La machine à remonter le temps
Du culte de l'histoire à son abandon par Malinowski

Sur une image qu'emploie Gellner: la time machine.

Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude. Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma, Cambridge, CUP, 1998.

(114) Before the First World War there was no anthropological profession. Individual scholars pursued their interests, and some even secured university employment, but there was nothing by way of a sustained professional community. All this was due to change with Malinowski. He marks the beginning of firm institutionalisation as well as the start of a continuous intellectual story.

The difference between Frazer (1854-1941) and Malinowski (1884-1942) did not lie only in the framework which surrounded them and the institutions which sustained them or which they lacked. There was also a clear, neat, and dramatic difference in their doctrines, ideas, style, and general approach.

1 / Remonter des peuples sans écriture aux primitifs

(114) Frazer exemplifies, almost to perfection and with elegant simplicity, the preoccupations, ideas, and opportunities which had, in the nineteenth century, engendered the subject of anthropology in the first place. The coming and acceptance of Darwinism had made it manifest that mankind had a history over and above the document-based record which preoccupies conventional historians. The evolutionary aspect of Darwinism, the stress on continuity of development, made it at the very least plausible to suspect that surviving pre-literate peoples might illustrate the condition of primitive peoples of the past, whose social organisation was otherwise barely accessible. The hope of establishing an evolutionary account of human development was tempting, and of course it would have philosophical and political implications: the pattern of evolution would provide a charter for power ranking in a world pervaded by a new type of empire, territorially discontinuous, where the power-holders seemed to be at a different 'stage' of social development from those they ruled. In brief, Darwinism had bestowed more past on humanity than men had previously suspected or bargained for, and the newly acquired past was full of the most potent suggestiveness.

Contemporary ethnography, brought in en passant by missionaries, colonial administrators, /115/ and travellers (or, in Russia, by forcibly exiled political prisoners) provided at the very least a hope of access to a time machine [une machine à remonter le temps], which would facilitate inspection of an otherwise lost past. This newly acquired plethora of past called out for a more systematic investigation: ethnography was there to satisfy the need. Anthropology became the Remembrance of Things Collectively Past. It would only be a matter of time before the satisfaction of this need became professionalised. It should be stressed that this was how things were, all in all, in Western Europe.

In other parts of Europe it was different. A British anthropologist was a man who, under the impact of Darwinism, was eager to use surviving 'savages' as evidence concerning the past of all humanity. By contrast, a Central European ethnographer was a man who, under the impact of nationalism and populism, was eagerly exploring and codifying a peasant culture in the hope of preserving and protecting it, above all from encroachment by rival nationalisms. (A Russian ethnographer was a man filling in time because the Tsar had sent him to Siberia.)

But to return to Western Europe: two items provided the main elements in Frazer's general approach to this problem. First of all, he was an evolutionist in the basic formulation of his problem: his central question was, by what path did mankind arrive at its present condition? Evolutionism is more a state of mind, a tendency to ask genetic questions, than a positive doctrine; and in this sense, Frazer was, very profoundly, an evolutionist. Secondly, he was an avid user of the new time machine made available in the by now rather rich and rapidly growing mass of ethnographic literature. He mastered an incredible amount of it and reproduced it, in elegant, somewhat mellifluous Augustan prose, in his widely known (though, in its unabridged version, seldom read) masterpiece, The Golden Bough (1911-1915).

2 / Cracovie occultée
Intellectuels polonais entre positivisme et romantisme

(Gellner, 123) The view widely if tacitly held of Malinowski in the profession was that he arrived from outer space, and that his ideas emerged by a kind of conceptual parthenogenesis, without benefit or need of mundane parentage. This was a view which on the whole he seemed to welcome and encourage. His British or Imperial followers had little knowledge and indeed, so it would seem, little curiosity about his intellectual and other origins.

Despite his very profound roots in Cracow and Zakopane, Malinowski eventually came to cut himself off from them. He had at first thought of buying a summer house in Zakopane in the Carpathians whilst continuing to profess in London, but in the end decided to buy one in Alto Adige in Italy instead, which his family still owns. The consequence was that his family grew up between the Italian-controlled South Tyrol and the English-speaking world, without much by way of contact with his own Polish roots.

When his most leading disciples came to assemble the posthumous volume Man and Culture, under the editorship of Raymond Firth, his distinguished successor in the LSE chair of social anthropology, the work displayed little knowledge of Malinowski's Polish background and some profound misconceptions concerning its character. One had to wait till the centenary of Malinowski's birth in 1984 and the conferences occasioned by it, and above all the availability of the work of young Polish scholars, mainly in Cracow, before the really fascinating sources of his ideas and attitudes became clear (Ellen et al. 1988). In many ways, Cracow was a suburb of Vienna in those pre-1914 days. I have heard it claimed that musical - and, presumably, well-off - inhabitants of Cracow might go to Vienna for a night at the opera, returning next day. Whether or not this is literally true, unquestionably anyone reading works of intellectual history about either place will come across references to many of the same names. It was all one intellectual continuum. Despite some interesting differences, the underlying polarity was the same as the one which haunted Wittgenstein's Vienna: positivism against romanticism.

