On  anthropological  Optimism:     ROGER  SANSI   “  Have anthropologists abandoned grand theories, or has comparative anthropology made theoretical advances

? Should anthropologists resume earlier explorations of ‘human nature’?” These are some of the questions we have been asked to address today. When I heard the question about human nature, I immediately thought of the president of Spain, Zapatero, who defined himself as an “anthropological  optimist”  .   This  meant,  according  to  the  press,  a  secular  version  of  Christian  notions  of  good   will:    the  belief  that  people  are  “naturally”  good,  and  that  they  will,  in  the  end,   agree  on  the  best  possible  solutions  to  their  common  problems,  thinking  about   their  common  good.  Back  then,  Zapatero  was  extremely  popular,  his  laws  on  gay   marriage  and  abortion  had  made  him  an  icon  of  the  secular  left  in  a  country  that   was  run  by  fundamentalist  Catholics  for  probably  to  long.    His  “anthropological   optimism”  back  then  sounded  like  a  good  response  to  the  grim  metaphysical   pessimism  of  the  Catholic  right.    But  lately,  the  optimism  of  Zapatero  has  been   seen  as  the  key  to  his  failure.  It  is  said  that  His  optimism  was  his  blindness,  his   blissful  ignorance  of  the  economic  crisis  that  was  underway.    I  will  come  back  to   the  crisis  later,  unfortunately,  but  next  I  would  like  to  talk  a  bit  more  about   anthropological  optimism.       Optimism  has  been  out  of  fashion  in  Anthropology  for  many  many  decades.     Pessimism,  or  the  view  that  man  is  a  wolf  to  man,  that  human  nature  leads   humans  to  fight  each  other  for  power,  more  than  collaborate  for  the  common   good,  has  been  for  a  long  time  sinonymous  with  realism,  an  intelligent  and  deep  

  At this point I would like to come back to the questions formulated for today.     That  still  didn’t  make  his  criticism  less  relevant.  on  the  Native  Anthropology  of  Western  Cosmology”.understanding  of  the  bleak  human  condition.  following  the  American  anthropological  tradition.  the  very  incarnation  of  the  critical.  It  was  quite   funny  to  see  that  Sahlins  is.  a  weak  and  a  strong  one.  and   this  was  that  there  is  no  such  a  thing  as  human  nature.  pessimism  would  not  be  the  only  possible  option. is not the same as saying that it has abandoned (and perhaps should recover) a notion of “human nature”.  it  was  difficult  to  identify  what  was  his  main  proposition.  there  were   two  main  options.  heir  to  the  whole  tradition  he  was  questioning.  just  like  cynicism  seems  to  be  a   sign  of  intelligence  amongst  middle  class  intellectuals. or further.   But  of  course  there  was  also  a  strong  reading  of  what  Sahlins  was  saying.  and  pertinent  for  me.  having   been  raised  reading  critical  thinkers  with  a  quite  gloomy  view  on  the  human   condition. At . Perhaps it is exactly the opposite: one could say that grand theory in recent years precisely started by questioning the concept of human nature.  at  all.  Only  after  I  started   graduate  school  did  I  realize  that  anthropological  pessimism  was  not  the  only   game  in  town.  My  professor  Marshall  Sahlins  was  an  acerbic  enemy  of   pessimism. To ask if anthropology has abandoned grand theory.  The  weak  option  was  that  there  are   other  possible  human  natures.  Rousseau  was  one   of  the  only  thinkers  of  the  enlightenment  that  Sahlins  saved  from  much  critique.   perhaps.  cynical   middle-­‐class  Western  intellectual. of ‘nature’ in general.  Human  nature  is   what  he  called  culture.       But  still.   perhaps  we  could  also  think  of  an  anthropological  optimism.  and  in  that  double  move.  Bourdieu  or  Foucault.  from  Hobbes  to  Weber.  the  “Sadness  of   sweetness”.  Sahlins  was  criticizing  critical  theory.  against  which  he  wrote  one  of  his  best  papers.  himself.

