismiss Diamond because he doesn’t come flat out and say the West is evil” and “the West conquered everyone else because they could, get used to it”. Not from you, not from many of the people involved, but from some (which I emphasized in my earlier posts, but I’m noticing that in the font SM shows up in on my PC, bold print doesn’t stand out much — perhaps that’s why my position has been overstated?) defenders of DIamond’s thesis. Now, if we were the pono/poco/self-involved ass-gazing academics that some have claimed for both SM and the field of anthropology as a whole, I suppose we would just dismiss these responses as those of the unwashed masses yearning to think freely and hindered by their lack of academic credentials, but I for one think this response — while not the only or even the most common (though this is an academically-oriented site, so who knows how frequent this reading is “out there”– deserves some careful attention.

    As to Diamond’s evidence, I’m willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt. Clearly there’s quibbles here and there — the bison example, for instance — but the problem I see being expressed by my colleagues is that Diamond’s interpetation of his facts goes too far. In a sense, that shouldn’t be a very controversial position — it should really be the default position of any academic considering a work which claims to have identified a single engine for the entirety of world history. We don’t, for instance, quibble with critiques of Hegel’s work on evidentiary grounds, not do we really insist that critiques of religious fundamentalism identify every instance in which their narrative of world history contradicts empirical evidence. I”m sure that if we wanted to abandon Savage Minds completely to a discussion of GG&S we could bring on guest bloogers like Fred and Deborah every week, each detailing how a different piece of Diamond’s evidence fails — but we’d still have to deal with the Big Picture argument, the geographical determinism that, as Ozma noted, resurfaces in every generation of American (at least!) social thought.

  14. It’s an interesting question, actually, what drives the rage of the commentators over at B. DeLong’s site. For all their avowed dedication to rigor, evidence, jes the facts ma’am, they don’t seem able to distinguish even the unreliability of negative hypotheses of the “no domesticated animals = no domesticable animals” variety.

    Aside from that, their anger seems unfocused. I think it has less to do with being “denied” a moral alibi than from the mere suggestion that moral alibis are seductive

  15. Foucault has been mentioned here on several occasions. He would not be surprised, we think, to discover that the powerful(ish) in the early 21st century claim epistemological superiority.

  16. Foucault has been mentioned here on several occasions. He would not be surprised, we think, to discover that the powerful(ish) in the early 21st century claim epistemological superiority.

    Indeed, but as noted Foucauldian scholar Paul Rabinow has observed (see my comment above), the ‘discipline’ of anthropology itself isn’t innocent of power games, and the invocation of anti-colonialism should be understood, at least in part, as tied up with the internal politics of the academy. Fred and Deborah arguably not only describe, but themselves exemplify the powerfulish (within a particular academic discourse) in the early 21st century claiming epistemological superiority. Which is why I for one have been quite unconvinced by the thrust of the criticism here. I can buy that there are problems with big structuralist accounts of history – by definition they are going to leave out a lot of important things, and they may also simply be wrong. I can also buy that apparently ‘neutral’ forms of history may be ideologically loaded. But there’s something weird and fishy about the dismissal of Diamond on principle, in many cases on this blog by people who haven’t gone to the trouble of reading him, or on the basis of stretched and tortured readings by those who have. I don’t agree with Brad that there is material dishonesty here – but when Fred and Deborah accuse Diamond of presenting a history of “morally neutral conquest” they’re presenting, perhaps unconsciously, a parodic distortion of the book which says rather more about them than about Diamond. There’s a slippage from the argument that Diamond makes big structuralist arguments in which human agency doesn’t play a direct role (mostly true), to the argument that Diamond is ipso facto exculpating the conquistadors (as far as I can see, more or less false). This slippage doesn’t make sense, unless one wants to make the quite implausible argument that other big-picture structuralists like Charles Tilly are similarly seeking to give a free pass to the oppressors of history. To privilege structural causes in your explanation is not to remove all space for moral culpability and blame. This is not rocket-science. Second, there’s a claim for authority – a claim that Diamond isn’t able to interpret what Yali said to him – but that Fred and Deborah are. As Brad has pointed out, this claim lies in a quite extraordinarily perverse reading of how Diamond actually depicts their conversation – Diamond makes it quite clear that he is aware that this conversation is taking place in a context of power relations. And as Tim says, it’s not clear that this reading does any more (or less) justice to Yali’s agency than does Diamond’s.

