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.





Jürgen Osterhammel’s macro-history

This review was first published in Overland.

I’ve been reading Jürgen Osterhammel’s history of the nineteenth centuryThe Transformation of the World. What can you say about this breath-taking kaleidoscope of narrative (and meta-narrative) history? It’s almost as impressive and various as the century it dissects.

Transformation of the world coverThe Transformation of the World attempts at once a synthesis and a critique – you might even say an exegesis – of contemporary historical scholarship on this most vital and arresting of periods. ‘The histories that interest me,’ Osterhammel writes, ‘do not involve a linear, “and then came such and such” narrative spread over a hundred or more years; rather they consist of transitions and transformations.’

By training, Osterhammel is a specialist in Chinese history, but he clearly knows a thing or too about the burgeoning field of ‘macro-history’. His command of the historical literature is staggering. Each chapter reads like a self-contained essay, often of startling originality, on topics such as ‘energy and industry’ and ‘imperial systems and nation-states’. His turn of thought is inquisitive but also rigorous, and his approach to various topics is by turns surprising and provocative. Beginning his chapter on economic history, for instance, Osterhammel is confident enough to approach the industrial revolution by writing, in a teasing tone, that ‘it may be appropriate to place an essay on industry and energy at the beginning of the third part of this book’ (p. 637). The chapter is a crystalline masterpiece of historical writing. ‘It is time to decenter the Industrial Revolution,’ he quips. My response: hey, why not?

Osterhammel’s method is syncretic and panoramic. His chapter on cities, for instance, harks back to the classic work of Asa Briggs, while his chapter on the frontier wars that everywhere pressured and subjugated Indigenous peoples in the period is a masterpiece of historical scholarship and mordant style. While one reviewer has criticised ’a drastic mismatch between the immensity of scale and the modesty of argument’, for mine it is precisely his humility and polyglot historical philosophy that makes this such an enjoyable book.

Osterhammel concludes with another surprise: a rather optimistic perspective of the century’s achievements. Ideas, resources and people became more mobile than perhaps any time in world history since the break-up of the western Roman Empire – not always for the good, certainly, but dynamic and transformative nonetheless. Despite the century’s atrocities, it was also an epoch in which liberal tenets of equality and liberation made great strides, culminating in the miraculous year of 1863 when serfdom was abolished in Russia, and slavery emancipated in the Union-controlled United States. The century produced a global capitalist system and vast empires that spanned the globe. But it also incubated new ideologies of dissident ideas: socialism and anarchism, Jacksonian democracy and liberal constitutionalism. In the case of socialism, this ideological movement created an entirely new sort of state.

Finally, Osterhammel decides, the nineteenth century was a time of emancipation, which survived an era of rapacious colonialism and imperialism to flourish in unexpected places, particularly in Africa and Asia. Gazed at across the smoking ruins of Europe in 1918, ‘the world of yesterday’ described by Zweig seemed to have vanished forever. But the seeds of the social flora of the later twentieth century – Osterhammel names liberalism, pacifism, trade unionism and democratic socialism – had demonstrably been sown in the nineteenth.

The diffusion of the printing press in Europe, 1450-1500

These maps are just too pretty not to re-post. They come from Jeremiah Dittmar’s fascinating new paper, Information Technology and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press.

The diffusion of the printing press, 1450-1500. Source: Jeremiah Dittmar.

There’s a good summary of the paper at Vox, but the take-home message is probably in two parts. Firstly:

  • First, the printing press was an urban technology, producing for urban consumers.
  • Second, cities were seedbeds for economic ideas and social groups that drove the emergence of modern growth.
  • Third, city sizes were historically important indicators of economic prosperity, and broad-based city growth was associated with macroeconomic growth (Bairoch 1988, Acemoglu et al. 2005).

