Anthropology & Moral Optimism

Update 2018: Very grateful to Gina Athena Ulysse for including a link to this page from her wonderful Reflecting on Boundaries, Protection, and Inspiration via anthro{dendum}

Click for PowerPoint Anthropology & Moral Optimism.

This is a complementary presentation to the statement on 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. (For my current course outlines, see Introduction to Anthropology 2018 and Intro to Anthro 2018.)

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 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. For more on using Trouillot in graduate seminars, see the guest post on Teaching Trouillot. See my Cultural Anthropology 2016 for my attempt to incorporate Global Transformations into an undergraduate course.

Moral Optimism (and pessimism)

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 to moral optimism, in the face of the forest destruction Tsing 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)

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)

Counter-Punctual 1-2-3

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. 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” (Trouillot 2003:134). Trouillot at other points emphasizes the need to make the native a full interlocutor (2003:136), but Trouillot 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. (I’ve also played a bit with Lennon & Ono’s “War is Over” in thinking about anthropological hope.)

Anthropology at the end of the day

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)

Anthropology with an Attitude

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 6 May 2018.