Uncontacted tribes: Dispelling exoticized misconceptions

With the North Sentinelese uncontacted tribe being in the news recently because of the high-profile killing of the missionary who foolishly tried to go to the island, I feel as an anthropology student who knows a fair amount about “uncontacted” tribes that I should try to get rid of the mystique and the exoticism surrounding the label “uncontacted”.

The North Sentinelese are perfectly aware of the outside world. An anthropologist actually briefly was allowed on the island in the 1970s. They choose to be isolated from the outside world to maintain their traditional way of life. Furthermore, they are some of the most vulnerable populations on earth due to lack of exposure to viruses like influenza, and are threatened by complete demographic collapse if they are contacted again.

Amazonian uncontacted tribes in particular have had more contact than they desire with predatory loggers and cattle ranchers. Survival International states about the Akuntsu tribe that, “Just five Akuntsu survive. One of the men, Pupak, has lead shot still buried in his back, and mimes the gunmen who pursued him on horseback. He and his small band of survivors now live alone in a fragment of forest – all that remains of their land, and their people.” Pupak’s wound is a daily reminder to him of how the outside world is pressing in on “uncontacted” tribes more every day. Often times, we never hear the stories of Pupak or other members of tribes that were previously “uncontacted”, tribes like the Guayaki or Atchei-Gatu that Pierre Clastres so beautifully renders in his ethnography Chronicle of the Guayaki. 

Therefore, it is unfortunate that just when a story about an uncontacted tribe makes front page headlines, one witnesses the same exoticization and sensationalism being perpetrated by the American media. Take a look at the difference between these headlines, one by CNN and one by the BBC:

‘You guys might think I’m crazy’: Diary of US ‘missionary’ reveals last days in remote island

Andamans: US man’s death puts spotlight on ‘tribal tourism’

It is evident that the second headline from the BBC avoids the sensationalism of spotlighting the diary of the missionary and focuses on the meaning behind the death and the plight of the people who killed this man. For some reason, CNN feels compelled to emphasize the “remoteness” of the island and immediately puts the reader in the position of the white Western missionary rather than the uncontacted tribe. While tragic, this positionality is disturbed by the BBC headline and instead goes deeper than the isolated incident by framing the issue of the Andaman Islands, this tribe, and this killing within the perspective of exploitative “tribal tourism”. Tribal tourism is just one extension of the exoticization of this high-profile tribe that eventually led this man to feel the need to bring the Gospel of Jesus to these “heathens”. While one could analyze at length what this means for contemporary evangelical Christianity or its relation to the history of evangelizing indigenous tribes and colonialism, one should not forget the specifically 21st century nature of this problem and the role the media plays in perpetuating it. Exoticization of tribal people is now demonstrably a deadly thing, and outlets like CNN should be more careful with how they portray sensitive and serious subjects such as these. CNN may be 24/7 news outlet that covers entertainment stories and serious news stories, but they should not sacrifice good journalism for eye-catching headlines and lack of rigorous analysis. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for an outlet like CNN, which has been criticized for being, like Fox News, “infotainment”. All credit to the BBC for writing an excellent piece on this subject. The BBC highlights that the North Sentinelese are continually put at risk by high levels of tourism to the Andaman Islands, with over 500,000 visitors to the island per year, and meanwhile this death reveals an ongoing problem with loosening restricted permit laws for tourists on the Andaman Islands.

If you would like to learn more about uncontacted tribes, visit this link from the leading tribal rights organization in the world, Survival International. The leader of Survival International also released a statement about the Andaman Island killing, stating:

““Tribes like the Sentinelese face catastrophe unless their land is protected. I hope this tragedy acts as a wake up call to the Indian authorities to avert another disaster and properly protect the lands of both the Sentinelese, and the other Andaman tribes, from further invaders.”

Finally, one should read about the Jarawa tribe of the Andamans to understand what the North Sentinelese could become. The “human safaris” that plague the indigenous tribes of the Andamans that have stopped resisting contact have introduced more than just diseases. Rapes by tourists, poaching, and logging now all threaten the way of life of the Jarawa. Further, attempts by the Indian government to completely assimilate the tribe into “mainstream” society are underway. In conclusion, when one writes an article about the North Sentinelese without mention of the Jarawa, like CNN did but the BBC thankfully did not, you are complicit in the destruction of this tribe. Shame on you, CNN.

 

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A defense of skepticism

 

As an anthropologist, I am usually a proponent of respect for “non-Western worldviews” (whatever that means). However, I noticed something problematic in the comments section of this video by the channel Genetically Modified Skeptic. This video is a deconstruction of the Gaia channel/streaming platform, which is purportedly a channel devoted to alternative medicine and paranormal subjects, but Genetically Modified Skeptic claims it is a essentially a scam. I believe he is correct, and I believe that Gaia is promoting pseudoscience.

However, in the comments section of this video, the argument that this channel is simply “counteracting scientism, which is a new religion”, trying to counterbalance Western rationalism, and promoting non-Western worldviews was prevalent. I saw almost verbatim all of these arguments being employed. I argue that there is a significant difference between counterbalancing rationalism and the Western dualistic extreme of irrationalism, and that categories such as this are a product of the Western mind and its long philosophical history of the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, reason vs. passion, etc. Spirituality as it is understood by the purveyors of New Age spirituality and New Age pseudoscience is fundamentally different from non-Western worldviews. Furthermore, the Marxist argument of religion as false consciousness can be legitimately employed in this regard, if one takes into account the full and original purview of Marxian thought on religion.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about how leftists and legitimate intellectuals should distance themselves from the fundamentally irrationalist ideas currently in vogue among some of the “politically correct” Left. Among this crowd, the ideas of postmodernism and deconstruction have been hijacked to advocate for a kind of ecological New Age spiritualism. Funnily enough, the essence of this problematic is found in the “Gaia hypothesis”, a theory proposed by chemist James Lovelock, in which the Earth can be considered a self-regulating biological “organism”. This theory has been co-opted by advocates of New Age spirituality who interpret the hypothesis as a neo-Pagan religion. Furthermore, from a theoretical and scientific point of view, the theory has flaws. One example of a flaw in this theory is that as a self-regulating system, the earth should seemingly be able to adapt to climate change. On a purely semantic level, calling this theory the “Gaia hypothesis” opens up a Pandora’s Box of anthropomorphization and attributions of sentience to entities that do not have any. Zizek goes on to argue that the Gaia hypothesis fits within the capitalist ideological framework of environmentalism as an essentially individual problem: we must “get back to nature” rather than looking structurally at the concrete environmental struggles and policies that shape the planet. Rather than looking at the planet as simply an ecosystem, the Gaia hypothesis stretches this hypothesis and essentializes the concept of ecosystem as inherently stable and permanent, instead of fragile and vulnerable. Viewing Earth as the “providing Mother”, while it has deep roots in ancient religions across the world, is no longer tenable in the Anthropocene, in which human-induced climate change can change the very dynamics that have structured the earth on geological time scales.

