Keith Hart. Self in the World: Connecting Life’s Extremes. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2022. 314 pp., appendix, bibliography, index.
Editor’s note: This response to Keith Hart’s new book was presented at a book launch at the London School of Economics on May 10, 2022. As both a review of a recent work and a glimpse into a scholarly life, HAR is pleased to publish this essay in both Reviews and Participant Observations.
The title of anthropologist Keith Hart’s entertaining and unpredictable new book, Self in the World: Connecting Life’s Extremes, is a good case of truth in advertising: readers get a lot of views of the world, and a fair bit of Hart’s self. He follows the commandment, cited towards the end, to “only connect.” As E. M. Forster had in mind with that slogan (Forster 1910), the book connects prose and passion, inner life and outer life—but also a vast scattering of disciplines and locations. Above all, it reflects on the possibilities for using the methods, theories, and epistemic ethics of anthropology to connect the immediate and personal with the abstract, global, and world-historical.
Hart’s voluminous writings on the informal economy, West African agriculture, and money in the making of world systems have earned him a significant place in the history of anthropology. Monuments include Hart 1973, 1982, 2000, and much more besides. The present book—at once manifesto, memoir, and Bildungsroman—offers historians of anthropology a unique take on some of the discipline’s key texts and figures, while mobilizing its history and methods to reposition and reinvigorate it. Hart’s personal and historical narratives are aimed at multiple audiences, even as he makes detailed technical interventions, not least in development theory and in rethinking Africa beyond the limits of the nation-state. His arguments circle back repeatedly to the past and the potentials of anthropology, the enduring home for a contemporary nomad.
Self in the World is Hart’s plea for an anthropology that is relevant to the biggest contemporary problems and to the enduring philosophical questions of justice and human potential. It calls for an approach that meets people “where they live in order to find out what they do, think, and want,” helping them to envision and bring about a better world by “contemplating humanity’s destiny on and beyond this planet” (4). Returning to Durkheim’s ( 2005) notion of homo duplex, the book argues for and embodies the idea that the great challenge humans face (and that anthropology should be ideally suited to help with) is to reconcile the conflicting demands of the two sides of our nature—as individuals and as members of a collective. The challenge is even greater and more urgent when the collective in question is a highly connected, conflicted, and unequal world society, with deep (and often poorly understood) historical sedimentation and constantly renewed crises.
The book contains many jaw-dropping moments. These come from the author’s depth of insight on the brutal logic of globalized apartheid, for instance, or the role of modern universities as bureaucracies for managing national capitalism. Readers may also be surprised by vivid recollections of cityscapes and encounters from Manchester and Cambridge to Paris, Durban, and Detroit, and raw confessions concerning his partnership with small-time crooks during fieldwork in Ghana, and the breakdowns he suffered between the late 1970s and early 90s while climbing the academic ladder on both sides of the Atlantic. Hilarious, sometimes devastating stories are recounted with wit alongside piercing summaries of intellectual works, historical episodes, and speculative, utopian hopes.
In “Ancestors,” Hart introduces his precursors in writing the self: Montaigne, Rousseau, Franklin (who doesn’t come off too well), Gibbon, Wordsworth, Henry Adams, Nabokov, and Achebe. These feed into another curious canon of anthropological founders: Vico, Rousseau (again), Kant, Rivers, and Mauss. One effect of this double canon is to affirm the continuity between anthropological theory of the twentieth century (a highly self-referential field) and broader traditions of philosophy and social thought. Writing in opposition to recent academic distrust toward the enlightenment, Hart insists on the radical force of eighteenth-century ideals of democratic rule, rejection of arbitrary authority, and a cosmopolitan global society as sketched in Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795). But he also dispels any illusion that those ideals have been widely or unequivocally achieved. He therefore features the “anti-colonial intellectuals” whose thought also shaped him: Du Bois, the Hegelian who identified “the color line” as the defining trait of modernity; Gandhi, who physically enacted the rejection of unjust, racist rule; Fanon, who saw the potential for collective redemption in the victims of colonial capitalist racism; and James, the Trinidadian theorist of cricket and revolution and author of The Black Jacobins (1938) with whom Hart spent much time just before his death in 1989 and whose book, American Civilization ( 1993), he and Anna Grimshaw edited for publication.
