Of rants, shortcuts, and revolutions

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Giovanni da Col. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.001

Of rants, shortcuts, and revolutions

Giovanni DA COL, SOAS, University of London


Three years ago, I was riding a vaporetto, crossing the Giudecca canal that flows into the San Marco basin in Venice, with a notable American anthropologist. After we discussed the virtues of Venetian predinner nibbles, or cicheti—bite-sized bits of bread covered with baccalà, octopus, sea truffles, and other delicacies consumed in back-street small bars called bacari—we moved on to the depressing discussion of the sustainability of open access projects. After he saw my expression of utter hopelessness and fatigue, my companion quickly shifted the tone of the conversation, praising the achievements of the journal, remarking “surely, one day, this decade will be known as the decade of HAU.” I found the comment amusing rather than flattering, especially because it jogged in my mind the famous controversy sparked by Michel Foucault’s pronouncement that “perhaps this century will be known as Deleuzian.” Although Foucault’s endorsement has achieved a sort of iconic character, less known is Deleuze’s reaction: it was “a joke meant to make people who like us laugh, and make everyone else livid.” (Deleuze 1995: 4). We know that despite the (waning) popularity of Deleuze among a group of anthropologists, the last century was an age of many extremes and some nomadic thought—yet not enough of it. That said, there is something that makes Deleuze more intriguing than many contemporary anthropologists: he knew (especially with Félix Guattari) how to borrow heavily from the anthropological “canon.” From Claude Lévi-Strauss to Pierre Clastres, Luc de Heusch to Gregory Bateson and Edmund Leach, Deleuze must have been an avid reader of our partner journal L’Homme, founded by Claude Lévi-Strauss, émile Benveniste, and Pierre Gourou in 1961 (curiously, few have noted that the nomad thinker was mostly drawing on white male continental scholars). Why do I mention this? Perhaps because the cult figure of the [ii]ontological and posthumanist turns had to turn to “classic” anthropological theory for inspiration. Let’s not forget that Deleuze revisited the classics of philosophy most of his life; in what is probably his most often cited (and outrageous) quote, about the history of philosophy, he shows how revolutionary and transgressive an approach to the “canon” could be:

What really helped me to come off at that time was, I believe, to view the history of philosophy as a type of buggering or, what amounts to the same thing, an immaculate conception. I would imagine myself approaching an author from behind, and making him a child, who would indeed be his and would, nevertheless, be monstrous. That the child would be his was very important because the author had to say, in effect, everything I made him say. But that the child be monstrous was also a requisite because it was necessary to go through all kinds of decenterings, slidings, splittings, secret discharges which have given me much pleasure. (Deleuze 1977: 117)

Why talk about classics? Umberto Eco once noted that a classic text is a survivor. In Poetics, Aristotle names hundreds of tragedies but only a few of those reached us. This was not entirely due to the waxing and waning of the powers controlling the transmission of knowledge from antiquity to modernity. Rather, Eco argues, some of the most famous classics were also blockbusters that appealed to the masses, and we are not just talking about of the Bible or Madame Bovary. Apparently, even blacksmiths would sing passages of Dante’s Divine comedy while hammering on anvils, causing the poet, who was passing by, to complain that they were ruining his arte. Eco also recalls that Adriano Olivetti, the inventor of the first commercially produced personal computer in 1964, had a preference to employ high school graduates who attended Liceo Classico for positions in management and development. Olivetti would employ engineers to build computers, yet one of his corporate officers had graduated from university with a dissertation on Hegel. He would first send them down to the factory line for six months to learn the nitty-gritty of workers’ operations and would then assign them grand projects; he argued that only those who know the ways of the past can be imaginative enough to conceive how the future would turn.

Which brings me to another point I want to raise in this editorial. In September 2017, we shared on our Facebook page a “rant” by Marshall Sahlins about anthropology’s classics. The rant read as follows:

Emeritus rant Maybe I’m wrong. It happens. But, Where Have All the Cultures Gone?

