Anthropology engages history not as one but instead as many things: (1) sociocultural change or diachrony; (2) a domain of events and objects that make manifest systems of signification, purpose, and value; (3) a domain of variable modalities of the experience and consciousness of being in time; and (4) a domain of practices, methods, and theories devoted to the recording and the analysis of temporal phenomena. It emerged, and continues to serve, as that branch of ‘natural history’ which investigates the psychophysical origins and diversification of the human race. As ‘ethnohistory,’ it investigates the documents of the pasts of native or ‘first’ peoples, paying special attention to the dynamics and consequences of colonization. Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1995/1912) opens the arena of an ‘anthropology of history’ with its argument for the social causation of the experience and conceptualization of time, but anthropologists remain divided over what the anthropology of history is or should be. Their disagreements are instructive because they recapitulate a much larger and more enduring controversy over whether anthropological knowledge is a mode of historical or instead a mode of scientific knowledge. The controversy is probably also irresolute, at least until either anthropology or history comes to an end.
For anthropology, history is not one but many things. First, it is the past, especially the past that survives in archives and other written or oral records; ‘prehistory’ is its more remote counterpart. Second, it is change, diachronic as opposed to synchronic process. Third, history is a domain of events and artifacts that make manifest systems of signification, purpose, and value, the domain of human action. Fourth, it is the domain of all the diverse modes of the human experience and consciousness of being in time. Finally, it is a domain encompassing all those practices, methods, symbologies, and theories that human beings – professional academic historians among them – have applied to the collection, recollection, and comprehension of the past, the present, and the relations between the two.
Anthropology and Natural History
At the end of the sixteenth century, anthropology emerged in Europe not in contrast to history but rather within it. Thereafter, and for some two and a half centuries forward, it would broadly be understood as that branch of ‘natural history’ which investigated the psychophysical origins and diversification of the human race, or races, as was very often the case. Demurring throughout the period to the theological calculus of the creation of Adam, it confined itself to treating developments presumed to have transpired over only a few millennia. In 1858, miners at England’s Brixham cave unearthed tools and other human remains that stratigraphers could prove to be at least 70 000 years old. Theological authority suffered a blow from which it would not recover; anthropological time suddenly acquired much greater archaeological depth. Meanwhile, a growing scholarly coalition was coming together to support the doctrine that ‘culture’ was that common human possession which made manifest the basic psychic unity of all the putative races of mankind. In 1854, James Pritchard would accordingly launch ‘ethnology,’ and send the racialists off on their separate ways (Stocking, 1987). ‘Cultural’ and ‘physical’ anthropologists would never again keep their earlier company. Yet, even through the turn of the twentieth century, natural history remained the largely uncontested source of the methods and aims of both. Questions of origin and development continued to have pride of place. The ‘savage’ or the ‘primitive’ became all the more entrenched as a disciplinary preserve, among other things as the rudimentary pole of any number of ambitious reconstructions of the probable steps or stages that had marked the human passage to ‘civilization’ or ‘modernity.’ E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871), Henry Lewis Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), and the several volumes of James Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890) are classic examples of the genre.
Such far-reaching treatises would strike the more meticulous of the subsequent generation of their readers as undisciplined, even whimsical. By the 1920s, and despite all their other differences, Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, and A. R. Radcliffe- Brown were inaugurating a turn away from ‘speculative history’ in favor of meticulous observational attention to the ‘ethnographic present.’ Not even these sober empiricists were, however, opposed in principle to reconstructive or evolutionary analysis. With due regard for rigor, the more adventurous of their colleagues would continue to pursue it; and virtually every subfield of anthropology has contributed to it ever since. Physical anthropology is now a ‘genetic’ science in both the larger and the stricter sense of the term. Morgan’s project survives most explicitly in the United States, from Leslie White to Marvin Harris, as ‘cultural materialism’ (see Harris, 1968), but also endures implicitly in the technological determinism that informs Jack Goody’s argument in The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977). Tylor and Frazer are the precursors not simply of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism (see infra) but also of the burgeoning interdisciplinary and neo- Darwinist vocation known as ‘evolutionary psychology.’ Boas himself is among the bridges between an older ‘comparative philology’ and efforts to trace the family tree of all the world’s languages (see Kroeber, 1935).
