In the Absence of the Metaphysical Field:

An Interview with Marshall Sahlins

By Filipe Calvao and Kerry Chance
University of Chicago

Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. His works, which have been greatly influential in the fields of anthropology and history, include: Stone Age Economics; Culture and Practical Reason; How 'Natives' Think: About Captain Cook, For Example; Islands of History; and, most recently, Culture in Practice and Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa. He is also the Executive Publisher of Prickly Paradigm Press, a publishing company inspired by the role of the pamphlet as a medium for political expression in 18th century Britain. Sahlins talks to Exchange about culture and anthropology in the contemporary world, political engagement and the university, and the history of his own work.


Chance: You have said elsewhere that putting the Prickly Paradigm online (See and in its particular form, you are able to step outside some of the limitations of the academic and publishing worlds. What are the possibilities of the pamphlet?

Sahlins: The pamphlet is a very liberating form of writing. You shouldn't be a dilettante, of course, but you don't have to stick to your small piece of knowledge-and you need not worry about footnotes and scholastic citations. People have become experts on smaller and smaller things, and one of the results is that some of them burn out early if they don't change specialties or else alternate monographic with bigger topics. The pamphlet offers people the opportunity to get out of their limited specializations: like my own, 'Fijian kingdoms of the 19th century' - which is interesting, seriously interesting, to six other people, four of whom are in other countries.

In the pamphlet, an author can talk about something he or she has thought seriously about but wouldn't ordinarily put in print, whether for lack of credentials or some other holy academic scruple. It's freedom. Some of our recent pamphlets have been extremely powerful critiques, of the kind you rarely or never see in The American Anthropologist: for instance, Michael Silverstein's hilarious and devastating Talking Politics: or Museums. Inc, written by Paul Werner, a former curator of the Guggenheim in New York; or Susan McKinnon's Neo-Liberal Genetics, a wonderful demolition of Evolutionary Psychology; and The Law in Shambles by Tom Geoghegan, another extraordinarily powerful piece.


Calvao: Thinking back to your first published article, "Esoteric Efflorescence in Easter Island" (1955), how do you see the history of your own work in a broader anthropological context, its mutations and continuities?

Sahlins: There's a long introduction on this topic in the book Culture in Practice, published in 2001, a kind of intellectual autobiography.

To briefly answer your question, there is one fundamental continuity in my work, that has to do with the determination of culture as the anthropological object and its character as a symbolic order. You should understand that I was initially trained by Leslie White, who was famous for his technological determinism and his thermodynamic theory of cultural evolution. But he also had another side-which, unlike his evolutionism, stuck with me. During the immediate post-WW II period, White was the only one among American anthropologists who took notice of Saussure's semiotics, as well as the philosophies of Susan Langer and Ernst Cassirer to the effect that human beings are distinguished by their symbolic capacities and that culture is symbolically constituted.

The consequence was a certain interesting contradiction in White's work. (I've written about this in some detail in Culture and Practical Reason.) At the same time that White was, as I say, a technological determinist, he would also argue that an axe was basically an idea, symbolically ordered in its production, its transmission, its functions, its place in the division of labor, as property, and so on. White developed a symbolic ontology of culture that became basic for me. It was quite different from the anthropologists, mainly British-inspired, who took society as their object, and most notably different from social anthropologists for whom "culture" floats above society as it were, as the ideological-and historically accidental-means of maintaining it. For them, social relations were the true anthropological object-even the "reality" as Radcliffe-Brown said, whereas culture was an "abstraction". But social relations are symbolically constructed, and in my anthropology they are cultural phenomena, no less than any other. Motherhood, kingship, Omaha kin relations, patrilocal extemded families, lineages-these are symbolically defined and ordered relationships.

For me, that was the ontological basis of the discipline: our object was culture and our study was cultures: their natures as discovered ethnographically, comparatively and historically. But the way "culture" is understood today in much of the social sciences, for example, among economists who can say things like "culture is a barrier to development," that kind of statement does not make any ontological sense in my anthropology, since economic development is culture.

I passed through several theoretical stages: White, Marx, Karl Polanyi and other big thinkers-though as Paul Bohannan once remarked, after I fell at each one's feet, I soon enough picked myself up and dusted myself off. The basic problem I had with materialism - with the anthropology of 'mid-western civilization' in the 60s and 70s - was the fact, again, that material life was culturally constituted and not, therefore, some form of external-material determinant of the rest of the cultural order. That's what appealed to me about Lévi-Strauss' structuralism. Even though Lévi-Strauss said structuralism was a science of the superstructures, the symbolic orders he discerned also organized the relations and forces of production including notably the people's constructions of nature. The symbolic structures were also infrastructural. Economic activity was a particular functional disposition of the cultural ontologies and cosmologies.

