Anthropology and the Savage Slot
“Anthropology and the Savage Slot” by Michel-Rolph Trouillot brilliantly frames the emergence of academic anthropology within a wider field of inquiry spurred during the rise of Western ideas. The essay originally appeared in the 1991 volume Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present. Trouillot revised and rewrote the essay as the first chapter of Global Transformations (2003:7-28). Some professors use this article as an Introduction to Anthropology or as a supplement to describe What is Anthropology? For an October 2017 update on graduate-level teaching, see the guest post on Teaching Trouillot by Elizabeth Ferry.
Islamic Empire & the Reconquista
For me one of the most important points of “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” is to recapture the historical events that preceded the formation of anthropology as an academic discipline. One of the crucial processes is to understand how Europe came to see itself as Christian and as “the West”:
From the point of view of contemporaries, the most important event of the year 1492 was not Columbus’s landing in the Antilles, but the conquest of the Muslim kingdom of Granada and its incorporation into Castile. . . . To put it simply, as Christendom became Europe, Europe itself became Christian. It is no accident that the fall of Muslim Granada was immediately followed by the expulsion of the Jews from the now Christian territory. It is no accident either that the very same individual who signed the public order against the Jews also signed Ferdinand and Isabella’s secret instructions to Columbus. (Trouillot:20)
The establishment of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires (roughly from 1500-1800) sets up a template of conquest and colonialism which long preceded any anthropologists. When Trouillot discusses “Anthropology and the Savage Slot,” the 1400-1600 Renaissance period is crucial. The key point here is that anthropology “inherited a field of significance that preceded its formalization” (Trouillot 2003:9). The “Savage Slot” was not created by anthropology. Rather, the “savage or the primitive was the alter ego the West constructed for itself” (Trouillot 2003:18). Moreover, the Savage was always a “Janus-faced projection,” linked with ideas of order and utopia.
Versions of the Savage Slot
There are several different versions of the Savage Slot that appear in intellectual and popular culture. Often these versions are mirror images, so that they are easily interchangeable. One version is that people outside the West share a common human nature. In this formation, they were like us, We improved, and they could become us (Trouillot 2003:21). As Trouillot indicates, these views of possible common human improvement tended to align with ideas that “history was going somewhere” (2003:12-13), or that we were all on the same human trajectory.
A second version of the Savage Slot instead emphasizes intractable difference: They are not like us, and we can’t make them like us. This second version of the Savage Slot sometimes follows in the wake of an optimistic colonial enterprise that seems to go wrong. (For more on the history of these ideas, see Anthropology and Human Nature.)
The third version of the Savage Slot is the idea of “The Noble Savage” (Trouillot 2003:14). This is an idea that anthropologists are often accused of espousing, but the idea long precedes anthropology.
Where does anthropology come in?
Trouillot is making the case that as anthropology emerges as a formal academic discipline, it is stepping into a much longer history and discursive field. Anthropology would become concerned with defining and delivering the spectacle of the Other (Trouillot 2003:19). Anthropology would also seek to separate several genres which had before been interchangeable: utopian accounts, ethnographies, and travel writings (2003:17-18). Anthropology became a “curiosity turned profession” (2003:18).
As Trouillot puts it, “the rest of the story [of how anthropology was established] is well known, perhaps too well known” (2003:18). Anthropology became the social science version of: What about everyone else outside of the West (Trouillot 2003:19)? As anthropology emerged, two prevalent explanations were environmental determinism and racial determinism. That these explanations could arise were in part because after hundreds of years of colonialism, “the Savage became absence and negation” (Trouillot 2003:22). Nevertheless, arguments about “the Savage” were always still caught up in arguments for or against utopia and for or against certain forms of political order (Trouillot 2003:22)
What about American (U.S.) Anthropology?
In US anthropology, “Indians (especially ‘good’ Indians) became the preserve of anthropologists” (Trouillot 2003:18). But it is important to keep in mind that “what happens within the slot is neither doomed nor inconsequential” (Trouillot 2003:23). This is where people like Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict introduce the anthropological concept of culture to wider audiences.
Interestingly, the purpose of Boasian anthropology was not so much to document cultural tradition but to call tradition into question. In the 1938 “An Anthropologist’s Credo” (in The Nation) Boas wrote of the “shackles of tradition”: “In fact, my whole outlook upon social life is determined by the question: how can we recognize the shackles that tradition has laid upon us? For when we recognize them, we are also able to break them.” Which is certainly a curious statement since most people believe they come to Cultural Anthropology to study culture and traditions!
Anthropology becomes uniquely critical, both of the academy & self-critique
In the 1990s, “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” was Trouillot writing in the midst of what seemed a devastating self-critique (Trouillot 2003:24). In retrospect, it’s interesting that Trouillot anticipated the selfie, or “the anthropological selfie”:
It’s pouring rain out there, and the mosquitoes are starting to bite. In desperation, the baffled anthropologist burns his notes to create a moment of light, moves his face against the flame, closes his eyes and, hands grasping the camera, takes a picture of himself. (Trouillot 2003:24)
Trouillot urges us to turn to history and outward. Instead of turning toward inward representations, anthropologists should “address the thematic field (and thus the larger world)” (2003:28). Trouillot very explicitly stated that for anthropology “the direction of the discipline now depends upon an explicit attack on [the Savage] slot itself and the symbolic order upon which it is premised” (2003:23). However, it is important to note that Trouillot was not talking about attacking savage slots (or other slots) within anthropology. He was asking anthropologists to make a concerted effort to address the world outside of anthropology.
How did that work out?
It is perhaps safe to say that since 2000, the Savage Slot has staged its biggest comeback ever in the wider world. Most of the comeback has been in bad-evil-savage form (especially seen in the premises of the “War on Terror”). Around 2012, the idea that only the state could curtail savage violence became dominant. Sometimes the renderings have returned in good-noble-savage form (perhaps most notably in some strains of environmentalism).
In the US political scene of 2018, we can see various Savage Slots playing out in the debates about immigration. On the one hand, Trump and the emboldened white nationalists double down on the idea of “illegals” ridden with murderous crime. On the other, DACA recipients become “dreamers” who hold the future of all that is noble and good. Meanwhile, although anthropologists have a statement on immigration and amazing research on immigration, anthropology’s influence has been (at best) muted. Jason De León wrote the amazing Land of Open Graves–which is a wonderful dismantling of “Savage Slot” stereotypes regarding border migrants–but there is little evidence that anthropology is affecting perceptions or policy. Michel-Rolph Trouillot was a brilliant Haitian anthropologist, but perceptions of Haiti are drowned out by belligerent denigration.
Since 2000, the notion that “history is going somewhere” has in some senses increased. Coca-Cola and iPhones are everywhere. But for many populations, the notion of progress has decreased: “Maybe world history was going nowhere” (Trouillot 2003:13). Many populations now inhabit what seem to be the ruins of capitalism.
Meanwhile, anthropologists insist that Cultural Anthropology is the Most Important Class that Any Undergraduate Will Take. And some anthropologists ask Would Margaret Mead tweet? But it does not seem that there has been a systematic effort to confront the Savage Slot and its symbolic system outside of anthropology. Will there be?
To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2016. “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: Inherited Field of Significance.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/cultural-anthropology-2016/anthropology-and-the-savage-slot/. Posted 31 August 2016. Revised 14 February 2018.
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The notes above and initial Disqus comments below are from the Hartwick College course in Cultural Anthropology 2016. We read “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” together with Anthropology: Asking Questions About Humanity by Welsch & Vivanco.