KULA KULA INTERVIEWS: Maurice Bloch

Skrevet av: Daniel Oliver Paulsen og Paul Wicking

Publisert 15.01.2016

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It would be safe to say that Maurice Block is one of the contemporary giants within anthropology. Bloch’s active career spans almost five decades and has resulted in more than a hundred publications. Presently he holds the position of Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics. This February, Bloch visited Bergen and gave a talk in the Institute’s seminar series, engaging more than 70 members of staff and students. Kula Kula were lucky enough to be able to sit down with him the next day, where he elaborated on some of the ideas he presented in his talk, as well as calling for young and aspiring anthropologist to get involved in the public debates.

KK: One of the things you were talking about yesterday was the connection between biology and anthropology. We were hoping you could present our readers with your perspective on the link between anthropology and biology.

MB: First, a little bit of history is the best way to explain what I think. Anthropology as a subject can go back as far as you like, but as an academic discipline, it begins at the end of the 19th century, it really begins in the wake of the impetus of Darwin’s work of the origin of species. In many ways what the early anthropologists saw their job as doing was trying to fill the gap in the history of mankind between what they thought of as the time of the emergence of Homo Sapiens (it wasn’t very clear to them when this was) and the invention of writing. Before the emergence of Homo Sapiens, the biologist could get on with their work. After the invention of writing, they felt that this was really the job for the historians, and so they felt there was a gap there for anthropology to fill. Basically, this gap necessitated, according to the way they saw things, the study of primitive peoples. This in-between, definition of the subject is interesting. This is because, at that time, subjects like history were thought as of a quite different kind to biology. The early writers saw anthropology as a bizarre and problematic bridge between scientific subjects and the humanities.

What has happened ever since is that anthropology has given up finding a justified placing for itself. Anthropologists are not sure what they are up to. They are clear on what they are up to in terms of the specific studies they do, but they do not really see how these might fit in a larger story. It is not a matter of fitting in which really matters but having the ambition that what we do might, in the end, be a contribution to the general history of humanity. That is what anthropologists have abandoned.

KK: And is this sort of the dilemma where you draw the distinction between ethnography and anthropology?

B: Distinguishing sharply between anthropology and ethnography makes us aware of the ambiguous enterprise that people in anthropology departments are engaged in. It must remain simply as a rhetorical first step. Let me caricature the difference between anthropology and ethnography and then explain why they cannot, and should not, be separated. Ethnography is the study of particular places, particular times, and particular groups of people. It is the attempt at understanding the world from the point of view of the people we are studying. Ethnography fits within the tradition of history, a discipline that traditionally has no scientific ambition. Anthropology, again in terms of this preliminary definition, is really a matter of studying people from an outsider’s point of view, like biology. If you are studying the behaviour of fish, you are not making an attempt to see what’s going on from the point of view of the fish. You are observing them from the outside. In biology the aim is, ultimately, to generalise about life. If the biologist is studying the social life of fish, they above all want to make their specific study relevant for natural history. This applies to anthropology in my rhetorical sense while ethnography does not aim to be theoretical. But, in fact, things are not so straightforward. Within ethnographies there are often ambiguous and uncomfortable attempts at theory. The anthropology we normally practise in anthropology departments is in-between ethnography and anthropology as strictly defined, this is awkward though in the history of the subject this awkwardness has often been fruitful.

If you are studying human beings, you are trying to understand what they are up to. You cannot ignore their point of view, even if their point of view can only be know in your imagination in your imagination. In this way you can’t escape the “from the inside point” of view; and your “from the inside point of view” cannot escape involving an understanding of how human beings work in general; in other words, a “from the outside point of view” creeps in. Your “from the inside point of view”, involves anthropology in that it draws on general theories about how human beings think and your “from the outside point of view” includes ethnography. You cannot hope to understand other human beings without assuming that you are the same kind of being as them. This makes our discipline awkward theoretically … but I think this tension between the outside and inside point of view interesting. This creative awkwardness makes anthropology, as it goes on in anthropology departments, fairly different to other human sciences. You cannot treat human beings as though they were ants, but you cannot understand them without general scientific considerations.

Bloch 1. red.png

KK: So do you think anthropology is possible?

I think it is possible if we accept the tension. If you think your job as simply doing ethnography then there would seem to be no reason to have anthropology departments. Different people in those departments would not really have anything to say to each other. In any case, as I was just saying, one cannot do ethnography without implying anthropological theories. On the other hand, a purely external view of the history of humanity would not tell us anything that we are very interested in.

KK: You feel like the two needs meet in the middle? Anthropology and ethnography?

Bloch: Yes, the two continually challenge each other. Let’s take the example of “religion”. This became clear to me when working in a remote village in Madagascar. It made me realise how the very notion of “religion” was highly historically specific and is inappropriate as a general theoretical tool. Asking about the kind of religion that might exist in that village already imports a serious mistake. It implies that whatever the word religion can be made to mean in English is a general characteristic of our species and must exist somehow everywhere. If you think of the kind of ancestor worship which goes on there as a kind of “religion” you are inevitably misled. Admittedly, by doing this you recognise in these practices something which the English word does evoke but you have missed its core. Recognising that sort of mistake is the challenge which ethnography brings to anthropology.

