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Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World by Michel-Rolph Trouillot (review)

From: Journal of Haitian Studies
Volume 19, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 177-182 | 10.1353/jhs.2013.0046

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Part incisive analysis, part prophecy, and part bold agenda for anthropology, Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World remains a must-read more than a decade after it was originally published. Although written for anthropologists and academics, Trouillot’s insights reward careful reading for all those interested in understanding how the modern world came to be and how we might realize more optimistic alternatives:

[As anthropologists] we owe it to ourselves and to our interlocutors to say loudly that we have seen alternative visions of humankind—indeed more than any academic discipline—and that we know that this one . . . that constructs economic growth as the ultimate human value . . . may not be the most respectful of the planet we share, nor indeed the most accurate nor the most practical. We also qowe it to ourselves to say that it is not the most beautiful nor the most optimistic.

(139)

In this bold statement culminating his magisterial work, Trouillot draws upon the history of anthropology to forge a path forward, toward an anthropology that is a counterpoint to the project of the West.

For Global Transformations, Trouillot reworks and updates some of his most famous and influential essays, develops published work that appeared in more specialized publications, and adds new material, with particularly poignant and powerful passages outlining an agenda for anthropology’s future. Published at the time of the aneurisms that hampered Trouillot’s academic projects, Global Transformations has unfortunately not received its due attention. Trouillot was unable to promote the book, resulting in scant review, and because Global Transformations does include previously published material, some may have assumed familiarity with its content. Since the book is written primarily for specialists, even its clear calls for a more public and engaged anthropology—“anthropology will only matter to the populations that we study and to most of our readers if it evokes a purpose outside of itself” (5)—are many times wrapped in difficult, condensed passages that must be reread and unpacked. The sections elaborating an agenda for anthropology are eloquent, but could be developed further. In several places, the book reads like the outline of a larger work Trouillot envisioned but was unable to complete.

Trouillot begins with what is perhaps his most famous essay, “Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness,” which was published in the 1991 volume Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present.1 Having originally written the piece as an assessment of “the postmodernist critique of anthropology” (7), Trouillot updated the material on postmodernism for Global Transformations, although as he admits this left the essay “somewhat dated” (ix). This feeling has perhaps only increased now that postmodernism has become mainly a term of accusation. Trouillot’s aim in this essay had always been broad, a contention that “anthropology belongs to a discursive field that is an inherent part of the West’s geography of imagination. The internal tropes of anthropology matter much less than this larger discursive field within which it operates and upon whose existence it is premised” (8). This stirring essay serves as an ideal introduction to Trouillot’s theme for the book. His assessment that “the direction of the discipline now depends upon an explicit attack on [the savage slot] itself and the symbolic order upon which it is premised” (23) remains an unfulfilled mission. Many anthropologists did attack the savage slot within their own discipline, but this did not extend to outside the discipline and the larger symbolic order, leaving the door open for popularizers to continue writing nonsense about “traditional” societies.

Trouillot’s second chapter, “North Atlantic Fictions: Global Transformations, 1492–1945,” is a thorough rebuttal of the notion that the world ever consisted of a series of isolated, traditional societies. Parts of this chapter originally appeared in the 2002 volume Critically Modern: Alternatives, Alterities, Anthropologies,2 but Trouillot freshly reconfigures his historical insights for this chapter. Trouillot’s analysis is an impressive sweep through “a first moment of globality” (29), meant to address a contemporary amnesia that reduces “the crucial role of Portugal and Spain in the creation of the West [and leads] to the neglect of the role of the Caribbean and Latin...


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