Carl Hoffman > Jared Diamond

Carl Hoffman is a travel writer who has recently turned his attention to New Guinea, where he produces grisly stories of cannibalism, murder, and The Smell Of Men. Jared Diamond is a scientist with decades of experience visiting New Guinea whose books attempt to humanize the people who live there. As an expert on Papua New Guinea, I was really surprised  to find that I was much more impressed with Hoffman’s understanding of Melanesia and its people than I was Diamond’s. So how could I like a cannibalism-obsessed journalist more than a scientist who admired Papua New Guinean’s parenting skills?

To be sure, neither Hoffman nor Diamond are Michael French Smith, whose readable, thoughtful, and informed A Faraway, Familiar Place is the best book written for a lay audience about Papua New Guinea today. Unlike Smith, neither author has a Ph.D. in anthropology and decades of close connection with a single community in PNG. But Hoffman gets things right that Diamond doesn’t.

First, Hoffman gets his facts straight and Diamond doesn’t. As someone with little experience in Papua New Guinea and West Papua (the two political units that share the island of New Guinea), Hoffman is keenly aware of the need to get his facts straight. As a journalist, he assumes his work will come under scrutiny and has a professional commitment to empirical rigor. Diamond, on the other hand, is almost too anthropological in his reliance on anecdote and assumption that the people he describes will never read what he writes. Does Hoffman make mistakes? Yes, a few. But Diamond’s writings on death and revenge have holes big enough that you could drive a truck through them. Hoffman is a careful professional. And where human reportage is concerned, Diamond is an amateur.

Hoffman’s work is shocking in its willingness to confront the most un-PC aspects of life in New Guinea. You only need to go about 20 pages into Savage Harvest to find a vivid description of people killing and butchering Michael Rockefeller. Most anthropologist and Pacific Islanders will be so turned off by these representations of Melanesians that they will just close the book and walk a way. But Hoffman’s willingness to deal with these aspects of Melanesian culture actually make him more careful about what he is saying rather than less — he clearly knows he needs to tread carefully in this minefield. I am sure many anthropologists will disagree with me when I say that Hoffman is relatively successful in doing this. But most will agree he’s better at it than Diamond, even though Diamond often deals with topics that are not spectacular and stereotypical.

What makes Hoffman’s work more appealing than Diamond’s is Hoffman’s empathy and ability to learn from others. The final third of Savage Harvest describes his time living in West Papua. As he gets to know people — if only briefly — you can clearly see him leaving behind the stereotypes he came there with. Hoffman’s own journey, as naggingly incomplete as it seems to an anthropologist, demonstrates a thoughtful and introspective personality. Diamond, on the other hand, seems genuinely changes by his time in New Guinea, but seems too used to studying birds to really get people. As someone who has conducted fieldwork in a dangerous area of Papua New Guinea, I felt for both of these authors — but felt more for Hoffman.

Anthropologists will find Hoffman’s writings difficult to stomach, given our predispositions. But they are worth reading and assigning in class — especially as a first book about the Pacific, to pique interest for a deeper and more nuanced account of life there. Jared Diamond? Not so much.

 

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

3 thoughts on “Carl Hoffman > Jared Diamond

  1. Hey Rex, Started a message and, since I’m writing from the airport, don’t know if it’s been sent. In any case, I wanted to say that I very much appreciate Michael French-Smith’s latest and haven’t read Hoffman’s contribution to the Melanesian literature. However, in relation to your post, if I recall, it was YOU who were the fact-checker for Diamond’s New Yorker article about revenge. And, didn’t you compare him to one of the luminaries — Eric Wolf, if I recall – at your 2013 AAA session. Again, I may be wrong. And, I do understand why some of us are entitled to flip-flops from time to time.

  2. Well Deborah, since you’ve previously accused me of lacking academic integrity

    http://savageminds.org/2013/11/05/culture-genuine-and-spurious-smops-5/comment-page-1/#comment-815676

    I suppose you would expect me to ‘flip flop’. I don’t think most people would consider this post a radical departure for me, however. To answer your specific objections:

    ‘Fact checking’: I was telephoned by a New Yorker employee about Diamond’s article, who asked me general questions like ‘does it seem feasible that there could be large-scale multi-year conflict in the highlands of Papua New Guinea’ to which I answered ‘yes’. I was never hired by the New Yorker to fact-check Diamond’s piece, and never undertook to do so. I never read the article prior to its publication.

    ‘Eric Wolf’: This is what I said at the AAA’s:

    “Why isn’t Natural Experiments in History more like Europe and the People Without History? It is not just that Diamond is a bourgeois social democrat and Wolf has a commitment to a genuinely leftist politics. Wolf’s large-scale, historical vision of humans interacting with their environment, one which focuses on means of getting a living — why don’t we see this in Diamond? The answer, I think, is not that there is something complicatedly wrong about Diamond’s theoretical outlook. It’s simply that the more original his work gets, the worse it becomes. Guns, Germs, and Steel is the least objectionable of Diamond’s book because it is the one that is the most similar to the work of Fernand Braudel and William McNeill. World Until Yesterday, his most personal book, is also the most untethered. His lack of erudition, lack of involvement in personal networks of scholars, and our own critical reception have all, I think, resulted in a certain intellectual isolation that has resulted in a book about warfare in New Guinea that cites Ronald Berndt but not Simon Harrison or Bruce Knauft. The biggest problems with it are not that Diamond fails to act in a suitably anthropological way. It is simply that that the research is superficial and under-researched. It is just poorly done.”

    I’ll leave people to decide for themselves whether any of this means I can’t find something to admire in Hoffman’s work without ‘flip flopping’.

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