The Zero Anthropology Project

Webfolio for Maximilian C. ForteZERO ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT






Since its inception in late 2007, the Zero Anthropology Project has gone through numerous changes: its aims and methods became more modest as time passed; its network of interactions has narrowed; and, the impact of experience has redefined the practice in numerous other ways. For a long time anthropologists in the UK and North America have “studied down”—researching oppressed native populations, but in many cases siding with the ruling elites of their society (or at least certain factions of the ruling elites, particularly those which funded anthropology). The Zero Anthropology Project is instead just one small part of a broader tendency that would reverse that relationship: “studying up” by focusing on dominant elites, while aligning more with the broader public interest.

Initially, the concept of Zero Anthropology looked something like the answers to the following question:

What might Anthropology be like if…

  • It transcended the institutionalized confines of academic knowledge production?

  • In publicly funded education systems, it actually performed in the role of public education?

  • We stopped practicing anthropology as an end in itself, but as a means to something beyond itself?

  • We did not calculate in advance how our work could be used to validate and justify anthropology as we know it?

  • We produced, presented, and interacted without thinking about our vested interests in maintaining an institutionalized academic practice?

  • Other anthropologies, existing outside of the West, and outside of the academy, were recognized and became part of how we make ourselves as anthropologists?

  • 19th century European disciplinary inventions were finally brought down, and like the anthropologist immersed among others, anthropology could no longer be disentangled from all other ways of knowing?

  • We were no longer afraid to offend the powerful?

  • Direct social engagement was not just an application of anthropology, or a way to communicate it, but was actually the way to do anthropology?

  • We understood anthropology as an ethical commitment to our partners, and those partners were not the dominant elites?

  • We stopped writing behind people’s backs, and developing theories over and on top of their heads?

Then, the answer was, there would be a chance that such an anthropology might no longer be recognizable to its (former) self. It might be an anthropology that crossed the zero line, an anthropology no longer made by empire and for empire. It might then be a post-imperial, and even post-anthropological anthropology. It might be a zero anthropology.

“An anthropology that crosses the zero line is
an anthropology no longer made
by empire, for empire”.

Some of the above are still the aims of Zero Anthropology, but as explained below one of the features that has been excised is that having to do with “direct social engagement”. Also, our work avoids what might sound like an attack on all European knowledge as such. In addition, it is more the job of other anthropologies, in other nations and cultural communities, to represent and communicate themselves, than it is our job to represent them. However, before reaching the present reformulation of Zero Anthropology, let’s look at some of the other early conceptualizations, since they each contain at least something of use.

Anthropology: The White Man’s Science?

“Anthropology will survive in a changing world by allowing itself to perish in order to be born again under a new guise”—Claude Lévi-Strauss, quoted in Lewis (1973, p. 586).

Anthropology “is a discipline that should strive for its own liquidation”—Johannes Fabian (1991, p. 262).

“[there are] the general questions of anthropology, which exist irrespective of anthropology departments. In fact, I would consider that all human beings are anthropologists….It’s very possible that anthropology departments will disappear, there’s no reason why they should continue existing”—Maurice Bloch (2008).

“It is not easy to escape mentally from a concrete situation, to refuse its ideology while continuing to live with its actual relationships”—Albert Memmi (1967, p. 20).

“Anthropology needs its own anthropology if it is to be more than a mere epiphenomenon of larger societal processes”—Jonathan Friedman (1994, p. 42).

“Anthropology: a room filled with white people, talking about non-white people”—Maximilian C. Forte (2009).

These opening quotes, including my own facetious one, were originally intended to signal a number of distinct yet related problems: about the coloniality of the discipline, about a need to understand the discipline within its social and historical context, and to even challenge the idea that it must be a discipline, or that it must be a discipline that continues to look like what it has been. In the original Canadian tradition of anthropology, it was never a discipline unto itself.

The long-stated aim of this project has been to get past the “disciplinariness” of anthropology, by going outside of the imperatives of professionalization, of withdrawing from it in some key respects while also regarding “anthropological knowledge” as useful, but only when seen from the right angle. That right angle is, in my view, to study anthropology as a Western knowledge system, as a mode of consuming the world by what are, by and large, white middle-class persons, and as a means of producing that world for other privileged consumers and for the authorities. It is no accident that colonial administrations and contemporary militaries have made use of anthropology—they used it because it can be useful, to them. Zero Anthropology’s aim has been a contrary one, to make it more “useless,” which is also symbolized by “zero” as an index of no value. The desire to move on, and start afresh, marked this venture as a “zero” moment.

