Second paragraph of third chapter:
At the turn of the twentieth century, this optimism had begun to falter, after which it was shattered by the atrocities of the First World War. Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams and the subconscious, published in 1900, and Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity (1905), may be seen as symbolic points of entry into a new, and more ambivalent epoch of modernity. These theories attacked the very substance of the Victorian world: Fred dissolved the free, rational individual, the means and end of progress, into subconscious desires and irrational sexuality. Einstein dissolved physics, the most abstract of the empirical sciences, and the foundation of technological innovation, into uncertainty and flux. In 1907, Arnold Schoenberg wrote the first bars of twelve-tone music and Pablo Picasso began to experiment with non-representational painting. Modernism was born in the arts, a movement which – despite its misleading name – offered an ambivalent view on truth, morality and progress. In politics, anarchists proclaimed the destruction of the state and feminists demanded the end of the bourgeois family. Less than two decades into the new century, a devastating war left the old Europe in ruins, and the Russian Revolution established a new, frightening or attractive version of modern rationalism. It was in this turbulent period of decay and renewal, disillusion and new utopias that anthropology was transformed into a modern social science.
I’ve never studied anthropology, but I was exposed to it closely during my PhD years for peculiar bureaucratic reasons. My doctorate is in the History and Philosophy of Science, but the Queen’s University of Belfast, in its wisdom, had closed the department down a couple of years before I arrived and split the two remaining lecturers between the Philosophy and Social Anthropology departments, my supervisor going with the latter. For most of my time, I was not just the only graduate student in History and Philosophy of Science in Belfast, I was the only graduate student in the field in the whole island of Ireland, so I socialised with the social anthropologists, whose departmental parties were legendary (I remember one year my supervisor and I performing the Fry and Laurie spoon-bending sketch, with me as the Uri Geller character wearing only underpants and an academic gown, for reasons that escape me right now). This also meant that I had a university card misleadingly marked with the name of my department rather than my subject, which led to this memorable exchange at about three o’clock one morning in Stranraer in 1992:
SECURITY GUARD, concerned to verify the credentials of youngish man attempting to sleep across three uncomfortable plastic chairs in the ferry terminal: Excuse me sir, can I see some forrm of identification?
ME, for it is me, rather sleepily: Er, sure, here’s my university ID card.
SECURITY GUARD, examining it and keen to check out my story: Ah, Social Anthrropology – that’d be Claude Levi-Strrauss and that sorrt of thing, would it?
ME, somewhat flustered: Would it? Er, I don’t know. I really study history and philosophy of science, anthropology’s just what it says on the card…
SECURITY GUARD, suspiciously: So, that means ye’d be into that man Kahn, or is it Kohn…
ME, in relief: I think you mean Thomas Kuhn…
SECURITY GUARD: Aye, Thomas Kuhn and the Strructure of Scientific Rrevolutions…
ME, sincerely and with great relief: Great book that.
SECURITY GUARD: Indeed it is, sirr. You trry and get some rrest now, for ye’ll be boarrding shorrtly.
Anyway, to get to the point. Since I became involved in politics as my main profession, I have consistently found that the insights I get from anthropology are far more helpful in understanding What Is Going On than I would have got from political science. Officials and policy-makers can be understood as tribal elders performing rituals (parliamentary debates, formulating legislation) motivated by concerns about their own status as much as by their belief in the intellectual content of what they are doing. I’ve encountered some particularly helpful stuff on the financial crisis, perceptions in Cyprus and the House of Lords, and I’m always on the lookout for more.
Unfortunately this book didn’t scratch my itch – not much more than simply listing historical anthropologists and their wider intellectual context, with frustratingly little about the content of their actual work; the fact that they argued with each other intensely is recorded, but what they argued about isn’t really, except when it’s gossip (how Margaret Mead met Gregory Bateson). I really didn’t learn as much from this as I had hoped, and it didn’t give me much in the way of pointers for future reading either.
This was both the shortest unread book I had acquired in 2009 and the earliest acquired unread non-fiction book on my shelves. Next on the former list is Fanny Kemble and the Lovely Land, by Constance Wright; next on the latter is Between Structure and No-thing: An Annotated Reader in Social and Cultural Anthropology, by Patrick J. Devlieger, which I hope I’ll find more useful.