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A Great Tree Has Fallen: The Passing of Marshall Sahlins

Marhsall Sahlins at the Chicago Humanities Festival, 2014.

The renowned American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins died on Monday. With his passing our world lost a brilliant mind, political activist, and cultural theorist. As a contributor and friend of CounterPunch his work will be missed by the readers here; as a towering anthropological theorist his work will continue to be read and argued over in the academy; as a political activist opposing American wars and efforts to weaponize anthropology, his voice will be missed.

Marshall was a Chicago native. His brother Bernard founded the Second City comedy troop, helping form some of the 20th century greatest comedians; and Marshall shared a flare for the comedic and had a lightning-fast wit. His academic path began as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, where he first encountered the cultural determinism and neo-evolutionary anthropology of cryptomarxist Leslie White. While Sahlins’ work departed from White’s cultural evolutionary themes, detectible elements of White’s atavistic notions of culture’s symbolic nature shaped elements of his work. He earned his doctorate in anthropology at Columbia University in 1954, studying Polynesian social stratification. He then taught at the University of Michigan where he joined anti-war campaigns. In 1967 he went to Paris for two years, experiencing the student protests of 1968 firsthand and came to know Claude Levi-Strauss. Since 1973, the University of Chicago has been his academic home.

His 1972 book, Stone Age Economics, established him as one of American anthropology’s most significant theorists; he argued that hunter-gatherers were not some primitive undeveloped representation of human potential but were in fact the original affluent society. Sahlins challenged anthropologists who used western economic models to study nonmarket economies, eventually insisting that materialism was nothing but a form of idealism. In the years that followed he wrote books cutting through the codes of history, culture, kinship, and mythos, frequently revealing culture at the core of what was otherwise was conceived in some other way; all this presented with frequent surges of brilliance.

Marshall Sahlins greatest political contribution grew from his anti-war activism during the Vietnam War. Concerned about the lies being propagated by the US government, in 1965 he traveled on his own to Vietnam and used his ethnographic sensibilities to see what he could learn firsthand. His trip cumulated in his seminal political essay “The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam.” His political opposition to the war and academic critiques led him to establish the first anti-war teach-in, held on the University of Michigan campus in March 1965. In the months that followed, hundreds of similar teach-ins on college campuses sprung up across the US, and this rapidly became an important tool for mobilizing American campuses against the war.

In 2008, I organized a panel at the American Anthropological Association meetings in San Francisco featuring Sahlins and other anthropologists who had been active in 1960s and 70s anti-war activities organized by groups like Anthropologists for Radical Political Action (ARPA). In his paper, Sahlins said he viewed the teach-in as an important political moment because it brought together what were then two significantly different strands of American culture. He said that,

until the teach-ins of 1965, then, political activism and the counterculture were running on separate tracks, in terms of both generational participation and actionable causes. The left and left-liberals of the older generation were largely focused on nuclear disarmament and pacifism. There were some Vietnam War protests in the tried and-true forms of rallies, vigils and petitions, but they attracted little popular support and less media attention.

After 9/11 Marshall generously lent his name and time to support efforts by younger generations of anthropologists organizing against American terror wars. When US intelligence agencies began after 9/11 once again harvesting anthropological knowledge for counterinsurgency operations, Marshall helped assure the rapid production of short critical works in his Prickly Paradigm Press book series, helping quickly get in print critiques like Roberto Gonzalez’s American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and Human Terrain, or the Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual. He supported the efforts of me and other scholars trying to get works critical of new militarization efforts into print.

Sahlins was a critic of sociobiology and other forms of biological reductionism. In early 2013, he resigned from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) after it admitted anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose work is widely rejected by anthropologists as biologically reductionistic and scientifically flawed, but he also resigned because of the National Science Academy’s increasing role supporting militarized projects. As he wrote at the time, he resigned because he did not,

wish to be a party to the aid, comfort, and support the NAS is giving to social science research on improving the combat performance of the US military, given the toll that military has taken on the blood, treasure, and happiness of American people, and the suffering it has imposed on other peoples in the unnecessary wars of this century.  I believe that the NAS, if it involves itself at all in related research, should be studying how to promote peace, not how to make war.

He later told me he got a load of grief for the resignation, but he didn’t care.

Sahlins could certainly play rough. I’ve watched him cut loose in an argument at conferences more than once and thought I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of that blunt intellectual download. This was old school stuff, under old rules that you don’t see much of anymore. Which I suppose leads to a few final words about how unusual it might be that I came to admire Marshall Sahlins. I first met him in the mid-1980s, while a graduate student at the University of Chicago; sat in on one of his classes, but never studied with him for all sorts of reasons, including being intimidated by the hardball intellectual games playing out on his classroom floor. I later studied with one of his academic enemies, his erstwhile friend, Marvin Harris—against whom he argued in one of his most significant books, Culture and Practical Reason—and I even had the surreal experience in the early 90s  of having a martini with Sahlins and Harris in a hotel bar during a large academic conference (complete  with rubber-necking anthropologists like I’ve never seen); the conversation was reminiscent of that old Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoon where Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog fought each other in the workplace and clocked out and had somewhat civil discourse after the workday. Somewhat.

As the student of one of his academic foes, I might seem an odd character to eulogize and mourn his passing. But as allies in the years following the Terror Wars’ campaign to weaponize anthropology, we talked about our past connections to Harris, as well as my essentially unrepentant vulgar materialist tendencies manifest in the connections I find between military and intelligence agency funding and the production of social science for empire. I don’t know if this was a mellower older Sahlins, or simply that his agreement with my political project and ethical concern about the uses of anthropology paved the way to find common ground, but I’m glad space existed to get to know him, and I know his brilliance and drive will be missed, as will his activist commitment to demilitarizing anthropology.

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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