The subtitles of the books by Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins are, respectively, “European Mythmaking In The Pacific” and “About Captain Cook, for Example”, which isn’t quite as funny separated from the title. I didn’t title this “Gananath Obeyesekere vs Marshall Sahlins” because I haven’t actually read the earlier works by Sahlins that Obeyesekere initially criticized. I suppose ideally I should have first read those, then read the bulk of Obeyesekere’s book, then Sahlins’, and then gone back to read the sections of the republished edition of the former responding to Sahlins, but my delay in writing in this post is related to my flagging interest in the subject.

I have discussed Sahlins in my earlier review of one of his works, but Obeyesekere is new even though I said that I planned on contrasting the two (because of this notable controversy, which pseudoerasmus brought up while I was reading these) over a decade ago. Like Sahlins he’s a cultural anthropologist, but his approach combines that with psychoanalysis (thus Cook seeding islands with crops & animals is given a Freudian reading as intending to reflect his own virility). From the earliest days of this blog (search for mentions of Thomas Szasz) I have had a negative opinion on that latter approach, and it certainly hasn’t improved on reading Scott Alexander’s recent attempts to find the appeal of Lacan. He acknowledges that his take has been more favorably received by literary critics & historians than his fellow anthropologists (perhaps an illustration of the divide between the humanities & social sciences). If I took a sufficiently negative view of cultural anthropology, their lower regard for his stance vs Sahlins might speak well of him. Going from the general to the specific, Sahlins’ specialty was Polynesia and he pulls rank by insisting that one needs “thick” knowledge of the particularities of that place to properly do anthropology on it; Obeyesekere’s is his own native Sri Lanka and the religious traditions there, and he argues that his experience as a “native” there gives him an understanding of how Europeans can misunderstand things, making this a seminal work of post-colonialism.

Obeyesekere’s approach was not one that naturally appealed to me, and when he kept bringing up the metaphors of Prospero vs Kurtz I would roll my eyes at the citation of fictional evidence, and I had to remind myself that I had been more willing to put up with Continental (vs analytical) style when it came to Yuri Slezkine’s Nietzchean metaphors in “The Jewish Century”. Similarly, the overall thesis is somewhat like Elaine Showalter’s in “Hystories” (which unfortunately I read without writing any review). The basic idea is that Europeans started out with a preconception that natives regarded them (or at least their leaders) as gods and forced stories of “first contact” (a number of examples which you can find at Voices of the Past) to fit that mold even when that wasn’t what actually happened. The downside is that he sounds like a conspiracy theorist (and I should note I was recommended “Hystories” by someone arguing on behalf of Holocaust revisionism), selectively ignoring any evidence that doesn’t fit his thesis. Any accounts from Europeans (most importantly, those on Cook’s expedition) are as suspect as he wants to be, while the first written accounts from Hawaiians are tainted by the influence of the Christian missionaries who converted & educated them to the point where they could leave written records.

In Obeyesekere’s insistence that natives make use of “practical rationality” he reminded me of not only the sociobiologists that Sahlins argued against (as well as the Marxist anthropologist Marvin Harris, whose materialist explanations Sahlins had also disputed*), in the book I reviewed earlier, but also the original “dismal scientists” of economics who analyzed people as being basically the same and just responding rationally to different incentives. For that idea it is worth applying the ideas of a more recent economist closely associated with the theory of “rational expectations”. Robert Lucas’ model which fittingly enough takes place on islands contains agents who rationally respond to signals, but because their information is incomplete they make errors in the short-run. Similarly, Sahlins argues that he does not regard natives as simply being irrational but instead attempting to incorporate novel facts into their existing frameworks, with different results from a modern person with greater access to historical information. Sahlins does however try to claim a sort of moral highground in declaring it “Eurocentric” (like sociobiologists) for insisting that natives must think like the academics writing about them (which does resemble Lucas’ view that agents should know as much as the modeller about the model they’re in). Obeyesekere does not even consider more radical claims of difference, writing “There is virtually no one, from Franz Boas onward, who really believes that natives are biologically different from Europeans”. I’m not sure if he really believes that since European bodies can be superficially distinguished from others, and a cluster-analysis of DNA now can easily sort people, but even in terms of anthropologists studying behavior in the 20th century there was Dan Freedman of Sahlins’ Chicago who found differences among infants. Evaluating his more relevant claims, Obeyesekere notes that rationality can play a role in military tactics, but expresses skepticism that the Aztecs initially believed Spanish horses could not be killed and that Cortez’ strategy of burying their corpses was effective. That’s possible, but the tremendous success of the conquistadors indicates that their own beliefs about which of their tactics were effective should be taken seriously.
*In one of his post-publication appendices Obeyesekere informed me that Sahlins himself has previously inclined more toward Marx before shifting in the direction of Claude Levi-Strauss, which reminds me that I still haven’t read “The Ordeal of Civility”

