Marshall Sahlins on culture, part 1

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, by Johann Zoffany. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, by Johann Zoffany. Image: Wikimedia Commons

I am no anthropologist, I freely admit. In fact I am often left agog by the radical multiplicity of contemporary anthropology, such that I feel in no way qualified to write intelligently about it. Of course, this is the fate of any intelligent human who wishes to extend her reading into fields she is not intimately familiar with. So I shall write about it none-the-less.

I have come to Marshall Sahlins ridiculously late, insupportably late, really, given the contribution he has made to his field, and, indeed, to the social sciences in general. It is not unreasonable to posit Sahlins as one of the genuine intellectual giants of our time, which makes it a little difficult to presuppose any meaningful assessment of his influence.

There is, for instance, a lively academic debate about the validity of Sahlins’ view on kinship, which are entirely vulnerable to some quite elementary criticisms. Can it not be true that at least some role must be inherent in biology in the formation of kin relationships? Surely biology plays a role. How far can you coherently press the idea of social construction? (In Sahlins’ case: all the way).

And yet this is the position Sahlins takes in his recent book What Kinship Is — And Is Not, and a remarkable exercise it is too. There is something almost Berkleyan in his anti-realism. As Andrew Shryock points out in a review of the book:

The idea that phylogenetic and other material constraints on human reproduction (defined as “biology”) do not, per se, have anything to do with human kinship systems is language designed to send us to battle stations. As Sahlins masterfully deploys it, the idiom is binary, winner take all, and it has the virtue of being utterly predictable in its analytic consequences. Since we are dealing with strong doctrinal positions, I should confess (apt word) that I also believe that human kinship is cultural. But I do not think that culture—of the discursive, internally constituted, symbol laden, and highly structured kind Sahlins has preached for decades—is enough to explain what kinship does, how it works, why it varies, or, least of all, how it develops historically and has evolved, as a discrete range of behavioral and interactive tendencies, over millions of years of primate evolution.

Sahlins is of course no stranger to controversy. Indeed, he is one side of one of the more famous skirmishes of the 90s culture wars — that strange period of academic ferment that, for a time, made scholarly disputes seem relevant to the politics of their time, in a way that hasn’t been the case in subsequent decades (although perhaps we are again returning to that situation with the influence of thinkers like Piketty and Graeber). This was the so-called “Sahlins–Obeyesekere debate”, in which Sahlins squared off against a fellow anthropologist, Ganath Obeyesekere, over the historical facts and meanings around the death of Captain James Cook.

The debate was sparked off by Sahlins, who in a series of books and papers (see for instance 1981’s Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities and 1985’s Islands of History) had developed a very powerful analysis of the events leading up to and including James Cook’s death. For Sahlins, the circumstances of Cook’s death are a kind of cosmic jigsaw puzzle, in which a bizarre series of coincidences conjoin to create the exact conditions for Cook to appear to his Hawaiian hosts as first a god, and second as a fraud worthy of dismemberment.

Sahlins’ thesis is remarkably well worked out, and backed up with copious evidence, including from the primary sources, both Hawaiian and English. It runs like this: Cook turned up in 1778 at the height of Hawaiian makahiki festivities — Hawaiian New Year. Makahiki is a time in which any war or hostilities are typically suspended; priests are temporarily in charge. Cook arrived, of course, in a rather impressive ship, but a particular quirk of the tall ships’ sails made them look remarkably like the Hawaiian symbol for the god, Lono. Lono was meant to turn up on that particular day of the year; Cook’s timing was almost hour-perfect. Just to make the resemblance to the myth even more convincing, Lono was meant to progress around the big island during the makahiki celebrations. Cook’s squadron also took a meandering course around the archipelago that seems to exactly mirror this progress. When Cook landed on the big island for a second time, he was taken ashore and made the central figure in a priestly ceremony, in which he was acknowledged, ceremonially at any rate, as Lono. He appears to have played along convincingly. Cook then sailed away, to all intents and purposes a Hawaiian god.

