Anarchism: A Crisis for Art, Science, and Politics

There is something out there beyond the reach of the world system (capitalist or otherwise).  The “system” is powerful but not omnipotent.  Pockets of resistance persist and show us that even in this hard-bitten postmodern age other ways of being are possible.

[What follows are reflections upon reading the essay “Art, Science, or Politics?  The Crisis in Hunter-Gatherer Studies” by Richard B. Lee.]

Richard B. Lee, anthropologist by trade and author of several works on hunter-gatherer cultures, is probably a familiar name to those who consider themselves anarcho-primitivists or deep ecologists and others who level their critiques and attacks at the culture of civilization itself.  In his essay, Lee illuminates several questions that cannot fail to be of concern to such subcultural entities, who often imagine that by study of other kinds of societies some insight may be gained into prescriptions for living.  Anarchists who are not careful run the risk of lapsing into a search for a master blueprint, or of making a fetish of some particular tactic, institution or intellectual creation.

The title of the piece under consideration refers to the academic confusion over whether the study of hunter-gatherers should be classified as an art, a science, or an arena of political advocacy and action, and also to the doubts about whether the subject of such studies is valid or relevant given the elusiveness of “intact” hunter-gather cultures.  These concerns immediately strike me as parallel to similar debates that occur among anarchists regarding the theoretical underpinnings of “anti-civilization” anarchism which, after all, is a pool fed by many, various, and sometimes conflicting tributaries.  Among these are the currents of primitivism, queer nihilism, post-modernism, human ecology, etc., as well as the slew of cultural and social movements that they embrace.

Lee starts off his essay by noting the controversy surrounding the concept of the hunter-gatherer itself and the contestation which marks the treatment of almost every specific aspect of hunters and gatherers.  He outlines the anthropological issues which have persisted for decades involving evolutionism, optimal foraging strategies, the status of women, and the relevance of foragers for pre-history, history, and various world views.

In enumerating the contending schools of thought on these matters Lee begins by citing C. P. Snow’s essay “The Two Cultures,” which explains the apparently irreconcilable conflict between two academic subcultures in science, with clear applications in anthropology.  These cultures are the humanistic and the scientific.  In the former, scholarship was devoted to studying and interpreting the meanings of great works of art and literature.  In the latter, studies were devoted to rigorous and systematic analysis of natural laws and principles governing the natural and human world.  These could be seen reflected in anthropology by, respectively, field workers who record life histories of elders and cosmologies and those that try to improve technologies of data collection in order to construct mathematical models of predator-prey behavior.

For anthropology, Lee adds a third and fourth to Snow’s conventional two cultures:  the cultures of political economy and of revisionism.  Lee’s third culture focuses predominately on the relation of forager society to regional and world systems.  Despite some demarcations between them, elements from all of the first three cultures is often blended in research projects.

The fourth culture– the revisionist school– is influenced by some elements of political economy and some elements of post-modernism (as are an increasing number of anarchists).  This tendency in thought is the most radically removed from the others and poses the deepest problems for hunter-gatherer studies.  Writes Lee:  “Following the lead of Foucault, Derrida and the French post-structuralists, several anthropologists have declared hunter-gatherer a noncategory, a construction of observers mired in one or another brand of romantic idealism.”  It is hear that the ears of green anarchists enamored with the possibility of other lifeways must perk up and pay heed to this very familiar and persistent charge, to see what is vital and valid in it, and what is not.

The revisionist critique contains a few distinct forms.  The first treated by Lee remains on the familiar terrain of empirical evidence and analysis.  It argues that foragers have been integrated into regional and world systems for long enough and to a great enough extent that the view of them as bounded, isolated, and pristine is a product of the ethnographer’s view of them, and not of their own historical reality as they’ve lived it.  But a more radically skeptical line is also put forward by the subgenre of revisionism influenced most strongly by post-structuralism.  This school argues that there is no inherent truth, that there are only particular regimes of truth and power.  Thus, ethnographic writing has more in common with fiction and literature than with science.  “Truth is at best partial, flawed, obscured, and above all relative.”  In this view, the identification of hunter-gatherers as the Other is discarded, because they are really only an obscured image of ourselves.

I pause here to mention two other essays which form parts of a rebuttal to the view of the post-modernists, very briefly summarized above.  “The Catastrophe of Post-Modernism” by John Zerzan and “Virtually Hunting Reality in the Forests of the Simulacra” by Paul Shepard both criticize the stances taken by the post-stucturalists regarding the view of other cultures and of reality as nothing more than a matter of textual interpretation.  In a different but related vein, the work of feminist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock also challenges the views which ethnographer’s impute to their subjects and the inherent biases that obscure the substantial differences between foragers and ourselves.

But Lee does a fine enough job on his own pointing out some cursory implications of the post-modern critique.  He identifies the two most over-riding propositions contained in the critique:  1.) Nothing is Real.  and 2.)  The System is All-Powerful.

