The savage slot

The savage slot

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of March 07, 2022 (Week 3)

Slides available at

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:

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.

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.

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 [1755] 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 [1755] 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.

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 ([1978] 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 [1755] 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:

Star Trek’s anthropology reveals the limits of the Durkheimian model of society

Every week, there’s a new planet, with aliens who

The aliens of each planet characters are stereotypes of their “cultures”:

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.

Johannes Fabian finds the same kind of device in ethnographic writing. He calls it the “denial of coevalness” (Fabian 1983, 31).

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.

Eric Wolf (1982) notes that anthropology’s separation from sociology is influenced by the same ideology.

Each society’s history is a facet of a global history

For Wolf

Example: Native North American societies and the 17th century fur trade

A new human nature?

References and further reading

Durkheim, Emile. (1895) 1982. The Rules of Sociological Method. Edited by Steven Lukes. London: The Macmillan Press.

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.

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.

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.

Stasch, Rupert. 2015. “How an Egalitarian Polity Structures Tourism and Restructures Itself Around It.” Ethnos 80 (4): 524–47.

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.

———. (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.

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.