Big Man

Family lore has it that during the First Russian Revolution – 1905 – his mother carried anti-Czarist pamphlets in her school knapsack, and that she later worked briefly as a secretary to Rosa Luxemburg. That is where any biographer of Marshall Sahlins might want to begin. Or with the 18th-century mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic Judaism, from whom the Sahlins clan sometimes claimed descent. Born in 1930, Sahlins grew up on Chicago’s West Side, in a family unaffiliated with any Russian faction, but the radical nimbus remained. His interest in anthropology came early, as a boy, playing cowboys and Indians, with a decided preference for the latter. The discipline attracted the children of Jewish immigrants in the interwar decades. Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld, fellow West Siders, also started out in anthropology, which provided critical purchase on their otherwise headlong plunge into American society, along with the means to levitate thrillingly above the folkways of the old country that persisted in their families and neighbourhoods.

Sahlins is sometimes treated as an heir to the grand American anthropology tradition of Franz Boas. In fact, he stemmed from a rival line. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, he studied with the Mencken-like maverick – and anti-Boas brawler ­– Leslie White. A former student of Veblen and a member of the Socialist Labor Party, White had toured the Soviet Union on the eve of the Great Depression and wrote for Party publications under the name ‘John Steel’. He was a paradoxical figure. Culture, in his conception, was both a reflection of a society’s underlying economic constraints, but also an autonomous force organizing its social life. He developed a theory of technological determinism in human history, but also insisted that most of his contemporaries had underplayed the degree to which humans were a symbolically constituted species (these were among the antinomies that Sahlins would try to resolve). White led a relentless, at times ad hominem, campaign against Boas and his students at Columbia, whom he believed had failed to appreciate the gap between primitive societies and the impersonal structures of modernity. Boasians were adept at collecting ethnographic data, White conceded, but they were poor interpreters and theoreticians of their bounty. They seemed to care only about the diffusion of social forms, but not their history. The Boasians, in turn, viewed White as a crude evolutionist who was, consciously or not, abetting the worst of the racial science of the 19th century. As for his student: Sahlins relinquished the technological evolutionism but retained the radical and historical commitments, as well as the intellectual scrappiness. Like his mentor, he detested schools and disciples: there are admirers of Sahlins across the social sciences, but no hard-line Sahlinists.

In 1951, for his doctoral work, Sahlins moved to Columbia where the Boasian dynasty was now being eclipsed by a more radical generation. There was Elman Service, who fought against Franco and forged the typology of band, tribe, chiefdom and state; the anti-fascist anthropologist-poet, Stanley Diamond, who founded Dialectical Anthropology; as well as better known left-wing scholars such as Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz. Sahlins’s main influence while at Columbia was the Hungarian exile visiting professor, Karl Polanyi, then in his 60s. It was through Polanyi as well as the classicist Moses Finley that Sahlins got his first prolonged taste of a heterodox theory of the economy. He learned from them not only how artificial and state-conditioned the neo-classical understanding of the market was, but also how alien it was to settings outside the modern North Atlantic. While Finley and Polanyi applied their substantivist economic theory to the ancient world of the Near East and elsewhere, Sahlins started to do the same with Oceania. His dissertation, Social Stratification in Polynesia, which sought to demonstrate how Polynesian culture adapted to various island environments, was an attempt to blend the anthropological materialisms of White and Polanyi. It is a careful, library-produced work that gives a foretaste of the authority, but not the explosive creativity, of its author.

Sahlins, as was the case with Claude Lévi-Strauss, did not conduct as much sustained fieldwork as many of his contemporaries. In 1955-56, Sahlins and his wife spent nine and a half months living on the central Fijian island of Moala, which had 1,200 inhabitants, three Chinese shop-owners, and two outboard motors (though only one was operational). Upon arriving, the couple were frustrated to find themselves treated as superior beings. ‘It is unrealistic to believe that any European can be fully “accepted”; he can never be a Fijian in their eyes’, Sahlins wrote. After a few weeks, however, Sahlins was able to lower himself successfully in the Moalan hierarchy, to the point that he was no longer the first one served the local sedative drink of Kava, but came fifth or sixth. The couple spent most of their time on the island trying to discern pre-colonial rituals and social forms, though many of Sahlins’s most searching findings have to do with how the Fijians made use of colonial developments for their own ends. Colonialism had already thoroughly cannibalized some of the rituals on Moala. In wedding ceremonies, for instance, Sahlins described how families now indebted themselves far more than they ever would have in the pre-colonial period where gifts were made up of replaceable produce from their own land rather than movable goods from the outside. Rituals once meant to solidify kinship ties now threatened to devastate families (and demonstrated how Polanyi was correct to view the ‘rational economic actor’ as a fiction).

