What sort of discipline is women’s studies?

The tenets of women’s studies – and gender or multicultural studies – of patriarchy, intersectional oppression and social constructionism are, as noticed by Toni Airaksinen, unprovable and unfalsifiable. (We’ve had some discussion of Popperian falsifiability elsewhere; maybe this is another opportunity.) Social constructionism, I would argue, stands as a legitimate scientific theory: it can be either confirmed or refuted by biological evidence (Cf. John Dupré, Ian Hacking, Nancy Cartwright, etc.). The other two tenets, however, cannot hold the esteem of science, and don’t fit nicely as philosophical, sociological or political theories either. If they are considered philosophical theories, it has to be recognized that they began with their conclusions as premises; ergo, they are circular, and only confirmed by circularity. Neither conjecture has even the loose falsifiability to belong to a social science like sociology, and their refutation (were it possible) would mean the closing of their scientific branch, so they cannot be (relevant) sociological theories. Finally, very few theories that fall under the branch of “political” are fundamentally political; usually, they begin in another, more atomic field and are only secondarily responsive to the political realm. So, calling them political theories begs the question. It makes the most sense to classify theories of “patriarchy” and “intersectional oppression” as theological conjectures instead of philosophical, sociological or political.

To demonstrate the point: firstly, they posit an original sin: some of us are born with privilege, and only through reparations or race/gender-denunciations can we overcome it. They also, again like Christianity, possess a disdain for the current, real state of things: where Christians posit a celestial heaven for the afterlife, progressive idealists embrace utopian visions materially impossible to accomplish, or at least humanly unrealistic. To fuel the utopianism, historicism or a disregard for enlightened economic, historical or sociological analysis comes with the politics. Another tenet of religion is its typical weak exclusivism (van Inwagen, 2010): religions take themselves to be logically inconsistent with other sects (that is, if two belief systems are logically consistent, one is not a religion), and hold that, for people in the typical epistemic state of its adherents, it is rational to accept that religion. This mild exclusivism is very obvious for movements like modern feminism; it is also easy to see that stronger exclusivism not only follows from weak, but is applicable to the leftist ideologies as well: proponents of a religion must find opponents that possess the same epistemic certifications to be irrational. Also, the same exceptionalism, and infiltration into politics, is familiar to religions (like Christianity and Islam) as well as feminist theorists that seek to distort the law into beneficial means, beyond its legitimate jurisdiction.

Finally, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote in the 1840’s that theology was truly anthropology: Christianity was an appraisal of man, and the story of mankind. Gender studies sees this reversed: what might euphemistically be termed social science or anthropology, sociology, etc. is discovered to be instead a new sort of theology. Facts are subordinate to blind belief and obedience, and the probing essence of reason is dismissed for the docile, hospitable nature of faith. It seeks to see God, or masculine oppression, in everything. This is another instance of its discontent for anything formerly satisfying; until the tenets of women’s studies are taught exclusively in the classroom, its students will consider themselves forever oppressed. Creationism’s proponents wrestled fruitlessly as evolution replaced their faith in American middle schools. Feminists will try tirelessly to invade grade school as well, until faith can again triumph over critique.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Anthropology as critique of reality: A Japanese turn (pdf)
  2. Flat-footed Giants: Zaibatsu and Industrialization in Meiji Japan, 1868-1912 (pdf)
  3. A hypothetical federation between Japan and the United States

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Sectarianism and the New Shiism
  2. Why Islamic State Militants Care So Much About Sykes-Picot
  3. The Bullshistory of “Sykes-Picot”
  4. Never Alone: Let’s Retire the Word “Isolationism”
  5. Morals and the Free Society: On Cultural Group Selection
  6. The Creeping Militarization of American Culture

The Myth of Primitive Communism

Juhoansi02In my new article at FEE, “The Myth of Primitive Communism,” I argue that hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi share food with each other, not because they are selfless communists, but because favors and obligations are their most valuable commodities.

Please take a look. I’d be very interested in my fellow Notewriters’ erudite responses.

Why Don’t Tribes Transition to Market Defense?

Ongka, a “big man” of the Kawelka tribe. Image from http://www.stewartstrathern.pitt.edu/

Watch almost any anthropological film about a newly discovered “isolated tribe,” and you’re likely to see at least one “tribesman” wearing a t-shirt.

People in bands and tribes and chiefdoms — who have since time immemorial handled most of their economic transactions for food, clothing, and shelter through traditional economies of gift exchange and family sharing — eagerly become buyers and sellers for products on the global market as soon as they get the chance.

They grow coffee beans or trap furs, and they use the money to buy firearms, machetes, cell phones, and jean shorts. In other words, they jump right in to the market. And usually, the tendrils of global trade have arrived way before the anthropologists and their film crews.

But people in the same bands, tribes, or chiefdoms seem to hang on to their family and gift-based economies for political, military, and legal services.

