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In Memoriam: Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021)

Alex Golub
p. 183-185
  • 1 Isabelle Leblic asked me for this text for the jso. For a less personal, more scholarly assessment (...)

I am honoured to memorialize my mentor, Marshall Sahlins, in this issue of the jso1. I first met Sahlins in 1995, when I arrived at the University of Chicago to earn a Ph.D.. In fact, I had not expected to be admitted to Chicago. My undergraduate thesis featured a lengthy critique of Sahlins's work, which I believed misread the influence of Heidegger on Bourdieu. Surely, I assumed, Sahlins would block my admission to his department since I had criticized him. But in fact, the opposite proved to be the case: Sahlins recognized that I had read his work carefully and engaged with it. he admitted me because I had criticized him. Sahlins, I quickly realized, welcomed intellectual debate and understood disagreement as a form of respect, since it meant engagement and dialogue with one's opponent.

Photo 1. – Marshall Sahlins, the mid-1970s

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University of Chicago News Office

The Marshall Sahlins I met in Chicago was very different from the one I had encountered in print. On the page, Sahlins was witty and erudite, florid and sophisticated. In person, he was understated and laconic. He valued clarity and precision and had the ability to make his words count. Once, I gave him a draft chapter of my dissertation. His only comment on it was that I "should read more Meggitt" – which was not a lot of feedback for an entire dissertation chapter. Mervyn Meggitt was an earlier ethnographer of my area whose claims had been disproven by recent research. Sahlins knew Meggitt personally but hadn't read the latest research, and I spent a good amount of time proving to him that Meggitt was wrong. It was not easy! But by the end of the process I had mastered a body of literature because I had to use it. Sahlins's terse comment on my dissertation chapter had born fruit, indeed.

Sahlins's Chicago was an atelier, not a factory. This is why there is no enduring 'Sahlins school' of anthropology: he had no desire to be hegemonic – possibly because it was a status he had already achieved. But he did want to be around interesting people, people who would shape the future of the discipline. As in an atelier, we painted alongside him. I learned to admire anthropologists like Terry Turner, Nancy Munn, and Valerio Valeri: Authors who followed their own vision on personal quests of scholarship which yielded unique visions of the human condition. They were the opposite of the academic entrepreneur who measures their self-worth in terms of the value of their funding and the number of their publications. Munn published very little, but each piece was perfect. Turner's masterwork, Fire of the Jaguar, was delayed so long that it appeared posthumously. Today I realize that these authors were fortunate to be sheltered in the financially-fertile sacred grove of Chicago. As a newly minted Ph.D. I quickly found that indifference to the political economy of the academy was not a path to career success. But these role models, like Sahlins himself, taught me a valuable and enduring lesson: being true to one's own scholarly vision is the only way to ensure that you can be proud of your work. And when you write something you like, it turns out other people will like it as well.

When Sahlins passed away many people on social media, especially Europeans, celebrated him as a philosopher. But in fact, the opposite was the case. Sahlins was above all an ethnographer. Riffing off of Marx, he urged us to ascend from the abstract to the heights of the particular. His theoretical models were the tools he used to illuminate the materials with which he was working. He never developed theory for theory's sake. In this way he was different from the other, more philosophical anthropologists at Chicago such as Michael Silverstein, or Paul Friedrich. He drew on these thinkers, often implicitly, but took only what he could use. One of the reasons he was so successful, I think, is that he provided a model of how to analyze material. After reading a piece by Sahlins you saw how you could use his methods in your own work.

When I think of Sahlins the impression I get is one of clarity: Clarity of thought, of action, and of ethics. To this day I walk through the world constantly noticing how many people believe arguments that are not true because they are emotionally comforting, or who use their power and privilege every day to opt out of integrity and responsibility in ways large and small. I think the world would be a better place if everyone had Marshall’s clarity.

Clarity let to integrity. He said what he meant and meant what he said. Sahlins lived life with a consistency that was admirable. He never missed a deadline for letters of recommendations, commenting on draft chapters, or anything else. The price, of course, was that he insisted that I act with integrity. This integrity was not inflexible. If you were too sick to get something done, he would of course understand. That said, I find living with this level of integrity incredibly exhausting, and I've been told by those around me that they find it exhausting of me as well. But it is also a very virtuous way to live. One reason Sahlins's work was so good was that he demanded coherence and integrity not just of others, but himself. He had the ability to be self-critical without beating himself up emotionally, a key to academic success – and perhaps success in all walks of life. I think this integrity also drove a lot of his politics, as well as his gimlet eye. He wanted people to do the right thing and act with consistency and was keen to point out when they did not.

Of course no one is perfect, or completely consistent. Sahlins was at his best when he dug deep into his opponent's viewpoints and thoroughly uprooted them. The Use and Abuse of Biology, for example, is devastating because of how deeply it engages key sociobiological texts. But Sahlins also gave in at times to the temptations of superficial engagement and ad hominem attack. His disdain for movements like cultural studies, postcolonialism, and postmodernism was not based on a deep engagement with these literatures. I regret that one of his most well-known works is the pamphlet Waiting for Foucault, since it is also one of his meanest and least well-argued pieces. There is much of value in these approaches, and it is a pity that Sahlins could not recognize that.