The Gaia platform obviously embraces this double-edged sword of a concept. But the concept is not without its merits on a purely formal level: seeing things as interconnected is not wrong. However, the manner in which they are interconnected is ignored in favor of a holistic, largely “essentialist” spiritual worldview. Rather than seeing those interconnections as a potential problem (like the cascading effects of climate change), interconnection has become the buzzword of the New Age movement.

Genetically Modified Skeptic does a good job of summarizing what Gaia is all about, so I won’t repeat his assessment. Rather, I’d like to focus in on why Gaia is not promoting “non-Western worldviews”, but rather cultural appropriations of non-Western worldviews jumbled together with scientific claims that are untenable.

One of Gaia’s video categories on their streaming service is “yoga”. What hasn’t been said before about the cultural appropriation of yoga by white, Western liberals? I’ll try my best to summarize. Essentially, yoga became popular during the 1960s during the counterculture movement as more people began to explore Eastern spirituality. Because these Americans were “open-minded people”, they did not want to adhere to the strict traditions of a particular system, but rather saw yoga as a “consciousness-expanding tool”. The downside of this worldview is that what made yoga effective in the first place, as a system of meaning within a larger cultural framework, dissolved in favor of yoga as either a general spiritual “healing technique” or a purely physical exercise. Sure, the buzzwords about “enlightenment” and “opening the soul” remains, but not in its original forms. One could argue that yoga never really “worked” in this regard, but the fact remains that the proper respect to the original traditions that practiced yoga (Hinduism and Buddhism) was not given. Furthermore, the idea of practicing yoga as a person who is not a devotee of these original faiths is as alien as taking the eucharist without being a Catholic, or wearing a yarmulke without being Jewish as a fashion statement. It is basically a statement of personal choice, a hobby rather than a spiritual commitment.

Gaia enthusiasts may vehemently disagree with me when I say that they do not practice as a spiritual commitment, or may argue that they are free to practice yoga as they please, and that yoga is not the explicit property of Hindus or Buddhists. However, I argue that they are not practicing yoga at all, but rather a distorted version of it. Furthermore, I argue, at least within the confines of Tantric Buddhism, that yoga was never meant to be general practice among the general populous, but it was designed as an esoteric practice only for the most advanced adepts and solitary hermits. There is a reason for this: the original practice of yoga involves practices such as doing 100,000 prostrations, not putting your leg over your head. Yoga in its secular form has become an interesting form of exercise, but that is not the original meaning of the word yoga.

Furthermore, while modern yogis and yoga enthusiasts may claim they are combining their spiritual practice into their practice of yoga, and employ some of the same terminology including chakra, without the context of chakra within a larger Tantric worldview, which involves either devotion to a specific god in the Hindu tradition, or the realization of the body as a Buddha body in the Buddhist tradition, the word chakra and the positions of the wheels in the body is virtually meaningless. There is no heart chakra, no real physical heart chakra. It is metaphor for spiritual realization: this is evident enough in Buddhist texts. Some New Age yogic practitioners seem to think that there is some sort of real essential thing called a heart chakra, as the also believe in a real thing called the Self. This is why New Age yoga tends to veer toward the Hindu tradition: but I digress.

From this example, it is evident that New Age spirituality is categorically different from “non-Western worldviews”. There are certain patterns of thought of a Western mind are so deeply embedded that something akin to a “subconscious cultural divide” exists between Western and non-Western cultures. Even when a Western mind seeks to consciously overcome these patterns of thought, the Western cannot help but systematize, analyze, and apply rational systems to what are essentially folkloric and customary habits. I argue that it is hard for the Western mind to understand the philosophical niceties and metaphors that surround the Eastern philosophical mindset. Spirituality among Westerners has always been literal: Gods really exist, spirits are real and tangible if they want to be. From my ethnographic experience, culturally Buddhist people from Asian countries do not experience belief in the same way. Rather, a pragmatic attitude prevails about spirituality: if it works, I believe it. Therefore, there are practices related to spirits, demons, etc. but they are practical endeavors made to appease rather ill-defined malevolent beings to ensure a practical purpose: a good harvest, etc. This is the way it has always been for many traditional societies. The Western rationalist cannot help but make these organic, living breathing traditions into stale, systematized concrete ideas. For instance, the idea of a “guardian spirit” in a tree or forest prevalent among animist societies is intimately connected, as Roy Rappaport and Darrel Posey argue, to concrete traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and specific knowledge about certain environments and cycles. Rather than a vague, holistic idea of “being connected to nature” (a product of real alienation from nature), traditional societies experience being connected to nature as a pragmatic, real, and everyday reality. Knowing the cycles of the seasons is experienced directly, as a part of their practical means of subsistence, as well as their larger epistemological and cosmological framework. However, the Western project and process of abstraction of these experienced cosmologies reifies these belief systems into terms like “animism”. Therefore, the project of “neo-Paganism” “neo-animism” is in vain, because the material substrate in which these belief systems were embedded is gone.

In conclusion, New Age spirituality is a product of the alienated Western consciousness, and in many ways can be interpreted as a product of capitalism and a longing for wholeness that is not essential to the human mind. As hard as it is to swallow, the “search for meaning” that drives Western people living in industrialized countries to seek answers to philosophical questions is not a cultural universal. Where I believe this skeptic channel could adapt their argument is viewing these people not as inherently biologically “insane”, but as the product of complex cultural and historical dynamics that have been given many names: the “Death of God”, the great disenchantment, or more concretely, the rise of feelings of nihilism driven by sociological ills in capitalist society.

 

Tales from Iceland: the savageness of nature

Finally the blog will live up to its name!

In my travels I frequently end up talking to tour guides and paying very close attention to what they say. I had an excellent guide through the Golden Circle (a circle of three important stops outside Reykjavik- Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall) whom I had an excellent conversation with. The guy’s name is Elvar (sic) on the Grayline Iceland Golden Circle classic tour. Great guy- Elvar if you are out there, you’re a good bloke! He had an extensive knowledge of Icelandic folklore and we had a great conversation about Icelandic culture, history, and folklore. Elvar expertly woves tales of the Ejill saga with the history of the drowning pool at Thingvellir, the law rock of the Alþingi, the war of the bishops, and of course- elves! Tourists to Iceland get no shortage of stories of elves.

If you go to Iceland, you have to do the Golden Circle tour, its incredible. We got to pet Icelandic horses and everything- and it wasn’t that expensive at all! Iceland is a travel gem- just don’t eat very much in Reykjavik! The prices are as gargantuan as the snow capped peaks. Go to the Bonus grocery stores if you are on a budget.

