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.

Robert A. Caro’s narrative sociology


Robert A. Caro in 2013. Photograph: Michael Loccisano.

In recent weeks I’ve been working my way through historian Robert A. Caro’s majestic biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

Enjoying them is easy. Caro is a hugely readable narrator, is in effortless command of his sources, and has one of the most complex and dynamic politicians of the 20th century as his subject. The result is quite simply some of the most compelling history I’ve ever read.

Unpicking why Caro is so interesting, though, is a lot harder. In doing so, I think we can learn a little about the practice of history, which this work avowedly is, as well as of sociology, which would seem to be further afield from Caro’s core discipline.

Firstly, a little of Caro’s craft. This essay by Chris Jones from 2012 in Esquire gives you a flavour on the man’s work practices and his almost unbelievable dedication. Caro has been working on the Johnson books since 1975. His book The Power Broker on Robert Moses, the New York planner and freeway builder, has just been republished, with revisions.

The essay by Chris Jones helps us understand the sort of historian Caro is: he is a kind of journalist.

Gottlieb has questioned the veracity of Caro’s reporting only once. There was a single paragraph that stood out on what would become the 214th page of The Power Broker. In it, Bella and Emanuel Moses, Robert’s parents, were depicted at their summer lodge at Camp Madison, a camp for poor and immigrant children that Bella had helped found. There, they were leafing throughThe New York Times one morning in 1926, Caro wrote, when they learned of a $22,000 judgment against their son for illegal appropriations. Caro included a quote from Bella Moses, who was long dead: “Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life and now we’ll have to pay this.”

How, Gottlieb asked Caro, did he get that quote?

Caro told the story. Moses had instructed friends and close associates not to talk to him. Shut out, Caro then drew a series of concentric circles on a piece of paper. In the center, he put Moses. The first circle was his family, the second his friends, the third his acquaintances, and so on. “As the circles grew outward,” Caro says, “there were people who’d only met him once. He wasn’t going to be able to get to them all.” Caro started with the widest circle, unearthing, among other things, the attendance rolls and employment records from Camp Madison. Now some four decades later, Caro tracked down, using mostly phone books at the New York Public Library, every now-adult child and every now-retired employee who might offer him some small detail about Robert’s relationship with his parents. One of the employees he found was the camp’s social worker, Israel Ben Scheiber, who also happened to deliver The New York Times to Bella and Emanuel Moses at their lodge each morning. Scheiber was standing there when Bella had expressed her frustration with her deadbeat son, and he remembered the moment exactly.

“So that’s how,” Caro told Gottlieb.

But Caro is more than simply a reporter, of course, because his books have a subject over and above the men he writes about, and that subject is power. Caro is therefore, in a very real way, a theorist of society, and in particular the power relationships within a society.

A good example is the second half of Caro’s second Johnson book, Means of Ascent. In it, Johnson uses the classic compare-and-contrast structure of the seasoned essayist to explore the 1948 Texan Democratic primary race between Johnson and veteran Texan Democrat, Coke Stevenson. At that time, Texas was a lock for Democrats, so the winner would become the state’s junior senator.

Caro’s biographical sketch of Stevenson and his career — he was the most successful Democrat in the state, and had earned himself the sobriquet ‘Mr Texas’ — is a miracle of historical prose. But Caro uses the primary battle between the two men as a metaphor for the evolution of modern American politics. Stevenson had a reputation as a man of total integrity: he had never taken a dollar of lobbyist money. Stevenson was so old-fashioned he campaigned by turning up in small town squares and introducing himself to citizens;  he didn’t even issue a policy platform, because he believed politicians should run only on their records. In contrast, Johnson poured more money into the race than had ever been seen in a Senatorial primary. He hired a helicopter and barnstormed around the state in it. Johnson also won the support of the Democratic machine in rotten boroughs in the state’s southern counties, which allowed him to capture crucial votes with what were almost certainly stuffed ballot boxes. When Stevenson challenged the result in court, Johnson won — again largely because he was able to manipulate the Democratic Party machine. 