Anthropology and Ethnohistory
A more modest anthropological tradition of diachronic research has borrowed its methods less from natural history than from empirical historiography. It has a partial foreshadowing in the particularistic study of the drift and dissemination of traits and artifacts from the centers to the peripheries of cultural production with which ‘diffusionists’ in England, Germany, and the United States were occupied between the 1890s and the 1930s. It has its more definitive commencement in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Its most familiar designation is still ‘ethnohistory,’ however misleading the suggestion of affinities or parallels with ‘ethnoscience’ or ‘ethnomethodology’ may be. In any event, the signature task of ethnohistory has always been the investigation and documentation of the pasts of those native or ‘first’ peoples whom anthropologists had until rather recently proprietarily or conventionally claimed as ‘their own.’ In the United States, its more concrete initial impetus came with the 1946 ratification of the Indian Claims Act, which soon led to anthropologists serving as expert witnesses – sometimes for the plaintiffs, sometimes for the defense – in the readjudication of the treaties of the pioneer era. In the United States and elsewhere, it would have a catalyst in the granting of public access to the administrative archives of the pioneers, the missionaries, and the bureaucrats of European colonization. Hence, its characteristic focus: the dynamics of contact and conflict between the subaltern and their would-be overlords: pioneering, missionary, colonizing, or enslaving (Spicer, 1975; Cohn, 1968, 1980; Leacock and Lurie, 1971; Rosaldo, 1980; Dirks, 1988, 2001, 2006; Kirch and Sahlins, 1992, 1994; Vansina, 2004, 2010; Hanks, 2009). The most wide-ranging examples remain Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History (1997) and Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1986).
Narrowly delimited, ethnohistory remains the specialist’s craft. Since the 1970s, however, its methods and themes have met with an ever-widening embrace, and if ‘historical ethnography’ and ‘historical anthropology’ are not yet synonymous with standard disciplinary practice, they are certainly of a piece with it. The anthropological gaze is now less often ‘from afar’ than it is longitudinal. Such a vantage has been pivotal in the renovation of political economy. It has also brought fresh and stimulating perspectives to the address of kinship, race, national and personal identity, and gender (e.g., Stoler, 1995). Its deployment and impact may or may not be indications of greater disciplinary enlightenment, but they are by no means indications of passing intellectual fashion alone. The lengthening of the anthropological gaze has rather gone hand in hand with the ascendance of a postcolonial order in which social and cultural boundaries have become increasingly permeable and structures increasingly indistinguishable from processes. It has gone hand in hand as well with the ascendance of the postcolonial demand that anthropology offer a reckoning, not simply of its relation to the colonial past but also of the status of the knowledge that it claims to produce (Hymes, 1972; Asad, 1973; Clifford and Marcus, 1986).
Anthropology and Hermeneutics
In our postcolonial order, anthropology itself needs interpreting; so, too, do many other sociocultural phenomena. Anthropology’s current troupe of interpreters espouses, however, an even stronger postulate: that sociocultural phenomena, as historical phenomena, permit only of interpretation; that they permit of contextual understanding, but not of general explanation. ‘Interpretive anthropology’ thus stands starkly at odds with the loftier versions of the natural history of culture, but further with any empirical historiography that has the inductive abstraction of general types or causal relations as its end. It now comes in many versions of its own. The most venerable of them commences with the Boasians. In 1935, Alfred Kroeber would accordingly remark that the ethnographies that Ruth Benedict and his other colleagues were busy producing were ‘historical’ in type. True enough, their temporality was synchronic, not diachronic. Their mode, however, was particularistic; their method contextualist; their analyses rarely if ever causal; and their model consequently that of what Wilhelm Dilthey, pursuing a ‘critique of historical reason,’ had defined as the Geisteswissenschaften – ‘sciences of spirit,’ literally, but better glossed as ‘sciences of meaning’ or simply ‘hermeneutics’ (Dilthey, 2002). In fact, Kroeber was quite correct; Benedict, Margaret Mead, and the other cultural anthropologists of Boas’s circle were indeed hermeneuticians. They were hence establishing the methodological legacy to which Clifford Geertz is the most celebrated heir (Geertz, 1973). It should be added that the long-standing, if methodologically variable, tradition of life-historical or ‘ethnobiographical’ research, in which a limited diachronic inquiry serves as the means to a synchronically contextualizing end, is also Boasian in its widest parameters (see, e.g., Mintz, 1986; Crapanzano, 1980; Shostak, 1981; Faubion, 2011).
