Reading the classics: Ideology, tautology, and memory

In a 1986 New York Review of Books essay that would become the opening section of his 1991 book, Italo Calvino asks “Why read the classics?” He organizes his answer as a list of definitions. The items in the list blend into each other, deepening a case for reading books that “learned” people claim to have read, or are in the midst of rereading, of books they are ashamed—as a member of such a class of people—to have not read. Three of Calvino’s definitions, in particular, struck me:

1) The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading …” and never “I am reading ….”

2) We use the word “classics” for those books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them; but they are treasured no less by those who have the luck to read them for the first time in the best conditions to enjoy them.

3) The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.

A few thoughts, on the basis of these definitions: the classics might, in fact, be ideological. An imperative to enjoy the classics is also tautological. Essentially, it is a classic if you reread it, or pretend to because everyone else is doing it, or says you should; you (re)read it, or pretend to, because it is classic, and everyone else is doing it. A classic is classic because it is classic. If this feels like an oversimplification or a misrepresentation of Calvino’s argument, it is perhaps worth asking what is at stake for defining the set of “classics” or a canon for anthropology, and for whom. The question may not be whether “we” read the classics or not, but how a canon of classics comes into being and compels a social group to defend it.

Ideology, tautology, and the ephemera of memory appear to be at the heart of a recent debate about whether anthropologists need to celebrate, embrace, and protect something akin to an anthropological canon: it’s a canon of kula rings and potlatch and Azande witchcraft (the damned granary). The ideas have embedded themselves in anthropological memory, in the memories of anthropologists, touchstones for a common experience, a common body of knowledge. They exert influence, but they also inspire shame for those who have not had the opportunity or good fortune to have encountered them. Literary theorist and social analyst Pumla Dineo Gqola reminds us: shame of this kind, shame in which a person is made to felt inadequate, as a condition of his or her failure or inability to participate in such enterprises, is too often a function of oppression. Quoting Kenyan feminist activist and poet, Shailja Patel, she writes, “You want to understand how power works in any society, watch who is carrying the shame and who is doing the shaming” (Gqola 2015: 38).


The debate that started all of this was initiated by anthropological elder Marshall Sahlins, who lamented on Hau’s Facebook page (August 31, 2017) that younger scholars were no longer reading the classics, and had lost a set of anthropological competencies as a result: “The great majority don’t even know what a cross-cousin is, let alone what a cross-cultural knowledge of human kinship relations might consist of.” Imagine. The younger scholars who responded to him noted the position of privilege from which he wrote, and the blind spots that such privilege appears to generate. For many of us, the very idea that any critique of his position was unfair to him proved our point: an anthropological canon marginalized the perspectives of the very people who had been good enough to contribute to the anthropological “data set,” but were deemed unworthy or incapable of generating “theory.” They had been displaced from the very idea of a canon because of their social position within the hierarchies of disciplines, and the societies in which those canons had been established.


Get off my lawn

Many came to Sahlins’ defense. Hau included reference to his extensive list of politically progressive publications spanning the decades—prompting many of us to reflect on how our progressive politics on paper may not match, or may even contradict, our political praxis. Ghassan Hage’s (2017) erudite Bourdieuian defense of Sahlins asked for us to buy into the “anthropological illusio,” based upon our pursuit of anthropology as something worth doing. He suggests that whiteness and colonialism suffuses the canon, but that does not make it an unworthy pursuit; that whiteness does not make it irredeemable or incapable of reform. It is likely that many of us find anthropology worth pursuing and worth doing, but want to decide terms under which we engage in the anthropological enterprise. Perhaps some of us would like to amend or even reject our commitment and accountability to anthropology as a discipline, but remain accountable to theorizing about the human condition using its tools and the radical openness with which it purports to see the world.

It is perhaps notable that Hage’s final point was an entreaty that we respect our elders—even if we don’t agree with them. It seems to me that this point tries to evade the reason that anyone had to come to Sahlins’ defense in the first place. The very act of disagreement—with Sahlins’ notions of custodianship and the ontological status of an anthropological canon and skillset—signified disrespect. No, we don’t all want to be the “custodians of [anthropological] knowledge” about Ojibwe ontology, the kula trade, Fijian cannibalism, or Azande witchcraft. And calling that custodial urge out for what it is, white privilege and white (masculinist) saviorism, is in fact not simply disagreement on dissenters’ part, but a lack of respect for—rejection of, really—a position that centers whiteness and its centrality to such projects.

Together, Sahlins’ “rant” (as it has been described on Hau’s Facebook page and elsewhere) and Hage’s rejoinder promoted the anthropological version of “get off my lawn,” an American cultural idiom roughly glossed as accusing the young for interloping on the secure existence one (usually an older white man) has established for oneself. “Get off my lawn” can be an ageist punchline, but it is more provocatively understood as a critique of exclusionary boundary making, of racialized, gerontocratic bourgeois gatekeeping. In literal terms, it refers to the (white, male) older homeowner who has worked so meticulously to cultivate his lawn that any trespass against it—usually by young folks who carelessly trample on this hallowed, manicured ground—constitutes egregious disrespect and transgression. “I’ve worked to own this home, to maintain this yard; how dare you transgress its boundaries? You have not been invited here. When you are invited, you come here on my terms.” Get off my lawn.

