Bourdieu among the Anthropologists

by Henry on September 8, 2005

The Jared Diamond wars have begun to flare up again. Of particular interest is this recent exchange between Timothy Burke and Fred Errington and Deborah Gewertz at Savage Minds. Tim objects that Errington and Gewertz’s critique of Diamond is itself guilty of that which it condemns.

the desire to know the non-Western Other as it is presumed to know itself is just as native to the “educated haves” as they claim the desire for Diamond’s presentation is. It is just as much as a presentation sought for its aesthetic and political satisfactions, for its instructions of humility and self-abjection, just as much a retrospective metanarrative of modern history and a prospective reordering of the future. But Errington and Gewertz want to fault Diamond for merely performing those functions, for being expressive of “the West” and appropriating Yali to satisfy audiences in the West. On that point alone, their interpretations are indistinguishable from his.

Errington and Gewertz’s reply seems to me to be a non-response; it doesn’t even start to come to grips with Tim’s criticisms. As I understand him, Tim is asking why a perfectly straightforward and reasonable disagreement over the respective merits and problems of structuralist and context-driven approaches is getting obfuscated by a whole lot of irrelevant epistemological handwaving to the authentic experience of the ‘other.’ He’s not getting an answer. I and others were similarly frustrated in the previous rounds of this debate by the continued failure of Diamond’s anthropologist critics to explain precisely why certain kinds of reasoning were inherently quasi-racist. Why these peculiar silences and incoherencies? Foucault might have some interesting things to say, and indeed there’s a very interesting and provocative article* by noted Foucauldian scholar Paul Rabinow, who deploys Bourdieu (himself no mean anthropologist) to investigate the particular conditions that produce this kind of incoherency, and most particularly the brand of cultural anthropology pioneered by James Clifford, which claims to faithfully represent the voice of the other through polyphonic and dialogic means. Edited highlights below.

A variety of important writing in the past decade has explored the historical relations between world macropolitics and anthropology … we also now know a great deal about the relations of power and discourse between the anthropologist and the people with whom he/she works … I have claimed, however, that [Clifford’s] approach contains an interesting blind spot, a refusal of self-reflection … In my opinion, the stakes in recent debates about writing are not directly political in the conventional sense of the term. I have argued elsewhere that what politics is involved is academic politics, and that this level of politics has not been explored … Bourdieu’s work would lead us to suspect that contemporary academic proclamations of anti-colonialism, while admirable, are not the whole story. These proclamations must be seen as political moves within the academic community … One is led to consider the politics of interpretation in the academy today. Asking whether longer, dispersive, multi-authored texts would yield tenure would seem petty. But those are the dimensions of power relations to which Nietzsche exhorted us to be scrupulously attentive. There can be no doubt of the existence and influence of this kind of power relation in the production of texts. We owe these less glamorous, if more immediately constraining, conditions more attention. The taboo against specifying them is much greater than the strictures against denouncing colonialism; an anthropology of anthropology would include them. Just as there was formerly a discursive knot preventing discussion of exactly those fieldwork practices that defined the authority of the anthropologist, which has now been untied, so, too, the micropractices of the academy might well do with some scrutiny. … Those domains that cannot be analyzed or refuted, and yet are directly central to hierarchy, should not be regarded as innocent or irrelevant. We know that one of the most common tactics of an elite group is to refuse to discuss – to label as vulgar or uninteresting – issues that are uncomfortable to them. … My wager is that looking at the conditions under which people are hired, given tenure, published, awarded grants, and feted would repay the effort. how has the “deconstructionist” wave differed from the other major trend in the academy in the past decade – feminism? How are careers made now? How are careers destroyed now? What are the boundaries of taste? Who established and who enforces these civilties? Whatever else we know, we certainly know that the material conditions under which the textual movement has flourished must include the university, its micropolitics, its trends.

Now as Rabinow emphasizes, attention to the conditions under which scholarship is produced doesn’t invalidate that scholarship as such; it merely situates it. The fact that cultural anthropologists, like the rest of us, are looking for tenure, disciplinary recognition etc, doesn’t mean that cultural anthropology isn’t worthwhile. It does, however, raise the suspicion that when some cultural anthropologists claim, without much in the way of defensible argument or facts to back them up, that other forms of understanding are inherently racist or are worthless ideological products of Western condescension, we shouldn’t necessarily take these claims at face value. Academic disciplines, in order to maintain and extend their boundaries, make certain claims that tend to dissolve into incoherence when they’re looked at too closely. I strongly suspect that the “Diamond=racist” claim is a more-or-less pure exercise in boundary maintenance – I certainly haven’t seen any substantial counter-evidence to date. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a real, substantive argument to be had between different ways of knowing, or that there aren’t advantages to anthropological approaches which can’t be captured in a big, sweeping structuralist account like Diamond’s. But as Tim says, as long as we obfuscate the actual issues at stake behind an ink-cloud of quack epistemology and vague claims of racism, we’re not going to have that debate.

Update: In drafting this post, I wasn’t nearly clear enough in distinguishing my disagreement with Errington and Gewertz from my earlier disagreement with “Ozma.” When I talk about accusations of racism, I’m talking about the latter. Errington and Gewertz are making a different claim, which still seems to me to be wrong-headed, and to have a strong flavour of the internal academic politics that Rabinow is problematizing here, but it’s not the same thing.

*Paul Rabinow, “Representations are Social Facts: Modernity and Post-Modernity in Anthropology”
in James Clifford and George E. Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, University of California Press 1986.

{ 73 comments }

1

Dustin 09.08.05 at 6:40 pm

I may have missed it in the firestorm of comments at Savage Minds, but I haven’t seen anyone make the “Diamond=racist” equation. What I have seen instead are a) arguments that Diamond’s anti-racism isn’t all that anti-racist, and 2) assertions that Diamond’s argument may well resonate with a certain kind of “comfortable racism”, stepping around the belief in inherent biological inferiorities to claim that things have turned out the same way they would have if there were inherent biological inferiorities. I think both of these critiques are somewhat more subtle than simply assuming Diamond is a racist and thus dismissing his work.

2

Brad DeLong 09.08.05 at 7:14 pm

There is a bigger and more fundamental problem with Errington and Gewertz. They begin:

“In earlier postings, we suggested that Diamond gets Yali’s question wrong. Whereas Diamond understands Yali to be asking about “things”—about Western “goods”—Yali was actually asking about social equality. Whereas Diamond thinks Yali envied nifty Western stuff, Yali actually resented the not-so-nifty Western condescension that allowed Europeans to deny PNGuineans fundamental worth…”

But what the page of Diamond they purport to be writing about says is:

‘…a remarkable local politician named Yali…. We walked together for an hour…. Yali radiated charisma and energy…. He talked confidently about himself, but he also asked lots of probing questions and listened intently…. The conversation remained friendly, even though the tension between the two societies that Yali and I represented was familiar to both of us. Two centuries ago, all New Guineans… used stone tools similar to those superseded in Europe by metal tools thousand of years ago…. Whites had arrived, imposed centralized government, and brought material goods whose value New Guineans instantly recognized, ranging from steel axes, matches, and medicines to clothing, soft drinks, and umbrellas. In New Guinea all these goods were referred to collectively as “cargo.” Many of the white colonists openly despised New Guineans as “primitive.” Even the least able of New Guinea’s white “masters,” as they were still called in 1972, enjoyed a far higher standard of living…. All these things must have been on Yali’s mind when, with yet another penetrating glance of his flashing eyes, he asked me, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”…’

Diamond knows very well that Yali resents western condescension (and imperialism) as well as envies nifty western stuff. Diamond knows very well that Yali is asking about “things”–cargo–in large part because he believes that equalizing the distribution of things will give Papua New Guineans power to deal with western invaders on less unequal terms. Bluntly, Gewertz and Errington misrepresent what Diamond thinks, and misrepresent what Yali says.

We’re out of a Habermasian discourse situation here. We’re somewhere else–in Karl Rove territory.

And I at least have absolutely no confidence in Errington and Gewertz: if they can’t play it straight in summarizing a paragraph out of Jared Diamond, is there any reason to believe that their accounts of Ramu Sugar Limited bear any resemblance at all to reality wie es eigentlich gewesen?

