I don’t ever teach an Intro to Anthropology, a fact for which I wake each day thankful and perform several ritual ablutions and say long meandering prayers to as many culturally specific deities as I can remember. But if I did, I would start with Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class. In fact, I might even make it the only text for my awesome four-field anthropology class.
Economists think the book belongs to them–or those few evolutionary and/or institutional economists who take the book seriously (Geoffrey Hodgson leads this ragtag bunch of misfits and loyalists yearly into battle). But the book is anything and everything but economics. In fact, the book is a weird and wonderful combination of anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology and speculative phenomenology. One of the reasons people might not grok the fundamental wackiness of this book is that it, like most of Veblen’s work, contains 0 (zero) citations or references, despite being built on a kind of elaborate scaffold of everything the late 19th century had to offer.
The most obvious of these is that the book is pure Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Burnett Tylor. Veblen borrows Morgan’s speculative system of stages from Ancient Society more or less wholesale to make his argument about how the Leisure Class develops and why people engage in comparisons of worth. So you can immediatetly spend a week talking about matrilineality in the Iriquois or the critique of technological periodization. Two of the chapters focus on “survivals” –ranging from hunting exploits and their survival in football games to survivals of religious life– so you can get your Tylor on and talk about the mechanisms of cultural change and the descent with modification of cultural traits. But it doesn’t end there– Veblen also draws on folks like John Lubbock and John McLennan to talk about the both the distant past and modern savages–he is especially fond of “marriage by capture” and the origins of property and civilization. Of course, it is now our duty to if not ignore Victorian anthropology of this sort, to at least denounce it, so to cleanse your undergraduates, you spend a diverting week talking about Franz Boas’ critiques of this stuff, and try to get the students to argue for the existence and reappearance of Conspicuous Consuymption without the ethnocentrist, unilinear version of progress.
I haven’t even gotten started, and we’ve managed to work in archaeology and biological anthropology–at least in their barbaric stages–into the class. When we want to come back to the present, we can teach anthropology of fashion (Ch. 7), anthropology of sport (ch. 10), anthropology of religion (11, 12, 13) and so on. Then of course, your upcoming can pre-empt you classes on Bourdieu with the chapters on invidious distinction and the last one, “The Higher Learning” (Homo Academicus avant la lettre, which was expanded by Veblen into a book of its own), on the foibles of the academic class. And Voila, fiat Anthropology. No more textbooks!
But what of Linguistic Anthropology you say– for that you have to read H.L. Mencken’s totally hilarious critique in Prejudices (ch. 5). This also allows you to teach about conservatism and its avatars, something we college professors are accused of never doing.
How you will fit Jared Diamond in is an exercise left for the reader, but I hear he has a very nice home in the hills of Los Angeles…