Sunday, March 02, 2008

ASA - From Post-Imperial Anthropology to Post-Anthropological Empire?

A cross post from the Association of Social Anthropology site, filed here (awaiting moderation), but check the original if interested.

As I cannot face reading the papers with War Hero Harry splattered (in the wrong way) across the front today, I visited the site of the Royal Anthropological Institute looking for comment, then landed on the ASA site. Predictable I guess, but a few comments in an otherwise interesting post have me queasy, as Subir Sinha writes on
“Over time, of course, anthropology began to exceed its imperial beginnings to become perhaps the most self-aware discipline in the academy…”
“Anthropology, consequently, has had little to do with the current imperial iteration. Deep knowledge has been replaced by ‘adequate’ knowledge …”
“Of course …geo-positioning satellites and allegedly ‘smart’ bombs made intimate knowledge of terrain unnecessary …”

[As if we should lament this latter missed opportunity and the consequent book sales, but my point is not this]…

Subir continues:
“In fact, much as knowledge was a constituent element of the previous iterations of empire, ignorance is a constituent element of this current imperial project...”

What provokes me to respond harshly here is that it is surely not a case of supplying the armed forces with a reading list or a manual for cultural exchange – though it seems that’s already underway from the anthropologists who brought us COIN – rather, the responsibility to combat the ignorance that fuels the current crusades is a much more active engagement with anti-war pedagogy.

Because I feel that anthropology, despite many well meaning and lovely-smart-critical people, has abandoned its responsibility in the face of total war, Subir is half correct to end with:
“Now that anthropology has become post-imperial, has empire itself not become post-anthropological? If so, what are the implications?”

For mine, I think the implications are grave if we accept this portrayal of anthropology. I can be sympathetic with the intent and the problematic, but I am somewhat amazed at the claim that anthropology is both the most self-aware of disciplines and somehow ‘in fact’ not implicated in the iteration of imperialism today. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the workings of what I will call the Jedi Mind Trick of liberal-civilizational abstention.

I do not line up with Fukayama-Rumsfeld or the turn-coat Ignatieff, but I do think to ignore the profound role anthropology has had in providing ‘knowledgeable’ alibis and cultural awareness for the war effort is dangerous. Not intentional of course, but a failure of intent – publicly anthropology has become not much more than a code word for a smattering of relativism and the ability to manage a greeting in several languages: (namaste, namaskaar, sat sri akal). It is a false and limited cultural-literacy that appeals as a resource in our numerous graduates that enter paid employ of the state and commerce. The even more numerous non-graduates – those who might sit in on one or two courses, a few lectures or accidentally sign up to an interesting sounding conference, or even ‘heaven forbid’ read a work of a stray anthropologist-public intellectual – and who might gain their degrees or pursue their work in a mistaken belief that they do have some greater degree of self-awareness, knowledge of others and, at most, experience in cultural difference via the ‘rough travel’ auspices of Lonely Planet Guides…it is these people that we enabled to run the war of terror. In Subir’s post, how can the ideological role of liberal cultural expediency be so systematically ignored, and responsibility for this ignorance not placed at our departmental door?

Needless to say, in the circumstances I balk a little at Caroline’s expression of pleasure that someone is positive about anthropology (in this way), and find Mils comment that ‘there is almost no possibility of a policy-maker (junior and especially senior) reading an ethnography’ at least slightly reassuring – though in my experience it is patently wrong. Jonathan Spencer is wise as ever, and usefully takes us elsewhere. But that Mils ends his last comment with a plea to oust the experts strikes me as more productive:
“I know terrorism theorists who have spent approximately none of their academic lives worrying about terrorism. And it’s them who get approached to address classified seminars; produce research strategies and review policies and plans (formally and otherwise). That’s influence. It could be benign, could be malign - but such folk are not shy … why let them continue unchallenged?”
Well and good at one level (if you know these terrorist experts, list names and addresses, and the times of the next meeting), but the challenge is certainly not to buy into the alibi game, become the critical paid lackey (not handmaiden of colonialism but court jesters of globalization) for those who would like more cultural awareness for the troops, a little sexing up of the dossiers, an imprimatur of scholarly credibility for the business-as-usual bombing campaigns. A worrying scenario presents itself: it does not strike me as much good if some anthros gets themselves invited to speak on Marcel Mauss and the Gift Economy at a closed session of the Defence Procurement Budget Strategy Team in Whitehall – I don’t think anthropologists are self-aware enough for that just yet.


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