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Michel Foucault the Anthropologist

January 16, 2012 by Fan

Michel Foucault the Anthropologists

[Acknowledgement] This is the first response written in Professor Naisargi Dave’s Posthuman Anthropology class. Many thanks to Professor Dave for her kind acceptance and the enlightening seminar.

      The most brazen fact about Michel Foucault, for an anthropologist, is that he is not an anthropologist. The boldest statement one might make about this fact, on the other hand, is that he is indeed an anthropologist.

      Anthropology is often understood as the study of community, in particular, the communities of  “the other” (when the world is divided into the West and the rest). This statement overlooks the origin of anthropology when artifacts and ethnographical data of the other were used as objects for contemplation about mentality of the self. The origins of their own (our own?) mentality concern many of earlier anthropologists. Visually and visual tactics are especially important in this anthropological contemplation. When Edward Tylor was appointed the very first Oxford reader in anthropology in 1884, he was expected to lecture on  a museum collection donated by Pitt Rivers. To the latter’s  disappointment, in stead of focusing on the artifacts themselves, Tylor spent most of his lecture time on the discussion of symbolic culture. Pitt Rivers’ artifacts were only a departure point for him to penetrate the very essence of human mind, which he later used the word “animism” to characterize. One of the key features of symbols in Tylor’s scheme of thoughts is its visual nature: “Ideas [in literary societies], fined down to the abstract forms or species of material objects, and applied to other than visible qualities, have at last come merely to denote subject of thought. Yet to this day the old theory has not utterly died out, and the retention of the significant term ‘idea” (ιδέα, visible form) is accompanied by a similar retention of original meaning.” (Tylor 1920:498) The visual nature of thoughts, for Tylor, is how abstract symbols manage to represent a tangible physical world and less tangible human relations.

      It’s easy to see how visuality is also essential to Foucault’s contemplation of history of ideas when he opens The Order of Things with an extensive discussion of Vlasquez’s Las Meninas. From visuality, he isolates stages of modern history of thoughts: representation, analogue, and process. There are a few observations relevant to the history of anthropology. First, one kind of representation, aemulatio (Foucault 1994:19), corresponds to James Frazer’s sympathetic magic in his Golden Bough (Frazer 1996:13-57). Secondly, conventientia which links spatial entities by resemblance, especially in terms of numbers, corresponds to Claude Levi-Strauss’ ways of deduction. Foucault proposes that the transition from the representational to the analogical, in other words, from visual to linguistic, can been seen in the Western sign system’s change from a ternary system to a binary one (Foucault 1994:42). This recalls Levi-Strauss’ analysis of ternary system in real life morphing into dualism in social structure and language (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-163).

      The connection made here to anthropology is not casual. Three questions can be asked. First, if an “archaeology” or “ethnography” of Western canonical texts can result in similar discoveries to archaeology of primitive artifacts and ethnography of “primitive” communities? The second question is that if the classical and philological tradition in the West is actually behind both Foucault and anthropologists from Tylor, Frazer to Levi-Strauss, none of them were trained as anthropologist. The third concerns Foucault’s exuberantly lucid style and the omission of index and bibliography: is the beauty of text important to the future of anthropology?





Foucault, Michel,

  1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


Frazer, James.

  1996 [1922]. The Golden Bough. London: Penguin Books.


Levi-Strauss, Claude

 1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


Tylor, Edward B

  1920 [1871]. Primitive Culture. London: John Murray.

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