Obeyesekere of course could deny that he could be Eurocentric as a Sri Lankan (even one whose advanced degrees were from the US, where he also taught). He thinks that Europeans could easily be confused by certain customs in Sri Lanka or fail to understand commonly relayed jokes as being jokes rather than literal beliefs, and carries this over to skepticism of European accounts of Hawaiians & Aztecs. Having read Jared Diamond on “Yali’s Question“, I would divide things differently. Sri Lanka is clearly of the Old World, having long been in contact with Indian civilization (at times being a conquest of it), which in turn was in contact with lots of other Eurasian ones. Even in terms of religion, which is his specialty, it was affected by the developments of the Axial Age (even if Hinduism is still polytheistic and Sri Lankan Buddhism arguably retains much of that). Religion is relevant because what’s at dispute is whether the Hawaiians believed Cook to be a god. Confusingly, Obeyesekere argues that they might have posthumously deified Cook, but did not believe him to be a god while he was alive (more confusingly, he also says Europeans promulgated a “myth” of cannibalism*, which he considers distinct from “anthropophagy” without explaining the difference). The confusing bit is that a Hawaiian word is being translated as “god” when the Hawaiians would have had a very different conception of something rendered in English by that word from not only Abrahamic monotheists (whose missionaries condemned Cook for allowing himself to be deified), but also Sri Lankans. When Sahlins gets into all the ways in which something can be considered a manifestation of a god in the Hawaiians conception, one starts to wonder just how meaningful it is to be a “god” rather than a man. The relevant bit for Cook is that the Hawaiians who killed him clearly believed that it was possible to kill him even if he was a “god”, and per Sahlins and the written testimony of surviving members of the expedition, they still expected him to return even after he was killed. The explanation which is hardest to believe is Sahlins’ fitting even Cook’s death as a ritualistic killing of one deity which was necessary to take place every year so that the king (affiliated with a different deity) could resume his normal authority. It is far easier to go along with Obeyesekere’s conception of Cook as being a notable political figure who could potentially ally with Hawaiians (and Cook did complain that he was always being asked for assistance in local military conflicts) and just happened to tick them to the point where he was killed. However, I must also agree that Sahlins that Obeyesekere repeatedly relies on what seems “likely” in his mind rather than what the bulk of the evidence we do have actually indicates and that such subjective guesses from someone who is not a subject-matter expert are not reliable.
*Sahlins, for his part, compared denial of cannibalism to denial of the Holocaust.

As books go, Sahlins is the more relentlessly nitpicky and full of mockery for all the errors he sees in Obeyesekere’s “Apotheosis”. That mockery can involve a decent amount of wordplay, so it’s fitting then that with the 17(!) appendices (vs 4 main chapters, though they are much longer) Obeyesekere gives a diagnosis of “appendicitis” and claims he must stop himself to avoid coming down with it himself. I get the feeling that Sahlins had more of what Bryan Caplan diagnosed as the compulsion toward debate found among Austrians (with Nozick’s “non-coercive” avoidance of debate being an annoyance to them). I find this approach more convincing (I’m coerced into not wanting to argue even in my head!), but also resembling the complaint that a book taught more about a subject than I ever wanted to know (hence my complaint up top). Conversley, Obeyesekere’s post-modern position that other modes of thought should be used to “problematize” Western thinking leaves me cold. What I can say in favor of Obeysekere’s approach is that he actually accepts Sahlins’ accusation that he’s guilty of “historical fiction, makeshift ethnography”, but merely thinks that’s true of their entire field. I’ve always been fond of Stirner’s honest statement in his book that it was written for his own benefit rather than transcendent “truth”, and while my preference is for others to aim closer at something like the unobtainable ideal of objectivity, the failure to actually hit that target (which I expect is more common among cultural anthropologists than hard scientists) is worth acknowledging.