I mean, say what you like about the tenets of Critical Anthropology, Dude, at least it’s an ethos

If you are a Real Scientist, I it is reasonable that you believe yourself to be under attack from 1) ‘critical’ or ‘political’ or ‘activist’ anthropologists on the one hand and 2) ‘postmodernists’ on the other. However, it is unreasonable that you consider yourself under attack from ‘activist postmodernists’.

It is easy to see why. Being an activist requires two main ingredients: 1) moral certainty (that something in the world is wrong) and 2) empirical confidence (of the changes necessary to make things better). Postmodernism (to a first approximation) is characterized by 1) a suspicion of foundational moral thinking and 2) not a very robust theory of causation. Postmodernism, in brief, is inimical to intervention.

Intervention in the world by anthropologists — whether it be ‘critical’ or ‘applied’ — is typically grounded by a firm belief that you know what is going on. Indeed, the most famous cases of overreaching political planning (think Robespierre) were a result of too much faith in Science. While Real Scientists can have some sort of beef with ‘critical’ anthropologists, it will have to be a complicated and well-thought out beef about the relationship between scientific knowledge, civic participation, fair dealings with research communities, and ‘broader impacts’ (to use the language of the NSF) over research. But it cannot be a simple one that anthropology ‘ought not get involved’, at least not if one wants to avoid taking the untenable position that urban planners are deeply unethical when they embrace the value judgment that local communities deserve functioning traffic lights and graded roads. Neither can it be an epistemological one that critical anthropologists have no theory of truth, causation, and so forth, since in fact such a theory is necessary (to a first approximation) for any attempt at intervention.

In short, a commitment to positive knowledge unites critical anthropologists and Real Scientists against postmodernism, not the other way around.

A good example of this can be seen in the exchange between Bob Scholte and Steven Tylor in the pages of Critique of Anthropology (volume seven issue one if you want to look it up) in 1987. Scholte is a bit of a forgotten figure in anthropology, a leftist and philosophically-inclined anthropologist who was poised to become a major figure in the field until he passed away unexpectedly at a young age. His review of Writing Culture — a key postmodernist text in anthropology — was thus fairly influential in its time, and was a summary of white the older generation of Marxist scholars who came up in the sixties thought about the newer postmodern trends of the eighties.

For Scholte, postmodernism is not a fellow fighter against Truth and Objectivity, but rather a threat to it. A postmodern approach to the poetics of a text is insufficient to normatively ground anthropological critique. Scholte finds

an exclusive appeal to aesthetics and poetry politically inadequate. On the one hand, there is no guarantee that the ’Mephistophelian urge to power’ cannot also infect the poet. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that poetry by definition generates positive or desirable political consequences.

This is, in fact, not a problem of postmodernism but of the Geertzian interpretive anthropology out of which it grew:

spinning textual tapestries inspired by native designs does not, of course, guarantee a moral center. In fact, the latter threatens to disappear from anthropological praxis altogether. And there is the rub. Politics may become merely academic – literally so. Specifically, the politics of interpretation in the academy threatens to draw a ’cordon sanitaire’ (p. 257) around the interpretation of politics in society. That, I would argue, is the greatest danger of symbolic anthropology and – by implication – its literary turn.

Thus Scholte, like some of the Real Scientists involved in #AAAfail, finds the politics of political correctness and academic posturing — the “politics of interpretation in the academy” — totally unappetizing.

While Scholte’s review — like much of his writing — tends to ramble, Tylor’s response does a much better job of summarizing Scholte’s charge against him than Scholte himself. Scholte, he writes, “faults the book for avoiding politics and praxis, for failing to confront the political realities that make the context of its own Mandarin concerns with literary effect” and being, in essence, “a cowardly retreat into a feckless literary aestheticism”.

Tylor was in 1987 nothing if not a poster boy for the more caricatureable branch of postmodernism, and his response to Scholte does not disappoint. “Where Bob finds these essays unpolitical, or evasive in their politics, or unmindful of political contexts,” he writes, “they strike me as being excessively political, too trapped in the discourse of RAYT – of power, politics, reason, epistemology, praxis, critique, and normative import.”

Tylor continues to use the term RAYT — get it?!? — throughout the review, taking Writing Culture to task because the chapters in it “still spin their tales cocooned by the security of representational discourse. Still unmetamorphased, they do not burgeon into light, nor challenge the dark hegemony of politics and epistemology, but presuppose it even in the ironies that enshroud their purposes.” As a result they “preserves the myth of a privileged discourse that founds or grounds all the others.”

