How long can any of us expect our work to survive? Why do so few of my students recognize the names of my own illustrious teachers, or most of the people who were considered essential reading when I was a graduate student?
I find it very difficult to write about the history of anthropology without sounding like an old grump, full of nostalgia and complaints about ignorant youth. Nothing could be further from my intent, but it is worth asking what kind of past we are constructing as a discipline, and how we want to keep reading that past into the present. How do you select the most important works from thousands of books and articles, over a period when anthropology has changed in so many ways? How can we possibly build a canon of key readings which includes voices that were marginalized in the era when the discipline was a white boys’ club? And is it possible to include voices from outside the United States and the United Kingdom, not to mention key work that bridges between subfields?
My sense is that we are so busy teaching, doing research, writing and publishing, many of us no longer have much time to read. When we write and teach, we face constant pressure to show fluency in current research in our geographic and topical areas, use the latest language, and cite the leading theorists of the day. With so much to follow in the present, it is easy to disregard the past. How can we expect a writer to include relevant work by long dead ancestors, whose work may not be indexed or network-accessible, whose language and categories no longer match our own?
The need to be current on an ever-expanding literature, while trying to follow related developments in other disciplines has created a discontinuity, a chasm between present and past anthropologies. I suspect that for most of us, being “current” in theory means keeping track of a slowly shrinking horizon of about 10–15 years in depth. Over time, a few important things stick with you, while most of the rest becomes intellectual compost. I also notice that even the things we remember get somehow dryer, because the context that once made a work exciting is gone. This process of forgetting led me to go back to look at the program of my very first AAA meeting in New York in 1973. I remember seeing Margaret Mead in her exotic finery walking through the hallways while acolytes and disciples, dressed in colorful and exotic costumes, jostled each other to touch her magical walking staff. How many of the great names at those meetings are still recognized? Few of the prominent names on that program are even listed in the Social Science Citation Index.
So much of our ancestors’ work and passion, lifetimes of effort and wisdom, has disappeared, to the point where most of the people I studied in graduate school in the 1970s are now obscure historical figures. Their writings are buried under the weight of later work, only kept alive by a small community of their students or grandstudents. Who has time any more for conducting an excavation, to keep these names alive? A few luminaries, Boas or Malinowski or Bateson, become the representatives of entire eras and schools of theory.
I feel like we have effectively killed and buried our intellectual ancestors, our elder brothers and sisters, and it leaves senior people like me feeling like our own work from 20 or 30 years ago has already fallen into academic oblivion. We graduate our students into a furious intellectual competition, driving them to claim a topic or specialty, while keeping up with the latest trends of current theory. We give them no rewards for staying grounded in the history of anthropology or keeping in touch with the full breadth of the discipline. Instead they have to address and cite the prominent names of the day, or their papers will be rejected and their careers will suffer. How does this affect the discipline as a whole?
We do have some ways of preserving the past. We have more encyclopedias than anybody could possibly read in a lifetime. Our associations and organizations single people out with awards and honors, and the work of prominent scholars is celebrated in obituaries, festschrifts, retrospectives, and even biographies. Annual review editors and authors try to distill the best of the field to its essence, and find direction and progress in a dense jungle of research. The discipline has a wealth of accumulated knowledge and activism among the Association of Senior Anthropologists. It is truly wonderful that we have colleagues who have built a place for the archives and papers of retired anthropologists. Others have sought out and written on past anthropologists whose work was unjustly ignored by their contemporaries. But in the cold harsh light of my computer screen, I hear the ghostly voices of anthropologists past, and worry that we have forgotten and lost too much.
Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.
Feature image: Jani Laaksonen/ Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Cite as: Wilk, Richard. 2018. “The Tribe that Eats Its Ancestors.” Anthropology News website, February 16, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.769