These sources, sketching an expanded anthropological canon, contribute to one of the book’s central dialectics. Democracy, autonomy, and well-reasoned egalitarianism are splendid, humane goals—but seen from the perspective of the colonized and marginalized, and from the subaltern side of the color line, they ring hollow. Rather than give up on these ideals, however, we need a realistic, grounded view of ways to reach them. This must begin with depictions of life as it is lived, including all the hypocrisy, failure, and deliberate exploitation in its current arrangements.
The book’s formal and stylistic mobility takes it beyond both autobiography and theory, suggesting comparison with experiments in a genre recently labelled “auto-theory” and pursued by Chris Kraus and Maggie Nelson (whose first-person experiments in Argonauts might be juxtaposed with those in Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific). In such works, academic and theoretical debates are worked out through personal experience and social observation, resonating with the feminist conviction that “the personal is political” (Poletti 2016; Nelson 2015). Like these authors, and like Teju Cole and sometime Mancunian W. G. Sebald, in Hart’s book private, microsocial ambiguity unfolds against the backdrop of the well-ordered cruelties of empire (Cole 2012; Sebald  2016).
The book offers Hart’s own ways of connecting present realities to hoped-for ideals as examples that anyone can follow; indeed, for him, anthropology at its best links local experience to world history and global systems. Giving particular emphasis to perspectives from Africa and the Black Atlantic, he proposes a methodological pluralism—combining views from many angles—as a way to bring the whole together. Self in the World follows up on The Memory Bank (Hart 2000) in its vigorous plea to redeem money as a way of reckoning one’s relations to the rest of the planet. This rehabilitated conception of money as a social and individual force in its many forms drives his vision of “the human economy”—the whole range of everyday making, trading, buying, selling, speculating, owning, using, and losing, reorganized to allow everyone to become fuller, even whole human beings.
Anthropologists help by working out and communicating the cubist continuum of self-home-city-nation-world which keeps individual humans and their ideas in motion. This also means experimenting with writing forms and new media, as Hart has done along with Anna Grimshaw in the Prickly Pear pamphlet series (later rebaptized Prickly Paradigm by Marshall Sahlins and Matthew Engelke), the Open Anthropology Cooperative, and Berghahn’s Human Economy series. Through a kaleidoscopic narrative of his own movements across continents, the book puts Hart close to the pulse of world society since the middle of the last century.
The longest section of the book, “Self,” repays the price of entry with tales of a Manchester childhood, Accra fieldwork, and later stops. We feel the squeeze of the three-up, three-down terrace house, pressured by the aspirations of his father, the telephone engineer known to his sisters as “Saint Stanley,” and of his mother and grandmother—the last a “working class Tory and snob” and a special mentor. “Little Keithy from Old Trafford” hoards pear drops and slips into Manchester Grammar—but toughens up his facial expressions when meeting other street kids on his passage from home to school. He spends his spare time reading, singing, playing ball games outside and cards at home, later drinking, smoking, and betting with the lads.
He wins a golden ticket to collegiate paradise: Cambridge. There he rides out the shock of its feudal arrangements—little lords archly shepherded by porters and bedders—first by mastering languages, myths, and military tales in classics, then by a switch to social anthropology, irresistibly drawn by what he only somewhat jokingly sees as anthropology’s lack of intellectual standards: anthropologists “could study anything in the world” (80). He makes a good living from betting on the horses while earning the patronage of Jack Goody, Meyer Fortes, and Edmund Leach.