What happened to Anthropology as the encompassing human science, the comparative study of the human condition? Why is a century of the first hand ethnography of cultural diversity now ignored in the training and work of anthropologists? Why are graduate students in the discipline ignorant of African segmentary lineages, New Guinea Highlands pig feasts, Naga head-hunting, the kula trade, matrilateral cross cousin marriage, Southeast Asian galactic polities, Fijian cannibalism, Plains Indian warfare, Amazonian animism, Inuit kinship relations, Polynesian [iii]mana, Ndembu social dramas, the installation of Shilluk kings or Swazi kings, Azande witchcraft, Kwakiutl potlatches, Australian Aboriginal section systems, Aztec human sacrifice, Siberian shamanism, Ojibwa ontology, the League of the Iroquois, the caste system of India, Inner Asian nomadism, the hau of the Maori gift, the religion of the Ifugao, etc. etc. We are the custodians of this knowledge, and we are content to let it be forgotten. Where else in the university are these things to be taught, or is it that they are not worthy of scholarly contemplation, and should just be confined to the dustbin of intellectual history?

Maybe in a few hundred years, if the human species survives the dark ages of planetary degradation, there will be a cultural renaissance driven by the discovery of some buried or flooded libraries filled with astonishing memoirs of human achievement.

The post quickly went viral and elicited hundreds of shares and reactions, some quite lively discussions, two blog responses (one contrary, one favorable), reflections on pedagogy, race, and the place of white male scholarship, crypto-colonialism, and the marginalization of indigenous and minorities scholarship. I should use this opportunity to clarify that we don’t endorse everything we publish on our social media. We have a social media team of ten pro bono interns, led by an editorial assistant; we don’t have a centralized figure who censors and controls each post. Some posts or tweets are meant to generate debate or critical comments. But rather than continue the conversation started in Facebook, I’d rather turn to another rant, one from 2011. After our inaugural issue, we received the following letter from a student in a UK anthropology program.

It is interesting and auspicious to read that its ethos is that of conferring value to ethnography after a sort of self-depreciation in the last decades due to its theoretical dependence on continental philosophy. As you have written in the editorial, contemporary anthropologists tend to utilize terms coming from post-structuralist theorists to the detriment of those that were central in the discipline until around 40 years ago. Consequently, anthropology students now tend to know a lot more about Foucault and Deleuze rather than about the political system or religious practices of a specific people. At least this is what I feel while being a third year student. And before starting the degree, I thought I would have also acquired an encyclopedic knowledge about traditions, religions, types of exchange of particular societies as well as a comprehension of cultural theories of the like of Foucault (which are obviously important but, as you have written, do not make anthropology!). I expected to learn about the myths, rituals or economic system of, say, the Navajo, the Kayapo or the Pintupi instead of studying mainly the political change that are affecting non-Western areas (again, these issues are central but they are not the only concern of anthropology).

Perhaps the rant of a student during his final year of undergraduate studies is a louder trumpet than the Emeritus rant. Both rants draw on a certain pedagogy we at HAU have tried to pursue since its inception. HAU was launched as a gamble and a social movement. Its form was only part of its allure, but what was revolutionary was its content—appealing to the anthropological tradition during an age (which [iv]is sadly not over) when everyone was looking outside of it for inspiration. This was clearly expressed in the conclusion of HAU’s manifesto, which can be found in our inaugural issue, in the Foreword written by David Graeber and me.

We began this project with a defiant gamble: that it’s only by returning to the past, and drawing on our own hoariest traditions, that we can revive the radical promise of anthropology to upend all accepted verities about the nature of the human condition, about life, knowledge, sociality, wealth, love, power, justice, possibility. It might seem paradoxical. But in the end, is it really? Anthropologists studying social movements have come to learn, in places like Chiapas or Oaxaca, that far from there being a contradiction between tradition and revolution, some of the most creative revolutionary movements spring up among those with the deepest sense of their own traditions. Perhaps we should internalize the lesson. In this, as in so many other things, there is no ultimate, no fundamental difference between us and those we study. Let us then begin a conversation—one freely accessible to everyone—with the promise to enrich all of our innumerable worlds. (da Col and Graeber 2011: xxix; emphasis added)

