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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46.1 (2003) 125-130
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The Class of Culture and the Culture of Class
thoughts on Sahlins' Culture in Practice
E. Paul Durrenberger
Marshall Sahlins. Culture in Practice: Selected Essays. New York: Zone Books, 2001. Pp. 646. $35.
WRITING A BOOK REVIEW , cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins tells us (p. 281), can be as much an act of aggression as ignoring a person, being excessively polite, or engaging in a Yanamamo chest-pounding duel. I have learned much from Sahlins's writings over the years, and a host of memories reverberated as I read the essays collected in Culture in Practice. Reading these works had the feeling of fingering a familiar and well-worn talisman.
I studied archaeology to understand how cultures change, and when in the early 1960s archaeological theory could not transcend questions of classification and chronology, and the questions of a graduate student could find no purchase there, I defected to cultural anthropology, where I cobbled Sahlins's writings on the evolution of social orders and the ecology of the Pacific into the scaffolding of a master's thesis on the evolution of feudalism in Japan and Europe. [End Page 125]
I went with my young professors to teach-ins about the war in Vietnam, and into the streets to oppose it. I did fieldwork in Thailand, and when I returned in 1970, I found generations of anthropologists avidly devouring one another in the "Thailand controversy," rather than weighing accessible and available facts or mobilizing for effective common political action against the interminable war.
I learned about the American system of justice from the worm's-eye view of participation, as I endured the indignities of being booked into jail. When students went with me to jail, I thought of myself as carrying on an honorable and important tradition in which Marshall Sahlins been involved. The inside of a jail is a good place to learn about the power of culture, the culture of power, and the artifacts of both.
In search of a theory to make sense of the economic data I had collected in the highlands of Thailand, I learned to program a mainframe computer, studied books and articles on statistics, and consorted with sociologists to translate Sahlins's vision of an empirical anthropological economics from Stone Age Economics into testable hypotheses. This in turn led me back to Thailand in search of comparative data from the valleys.
Culture in Practice brings together a number of Sahlins's writings from 1963 to 1999. He argues that because culture is bred into our genetic make-up in the process of our evolution, we cannot help but be creatures of our cultures. To understand why people do what they do, understand their cultures and compare them to highlight similarities and differences. Why do Indians not eat cows? Why do Americans not eat dogs? All is culture, and cultures are different in different times and different places. People respond to events according to their cultural interpretations. Thus, there is no universal history, but various histories. What to one people may be the return of an explorer may to another be the reason to kill a god.
Anthropology is unique among the disciplines because it is at the same time ethnographic, holistic, and comparative. At least, this is true of the anthropology that attends to evidence. According to Sahlins, postmodernism "seems to lobotomize some of our best graduate students to stifle their imagination for fear of making some interesting structural connection or comparative generalization. the only safe essentialism left to them is that there is no order" (pp. 38-39). Sahlins shows that he is such a classical anthropologist. He speaks of Fijians and Frenchmen, Solomon Islanders and society matrons, Enga of New Guinea and Englishmen and Eskimo of Alaska in the same breath. He shows how economic systems, systems of marriage and kinship, and ways of knowing are related. And he argues that we should respect evidence rather than judge arguments by our concepts...