As someone whose research in anthropology has focused on indigenous peoples, and specifically contemporary indigenous peoples in the Caribbean, coupled with interest in the history and political economy of imperialism and colonialism, certain dimensions of anthropology and its development became ever more apparent to me, and ever more troubling. One of these is that since its inception as an amateur activity that pre-dated its institutionalization in universities, anthropology has consistently sold itself as, one, a science, and two, one premised on the long-standing assumption that indigenous peoples would (or should) disappear or be diminished. Self-identified anthropologists in the mid-1800s, lusting for recognition and influence, tried to make a name for themselves in various commercially organized freak shows, ethnographic exhibitions, and museum displays. The desire to sell anthropology to the powers that be, as a science of the other, has never entirely disappeared.

Anthropology was not just built on the backs of indigenous peoples, as if the survival of the latter were needed to guarantee the survival of the former. Instead, when one looks more closely and more critically, it is a discipline that has always been premised on the expected extinction of the indigenous. Since that has not come to pass, and indeed we instead witnessed worldwide indigenous political and cultural resurgences, we note that anthropological theories began to treat these resurgences as virtual pathologies: symptoms of capitalism, instrumental means of gaining power, with traditions that are “invented”. Politically, some anthropologists have set themselves against the interests of contemporary indigenous peoples, whether with respect to the continued possession of indigenous remains for “scientific” purposes, or in disputing the appropriate representations of indigenous cultures. Not surprisingly, American Indian Studies, First Nations, and Indigenous Studies programs have sprouted across North America, alongside Ethnic Studies, African-American Studies, and so forth. Suddenly, the peoples presumed to be at the heart of anthropology began to flee from its control. In a tailspin, anthropology either pretended to continue business as usual, or began to develop autobiographic tendencies, or was practiced in the home society of the anthropologist where it began to look more like ethnographic sociology and started to lose a sense of its distinctiveness. It almost seems as if the zero line is one that cannot be avoided, regardless of the path we take.

To this day, anthropology in North America remains the “whitest” of all disciplines in the social sciences, in terms of the ethnic background of the vast majority of faculty and students. This is not being pointed out to indict those students and faculty for the facts of their birth—and one certainly cannot force non-white students into the discipline. Anthropology has always been a mode of knowledge-making chosen by Westerners as a reliable means of consuming knowledge about the colonial world, and for producing knowledge of that world for the authorities back home. Turned on itself, an anthropology of anthropology becomes an interesting journey of exploration into one of the Western world’s premiere colonial knowledge systems, and it ought to be appreciated as such.

“Under empire, anthropology has been
foreign policy by other means”.

Also and still to this day, anthropology retains the same terminology of instruments of foreign policy, whether the diplomatic corps or intelligence-gathering agencies. Time spent with living human beings in another society is called being “in the field,” and closely identifying with one’s hosts is treated as a problem, called “going native”. The methods of “doing fieldwork” continue to be based on a routine, accepted, and usually unquestioned duplicity: one is to establish rapport, build trust, and negotiate access, and purely for the purpose of extracting knowledge that was otherwise private. One’s “informants” (just as police detectives and spies refer to them) were not to receive compensation, which would be seen as buying information: they were to be satisfied with knowing they were contributing to knowledge about humanity, presumably a good in and of itself with certain unproven assumptions about this leading to greater mutual understanding, respect, and peace. In return, however, anthropologists advanced their personal careers, and not necessarily the cause of peace since activism and advocacy were widely frowned upon as eroding the objectivity and legitimacy of anthropology in the eyes of the powers that be. To be sure, some anthropologists have challenged this state of affairs vigorously and directly, but it’s doubtful that they have ever been more than a minority.

Zero Anthropology was conceived as being about knowledge after anthropology—after its extinctionist, Eurocentric, and scientistic premises. The project began by emphasizing the value of opening knowledge production to reciprocal and collaborative engagements between academics and broader publics, while trying to put that into practice online. It was about building on ideas and examples of ways of speaking about the human condition that looked critically at dominant discourses and that challenged the unquestionable status quo. The project was therefore oriented toward contributing toward non-state, non-market knowledge and participating in a public communication practice that suited the project. The project was also an invitation to critically re-examine the institutionalization of knowledge, looking for ways to reintegrate anthropology with other knowledge systems, and other disciplines, while criticizing the “disciplining” of the social sciences. What was initially called, for lack of imagination perhaps, the “Open Anthropology Project,” was explicitly about turning anthropology into a practice of independent-minded, critical thinking, in the public interest.

