The Concept

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...

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 there is 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 be a post-imperial, and even post-anthropological anthropology.

It might be a zero anthropology.

…on reaching Zero…

The project has been symbolized by the Ouroboros since 2009, containing the numeral zero which itself contains the letter A (for anthropology). Adoption of this symbol occurred when Open Anthropology became Zero Anthropology. The idea being symbolized is of anthropology–and this could and should apply to any other discipline–devouring itself, by becoming an anthropology of itself, and 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 involves a rebellion against the utilization of public resources and local knowledges for private purposes of gain, profit, and making policies of domination.

Some will interject: "But even within the ranks of establishment Anthropology there have been, and are, many critical radicals. Would you eat them alive too? Do you even acknowledge their existence?" Of course, both in terms of the ancient roots of anthropology, and anthropology as practiced by all peoples (if understood as basic curiosity about others), and among the ranks of institutional Anthropologists, there has been a distancing from the politics of domination, and a critique of academic Anthropology along with critiques of "practicing" and "applied" Anthropology that serve the interests of corporate, state, and military elites. For our purposes, these constitute the head of our symbolic Ouroboros, containing its conscience, its ethics, its vision of itself as it is now and as it could be. It does not simply "destroy," rather it is in eating that it makes itself anew.

For a very long time, Anthropology has been a tool of the powerful, and one that relied upon the powerful for making the world that would make the tool possible, even necessary. From exhibiting peoples of other nations, to displaying their remains in museums, to squatting in communities that had to put up with our presence, we sought recognition. 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. It means that we should have some experiential knowledge on the very conditions that make Anthropology possible, 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 constitute the conditions and provides the resources for the current reproduction of Anthropology, and how Anthropology abides by the rules of power. But like Marx said about philosophers, our intent is not just to interpret the world…

As a tool of the powerful, Anthropology has been a consuming knowledge about Others. More than that, hegemonic Anthropology, as practiced in geopolitical centre of the capitalist world system, has been a formalized way for a largely white and Western middle class to consume the world. As always, the results of this are not unambiguous, and they can and have resulted in a body of knowledge critical of world capitalism, along with numerous activist anthropologists.

Likewise, as tools of the powerful, embedded in one of the society’s dominant institutions (the university), critical academics can already begin to counteract the agenda of dominant elites by speaking out, by breaking ranks with the powerful, by serving as conscientious witnesses to the workings of power and domination, and by combating the dominant mode of rule as it applies within the very setting of the university. The social system privileges academics, and we must continue to turn that privilege against the structures of dominance, performing counter-surveillance, and speaking the truths of power as we know them to the powerless affected by them.

…it becomes a post-Anthropological anthropology?

What we are speaking about then is an ultimately objective anthropology as it reaches Zero, that is, where one tries to stand outside the dominant institutions and writes about them as if one lacked any vested interest in maintaining and upholding them. "How can you bear living in such an awful world?"–hopefully, to help change it. We must stand against this injunction that if you serve within a dominant institution, and an established academic tradition, that you must hand over your life to defending the reactionary agendas set by others, to preserving their legacy, to recite the classics, to maintaining encrusted privilege. If that is the case, tenure is wasted: such academics are already conditioned to maintaining a perfect silence lest their work gives rise to any discord. Their primary concern is with keeping a civil tone, not denouncing injustice. Their collegiality is nothing more than deferring to power. They turn the university into a school for obedience training. The discipline is a leash. They are incapable of ever creating any new knowledge, because they cannot even begin to envision anything that is beyond the boundary. They are data gatherers, not scholars. They are researchers, not intellectuals. They are professional academics, not free thinkers.

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. 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.

To make the familiar (anthropology, our own society) strange means becoming alienated. You cannot stand outside the norm or even discover the working norms without becoming alienated. Alienation is the root of revolt, and an anthropology of Anthropology is an anthropology of power, of the dominant political-economic arrangements, and is dedicated to transformation.

Then it can never be the same again.

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 is conservative accommodationism, and is a serious part of the problem we must confront. 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–it is, at the very least, the wrong question to ask, one that betrays some arrogance as well.

Anthropology, for me, 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 stands against the state and the market. I would like to think that my work here is about undoing and unthinking received “wisdom.” When this project first took shape it was developed as part of an ongoing critique of institutional and disciplinary anthropology, insofar as it has or may continue to support, justify, participate in, or abide by imperial projects. I write against the conservative “professionalization” of ideas, the way that knowledge is compartmentalized and “disciplined,” and the way that print and other media capitalists have monopolized knowledge dissemination in the most anti-democratic fashion. The larger concern is with a global system of inequality, the diffusion of social injustices, permanent war and imperial domination, and cultural colonization that work together to maintain an unsustainable system of mass consumption and an anti-democratic system of corporate domination.

About Maximilian Forte

Anthropologist focusing on imperialism, neoliberalism, militarization, "humanitarian intervention," decolonization, Indigenous movements, and other topics in Political Anthropology. In addition, he teaches courses on visual anthropology, media ethnographies, and cultural imperialism. He is a full Professor in the Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. Please direct comments and inquiries to