0.171: Anthropology and the Will to Meaning: Vassos Argyrou

Posted on December 4, 2009 by


Anthropology and the Will to Meaning, by Vassos ArgyrouThis interlude in the series is to finally introduce the work of Dr. Vassos Argyrou (Reader in Social Anthropology at the University of Hull), specifically his book, Anthropology and the Will to Meaning: A Postcolonial Critique (London: Pluto Press, 2002) which I have referred to in the past on several occasions (a condensed version of his argument can be found in “Sameness and the Ethnological Will to Meaning” [full text PDF]. Current Anthropology, 40 (1), 1999: 29-41). This introduction is necessary since arguments and examples from chapters of that volume will appear in a number of the remaining essays. While my impression is that this volume has received little attention by anthropologists, I nonetheless strongly recommend it as a source of very sharp critiques of the western discipline, one that limits the import of post-modernism as a relatively safe branch of criticism, while showing that clearly anthropology has yet to face its day of reckoning.

Impossible Anthropology: Sameness

There is no need for any confusion about Anthropology and the Will to Meaning, no need to reconstruct its argument from between its lines, or to speculate about what it might really be about. Argyrou spells it out clearly and explicitly on the first page: “This book is about the impossible,” with his aim being, “to explain — contrary to those who foresee, foretell or call for an end to anthropology…why ethnographers, having repeatedly grappled with the impossible and failed, must nonetheless persist in their efforts to win a battle that is already lost” (2002, p. 1). And what it is that “impossible”? “In ethnological belief and practice, the impossible is the tenet of Sameness” (2002, p. 1).

[A lot of this argument takes us back to, and extends, what we encountered in an earlier post in the series, especially when speaking of Michel de Montaigne and Tzvetan Todorov, re-articulated in a subsequent post as the principle of ethnocentric egalitarianism.]

While anthropologists seem to celebrate cultural diversity, Argyrou argues that this masks an inherent attachment to sameness. Behind the applause for difference, anthropologists maintain “the ultimately unworkable idea that despite, or perhaps because of their differences, all societies embody the Same cultural value and worth” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 1). Moreover, in the very attempt to prove Sameness (which he always capitalizes, as with Same), anthropologists end up producing its opposite:

“Sameness can never manifest itself in the world. Indeed, every attempt to demonstrate that this elusive social condition exists and is real does nothing more than reproduce its contrary, namely, Otherness, which is to say difference understood as cultural inferiority.” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 1)

The opposite of this Sameness of putative equality is not “difference” as such, but rather racism and ethnocentrism. Argyrou in fact finds that there is not one single paradigm that divides the world between West and Other that has not been guilty of ethnocentrism (2002, p. 2).

What Crisis? What Critique?

There never was a crisis of representation in anthropology:

“the best guarded secret in the discipline is that there has never been a crisis in ethnological representation….No such crisis has ever befallen the discipline because the most fundamental ethnological representation — the representation without which there would be no anthropology — is questioned by no one….The representation is none other than Sameness.” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 3)

What anthropologists refer to as post-modern challenges to the discipline, Argyrou instead labels as generally heterodox, and certainly part of the game. He argues that because “heterodox discourse strives to uphold Sameness”: while ethnographic representations may be fictions, as in partial truths, that is not to say all representations – all, except Sameness (Argyrou, 2002, p. 3). Why, asks Argyrou, is not Sameness itself recognized as a fiction and a partial truth?

When it comes to post-colonial theory, this does not fare much better under Argyrou’s critical analysis. Speaking of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, Argyrou disputes the value of a post-colonial discourse that is “dependent on Europe itself for its effectiveness”:

“The West remains at the centre of the world even when, or rather because it decides to provincialize itself. It is still at the centre precisely because it is it that authorizes its own ‘decentring’.” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 6)

More than arguing that postcolonial discourse is a Western-centered activity, Argyrou argues that its objective ought to be “demonstrating the limits of anthropology, sociology, philosophy, of Western discourses in general” and not simply by writing “subaltern histories, native anthropologies, indigenous sociologies or philosophies,” that is, not by writing within “the discursive domain opened up and authorized by the powers that be” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 6). The aim ought to be “to write the history of history, the anthropology of anthropology, the sociology of sociology and the philosophy of philosophy” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 6). Once again, this leads us back, in part, to Wallerstein and the Gulbenkian commission’s analysis of the institutionalization of the social sciences and understanding their Eurocentric bases (see here).

In the meantime, as we develop these critiques, one has to understand that the academic game is in fact a game, and to expose it as a game.

