Reflections on an Anarchic Anthropology

I left philosophy because I was dissatisfied with its methods and frustrated at the inability to articulate this dissatisfaction with the tools permitted. Which is not to say analytic philosophy does not have its own methodological questions, but that perhaps now more than ever, even these meta-theoretical questions revolve around a generally accepted framework of methodological means and ends, your enumerable, axiomatized systems and your Tarskian truths. It sometimes felt like they would sooner declare the end of “method” as Fukuyama had done with history than get down and dirty with the details. To be fair, there is something valuable and reassuring (or we would not be praising Bernie Sanders for his integrity) about this stability of identity (though some of this also has to do with a historical lack of diversity) which, in all its faults, at least made it easier for people like me to decisively move away from its tenets, since there was something stable to move away from. For me, it led straight into what to me was presented as an almost anarchic terrain of anthropology, a whole new level of trouble.

By anarchic, I do not mean chaotic (though there may be a bit of that), and certainly not random; I mean the negation of the Greek term arché, which meant first principle, foundation, or ruling power. As such, the anarchy is positive, in the vein of Proudhon’s lineage of anarchist thinkers, rather than for any lack of some core tenets (which is not to say there isn’t a lack, just that this is not what makes it anarchic). This, of course, goes against the nominally axiomatized field of professional philosophy, who have, at this point, left it to the mathematicians and logicians to fight over the axioms anyways.

Is Anthropology (yes, capital A) content to let these different, often contradictory, methodological “communities” do their own things in their own corners? To say, live and let live? On the one hand, my experiences with anthropology in my undergraduate degree led me to believe that while the archaeo-bio-anthropologists and socio-cultural anthropologists were vaguely aware of each other, prolonged methodological interaction only occurred in areas that explicitly intersected, and it was only in these areas that contradictions needed to be ironed out. On the other hand, Harrison, Haraway, and Jobson’s pieces clearly demonstrated that even within sociocultural anthropology there is a call to unite these communities under some higher, often political, ends. But that means holding up the means, the methods, to some form of scrutiny, and making some form of value-judgment; these ends do work to denounce the careless relativism that often comes with a slogan like “live and let live.” Sure, there may be no a priori reason for more intersectional analyses (why should “humans” not be the only viable object of study?), but there sure seems to be a political one. As Haraway (1988) says, “So much for those of us who would still like to talk about reality with more confidence than we allow to the Christian Right when they discuss the Second Coming…” And so maybe we want a core after all, even if it is neither purely logical nor self-evident, necessary but not sufficient.

In Ryan Cecil Jobson’s (2020) words, what we’re looking for is “patchy”, “incoherent”, and “abolitionist,” which, despite Jobson and Anand Pandian’s (2019) differences in rhetoric, Pandian would probably agree with. Jobson sees anthropology as burning down some of its theoretical assumptions while Pandian sees growth as inherent in anthropology’s methodology, but both are committed to the unleashing of a possibilities of what anthropology could be, and of setting the foundations in which such possibilities are the normality, not the exception, a kind of Deleuzian deterritorialization.

Jobson’s term “incoherent” is perfect, I think, because it allows anthropology to be erratic without being precarious, if by the latter we mean in danger of collapse. Things can change without it all burning down, and despite Jobson insisting on letting anthropology burn, he still talks as if anthropology still survives after everything is burnt; how can that be anything but incoherent?

If some of the last two paragraphs are starting to sound a little “postmodern,” that’s because it is, which makes Faye V. Harrison’s move of situating anthropology within the wider moral-political ends in her book Decolonizing Anthropology (1991) an important one (I realize many of the authors do have implicit moral-political ends, but Harrison’s piece is the one that makes it the protagonist). The anarchism is a luxury only permitted by a continued effort to ground anthropology in emancipatory politics, or whatever you want to call it. Without this grounding, the differences between Jobson and Pandian shows rather starkly; the growth and changes that Pandian places his hopes on become directionless, and as history has shown, such “directionless” energies merely flow along informal vectors of power. There is no real surprise in the rise of what some are now calling the “postmodern conservatives.” Radical skepticism might reveal these vectors of power, but it sure does nothing much to stop it.

What I found fascinating about Harrison’s piece is her albeit incredibly brief note on aesthetics as it pertains to the above question of postmodernity. Since the value of postmodern art has at this point been talked to death in mainstream culture, it provided a good reference point to the more niche discussions on anthropological methodology. After all, is not the famous creed “art for art’s sake” simply the aesthetic form of an anarchist anthropological terrain with no moral-political direction? The aesthetics of postmodern anthropological research, without some unifying goal, becomes transgressive for its own sake, devoid of meaning, becomes appealing in ways predicated merely on “the cultural and intellectual tastes of educated Western readers,” just as the biggest postmodern art pieces have. The ostensible transgression is recaptured by the informal powers, which, if you’ll excuse the bias here, is most likely capital. Contrary to what any university websites might claim, as Harrison implies (incisively), interdisciplinarity and pluralism, so often seen as the radical break from rigid, scholastic categorization (which, at this point, has been out of date for quite some time), does not, by itself, necessarily lead to any emancipatory position. Jason Reza Jorjani, a graduate of the progressive philosophy program at Stony Brooks and self-identified white nationalist, is a testament to that fact. Perhaps scholars like Zora Neale Hurston and Katherine Dunham are better models.

So, if what anthropology does should be subject to some moral-political end, then it follows that what anthropology keeps should also be, hence Harrison’s move into the topic of canon setting. But she goes further than that. We could have a list of 9 books by people of color and 1 by a white man, and it would mean little if the book by the white man provides the theoretical framework in which all the other books fit, an act that reduces the other books into “interesting ethnographic data” or “narrow geographically-specific topics.” The idea that a politics of inclusion/recognition/representation that is effectively quantitative is mere façade is not new, but I like Harrison’s formulation in terms of establishing canon because it calls out the trickery that inclusion in some course reading list is somehow less tokenistic than including some black best friend in a white sitcom. It matters what canonical works do. Again, what postmodernism, or anarchism with no end, gets wrong is that one can roll their eyes at non-white theoreticians who dare to abstract beyond their standpoint epistemology while allowing the historically white male theoretical assumptions to continue virtually unabated. Rethinking canon also means rethinking the role each text plays within the canon; why not interpret your Zora Neal Hurstons into abstracted theory and your Foucaults and Deleuzes into geographically particular ethnographies of white bourgeois academics (perhaps a social science of philosophy will do just that). It is not just a problem of inclusion/recognition/representation, but a problem of revaluation. What will such an anthropology look like?

All this reminds me of a piece by Michael Pollan called Weeds Are Us, in which he rejects the idea that to allow his garden to grow as it wishes, weeds and all, is in any way “natural,” free from the humans. No, he proclaims, we are already implicated in the garden’s development, whether we like it or not. The weeds are no more “natural” than the plants we choose to grow. “And so I weed,” he says. And I say there’s plenty of weeding to be done in anthropology too.


References:

Anand Pandian, A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times (Duke, 2019)

Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial
Perspective,” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3 (1988): 575-599

Faye V. Harrison, “Anthropology as an Agent of Transformation: Introductory Comments and Queries,” in
Faye V. Harrison, ed., Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology of Liberation,
pp. 1–15 (Association of Black Anthropologists and American Anthropological Association, 1991)

Ryan Cecil Jobson, “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019,”
American Anthropologist vol. 122, no. 2 (2020): 259-271.

Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” (HarperCollins, 2018)