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An extraordinary fact

[Editor’s note: Maurice Bloch was interviewed by Charles Stafford at the October Gallery in London on March 13, 2013.]

AOTC: I’d like to start by asking you to say something about the article, “Going in and out of each others’ bodies”, from which the title of one of your two new books is drawn.[1]

Maurice Bloch: That article was originally given as a lecture for the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to say about religion since it’s a category which I think has no use anthropologically.  So instead I tried to deal with the relationship between what I would call anthropology and what I would call ethnography.  These are two quite different enterprises.

Anthropology is about developing theories concerning the human species.  The only kinds of theories we can have are ultimately about the human species in general. Ethnography is a different business. It’s about getting to know certain people in certain places, getting to know what makes them tick and their own way of thinking. So these are really very, very different enterprises.

Most people doing a PhD in anthropology do ethnography and then they’re asked to stick in some theory. But the relationship is always very uncomfortable.  It’s in the tradition of anthropology to try to combine these two different enterprises. I think there has been a point in trying to combine them, but it’s always difficult because one is talking in general and scientific terms when doing anthropology and one is doing interpretation when doing ethnography, i.e. trying to situate people in the contexts in which they live, trying to get at what makes them act in the way they do.

These are completely different things.

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Maurice Bloch

What I tried to do in that paper was to think about the link between these two enterprises and then to think also about the kind of morality that is often connected with religion. I did not want to simply do ethnography of the kind: “Among the Zafimaniry, that’s what it feels like, these are the moral rules that govern how you behave towards other people there”, etc. I’ve done some of that, but in this case I wanted to start off with anthropology, and start off with thinking about what human beings are like.

And one of the characteristics of human beings – although of course not unique to our species – is that the individual person may appear, at a moment, separate from the others, but there are all kinds of ways in which this view is misleading. When talking about humans, the most obvious thing is that we do go physically in and out of each others’ bodies. We’ve all come out of the body of a woman and then sex involves interpenetration, all this is part of the general process that produces us.

So here is an obvious and crude way in which we’re not limited to being individuals: we’re part of the flow of life of a particular species. And added to this is something which is more specific to humans, i.e. there’s another way in which we go in and out of each others’ bodies. In order to communicate with each other, which we do in all sorts of ways – through language but also through eye contact, through bodily postures, and so on – we have to go in and out of each others’ minds, a process which I think of as similar to the process of sex and birth.

When I say something, there is something going on in my mind which has made me make those sounds and this produces something in your mind. So in a sense we’re going in and out of each others’ bodies in the same physical, biological sense as in sex and birth.  There are some aspects of the brain that show just how far this goes. People’s brains begin to mirror each other when they’re in contact. This capacity for going in and out of each others’ bodies is indeed our basic tool for doing ethnography, the fact we can read other people’s minds as they read ours.  That’s how we get to know other people. This is even necessary for us in order to understand their words.

There’s this anthropological fact: as members of the human species we have been, and will always be, going in and out of each others’ bodies biologically and mentally. It’s an extraordinary fact. It’s only in artificially isolated moments that we look as though we’re separate. In time we’re going in and out of each others’ bodies. It means that we are involved in each other in ways that have nothing to do with what we would call commitment. We are into each other as soon as we have any kind of social relation, any kind of relation.

Now let’s turn to ethnography.  There are extraordinary regularities found in ethnographically-observed morality in all normal human beings – the exception being psychopaths who are interesting because they remind us just how odd such people are. Studying them reminds us how moral most people are most of the time.  We do feel committed to each other. Of course we can override this mutual commitment easily… unfortunately. But the fact remains that there are moral codes, explicit or implicit – e.g. Christian moral codes – and there are many other examples and they all have great family likenesses. This is all at the ethnographic level. In an ethnographic study we’re trying to understand the partly implicit and partly explicit moral relationships and rules which exist between people.

So how are those two completely different types of things related – the anthropological and the ethnographic? That’s what I was trying to get at in the paper. This relationship is a fundamental problem for the nature of the enterprise as it is practiced in anthropology departments.