In 1965, nearly a half a century before Sahlins’s own student, David Graeber, co-coined the slogan ‘We are the 99%’, Sahlins coined the ‘teach-in’. After his doctorate, Sahlins had moved back to Michigan, where faculty members critical of the war in Vietnam came under fire for their plan to conduct a ‘teach-out’ – to teach their classes off campus. In response, as a consensus-building measure, Sahlins proposed ‘teaching-in’ – occupying classrooms and criticizing the war late into the night. (‘I might have been disposed to binary oppositions because in the 1960s Lévi-Strauss was an oncoming rage in the USA.’) The following year, Sahlins travelled to Vietnam, where he spent only a week but managed to produce ‘The Destruction of Conscience in Viet Nam’, a withering ethnographic report on the tribe of Kennedy-era operatives, whom he memorably described as ‘hard-headed surrealists’. He detailed the way Americans evaded structural questions by blaming ‘graft’ and ‘corruption’, minimized responsibility by conceiving of themselves as ‘advisers’, and channelled their rage for order into the torture of prisoners.

Sahlins was in Paris for 1968, working in Lévi-Strauss’s Laboratoire d’anthropologie sociale, where he was immediately recognized as capable of holding his own, and even occasionally showing up le maître. A decade later, in Culture and Practical Reason (1976), Sahlins tried to play the peacemaker between Marxists and structuralists. Marxists needed to recognize that structuralists had something to teach them about ‘primitive’ societies, while structuralists needed to acknowledge that Marxists had a unique purchase on the structures of modernity. Sahlins himself was more of an accretive thinker: he didn’t so much move through methodological phases, but compounded them, never really discarding anything, as his library vividly attested. Ultimately, however, Culture and Practical Reason fell on the side of the structuralists – cultural reason over practical reason. Sahlins charged the tradition from Morgan to Marx with willy-nilly positivism. Marxism, itself a product of bourgeois society, had only gone halfway in its analysis of it. For Sahlins ‘production is itself a system of cultural intentions’, as Lee Drummond once put it. Any Crow warrior who stumbled into 20th century Chicago would have been puzzled by the cultural distinctions between steak and kidneys, dog meat and pork, if they relied on practical reason alone, which would, according to Sahlins, see each of these as relatively equal sources of protein.

‘The Original Affluent Society’ – first published in Les Temps Modernes in 1968 – will probably go down as Sahlins’s most widely read essay, though despite its obvious power, it’s also the one most vulnerable to empirical criticism. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sahlin’s epic history of Hawaii in the Sandalwood period, Anahulu [1992], is his most empirically valuable book, but among his least read.) In it, Sahlins argued that far from being an epoch of misery and deprivation, life in the palaeolithic period consisted of a roughly 30-hour work week. With characteristic ferocity, Sahlins tried to account for this by going hour by hour through the palaeolithic working day. There was something quixotic in trying to generalize and tabulate about such a vast expanse of human history, and something anachronistic about trying to jam the concept of ‘leisure time’ into the social lives of cave-dwellers in 8000 BC. But the essay remains a political tour de force, less for its details, than for its bold re-conception of what scarcity can – and has – meant for humans for most of their history. If anything, Sahlins’s development of the argument, Stone Age Economics (1972), is a more urgent book now for the advocates of degrowth than when it was first published.

Even by the standards of postwar anthropology, Sahlins was a formidable critic, capable of laying waste to entire trends and subfields with an essay. A notorious instance was his attack on the ‘cultural materialism’ of Marvin Harris. A widely respected fellow student of White, Harris published a book called Cannibals and Kings (1977), which essentially argued that the Aztecs had practiced cannibalism because they needed the protein. Many hunter-gatherer tribes in Meso-America had practiced ritual sacrifice with a consumption element, but the Aztecs were a giant civilization that instead of quitting the practice – like so many other societies around them – simply upgraded it to civilizational-scale. The reason, according to Harris, was because they couldn’t get enough protein from the Valley of Mexico. In the New York Review of Books, Sahlins subjected this argument to withering criticism. After his trademark athletic tabulating, in which he tried to show that the Aztec elite could not possibly have acquired enough protein from the human limbs that Harris claimed they partly subsisted on, Sahlins pointed to the adequate protein available in a multitude of different forms around them: ‘Why build a temple, when all you need is a butcher’s block?’

