Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: email from author/Anthropology News 42(1) January 2001
Source URL: none

Zen Marxism Revisited: Tierney and False Dualisms in Anthropology

Steven Rubenstein

Ohio University

This commentary is not meant to add to the debate between those who have accused Napoleon Chagnon of unethical and deceptive practices, and his defenders. Rather, it addresses a fundamental issue that, although hardly more important than the morality and legitimacy of Chagnon's research methods or the welfare of the Yanomami, makes it difficult to discuss these concerns with any clarity or fairness. The issue is the nature of the divisions in our discipline. Commentators recognize these divisions only in order to explain the vituperative tone of the debate, and avoid analyzing the issue itself. But it would be most discouraging for anthropologists to allow journalists to do what we would never admit to doing ourselves: accept informants' accounts at face-value.

This is a central point of "Zen Marxism." In that 1963 essay, Robert Murphy argued that in invoking Marx in Tristes Tropiques (Atheneum, 1974), Claude Levi-Strauss was really appealing to Hegel's ontological rejection of the world of appearances, and to the consequent claim that there is a "Reality beyond reality." According to Levi-Strauss, for example, Bororo moieties presented the appearance of symmetry, but masked profound asymmetries between three endogamic classes. Murphy welcomed this as a "step away from the tradition of positivism" and an appeal to "dialectical philosophy as a method in social inquiry."

The debate over how best to represent moiety systems is barely remembered now. But Levi-Strauss' relatively marginal status today may owe more to the power of his method than the shifts in our interests. Taking him at his word, Levi-Strauss' critics did a "structural analysis" of structuralism, revealing the extent to which his own writings construct a false reality. Specifically, they have suggested that the binary oppositions underlying social structures, which provide an objective basis for comprehending human nature, actually disguise a hierarchical relationship in his writings between Western and non-Western cultures. They argued that structuralist analysis was grounded in this hierarchical ordering of human societies and so was unacceptable.

Now, however, we find both this hierarchy and Levi-Straussian binary oppositions have returned. Both are evident in the title of Mr. Tierney's book, Darkness in El Dorado, which simultaneously evokes the oppositions between Indians and conquistadores and day and night. In academia as well, some have interpreted the debate over this book as a symptom of an anthropological debate concerning human nature - which they understand in terms of the opposition between noble primitives and violent savagery. This, of course, is a caricature of the arguments about Yanomami warfare and peace.

Even stranger is the prominent role that binary oppositions play in some current accounts of anthropology. As The New York Times recently put it, "Anthropology is riven by two opposing worldviews," namely, sociobiology and cultural anthropology. This perception is evident among scholars as well: according to the University of Michigan's statement, "a schism has developed" in anthropology between scientists and anti-scientists. Today we do not have to turn to such societies as the Bororo for examples of dual organization; we need only look at ourselves!

There is, of course, one notable difference between the division of Bororo society into moieties and the division of anthropology into two opposing "worldviews" or "paradigms." Among the Bororo, dual organization purportedly maintained balance in the society through a series of reciprocal exchanges. The reorganization of anthropology programs at Stanford and elsewhere suggests that our dual organization has promoted isolation and antagonism rather than reciprocal integration.

Levi-Strauss suggested that the real cause of isolation is social inequality. Perhaps our division into two opposing camps is the result of heightened competition over scarce resources. For example, in 1995 many anthropologists defined themselves as being either "scientists" or "post-modernists" in a struggle for control over American Anthropologist. It also reflects orientations to different sources of funding; thus, C.P. Snow's distinction between a scientific and a humanistic culture may be reframed as a difference between people who submit proposals for funding to the National Science Foundation and those who submit to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Nevertheless, I believe that accounts of the division of anthropologists into "scientists" and "anti-scientists" is exaggerated and misleading. Although we may fall into two camps in times of crisis, ordinarily our practice is far more varied and flexible. The four-field approach, in which biology, language, and culture are related but in non-hierarchical and irreducible ways, signals the complexity of our object of study. Anthropologists do not limit themselves to only two patrons, and the structure of the AAA reflects tremendous diversity.

From the perspective of those of us who value both truth and justice, the attempt to explain the controversy over Tierney's book in terms of a conflict between scientists and anti-scientists is surreal. For one thing, the "anti-scientists" appeal to a preponderance of facts to support their case, and accuse Chagnon of personal bias - the very values that "scientists" claim as their own. Conversely, Chagnon's supporters call attention to Chagnon's personal integrity and commitment to the Yanomami, invoking value-laden assessment criteria many "scientists" attribute to "anti-scientists."

These binary oppositions are used to explain to outsiders why anthropologists are divided in their reactions to Chagnon's work and Tierney's claims; the supposition is that there are only two positions available (for or against), and that "scientists" will necessarily reach one conclusion and "anti-scientists" will necessarily reach the other. This, however, is far from the case. Many anthropologists are critical of both Chagnon and Tierney (or their proxies), and many are sympathetic to Tierney's concerns yet see some value in Chagnon's work. The attempt to divide anthropology into two camps obscures the reality of anthropological practice.

Levi-Strauss saw in dual organizations something unreal not only because they masked unequal social relations, but also because the underlying relations were more complex. Certainly, this is the case with anthropology, which Eric Wolf once described as "the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanistic of the sciences." Accounts of a schism in anthropology thus remind me less of the Bororo moiety system and more of Caduveo art. Levi-Strauss was taken by the elaborate designs that Caduveo women painted on their faces and bodies, that opposed angular and curvilinear patterns, and motif and background. Noting that the Caduveo lacked dual organizations such as moieties, he concluded that the Caduveo had accomplished through style what the Bororo had achieved through social institutions: the illusion of balance. Just as the obsessive bifurcation of Caduveo bodies expresses their "collective dream" of a simpler life, accounts that divide anthropology into two camps may just be our collective dream of a simpler explanation.

I am tempted to suggest that the two moieties of anthropology are unreal, not because they mask our divisions but because they mask what unites us. But what is it that unites us, when our object of study, humanity, is so complex and diverse? Anthropologists have debated this question since the birth of the discipline; Murphy himself struggled with where to place Levi-Strauss theoretically. Ultimately, for Murphy the enduring contribution of Zen Marxism was the appreciation of the impossibility of establishing absolute claims: "Every effort to understand destroys the object studied ... until we reach the one lasting presence, the point at which the distinction between meaning and the absence of meaning disappears: the same point from which we began." Although some may take this as nihilism, I see it as a warning that we must destroy the illusions we have about ourselves and our world if we are ever to engage one another as equals, with respect. At times like this, when journalists and other members of the general public ask anthropologists if they are really helping or harming others, this task is more important than ever.

Steven L. Rubenstein is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Ohio University. His book, The Many Lives of Alejandro Tsakimp', based on research conducted among Shuar Indians in the Ecuadorian Amazon, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press.