The more proximate wellspring of contemporary interpretation flows out of the tumult of the late 1960s. Elaborating in 1972 upon the call for a ‘critical and reflexive anthropology,’ Bob Scholte was among its earliest manifestologists, though he borrowed many of his own philosophical and methodological tenets from Johannes Fabian’s slightly earlier exposition of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s revision of Dilthey’s thought (Scholte, 1972; Fabian, 1971, see also 1983). The channels thus opened have remained critical and reflexive, if perhaps not always so politically committed as Scholte might have hoped. Gadamer’s heremeneutics has, moreover, served as only one of many subsequent grounds on which to establish interpretive license (see Rabinow and Sullivan, 1988). Walter Benjamin (see Taussig, 1993) and Giambattista Vico (see Herzfeld, 1987) have won admirers of their own. Geertz’s inspirations were diverse: Suzanne Langer; Gilbert Ryle; Ludwig Wittgenstein; above all, Max Weber.
Such a well-populated census might suggest that, as much now as at its beginnings, anthropology belongs to history (as a discipline) no less than in it (as contingent process). Yet, even many of those who label themselves ‘historical anthropologists’ or ‘interpreters’ of one or another stripe would object to such a subsumption. No doubt, professional territorialism plays a part in their resistance. Often very palpable differences of professional sensibility play another part. Matters more strictly intellectual, however, play a part of their own, and their stakes are no more evident than within the anthropology of history itself.
The Anthropology of History
Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1995) opens the arena of the anthropology of history with its argument for the social causation of the experience and conceptualization of time. Maurice Halbwachs’ Collective Memory (1980) expands it and, after many decades of neglect, has come to be among the foundational texts of a recent surge of ethnographic and comparative inquiry into the techniques, the media, and the politics of remembering and forgetting (see, e.g., Boyarin, 1994; Shryock, 1997). Paul Connerton is the most systematic of Halbwachs’ followers, and moves beyond Halbwach’s own emphasis on the spatial objectification of collective memory to a consideration of the embodiment of memory in and as habit (1989).
The most imposing shadow hanging over the broader anthropology of history is, however, Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind (1966). A treatise devoted to the analysis of the analogical – and ahistorical – matrices of mythic and totemic thought, The Savage Mind, concludes with an extended polemic against the ‘historical, structural anthropology’ that Jean-Paul Sartre had advocated in the introduction to his Critique of Dialectical Reason (2004). Sartre had no time for totemists. His anthropology instead rested with the charting, and the heightening, of ‘historical consciousness.’ Against it, Lévi-Strauss had two general rejoinders. The first was that ‘historical consciousness’ was the expression not of dawning wisdom but instead of a collective devotion to ‘development,’ and its absence was not of the expression of error but instead of a collective devotion to homeostasis. Some societies ran historically ‘hot’; others ran ‘cold.’ All were equally human. The second was that history – as narrative, as diachronic interpretation – was always ‘history-for,’ always biased. Stripped of its bias, it amounted to nothing more than the methodical application of temporal scales of measure to the flow of human and nonhuman events alike. If not that, then it amounted simply to the preliminary ‘cataloging’ with which any ‘quest for intelligibility’ – the anthropological quest included – had to begin. But it could be a beginning only: ‘as we say of certain careers, history may lead to anything, provided you get out of it’ (Lévi-Strauss, 1966).