What we see in Caro’s Means of Ascent is therefore a masterpiece of historical narrative. Caro is not merely chronicling a particularly interesting American state election in 1948. He is in fact developing what Daniel Little would call a social explanation of power — an explanation a good deal richer and “thicker” than the descriptions sometimes offered by sociologists and anthropologists when they turn to the nature of power in democratic societies.

A final point is worth making about this remarkable project. If and when Caro eventually publishes the final book in the series — we can only hope that he lives to complete the series — he will have been working on it for nearly half a century.

I think it’s fair to say that a project of such longevity and ambition could no longer be produced by a working academic (the conditions of the publishing industry suggest that it probably can’t happen in trade publishing again, either, though that is a different story). Five books in forty years? No historian would continue to hold employment with such a track record, even if a few papers were churned out to buttress the monographs, even if the books she eventually produced were as successful and feted as Caro’s have been.

And yet, on any meaningful measure of what history and the social sciences purport to be about, the work of Caro is at the pinnacle. It is both deeply serious and widely popular (his book on Moses was a bestseller, for instance). Caro has provided the single most important source of scholarship, both primary and secondary, of Johnson and his political surroundings. Even a specialist historian who merely set out to be the acknowledged expert on a single president would struggle to match Caro’s impact, and yet a professional historian who published as little as Caro would soon find herself bundled out of the faculty.

It’s a sobering realisation for any working academic that the conditions of academic working life are now such that the working academic can no longer realistically aspire to producing the kind of serious, important work that academia claims to be about.

Zizek on Havel

Vaclav Havel.

I’ve been reading the archives of the LRB lately, and uncovered this gem from Slavoj Zizek reviewing biographies of Czech intellectual and politician Vaclav Havel. Here’s a glimpse:

Rarely has one individual played so many different parts. The cocky young student in the early Fifties, member of a closed circle which holds passionate political discussions and somehow survives the worst years of the Stalinist terror. The Modernist playwright and critical essayist struggling to assert himself in the mild thaw of the late Fifties and Sixties. The first encounter with History – in the Prague Spring – which is also Havel’s first big disappointment. The long ordeal of the Seventies and most of the Eighties, when he is transformed from a critical playwright into a key political figure. The miracle of the Velvet Revolution, with Havel emerging as a skilful politician negotiating the transfer of power and ending up as President. Finally, there is Havel in the Nineties, the man who presided over the disintegration of Czechoslovakia and who is now the proponent of the full integration of the Czech Republic into Western economic and military structures. Havel himself has been shocked by the swiftness of the transformation – a TV camera famously caught his look of disbelief as he sat down to his first official dinner as President.

Read the rest here.

10 books that have influenced me

A grander library than mine ... photograph of Sir John Soane's library. Source: Sir John Soane's Musuem.

Tyler Cowen is blogging it. Matt Yglesias is blogging it. Bryan Caplan is too. So I thought I’d post my list of ten books that have most influenced my intellectual development. Behold – no Ayn Rand!

In no particular order …

1. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.  Because it’s a Tuchman book, it’s beautifully written and flawlessly narrated. But the big take-home message for me was how quickly the best-laid plans of the various combatants of 1914 came to grief, and how bereft they were of a plan B once “mobile warfare” had solidified. A brilliant case study in unintended consequences.

2. The Nichomechean Ethics by Aristotle. Aristotle’s supple wisdom still rings true today as he analyses the human virtues as way of good living.

3. In Search of Lost Time by Proust. Taught me about love, and obsession, and human changeability, and the Dreyfus affair.  Also taught me that ploughing through a difficult multi-volume novel for months can be intensely rewarding.

4. Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama. The best book about art history I have ever read, by one of the grandest contemporary historians.

5. The Space of Literature by Maurice Blanchot. Perhaps one of the most intense works of literary criticism of all time.

6. Illuminations by Walter Benjamin. Still the best introductory collection.

7. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Straw Dogs by John Gray. I conflated these two as together they represent two of the most incisive critiques of humanism, as well as two of the best-argued.

8. Essays by Montaigne. And for the defence of humanism, we have Montaigne, whose literary generosity has perhaps never been surpassed.

9. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Still perhaps my favourite ever comic novel. Contains multitudes.

10. The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm. Glory in the broad-brush sweep of contemporary history, marvel at the quality of his judgment, wonder at the scope of his compass.