Table of Contents
The savage slot
The savage slot
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of March 07, 2022 (Week 3)
Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2022/3
Main reading: Trouillot ([2003b] 2016)
Other reading: Trouillot ([2003a] 2016); Wolf (1984); Gilberthorpe (2007); Stasch (2015)
Anthropology is based on a split subject
The idea of homo duplex is core to 20th century social science:
- Durkheim: “[C]onsider social facts as things” (Durkheim  1982, 60)
- The implicit rules that people within one society follow are thoughts of the collective consciousness of society, or “social facts.”
- Social facts appear to each person as external constraints on one’s freedom to act (Durkheim  1982, 59).
- Saussure: Study the structure of language, not its history
- “A language, as a collective phenomenon, takes the form of a totality of imprints in everyone’s brain…” (Saussure 1986, 19).
- “[Language] is something which is in each individual, but is none the less common to all. At the same time it is out of the reach of any deliberate interference by individuals” (Saussure 1986, 19).
- The linguistic analogy for culture says that people’s shared worldview is a structure of symbolic categories.
Collective phenomena, social totalities, closed systems
Durkheim and Saussure do not agree on everything or say the same things; they do think alike in one important way.
- Durkheim: Society is like a machine, or like the body of a living organism. It is a whole, and all of the parts contribute to the whole.
- Saussure: The synchronic view of language reveals that a language is a total system in which each part (sign) has value (or signifies some idea) because it is different from all the other parts.
There is no outside of these systems. Everything one experiences is flitered through, or mediated, by these systems and is perceived in relation to one element or another.
Do Durkheim and Saussure have a bias in favor of monoculturalism?
A question to consider in the course of this lecture: Is there a bias influenced by the political context in which these authors are working?
The split subject is a universal theory
The split subject is a new view of human nature.
- Having two minds is fundamental and universal to everyone.
- Having two minds makes it possible for each community to impose its own collective representations or total system of symbolic categores.
We can now look at different ways of life without placing them on a scale of more human and less human, more civilized and less civilized, etc.
Anthropology’s split subject takes to the boundary between nature and culture.
The universalism of the split subject has a long history
The split subject has precursors in European thought. Consider Rousseau’s concept of “the natural state of man” (Rousseau  1964, 104):
[Man in the state of nature is] satisfying his hunger under an oak, quenching his thirst at the first stream, finding his bed at the foot of the same tree that furnished his meal; and therewith his needs are satisfied. (Rousseau  1964, 105)
Rousseau’s theory has two competing tendencies
While parts of Rousseau’s ideas have influenced the later development of anthropology, they are not the same as anthropology’s ideas about human universals.
- On the one hand, Rousseau sees society as something imposed on people, who are each naturally capable of meeting their needs.
- On the other hand, Rousseau appeals to new information about the indigenous societies of the New World to support his conception of the original state of nature.
- New World Indians are noble savages. They are closer to nature than Europeans, and live in just societies (Rousseau  1964, 132–33, 178–79).
Questions for tutorial: Anthropology has never said that some people are closer to nature than others. Does anthropology have its own idea of a noble savage? What is it? What does that mean for anthropology?
Orientalism and primitivism as European ideologies
Edward Said, in his book Orientalism ( 2014), argues that European thinking about their own society is implicitly based on a dichotomy between “The East” and “The West.”
Rousseau’s “Savage” is another kind of Orientalism (Rousseau  1964, 179). (Some call it “primitivism.”) The noble savage is the opposite of the European citizen.
Anthropology and Star Trek
A sidebar: Star Trek has always had a strange fascination with anthropology:
- Jean-Luc Picard is an amateur archaeologist.
- Chakotay (an officer on the USS Voyager) was trained as an archaeologist and anthropologist.
- Michael Burnham (an officer on the USS Discovery) is a “xenoanthropologist.”
- Aliens are portrayed as having “cultures” in the sense of having distinct philosophies or value systems.
- Many plots turn on unstated alien social facts, e.g. what is classified as food, how to greet people, what actions are treated as deviance.
Star Trek’s anthropology reveals the limits of the Durkheimian model of society
Every week, there’s a new planet, with aliens who
- All look the same but are distinct from all other planets
- Dress in similar costumes, but are totally unique
- Have a distinctive name for their whole race, which is the same as the planet, e.g. Mars has “The Martians,” Vulcan is populated by “The Vulcans.”
The aliens of each planet characters are stereotypes of their “cultures”:
- Klingons are a “warrior culture” based on “honor.”
