Still singing 'kiss my ass' to a Wagner melody: Antenor Firmin, Bronislaw Malinowski, and the establishment of twentieth century Ethnography.

Author:Harrison, Anthony Kwame


On the December 1917 evening when Bronislaw Malinowski sang the words "kiss my ass" to a Wagner melody to chase way the dreaded Trobriand mulukwausi (translated as "flying witches" [Malinowski, 1922/1966, p. 181]) he was continuing a tradition of colonial suppression. (1) As an aspiring researcher engaged in what conventional (twentieth-century) anthropology historicized as first-of-its-kind ethnographic fieldwork, neither the content nor the form of Malinowski's gesture should be viewed as incidental, or assumed accidental. Indeed it is unlikely that the intense and ambitious Malinowski, who had already published several tomes on elementary forms of religion, would have left the business of protecting himself from supernatural forces to chance. In his effort to codify a transformative methodology for the nascent science of ethnography, Malinowski privileged the empathetic connection between researcher and subject. Trobriand terrors were thus real, or were to be treated as such. Beyond any colloquial offensiveness, the declaration "kiss my ass"--code for "go to hell"--would have served as an appropriate nocturnal precaution that positioned the European scientist over his paranormal would-be tormenters. In exclaiming that the mulukwausi should kiss his ass, Malinowski effectively pronounced himself their master--master of witches, even, perhaps, their devil. (2) The choice of a Richard Wagner melody was no less fitting. Certainly the work of the German composer was at the time tremendously influential; and Malinowski had presumably been exposed to plenty of Wagner during his two years studying at the University of Leipzig. Wagner was both born in Leipzig and had studied there during the 1830s. Malinowski recalls his own brief time in Europe's "unique centre of musical culture" (Young, 2004, p. 129) as featuring an intense surrender to "musical hedonism" (p. 135). (3) Extremely rational and explosively emotional, Malinowski would have been drawn to Wagner's operatic innovations in musical drama, which paralleled the ethnographer's endeavor to present the dramas of Trobriand life.

Wagner's devotion to the racist ideas of Joseph-Arthur Comte de Gobineau led him to found the Gobineau Society in 1881. Malinowski, in turn, would have been familiar enough with Gobineau to understand that, despite its title, Gorbineau's monumental Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853-55) was as concerned with presenting the supposedly catastrophic effects of miscegenation as it was with articulating a theory of fundamental racial inequality. True to the classic ethnographer's paradox, Malinowski saw Trobrianders as his colonially subordinate equals. He observed them man to man and man to woman, and thus knew to be wary of flying witches in the night.

Polish born and British educated, Malinowski was very much a product of both his semiaristocratic upbringing (Wayne, 1985) and new academic home. Having travelled to London in pursuit of romance in the Spring of 1910, he quickly became acquainted with a community of social anthropologists associated with Cambridge University--i.e. the Cambridge School--who were actively involved in formulating the ethnographic methodology that Malinowski would go on to found (4) and popularize. This was the heyday of the British Empire, on which the sun never set. Malinowski's ambition to articulate a revolutionary approach to social research--premised on longterm residence, language acquisition, everyday familiarity, and, above all else, "grasp[ing] the native's point of view" (1922/1955, p. 25)--should have forced him to confront the ethnocentric and racist perspectives inherent to his position as a cosmopolitan, British-trained, white, male, social scientist living among the people in a remote South Pacific island village. Yet looking back from our twenty-first-century vantage point, it is clear that Malinowski was only fractionally successful in redefining the colonially infused relationship between anthropologists and the communities they study.

This essay considers the development and legacy of the ethnographic methodology credited to Malinowski within the context of an under-recognized tradition of anthropological thinking that can be traced back to the late-nineteenth century Haitian scholar Antenor Firmin. Firmin's De l'Egalite des Races Humaines (Anthropologie Positive), published in 1885--the year after he became a member of the prestigious Societe D'Anthropologie de Paris--is a remarkable work of nineteenth century critical scholarship that was completely neglected by the community to which it was directed. In the late 1990s, Firmin's foundational text was recovered, reintroduced, and for the first time translated to English in 2000 (hereafter referred to as The Equality of Human Races). The following essay joins a chorus of recent scholars in justifying the place of Antenor Firmin as a pioneer of both anthropology and post-colonial studies. Whereas observational studies of human behavior predate even philosophy, the scientific study of humanity through discreet disciplinary formations is a post-industrial-revolution phenomenon (Bender, 1965). Through (a) situating Firmin within the late-nineteenth-century French anthropological environment that inspired his book, (b) sketching the ethnographic research traditions his ideas, if rightfully advanced, would have informed, and (c) looking back to The Equality of Human Races from the perspective of late twentieth and early twenty-first century developments in anthropology, I punctuate his prescient insights and demonstrate how the recovery and recognition of his foundational text can move ethnography forward along the unending path of self-critique and correction.