Additionally, Sahlins's view of the culture concept contained contradictions. His entire career was rooted in a defense of the culture concept and an expansion of its purview. For him the object of anthropology was culture, not 'the primitive'. It was not just the colonized who had culture, it was the colonizers as well. Indeed, a much-forgotten aspect of his work on Hawai’i was that Cook underwent a double apotheosis, divinized not only by Hawaiians but also the British. For Sahlins, capitalism was cultural, as was bourgeois thought, St. Augustine, baseball, debates over immigration, and the invasion of Iraq. And yet he spent his later years denouncing the fact that 'we' have given up, as he put it, studying custom in Ghana in favor of studying Ghanian customs officers (Sahlins, 2013). Why was it acceptable to write the anthropology of baseball in New York but not pig farming in North Carolina? Sahlins lamented that topics such as cannibalism and headhunting were no longer studied, but he himself certainly never taught me about headhunting or cannibalism, and did not write extensively on these topics. This is an incoherence in Sahlins's view of anthropology which I still struggle with.

That said, I find a tremendous amount to admire in Sahlins's life and career. He was extremely egalitarian, and treated everyone the same way, regardless of rank or position. It was a very Chicago (the city, not the university) way of being. I always found this aspect of his personality particularly terrifying since he was a world-renowned scholar and I was not. But it ended up being valuable. He never told me I was not good enough, or that I would not be pushed to succeed because he had already decided I could not. If Sahlins’s books could win awards, why not mine? It was thinking like this which pushed me to write a book which did win an award when it was published.

Competition was also important for Sahlins. He was probably one of the few members of the United States's National Academy of Science who regretted not being a college football star. His was an American, masculine outlook to intellectual life, the sort of "tough guy" approach which some sectors of Parisian intellectual life found pleasingly exotic. In this, I was very different from Sahlins. He loved to play basketball, while I loved singing Bach. He was dismissive of his Jewish heritage, remarking to me once that when his son was born he gave Bernie Cohn a nickel, a biting dismissal of Jewish tradition that requires a great deal of Jewish knowledge to fully understand, let alone appreciate. But I did recognize in his approach a form of Jewish masculinity with which I could identify. His egalitarianism was agonistic. He loved what we call in Hebrew ‘machloket’: disputation. Arguing with him never became personal and was always based on logic and evidence. It was also an intense, no-holds barred experience in which you had to go for the jugular. One particularly important moment in my graduate education was watching his wife (a great bridge player) quietly, carefully, and relentlessly explain to him why he should have been bidding hearts. It was a lesson in how to deal with him. If you were right and he was wrong, he would immediately become extremely charming and try to change the subject. But if you kept after him, he would admit his errors. And as a result the matter would be fully clarified. Given this agonistic orientation, it’s no surprise that Sahlins helped mentor an activist scholar like Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa or would support the tenure of Haunani-Kay Trask, nor is it surprising that these people would later have their disputes with him.

Finally, I must say that Sahlins was a role model in life as well as in academic endeavors. Unlike many superstars at Chicago, he had a healthy and happy family life. Even his dogs were happy. As a result I never came of age believing that the price of academic success was a barren private life.

Photo 2. – Marshall Sahlins avant sa distinghised lecture à asao 2013 à San Antonio

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(https://www.asao.org/2013-san-antonio.html)

Sahlins enjoyed quoting Edward Shills's old line that there are two certainties in academic life: That you will die and you will be wrong – it is just a matter of which comes first. For Sahlins, being wrong came first. Sahlins's work on evolution was central to anthropology in the 1960s, just as his work on culture was key in the 1970s and his work on history was essential to the 1980s. But in the 1990s he opposed a growing wave of thought in America which would go on to become hegemonic in the field today. In his intellectual sparring with Obeyesekere, he won the match but lost the audience, and his vision of anthropology grew increasingly different from the mainstream. In 2017 one author accused him of "racialized, gerontocratic bourgeois gatekeeping" (Benton, 2017). I worry that we will forget his intellectual contributions, and that we will underestimate how similar they are to contemporary debates. They are simply expressed in a different idiom. In the 1990s Sahlins spoke of indigenous 'renaissance'. Today we speak of indigenous 'resurgence'. Clifford's concept of 'articulation' is very influential [...] and not that different from Sahlins's theory of 'transformation'. Renewed interest in 'ontology' is similar to Sahlins's 'cosmology'. Native and indigenous studies speaks today of a 'logic of elimination' and critical medical anthropology speaks of 'structural violence'. Long-term continuities in culture which maintain their logic and identity even as they transform over time? That is pure Sahlins. In addition to his intellectual contributions, he also left us intellectual habits: A willingness to engage in deep debate and a recognition that there is such a thing as healthy conflict. Certainly in the United States today too many people have forgotten how to disagree with each other and indeed, can only understand conflict as pathology or injury.

There is one moment I will never forget. I was sitting at Sahlins's kitchen table, listening to his feedback on a dissertation chapter. In despair, I asked him whether he thought my dissertation was any good at all. His response was that it was “better than ok.” It was one of my proudest moments as a graduate student. Vale Marshall Sahlins.

Bibliographie

Benton Adia, 2017. Reading the Classics: Ideology, Tautology, and Memory, hau. Journal of ethnographic theory 7, 3, pp. 29-33.

Golub Alex et al. (eds), 2016. A Practice of Anthropology: The Thought and Influence of Marshall Sahlins, Montreal, Kingston, London [etc.], McGill-Queen's University Press.

Sahlins Marshall David, 2013. Preface to Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press.

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Notes

1 Isabelle Leblic asked me for this text for the jso. For a less personal, more scholarly assessment of Sahlins, see the introduction to the edited volume A Practice of Anthropology: The Thought and Influence of Marshall Sahlins. ndlr. – A special issue of the jso will be be dedicated to Marshall Sahlins in the coming years.

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