3

david 09.08.05 at 7:22 pm

Yeah, I’m with Dustin. And would somebody on the Diamond defense team please admit that the shot of him weeping in an African hospital during the television series is pretty creepy, particularly when backed by a book on geographical determinism.

There’s a lot of “quack epistemology” coming from the other side too: Brad DeLong asks, “can’t we just take Yali at his word?” as if it’s obvious to him what his word is. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Marshall Sahlins deserves a more prominent place in this discussion.

But I spend most of my days making fun of anthroplogists and their navel-gazing, so I know where Rabinow and the rest of you are coming from. Diamond’s just not the right vehicle from which to drive that critique.

One last note, which is really for Henry. If you were serious in trying to see where anthropologist like Ozma might get such notions, check out Emily Martin’s AAA presidential address from a few years back, I think 2000, reprinted in American Ethnologist. I read it on the toilet a few weeks ago, and thought of this discussion — it’s smart, full of shit, just what you’re looking for.

4

Dan Nexon 09.08.05 at 7:37 pm

Errington’s and Gewertz’s argument with Diamond seems to be one, or all, of the following:

1) Diamond is interested in a different type of knowledge. E&G believe that kind of knowledge is not merely inadequate, but evil.

2) A dispute over which elite, western social scientists can better speak for Yali.

3) Diamond’s arguments have parallels with some other arguments advanced by racists. Using, variously, the genetic fallacy or poorly constructed syllogistic logic, E&G accuse Diamond, therefore, of reinforcing racist discourse.

4) Some other stuff that amounts to the claim that a huge macrostudy targeted at a popular audience makes a lot of errors.

I know I’m probably not being fair, but that’s about how it looks from here.

5

Henry 09.08.05 at 7:42 pm

Brad – I’m somewhat less critical of Errington and Gewertz than you are here. Karl Rove’s territory is of deliberate misrepresentation of facts; perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s not my take on the paragraph you cite. The alternative explanation is that what we’re seeing is an extreme form of disciplinary habitus. Economists have a tendency to see the world in terms of utility maximizing self interested actors, political scientists (at least my variety of same) in terms of actors who seek to maintain and extend power. I suspect what we are seeing in the instance you cite are anthropologists whose vision is distorted by their specific disciplinary habitus and misinterpreting something so that it fits in easily with their world.

Dustin – in the previous iteration of this, Ozma of Savage Minds said explicitly in comments here that Diamond (and I, and anyone who liked his work) were guilty of a kind of racism.

6

Henry 09.08.05 at 7:45 pm

David – I don’t suppose that the AAA address is available on the Internets anywhere?

Am a fan of Sahlins’ work, ( _Stone Age Economics_ in particular) – though imo he seriously underestimates the extent to which reciprocity can be maintained by rational actors. Jean Ensminger’s work on reciprocity among Orma herders is an interesting rationalistic rejoinder.

7

david 09.08.05 at 7:56 pm

Have you read the Zone collection of articles by Sahlins? Has very good stuff. I never read the Ensminger, but the list of never read is long.

I meant to say: you can get the Martin off of JSTOR, I think, as it was published in AE. Would that the internets offered it for free.

8

seth Edenbaum 09.08.05 at 8:07 pm

—“things”—cargo–
DeLong’s assumptions again.

A few other points:
If one person refers to another’s work as lacking a sense of self reflectivity, it doesn’t mean much for a third person to defend the first by accusing the second of being not self reflective enough.

As as to the need itself. Lets look at it in terms of photography and photojournalism. I had a photo teacher who had a rule, that he said if we broke, we’d get an F for the course.
“Don’t ever take a photograph of a person without asking permission.” He thought of photojournalists as the lowest of the low. The next time you see a shot in a newspaper of a starving or battered or homeless mother and child (or take your pick of the weak and pathetic) ask yourself if you would be capable of standing, or kneeling in from of these people and clicking the shutter. But ‘news’ being important- and it is and for good reason- such images can be called necessary. Most photojournalists are little more than voyeurs, but voyeurs serve a purpose.
No one has accused Diamond of being the scum of the earth (or even of being as low as staff photographers in war zones. People have at most said that he seems a little unaware

As to whether westerners, or western intellectuals- are self aware, I’ve had a hard enough time trying to get people like these to even begin to ask why people believe certain things- or why they say they do- but I get no response.
How hard has Diamond tried to understand Yali? How hard do newspaper photographers- and television cameramen-try to understand the people they photograph? Is it necessary? I don’t know. Perhaps not always.

But how hard do liberals try to understand working class republicans?
Answer: Not much at all.
The people at Savage Minds are raising important questions that DeLong, for reasons that seem to do with ideology- or hopes, refuses to understand. That refusal bothers me more than the question of whether subjects A or B are sufficiently ‘self-aware’

9

Rex 09.08.05 at 8:20 pm

“attention to the conditions under which scholarship is produced doesn’t invalidate that scholarship as such; it merely situates it.”

I agree completely, as I’ve stated in “my own entry”:http://savageminds.org/2005/09/08/the-conflict-of-interpretations-redux/ about Gewertz and Errington. However, it is wrong to assume that every one on Savage Minds holds identical positions, as anyone whose read my discussions with Oneman on morality will immediately recognize. This is obviously even more the case with guest bloggers like Gewertz and Errington.

Ozma may have made a “Diamond=racist” argument, but Gewertz and Errington obviously do not. I think it behooves readers to attempt to understand the issues that Tim has with their posts — and there are several — rather than assume that if you’ve met one anthropologist with an interest in boundary maintenance you’ve met them all.

We can discuss whether there may be advantages to anthropological approaches which can’t be captured in a big, sweeping structuralist account like Diamond’s (David’s reccomendation of ‘Culture in Practice’ is particularly relevant here), but as long as we obfuscate the actual issues at stake behind an ink-cloud of over-simplistic reading and vague claims of claims of racism, we’re not going to have that debate.

10

Mrs Tilton 09.08.05 at 8:26 pm

Seth,

a while ago you offered what struck me as quite acute comments to a post I made on another website. In a selfish way, then, I’m pleased to read your comments to this CT post. I’m less intimidated, you see, after noting that you are not a god after all.

There’s a good deal to be said for your photo teacher’s rule. I don’t recall seeing a photo of Yai in anything by Diamond, though. As to how hard Diamond has tried to understand Yali: my own doubtless naive take is, very hard indeed. But you’d be better off asking Diamond. Or, for that matter, Yali; Diamond would seem at any rate to have spent far more time with him than has anybody at Savage Minds.

11

Timothy Burke 09.08.05 at 8:41 pm

I want to be clear that the critique I have in this case is in one instance way, way more specific than the last Diamond-Savage Minds discussion; it’s quite particular to a specific set of readings that Errington and Gewertz offer. In another way, it’s much more general to the epistemology of contemporary cultural anthropology and postcolonial theory, but this is largely a sympathetic critique in the sense that I think the epistemological problems I’m concerned by arise from some really genuine and difficult-to-resolve issues.

I also think what Rex says is important. It’s not so much a beef with Brad DeLong as his commenters, but there is a tendency to minimize the variations between contributors to that blog (or even to dismiss anthropology as a discipline pretty casually) and the intra-contributor disagreements at Savage Minds are often pretty substantial on precisely some of these issues (the politics and morality of anthropology, the proper subjects of anthropological investigation, the nature of ethnography as a methodology, and so on.)

12

Richard Cownie 09.08.05 at 8:43 pm

It seems to be a totally pointless dispute. Diamond’s interpretation of Yali’s question, even if (perhaps) it doesn’t correspond exactly to what was in Yali’s mind – and surely in the 21st century no-one believes that any such communication can be perfectly accurate and transparent – is clearly a fruitful line of inquiry. As for “racism”, Diamond is painstakingly clear that he rejects any idea that peoples of different ethnicity or culture are less capable – which is precisely why he looks for an explanation rooted in geography and ecology. Doubtless professionals can poke a few holes in his sweeping explanation – he can’t be an expert in everything, and he covers a lot of ground in zoology, botany, epidemiology – but it sure is a fascinating and illuminating argument.