And secondly:

I find that cities in which printing presses were established 1450-1500 had no prior growth advantage, but subsequently grew far faster than similar cities without printing presses. My work uses a difference-in-differences estimation strategy to document the association between printing and city growth. The estimates suggest early adoption of the printing press was associated with a population growth advantage of 21 percentage points 1500-1600, when mean city growth was 30 percentage points. The difference-in-differences model shows that cities that adopted the printing press in the late 1400s had no prior growth advantage, but grew at least 35 percentage points more than similar non-adopting cities from 1500 to 1600.

What anthropologists can teach journalists: Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things

I’ve just finished Daniel Miller‘s book The Comfort of Things. It’s a remarkable work of contemporary anthropology, in which Miller and an assistant spend 17 months interviewing and observing nearly all the inhabitants on an ordinary street in suburban London.

I think this book should be compulsory reading for journalists and especially students of journalism schools and courses. This is because the approach Miller takes to interviewing and engaging with his subjects is almost the polar opposite of the typical way in which journalists and reporters approach the task.

Rather than approach his task in the one-dimensional, goal-directed way so common of journalists – in which they relentless interrogate their subject until they get the answer they want – Miller gently befriends the inhabitants of this ordinary street, eventually obtaining access to their living rooms and discovering what their material possessions can tell us about their lives, their loves and the status of their lives. It’s the sort of “long-form narrative” that actually achieves the kind of engagement that most contemporary novelists seem to struggle with, let alone journalists. The best comparators I can think of are Iain Sinclair and Theodore Zeldin.

To top it all off, Miller’s writing is beautiful, easily superior to almost anything you’d read in the New Yorker, The Guardian or the London Review of Books.


The legacy and troubles of the Warburg Institute


Pages from Aby Warburg's Mneomysyne Atlas. Source: Mathias Bruhn


In The Burlington Review, Christopher S. Wood has a careful dissection of E. H. Gombrich’s famous 1960 opus Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation.

Gombrich was a prominent member of the Warburg Institute – but is the famous London institute under threat from savage cuts to British higher education funding. Anthony Grafton thinks so.

The value of the Warburg Institute to the study of art and ideas has been a recurring theme in my studies. Works such as Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology and Frances YatesThe Art of Memory have remained touchstones in fields such as art history and form a large part of the intellectual inheritance of currently important fields such as cultural studies.

But apparently the Warburg Institute and its remarkable library face significant funding and administration issues, no doubt as a result of the ongoing crisis of the British public sector and the UK university system. There’s an excellent interview with Grafton from ABC  Radio National here.

Axel Bruns maps the Australian blogosphere

A close up of the Australian blogopshere map generated by Axel Bruns.

Axel Bruns has extracted some 2.6 million hyperlinks and come up with some very pretty data mapping the Australian blogosphere for the first time:

what we’re already seeing in the network is a relatively large cluster of sites on the left of the graph, made up of sites (MSM as well as blogs) that deal predominantly with news and politics. In addition to domestic and international news sites, various Australian political blogs (such as Larvatus ProdeoClub TroppoJohn QuigginPeter MartinCatallaxy Files, and the suite of Crikey blogs) appear as prominent nodes in the network (on both the indegree and eigenvector centrality counts). Many smaller – that is, less prominent – blogs cluster around them, but receive comparatively fewer inlinks. There’s even likely to be some further subdivision within this overall cluster, but I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on this point until we’ve had a chance to further clean our data.

You can see the full post here and download the full-size, gorgeous mapping images here.

John Naughton on the internet

Writer and academic John Naughton. Soucre: Memex 1.1

The Observer has a great feature article by John Naughton on the internet. It shows Naughton’s typically lateral, playful prose style, and also mentions the work of Neil Postman, a writer who Naughton and I appear to both admire:

Many years ago, the cultural critic Neil Postman, one of the 20th century’s most perceptive critics of technology, predicted that the insights of two writers would, like a pair of bookends, bracket our future. Aldous Huxley believed that we would be destroyed by the things we love, while George Orwell thought we would be destroyed by the things we fear.

