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Fielding an Anti-Capitalist Anthropology Ted Baker

Abstract Donald Donham once suggested that more than any other academic discourse, anthropology has defined itself against capitalism. This paper represents an attempt to explain why anthropologists in particular have a tendency to define themselves against capitalism and where this spirit of anti-capitalism stems from. In order to do so I am going to try to weave together two concepts (culture shock and cultural critique) that have been generated through the conceptualization and practice of both fieldwork and the field.
PhD Candidate, Social Anthropology, York University, Toronto, ON

start this paper with a very basic question: what is the relationship between anthropology and anti-capitalism? Through an exploration of the anthropological notions of culture shock and cultural critique I finish with an equally basic answer: while the relationship is not always explicit, the critical component of the anthropological project (widely conceived) suggests that anthropology is, if not implicitly, then at least potentially, anti-capitalist. But first I would like to begin with a story. During my time as a teaching assistant at York University, I had the opportunity of leading tutorials for an anthropology course that was essentially (among other things) a critique of global capitalism and the problems it generates for the worlds peoples. Throughout the course, students were repeatedly exposed to heartbreaking and maddening processes engendered by the global search for profit. One day we dealt with famine and endemic hunger as an example of the more offensive consequences of the global capitalist economy. The main case study examined Sudan during the famine of the mid-1980s and included a screening of the film The Politics of Food. Not only did this Canadian documentary do a great job connecting the dots between colonialism, capitalism and the emaciated bodies that repeatedly filled the frame, but it also provided a visual experience that had an immediate, almost visceral impact upon those watching it. Once the film was finished, I was responsible for trying to encourage discussion around this subject. This seemed daunting, given the emotional atmosphere, so I began by asking people how the film made them feel. The predictable feelings of sadness, confusion and anger were expressed, but one of the most concerning admissions that began to emerge was one of helplessness. As the conversation drifted towards our relationship and responsibility to the continuing existence of endemic hunger around the world, expressions of resignation and powerlessness emerged: Yes, this is horrible, but what can we do? After talking out the roots of the famine and drawing the links between advanced capitalism, cash cropping for external markets, land displacement, poverty, and hunger in Sudan, the conversation turned to solutions. However, after poking and prodding them to think outside the box about solutions, nobody suggested that we get rid of capitalism as a way to solve the problem.

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Keywords Anthropology, culture shock, cultural critique, anti-capitalism

Playing the Field Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 For me this illustrates wonderfully the scope and depth of the problem we face. The fact that students are expressing feelings of insignificance and powerlessness when faced with the overwhelming conflict and injustice that is the reality for the global majority is concerning. But even more worrisome is that the possibility of rejecting and replacing the source of these horrors (putting profit before people) isnt even raised, let alone debated. As Henry Giroux points out (paraphrasing Jameson), it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. (2007:25). Perhaps some students thought of suggesting that we abandon capitalism but didnt do so for fear of being ridiculed or singled out as a radical or dreamer, but I have a feeling that for most, capitalism seems to be the end of history, the logical and rational progression of human society to its endpoint where all other alternatives appear to be either nave and idealistic (and thus doomed) or quaint and traditional (and thus doomed). In his turn-of-the-century book History, Power, Ideology: Central Issues in Marxism and Anthropology, Donald Donham observes that [m]ore perhaps than any other academic discourse, anthropology has defined itself against capitalism. (Donham 1999:14). While his book was an exploration of the relationship between Marxism and anthropology, I would like to attempt an explanation of why anthropologists in particular have generally defined themselves against capitalism and where this spirit of anti-capitalism stems from. In order to do so I am going to try to bring together two concepts that have been generated through the conceptualization and practice of both fieldwork and the field. The first of these concepts is the notion of culture shock, of which I will explore both the mainstream and the more reflexive and critical understandings. The second concept is that of cultural critique, a notion that has been around since the 1920s, with the historical particularism of the Boasians, and was codified in the 1980s with the publication of Marcus and Fischers Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986). Culture Shock Most descriptions of the phenomenon of culture shock tend to treat it as an illness or discomfort that accompanies immersion within a foreign culture. This mainstream understanding, representing a medicalization of a cultural process, can be dated to the 1960s, when Kalervo Oberg described it as a consequence of the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse (Oberg 1960:177). Rachel Irwin, who noted that the concept of culture shock is largely neglected within anthropology, describes it as a situation where the security resulting from ones taken-for-grantedness disappears and one feels ill at ease.... Culture shock is about being out of place in a certain place and time (Irwin 2007). However, as Peter Metcalf points out, this mainstream understanding of culture shock hides its more reflexive angle: As originally used by anthropologists, it described the disorientation that often overtakes a fieldworker when returning home from a prolonged period of immersion in another culture. All kinds of things that had once been totally familiar suddenly seem odd, as if one were seeing them for the first time. Consequently, everything becomes questionable: why have I always done this or assumed that? (2005:3). Furthermore, this questioning attitude is for Metcalf perhaps the most basic feature of anthropology (2005:3). As Marko ivkovi points out, anthropologists, for better or worse, have become defamiliarizers and demystifiers. They delight in showing how what is taken for granted and assumed to be natural is actually constructed and arbitrary (2000:61). As someone who has passed through numerous anthropology classes (as student, teaching assistant, or teacher), I can attest to the fact that this is one of the main themes drummed into the heads of students: anthropology is just as much about questioning our own cherished cultural assumptions as it is about exploring other cultures. Cultural Critique The questioning attitude that Metcalf highlights as possibly the most basic feature of 11 | Ted Baker

