The Zero Anthropology Project

“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: 586). “[there are]...

“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: 586).

“[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: 20).

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

At its most basic level,ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is about anthropology after empire, that is to say an anthropology that emerges from the decline of European and North American geopolitical hegemony, that crosses the zero line demarcating the point at which that hegemony nears complete collapse. It is not predicated on salvage, but on resurgence. The project does not lust after recognition and reward by the authorities, and therefore does not enlist itself in the service of dominant elites, and their various “humanitarian imperialist,” corporate, and militarist endeavors. It is fundamentally an anti-imperialist anthropology, an anthropology of empire, an anthropology against empire, and an opening to anthropology after empire. Zero Anthropology seeks to be toxic to power.

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is thus also a project of decolonization, growing out of a discipline with a long history and a deep epistemological connection to colonialism. The aim is to transform anthropology into something that goes beyond its Eurocentric and institutional origins. It is an attempt to redefine the craft of anthropology into one guided and inspired by decolonization movements and by the struggles of indigenous peoples, Africans in the Americas, and various anti-systemic movements.

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY arises from a dissatisfaction with the state of knowledge in contemporary and classical anthropology, and is meant to significantly restructure and move anthropology beyond its current confines, beyond the constraints of professionalization and institutionalization, transcending the very “disciplinariness” of a discipline that has often foundered on its own shoals since its inception as “anthropology.” ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY does not merely speak of the demise of the Old Anthropology (that is, the classical and contemporary, professional and institutional), nor is it another attempt to “recapture” or “rethink” anthropology. Moreover, the consistent angst of the old discipline is not something to be inherited; where there was insecurity, defensiveness, and depression, we will instead opt for excitement, passion, and enthusiasm.

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is about unthinking anthropology altogether, getting past it, while pursuing certain avenues of inquiry that resemble what has been developed in some quarters of the old discipline, freely combined with elements of history, philosophy, the fine arts, political economy, literature, sociology, cultural studies, media studies, communication studies, area studies, and ethnic studies. Ultimately, and in the long term, “anthropology” may no longer be a fitting label for such an endeavor, or, it could encompass and redefine all of the social sciences and humanities, in a post-disciplinary era to come.

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is also about opening up anthropology in two ways: by encouraging academic engagement in social transformation beyond the walls of the university while working on the transformation of university practices with respect the production of knowledge; and, by opening up the discipline to the broader, independent, non-institutional forms of anthropology that already exist in the world. The idea is neither to attempt to “go native,” nor to bring “the native” back home for inspection and familiarization, but to restructure the epistemologies and practices of institutional anthropology so that it can act as a conduit for ways of thinking, knowing, and being that have currently only been objects of study.

If anthropology claimed the world for study by Europeans and Americans, ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is (also) about “the world” reclaiming anthropological knowledge for its own self-understanding, self-expression, and self-identification, or better yet, recognizing that it always had “anthropological” knowledge of its own.

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY roots itself in the following principles:

  • Transdisciplinary fusions: an end to disciplinary confinement, and an openness to the other social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences, in a way that helps to erode the structures of knowledge instituted in 19th century Europe. Hence, it locates itself within the Open the Social Sciences “movement.”

  • Respecting difference: a critique of the hierarchy of knowledge expressed in the dichotomies of professional vs. lay, scientific vs. folk, emic vs. etic, and so forth. In other words, a new openness to otherness in its own terms. Most importantly, to respect difference in the face of, and in deliberate spite of Eurocentric cultural imperialism, neo-liberal cosmopolitanism, and various other Western imposed manifestations of universalism that work to heighten Westerners’ sense of self worth while diminishing that of others. This is especially critical at a time when new narratives of savagism have regained considerable ground in Western mass media and official commentary.

  • Selective Collaboration: knowledge production that is fully collaborative, integrative, that lays bare the bases of its own production, that is conscious of itself as knowledge, and that constantly incorporates thinking of its own knowledge production as part and parcel of the process of knowledge production; and engaging with partners in a consensual remixing and commentary on each other’s productions.

  • Disturbance and confrontation: actively seeking out and engaging other persons and groups, especially non-anthropologists and non-academics, to confront and challenge the contemporary reproduction of imperialism and colonialism.

  • Open source ethnographies: this is about ethnographic ways of seeing, thinking and approaching public, online cultural artefacts and interactive commentaries, that are not elicited or brought to light by a researcher. In other words, it is about working with and commenting on materials that were primarily designed for public consumption, that were not excavated by the researcher and then revealed to wider audiences. In line with the previous principle, it can also involve making use of media and government materials online, and deliberately reshaping them in acts of resistance that invert institutional goals and reveal their hidden meanings and aims.

Clearly ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is not a project conceived by someone who wishes to be either a guardian or defender of the discipline, nor is it an attempt to demand, instruct, or admonish anthropologists into following a new agenda, or to pursue a new menu of topical inquiries. This project is also not about doing service for anthropology in innovating it, remodeling it, or redecorating it to make it more palatable to wider audiences.

About Maximilian Forte

Anthropologist focusing on empire, militarism, political anthropology, decolonization, indigenous struggles, cyberactivism, visual ethnography, and media studies. Please post comments and inquiries to maximilian.forte@concordia.ca