The kind of answer I try to give is that the anthropological fact that we are continually going in and out of each others’ bodies is not that far from consciousness. It is accessible: as soon as I start to talk about sex and birth, I’m sure you can see what I mean when I say that we’re all flowing in and out of each other. And even when I’m talking about the interaction of our minds and our brains you also can immediately know what I’m talking about, even though you probably wouldn’t have put it that way. In other words, it’s possible to have some kind of conscious access to the anthropological fact.  And the kind of answer I’m trying to give in the paper derives from the fact that the recurrences in ethnographically-observed morality that we repeatedly come across have to do with this possible access to our anthropological nature.

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This may sound abstract but let me give an example of the type of relationship I have in mind that will give you some idea of what I am talking about. When we speak normally we’re using grammar in order to speak properly. Yet we’re unaware of the grammar we’re using as we speak, or as you hear me. It goes much too fast and if you consciously were to follow the rules underlying what I’m saying you would not understand a word.  So normally, grammar has to remain below consciousness. On the other hand, if I make a grammatical mistake, not only will you then be aware that I’m making a mistake, you’ll also become aware of the fact that there are grammatical rules behind language, even if you may not be able to put these rules into words. The grammar that makes language possible is below consciousness but it is not fully inaccessible. And that’s the sort of thing that I think explains the relationship between the anthropological fact that we go in and out of each others’ bodies and the moralities that we find as we do particular ethnographic studies.

AOTC: Now let me ask you about something different. I believe you told me once that From blessing to violence is the book you wrote that got read the most, and that it was popular in a way that surprised you. I wonder if you could say what that book is about and why it became popular.

MB: I think it became popular because I tried to combine ethnography, anthropology and history. Lots of people say they want to do this but then they don’t really. And of course I was discussing something that is very typical of anthropology, the symbolism of circumcision ceremonies. I try to link this up with the 200 year history of such phenomena as colonialism, economic and political changes, nationalist movements, and so on. That kind of linking up is unusual and I think that’s why the book was interesting.

What I now think is probably the core of the book is that it’s about transmission. As anthropologists, we’re interested in what has been called culture. Culture, in that sense, is what is transmitted from individual to individual, both synchronically – although it’s never fully synchronic – and diachronically.  And there’s a tendency to think, well, it’s straightforward: people talk to each other, or people write messages to each other and so things get passed on.

But knowledge and what we transmit to each other is transmitted in all kinds of ways, sometimes totally implicitly – which is what Bourdieu tried to argue – and sometimes explicitly. Some of it is transmitted through ritual. So there are all these different types of knowledge with different types of transmission that go with them – occurring together. These different types of transmission have implications for the malleability or fluidity of the information that’s being transmitted from individual to individual. Some of it responds to events very smoothly, with a continual adjustment of practice, and some of it is highly rigidified, like ritual, and only changes with great difficulty.

I’ve written a lot about the nature of this rigidification. It’s been very interesting for me to ask why certain things last. Anthropologists tend to think change is terribly interesting. To me change is uninteresting for the simple reason that there’s no good reason why everything shouldn’t be changing continually since culture is an uninterrupted flow of transmissions. The only interesting thing is why things can last, that is what is odd.  We’re always moving around, our bodies change, we’re meeting other people.  Change is banal. Non-change is interesting.

And it’s very interesting that a ritual like the circumcision ritual in Madagascar could have lasted for 200 years at a period when a state grew up, was destroyed by French colonials, was picked up again by nationalist movements – some people were for it, some were against it, some were for “tradition”, some wanted to be Christian, all kinds of things like that were going on. But the massive fact is that the basic element of the ritual carried on. How was that possible?   That’s the question, not the fact that elements of it changed, that’s banal.  The fact that things could survive in those dramatically different social and historical circumstances is extraordinary.

What the book is about is trying to understand how certain things can last while other things are changing and the complicated relationship between the two. For example, in the 19th century a totally cynical Malagasy politician thought he was going to build up a new ruler by having an incredibly grand circumcision ceremony in the capital.  He was completely cynical. This man wrote a diary so we know he was manipulating the populace with the sort of thing that governments always do, building up nationalist and traditionalist notions. But if you think about it for a moment, he thought he was being cynical, he thought he was manipulating the situation, but the result of what he was doing is that he made the circumcision ritual last in time. So what he thought he was manipulating was manipulating him just as much. Thus the book is also an argument about the significance or insignificance of intentionality or agency.

