Anarchy and Anthropology
from Species Traitor #3
As Theresa Kintz points out in her interview, anthropology (referring here to the general field that consists of biological/physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics), like all sciences, is a tool of the civilized. Radical anthropologist Stanley Diamond has written: “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” The role of science has been to justify and perfect that conquest and repression, and anthropology isn’t an exception. However, through the work of anthropologists (both unintentionally and intentional) we’ve come to a greater understanding of the human-animal and the anarchist state we’ve lived in for over 99% of our existence. We come against the problem of having to work with such tools of the civilizers while trying to destroy the entire mental and physical system that originated it.
Outsiders Looking In and Away
The original anthropologists primarily worked from the accounts of conquistadors, missionaries and travelers bringing back news of the ‘savages’ beyond the realms of civilization. The two options that the conquerors saw for the ‘primitives’ was to wipe them out or assimilate them, though as we have historically seen, both have led to similar outcomes. The assimilation was spearheaded by missionaries and those who found these people had more value alive (as labor) than dead, although the two are hardly separable. The hopes of the missionaries would be to pave the way for a ‘friendly’ relationship and to ‘civilize’ the ‘savages’ through their God.
The work of the time would predominately be self-serving accounts of the rise to civilization from ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’. The major turn would be with Franz Boas who focused on the need for direct field work around the turn of the century. Boas, a German immigrant to the United States, saw the natives of this country being slaughtered off and fast. His concern was that all of this knowledge would die off with these people and began the turn of anthropological work to recording the entirety of the knowledge being destroyed.
With Boas came the importance of describing and cataloguing aspects of people. This kind of approach is work of the scientist. Despite what good intentions Boas and his followers had, their work was entirely subjective. By describing everything that one sees, there is no kind of ‘objectivity’. There is only a situation that German philosopher Hans Peter Duerr calls “riding the fence”, meaning that there is a person trying to understand one reality to translate it to those in another reality. That person then is stuck in the middle, always a part of one culture and is therefore only capable of observing the other culture through their perceptions. What Duerr points to is that there is no kind of ‘scientific method’ that can even begin to bring about what it proposes it will . In this case, that is the field of anthropology acting as the study of humans, or as Stanley Diamond says, “the study of men in crisis by men in crisis.”
The process that Boas started was furthered by Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski a few decades later after his work with the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea. Malinowski’s initial fieldwork there ended up lasting longer as he moved onto a remote island to avoid deportation during World War One. Over this period he became immersed in Trobriand culture, defining what he would later call “participant-observation”. Duerr comes to mind as I can see Malinowski the scientist becoming somewhat emerged into this ‘primitive’ society to return to Europe. Knowing his situation wasn’t permanent he always had a foot out the door in some respects.
I don’t feel this wipes all validity from his work, I just feel that when looking at these cases, these are all things we have to consider. This kind of ‘observation’ carries with it the scientism of objectivity, believing that the wholeness of a culture can be observed and understood from neutrality. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has recognized that while science is still myth, it carries the possibility of finding a ‘factual reality’. He states: “Science will never give us all the answers. What we can try to do is to increase very slowly the number and the quality of the answers we are able to give, and this, I think, we can do only through science.” Through even this rather liberal assessment we are left with the belief in ‘hard facts’, and while Lévi-Strauss has denied ‘scientism’ he has none-the-less carried its underpinnings.
Through this, all of the positive outcomes of anthropology must also be understood in a way that is independent of civilized assertions. What we have seen from the field of anthropology and understanding the problems we face now is that “[f]undamentally we are people of the Pleistocene” , we are gatherer-hunters. The anarcho-primitivist critique takes this understanding very seriously, meaning that civilization is a recent invention and the effects of domestication are just a sign of our urging to return to the way of life that has shaped our being. With this, there is little reason why we shouldn’t uphold this kind of information, because it speaks directly to the repressed gatherer-hunter in all of us civilized peoples. What we should always be wary of is the dry scientism that underlies the specific search that anthropology takes on.
In his book, Red Earth, White Lies, Sioux scholar Vine Deloria Jr. opens up questions about “the myth of scientific fact”. His drive in this was to debate the well established theory that Native Americans arrived on this continent by crossing the Bering Strait within the last 20,000 years (one of the more modestly accepted estimates). In the eyes of Deloria and other Native Americans (though not all) this theory, established as ‘fact’, is racist. I’m concerned in certain ways about validity of some arguments which may be based on ‘land claim’ issues, which has been an accusation against this particular book. As an anarchist, I feel that nothing makes any specific ‘land’ someone’s ‘property’, although I understand this kind of legal assertion against governments. Regardless of this possibility, I find that a lot of the arguments are worthy of heavy consideration.
What Deloria draws upon in this book are the ways in which anthropology, as a science, will pick and choose what ‘evidence’ it will bring into its ‘factual’ reality (although Deloria is guilty of this as well). This is a serious problem of all scientific understandings, a conception of a kind of ‘absolute truth’ which underlies all of existence (this dependency on ‘absolute truth’ is the reason that I would qualify most religion as science). What happens is that the possibilities for what is ‘real’ are framed only within what is ‘known as fact’ for those who are observing. A lot of people have a hard time understanding that science is all just theorizing, in this way it becomes only possible to think of people coming into this continent through the Bering Strait. I can’t say I take the ‘science’ side or the ‘indigenous’ side (since neither really exist), but I think that scientific ‘fact’ has limited our ability to look to other possibilities.
