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.