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.