    When you get these odd slippages and power-claims, it really is hard to avoid the suspicion that this set of criticisms is mostly about disciplinary habitus in the Bourdieuvian sense, and the protection of boundaries from an outsider who is perceived as threatening. In short: an effort to increase the value of a particular variety of cultural/academic capital as against others. I’d like to be convinced that this isn’t what is happening, and I’m deliberately putting this forward as a bit of a provocation, but so far, I’m not seeing even the beginnings of an argument that’s likely to persuade those who haven’t already been persuaded.

    There’s grounds for a real conversation here. Bits and pieces of it seemed to be happening in the comments to Rex’s thread. But either you (a) have to come up with some sort of convincing argument that Diamond’s book does let the conquistadors off the hook (an argument which would have to explain why Diamond’s structural account was an exercise in apologetics, while the similar accounts of Tilly or indeed Marx were not), or (b) let go of the notion that Diamond’s account is in some senses an exercise in justification for the unjustifiable, and concentrate on the real substantive arguments about epistemology, different ways of knowing etc etc. You certainly haven’t done (a) so far. (b) as Tim seems to be suggesting would be much more interesting – and would allow for a real and interesting debate over the kinds of factors that structural accounts miss, and why they are important (which would also allow structuralists to respond and set out their case).

  17. Henry,

    I don’t think taking Diamond’s account apart as a “structural” account has, actually, been the major focus of any of his critics here. I assume what you mean by structure is “not agency”, since your use of the term is rather loose.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but that’s certainly not my problem with Diamond’s account. If I understand what you mean by “structural”, I think Marxism could be described as a “structural” account — it has a big grand theory of why things are the way they are. And while I think there are specific phenomena Marxism is not very useful for explaining, as a ‘grand theory of everything’ I think it’s a pretty good one. That is to say — it has lacunae, as any grand theory of everything will, but it’s powerful and persuasive and (I think) looks in the right places for the motors of the processes and relationships it posits.

    Evolution is another “structural” grand theory of everything that seems not too shabby. Peircian semiotics — very nice. Freud’s theory of the unconscious and its role in individual and social life, also rather impressive. and so on. The point is, there are lots of “structural” theories and I don’t think anyone was objecting to the “structural” mode of explanation in and of itself.

    In my case at least, my problem with Diamond is not the form of his theory (and I use the word “theory” here very loosely) but the theory itself. First I think it is not well developed — he takes a starting point (a certain geographical array) and an end point (the world as we know it) and then he “deduces” the latter from the former while eliminating any potential for dynamism from the middle part. I think he mistakes relationships of correlation for relationships of cause and effect. I think he makes selective use of evidence, I think he consistently makes use of negative hypotheses, and I think that because he only has one grand test case (the history of the world as it happened) there is no way to “replicate” his results, even theoretically.

    Finally, yes, I think the reason he proposes such a shoddy theoretical edifice and the reason so many people have found it persuasive despite its evident flaws is because his model is ideologically rather than empirically satisfying. But the fact that his model is grandiose? Okay by me.

    To turn to your other point — that my criticisms or anyone else’s criticisms of Diamond are a product of “disciplinary habitus” — I’m just not sure what you mean by this. If you mean that the methodological and theoretical framework of our discipline has equipped us to think critically about work like Diamond’s — why, sir, you are too kind and will end by making me blush.

    But what seems more probable is that you are making a scurrillious allegation — that we have used the critique of Diamond as a sort of ice-ax, in order to clamber atop his reknown and from that ill-gotten elevation grab lots of prizes dangling from even more exalted heights.

    If that is what you meant (and perhaps I have done you wrong in supposing so), I’d like to hear more about what those prizes might be — has anyone ever become a tenured faculty member on the basis of blog posts?