Laughing at the West

“The academic game is the game of knowledge (and ignorance) which is inextricably, if not always intentionally, also a game of power. The only way to put an end to this game (…under conditions of domination…) is to play it better than the players themselves. The only way to undermine the power of Western definitions of the world that burden the rest of the world is to beat the powers at their own game….play enough or as much as necessary to expose it for what it really is — only a game — a game not because it is innocuous but because it is arbitrary and cannot be grounded anywhere.” (Argyrou, 2002, pp. 6-7)

It cannot be grounded anywhere, Argyrou tells us, and he explains:  “there is no Western discourse — not a single one — that can be grounded anywhere or in anything except in its own arbitrariness….there is no Western discourse that cannot be exposed in its groundlessness and arbitrariness — that cannot be disenchanted and demythologized” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 9).

One of the aims of Argyrou’s discourse is “to make the audience laugh at the grandiose claims of Western discursive power” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 8). Who is the audience? “Those who are at the receiving end of this form of power” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 8). His discourse strives,

“to expose the arbitrary nature of Western power and to remind Others what they already know: that it is naïve, to say the least, to think that one small group of societies, in an insignificant part of the world, during an infinitesimal (in the wider scheme of things) time-span has reached such a level of enlightenment as to decide for all of us what it means to Be.” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 8)

Don’t Go There?

As I mentioned on other occasions, Argyrou’s volume is a required text for my course in Decolonizing Anthropology, the same course that I taught for the first time as I launched this blog. Inevitably I credit/blame Vassos Argyrou for some of the inspiration behind this project. I also acknowledge my thanks for our email correspondence in the past. For their part, students had mixed feelings: some were seething, openly disdainful of the book; others felt depressed by it; and some rather enjoyed it. It depends in part on the self-awareness and goal orientations of graduate students themselves: they do not often like to ask themselves the question of what the hell they are doing in anthropology, because it could unravel their hastily, partially made plans, or cast into doubt poor advice that they had trusted as wise and offered without self-interest. One would think they should be grateful for the opportunity to ask themselves what they are doing in anthropology, what they wish to do with anthropology, or what they will allow anthropology to do to them…while they can still choose alternatives, or commit themselves to fashioning something new. What we really do not need are more Malinowskian repeaters who deceive themselves into paths that take them into permanent academic underemployment as adjuncts, forever bitter and worn. That only means that anthropology is still an adventure – yay! – but keep in mind that in some real life adventures people do fall off cliffs, freeze to death, get eaten by bears, and so forth.

I want to say a little more about another adventure, the game of which Argyrou speaks. Agyrou is careful to say, in the opening quote I used, “contrary to those who foresee, foretell or call for an end to anthropology” (Argyrou, 2002, p. 1). On one level, I think that I might understand him: if you call for an end to anthropology, you remove yourself from the game by essentially declaring that there is no game to be played, even before the game plays itself out. On another level, I don’t like being told where I cannot go (and most in fact tell me where to go, which I also don’t like, but for other reasons). Argyrou says that anthropology is impossible, but it’s important to keep trying…and I am not so sure that is the best answer.

It seems to me that calling for an end to anthropology is a major taboo, the touch stone of just how radical a critique aims to be. Dr. Wendy Wilson-Fall, an associate professor in Pan-African Studies at Kent State University, wrote here recently to say: “At times I wonder that we are at least as involved in writing about anthropology as in doing anthropology, and that writing must be presented as validation of anthropology and other anthropologists.” As a validation of anthropology, and other anthropologists – must this always be the predetermined happy ending? Is it to be expected of those with secured jobs in anthropology that, ultimately, they will have to defend their field? If so, can one ever really trust such critiques for being really critical? Because it would seem to me that the way you go about the game of objectivity is to write as if you had no interest vested in your position, to write as if you had nothing to lose, to write like no one would reasonably expect you to write. Anything else is predictable, and it too brings the game to a very quick end, if you are playing smart opponents. The other option is to call for an end to the game, so that you can steal the ball.

Am I calling for an “end to anthropology”? I would think that on some level this was already clear. On an institutional level, and in agreement with Wallerstein (a former teacher by a choice of mine), supporting the notion of opening the social sciences, to one another, and to reunify the science and the humanities, effectively means the end of anthropology as a discipline. On a different level, and depending on how one defines anthropology, it can never end as an expression of human interest in other humans – which is an interest that has been pursued for millennia, without institutional barricades, ramparts, bulwarks, and pulpits. A zero anthropology then is not no anthropology at all – that is a matter left to the curiosity of humans – but an anthropology that ceases to pin itself to power, that ceases to mystify us to its origins, its social position, and its vested interests. Well, let’s see, we have not reached zero just yet.

Some Reviews:

Harris, Mark. 2006. “Review of: Anthropology and the will to meaning: a postcolonial critique – Argyrou, Vassos.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12 (1): 259-260.

Robbins, Joel. 2003. “Review of: Vassos Argyrou. Anthropology and the Will to Meaning: A Postcolonial Critique. London: Pluto Press, 2002. Vi + 129 pp., notes, references, index.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 45 (3): 640-642.

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