Marxism and Nature, Critique and Anthropology

29 08 2012

This post begins in two disparate observations, but comes together around a common issue. The first observation is that there is a common misreading of Marx that portrays him as believing that nature has no value in and of itself. The second observation is that efforts to justify anthropology’s distinctiveness as a discipline are terribly unpersuasive to me. These two observations bring me to discuss what constitutes an intellectual discipline. I’ll talk about the two observations first, which should make clear how they lead me to the issue of justifying a discipline.

So, first, Marx. I have run across this observation most recently in Greer’s Wealth of Nature, but I have stumbled across it before. Presumably these have its roots in a specific misreading of Capital that has become part of a set of stock criticisms deployed against Marx. The source of the misreading is Marx statement that an object becomes economically valuable only insofar as it acquires some use-value for people.

The key phrase here is, of course, economically valuable. Marx quite clearly enumerates that there are other kinds of values inherent in objects, and that those values may influence whether something acquires a use-value for people. Nature does have value in and of itself for Marx, he just clarifies that these values are not properly the object of economic study. Or, stated positively as Marx intends it, the study of economy is the study of objects as they acquire a use-value for human communities.

Arguably, this sort of talk is most clearly articulated by, and has its roots in, Kant’s critical work. Kant had a basic insight that what set gave sciences their efficacy was their tight focus on a narrow set of problems. Instead of examining the whole world and its place in the universe, the sciences set for themselves a narrow problem which they proceeded to explore and unravel. He attempted to do the same thing for philosophical thought (the jury is still out on that).

Kant spurred efforts to specify and clarify a discipline based upon the set of problems it set for itself. In more modern parlance, we might say that it encouraged disciplines formulated around clear research agendas. When Marx describes economic value, then, he is not making sweeping claims about what does and does not have value in some absolute sense. He is just specifying a research agenda, a set of problems that merit treating economy on its own terms. The question of economy’s broader integration in the disciplines remains an open question, that can only be resolved by practical pursuit of the research agenda.

Marx does think, for example, that pursuing an economic research agenda allows him to make statements about the structure and development of historical societies, including his own. In this way, he makes a claim about the primacy of economics over traditional historical work which is distinct from, while being an outgrowth of, his assertion of an economic research agenda.

For what it is worth, this is also what folks like Greer and his favored scholar Schumacher are doing. They are establishing more clearly the limits of the field of economy and integrating it more broadly into a broader field of disciplines whose research agendas must be examined for their impact on economics’ agenda. Greer’s economic pursuit one-ups Marx, suggesting that a large portion of economics can be absorbed into a robust ecological model. I find Greer’s ecological model more robust than Marx’s narrower economic one, but that’s a different matter than saying that Marx didn’t value nature.

Now, to the second observation regarding anthropological justification. I’ve been reading this book that takes as one of its primary concerns the formulation of a model of truth suited to anthropological discourse. Holbraad isn’t quite doing the Kantian critique, but he edges quite close to it. In talking about the sort of truth claims proper to anthropology, he makes a bid for establishing anthropology as a discipline irreducible to others, a field with its own terms.

He does so, in part, by turning his eye away from much contemporary anthropological work which has taken a historical and trans-regional approach. From there, he proceeds to offer a thorough criticism of anthropology as a discipline and its struggle to come to grip with culture as an object of study. Dismissing models of evolution and diffusion that characterize early anthropology as well as later models favoring fancy terms like hybridity. he proceeds to offer his own approach rooted in his study of Ifa in Cuba.

His reading of classical anthropology leaves much to be desired. Like too many contemporaries, he tends to over-emphasize the theoretical ideas of his predecessors and under-emphasize their practical observations. He treats their work as flowing very smoothly out of their theoretical preconceptions when, in most cases, their work forms the basis for them to grapple with forming theoretical conceptions. They take for granted the paucity of theoretical tools at their disposal and are struggling mightily, though clumsily at times, to expand that repertoire.

