In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag offers this one striking line: “Anthropology is necrology.” Short and pithy, it occurs in an essay full of luxurious sentences where the elegant comma reigns; it is entitled “The anthropologist as hero” and I begin to understand why the pithy sentence resonates when several paragraphs later I read:
Because anthropology, for Lévi-Strauss, is an intensely personal kind of intellectual discipline, like psychoanalysis. A spell in the field is the exact equivalent of the training analysis undergone by candidate psychoanalysts. The purpose of field work, Lévi-Strauss writes, is to “create that psychological revolution which marks the decisive turning point in the training of the anthropologist.” And no written tests, but only the judgment of “experienced members of the profession” who have undergone the same psychological ordeal, can determine “if and when” a candidate anthropologist “has, as a result of field work, accomplished that inner revolution that will really make him into a new man.”
Back to necrology. After the statement Sontag quotes Lévi-Strauss. “Let’s go and study the primitives,” say Lévi-Strauss and his pupils, “before they disappear.” Reread in light of the comparison with psychoanalysis — there is some fear of contagion at work. Those death notices point back to the anthropologist. Nothing like facing one’s own mortality and the perishability of one’s own society but living for a time with the imperilled. Creating hope in rebirth by reading the obits.
And so for day 753