Lévi-Strauss came to grant that his division between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ societies was in need of much refinement; that instead of functioning as a strictly binary opposition, the division could better be conceived as defining a continuum. It is good that he did so, since a great deal of ethnographic evidence had already pointed and continues to point to just that. The classic cases are those of millenarian movements and so-called cargo cults, which have been widely documented in Melanesia and Polynesia (Worsley, 1957; Burridge, 1960, 1969), Amazonia (Hill, 1988), Africa (Peires, 1989), Native North America (Mooney, 1896), the Caribbean (Littlewood, 1992) and elsewhere, many but not all of them emerging in the aftermath of one or another colonial encounter and many but not all of them influenced by the New Testament Book of Revelation (see also Lindstrom, 1993; Faubion, 2001). Historically grounded studies of Christianization offer more complex versions of the same theme (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1991, 1997; Robbins, 2004). Michael Lambek has explored a decidedly non-millenarian but far from chilly sense of the relationship among the past, present, and future in Madagascar (2003). Penelope Papailias (2005) has delved into the writings of modern Greek historians to discover senses of the same relationship that are very far from the boiling point. The list could continue at length.
For all this, Lévi-Strauss never retreated from his division between historical and properly anthropological knowledge. On the contrary, from the outset of his career, he consistently counted history among those disciplines limited to the merely statistical representation and analysis of their objects. His anthropology is for its part a model-theoretic discipline, an axiomatic and deductive science. Its object remains what it was for Tylor: the psyche. Its quest, however, culminates not in the hypothetical reconstruction of the path toward enlightened modernity but instead in the formal exegesis of the universal ‘grammar,’ the structural and structuring properties, of the mind itself. ‘Structuralism,’ thus construed, is far less influential than it was in the 1960s, but by no means bereft. In ‘cognitive anthropology,’ it has its most secure contemporary home; and there, history (as intellectual or epistemological paragon) continues to meet with a cool reception.
For Lévi-Strauss as for other philosophical and scientific rationalists, there is an insuperable gap between the ‘facts’ and their theoretical intelligibility. For positivists and empiricists, the relation between facts and theories is putatively more seamless. Unabashedly positivist anthropologists are a rather rare breed at present, at least in the sociocultural field, though many cultural materialists and evolutionary psychologists might quietly reckon themselves as such. The positivist anthropology of historical consciousness or the ‘historical sensibility’ is rare indeed, but has a singularly unabashed spokesperson in Donald Brown. In History, Hierarchy, and Human Nature (1988), Brown offers a cross-cultural survey of those traits – from divination to record-keeping – most suggestive of a preoccupation with the meaning and significance of events. Among literate peoples, he discerns a relatively stable correlation: between the presence and prominence of such a preoccupation and the absence of caste or other fixed hierarchies. He concludes that history (as sensibility, as worldview, and as mode of inquiry) takes its most regular nourishment from an ideology of social mobility. Whether or not correct, the conclusion is compatible with Lévi-Strauss’s own considered judgments. Here, too, the anthropologist takes history as an analytical object.
Marshall Sahlins offers an alternative, which also takes history as its analytical object, but further as its analytical mode. It preserves the structuralist principle that systems of signification are never mere derivatives of their social or material environment. Yet it casts them less as revelations of the grammar of the psyche than as interfaces or differentials between the past and the future of given social practice. Their effect is threefold. First, they determine the internal historical ‘temperature’ of practice, which is relatively colder when governed by prescriptions, warmer when not. Second, they vary in their capacity to accommodate potentially anomalous or disruptive events. They are more or less historically ‘sensitive,’ and the greater their sensitivity, the more the continuity of practice is itself at risk. Finally, they influence the symbolic ‘weight’ or import of actors and their acts. Where some men are kings, and their authority unchallenged, the historian is right to monitor them with especial care; where democracy holds sway, he or she would do better to monitor status groups or classes or parties. Hence, the best historian should be a good anthropologist, and the best anthropologist always prepared to be a good historian as well (Sahlins, 1985).
