Time for the Anthropology take-down?
I've argued that the implications of Steven Pinker's “Better Angels” looks to be that there is little reason anthropology and Medieval Studies should continue to exist. This was an exaggeration. He posits all the peoples anthropologists tend to study, as well as the entire medieval period, as “id,” which means they had the worst table manners you could possibly imagine, they were gross ... I mean, really, really gross, and about a hundred time more likely to stab a neighbour over a trivial matter as you, civilized reader. But even though these people were to him not making use of the capacity of the brain to still these impulses, they nevertheless represent a manner in which even contemporaries might slip back to if for some reason they let their current focus on reason slip, so in that sense they are still relevant to today. They are part of what ostensibly remains innate about us, part of something Pinker fears, so he allows the same room to study them as he does chimps, who, argue some, kill every outlier from a different “tribe” they happen to meet.
You go about the web and you get a sense of what anthropologists and medieval historians make of this offering. Their disciplines and specialities, they insist, introduce us to to people who are in some ways superior to ours. These are people, many of them tell us, before the crushing overlay of that devouring monster of undeterred, constant, indifferent-if-not-just-plain-cruel change — modernization. Their "disciplines" are not built about a longing to hide out with a whole swath of undeterred pederast priests in medieval England, or to gain the sympathy of peoples who still infanticide their young and who carry proudly, each one of them, more scars out of mad brutal warfare (Pinker points out that this is changing now more to "local homicide," as anthropologists try to repackage the people they’ve been studying so they appear more local crime-addled than war-driven) than your typical WW1 soldier, but out of a desire to reach out — meet the world outside of our prejudices, that serve to cast so much of the rest of the world in unflattering light. Anthropology, as Brian R. Ferguson, tells us, has activism built in — it’s one of the real good guys, which has been ridding itself entirely of the colonialist impulse. He describes what it was like for the discipline in the 1960/70s at Columbia, where it seemed part of sudden uptake of astonishing human goodness … of a complete shedding of the long-forsaking of the pains and concerns of so many. And when you hear the discipline being grouped, as you do in Ferguson’s account, with the Revolution … with “Black Power, Women’s Lib, Stonewall," you’d have to think that if you’re a radical progressive today, you’ll count yourself for sure amongst those negotiating anthropology and "the world before history” so it’s spared Pinker’s dreadful winnowing.
Except, when we live in an age where you hear Ferguson’s concerns that much of anthropology could become militarized, lose all the trust it’s earned, and become an agent of god-damned colonization again, as military money beckons to flood the field, and you guesstimate that scholars who find no qualms in accepting this money will probably flourish over the concerns of activist brethren, that they will displace them, ignore them — gleefully conquer them — this may be a time when the savvy young progressive actually holds back her support. Sorry dog! You were my inspiration, but anyone who addles along with you into this fight is just going to end up broken … I’ll save myself for a more sunny tomorrow, thank you.
I think we are living in an age experiencing growth panic. And what this is again, is when our own incurred societal growth has us feeling like we’ve earned our being abandoned by our mothers (the persecutory maternal alters in our heads). And, in an attempt to be "good children" again, and reacquire her love, we end up turning on those who genuinely most want to avoid our world becoming one of such harshness and affliction it would lead to perfect ground where conservatives like David Brooks argue, "character" might develop.
We favour people like Pinker, because there’s something imperial if not ideological about him — he steamrolls through his opponents, many of them those one senses most feel the pains of "outliers," people like Noam Chomsky (with subjects of American military domination) and William Deresiewicz (with brutally overwhelmed and constricted students). Stern refusal … excites, as of unflinching parental retribution. Plus he allows avenue, as much as he might deny it, for a righteous war against arising "id" cultures, like perhaps China or Islam (have they or haven’t they successfully "compartmentalized" their more worrisome inclinations? If they haven’t, can they really be allowed to grossly afflict those who’ve arrived at the civilized stage where their "bad parts" are finally under strong self-guidance?). A war against China and or Islam would cost us a lot of young — and this is the second group those experiencing growth panic are going to want seen sacrificed. They represent people with so much capacity to grow — our own "guilty" striving selves — plus as well, vulnerability — the other thing we were when our mothers turned on us, which "surely" is part of the wickedness we must pick on.
And so we’ll watch as anthropology, "sadly" afflicted not only by some of the most activist and decent professors alive, but with subjects who so readily suggest the small, afflicted, and vulnerable, draw upon itself the most intense of smackdowns. The rightness of ignoring their (i.e. anthropologists' ) guilt trips will first be established. They’ll try and show us as just bullying imperialists, so we’ll begin to enfranchise thinking of them as those who’ve profited for years by putting the truly righteous off balance. We’ll show, like Pinker is doing, that who they may be most intrinsically are people loyal to themselves, quite willing in fact to manipulate how their subjects get represented — be in a sense, casually untrue to them — if it helps them keep their own place secure. So they change from saying they are studying people who are all Rousseauian to arguing that most of them are actually — like all of us — a mixture of both … with the exceptions of a notable number who actually are human perfection (some tribes scattered here or there in the Savannah, suggesting an oasis that might just be "found" for the rest of us; or that lost swath of all mankind that dwindled six thousand years ago but which ostensibly were living peacefully and collectively for no less than a period of hundreds of thousand of years), and so their subjects seem more in-line of what evolving common sense and retained sense of eager hope, will allow for them. They change from arguing their subjects are war-free to arguing that their discipline once made this mistake but has fully corrected this earlier error, thank you, gauging that with this foot put down … internal correction has occurred, so no longer concern yourself with this matter; crowds disperse! will intimidate any further bothersome outside poking around within their field of expertise.