The other thing that was influential on my anthropology was the Vietnam War. The resistance of the Vietnamese people affected Western intellectuals in different ways. Many came out of the war as convinced anti-imperialists, and focused their attention on how the West has attempted to dominate the Others. Of course, I agreed with that. But I came out of the war more impressed with the cultural integrity and historical adaptability of the so-called victims than with the global process of Western domination. While others were globalizing, I was specifying and historicizing.

Besides an interest in the specificity and historicity of cultures stimulated by the Vietnam War, there was also a particular research conjuncture involved my historical interests. From the late 60s, I had been working on mid-nineteenth-century Hawaiian land records, which I wanted to use to reconstruct a more-or-less standard ethnography of the traditional society, since Hawaii is one of the major Polynesian places that has had no general ethnography. Inevitably, I started reading the history that I needed to deal with the archives and land records. Gradually I got interested in the cultural ordering in that history, and wound up doing studies in that direction-including, incidentally, the way that individual persons like Captain Cook or Kamehameha were structurally authorized to become main historical agents. From Hawaiian history (or historical ethnography), I went on to do the like in Fiji, where I had worked earlier. The last book I published, Apologies to Thucydides, is the culmination of some of those researches; although it's not the last word-I've more to come.

Chance: From your earliest articles to your most recent book, you have made critical interventions in contemporary political issues through anthropological work. What does it mean to be politically committed in anthropology today?

Sahlins: I think it is difficult to be politically committed in anthropology today, at least effectively, because the current state of understanding of cultural order and of the dynamics of historical change is such that you can't get a handle on such matters. We are wallowing in indeterminacy Postmodernism, deconstruction and the like have undone the grasp on political realities that Marxism or earlier theories had offered. Where does a postmodernist go to protest? What do you militate for, and how, if, say, "democracy" or "class' is an "essentialist" concept that betrays the indeterminate and contested character of political relations? Or, where does a Foucauldian go to protest, if power is everywhere - in himself included? Foucault says, the individual is a power factor. So in this age of theory, what can a person do by way of political action but just sort of mumble to himself.?

The second problem is with the anthropologists. We, as anthropologists, used to worry about how the "natives" would soon be colonized by capitalism and become just like us. It didn't quite happen that way. What did happen was that anthropologists got colonized by capitalism, overawed by it, and wound up largely doing exotic (capitalist) Economics. We had a recent seminar - I won't mention any names - about neoliberalism and artists in Egypt. The hour started with neoliberalism in Egypt and ended with neoliberalism in Egypt and we never actually got to the artists, let alone the art. In a kind of footnote, we were told that the artists don't totally buy it. But instead of starting with the artists, and with the ethnography, we are starting with neoliberalism and that is where we end up-as though that is where they (the people) necessarily will end up. The effect is that the peoples and their cultures get lost, and Anthropology risks mimicking in intellectual practice what neoliberalism would do in imperialist practice, insofar as both perceive the people as manipulatable victims. A corollary effect is that we have largely given up on "culture" as the object of our human science. We have anthropologists writing "against culture," "beyond culture," and "after culture"-ironically enough just when the peoples they study are explicitly reclaiming and defending their "culture." As I've said before, soon everyone will have a culture; only the anthropologists will deny it.

A third problem is more distantly related to politics. We have no theoretical narrative anymore in anthropology either, no great metaphysics by which we can locate our research. The school of Durkheim, Mauss, et al. started with the Aristotelian categories of knowledge -- time, space, cause, etc. - and attempted to determine how these are conceived in different societies. The social structuralists in Britain had a program, largely about lineages and social structure, and they could fit their ethnographic studies into comparative relationships with each other-even if it was "butterfly collecting," as Leach said. The evolutionists in America could fit societies they studied into a comparative evolutionary scheme. Likewise, the diffusionists used their work to construct historical narratives about cultural process and culture areas. But now, at least for the time being, the core of anthropology has been hollowed out. It's not just that we have no criteria for guiding and judging research. It's that anything goes-witness the programs of the national meetings. Unfortunately what also goes, goes away, is the singularity of the anthropological way of knowing humanity, which, I believe, depended on the culture concept.


Chance: Do you find anything redeemable in what a student of yours called "afterology"? For instance, how might you characterize your latest theorizations of agency as compared to what you consider agency in a postmodernist, postcolonial or deconstructionist mode?

Sahlins: The comparative question about agency is too broad. If you are asking about the agency of colonized peoples, or formerly colonized peoples, a lot of my recent work is about that-and again, about the necessity of a sense of culture to talk about their agency, since that's where the sources and resources of their agency come from. In any case, my interest in individual agency has to do with historical agents and not with the question of agency in the sense of whether one is responsible for one's own actions. It's a question of whether certain individuals in certain conjunctures actually set an historical course by virtue of the fact that they are empowered structurally by that situation (conjunctural agency) or by their position in a hierarchical order (systemic agency). This has been central to the work I have done on structure and event.

