closet cleaner – notes from the vault, circa 1988

In Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo, very early on in the piece, Galileo says:

For two thousand years men have believed that the sun and all the stars of heaven revolve about them. The pope, the cardinals, the princes, the scholars, captains, merchants, fishwives and schoolboys believed themselves to be sitting motionless in the centre of this crystal globe. But now we are travelling headlong into space…The cities are narrow and so are men’s minds. Superstition and plague. But now we say: because it is so, it will not remain so. For everything moves…I like to think it began with ships. Ever since men could remember they crept only along the coasts; then suddenly they left the coasts and sped straight out across the seas.

I want to hold these ships a moment, suspended in time stretching out across a seemingly endless ocean. A monumentous moment, even if not unique, the significance of this new direction in Europe’s navigation should not be underestimated. In this fragment of Brecht’s history (after all, was Brecht a better or worse historian than others?) a double movement can be seen. A recognition that the ideas of the past were inadequate, and a recognition that the way the world is seen changes. These are not identical statements: ‘things are not as they were’ and ‘the old ideas must be rethought’.

At this time, as coast hugging ships set out at right-angles across the oceans – to very much a ‘new world’, not simply located across some horizon, but global, a state of mind, the world as ‘new’ – it would be possible to locate certain questions relevant to our current reading of the history of the social sciences.

But how should we do this, knowing that we do not have the minds of a Galileo? What are the dangers of entering the city of history with our narrow minds? Especially as we fear that our place, and our sun, is in danger of being decentred? We have no navigator, we are crossing uncharted seas. ‘We’ are perhaps never any longer even ‘European’ – anthropology dunked in the ocean of humanity takes on a different identity. ‘We’ are in the academe, a kind of intellectual or psychological ‘west’, but it is thankfully less and less controlled from British naval headquaters. There is a ‘tradition’ or ‘history’ of anthropology which can be charted, but it should not be thought, despite the rhetorical European (disciplinary anthropological) ‘We’ used here, that any anthropological expedition still involves an all-Anglo-Saxon crew. Pirates are multicultural.

[snip – a bunch of stuff about Derrida and sailing – yo ho ho]

Neither the sun nor the earth is fixed – since Copernicus we must surely have realised that flux is the more common ‘element’ of our lives. Only old Church types deny it. We must abandon the notion of the ‘fixed’ – and live without securities.

We have distorted history one more time, forgetting the importance of the intervals of distance and space, we collapse two very different figures into the same. Isn’t this what we always do? Copernicus is not Galileo, and yet for this paper they can seem so alike. History at a distance can erase difference. We could end up with either, although in a way we need to distance ourselves from both, to strike out the old horizon, and see, perhaps, Europe, and Anthropology, as an ‘other’ shore. With concern for the ways we write, and the ways we read, we could well imagine a different kind of anthropology. Dragging that exemplary moment of Galileo into our own time all the time, we have always been at that moment, on the cusp of a break with the brutal evangelicism of our ethnocentic projects. We can redefine historical moments and reify names to remind ourselves. Galileo/Copernicus could yet be invoked to instill an enthusiasm for anthropology. Clastres ends his essay ‘Copernicus and the Savages’ with a conclusion that calls for a revolution within the discipline. He writes that anthropology: “until now has let primitive cultures revolve around Western civilization so to speak…It is time to change suns, to move on”(Clastres 1974/1987:25-6). His optimism is strong, and denies an otherwise terrible alternative which would be to pack up the paradoxes and difficulties and let the endeavour lapse. To cast anthropology adrift?