- Vulcans are devoted to an ascetic, self-denying lifestyle and obey a strict interactional code
- This is in addition to the use of obvious national and ethnic stereotypes for human characters.
If each world is a culture, then it is because the writers assume that cultures are like worlds, or islands; each planet is a self-contained unity.
The spaceship is a magic door that separates one world from another
Spaceships are a great plot device.
- You can zip from planet to planet instantaneously.
- You can float “in orbit” and watch everyone as a totality without being seen.
- On a spaceship, you are never an alien to anyone; only the people on a planet are aliens to you.
Johannes Fabian finds the same kind of device in ethnographic writing. He calls it the “denial of coevalness” (Fabian 1983, 31).
- The people of ethnographies live in a constant ethnographic present tense.
- The audience lives in historical time.
Anthropology loves Star Trek back
Both anthropology and Star Trek share a similar kind of imagination of cultural difference.
Eric Wolf has argued that anthropology has long assumed that each society it studies is a “static primitive isolate” that exists outside of historical time (Wolf 1984, 394).
The history of Europe and the histories of other societies are one
Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) theorizes what he calls the capitalist world-system.
- The global system of capitalism is based on a network of unequal exchanges between core and periphery.
- The origins of the unequal exchange between core and periphery begin in the era of European expansion.
- The social sciences as we mostly know them are products of European societies, and are blind to the global structure of domination in which these societies are central.
- European social thought naturalizes the existence of bounded nation-states.
Eric Wolf (1982) notes that anthropology’s separation from sociology is influenced by the same ideology.
- Sociology specializes in so-called “modern” societies that change, grow, and improve.
- Anthropology specializes in societies that are assumed to be static and traditional.
Each society’s history is a facet of a global history
- All societies are products of historical changes. They are never static.
- All histories are interrelated. No society exists in pristine isolation. People’s contact and interaction across boundaries drive historical change.
- The material base of a society is where societies come into contact. Social and cultural change are responses to historical changes in uses of the environment.
Example: Native North American societies and the 17th century fur trade
- Native societies gained new opportunities for wealth and technology by trading fur (Wolf 1982, 163).
- The Iroquois confederation of tribes shifted to the mutual defense of valued hunting grounds to maintain access to fur, and becomes more like a state in the sense of a permanent bureaucracy (Wolf 1982, 165–67).
- Large-scale bison hunting by Native societies of the Plains was driven by the opportunity to trade pemmican with fur traders (Wolf 1982, 176–78).
- The influx of European wealth in the Pacific Northwest Coast region spurred the elaboration of competitive gift exchange in potlatch feasts to determine the rank of different groups (Wolf 1982, 191–92).
A new human nature?
- Wolf helps us discard any remaining influence of the noble-savage idea in anthropology, but reopens the question of human nature.
- For Wolf, every society is capable of change and growth, because every individual is always driven to compete for resources and to enhance their position both materially and socially.
- Wolf’s historical framework helps to answer many questions about the contemporary world, but it does not explain why these changes take hold.
- Wolf recognize that people only want and work for things they are taught to value in the context of their cultures, but he seems to assume that people’s wants aren’t really all that different anyways.
References and further reading
Durkheim, Emile. (1895) 1982. The Rules of Sociological Method. Edited by Steven Lukes. London: The Macmillan Press. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-16939-9.
Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gilberthorpe, Emma. 2007. “Fasu Solidarity: A Case Study of Kin Networks, Land Tenure, and Oil Extraction in Kutubu, Papua New Guinea.” American Anthropologist 109 (1): 101–12. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2007.109.1.101.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1755) 1964. “Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men [The second discourse].” In The first and second discourses, edited by Roger D. Masters, translated by Roger D. Masters and Judith R. Masters, 77–228. New York: St. Martin’s Press. http://archive.org/details/firstseconddisco00rousrich.
Said, Edward W. (1978) 2014. Orientalism. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1986. Course in general linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye, and Albert Riedlinger. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court. http://archive.org/details/courseingenerall00sausrich.
Stasch, Rupert. 2015. “How an Egalitarian Polity Structures Tourism and Restructures Itself Around It.” Ethnos 80 (4): 524–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2014.942226.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. (2003a) 2016. “Adieu, Culture: A New Duty Arises.” In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, 97–116. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-137-04144-9.
———. (2003b) 2016. “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.” In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, 7–28. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-1-137-04144-9.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. The Modern World-System, Vol. I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.
Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. 1984. “Culture: Panacea or Problem?” American Antiquity 49 (2): 393–400. http://www.jstor.org/stable/280026.