13

Dan Nexon 09.08.05 at 8:45 pm

“As to whether westerners, or western intellectuals- are self aware, I’ve had a hard enough time trying to get people like these to even begin to ask why people believe certain things- or why they say they do- but I get no response.”

Seth, I read your intervention and, frankly, it reads like a total non-sequitor. Maybe if you had asked your question directly you might have gotten a response. Heck, if you’d asked it in a comprehensible way you might have gotten a response.

(Think about it. Your closing line was “”And if you think that’s not the objective purpose of religion you should spend more time in humanities departments.” Was the term “objective purpose of religion” meant to be ironic? What was the referent of the pronoun “that” anyway? Being mistaken about something?)

I bet the somewhat opaque insult “know-nothing positivists” didn’t help either. I’m not surprised at all that the only response you got was a return slap at humanities departments.

14

Henry 09.08.05 at 8:53 pm

Rex – fair enough – in writing the post I’ve not done enough to differentiate my criticism of Errington and Gewertz from my previous beef with Ozma. I do think the objects of my criticism are related phenomena in the minimal sense that that they are both forms of disciplinary boundary-maintenance, but Errington and Gewertz clearly aren’t making the same kinds of claims that Ozma was, and I didn’t make that clear enough. Will update accordingly. Nor (and I hope this is clear from the post as it stands) should this post be construed as an attack on cultural anthropology _tout court_, or indeed on _Savage Minds_ (which I namecheck in a piece I have forthcoming in the _Chronicle_ on the promise of academic blogs).

15

John Emerson 09.08.05 at 9:44 pm

“We’re out of a Habermasian discourse situation here. We’re somewhere else—in Karl Rove territory.”

This is the same as with Gunther Grass. Please learn to disagree with people to the left of you, whom you dislike, without accusing them of being Nazis or Karl Rove.

Or else, die and go to hell. Either would be OK with me at this point.

16

Kerim Friedman 09.08.05 at 9:59 pm

Thanks for the Chronicle reference!!!

I advise anyone interested in this debate to read the back-and-forth in the comments to Rex’s latest post.

17

Henry 09.08.05 at 10:22 pm

I hadn’t seen the back-and-forth to Rex’s post when I wrote this. One thing that occurs to me as interesting is the relationship between discourse on blogs and what Rabinow describes as “corridor talk.” One way in which disciplines define themselves is by diffuse griping about other disciplines, or figures in other disciplines etc etc. This “corridor talk” is important – in a real way it’s constitutive of the informal norms of the discipline – but it should perhaps be held to a lower standard, as Tim argues, than academic argument. The claims aren’t made as seriously. Blogs mix corridor talk and serious academic argument together – neither fully the one nor the other.

18

seth Edenbaum 09.08.05 at 10:27 pm

It struck me that Timothy Burke’s comments were little more upping the ante. My ‘meta…’ is bigger than your meta…’ Read the quote Henry pulled, it reads like a prescription for failure in all attempts to understanding anything outside the self.

And it struck me also that the issue was not one of anthropologists claiming to have an ‘authentic’ experience of the ‘other’ but of critics of cultural anthropology ignoring the problematic nature of relationships across cultures, (or classes or genders, which is where my comments came in.)

Does Clifford really claim that his work “faithfully represent[s] the voice of the other? Is he really that vulgar? Maybe he is. Too bad.

To respond to Mrs Tilton,
One of the question that arose at the beginning of this was whether Diamond was ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Can a scientist be both naive and right? Can a photographer be both useful, even in a moral sense, and at the same time be unthinking and insensitive? If Diamond tends to simplify human communication does that mean he’s wrong about rocks? But doesn’t he write about both?

And if I am a good son, can I also be the god of death?

Dan, stop listening to people tell you the world is flat and wonder why they would choose to think such an illogical thing.
And then stop and wonder at the arrogance of the Army Corps of Engineers who thought they could beat millions of years of geologic ‘evolution’ with the brain power of a few men with graduate degrees. I had a dentist who crossed himself everytime he began working on my root canal. I asked him why ( I was a little nervous) He said to remnd himself that there was something bigger than he is. I told him I was an atheist but that I think of history the way he thinks of god.
He understood. Do you?

19

Dan Nexon 09.08.05 at 10:41 pm

Seth,

I don’t quite get your point. I understand that you want to inquire into the reasons why individuals understand reality in a particular way (although I’m not entirely comfortable with the word “choose” here, for reasons we could discuss at length).

My point was that the lack of response to your post on pharyngula might be a function of its opaque and insulting qualities, not the hubris or condescension of the group in question.

Moreover, I’m not quite clear why you pose (or posed) this as a conflict between “the Army Corp of Engineers” vs “geological ‘evolution.'” As far as I know, geologic evolution was not conspiring to make a “good” or “beneficial” Mississippi. Rather, the redirection of the Mississippi had unintended consequences that helped to produce the current disaster in New Orleans. Different issue.

20

seth Edenbaum 09.08.05 at 10:46 pm

I condescend to people who condescend.
And i do it on principle.

21

Pat 09.08.05 at 11:17 pm

The real question, and honest to god, this is the real question, instead of all the things everyone else keeps talking about, is this:

Why the HELL. In a book about the influence of geography on cultural development. Is everyone fighting about a FLAVOR QUOTE USED TO SEGUE INTO AN ARGUMENT.

Lets say that Diamond totally, totally gets Yali wrong. Completely. Yali was talking apples, Diamond heard oranges.

How is this in the least bit relevant to the actual thesis of his book? Misunderstanding Yali doesn’t undercut Diamond’s analysis of the development of guns. It doesn’t destroy his analysis of the development of disease immunities. It doesn’t undercut his analysis on farming technologies.

It just undercuts his SKILL AT WRITING INTERESTING BOOK INTRODUCTIONS. Man, what a sin that is!

Argh!

22

Doctor Slack 09.09.05 at 12:44 am

Tim Burke is absolutely right that Errington and Gewertz have failed to convincingly claim that they’re in an epistemologically superior position to Diamond — and his point that there is really no such ground to be hand seems quite correct to me. I also agree that they produce no adequate response to this, and that in the broader sense it might do to pay some attention to these things as manifestations of academic politics.

But moreover, I think pat is spot on. This is the sort of tempest-in-a-teacup complaint that often makes PoCo academe so wearisome to follow. If they thought that a more detailed attempt to understand and appreciate Yali’s perspective in context would be worthwhile, that’s perfectly fine; but this could have been done without a lame and poorly-grounded attempt to impugn Diamond’s approach as inherently manifesting a colonial viewpoint (which is pretty much their implication if I’m reading them aright, and which segues very easily into more specific charges of racism).

23

Ginger Yellow 09.09.05 at 2:31 am

Exactly what Richard Cownie and Pat said. It really doesn’t make any difference whatsoever, and I mean whatsoever, whether the SM interpetation of Yali’s question is correct or Diamond’s is, or indeed if they are actually the same. What matters is that Yali’s question, as interpreted by Diamond, is valid, interesting and a source of productive research.

“Lets say that Diamond totally, totally gets Yali wrong. Completely. Yali was talking apples, Diamond heard oranges.”

For example, let’s say what Yali said was “How come the sky is blue?” Which could have whatever cultural interpretation the SM people would like to give it. And yet Diamond misheard and translates and interprets it as he does in GG&S. As Pat says, not loudly enough in my opinion, THIS WOULD MAKE NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER TO THE MERITS OF HIS ARGUMENT! It’s just a means of posing an interesting historical question, for God’s sake! Aargh, indeed.

24

Western Dave 09.09.05 at 6:29 am

This is just further proof of my pet theory that the way to get famous in academia is to write a book that is wrong. Instead, lets give some props to some good big history. My nomination – McNeil and McNeil – The Human Web. It gets at the metanarrative while still maintaining a sense of contingency.

25

JO'N 09.09.05 at 7:16 am

Seth Edenbaum writes:

I condescend to people who condescend. And i do it on principle.

So, your final argument is “they did it first”? No matter what the nasty pharyngulites said, it doesn’t make you look good.

