To “Abu Muqawama”: Tilting at Shadows of an Ivory Tower

It is not surprising to me that the “Ivory Tower” image (really the shadow of one) has come in for breathless attacks by various writers and bloggers on the right. I certainly am not interested in preserving an Ivory Tower either. However, the notion that the way out of the Ivory Tower leads straight into the Pentagon is utter nonsense–self-serving rubbish produced by right wing bloggers who still manage to fail the most basic comprehension test, and that is: comprehending that most Americans, most people on the planet, and the majority of Iraqis want the United States out of Iraq.

What makes the diatribes of this minority interesting, is not so much how their writing can shift rapidly from panting harangues to smug self-congratulating humour (a bipolar disorder will do that), but rather the extent to which they mirror some common, and now more audible, criticisms of the relevance of anthropology. And they get it all wrong. These people are not tilting at ivory towers, they are tilting at shadows (not surprising for gargoyles who saw an enemy under every date palm).

“Academics have resisted real world relevance,” says one poster at Abu Muqawama–actually, not true, and very difficult to substantiate historically given the wealth of counter examples in all of the academic disciplines. For people who claim to hate “smear pieces” it’s interesting to see how quick they are to trot out their own.

Anyway, let’s not pick on the easy targets, lest anyone accuse us of child abuse. A more interesting post came from someone who might actually know a couple of things about anthropology, a certain “Michael“–my comments are attached to each passage, in navy:

“[anthropologist David Price] seems to assume that behind the military corruption of the discipline there exists a pristine and uncompromised field, something the trend-setters in the field have long denied.”–Excellent point, and of course I am biased, since this is one of the approaches I take on this blog. Of course, we cannot disagree on everything, all of the time.

“And cultural anthropology wonders why it has become such a fringe field. At the height of its influence it emphasized its possession of a useful expertise. If the field resented anything it was the failure of government to act on its research.”–Well, “cultural anthropology” as such does nothing, avoid personifying a whole discipline. Very few cultural anthropologists that I know even speak of being part of a “fringe field,” and I suspect that many of them simply do not care. If being a prominent field means being celebrated by military ghouls, I too would prefer to be fringe. What is most mistaken about this passage is one of its central assumptions. One of the primary reasons why the influence of cultural anthropology has been delimited is precisely because of its long association with, and relevance to, imperial authorities and colonial ideologies. Most of the so-called “Third World” will have nothing to do with anthropology. Anthropologists are barred from entering many First Nation communities. Figures such as Napoleon Chagnon were barred by a whole nation-state: Venezuela. Indigenous peoples no longer tolerate being produced by anthropologists–hence the numerous American Indian, First Nations, and Indigenous Studies programs…hence, following similar lines, Womens Studies, Ethnic Studies, African-American Studies, and so forth. It is anthropology’s relevance to the wrong sorts that has limited its influence, and I mean the sorts that the Abu Muqawama seem (very alone?) in adulating.

“For the last generation however the trend setters have devoted themselves to convicting their predecessors of bad faith. The mode of inquiry has become forensic and prosecutorial, devoted to the notion that ethnography is not only unscientific but ethically compromised.”–Absolutely, and perhaps it is too bad that the critiques did not go far enough, far enough to demolish what the military now finds so useful. I will not criticize anthropologists who have attempted self-criticism and self-reflection…the kinds of attributes woefully missing from the posters at Abu Muqawama (these brash, sure-thinking upholders of unprovoked wars against unarmed civilians, such is heroism in the US these days). What I will criticize is the safe limits within which the self-criticism is produced. I will not elaborate further here, but I do recommend that readers examine the text by Argyrou (2002).

“The marvel is that anyone would be interested in anything this small circle of anguished and endlessly self-reflective post-modernists has to say. One of the reasons the field manual works is that it ignored the linguistic turn (or casuistic spin, your choice). One of the reasons Price’s doesn’t is that it is more a grand jury indictment than an argument. The man does know how to google though.”–Foolish. Obviously, there is interest, including on the part of this Michael, otherwise they would remain silent (wise advice?), and the military would not be eager for anthropological expertise. So the real question you have to ask now is not why ought they be interested, but why are the military planners interested?

What the US Army and Marine Corps realize is that anthropology is the perfect discipline to support colonial penetration of other cultures. No other discipline has made the kinds of boasts that will gain the same sort of attention. “We know other cultures,” “we are at home, abroad,” “we are professional strangers,” “we can go native,” “we have ethnography,” “we are on the ground,” “we get the seats of our pants dirty,” “we acquire the native point of view,” and on and on it has gone. Now, be honest, which military intelligence types in the West would not start to deeply stroke their nether regions when pondering the “intel” value of such sales pitches?

The problem, as tackled on this blog, is not that anthropology is “irrelevant” as such, but more that it is relevant in the “wrong” ways.