Anderson (1968) cites Britain’s two areas of home-grown intellectual expertise (as opposed to importing White Emigre intellectual hit men) as literary criticism and Anthropology. [Revise: Metaphysics were esoterically permitted within literary criticism, as long as there was no scientific acknowledgement of the metaphysics.] Anthropology had imperial utility for Britain. How has Anthropology, as an imperial tool of surveillance, fit into the larger British avoidance of political-economic and classic sociological contribution to Enlightenment knowledge?
“…(C)laiming culture as foundational, anthropology approached mind and body alike as social constructions, and knowledge practices as phenomena of symbolic exchange. Culture represented a totality of symbol-systems…The imposition of meaning (was the) condition of human existence…Knowledge was a matter of an encompassing, collective, public and shared cultural context…Geertz concluded that while ‘becoming human is becoming individual‘, we nevertheless ‘become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns'” (Nigel Rapport, 2010: 9). Geertz and Evans-Pritchard built Anthropology in deference to White Emigre Wittgenstein’s imperial-friendly linguistic reduction and dismissal of time and change (Rapport 2010: 10; Anderson 1968).
Two Unreconciled Strivings; Two Warring Ideals in One Dark Body
Pagden (2013) shows that Enlightenment knowledge has always emerged from a community of philosophers launching social science, in order to know, via comparison, the range and associated contexts of human capacity, disposition, and institutions–for the purposes of establishing the possibility of and conditions for institutionalizing distributed sovereignty and freedom, or democracy (though not in its conservative-degraded sense). We recognize that Enlightenment philosopher-cum-human scientists were naive, their understanding was developing, and they relied on commercial ventures to span out across the world and gather comparative knowledge. We also recognize, per Melville, Rediker, & Linebaugh, that internationalist “motley crews” contributed to the advancement of the most valid Enlightenment knowledge.
When Rapport describes cultural-determinist Anthropology, he is describing a collective of both Enlightenment and anti-enlightenment scholars, constrained by anti-enlightenment parameters selectively augmenting and quieting voices, and at best wholly substituting the Anthropologist-interpreted insights afforded by (often bunkered and imperially-constrained) research subjects in place of the important, corrective insights of the autonomous, internationalist motley crew. In conceptualizing knowledge as “a matter of an encompassing, collective, public and shared cultural context,” the status work of the Anthropologist in an anti-Enlightenment social context was to make culture systems legible to imperial intervention strategists.
Losing the Enlightenment, Staying Paid
Subsequent collective efforts to maintain status while containing Anthropology’s imperial surveillance function have resulted in failed projects to serve indigenous communities, as where Anthropologists retained imperial cultural-determinism but dumped out Enlightenment social-scientific knowledge, with the Ontological Turn. They reasoned that cultural-determinism without humanism corresponds to a radically-parochialist aspect of contemporary, colonized, Christianized cosmology within some indigenous communities, and adding their academic voice to amplify that separatist cultural construct, Anthropologists testified ineffectively for already-imperially-culturally-interpellated indigenous communities in colonial court and parliamentary contests over territory and resources.
Anthropologists dropped the humanist Enlightenment aspect of knowledge within a context in which the cultural-determinist mode remains steadfastly, primarily useful to imperial-commercial power. It is useful to commercial-imperial power when their expropriation target does not have the capacity to inform ideas about made connections and making reconnections in relation to the flow of pleasures (and pain) over time, across Earthly life–when their target does not have the capacity to clarify what is at stake and ignite coalitional interest in building toward human institutional and dispositional possibility. Anthropologists romantically failed to grasp imperial centre-periphery history, power distribution, and political-economic relations, as overdetermined by the culturalism conferred by prestigious imperial-function constraints.
Materialism, in Anthropology and Beyond
Nigel Rapport (2010: 2) cites Kantian cosmopolitanism, as the combination of local diversity and global commonality, to legitimate his proposal that Anthropology adopt a materialist conceptualization of human nature as species capacities and liabilities.
Rapport cites a physiologist to describe how to undertand humans not via identity or idealism, but as a specifiable kind of process. “An organism is not made distinctive by the existence of a boundary, a skin, animal physiologist Scott Turner explains (2000), but by way of what its boundary does: exert an active, adaptive control over the flows of matter and energy such that the organism’s internal state is regulated in the face of changing external conditions” (Rapport 2010: 2). I would add that the external conditions may also change so that sufficient adaptation, sufficient control over the flows of matter or energy, sufficient internal regulation is no longer possible. Or the adaptation may itself impose limits, precluding further regulation, control, or adaptation, in which case inherent/internal change reaches its limits. In either case, the animal suffers or even dies. I am saying that a liability or capacity of humans is that we are not infinite or gods.
Rapport cites the organism’s boundary interpellation with its environment to emphasize not our susceptibility to having our dispositions reorganized, but rather more masculinely, to emphasize human control over an external environment. “Regulating the flows of energy and matter across its boundary effects an orderliness in nature such that the generating organisms may be described as ‘architects and engineers of their environments’ (Turner 2000: 7). To be human is to have the capacity to attend to the world in a particular way, to direct that traffic..Human beings have unique capacities to become; they can be uniquely fulfilled and thwarted” (Rapport 2010: 2).
At this point, Rapport digs materialism into a comfortable idealist, capitalist pit for his anthropological audience, arguing in purple-tinted prose that humans are specially gifted, in that their environmental “engineering” is “uniquely subtle, complex and flexible,” and more importantly, in that humans are infinitely “becoming,” adaptable (fortunately, for neoliberals and their expropriative masters). However, Rapport’s romantic reversion to imperial Great Chain of Being logic, as well as his romantic intimations of the posthuman (Do I smell the restoration of private-property slavery upon the wind?), are unnecessary and inimical to socio-materialism or historical materialism.
It is enough and better to say–and perhaps from a more-responsible sociological perspective, easier to notice–that human capacities and limitations exist within definite ranges (observable by comparative methods, and subject to organization and disorganization), within which humans are observably plastic, developmental–and their development can be appropriated and stunted. Of interest to Enlightenment human science, human capacities include communicative and organizational capacities, interventionary cooperative and boundary-setting capacities, and a limited range of senses as well as technological capacity to augment those senses; and human limitations include non-omniscience.