They do not jump to create or hire market solutions (mercenaries, defense corporations), and they instead eventually transform — by hook or by crook — into a state or into a people subjugated by a state.

Why does this happen? Why do we get states for defense and markets for everything else?

Let me back up and explain my terms:

In the examples I’m familiar with, humans use one of four main methods to organize law enforcement and military protection:

1. Kin-based. Your extended family (a “band,” “clan,” or a “lineage”) and maybe an alliance of intermarried and neighbouring extended families (a “tribe” or a “village”), protects you. You are technically free to leave the family or the village, but that could leave you without protection unless you are marrying into a new one.

Examples: Cree, Tahltan, Ju/‘hoansi

2. Prestige-based. A famous leader (a “big man” or “chief”) and his warriors protect you in return for material gifts and social deference. You can pull your support from the leader — more easily if he’s just an informal “big man” and less easily if he’s a formal “chief.” And there are usually other nearby leaders or aspiring leaders who would happily accept your patronage.

Examples: Yanomamo, Kawelka, Trobriander

Systems #1 and #2 are often blended together, as in the Trobriander case, where each man’s connections to the chief are determined partly by family relatedness and partly by gift exchange.

3. State-based. A compulsory ruler (a “king” or “president”) and his warriors protect you in return for taxes and/or labor. You are never free to pull your support, although you are sometimes free to leave through emigration.

Examples: Aztec Empire, Canada, People’s Republic of China

4. Market-based. A private enterprise (a “defense contractor”) protects you in return for money. You are free to pull your support and choose another contractor, or go without.

Example: Detroit’s Threat Management Center

Now, we could also sketch out the same 4 methods for the basic kinds of economic exchange people do for food, shelter, and all the other goods and services in life besides defense. People can give and receive the things they want and need through #1 family networks, #2 prestige-oriented gift exchange, #3 state redistribution, and #4 markets.

What I see throughout the world in the last 500 years is that as globalisation advances, people in all or almost all cultures eagerly take their systems of food, shelter, etc. out of systems #1 and #2 and go into system #4. In other words, people in bands, tribes, and chiefdoms all over the world desperately want the metal tools, firearms, t-shirts, cell-phones, and everything else that the market offers, and so they find ways to sell goods or services and thus money that lets them buy that stuff.

For instance, hunter-gatherers who once collected food to share with their family now collect furs to sell internationally, or instead serve as bush guides to wealthy tourists from foreign cultures.

But people almost never eagerly or rapidly take their law and defense systems out of kin and prestige and into markets.

Instead, they tend to hang on to kin or prestige-based methods of law enforcement and warfare until they (a) get conquered by a state or (b) organize themselves as a state (whether to fend off would-be conquerors or to become conquerors themselves).

So in highland Papua New Guinea for instance, the Dani and the Kawelka were happy to grow coffee beans and other crops to put on the market by the 1970s. But they didn’t start hiring mercenaries for defense. Instead, they stuck to their big men and their tribes until their military organizations were absorbed into state militaries or turned into paramilitary movements aiming to create or seize control of a state.

Markets became the center of food production. States became the center of defense production.

Later on, after states have arrived as military organizations, sometimes they start expanding and controlling parts of the economics of food, shelter, education, etc., through compulsory redistribution.

Conversely, shifts to market-based defense seem to occur after a society has already had state-based defense — like in Moresnet or Kowloon (PDF). And the market organizations arise when, for some reason, the state-based defense system relaxes or collapses.

Why does this bifurcated trend keep happening?

Why do people in these societies transition into markets for most goods and services but states for law and war?

Do state-based militaries and police forces simply outcompete (or outfight) market ones?

Am I missing major counterexamples, or even misunderstanding my own examples?

“We’re all nothing but bags of stories”: Carlos Castaneda as a Countercultural Icon and Budding Post-Modernist

Exploring the countercultural 1960s and the origin of Western New Age, one cannot bypass Carlos Castaneda. He became a celebrity writer because of his bestselling book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that was published by the University of California Press in 1968. The book was written in a genre of free-style dialogues between a Native American shaman named Don Juan Matus and Castaneda himself, who claimed that he worked with Don Juan for many years. The Teachings describes how Castaneda learned to use three hallucinogenic plants: peyote, jimson weed, and psychedelic mushrooms. After ingesting these substances, Castaneda went through mind transformations and learned that there were other realities besides the ordinary one. Later, it was revealed that he made up the whole experience, but this never affected his popularity.


