The wit of Marshall Sahlins

Also now available on-line, Waiting for Foucault, Still is a collection of thoughts and aphorisms from one the country’s leading anthropologists, Marshall Sahlins.

Some of the observations are funny.

Quite wondrous, then, is the variety of things anthropologists can now explain by power and resistance, hegemony and counter-hegemony. I say ‘explain’ because the argument consists entirely of categorizing the cultural form at issue in terms of domination, as if that accounts for it. Here are some examples from the past few years of American Ethnologist and Cultured (Cultural) Anthropology:

1. Nicknames in Naples: ‘a discourse practice used to construct a particular representation of the social world, [nicknaming] may become a mechanism for reinforcing the hegemony of nationally dominant groups over local groups that threaten the reproduction of social power’ [Boo; you never know what’s in a nickname!].

2. Bedouin lyric poetry: this is counter-hegemonic [Yeah!].

3. Women’s fashions in La Paz: counter-hegemonic [Yeah!].

4. The social categorization of freed Dominican slaves as ‘peasants’: hegemonic [Boo].”

Some of them are insightful, like this one.

“In the social sciences, the pressure to shift from one theoretical regime to another, say from economic benefits to power effects, does not appear to follow from the piling up of anomalies in the waning paradigm, as it does in natural science. In the social sciences, paradigms are not outmoded because they explain less and less, but rather because they explain more and more—until, all too soon, they are explaining just about everything. There is an inflation effect in social science paradigms, which quickly cheapens them. The way that ‘power’ explains everything from Vietnamese second person plural pronouns to Brazilian workers’ architectural bricolage, African Christianity or Japanese sumo wrestling. But then, if the paradigm begins to seem less and less attractive, it is not really for the standard logical or methodological reasons. It is not because in thus explaining everything, power explains nothing, or because differences are being attributed to similarities, or because contents are dissolved in their (presumed) effects. It’s because everything turns out to be the same: power. Paradigms change in the social sciences because, their persuasiveness really being more political than empirical, they become commonplace universals. People get tired of them. They get bored.”

It’s worth looking over.