No April fools: read Valeri’s “Rites and Annals”

A doomed genius taken before his time. One of the last line of ancient Roman noblemen revealing his secrets. Hidden writings once known only to an elite few, now revealed for all to see. It sounds so much like a Dan Brown novel that you mistake it for an April fools joke, but it’s  not. There were so many fake announcements and releases on April first this year that one thing got lost in the shuffle: the actually really real release of the second monograph in HAU’s “Classics of Ethnographic Theory”, Rites and Annals: Between History and Anthropology by Valerio Valeri. Valeri’s work deserves to be widely read today because of its own intrinsic quality, as well as for the kind of rigorous, sophisticated, and humanistic approach to anthropology it exemplifies. Valeri’s work combined ethnographic erudition with high-level theorizing, wrapped up with a sophisticated prose style and a commitment to scholarship that exploded American binaries of science versus the humanities, objectivity versus subjective expression. For that reason, the release of Rites and Annals gives us a chance not only to read Valeri’s work, but to think about how it fits into the current approaches our discipline is taking.

I should start by pointing out that I’m not a guileless HAU fanboy. I’ve promoted the journal heavily on the site, but not uncritically. The first “Theory Classics” piece they published, for instance, was great to have back in print, hard for non-specialists to love. The Masterclass series also has a mixed track record in my book, producing work that I’m glad is available, but again is more likely to appeal to trufans than the average anthropologist. So is Rites and Annals any different?

To some extent, Valerio Valeri’s Rites and Annals falls into the trufan category. Valeri was an Italian anthropologist influenced by French structuralism who taught at the University of Chicago, where he died at the shockingly young age of 53  due to brain cancer. At Chicago Valeri had a reputation for unmatched brilliance and erudition and had a small but strong community of followers who read offprints of his work, work which was typically published in obscure journals and edited collections. Hence the doomed genius, secret works narrative. He also had a reputation for being difficult to work with. I laid eyes on the guy, but never took a class with him. My greatest memory of Valeri was after he passed away and a faculty member told me “it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person” So yes, Valeri had his trufans.

During his life, Valeri produced two books, one on Hawai‘i (based on archival work) and one on Indonesia (based on fieldwork). After his death his colleagues collected two volumes of essays. The difference between them demonstrates how much academic publishing has changed. The first, Fragments from Forests and Librarieswas published by Carolina Academic Press, exists only in hardcover, and costs US$70. The second, Rites and Annals, is now open access on HAU. The first book focuses on Valeri’s Indonesian work, while the second focuses more on his Pacific writings.

As I mentioned earlier, Valeri tended to publish in obscure places: the valuable autobiographical essay “On the train from Paris to Chicago” was published in the excellent but obscure Finnish journal Suomen Antropologi the excellent but obscure Norwegian journal Antropolognytt. Fragments from Forests and Libraries remains as difficult to access as the journals in which its contents were originally published, while the HAU volume is free to access for anyone with a connection to the Internet.

But Valeri’s work really does merit consideration, even from people who didn’t have a personal connection with him. Many of them are written as “historical anthropology,” a movement which most people associate with the early 1980s. But Valeri’s work is more than just an example of an out-of-fashion genre. It uses the issues of historical anthropology — continuity in change, and how the unexpected is incorporated into human life — to examine deep issues in the human existential predicament: How our attempts to order the world are always provisional, how our relations with others define us even as they enable our autonomy, how we all long to live but know that we will die. Valeri’s work is important, then, because it demonstrated how anthropology could speak to great philosophical questions, not just academic philosophizing.

It’s also important because it demonstrates the value of an ideographic, particularist approach to ethnographic phenomena. He was a man who got down into the weeds. His work on Hawai‘ian kingship is often unreadable unless you are already an expert on eighteenth and nineteenth century Hawai‘i — which it ought to be, right?

What makes Valeri such a superlative anthropologist, then, is not only his theoretical sophistication and his ethnographic erudition — its the way he brought both of these commitments into a single scholarly project. The mortar which connected these two part of his approach was his scholarly style, a habitus that it is difficult to pin down but which was truly unique. I call his work rigorous and humanistic as a shorthand for describing this approach. It was a method that included an elegant authorial voice which didn’t assume prose style and subjectivity were an impediment to accuracy and truth. It also assumed the reader had deep knowledge of European traditions of literature and philosophy. This included knowledge of the classics — Valeri apparently considered himself one of the Valerii, related to Diocletian and other Roman eminences.

Was Valeri’s band of anthropology a path not taken in the history of anthropology? To some extent, it was taken — his humanistic, philosophical approach is well represented in European anthropology today. And isn’t much of contemporary American anthropology concerned with philosophical issues and inspired by literature and art? But at the same time, it seems that key aspects of Valeri’s scholarly vision have languished, or are carried on only by his students and colleagues. His appetite for ethnographic detail is today found more in the museum community than in the academy, and his focus on topics such as taboo and kinship — not adoptions and genetic engineering, but kinship – seem a world away from ethnographies of heroin addicts in the Rio Grande or studies of geneticists in Iceland.

I admire Valeri’s work, and I think he produced some great students. But I remain ambivalent about his legacy. On the one hand, I feel like anthropology has undergone a massive deskilling — it is almost as though anthropologists are simply not trained enough these days to comprehend what he is saying. We are training experts who aren’t experts: ethnographers who don’t do ethnography, and philosophers who frankly only have a passing familiarity with the thinkers that they cite.

At the same time, Valeri was a unique person. Can we really ask all of our graduate students to learn a dozen languages or however many he spoke? In this day and age isn’t it silly to ask the members of a global scholarly community to pick up casual references to French authors of the eighteenth century? And it seems completely disconnected from any sort of program for social justice. Valeri’s work may be fascinating, but there may not be a course of normal science that could grow out of it. He may be a one-off.

I remain ambivalent but dazzled. And the good news is that now you can too! Rites and Annals is open access and available to all. I’d suggest starting with the editor’s introduction, or diving in to chapter 4, which I seem to remember is relatively easy to read. Good luck!

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

4 thoughts on “No April fools: read Valeri’s “Rites and Annals”

  1. A small correction: the autobiographical essay you mention was published in Norway:
    Valeri, V. 1992. “On the train to Chicago, via Paris, or: Confessions of an idiosyncratic anthropologist.” Antropolognytt (Institute for Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, Norway) 4, 31-44.
    Otherwise, your assessment of our journal, “excellent but obscure,” is about correct…

  2. Rex, I notice you wrote an Amazon review of The Forest of Taboos a dozen years ago, giving it five stars and calling it a ‘Definitive Account of Taboo’. Do you still agree with this assessment, or with Valeri’s argument? Seems like you’ve been following Valeri for some time, in any case!

  3. You know, I still think that. That says a lot about Valeri’s skill — as well as the way the literature on taboo has not grown a lot in the past ten years! In the introduction to Rites and Annals, Rupert Stasch links to Mary Douglas’s review of the book, which is equally laudatory.

    Antti, thanks for the correction. I will update the blog entry.

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