I agree with him that anthropology undergoes a dramatic transformation as it attempts to come to terms with its colonial legacy, but I think he fails to see how firmly embedded his work remains in that. The reflexive turn in anthropology, partially fueled by the influx of Marxist ideology, fosters an environment favoring highly theoretical speculation. Sweeping statements about the nature of social life are sought to underpin and guide anthropology so as to avoid the missteps that supposedly characterized its earlier phase.

That theoretical turn rereads the early phase of anthropology and seeks to delineate it into easily constrained categories. The struggle and ambiguity is erased in favoring of assigning clear theoretical positions and battle lines. What was initially a discipline that focused on studying other cultures becomes a discipline fixated on determining precisely how to define ‘culture’ as a term.

Many of the contemporary studies that Halbraad sidelines from his own discussion (e.g., J. Lorand Matory’s work) provide some of the first real signs of breaking free of this theoretical paralysis. They do this by joining anthropological observation to historical study. The study of ‘culture’ gives way once again to the study of this or that culture in their relationship to other cultures over time and the ways in which individuals navigate that situation.

In these studies, terms like ‘other’ and ‘culture’ have a pragmatic and heuristic function. They are not taken for absolute things that need to be carefully defined, but as points of entry into complex networks. While they surely were in need of revision and clarification, it was an effort to do so by increasingly theoretical apparatus that made it problematic.

Contrastingly, Halbraad’s effort to formulate truth starts to feel more and more like the latter-day spasms of theoried anthropology. Rather than revisiting the basic model upon which the system rests and the relationship of it to the studied material, it introduces still more complex, ad hoc qualifications to it. Rather than a new research agenda (i.e., a ‘Copernican’ revolution), it looks like the last holdout of an old research agenda (i.e., reactionary ‘Ptolemaic’ model).

It doesn’t help that, to my eyes at least, the final product of his theory is so bland. By safely sequestering the ‘truth’ of Ifa divination by attributing to it the quality of being ‘indubitable’ to those who participate in it, he can then set up ‘anthropological truth’ as ‘anti-divination’ resting on epistemic humility. While it may be a little better than the tiresome tendency of some anthropologists to identify anthropology with sorcery or shamanism, it surely isn’t any real advance, either.

Contrary to Holbraad, I suspect that there is no truth proper to anthropology, no research agenda to which its methods are particularly well-suited. To the extent that anthropology has a future, I believe it lies with anthropology’s re-integration into other domain, of which history is the most prominent.

Distinct from these other domains, though, anthropological approaches overemphasize the singular, often sloppily projecting it into the domain of the universal under the auspices of relativism. Holbraad’s effort strikes me as more sophisticated than most, but still irreparably flawed.

That isn’t to say that anthropology, either as a discipline or an institution, was or is pointless; it’s to say that what is valuable in it needs to find its proper place within another discipline’s research agenda, in another field of inquiry. Ptolemaic astronomy didn’t vanish without a trace, but many elements of it were re-examined and re-interpreted in a number of fields, most prominently Copernican astronomy.


I’m sure most will see the commonality underlying both of these observations: Marxist economics and contemporary social anthropology are disciplines that have come up against the limits of their research agendas, encountered situations which their methods are poorly suited to fully explain.

What both, in turn, have in common is a foundation in the late 19th-century and 20th-century efforts to illuminate the social situation of Western Industrial Society (Marxism from the inside, anthropology by describing its outside). The limits they are encountering presently aren’t simply internal limits (but they are definitely those), but external ones, too.

The world in which they emerged and from which they drew their implicit sensibility, is starting to show signs of wear and decline. Much of what has defined their respective ‘theoretical’ advances in the latter half of the 20th century amounts to modulating their theory to deal with the increasing mismatch between their models and the world.

One of the clearest signs of this is the way in which both have become hyper-complex, with layers and layers of just-so explanations added to explain the increasing failure of the discipline’s explanatory force. Post-modernity in general is the shape of this process writ large, the effort to hold onto established explanations in the face of their failure. I may want to talk more about that, but that’s enough for now.




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