The problem, as I see it, isn’t in trying to figure out what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but realizing that a system that carries such values and can impose them upon others is the problem. I, like Theresa, have little interest in battling myths with others, and as I will point to later, feel that a mythic, ecological consciousness is important to rewilding our lives, but I feel that anthropology can be vital only in deconstructing the universalized and institutionalized myths that underlie and maintain civilization.
The past of archaeology isn’t much different than the rest of anthropology. The kind of observation that Malinowski brought into the fieldwork of anthropology could be said to be the basis of archaeological digs. It wasn’t till after Darwin’s Descent of Man (1859) that archaeologists would even recognize the past as existing outside the 6,000 year span that the Church allowed since ‘creation’. In the new world it wasn’t till Boas criticisms came to reshape the way digs were done. Archaeological digs, as we know them now, didn’t take their current form till the 1960’s through the work of Lewis Binford after the 1947 origin of the Carbon-14 dating technique, explicit use of evolutionary theory, employment of cultural and ecological concepts, and the use of systems theory.
Archaeology is essentially the study of the past through material remains. The work of archaeologists can only really be useful when put into context with how certain remains are used by more recently observed peoples or common usage of similar materials. What archaeology really has to work with is finding the exact location of things in the earth. Their work is to literally dig up the past and theorize on the implications of their findings. In many ways this is working with a huge disadvantage and moving into a lot of speculation, but as Theresa points out, there is a lot that can be learned from this despite the handicap. Some have taken these findings and added to the critique of civilization, such as John Zerzan, Jared Diamond, and Clive Ponting to name only a few.
What I see as problematic here is the actualities of all of this. While I see no point in discrediting the effects of all the collected information that points to the inherent problems of civilization, I do think there may be a point when this becomes self-serving. I’m not interested in ever saying that we should stop looking, but I’m concerned that this search has overcome the possibilities that are being opened up. When I was writing these questions to Theresa, something was constantly coming into my mind; that we know that civilization is fucked up and that this is not the way of life that humans have become ecologically evolved into, but how much do we have to constantly reassert it before we do something about it. I’m not accusing these folks of not trying to do something, but I become concerned in general.
Looking into the fields of anthropology, I constantly see people like Boas who are concerned with constantly recording and cataloguing all the problems of civilization. What comes to mind is a photograph from the Vietnam War of three American soldiers raping a Vietnamese woman. The war photographer (as well as the photographer and journalist in general) have made it their work to constantly record the destruction that is occurring, possibly with the hopes that what they have recorded may spur others to action. How much does it take before we stop just recording hoping that someone else will come along before we act? In many ways the anthropologist is just like that war photographer, watching destruction take place right before their eyes and recording it. Perhaps this is the success of domestication in disempowering individuals to feel that they can have no impact on the situation, but my interests remain purely revolutionary. I again am forced to ask what it will take before we stop being mere observers as our home and all life is being destroyed before we do something about it. I feel anthropology can serve as a weapon against the civilized ‘reality’, but I’m afraid that so long as it remains within scientific understanding it will seek to only make us all participant-observers to destruction.
As Theresa has mentioned, the work of the archaeologists is the business before the bulldozers. This can be a tough situation. Knowing that developers will completely destroy the land without regard would it be doing something positive to try and pull out the pieces of human past that will be plowed away? Can it serve as a kind of deterrent against developers or is a dig just another method of clearing out the land, whether developers follow or not? Most importantly, I’m concerned with finding a way of trying to stop the destruction from the start, and not trying to make the best of a shitty situation.
The work of radical anthropologists like Theresa, Pierre Clastres, Marshall Sahlins, Richard B. Lee, and Stanley Diamond (to name a few) is vital to moving anarchist critique and action. What is being uncovered by anthropology is too valuable to be discarded, and it is inspiring to see people from within these fields realizing the potential influence of their work. However, it is equally important to use that evidence as not just ‘findings’ and ‘evidence’. To move beyond civilization we will need to use this kind of knowledge to reawaken the wildness that sleeps within us. Anthropology will remain vital only so long as it speaks to us and we are able to use it without becoming it.
The exact same applies to history and other sciences. I personally feel that the work of the evolutionary theorists was vital to overthrow the scientific mythology of the religious conquerors. However, as a rewilding human, I’m forced to question the potential of this finding. To what degree is it important that we ‘know’ the specifics of our entire past? What is important is a mythological (anti-institutionalized) consciousness that enhances who we are within the context of the community of life that we are a part of. The success of civilization exists in reducing our reality to a backdrop of things that we exist apart from.
What I’m referring to above isn’t a kind of intentional ignorance or turning the cheek on ‘knowledge’, but to question what is a part of the human-animal. From my own understanding, a mythic, unwritten view is one that is able to flow with the world and can achieve what we’d hope to get from history and science without subjective implications on the world that we are theorizing about. The problem that is being opened here is getting to there from here. I’m interested in a reawakening of primal consciousness that has been repressed by civilized domestication in order to justify and continue conquest and exploitation. We are constantly up against questions of how can we use these things that shape the civilized reality in order to destroy it. Towards this I can only point to what I think is problematic, in this case being any kind of complete faith in sciences like anthropology and using what speaks to my being without disregarding what I just don’t care for.
The point in extending on this discussion is to find a way of using these kinds of findings without using the system that has produced them. I feel that a revolt against civilization will require a revolt against the scientism of civilization (Reason). What Theresa has laid out here is a view from inside the field about what is going on. I don’t agree entirely with her view, but I can respect her attempts to overturn from within without preoccupation or delusions of anthropology as the ‘wonder science’ (as Lévi-Strauss surely would see it). The path to anarchy will require calling into question all of the ‘sacred cows’ that have laid the path for rational dissent so that we can return to our primal being.