Anthropology & Moral Optimism

Anthropology and Moral Optimism

Click for PowerPoint Anthropology and Moral Optimism.

This is a complementary presentation to What is Anthropology? This presentation focuses on the purpose of anthropology, primarily based on material from Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto. It can be adapted to a variety of anthropology courses and presentations, especially near the end of a four fields introduction to anthropology.

This presentation uses examples from the 10th edition of the four field Applying Anthropology: An Introductory Reader. This presentation serves as a review and summary of the material, putting the issues into a larger context. The presentation can be easily modified to accommodate other articles. (Please see also the review of Applying Anthropology, 10th edition.)

The presentation is inspired by Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, borrowing the wording and format. Sadly this brilliant anthropologist passed away in July 2012–see In Memoriam, Michel-Rolph Trouillot. This presentation is a tribute to some of the last published lines Trouillot wrote about anthropology and our world.

The presentation begins with a slide on optimism and pessimism. This information used to be at the Wikipedia entry on optimism but has since been edited and removed. This blog entry titled Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will preserves the previous Wikipedia entry. Apparently Gramsci was quoting Romain Rolland, but still–Gramsci was sitting in an Italian jail cell and managed to have “optimism of the will,” so I give him credit for it.

The next slide elaborates with a quote on hope from Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. This quote expresses a similar sentiment, in the face of the forest destruction she documents in Indonesia:

Hope is most important when things are going badly in the world; in the face of almost certain destruction, hope is a Gramscian optimism of the will. Such “unrealistic” hope begins in considering the possibility that tiny cracks might yet break open the dam. (Tsing, 2005:267; using Tsing also goes well with the last chapter of Lavenda and Schultz’s 2nd edition or 3rd edition of Anthropology: What Does it Mean to be Human? Lavenda and Schultz are one of the only anthropology textbooks to use Tsing!)

Then comes the list of articles from each of the four fields, followed by the idea that anthropology is not just about documenting arcane if interesting facts, not a retreat or refuge from the messy world, but is a counter-punctual dialogue with Western power:

The more anthropology solidified as a degree-granting discipline, the more the mechanics of insitutionalization made anthropologists act as if their primary interlocutor was not the West and as if the primary goal of the discipline was not a counter-punctual argument–even if inherently diverse and always renewed, enriched, and recapped–to some primary Western narrative. We need to return as confidently as Boas had wished–too late–to the identification of these primary interlocutors without whom the detour into the Savage slot remains a self-congratulatory exercise. (Trouillot 2003:136-137)

After that I put up a lot of slides explicitly re-capping Trouillot’s 1-2-3 scheme in Global Transformations (2003:134). Trouillot says that “with slight changes and the necessary dose of humor, we can reproduce the scheme ad infinitum in North Atlantic discourses about non-Western peoples inside and outside of anthropology” (2003:134). So be sure to have humor with the ad infinitum reproduction here!

There is some risk in using this classic 1-2-3 scheme, which Trouillot dates to the Las Casas v. Sepulveda debate, for in the third proposition “the Savage is neither an active participant nor deciding subject, since he has fulfilled his role as evidence and has no further epistemological or decisional relevance” (2003:134). Trouillot will at other points emphasize the need to make the native a full interlocutor (2003:136), but here he wants to seize this formula and make it explicit, as that can make room for further intervention:

Anthropology should abandon the fiction that it is not primarily a discourse to the West, for the West, and ultimately, about the West as a project. On the contrary we should follow the steps of Las Casas in addressing the Sepulvedas of our times directly, in identifying clearly the ultimate listeners. . . .