Postman was writing before the internet became such a force in our societies, but I believe he got it right. On the one (Huxleyan) hand, the net has been a profoundly liberating influence in our lives – creating endless opportunities for information, entertainment, pleasure, delight, communication, and apparently effortless consumption, to the point where it has acquired quasi-addictive power, especially over younger generations. One can calibrate the extent of the impact by the growing levels of concern among teachers, governments and politicians. “Is Google making us stupid?” was the title of one of the most cited articles in Atlantic magazine in 2008. It was written by Nicholas Carr, a prominent blogger and author, and raised the question of whether permanent access to networked information (not just Google) is turning us into restless, shallow thinkers with shorter attention spans. (According to Nielsen, a market research firm, the average time spent viewing a web page is 56 seconds.) Other critics are worried that incessant internet use is actually rewiring our brains.

On the other (Orwellian) hand, the internet is the nearest thing to a perfect surveillance machine the world has ever seen. Everything you do on the net is logged – every email you send, every website you visit, every file you download, every search you conduct is recorded and filed somewhere, either on the servers of your internet service provider or of the cloud services that you access. As a tool for a totalitarian government interested in the behaviour, social activities and thought-process of its subjects, the internet is just about perfect.

There’s plenty more to stimulate your thinking in this stylish piece. You can check out Naughton’s blog here.

Jock Given

It’s time for a bit of fan post about Jock Given, Swinburne’s Professor of Media and Communications.

Why a fan post? Maybe it’s his recent in-depth dissection of the Australian Government’s implementation plan for the National Broadband Network. Maybe it’s his long review essay, also in Inside Story, about the future of books and print. Maybe it’s his fine monograph of 2003, Turning Off the Television, about the history and future of Australian broadcasting and communications policy.

In fact, any way you slice it, Given’s work has become central to this field. He’s got that rare combination of incisive analysis and clear, witty prose.

Take, for example, his discussion of the National Broadband Network, one of the best short introductions to this bewilderingly complex topic you’re likely to find:

WHAT McKinsey and KPMG have delivered is the most substantial public analysis of an Australian communications infrastructure project since the domestic satellite system in the 1980s. This is a major benefit, though not necessarily a good omen. AUSSAT racked up $800 million in debt within a few years. Voluminous public documentation doesn’t always lead to great decisions.

Indeed, in Australian communications, the size of the study is generally indirectly proportional to its influence. The bulky Davidson Inquiry recommending competition in telecommunications and the multi-volume Broadcasting Tribunal inquiry recommending the introduction of cable TV, both in the early 1980s, achieved close to zero. The Productivity Commission’s year-long inquiry into broadcasting in 2000 was largely ignored. But Kim Beazley’s few-page statement about telecommunications competition in 1990 blew the industry apart. By this standard, the two-and-a-half-page media release announcing the NBN in April 2009 was bound to change the world.

The McKinsey/KPMG study is testimony to the sea-change in telecommunications policy in the last two and a half years. For twenty years, both sides of politics have been getting the government out of the telecommunications business, first by allowing private competitors to take on the state-owned monopoly that ran the country’s telecoms for ninety years, then selling down the state’s ownership of it. When new mobile and fixed-line networks were built in the 1990s and 2000s, communications ministers didn’t pour over technology choices, costs, revenues, capital allocation and geographic priorities the way Postmasters-General used to do. Parliament had decided that governments made lousy decisions about those kinds of things.

At least, they weren’t supposed to be pouring over these things the way Postmasters-General used to do. The truth was they still did quite a lot of it. The Coalition government crawled all over Telstra’s timetable for shutting down its analogue mobile phone network and applied immense pressure on its plans to build and later close a CDMA network. In his bookWired Brown Land?, Paul Fletcher, chief of staff to long-term Howard government communications minister Richard Alston and now the Liberal member for Bradfield on Sydney’s north shore, says Ziggy Switkowski was not even on the shortlist of candidates for CEO until Alston insisted he be there. This was at a time when Howard and Alston were pushing their reluctant backbench to support privatisation. The government, they said, had no business controlling a telecommunications company.

