Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Habsburg Dilemma

The Habsburg dilemma, defined by anthropologist Ernest Gellner as "the principle that a culture is most stridently defended when it is irretrievably lost" (Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma, Cambridge University Press, 1998), may well encapsulate the essential problem of the social sciences. It certainly ought to serve as more than a cudgel for beating anthropologists over the head, the primary use Roger Sandall has found for it. Alas and Oh well. One can read more sympathetic reviews if one so desires.

I haven't read Language and Solitude (though I've placed an order for it), but I can make a couple of points about the argument: (1) it strikes me that most anthropologists are aware of the phenomenon, though nobody I know of has named it or thematicized it as Gellner has; and (2) whereas stridency may be regarded as unseemly among the anthropologists, defenses of the irretrievably lost are rather commonplace.

It should be understood that there is a bit of a taboo against telling an ethnogrpaher that the culture he's describing has ceased to be. It's generally acceptable to say as much (a) if the ethnographer has explicitly acknowledged the fact, (b) if he's not within earshot, or (c) if one says as much without saying as much, i.e. employs a tactic of circumlocution. This last option has engendered a fair amount of theoretical elaboration within the discipline, and not a little confusion all around. Wouldn't it be simpler to come to terms with culture death from the git go? But then that would hardly be anthropological, and certainly not ethnographic. It's quite the conundrum.

UPDATE: A word of envy for the students of Slawomir Kapralski's Theories of Culture.

posted by Fido the Yak at 10:43 PM.


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