Eating Itself: An Anthropology of Anthropology

Zero Anthropology symbolZero Anthropology was for a long time symbolized by the Ouroboros (at least since 2009), containing the numeral zero which itself contained the letter A (for anthropology). Adoption of this symbol occurred when Open Anthropology became Zero Anthropology. The idea that was symbolized was of anthropology—and this could and should apply to any other discipline—devouring itself, by becoming an anthropology of itself, sometimes against itself, in order to create something new. It is not mere destruction, but creation. To the extent that anthropology has been institutionalized, professionalized, and implicated within the dominant structures of power, the idea of reaching zero involved going against the utilization of public resources and local knowledges for private purposes of gain, to suit the profit-making of private interests, and/or making policies to serve projects of domination. Dominant anthropology has historically been funded by, and inscribed with the interests of the powerful—it was a political project at least from the moment it entered the modern university, if not before. What is not implied by zero anthropology is the complete abandonment of all previous anthropological work, which in many instances would simply inspire an unnecessary reinvention of the wheel. What is more likely is an expansion of anthropology’s field of view, with greater clarity of vision about its role in the wider world.

For a very long time, anthropology has been a tool of interest to the powerful that funded it, and one that relied upon the powerful for making the world that would itself make the tool possible, even necessary. We engaged in exhibiting peoples of other nations; displaying their remains in museums; squatting in communities that had to put up with our presence. Such activities alone were not sufficient: we wanted to be relevant. We wanted influence. Recognition, relevance, and influence have always been—and largely still are—implicitly (sometimes explicitly) seen from the eyes of the ruling elites. It is the recognition of funding bodies, media corporations, government ministries, and opinion leaders that we sought. We wanted to be relevant to how society is run, by accommodating ourselves to those who run it. We wanted to be influential, a recognized body of expertise, to ensure our own survival and to promote and elevate our value to those who have the power to assign value.

Being a tool of the powerful, however, also opens up other possibilities. It gives us some access to how governing political institutions are run, how the economy is shaped, how decisions are made, by subjecting us directly, and by incorporating us. Universities may not all be very powerful institutions, but they are institutions of power, and battles are regularly fought over who gets to control the university for that reason. It means that we should have some experiential knowledge about the context in which anthropology happens, as any other discipline. An anthropological approach to the current conditions of anthropology, is an anthropology of power. An anthropology of anthropology is a critical investigation of what constitutes the conditions and provides the resources for the current reproduction of anthropology, and how anthropology often abides by the rules of power.

As a tool of the powerful, anthropology has been a consuming knowledge about Others. More than that, hegemonic anthropology, as practiced in the geopolitical centre of the capitalist world system, has been a formalized way for a largely white and Western middle class to consume the world. The results were not always what one might expect from this simple picture: anthropology has had a long tradition of rebellious and unruly figures, so much so that some were fired from their positions during times of war. This is true of most institutions of power: among their ranks there are always dissidents—total institutions tend to exist in theory rather than practice.

Towards an Objective Anthropology?

American anthropologists almost without exception do not write theory. Instead what they write is ideology, dressed up perhaps in an academic lexicon. For too long the hegemonic American mode of anthropology has been about speaking power under the guise of “truth”. The stance adopted is appropriate to an unelected/unelectable class of politicians. If we add to the obvious partisanship the academic politics by which certain topics and methods are constructed as “anthropological,” then we face an even bigger problem. What we need is a radical departure from the hegemonic mode that has become the comfort zone of dominant anthropology.

What we are speaking about then is an ultimately objective anthropology as it reaches the zero line, that is, where one perceives the world as if standing outside the dominant institutions and assumptions and writes about them as if one lacked any vested interest in maintaining and upholding them. A zero anthropologist is not unquestioningly devoted to preserving the legacy of intellectual ancestors, to reciting the classics, to maintaining encrusted privilege—nor do we encourage dogmatic rejection of any knowledge, because of either its age or its provenance. The idea instead is to create new knowledge and open up horizons, and to encourage freedom of thought. An anthropologist ought to be someone you turn to when you need to hear from an independent-minded free thinker who is willing to say even that which few would dare to think.

