Monday, 13 April 2015

Spooky Nonsense on Domestication

    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.

A few of my quick sketches and a snippet of my first attempt writing the Jawi script with a calligraphic pen (a not entirely terrible attempt, but not gorgeous, either). The tree in the middle is a young Metroxylon sagu, the sago palm, and the grub above it is a red palm weevil larva. In sago economies, red palm weevils are used to convert the sago starch into palatable, nutty-tasting protein, paralleled in sugar palm economies (as in Roti, Sawu, etc), where pigs transform palm sugar into meat. All very interesting stuff. The background is a tais, a woman's tube skirt from West Timor.
    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.

8 comments:

  1. I'm glad you decided to write about this topic. The blogger also claims that there is something called "nonhuman culture." This is an oxymoron made possible by very dubious tricks. He excludes symbolic reference and language from the definition of culture while conflating culture with its means of transmission, social learning. He then states that other organisms have culture.

    I learned to ignore Latour's fans. They seldom make sense. Nor do they ever run provocative seminars. Sadly, most of anthropology is widely viewed as "Social Cultural," and far too many of these anthropologists espouse something they call post-Modernism. They are just occupying posts and funds that should go towards individuals who could actually teach students about humanity and its place in this world. Yet, instead we get reading lists with Latour and Derrida.

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    1. I wouldn't want to generalise the thing to all 'post-Modernism'. I'm quite sure they don't call it that these days, but it's certainly hard to take a lot of stuff in anthropology seriously. I've always approached things from the perspective of science/analytic philosophy, and not from a continental/literature/humanistic/postmodern one, so I have a hard time finding so-called 'theorists' in anthropology who write things I can read without retching. There's a strange lack of emphasis on critical thinking that I find hard to comprehend.

      I've done my best to cobble together a reasonable way of looking at people and society without really involving anthropology 'theorists', and I think that's the best way. John Searle has written some interesting books on how human societies work, and while I think parts of them are flat wrong, they're a good start - much better than Latour et al. There's a surprising analytic/game theory/etc literature on these things. I really like a book by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, Rational Ritual, which is the application of some game theoretical ideas to ritual and social action, and there are plenty of others.

      There's good stuff out there. It's just a shame anthropologists ignore it all.

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  2. If Hartigan had re-cast all that bollocks in terms of (selfish) genes, it would have made a little bit of (second-hand) sense.

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    1. I don't think anything could have improved it. Once you start down that road, it's hard to find a way back.

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  3. Do you think as a practical matter that anything can be done to encourage certain segments of humanities and (nominally) social science academia to re-engage with empirically substantiated approaches to the study of the human past? It seems like a shame not only that resources are wasted on silliness like Continental verbiage, but that they're diverted from things like documenting endangered languages or excavating archaeological sites threatened by present-day conflicts, as well as denying interested undergraduates the opportunity to engage seriously with the human sciences.

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    1. Yeah, my thoughts exactly. This stuff is a real waste, taking time, energy, talent, and money away from things that would be interesting, inspiring, and important. You see debates about the future of anthropology all the time, lots of stuff about the branding of the discipline, increasing impact, etc - and then the anthropologists go ahead and endorse this kind of thing. Utterly bizarre.

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  4. This sort of thing really trivialises the reputation of the human sciences in the public mind and to people in other disciplines. I'm really struck when talking to friends in, say, the physical sciences or mathematics, that, whilst they often have plenty of intellectual curiosity about the human past, they have nothing but contempt for the branches of the academy that study it, and this is the sort of thing that lends justification to that attitude.

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    1. I don't think scientists' contempt for anthropology could possibly match Hartigan et als' contempt for the sciences they bastardise. At least physicists aren't trying to subsume anthropology wholly under physics (and anyway, if they did, at least they'd have a point...).

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