But back to the real reason I’m writing about Iceland: it’s culture. My guide very adeptly identified that religion for Icelanders is a complicated matter because they became Christian very late- around 1000 AD, and even still they retained much of their folk belief. For instance, the bishops had regular discussions about what to do in case of encountered a giant or troll!

That’s Iceland for you, still a relatively remote region of the world, despite its connection to the larger Scandinavian area. The rural areas of Iceland are very cut off- there are many small towns of less than 1000 people. There are still a few houses I saw tucked away all by themselves on the mountainside amidst vast tundra plains of rock and moss.

In this way, Iceland reminded me very much incidentally of Bhutan, another mountainous country in which they have many stories of nature spirits who inhabit the waters and rocks. If there’s anything I learned, its that Icelandic folk belief is almost “indigenous”, and certainly animist. Their connection to the earth is strong, as well as the sea, a mountainous island that is unique among the world’s landscapes and unique in its culture.

Iceland retains much of its ruggedness well into the 21st century. They’ve experienced a lot of deforestation, but most of it occurred during the first years of colonization a millennium ago. Power lines cross the otherwise empty landscape, but otherwise it is still mostly unspoiled. In this way, Iceland is not very much different from some areas of the Himalayas I encountered- the powerlines mark both with the sign of modernity, but retain much of its natural brilliancy. Let’s hope the conservation of Iceland’s natural splendor is taken as seriously by its people as its 100% renewable geothermal and hydroelectric energy. And lets hope tourism to Iceland does not explode out of proportion with what it the land is willing to bear.

The raw power of nature in Iceland is something that is still unstoppable. The volcanic activity is substantial: the largest single eruption in modern times occurred here in the 1700s, purportedly shooting lava plumes 1 km in height into the sky! Incredible. Nature here is still something feared and respected, and not just considered pretty or even worshiped as “mother earth”. No- Mother Earth truly is a bitch here! She was the mother of Þórr after all! In Iceland, waterfalls still rage, volcanoes roar, and you truly do feel the power and glory of unspoiled nature. 

See those glaciers on top of the mountain up there in the picture? They may not be there for long. Icelanders- if you truly are as connected with nature as you say you are, you must protect these natural treasures for everyone to come, especially the rightful owners of this land- yourselves! If anything, do it for selfish reasons! Nature can be savage, but now humanity can even fell the mighty glaciers that once covered this great land. 

Do Zizek and Peterson agree on religion?

Spoiler: no they do not.

Jordan Peterson is so fundamentally bad at making arguments that he can’t help but make the naturalistic fallacy every time he opens his mouth. Hierarchy is natural and good, religion is natural and therefore good- that’s his whole spiel, as many authors and columnists have pointed out explicitly. It’s pretty obvious when he engages in these kind of religious apologetics that his ultimate agenda is propping up conservative ideology and politics, but why does it appear in this video that Peterson is making a similar argument to one that Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek often repeats about God and the unconscious? Is it because Zizek is a closet fascist like his detractors claim?

What exactly is Zizek’s argument? Here’s a good video clip summarizing Zizek’s position on religion:

Zizek states in his works many times that the Dostoyevskyian assertion that “If God does not exist, than everything is permitted” is actually true in reverse: “If God does not exist, nothing is permitted”. Why? Because true believers or fundamentalists can violate seemingly inviolable moral law if they “fulfill God’s will” (think jihadists who martyr themselves for the cause of Islam). But why is nothing permitted to those that do not believe? Because for Zizek, they still unconsciously believe in a Big Other.

This bears a strange resemblance to Peterson’s argument that non-believers secretly believe, but not all is as it seems. Peterson is simply falling back on the old “no atheists in foxholes” argument: non-believers unconsciously believe they may be punished in the afterlife if they commit a sin.

Here Peterson commits a fundamental misreading of Christianity. As Zizek argues following Hegel, in Christianity God literally dies on the cross in the act of kenosis or becoming fully man. Thus for Christ, one’s fate in the afterlife should be inconsequential to you when considering what is right and wrong. Thus, atheists, in their conception of a moral law that is higher than God himself (if he exists at all) are more faithful to the spirit of Christianity than Christianity itself. This may seem just as obscurantist as Peterson’s claim, but it is clearly different. For Zizek, atheists who hold certain ethical standards as absolute do not do so because they believe in God, but they simply have been raised in a culture steeped in Christian history.

If Zizek were to raise this point to Peterson, Peterson might do a victory lap and claim religion, irrespective of whether it is right or not, invented art, morality, etc. However, notice how Peterson would attach a value judgement to the idea of absolute ethical standards being good. Absolute ethical standards have sometimes led to draconian laws and a perverted sense of justice – one need only mention the Inquisition. Peterson also, in proper New Age fashion, collapse in his apologetics of religion all religions into one, despite the fact that they hold vastly different moral codes. He would possibly claim that they share certain common elements, but one need only look at the moral system held by the Jains when it comes to food consumption and compare that to any religion that does not promote vegetarianism to conclude that there are complete incompatibilities between religions. If he were to claim that all religions promote love for mankind and certain basic ethical principles, I would actually agree with him- religion’s essential dimensions are the ethical and metaphysical or cosmological, which then concatenate with the social or cultural. But Peterson’s utter lack of nuance makes all of his pithy comebacks about everyone being religious “on the inside” ring hollow to avid atheists. If he were to claim that a central aspect of being human is spirituality, anthropologically I would have to agree with him. I would also agree with him if he couched his language in historicism, by claiming that the main source of inspiration for art and poetry for most of human history was the spiritual or religious traditions that were kept in a particular place and time. However, what Peterson fails to do is differentiate the existential dimension of being human from spirituality or spirituality from organized religion, thus rendering his naturalistic argument, which seems to make a claim about all future, as well as past, art and poetry, a moot point.

The problem is I know exactly where he’s coming from, from a Jungian perspective, and its actually somewhat refreshing to see the New Atheist crowd taken to task and asked some tough questions. The dialogue is actually somewhat interesting, and I’m trying to lay my political prejudices aside in this theoretical debate. But everything, every intellectual terrain, is micropolitics. There is a micropolitics inside of linguistics, inside of anthropology – perhaps to the inside observer they are more than micro!

Peterson fails to understand the lingering legacy of the European Enlightenment. The man is definitive product of reactionary elements in the Romantic movement – Peterson would fit right at home in 19th century Europe, taking what he will from disparate cultures in a hodge-podge manner and filling it out with sophistry. Peterson reminds me most of armchair anthropologists and psychologists of the 19th century like James Frazer, author of the Golden Bough and one of the primary influences of Carl Jung.

