ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Perfection: histories, technologies, cosmologies

Location Appleton Tower, Seminar Room 2.11
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00


Melissa Demian (University of St Andrews) email
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This panel draws upon Enlightenment ideas of a human history tending toward perfection through the virtuous action of individual persons and intervention into social institutions. We ask how these ideas continue to affect anthropological work on institutionalised agendas for human perfectibility.

Long Abstract

This panel takes its inspiration from the socio-history of Adam Ferguson, and more specifically the notion that human nature is not only social in its originary form, but tending toward perfectibility through the cultivation of virtuous action. We find echoes of this idea in many of the ideas alive in the global ecumene today: for example, that societies are improvable through the development of educational, religious, medical and legal modes of action. In turn, by asking what perfection is we want to invigorate another inspirational moment of Ferguson's work, namely anthropology's ambition to address questions about the condition(s) of humanity. Indeed, the notion of perfection strongly resonates with longstanding questions about relations between society and individual, freedom and obligation, and the legitimation of action more generally.

We invite paper-givers to ask, how are such notions informed by a particular concept of history as having an inherent tendency toward improvement and ultimately perfection? If this will happen 'anyway', why do states, NGOs, religious and other institutions so earnestly try to intervene, and what forms do these interventions take? We also invite consideration that interventions made through purely 'physical' means, such as public health and media initiatives, also have at their core the idea that society is improvable by cultivating enlightened self-interest, and vice versa.

Discussant: Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (Cambridge)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The theft of modernity: rethinking indigenous and colonial histories and their futures

Author: Elizabeth Cory-Pearce (Tavistock Institute of Human Relations)  email


The notion that history tends towards perfection through intervention clearly informed British missionary and colonial agendas. This paper attempts to stimulate a reorientation of our thinking by revealing how indigenous people were directly involved in projects of modernisation.

Long Abstract

The Theft of Modernity: Rethinking Indigenous and Colonial Histories and their Futures

The notion of a human history that tends towards perfection through virtuous action and intervention clearly informed the missionary and colonial agenda of Victorian Britain in places such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Yet post-colonial scholarship, in its concern to highlight relations of colonial dominance, has continued to endorse such a western 'progress' narrative of history, albeit with its morals reversed. This paper attempts to stimulate a reorientation of our thinking by drawing on a range of scholarship that suggests the extent to which indigenous people were directly involved in projects of modernisation, including missionary conversion, trade, collecting, exhibiting, and anthropological research. The extent of this involvement is often met with by surprise by scholars. I want to suggest the very reason for this surprise is our deep-rooted conceptual assumption of the direction of historical change, by looking at the central role played by indigenous people in the establishment of early industries (Maori tour guiding industries, Australian Aboriginal craft industries that later became indigenous art markets, and Canadian/North American First Nations hop-picking industries). These were clearly orchestrated along indigenous cosmological and socio-political lines. A specific outcome of my project is to link colonial archives in Britain which record early songs and dances with present day Maori performing arts instructors whose specific aim is to impact upon youth health and fitness. Their success in this area is proving far greater than various state health intervention programmes, the reasons for which prompt reflection on what human perfectibility is.

The perfectible court in an imperfect state

Author: Melissa Demian (University of St Andrews)  email


Papua New Guinea’s village courts provide a test case in the way agendas of self-surveillance and self-improvement operate within a state that is unable to deliver either oversight or support for its own legal instruments.

Long Abstract

Papua New Guinea is consistently painted as one of the 'sick men' of the Pacific or of the Commonwealth, and is frequently subject to the rhetoric of the failed state. Large-scale measurements of success in the building of a functioning civil society, such as the Millennium Development Goals, would seem to bear out this diagnosis. But closer scrutiny of one of its longer-running experiments in cultivating the 'rule of law' complicates the picture somewhat.

The Village Courts system in Papua New Guinea has run with little or no state oversight since its inception in 1975. There is some concern among metropolitan elites that the Village Courts have either outlived their usefulness, or are 'broken' because they are well known to stray from their proper jurisdiction. In this paper, I draw on recent research in the Village Courts system to ask how the courts inform a Papua New Guinean legal subjectivity that both references, and is independent from, state interventions. For Papua New Guineans do imagine themselves as legal actors, and they do so in a wide variety of ways, including the widespread notion that to act lawfully is inextricable from acting as a Christian, part of the package of Papua New Guinean modernity that informs the aspirations particularly of younger people. Each of these subject positions holds out the prospect of participation in a wider legal ecumene that is imagined to bring about 'development', or a perfected state of social harmony and wealth that seems perpetually out of reach.

From friend/neighbour/lover to perpetrator or victim: the imperfect histories of post-conflict peace-building

Author: Sari Wastell (Goldsmiths College, University of London)  email


The paper examines the ways in which institutions committed to ‘transitional justice’ unwittingly invest in a new form of modernisation theory – one predicated on a presumed, shared, progressive chronology and equally shared forms of social responsibility.

Long Abstract

The transition from conflict marked by wartime atrocity to durable peace has become a heavily institutionalised business (in every sense). However, the modus operandi of 'transitional justice' contains a fundamental paradox - the commitment to a victim-centric approach to social reconciliation that is always twinned with a bureaucratic and universal vision for peace-building as a sort of new modernisation theory. It is victim-centric so long as victims belong to identifiable groups and the culpable are those who have mobilised their individual free wills to less-than-perfect ends.

It is clear that modernisation theory - the fantasy of a progressive chronology - did not pan out so well for its various 'beneficiaries' in the past.

Thus, this paper explores the sense of 'shared' history and temporality that both legitimises and belies international, institutionised efforts at conflict and post-conflict management. In particular, it ethnographically mobilises the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina to query the way in which a self-evident acceptance of the individualisation of guilt and the collectivisation of victimhood has been inscribed through legal practice and has confounded an approach that might consider solidarity-building in terms of social relations not predicated on groups and their relation to individuals, but on the sociality that was both the precursor to, and now legacy of, intimate wartime violence.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.