But fate intervened. Cook broke a mast sailing away from the big island, and was forced to turn back and anchor for a third time. Now, everything was rather different. Makahiki was over. The king was back in charge, and Cook was no longer sticking to the script. In contrast to the celebration and deference of his previous visits, now Cook seemed like an interloper, a fellow who had pushed his luck too far. Perhaps Cook was no longer in on the joke; perhaps he was mocking his hosts? Hawaiians started to swim out to his ships and steal things, culminating in the bold theft of the Resolution‘s long boat. Cook made a fatal error in reaction. Rowing ashore with a detachment of marines, he kidnapped the ruling chief of the islands, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, and attempted to take him back to the ship. But one of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s wives raised the alarm, and Cook and his soldiers (still holding the king) were soon surrounded by thousands of islanders on the beach. After a scuffle broke out, muskets were fired and Cook was knocked to the ground and stabbed. The British staged a fighting retreat, leaving Cook dead on the beach. After a number of reprisal raids, the two sides made peace. Cook’s “hindquarters” were returned to the Resolution in tribute.

Space prevents me from exploring the intricacies of Sahlins’ argument in greater detail, or the considerable scholastic debate over his historical accuracy. But perhaps the most important aspect of Sahlins’ account is that it is structural. Sahlins is a symbolic structuralist, very much a follower of Boas and Levi-Strauss, and a contemporary of Geertz. (Adam Kuper gives an fine account of Sahlins’ intellectual development in Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account). Sahlins posits that Cook/Lono episode is a wonderful example of cultural structures imposing upon, perhaps even creating, historical reality. To quote Kuper, “Sahlins’ argument is, in short, that people enacted their interpretations of the past.” What we have here, in other words, at least i Sahlins’ exposition, is a convincing historical example of “mythopraxis”: of cultural determinism in its most pure form.

Some were not convinced. Foremost among them was Ganath Obeyesekere, who assailed Sahlins’ acount in a biting 1992 polemic entitled The Apotheosis Of Captain Cook : European Mythmaking In The Pacific. Obeyesekere took Sahlins at his word, examining what might have been going on Hawaii in 1779, and decided that the real myth-makers here were not the Hawaiians but the British. Was Cook really considered by the islanders to be a god? Of course not, Obeyesekere argued! What had occurred was the clever manipulation of historical custom to frame the European interlopers for reasons of pure realpolitik. Cook arrived at the helm of a powerful squadron, with soldiers and trade goods that could be extremely useful to the elites engaged in Hawaiian power politics. What’s really going on here is the paleo-imperialism from Sahlins, who has fallen for the myth of the noble savage himself. Obeyesekere, a Sri Lankan, knows a thing or two about the British empire. Sahlins is simply repeating Rousseau’s old fantasy: “the Western idea of the redoubtable European who is a god to savage people.” Coming, as it did, at the height of the culture wars then engulfing the US academy in he early 1990s, Obeyesekere’s book aroused considerable interest. Sahlins was so enraged by what he saw as a gross misrepresentation of his position, that he wrote an entire book in response. Disciplinary godfathers such as Clifford Geertz wrote it up. Ian Hacking devoted a chapter of his wonderful The Social Construction of What? to the controversy.

How can we adjudicate the Sahlins/Obeyesekere debate? Ultimately, as both Kuper and Hacking concede, the nitty gritty of the history must be debated by the specialists. This is difficult. The primary sources are patchy and plagued by mutual incomprehension: the British had little or no Hawaiian, the Hawaiians little English, and the Hawaiians did not even leave written sources at the time — these were in fact written a generation later by British missionaries. The priesthood that mediated the Lono ceremonies had dissolved in the years after the British arrived. So, in common with so much history, we can’t really be sure. So, while Hacking ultimately sides with Sahlins, Kuper does not.

But fear not! Sahlins has another move to make, which is to displace “history” and “what really happened” from the debate by insisting that they actually add up to culture anyway. Thus, history is radically and indivisibly cultural, and can’t be separated from the cultural preoccupations and symbolic architecture of the historians writing it. And this, in turn, becomes a fascinating demolition job of much of what we might call “historical realism”, or “realist historiography”, or, let’s face it, “international relations.”

And it is to Marshall Sahlins’ view of history as itself fundamentally cultural that we will next turn.






One thought on “Marshall Sahlins on culture, part 1

  1. Pingback: Gus Casely-Hayford on Fante Asafo Flags | Artist & Empire | TateShots | mostly music

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