One of the gifts of the Enlightenment and German idealism is that rational thought can be decoupled from tradition. Tradition and social custom, as even Diogenes the Cynic knew in ancient Greece, are the antithesis of free thinking. Organicist defenses of social custom and tradition divorced from the content of that tradition ignores many of the ills that have been created by art and poetry throughout the ages. Art has been the most useful tool for propagandists since the rule of Hammurabi, since the dawn of the first empires on Earth. One need only read the Mahabharata or the Iliad to realize that, as Walter Benjamin said in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” 

I think we haven’t grappled with the true weight of Benjamin’s realization.

 

Lacan at his best: The “arid era of scientism” and its relation to mass culture

A quote from Jacques Lacan’s Écrits, from the essay “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis: 

The list of disciplines Freud considered important sister sciences for an ideal Department of Psychoanalysis is well known. Alongside psychiatry and sexology we find ‘the history of civilization, mythology, the psychology of religion, literary history, and literary criticism’. This whole group of subjects, determining the curriculum for instruction in technique, can be easily accommodated in the epistemological triangle I have described, and would provide an advanced level of instruction in analytic theory and technique with its primer. 

For my part, I would be inclined to add: rhetoric, dialectic, (in the technical sense this term takes on in Aristotle’s Topics), grammar, and poetics-the supreme pinnacle of the aesthetics of language-which would include the neglected technique of witticisms. 

While these subject headings may sound somewhat old-fashioned to certain people, I would not hesitate to endorse them as a return to our sources. For psychoanalysis in its early development, intimately linked to the discovery and study of symbols, went so far as to partake in the structure of what was called ‘the liberal arts’ in the Middle Ages. Deprived, like them, of a true formalization, psychoanalysis became organized, like them, into a body of privileged problems, each one promoted by some felicitous relation of man to his own measure, taking on a charm and a humanity owing to this particularity that in our eyes might well make up for their somewhat recreational appearance. But let us not disdain this appearance in the early developments of psychoanalysis; indeed, it expresses nothing less than the re-creation of human meaning in an arid era of scientism”. 

Before we follow up on this important observation, let me relate an incredibly interesting finding, one which I will write an entire article about. There is a function on Google dictionary where one can look up any word, and see immediately below the graph of its usage over time. Now I challenge you, the reader: take any word upwards of three syllables and look at its use over time. In my experiment, I could not find a single complex word that went up over time- there was always a decline in the later part of the 20th century. Some words, if you look them up, chart exactly as one would expect: the word “communism” finds its peak in the 1960s, and then returns back down, rising with the counterculture and anti-war movement. More descriptive words like “covetous” just show a general trend of decline. Simple words with the same meaning like “greedy”, meanwhile, have risen.

There are some outliers, like the word “reclusive”, which skyrocketed in the 1950s, but words like “solitary” show the characteristic decline trend. For this experiment, I purposefully chose words that weren’t archaisms, but merely words that we would associate as “literary” words, colorful words, words not used in common speech. Even so, we see general trends of decline for these literary words. “Apathetic” has declined, but “lazy” has gone up since 1950. Perhaps most interestingly, the word “self” has steadily increased in usage since 1900, perhaps reflecting our self-absorbed individualistic society…

What does this actually demonstrate? It represents the poverty of our current intellectual culture, or rather, the takeover of intellectual and literary culture by rapacious scientism. 

Lacan emphasizes that Freud, far from biologizing the mind, in fact introduces the idea that the unconscious is primarily related to discourse in texts such as the Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. For Freud, unlike Jung, the study of mythology has far less to do with “archetypes” and “innate ideas” and far more to do with history. In this sense, when Lacan emphasizes the historicity of Freud’s theories, he is really emphasizing its relation to that concept anthropologists would call culture.

In David Harvey’s excellent book on Tolkien, The Song of Middle Earth, Harvey emphasizes that mythology is primarily a part of the literary tradition of a society- whether it be the Vedas and the Mahabharata for Indian society or Homer’s Iliad for Western Europe. When Lacan emphasizes that we should go back to the study of rhetoric, we are reminded of the difference between “classical” education of the 19th century and earlier and modern education. Rhetoric formed a part of the curriculum that emphasized what is now called the Classics, or philology- reading the writings of Horace or Cicero formed a part of the pre-modern European education not just in the formation of the “sensible and Enlightened” individual, but also one’s introduction into what has been called the “Western tradition”, the philosophical and literary culture which formerly was not voluntary.

Higher education has obviously abandoned these “liberal arts” ideals to which they still profess: even disciplines like philosophy have been “mathematicized” and scientized. And not that they shouldn’t talk about the philosophy of mathematics or science! But in their very character, analytical philosophy’s sensibility has colonized the terrain of the “literary”, and Nietzsche’s profound warnings about the Last Man, who echoes the assumptions of his age, have possibly come to pass. The Last Man is Nietzsche’s formulation of what Adorno called mass culture, or manufactured culture. It is a cliche to say that television and movies have replaced book reading, but the process is accelerating at an alarming rate: now the video game industry has surpassed the television and movie industry in terms of revenue, as well as the music industry! (link: https://www.nasdaq.com/article/investing-in-video-games-this-industry-pulls-in-more-revenue-than-movies-music-cm634585).

What even Adorno could not contemplate is what was considered “low brow” in his era (jazz) has become high culture, and we see a process of gradual “dumbing down” that is now becoming widely observed even in popular culture: the chords progressions of songs becoming more simple, etc. The connections are already made, the same ones Adorno made: the profit motive creates a kind of mass production of culture, of music, of television. The remake is overtaking the original production, the copy more successful than the original. Even the “indie” genre has been co-opted and marketed, everywhere the colonization of mass culture imminent to our very psyche- hell, even I like a good Blockbuster now and again- love me some Star Wars! But the cracks are starting to show: don’t believe I’ll be going to see the new Han Solo movie- the gimmick is too apparent.

What does all of this have to do with scientism? Scientism, for lack of a better word, is today’s intellectual zeitgeist. The popular “intellectuals” of the day, the ones doing the most harm, masquerade as simple arbiters of objectivity. The Sam Harrises and Jordan Petersons of the world offer their watered down versions of “race realism” and Social Darwinism to the internet, and the masses eat it up in droves. Never mind that “The Bell Curve” is junk science proved a million times over- the new motto of the Last Man is “facts are facts!” This manifests itself as a literal worship of Reason and Science, with science being synonymous with technology.

The 50s fascination for new technology has not dwindled, in fact it has only gotten worse with the advent of the computer age. No one is immune to it, but the obvious commodity fetishism and consumerism it generates is unprecedented. The lines for Apple products, and everything associated with “computer culture”: emojis, text lingo: these are the shared substance of our society.

