Why do so many white revolutionaries not read social theory and philosophy from outside the European tradition? Here’s a long quote that puts the question in the context of anthropologists, but the issue is basically the same. The quote is from the foreword to the first volume of HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, a great journal by the way.
In a world where North Atlantic powers are growing less dominant and even in the old imperial centers, society grows increasingly diverse, maintaining the old, purely Euro-American centric forms of knowledge seems increasingly untenable. But at the same time, the sheer mass of our accumulated knowledge of different intellectual traditions is simply overwhelming. It’s not just our greater access to the world’s written intellectual traditions, from Medieval Islamic mysticism to African philosophy. Anthropology has revealed, from Cameroon to Vancouver Island, Yemen to Tibet, an apparently endless array of what can best be called material philosophies, often extraordinarily sophisticated reflections on the dilemmas of humanity, sociality, and the cosmos that are simultaneously inextricable from forms of material existence, none with any particularly privileged claim over any other. It was an excess of wonder. How could anyone possibly have command over all this knowledge? One wonders, indeed, if the reaction by scholars of other disciplines was a tacit, but nonetheless very real, sense of panic. There was just too much to know. But neither could all these other traditions simply be ignored: would not that be Eurocentric, even racist? Even to select one over another seemed unwarranted—by what criteria? To include all would be simply impossible.
In such a context, the anthropological auto-critique of the 1980s was made to serve a purpose for which it was never intended. In fact, anthropology has been since its inception a battle-ground between imperialists and anti-imperialists, just as it remains today. For outsiders, though, it provided a convenient set of simplified tag lines through which it was possible to simply dismiss all anthropological knowledge as inherently Eurocentric and racist, and therefore, as not real knowledge at all. This allowed those who wished to write histories of love, or truth, or authority to once again begin with Plato or Aristotle, proceed, perhaps, through Descartes or the Marquis de Sade, and end with Heidegger or Derrida, without ever acknowledging the existence of perspectives from outside the tradition of Continental philosophy. Often—more often than not, in fact—this revival of an exclusive focus on the Western philosophical tradition comes framed as a critique—but as a critique that must necessarily be internal to the tradition because it is held that those trained in contemporary universities somehow cannot think outside it. In the end, even anthropologists have come to follow suit, abandoning any attempt to create theoretical terms that arise from their own ethnographic work, but borrowing those developed by thinkers drawing exclusively on the Western philosophical tradition. Finally, the approach has been tacitly acceptable to intellectuals who identify with other non-Western traditions partly because it reinforces structures of authority, since it allows that other “civilizational” traditions should, once acknowledged, also be seen as similarly emerging top-down from a written intellectual tradition rather than bottom-up, from material philosophies, as a more anthropological approach would have suggested.
Another reason it has been so easy to parochialize ourselves is the very nature of contemporary Homo Academicus . Ethnographic theory is slowly realizing the necessity of turning its gaze within, towards an ethnography of everyday theory , uncovering how knowledge is produced in micro-daily interactions between students, faculties, departments and funding bodies. There is a wide dissatisfaction with the fragmentation of the discipline in directions serving the passing tastes of funding bodies—clearly, one factor behind the extraordinary outpouring of support that HAU has received since its inception. Ethnographic depth is increasingly superseded by the recourse to a game of concept-of-the-month—the uncanny, the abject, affect, biopolitics—each concept undergoing relentless exegesis and being displayed with pride during PhD writing-up seminars, only to be abandoned for the next term rediscovered in Spinoza, Heidegger, Rorty or Bataille. Reflecting on the brilliance of a work like Malinowski’s Coral gardens and their magic never seems to be quite as “cool” as quoting a new and unknown term from a European philosopher, one which can cast an interesting new game of lights and shadows with the dark cave where anthropologists are regarded to be still dwelling, playing meticulously with their rococo ethnographic figurines and primitive paraphernalia. In such a world, name-dropping becomes almost everything. The fact that it usually reduces academics to the embarrassing situation of considering themselves hip for recycling French theorists from the period of roughly 1968 to 1983, in fact, exactly the period of what we now call “Classic Rock” (in other words, for reading to the intellectual equivalents of Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin) seems to go almost completely unnoticed.