26

Richard Cownie 09.09.05 at 7:46 am

“If they thought that a more detailed attempt to understand and appreciate Yali’s perspective in context would be worthwhile, that’s perfectly fine; but this could have been done without a lame and poorly-grounded attempt to impugn Diamond’s approach as inherently manifesting a colonial viewpoint”

Indeed, the implication of their criticism is not that Diamond wrote a *bad* book, but that he wrote the *wrong* book. To which the obvious answer is, he wrote the book he wanted to write, why don’t you go ahead and write the book you think it should have been ?

27

monboddo 09.09.05 at 8:22 am

All of which reminds me of a comment by my graduate advisor: books can be right and wrong, and books can be good or bad, and better to write a good book that’s wrong than a bad book that’s right.

28

The Navigator 09.09.05 at 8:47 am

John Emerson,

Is it the same as with Ozma? Should we learn to disagree with people to the right of us, whom we dislike, without accusing them of being racists?

29

David Sucher 09.09.05 at 9:24 am

Attempting to keep my respect for academia, I assume that this whole discussion is largely a run-through for a skit on Saturday Night Live. It’s pretty clear what Diamond is saying and it is appalling — and it is neither racist nor condescending nor makes excuses for global inequality — that anyone would be taking the trumped-up criticism of Errington and Gewertz seriously. In fact they themselves seem to be surprised as the very first thing which they note (on Savage Minds) is “We appreciate that Timothy Burke…has taken seriously our posts about Yali and Diamond.”

Maybe their posts will turn out to be one of those great academic jokes designed to reveal the absence of clothes.

30

david 09.09.05 at 10:00 am

Piss ignorant academy bashing seems weirdly tied to love for GG&S. What gives?

31

Richard Cownie 09.09.05 at 10:37 am

“Piss ignorant academy bashing seems weirdly tied to love for GG&S. What gives?”

That’s an obvious one. Academics are specialists; GG&S is a generalist work par excellence, combining insights from many different disciplines. If you like the wide-ranging approach of GG&S, you’re probably not going have much sympathy for the narrow viewpoints of academics who tend to see everything through the prism of their own discipline. And in turn, those academics are threatened by the very concept that a broad-but-shallow approach might be more illuminating than their own narrow-but-deep approach.

Of course, both styles have some value, and Diamond is assembling his edifice from bricks of hard academic research by others in various disciplines. Bricklayers and architects are both doing useful work, and doubtless carp at each other from time to time.

32

Brad DeLong 09.09.05 at 11:08 am

Henry–

Re: “The alternative explanation is that what we’re seeing is an extreme form of disciplinary habitus. Economists have a tendency to see the world in terms of utility maximizing self interested actors, political scientists (at least my variety of same) in terms of actors who seek to maintain and extend power.”

Granted that the world consists of a dialectical interplay between technology, ecology, polity, economy, and culture. Granted that Diamond overweights ecology, I overweight economy, anthropologists overweight culture, and you are perfect. Still, that’s not what’s going on here.

Errington and Gewertz accuse Diamond of not understanding that Yali wanted to figure out how to acquire cargo in large part as a means to resist western colonialism. But the words that Diamond uses to frame his conversation with Yali–“tension… colonists… openly despised… ‘primitive’… white ‘masters’… on Yali’s mind… penetrating glance of his flashing eyes”–show that Diamond does not think the way Errington and Gewertz say he thinks. The isn’t “disciplinary habitus”: this is something much worse.

33

Henry 09.09.05 at 11:48 am

Brad – I hope I didn’t come across as implying that I’m free of original sin here (of course I’m not), but I still don’t see that there’s smoking gun evidence in the Errington and Gewertz quote of deliberate intent to deceive. If there’s one thing that has become clear, it’s that quite a lot of anthropologists more or less agree with Errington and Gewertz’s take on Yali, and would (I suspect, although I obviously can’t prove this) see nothing objectionable in Errington and Gewertz’s exegesis of this passage. Which suggests to me that the issue is not one of personal dishonesty, but of disciplinary blinkers shared by a large-ish group of people. If you start from a certain perspective, you’re going to think that Yali _couldn’t_ be saying the kind of thing that Diamond believes he is saying, because everything that he says or could say must be interpreted in terms of the colonial relationship between the West and the rest. You’re also going to discount the extent to which Diamond refers to Yali as wanting to resist Western colonialism, because Western colonialism isn’t at the heart of Diamond’s narrative. That is – Diamond is arguing that the specific forms of Western colonialism don’t spring from a problematic and uniquely Western culture of imperialism, so much as from the material advantages that the West had. (if the situations had been reversed, and guns, germs and steel had favoured the Incas, the Zulus or the Maoris, Diamond would predict, I imagine that these would have engaged in wars of conquest against Europe). In short, Errington and Gewertz think that Diamond is inherently doing problematic work, because his account of the relationship between the West and the Rest isn’t rooted in an account of the particular and unique sins of Western colonialism. And here, a lot of anthropologists would, I believe, agree with them.

It’s this that I think lies behind Tim’s criticism that the framework that Errington and Gewertz are using denies Yali agency and individuality as an autonomous human being with knowledge of both PNG and Western culture, just as surely as the (partly imaginary) account that they’re setting out to criticize. And this is why I think Rabinow’s critique is more useful than a specific attack on the intellectual honesty of Gewertz and Errington. It suggests that the unexamined elements of this foundation-myth – this idea that anthropologists are uniquely privileged interlocutors for peoples from non-Western cultures, and that a specifically _Western_ colonialism is at the heartroot of the unfair world we live in today – stems from political struggles for legitimacy _within the academy_. Now I might be wrong – it could be that Errington and Gewertz are indeed deliberately venturing into the territory of Karlroviana. But I think that the alternative explanation here gets better at what is going on.

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Timothy Burke 09.09.05 at 1:44 pm

The short version of my critique would be that Errington and Gewertz could save themselves a lot of labor if they’d just go about talking about why Diamond is in their judgement empirically wrong in his claims (about Yali and anything else that catches their eye) and more importantly, that’s he’s not trying to explain the things about the modern world that in their judgement really need explaining.

To some extent, their answer to my criticism is that this is exactly what they’re doing, and what’s all the fuss about anyway? Which is pretty much the point of my long post at my blog, an attempt to account for the epistemological fuss, sympathetically. I understand why lots of people read an exchange like this one and say, “What is the PROBLEM with you eggheads?” but if it’s at all possible, I’d like to convince folks that there are real and legitimate reasons why particular academic conversations look like this, and why scholars wind themselves up so much to make certain kinds of points.

Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather that we dispense with some of what I think are epistemological dead-ends, and it especially doesn’t mean that I don’t think that some of those dead-ends aren’t in fact death traps, arguments that aren’t merely excessive but actively wrong-headed.

Chief among these may be the assertion that Diamond can be judged negatively regardless of his substantive claims because he’s desired by the wrong kinds of audiences in the wrong kinds of (Western) places; that is a devastating type of argument to make for cultural anthropology, because it has just as long a history of being desired by most of the same kinds of audiences in the same kinds of places. One day said people may want to be let off the hook; the next day they may want to self-abnegate and self-flagellate about their responsibility for colonialism and genocide. But it’s not as if I’m the first to make that point: this is precisely the issue that perturbs postcolonial theory so deeply, and in many ways for good reason. If you make a (legitimate) argument that Western expansion obliterated or obscured non-Western culture, consciousness, history in part through its own practices of knowing and representing the world and you want to try and know the things which were obscured, you have to use some of the very tools and practices which you regard as culpable in injustice in the first place. I think it’s a mistake to guffaw and point fingers at the silly intellectuals for getting their guts twisted up in a knot about that problem: it’s a real, real serious one.

I happen to think that the answer involves both recognizing that we’ve had a tendency to overestimate the power of colonialism in the first place and a kind of acceptance that what’s done is done and that Western practices of knowledge production actually do a good job of creating knowledge that has universal human value and integrity. But I don’t fool myself that those are easy things to say, or should be said casually or blithely.

