2002 PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS
Peter Allen began his presidential speech two years ago with the story of his SAE pedigree. He noted that recent leadership in SAE appeared to be permeated by a Mediterraneanist Mafia with strong institutional links with Brown University. My presence here tonight is proof that all patterns may be broken. I hail from Antioch and Rice rather than Brown, and my research roots are in the north Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean. However, I do belong to SAE traditions rooted in the very beginning of the organization when, as Susan Carol Rogers noted in her ten-year overview of the organization (1998), the decision was made to ground the society in four-field rather than sociocultural anthropology. I would like to use this opportunity of a Presidential Address to reaffirm this commitment.
Let me begin by posing several questions about the study of Europe by American anthropologists.
First, what do anthropologists in general have to offer that is different from what other disciplines (such as historians, political scientists, and economists) have to offer?
Anthropology may be defined as the discipline that is willing to talk about the 2,000-pound elephant sitting on the table that nobody else wants to talk about.
In his book The European Culture Area (1973), the geographer Terry Jordan defined Europe as a Christian, Caucasian, Old World area where people speak Indo-European languages, are well-educated, healthy, well-fed, with birth and death rates below the world average and an annual average national income per capita above the world average. They are dominantly urban, industrial, with market-oriented agriculture, and an excellent transport system. Their nation-states are old, democratic, peaceful, and stable.
Anthropologists who study Europe, however, describe an elephant on the table that also speaks Hungarian, Basque, and Turkish; also holds a variety of non-Christian beliefs; also migrates between low-paying jobs; belongs to countries engaged in alarming acts of inventive divisions and fusions, racism and violence. Anthropologists describe the elephant of migrating, displaced, and excluded peoples (the Jews, gypsies, Turks, and Muslims ) who played an important role in defining European identity.
In my review of the ten-year history of the SAE called “Counting History” (1998), I found that the most common themes for sessions sponsored by SAE at the AAA were construction of identity, gender, ethnicity, and power. The most commonly studied geographic areas were eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. It is often said that anthropologists study the local, the marginal, and the dispossessed, but in Europe they are also working at the heart of power—in the European Parliament or European Commission, for example, following the vectors of policy across national boundaries as Europe invents itself in a supranational, transnational arena. Anthropologists of Europe talk less about Europe and more about Europeanization, and in this Benjamin Lee Whorf might recognize us as being more like Hopi than English speakers, focusing not on object and verb but on processes of being and becoming. This year at the AAA we have sessions on Portugal, Atlantic Europe, the Mediterranean, the Roma, the Balkans, and Post-Soviet Social Life; but we also have sessions that examine the construction of Europe in museums and food, that examine how power is staged, and that explore the location of the field in the European Union—in addition to honoring the lifelong work of Donald Pitkin and John Cole (we are starting to be old enough to have ancestors). In short, anthropologists use the dialectics of negation to destroy the monolithic construct of Europe. Europe is a construction, not a continent.
Second, what do Americans have to offer that is different from what Europeans have to offer in doing the anthropology of Europe?
American anthropology is different from European anthropology in part because of its four-field approach. One of the reasons American education is considered vital, responsive, and creative is its commitment to general education, multidisciplinarity, and intellectual nomadism. It is important that we hold onto this; that we not be snobbished into becoming more European by adopting what Europeans think it is appropriate to study; that we hold onto an American agenda of the study of Europe.
What is this agenda? As we said, it is four-field.
The archaeological perspective imbues a sense of perspective: Europe in the world as a small corner of the vast Eurasian land mass, a tidal pool where debris from the great flow of populations through Africa and Asia washed up against the great Sea of Darkness. For eons Europe was a sideshow to world events—cold, wet, fragmented by mountains, vast forests, great rivers. Only with the development of a universalistic, expansionist religion called Christianity were maps developed that argued for equality of space—the medieval T-O maps that gave Europe equal time with Africa; Asia, as the locus of silk, spices, and the terrestrial paradise, got a full half of the pie.
What about the issue of biology in European identity? Europeans typically define identity biologically or genealogically: where a people were primordially is passed on genetically, resisting the influence of environment; geography and race are linked with moral judgments about the goodness and badness of some people; identity is linked with hereditary privileges associated with ancient foundations. Europe has a romance with blood, ties to the land. Those who lack this incipient tie to the land, and who are different, should be excised from the land. Most Americans identify themselves as having come from somewhere else (even if they are eighth generation Californian they identify their Scottish, German, Venezuelan, and Chinese roots). I would like to suggest that the current fascination with diaspora is a European theme rather than an American theme. What are we all, if not diasporic? Migration is a given in American myths of identity. American anthropology of Europe has tended to focus less on race and place and more on understanding centers of power that generate identities.
Pursuing our four-field eclecticism, what does linguistic anthropology have to offer to an understanding of European identity? What is the difference between constructing an overarching European identity in the 20th and 21st century, and what happened in France between the 16th and 19th centuries when multilingual peasants moved toward national unity with a single language (as described in the book Peasants to Frenchmen)? In Europe today, English is being internationalized to serve as an overarching system of communication—Europe’s lingua franca, if you will–at the same time that regional, parochial languages are supported. The state is being constructed differently today than in the past. To me the real index of a common European language will be the emergence of the Great European Novel, like the emergence of the concept of the Great American Novel after America’s Civil War. Are we seeing this in Milan Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)?–a work that is inherently translatable because it conveys a common European experience?
