I’ll break end-of-semester radio silence today to make some comments on Gillian Gillison’s recent article All for One and One for All: A Response to Marshall Sahlins. It’s a great example of how not to engage in academic argumentation — in fact it’s the opposite of Sahlins’s new piece at the London Review of Books which is actually worth reading.
Sahlins’s article is an expansion of his earlier piece discussing his resignation from the National Academy of Sciences. It includes a long discussion of the logic of the human sciences, and how one can be rigorous and scientific without having to do exactly what physicists or biologists do. It’s a familiar argument to many of us, and an accessible summary for people who haven’t heard it yet: the human sciences study humans with whom we interact, not inert objects. Our ability to study people hinges on our species’s ability to communicate intersubjectively. It is intersubjectivity, not objectivity, that grounds the human sciences.
Of course, there is a lot more to fundamental issues in the epistemology of the human sciences than will fit in a single column, and we could talk about them all day. I mention this column here not only because it deserves attention, but also because of how different it is in clarity and conception than Gillison’s piece.
Gillison is an anthropologist who has worked in Papua New Guinea, and she has a reputation as a superb ethnographer and interpreter of Gimi life ways. Decades ago she engaged in a debate with Marilyn Strathern. Over time, most people now find Strathern’s position attractive. Since Strathern was not interviewed in Dissent and Sahlins was, Gillison attempts to make Sahlins wear a Marilyn Strathern mask and then criticize him for positions he doesn’t hold. It’s a cranky and poorly executed display which displays Gillison’s age as well as her lack of familiarity with Sahlins’s actual arguments.
Gillison starts by arguing that Sahlins’s resignation from NAS is “late and incongruous” because “the discipline Sahlins helped shape in the decades since the Vietnam War-era scandals no longer possesses any specialized knowledge for war-mongering imperialists to misappropriate.” I think the idea here is that anthropology has fallen into such a state of disrepair it no longer has any useful function, and therefore…. anthropologists shouldn’t be able to resign from NAS? This is a bit like saying Stephen Hawking was wrong to boycott the Israeli president’s conference because none of the members of Israeli special forces are theoretical physicists. In fact, I believe Sahlins agrees with Gillison, and has argued in the past that the quality of HTS’s work is lousy. But something useless can be wrong, and someone doesn’t have to be useful to oppose evil.
Gillison is correct to write that Sahlins argues that “American military adventurism” and “an outdated ethnocentric anthropology” share “the same bad idea… the mistake of universality… based upon the link between biology and culture.” However, she is wrong to say that “Sahlins misinterprets the fact that culture is ‘a flexible, varied means of adapting to a wide and changing variety of circumstances’ to mean that there are no limits at all, making the search for them not just misguided but also immoral, a descent into sociobiology and racism.”
How can Sahlins be a complete cultural relativist and resign from NAS out of a sense of moral outrage? In the course of a few paragraphs Gillison manages to loose track of Sahlins’s actual position and turn him into a morality-free, fact-agnostic postmodernist. It’s an odd trick to try to pull off, since Sahlins has spent a major part of his career arguing against forms of postmodernism that are fact-free and give up concrete political struggle. I think perhaps she simply hasn’t read enough of his work to understand what is actual position is. “How do mainstream anthropologists deal with violence in other cultures of a kind that may interest the U.S. military?” She asks at one point, “they theorize it out of existence.” Theorize it out of existence? Really didn’t Sahlins write an entire book examining the cultural organization of violence in other cultures? Sahlins argues that the search for universals is “misguided”? Aren’t cultural universals the subject of his latest work?
There is more to say about this article — Gillison’s strained attempt to make Sahlins into Strathern and her hostility to academic advising, her argument that Sahlins does not search for human universals despite the fact that this is exactly what he does do — but really the key to her position is a kind of universalist liberalism which is offended by moral complexity and feels lost without a simplistic biological grounding. It feels like Gillison is trying to revisit the debate surrounding Okin’s Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? In which she plays Okin and Sahlins plays Azizah al-Hibri. Or, maybe, a reboot of the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate in which Gillison plays Obeyesekere and Wendy Brown plays Sahlins.
In the end, there isn’t much to say about Gillison’s position because she hasn’t adequately portrayed Sahlins’s. I’m sure there are lots of good criticisms of the state of anthropology today and its moral grounding, but you won’t get them from Gillison.