Editor’s note: This essay was originally developed for another publication in 2018, shortly after Magic’s Reason was published. HAR received the essay in 2022 and is pleased to publish it as a joint production of Field Notes and Reviews. Although Magic’s Reason is now a few years old, as Golub argues here, the conversations it animates on anthropological theory and the history of anthropology are well worth continuing.
What does it mean to “compare” two things? For Graham Jones, the answer to this question can be found in a magic show performed in Algeria in October 1856. The performer was Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the “father of modern magic” (Jones 2017, 12), and his goal was to demonstrate the superiority of European civilization by surpassing the mystic feats performed by the Sufi orders then popular in Algeria. And not only that: Robert-Houdin’s magic would demonstrate his superiority not just over the Sufis, but their followers as well. Algerians’ inability to distinguish entertainment magic from “real” magic would prove the superiority of French rationality over Algerian superstition. This, at least, was what Robert-Houdin thought would happen.
Emmanuelle Loyer. Lévi-Strauss: A Biography. Translated by Ninon Vinsonneau and Jonathan Magidoff. New York: Polity Press, 2018. xi+744 pp., illus., notes, list of works, archives, index.
There is no shortage of books on Claude Lévi-Strauss. The defining force in French anthropology after World War II, an internationally-known intellectual, and a—many would argue the—founder of structuralism, Lévi-Strauss left an indelible mark on the intellectual culture of the twentieth century. Despite widespread interest in him, there have been relatively few biographies, perhaps because of the challenges he presents as a subject: his sojourns in the United States, Brazil, and France require potential biographers to be multilingual. His output was vast, demanding, and difficult to synthesize. His extraordinary fame makes documenting his influence a massive undertaking. Even his private life presents a challenge: Lévi-Strauss lived much of his life in his study, making most of his biography too uneventful to make for interesting reading. Happily, however, Emanuelle Loyer’s 744 page biography has achieved the seemingly impossible. This detailed, deeply researched, and relatively accessible volume makes it difficult to imagine that anyone will attempt a more exhaustive biography in the future. If they did, I am not sure what they could add to Loyer’s account. While many aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s life still await specialized treatment, I am confident that this book will become the definitive one-volume biography of Lévi-Strauss for the foreseeable future.
David Varel’s biography
of Allison Davis, The Lost Black Scholar, is aptly named. Davis is
rarely cited by anthropologists today, but he has little in common with the “excluded
ancestors and invisible traditions” after whom a volume of the History of
Anthropology series was named. On
the contrary, Davis was hardly invisible. Rather, he was a remarkably
well-known, highly-respected figure who was important intellectually and
institutionally in anthropology, someone whose story and influence has not been
repressed or erased but, as Varel puts it, “lost.” In this trim and athletic
volume, Varel successfully shows us the importance of Davis’s work and life,
revealing a remarkable scholar who should be remembered for his incredible
personal story, his intellectual contributions to the study of structural
injustice, and his role as a model of a politically committed but non-activist
Ian Brown’s The School of Oriental and African Studies: Imperial Training and the Expansion of Learning is a welcome addition to the literature on higher education in Britain, and particularly to the small but important body of work on SOAS (as it is now officially known). While SOAS has produced festschrifts for particular professors, and a few “corridor histories,” such as SOAS Since the Sixties and SOAS: A Celebration in Many Voices, the school lacks the kind of intensive memorialization that one finds in say, Oxford and Cambridge. This is particularly true in anthropology where journals such as Cambridge Anthropology and the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford feature extensive obituaries and testimonies of staff. Brown’s new volume is, therefore, a valuable contribution to the history of SOAS, especially because the other SOAS histories are out of print.
For years, Herbert Lewis has defended classical anthropology (meaning here American cultural anthropology produced in the first half of the twentieth century) from postmodern and postcolonial critique. This volume collects eight of Lewis’s essays on this subject, and also includes an original piece written especially for the volume. For those sympathetic with Lewis’s claims, this volume will be welcome. However, Lewis’s strident tone will probably not sway the unconvinced, much less those critical of classical anthropology.
Since 1973, the History of Anthropology Review (formerly the History of Anthropology Newsletter) has been a venue for publication and conversation on the many histories of the discipline of anthropology. We became an open access web publication in 2016. Please subscribe to our emails below to receive updates as we publish new essays, reviews, and bibliographies.
Weekly email of new posts.
Success! You're on the list.
Whoops! There was an error and we couldn't process your subscription. Please reload the page and try again.
The History of Anthropology Review became an online publication with volume 40 in 2016, and changed its title from History of Anthropology Newsletter to History of Anthropology Review on October 18, 2019. Content is updated continually, and subscribers receive weekly emails with links to new content.
HAR is based at the Department of History and Sociology of Science, 303 Claudia Cohen Hall, 249 S. 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6304. Fax: 215-573-2231.