Is there a kind of elitism in assuming that people should simply “read more Shakespeare” and get off their iPhones? On the contrary! It would be elitist to assume that Shakespeare is only for the elite! It would be elitist to assume that Shakespeare shouldn’t be made accessible to everyone from diverse backgrounds! Shakespeare in its day was the common man’s play. This is what our education system, to its credit, tries to do, but generally fails miserably to do, continually trying to “adapt” the curriculum to the needs of the time, introducing more computer coding classes. Is this inevitable? Am I being a kind of cultural grouch? Here’s the problem- you train all of our kids to be computer programmers, what happens when they all apply for those limited computer jobs? Who among them will be trained to be the next authors, the next Shakespeares? Will anyone care if they are?

One can take postmodern relativism too far in this case, saying that because Shakespeare and the Tale of Genji are equivalent, we should therefore teach neither. In fact, both are equivalent to Saturday morning cartoons! This is the road we are going down, and its not a pretty one.

And for the postmodern anthropologists in the crowd who point out my argument is somewhat “logocentric” in assuming that literary culture is the crowning achievement of society, I would merely point out that the oral high traditions of traditional societies are too being lost to the endless process of commoditization and the advance consumer capitalism that is eating away at the foundations of non-industrial societies. It would be great if we had any oral traditions to fall back on.

We live in an era of ever-expanding access to almost complete entertainment- 24/7 television, video games, and music on demand at our fingertips. The internet should be a tool to expand our access to the archive of classics: Project Gutenberg is a great resource to access all of the great works of literature which no longer have any kind of copyright. Unfortunately, if you compare the numbers of Project Gutenberg hits to videos of Lady Gaga, I’m sure the picture won’t be pretty.

I’m advocating for a new kind of entertainment, for a world in which one can seamlessly switch from rap to high literature, without any kind of stigma. As a huge contrast to my previous article, the “defense” of anti-intellectualism, in the sense of recognizing the value of “proleterian” and peasant values of hard work and the reproduction of society materially, here I’m offering a full throated endorsement of intellectualism, of the reclaiming of “mass education”, and not in the outdated Marxist sense of only being educated about Marxist orthodoxy. But as Marx stated, along with the alienation of the individual from the means of production, there is also a more fundamental alienation which accompanies capitalist material poverty that results in spiritual and intellectual poverty. These problems are just as real in our era of mass consumption. Never before has there been such an era of consumption for consumption’s sake: a kind of gilded prosperity where even the poor can live like king’s for a day, provided they go into heaping amounts of credit card debt. Once again, we see the value in Martin Luther King’s prophetic words about the Three Evils of Society: militarism, racism, and (MLK’s original wording) materialism, which he used interchangeably with poverty and capitalism.

We shouldn’t moralize this term materialism, but we should realize the structural problem that is materialist individualism in our late capitalist society, and realize its connection to intellectual poverty and the “mass culture” phenomenon. Rather than the endless postmodern process of combing through the classics for “racist and sexist” overtones, we should look for what is universal: stories of heroism, tragedy, loss, longing, belonging, and most of all, compassion, a word that too has declined in usage since the 1800s.

 

 

 

Symbolic castration and the role of the Father- is Zizek a Father figure? Or are we Oedipalized subjects?

As my friend Landzek over at the Constructive Undoing blog has suggested, the academic propensity to continually reference what one says and back it up by an unending stream of authorities is a product of our culture, a culture that is trained to “go to the authorities”, thus reproducing power. Here I’m tempting to quote Foucault and Lacan, but I will try to “authentically” reproduce their arguments on my own, as well as synthesize them. The author, the omniscient third person narrator, conveys authority by virtue of being a kind of “wise detached figure” who replicates, in psychoanalytic terms, the detached Father figure. When authority is unquestioned by use of these micropractices, power replicates itself. To Zizek’s credit, he continues this psychoanalytic tradition by continuing to elaborate on the concepts of symbolic castration. But where does the source of symbolic castration come from? Is it a natural process that every child must go through, according to Freud? This is the heart of the anthropological critique of Freud, first made by anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, and later theoretically by radical psychoanalyst and one-time disciple of Jacques Lacan, Felix Guattari.

The video above by Zero Books correctly locates the source of the search for a Father figure in a societal event, in the lack of authority that currently evades the “establishment” -the bumbling buffoon in the White House, but also the weak opposition of the Democratic party. But it refers, by virtue of Zizek’s Lacanian pedigree, to a Freudian theory of the universality of the Oedipus complex (which as a rule, Zizek tends to evade in his theoretical work, due to certain improvements by Lacan).

It is here that the contribution of Bronislaw Malinowski to the debate about psychology must be brought into play. In all literature on this subject, with the notable exception of Deleuze and Guattari, contributions from the field of anthropology are, as a rule, ignored. Malinowski, in his book Sex and Repression in Savage Society, in addition to presenting his own concrete ethnographic material on the psychology of peoples from southeastern New Guinea, contended that the “Freudian dogma of the universality of the Oedipus complex” obscured the diversity of familial structures that existed across time and space in human societies. Despite having certain dated aspects to the work (the word Savage in the title being the most glaring) authors like Zizek tend to forgive Freud’s 19th century underpinnings in discussions about psychoanalysis. Malinowski was a staunch advocate of cultural relativism based on objective data. Any and all philosophizing about the nature of Man without reference to anthropology is, for me especially as an anthropologist, laughable, and bound to come from assumptions driven by our culture. Similarly, we may think- “is the Oedipus complex merely a reflection of our society?”

Surely, however, Zizek would contend this debate has no relevance to contemporary psychoanalysis, which has “transcended” these issues. I would argue that contemporary Leftist intellectuals, Zizek included, have all but ignored the contribution of Felix Guattari to the field of radical politics and “psychoanalysis”. Despite Zizek’s contention that the only salvageable parts of Gilles Deleuze’s legacy is his pure philosophical works, not his work with Guattari, Guattari’s break with Lacan marks an important point in the history of radical psychoanalysis, and is fundamentally rooted in the latter’s skepticism of the political revolution of May 1968 in France, something Guattari viewed as fundamentally reactionary. That debate being too deep to go into in the context of this article, it is important to note that while Lacan shared Guattari’s skepticism about reproducing structures of oppression in a social movement, Guattari took the line of direct critique of the Stalinist French Communist Party that was unwilling to condone the actions of the May 1968 protestors.

Back to the debate about psychoanalysis. Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus contend that our culture has been “Oedipalized” by existing power structures, and that behind every authoritarian father there is a patriarchal Boss, the dehumanizing bureaucratic apparatus, the mind numbing effect of the commute, etc. etc. Truly, then, we must contend that it is OUR society that is pathological, not primitive societies, as originally contended by evolutionary colonialist anthropologists. Malinowski and later Margaret Mead were the first pioneers of this line of thought, and even greater contributors to thinking about the ramifications of this than even radical French philosophers D&G.