For a student to become an anthropologist should never mean submission to what has been put into place before, to faithfully uphold convention, to preserve someone else’s legacy—for the sake of it. If anthropology is about questioning the “taken for granted” aspects of everyday life, and exposing the arbitrariness of accepted precepts, then we must show our sincerity by applying such principles to ourselves. We do not learn from Others in order to learn about ourselves, if we then keep our Self removed from the picture and hold it beyond question.

Our aim should not be to preserve anthropology as it is—even less to promote it as it is to the wider public. We do very little service to anyone in merely “communicating” anthropology to the public, in finding new ways to become “relevant,” and to gain more recognition of “the contribution of anthropology”. That would be simple compliance, if not enforcement. It is also exactly the kind of accommodation that has been exploited by the corporate-owned media and the national security state. The perennial angst about “what does anthropology have to offer” needs to be directly challenged.

Zero Anthropology, is a way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a knowledge that favours the interests of the broad public in the society in which the anthropologist lives. That is Zero Anthropology in the broadest terms. But there is also a Zero Anthropology that can be understood in more specific terms, as follow below.

An Anthropology of Empire

Specifically, Zero Anthropology is an anthropology about empire, against empire, and after empire. The anthropology of imperialism is largely a non-existent field within the academic discipline (giving us another twist on the meaning of zero anthropology). On the other hand, imperialism is too important to be left to anthropology alone: this is one of the reasons why the approach here is about undoing and transcending the disciplinary divisions created by 19th-century European social science. Topics covered under the heading of the anthropology of empire include: neocolonialism and decolonization; regime change; psychological operations, information warfare, and propaganda; militarization; securitization; neoliberalism; and, critiques of liberal humanitarianism and Eurocentrism.

Zero Anthropology Today

Since the end of 2015, more or less, and given the accumulation of experience and reflections on experience, Zero Anthropology has taken definite directions that sometimes will seem to depart from select elements of what was presented above.

The dominant ideological and theoretical propositions of the past four decades include the following propositions:

  • cosmopolitanism is valued by transnational elites as the more sophisticated state of being for a better class of humans;

  • the nation-state and sovereignty are seen as things of the past, that are giving way to a New World Order;

  • individual human rights trump sovereignty;

  • globalization, we are told, is inevitable and irreversible;

  • humanitarian intervention saves lives;

  • the private sector is always better at delivering goods and services;

  • outsourcing and offshoring lower costs;

  • mass immigration always produces net benefits for societies;

  • we are developing a global cultural consciousness;

  • we live in a single human community;

  • international liberalism is triumphant, and this is the end of history.

Of course, no paradigm, not even ideological modes of thinking, are always wrong about everything, and there will be some evidence that can be found to justify each of these propositions. However, for the most part these propositions (and many others) have constituted the official line of thinking that has dominated nations, that has been taught in schools, promoted by think tanks, popularized by the media, and institutionalized by politicians. In light of the general collapse of the neoliberal order’s ability to sway voters, absorb contradictions, and manage the crises it has created, various alternatives have emerged across the world.

Rather than once again immerse readers in this all too familiar echo chamber of globalism and anti-nationalism, of the neoliberal thought of the establishment and those who lend themselves to its defense, Zero Anthropology proposes something different. This is important for anthropologists who, like other academics and middle-class experts of the managerial class, failed to foresee the coming rupture in a decaying liberal imperialist order, and then failed to understand why it happened and how people who opposed this order thought and felt. To take the comfortable class of liberalism out of its safe zone, this site emphasizes the kinds of perspectives that have been either dismissed, denounced, or as is more often the case, poorly understood by liberal/progressive academia.

Rooted in political anthropology and international relations, Zero Anthropology concentrates on giving readers access to information, insights, and debates about:

  • the resurgence of nationalism;

  • the decline of the neoliberal international order;

  • globalization and de-globalization;

  • the transnational capitalist class;

  • imperialism (especially in its liberal mode); and,

  • the political economy of knowledge production in anthropology.

Zero Anthropology focuses especially on allowing readers a chance to calmly reflect on the positions and perspectives of the many different parties that have mobilized against globalization over the past four decades, without the constant pressure to denounce, accuse, and rush to triumphant rhetorical conclusions. At its best, anthropology is not about denouncing other nations, their traditions, and their leaders.

