The End of the Beginning of the End

The long-stated aim of this project has been to get past anthropology as something that one "does" and more toward engaging anthropology as something to be transformed by shedding its...

The long-stated aim of this project has been to get past anthropology as something that one "does" and more toward engaging anthropology as something to be transformed by shedding its "disciplinariness," going outside of professionalization, withdrawing from it in some key respects while also regarding "anthropological knowledge" as useful 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. My aim has been a contrary one, to make it more "useless," also represented by "zero" as valueless. The desire to move on, and start afresh, also marks this 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 witness worldwide indigenous political and cultural resurgence, 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 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, and there it began to look more like ethnographic sociology.

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. 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.

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 to 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 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, and to be sure, they remain a minority.

Zero Anthropology is about knowledge after anthropology, after its extinctionist, Eurocentric, and scientific premises, an anthropology so decolonized that it is no longer recognizable as anthropology. This 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 look critically at dominant discourses and that challenge the status quo of global capitalism. The project was therefore oriented toward contributing to non-state, non-market, knowledges and participating in a public practice that suited the project. The project was also an invitation to critically reexamine 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 decolonizing knowledge, combined with a pronounced anti-imperialist orientation.

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