But what does this mean for the Jordan Peterson v. Zizek debate? Peterson admits wholesale in the video clip that he is a psychologist who believes we should defend the existing social order, thus proving wholeheartedly Foucault and D&G’s point that the true gatekeepers of society are not its policeman or the army- it is the policeman of the mind, the psychologists, the philosophers even! “The maintenance of the social order is necessary”- society must be defended from intruders, internal and external! This is the paranoid mindset that Foucault defines as the archetypal “fascist psychology”. It is this paranoia that animated the Stalinist purges, it is this that truly defines what fascism is- the paranoiac belief that the Other is coming- right outside your doorstep! The Jew, the Muslim, the capitalist roaders even- it is this paranoia that should be outright rejected, even in the face of real onslaught by forces that seek to do harm on “society”.

So we should reject all Father figures then, including Zizek, while engaging in productive discourse, not accepting the party line. We should not allow microfascisms to colonize the mind of the movement toward social liberation. But is it New Age speculation to say that we have to move beyond even the “social revolution”? What if what is really necessary after all is a change of heart, a collective change of heart? It is hear that I go beyond critical theory, anthropology, psychoanalysis, or mythology as intellectual reference points, and appeal to general compassion. Human Compassion- not political ideology or Thought- to human sentiment, to Feeling. To define what is right, we need to delve deeper into the territory of compassion, something Peterson in his pseudo-Buddhist wisdom tends to forget about Buddhist philosophy. The absolute pacifist should remember that inaction is a form of silence and passive observance of the status quo, and forgets their ethical obligation to society. But the militant should also remember that the ends do not justify the means if one hopes to create a better social order, for another form of oppression will inevitably replace the existing one. This fuzzy line should be guided by the credo of compassion.

Therefore, in the interest of humanity, we should reject all Father figures- Mao, Jesus, Buddha, Marx, Freud (notice they are all men), and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get somewhere. There is no Big Other- this is Zizek and Lacan’s lasting contribution to psychoanalytic philosophy. We should be merciless in its application.

 

Edit: I embarassingly put the wrong Zero Books video link. Now its right

The Downfalls of Relationship and Life Coach blogs

 

https://www.leadpages.net/blog/types-of-blogs/

I was thinking of writing a post that considered more of the debate surrounding string theory, and discussing my recent foray into Roger Penrose’s absolutely stunning and fascinating book Shadows of the Mind, but I decided to put that off to talk about another subject that I hope won’t offend too many people, but then again, I don’t really care. It’s just an impression of what I’ve seen on the blogosphere, or more specifically, WordPress. Namely, that its all emotional drivel, relationships, and “seekers”. In other words, ideology at its most pure.

Why do I say this? Am I not heavily invested in a relationship? Yes I am, with my girlfriend, soon to be fiancé, that is the love of my life. But why is it necessary to broadcast one’s emotions for everyone to see online? And moreover- why do other people find it actually engrossing, downright fascinating, to read about other people’s deepest emotions and problems?

Granted, most of it isn’t purely like a public diary, but some of it really is! This is what’s referred to as the “Tell-All” type of blog (#8 on the list). There are all kinds of blogs of course- “niche” blogs, blogs related to cooking, etc. But here is something I noticed, and I have verified that it is something people do on purpose, probably as a way to market themselves and make money before they have any interest in the subject- the “Life Coach” blog. Here is a quote from an article about the 10 types of Popular Blogs (link above):

Blog Type #6: The Guide
The Guide writes posts that help readers with their personal lives. Many bloggers utilizing this blog type discuss topics like personal development, life coaching, and/or spirituality.

What can I say? This is ideology at its purest, what Eva Ilouz has referred to as American therapeutic culture, or what I prefer, self-help culture. The amount of self-help blogs I see being advertised is phenomenal! And newsflash: 90% of them are a waste of your time and mine.

Q: “But Stephen, some of these people are licensed professionals. And even if they aren’t, they have good intentions”

Actually no, I don’t know if they have good intentions, as content on the internet nowadays is driven by likes, followers, and subscribers. I am pretty much driven by only my desire to get ideas out there I think are important and to find others out there with good ideas. Unfortunately, ideas aren’t sexy. Perhaps that is the name of the game. In other words, the Life Coach bloggers are also at the same time the Personal Brand bloggers, in the ceaseless logic of self-marketing that Deleuze talked about in the Postscript on the Society of Control (a piece that changed my life).

Q: “Stephen, your critique of the dominant mainstream culture only serves to reinforce it by the model of transgression. Being upset at the mainstream culture just reveals that you are motivated by either jealousy or at best your critique will only serve to reinforce the opinions of people that already agree with you”

I believe in the concept of changing people’s minds. As the old saying goes, one can only change one’s own mind. But I don’t accept that at all. Whenever I am presented with new information, I try to keep a very open mind generally. If I find that someone has superior reasoning than another person I respect, I accept that superior reasoning (rather like what is happening to me while I’m reading Roger Penrose, but that’s another story).

In short, self-help blogging and self-help culture, the social media culture of sharing stories about love and life, are part of the ideological glue of capitalist society. It tells us that stories always have happy endings, that we are good no matter what we do, that we can always be forgiven, to be positive, and most importantly, never ever ever ever bring up politics. I’m referring to a certain strand of (mature) person in America that really does have this kind of naïve optimism. I’m not referring to the largely new phenomenon of social media self-obsession- I’m referring mainly to what is called “New Age” culture, or rather the sanitized, capitalist, new equivalent of New Age culture (actually New Age culture was really a counterculture originally- I’m serious!).

I have too much self-esteem already to have other people tell me how to live my life. Even giving someone advice to me always comes with a degree of suspicion- why do you think you know what’s best for me? Perhaps their really is a self-esteem problem in America in a way, and everything that is being done to fight it by “positive reinforcement” isn’t helping.

Now, I’m not going the way of internet reactionaries, the “Red Pill” crowd, who tells you to grow up and stop being PC and stop being a special snowflake. In a way, I’m targeting people who I believe are mostly sincere, good people. But that’s not my point. My point is simply that one should maintain critical distance towards these things. Many of you already do, and for those that do- congratulations! But I would argue we need to (as always) delve even deeper into these social phenomena- much good anthropological work is being done on medical narratives and self-help narratives. Arthur Kleinman and Susan Sontag come to mind, particularly Susan’s book Illness as Metaphor. Even though its a work of critical theory though, deep in history and actual cultural analysis, even Sontag’s book could be co-opted into some kind of “self-help” narrative. I won’t give a full argument for that here, but its enough to know that good anthropological and sociological scholarship is being done now on self-help culture. Eva Ilouz stands apart as a pioneer in this field of research, with very remarkable results.