and Sahlins invited Bruno Latour and Phillipe Descola to teach at Chicago for a term. who see humans as wolves. I guess it could be. objects. that is what is seemed to me. when I was a student. Latour in his work often pokes fun on the gestures of iconoclasm of pessimists. For Sahlins.there was from the beginning. there was certainly a commonality. a very clear difference between Sahlins and Latour. his project was a humorous vindication of the dignity of non-humans.least. we only needed culture. which I would argue. we could do without nature. . For Latour it didn’t make any sense to renounce to nature if we maintained its symmetrical opposite. selfrighteous asceticism. culture. And the next big thing included precisely a radical criticism of the concept of nature itself. But still. if we see him in the line of Saint Frances’ defence of the soul of humble beings. itself. about fifteen years ago. Some people define Latour as a “Catholic philosopher”. His main object of scorn was Bourdieu. their grandiloquent. and their right to enter what he called the parliament of things. because he though that they were the “next big thing”. except for the bourgeois subject himself. was based on the fact that both were critical of critical thought. As opposed to this bourgeois pessimism. that he frames in terms of an exclusionary elitism. singly endowed with reason. Latour presented himself as a well-humoured optimist – giving a chance to most things in the world to have their say. which Descola tried to mediate without much success. making pacts with the dogs… As opposed to the pessimists. their suspicion of images. And yet. or better. who was certainly a good example of that. this encounter didn’t result in a common project. bringing the brother wolf to the town of Gubbio. that denies agency to most things in the world. humans as wolves to humans. which were the nutshell of anthropological pessimism . a “puritanism”. in a new cosmopolitics that had to go well beyond the narrow politics of human intentions.

 According  to  the  European  slave-­‐ mongers.  essentially  the  distinction   between  nature  and  culture.  “fact”  and  “fetish”. One book were I think Latour explains this point brilliantly. collaborating in the construction of a common world.  not  a  warmongering. he is a post-anthropological optimist.  something  made  up  (“coisa  feita”).  That  wouldn’t  be   such  a  surprise  for  a  cynical. But is Latour an anthropological optimist.  And   they  called  these  gods  “fetishes”.  from  the  Portuguese  world  feitico. in the line of Rousseau? Well.  invidious  one.  free-­‐thinking  slave  monger  who  woulnd’t   . but also many other kinds of beings.  people  and  things.actually going well beyond nature. breaking the separation between culture and nature.  cause  and   consequence.  Latour  goes  back  to  the  classical  theory  of   fetishism  in  the  eighteenth  century.  which  is  perhaps  the  most  perfect  example   of  the  pessimistic  side  of  the  enlightenment. Post.  Latour  argues   that  it  was  the  construction  of  this  African  counterexample  what  actually  helped   the  Enlightenment  objectify  these  distinctions. no less than Eduardo Viveiros de Castro says that “Bruno  Latour’s  science  is  joyous   and  generous.  the  product  with  the  producer. It is not just humans who can become agents.  which  means   “spell”.  Western.anthropological in the sense that he extends his optimism well beyond humanity.  Africans  worshiped  the  things  they  made  with  their  own  hands.optimists like Saint Francis and Latour would see wolves as humans! Or at least as social beings.  but  also  “artifice”.  but  I  will  summarise  it  quickly  because  it’s  quite  important  for   what  I  want  to  say  next.  European  colonizers  and  slave-­‐ mongers  accused  Africans  of  confusing  nature  with  culture.  In  this  book.”  You  may  know  the  argument   of  the  book  well. is “On the modern cult of the factish gods” which was only recently translated to English. perhaps more than an anthropological optimist. In the back cover of the book.

 Latour  called  this  hybrid  of  fact  and  fetish  the  factish.   using  fetishes  as  puppets  trough  which  they  could  control  the  ignorant  masses.  since  this  was  the  very   essence  of  social  life.     So  after  all.  everywhere.  would  not  exist  autonomously  from   humans.  that  has  survived  for  three   hundred  years:  Bourdieu’s  use  of  the  term  fetish  in  his  writings  on  art  is  quite   consistent  with  these  notions.  responding  to  human  intentions-­‐  their   will  to  power.  all  religions  would  hide  the  construction  of   the  gods:  priests  would  maintain  the  masses  in  the  ignorance  of  this   construction.  as  opposed  to  facts.  but  they  thought  they  were  the   same  thing.  And  still.  independently  from  the  intentions  of  humans.  they  held  them  as   autonomous  entities  with  their  own  agency!  In  other  terms.  what  was  shocking  for  Europeans   about  Africans  was  not  so  much  they  believed  in  fetishes.  would  not  be  based  on  facts.  which  is  a  quite   .  In  these  terms  religions  would  be  mechanisms  of  social  power.  made  up   things  that  happened  only  within  humans.  the  so-­‐called  African  fetishes  inspired  the  foundations  of  a  big   deal  of  modern  European  social  theory.necessarily  believe  in  God.  they  would  be  just  intermediary  entities  used  to  veil  the  agency  of   humans.  What  was  shocking  is  that  they  didn’t  hide   their  fetishism!  They  acknowledged  that  their  made  their  fetishes  with  their  own   hands.  since  gods  don’t  really  exist  in   “nature”-­‐  they  are  not  facts.  But  still.   Nature  would  be  based  on  facts.   This  in  the  long  run.  they  didn’t  really   make  a  distinction  between  facts  and  fetishes.  became  a  general  theory  of  society  as  opposed  to  nature.  they  recognized  they  were  artifacts.  were  made  by  men.  it  was  argued  by  the   European  theory  of  fetishism.   Society  on  the  other  hand.  Still.  or  religion:  all  religions.  given  things  that  happen  in  the  world.  Fetishes.    This  is  an  extremely  powerful  theory.  but  on  fetishes.   responding  to  natural  laws.

