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Modes of Thought
Last time
Witchcraft among the Azande
1. Functional explanations
2. Symbolic dimension.
Making sense of life
A different logic?
More on alternative rationalities
How can we make sense of the acts and
emotions of distant peoples (in space,
in time)? Is it possible? Is it right?
1. Cannibalism
2. The killing of Captain James Cook
The discourse of cannibalism in the
ancient world (Strabo) and in early
modern Europe (early colonialism).
William Arens, The man-eating myth:
anthropology and anthropophagy
Evidence of cannibalism as a custom is
scarce, and arguments in favour of its
existence unusually sloppy.
Universal attribution of cannibalism to
different/enemy peoples.
“Cannibalism” accompanied the colonial
expansion of the Western powers.
Arens criticised:
1. Ecological explanations (e.g. lack of
2. Symbolic explanations (Atzec rituals)
What is interesting is our fascination with
cannibalism, and its continuous
presence in anthropological writings. In
other words, its ideological use.
A case-study: the “kuru”
Deadly neurological disorder.
Recorded in Papua New Guinea.
How is the infection transmitted?
Cannibalism seems an obvious
explanation (Gajdusek, Nobel Prize
in 1976).
Universal phenomenon: idea of others as cannibals
(i.e. non-human)
Uses of the discourse of cannibalism in order to
establish form of cultural/political hegemony.
Today? See articles in the Guardian
Anthropologists needed anthropophagy to mark a
radical difference.
(Disagreement on this point: see Keesing on the
Atzec and kuru).
The killing of Captain Cook
Opposite ways of assessing cultural
1. Marshall Sahlins
2. Gananath Obeyesekere
Sahlins’ interpretation
There are 2 distinct cultural systems at
work here. We need to refer to them to
make sense of actions.
Cook arrives at the time of Makahiki
ceremony. He is believed to be the god
He has entered a specific web of ideas
and practices. His final move breaks the
pattern and creates a cosmological
disorder/political upheaval. He is killed
to keep the structure intact.
Obeyesekere’s interpretation
The deification of Cook is a Western myth, a
myth of conquest and imperialism.
Hawaiians were acting out of a universal
“practical rationality” (≠ Bloor and Winch).
There were pragmatic, intelligible reasons
(internal politics)
Political motivations: Sri Lankan / Polynesians
Sahlins’ response
Obeyesekere is the real imperialist here,
as he attributes Hawaiians a Western
way of reasoning.
He is denying the Hawaiians the right to
speak for themselves.
He shares the same presuppositions as
Levy-Bruhl (“primitive mentality”).
What divides them is not matters of fact but
the way in which we should understand
cultural difference:
1. Substantial phenomenon (Sahlins)
2. Superficial phenomenon (Obeyesekere)
Which takes us to where we started today:
the nature of cultural difference, how to
understand it and the moral / political
implications of this task.
Review by C. Geertz in The New
York Review of Books (30 Nov.