All for One and One for All: A Response to Marshall Sahlins

All for One and One for All: A Response to Marshall Sahlins

In his interview with David Moberg in Dissent, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explains that he resigned from the National Academy of Sciences to protest its “involvement in research for the military.” This strikes me as late and incongruous. The discipline Sahlins helped shape in the decades since the Vietnam War–era scandals no longer possesses any specialized knowledge for war-mongering imperialists to misappropriate. Since the invasion of politically correct thinking, anthropology’s theoretical arsenal—never highly developed—has been disabled. Its core concepts, like Sahlins’s “kinship”—in which I recognize a distorted version of my fieldwork in the New Guinea Highlands—are immune to use and abuse alike.

Sahlins defines kinship as “mutuality of being, meaning that kinfolk are members of one another, intrinsic to each other’s identity and existence. Symbolically and emotionally,” Sahlins says, “kinfolk live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths.” Ideas like these hardly serve counterinsurgency.

“In the highlands of New Guinea,” Sahlins reports, “strangers can become your kin by eating from the land where your ancestors are buried. The food raised on that land is the transubstantiation of the ancestors….[People who eat this food] share ancestral being…[and] are as much kin to each other as people who have the same parents.” Moberg asks Sahlins how the NAS, “if it does anything in the field,” ought to work to promote peace. But Sahlins’s definition of kinship makes peace-making unnecessary. Why “study how to promote peace” in a world where each of us may encompass all others, in which “strangers”—enemies—are me, their deaths my own?

In fact, before an Australian administration violently “pacified” the region and ended cannibalism among those who practiced it, warfare was endemic. Ridge-top settlements were fortified, raids and ambushes were constant, and hatred of women was deeply ingrained. In the Eastern Highlands among the Gimi-speakers I studied, men beheaded any woman they caught looking at men’s sacred bamboo flutes. Gimi women ate men killed in battle, but they were not able, nor seeking, to share male being transubstantially. Gimi men excluded themselves from cannibal feasts, which they considered expressions of women’s savagery and innate criminality, recurring proof of implacable female otherness and inferiority, as I wrote in Between Culture and Fantasy: A New Guinea Highlands Mythology (1993).

Sahlins laments American “attempts to forcefully impose democracy on societies with no such traditions…the reframing of local differences in terms of international issues, backed by opposed international forces.” He seems to move directly from the traditional idea of human nature to the neoconservative mandate to liberate forcibly the democrat beating in every Iraqi or Afghani heart. At the core of American military adventurism and an outdated, ethnocentric anthropology, Sahlins discerns the same bad idea—the mistake of universality—based upon the link between biology and culture. In protesting the NAS’s role in interventions in a post-colonial world, Sahlins blames not only anthropologists who actually collude with the U.S. military or, like Napoleon Chagnon, produce “vicious” distortions of indigenous life, but also the foundations of an old anthropology that proclaimed the inherent sameness of human beings.

After the Holocaust, anthropology reaffirmed the doctrine of the “the psychic unity of mankind” to defuse the minefield of absolute cultural relativism because, like any extreme proposition, it tends toward its despised opposite: the idea of cultures’ uniqueness and non-translatablity may be used not just for respect of otherness but also for disengagement and abdication of any moral stance. Sahlins sets culture completely loose from constraints of “sex, aggression, etc.” “Human nature is culture,” he proclaims, “realized in the thousands of different ways known to history and ethnography,” as if culture’s only regular feature were mutability. Sahlins misinterprets the fact that culture is “a flexible, varied means of adapting to a wide and changing variety of circumstances” to mean that there are no limits at all, making the search for them not just misguided but also immoral, a descent into sociobiology and racism.

