Jon Bialecki

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Monthly Archives: June 2013

French Anthropology and Ethnography under threat?

While a great deal of this situation that seems unclear to me,  Dejan Dimitrijevic from the University of Nice has been circulating a petition (the English version of which is below) which suggests that ‘ethnology-anthropology’ is in danger of being stricken from this list of possible diplomas in France. For those interested in find out more, there are other resources available on this issue.

A ministerial proposal for a nomenclature of headings of license diplomas removes the mention “ethnology-anthropology”. The aim of this page of exchange and discussion is not only to defend this field of production of ideas and knowledge, but also to take advantage of this harmful project to promote public awareness of the program of this discipline to a much wider audience than the usual academic teaching space’s one. In the first place, the scheduled
elimination of ethnology-anthropology would be an intellectual and scientific impoverishment: one only has to look through the great debates of the 20th century to measure the importance of our discipline in the construction of the modern values. The greatest ethnological and anthropological works were all linked to the great societal debates of their time, and they are still relevant.

In the first half of the 20th century, the issues of exchange and gift as questioned by Marcel Mauss (The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies) did not only intend to produce academic knowledge but also stimulate the social reforms of modernity for a more fair and equitable redistribution of the produced wealth. After the tragedy of the Second World War, the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss was the driving force for the foundation of a new humanism, after the disaster of the exclusively biological design of the Man who legitimated the racialist attempts for hierarchization of human
groups, leading to the extermination of some of them. The cultural conception of the Man allowed a new momentum, universalist and egalitarian, from which comes the formulation which remains the identity and politics of our discipline “unity of man, diversity of cultures,” that Claude Lévi-Strauss developed in a text entitled “Race and history” to the broad public of the UNESCO.

The period of the decolonisation saw the emergence of the figure and the work of Georges Balandier, many still view as one of the founders of modern anthropology, so strong was his call against any anachronistic or exotic drift for the comprehension of non Western societies, African in the first place. Whether in an era marked by the decolonization, or today, while new antagonisms of domination and resistances grow, the need for thinking all the existing human societies as contemporary from/to each other is an unsurpassable anthropological truth.

In a period of reorganization of the world and redefinition of a thought on human potential, in new modernity, characterized by unprecedented globalization (in the sense it is coextensive to all the territories of the planet), ethnology-anthropology remains an essential resource to produce knowledge on the Man, we absolutely need . The desire to eliminate this jewel of modern knowledge can be explained only by the political distrust towards any
space where can be developed a free thought and a universal conception of equality of individuals and human groups.

Ethnology-Anthropology offers students a wide range of formations and specialties, but it also promotes the development of adult and informed citizens. Moreover, maintaining the words “ethnology-anthropology” in the nomenclature of the headings of license diplomas is not enough. An awareness of ethnological and anthropological knowledge should begin in primary school and its teaching should gradually grow in college and high school. It is urgent to engage via this page a constructive action against the scheduled elimination of our discipline:

1°) By demonstrating by a massive petition our firm refusal of the suppression of the mention Ethnology-Anthropology from the nomenclature of license diplomas;

2°) By informing the Ministry about the reality in Ethnology-Anthropology teaching and
the diversity of local situations.

Nice, Juin 23th 2013
Dejan Dimitrijevic, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis

The text is supported by :
Jean-François Gossiaux, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociale
Bernard Formoso, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense
Jacky Bouju, Université Aix-Marseille
Olivier Leservoisier, Université Lumière Lyon 2
Jean-Yves Boursier, Université Nice Sophia Antipolis
Octave Debary, Université Paris Descartes
Abderrahmane Moussaoui, Université Lumière Lyon 2
Philippe Chaudat, Université Paris Descartes

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“Christianity and atheism are two sides of the same coin”

This is a nice reflection piece/vignette-ethnography, written by anthropologist Matthew Engelke for the Guardian, on Christianity, the New Atheism, Politics, and public ritual in the UK.

The article itself is worthy of attention, but just as striking is the way that the comments section has metastasized in less than a day. What is striking is how, despite the formal and substantive differences regarding religion in the US and the UK, the comments in comparable pieces in the US media read similarly (albeit it at a much lesser order of magnitude in the US case).

Putting aside whatever other points that might be gleaned from the Guardian comments section, and whatever judgements might be made about it, the tone and vigor of the comments suggests something that looks like an immure response to the idea of a role of the religious in politics in the UK. The open question, of course, is whether this is a reaction to an actual pathogen, an act of self-vaccination to ward off an American plague, or an auto-immune response, such as an allergy – or, perhaps, the body turning on its own self?

Parallel Lives Converge

Another reminder that the academy is in some very serious ways not at all that different from some of the social and cultural practices that they would take as their objects.

Cultural Anthropology, now publishing SCA members only

So now we know how at least one anthropology journal is going to handle the financial challenge that comes with being open-access. I guess the only question is whether this is merely a subsection of the AAA ensuring a service for its members, and a clarity in the journal’s mission, or is this just pay-to-publish at one remove?

Are we beyond liberal and conservative, deontological and consequentialist?