However, ethnography as our only aim removes the very reason to have a subject called anthropology. It is not an accident that the anthropology which has had influence on popular ideas about humans is that of the 19th century anthropologists That is because these anthropologists, unlike subsequent ones, were proposing answers to the legitimate questions which ordinary people ask. We are being bombarded with evermore data in the press and elsewhere about discoveries in archaeology and psychology and people want to know what it all adds up to. I think a part of our job as anthropologists is to try to supply some sort of answer. Maybe not half as nice and simple an answer as they think they will get but, at least, we will be saying something about what people want to know.

KK: Do you have the sensation that we didn’t pick up the ball again when we kind of said “you’re wrong because so and so, but we’re going to leave it there now, and just move on with our own interests” – while the population is being left without an answer to the big questions?

MB: What we need to show is that, as professionals, we are struggling together with non-professionals to understand the history of humanity and its diversity. Because we know more we can help and thus take part in this general, already existing, debate. This is our prime job. Since we seem not to be doing this anthropologists themselves and our pay masters try to find another justification for our existence. For example in a place like Norway they have hit on the idea that we might be useful for development. I personally think, the usefulness of anthropology to development studies is very doubtful for reasons which I cannot explain here. However, contributing to what are central concerns about how different peoples around the world fit in in a wider story and trying to reflect on what has happened in human history is a truly useful task for our subject. Rather than rushing in to contribute to programs decided elsewhere we might challenge, with a renewed theoretical anthropology, the simple evolutionary story which lies at the back of so much development. We would want to challenge the formulations of the problems. What do you mean by poverty? How does poverty link with your evolutionary story?

KK: It’s quite ironic that one of the biggest speakers on religion, society and biology today, is also the biggest atheist – Richard Dawkins.

Well at least he is saying something general. However if he knew more anthropology he would have to rethink what he means by the word. Dawkins thinks of religion in terms of beliefs. One of the thing a more general theoretical anthropological approach would teach him is that this focus is on a very new development occurring in only a few places and this view of religion cannot be used as a basis for a general discussion of the phenomena he thinks he is talking about. He is completely caught within the late 20th century definitions of what religion is about. This makes him think in largely American terms about the conflict of science and religion as though this had been important for most of the history of mankind.

KK: Do you see anthropology as a discipline that picks up where philosophy left off, in a sense?

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Max Weber, Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim

In a way yes. People always trot out Marx, Durkheim and Weber as the founders of, anthropology and sociology. One of the things that these three people have in common is that they were rejecting philosophy and saying that we should answer the questions the philosophers asked by doing something else to what they were traditionally up to, instead we should look at what’s has gone on and is going on in the actual societies that exist around the world”. That type of thinking is a kind of new philosophy and it is called anthropology. Many philosophers would actually agree with such a position. It means that philosophy should be abolished and replaced by anthropology. Many philosophers had finally decided that their subject had really been about language. Since then they had decided that their subject was really about neurology and psychology. These same philosophers need a bit more of a push and realise that their subject is really anthropology. Nothing is more pitiful than anthropologists turning to self declard philosophers as support for their work while actually they are turning to would be anthropologist with limited knowledge.

KK: Back to your talk yesterday, you were talking about the tension between real states versus collapsed states, and the sort of chaos that might arise in the wake of collapsing states and how people need some sort of order and, as far as I understood you, that emerging states might be the answer to providing an order for the chaos – and please do correct me if I’m wrong…

Iit’s not quite that. Let’s forget about states, first of all. One of the things that we’ve lost by actually having lost contact with the other anthropological sciences, like archaeology or biological evolutionary anthropology is that we’ve lost the time perspective. Theory has to consist of propositions about a phenomena that exists naturally. Anthropological theory has to be about human beings as a species. Indeed, sometimes it has to take in what we know about our pre-sapiens ancestors. But let’s talk simply about Homo Sapiens – we’re talking about 200,000 years. States began to appear around 6-7000 years ago. So if we want to talk about human need for order such a “need” cannot be manifested simply by what we find in states. There is a danger of being caught by a kind of ethnocentrism which assumes human beings must live in states. The great majority of human societies didn’t have anything to do with states. But what I do think they did all have, are these constructions of stable imaginary systems of the social which I call the transcendental. Kinship systems are an example. And then when states come along they use kinship and try to build themselves up in imagination as though they were one big family. This is quite ambiguous, because states often fight kinship in order to build themselves in imagination as “the real family”. They go about this brutally. For example, they destroy kinship based dispute settlement systems. A lot of apparently state created peace maintaining law is really about how to monopolise dispute settlement mechanisms for the state. States destroy the transcendental social as much as they attempt to create an alternative. The social is a fundamental human characteristic states are not. States destroy much of the pre-state social so that when the state collapses there follows a desire that one, as a human being, needs states for maintaining order. This is what produces the modern phenomenon we call religion.

KK: So it’s more about people needing this transcendental level?

What people feel they need is what was previously destroyed; that is usually the transcendental aspects of kinship. So the feeling that you need states after the collapse of states, comes from the success of the states in destroying what you had before. Then i a kind of ghostly state is created. Religion/the ghostly state is an image of a totality where your body, your emotions, your family, the cosmos, the rivers, the plants and so on, could be together.

KK: Where do you see anthropology going over the next 50 years?

I do not have a clue but, before answering this question, a very important distinction needs to be made. When I was talking to you about anthropology and ethnography, this was about how I see the subject matter. That is not the same thing as the academic discipline and anthropology departments. I do not know what the academic history of university department called anthropology will be and I do not care. I do care passionately about the intellectual enterprise we have been engaged in and I want it to continue, to develop and to continue to criticise itself.

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