The most famous of Sahlins’s many disputes was with the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere about the fate of Captain Cook – a historical episode Sahlins was always prepared to squeeze more insight from. Two years after the American Revolution, Cook had arrived on the main island of Hawaii and been apparently treated by the islanders as a God, but then they later killed him. Why? For Sahlins the answer was that Cook had arrived in the middle of a ritual in which a local god was welcomed on the island, and so he was taken to be that particular god, but when he later returned after breaking a mast, he haplessly entered into another pageant in which the god – which was now, again, himself – was killed and the king of the island restored to his station. Obeyesekere took the view that this was pure exoticization on Sahlins’s part: the islanders clearly had viewed Cook as a possible ally in their wars against Maui, and only killed him when they had determined he was more of a threat than an advantage. Moreover, they never thought he was a god until after his death, as was the case for all Hawaiian royals. There was something curious about the confrontation, as Clifford Geertz noted at the time: Sahlins, the white American scholar, taking the ethno-particularist position, Obeyesekere squarely in the universalist camp. As was often the case with Sahlins, there was something ‘highly carpentered and suspiciously seamless’, in Geertz’s words, about his account. Captain Cook’s perfect timing sets off what appears to be a ballet sequence. But Obeyesekere’s projection of realpolitik onto the islanders seemed even more dubious.

The debate turned out to be not a particularly fruitful episode for the discipline, as it mostly broke down on academic kinship lines. For Sahlins, it was another occasion to pursue what was perhaps his major preoccupation: reconciling the opposition between ‘structure’ and ‘event’ in the social sciences and philosophy. The point was not to privilege either, but to show their inextricableness: an event can only be an ‘event’ from the standpoint of a wider structure, which in turn can be reshaped or shifted by the event. Threading the needle between the event and the longue durée, Sahlins helped clear the way for anthropologists to refocus on the question of historical change that previous generations of structuralists and functionalists had abandoned. The postwar anthropological turn to history, as Joel Isaac has shown, was in large part an attempt to explain the persistence of human institutions, and provincialize state-centric accounts. No one battled the legacy of Hobbes and his vision of the weak sociability of humans more forthrightly than Sahlins, who believed that only by dislodging Western assumptions about the necessity of states as guarantors of human sociability, could the full panoply of possible human flourishing come back into view. In answer to Sartre’s old question: ‘Do we have today the means to constitute a structural, historical anthropology?’ Sahlins was in no doubt: ‘Oui, le jour est arrivé.’

For more than half a century, Sahlins was a member of the University of Chicago’s storied anthropology department. He never lacked for critical targets, either academic or political.  During the Bush years, it was the enlistment of anthropology by the US government in the ‘Human Terrain’ program in the Afghanistan War. In 2013, he dramatically resigned from the Academy of Sciences when he learned of the extent of the program and of the fact that they had inducted Napoleon Chagnon, a former White student who notoriously broke many of the codes of fieldwork and tried to augment the violence among his Yanomamö subjects, into the membership. More recently, Sahlins exposed the network of Confucius Institutes, propaganda mills run by the Chinese government that occupied parts of scores of university campuses in the US, to which he devoted one of his Prickly Pear pamphlets, a very valuable series of short books of which he was co-publisher. What was remarkable was not so much that the Chinese government was running an operation on the fourth floor of the Judd Building at the University of Chicago, but that it took an 83-year-old muckraker to expose it.

A friend of mine once house-sat Sahlins’s dog, a Great Pyrenees named Trinket, whom he had the duty of giving a haircut. ‘She’s too old to go to the doggy salon any longer, so, well, you do your best’, Sahlins told him. My friend explained he had no experience. ‘Do your best’, he said. The verdict was hard on his return: ‘Your best wasn’t very good.’ I remember Sahlins more as a presence than a figure. For decades he kept his fire trained tightly on the economics department, that was still in thrall to Stigler and Friedman, but by the time I arrived, he had sawed off the barrel and brought the whole of Western Civilization into range. My home in the classics department was not spared, since certain Ancient Greeks figured as particular villains in his story. To my shame, I barely knew who the author of Apologies to Thucydides was while I was trying to write an undergraduate thesis on Greek historians. But Sahlins was close with my advisor, and once commented that Thucydides’s History was ‘a good book to read against the grain of the war’. I didn’t realize at the time that he was probably referring to Iraq, not the Peloponnese.

Read on: Jacob Collins, ‘An Anthropological Turn’, NLR 78.