AOTC: I want to ask if there are two Maurice Blochs. A lot of people think there is a Maurice Bloch who is interested in political economy and a Maurice Bloch who is interested in cognitive science. So is it true that there are two Maurice Blochs?

MB: What I’ve just said about From Blessing to Violence explains why there are not. A common misunderstanding is that people think my theoretical orientation in political economy is fundamentally Marxist and they think there’s something un-Marxist – God knows why – in being interested in cognition.  It has to do with the traditions of the academy. I think this opposition is completely wrong, in my case at least.  I’ll explain how the two interests go together.

The fundamental point Marx made is when he said something like this: “Let’s look at what the economists have been writing up to now.  People like Ricardo or Adam Smith were trying to understand how society worked rather like an ethnographer from a class point of view. These economists explained the economy as something logical, which explained why certain people are rich and certain people are poor, and why that basically was right. This state of affairs was because of forces of supply and demand, and of the working of the labour market.”  If you carry on from within that system, it does seem logical, but Marx’s fundamental point is that he invites us to step out of that system. Instead he says let’s just look at what is necessary for life to be produced. He asks us to step outside of the economists’ ethnography and instead to do anthropology for a moment. He asks us to look at what he called modes of production.  This is basically who produces what and who gets what is produced. Then the ethnographic logic of the economists, which had appeared totally fair, appears totally unfair. That’s my reading of what Marx is doing at the most fundamental level.

What is the political significance of this? Well, it need have no political significance. It could be purely an academic enterprise. But Marx was interested in the moment when people could realise that they were being exploited in terms of the system of modes of production. The moment when they could step out of the economists’ ethnography and do their own anthropology like people who suddenly realise the existence of the rules of grammar when they hear a mistake. How this occurs is not obvious, because oppressed people seem just as caught up as anybody else within the dominant ethnographic system. And if that was so, if they were fully caught up, there would never be any chance of resistance. You want to know when there can be resistance. For that to happen, they have to have a cognitive understanding which is from the outside, which is not completely caught within the dominant ethnographic, or within the system which he called the ideological system. So Marx had to examine his cognitive theory to understand how people could set to one side the economists’ system and thus he tried to show that this ideological system was cognitively partial, that it was of a second order – and that people were cognitively aware through their labour, through their actions, through their practice, of the kind of thing that he was talking about when he stepped out of the system.

But understanding that awareness and understanding that practice is complicated, indeed is impossible with the ethnographic kinds of “theories” that anthropologists like to play around with. One also needs to think about thinking, in anthropological terms; about the relationship of action and mind to the material world, the bodily world, and so on, above all to labour, and how labour can be a form of thought, how practice can be a form of thought that is not fully ideological. This seems to me an essential element for the Marxist programme. Understanding cognition is the question which several Marxist thinkers – Gramsci, Lukács, and so on – faced when they talked about what they called the consciousness of the working class.

There is a necessity, even for the kind of Marxist theory I’ve been talking about, to go towards reflecting on cognition, and to go towards a naturalist understanding of society which is exactly what Marx did when he stepped out of the ideological economic system and when he wanted to understand how others could do the same.

AOTC: Could you say a bit more about that last point? In a way, you’ve explained the theoretical move that might lead one towards an interest in psychology. But could you say a bit more about your own experience – how you became interested in psychology, came to read psychology, how that happened.

MB: Right from the start I was interested in linguistics, almost as much as in anthropology. That was a very long time ago. And a dramatic thing happened in linguistics almost at the beginning of my academic career. That was the appearance of the theories of Chomsky which completely revolutionised linguistics. This was happening when I was in America, in Berkeley.  Putting it at its simplest, Chomsky moved linguistics away from trying to write grammars to making it a psychological problem. How is it that we can produce the speech that we produce, largely through using unconscious systems? That question is what drew me towards psychology. It seemed to me then, and still now, that there were parallels with the kinds of things I was thinking about in Marxist terms, and which I talk about in “The past and the present in the present”, and the Chomsky questions.

