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.

New podcast: Emilka Skrzypek on the Frieda Mine in Papua New Guinea

I’m excited to announce the my interview with Emilka Skrzypek is now available over at New Books Network. Emilka is a third- (or maybe fourth-?) generation scholar in the anthropology of mining in Papua New Guinea, and studies the Frieda River Mine, which doesn’t yet exist. How does one do an ethnography of a mine which hasn’t been built, but which is still making changes in the local communities which anticipate its coming? Or, rather, how do you a study of a mine which (as Paiyamo people might put it) exists in the sense that it is having an effect on people’s lives, but is still ‘invisible’ in that it hasn’t been built? Take a listen! As an anthropologist of mining of a slightly older generation *cough* it is great to see more work on this topic being produced.

Go read my interview with Martha Macintyre!

I’m very proud to announce that my interview with Martha Macintyre is now available, open access, from ANU Press. It is a chapter in the wonderful new volume Unequal Lives: Gender, Race, and Class in the Western Pacific. The volume is a festschrift for Martha, who is a pathbreaking anthropologist who has crossed fields as diverse as feminist anthropology, medical anthropology, and the anthropology of mining. Over the years I’ve learned a lot from her perspective, which is always informed by history and has a keen eye on political economy.

In addition to substantive chapters, the volume has several wonderful personal reflections of Martha and her influence as a teacher. My chapter is a massive distillation of multiple hours of oral history across multiple days. The volume also features pictures of several anthropologists in their younger years if you are a Melanesianist looking for a ‘back to the past’ experience. Martha has been a mentor to many anthropologists, but has never taken it easy on people who deserved to get it hard. Her reminiscences of Derek Freeman paint a dark and, to my mind, accurate picture of his time at the ANU.

I’m so happy this volume came out and that I am a part of it. Go take a look today!

Vale Jaimie Pearl Bloom

I wanted to let you know that my obituary of Jaimie Bloom is now available from American Anthropologist:

Jaimie’s anthropological work was conducted before her transition under the name James F. Weiner. She was an ethnographer of Papua New Guinea whose work bordered on the philosophical. I worked closely with Jaimie’s children to make sure I honored her wishes regarding how her two lives were reported (she had no issue with dead naming, for instance). I hope those of you who knew Jaimie or read her work will find this obituary honors her memory.

In addition to Fabiana and Eamon, thanks to Ira Bashkow, Colin Filer, Francesca Merlan, and Alan Rumsey for their support in writing it. Her memory is a blessing.

Elizabeth and Stephen Ferry on Gold Mining in Latin America

I’m happy to announce a new podcast episode over at New Books Network. In this episode I interview brother and sister teams Elizabeth and Stephen Ferry. Elizabeth is an anthropologist and Stephen is a photographer, and together they’ve produced La Battea, a book which combines text, images, and design to tell the story of small-scale miners in Colombia in a unique and powerful way. When I say ‘design’ I mean it: the book is physically designed to pull the reader into the topic. Cardboard covers, a specially-chosen paper, and carefully designed chosen fonts provide a unique experience which is topped off by the small piece of gold embedded in the cover.

In this episode of the podcast, I talk with Stephen and Elizabeth Ferry about the design, photography, and text of this book. They also talk about the Kickstarter they ran to create the book, and their decision to produce both Spanish and English language versions that were affordable for local communities. Other questions include: What is it like to write a book with your sibling? How elemental a human experience is mining? I think this is a good one so I hope you will check it out.

New “New Books Network ” Author Page

Aloha all. Some quick final links to keep up to date on what I’ve been doing since September. This site has gone on for far too long without an update, so I’ll post several in the next couple of days.

For this post, I want to highlight something new at the New Books Network — my very own author page! It’s not much but it does provide a single location where you can find all the interviews I’ve done. This is part of the redesign of the website and is just one of many more positive features which I’m told will come in the near future.

That’s all for now! More soon and happy end of 2020. I know I for one couldn’t be happier that this year of over and I’m looking forward to a much more prosperous and healthier 2021.

I’m very proud of this special issue on Bernard Narokobi

After many years of work by my co-editor Lise Dobrin and myself (well, really, mostly Lise) as well as our authors, I am very proud to announce that we have published a special issue of the Journal of Pacific History on “The Legacy of Bernard Narokobi and the Melanesian Way”.

This is really special for me since I’ve been interested in Narokobi’s thought ever since I first encountered it. He is the kind of thinker who pulls you in. What’s more, I visited Narokobi’s village in the late 1990s when Lise was doing fieldwork there on his native language, Arapesh. I’m so proud to have published it in the JPH, which is such a classic journal and once which I have so often over the years — it’s not too much to say that one of my life goals has been met now that I’ve published there!

This collection is special because of how it deals with all aspects of Narokobi’s life. Jonathan Ritche and I cover the early part of his career. Vergil Narokobi, his son, discusses his legal thought. Philip Gibs discusses Narokobi’s Catholicism, and Ira Bashkow and Greg Bablis help contextualise Narokobi’s life by discussing the context he grew up in, as well as the legacy he left behind.

It was great to have two Papua New Guinean intellectuals involved in this project — and not just any intellectuals, but Arapesh thinkers (including Bernard’s son, Vergil) with kin ties to Narokobi. It’s a testament to Lise’s commitment to Wautogik, Narokobi’s village, that she came to the village decades ago as a linguist to record phonetic barred I and ended up producing this volume. I hope we inspire many other anthropologists and historians from the US to undertake this kind of work in the future.


Matt Tomlinson on Culture and Theology in the Pacific

I’m very happy to announce that I have a new interview up at New Books Network. This one is with Matt Tomlinson, an anthropologist of the Pacific at the University of Oslo. Matt’s book is a discussion of the role of the concept of ‘culture’ in contemporary Pacific protestant theology. I love the cover image of the book, which features the holy family around a kava bowl. Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the Pacific Islands Monograph Series, which published this book. Second disclosure: We’re always looking for more manuscripts. If you have a really Pacific-focused manuscript let me know!

Maile Arvin on Possessing Polynesians

I announce my publications and interviews and things on social media but I have fallen behind on announcing them on my blog, which is supposed to be a more organised and permanent record of what I’m doing. So here is the first of a few posts about my (boreal) summer activities:

Go listen to my podcast over at New Books Network with Maile Arvin, where we discuss her new book, Possessing Polynesians. This new book from Duke Press is wide-ranging in scope and draws on what is now a really robust literature on Pacific indigenous studies. Also, I will not lie, engaging with this book finally taught me once and for all how to spell ‘possess’ correctly.