Above and Beyond Anti-Anthropology

by Hugh M. Lewis


The possibility of translation is its impossibility


I would call the Post-Syndrome the need to hyphenate long Latin words with the prefix Post and the need to put every third or fourth word within quotation marks, and the need to attack the legitimacy of sound science with the use of obscure self-contradictions and sophisticated, groundless tropes.

This is not to say that much of the Post-Structuralist, or Post-Humanist, or Post-Modernist perspective; is without value whatsoever--only that the anthropological value of a perspective which comes primarily from literary criticism is critically limited, and is not overly productive as a fruitful way of seeing the world. If we were to adopt unequivocally and whole-heartedly the pessimistic "Post-" point of view, we would risk self-destruction and self "de-construction" to the point of existential despair and academic anomie, and in the process we would undervalue and short change the real work of many an anthropologist.

Anthropology can be seen to be a symbolic and ideological component of the social construction of reality, one in which truth and power relations have too high degree of positive correlation to ignore, one in which playing the neutral, innocent, knowledge for knowledge's sake, ethnography carries many hidden and tacit presumptions of espionage, voyeurism, the reinvention and appropriation of culture, etc. It has served the interests of a predominant western point of view, as much colonial, post-colonial or neo-colonial as scientific. The line between genuine science and spurious scientism becomes stretched, blurred and too thin to clearly see the difference.

The critique of anthropologos, of a pan-optic principle of presence in turning the histories and subjectivities of Others upon the periphery of our empire into the reformed objective history of our own making, a denial of otherness as self which accompanies the inexorable exploitation, subjugation and desocialization of distant others in the world. We must question our taken for granted tropes and view the political history of many of our most unmarked metaphors.

But this line of criticism can only go so far in the reconstruction of anthropological reality. The view from comparative literature which equates ethnography with fiction and mythology is at best naively mistaken in its failure to recognize the historical and empirical basis for such field work, and is at worst a case of dogmatic denial of the real world role that the anthropologist commonly plays in the promotion of his field of inquiry.

Ethnography in particular, however it is written, and anthropology in general, constitute kinds of information, or knowledge about the world, which are essentially neutral. Anthropology is not necessarily an objective science of disinterested inquiry" which becomes a mere marionette of power. Its information, its knowledge and its techniques can and have been used for the purposes of power, and anthropologists have sometimes either deliberately or unwittingly been duped into serving such interests, but by and large anthropology as an empirical science remains but a neutral tool that can be used either as a weapon of power or as a means for producing greater good in the world.

The structural inequality of power which underlies the relationship of the ethnographer with her/his subjects of inquiry is perhaps of necessity an uneven one. But the fact of this structural inequality does not preclude the possibility of neutral, relatively unbiased results, nor prevents objective progress from being achieved in the advancement of understanding about human reality, nor does it preclude the possibility of personal equality and even genuine friendship with many others in the world

Whatever its vices and virtues, Anthropology remains an imperfect human science about human reality. It is subject to most of the weaknesses, and many of the strengths, that anything human in the world is prone to.

It is not too long before the fertility and productivity of the Post-Syndrome leads to a kind of mental and creative exhaustion. It leaves in its wake of theoretical devastation little fertile ground with which to rebuild the anthropological mansion. Sophistry and Cynicism are no substitutes for sublimity and subtlety. Anthropologists must learn to listen to, but not take as their prime directive, literary critics or professors of English who may hypocritically espouse Heideger or Foucault. Anthropological style cannot be too profound if it always frames itself by quotes, if it always traffics in self-contradictory obscurities and stylish innuendos, and if its primary agenda is always and only the destruction of its own and other peoples' work.

The way past this critical period is not to refuse to look at the shadow it casts upon our anthropological fields, but to learn that a world without shadow is a world without depth or dimension. There is life past the Post-Syndrome, just as there is meaning to be found in the world without the need for quotes. The net result of the "Post-Syndrome" is a kind of stultifying corrosion of the capacity to be constructive and creative in the world. It is a juvenile, anti-intellectual reaction to a petty kind of adolescent perfectionism that successful Academics are not taught to outgrow. Creativity does not depend upon being or becoming perfect--rather it comes from the natural curiosity, free play and willingness to make mistakes--just as truth or progress does not always depend upon being right--rather it comes from having proven oneself wrong in the world. Unharnessing ourselves from our own perfectionist obsessions unleashes our creative energies that are otherwise tied up in a self-frustrating knot. Perfectionists chronically fail to learn by their mistakes.

If any translation in the world is as good as any other, then there would be no need to practice anthropology.


The critical charge that anthropology has been the stepchild of colonial imperialism has been a valid one. But we must recognize that anthropological research and knowledge is constrained in critical, necessary ways, by its historical situation in the world, as is any related field of inquiry. We must also recognize that anthropological knowledge by it self, is neither inherently virtuous or vicious. Relativistic romanticism which glorifies the often mean and brutal life of the native other is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than a coldly scientific anthropology of disinterested inquiry which seeks to transform the subjective reality of the other, according to the principle of presence, into an objective, reified entity to be manipulated within a culturally hegemonic world order. Anthropological knowledge, as science, can be used for both good and evil, and the author of this knowledge cannot be held responsible for what others may or may not do with it. It is the power and value intrinsic to anthropological knowledge that we must learn to appreciate and by which we should seek to judge it--and not the purposes to which it has been or will be put.

On the other hand, all anthropologists, as human beings, have an ethical responsibility to the people they study that must transcend and come before their professional obligations or interests as anthropologists. Anthropology that deals with human relations cannot be totally disinterested or subjectively uninvolved. It then becomes at best hypocrisy, and at worst, a danger to human freedom. 



Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05