I subscribe to an anthropology blog called Savage Minds - you can find it in my sidebar, I've been reading it for years, and I quite like some of their content some of the time. It's a group blog written mostly by professional anthropologists for professional anthropologists, even if they like to talk about having a public image and public impact. The two mainstays of Savage Minds, Alex Golub (aka 'Rex') and Kerim Friedman, both seem like smart guys and they've written some interesting things over the years, so I carry on reading the thing hoping to find the odd gem, and sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised.
I say that I'm surprised, in fact, because some of the posts consist of the navel-gazing and self-obsession typical of socio-cultural anthropologists in the twenty-first century. There are lots of posts about writing - not so much how to write clearly and concisely as how to express the deep inner feelings you have about your subject - and about the 'branding' of anthropology, which... Anyway, there's a lot of annoying shit in there. But that's true of anthropology as a whole, and I don't think that makes it worthless. It just makes it hard to love, which is different.
So this peculiar post by guest writer John Hartigan, ostensibly about domestication, wasn't entirely unexpected. I'm very interested in domestication, especially of plants. I have a passion for botany; I know plenty of Latin names and technical terms for plant parts, and my party trick is to talk about the origins of all the foods at the dining table and how they've ended up here and there (I suppose this is why I don't get invited to so many parties). I have a large A4 notebook full of notes on Indonesian plantlife and how humans use and manipulate them, including sketches of plants and notes on origins and ancestry. I fell for a woman because she had a copy of Botany for the Artist. (Well, not only that, but...)
I take it pretty seriously.
Domestication isn't a topic that needs drastic revision, frankly. There's already a massive literature on it - on what it means/meant to domesticate a plant/animal, on the difference between cultivation and domestication, on the sometimes-enormous changes in human relationships with the rest of the natural world represented by nascent domestication in the archaeological record, on which plants and animals were domesticated in which places and why, and so forth. It's a fundamental topic for archaeologists and other scientists of humans. I think it's something where we need a little nuance and not an overhaul, and there's plenty of fascinating nuance already.
Well, not everyone feels that way apparently. The gist of that Savage Minds post is: plants have strategies and participate actively as agents in their domestication instead of primarily being acted on by human beings. Go ahead and read it - that isn't my reductio ad absurdum, but rather the author's own view of things made explicit.
I'm not going to bother critiquing that notion here, because I've already done so in the comments over at Savage Minds and I'm not too interested in repeating myself. But it's a good example of the kind of prima facie absurdity that has become common currency in anthropology these days - something obviously wrong but picked up on because it's the latest thing.
The popularity of Bruno Latour and ideas similar to his has always mystified me, but I think the explanation ultimately rests on the mechanism found in the emperor's new clothes. No one wants to look stupid and lacking in insight even though their senses tell them there's nothing there.