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Doctor Slack 09.09.05 at 4:00 pm

I think it’s a mistake to guffaw and point fingers at the silly intellectuals for getting their guts twisted up in a knot about that problem: it’s a real, real serious one.

It’s a serious one if one accepts the initial premise. My problem with the premise is that it’s always seemed to me to reify monolithic (or nearly so) categories of “Western” vs. “non-Western,” thereby obscuring the fact that there can be signficant overlaps between and heterogeneities within the categories of “the rest” and “the West.” In a way, it’s arguably a recapitulation of the signature error of colonial thought, which is one of the reasons it grates on me. (Calling Mme. Cixous…)

I’m not saying this as though it’s something you don’t know, of course (after all it’s not much different, if at all, from much of what you say in your response to Errington and Gewertz). Just clarifying where I’m coming from.

One doesn’t want to seem too casual or blithe in responding to these things, but on the other hand one doesn’t want to be too blithely accepting of the dissipation of intellectual energy in feuds arising from flawed or self-contradictory theoretical frameworks. I’ve seen much, much worse than Errington and Gewertz on this score, admittedly. But still.

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Brad DeLong 09.09.05 at 4:04 pm

John Emerson writes: “Please learn to disagree with people to the left of you, whom you dislike, without accusing them of being Nazis or Karl Rove. Or else, die and go to hell. Either would be OK with me at this point.”

Really…

Here’s what Errington and Gewertz write:

“Yali was actually asking about social equality. Whereas Diamond thinks Yali envied nifty Western stuff, Yali actually resented the not-so-nifty Western condescension that allowed Europeans to deny PNGuineans fundamental worth…”

And here are some of the words that Diamond uses to frame his conversation with Yali:

“… tension… colonists… despised… ‘primitive’… ‘masters’…”

Does this suggest to you that Diamond was ignorant of Yali’s concerns with social equality, western imperialism, and western condescension? Can you propose a process by which Errington and Gewertz’s caricature of Diamond is innocent?

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Timothy Burke 09.09.05 at 4:17 pm

Completely agreed, Doctor Slack: that’s another one of my ways out of the trap. It’s one of the reasons that I think colonialism has been misrepresented, because it’s seen as something done by “the West” in toto and reflecting some general interest or will of “Westerners”. The “West” as it’s meant in these kinds of claims doesn’t exist and never did, I think. Once you get to that point, a lot of the epistemological dilemma deflates on its own accord.

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 4:33 pm

Howdy — I see that again (and by one of my fellow SMers, no less) I have been described as making the equivalence Diamond = racism. This is not true. What I said was Diamond = know-nothing anti-racism, a point I still stand behind. Today’s know-nothing anti-racism represents progress, no doubt; that the know-nothing anti-racism of our generation is preferable to the flat-out racism of previous generations I would not question. So, again, I did not accuse Diamond of racism. I do think he’s a know-nothing anti-racist, and I do think his stance is shared by many people, and I don’t think it is an admirable one. I realize “racist” is shorter and easier to type that “know-nothing anti-racist”. May I suggest the shorthand KNARist?

Timothy Burke — why not make the point about “what’s done is done” over at Savage Minds? It lays your cards on the table a little more forthrightly, but somehow I think you wouldn’t be as ready to say it to an audience of anthropologists.

Henry — you don’t have to use scarequotes around my pseudonym, and you don’t have to unveil my “real name” (as you did several weeks ago) here as if it had been passed to you personally by Deep Throat. It’s accessible to any and all visitors to SM with the wherewithal to click on the right-hand side of the site.

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 4:39 pm

Timothy Burke — do away with the construction “the West” and you do away with the need to discuss or account for colonialism?

This seems to me impossible, given that colonialism and “the West” were in a mutually-constitutive feedback loop. That is to say, the entity we know as “the West” was in an important way constituted by the activities we know as “colonialism”. One has to have a way of recognizing and discussing this, and forbidding certain word-notions seems like a bad way to go about it.

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Richard Cownie 09.09.05 at 5:03 pm

The phenomena GG&S seeks to explain were quite well established by about 1350AD. And at that point the closest thing to “colonialism” was the Mongol Empire. So any attempt to apply postcolonial theory to GG&S is just ludicrously off-target. It makes one wonder whether Errington & Gewertz actually read the whole book, or just flipped out over the first chapter and never went further …

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Henry 09.09.05 at 5:04 pm

bq. Howdy—I see that again (and by one of my fellow SMers, no less) I have been described as making the equivalence Diamond = racism. This is not true.

Ozma – let me refresh your memory.

bq. “Walt Pohl”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/07/26/savaged-minds/#comment-85058 – Ozma: It’s not that you don’t like the book; it’s that you a) didn’t really read the book, b) misread the little that you did read, and c) accused everyone who liked the book of racism.

bq. “Ozma”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/07/26/savaged-minds/#comment-85098 – Walt, As for (a) and (b), nothing I’ve learned from this process has led me to believe my take on the book is mistaken. As for c, guilty as charged. Not of genetic racism, no. But guilty of what I called in my original post “no-nothing anti-racism”, yes, absoutely.

Is there any interpretation of what you said here which doesn’t imply that (a) your concept of ‘no nothing anti-racism’ is a variety of racism (one that is distinct in some way from ‘genetic racism’), and (b) that everyone who liked the book is guilty of racism? By your own admission, “Guilty as charged.”

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Doctor Slack 09.09.05 at 5:32 pm

Ozma: Timothy Burke—do away with the construction “the West” and you do away with the need to discuss or account for colonialism?

Try tracking the exchange back a little. I think you’ll find that nobody at any point was talking about “doing away” with discussing or accounting for colonialism.

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 5:50 pm

well, I do feel a bit pink-faced at misspelling “know-nothing anti-racism” as “no-nothing”.

but let me explain what I do mean by KNAR (starts with a K, just like my top-secret real name).

“know-nothing anti-racism” takes one lesson from the civil rights movement — judging by the content of character, not the color of skin — and stops right there. It opposes affirmative action. It thinks the idea of reparations for slavery is completely wacko. It doesn’t want to think about race issues historically.

Now, none of this comes up in JD’s book. But he makes a similar pairing: a strong assertion of anti-racism with a neglect of history. He does more than just *neglect* history, however; he obviates it. He takes the causal motor of current inequities (and their affiliation with racial difference) out of history, and puts it into geography.

This allows people to have the feel-good bits of anti-racism (content of character, not color of skin) without dealing with the historical reckoning bits of it (which are pretty uncomfortable-making). It’s not the same as what I called “genetic racism” — thinking there are some fixed number of human types, each with a defined lineage, and with a hierarchically-rankable set of inherent capacities — above, and so it isn’t “racism” as it is commonly understood. It is something else, which I describe as “know-nothing anti-racism”. I’m all for the feel-good bits of anti-racism; I just think they don’t get the job done in terms of dealing with the historical legacy of racism. And I think Jared Diamond’s book is an effort in the wrong direction (while also being substantively wrong on the facts) . Do you understand now?

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 6:09 pm

Dr. Slack,

I took what you and Dr. Burke were agreeing upon in your exchange as:

“this category ‘the West’ is stupid; it’s like blaming everything on ‘the Man'”

There is no such thing as “the West” just like there is no such “the Man”. These shorthand entities are taken far too seriously as actual actors. If people understood this, they would stop attributing so much power to “colonialism” and other such saggy-baggy categories.

quite so my good fellow. People are surely silly aren’t they. Especially academics.

oh yes. the things we have to put up with, harrumph harrumph.”
**************
Now, of course, this point about “the West” is made endlessly; it’s not a new insight. It can also be made about “modernity”, also “tradition”. Also “culture”. Also, “society”. Also “the body”. If memory serves it was rather robustly made about “the orient” some years ago…. what was that word again?

So let’s concede it’s a bit sloppy to talk about “the West” in the same way it’s a bit sloppy to talk about “the Man”. So what? Really important points have been made using that kind of language. Why the feverish eagerness to take it apart? It seems to me that different kinds of points can be made using different levels of terminology — one study could show the contingency of some Spanish coastal village sending out its threadbare sons to become “conquistadors” (that one village is clearly not The West) while another could discuss “Western imperialism” without being a load of crap for that reason. The existence of the first study doesn’t cut the second one off at the knees — and what would motivate anyone to insist it did?

