Anthropologists are good at critiquing other anthropologists and themselves. We have a lot to be guilty about and we do a good job of pointing that out. The politics of anthropology, and the politics of the politics of anthropology are a major part of what we do. In fact, we’re so good at doing it that I think at times we forget what we have actually done wrong. We spend more time reading dismissals of our ancestors than we do the ancestors themselves.
One of my most memorable moments in graduate school was when Fredrik Barth — who I have a lot of respect for — came to give a talk to our department. The highlight for me was when he was describing how much he enjoyed spending time with people in Papua New Guinea during his fieldwork there. They were, he said, friendly and “the most wonderful shade of brown.” I think he was trying to be provocative and he succeeded — there was an audible gasp from the brown anthropologists in the room, as well as from pretty much everyone else.
And then there is Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf.
A friend of mine recently turned me on to this interview with him from Alan MacFarlane’s massive series of oral histories of anthropology. It’s worth a listen, since his fieldwork experiences seem completely INSANE to me and probably will to you too. His luck at going on a punitive expedition in northeastern India. His assurance to MacFarlane that burning down a village is not a big deal because ‘it was only made out of grass and bamboo’. The looting of human remains. And, probably my favorite, when MacFarlane asks CvF-H to rate the beauty of the different groups he’s studied with and CvH-F says that one group was not attractive because they were ‘darker’.
I’m not sure what to make of CvH-F’s career. He personally doesn’t seem like a bad person. But his career… what are we to make of it? is it a lesson in how far we’ve come, ethically, and anthropologists? Is it a lesson in how far we have to go? Am I wrong in thinking there’s something ethically problematic in accompanying government patrols in which villages are destroyed?
I have no idea. I just personally feel like we will not be able to move forward as a discipline unless we understand our past. The deeper we understand it, the better. Rethinking our canon includes expanding it to include people like St. Clair Drake, as well as continuing to read about CvH-F. But mostly, listening to this interview my overall thought was: there are some things that are so INSANE your first thought is: blog first, ask questions later.