And finally, the fourth leg of our American elephant, the cultural perspective. Some have argued that American anthropology is becoming bogged down in cultural studies and postmodern solipsism. Instead, I would like to focus on the American tradition of pragmatism and empiricism, its Peircean focus on habits, beliefs, and action rather than reified ideals. Whether we are studying gypsies or the European Parliament, we are strongest when we stick close to the rich images, metaphors, and negotiations of desire revealed by careful ethnographies. These strengths are exemplified in recent ethnographies such as Susan Terrio’s Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate and Stacia Zabusky’s Launching Europe: An Ethnography of European Cooperation in Space Science. What can the making of chocolate by French artisans or the construction of space stations by members of the European Union tell us about the tension between national identity and transnational cooperation and global convergence? The explicit telling of stories is very American: tell it the way it is and let the audience make up its own mind. The event itself has authority. We are seeing a return of the ethnographic, the grounded, as well as the undergrounded—letting the facts as well as the spaces between them speak.
What, in summary, is the American agenda in the anthropology of Europe?
To practice Vico’s dismal science, without heroic individuals; the practical mud, not the elegant ivory tower. To keep a strong sense of irony for how people use constructs. To avoid essentialisms and reification, and to stick to economic and political realities. If to be European is to be theoretical (as has been argued), narrowly trained within a theoretical focus and discipline, and blessed with an attitude of certitude and being right, then to be American is to be pragmatic, multidisciplinary, and frequently uncertain (if not humble), armed with four-field training, and ready to use eclectic methods and fresh approaches.
I would like to close with a few comments about postmodernism.
John Galsworthy, in writing about plays (1919), distinguished between plays that distort reality to deliver the moral expected by the audience, and plays that deliver the phenomena of life and character as they are.
As illustrated by Alan Sokal’s demonstration that a nonsensical, fabricated text can be highly valued as a theoretical contribution in postmodern contexts (Sokal and Bricmont 1998; see also how to generate a fine postmodernist essay using principles of linguistic dialectification at http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/postmodern), it may be argued that postmodernism is the distorted-morality play of our time. Sollipsistic, preoccupied with self, void of sympathy or curiosity, it puts reality on the side of evil and internal self-ruminations on the side of good. It is a bad plot, characterized by a row of stakes on which characters are impaled, or puppet ghosts that gibber and prant across the ethnographer’s stage to the ethnographer’s music rather than to their own.
Is it possible to have ethnographies that deliver the phenomena of life and character as they are, distinguished by what Galsworthy calls “the selfless character which soaks it with inevitability”? In good ethnographies, ethnographers are invisible—not because they have masked their bias but because they are doing a good job of describing the scene from which inherent meaning flows. Is an ethnography a creation? Of course it is, but like a good play, the group is posed to allow the unique life and character of the group to emerge—not to convey the ethnographer’s morals but those of the group. As Bernard Shaw once said (1911), “Life as it appears to us in our daily experience is an unintelligible chaos of happenings. You pass Othello in the bazaar in Aleppo, Iago on the jetty in Cyprus, and Desdemona in the nave of St. Mark’s in Venice without the slightest clue to their relations to one another.” It is the business of an ethnographer, as it is a playwright, to pick out significant incidents and arrange them so that their significance emerges.
Good ethnographies, like good plays, are sometimes criticized for not doing good; and sometimes the ethnographies that are distorted to do good (Mead’s south sea metaphors for American sexual freedom, for example, or Chagnon’s Yanomami metaphors of sociobiology) are criticized for their bias. What a dilemma—to do a distorted good or to do nothing significant. I suggest that we are lucky if we can be criticized, like Shakespeare has been criticized, for not doing good; that is, for being remote, detached, true not to the changing fads of the times but to realities described with a passionate commitment to telling the story without flinching; to capture human action and meaning as accurately as we can so that, no matter what the moral fads of the day, the details are sufficient to generate their own conclusions.
Galsworthy claimed that “In the whole range of the social fabric there are only two impartial persons, the scientist and the artist.” The roots of anthropology have always been said to lie equally in the sciences and the humanities. In this era of fragmentation, the enemy is not science or art (depending on which side you’re on) but the loss of impartiality and vision. Anthropologists as scientists-artists should not be afraid to use every device in their four-field armory to accomplish what has always been relatively easy to describe albeit difficult to do: to describe humans as they are, wherever they are, including Europe.
1919 Some Platitudes Concerning Drama. The Inn of Tranquility: Studies and Essays. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Pp. 189-202.
Jordan, Terry G.
1973 The European Culture Area: A Systematic Geography. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers.
1998 Counting History. Bulletin for the Society for the Anthropology of Europe 12(2):1, 7-9.
1998 A Decade of SAE Sessions at the SAE. Bulletin for the Society for the Anthropology of Europe 12(2):1, 6-7.
Rogers, Susan Carol
1998 SAE Ground Zero. Bulletin for the Society for the Anthropology of Europe 12(2):1-6.
Shaw, George Bernard
1911 How to Write a Popular Play. Preface, Three Plays by Brieux. New York: Brentano’s. Pp. xxii-xxvii.
Sokal, Alan, and Jean Brickmont
1998 Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. New York: Pacador.