Then something happened that made me very interested in the work of Dan Sperber which has influenced me. I was asked to review Sperber’s quite dramatically important book, Rethinking symbolism, and I wrote a review which to a certain extent was praising it but was also critical. Shortly before this book came out I had written an article which was, like Sperber’s book, also a criticism of the semiological approach to symbolism, called “Symbol, song and dance”.

It was obvious to Dan and to me that we were very close in one way, i.e. in our attack on the semiological approach. On the other hand, we also had disagreements. Meanwhile  Dan and a friend of his, Pierre Smith, had written an 80-page paper which was an answer to my “Symbol, song and dance”.  They were about to send off the paper to some journal when the review came out.  They then felt they couldn’t send it because they thought it would sound as if it was tit-for-tat for my review. We hadn’t met at all and then later on we met and then unwound what had happened and we subsequently became friends and have been sparring partners ever since.

AOTC: You’ve already noted that the perception of psychological research relates to academic histories of various kinds, so how people react to anthropological work that seems to be psychological or biological can be explained, at least in part, historically. Of course, at the moment there’s been another big event along these lines: Napolean Chagnon’s book has come out, and he’s attacking the discipline of anthropology for its anti-scientific orientation. Marshall Sahlins has come back with a very strong anthropological response, has quit the American Academy of Sciences, etc.  Can I put you on the spot and ask if you have reactions to this particular case, but more generally on the continuing fraught relationship between anthropology and biology?

MB: Well I haven’t read Chagnon’s book and I haven’t read Sahlins’s answer to it – but I can guess! There are two elements to this business. There are all kinds of things Chagnon has been accused of and it’s difficult to judge if these accusations are valid, so I’m not going to say anything one way or another. I would, however, be very heavily critical of the kind of biological anthropology which Chagnon advocates. My view is very different from his and always has been.

On the other hand, it seems that we’re getting a repeat of an endless ding-dong between anthropology and biology, both of which are phantasmagoric entities. This angry confrontation is unhelpful, I think stupid. One thing I’ve tried to do in my new book Anthropology and the cognitive challenge is to try to explain why this ding-dong occurred and why it’s still going on, especially in American anthropology.  That is because certain forms of evolutionary anthropology in the earlier part of the 20th century became closely associated with extreme forms of racism, even Nazism.  Anthropology – American anthropology in particular – was re-created as cultural anthropology as a reaction against racist evolutionism. This reaction was led by Boas and his students, people like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.  They said: let’s show how un-biologically determined human beings are.  That’s the story about growing up in Somoa, etc.  Thus began a fight – with a strong political and moral undercurrent, totally justified in my view. This culturalist response became a founding myth of American anthropology. This story still haunts a lot of anthropology even though now it is totally unhelpful. But people like Marshall Sahlins are not that far from the time when it was a real issue. They were alive when the biology versus culture question was about being pro-Nazi or anti-Nazi.

Why the controversy, as it has become, is unhelpful is that the interesting thing about human beings is that we are always a unified combination of two processes. That is the problem of understanding us both as animals and as cultural animals – the fact that we are in history, in other words. As soon as we forget this unified combination we are tempted to engage in rather uninteresting and misleading oppositions. So my reaction to the renewal of the controversy is: not this conversation again, the blind shouting at the blind! What my book is trying to say is not only that this ding-dong is by now stupid, but that both sides need to think much harder about the unity of biology and culture.

AOTC: I know that you’re not a fan of teaching the history of anthropology in terms of key figures. Nonetheless we all find it interesting to hear about key figures, especially ones with whom you may have had a personal association or interaction.  Can I ask you for a couple of sentences on Lévi-Strauss?

MB: First of all, I’m not a great fan of teaching anthropology in terms of key figures because I want people to decide what they think about what these people propose, not about the people themselves. It’s easy to muddle the two.

What do I think about Lévi-Strauss? He’s an absolutely extraordinary and strange person who was without doubt the most original, the most creative anthropologist of the 20th century. Also in many ways the most blinkered. Blinkered is too strong. But he lived in his own world. I think his earlier work is the most interesting, partly because he’s dealing with the relationship of anthropology and ethnography, partly because he saw the need for a cognitive anthropology. But then he just abandoned these questions and retired in his study reading all those American myths. He was a strange sort of person, what he really liked was to be by himself.  He was always very polite to people, but he wished they’d go away.