What can be done to counter this “get-off-my-lawnism”? Shall we doggedly pursue decolonization of the canon, as many have urged that we do? If anything, we are as invested as ever in the canon when we aim to “decolonize” it. Decolonizing, as my colleague Yarimar Bonilla (2017) has argued, centers the colonial project, and suggests a teleology in which there’s a precolonial condition to which we can return. I, like Bonilla, wonder if it is ever possible to “decolonize” something that has its roots in the colonial project: she asks if “unsettling” might better describe attempts to shake off the chains of a colonial legacy, and reimagine our disciplinary practices and agendas.

What would Mary Douglas do?

I took my problem to British social anthropologist Paul Richards, who was in town for the African Studies Association meeting, and had come to Northwestern University (where I currently work). He was visiting to talk about a book he coauthored with Perri 6, which chronicles the work of Mary Douglas (Richards and Perri 6 2017). It fills in the blanks of her long career and fragmented, but also extensive, social theories. During the question-and-answer session, I told him about this current essay, which I had, perhaps unwittingly, agreed to write. Richards seemed to think I was asking what Mary Douglas would do. And he responded, as if channeling her spirit: “Mary would probably ask what kinds of social orders produce a canon in the first place. The problem isn’t whether we should read it or not, but what kinds of societies produce and need canons.” Our canons—our classics—come to us, handed down, as if by decree, from our anthropological elder kin. In my anthropology training at Harvard, we read Evans-Pritchard and Radcliffe-Brown;Boas and Geertz; Benedict and Mead. But we did not read Zora Neale Hurston, Elliott P. Skinner, or W. E. B. DuBois.

As foundational as it was for many disciplines trying to understand the social sorting so fundamental to our societies, a US press known for its Africanist anthropology (and its enthusiasm for anthropological canon) rejected the book on Douglas that Richards had coauthored. As a British social anthropologist who had trained with Evans-Pritchard and wrote an influential book about the Lele of Belgian Congo, Douglas belonged to an intellectual kin network that has generally elevated her and her work to canonical status. I doubt that the book was rejected because it wasn’t good or was perceived to be of little interest to anthropologists; rather, I suspect that the subject of the book—Mary Douglas—did not fit into a small group of gatekeepers’ ideas about who should or should not be canonized. They questioned whether it made sense to contextualize, acknowledge, or celebrate her contributions to anthropological theory. But maybe I’m wrong. What I do know is that a powerful (woman) admirer of Douglas’ work at another press ushered the book to print.


Image result for mary douglas group grid
you can find the social order that produces canons in the upper righthand corner of Douglas’ group-grid


Lose your kin

In the throes of planning for a required course for a cross-field graduate seminar on “The field,” I explained to my archaeologist colleague that I was planning to write an essay about whether we should celebrate “the classics” or “the canon” for ethnographic theory. In our conversation, I casually dismissed the idea of defending the classics on the grounds that they were classics. His response was useful. He asked, “If the thing that unites us is common ancestors, who would your ancestors be? Don’t you need them?”

“I guess that depends,” I replied. Do you think we are born to ancestors, or do we get to choose the people we are descended from?”

“Yes. Yes, I think we choose them.”

If our “classics” are in essence the traces of our intellectual kin, and if we elect our kin, if we choose our affiliations and whom we “belong to,” then we need to seriously consider what that means. Maybe we should lose our kin, as literary scholar Christina Sharpe (2016), writing in the aftermath of the election of white nationalist, Donald Trump, has asked us to do. She was addressing those of us Americans who would be confronted with the possibility of having to share Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with a relative who espoused Trump’s views and supported his white supremacist agenda. Noting how chattel slavery in the United States was foundational to and reproduced through kin and ideas of property, ownership and race, rather than an aberration, Sharpe writes:

One must be willing to be more than uncomfortable. One must be willing to be on the outside. One must refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin. Slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship. Kinship relations structure the nation. Capitulation to their current configurations is the continued enfleshment of that ghost. Refuse reconciliation to ongoing brutality. Refuse to feast on the corpse of others. Rend the fabric of the kinship narrative. Imagine otherwise. Remake the world. Some of us have never had any other choice.


Bonilla, Yarimar. 2017. “Unsettling sovereignty.” Cultural Anthropology 32 (3): 330–39.

First citation in article

Calvino, Italo. 1986. “Why read the classics?” Translated by Patrick Creagh. New York Review of Books 33 (15).

Gqola, Pumla Dineo. 2015. Rape: A South African nightmare. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.

First citation in article

Hage, Ghassan. 2017. “‘Anthropology is a white colonialist project’ can’t be the end of the conversation.” Media Diversified, September 4.

First citation in article

Richards, Paul, and Perri 6. 2017. Mary Douglas: Understanding social thought and conflict. New York: Berghahn Books.

First citation in article

Sharpe, Christina. 2016. “Lose your kin.” The New Inquiry, November 16.


3 thoughts on “Reading the classics: Ideology, tautology, and memory

Add yours

  1. Hey, thank you for writing this blog. I am currently pursuing a master’s in SocialAnthropology at LSE. As someone who is a first generation university student with no previous background in anthroplogy, I always felt alienated by the curriculum. Infact, I shared my concerns with the Professors as well but they most of them didn’t do much except for saying “oh yes I understand but this is the way things are”. I almost cried after reading this, I can’t thank you enough for writing this.

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