There is another blog type that is also fascinating to me- #7 “the Homer”:

No, the Homer is not a label reserved for blogs about doughnuts, nuclear power, or Duff beer.
It’s reserved for bloggers who write posts of epic proportions — posts that take readers on a 2,500+ word journey every time.

My friends have told me my posts are very long- I just checked the word count of this one- around 1,100 words so far. Not bad- not on Homer level apparently! Is this article trying to say this blog type is the “intellectual” type? No not exactly, its referring to the Odyssey -badly, they don’t mention the Odyssey, or Iliad, don’t use any metaphors about a journey, and just that Homer just wrote big books. Thus, it doesn’t matter what kind of words you use or the topic! Granted, they may be a little less pedestrian (see the example given in this section, from the blog Johnny B. Truant “The Universe doesn’t give a fuck about you”).

Well, take Johnny’s blog. Its about a big existential question- do we matter in the grand scheme of things? Maybe just to us. But he doesn’t say it this way- in fact he says it in the most pedestrian simple way possible that makes it into a self-help message-simultaneously!

“There is only now. If you have power, it’s now. If you can change anything, you have to do it now. If you want to be or to have that next great thing, be it. Have it. Take it. Own it. Do it. Become it.
Be awesome. Do epic shit.
Do it now. The clock is ticking.”

I’ll admit its funny, a little tongue in cheek. But I can’t help but be jaded at posts like these. This is a slightly more pedantic version of #YOLO, to be frank. It’s also ripping off the Power of Now (look it up- its New Age bullshit masquerading as Buddhism).

This is why in terms of REAL self-help, I can’t recommend this book enough- and I haven’t even read it! But I know that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is a very great master of the Buddhist tradition- and its his book Not for Happiness. 

Woah! Not for Happiness- a book about religion! Then what is it for?? Spirituality that is. Well, in short, wisdom. I’ll give a link to an academic talk that discusses this in further depth:

I hate to be a “Buddhist jihadi” as Khyentse Rinpoche likes to say, but I do believe that what people are searching for is really even deeper than what unenlightened beings have to say. The leap is to believe that what the Buddha had to say came from an enlightened perspective. But this is not necessary actually. One should come to one’s own conclusions about this, but I believe that people should not ignore these ancient wisdom traditions in favor of a watered down version of it that may be diluted by desires for material gain or whatever.

I will say though, that there is no guarantee of finding what you desire in Buddhism as well. There is such a thing as Buddhist fundamentalism and fanaticism:

Revisiting the Crisis in Burma and Buddhism’s Role in it

So for me, the Buddhadharma has been so helpful to me in helping me through life. But at the end of the day, what’s needed is love for other people. That is the true antidote to suffering. So are the perpetrators of genocide in Burma “true Buddhists?” Of course not, to claim otherwise would be unfair to Buddhism, ” not any more than ISIS is true Islam or the KKK is true Christianity” as Buddhism Controversy blog states.

I hope I haven’t digressed from the original point at all, but I believe I can wrap it into a coherent framework. Instead of more self-care, self-love, what this world needs is more Other-love, and Other-care. The self-obsession one sees among the younger generation in the West is just a byproduct of Western individualism. Thus we need the antidote, and what is the ultimate antidote? Trying to alleviate the suffering of others- this is true road to happiness.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness

May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

Homage to Great Compassion!

 

Unintelligibility, paradox, and emotion- Deleuze and conceptions of the unconscious in anthropology

This essay is going to be very haphazard and schizophrenic, cover multiple topics at once, because of the distance between what I am reading at the moment. However I will try to spin them all together into a whole, a partial whole. So- it is fashionable nowadays in anthropological literature to criticize the overuse of “Continental buzzwords” and loanwords like biopolitics and deterritorialization. Again- context! If a concept fits, use it! Sure sometimes it is overused at the expense of coming up with new theories or thinking for oneself. But I see a certain trends happening in anthropology- a trend toward totalizing, conceiving the world system as a whole, and the postmodern trend toward incommensurability, cultural relativism, and reflexivity. Zizek likes to critically oppose these two poles- one the one hand is the continuation of the Enlightenment project, of conceiving history and social movements in a dialectical way, and on the other is the Foucaultian-Deleuzian project of history as a discontinuous set of events, each contained in their own cultural world. The only thing that seems to give any sort of continuity to it all is ideology, the continual flux of ideologies and practices that come with it. I believe there are insights in both of these theories.

“Postmodern” anthropology, particularly anthropology that looks at such hot topics such as violence, continues to be a hodgepodge of various theories that are, in describing various topics, very insightful, but depending on the geographical/historical area of study, still widely variant. There are certain trendy topics- a renewed interest in the topic of the Body, and with it all the biopolitics. I am thinking of a current reader, called Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, edited by anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois. The selections are not just anthropological canon, but contain excerpts from biographies, accounts of the Holocaust, Foucault and Sartre essays, an ethnography of Cambodia after the genocide, and Michael Taussig’s interpretation of Walter Benjamin. That is- anthropology and critical theory have made an interesting marriage, as applied critical theory. I find that as an anthropologist, even though my desire to contribute “new data” remains salient, there is a consistent lack of secondary or tertiary interpretation in anthropology. The closest we get is the theoretical “ontological turn”, which is another way of saying we have to think about philosophy and create philosophical anthropology. But the practice of philosophical anthropology, the interpretation and critical examination of ethnography, seems to be secondary still to the “holy canon”.

If anthropology is going to continue to make essays like “Why Do you Kill?: The Cambodian Genocide and the Dark Side of Face and Honor” using anthropological “thick description” to gain insight on deep questions about violence, there needs to be deep theoretical engagement with prior theories. Take theories of violence for example. Inclusion of Stanley Milgram’s obedience study is not enough. We have to take obedience as a sociological phenomenon, and the dynamics of obedience or hierarchy, and essentially make a model. Renato Rosaldo does a good job of doing this in Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage. There was one previous model of ritual, which he contrasts with his own model. I say- go further. Make diagrams, draw maps. How are these models of ritual as microcosmic deep culture and ritual as a busy intersection contrasting? If Rosaldo already has an article on this, then I apologize in advance, but what I’m saying is- MORE THEORY! How do these models of ritual play out in terms of models of human nature- i.e the psyche itself?

