Anthropology needs to make “an explicit claim to the moral optimism that may be this discipline’s greatest appeal and yet its most guarded secret” (Trouillot, p.136).
So begins a stirring essay by Jason Antrosio, an Anthropologist at Hartwicke College. Ostensibly about Capitalism and its excesses, the piece also works as a “four-field manifesto” for moral optimism in the contemporary global context. In this, Anthropology is urged towards the forefront of a movement to contemplate the relationship between market forces and the global citizen.
Drawing heavily on the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, the essay takes each Anthropological subdiscipline in turn, showing how singly and together they challenge the easy conventional wisdom about “human nature” which structures contemporary discourses and political thought: humans are naturally greedy and selfish, Capitalism harnesses greed and selfishness to productive ends, therefore Capitalism is inevitable and invincible.
Following Antrosio, Biological Anthropology has cast doubt on whether humans are, indeed, naturally greedy and selfish via studies which show altruism and co-operation are also at the very roots of primate behaviour. And these traits, which individuals may hold or express in any combination, only acquire their meaning in a system of values. Archaeological research is brought out to show long-term, sustainable ways of life – and for archaeologists, long-term means just that, five or ten centuries of ‘dynamic stability’ to set against the prevailing short-term thinking and goals. Recent popular archaeological studies which focus on “Collapse” mean well but only reinforce a sort of sinking feeling – popular books called “Resilience” are also needed!
The essay then considers the “insights of a Linguistic Anthropology attuned to language and power, the condensed histories of words, and how words become harnessed to imagination.” Sharply, the essay quotes Anna Tsing to the effect that the comfort of Universals appeals to elites and excluded alike. And, of course, the Cultural Anthropology literature is replete with examples of how the promises of Capitalism are so seldom kept. Cultural Anthropologists knows the systems from the inside, from the bottom up, and increasingly, it also seeks to understand the cultures of the elite as well.
Most importantly, though, the four field approach is not seen as a series of rifts dividing the discipline, but as a series of bridges leading to interlocking viewpoints of the human condition. At UVIC, we’ve been seeking our own way – cross-cutting themes – to bring forward a reinvigorated holistic Anthropology. Regardless of your thoughts about the merits of Capitalism itself, or of Antrosio’s analysis of the Political Economy, the essay does make an inspiring vision of holistic Anthropology.