Thursday, August 1, 2013

Anthropology and the Religion of Progress


At the Archdruid Report, John Michael Greer has been taking a close look at what happens when a cultural grand narrative (or secular religion) like Progress begins to lose its grip on a people.  One of his efforts is to show his readers just how integral and foundational this kind of myth is - and how it structures the way we think - even the ways we try to reject, critique, transcend or even just understand the myth itself.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s cultural anthropology went through a kind of dry run for some of what he talks about.  There was a deep and disciplined search for a way to take the science of anthropology out of the Progress trap.  Ultimately, it didn’t succeed, so I’m curious what his take on it is going to be.

Cultural anthropology, specializing as it did in peoples who existed outside the great Western, globalizing myths, was well-positioned to notice the cultural context that contained and constrained our science and our intellectual and philosophical traditions (including cultural anthropology, of course).  Anthropologists noticed two important things, from within a strong habit of self-critique.  The first was the “handmaiden to colonialism” critique, which pointed out that whatever projects anthropologists might have thought they were pursuing, they were first and foremost participants in and collaborators with a globalizing system of extraction and erasure – that would come to control and subsume the cultures being studied.  

The second critique, which crested in the 1990’s I believe, involved the collapse of an intellectual tradition that had contrasted a kind of modern positivism (e.g. anthropologists who could count and point at data) versus a more holistic, romantic rejection of Enlightenment self-congratulation and arrogance.  However, what happened was that this “post-modern” critique, which had come to portray positivism and science as irredeemably blindered by culture and grand narratives, realized that its own critique was also irredeemably blindered by culture and grand narratives.  In one sense it wanted to claim the mantle of intellectual progress as a more honest and clear vision of the world-as-it-was, but was defeated by its own self-examination.

The problem was that we process information (including about the communities and individuals that formed the subjects of cultural anthropology) through narrativization and other forms of cognitive and linguistic sausage-making.  Replacing the modernist narrative (which is what we called the unapologetic embrace of Progress) with a critical narrative served certain useful rhetorical and even occasionally political purposes, but it couldn’t be said to be intellectually honest at its core.  That is, if the goal of science and anthropology was to see the world as it really was – and not how our preferences and prejudices would have it be – how could we possibly claim to have objective knowledge now that we’d shown our methodological tools of participant observation and narrative description to be devices that altered and obscured the world even as we perceived it.  At some point it is just turtles all the way down.

There were several work-arounds to this dilemma.  Probably the most common was to reluctantly set aside such philosophical purities and go out and do the work of anthropology secure in the knowledge that – however flawed and imperfect were the foundations of our science – at least it was better than the various forms of silliness that the political scientists, sociologists and economists were wallowing in.  (To the extent I practiced anthropology, that is where I did it.) This is current business-as-usual cultural anthropology, and it does some pretty good work in my opinion.  Others have tried to grapple with it in other ways.  There is interpretivist anthropology, which acknowledges that cultures, like a piece of literature, can be interpreted, but not explained or understood in some final, definitive way.  There is an effort to create a kind of empty vessel anthropology in which a culture can express itself while being processed as little as possible by an alien anthropologist.  There’s a retreat to positivism, which says that science should focus on those things it can measure or manipulate and leave the rest aside.

The other reaction was a move to "applied anthropology" - which makes use of anthropological knowledge to tackle real-world problems.  There is less room for pristine truth-seeking and more scope for deploying stuff that works - or at least has effects - whether we understand them or not. (Here, too, I count myself as a practitioner.) And here is where I think anthropology and green wizardry (as Greer calls it) intersect.  We are going to transition to a sustainable society - perhaps voluntarily, but more likely because we crash into some non-negotiable limits - and it's hard to see that happening without major revisions to our current religion of Progress.  

Those anthropologists who still study the exotic, study peoples on the margins – who are partially enmeshed in and partially estranged from global culture.  And I think that as Progress begins to fail – as we all become partially estranged from, but remain partially enmeshed in our culture and its great secular religion – that the things that anthropology has learned can contribute to a useful branch of green wizardry.  In my own work I’ve tried to look at the way in which anthropology has already contributed to people trying to change their own psychologies in order to create an ability to live alternatives to “mainstream culture” – as a way of escaping the seemingly inescapable.