The better we identify such interlocutors–inside and outside of anthropology, and indeed outside of academe, from rational choice theorists, historians, and cultural critics to World Bank officials and well-intentioned NGOs–the more chance there is for savages to jump into the discussion, establish themselves as interlocutors, and further challenge the slot by directly claiming their own specificity. The identification of the interlocutors and their premises facilitates the identification of the stakes. . . . Institutionalized anthropology has tended to choose comfort over risk, masking the relevance of its debates and positions and avoiding a public role. (2003:136-137)

I then reproduce–in PowerPoint bullets–Trouillot’s final paragraph from Global Transformations. I sometimes print this out, with other slides, so the presentation is not too text-heavy. At the point about naïve liberalism I pause for a musical interlude. I used to play John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but then began showing “The Anthropology Song: A Little Bit Anthropologist.” This may be unfair: I love both these songs, but there is a certain stylistic naïveté to their musical genres. The advantage to using “The Anthropology Song” is that if the presentation falls flat, at least the song can stick.

At the end of the day, in this age where futures are murky and utopias mere reminders of a lost innocence, we need to fall back on the moral optimism that has been anthropology’s greatest–yet underscored–appeal. But we need to separate that optimism from the naïveté that has been liberalism’s most convenient shield. We need to assume it as a choice–whether we call it moral, philosophical, or aesthetic in the best sense. We need to hang on to it not because we are historically, socially, or politically naïve–indeed, as social scientists we cannot afford such naïveté–but because this is the side of humanity that we choose to prefer, and because this choice is what moved us to anthropology in the first place. We need to assume this optimism because the alternatives are lousy, and because anthropology as a discipline is the best venue through which the West can show an undying faith in the richness and variability of humankind. (Trouillot, 2003:139)

Since 2012, I’ve found myself drawn to closing the course with a quote from Johannes Fabian’s Anthropology with an Attitude:

Anthropology emerged, less as a science of human nature than as the study of the damage done by one part of mankind to another (and thereby to all of humanity). If that has indeed been our raison d’être during the last century or two, we are not likely to lose it in the next millennium. (Fabian 2001:204)

Perhaps not exactly the same sentiment as Trouillot, but in a different way encapsulates a significant lesson, a reason to continue believing in anthropology and moral optimism.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Anthropology and Moral Optimism.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 30 October 2011. Revised 21 September 2017.

Please consider contributing to Living Anthropologically. Contributions fund ads to bring anthropology to public debates. Not tax-deductible. For more information, see Support Living Anthropologically.

For updates, please subscribe to Living Anthropologically. Living Anthropologically is also on Facebook & Twitter.

  • dr robert cooper

    The world perhaps needs young ladies with guitars who still believe Margaret Mead was not a charlatan. But need them or not, they are there, they exist, and that means they are anthropology. Anthropology the new God. It does and must include everything, including the anthropologist — just as a photograph includes the photographer. But…personally…in the promotion of this new ‘religion’ I would stick with John Lennon and accompany it with film of the end of John Lennon. It took one gunshot, we are told, to start a world war, it took one gunshot to end John Lennon. But we can still imagine.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Thank you for the comment. If at times cryptic, I believe I agree John Lennon’s song has greater durability. However, to save it from the schlocky uses it is put to now would require a history lesson in the middle of the presentation. I am here trying to reference a naive idealism which we cannot afford, but a “moral optimism” that we do need.

      Thanks again for stopping by,

  • Anthropology should abandon the fiction that it is not primarily a
    discourse to the West, for the West, and ultimately, about the West as a

    Interesting quote from Trouillot. As someone whose primary interest in anthropology stems from wanting to know more about my own indigenous community, I am both constantly frustrated by not being able to understand what constitutes interestingness to mainstream anthropology and anthropologists, and also in agreement with Alfonso Ortiz’s quote below (pulled from his obituary by Peter Whiteley in the June 1999 American Anthropologist).

    I decided to go into anthropology because here was a field in which I could read about Indians all the time and teach, and further Indian opportunity, especially in education… Nor had any other currently fashionable field of endeavor yet proven to Indian concerns and aspirations.