In contrast, “post-modernism grants no priority to any discourse. It aims to deconstruct the divisions that give the illusion of separate, hierarchically ordered discourses… It is a way of using these discourses against themselves neither in order to re-hierarchize them nor even to overcome them, but to realize that parodic potential which is their fullest implication.”

This is clearly not a brief for intervention. In fact, Tylor seems to find the idea of intervention in the world ludicrous: “Who now believes that politics or science works any positive transformation? Anthropology, modem science, and history have all conspired to teach us to disavow this hubris of the modem age,” he writes. Even worse, critical anthropology leads to “boredom” since “those complementary modes of demystification called symbolic anthropology and critical anthropology” leads to a “dialectic that mystifies the past and projects an unreachable future that always escapes final totalization in the clash of conflicting interests – until – by this prattling parabasis lulled into slumber, succumbed to the rhythm of their rupture and continuity we are succussed into some new succession RAYTING still.”

It is not clear what Tylor’s solution is — except perhaps that he is beyond looking for one. It is useful, I think, to be reminded that ‘postmodernism’ can be something more than a term of abuse. And as this exchange makes clear, it is not automatically aligned with ‘critical anthropology’ in the fight against ‘Real Science’. After all, one of the ideas behind many brands of Marxism is that it is ‘science’. Too often we assume that we remember what the alignment of forces were in a debate, or we simply don’t learn the specifics of a debate at all because ‘we all know what someone said’. I think it is important that there is some precision and history is necessary in debates about our discipline.

Rex

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

27 thoughts on “I mean, say what you like about the tenets of Critical Anthropology, Dude, at least it’s an ethos

  1. Nice job of clarifying some of the issues being tossed around in relation to science, advocacy, and postmodern thought. Your comment on urban planners advocating traffic lights and graded roads brings up the historical role of relativism in anthropology. As an anthropologist who has been reading other disciplines lately, I have been struck by the extent of normative theory and debate outside of anthropology. This is not quite the same as advocacy or applied research. As a matter of course, planners write about good city design and political scientists write about good government and governance. Environmental justice is becoming a field of its own.

    At first I was surprised and somewhat uncomfortable about the normative approach, but once I got over my relativist hang-ups, I came to see it as valuable and important. But anthropologists (at least those working on urbanism) seem far less willing to engage in theoretical discussion or practical analysis about positive values and practices that should be pursued or encouraged. This is an area where your suggested synthesis of science and advocacy could pay off, both for a more dynamic urban (and other) anthropology, and for getting anthropology more play in public intellectual debates (about which, see the nice discussion today in Neuroanthropology about the conference, “Anthropology of/in Publicity”:

    http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2010/12/30/anthropology-and-publicity/

  2. I’m sympathetic to the general point being made in this post, but I have to say that this part of the conclusion seems a lot like a performative contradiction:

    “Too often we assume that we remember what the alignment of forces were in a debate, or we simply don’t learn the specifics of a debate at all because ‘we all know what someone said’. I think it is important that there is some precision and history is necessary in debates about our discipline.”

    This strikes me as exemplifying just the sort of amorphous generalizing that it seeks to critique. Who exactly is this “we” who makes false assumptions about past alignments of forces? Who is this “we” who simply doesn’t learn the specifics of a prior era’s arguments? Can we have some examples of this sort of oversimplification? Do the examples that could be provided add up to the “we” of a disciplinary majority? I mean, surely there are plenty of anthropologists who either have no opinion about past debates or who do indeed comprehend the relevant specifics. And I’m not convinced as a general matter that we are bad at understanding our own discipline’s past — certainly most of us are not George Stockings, but surely that is not the standard of understanding that is demanded of us. You know?

  3. Those first two paragraphs just don’t actually seem to be true except in some idealized form of this post. Donna Harraway and Judith Butler seem to be both activists and postmodernists. Unless you want to go with the Writing Culture defense—by definition, you can’t be a feminist and also be experimenting in writing at the same time. It’s, like, a contradiction in terms, dude.

  4. Being an activist requires two main ingredients: 1) moral certainty (that something in the world is wrong) and 2) empirical confidence (of the changes necessary to make things better).

    If this is where National Socialism and Critical Anthropology meet, where do they diverge?