  1. Hello,
    ported over from Greer's.

    The narrative of progress is and always has been a cognitive projection over reality. Events and phenomena are made to make sense within its narrative construct. There are short-hands for this process, i.e. 'that's progress for you.' The narrative is of privilege, it is a rationalization of events as told from the perspective of those benefiting, or perceiving themselves to be benefiting from the perspective. Once that perspective is lost, however, the present and the past come in for radical reinterpretation. In this sense, the narrative will fail as an effect of declining privilege.

    The mind-bending vortex moment comes when one sees that the narrative seems to make sense in an axiomatic way by consensus because it is reflected in everything by everyone. Narrative is more of a social phenomena than anything else. Its at that moment that untruth begins to be revealed and the observer is alienated from everyone else, capable of speaking the same language but impossible to be understood.

    I considered once how alien and unrelateable I found current history, in the sense that reality as I experienced it (and many others) is reflected precisely nowhere in historical or pop cultural accounts of this time, or, rather, that those accounts are total works of fiction and myth building. On one hand, this made me question everything and anything that we seem to have learned from history, as history is this exact process was this myth-making over time. I imagine an objective history would look like this; every human being who ever lived would get a one page biography that summarizes and relates the experience of their life. The historical account we have is an editing and revising of this book. Most pages are simply thrown away, a few are condensed and blended together to create an archetypal summary in the same way that movies based on books will sometimes condense several characters into one. A select few are expanded upon and stretched into grand narratives. It is from those that we take historical lessons and make sense of the past.

    1. I like your description of history-writing - very apt. I think you're right about Progress being a narrative that's wrapped up with privilege, but one of the things that has perplexed anthropologists is how people who are not benefiting from "progress" - who are in fact aware that they themselves are being screwed over or left behind -- still generally buy into the narrative. As long as Progress is happening somewhere and you can imagine being swept up in it somehow it is a story of privilege that doesn't have to be realized in a person's real life. That's one reason that I expect the story of Progress to be durable - even in the face of obvious decline.

  2. Hi Andy, interesting comment at ADR--also read your article about the neo-pagan scene in Eugene. Quite eye-opening to someone who's never been there. This post is also interesting, since the whole post-modern dilemma of being ultra-aware of one's biases yet still not being able to get beyond them (since there is no such thing as an a-cultural mode of thought) infected so many disciplines in the 80's and 90's. Post-modernism set up a whole new way for its practitioners to feel superior--a real trap for sure.

    Applied anthropology in the hands of marketers allied with corporations in the service of progress and consumption has a very dark side, as I'm sure you're aware. Scary. I agree, though, that the skills cultural anthropologists bring to the table can make a great contribution to green wizardry.

    1. Adrian, thanks for the comment. I'm going to have to give some thought to what specific kinds of contributions anthropology can make to green wizardry. Our friend JMG doesn't have much patience for empty talk!

  3. Hi Andy
    I too just read your May 2012 article about Eugene. Very similar groups have existed and are joined by new generations in parts of the UK. I was struck with the familiarity of the stories. It is hard to see the British versions as anything but derivative, but links with Steiner religious versions might be stronger here. The balance of 'counter culture' and 'alternative technology', 'Schumacher economics' (where Greer has come from) and 'pagan beliefs' also might be different here. Sometimes cultural symbols - the nomadic VW ICE van for example, or 'biochar' - get the better of 'environmental' arithmetic.

    Your remarks on positivism are interesting. For a brief while I worked in support of some 'official' senior cientists on environmental 'risk assessment' of new technologies. Those with a strict upbringing in 'positivism' could not do risk assessments! I witnessed some interesting personal struggles. Reminded me of 'mind-forged manacles'.

    Phil H

    1. I lived in Ireland for a few years and wish I'd gotten to know the neo-pagan groups there better. The southwest had some well-established groups and the slow food movement and artisanal food scene was attracting some interesting new people. It seemed to have a lot in common with the US scene I'd studied, but of course was very different as well.