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Henry 09.09.05 at 6:27 pm

Ozma – are you claiming that your concept of “know/no nothing racism” is a kind of racism or not? This is a simple question. A yes or no answer would be appreciated.

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Doctor Slack 09.09.05 at 6:30 pm

Ozma: quite so my good fellow. People are surely silly aren’t they. Especially academics.

Guess you didn’t read the exchange at all carefully, then. (Watching Monty Python at the time, perhaps?) Thanks for being honest about it, but you’ll want to watch that.

Now, of course, this point about “the West” is made endlessly; it’s not a new insight.

And yet it never seems to quite sink in… particularly at the “levels of terminology” where it should be sinking in. Someone using “the West” as a category in casual discourse isn’t going to bother me, in much the same way that someone using the term “the Man” poetically in certain contexts won’t bother me. OTOH, someone undertaking a painfully detailed dissection of Jared Diamond’s relationship to “Yali’s question” and what it supposedly implies about his epistemology or moral judgments (or lack thereof) of historical outcomes… well, it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable to expect something a little more sophisticated in that context, the context we’re talking about, than the monolithic “West” (or the monolithic “Man”).

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 6:40 pm

Henry — I’m not sure if you realized that you didn’t pose your question in a yes/no format. But let me do what I can with it:

No, know-nothing anti-racism [telling that you left the “anti” bit out, but I’m beyond expecting fair play here] is not racism. Hence the part where I call it “anti-racism”.

However, know-nothing anti-racism enables the historical effects of past racism to be perpetuated.

So, like the effects of racism, the effects of know-nothing anti-racism are bad.

I can probably build a model out of playdough and popsicle sticks if you need my point broken down more simply.

Let me return a question to you: you’re a political scientist, and I presume that you teach. If an undergraduate insisted in class that affirmative action was racist, how would you respond?

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 6:52 pm

Dr. Slack,

Having had my own arguments endlessly misconstrued, I don’t want to parse Fred and Deborah’s here. But I read them as paying more attention to the “Yali” side of the question than to the (pardon my bad language) “Western” side of it. Anyway, *not* speaking for F&D, I do think there are contexts (and not just casual hallways conversation contexts — serious pointy-headed ones, too) in which it’s perfectly appropriate to use a term like “Western”. In fact the endless point-scoring in the form of:

“But what do you mean by […]?”

(insert any number of handy-dandy terms in the brackets: modernity, culture, tradition, the West, the non-West, indigenous, nature, globalization, local….)

seems to me a much more egregious, and frequent, crime in contemporary academia than is the use of the terms themselves. All of the terms subject to such withering (and boring, and mean-spirited) attack are deictic; they are like here/there, you/me, now/then — totally dependent on context and thus not amenable to fixed definition. They are not therefore useless, nor should their use be subject to checking-out, initialling a sign-out sheet, and promising to have them back after the weekend.

in 9 out of 9 cases, when someone jumps on their deployment it’s because they have some other problem with the argument being made — one that they either don’t want to admit or that they can’t properly articulate. Or else it means they haven’t got anything interesting to say but want to sound clever and that formula seems always to work like a charm, though by now everybody should be on to it as an effing tiresome gambit.

by itself, the criticism “ooh, but you haven’t properly defined what you mean by “the West” almost never means a darn thing.

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Doctor Slack 09.09.05 at 7:20 pm

Ozma: Having had my own arguments endlessly misconstrued, I don’t want to parse Fred and Deborah’s here.

Heart-warming to see you extending that courtesy to someone, at least!

I do think there are contexts (and not just casual hallways conversation contexts—serious pointy-headed ones, too) in which it’s perfectly appropriate to use a term like “Western”.

And in those contexts, it should be perfectly possible to use it in ways that do not reify a simplistic or monolithic view of what “Western” constitutes. Which, you have no doubt noticed, is specifically what Tim and I were talking about — not a ban on the term “the West” per se.

(It’d be interesting to go into some further detail about whether I’m wrong that this problem of monolithic characterization is as relevant to F&D’s line of attack as I think it is. I could well be wrong about that — I’d have to look at it a lot more carefully to be sure. I don’t know that there’s time to do that in this thread, though.)

All of the terms subject to such withering (and boring, and mean-spirited) attack are deictic; they are like here/there, you/me, now/then—totally dependent on context and thus not amenable to fixed definition.

Then it’s funny how often we run across theses that pretend the term “the West” is in fact amenable to a fixed definition from which it’s morally hazardous to depart, isn’t it? Or is it “boring” and “mean-spirited” to point out that that was exactly my point?

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 7:40 pm

Dr. Slack,

actually you make quite a good point in that last sentence. But it seems to me to be a much better point than the one with which you began.

I read your original point as that F&D hadn’t specified the West enough to be allowed to get away with using it. As I already said, I don’t think this is such a good point (in that it’s always a good point, so it’s never all that good a point).

But coming at it from the other end — saying it’s rhetorically underhanded to morally police what one is permitted to mean by “the West” — seems to me rather a good point. It seems to me in fact rather like *my* point, so I like it very much. But — and again not to speak for F & D — I don’t think they made that rhetorically underhanded move.

oh — before anyone posts something along the lines of “so if I say the West is a purple dinosaur I’m allowed”? let me forestall you by saying — knock yourself out. The point is, if you make an argument that implicitly takes “the West” to be a purple dinosaur, and your argument is still smart and interesting and informative and revelatory, three cheers.

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Richard Cownie 09.09.05 at 7:44 pm

This KNAR idea again misses the point of GG&S. Diamond expains why Europeans were *able* to dominate other cultures. He doesn’t at all claim that the way they chose to use those capabilities was morally correct, or even good in its consequences.

If I wrote a book about how bank robbers acquire guns and safe-cracking equipment, does that mean I’m in favor of robbing banks ? Or that I think bank robbers shouldn’t be punished ? Obviously
not, it just means I find bank-robbery an interesting subject.

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Henry 09.09.05 at 7:50 pm

Ozma, your question seems to me to be rather a non-sequitur, as I haven’t made any claims here about what is and isn’t racism – instead I’ve tried with indifferent success to get you to clarify your terms. Nor do I teach on topics where the question is likely to come up. But to entertain the hypothetical, I’d suggest that they consider the circumstances under which affirmative action policies might, or might not be considered racist, referring them for example to Ira Katznelson’s recent (and very good) book on “affirmative action for whites”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/08/28/RVG0SEA4JK1.DTL&type=books.

But as stated, this is a distraction. What I’d like to know is if “know/no nothing anti-racism” isn’t racism, why did you tell Walt Pohl that you were indeed accusing him (and me, and everyone else who had read Jared Diamond and liked him) of some kind of racism, though apparently not of “genetic racism,” whatever the difference is? Your reply to him was unambiguous. “Guilty as charged,” to repeat your words yet again.

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 8:05 pm

Richard Cownie — if JD’s book is correct, then okay. It was inevitable that Europeans would dominate and there is really no point in carving up the historical blame — I mean, we might wish they’d used their advantages differently (though they had no conscious control over the germ thing, even if they all could have had a “no guns, no steel” meeting at some point … though that sort of underlines how silly it is to talk about “blame” in JD’s framework, huh? How could they have held such a meeting? How could they have anticipated any need to hold such a meeting? Etc.? Silly all around.

I have said here many times that I don’t think JD’s book is correct; I don’t, in fact, think it even begins to be persuasive. But I’ve said over and over again it’s possible that I am wrong. In which case, yeah, all this hand-wringing over colonialism, pshaw. It’s sad but kind of sad-like-an-earthquake. Generations of scholars and activists and colonial liberation leaders wasted a lot of energy on negative vibes.

Yeah, totally. If his book is right, RC, KNAR is the right attitude.

On this topic, am I ever screwed if the Left Behind series turns out to be right on. And there’s lots of evidence for it, and I haven’t investigated all of that evidence. So I could be wrong about that one as well. Dang.

