I’ve decided to move this reading circle to Monday, post the reading and my comments on it immediately, and then let discussion run the whole week. I think this will be a bit better because it involves less moving parts.
The reading for this week is Ruth Benedict’s “Anthropology and the Humanities“, her presidential address from 1947 and one of the last things she was to write before she passed away less than a year later. It originally appears in American Anthropologist 50(4).
One of the reasons I chose this piece was to point readers in the direction of one of the most valuable sources of open access anthropology: the Wiley website itself! When the AAA went over to the dark side, Wiley crunched some numbers and decided that the big money was in recent publications by the AAA. As a result, it allowed the AAA to open up access to all material prior to 1964 and place it in the public domain. As a result essays like Benedict’s are now free for all to access. It’s a classic example of the politics of open source in anthropology: the actual anthropologists push the publisher to go OA. The publisher crunches the numbers and tries to accommodate them while still making a profit. Then the professional bureaucrats at AAA write letters to congress trying to shut the whole thing down while the executive board passes resolutions saying that they don’t want to shut everything down but are going to have to and can’t we please realize what nice people they are on the inside.
Luckily, academics can be trusted to advocate for their ideals and publishers can be trusted to act in their best interests, and so now we can read Ruth Benedict for free.
Writing at the end of her life in the 1940s, I see Benedict as looking back over anthropology as it transitioned from a humanistic, philological, very german-emigre discipline to one increasingly dominated by anglo-protestants and focused on becoming ‘scientific’. Partially this is the result of the rapidly rising cold war, but also the generational shift away from the original Boasians: just about the time of this writing Benedict was pushed aside for the chair of the department at Columbia for Ralph Linton, despite Boas’s insistence that she be his successor. So despite her claim to be committed to a ‘scientific’ view of anthropology, my feeling is that she is very attractive to the idea of anthropology as a humanistic discipline.
Her arguments here are well-worn ones from the early days of Boas: that humanists focus on the particular rather than the general (following Windelband), and that they focus on the mind and spirit (following Dilthey). The piece also insists that, historically, most of what has been considered positive knowledge has been in the humanities. Modern technoscience is a relatively recent interloper in that regard.
I think this argument is important to remember as anthropology goes through future iterations of the ‘art or science’ debate. For many writing today have forgotten Benedict’s message. For them, in order for anthropology’s findings to count as knowledge it must be ‘science’ or else it is nothing or, even worse, ‘postmodernism’. Somehow history, literature, philology and other rigorous humanistic disciplines seem to have fallen off of our radar. They were very much present to Benedict, however.
Another thing that has fallen of our radar is concision and elegance in prose. When I read this Benedict piece, I feel like blogging is in our disciplinary DNA. Benedict’s prose is clean, forthright, argument driven, and easy to understand — just like a blogger’s is (or should be). True, this was a speech written to be read, but anyone familiar with her work knows Benedict wrote like this for all occasions. And she is not the only one — Mead and Linton also produced prose like this. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to this sort of style?
Other than that, I don’t have too much to say about the piece — to people who are familiar with Benedict and her era it will be a nice short dip into the past. But for people who aren’t familiar with this era I’d highly recommend reading this piece and poking around in the back issues of these journals. These guys were pretty smart, and it takes only a small leap of imagination to put ourselves back into a period of anthropology in which some of our most enduring problematics were being laid out.
I’ll open it up for comments — what did you think of this week’s piece?