How do we keep open this conversation and make it relevant and democratic? By responding to the challenges received by our readers; with the inauguration of a new section, titled Shortcuts. This new section was created by me and our new Associate Editor, Claudio Sopranzetti (Oxford); it was created with the conviction that debates on epistemological, ethical, and historical constitution of the anthropological corpus are some of the reasons why anthropology has always thrived. Whether in terms of the complex relation between anthropological knowledge production and the political systems in which they take place or the proliferation of the language of “mutual constitution” as a way to bypass questions of causality, the question of the “suffering” versus the “good,” the attribution of “colonial” or “white male privilege” to ethnographic classics, or the hackneyed debates on the precariousness of academic life, contemporary anthropology is traversed by critical shortcuts. HAU was created as a platform to reflect and foster these debates. Since the debates on the role of the ontological turn in contemporary anthropological theory or the value of ethnography over anthropology (vol. 7, no. 1, 2017), the journal has been committed to the highest level of intellectual rigor and open-minded discussion, giving voice to dissenting opinions and arguments to the point of publishing explicit disagreements with its very own mission (a case in point was the publication of Tim Ingold’s “That’s enough about ethnography!” [2014], which critically challenged the very same mission of this journal). In keeping up with this commitment, we want Shortcuts to investigate and question the analytical, historical, and interpretive arguments that have become common knowledge in anthropology, intuitively true and agreeable yet rarely subject to rigorous scrutiny and discussion. So, for example, in relation to Sahlins’ rant, one could argue that two arguments deployed in the conversation—such as “one must respect the founding fathers of the discipline” and “one should not read works produced as a result of a colonial enterprise”—exemplify two intellectual shortcuts that we would love to take up as a challenge. We therefore encourage contributions that are willing to travel these paths and explore whether they are roads to our discipline’s future or just tracks that lead us astray.[v]

This issue

It is astounding to realize that, given its popularity, HAU Journal will celebrate its sixth anniversary December 7, 2017. We are only “six years old.” In recent years, the HAU Journal readership has increased 20–30 percent per issue. We have been publishing about 1,400–1,650 pages each year. Some of our articles have been downloaded 7,000 times in a single week; in 2016, we had 211,412 article downloads. Since 2013, a number of our articles have become classics, with existing or forthcoming translations in multiple foreign languages, including Mandarin: let me just cite Tim Ingold’s “That’s enough about ethnography!” (vol. 4/1, 2014); David Graeber’s “Radical alterity is just another word for ‘reality’”(vol. 5/2, 2015); and Sherry Ortner’s “Dark anthropology and its others” (vol. 6/1, 2016). This issue gives you another gem that is destined to become an instant classic: “The original political society,” by Marshall Sahlins, originally given as the inaugural Arthur Maurice Hocart Memorial Lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in April 2016 (which also marked the foundation of the Centre for Ethnographic Theory). With his customary éclat, Sahlins announces a Copernican revolution in the sciences of society, one that moves the focus from human society as the center of the universe and origin of all metaphors to ethnographic realities where even the so-called egalitarian societies present hierarchical cosmologies of irksome and iron-fisted gods. In these societies, gods and spirits are the innate, not the constructed, and the structures of the human order originates by imitation of these “metapersons.” As Sahlins argues, “even kings are in origin imitations of gods rather than gods of kings.” For scrutinizing Sahlins’ argument, we have gathered a stellar lineup of commentators, including Carlo Ginzburg, Marc Abélès, Ann Fienup-Riordan, Signe Howell, and Marilyn Strathern.

The lecture is preceded by a lively debate on Marisol de la Cadena’s book, Earth beings: Ecology of practices across Andean Worlds (Duke University Press, The Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture Series, 2015), continuing from our last issue’s Book Symposium. What are the virtues and the limits of the cosmo-political and the entanglement of human and nonhuman beings in anthropological theory? What are the methodological and analytical implications of this encounter and critique of the posthumanist turn, raised by some of the debaters? Ciara Kierans and Kirstin Bell also join the debate section by extending the very popular discussion from past issues of HAU on contradictions, suggesting that we focus directly on ambivalence, precisely not in order to take an explicit position ourselves but to see what it can teach us. David Berliner responds, extending his popular reflections on the theme (vol. 6/ no. 1, 2016) by elaborating on the role of multiplicity in selfhood.