we don’t need to go back to explorations of human nature.   with  their  own  agency. Actor-Networktheory.  as  it  were  see  how  things  are  made  into  autonomous  entities.and have been very influential. or feel obliged to engage with.  nature  and  culture?  If  what  is   counterintuitive. Marilyn Strathern.stupid  term. “affect”. In the field of anthropology proper.     More than ten years after I heard Latour in Chicago for the first time. and perhaps if we follow these grand theories. Now once this question has been answered in a rush.  looking  for  the  dark  secrets  of  human  nature.  irrational  are  all  these  distinctions. many anthropologists thave been developing similar ideas independently – people like Roy Wagner. theories of radical “performativity”.  strange. and nonrepresentational theory are often in dialogue with these anthropological theories. Eduardo Viveiros de Casto.  In  line  with  his  humour. yet another terrible name. In the wider field of the social sciences.  things  given  and  things  made. These are unquestionably some of the “grand theories” of today. So to go back to the first question.  but  to   follow  the  factish.the obligation is unquestionably. no.  Latour’s  program  for  a   social  science  is  not  to  revealing  the  hidden  truth  of  the  artifice  of  social  life   dissect  fact  from  fetish. theories many engage with. anthropologists have not renounced to grand theory. you will be sorry to hear that all what I have said until now .  and  not  the   confusion  between  these  distinctions?  Starting  from  here. a marker of their influence.  Latour  proposed  to  reverse  social  theory   from  this  point:  what  if  the  Africans  right?  What  if  it  doesn’t  make  sense  to   distinguish  between  fact  and  fetish. together with the work of other authors that have been defined under. I think it is quite clear that his “grand theory” has been extremely influential.  natural   reproduction  and  human  production.

because I was part of the group that came up with these questions. A bunch of us back then were so outraged and concerned with the current situation of the university system in the UK that we thought that any available forums had to be taken to discuss it. Still I acknowledge there have been several public forums in which our current commitment has been discussed – see for example. since economics is precisely the central hybrid . the situation has not improved. are the current “grand theories” the best framework we have to address our current situation? Is Actor-Network theory and its nearby theoretical formations are a good tool to build knowledge upon. a very general question. And we will come back to these issues later. political. Taking for granted that anthropology as a social science is. I am saying this as a self-criticism. I am afraid. it seemed to me.  “ what should be anthropologists’ relation to political action”? This is also. So the question was not so much what should anthropologists relation to political action be. Richard Fardon’s article in Anthropology today. Since we started organising this day. But I guess we should put these questions in the context they were written. economics was precisely at the core of his arguments.and our professional associations ASA. at the roundtable discussion. but what action we had to take in response to the current situation of cuts and radical reform of the university system. perhaps irrelevant question. what is happening with this country right now? One of the things that I found striking about Latour’s work in the nineties was that he didn’t talk much about economics when. What I would like to address by now is a more specific. so in that sense this pretence is still fully justified. since the social is at its core. by definition. and therefore respond to.was actually just a preamble to the second question I wanted ot address today. JRAI have responded with more or less energy to the Government’s policies. Just to make it clear. in late 2010.

