I’ve been reading Freud’s Totem and Taboo over the past couple weeks. One thing that strikes me is how foreign his approach is to contemporary academic sensibilities, at least in the circles I’m most familiar with. Obviously no one wants to use racist and derogatory terms such as “savages” and “primitive peoples,” but it seems that the solution that most of those doing ambitious philosophical and theoretical work in the West have chosen is never to mention such people at all.
I’ve mentioned before how resolutely intra-Western Agamben is, and of course the same could be said of Derrida and many other prestigious postwar intellectuals. Even postcolonial discourse seems most often to occupy itself with analyzing and critiquing Western representations of outsiders rather than somehow bringing them directly to the fore (correct me if I’m wrong, though — I haven’t yet delved as deeply into that literature as I should).
Somehow the way to get past the colonial/imperial structure is to remain completely within the Western tradition, reading it against the grain, subverting it from within (or showing how it subverts itself), etc., etc. Meanwhile, those who do attempt to engage positively with non-Western discourses are often stereotyped as non-serious — think of the instinctive eye-roll that accompanies the announcement that someone is really fascinated with Buddhism, or the “froofiness” associated with affirmations of the values of Native American cultures, etc. The really serious people do the hard work of dealing with the Western tradition in all its enormity — everyone who ventures outside that circle seems to be either a dilletante or a hippy.
One recent book that breaks out of this deadlock is David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, which surveys societies across the globe and human history with an ambition unseen since the days of Frazer or Eliade. But precisely for that reason, I suspect he’ll have trouble getting heard in many of the academic circles that could really benefit from thinking through his work.
[Disclaimers: I’m as guilty of this as anybody, if not moreso, and I can only speak for my immediate academic circles within theology, continental philosophy, and comp lit, which may turn out to be uniquely problematic in this regard.]