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.