Post-post modern life
Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World
By Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Palgrave MacMillan, N.Y., 2003
Michel Rolph Trouillot has written this book of essays suggesting new directions and new relevance for the field of social anthropology (ethnology).
Anthropologists did not invent the “savage”, but they have helped to place people and cultures in what Trouillot calls the “savage slot”, an invention central to Western thinking. Into this slot are inserted manifestations of non-Westernness: the otherness against which the West claims its normality. This, as it stands, is not really a new idea, but he pushes the notion by asserting that the West is a fiction, just as much a fiction as the savage. In this framework, talking about western hegemony, the decline of the west, western culture, and so many other common ideas (even “globalization”) becomes a shallow discourse.
Looked at this way, assertions of a return to nature, of the superiority of the simple and primitive, (or even the exoticism of the merely non-Western) are revealed as ideas based on a false dichotomy. The West and the savage do not exist as observed phenomena and have no explanatory value.
Far enough as such an assertion goes, Trouillot goes even farther. He attacks the word “culture” itself as it is used in ethnology today and raises questions about multiculturalism, not from the usual reactionary angle but rather from the leftist perspective. He suggests that we have not thought nearly hard enough about the incongruities of contemporary existence. In place of making sound observations and drawing conclusions about the underlying causes of human behavior in various places we make statements such as, “Well, it’s their culture.”
What he says brings to me the idea that the way to understanding contemporary existence is not in the “set pieces” that we use in a simplistic way in striving to understand modern complexities and our own place in social systems: not in family structures, weddings, funerals, festivals, observed as if the participants were accepting everything at face value. Or we take fragments and enlarge them to represent the behavior and beliefs of millions. Thus, the word “Muslim” by itself evokes stereotypes of women in burkas, suicide bombers, men prostrating themselves in prayer, and so on. Hundreds and millions of Muslims might come up with completely different phenomena to describe themselves.
Trouillot discusses the field of anthropology specifically, and he makes the necessary observations about the history of social anthropology, its placement in the academy, and its ambivalent and sometimes dubious reputation. The scandals are well known: the collusion with the CIA in Latin America is the most flagrant violation of ethical principles. Teaching oil magnates how to deal with indigenous people, helping major companies to invade markets: these and other similar activities, while not necessarily illegal, are certainly questionable and have tainted the reputation for objectivity that is at the center of claims for social anthropology as a science.
I have to say that Trouillot’s discussion of anthropology’s relationship to science seems flawed to me. However, that is not his fault. It is brave of him even to make the attempt to discuss anthropology in relationship to other disciplines and within the institutional academic context where he finds himself.
So he raises these questions in my mind: how do we define social anthropology? Is it worth anything? Is it always the study of the “other,” or can we look at our own societies too? Is the study of human behavior a science? Are the traditional methods of observation, gathering data, and making hypotheses as field workers use them appropriate to the study of human groups? Can an anthropologist be “objective” or dispassionate in a social setting without being less than human herself, since, after all, human beings are not molecules or lasers?
I see this as mostly a problem of semantics. Just as we have done with words like culture and the West, we have allowed certain words to stand for too many things. If we took the word “science” and applied it only to empirical investigations and theorizing about natural phenomena, we could restore its value; technology would be the production of materials and practical human artifacts. We could relieve psychology, sociology, and social anthropology of the obligation to be “scientific” and understand that when we study other humans we are never objective. Perhaps economists and political “scientists” might reconsider their scientific claims, too. This, of course, would mean taking moral responsibility for one’s professional activities, dropping the “objectivity” claim.
So can we change the discourse, invent a new way of talking about human societies? Above all, we need to acknowledge that many things are beyond our understanding. A little humility is a wonderful thing. What is left is art.
In other words, at this late date, could anthropological methods really offer us anything? Shouldn’t we all become anthropologists? Why not, instead of studying the habits of far-off tribes, take a look at ourselves? I have drawn up a list of matters that anyone living in the U.S.A., professional or not, could come up with just from looking around. These phenomena may seem haphazard, but reflection should make the connections clear:
Personal touches in women’s offices and workstations (displacement from family and traditional female roles)
Discount shopping malls in small towns off major highways (incongruity of scale)
Airport security lines (meaningless ritual)
Elevator behavior (fear and suspicion of strangers, invasion of personal space, desire to think of oneself as friendly)
Lavish high school musical productions (educational institutions involved in competitive display and fund raising)
Rear end automobile statements (informing strangers in cars behind one of one’s religiousity, atheism, sexiness, patriotism and so on)
Christmas (made in China)
I’m sure any American could add to this list with no trouble.
One word that unites all these phenomena is “ambivalence.”
Americans today are ambivalent about their country, their society, their lives. Trouillot might call the above fragments post-post modern. We are not caught up in the sweep of history pushing into the future: that was the modernist style. Nor are we depressed and confused by change in the postmodern fashion. We live in the present with no history and no future, dealing with the here and now, accepting what is around us while feeling ambivalent. Troulliot explains the how and why of this shift away from criticism to an uneasy acceptance:
“At the 1995 closed-door meeting of the Gorbachev Foundation in San Francisco, members of what has become a global oligarchy calmly agreed that at some point in this twenty-first century only two-tenths [sic] of the world’s active population would be necessary to sustain the world economy. The middle classes as we know them are likely to disappear. Chunks of humanity will become irrelevant. John Gage and Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems suggest the motto of that future: “to have lunch or be lunch.” And how will the prosperous fifth appease those who may not want to be someone else’s lunch? Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the very one who coined the world globalization, provides the most successful answer: tittytainmnent—titty as in tits and motherhood, that is, enough milk for the poor to survive poorly and plenty of entertainment to maintain their good spirits.”
Of course even the poor in the United States, the destitute aside, are rich by third world standards, but I expect that to change. What we have today is market extremism dictating the terms of existence to everyone. And it is not just the poor who are on the tit: everyone is.
Most academics have chosen the path of acceptance. If they get enough titty, in the form of grants, tenure, fun trips, narcissistic gratification, and so on, they will work within and support schools which have become subsidiaries of the totalitarian global market. They will accept a system that gives out dribs and drabs to academic hangers on, comfortable in the knowledge that these non-essential people will eventually either leave or capitulate and accept their lowly standing.
That is why voices like Trouillout's are essential. Most academics are too cowed (or comfortable) to tell their students the truth about the world they find themselves in. Since most intellectuals are academics, the danger to thought, in a time when we all need to be thinking hard is obvious.