    • Hi Matthew, thanks, two really great quotes there. I do think about that Trouillot quote quite a bit, and of course in relationship to Trouillot’s life and political activities, as a Haitian, a historian of Haiti, but then as an academic anthropologist. Much to ponder.

      • The quote from Trouillot made me think of anthropology as a discourse in relation to anthropology as a project. I kind of wonder if anthropology is anymore of a project than U.S. foreign policy is. U.S. foreign policy isn’t really constant beyond four to eight year increments, and even then it is highly dependent on the election cycle and perceived crisis of the moment. By the same token, the career trajectories of anthropologists so often seem to decouple from any long term research project they envisioned while doing dissertation research.

        I understand the desire to for domesticity and all, but I know from growing up in a community where anthropologists have come and gone that this can end up leaving a bad taste in the mouths of the residents of a researcher’s field site. People think the visitor is building a relationship to last, and then they at best float in and out of their lives…

        • Discuss White Privilege

          I don’t agree with the assertion that US foreign policy is not constant past the four to eight-year increments dictated by an individual presidential reign. US foreign policy is always a Whitesupremacist project, this remains constant. And this constant is relevant to Trouillot’s comment on anthropology as a discourse and project of and for the West.

          I wrote this comment while taking a break from watching the UK version of Being Human, which has served as a backdrop for contemplating the extent to which the ‘white public space’ of (US) anthropology is truly committed to seeing all Homo sapiens sapiens as fully and equally human–a proposition on which anthropological moral optimism seems to be founded, that such a belief be fundamental to anthropological moral optimism. But what happens when this taken-for-granted is not in fac the sensory and sentimental fundament for many ‘Western’ anthropologists? In reality, though many would protest to the contrary, many a ‘Western’ anthropologist has an easier time seeing the wolf, vampire, and ghost

          • Discuss White Privilege

            … of Being Human as more fully human than many a dark-skinned non-White person. Especially given constructions of dark-skinned Black people/Africans as not fully human, as more ape-like.

            So much of the anthropological project in the US is about ignoring this dehumanization and the daily practices of White supremacy which make it possible. How many White anthropologists are truly sensitized to the daily realities of racism that non-Whites in general, and US Bk people in particular deal with? All the daily forms of implicit bias and discrimination?

            Look at all the post-AAA2013 talk about ‘the ontological turn in anthropology’. Talk about a discourse for and by the West! Any serious discussion–or any discussion at all, for that matter–of the ontology of race/Whiteness in these conversations? Who is this ‘ontological turn’ truly for–and why? Who is seen as the valuable knowledge producers in anthropology–and who is not–and how does this correspond to ‘the savage slot’? Who is always seen as needing to be

          • Discuss White Privilege

            ‘spoken for’?

            Apologies on the trisected response but iPad on the fritz.

            The reality of everyday racism in anthropology has robbed me of an moral optimism, and all hope. My daily experience as a dark-skinned Black person has been one of far too many White anthropologists happy to dehumanize and see dehumanized “very dark-skinned” people who look like me–the very opposite of what Anthropology’s moral optimism should be all about.

          • Hi, I’ve edited the above to make it into one comment, which I think it was intended to be. I agree with (to?) Discuss White Privilege in the sense that Trouillot is here talking about an anthropological project that spans more than the lifetime of any anthropologist, research agenda, or the kinds of twists and turns that the discipline has been famous for indulging. Similarly, indeed would also agree that US policy is in general pretty consistent, whichever party or person happens to be in office. That said, the details do matter–in reference to Haiti, for example, while Clinton’s current prescriptions seem to be re-warmed neoliberalism (see the recent review of Fatal Assistance), it seems nevertheless true that the relationship with Aristide and Haiti was different under Clinton than during either of the Bush presidencies.

