“Any concept — capitalism, neoliberalism, etc. — leaves an excess that it is the aim of anthropology to unearth. These are spaces that are not dominated by whatever’s dominating at a specific time. So there are existing alternatives, there are not just imaginary alternatives…. Anthropology in this sense does provide the possibility of thinking of alternatives. There are ways of living that you can build on, that are not aligned with the dominant ways of being.”
Ghassan Hage, the Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne, sat down with our own Simon Theobald to talk about the everyday work of being a public, radical, and engaged intellectual. Their conversation covers dealing with the press, navigating the neoliberal university, and engaging with a hostile and truculent public, plus how anthropology reveals alternative ways of existence that already exist in the real world.
This episode was recorded at the 2017 AAS conference at the University of Adelaide, on the traditional lands of the Kaurna people. Here is the university’s acknowledgement and reconciliation statement.
There’s an almost naive theory that circulates in university bureaucracy about external engagement… that you teach students so therefore you can teach other people, the general public. However the problem with this is that today, many in the general public will not treat you with respect. It’s not that they think your ideas are too complex. It’s that people actually think you’re the enemy, an elite, so it’s become, how do you talk to the enemy?
When I wrote White Nation, I called the first chapter ‘My Granny Seizing Power’ because my granny was precisely the person to say these things to me. She’d say, “you go to university and you read books but life has taught nothing.” And I would say, “I have some experience in life myself! Can’t you see that the books are extra?!”
If you are an intellectual, not just an academic, an intellectual — that is, someone who wants to think independently, who wants to be active etc — today, you have to do it against the university. You don’t do it with the help of the university. Which means that from early in your career as a PhD student, if you don’t know how to be in university, know that university is not going to help you to maximize your intellectual capital, but can still manage to create a niche for yourself independently of the university to do it, then it’s going to be harder in the future.
If all you know how to do is sit down and whinge and criticize neoliberalism, I don’t think you want to be an academic. But you don’t want to NOT criticize neoliberalism.
Nothing totally homogenizes space. You talk about neoliberalism, you talk about the dominance of neoliberalism, that does not mean that every single crack in society is neoliberal.
Anthropology does provide the possibility of thinking alternatives. But not alternatives in the grand socialist tradition of a holistic society, but alternatives in the way that, you know, there are ways, things you can build on, to create ways of existence that are not in line with the dominant ways of existence.
A lot social analysis assumes that the object is analytically dead. Maybe not socially dead, but analytically dead. That is, they’re not capable of analyzing themselves, or if they are analyzing themselves, it’s naive, and let me come give you the seriously hard analysis.
Anthropology for a long time has built its reputation around the claim that indigenous worlds are interesting and worthy of analysis… but it has been reluctant to use indigenous categories as analytical categories…So what happens when you start saying, “Well, what if indigenous thought can analyse us?” so that the division between analytical thought and the analysed is broken?
Indigenous people are not sitting around waiting for anthropologists to come and analyse what they’re thinking. They can do this for themselves very well. So the question now is more, “Can we enrich our analytical stock so that we can understand ourselves better?”
Charbonnier, Pierre, Gildas Salmon and Peter Skafish, eds.,2016, Comparative Metaphysics: Ontology After Anthropology, Rowman & Littlefield, London, New York.
Hage, Ghassan, 1998, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Pluto Press, Annandale, Australia.
Wright, Erik Olin, 2010, Envisioning Real Utopias, Verso, London and New York.
This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the schools of Culture, History, and Language and Archaeology and Anthropology at Australian National University, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.
Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com
Show notes by Ian Pollock
KEYWORDS: Neoliberalism, academia, activism, anthropology, multiculturalism, ableism, Lebanon