This hostile divorce of culture from biology, and the discourse on “mutuality of being,” sound to me like the culmination of a game of telephone started in 1988, when Marilyn Strathern proposed the “dividual androgyne” as an antidote to the one-sex individual, the “totalistic sexed identity of a Western type.” In The Gender of the Gift, Strathern claims to follow my “theoretical lead” as she reanalyzes Gimi ethnography. In looking at the sacred flutes mentioned above, she ignores their significance as emblems of violence against women and emphasizes their “secret” iconography (images of the genitalia of both sexes are etched into the bamboo). The men claimed that female sex assignment was mere accident, the result of a “theft of flutes” carried out in the primordial past but remediable in the present through rites of exchange. Rather than seeing this as a myth used to ease women’s participation in a disadvantageous social contract, Strathern argues that Gimi really believe they can “transact” gender in ritual. What men’s and women’s separate myths and rites actually reveal is just how preoccupied both sexes are by the tragedy, for women, of inalterable sexual assignment.

Using this reinterpretation and other glosses on the misogyny widely reported in other Highlands societies, Strathern concocts the “dividual” as the “‘composite site’ of the substances and actions of plural others.” Her “non-unitary model of embodiment and gendered difference” shifts the distinctions between male and female and between individual and group, which Westerners naively regard as originating in an exterior “biological” world, into a fractal-like interior realm. To propose that Gimi construct human sexual dimorphism utterly differently from Westerners and wholly apart from biology is like saying that Gimi do not understand death as permanent and irreversible but rather conceive of an afterlife exactly as their myths and rites propose. Strathern’s dismissal of “nature” calls into question non-literate peoples’ capacity fully to comprehend the “facts of life” in a way reminiscent of the ancient debate over “virgin birth,” in which anthropologists questioned whether Australians and Pacific Islanders understood the connection between copulation and conception.

In the twenty-five years since the “dividual” appeared, I wondered who would take it seriously, but it has been hailed as “one of the most important theoretical accomplishments to emerge from Melanesian ethnography in the latter part of the 20th Century,” whose influence extends beyond Melanesia into world ethnography, feminist theory, ancient history, archaeology, and other disciplines. Sahlins adopts the “partible ‘dividual’” as the central figure of kinship with only slight modification, insisting that we pay “as much attention to the transpersonal distribution of the self among multiple others as to the inscription of multiple others in one subject.” Sahlins treats declarations of shared being and dogmas of consubstantiation as if they were not deliberate suppressions of individuals’ inassimilable identities.

Sahlins’s participation in what I see as an academic industry of error and omission may be a consequence of the way research in anthropology is ordinarily done in the university. Considering his long experience, reputation for bold thinking, and readiness to criticize the misuse of anthropology by institutions like the U.S. military and the NAS, Sahlins is surprisingly unskeptical about how the evidence he cites “from around the [Pacific] region…as well as Ming China and the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt” has led to a global, theoretical consensus inside his discipline. There is an echo chamber that admission practices in many university graduate departments seem designed to create by requiring applicants to demonstrate research interests sufficiently in line with those of one or more faculty members. Under a system in which, to cite instructions issued at my own University of Toronto, “applicants without a committed supervisor will NOT be admitted, regardless of their qualifications,” one may wonder how a student researcher would be motivated or equipped, on the basis of a typical eighteen-month stint in the field, to supply objective evidence that might contradict her supervisor’s theoretical framework on a matter as profound as human “non-nature.”

What is anthropology’s politically correct response to the social injustices it decries? How do mainstream anthropologists deal with violence in other cultures of a kind that may interest the U.S. military? They theorize it out of existence. Culturally entrenched rape in India or Pakistan? Gendercide in China? Strathern’s “dividual androgyne” eradicates fixed sexual assignment. Genocides in Rwanda or Darfur? Suicide bombers? Sahlins’s “strangers” become our kin, participate in our being, die our deaths. “Why don’t scientists base their ideas of human nature on [the] truly universal condition,” he lectures Moberg, “a condition in which self-interest at the expense of others is precluded by definition, insofar as people are parts of one another?” He says the West has projected “a modern capitalist view of self-interested, even selfish, behavior on both humanity and the rest of the natural world.” The problem is us, which means we can fix it without venturing too long or too far from home.


Gillian Gillison is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto.

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