[Marxism] Maurice Godelier on the origins of anthropology

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 27 07:47:39 MDT 2004


Paul Eiss: In the introduction to your essay "Mirror, mirror on the 
wall" you talk about the history and the present of anthropology, which 
speaks to some people's interests here in bridging the disciplines. In 
that essay you discuss the history and present of anthropology as more 
about presents than pasts, and more about a "non-West" than about the 
"West." In your view, are these basic epistemological differences, or 
are they a matter of disciplinary formation?

Godelier: First, it was not exactly the non-West and the West, it was 
also peasants and ethnic groups in the west, because the state and the 
church wanted to control these people, and since their customs were not 
written down they had to send people to write down the customs, before 
trying to modify them where they seemed "barbaric" or an obstacle to 
their interests. So to me the genesis of anthropology came from two 
separate processes without anything in common between them at the 
beginning. On the one hand the task was to know more about the peasants, 
the local groups and ethnicities of Europe, the Slovene, the Basque and 
so on. And on the other hand was the expansion of Europe and contact 
with thousands of very different societies. So in fact the development 
of anthropology was historically a double development. First Europeans 
looked at the peasants, at people taken as backwards, seen from the 
point of view of people coming from the cities, from the state, from the 
church. And this reminds us that there is always in the background of 
anthropological work an unequal status between the observer and the 
observed. Really. You can't escape that. It's simply an ingredient of 
the cuisine, of the anthropological cuisine. But the two domains were 
relatively fused when anthropology became a "profession." We began to 
distribute work on peasants, on tribal people and so on. So it's not 
really non-western and western, it is more a part of the west plus the 
rest of the world. Secondly, you must distinguish between the profession 
of anthropology, and the historical importance of anthropology. Well, 
historically, there was what I should call nationalist ethnology, or 
nationalist ethnography, and then there was imperialist anthropology. 
They are not the same. I mean if you are Basque and you look at your 
roots and you fight for your identity against the Castillians, for 
example, you have to say like that, "we are the Basque, we came from 
Georgia three thousand years ago," and so on. Or take the Romanians who 
claim that, "we descend from Rome, that we are different from the Slavic 
peoples, we are the last vestige of whatever." So you need an 
ethnography to demonstrate your roots, the antiquity of your presence in 
one place, your claims and so on. And so you develop nationalistic, 
sometimes chauvinistic, ethnologies and ethnographies. But with the 
colonial expansion of France, England, and so on, you have imperial 
anthropology. You control or try to control hundreds of societies. So 
for the first time you have in front of you not only your local 
diversity but you have classless societies, tribal, caste societies and 
so on. And people like Morgan tried to classify the vast spectrum of 
realities in front of them, and to discover logics different from the 
west and opposed to the west. Like matrilineal kinship. That was not 
really known in Europe; classificatory cross-cousins did not exist in 
European kinship systems, and scholars like Morgan tried to find the 
order of those other systems. But at the same time they reconstructed a 
pseudo-history with the Anglo-Saxon kinship as the best, the most 
progressive, the most rational, with the republican American Anglo-Saxon 
social system at the very top of civilization. First you have an 
imperial context. And moreover at the time Morgan was doing fieldwork 
most of the North American Indians were already in reservations, ready 
for being "observed" in some way. But finally Morgan was the first in 
the history of mankind to have a universal look at kinship and to 
demonstrate the diversity of the logics of other systems, since they 
were as logical as the European one. They were not irrational, they just 
had another logic. But the same scholar that figured this out also wrote 
Ancient Society and distributed all the kinship systems into three 
stages, savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The conclusion is that 
western development is contradictory. And you ignore the contradiction 
by saying either "piss off with western civilization," or by saying 
"it's the best civilization." But if you start with reality, you start 
with contradiction. And you have to understand the opposed, 
contradictory developments of western knowledge. It is why now in the 
discussions you have in the States about modernism and post-modernism, 
the problem is surely to deconstruct but not to dissolve knowledge. To 
deconstruct is what you do if you are a nuclear physicist: you 
deconstruct a model of matter because of something wrong in the previous 
explanations so you construct another model in turn. You don't dissolve 
physics; you deconstruct to reconstruct another kind of physics. It's 
really the same with us, in social sciences. Otherwise we have to stop 
being in universities if all we can say is that we cannot know others. 
Why don't we all as experts on culture just go off and sell benzine. I 
mean if we don't have the possibility to build up a sort of knowledge of 
"otherness," we have to stop immediately, dissolve the university, the 
social sciences, and do something else. Like make money.

full: http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/journal/vol1no2/deconstruct.html

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