Playing the Field Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 anthropology is essentially a reference to the notion of cultural critique. So, in the terms of this paper, the phenomenon of culture shock (the version that is reflexive) can lead to cultural critique. In fact, some more traditional anthropologists have argued that only via the radical disjunction of culture-shock is it at all possible to gain perspective either on oneself or on others.... Only the shock of the strangethe arrival of an anthropologist in an exotic communitybreaks the quality of routine and automatism, both for the anthropologist and the locals, and makes what is normal unfamiliar (Rapport and Overing 2000:23). In other words, the practice of anthropology can lead to a rupture in cultural assumptions. Briefly, I would like to take issue with this traditional assertion that extended contact within an exotic locale is required to induce cultural critique. Every year I have at least a couple students complain that they can no longer look at the world the way they used to. I can also remember long ago joking that I could no longer turn off the anthropologist inside. Everything had become the field. Birthdays, parties, convocations and trips to the coffee shop were now unofficial excursions in amateur fieldwork. I was seeing the world from a new perspective (one that begins with the very simple yet very powerful observation that our own culture is but one among many). In other words, I dont think the shock of the strange requires an extended stay in the Trobriand Islands. Simply knowing that others think and do things that are radically different from our own ways of thinking and doing is enough to ignite the fire of cultural critique. While direct and prolonged experience within that which Kirsten Hastrup calls the contact zone, where cultural difference collides, is most certainly a better guarantee for sparking a reflexive gaze on ones own culture, I dont think its exclusively so. Arguing this is the only way speaks more to the attempt to privilege and prioritize fieldwork abroad over fieldwork at home. 12 | Ted Baker Marcus and Fischer begin their book Anthropology as Cultural Critique with the observation that 20th century social and cultural anthropology has promised its still largely Western readership enlightenment on two fronts. The first has been the salvaging of distinct cultural forms of life from a process of apparent global Westernization while the second promise (less attended to than the first) has been to serve as a form of cultural critique for ourselves. (1986:1). Through this process of portraying other cultures to reflect upon our own, anthropology disrupts common sense and makes us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions (Marcus and Fischer 1986:1). They locate the origins of cultural critique in the nineteenth century, when it emerged from the writings of theorists and philosophers who were reacting to the impact industrial capitalism was having upon European societies. These writers, such as Marx, Freud, Weber and Nietzsche, to name a few, have inspired a continuous, if diverse, tradition of self-conscious criticism of the quality of life and thought in capitalist economies and mass liberal societies up to the present (Marcus and Fischer 1986:113). While the colonial and ethnocentric roots of anthropology have shaped and continue to shape the discipline, it would seem that anthropology is also part of a long tradition of cultural criticism. More importantly, this tradition is one originally rooted in a critique of industrial capitalism. Some even argue that cultural critique is ubiquitous in the practice of anthropology. For example, Lassiter argues that although cultural critique is not always an explicit purpose of each ethnography, as it was in Meads Coming of Age in Samoa, it remains at least implicit in the writing of each (Lassiter 2006:93). If, as Lassiter argues, cultural critique is implicit within the practice of anthropology, then what kind of culture is being critiqued? While one response could be Euro-American or Western civilization, in terms of this paper (as mentioned above) the most obvious answer, given the roots of this critique, is the culture of capitalism. If much of what we perceive to be natural and given is tied directly to the imperatives of the market and the needs and logic of capital, then a posing of these institutions and social relations as historical and particular, as culturally constructed, is almost by definition