  18. Henry Farrell,

    I don’t think taking Diamond’s account apart as a “structural” account has, actually, been the major focus of any of his critics here. I assume what you mean by structure is “not agency”, since your use of the term is rather loose.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but that’s certainly not my problem with Diamond’s account. If I understand what you mean by “structural”, I think Marxism could be described as a “structural” account — it has a big grand theory of why things are the way they are. And while I think there are specific phenomena Marxism is not very useful for explaining, as a ‘grand theory of everything’ I think it’s a pretty good one. That is to say — it has lacunae, as any grand theory of everything will, but it’s powerful and persuasive and (I think) looks in the right places for the motors of the processes and relationships it posits.

    Evolution is another “structural” grand theory of everything that seems not too shabby. Peircian semiotics — very nice. Freud’s theory of the unconscious and its role in individual and social life, also rather impressive. and so on. The point is, there are lots of “structural” theories and I don’t think anyone was objecting to the “structural” mode of explanation in and of itself.

    In my case at least, my problem with Diamond is not the form of his theory (and I use the word “theory” here very loosely) but the theory itself. First I think it is not well developed — he takes a starting point (a certain geographical array) and an end point (the world as we know it) and then he “deduces” the latter from the former while eliminating any potential for dynamism from the middle part. I think he mistakes relationships of correlation for relationships of cause and effect. I think he makes selective use of evidence, I think he consistently makes use of negative hypotheses, and I think that because he only has one grand test case (the history of the world as it happened) there is no way to “replicate” his results, even theoretically.

    Finally, yes, I think the reason he proposes such a shoddy theoretical edifice and the reason so many people have found it persuasive despite its evident flaws is because his model is ideologically rather than empirically satisfying. But the fact that his model is grandiose? Okay by me.

    To turn to your other point — that my criticisms or anyone else’s criticisms of Diamond are a product of “disciplinary habitus” — I’m just not sure what you mean by this. If you mean that the methodological and theoretical framework of our discipline has equipped us to think critically about work like Diamond’s — why, sir, you are too kind and will end by making me blush.

    But what seems more probable is that you are making a scurrillious allegation — that we have used the critique of Diamond as a sort of ice-ax, in order to clamber atop his reknown and from that ill-gotten elevation grab lots of prizes dangling from even more exalted heights.

    If that is what you meant (and perhaps I have done you wrong in supposing so), I’d like to hear more about what those prizes might be — has anyone ever become a tenured faculty member on the basis of blog posts?

  19. Henry Farrell is a great writer: clear and concise. But, the discussion is getting rather perverse. Over and out folks — at least until whenever (as we have to teach). Except, just out of curiosity, we do want to ask one ethnogrpahic question about blogging. How many women do it — at least on the blogs we’ve encountered in this venture, both directly and indirectly?

  20. Giving Marx (or Freud) a pass as “pretty good” structural theories valued largely for their persuasive explanatory power despite occasional lacunae and yet saying that Diamond is “shoddy” largely because those who prefer him find him ideologically rather than empirically satisfying is a pretty strange point of arrival in the discussion. At that point, I lose sight of the academic standard for which we are meant to be aiming.

  21. F & D – I don’t know the answer to your question about how many women blog. But I can tell you how many women it has felt like are out there blogging during virtually the entire GG&S vituperafest:

    me.

    Timothy B: calling M & F “pretty good” was intended as humorous understatement. And I am not sure what you mean by the second part of your statement — I sense that you are trying to score a point about “ohmigod but Marx is totally ideological”, though what with the arriving and the aiming and sighting you construct create quite the metaphorical maze out of a few short lines of text.

    Anyway: Marx and Freud both *established* explicit ideological frameworks, and they were quite prepared to argue (and prepared others to argue) about their ideological premises. This is very different from appealing to an extant ideological framework whilst feverishly disavowing any relationship to it.

    Finally, may I suggest a daily visit to the Daily Kitten? Unfortunately it’s down right now, but it really might do you a world of good.

  22. Fred and Deborah – First, thanks for your multiple contributions and for your very patient participation in the conversation here. I don’t know the answer to your question about how many women blog. But I can tell you how many women it has felt like are out there blogging during virtually the entire GG&S vituperafest:

    me.