Sahlins’s standard of goodness is still the standard of objective accuracy. It thus stands in partial contrast to the standard that has at least implicitly guided interpretive anthropology since the Boasian ‘golden age.’ Though subject to diverse formulations – some more vividly critical than others – the latter standard is practical or pragmatic, a matter of consequences. Perhaps for a majority of interpretive anthropologists, it has been nothing short of ‘liberation,’ whether from psychosexual repression, as for Benedict and Mead, or from political domination and economic exploitation, as for Scholte. Many of its prominent inflections remain reformist, though of more qualified scope. For the Geertzian, however, the pragmatic proof of an interpretation lies in its facilitating conversation, its translational efficacy. For Geertz and others, it lies in a broadening or enrichment of our imagination of the ways of being human. For a few others still, it lies in therapeutic release – perhaps from prejudice, perhaps from alienated isolation. Interpretation must in every case be factually informed; but at its best, is always also ‘informative.’ Its analytical mode is historical; but however much Lévi-Strauss or Sahlins might disapprove, it is always also ‘history-for’ and ‘anthropology-for’ alike. So, too, the interpretive history of anthropology and the interpretive anthropology of history must occupy the same epistemological plane. Here, historical and anthropological knowledge are of precisely the same kind.
Consistent with such a position is Matti Bunzl’s proposal for the development of a ‘neo-Boasian’ anthropology, a hybrid of the Boasian tradition of particularistic contextualization and Michel Foucault’s genealogical ‘history of the present’ (Bunzl, 2003; Foucault, 1998). In Foucault’s first sustained articulation of it, genealogy has as its exemplar Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (1956). Following in Nietzsche’s footsteps, it is grounded in the marshaling of evidence of the partiality of the presumptively universal. It exposes the contingency of the presumptively necessary. It is most definitely a history-for. It does not, however, offer a design for historical inquiry in close accord with Dilthey’s or other standard historical precedents. It is ‘meticulous,’ but its aim is not merely nor even primarily to elucidate the contextual nexus that unites a historical ensemble into a meaningful complex. It is not hermeneutical in this sense. Its aim is instead to bring to light that one or another aspect of the present need not be taken as much for granted as at first sight it might seem to need to be. Bunzl rightly notes that the rhetorical force of Foucault’s ‘genealogy of the present’ notwithstanding, it does not as a matter of its own methodological constraints arrive at the present as such. Bunzl’s proposal is that a synthesis of Foucauldean genealogy and Boasian hermeneutics could yield a genealogical hermeneutics or hermeneutical genealogy not merely of the present but also in it.
Bunzl points to Paul Rabinow’s French Modern (1989) as the first anthropological installment of a history of (if not yet quite in) the present. In the work leading to the publication of Marking Time (2007), however, and in the work since (Rabinow and Stavrianakis, 2013), Rabinow has been developing his own diagnostics not merely of the present but also of the near past that precedes it and the near future that might follow it. Drawing from Foucault but also from John Dewey and Gilles Deleuze, he offers an ‘anthropology of the contemporary’ that would track ‘ratio(s) of modernity, moving through the recent past and near future in a (nonlinear) space’ and serving as ‘gauges’ in light of which one or another aspect of the modern can be registered as ‘becoming historical.’ Once again, a history-for but also as much an anthropology-for, it borrows some portion of its critical framework from Foucault’s late formulation of a ‘critical ontology of ourselves,’ an exercise that in its successes would extract ‘from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking as we are, do, or think’ (1997). If the specific temporality of Rabinow’s anthropology of the contemporary is of modest scope, it is in accord with the modesty that Ulrich Beck et al. (1994) have implicitly endorsed in their account of the ‘risk society’ in which we now all live and that Niklas Luhmann (1998) has similarly endorsed in his account of the increasingly global ‘ecology of ignorance’ with which we now all have to cope. Both accounts underscore that relations between the recent past and the near future are about the only relations in whose understanding we might dare to have some confidence. Contemporaneity is thus our lot. It is the distinctive order of the day. An anthropology of the ratios between the recent past and the near future could accordingly be thought to afford an analytical lens through which we might examine the environment – epistemic, sociocultural, and political – that is in fact all of our own.
In any event, it is clear that history is not simply a thing of many anthropological refractions. It is also a thing of plural and incompatible anthropological estimations. These in turn are among the most telling indices of the most persistent and most persuasive of plural and incompatible visions of the basic enterprise of anthropology itself. One can hence condemn the discipline for its intellectual indecisiveness or incoherence. One can applaud it for its perspectival diversity. One can in any event note that its many byways have a common point of departure in the question of whether human nature itself is transhistorically fixed, or instead historically variable. This is anthropology’s first question, and if the past is any indication of the future, it is likely to remain so, at least until either Man or history comes to an end.
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