There have been a number of interesting comments lately pointing me in different directions. Let me begin with Robin McDugald’s question: “I understand it may have something to do with the over-all thrust of your course, but could you offer a brief word on why the reading and discussion of Wilmsen’s book—a book I’m completely unfamiliar with—takes up such a large part of it?”
Good question. The authors whose writings are assigned in the course are Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Karl Mannheim, Edwin Wilmsen, Charles Mills, and Martha Nussbaum. I can be absolutely certain that every student will have heard of Marx, because he is included in the required readings for the famous Contemporary Civilization course that they will have been required to take as first or second year undergraduates at Columbia. Inasmuch as the course is being offered in the Sociology Department, I think I have a right to assume they have heard of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. I mean, that is like assuming that Lit students have heard of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Mannheim may be a stretch, but they are, after all, Columbia students, so they will at least know how to fake it. Mills and Nussbaum look like add-ons to satisfy the PC police. But Wilmsen? Who he?
The overarching theme of the course is the thesis that the Social Sciences, unlike the Natural Sciences or the Humanities, are inherently and unavoidably ideologically mystified. The three weeks spent on Wilmsen are, in a way, the heart of the course. Let me explain.
Ever since Marx launched the enterprise of ideological critique [I know, I know, it was Hegel, but I hate Hegel, so leave me be], the most sophisticated thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual tradition have been writing in ever more elevated and atmospheric ways about ideology, false consciousness, mystification, alienation, and such like things. Their prose soars so far above the landscape below that reading it can make one feel lightheaded from a lack of facts. Real ideological critique, of the sort that Marx and Mannheim carried on with such brilliance, requires a combination of detailed, particular knowledge with rarefied theoretical analysis that is rare indeed, even in such legendary haunts as the Frankfurt School for Social Research. To do ideological analysis well, you must steep yourself in the object of your critique. No one would think of offering an ideological critique of the novels of Dickens without knowing them inside and out, and knowing as well an enormous amount about the social, economic, and political milieu in which they were written.
Wilmsen’s book, Land Filled With Flies, is a devastating ideological critique of the work of a group of ethnologists led by the distinguished Canadian anthropologist Richard Lee. Lee and his associates devoted years to a detailed study of the Zhu, a people living in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and South Africa. Wilmsen himself spent many years living with the Zhu, learning their language, getting to know them, recreating their history and that of the larger Kalahari from colonial archives.
The result is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant pieces of work ever written in the Social Scieces. Wilmsen’s critique calls into question not only the legitimacy of the work of the Lee group but of Ethnography itself as a discipline, and it does so in the service of a Marxist perspective.
My pedagogical message to the students in the class is this: If you want to engage in ideological critique, this is the sort of work you must do. You must combine an understanding of the general theory of ideological critique with a hard won mastery of the detail of the object of your critique. Wilmsen’s book, aside from being in my estimation fascinating, is a perfect case study of how to do ideological critique.
That is why, along with such famous folk as Marx, Weber, Durkhim, and Mannheim, I devote three weeks of a thirteen week course to a book by Edwin Wilmsen.