    Timothy B: calling M & F “pretty good” was intended as humorous understatement. And I am not sure what you mean by the second part of your statement — I sense that you are trying to score a point about “ohmigod but Marx is totally ideological”, though what with the arriving and the aiming and sighting you construct create quite the metaphorical maze out of a few short lines of text.

    Anyway: Marx and Freud both *established* explicit ideological frameworks, and they were quite prepared to argue (and prepared others to argue) about their ideological premises. This is very different from appealing to an extant ideological framework whilst feverishly disavowing any relationship to it.

    Finally, may I suggest a daily visit to the Daily Kitten? Unfortunately it’s down right now, but it really might do you a world of good.

  23. As stated, my last post was deliberately a bit of a provocation. I certainly don’t argue that cultural anthropology is reducible to some sort of sordid power game (although I do think that like all academic disciplines, it’s structured in important ways by these power games). Nor do I think that there isn’t a cogent and extremely useful anthropological critique of Diamond out there. It may well turn out that Diamond has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but I haven’t seen a good argument to that effect made yet(that said, I do think that there is a real place for structural explanations in our – my own bias is towards agency-based explanations but I like to read big structuralist accounts as a challenge to my usual way of thinking).

    But here, and I’ll tone down the provocation a little, is what I suspect is going on. As Rabinow argues (it’s really a very useful piece; I imagine most of those participating here have read it, and those who haven’t, should), disciplines are shaped as much by their “corridor talk” – the subjects and assumptions of shared, informal conversations among those in the discipline – as by the formal activities of publishing, research etc. A lot of that corridor talk involves informal, not-very-well examined ideas that re-create the boundaries of the discipline. And I suspect that what we are seeing here is corridor talk about Diamond made overt through the form of blogging, which is neither ‘normal’ academic writing, nor purely off-the-record conversation either, but something between the two. Now for someone like me, parts of what Fred and Deborah have said is valuable and thought-provoking – they’re clearly knowledgeable scholars – but there are some real and serious slippages in their arguments. The useful parts of their argument are, as far as I can see, connected by claims which really don’t hold up very well on closer examination, and depictions of what Diamond says which don’t match up with what he says, so much as what an anthropologist who doesn’t like this stuff on principle might imagine he is saying.

    In short, there is the bones of a real, valuable argument here about context vs. structure, but some of the ligaments connecting these bones are composed of corridor-talk type informal ideas that decohere (or at the least, become very much more complex than they look to be in shorthand) when examined properly. I suspect that as academic blogging becomes more common, we are going to see the corridor-talk of various disciplines exposed (and, I hope, sometimes revised in the wake of good argument) as the commonground, unstated assumptions of one discipline come under concerted critique from those who don’t share those assumptions.

  24. Fred and Deborah,

    There is a nice list of some of the leading progressive women bloggers on the left side of this site. Bitch Ph.D., Majikthise, Moorish Girl (who has a new book!), and Body and Soul are some of my favorites.

    There are a lot of women bloggers out there, some of them even blog about anthropology, like Karen Nakamura’s photoethnography blog. But there aren’t very many anthropology bloggers at all. I’ve compiles a list here. One of our goals on this site is to get more anthropologists blogging (and we hope that anthropological bloggers will be representative of the community at large, which is largely female), and so we are very happy you agreed to participate, and we hope you enjoyed it!

  25. Ozma writes:

    Marx and Freud both established explicit ideological frameworks, and they were quite prepared to argue (and prepared others to argue) about their ideological premises.

    It should also be noted that, while Freud did construct this ginormous formalistic account of the workings of world history, he also wrote particularistic, deeply historical works like _The 18th Brumaire_ and his discussion of enclsure in _Capital_. Interestingly, these small-scale histories often contradict the grand-scale histories — reinserting human agency into the tiny events (like the rise of Napoleon III) from which the Big Picture is abstracted. While the way things are is inevitable in Marx’s Grand History, they are incredibly contingent and agency-driven in the little history.

