Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Excavation of hidden sources to understand the complex history of both human personality and culture

Anthropology, the aspiration to place knowledge of humanity as a whole on a rigorous footing, has been through three phases corresponding roughly to the last three centuries. In each case its object and method reflected the movement of world history when seen from a European perspective. Anthropology grew out of the critique of the old regime of agrarian civilisation as part of a search for the universal foundations of democratic society.
Locke, Rousseau and Kant wished to found the social contract on human nature and to that end their method was philosophical reasoning, supported by the best information available on the uncivilised peoples of North America and the South Seas. Indeed Kant was the first to use the word “anthropology” in anything like its modern sense; but you will not find references made to that in today’s courses on the history of social anthropology.
The 19th century put the spirit of democratic revolution firmly behind itself and addressed a world brought into being by western imperialism, an imperialism powered by mechanisation. The question Victorians asked was how they were able to conquer the planet with so little effective resistance. They concluded that their culture was superior, being based on reason rather than superstition, and that this superiority was grounded in nature as racial difference. Their perspective on world society was inevitably one of movement, so that the racial hierarchy they found there was understood to be still evolving. The object of 19th century anthropology was thus to explain the origin of the continuing inequality between the races of mankind; its method was evolutionary history based on widespread comparison of examples linked by an assumption of human psychic unity. In other words, they could become like us once they submitted to an appropriate form of government and education by us.
In the 20th century anthropology took the predominant form of ethnography. That is, individual peoples, studied in isolation from their wider context in time and space, were written up by lone ethnographers whose method was prolonged and intensive immersion in their societies. Nowhere was this project pursued more rigorously or exclusively than in the British social anthropology of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. By the end of the century, most professionals in social and cultural anthropology around the world pay at least lip service to this ethnographic ideal, although in the other imperial centres (the United States, France, Russia, India etc) the methods employed are more varied. And within Britain the basic model of functionalist ethnography has been undermined from numerous quarters for several decades now. [...]
Rivers went on to compile The History of Melanesian Society in two volumes (1914) which sought to explain cultural variation within the region in part as the result of successive waves of migration. He eventually aligned himself with Eliot-Smith and Perry whose revival of diffusionist world history featured Egypt as the source of a widely distributed cultural complex (an echo of the Lost Tribes of Israel discourse of the previous century). There is no doubt that Rivers and his colleagues generated some pretty wild stuff in reconstructing the history of human movement along lines unconsciously imitating the British imperialism of the day (“navigators in search of precious metals” and so on). And this provided a convenient target for the functionalist ethnographers.
Malinowski published his functionalist manifesto in a series of short pieces which came out between 1922 and 1926: the introduction to Argonauts, two papers in Nature and an encyclopaedia article. It boils down to this. Culture is something people everywhere generate as a vehicle through which they live their everyday lives. It has to work for them on a daily basis and that includes the requirement that the different parts add up to something reasonably coherent. It does not matter where the bits of culture come from; what matters is the integrity of the pattern expressed in everyday life, in the here and now. It is worth recalling that 1922 was the year when audiences everywhere queued up to watch Flaherty’s movie, Nanook of the North. After the slaughter of the trenches, confidence in western civilisation was shaken. The resilience of an Eskimo pitted against nature underscored the message that ways of life we may once have dismissed as primitive had their own legitimacy and might even be a source of inspiration for a West on its knees. [...]
It is paradoxical that British anthropologists often wrote of African peoples as if they lived in bounded, timeless units outside the currents of modern history, on metaphorical islands, as it were, to set against the real historical islands that Haddon and Rivers studied. For the ethnographers of the interwar period were also heavily engaged with the problem of social change (which they called “culture contact”). Without exception they were forced to come to grips with the concrete realities of their colonial field situation, even as they also constructed insular laboratories detached from the movement of 20th century society. It is notable that the principal source of their funding, by Rockefeller, went under the rubric of “Social change in Africa”. Even more than most, these ethnographers had to struggle with the contradictions of doing intellectual work in the modern world. It is convenient, but lazy to typify them as just one thing. They themselves recognised that they were trying to reconcile at least two things — hence the double descent mythology personified by Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.
If ideology is classically the attempt to derive life from ideas, the British school sought to derive ideas from life, devising a special style of writing in which concrete descriptions of live activities were used to support generalisations whose debt to western intellectual traditions was never made explicit. In the hands of Malinowski this could be a romantic literary exercise, linking individual actors and concrete events to a self-conscious narrative. Radcliffe-Brown’s influence was aimed at professional consolidation, the promulgation of a scientific ethos, objectifications of structure, abstract conceptualisation. The truth is that the functionalist ethnographers had to mediate between contrasting social situations — their own isolation as individual fieldworkers exposed to the lives of exotic peoples and their collective reproduction in an academic milieu as a caste of professional experts. They were pulled in two directions: towards joining the peoples of the world and back into the insularity of academic bureaucracy. [...]
Rivers between anthropology and psychology
William Rivers started out as a physiologist and had already established the first two experimental psychology laboratories in England before joining CAETS to which he contributed both studies of perception and the genealogical method. As a result of his neurological experiments with Head, he developed a two-stage model of nerve regeneration, the protopathic and the epicritic. He elaborated the sociological study of kinship and social structure. Took his ethnological enquiries in the direction of German historicism and beyond, into the wilder regions of global speculation. Became a psychoanalyst who applied Freud’s ideas critically. Served as an army psychiatrist in the war, finding in the treatment of shell-shock victims a new version of social psychology. He ended his life as a socialist politician and friend of progressive literary men. In the last few years before his death, 1917-1922, he appears to have had a personality transplant, the first stages of which are depicted by Pat Barker in Regeneration. Once a conservative member of the academic establishment, a recluse with a stammer, he became the very model of an outgoing public intellectual.
Now there is much more to this fascinating story than can be told here. But I wish only to point to the way Rivers approached the disciplines of psychology and anthropology (in which he included ethnology and sociology). His first preoccupation was to build up several academic specialisms of which he was a practitioner. Indeed he subscribed to the compartmentalisation of knowledge to the extent of serving as president of both the national bodies responsible for supervising professional practice in anthropology and psychology in Britain. He brought to these various enquiries a common methodological outlook which never sacrificed the active engagement of the investigating subject to an objectifying positivism which was taking root in the universities at the time. It is indisputable that he sought to separate the study of society from that of individuals, in much the same way that chemistry was hived off from physics. At this stage he seems to have made little of the fact that he combined these branches of study within himself.
Rivers’s war experiences changed all that. In the last five years of his life he produced some forty pieces of work, of varying quality and length, while maintaining a punishing regime of professional and public commitment. Inevitably he wrote these pieces off the top of his head, relying on whatever was stored in his memory from decades of specialist practice. In the process his method became more autobiographical and self-reflexive; the boundaries between disciplines became blurred in a synthesising drive to comprehend and influence individual experience of society.
In his posthumous book, Conflict and Dream (1923), Rivers recalls one of his own dreams whose preoccupation was with “Hidden Sources”. His initial explanation is that the dream referred to his frustration in not being able to reply to mistaken American critics of his kinship theories, because of overwork as an army psychiatrist. In a practical sense, but possibly more seriously, a conflict existed between psychology and ethnology. But, pushing the analysis further, Rivers concludes that the dream reveals the fundamental harmony between psychoanalysis and ethnology which are based on the same method, the excavation of hidden sources which help us to understand the complex history of both human personality and culture.
Armed with this integrated vision of self and society, Rivers came out of the war ready to change the world, not just to understand it.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