  5. I was all set to say what maniaku just said – to reiterate, the incompatibility of postmodernism and ‘intervention’ only holds true for some values of postmodernism, of which Tyler’s [sp?] is a good example. maniaku cites Haraway and Butler by way of counterexample, and I think a lot of contemporary anthropologists who might be described as postmodernists would also fit. A more current example that includes some of that subtlety might be Charles Hale’s 2006 article “Activist Research vs. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology” [Cultural Anthropology 21(1)]. Hale, an activist empiricist if not a ‘scientist’, takes Anna Tsing as his interlocutor — a politically-positioned postmodernist, if not an activist. It seems to me that debate between these more nuanced positions is probably more characteristic of contemporary cultural anthropology.

    Or maybe not. In my field, environmental anthropology, I think some majority might fall in the ‘Real Scientist’/activist slot described here. In the context of #aaafail, those I heard from were roughly equally upset about the changes around the word “science” and those referring to “solving human problems.” And most seemed, to me, to be exactly as uninformed about the history of postmodernism vis-a-vis science and activism as this post describes. Which is contiguous with the culture of that subfield, where at least as a grad student I sometimes felt uncomfortable being what I thought of as a politically engaged postmodernist anthropologist — picked on from both the “left” (primarily activist) and “right” (primarily scientific).

    My point being, I guess, that although the debate described and reframed in this post doesn’t really look like the demographics of cultural anthropology today, it is a useful response to the terms in which “anthropology as a science” has been debated. Thank you!

  6. “Donna Harraway and Judith Butler seem to be both activists and postmodernists. ”

    I wonder if part of the problem is a confusion between postmodernism and poststructuralism. Haraway is clearly poststructuralist – I am familiar with most all of her work and see nothing remotely postmodern about it, but it is definitively poststructuralist. Judith Butler’s early work on gender, too, was certainly poststructuralist; I am not familiar with her recent work, which could be different.

    In response to the frequent use of the label “postmodern” as a criticism of anthropologists, I usually ask “give me an example of a postmodernist work in anthropology.” That usually produces either silence or a list of poststructuralist texts.

    I offer as an example Mick Taussig’s “Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man” in which the most strikingly postmodern feature is his initial juxtaposition of texts from a variety of sources, some of which would not be given much credibility in an anthropological or historical monograph – but his refusal to judge any text as superior, more true or accurate or valid, is precisely the hallmark of postmodernism. Read the lovely article by Joseph Tobin “The HRAF as Radical Text?” in Cultural Anthropology from 1990, to get a clear statement of what a “postmodern” anthropological text would be like.

  7. I’m with Barbara. Haraway and Butler are poststructuralists, not postmodernists.

    In my understanding of the term “postmodern” more accurately describes the social and cultural environment we live in, rather than a theory or technique that people who are not Baudrillard subscribe to.

    Poststructuralism is one way that theorists struggle to understand our postmodern world.

  8. I think the confusion with the term “post-modernism” is result of the term being used to describe several different theoretical approaches. I would argue that there are really four senses of the term post-modernism that are used by anthropologists (and to some degree other social scientists). First, there is “postmodernism” that focuses on deconstructing “culture.” This is the type of work that largely draws upon theorists like Derrida who are not necessarily concerned with concepts of truth value.

    Second, there is “postmodernism” which focuses on power and discourse. This type of work can generally trace its lineage to Foucault. I would personally argue that some of this work is actually vaguely structuralist in the way that describes discourse and power.

    Third, there is work that argues that we are living in a “postmodern” era (like what Matt Thompson is describing above). This work tends to focus on a fragmentation of meaning that supposedly began in the late 20th and has extended into the early 21st century. Some anthropologists focused on globalization and consumption seem to take this approach.

    Finally, there are certain anthropologists who use the term “postmodern” to describe a wide variety of theoretical approaches that they dislike. These can include everything from actually self labelled “postmodern” work to practice theory, some neomarxist approaches and some versions of critical theory.

    I think that some of the arguments in this thread are an outgrowth of the multiple meanings attached to postmodernism. I would personally like to see anthropologists use more precise terminology when they describe something as “postmodern” because it is clear that depending upon the context the term is very vague. When you are describing “postmodernism,” you really need to clearly articulate what sort of postmodernism you are describing.

  9. I don’t see what any of that buys you. It’s just playing around with words rather than actually engaging with anything in particular. Postmodern in a sense 😛

  10. That was a bit flippant but really in this context why is it important to make the distinction between poststructuralism and postmodernism, or to typologize postmodernism as if it was a coherent system of thought (ironic given its tenets).

    “post-modernism grants no priority to any discourse. It aims to deconstruct the divisions that give the illusion of separate, hierarchically ordered discourses… It is a way of using these discourses against themselves neither in order to re-hierarchize them nor even to overcome them, but to realize that parodic potential which is their fullest implication.”