          • Discuss White Privilege

            Appreciate the Haiti example, Jason. You make an excellent point, which I agree entirely with though it is obscured by the experiential pessimism which guided the form my previous comment took. US foreign policy does change with a change of administration, especially with a change of which party is in the White House, and so one can have substantive changes like the ones you mention above with Haiti–even as the policy is still *structued by* White supremacy. And Haiti is a perfect example of this ostensible paradox. Yes, a change in approach/tactics from Bush to Clinton to Bush, but not a change in the underlying anti-Blackness and White supremacy which has informed US foreign policy toward Haiti since Haiti first won its independence.

            Thanks for tweeting the ‘White supremacy as constant’ excerpt from my first comment. There is a tweet in response which I think is exceedingly instructive in understanding the thrust of your original post, Trouillot’s critical intervention, and the inability of Anthropology to make good–via its daily practices and hegemonic theoretical orientations (e.g. ‘the ontological turn’, ‘philosophical anthropology’)–on its moral optimism (such that I have lost hope for Anthropology the academic discipline, versus anthropology as a tool for thinking critically about power and socials relations, and what it means to be human). The respondent who tweeted that you (and by extension, I am)

          • Discuss White Privilege

            … that you are woefully misinformed if you think White supremacy guides US foreign policy demonstrates one of the most prominent ways in which Anthropology is a discourse of, for, and to ‘the West’, and that Anthropology falls short in living up to its promise of moral optimism. I have to assume that the respondent does not understand how either you or I are defining ‘White supremacy’. The resistance to understand and thus use this term, appropriately, as we have done in relation to a structural and historical critique of the power relations and discourses which have shaped and still shape US foreign policy, is a shortcoming of Anthropology and one of the reasons it continues to be ‘white public space’. A refusal to understand and accurately define ‘White supremacy’ also makes it easy/easier for the elite to abandon the four-fifths of humanity on whose backs Anthropology has been traditionally founded. (And here I am struck by the freighted duality of the word ‘traditionally’ given how much Anthropology has been about,and continues to be about, the ‘traditions’ of ‘those people’ and why ‘they’ have them–but not so much about the ‘traditions’ of White/’Western’ elites

          • Discuss White Privilege

            Due to problems with the Disqus interface, the second part of my comment didn’t post, so the last sentence of the previous comment was actually supposed to continue on as follows: but not so much the ‘traditions’ of White/’Western’ elites, traditions which include racism and everyday practices of White supremacy.

            I wrote a lot more after this, which was good for clarifying my thoughts down to this: Anthropology needs to embrace the term ‘White supremacy’, especially if it is going to be the antiracist discipline it claims to be. White anthropologists need to stop running from the term because it makes them uncomfortable and because they haven’t done the work to actually understand that it is not simply abou the behavior of bad ‘racists’ who wear sheets and make racists statements about hating people defined as racially other. As with the terms racist and racism, the failure of many within the discipline to understand the term White supremacy so as to understand how I have used it in my comments, represents a failure of Anthropology to both stop being ‘white public space’ (i.e. racist and White-supremacist) and to be publicly engaged’

          • Discuss White Privilege

            As I understand it and read this post, Anthropology’s moral optimism is not separate from confronting White supremacy. To confront White supremacy we must first be able to define it and understand what it is: something many within the discipline (and even more outside of it) cannot do (helped along by decades of a ‘public anthropology’ which has not confronted the term ‘White supremacy’ in the ways I am presently advocating, including by choosing to post under the name Discuss White Privilege). Anthropologists should not blanche (no pun intended) and become uncomfortable when they see the term being applied to structural inequality and daily practices which are clearly racist and in which they are implicated: if you are an anthropologist with a genuine antiracist commitment, this term and having to think critically about it should not enrage you or send you running for the proverbial hills (i.e. the ‘race avoidance’ of the Brodkin et al article).

