The Tribe that Eats Its Ancestors

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?

We have effectively killed and buried our intellectual ancestors, our elder brothers and sisters.
I struggled with these questions for almost 25 years of teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in “contemporary” cultural anthropological theory. Now I fear that anthropology has grown in so many new directions that a good core course has become an impossible task. In 2013, my students in the graduate theory class gathered syllabi and reading lists from similar theory courses at other US universities. They found very little overlap beyond Clifford Geertz and George Marcus & Michael Fischer; each person teaching a theory course found a different group of essential readings. What does this tell us about the recent history of anthropology and its direction?

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?

Over time, a few important things stick with you, while most of the rest becomes intellectual compost.

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

Comments

Two aspects of the neoliberalization of universities relevant to this discussion are:

(1) In most universities today, “reading” or keeping up on the scientific literature is not defined as “research.” Hence, it is not included in the job description or workload requirements for most university positions (which usually identify three domains of responsibility – research, teaching, and administration). In the new systems by which an increasing number of universities measure or evaluate academic “outputs” (e.g. Symplectic Elements), it is not recognized as part of the ‘job’ or ‘work’ of an academic. While there is a general ‘idea’ that academics should ‘keep up with developments in their field,’ this is not formally recognized in the employment system. This acts as a positive disincentive to extensive reading of the emerging literature, which competes for time with the three measured and evaluated categories.
(2) As a capitalist enterprise of production, academic ‘laborers’ are required to produce as many ‘outputs’ (number of student-customers taught and number of publications produced) as possible. This incentivizes and stimulates ‘mass production’ of new publications which must enter and compete in the ‘market place of ideas.’ The result is a focus on the latest or newest ‘product’ and loss of esteem or ‘value’ placed on older or previous ones. The result is the devaluation of the very idea of ‘classics,’ which are viewed as ‘disposable’ products to be replaced by the newer or latest ‘products.’

Folks, there is a History of Anthropology Interest Group in AAA, and the Association of Senior Anthropologists. Both these groups are consistently active in maintaining continuity with our past, both offer sessions at each AAA meeting. ASA, the Senior Anthros, published “Expanding Anthropology, 1945-1980” (University of Alabama Press, 2012; edited by Paul Doughty and Alice Kehoe), a collection of papers by anthropological leaders during those years, describing their innovations in the discipline and, crucially, the contexts. Rich Warms and Jon McGee, who organized a History of Anthro session in last year’s AAA meeting, compiled a superb textbook for History of Anthropology courses, ideal for graduate courses and seminars (latest edition, Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History, 2016, by R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms). Join ASA, which as always is putting together sessions on and by our elders, and get on the History of Anthropology mailing list.

This Grumpy Pessimist agrees with everything the Grumpy Optimist says here, though I no longer see reason for optimism regarding knowledge of and meaningful engagement with our predecessors. I am afraid that the lessons of our ancestors in cultural/social anthropology, and the information from their hard won ethnographies, no longer seem relevant today for a field that has morphed into something completely different from the one we grumps were socialized/enculturated into many decades ago. (I attended my first AAA meetings In Boston In 1955.) Way back then we–perhaps mistakenly–thought we were engaged In a “scientific” study to understand all aspects of human cultural and social behavior through comparison and the understanding of the diverse ways of being human. Unless I am very mistaken cultural/social anthropology is now much more targeted to the study of what makes people unhappy, what harms them In a dysphoric world, and to various forms of activism.

The transformation of the field began In the wake of the upheavals of the Sixties and was facilitated by the, attack on the “ruling” generation–which seemed appropriate at the time. If Radcliffe-Brown had been correct about the solidarity of alternating generations, however, there should have been some sort of reconciliation with that ancestral generation by now, but alas that family line seems to have expired without producing grandchildren to rediscover it. The exception: a growing number of scholars taking a new look into the past, the people of the history of anthropology, but their works do not seem to be diffusing very far and wide–yet.

Despite the Grumpy Pessimist’s natural modesty and diffidence he feels compelled to mention, with all due humility, this book of essays: In Defense of Anthropology: An Investigation of the Critique of Anthropology
(Transaction, 2014–now In the hands of Routledge at an outrageous price.)

Herbert S. Lewis

Is the discipline of anthropology populated by competitive scholars focused on trendy, evanescent topics, their intellectual horizons collapsing into an ever-shorter timeframe of historical awareness? Maybe. But surely other intellectual creatures live here, too.

For Professor Wilk, a lack of consensus about what to include in an anthropological theory course is a sign of potential trouble about the recent history of anthropology and its direction. Wilk is careful not to idealize the intellectual consensuses of the past, but in the process, ends up idealizing the concept of consensus. He is afraid that “anthropology has grown in so many new directions that a good core course has become an impossible task.” Along with psychoanalysis and governance, pedagogy is an impossible profession. But impossibility can be a source of pleasure rather than sorrow. Perhaps treating the lack of agreement about what is essential as a sign of vitality would make Wilk more hopeful about the state of the field.

I am curious about how Wilk puts together a “good enough” course, particularly since he doesn’t call those illustrious, prominent, essential and now-forgotten ancestors by name. I navigated to Wilk’s webpage and found dozens of articles, book reviews, proposals, and talks, but no syllabi or teaching materials. Wilk hears the “ghostly voices of anthropologists past, and worr[ies] that we have forgotten and lost too much.” Professor Wilk, could you help us channel those voices, too? Beyond the sense of loss, what are we substantively missing out on?

Compost is rich in nutrients. It helps plants grow. If we are to remain “grounded” in the breadth and depth of the discipline, we need more intellectual compost, not less.

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