Playing the Field Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 anti-capitalist in nature. In other words, given that the doing of anthropology can lead practitioners, theorists, and students towards a cultural critique of their own society, and given that the society anthropologists are operating within can be conceived as a culture of capitalism, we can argue that the doing of anthropology can lead to an anti-capitalist perspective. However, this raises even more questions. If the practice of anthropology is almost inherently anti-capitalist, or at least has a tendency to go in that direction, then why has it not become explicitly so? If, as Donham points out at the beginning of this paper, anthropology, more than any of the other academic disciplines, has defined itself against capitalism, then why are there so few anthropologists explicitly pushing for radical change against and beyond capitalism? One answer can be found in Samuel Collins criticism of the notion of cultural critique. While the critical function of anthropology as a way to question our own basic assumptions about reality and the ways that we relate to each other seems to be a noble goal, what is the purpose of this questioning? In other words, cultural critique toward what end? Having disrupted the common-sense assumptions of progress, the future, power and individualism, do you then forge a better society? A more tolerant one? (Collins 2008:114-115). Once we have recognized our own cherished institutions as historically and culturally constructed, once we have blown open taken-for-granted notions of progress and modernity and shown them to be Western constructions without any basis in universality or teleological progression, what do we do? Conclusion When anthropology is put into practice by anyone fully attentive to not only local fields of power relations but also global ones, it is hard to avoid drifting towards a position against capitalism. The discipline has traditionally operated on the margins of the global economy where the worst excesses of the system take their toll. Through ethnographic explorations of marginalized populations in, for example, 1980s Sudan, it is hard not to be pushed towards an anti-capitalist stance. How is it that a country capable of feeding itself is exporting the very food that could solve its problems of famine and endemic hunger? Why are markets and profits being put before human dignity and justice? Returning to the story at the beginning of this paper regarding the frustrations and helplessness of students when faced with the daily horrors of chronic malnourishment and starvation in Sudan, we can find a lesson in Collins criticism of cultural critique as not going far enough. Perhaps if anthropology developed a more explicit anti-capitalism we might be able to better respond to the helplessness that students feel when encountering the injustice and exploitation that the culture of capitalism produces. Yes, the requirements and consequences of the global economy are repulsive, and yes, they are cultural constructions that, since they have been made by human hands can also be unmade by human hands, but where does this lead us? Cultural critique for what ends? If Ive learned anything in the past decade of post-secondary education, it is that we need to be constantly asking ourselves very basic questions in order to remain grounded and engaged. What is anthropology? What is the context within which anthropology is conceived and executed? What does it mean to conceptualize and practice anthropology within a culture of capitalism? Perhaps most importantly, why are we doing this? What is the purpose of anthropology? Is it simply to better understand the world around us and the people we share it with, or is it more? Marx, in his Theses on Feuerbach, famously stated that until now philosophers have only interpreted the world, while the point is really to change it. What if anthropologists took this challenge seriously, creating an anthropology whose driving force was not just analysis and understanding, but also radical change? Could this even be achieved within a university environment increasingly operating according to the dictates and logics of the market? And what would this mean for how we conceptualize fieldwork and the field?

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Playing the Field Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009
Dilemmas on the Edge of Chaos. In Fieldwork Dilemmas: Anthropologists in Postsocialist Societies, edited by Hermine G. De Soto and Nora Dudwick. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. References Collins, Samuel Gerald 2008 All Tomorrows Cultures: Anthropological Engagements with the Future. New York: Berghahn Books. Donham, Donald L. 1999 History, Power, Ideology: Central Issues in Marxism and Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press. Giroux, Henry A. 2007 Utopian Thinking in Dangerous Times: Critical Pedagogy and the Project of Educated Hope in Mark Cot, Richard J.F. Day, and Greig de Peuter (eds.) Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Irwin, Rachel 2007 Culture Shock: Negotiating Feelings in the Field. Anthropology Matters Journal 9(1). Lassiter, Luke E. 2002 Invitation to Anthropology. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. Marcus, George E. and Michael M.J. Fischer. 1986 Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Metcalf, Peter 2005 Anthropology: The Basics. London; New York: Routledge. Oberg, Kalervo 1960 Culture Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments. Practical Anthropology 7:177-182. Rapport, Nigel and Joanna Overing 2000 Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts. London; New York: Routledge. ivkovi, Marko 2000 Telling Stories of Serbia: Native and Other

Ted Baker is a Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology at York University in Toronto, Ontario. He is currently juggling the responsibilities of being a parent, writing a dissertation, and teaching. He is also involved with a grassroots network doing solidarity work with the Six Nations of the Grand River.

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