AOTC: Edmund Leach.

MB: Leach was extraordinarily creative but, personality wise, almost the opposite of Lévi-Strauss. A real free-thinker in the sense that he would go in any direction that interested him at the moment. He did react very much to what he was reading. I think Political systems of highland Burma is the great book of British anthropology.

AOTC: Pierre Bourdieu.

MB: Bourdieu is, first of all, very good on France, at unpacking French society. He then tried to expand many of his theories to the world at large, but it’s still France that he is talking about. His point about the nature of knowledge is not all that different from some of the things I was saying earlier: that the knowledge which informs what we do, and the way we act, and the way we react, is 95% implicit. That’s a big problem for ethnographers. Especially ethnographers who do quick ethnography in the West where they can only interview the odd individual, and so they can only get at the explicit. It is ironic that Bourdieu based much of his research on such interviews. The inadequacy of such a method for such a theory is the point that Malinowski made. Malinowski’s reaction against interviews is that the knowledge by which people live can only be understood in action, in practice. So interviews are not going to give you much. Not only are they not going to give you much, they’ll be positively misleading, because they’ll be the kind of secondary rationalisation of action which people have to make when they’re being asked something by an interviewer.

Bourdieu’s entire theory is a psychological one.  It is about the nature of the acquisition of implicit knowledge, the nature of the storage of implicit knowledge, about the transmission of implicit knowledge. And so it’s extraordinary that he never paid attention to work in psychology which would probably have largely backed up what he was saying but would also have made it incredibly more precise and moved it on.

AOTC: Alfred Gell?

MB: Alfred Gell again was wonderfully creative, although it’s difficult to know what general direction he was going in – I’m not quite sure. He was extremely wise. He was interested in the same sorts of things I was interested in: about the relationship between anthropology and ethnography, about cognition, about language. We shared the same interests and very similar theoretical questions.

AOTC: Jack Goody?

MB: Jack Goody’s early work was very good ethnographically but also quite boring. And then he asked some extremely important generalizing questions, about history. Not so much generalizing about anthropology, but it too could have been slotted in. That approach was refreshing in an age of timidity: asking really large-scale historical questions. But he was rather stuck within European history. He wasn’t really followed by anybody, except perhaps somebody like David Graeber. He’s a bit too caught up in what I think is a rather naïve version of Marx and a bit too caught up in a view of pre-history inherited directly from Gordon Childe.

AOTC: Dan Sperber?  You’ve already said something about him, but anything else?

MB: Sperber I think is brilliant. But he has given up trying to link ethnography and anthropology – he is only doing anthropology – which I think is unfortunate.

Of course, what most anthropology departments are doing now is ethnography full stop. Which I think doesn’t get you anywhere – all sorts of stories about here and there. Anthropology can become a wastepaper basket filled with bits and pieces. That is what comes from just doing ethnography. Losing the tension that comes from wanting to do both interpretative ethnography: trying to understand what makes people tick, and having a generalizing anthropological programme is what was fruitful. It’s very difficult to put these together and they should not be mixed theoretically as I’ve said. But the tension produced by the combination is extremely valuable. Ethnography without the pull towards anthropology becomes a disorganized collection of odd facts. We get very nice ethnographies about here and there, but they don’t come together. On the other hand, the refusal to realize that humans are always within specific historical situations – that they’re unpredictable, that you can’t generalize at the ethnographic level – is essential.  Nonetheless you have to understand how this extraordinary ethnographic variety can come about: understanding this is doing anthropology.

AOTC: Maurice Bloch?

MB: Never met him!  He seems to have only had one idea which he plays around with in different ways…

AOTC: If you could sort out your own legacy for yourself, and say that’s the impact that I’ve had, is there any particular legacy that you aspire to?

MB: Legacy is whatever people pick up. When you have to clear up your parents’ objects you throw some out, and you pick up others and give them different meanings. I am very proud of the fact that I’ve had many graduate students who have gone in many directions and have picked up this bit or that and put it together with other bits.

  1. [1]The two new books are In and out of each others’ bodies and Anthropology and the cognitive challenge.

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