About the first part of the question: if anything, postmodernism has made us all more careful about using categories-that is, categorically-- and talking about relationships. But being careful is one thing; being paralyzed is another. Very often I have run into students, at least in the 80s and 90s, who were afraid to say "A" is related to "B" - while I was sometimes writing about structures and relationships that were two thousand years running! Postmodernism had the effect of a frontal lobotomy on too many students, to the extent that they wouldn't or couldn't put two things together for fear that Professor X or Y would get down on them for being essentialists or totalizers. Instead the best conclusion was indeterminacy. As I say we have been wallowing in indeterminacy, like pigs in an epistemic murk. It was destructive in many ways as far as students were concerned, I thought. It was a kind of anti-knowledge, in which the favored conclusion was that nothing definite could be said about the topic under consideration. All this and an anti-politics too.

Chance: Do you think anthropology is still in a moment of paralysis?

Sahlins: The paralysis never conquered the whole field; there were always people doing good work. But I do feel, yes, the concept of culture has been badly eroded, and the metaphysical core of anthropology has been largely evacuated by importations and external descriptions and concepts taken over from the afterologists. We are in danger of becoming the working class of the cultural studies movement. We are the ones who get are hands dirty, doing the hard work of ethnography, while the cult studs (as Tom Frank called them), the English professors, do the thinking, give us the hip theories and ways of talking-read "discoursing." John Comaroff dubs it the leisure of the theory class.

We now have a big problem in Anthropology about the nature of our field. I often go to the Wednesday seminars in the Humanities Institute here (the Franke Center) as well the Monday seminars in Anthropology. They both prove that there is such a thing as a free lunch and they also make it impossible to know - if you depended on the seminar presentation - whether it is Monday or Wednesday. Anthropology has become so much like English that they both fear they have surrendered their autonomy to the other.

Chance: So today, the concept of culture is everywhere, but not so much in anthropology...

Sahlins: They used to call it the "psychology" of Washington, now it's the "culture" of Washington. It used to be the "ethos", now it's the "culture." But no need to worry on that particular score. People talk about "society" all the time, and it didn't destroy Sociology-something else must have done the job. People talk about "economies" and it didn't make any difference to Economics. Same with "philosophy." I saw a sign in a hotel elevator advertising the chain of which that particular hotel was a part: it said, "120 hotels, one philosophy." I don't think the popularity of the word "culture" is an issue for anthropology-although it might be a good research project, especially in a world-wide context.

When I studied anthropology, we were necessarily in a field that had biological anthropology in it, and the problem of distinguishing humanity from other primates was real. The problem of distinguishing primates' societies and human societies was an issue. Hence the importance of the symbolic construction of human worlds for my generation of middle-western anthropologists. But later anthropologists have put the concept of culture in doubt, at least in part because the cultures as they knew them were no longer in the same form. Anthropologists no longer had to deal with traditional "anthropology-cultures": with distinctive communities sitting out there on some island of the Pacific waiting for an ethnographer to describe their pristine condition. They had been transformed. Now there were new and unprecedented cultural formations, some with totally different space-time coordinates, like the Oaxacan villages that extend over thousands of miles-from Oaxaca to Chicago. Here are transnational cultural orders, involving the circulation of persons, money and ideas, often along the lines of traditional relations of kinship and community, between distant rural homelands and metropolitan centers-in which, incidentally, the old flow of resources from rural to urban has been significantly reversed. Then there are all the "alternative modernities' or "indigenizations of modernity." But, the old forms having disappeared, we lament the loss of "culture", and are slow to seize on the new opportunities for anthropological theory and practice. Of course there is consolation in the fact that this has always been the case. As I have said elsewhere, Anthropology is the only field, besides nuclear physics, that makes a practice of studying disappearing objects. Those traditional anthropology-cultures of yore weren't traditional either.


Chance: Culture and difference have been frequent topics of conversation in the news media with regard to the war on terror. What do you make of the Iraq war and the Bush administration's broader project to "eliminate terror"?

Sahlins: The war on terror is like the war on drugs, and other such abstractions. It's endless stupidity. Unfortunately, because of September 11th and because we had this un-curious George in the presidency, we were unable to treat it as a criminal activity, as a crime against humanity. (Incidentally I doubt that there would have been any war after September 11 - certainly no Iraq war-if the 2000 election hadn't been stolen from Gore. In a recent paper, I noted that if Elian Gonzalés hadn't drifted to shore in Miami in 1999, an event that eventually turned Cuban-American voters against the Democrats, we'd have a different president and we wouldn't have had a war in Iraq.)