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 8:20 pm

Henry, when I said I was “guilty as charged”, it was after re-phrased his charges into my own words (changing, note, “racism” to “know-nothing anti-racism”) as is perfectly clear from the passage you recite.

It seems to me that you are being obstinately obtuse, for purposes I can’t quite fathom. It is interesting, though, that you chose to defer answering my question (I answered yours, even using the narrow constraints on offer). Your answer was slippery all the way down, in fact. The book you cite makes the implicit claim that once there was a kind of affirmative action — which was unfair in favor of white people (booo). It sets up an equation, located entirely in the 20th century (I’m guessing from the blurb), between that past unfair kind of affirmative action and the present kind (implicitly taken also to be unfair).

Then it seems to conclude, oh, let’s not get all mixed up with race anyway. let’s do this in terms of class.

So I’m trying to suss out your position from this deferral in favor of someone else’s book, a book which seems to suggest an equivalence between past, unfair white affirmative action and present, presumably also unfair, non-white affirmative action, and salvages a sense of fair-mindedness by having recourse to socio-economic class.

sigh.

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Doctor Slack 09.09.05 at 8:39 pm

Ozma: it seems to me to be a much better point than the one with which you began.

I don’t think it’s a different point at all, since terms like “overlapping” and “heterogeneity” strike me as tying in pretty directly to deixis. But hey, I’m more than happy to give you props for phrasing the point more economically than I did initially.

The tie-in of the whole debate about “the West” to F&D depends on some pretty particular chains of argument up-thread. I unfortunately will not have time to go back into that in any detail before we’re consigned to the limbo of Not-the-Front-Page, but for the time being I’ll just say that the connection doesn’t seem implausible to me at all.

FWIW, GG&G is arguing probability, not “inevitability,” and I think cannot be fairly construed as arguing for the “sad-like-an-earthquake” value-neutrality of what it’s describing or trying to excuse European colonialism of anything. Arguing that humans in general tend to struggle for various forms and configurations of dominance is not an argument that all power relations are morally equivalent. That’s not to say that I personally am all that big a fan of GG&G, actually (I think he pushes the whole argument rather dubiously myself), but I don’t see reason to disagree with it on grounds of “KNARism.”

(Oh, and glancing back at SM, I have to say F&D are losing me again with the “culture vs. nature” critique as something especially relevant or damaging to JD’s thesis.)

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Timothy Burke 09.09.05 at 8:53 pm

I have no hesitation making the points I’ve made here in front of anthropologists. For one, anthropologists are reading here and at my own blog. For another, I’ve made similar comments in papers and articles read by anthropologists. Finally, I’ve been making some of these points at Savage Minds.

Other than that, it’s sort of hard for me to figure out if you have any interest in actually discussing much of anything, Ozma, where the points of possible congruity or shared premises about scholarship, academia, anthropology, colonialism, “the West”, or what the responsibility of intellectuals are.

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 8:55 pm

okay, we can share points on the point.

and you don’t have to disagree with GG&S for the same reasons I do.

the culture vs. nature thing — again, not speaking for F & D but just going with my anthropological gut — I think they are pointing out that explanations located in nature always let people in power off the hook more than do explanations located in culture, history, society, politics, etc; so they end up appealing to people in power whether or not they are correct explanations. That’s all. F & D probably say it elegantly, though.

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 8:59 pm

Hi Timothy B — is there a word missing or something in that last sentence? I can’t figure out what it is that I am supposed to not have any actual interest in discussing.

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Richard Cownie 09.09.05 at 9:01 pm

“Richard Cownie—if JD’s book is correct, then okay. It was inevitable that Europeans would dominate and there is really no point in carving up the historical blame—I mean, we might wish they’d used their advantages differently (though they had no conscious control over the germ thing, even if they all could have had a “no guns, no steel” meeting at some point … though that sort of underlines how silly it is to talk about “blame” in JD’s framework,”

Some people are strong, some are weak. Some are good, some are bad. They’re separate qualities. Saying “X is strong because …” has no bearing on the question “Is X good or bad”. So you’re criticizing something that is no part of Diamond’s argument (and I strongly suspect it’s something he wouldn’t even agree with).

Let’s try your logic on a more specific case. It was inevitable that the British would win the Battle of Omdurman because “we had got/the Maxim gun, and they had not”; were they to blame for killing 20000 people ? Hell yes, of course they were.

If anything, I think Diamond’s argument should lead us to place more responsibility/blame on Europeans for the course of history: if you believe Europeans had most of the advantages in dealing with other cultures, then it’s clear they should bear most of the responsibility for the outcomes.

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 9:14 pm

RC — okay, let me work within the “Diamond has it right” framework for a moment. You say, hey, that could be read to suggest that Europeans have a special responsibility to their less fortunate fellow dwellers upon the earth. That’s a familiar one, right? I think *I* remember another Englishman’s poem on the topic, something about “take up the….” dang, what was it again? the red haired man’s package? the brunette’s handbag? no, no, that’s not it … ahhh, maybe it’ll come to me just as I’m getting ready for bed, you know?

But look — I know that’s not what you meant. You meant something about distributive justice, equality of outcomes despite inequality of inputs, that kind of thing. How did you get so sanguine about people’s interest in that? If Diamond (if correct) can be read one of two ways:

1) whopeee! you’re off the hook!
2) you really have some (god-given, destiny-awarded) unfair advantages and should give some back — god and destiny probably didn’t really mean for it to turn out that way…

is the second reading going to win out?

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Timothy Burke 09.09.05 at 9:34 pm

I can’t figure out what you have an interest in discussing either.

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Richard Cownie 09.09.05 at 9:38 pm

“1) whopeee! you’re off the hook!
2) you really have some (god-given, destiny-awarded) unfair advantages and should give some back—god and destiny probably didn’t really mean for it to turn out that way…

is the second reading going to win out?”

Well maybe not, but that’s absolutely not Diamond’s fault: he’s doing his best to tell the big story of cultural/technological history as it *is*, not as it *ought to be*. If you think his account is wrong, go ahead and criticize it. But don’t ask him to rewrite history to fit with your own present-day political concerns. If that’s the book you want, write it yourself.

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Ozma 09.09.05 at 9:57 pm

Timothy B — now that’s not very nice.

RC — well, I do think his account is wrong and I have gone ahead and criticized it. JD of course can’t re-write history to fit my present day political concerns — but I take your implication with that statement to be, history happened how it happened, tough beans, deal with it. that cultivation of that mindset is part of why JD-style accounts disturb me, but anyhoo.

finally, the “write the book you’d like better yourself” does make rather a resounding sign-off, doesn’t it? But the implications are not so sensible. Most authors hope for discussion of their books — most authors would *kill* for the volume of discussion JD has gotten, in fact. And the way to get that is controversy — some people like your book, some people don’t. Not “some people like your book, everyone else shuts up and goes home and writes their own book.”

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Henry 09.09.05 at 10:04 pm

Ozma – you asked me a quite bizarre question which was off-topic (what on earth do my views on affirmative action have to do with this? How is my style of pedagogy supposed to be connected with a discussion of Jared Diamond?) and accused me of being evasive when I didn’t give the sort of answer that you were looking for (if I’d had an idea of how the question was supposed to be relevant in the first place, I might have been able to give a different answer). It isn’t me who has been evasive in this discussion. You quite clearly _did_ accuse people who liked Diamond of racism. Walt said that you made an accusation of racism. You responded by affirming this, and by saying that you were not accusing people of “genetic racism,” but of “no-nothing anti-racism” which you very clearly took to be a (perhaps less offensive) kind of racism. NB also your use of the term “quasi racism.” And when people, including myself, asked you to explain exactly how Diamond’s book was racist, quasi-racist or whatever, you consistently refused to give a straight answer, citing travel commitments, the (incorrect) claim that you had already explained yourself etc etc. Your consistent instinct in debate seems not to be to provide reasoned argument,or to respond to the argument of others in a way that suggests that you might be persuaded if you were wrong, but instead to insulate yourself from other arguments through denying that these others have any standing (they’re members of different cultures, they’re only upset with you because you’re overturning their comfortable notions and so on – there’s a long list of excuses). There’s a set of basic academic commitments to reasoned debate that, I’m sorry to say, you seem to be refusing. As I said in the previous round of this.

bq. You haven’t as far as I can see, come up with anything that even begins to approximate an argument that might persuade someone who wasn’t already in agreement with you. Instead, you’ve articulated a set of vague dislikes and rather disconnected criticisms. You’ve certainly repeatedly avoided addressing my request for clarification. You don’t seem to want to be pinned down as making a clear set of claims, backed up by arguments and facts, which people can then agree with or disagree with.