What I am more interested in pointing out. the backlash against this “Hidden hand’ – or “the markets” – and the extreme authoritarian reaction that we are seeing around us. even in places . I don’t want to misrepresent Marx. And as social scientists. the inevitable truth that asks for inevitable sacrifices. more powerful that any god. But does it really? The social instability. our task would be to analyse and reveal the hidden truth of these fetishes. machine. is to what extent the current situation is in fact. God forbid. The position of Actor-Network theorists like Latour and Callon would be different. the radicalisation ad absurdum of neoliberalism. a fist of insurmontable power. seem to indicate that autonomous construction seems to be crumbling down. Of course Marx. or microbe. going beyond the criticism of the fetish. he would try to understand the economy not as a fetish. Of course someone well read in Marx could say that actually Marx wasn’t saying that. that this hidden hand was a fetish. on the other hand. the massive protests. It could be argued that hidden hand of the economy is the most powerful factish produced in the last few hundred years. an ideological construction. but as a factish. Read the newspapers this week and you will be able to see the powerful hidden hand looming over several countries. an autonomous entity with its own agency. questioning the autonomy and the agency of these factishes.of modernity: a social science that was treating the social as natural. The hidden hand of the economy seems to reign supreme in the dark skies of Europe. a truth that we cannot deny. said long time ago. an ideological construction. building a criticism that would open the way to their final demise. but what I am doing here is more reporting a debate that is probably well known by most of you. Only later did I come to know that close associates to Latour like Michel Callon were precisely commited to the task of developing an actor-network approach to economics.

I personally came to this realisation while talking to students about the current situation. More and more authorised voices talk about “belief” or better. even less as scientists. but increasingly inconsistent puppet in rags. and its increasing violence appears of a sign of weakness. the foundations of the economic “factish” seem quite unstable. and very human intentions behind it. the wolves appear as wolves. Do I really need a theory of performativity or affect to explain to students how neoliberalism at the university and the public sector in general has been implemented through a growingly authoritarian bureacratisation? Do I need to invoke “the parliament of things” to explain how we are under constant scrutiny under an infinite variety of auditing devices. complemented with a foucauldian approach to governamentality. what up to now was seen as a well-greased. priests and oracles of the factish.  is there anything left to say about the agency of little things.people like international rating agencies. In that sense. really? And yet I also realised that by mapping to the overwhelming structures under which we. not an autonomous. inside the university system. I didn’t really need too many tools besides a classical Marxist analysis. passions. When I had to explain what was happening with the university. “disbelief” in regards to the authorised interlocutors.like the UK where neoliberalism seems to have been so unquestionably hegemonic. unstoppable machine. The economy appears as a pure fetish. I was inevitably transmitting to students a pessimism that could have negative effects on a student . IMF. an artifice of power. or can I do as well with the panopticon? When Higher  Education  Authority  controls  have  been   defined  by  many  as  Stalinist. etc…More and more. unable to hide the contradictory and caothic ensamble of interests. are barely breathing. appears as a still horrifying. world bank. optimistic agent that makes its own reality. not as priests.

silly action had an interesting repercussion: an . childish and naïve. These actions can be. or at least than me. who don’t believe in essences. really an optimist. like Latour and others have said. a dying fetish in which nobody really believes anymore. 3D lingo that is invading our campuses. to do certain things at a certain moment. Like strategic essentialism. but also partially as a parody of Gayatri Spivak’s infamous concept. like Spivak. this small. A group of students organised what they called the University of Strategic Optimism. perhaps childish action of detournement. Thankfully. I realised that a clear explicit and totally critical discourse could actually end up paralising any attempt of political action. in a humorous way. cynical intellectuals. Many can probably say. Quite true. partially mimicking the self-help. “strategic essentialism”.movement that had just started with an explosion of energy and creativity that I personally would have not expected beforehand. managerial. of course. by showing the long “overdetermined” tentacles of power. something more and something else that the sum of its constitutive elements. A small. they act as if they thought that it is actually possible to do something about the situation. And yet.even a bit idiotic. 1968 and all that stuff. personal development planning. And yet. can have quite unattended effects. The situationists did it before. and they had already thought about alternatives to our paralysing pessimism. apparently. in which they were questioning how the money that should be spent in universities and other public services has been spent instead in saving a moribund financial system. And yet. superficial. even if they have been done before. I have done that. I have been there.the outcome of certain events is unpredictable. many of our students were smarter than us. God forbid. nobody at the Universty of Strategic Optimism is really. strategically optimistic. is not an essentialist! We are all pessimistic. For example. the kids from the University of Strategic Optimism made their inaugural lecture at a bank.

otherwise. but so far. etc. So perhaps we to learn from our students and try to act as if we were strategically optimistic! Pessimism. schools. transforming them in temporary nurseries. and a different anthropology. A different university. what I have seen is that this year has been the more active and creative period since I arrived to the UK a few years ago. is a given. started to programme occupations of banks. and these actions started to spread throughout the country and beyond.       . will inevitably come out of this process.activist group called UK uncut. partially inspired by this action. I don’t know what will be the outcome of all these movements. UK uncut as all of you know grew exponentially in a very short period of time.