The 2016 Hocart Lecture is accompanied by the 2010 Marett Lecture, which was given in Oxford by another Chicago ancestor, the late Terry Turner. In the lecture, entitled “Beauty and the beast,” Turner presents an interesting puzzle that challenges our equivalences between beauty and class: why is it that in Amazonia, the Kayapo consider the most beautiful people as simultaneously those who are most at risk of reverting to bestial behavior? The argument is engaged by the sharp comments by a number of Euro-American and Brazilian anthropologists, including Peter Gow, Michael Cepek, Joana Miller, Cesar Gordon, and Michael Oppitz.[vi]

We celebrate the centennial of the Russian Revolution with an extraordinary piece by Alexei Yurchak on survivals: survival of bodies (Lenin’s in primis) and the symbolic and material collapse of the foundational truths of the Soviet project. What happens when the symbolic architecture sustaining a state collapses? The article is followed by an extended dialogue between the author and Anya Bernstein on the necropolitics and immortality in Russia today.

Andrew Kipnis and his commentators, Stephan Feuchtwang and Magnus Fiskesjö, continue an important thread in HAU that responds to Philippe Descola’s magnum opus on ontologies and examines the application of Descola’s model to China. Kipnis looks closely at mortuary practices to piece together what has changed in recent times and what has remained the same. He examines both popular practices and Party doctrines and argues the distinction between naturalist commemorations and analogist souls is not clear-cut.

The next two papers show us how close inspection of political practices undermines comfortable assumptions. Maria Vidart-Delgado takes us to the heart of the “democratic” process; here it’s the way US political consultants shape political campaigns in Colombia. She finds that, contrary to what is assumed, information technologies and professional management do not undermine authoritarian networks based on face-to-face politics but in fact rely on and reinforce local political networks and may end up encouraging “extremism, authoritarianism, and hyperbole in mainstream politics.” In the context of NGOs and development work, Laura Mentore casts her eye on so-called capacity-building workshops with indigenous communities in Guyana. She shows the shakiness of the “middle ground” that occurs when one of the parties is present “only by virtue of what they symbolize to the other,” and forced to affirm these perceptions such that simulacra displace the real. Shifting from place to time, Matti Eräsaari explores the value of time for underemployed Fijian villagers. In contrast to many settings, including urban Fiji, residents in this aristocratic chiefdom understand themselves neither as busy nor as trapped in boredom or meaningless waiting; instead, they enjoy the dignity of slowness and leisure, able to “realize the value of their surplus time in their own terms.” If the Fijians in Eräsaari’s study are able to realize their values, the international devotees of Hare Krishna in West Bengal reported in John Fahy’s study are not. Yet if disciples are unable to live up to the ideals set for them, they are adept at articulating this inability. Fahy thus astutely concludes that people inhabit a moral system less by being virtuous than by drawing on its values for self-evaluation and that “one can inhabit a moral system by recognizing in oneself not just the virtues but also the vices it presents.”

Following the tradition in HAU to acknowledge our ancestors—as in the “Joyful History of Anthropology” section edited by Bhrigupati Singh and Jane Guyer (vol. 6, no. 2, 2016) and the “Voicing the Ancestors” fora edited by Richard Handler (vol. 6, no. 3, 2016; vol. 7, no. 1, 2017)—Mario Schmidt offers a lucid account of the thought of Godfrey Lienhardt, indisputably one of the great anthropologists, even if Schmidt’s students didn’t seem to think so. Reading Divinity and experience with care and comparing Lienhardt with Evans-Pritchard, Schmidt finds Lienhardt to be a Pyrrhonian skeptic, one whose suspension of judgment is both epistemological and ethical. This line of thought circles us back to questions of ethics, ontology, and contradiction that animate so many of the contributions to HAU.[vii]

Our urgent Forum, edited by Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, gathers a number of prominent thinkers in Latin American anthropology to discuss the current changes in the agricultural business and constitutional violations during Brazil’s current political crisis. The implications for the Indigenous population are dramatic, since the changes disfigure human rights and environmental legislation in the region.