Personal History: The Politics of Anthropology

Antenor Firmin was born in 1850 in Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti. A member of the third post-independence generation, Firmin was formally education in the best Haitian schools, where he received a solid foundation in the classics and humanities, and was exposed to the anthropological writings of Europe (Fluehr-Lobban, 2000b, p. 450). Despite his working-class background and dark complexion--which was and continues to be consequential in Haitian society--he excelled in both school and civic activities, and by the age of thirty was regarded as an exceptionally promising young statesman (Trouillot, 1994). (5) In 1883 Firmin, who had recently married the daughter of former Haitian president Sylvain Salnave (Trouillot, 1994), exiled to France amidst political turmoil surrounding the presidency of Lysius Salomon (Magloire-Danton, 2005). Shortly after arriving in the French capital, Firmin was invited to join the Societe D'Anthropologie de Paris. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban lists anatomist Ernest Aubertin, archaeologist Gabriel de Mortillet, and fellow Haitian scholar Louis-Joseph Janvier as Firmin's three (required) membership sponsors, going on to remark that he was admitted "with majority vote by secret ballot" on July 17, 1884 (2000a, p. xvi).

Learned Societies had flourished in nineteenth century France as an intellectual alternative to universities and academies of science and letters. As principally urban organizations, established as forums for discussing "bourgeois enthusiasms" (Williams, 1985, p. 333) and, what were considered at the time, "unorthodox views" (Schiller, 1979, p. 131), such societies were instrumental to the development of several academic fields. The Societe D'Anthropologie de Paris (hereafter referred to as simply the Societe) was not the first French Learned Society devoted to anthropology, but after being founding in 1859, and under the leadership of the anatomist/surgeon Paul Broca, it quickly developed into "the most important anthropological society anywhere in the world" (Bernasconi, 2008, p. 365). The maverick position of the field at the time of the Societe's founding is confirmed by reports that, during its initial years, the French government required that a plainclothed police officer was present at all meetings to prevent the members from discussing issues related to French society, the church, or the government (Schiller, 1979, p. 135; Hammond, 1980, p. 118). The Societe's interest in matters of human physical and cultural evolution made it a potential threat to the political and religious orthodoxies of the day.

By the time of Antenor Firmin's election to the society, both the plainclothed officer and Broca were gone--the latter having expired only a few years earlier in 1880. Elizabeth A. Williams suggests that one Boca's "greatest contributions" to the Societe "was to preserve an amicable spirit and forestall conflicts" (1985, p. 336). In the years immediately following his death, a power struggle ensued between prominent factions of the organization, most notably Broca's protege and presumed successor Paul Topinard and Firmin's eventual sponsor Mortillet. The conflict appears to have included philosophical differences regarding the nature of research, opposing views on the future of anthropology, and, by the eve of Firmin's majority vote election, personal squabbles.

Members of Topinard's 'le groupe Broca' upheld principles of positivism, which included measurements, statistics, and comparative anatomy; 'le groupe Mortillet,' was comprised of materialists emphasizing classification and the analysis of rank order facts (Harvey, 1983, p. 292). Broca, who founded the Ecole d' Anthroplogie in 1876, has been recognized as pioneering the "four-field approach" that became a hallmark of American anthropology (see Brace, 2005). Yet as a researcher, the famed "explorer of the brain" (Schiller, 1979) was principally committed to the study of physical anthropology, specifically race, and sought to establish a discipline that steered clear of the political debates of the day--most notably "the question of slavery" (Tax, 1964, p. 16)--and very much resembled the natural or medical...

To continue reading