    This is language rooted in Derrida and Foucault, and doesn’t sound that much out of place from the pages of Gender Trouble. Whether they or anyone else is a postmodernist or a poststructuralist or a structuralist in some absolute sense of the term isn’t really the point it seems to me. I mean, if Butler and Haraway are not postmodernists, what is the basis of postmodern feminism? Surely you can’t be arguing the postmodern feminism doesn’t exist? I mean its a well-grounded term. And if it does exist, then surely it must be possible to be both an activist and a postmodernist at the same time? Then are we going to get typologies of activism too I guess…

  11. When I teach the subject, I start with the recognition that all observations are made from a position. This is the starting point of both postmodernist and poststructuralist work, and part of the confusion between the two is that we have often assumed, blithely, that any recognition of the positionality of observations is, per force, “postmodern”. But we can trace two paths that extend from this starting point.

    Postmodernists in fields such as architecture – where our contemporary use of the term began – first rejected the possibility of judging among the positions from which observations are made, and thus adopted that famous stance of incredulity toward master narratives, and explored the possibilities of mixing genres in building design. If we decline to say that this position or that position is somehow better, more valid, more true, then all positions are equally acceptable, even when mixed and blended. This is the point of the HRAF-as-postmodern-text argument. By jumbling together any and all mentions of ethnographic ‘data’ regardless of the source – missionaries, travelers, explorers, anthropologists, colonial officials, et al – HRAF suspends any judgment about the relative merit of these positions. My earlier point was that most anthropologists have been reluctant to adopt this come-what-may postmodernism, though the very few experiments that I know of, like Taussig’s “Shamanism…” have been interesting.

    Poststructuralists, one the other hand, beginning with the same recognition of the positionality of observations, adopted a more critical stance toward the merits or value of positions, deconstructing (I use the term pointedly) the often implicit politics of the position. Malinowski’s Trobriand observations were male-centric, and were thus incomplete, even flawed until Weiner provided a female-centric position from which to make a new set of observations. Evans-Pritchard’s colonialism and primitivism led him to excise material from his Nuer ethnography, and his choice of photographs was driven in part by his homosexuality. And so on. When Donna Haraway developed her proposal that a racist colonial agenda in Africa was being recast as “primate studies”, I seriously doubt that she regarded this as merely a shift in positionality with no political consequences. By asking what is at stake in this or that conception of ‘gender’, Butler was not trivializing any and all positions.

    Consequently, it’s hard to imagine that activism and postmodernism in the sense in which Lyotard explicated it – in his “report” to the Academy – are especially compatible, but human beings have great talent at managing cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, activism and poststructuralism are a close fit, and most anthropologists would be happy to side-step the criticisms that are often leveled against postmodernism.

    As for you, I’ll adopt that wonderfully postmodern expression that my kids use so often: whatever.

  12. I have tried multiple times to post something clever regarding the comparison of Nazis and anthropologists but it does not appear. Perhaps the in-joke was missed. Sigh.

    I labor under the assumption that post-structuralist thought is defined as such by way of its origin as a direct challenge to the underpinnings of structuralism. I have long taken postmodernism to be a term identifying either the black hats or white hats of the Science Wars. YMMV.

  13. Technological determination is only one ideological space opened up by the reconceptions of machine and organism as coded texts through which we engage in the play of writing and reading the world.3 ‘Textualization’ of everything in poststructuralist, postmodernist theory has been damned by Marxists and socialist feminists for its utopian disregard for the lived relations of domination that ground the ‘play’ of arbitrary reading.4 It is certainly true that postmodernist strategies, like my cyborg myth, subvert myriad organic wholes (for example, the poem, the primitive culture, the biological organism). In short, the certainty of what counts as nature — a

    153

    source of insight and promise of innocence — is undermined, probably fatally. The transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost, and with it the ontology grounding ‘Western’ epistemology. But the alternative is not cynicism or faithlessness, that is, some version of abstract existence, like the accounts of technological determinism destroying ‘man’ by the ‘machine’ or ‘meaningful political action’ by the ‘text’. Who cyborgs will be is a radical question; the answers are a matter of survival. Both chimpanzees and artefacts have politics, so why shouldn’t we (de Waal, 1982; Winner, 1980)?

  14. Can’t post the quote for some reason. But just read the cyborg manifesto and note the number of times she uses the term “postmodern”, and uses it to refer to her own position.

  15. “But just read the cyborg manifesto and note the number of times she uses the term “postmodern”, and uses it to refer to her own position.”

    She is incorrect. It happens.

