[Marxism] Marshall Sahlins resignation

Daniel Koechlin d.koechlin at wanadoo.fr
Mon Feb 25 15:18:43 MST 2013

Is this the same Marshall Sahlins that wrote Stone Age Economics? Who 
wrote that Hunter-Gatherers spend less time procuring food than do 
agriculturalists and citizens of modern industrialized nations. I 
remember his book well. Your typical hunter-gatherer male will spend 
four hours a day hunting and his female counterpart five hours a day 
foraging. And even this "work" is actually broken up into periods of 
intense activity and periods of "chatting". "Non-productive social 
interaction"  actualy accounts for the majority of a hunter-gatherer's 
day, together with sleeping (naps are very long, and can typically last 
three hours after lunch depending on the amount of carbo-hydrates ingested).

I remember reading "Stone Age Economics" and thinking how different the 
picture of Hunter-Gatherer societies that was painted therein was from 
the usual claim that the life of primitive men was "short, brutish and 

So let's all abandon civilization and go and live in the woods, I 
thought. The bare necessities of life will come to you in the form of 
ripe fruit and tubers from the edible flora and the abundant fish from 
the streams. And then I realized that living in harmony with nature was 
OK if you were a 6th centurd AD Chinese Daoist aristocrat who cold 
practise "WuWei" Calligraphy and poetry while rusticating in his family 
manor, or a modern "eco-tourist" wandering off the beaten track through 
the jungles of South America and sharing her breathtakingly beautiful 
photos on facebook, but that fundamentally, Hunter-Gatherer societies 
were replaced by Agro/Pastoral ones because the latter could produce 
more food and more kids, and therefore a more centralized social structure.

But if it's the same Marshall Sahlins, the guy must be as old as Levi 
Strauss (a great friend of his BTW) was when he died : 101 !

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then the fact that these 
anthropologists can reach such an advanced age and still remain alert is 
evidence of the beneficial effects of spending extended periods of time 
as far away from modern society as possible. I remember watching Levi 
Strauss at the age of 100 on French TV lambasting the government and 
answering questions from journalists about current events with the 
agility of mind of a 20 year old.

Of course, Levi Strauss's anthropolgy, his so-called "structuralism", 
was the product of a brain well versed in Hegel, Marx and Freud. 
According to Levi Strauss, Totemism is a misnomour, Shamanism as well, 
Animism can mean anything you want it to mean.. Yet .... Those are more 
than a simple "ideology", those are instances of a mode of mental 
conceptualization akin to that of the modern DIY enthusiast (Levi's own 
analogy) .. This element can be used to achieve a certain result, that 
other element does not fit in well, I'll leave it aside for next time... 
Personal experimentation is as important if not more important than 
general principles. You can achieve good results by combining elements 
in accordance with the underlying structure , but it is often more 
expedient to identify the general source of the problem by breaking the 
rules and seeing what happens... The "scientific method" is maybe, and 
paradoxically, a return to "Totemism" (in Strauss's meaning :  a 
cosmological explanation of the origin of the plurality) in the manner 
of conceptualizing the world against the prevailing Aquinist synthesis 
of Christianity and Aristotle.

Claude Levi Strauss's Complete Works (La Pléiade) were last year's 
Christmas present and I only read a fraction of them. His explanation of 
how cosmological myths, culinary practices and family organization all 
formed a coherent structure for each tribe nevertheless begged a few 
questions concerning our own, Western, civilization. Why do we consider 
eating with others as superior to eating alone ? Why do we find regular 
events (meal times) reassuring ? Why do we associate regularity and 
predictability with human society ? Why do we frame all our pictures in 
rectangles and why are all our TV and computer screens rectangular ? Why 
are our houses rectangular ? Why do we consider our bedrooms as the most 
sacred part of our dwellings ? Why do we keep our passport and our 
jewelry in our bedroom ? Why do we assume that a father and a mother 
must sleep in the same room ? Why do we not eat insects or wild tubers ? 
Why do we eat out of individual circular plates ? Why do we trust what 
we see more than what we hear (in some societies it's the other way 
round) ? Why do we prefer reading and watching videos to listening to 
stories ?

The Capitalist mode of production and the class division of society that 
it creates produces our way of life and is also modified by our 
collective behaviour. The Structuralism and Semiotics of the 1970s 
endeavoured to expand Marxist theory and method to examine contemporary 
society and bring out more levels of sexual, symbolical and 
anthropological meaning.

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