Reading Eric R. Wolf -Envisioning Power (1999)

Eric R. Wolf is one of those anthropologists that I believe every aspiring (and active) anthropologist should read and be familiar with.  Wolf’s academic career spanned the last half of the 20th century into the early 21st.   He was an approachable, detailed, and caring teacher.  He was a consummate academic with an encyclopedic approach to detail.  He was also a theorist on a grand scale.

This commentary focuses on the last book he published prior to his death: Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Power.    My focus is not a review or summary, but to highlight an approach to reading this text.  One of the things that I have discovered in teaching this and related books a propensity for readers to jump to criticism before they have achieved comprehension.  Wolf is particularly helpful as he provides guidance to his readers within his text.

There are many ways to read a text.  We can read it for entertainment, for information, for self-growth and learning, to undermine it, or to assimilate it as our own.  We can also misread a text, miss the point, or find ourselves unable to read it. Rarely, of course, do we exclusively rely on only one way of reading a text.  It is more likely that we employ some combination of all of them.  Consider the following quotes:

“For clarity’s sake, I shall refer to this group (the four tribes of Kwakiutl who inhabited the village of Tsaxis adjacent to Fort Rupert) as Kwakiult or Tsaxis Kwakiutl, and to the Kwakwala speakers in general as Kwakwaka’wakw.  Expunging ‘Kwakiutl’ from the literature altogether seems counterproductive” (Wolf 1999:69).

“Human sacrifice was in many ways central to Aztec political and ritual life, and any discussion of that life must come to grips with this phenomenon.  In engaging this issue, I intend neither to denigrate the Aztecs in order to justify their conquest by the Spaniards nor to defend them against accusations of cruelty and inhumanity. . . .  The anthropologist’s task should be neither to exalt nor to condone but to explain” (Wolf 1999:133-134).

“What the National Socialists wrought is, without doubt, a cause of moral outrage, but outrage is not enough.  It is vital that we gain an analytic purchase on what transpired, precisely because it embodied a possibility for humankind, and what was once humanly possible can happen again”  (Wolf 1999:197).

Each of the above quotes instructs you, the reader, on how to read the substantive material that follows in each of the case study chapters.  Eric Wolf recognizes that there are issues and debates that are important in each of these respective domains.  He affirms the concerns of contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw, he notes the controversy over Aztec cannibalism, and the moral outrage one should feel concerning the human genocide of the Nazis.  But, and this is important, he then asks the reader to set aside concern with these issues and instead to focus on the connections between power and ideas.

We could, for example, focus on the structure of Wolf as ‘text.’ We could highlight his use of an omniscient, authoritative voice –the voice of the expert.  We could micro analyze his source material to ferret out errors, misconceptions, oversights, or slips of minor fact or detail.  We might even identify his underlying assumptions or axiomatic principles, declare them flawed, and proceed to discount all that follows.  While this is all fair game in the contentious halls of the academe it will ultimately turn us away from the task at hand: that is, to identify the key points that the author asks us to understand.

So then what can we say about Wolf’s key points, his main concern?  What kernel of truth lies within his discussion of Kwakwaka’wakw, their understanding of the cosmos, and their social organization?

First, it is important to hold in one’s mind the following comments:

  • “. . . we must not fall into the trap of thinking of them as bearers of some primordial culture, frozen in a moment outside ordinary time” (Wolf 1999:74).
  • “To think of Kwakiutl as bearers of a changeless cultural pattern is particularly inappropriate, since their existential conditions have changed in major ways since the times of first contact on the coast in 1774, when a Spanish ship encountered Haida” (Wolf 1999:74).
  • “If Kwakwaka’wakw society and culture have varied over the course of historical time and have also shown the internal variability due to social differentiation at any one time, then it has also become less easy to speak of one cultural personality (Wolf 1999:81)

Here Wolf is reminding us that no people, no culture, no society exists either in isolation from other societies or in a static unchanging form.   By recognizing and affirming the reality of social change through time Wolf is according a form of respect to the Kwakwaka’wakw that social commentators from Boas to Levis-Straus failed to extend (see, Wolf 1999:74-81).  This is important both in terms of an implicit critique of much contemporary scholarship and as an important foundation to Wolf’s analysis later in the chapter.

Wolf also discusses two aspects of the data collected:  it’s reliance upon the chiefly class and its minimalist approach to women:

  • “Since controlling and enacting myths and rituals were largely the prerogatives of chiefs and nobles, what these texts reveal to us is primarily the discourse of chiefs and nobility, and to a minimal degree the doings of commoners”  (Wolf 1999:73).   It is important to point out, as Wolf does, that this lack was not due to neglect but rather it was due “to the difficulty of obtaining information on commoners.  When Boas urged Hunt to collect data on the names and rights of common people, because ‘they are just as important as those of people of high blood,’  Hunt replied that this was ‘hard to get for they shame to talk about themselves’”(Wolf 1999:73).
  • “The texts are also minimally informative about the lives of Kwakiutl women. . . . these texts note gender differentiation in activities but leave them unexplored. . . . But what women did and thought was not explored in their own terms, and their informal roles received no attention” (Wolf 1999:73).

One could also add to this a silence on the participation of Kwakwaka’wakw in the growing industrial economy.  Though glimpses of this life can be found in the archives of the colonial state.  Later historical anthropologists, such as Rolf Knight, have sketched out in more detail the involvement of indigenous people in the industrial economy, but for the most part this is an area that has been ignored.  The fact that Wolf attempts to place the Kwakwaka’wakw into history and explores their active participation, resistance, and  accommodation to a new economic order sets Wolf’s work apart from all but a small fraternity of social commentators.

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