Our unedited section hosts a gem by Thomas Trautmann, exploring Mauss’ understandings and misunderstandings of Sanskrit and conceptions of gifts in India, which we managed to unearth from the treasure casket of the literature on the subject, one that was crucial in shaping the classic article by Jonathan Parry (1986) on the Indian Gift.

The translation section hosts an essay by Lucien Sebag on the dreams of a Guayaki (Aché) woman in Paraguay. Never before translated into English, and never reprinted even in French, the essay marks a unique effort to combine ethnography with structural theory and psychoanalysis. Sebag was a philosophy student with Pierre Clastres, and both decided to turn to anthropology and study with Lévi-Strauss, conducting joint periods of fieldwork in Amazonia. John Leavitt’s nuanced translation and extended introduction confirms the timeliness of Sebag’s insight while highlighting a marvelous template of collaborative anthropology.

Our Book Symposium hosts a never-before-attempted cross-fertilization between N. J. Enfield and Jack Sidnell’s The concept of action (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and Alessandro Duranti’s The anthropology of intentions (Cambridge University Press, 2015). We recently noticed a resurgence of the interest in the challenges offered by interactional approaches and insights from linguistic anthropology to theories of sociality and personhood (for example, on the doctrine of “opacity of minds,” discussed by Duranti in his book). To support this bridge between anthropology and linguistics through the study of the roots of sociality in interactions and intentions, we involved the authors of both books, plus a number of eminent thinkers on language and cognition, such as William Hanks and Eve Danziger. By keeping up with our goal to make anthropology relevant outside disciplinary boundaries, also accomplished in this issue by hosting the insights of Carlo Ginzburg on Sahlins’s political cosmology, we are delighted that a distinguished philosophers like Shaun Gallagher accepted to be involved in this conversation.

The way ahead

My colleague and Interim Editor, Michael Lambek—who deserves the greatest gratitude and admiration for keeping up with HAU’s demanding work ethic and workload—edited the research papers of this issue. I wish to warmly thank him (and Amira Mittermaier, who was by his side from August to December 2016) for the invaluable service to this journal and his teachings. I would like add—by way of schadenfreude—that I’ve enjoyed having him take my place in editorial purgatory for a while. Above all, Michael Lambek fully appreciated and felt the complexity of running a colossal project like HAU in a sustainable manner. Which brings me to the conclusion of this long editorial note.

HAU’s expansion occurred initially with no institutional or grant support. We relied instead on the editorial team’s sustained efforts and dedication to an [viii]intellectual project that was welcomed by the academic community with unprecedented fervor. Our success has been built on immense personal and career sacrifices by all the members of the editorial team during these last years. We went through a steep learning curve, we made mistakes, we had to accept a few trade-offs. But it was also clear to the institutions and the community surrounding and supporting HAU that—from its start until now—the journal has been a publishing initiative driven by its editors and contributors and not by a bureaucratic structure or the membership of a professional society. But the potential of the project has also been obvious to a number university bodies (more than 40 that at different times, joined our HAU-Network), all of which have been willing to invest in HAU —its vision, its leadership, and its future. We need to secure and sustain our momentum and not succumb to the hiccups and holdups that many professional associations face. Reorganization for a sustainable project is the logical next step, which HAU is now prepared to take thanks to the incredible support you have given it over the last six years.

This decade may not become the decade of HAU, but we want to believe that our return to the classics was a revolution that we wish to remember during the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution, one of the major challenges and rethinking the human condition has ever received.

Which is nothing but good anthropology, after all.


da Col, Giovanni, and David Graeber. 2011. “Foreword: The return of ethnographic theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1 (1): vi–xxxv.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1977. “I have nothing to admit,” Semiotext(e) 2.3: 111–117.

Deleuze, Gilles. [1990] 1995. Negotiations, 1972–1990. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York. Columbia University Press.

Graeber, David. 2015. “Radical alterity is just another way of saying ‘reality’: A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5 (2): 1–41.

Ingold, Tim. 2014. “That’s enough about ethnography!” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (1): 383–95.

Ortner, Sherry. 2016. “Dark anthropology and its others: Theory since the eighties.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1): 47–73.

Parry, Jonathan. 1986. “The gift, the Indian gift and the ‘Indian gift.’” Man 21 (3): 453–73.