a post-modern economic anthropology

Professor Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Sun, 5 Mar 1995 09:59:22 -0500

Candace Bradley and Lynn Sikkink have asked some interesting
questions about the future of an economic anthropology:

"1) Can one be a postmodern economic anthropologist? And if so,
how? If not, why not?

2) How can we talk across ethnographic examples using economic
models, given contemporary postmodern critiques of comparison?

3) Are all contemporary economic anthropologists really
political-economic anthropologists?

4) Who are some examples of people doing economic anthropology
in a new way?

5) What is the future of economic anthropology?

These questions interested me in South AFrica, since for a long time
English-speaking anthropology (as well as history, sociology,
social/political geography, etc.) in SA has been dominated
by a generally
marxist/functionalist theoretical perspective. At the moment, after
the collapse of both communism and apartheid, and abeyance of faith
in a socialist future for AFrica, the political-economic approach has
fallen on lean times. It has not been undermined simply by
'post modernism', but by complex historical changes in the world
since 1989. Economic anthrpology, and political-economy in
anthropology have had a very valuable contribution to make to
southern African anthropology, but it also served to orient both
academic and public attention to the poor and oppressed in southern
AFrica, and to document the sources and consequences of their
economic plight. After the collapse of apartheid, however, it became
obvious that the economic plight of South AFrica and South AFricans
was not significantly different from that of the rest of Africa, and
that there were broad historical, economic and political parallels
between poverty in South Africa and that in the rest of Africa.
These have only begun to be explored, since the borders between SA
and the Rest of AFrica ('RA', for short) have only been breached in
the last couple of
years. I think this speaks to question (2) above. There is a great
deal of room for comparison between SA and RA, since depending on
what one wants to compare, there are numerous comparisons that can be
developed that hold political repression constant while varying
'culture', or hold 'culture' constant while varying economic modes,
policies, etc. The same would be true to factors such as violence,
land tenure, language, religion (i.e. w/r/to exploration of the
WEberian Protestant Ethic hypothesis in Africa, 'image of the limited
good', etc., for instance) and others. In other words an artificial
political and economic barrier has recently been breached that
divided the continent into two quite different political economic
regines, and forces us to ask the question about why some of the same
problems (or _seemingly_ the same) exist independently of
Apartheid. Some of these may be only apparent, while being deeply
different in other senses, but comparison would be instructive and
perhaps more valid here than in other parts of the world where sub-
regional histories have been different.
[Incidentally, for readers unfamiliar with Africa, the whole
southern half of the continent, south of a line from roughly Cameroon
to Kenya, there exists broad but very strong cultural similarities and
common genetic roots for all of the Bantu langauges and 'cultures or
civilisations' (to recall E. B. Tylor's definition of culture) ]
So much for comparison.
I think there can be a post modern economics or a post-modern
economic anthropology, but this would require a redefinition of the
'ontological imagination.' By that I mean, the imagination of what
is really real, and what is therefore 'economic' as opposed to
cultural. I think it would be possible for instance to define
economic values as just a form of cultural values. The shoe has
generally been on the other foot, that is, cultural values have been
defined as other forms ('superstructural','deceptive',
'representational', ...) of economic values. I think a post-modern
critique shows that this is not necessarily so, that is, that all
values are historically and culturally relative (to something,
including other values) and that the same insight must apply to
economic values as well. Thus, Sahlins has pointed out that needs
are always relative to culture, and that this implies that 'needs'
can never be completely met (that is, there can be no end of history
in a State that fulfills all needs, as Marx, as many other
visionaries, once imagined). This points to a central flaw in the
political economic reasoning (or economic reasoning generally) that
needs are definable, and that they can be met with a finite,
definable, and 'rational' effort. It they could be, this would
indeed imply an end of history, as Hegel realised, and as Nietzsche
feared. Nietzsche feared that 'needs' would not be met, that all
values were relative to power and to desire, and that neither search
for power nor satisfaction of desire were finite goals. This meant
no end of history, no final reference point, and thus no final
judgement, no possibility for a secular salvation, and thus no
possibility for a final moral solution. Famously, Nietzsche
collapsed in despair at this point in his reasoning, and subsided
into a near catatonic depression (exactly why this happened remains
an open question of course, but let us assume for romantic impact
that is was becasue of his ideas!)
This collapse has threatened much of contemporary scholarship after
Foucault re-discovered Nietzsche, and after the 'literary turn' and
'blurred genres' suggested that the Abyss of relativism was just that
-- an abyss, a dead end, no way out, _huis clos_
I do not think this is a necessary conclusion. It seems to me that
a revalued economic anthropology is necessary. If man were rational,
and if economics were thus the study of the rational means for the
satisfaction of definable needs and desires, then history need not
have progressed beyond the neolithic, or certainly beyond the
industrial revolution. But it has. Barings Bank has fallen to
unbridled derivative speculation. The international 'market' is
highly imaginary and is purely 'virtual'. Derivatives and futures are
not in any way understandable within the frameworks of a traditional
economics. This is 'deep play' in the sense that Bentham gave to the
term, and that Geertz used to talk about the culture of cockfights in
Bali. 'Deep play' (read Bentham, not just Geetz on this) demands a
highly culturally sophisticated economics and is the sort of open
ended, non-Hegelian, non-functionalist, non-rational economic
behaviour that we see all over the world today, but which remains
outside of a political ecomics of the usual sort.
I do not know of many actually doing much along these lines. It
would demand an integration of work such as that by Arjun Appadurai,
Nicholas Thomas, Ivan Karp and others on 'things' and the nature of
their value and how we value them. Andrew Apter's work on the nature
f power and values/revaluation in _Black Critics and Kings: a
Hermeneutics of power in a Yoruba kingdom_, and Jean-Francois BAyart's
_The STATE in AFrica: the politics of the belly_, all point in some
interesting directins. I think we need an anthropology of 'things'
that leads us to understand these in complex cultural ways. The long
sleep of the study of 'material culture' from which anthropology is,
I think, awakening, is useful here. All 'culture' is 'materialised'
in some way, and these materialisations have values, some of which
are expressed in terms of 'price', and are thus 'economic'. All
'material' is culturally embedded: I would argue that this is what
makes 'material' different from 'matter' --the un-meaningful
background stuff of the universe (not 'nature' since this is already
a cultural category -- _pace_ Hegel, Marx, Engels, . .. Marvin
Harris, ...) An examination of these ideas would provide for a
healthy future for an 'economic anthropology', but ti would involve a
post-modern deconstruction of what we mean by 'economic' and probably
also by 'anthropology', and so on, and this makes a lot of people
nervous. Those who are made nervous by it, would not recognise a
resulting discourse as an 'economic anthropology', however, so in
those terms, I think economic anthropology, _tout court_, is dead.

I am not, however, and economic anthropologist. I work on power,
violence, and cultural boundaries of race and identity in South
AFrica. An economic anthropology is essential to this work. Thus
my interest in your questions. I wonder if others have something to
say about this?

=====Professor Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology====
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
Office tel. : (011) 716-2900
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