Empirisme et positivisme chez Ernst Mach, philosophe et physicien autrichien (1838–1916)

(128) This combination of extreme empiricism and biological functionalism is what Malinowski found in Mach, who influenced him so powerfully, as he had influenced so many others. There can hardly be any doubt now, after the patient work of Andzej Flis and others, that this is where Malinowski found these ideas. Speculating about the underlying inspiration of Malinowski, before the Polish work on Malinowski's youth /129/ existed or was available, Edmund Leach, in his contribution to Man and Culture, suggested William James as the origin of these ideas, adding that James was fashionable in London at the time Malinowski arrived there … William James' position is summarised as follows: 'from the plausible thesis that certain biological interests underlie ... all our thinking, he [James] passed to the more exciting ... thesis that the sole function of thought is to satisfy certain interests of the organism, and that truth consists of such thinking as satisfies these interests' … Those very ideas were also available in Mach - without the name 'pragmatism', of course - and we know that they preoccupied the young Malinowski who, when he arrived in London, had no need to read James to learn about them. Perhaps he did so, but it hardly matters: he was already, through his well-documented and thorough study of Mach, in full possession of these ideas.

Ce que Malinowski retient du Romantisme polonais

(130) What were those features of East European romanticism which he retained? What matters most in that tradition, for the present purposes, is the East and Central European style of ethnography, as developed in the nineteenth century and as practised by some scholars to this very day. The aim of populist or nationalist ethnography is not, as was the case amongst West European scholars, to use 'simpler' populations to answer questions about the early condition of mankind. The village schoolteachers who painfully recorded customs, songs, sayings, dances, and stories, did not do so in the hope that their findings would in due course decide some question about early forms of marriage, religion or the state; they barely knew about these questions and did not care a great deal about the answer. They cared about the 'rebirth' (in fact, frequently, just birth) of their nation, or the nation they were helping to create.

(132) Ethnography in this style is carried out, not with theoretical, detached curiosity about some aspect of the society of early man: it is carried out, above all, with love, and furthermore, with an intimate awareness of the nuances of local idiom, and with a sense of the overall unity of the culture, and with a desire to preserve it. One of the most famous episodes in this kind of romantic populist world was the occasion when two young Polish intellectuals decided to carry this 'going to the people' to its full conclusion and actually married two village maidens, so as to round off their intimacy with folk culture. The spirit of observer participation, later to be formalised by Malinowski as fieldwork method, could hardly go further.

Evolutionnisme contre Patrimonialisme

L'ethnographie en Europe centrale entretenait le culte de l'histoire et recueillait les traces d'un patrimoine commun au sein d'une communauté locale. Par rapport à Frazer et l'ethnographie en Europe occidentale qui recueillait les traces d'une humanité primitive, l'ethnographie nationaliste et populiste d'Europe centrale représentait un tout autre modèle d'emploi de la machine à remonter le temps pour construire l'unité d'une culture sur son patrimoine historique.

3 / Malinowski abandonne le culte de l'histoire

De l'ethnographie d'Europe centrale, Malinowski retient le sens de l'unité et de la richesse d'une culture locale, mais en la libérant du poids de l'histoire. Il opère une coupure épistémologique par rapport à l'ethnographie comme machine à remonter le temps.

(134) Thus Malinowski's ahistoricism has first of all a negative aspect: the rejection of the invocation of an invented, speculative past in the hope of explaining some puzzling aspect of the present; and second, a positive aspect: the 'functionalist' doctrine that everything existing in the present — including assertions about the past (and they perhaps most of all) — has a function, a role, a usefulness, in the present.

(135) What Malinowski had done was remarkable. He had taken elements from both sides of the great divide which had polarised intellectual life, in Europe in general and in Poland in particular, and had concocted a totally original cocktail. The elements were, all of them, old but the combination was wholly new. He had taken the romantic sense of the unity of culture, but weaned it from its long-standing partner, the romantic sense of the partnership of past and present. The unity of culture here and now was now no longer linked to the Burkean companionship of the dead, the living, and the as-yet-unborn. Malinowski endowed the holistic sense of the unity of culture with a new and severely empiricist rationale, and exiled the past in the name of severe empiricist standards. The Malinowskian past was not an inference, it was a social function in the observable present.

(139) [L'empirisme radical inspiré d'Ernest Mach] was used to amputate the politically loaded history from the sense of culture. A sense of culture was retained, the cult of history abandoned. … The past is reduced to the invocation and use of legend in the present.