We’ll suggest that anthropologists are holding us back from what all we’ll need to survive in a world where local tribes might all of a sudden conglomerate into some ferocious ISIS massing that might appear anywhere within our civilized world to do nothing short of raping our women, destroying our cultural artefacts, and cooking us alive, through making any study of a tribal culture that veers pejorative off limits, evil. We’ll need the inside stuff on them to avoid this appalling carnage, and you sir/madam, are in the way of this.
Revved up, we’ll undercut the shield they think they’ve got comfortably enough in place to protect further assignations for awhile, a block of, have you factored in how you're never studying a tribal culture solo, but always as formed through interactions with predatory imperialist Western cultures? of, have you factored in how all the war-instinct in chimps might be explained simply out of human-caused territory restrictions or artificial provisioning? of, have you factored in how every bloody piece of evidence Pinker puts forward has got significant holes? and take the focus off the war and instead onto what-all has been suggested about how these tribes raise their children — we'll go domestic, when the anthropologists think we're fixed on the political. It’s a focus that’ll come to us naturally — so not really tactics — because the source of this downward, regressive turn in our own psyches, is the abandonment and terror we experienced at the hands of our mothers and fathers in our own lives; and as much as we will be intent to blame ourselves and exonerate them, we’ll just as much do a split so delicious righteous revenge can be partaken in as well. And so the enemy we focus on, will not be the one anthropologists seem concerned about — the savage warrior — but more the abandoning mother, so crass and evil she dangles her children mercilessly over fires and pits … how deMause shows Saddam Hussein, for example, was consistently portrayed before the Iraq War.
We'll look at studies by scholars like Bambi Chapin who seem near tied up in knots as to how to move forward in research when their research seems to be crumbling all around them as something worth dispassionate, disinterested examination ... as something worth studying in any such a matter that the possibility that its subjects aren’t just intrinsically sick, gets allayed, and show that such like her rosy assessment of her tribe's childrearing that morphed into a later assessment of it as really quite frightful, is what you'll find with every tribal culture once the romantic glow that can lead to such glossings of love for incest, and useful boundary-formation for abandonment, is off. We'll find every kind of empowerment now to go at scholars like Mathieu Ricard, and so face off against his assertion that in many tribal cultures you can find such goodness, such intrinsic sense of cooperation, and such maturity, they discourage the kind of praise that might make group leadership something to compete viciously for, with de Mause's sense of them as just squelched people, afraid to reach for any level of power because their parents terrified them out of making any kind of reach at all for capital acquisition — just evil-stepmother-ridden people, essentially, forlorn of all fairy godmothers. These are kids everywhere that need nothing more than to be rescued, we’ll point out — obviously — and anthropologists have anointed themselves as the proper agents to familiarize us with them ... only to lax around, allow and be indifferent to their squalor, like the worst of self-obsessed provincial administrators, who make fun of "the capital" for being so easily mislayed from ever incurring their natural right to come visit and see for themselves. We'll conclude that what we always suspected — that the reason they've kept tribal so long and stayed a million years' distance from modern medicine, modern dress, modern culture ... from civilization, couldn't have owed to anything good; and judge that you can know what you need to know about a people simply by noting if they bear the outside, extraneous marks of having incurred "their Reformation" … Are they tent people, that have barely begun the human climb, or can you visibly see in their cosmopolitan centres the earnest bustle that energizes all emancipated, modernized people?
They’ll be a fervour. Anthropologists, sensing defeat, committing all to battle. But what we’ll do is take advantage of the fact of a society leaning our way, to go especially arrogant, and CAT-scan whole tribes to see if they’re possessed of the kinds of brains we know can only incur out of prolonged childhood suffering. We’ll show damaged amaydalas, and shrunken orbitofrontal cortexes, in every tribe we scan; we’ll show how well it matches those of CAT-scanned brains of murderers — for goodness sakes!; and we’ll pretty much then nest in total victory … one might hear some brave lingerers-on suggest this too might represent only what-all savagery the West is responsible for, but they’ll be spooked away the moment we compliment this victory with our first threatened proposal of late-night showings of tribal infanticide, or youth-upon-elder New Guinea fellatio … what have you been doing casting these people as those most worthy of your earnest friendship, and of endless, endless, endless defence, all this while? Nothing spooked you out ... Jesus Christ, how can this possibly be?
While this hideous mess is occurring, savvy progressives will be preparing for the world after this period of growth-panic has ended. We’ll actually be pleased that hunting and gathering has been disenfranchised as an ideal … because what we’ll want to take up again is the intellectual energy and excitement of 60’s Berkeley/Columbia, the movement, not just the sitting together quietly on the grassy slope, whittling away the time — we’d had our lost decade, been stilled long enough, thank you very much! We’ll know that the past hasn’t a model for us, and that when we dip down “there,” we’re to be conscious that when we see something that inspires us, it’s not distanced from the familiar phenomena of being able to see inspiring formations even while looking at the mess of a massacre. No romanticization, this time. No fetishes. Just the desire for a better world, and the care to make sure no one out there is suffering … and, quite frankly, much of the jubilant 60's partying, though it seems near shameful to speak of such gleeful matters now.