What do I think of the role of culture in this war? For one thing, the American war policy is based upon a certain ethnocentric notion of human nature. There was a line in the film Full Metal Jacket that went something like "underneath every 'Gook" there's an American waiting to come out." Underneath every Iraqi, there's an American waiting to come out. If we could just get rid of their idiosyncratic culture, we'd get down to the basic love of freedom and free enterprise that's in everybody. Unfortunately the way we have do that is by force. To make an omelette,.

So, it's based upon a very crude notion of human nature and cultural change. I had written something about that-it's is not yet published-when I read something very similar in a recent book about Iraq by George Packer, The Assassin's Gate - a very interesting read. It's exactly what he concluded about the way Rumsfeld, Cheney and the neo-cons in general are operating in Iraq. They not only believe that there are Americans under any foreigner, but that things like, a strong show of force will inevitably overawe Arabs and earn their respect. There is a fundamentally bad anthropology being practiced here, based upon ethnocentric notions of culture and human nature, on Orientalism and on gross ignorance of cultural differences. And if that's the fate of the anthropology in politics, anthropology's somewhat at fault.


Calvao: At a recent conference on campus, you made some remarks on the relation between the university organization and intellectual work. What was the jist of your intervention?

Sahlins: I think that the American university can be given a one-line review: it's the pursuit of disinterested knowledge by self-interested people. What's going on is an enormously competitive system, whose scope and intensity we are hardly conscious of. Everything in the university is competitive. You compete to get into it if you're a student, you compete in courses, you have an absolute grade rank, you compete in graduate school, you compete for jobs, and then for promotion, and esteem. But then, departments are competing with each other, within and between universities, even as universities are competing for status and money. Everything and everyone is being invidiously judged: undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, universities, journals, books, disciplines, scholarly societies.

Not to mention the ambitions of becoming a public intellectual, i.e., a propheteer.

It's a bourgeois system of education and the people in it, you know, they might protest against the universities getting into intellectual property rights and using public funds and research results to patent inventions and make profits with their own venture capitalist subsidiaries, they'd protest against that, but they have a fierce individual relation to their own ideas-their own individual intellectual property. God forbid anybody should not cite them or plagiarize them.

There have been studies that show that people's inner circles of collegial sociability and collaboration consist two or three people, one or two of whom are in some other university.

Bateson talked about various structures of competition, one of which, symmetrical schismogenesis as he called it, was like an arms race in which each party tries to outdo the other by doing more of the same-'anything you can do, I can do better.'.One of the extreme forms of this is what you could think of as transcendent schismogenesis, in which you try to trump the people in your own field by going out of it and importing concepts from other fields. That's a big reason for the homogenization of disciplines I talked about a moment ago in connection with Anthropology's loss of distinctiveness as a way of knowing humanity. Concepts are migrating wildly and uncritically between disciplines in the interest of competition within disciplines. I don't mean interdisciplinarity so much transdisciplinarity without the benefit of institutionalization, without creating interstitial programs, committees, institutes and the like., though everyone knows there's too much of that too. Think of all the concepts, theories and heroic theorists that are now widely spread across the social sciences, the humanities and beyond: postmodernism, structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, rational choice, neo-social Darwinism, Foucault, Marxism, anti-positivism, post-colonialism, feminism, etc., etc. These are diffusing across disciplines because everybody is trying to get a fashionable advantage within their own field by going outside it. And the ideas are frequently getting travestied in the disciplinary translation. Besides, things like Marxism and structuralism go out of fashion well before their intellectual value is exhausted. Other things like neo-social Darwinism get propagated even though their intellectual value is less than nil. It's a helluva way to run an intellectual business.

Another aspect of the competition is that the closer two disciplines are in subject matter, the less they have to do with each other, because they're competing for status in the university for resources, for faculty lines and so on. What has Anthropology have to do with Sociology? Indeed, within certain limits, the possibility of interdisciplinary cooperation is inversely related to the similarities of subject matter. The effect is some pretty bizarre intellectual hybrids cum monsters, like law and economics or Anthropology and Cultural Studies. Okay, Anthropology and Physics: I won't mention names, but there's one prominent anthropologist who tells us that chaos theory may be the best way to understand what culture is. "Well, you want to know what culture is? It's basically chaos theory. " Fractal, fractal. Break up the totalizing narratives.

In short there has been too much appropriation of inappropriate stuff. When Foucault writes about discipline and capillary power in early modern Western history, anthropologists pick it up and use it to think the institutions of every and any society. In the event, this poststructuralism becomes a paranoid style neofunctionalism: everything-family, kinship, second-person Vietnamese pronouns, Brazilian workers' housing, Korean shamanism-is reduced to a power function. For myself, I think that anthropologists who have had the experience of cultural-ontological differences should not give a Foucault.