With the emergence of memes a new replicator enters the world, very different from genes. Memes or cultural ideas, symbols, and practices, are like genes in that they aim to get themselves replicated, however as unique replicators they do not act at the behest of genes. In other words, we now get what could be called a “conflict of the replicators”. Genes can struggle with memes. Memes can struggle with genes. Memes and genes can collaborate with one another. However, like all alliances, a collaboration of memes and genes is a temporary strategy to advance the replication of genes and the replication of the memes that can be dissolved when this relationship no longer advances one or the other. It is even feasible that memes, at some point, could dispense with genes altogether if they find new and more effective ways to replicate themselves, no longer requiring organic bodies like brains to be passed along. This, for example, is what is depicted in films like Terminator or The Matrix where the machines (and machines are memes) have been liberated from human bodies and strive to replicate themselves apart from humans. [...]
In this respect, we can think of memes as strategies for seducing brains. Some memes get themselves replicated by being useful for the organisms that host them. Others get themselves replicated by playing on the architecture of our brains in rhythmic and imagistic terms. Yet others get themselves replicated by playing on our worst characteristics such as envy, hatred, narcissism, and so on. [...]
Generally when we think of meaning we think of it as something that doesn’t have a geography or that isn’t located in time and space. No doubt this error emerges as a result of certain confusions surrounding the iterability of memes giving the illusion that memes aren’t localized in space and time. But insofar as memes must spread, insofar as they must be copied, memes have a geography or a geographical distribution which is, in principle, mappable. Indeed, this is part of what the ethnographer does implicitly when she does field work, investigating the unique practices, technologies, laws, morals, cosmologies, economies, etc., of a particular group of people.

No comments:

Post a Comment