Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Individualism and Hierarchy: a Critique of Louis Dumont's "Essays on Individualism"
How far should we go to trace back the institution-constitution of anthropology not only as an established discipline since the nineteenth century but as a specific mode of enquiry, if not worldview? Anthropological studies of the non-West rely not only on fieldwork and on scholarly literature considered as specific to anthropological theory but also on a narrative grounded on the “history of ideas” and the “histoire intellectuelle de notre civilisation occidentale” (p.11), i.e. an intellectual history of modernity. This question is related to the acknowledgement, objectification and theorization of the difference-opposition between “them” and “us” that is at the basis of the anthropological inquiry. It is through a study of European thought and a selection of the “great” texts of the Western intellectual tradition that this difference is disclosed in Essais sur l’individualisme. From this perspective, if textuality is a distinctive feature of the anthropology of the West, Dumont’s project is also a continuation of the anthropology understood as the discipline dealing with societies without writing or in which textuality is not involved. It is at the same time an inversion of the perspective adopted in Homo-Hierarchicus, and starts from the “ensemble” to look for the individual. More specifically, the anthropological genealogy of the modern-individualist ideology is a religious one; it is even a Christian “genese” in Dumont’s words. Christianity produced a productive tension between the “individu-hors-du monde” and the world itself, notably after the Reformation. The transition from the “individu-hors-du monde” to the “individu-dans-le monde” is the emergence of a new relationship to the world no longer based on the devaluation of the world but on its “incarnation of the value”. This transformation was possible thanks to Luther and Calvin whose notion of predestination emphasized the centrality of human will and active participation in worldly life –a well known hypothesis already formulated by Weber. For Dumont, this transition was not only done obviously against the Church and its monopoly over the relationship to the divine and the truth, but also with the Church. After the eighth century, the latter became a kind of “spiritual monarchy” which will to power made of it a “mundane” institution de facto orienting the individuals towards an involvement in the world. The anthropological interpretation of the Western intellectual history leads Dumont to think of the theorization of the social among the philosophers of the contract, particularly the relationship between (social) equality and (political) hierarchy. The main problem of the philosophers of the contract (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) is to think of the political starting from the individual. How can the latter be a member of society theorized as egalitarian and at the same time, be subjugated to a central and unique authority? In fact, despite the emphasis of the revolutions of the eighteenth century on the individuals and their rights consistent with societas, the Western polity was unable to ignore the need of universitas and organic relationships among men. The concomitant emergence of sociology and socialism in nineteenth century France reflects the necessity to think of the social as a whole, which is much more than a mere assemblage of individuals and exists independently from them. This tension between individualism and holism structures not only western political thought but also sociological and anthropological theory and the way anthropologists should interpret the social. For Dumont, anthropologists should have in mind and conciliate between the individualist tradition from which they come with the observed societies’ holism. The anthropological study of modern societies is possible only after the recognition of the emergence of the individual as a “fait ideologique”. The anthropological study of non -Western societies is fruitful when it is freed from the importation of individualism as a category of analysis (p.202). The possibility of anthropology lies in the opposition and the gap between on the one hand the “modern individualism-universalism”, and on the other hand, “the closed society or culture”. It is this gap that allows the anthropologist to have a general knowledge on humanity through the concrete society and shed light upon the exceptionality of modern society (“notre propre culture”, p.193) and the exceptional universalism it professes. While individualism is related to a specific worldview separating facts from values, the “is” from the “ought”, and man from nature offered to his will, holism preserves their unity. Thus, it is this gap that makes possible the anthropology of the West. There is undoubtedly a filiation from Durkheim to Dumont via Mauss. For both authors, the science of the social –sociology, anthropology- in modern society –based on “individualism” in the context of “organic solidarity”- has and should have a political function in theorizing its unity and even producing it. For example, anthropology may contribute to “to retrieve or disclose” the principle of unity of modern culture characterized by a rationality dealing only with partial and scattered objects (“re-unir, com-prendre, re-constituer ce que l’on a separe, distingue, decompose” p.209). Anthropology can even contribute to the (re-)introduction of the principle of hierarchy-holism in modern-individualist societies. When the anthropologist study non-Western societies, his task is precisely to look for the Maussian “fait social total” -an equivalent of the “potlatch”- that would disclose their fundamental internal coherence uniting a series of oppositions. For Dumont anthropology should be an endless conversation between the (western) anthropologist’s concerns and the studied societies. If anthropology starts with the study of non-western societies, it should lead to the anthropology of western societies. His own anthropology of individualism would not have been possible without his work on India. But what Dumont does not seem to see or to deal with is the relationship of power and the absence of reciprocity that made -and still makes possible- the anthropological work. Dumont alludes to it when he excludes the combination of equality and difference and asserts that recognition of difference can only take place in a hierarchical system. However, hierarchy may be much more present in modern times than what Dumont suggests. Dumont may reply that if hierarchy is not the dominant feature inside modern-western societies, it has been (re-) introduced outside them, in the relationship to the Other alongside with the development of individualism in them. The divide between “them” and “us” was constantly (re-)defined from the fifteenth to the twentieth century according to power relations and territorial expansion. Moreover, this divide was far from being neutral or “value-free” but was the locus of a hierarchical relationship between the West and the rest that determined the production of knowledge. The sense of equality among Europeans emerged while the non-West was colonized and was concomitant to the construction of European identity. The colonies presented today as territories outside Europe were constitutive of its own identity (Algeria was “la France”, divided in three “departements”). In fact, the equality of citizens formulated by the philosophers of the contract and the constitutional and civil laws of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries relied on a series of exclusions, notably women and the colonized subjects. To rely on Dumont’s own “genesis”, this can be even traced back to the fifteenth century and the colonization of America in which the subjugation of the Indians brought out the equality among European Christians. There is a strong relationship between the sense of equality “among us” and a hierarchy of “civilizations” (and “non-civilizations”) relying on the subjugation of the Other that has been pointed out by thinkers like Edward Said and needs to be explored further. Finally, if Dumont’s project is a continuation of the Weberian project in his attempt to understand the uniqueness of the West, is this the task of the anthropologist today? Let’s recall that Max Weber is interested in identifying the features of Western rationalism found in science, theology, art, state bureaucracy and capitalism that are at the same time “lacking” in non-western civilizations. The contrast between the West and the non-West in these fields would explain the uniqueness of western rationalism (the uniqueness of western individualism in Dumont’s approach). Following this approach, the task of the scholar working on the “non-West” has usually been understood as an attempt to make intelligible the causes of its “backwardness”, “its “underdevelopment” or its inability to “embrace modernity”. However, when anthropologists follow a non-linear and non-modern conception of time, then what would and should be anthropology? Let’s take for example Ibn Khaldun’ study of forms of power and social cohesion which relies on a cyclical time. In Dumont’s narrative (or Weber’s narrative) there is no room for this kind of approach. What would be a conception of anthropology that would leave open the possibility of other forms of scholarly writing relying on a different hermeneutic tradition, on different archives and on a different memory? Can we think of anthropology in terms that would not make us prisoner of the dichotomies and the categories of the “typological time” which denotes “quality of states” (Johannes Fabian) including “tradition” and “modernity”, pre-modern and modern, pre-colonial and colonial? One cannot overlook the difficulty to have an alternative language that would be free from these assumptions and teleologies.