Culture War

How 'Natives' Think, About Captain Cook, for Example

by Marshall Sahlins
University of Chicago Press, 318 pp., $24.95


Anthropology is a conflicted discipline, perpetually in search of ways to escape its condition, perpetually failing to find them. Committed, since its beginnings, to a global view of human life—social, cultural, biological, and historical at once—it keeps falling into its parts, complaining about the fact, and trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to project some sort of new unity to replace the unity it imagines itself once to have had, but now, through the faithlessness of present practitioners, to have mindlessly cast away. The watchword is “holism,” cried out at professional meetings and in general calls to arms (of which there are a very large number) in professional journals and monographs. The reality, in the research actually done and the works actually published, is enormous diversity.

And argument, endless argument. The tensions between the major subdivisions of the field, physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural (or social) anthropology, have been reasonably well managed by the usual mechanisms of differentiation and specialization, in which each subfield has become a fairly autonomous discipline. This has not happened without plaintive invocations of ancestral polymaths—there were giants in those days—who supposedly “did everything.” But the fissures within cultural anthropology as such, the heart of the discipline, have proved increasingly prominent and less easy to contain. The division into sharply opposed schools of thought—into overall approaches conceived not as methodological alternatives but as dug-in world views, moralities, and political positionings—has grown to the point where clashes are more common than conclusions and the possibility of a general consensus on anything fundamental seems remote. The wringing of hands this brings on, and the sense of loss, is considerable, and doubtless heartfelt; but it is very likely misplaced. Anthropology generally, and cultural anthropology in particular, draws the greater part of its vitality from the controversies that animate it. It is not much destined for secured positions and settled issues.

The recent debate, much celebrated in the intellectual press and on the academic circuit, between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins, two of the senior and most combat-ready figures in the field, is over how we are to understand the death of that Pacific Columbus, Captain James Cook, at the hands of the Hawaiians in 1779. (Columbus “discovered” America while looking for India; Cook, three centuries later, “discovered” the Sandwich Islands—and before them, encountered Australia and New Zealand—while looking for the Northwest Passage.) Angry, eloquent, and uncompromising—as well as, on occasion, bitterly funny—they push into view some of the most central and most divisive issues in anthropological study. After one reads these two having at one another up, down, and sideways for five hundred lapel-grabbing pages or so, whatever happened to Cook, and why, seems a good deal less important, and probably less determinable, than the questions they raise about how it is we are to go about making sense of the acts and emotions of distant peoples in remote times. What does “knowing” about “others” properly consist in? Is it possible? Is it good?

At the risk…

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