Last week, I had the honor of speaking to a distinguished senior anthropologist. (I will name him, if he’ll let me.) We talked about a lot of things, but we stopped a moment to mourn the rise of a post modern anthropology.
Today, I came across these well chosen words in the Times Literary Supplement.
Traditionalists who lament the decline of old crafts and media in Western art are mourning a loss not so much of sophistication as of innocence. It is not nowadays enough just to depict things because you think they’re interesting to think about, or, God forbid, pleasing to look at. The almost Maoist culture of self-examination, and critical engagement with this or that artistic tradition, which modern Western art schools enforce, give much contemporary art its force, but also contribute to one big weakness. Much contemporary art is what an old-school aesthete would call mannerist – it’s art about art, not art about life.
Different field, same problem, apparently. For many of my disciplinary brothers and sisters, anthropology is about anthropology, not about life. It’s mannerist.
Now I would like to say that I refused mannerist anthropology, rising up to slay the postmodern dragon with the bright sword of my Chicago training. But the fact of the matter is simpler and less noble. I make my living as a practicing anthropologist and post modernist verities don’t serve me very well.
This October I will have done projects for a new media firm, a Canadian telecom, a sporting equipment company, and a research firm, and I will have given presentations to designers, financial marketers, and people interested in trends. Every report and presentation was designed to fit what I believed would serve my client, and never once did it seem to me they needed to hear choice words from Derrida or Lacan. I need ideas I can use, because I make my living selling ideas that clients can use.
But no, it’s probably not just pragmatism. It’s not just the market imposing an intellectual discipline. I am Scottish Canadian Presbyterian of middle age for whom the "plain style" is more or less built in. (I had to get over the pretensions of my youth for these to become clear.) Postmodernism is too slushy for me. (It may herald an epistemological springtime, but this Canadian wants the bracing clarities of a winter’s day.) I think best when using simple propositions, put as plainly as possible, with evidence and argument summoned as necessary (and no more), with a "garnish" of metaphor to make comprehension faster and more fun.
Plain style anthropology comes with engineering specs on the outside. You can see what the pieces (propositions) are and how the relationships (the argument) work. You can see what the fault lies, and what needs fixing…when something needs fixing. And yes I understand that I making old fashioned demands, and that these badly misunderstand the intellectual, political and epistemological challenges before us. But hey, I have a problem to solve, a client to satisfy, a post to right, and I have, usually, 40 minutes to wrap things up. You’ve noticed I expect that postmodernists have a way of making the same argument over and over again. They are, after all, mannerists. Anthropology is about anthropology and always, come to that, the same anthropology.
Miller, Keith. 2007. More whaling and shouting. Times Literary Supplement. October 19, 2007, p. 17.
I have just started up reading TLS after years away from it, and I have to say what a pleasure it is. It’s never very expensive and it would be good value at 4 times the cost.
Sorry not to have been posting. I am at a kind of brainstorming thing in Mexico and time and internet access are in short supply.