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‘Anthropology is a white colonialist project’ can’t be the end of the conversation

Ghassan Hage argues that those engaging in anthropological studies need to go further than dismissing parts of the discipline

Throwing absolutist abuse at anthropology as a form of white colonial knowledge has often been a good shortcut for people who don’t have the time, or for those who are too lazy to read texts. Of course it’s so much more sophisticated and radical to have a good ‘critical soundbite’ than say ‘I haven’t read any of this’, but when people you expect more from do this, it’s disappointing and frustrating, to say the least.

A few days ago, the well-known American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote a  ‘rant’ on the Facebook page of Hau, a journal of ethnographic theory. Shalins lamented the fact that there is a whole list of classic anthropological texts and themes that anthropologists are no longer teaching (the usual primitivist stuff).

Some commentators called him straight out ‘racist’. There were accusations of ‘white privilege’ and ‘ ethnocentrism’. Sahlins was portrayed as being an ‘appropriator’ of ‘non-white culture’, as if he was an incarnation of Donald Trump or something. There were those who even suggested that it is white privilege that gives him the right to rant on Hau’s pages. Seriously…
This is my response to the critics of Sahlins. I initially wrote it as an instinctive response on the page of a friend. But it’s actually something I’ve always wanted to tell my students.
1. Do I have an anthropological illusio?
“Illusio”, as some of you may know, is the French anthropologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu‘s term for those life pursuits that we come to believe are worthwhile, those pursuits we think are worth investing ourselves in (illusio here is etymologically linked to ‘lusiones’ which has to do with gambling and the belief that an investment will yield something). Those are the pursuits that make us believe that our life is worth living (illusio is also etymologically linked to ‘illusion’, the illusion that life has some kind of purpose to it). So here is the question potential anthropologists need to ask themselves: do I have an anthropological illusio?
2. Anthropology is critical and reflexive
There has always been room for a critique of the white-colonialism-anthropological knowledge nexus in anthropology. Indeed, this critique has a long history. But we have also learnt in the late twentieth century that there are critiques that are paralysing and critiques that are enabling. This is where the anthropological illusio matters: if you share the illusio, if you believe that anthropology is worthwhile, you would want an enabling, not a stifling kind of critique.
3. Anthropological knowledge is not the same as the cultures we study
Anthropologists are custodians of the history of the largely white anthropological knowledge of non-white cultural tradition. But anthropological knowledge of non-white cultural traditions is not ‘non-white cultural traditions’. Let us not conflate the two.
4. The work of disentangling white knowledge from the anthropological/universal is worthwhile
The history of anthropological knowledge is the history of white colonial knowledge of non-white cultures. It is white knowledge (infused with colonial desire) but it is also a particular kind of disciplinary knowledge (infused with the desire to experience, labour on, and develop knowledge of modes of being other than our own). These are two dimensions of the same knowledge. They are interconnected and entangled but they are not the same.  To have an anthropological illusio is to be able to look at this knowledge and not see only white knowledge. It is also to believe that the labour of disentangling the white from the anthropological/universal is worthwhile. The art of producing a decolonial anthropology is the art of engaging in ethnography while also labouring on this dis-entanglement. If you give up on the traditional corpus of knowledge as white, colonial, male, etc… and don’t think this labour of disentanglement to be worthwhile, then you don’t think that anthropology is ‘worth the candle’.
5. There is a difference between respect and agreeing with someone
Like every tribe, we have our elders. Like every tribe, we respect our elders. Like every tribe we will have people who are unable to recognise the difference between respect and ‘agreeing with’, and we will also have people who don’t know how to critique while maintaining respect. But if you look at and listen to Marshall Sahlins being given a space to rant in an anthropological journal and only see white privilege or male privilege (both of which are true), without also recognising him as an elder, then you clearly don’t share the anthropological illusio and have no desire to be part of the anthropological tribe. That’s ‘fair enough mate’, as we say here in Oz, there’s plenty of other tribes to belong to in these re-tribalising times, but that’s how it is. Kati ena.
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Ghassan Hage is Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at The University of Melbourne. His books include:White Nations: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society; Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society; and Is racism an environmental threat? He tweets at @anthroprofhage
Featured image Flickr: dilettantiquity

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