Shorter version: what Tim says.

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Richard Cownie 09.09.05 at 11:13 pm

“RC —well, I do think his account is wrong and I have gone ahead and criticized it.”

Not in any of the posts I’ve seen. You’ve said you disagree with it, but you haven’t given any substantive criticism of any of the main points of the GG&S argument.

“JD of course can’t re-write history to fit my present day political concerns—but I take your implication with that statement to be, history happened how it happened, tough beans, deal with it. that cultivation of that mindset is part of why JD-style accounts disturb me, but anyhoo.”

Obviously that would be a naive viewpoint: but there are some indisputable facts – Europe did dominate other cultures – and JD has produced a coherent account which seems to fit the known facts quite well. If you don’t like the political implications, what is needed is a similarly coherent alternative account, not just “I don’t like it”. Indeed, GG&S is itself a response to the racist “Europeans dominated because they’re smarter” account.

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Henry 09.10.05 at 12:44 pm

Not to mention your comparison on Savage Minds of Jared Diamond’s book to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which I’ve just seen now. Ridiculous and pathetic.

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seth Edenbaum 09.10.05 at 4:13 pm

Henry, do you really take ‘know-nothiing anti racism” to be identical to racism?

Is there a dfference in law between acts committed for the purpose of having a specific outcome and acts committed that merely have the same result? Isn’t this question part of current constitutional debate?

And quoting Ozma at S. M. in the context of her refernce to the Protocals of the Elders of Zion:

“Many people believe that the way to take on “creation science” is to show why it is factually wrong. I don’t agree. The motor of creation science is not in the world of facts. Whack the mole of creation science and what pops up? Intelligent design. One has to go after the surrounding framework.”

That was my point in the link to Pharyngula.
How do we respond the creationism as a popular belief?

(And this discussion gets referred to s po-mo bullshit?
Some great politics here, really.)

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Henry 09.10.05 at 4:30 pm

Seth – “know-nothing anti racism” is Ozma’s category, not mine. And it’s one which she’s defined as best as I can tell as a form of racism, albeit one that’s distinct from “genetic racism.” And as being “quasi-racism.” And as being pernicious in the same way as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Quite frankly, I don’t know what the theory is behind this category, if there is a theory there, rather than a vague and fuzzyminded set of suspicions, so I can’t even begin to speculate as to an answer to your question. If I was forced into a corner, I would guess that it’s being “objectively pro-racist” in the same sense that opponents of the war were “objectively pro-Saddam,” but that’s a guess, pure and simple

As to debating creationism as a popular belief – whole different set of questions. My sense is that tactically it is past time to attack intelligent design directly and unambiguously. But this is purely a tactical judgement.

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Cog 09.11.05 at 7:14 pm

I long ago dismissed Ozma and Kerim as fractally wrong, and hence barely a step above trolls, but here I go, into the breach again. The two sides of this debate seem to be talking past each other. Here’s why:

The post that kicked off this discussion was trying to explain an observed fact, namely that Jared Diamond’s ideas are popular today among educated Westerners. Over the course of the discussion, two causal factors have been suggested for this fact:

A. Diamond’s thesis is interesting, carefully reasoned, and backed by enough evidence to be worthy of investigation.

B. Diamond’s thesis is psychologically appealing.

The posts of Ozma, Kerim, and others at Savage Minds appear to think that (A) is simply beyond the pale, and hence unworthy of consideration. This leads them to spin out a series of rather elaborate speculations about (B). They additionally seem to think that the truth or falsehood of (A) is irrelevant to whether people accept speculations about (B).

But this is nonsense. If (A) is true, then it weakens one’s confidence in the truth of any speculations about (B) (in Bayesian terms, let C be the observed popularity of Diamond’s ideas; if A and B are causal variables related to C, then observation of A “explains away” B). So various people — from Brad DeLong, to Henry, to numerous commenters at all these blogs — have been trying to argue for (A).

Meanwhile, Ozma et al. have merely continued spinning elaborate explanations for (B), and ignored or dismissed (A).

Hence, these two groups have been talking past each other.

Now, elsewhere, by way of explaining why (A) should be ignored, Diamond’s critics have compared his ideas to creationism, witch-hunting, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Ozma, especially has hit the “I’m an authority with professional training, and I think it’s absurd!” note pretty hard. If Diamond’s ideas really were akin to creationism, witch-hunting, and the Protocols, then she would be justified in doing so.

But this is plainly not the case. Consider, for example, why we believe creationism to be worthy of ridicule, rather than debate. First, creationism has been carefully and comprehensively debunked: there’s even a thorough set of FAQs about creationism. Diamond’s ideas have not been rebutted with anything remotely approaching this level of comprehensiveness. Second, there’s universal agreement among relevant experts that creationism is fundamentally unworthy of consideration. No such consensus exists for Diamond. Many people in biology, history, and the various social sciences find Diamond’s ideas plausible. And at least one anthropology grad student blogger, who doesn’t look like a kook to me, seems to find it plausible too.

Lastly, and most importantly for laypeople, the experts who find creationism absurd can, when pressed, come up with succinct and crystal-clear explanations for why it’s a load of bull. In doing so, they evince a rock-solid grasp of evolutionary theory, the biological literature, and creationism itself.

Ozma et al., by contrast, have cited an anthropology article that’s irrelevant, at best, displayed various gross misunderstandings of Diamond’s ideas and text, and otherwise clouded the waters by squirting copious octopus ink. Now, when you have experts who are unable even to properly cite into their own discipline’s literature, that doesn’t give you a great deal of confidence in their expertise. And when those experts flippantly deride the motives of those who disagree with them, and are terrible writers to boot, one isn’t inclined to take them very seriously as intellectuals either.

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Western Dave 09.12.05 at 10:27 am

Cownie,
But Diamond’s wrong as to why Europe came to dominate and that’s why the book is bad. Europe happened to enter the Indian Ocean just as the Chinese pulled out, they Scholars triumphed over the Eunuchs which led to an inward turn in China (this was a fundamentally non-materialist event), the story of Europe’s domination isn’t really about Europe, properly written which GGS isn’t, it should be about China.

Another nomination for a good “Big History” book that explains these issues “The World that Trade Created” py Topik and Pomeranz.
GGS is the Intelligent Design of history. Nobody wants to take on the details of the argument because they are so absurd.

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Cog 09.12.05 at 12:15 pm

Congratulations, Western Dave! You have magnificently proved my point about the frustrating qualities of Diamond’s critics.

Diamond’s book actually has very little to say about why Europe, as opposed to other Eurasian civilizations, came to dominate the modern world. After hundreds of pages of discussion of human prehistory and history up to roughly 1400, Diamond appends a tentative hypothesis, with many qualifications, about why Europe rather than China might have come to dominate the modern world. According to you, for daring to make such a guess, Diamond’s entire book can be dismissed as “bad” and therefore comparable to Intelligent Design.

I don’t know whether your misrepresentation of Diamond’s text stems from dishonesty or simple ignorance; but either way you’re scarcely going to convince anybody who’s actually read the book.

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jet 09.12.05 at 12:21 pm

Will anyone second “The World that Trade Created” as offering the(a?) more accepted view of history than Diamond’s? Or is there something better?

I’m about to order GGS but I’d like an opposing text so I can better understand why it is so controversial.

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Western Dave 09.13.05 at 12:02 pm

Jet,
Go for Human Web by McNeil and McNeil.

Cog,
JD starts with the question of How is it that Europe came to dominate – it’s the whole quest for ultimate origins thing in the rumination about why he chose to write the book. If the book doesn’t really answer that question (but merely speculates at the end), then what was the point of it? The whole thing is a boondoggle.

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