Of course, a book like this was well-tuned to the then-popular hallucinogenic subculture, and the link between Castaneda’s text and the psychedelic ‘60s is the most common explanation of his popularity. Yet I want to argue that this is a very narrow view, which does not explain why Castaneda’s follow up books, which had nothing to do with psychedelics, continued to enjoy popularity well into the 1990s. In fact, by the early 1980s, Castaneda became so paranoid about hallucinogens that he forced his girlfriend to undergo drug tests before allowing her to sleep with him. I also argue that viewing Castaneda exclusively as one of the spearheads of the New Age does not explain much either. The appeal of his texts went far beyond the New Age. In the 1970s and the 1980s, for example, his books were frequently assigned as conventional course readings in anthropology, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and humanities classes.

Let me start with some biographical details. Castaneda was born Carlos Arana in Peru to a middle class family and moved to the United States in 1951. He tried to enter the world of art but failed. Then, for a while, he worked as a salesman while simultaneously taking classes in creative writing before eventually enrolling in the anthropology graduate program at UCLA.

Originally Castaneda did not care about hallucinogens and the emerging hippie culture, but eventually UCLA (and the broader California environment), which was saturated at that time with various counterculture and unchurched spirituality projects, made him choose a sexy topic: the use of psychedelics in a tribal setting. The book which made him famous, The Teachings of Don Juan, originated from a course paper on “power plants” and from his follow-up Master’s thesis. I want to stress that both papers were essentially attempts to find a short-cut to satisfy the requirements of his professors. His first professor, an anthropologist, invited those students who wanted to get an automatic “A” to find and interview an authentic Indian. Despite a few random contacts, Castaneda could not produce any consistent narrative, and had to invent his interview. This was the origin of his Don Juan character. Then he followed requirements of his advisor, Harold Garfinkel, a big name in sociology at that time and one of the forerunners of postmodernism. Garfinkel made it explicitly clear to Castaneda that he did not want him to classify and analyze his experiences with Don Juan scientifically.

What Garfinkel wanted was a free-style and detailed description of his work with the indigenous shaman as it was and without any interpretation. Thus it was through collective efforts that Castaneda produced a text that by chance caught the attention of the university press as a potential bestseller. Essentially, Castaneda took to the extreme incentives provided to him by his professors and by the surrounding subculture. He internalized these incentives by composing a fictional text, which he peddled as authentic anthropological research. It is interesting to note that in 1998, just before he died, Castaneda made the following mischievous remark in his introduction to the last anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan: “I dove into my field work so deeply that I am sure that in the end, I disappointed the very people who were sponsoring me.”

The popularity of the first book gave rise to the whole Don Juan sequel, which made Castaneda an anthropology and counterculture star. The combined print run of his books translated in 17 languages reached 28 million copies. And, as I mentioned above, despite the revelations that his Don Juan was a completely fabricated character, the popularity of his books was increasing throughout the 1970s. In fact, to this present day, libraries frequently catalogue his books as non-fiction.

It seems that Castaneda’s appeal had something to do with overall trends in Western culture, which made his text resonate so well with millions of his readers. For this reason, I want to highlight the general ideological relevance of Castaneda’s books for the Western zeitgeist (spirit of the time) at its critical juncture in the 1960s and the 1970s. Various authors who wrote about Castaneda never mentioned this obvious fact, including his most complete biography by French writer Christophe Bourseiller, Carlos Castaneda: La vérité du mensonge (2005). So exploring the ideological relevance of the Don Juan books will be my small contribution to Castanediana.

To be specific, I want to point to two themes that go through all his books. First, he hammered in the minds of his readers the message of radical subjectivism, which in our day it is considered by some a conventional wisdom: What we call truth is always socially constructed. Don Juan, who in later books began speaking as a philosophy professor, repeatedly instructed Carlos that so-called reality was a fiction and a projection of our own cultural and individual experiences, and instead of so-called objective reality, we need to talk about multiple realities. In an interview for Time magazine, Castaneda stressed that the key lesson Don Juan taught him was “to understand that the world of common-sense reality is a product of social consensus.” Castaneda also stressed the role of an observer in shaping his or her reality and the significance of text in Western culture. In other words, he was promoting what later became the hallmark of so-called postmodern mindset.

Second, fictional dialogues between the “indigenous man” Don Juan, whom Castaneda portrayed as the vessel of wisdom, and Castaneda, a “stupid Western man,” contained another message: remove your Western blinders and learn from the non-Western ones. Such privileging of non-Western “wisdom” resonated very well with Western intellectuals who felt justified frustration about the hegemony of positivism and Western knowledge in general and who looked for an intellectual antidote to that dominance. By the 1990s, this attitude mutated into what Slavoj Zizek neatly labelled the “multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation,” which now represents one of the ideological pillars of Western welfare-warfare capitalism.

At the end of the 1970s, several critics tried to debunk Castaneda. They were able to prove that his books were the product of creative imagination and intensive readings of anthropological and travel literature. These critics correctly pointed out that Castaneda misrepresented particular indigenous cultures and landscapes. Besides, they stressed that his books were not written in a scientific manner. Ironically, this latter criticism did not find any responsive audiences precisely because social scholarship was moving away from positivism. Moreover, one of these critics, anthropologist Jay Fikes, who wrote a special book exposing Castaneda’s hoax, became a persona non grata in the anthropology field within the United States. Nobody wanted to write a reference for him, and he had to move to Turkey to find an academic position.

