Marshall Sahlins and European anthropology

(The good folks over at the AJEC blog asked me to write a short piece on Marshall Sahlins and his relationships with European anthropologists. With their permission, I’m reposting it here. You can also go read the original post over at their website.)

I would like to thank the AJEC blog for inviting me to remember my mentor and dissertation supervisor Marshall Sahlins, and particularly his connection to Europe. Famously, Sahlins spent two years in Paris in the late 1960s. He arrived just in time for May ’68 — he told me once that he held his first seminar and then, after that, no one came for the duration of the seminar because they were all out on the street!

During his time in Paris Sahlins was, of course, deeply influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Some Americans see Sahlins as having ‘converted’ to structuralism, but this is far too simple. Sahlins read not just Lévi-Strauss, but the Sartre-Lévi-Strauss debate. Sahlins’s latter work on the ‘structure of the conjuncture’ was intended as a criticism of Lévi-Strauss. Close readers will notice that Sartre’s Question de Méthode often appears in Sahlins’s bibliographies.

Beyond these intellectual influences, Sahlins also treasured the personal networks which connected him to Europe. He helped bring Valerio Valeri — a great Italian student of Lévi-Strauss — to Chicago, as well as Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, who carries the great tradition of Francophone Brazilian social thought. These connections went both ways. I spent a summer at the EHESS thanks to the initiative of Marie Salaun, who managed my invitation from Albin Bensa and Jonathan Friedman. Having a chance to meet great scholars such as Maurice Godelier made me feel very much like a node in what Lévi-Strauss called “restricted exchange” between Paris and Chicago! More recently in 2013 Sahlins was one of the discussants at the American Anthropological Association panel “The Ontological Turn in French Philosophical Anthropology” featuring Bruno Latour and Philippe Descola.

Finally, it should never be forgotten that above all Sahlins was an ethnographer of the Pacific. His connections extended to CREDO, a centre for the study of the Pacific in Europe, in Marseilles, and to the long-running Journal de la Société des Océanistes.

There is much more to say about Sahlins’s relationship to France and the Europe. It was during his time at Chicago that the anthropology department welcomed many European scholars. Marianne Gullestad, for instance, helped strengthen ties between Norwegian anthropology and American anthropology which had originally been made by Frederik Barth. The full history of these cross-continent relationships is yet to be written.

For many readers of this text, mentions of Maurice Godelier or Claude Lévi-Strauss will seem hopelessly old-fashioned, so I’d like to end this piece by stressing how important it is not only to look back but to look forward. Sahlins emphasized how structures maintain their identity through transformation, not stasis. I hope that younger scholars working today will renew and strengthen ties between Europe and the United States. The best way to honor Sahlins’s memory is not to canonize him or dogmatically insist on the importance of his insights, but to find the themes in his work which are the most important to us today, and draw on them in our own work in the future. This is the only way to ensure that a scholarly legacy will endure.

Vale Marshall Sahlins

Marshall Sahlins and I at my wedding

(While I have been active on Twitter posting links to memorials and obituaries of Marshall Sahlins, I have not written very much on my blog. In the next couple of months (or years) I am sure I will have more to say about him. However, I wanted to take the time to make public here the statement I’ve circulated over email. For more of my thoughts on Sahlins’s life and work, see the festschrift I edited in honor of him, A Practice of Anthropology.)

I owe Marshall a tremendous amount. The day he accepted me to work with him at Chicago my life’s path changed fundamentally. Every day I spend in Hawai‘i and every paycheck I receive as a tenured professor I owe, at least a little bit, to him.

Marshall was a great thinker, as many people on this list have mentioned. But he was also a role model. Unlike many superstars at Chicago he had a healthy and happy family life. Even his dogs were happy. As a result I never came of age — as many people do these days, judging from social media — believing that the price of academic success was a barren private life. If anything, the challenge was to find someone to share my life with as remarkable as Barbara!

He was also a person of absolute integrity who said what he meant and meant what he said. He met all of the deadlines I gave him for letters of recommendations, commenting on draft chapters, etc. He also insisted that I meet all of mine. He was not inflexible or inhumane in this, he just thought people should be committed to their commitments, or else not make them. I think this viewpoint drove a lot of his politics. He wanted people to do the right thing — something which is actually incredibly exhausting, but also a very good habit to learn and leads to a virtuous life.

Egalitarianism was another key traits of his personality. He treated everyone the same way, regardless of rank or position. It was a very Chicago (the city, not the university) way of being. I always found this pretty terrifying since he was a Famous and I was a not. But it ended up being valuable. He never told me I was not good enough, or that I would not be pushed to succeed because he had already decided I could not. If Marshall’s books could win awards, why not mine? And you know what, at the end of the day my first book _did_ win an award. It would not have if I had been taught to set my sights low.

Alan Rumsey has rightly pointed out that competition was important for Marshall. He was probably one of the few members of the national academy of science who regreted not being a college football star. His egalitarianism was, as we say in the business, ‘agonistic’. He loved what we call in Hebrew ‘machloket’ — disputation. Arguing with him was an intense, no-holds barred experience, but it never became personal and was always based on reason and evidence. You had to go for the jugular. One particularly important moment in my graduate education was watching his wife (a great bridge player) quietly, carefully, and relentlessly explain to him why he should have been bidding hearts. If you were right and he was wrong, his first move was to become extremely charming and change the subject. But if you kept at him he would admit he was wrong.

One reason his work was so good was that he did this to himself constantly. He had the ability to be self-critical without beating himself up emotionally. He also had a regular and healthy work habit. Both of these are key to academic success or, I would argue, any kind of success. If only we all had a Marshall in our heads to argue with the way he did, all of our work would be much stronger.

Given this, it’s no surprise that Marshall helped mentor an activist scholar like Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa or would support the tenure of Haunani-Kay Trask — nor is it surprising that these people would later have their disputes with him.

Much of the academic world has already forgotten many of Marshall’s intellectual contributions — his dissolution of the structure-agency binary seems not to have taken, for instance, outside of anyone who is not Webb Keane. But I think his greatest contribution which we must carry forward is the recognition that there is such a thing as healthy conflict. Certainly in the United States today too many people have forgotten how to disagree with each other and indeed, can only understand disagreement as pathological.

When I think of Marshall the impression I get is one of clarity: Clarity of thought, of action, and of ethics. To this day I walk through the world constantly noticing how many people believe arguments that are not true because they are emotionally comforting, or who use their power and privilege every day to opt out of integrity and responsibility in ways large and small. I think the world would be a better place if everyone had Marshall’s clarity and integrity.

Marshall and I were very different people. I couldn’t connect with him over sports and he had no interest in sacred choral music of the baroque and renaissance, which was my love in graduate school. But he took me seriously and I learned a lot from him. Probably one of my proudest moments came when I was sitting at his kitchen table, listening to his feedback on a dissertation chapter. In despair, I asked him whether he thought my dissertation was any good at all. His looked me right in the eye and told me that it was “better than ok.”

Vale Marshall Sahlins.