Maurice Bloch and Everyday, Relevant Anthropology

Maximilian Forte over at Open Anthropology recently covered an interview with Maurice Bloch that appeared in Eurozine. In his summary, Forte highlights certain parts of the interview in a way which struck me as quite relevant to neuroanthropology. Interestingly, Forte had a similarly positive reaction to Bloch’s statements, even though his Open Anthropology project is focused on a different sort of public engagement and synthetic approach than what we do here.

Here’s why, captured in one of the more striking lines from Bloch: “I would consider that all human beings are anthropologists: all are concerned with the general theoretical questions about the nature of human beings, about explanations of diversity and similarity. Of course I’m not worried about the continuation of this form of anthropology.”

What about anthropology in its present, institutional form? There, things are not so clear. Bloch makes this provocative statement, “anthropologists have not been addressing those questions that are burning questions for human beings. Other people have done it and have not made use of what anthropologists have learned… I think we should engage with the general questions that people are ask, rather than spending our time navel gazing.”

On the applied side, particularly with regards to development and anthropology, Bloch tells us that the anthropologists’ “role is one of caution. Because we have learned that easy answers don’t work. So we anthropologists will always have a negative role [in public debates] and I think that’s right.” In contrast, however, the development and conservation experts who come in with big money, big ideologies and big power do not necessarily want to hear the “it’s complicated” anthropology message.

The “it’s complicated” message is both right and wrong, right because it is born from experience but wrong because we don’t know how to engage that well outside our own traditions. Here Bloch becomes the anti-anthropologist, because he challenges our theoretical claim-to-knowledge-fame, culture. (One could insert “power” almost as easily.) Why? Because our academic knowledge builds implicitly from our regular old knowledge, the sort of embodied, visceral, culturally-biased knowledge that we all have, and not the fancy theories and cultural patterns described in our books and articles. (See the Jeff Scher piece here for a similar critique, and our cultural theory category for older musings.) As Forte might put it, our anthropological knowledge is still elitist, Eurocentric, and colonial—we do theory for ourselves, not for the natives, whether those are our own native selves or any others we encounter.

The places that transmit this sort of approach to anthropology are of course anthropology departments themselves. “Anthropology departments teach and are coherent insofar as they have a tradition. That’s one sense of anthropology – as institution. It’s very possible that anthropology departments will disappear, there’s no reason why they should continue existing. They only exist insofar as they’re useful in terms of teaching and developing a tradition. It may well be that they just disappear; it wouldn’t bother me very much.”

Forte then asks the good question, about department’s own self obsessions: “How do we ascertain what is ‘navel gazing’–is it the abstract discussion of how the human soul is formed, or is it the seemingly pointless question of ‘why aren’t people wearing enough hats’?” He directs us to his recreation of a clip from Monty Python, a post called The Distraction of the Everyday.

Here I and Forte differ. His “matter is energy” is out there, in a project of knowledge decolonialization. It is a worthy project. But the out there, whether in the struggles of indigenous peoples or in the corporate boardroom, is also the everyday. The everyday can also become a site for reflection and theory and knowledge and action, a theme I’ve reflected on very differently in pieces such as Ethnography and the Everyday, Cellphones Save the Day, and Neurochemical Selves. Sometimes hats matter in themselves, just not quite in the ways we’ve traditionally understood.

Finally, I want to convey a long piece from the original Bloch interview on psychological and cognitive anthropology, which is directly relevant to our work here at Neuroanthropology.

MB: I am trying to demote culture as a basis for knowledge. I am interested how non-second degree knowledge, non-ideological knowledge, gets formed. A bit like Bourdieu, though unlike Bourdieu I feel that we need to look very deeply into what the sources of knowledge are. Bourdieu talks about “habitus”. That seems vague to me. “Habitus” is basically how practice gets into you. One then needs to study how that happens and what that means. It seems to me that Bourdieu’s point is right, but that it’s a very lazy point. One actually needs to turn to psychology of learning, to understanding how knowledge is stored, how it is formed, rather than just saying that it is a “habitus”. Bourdieu points in the right direction without really wanting to go very far.

