Scott, Michael W
Hybridity, vacuity, and blockage: visions of chaos from anthropological theory, island Melanesia, and central Africa.
Comparative Studies in Society and History, 47
Marshall Sahlins (1996) argues that anthropology has been the bearer of a “bourgeoisified” Judeo-Christian cosmology according to which an original state of chaos, akin to the Hobbesian state of nature, gives way to the order of society or the state. The central conundrum that this anthropology has sought to explain is how fallen and needy individuals come together in cooperative organization. Sahlins furthermore contends that, by universalizing this problematic as the key to interpreting human societies and social action, anthropology has subverted its attempts at cross-cultural understanding. My aim in this paper is to draw attention to a growing commitment within anthropology to a different cosmological paradigm with an inverse structure. Today, the elevation of ethnic and cultural hybridity as both an approximate return to primordial human unity and an emancipatory moral high ground renders socio-cultural difference at once the presumed telos of many social practices and a scandal to be overcome. Whereas the older anthropological cosmology uncovered by Sahlins posited progress from atomistic privation to social solidarity, this new cosmology posits the politically motivated splintering of essential human unity by the construction of ethnicity and culture. Although I iterate the caution that this emergent paradigm too has the potential to reproduce itself as ethnography, I emphasize as more important its promising and troubling potential to revalorize anthropological thinking on cosmology. Specifically, ownership of the meta-cosmology encoded in hybridity theory ought to prompt anthropologists to question our recently acquired aversion to the idea that cosmologies inform human action. At the same time, however, we need to scrutinize our fascination with hybridity for signs of an unintentionally Nietzschean glorification of dissolution or aestheticization of periodic destruction as the necessary foundation for political and moral renovation.
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