  16. Actually, that was too flippant — the cyborg trope may in fact be closer to a genuine ‘postmodern’ notion, a kind of biotechnological bricolage in which the Body is erased and bodies are composable. I haven’t read that essay in years, but most of Haraway’s work has a political sensitivity that would be out of place to postmodernism.

  17. @MTBradley – for a clever Nazi quote, how about this postmodern gem from Adolf Hitler:

    “There is no such thing as truth. Science is a social phenomenon and like every other social phenomenon is limited by the benefit or injury it confers on the community.”

    I got this from Glyn Daniel (1962). The Idea of Prehistory, p. 147.

    @Barbara Piper – on poststructuralism vs. postmodernism. As a theory-challenged materialist archaeologist, I hesitate to get involved in such rarified topics (that I really don’t understand), but hey this is just a blog: According to postmodernist geographer Edward Soja, poststructuralism is merely a “safer sounding label” for postmodernism. (Soja, “Postmodernism in Geography, 2001, Int. Encycl Soc. Behav Sciences, p. 11863).

  18. Thanks, Michael — I think I can safely say that Soja doesn’t know enough about poststructuralism to make such a silly statement. You may quote me on that in future forum discussions.

  19. @michael e. smith:

    I was curious about Soja’s book Postmodern Geographies, and found this comment in a review: “If postmodernism is a rejection of the metanarratives of modernism (as it is in part according to Lyotard) then the type of geography that Soja is describing is not very postmodern. “Postmodern Geographies” questions but ultimately deifies Marx, and in doing so celebrates the inter-era significance of one of the most rigid and deterministic metanaritives [sic].”

    Up-dated marxism is about as far from postmodernism as one can get.

  20. “There is no such thing as truth. Science is a social phenomenon and like every other social phenomenon is limited by the benefit or injury it confers on the community.”

    Hmmm… There must be a German Romantic thing going on here. My understanding of the Boasians’ take on science is that good science and good for the community were of a piece. The original post that got caught in the spam filters amounted to this: If moral certainty and empirical confidence are where National Socialism and Critical Anthropology meet where do they diverge? For Hitler and Boas at least one of the points of divergence would seem to be the definition of that which constitutes benefit or injury to the community.

  21. For Hitler and Boas at least one of the points of divergence would seem to be the definition of that which constitutes benefit or injury to the community.

    This is a wise and important observation. It reminds me of Richard Rorty’s observation that the theories of language articulated by John Dewey, an American social democrat, and Martin Heidegger, a German Nazi, are very similar. Rorty’s larger point is that there is no necessary connection between theories of this or that and the political positions of those who propose them.

  22. Thanks for the comments all. I think the only intervention I’d make — other than going back and making sure I spell Tyler’s name correctly! — is to make a point about offering Harraway and Butler as examples of scholars who are both ‘political’ and ‘postmodern’. I am sure that many people like Scholte would say that these sorts of authors are not actively political and a good example of the tendency to reduce politics to academic posturing. If you have not seen it, you might want to check out Martha Nussbaum’s “The Professor of Parody”, which is an extended critique of Judith Butler. I am not saying that _I_ personally would buy this argument, but it is one that could be made.

  23. @rex:

    “the only intervention I’d make — other than going back and making sure I spell Tyler’s name correctly! ”

    Haraway deserves the same courtesy.

    Your point about the posturing is well-taken!

  24. Well, the article about Butler was interesting. And also a bit troubling. This is for the fact that it was entirely based on the premise that 1) feminism is being unduly influenced by (quote) “French postmodern thought” 2) that this “French postmodern thought” is primarily represented in the form of the work of Michel Foucault 3) and that the posterchild of this new feminism is Judith Butler. This is all the while assuming (as most feminists do) that feminism is by definition activist (including the feminism of Butler) and therefore the question is whether Butler and her ilk are pursuing the best and most effective form of activism towards their (feminists) goals (the author thinks Butler is not). I also didn’t notice it actually question Butler’s real intervention in actual activism of real events and so on (it sticks pretty closely to analyzing her written work and its theoretical implications). I admit I don’t know her involvements that well myself, though I was under the impression they were quite substantial. We could go into Haraway too I suppose. But anyway, I was reminded of a joke I remember reading (and looked up through google to find a post on language log).

    Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it correct that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a luxury car at the All-Union Championship in Moscow?

    Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev; second, it was not at the All-Union Championship in Moscow, but at a Collective Farm Sports Festival in Smolensk; third, it was not a car, but a bicycle; and fourth he didn’t win it, but rather it was stolen from him.

Comments are closed.