Hart’s fieldwork among rural Ghanaian migrants to the capital, Accra, unfolds as a series of disasters and recoveries. There’s an incredible passage, with echoes of Breaking Bad, when he realizes that he will only survive the lawless economy he is discovering by joining it. He teams up with pickpockets and burglars, receives stolen goods, sets up as a moneylender, and works his way through the minefield of favors, threats, long cycles of credit and debt, kin obligations, and police harassment that thrive below the view of official economics, prepared by Manchester street life and Cambridge betting scams. Such material, at least in the first-person, had no place in the official anthropology of the time. Today, after reflexive anthropology, Writing Culture, and ethnographies of life at the margins, it would make for a provocative monograph alongside works like Alice Goffman’s On the Run (2014).
After Ghana, in the 1970s Hart turned to post-colonial development as a policy adviser, working in the Cayman Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Hong Kong, where he dealt “with criminal elites, their slum counterparts and development practitioners” (105). A review of West African agriculture for USAID was published as Hart (1982). These experiences shaped his devastating perception of the current world system. Rules are habitually ignored, bent, suspended, or simply don’t exist; criminal informality comes to define the entire world economy, from local grift, to cronies’ state capture, to hedge funds and the secret labyrinths of offshore, extra-national accounting. His view of Britain’s current imperial nostalgia and constitutional frailty is bracing.
Despite Hart’s clear view of post-colonial failures and foreign predations, he offers a hopeful vision of Africa as humanity’s future. With the world’s fastest growing population, he believes the continent is ripe for new regional alliances capable of fueling a world-changing revolution. The book traces the dizzying route Hart has followed through teaching, betting, consulting, writing and publishing, marriage and children, to wind up in places like Durban and Aberdeen, and family life in Paris with Swiss anthropologist Sophie Chevalier. After surviving fifteen years of crashes this book is Hart’s way of processing a lifetime of experience as a self in the world.
Full disclosure: I met Keith when he served as advisor for an essay I wrote on Gregory Bateson. He’d met him once in Michigan, introduced by Roy Rappaport, but Bateson’s patrician prophet schtick “got up his nose.” We became friends during his Paris phase while I was writing a PhD dealing with socialism and mechanization before Marx. We shared rambling chats in sidewalk cafes and watched B-Movie matinees, gangster flicks, and teen comedies, both of us moved by movie mythology and the detritus of pop culture. Over coffee, beers, and meals I received an apprenticeship in world history, la présence africaine, economic anthropology, academic gossip, and speculative futures. (Thanks Keith, and thanks, too, Sophie.) These informal settings also gave me a sense of Keith in the classroom—how he can convey, to any student ready to hear it, that there’s an incredible, often horrendous, millennia-old drama going on around you, and it’s up to you not only to understand your place in it, but to get into the game and play your hand, to steer it toward a better place.
Self in the World: Connecting Life’s Extremes synthesizes Hart’s manifold projects, driven by a sense of urgency across countries and continents. He shares the rewards of constant learning and revising what one knows, including the nightmare history that our anaesthetized understanding too often lets us forget. The book dramatizes Hart’s own journey, “running down a dream” (266) with a compelling sense of expectation, striving, loss, and hope. It draws together the world that made him and goes a long way toward realizing the world he wants to make. Take the gamble and join him for the ride.
Cole, Teju. 2012. Open City: A Novel. New York: Random House.
Durkheim, Émile. (1914) 2005. “The Dualism of Human Nature and Its Social Conditions,” translated by Irène Eulriet and William Watts Miller. Durkheimian Studies 11: 35-45.
Forster, E. M. 1910. Howards End. London: Edward Arnold.
Goffman, Alice. 2014. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hart, Keith. 1973. “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 11, no. 1: 61-89.
Hart, Keith. 1982. The Political Economy of West African Agriculture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hart, Keith. 2000. The Memory Bank: Money in an Unequal World. London: Profile.
James, C. L. R. (1950) 1993. American Civilization, edited by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart. Oxford: Blackwell.
Nelson, Maggie. 2015. The Argonauts. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.
Poletti, Anna. 2016. “The Anthropology of the Setup: A Conversation with Chris Kraus.” Contemporary Women’s Writing 10, no. 1: 123-135.
Sebald, W. G. (1992) 2016. The Emigrants, translated by Michael Hulse. New York: New Directions.