This week by accident I came across one of those examples of a certain kind of academic psychology that attempts to boil off the differences between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ to some sole global explanatory cognitive trait, such as their differing models for what counts as a just father (such as a “liberal” “nurturing parent” versus a “conservative” “strict father” which reads like a caricature of the paternal leg of the Lacanian Œdipal triangle). In this particular journal article, the difference between conservatives (which was set up as an effective conflation of the religious and political sense of this term) and liberals was a moral one, and not a difference in substantive content of the moral, but rather a difference at a formal level. Drawing from answers given by Americans (and in one case, by Indians and Americans) this essay claimed that Conservatives supposedly operate under a deontological logic, in which the question of whether or not there is harm is unimportant, or rather, that the harm is in the violation of the rule itself. By contrast, this report tells us that liberals operate under a consequentialist concept of the ethical, where the harm that is avoided by following the rule is the focus; hence, when the violation results in no harm, in one way the violation is not truly a violation at all.

Even granting for the sake of the argument that there might be some truth to this formulation, what is striking about this claim is that these are both particular, and to some degree historically situated, stances towards the question of moral code. Now, as Foucault has suggested, the moral code is just once aspect of what is considered proper behavior, and just as important as the moral code is one’s stance towards it. So far, this seems to be in accord with what was suggested in the psychology journal article under consideration here.  But Foucault also posited numerous different ways of making oneself a subject in relation to the law, and this is something that has been born out by some very careful thought in cultural anthropology. Other ways are possible. Further, when there are multiple modes of subjectification in a single social millieu, there is no reason to presuppose that there will only be two positions, forming a nice oppositional binary; one can take as an example Egypt, where not only is there is both a liberal Islam which views the religion as a source of propositional ethical truths, and a dakah oriented Islam that sees proper religion as the taking on a set of ritual practices that, through repetition, exercise and mold the adherent’s character, but there is also a Sufi-influenced form of Islam which view ethical subjectification as an opening to the possibility of encounter with a radical alterity.

What is of note here is that the Egyptian triadic system is one that is not easily reducible to a liberal/conservative opposition borrowed directly from the United States, but the Sufi-influenced wing is in some ways unassimilable to this distinction. We can imagine that such a group, when being interrogated by survey questions designed to measure on a singular axis how conservative to liberal one is, might give answers that would look like noise – some conservative answers, some liberal answers, making what actually is a separate political formation look like stragglers suspended between the two poles.

Returning to America, we could ask whether there is such an occlusion being performed by this survey, and if so, what we might look for as a sign. If one assumes that it is the ethical that leads, and that it is politics which trails, we would look for modes of subjectification that are neither consequentialism or deontological. It seems to me that there are modes of religiosity in America today that are centered on forms of  subjectification that looks like a blend of Dakwah and Sufi Islam, about a training of the self that ends up in an opening to an alterity which is siuationaly privileged as a source of the ethical. Such an ethical form, neither deontological or consequentialist, would not be visible to a questionnaire designed only to identify those two positions, and might in turn lead to a politics that aspire to radically break with the current milieu – though it would be a politics that would also escape a questionnaire crafted to only chart a liberal-to-conservative political continuum.

Boing Boing and Chagnon, the Ev-Psych Martyr

I’m posting this because even though it came out a while ago (at least according to internet time) I’ve seen almost no discussion of it by my anthropologist friends/colleagues – all this despite the fact that I suspect a good swath of them read BoingBoing on a regular basis. In fact, other than a brief cri de coeur from Eduardo Viveiros De Castro on Facebook, I don’t think I’ve seen any discussion at all.

Have we simply reached Chagnon exhaustion? Or is it just that people like Dawkins are so far beyond the pale that there is no point? Maybe this is one Dawkins “meme” just has no reproductive fitness . . . .

Epiphenomenal Anthropology – Grim Thoughts During Finals Week about Anthropology, Speculative Realism, Materiality and Affect Theory

I am probably late to this party, and I certainly don’t want to be seen as piling on, offering yet another iteration of a critique that hasn’t been particularly well received. This is especially the case because I’m someone who has tried to play around at the margins of these concepts myself. But a conversation with an archeologist colleague has left me in a somewhat deflated mood about things such as Object Oriented Ontologies and Speculative Realism. He suggested that the general interest in this whole line of thought, including a wider-scale interest in materiality in the anthropology of religion, might be seen as epiphenomenal of a broader University-level interest in the STEM disciplines.  There are certainly some tells – one can remember Danilyn Rutherford’s observation that affect theory (which has both a family resemblance and a genealogical tie to a lot of this thought) has an attraction for anthropologists  “who have dreamt of forging alliances with former enemies – of science peace, not science war.”

Also, this not to substantively critique this thought, nor is this a claim that those presenting this thought are opportunists. One can imagine an almost Darwinian scenario in which these sets of questions, always somewhat latent, are not produced in bad faith, but rather were always capable of being brought into being. However it is only now that they happen hit on the controlling problematic of the time, and hence can enjoy a greater reception and a prosperity beyond the idiosyncratic and unread.

There is of course no reason for this to be disheartening – anthropology (and the social sciences and humanities more broadly) have long been comfortable with the social and material forces immanent in the production of certain kinds of knowledge. The sense of loss rather is locatable in the question of what other virtualities of thought are lying latent, and the sense of passivity that comes along with it, the idea of not quite being the product of an event, but rather captives of it as well.