Once again, we are back in the trenches of the paradoxical unconscious, all at once possibly the realm of archetypes, dreams, drives, cognitive structures, desiring machines, languages, you name it! If one thing Lacan said is right, it is that the unconscious the biggest discovery of the 20th century, it upends the idea of the enlightened self-conscious entity at the center of the universe, or even at the center of the self. Processes as large as history flow through the individual to the point where the individual is no longer “himself”. This is why, if we are to rehabilitate “psychological anthropology” in the sense of a refocusing on cultural subjectivity, with new ways of thinking about identity, belonging, etc. we must continue to reference those theories of the past about concepts of the Self, what I have been calling Cartographies of Subjectivity. Each culture has one- a map of the soul. It is this deep map of the soul in relation to the world that has the capacity to produce emotions, and they are as informed by experience and everyday events as they are by processes of enculturation. In fact, they often serve to reinforce each other. This in other words is the process by which Ideology reproduces itself. How does the practice of headhunting in the Phillipines reproduce itself? How about the practice of renouncing worldly life in Tibet? We need to begin to think about the unconscious again, it is more important than ever in an age of subliminal advertisement, digital marketing, when capitalism has become the very fabric and texture of reality. How are revolutionary subjects produced? The subject as hunter? As wife, or how about as religious member? I think that the most important concept to remember and continue to say over and over again is Becoming. In a ritual, in a rite of passage, there is fundamentally a transformation, a passion, a becoming, one that has a spiritual pull that is hard to resist, because it is fundamentally communal. This is how one can become ready to kill, ready to serve the nation.

Now we shouldn’t reduce this to a sort of Durkheimian interpretation of ritual as a cultural glue, because its not like the ritual is a kind of “hoax” perpetrated by the elders to ensure order. This is what Nietzsche essentially thought- that religion was a way for hucksters and tricksters to profit off communal religious feeling. Certainly some of that goes on, but it happens much more deeply, at the level of understanding who one is in relation to other people. That is given to you very early. If one has grown up in the environment in which taking another’s life in ritual revenge is compensation for a loved one’s loss, that is simply one’s way of looking at the world- in other words, the spirit of the jaguar actually visits them, they feel it. This is the power of perception over the human mind. And this is what we as moderners have to be burdened with- the knowledge that these mystical experiences, which are quite normal for the “savage”, if experienced, are at best contrived. Castenada could get himself to believe that spirit of the Yaqui had actually visited him until he made a certain leap of faith.

If postmodern anthropology seems too “spacey” to neo-Marxists and neo-materialists, it is because they simply have never had a near-death experience, and don’t realize the way in which for much of the world what matters is not what is right here before us, but the beyond. This pull of the spiritual is a strong temptation, just as the pull of a Communist utopia is a strong spiritual ideal for many people. A transformed world- isn’t that what many people are looking for?

This line of thinking, of criticizing desire for revolution as millenarian, has some legitimate critiques by Marxist thinkers, but my point isn’t to discount the relevancy of material/historical analysis in anthropological thinking- its only to emphasize again that the convictions of an anthropologist, of any writer or philosopher, are fundamentally human or spiritual convictions. The desire to stop violence, to understand or prevent violence, systemic or otherwise, to people and our earth, is a sentiment current anthropology shares as a humanistic discipline. If anthropology is going to take its role seriously as an intellectual enterprise, not an enterprise in remaking the world, it should provide the applied anthropologists of the world with such a deep appreciation for culture as to evince a becoming in the subject. In my case, I desire in the reader a becoming-revolutionary, a becoming-minoritarian, as any good Deleuzian would have it.

At the end of the day, what I’m talking about is the intellectual’s choice of subject matter or area of study- there needs to be not just intellectual commitment, but human commitment. At the end of the day, real people become affected by anthropology, as the writings of Darrell Posey, Michael Taussig, or anyone would explain quite clearly. There is often a certain bond with the host community or family that is very deep. This is not necessary however. I think that the real goal of anthropologist should be to try to shift the culture at home. To hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask- is this all there really is?

The specter of Marx in anthropology

Anthropology, as a humanistic enterprise, has always had (except for periods of extreme empiricism/biologism and certain isolated schools) a humanitarian mission since its real inception by Franz Boas. With the rise (and maybe fall) of postmodernism in anthropology, which has been always in the context of how to get cultural relativism and the depiction of other cultures right, the question has become not how to depict other cultures, but how to not get it wrong, and see within ourselves as writers of culture possible sources of bias. However, given the enormous influence of political economy, globalization studies, etc. anthropology has still to ask the question- what about Marx?

Anthropology COULD normatively assign Marx the category of another social theorist of the 19th century, and integrate his theories as just one more theory to study along with Weber and Durkheim. Or, it could (and I believe it already has, based on my experience in anthropology) take Marx seriously. I believe the answer why it should is not only an empirical question that someone like David Harvey or David Graeber could answer with judicious use of anthropological data and explanation of the rise of the neoliberal economic order and why it has influenced every local culture. There are a myriad books on this subject, from Graeber’s Debt: A 5000 year History to Wallerstein’s Introduction to World Systems Analysis- the right anthropologist’s have already done a good job of doing this. They have already analyzed colonialism from the right historical perspective, looked at it from the perspective of the colonized with postcolonialism, applied critical analysis. But what I don’t think they have had done a good job of doing is taking philosophy seriously, or justifying their project on a level of fundamentals, ethics, etc.

At first glance, this statement should appear nonsensical, because why wouldn’t anthropology try to accurately describe the postcolonial neoliberal reality of the 21st century? Haven’t they done enough by appealing to notions of human rights, etc?

The political problems of the 1950s and 1960s still haunts anthropology. During the Cold War and the Red Scare, many anthropologists worked for the government to understand the Communist threat, and many of afraid of being accused of having Marxist leanings. But while good critiques have already been made of the sort of public anthropology that sells their soul to corporations, works with the military in Iraq to understand local culture in order to further American foreign policy objectives, anthropologists remain reticent to unabashedly in writing critique capitalism. Now, I say this knowing that some anthropologists (like Graeber) remain professed and “out” anarchists, and many anthropologist’s writings are geared toward working against the established order of things.

But why Marx? Because anthropology still has a commitment at the end of the day, to Fanon’s wretched of the earth”. We remain committed to those who lack the voice to speak for themselves, the powerless. And this commitment, which does not exclude the First World as much as the Third World may be its focus, is fundamentally, and this cannot be denied- a spiritual commitment. This is what Marx himself failed to grasp. Why should he care? Why have compassion at all? Why not embrace the individualism of the modern age?

A “rationalist” or “pragmatic” reason may be that one could easily be oneself in the lumpen, in rags, and that as capitalism ravages our planet, we are beginning to personally feel the heat in our middle class dens (literally). But it is something that we have to own up to- that a commitment to the powerless among us is a fundamentally social commitment, a commitment to what philosopher Slavoj Zizek likes to refer to as the commons- our common social and ecological substance. This is why we cannot pretend that at least in this more deep sense (maybe not in the sense of previous incarnations of the idea in political movements of the 20th century) that the study of society and sociality must be socialist in orientation. To ignore the insights of Marx in history, in the fundamental difference between the haves and have nots, the dynamics between labor and capital, is to be blind to the immensity of human suffering on this planet that is structural, and caused by our economic system working for the few, not the many