    The complaint here seems to be that Marx and Freud are given a “pass” despite their ideologism, but Diamond isn’t. I suppose that’s a fair enough complaint — except that I can think of very few researchers who have absorbed Marx’ Marxism as a whole. Work like Wolf’s and Mintz’s shows a strong influence of the particularistic history noted above, but I see little in their work to indicate an acceptance of the “inevitable” rise of Communism as the pre-determined end of History. In any case, it seems to me that Marx and Freud have been influential not because their idologies agree with us so well, but because their work has proven useful in developing and researching so many issues. That is, their work has been productive. I’m not sure what research Diamond’s Grand Theory might inspire — in the 8 years since it’s been out, has there been a strong follow-up in cultural geography (outside of Diamond’s own work) or any other field? What research questions are facilitated by Diamond’s work?

  26. It should also be noted that, while Freud did construct this ginormous formalistic account of the workings of world history…

    Of course that should be “Marx”, not Freud.

  27. Sigh. I guess I’ll be forced to read Diamond’s damned book just to see what all the fuss is about. I just know it’s going to be a bunch of cultural just-so stories à la Marvin Harris, but G&E have made him sound so enticingly naughty, that I can’t resist.

    Cynical Question: Don’t Post Colonial Theory (or am I miscategorizing G&E’s academic millieu?) and Diamond’s historical materialism both have their origins in ideas of Hegel (and Marx)? Is this not more of a religious argument between dissenting sects of the same church?

    BTW: Is Yali still alive? Can someone in PNG ferry him over to Port Moresby and plop him down in an Internet cafe so he can comment on this exchange?

    cheers,
    –Beo

  28. Hegel was as telological as Diamond is, but he most certainly wasn’t materialist – you may be confusing Hegel with Marx whose early work was a materialist critique of Hegel, and later work was a Hegelian critique of political economy (Adam Smith). Nor would I categorize Fred and Deborah’s critique as post-colonial, it strikes me as coming out of more traditional anthropological concerns, even if it may be influenced by and dovetail with those of post-colonial literary theory and subaltern studies.

  29. Why does an evolutionary biologist or an anthropologist have to ‘castigate’ colonialism and capitalism? The whole of this GG&S discussion on this blog is nothing other than leftist moralism infecting scientific debate/exploration.

    How does describing geographical advantage amount to crypto-racism? Should Diamond have started every chapter with the disclaimer “The behavior of our ancestors was really bad here. They were terribly oppressive and exploitative. Capitalism, globalization – awful.”

    A biologist is not obliged to condemn the virus they are studying (“Morally reprehensible parasites, these prokaryotes, terrible…”) so why should an evolutionary biologist refrain from describing the evolution of technology in a cold, factual manner?

    From the point of view of evolutionary biology, Diamond’s GG&S is a monumental breakthrough. It’s a shame anthropology is apparently so humanist and moralistic and intellectually sloppy (it’s unbelievable that you comment on books you haven’t even finished).

  30. sd writes:

    From the point of view of evolutionary biology, Diamond’s GG&S is a monumental breakthrough. It’s a shame anthropology is apparently so humanist and moralistic and intellectually sloppy (it’s unbelievable that you comment on books you haven’t even finished).

    Are you an evolutionary biologist, sd? I haven’t noticed it being described as a ‘monumental breakthrough’ er… anywhere at all. Now, I have to admit that, I’ve stayed out of this quagmire because I’m largely unfamiliar with Diamond, but I remember reading an ecologically determinist argument for the differential rise of technologically more developed cultures in various parts of the world in a book called “Anthropology Made Simple”, which, I believe was published in 1961. The idea that such thinking is extrinsic to anthropology, or something new, I don’t think holds water.

    I haven’t actually noticed much moralising or intellectual sloppiness (Kerim’s odd statement about Nigeria notwithstanding) in the Savage Minds anthropologists about this (and please check through the moral models in anthropology posts to see that I don’t slavishly agree with them), though plenty of odd through to much worse by various other commentators.

    I think the points about colonialism and capitalism are ones about the explanatory power they have. If you are an evolutionary biologist, I think a useful way of conceiving of the argument is with reference to Lis Vrba’s turnover pulse as an overarching explanatory framework, versus standard intra-and inter-specific competition models in evolutionary ecology.

    I’ll duck out now before the brickbats start flying.

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