Zero Anthropology boasts of being non-partisan, even anti-partisan. With what justification? Zero Anthropology is not in any way associated with any political party, movement, political or professional association, activist network, NGO, club, lodge, nor any government or inter-governmental agency. Zero Anthropology is financially independent and does not run on the basis of salaries, donations, grants, gifts, or any other forms of payment. Zero Anthropology does not follow the conventional left-right political divide; instead, our analyses correspond with the emergent reality of world politics whose main dividing lines are nationalism, globalism, trade, the working class, and economic sovereignty.

We zealously guard the independence of Zero Anthropology and resist all efforts and campaigns to fold it into any partisan camps. We encourage our readers to do their own thinking and ask their own questions, without needing to constantly reaffirm their affiliations or upholding the agendas of their social and political comrades or superiors.

As a result, we do not specialize in offering urgent advice to “the left,” or of trying to “save conservativism”. We are not about policing the lines of ideological purity. We can study such phenomena, because they happen in the real world, without becoming a part of such phenomena. Some anthropologists in North America might object that this means we are not “activist” enough, that we are against “public anthropology,” and oppose political advocacy. These largely miss the point, both about the history of anthropology in North America (which has been fundamentally shaped by political decisions since its inception), and about the diversity of options available to us as critical thinkers.

Inevitably, these statements reflect the intellectual biography of the author as a specialist in the field of Political Anthropology, and one whose thinking shares many overlaps with diverse streams of Critical Realism. The process of questioning partisan activism began by questioning why parties should be the principal vehicles of organization in the political sphere. To a significant extent, parties are to the political sphere what corporations are to the economic sphere. Both are bureaucratic entities dominated by a clique of leading executives, under the governance of a maximum leader. Both claim a monopoly right on controlling their respective spheres. From questioning parties, the author moved to questioning their ideologies. Just as the author does not vote for any political party, no existing ideology commands his loyalty. From a critique of specific ideologies and the shortcomings of each of them, the next step was to turn against the ideological mode of thinking as such. The ideological mode of thinking always imposes a vision of what the world ought to be on its representation of what the world is, and that often leads to critical errors. Ideological thinking can often tempt its adherents into accepting the outright denial of reality. Ideology is to the secular world what theology is to the religious world. Better than ideology, Zero Anthropology encourages its readers to ask their own questions, to think analytically and logically, to be as calm and fair as possible, and to inquire about the root causes of any real world phenomenon. We stress analysis of what is, without ever wanting to confuse it with what ought to be, which is the work of ideology.

Three Current Projects

Three projects currently occupy the focus of interest in Zero Anthropology.

The first, and broadest of the three, has to do with the anthropology of contemporary/recent imperialism. Its principal questions include the following:

  • Can there be an anthropology of imperialism, and if so, what would it look like?

  • What is the relationship between anthropology and imperialism, both historically and currently?

  • What challenges does imperialism pose to the constitution of the social sciences as several, specialized disciplines?

  • How does imperialism relate to fundamental matters of “the human condition”?

Within this broad stream, we look at the contemporary culture and political economy of imperialism, down to everyday life, and in the form of what some have called the “New Victorianism”. This is meant to incorporate and build on work about the “New Imperialism,” which has been one of the core themes of Zero Anthropology thus far. In connection with the New Victorianism and the New Imperialism, this project maintains a strong interest in “humanitarian interventionism” and “protection” as neoliberal and neocolonial principles of abduction, as a globalization of residential schooling and a renewal of the civilizing mission, while advancing the interests of capital.

The second project has to do with the history of anthropology, with a particular interest in the development of Canadian Anthropology. This introduces questions of cultural and specifically academic imperialism. This is also part of a broader interest in the political economy of knowledge production, with a focus on academia in Canada.

The third theme, which is likely to be minimal in its appearance online for the time being, has to do with the history of trade between Atlantic Canada and the Caribbean, especially in the triangular trade of the plantation era. In particular, the focus will be on the role of rum, and how rum helped to “make” parts of Atlantic Canada. More broadly, we will look at the broader patterns of exchange between these two peripheries of empire. This is mostly historical research, based on archival and published sources, and secondarily media and ethnographic analysis. The broader aims here are to further develop work in the fields of history of the Atlantic World, mercantilism and broader trade issues, globalization, settlement, the working-class in Atlantic Canada, the development of regional and national identities in Canada, and a broadening of what is commonly demarcated as “Caribbean history”.


Image: The harbour of St. John's, Newfoundland. Photograph by Maximilian C. Forte (2018), free for non-commercial reuse, with attribution.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.