Due to the mass-produced and fabricated nature of so much modern culture, and the way in which modern culture has beset and subjugated supposedly intact foraging cultures, not only academics, but common people as well often build a “shell of cynicism” as a survival strategy in fabricated times.  Lee acknowledges that there is a kernel of truth to the claim that all societies are the product of interaction with other societies and world society (and cites some works on the subject), but nonetheless refutes the idea that “nothing is real.”  He denies that knowledge of others, however filtered, is so arbitrary and suspect that it cannot be used as a basis for some degree of truth in the world.  Lee then summarizes:  “…the position taken by the poststructuralists is not that nothing is real, since all take as given the existence of the power elite, of the state and its bureacracies, and of the world system and its awesome power and reach.  Therefore it would be more accurate to represent Proposition 1 as “Nothing is real…except power.”

This brings us to the second proposition:  that the system is all-powerful.  While Lee says that the instantaneity of communication technology, the vast output of culture industries, and the phenomenal growth of state and multinational corporate apparatuses as shaping and controlling forces on human behavior has seemingly erased the past and produced a mystique about the totalizing reach of power.  This results in fantasies of the omniscience and omnipotence of power that, while rightly bringing in the old “pristine” view of foragers for a round of critique, has thrown out the baby with the bathwater.  “It could be argued that the revisionists’ willingness to project the present onto the past indicates an enchantment with the power of Capital that is, at base, no less romantic and uncritical than the much-criticized enchantment with the pristine or primitive other.”

When anthropologists go among the remnants of foraging societies, they are at least partially poised to distinguish between institutions that are relatively intact from a prior era, and institutions that are in a state of flux, disarray, or siege.  The anthropologists of the 60’s who thought themselves to be sheer crusading empiricists may have indeed obscured their other role as storytellers or “weavers of narratives”.  However,

As Donna Haraway has noted, one of the master narratives constructed (in part) from hunter-gatherer data has been the story of human nature and life in the “state of nature”:  who we are as a species, our past, and by implication our future.  The poststructuralist project focuses our attention almost exclusively on the “constructedness” of these narratives.  But just because they are constructed doesn’t mean that they have no claim to empirical validity or that the search for knowledge of the past is an illegitimate enterprise.  Ethnographic analogy to the past does involve leaps of extrapolation and therefore must be treated with extreme caution, but the archeological record can and does provide direct knowledge of the distant past.

It is true that anarchists have a battery of reasons to reject the whole academic and scientific framework from which Lee hails, albeit as something of a renegade.  The claims to “empirical validity” so minutely parsed out and occasionally defended above have too often (at least since the onset of Cartesian science in the Middle Ages) and, furthermore, systematically been used in the subjugation of history’s losers.  Even so, can anarchists fail to be stirred in some way by the sentiment quoted in the opening of this post (whether despite or due to its source), or by the existence of societies without capital accumulation or any of its rituals?  It would be utter folly to extrapolate from anthropology a romantic master blueprint for our species, or to succumb to supposedly objective prescriptions for living made by those who are as much a “prisoner of ideology” as anyone else.  However, can the flesh and blood realities of something beyond the world system be so easily dismissed?

Almost all of humanity lives today in highly organized bureaucratized societies of enormous scale and systematic inequalities.  Hunter-gatherers, in spite of the inducements (or threats?) to become incorporated, choose for whatever reasons to resist and to live lives very different from that of the majority.  The pace is slower, technology simpler, numbers smaller, inequality less, and the relationship to land and resources– the sense of place– is on a radically different basis.  Following Clastres, I have argued that what sets hunter-gatherers apart is their ability to reproduce themselves while severely limiting the accumulation and concentration of wealth and power…. Since the accumulation of wealth and power (and resistance to it) is the driving force of much of human history, it follows that societies that don’t have this dynamic must have a dynamic of a different sort:  what Tim Ingold has called a “different kind of sociality.”

This strikes close to the heart of the matter for those anarchists who wish to un-cage the liberatory prospects studied from the ivory tower of the academy and burn the rest.  The above features of life are desirable outside of the lens of romance.  Even though people everywhere, including foragers, are (to paraphrase Paul Shepard) in some senses inept, it may still be true that people struggling for meaning, dignity, and health– for total freedom– who live in the bio-politically engineered environments of postmodern capital can learn invaluable lessons from those who exist beyond bar codes and fluorescent lights.  And while foraging cultures certainly are not “Us,” we have more to gain from seeking commonality with them than with any of Lee’s four cultures of the academy.

Foragers are often imagined– erroneously– to possess an inscrutable, mystical oneness with nature, irrevocably lost and cut from an entirely different cloth from our own faculties.  While this view may acknowledge the many capacities and inclinations that have been lost with the coming of civilization and its stultifying technology utterly devoid of liberatory prospects, it is known that foragers indeed make use of empirical observation and possess a taste for categorization, speculation, metaphor, even poesy and erudition.  Free life is more than a matter of mere tossing about in a chaotic sea, though that it may be.  There are significant indications– signs all around if we care to read them, traces afoot if we care to track them– that primal anarchy really consists of achieving the proper etiquette toward our fellow creatures, fulfilling our reciprocal obligations and roles in a vast comity, a congregation or ensemble made up of peoples both human and other-than-human.

Anarchism, as the pursuit of that total freedom known as anarchy, eludes all classification as an art, a science, or a politics.  Anarchy is the name given to that which menaces these palaces.  But it may nonetheless make use of certain elements from any of them.  The raw ingredients of creativity and passion, of observation and reason, and of destruction, persuasion, and partisanship all may be jealously kept from sublimation to capital and the state, and deployed instead into a fierce reckoning with the nomadic joy and the tragedy of the cosmos.

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