But out in the new marketplace, the cable TV and eventually broadband network built in the mid 1990s by the new wholly private telco, Optus, didn’t work very well. The still-public Telstra proved more nimble and ruthless than some expected, building a similar network down many of the same streets. Both companies had to write off billions of dollars. It seemed telcos in commercial markets, even privately owned ones, could make lousy decisions too. Optus’s subsequent caution about investment in fixed-line networks and the curiously widespread, renewed enthusiasm for monopoly is the deep legacy of that time.

The government’s response has been to get back to controlling a telecommunications company. It is not the vertically integrated Telstra, it’s the wholesale-only NBN Co. McKinsey/KPMG’s Implementation Studycontains a set of recommendations that are not yet government policy, but it tells us a great deal about this new, old world.

We have a good idea – the best yet – about how much it might cost. We have lots of data and discussion about what it might earn in revenue. We have an argument about “viability,” but this is really an argument about whether the now fairly well-articulated financial returns that can be expected from the project are justified by the economic and social benefits that might not be captured by the financial modelling.

This is where faith and politics take over.

When deadlines are the least of a journalist’s troubles

A drug murder in Mexico. Source: AP

In the New York Times, further confirmation of just how dangerous a profession journalism has become in the badlands of Mexico’s border-towns:

Traffickers have gone after the media with a vengeance in these strategic border towns where drugs are smuggled across by the ton. They have shot up newsrooms, kidnapped and killed staff members and called up the media regularly with threats that were not the least bit veiled. Back off, the thugs said. Do not dare print our names. We will kill you the next time you publish a photograph like that.

It’s a bracing antidote to those concerned that “new media” or similar amorphous threats will signal the end of journalism. Of course, business models are changing. But the need for news, and the dangers of gathering it, remain as real as ever – as is the hole when journalism flees:

it means that helicopters can swoop overhead, military vehicles can roar through the streets and the entire neighborhood can sound like a war movie, and television can lead off the next day’s broadcast talking about something else. Even some authorities, including Mayor Óscar Lubbert of Reynosa, acknowledge that without news reports, it is harder for them to get a full picture of how much blood is spilled overnight, partly because the traffickers sometimes haul their dead comrades away before the sun comes up.

… it means that helicopters can swoop overhead, military vehicles can roar through the streets and the entire neighborhood can sound like a war movie, and television can lead off the next day’s broadcast talking about something else. Even some authorities, including Mayor Óscar Lubbert of Reynosa, acknowledge that without news reports, it is harder for them to get a full picture of how much blood is spilled overnight, partly because the traffickers sometimes haul their dead comrades away before the sun comes up.

What’s new in the journal Industrial and Corporate Change?

I’ve been a busy boy lately researching a range of cultural industries topics, including the Australian screen industry and a theory of cultural innovation. So over the next week or so I’m going to be posting about some of my discoveries in these fields, in case any of you feel like checking out some of the fascinating research currently emerging in these areas.

Today, I’m going to be looking at Hyejin Yoon and Edward J. Malecki’s article “Cartoon planet: worlds of production and global production networks in the animation industry.” This article is brand new, published in the first 2010 issue of Industrial and Corporate Change [19(1):239-271], and looks at globalisation in the international animation industry:

As more animated films are produced, new “worlds of production” have emerged. The animation production system is distinct from film production, relying on different technologies and labor skills. Its globalization, therefore, has taken place differently, although both are structured by the global production networks of the media conglomerates. We present a framework for understanding the animation industry, its international division of labor, and its diverse markets, enabled by pools of artistic labor, growing demand, and the diffusion of production skills.

There’s a wealth of information in this long and detailed piece, but one graph in particular really took my fancy:

Animated feature film production, globally, 1917-2006. Source: Yoon and Malecki 2010.