What critics like Fikes could not grasp was the fact that the Castaneda texts perfectly fit the emerging post-modernist thinking that was winning over the minds of many Western intellectuals who sought to break away from dominant positivism, rationalism, and grand all-explaining paradigms. To them, an antidote to this was a shift toward the subjective, individual, and spontaneous. The idealization and celebration of non-Western knowledge and non-Western cultures in general, which currently represents a powerful ideological trend in Western Europe and North America, became an important part of this intellectual revolt against the modern world. I am sure all of you know that anthropology authorities such as Clifford Geertz (until recently one of the major gurus of Western humanities), Victor Turner, and Claude Lévi-Strauss were inviting others to view any cultural knowledge as valid and eventually erased the border between literature and science. They also showed that scholarship can be constructed as art. Castaneda critics could not see that his texts only reflected what was already in the air.

Castaneda_Time magazine

The person who heavily affected the “production” of the first Don Juan book, which was Castaneda’s revised Master’s thesis, was the above-mentioned sociologist Garfinkel. As early as the 1950s, Garfinkel came up with ideas that contributed to the formation of the post-modern mind. I am talking here about his ethnomethodology. This school of thought did not see the social world as an objective reality but as something that individuals build and rebuild in their thoughts and actions. Garfinkel argued that what we call truth was individually constructed. Sometimes, he also called this approach “people’s sociology.” He stressed that a scholar should set aside traditional scientific tools and should simply narrate human experiences as they were in all details and spontaneity. Again, today, for many, this line of thinking is conventional wisdom, but in the 1950s and the 1960s it was revolutionary. Incidentally, for Castaneda it took time to figure out what Garfinkel needed from him before he rid his text of the vestiges of “positive science.” To be exact, Castaneda could not completely get rid of this “science” in his first bestselling book. In addition to the free-flowing and easy-to-read spontaneous dialogues with Don Juan, Castaneda attached to the text an appendix; a boring meaningless read that he titled “Structural Analysis.” In his later books, such rudiments of positivism totally disappeared.

When Castaneda was writing his Master’s thesis, Garfinkel made him revise the text three times. The advisor wanted to make sure that Castaneda would relate his spiritual experiences instead of explaining them. Originally, when Castaneda presented to Garfinkel his paper about a peyote session with Don Juan, the text was formatted as a scientific analysis of his own visions. The professor, as Castaneda remembered, rebuked him, “Don’t explain to me. You are nobody. Just give it to me straight and in detail, the way it happened. The richness of detail is the whole story of membership.” Castaneda spent several years revising his thesis and then had to revise it again because Garfinkel did not like that the student slipped into explaining Don Juan psychologically. Trying to be a good student, Castaneda embraced the advice of his senior colleague. So the final product was a beautiful text that was full of dialogues, rich in detail, and, most importantly, came straight from the “field.”

I interviewed some of Castaneda’s classmates and other scholars who became fascinated with his books at the turn of the 1970s. Many of them had no illusions about the authenticity of Don Juan. Still, they argued that the whole message was very much needed at that time. A quote from Douglas Sharon, one of Castaneda’s acquaintance, is illustrative in this regard. In his conversation with me, Sharon stressed:

“In spite of the fact that his work might be a fiction, the approach he was taking—validating the native point of view—was badly needed in anthropology, and, as a matter of fact, I felt it was a helping corrective for the so-called scientific objectivity that we were taking into the field with us.”

I want to mention in conclusion that Castaneda not only promoted the postmodern approach in his novels but also tried to live it. Before the age of Facebook and online forums, Castaneda, with a group of his followers, became involved in an exciting game of identity change. They came to enjoy confusing those around them by blurring and constantly changing their names and life stories. For example, people in his circle shredded their birth certificates and made new ones. They also performed mock wedding ceremonies to make fun of conventional reality. To those who might have had questions about this “post-modernist” game, Castaneda reminded: “We’re all nothing but bags of stories.”

Around the Web

  1. Why Women Hunt: Risk and Contemporary Foraging in a Western Desert Aboriginal Community (pdf)
  2. Competing to Be Leaderless: Food Sharing and Magnanimity Among Martu Aborigines (pdf)
  3. In Pursuit of Mobile Prey: Martu Hunting Strategies and Archaeofaunal Interpretation (pdf)
  4. Signaling Theory, Strategic Interaction, and Symbolic Capital (pdf)
  5. Rethinking Rights (and Freedom): A Series (be sure to scroll through the ‘comments’)
  6. Deconstructing Colonial Historiography: A Case Study of Afanasy Nikitin