That’s how I became increasingly interested in cognitive psychology. At that point, something important happened. A semantic revolution took place in linguistics, linked with the name of Noam Chomsky. What Chomsky was demonstrating was that the ability to use language was based not on what we’ve learned, but what we human beings, as a particular species, have developed through natural selection. That is, the ability to use language. In other words, our knowledge is formed not through culture, as anthropologists tend to think, but in terms of the kind of beings we are. In my later work I became interested in child psychology, by the fact that very young children, less than twelve months old, already have understandings of time and space and so on…

MK: You have recently worked on how to relate the findings of cognitive psychology to those of anthropology. In 1992, you gave the Edward Westermarck memorial lecture on “Internal and external memory” in Helsinki, where you criticized the way psychologists approach the more social aspects of memory. You said that “the problem with psychologists’ approach to memory in the real world comes from their failure to grasp the full complexity of the engagement of the mind in culture and history and in particular their failure to understand that culture and history are not just something created by people but that they are, to a certain extent, that which creates persons.” On the other hand, in your recent lecture “How culture squeezes in between social memory and autobiographical memory”, you criticised anthropologists for pretty much the same thing – namely a reluctance to take into account the work of psychologists (for example on different types of memory, neurologically speaking). Is it your intention to show that psychologists and anthropologists do not bother to take into account the other disciplines?

MB: Absolutely. You put it very well. I’ve slightly changed my mind since the Edward Westermarck lecture, which was a long time ago. But I still think that the basic point is right. What I was talking about back then was how different kinds of cultural systems, or let’s say ideological systems, create acceptable public representations of what people are like. That’s how I would rephrase what I was talking about. One very sharp difference is in how people imagine history, themselves, or their ancestors in history. People in Yemen imagine their ancestors and indeed themselves in the flow of history in a quite different way to Europeans. It seems to me that anthropologists should take this into account. Because – and this is a key word – “recollection” occurs in public discourses, when people speak and act in public. What I was trying to say is that we should not make a mistake of mistaking “recollection” for memory. It seems to me that remembering things as a psychological process, which the word “memory” means primarily, is quite different from the public and social act of recalling. And there might be very little connection between the two.

For example, public commemoration need have nothing to do with memory as a psychological process. It’s easy to say that the commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne has something to do with memory. But nobody would say that play-acting battles has anything to do with individual memory. Memory is about how past is inscribed in us, in our brains. It is affected by social and cultural factors in both direct and indirect ways. And before it can reach the stage of public recollection, what is normally referred to as social or collective memory, all kinds of barriers have to be crossed. The first is that an extraordinary act of transformation has to take place. Memory is not stored in our brains with language. Then, for recalling to occur, there has to be suitable social context. One can’t just talk about one’s past without there being a proper context for it. Finally, recollection has to use a language or set of actions appropriate to the social context.

There’s a tremendous distance between remembering and recalling. Let’s take the issue of commemoration for example. I would say that most of the time there is no connection between commemoration and inscribing the past in one’s brain. But in some cases there probably is and these are very interesting moments. Moments when the participants in commemoration begin to experience the past in the way that is psychologically similar to their own experience, their inscribed memory. That’s something worth studying. But those are exceptional moments and do not straightforwardly imply that commemorations have anything to do with memory.

MK: This brings us back to the main topic of Tallinn Summer School – “How collectivities remember”. You said in your lecture that in you do not believe in the concept of “collective memory”, at leas not in the Halbwachsian sense. At the same time, the term “collective memory” is real enough for lots of researchers. So how do collectivities remember?

MB: I am very interested in the connection between the psychological process of inscribing one’s individual past and public manifestations or verifications of “the past”. That is the interesting question. But if you use the word “remember” for both, it makes it seem that the connection between the two is perfectly straightforward. By denying the public implications of memory, it seems to be that one can ask much better how there can be a connection between the two levels, without assuming that there is one – because I’d say that most of the time there isn’t. That’s the first point.

The second point is that when you say that collectivities remember, you are speaking metaphorically. Given the normal meaning of the word “remember”, that would require the brain and the neural system. Therefore, collectivities literally cannot remember. That doesn’t mean that the metaphor isn’t useful or thought provoking. But, like all metaphors, it becomes harmful when we forget that it’s a metaphor. When we say that we can study how collectivities remember, while knowing that they can’t, is to be contradictory.

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