            Not that you don’t have enough to do, Jason, but I’d like to suggest a post on how anthropologists should define the following: race, racism (and racist), White supremacy, Whiteness, anti-Blackness. These terms are fairly important for teaching anthropology in the US, yet it is clear from many conversations (especially online), that many people are poorly defining these terms and/or struggling to think critically about them so as not to devolve into ‘how dare you call me racist’ knee-jerk anger. (Because in the US we are all individuals, so heaven forbid we have to acknowledge how our individual desires, motivations, actions might actually be produced by social structures and unconscious racist biases!)

          • Hi, sorry for the problems with the interface. I tried to combine what had been two comments into one longer, but might not have worked correctly. I hesitated about sending out the tweet, because of course people might respond more to the tweet out of context, and the reply was from a non-anthropologist who reacted to terminology. It seems to me–and this goes back to the idea of how The West is a Project, not a Place–that US policy has basically been guided by maintaining political and corporate-capitalist hegemony. I don’t know if I’m ready to say that’s equivalent to White supremacy, and you are correct that I won’t be able to do any blogging about this for a few months! However, may be something to take up at Discuss White Privilege.

          • I do wonder what Trouillot would make of anthropology’s current “ontological turn.” After all Trouillot could philosophize with any of them, did French and Latour when necessary. Much of the time in graduate school, I didn’t understand what he was saying (see this on Baudelaire). All that said:

            The need to renew our topical interests is real, but it should not lead into the temptation to aestheticize the native or to study only natives that suddenly look like us. We cannot abandon the four-fifths of humanity that the [elite] sees as increasingly useless to the world economy, not only because we built a discipline on the backs of their ancestors but also because the tradition of that discipline has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind. (2003:138; see also Public Anthropology & Bill Gates, plus the comments there from Discuss White Privilege)

  • Helga Vierich

    I see this discussion progress, and note that it is already in a second year… and the things that have been said in the last two days have brought to the point of tears several times. I have to come back to that one line, that you already quoted, Jason:

    “…We need to assume this optimism because the alternatives are lousy, and because anthropology as a discipline is the best venue through which the West can show an undying faith in the richness and variability of humankind. (Trouillot, 2003:139)”

    This is big story. It is not just about the past few hundred years, or even about the last ten thousand. We own this story, all humanity does. I still believe, more than I ever have, that Trouillot was not just correct about anthropology being the “best venue”, he did not even go far enough. It is not just about the “West” or about “White Privilege”. Focussing there, as we sometimes must, is a necessary corrective to the mythology of progress: this mythology has been spread, like some kind of strange Marmite, and used to glue the narrative of global power politics into some sort of digestible ideological sandwich for far too long.

    The bigger story is that we must all face two myth-shattering realities: 1) we are all equally human and genetically so close we are practically clones, compared to the variation seen in even one species of chimpanzee, for example, and 2) we did not get to be human by means of competition and fighting wars.

    The reason we need to face these realities and do it pretty darned soon is that we, our species, is in deadly peril, and we are taking every other living thing on this planet into this deadly peril along with us.

    All the academic discourse and duelling with words, all the thousands of hours people sit up till deep into the night, just to increase their publication lists so they can keep their jobs…, all of it will not have advanced our understanding of how we can meet this future unless we use all our resources and knowledge to break these prevailing myths, use all our resources to find a way to make humanity aware of the peril in time to meet it, and save what can be saved.

    Our damned indigenous community IS HUMANITY. And we are our own worst enemy. That is the dialectic. Our job in anthropology is to analyze power and history without making it all about the “West” against the rest of humanity. Maybe we need to take a look at the broader implications of The Spirit Level, at the broader implications of climate change, the sixth great species extinction event, of widespread chemical contamination and pollution, of topsoil loss, of the reality of our using dirtier and more and more expensive fossil fuels, and finally the current sheer number of us… we NEED to see all this as one united picture, and we need the longest possible time frame to see it clear.

    I don’t see any other discipline out there with the scope needed.

    • Hi Helga, thank you for this. I’m not sure I have much to add. This is very moving and all I can do is tweet it out.