The politics of HAU and French Theory

The book project that I’m working on, Disappointed Utopia: Radical Philosophy in Postcolonial France, is basically an ethnographic study of “French Theory.” The book’s preface tries to explain why, at this point in history, we would still be interested in an ethnography of that. And the answer, in short, is that the historical problems of “French Theory” are not so different from our own (in Anglophone anthropology, if that who “we” is here).

So here is a little excerpt from the preface that explores the relationship between French Theory and the recent controversy over the HAU journal in my field.


It seems retro to appeal to French Theory as a source for the utopian imagination. From the point of cultural anthropology, French Theory now seems outmoded, since the 1960s are long since “past,” and nothing now seems less novel than its Great Men, Foucault or Deleuze. What is the point of an ethnography of an outmoded moment of intellectual production? Ironically, though, the very rejection of French Theory lies at the heart of anthropology’s latest crisis of coloniality: a coloniality founded on new pedestals for old men (and, it must be said, some women). It is worth exploring this in some detail, to show how French Theory remains key to reflexive struggles within Anglophone anthropology.

In June 2018, six months after #MeToo, a more specific conflict erupted in anthropology, centering on the journal HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. The journal’s namesake category, hau, had been extracted by Marcel Mauss from a 1909 ethnography of Māori “forest lore” and repurposed in his 1923-24 “Essay on the Gift,” where it became an increasingly decontextualized concept of the “spirit of the gift.”[1] In 2011, HAU’s founders, Giovanni da Col and David Graeber, inaugurated their project by drawing on Mauss. His essay, they said, was “the quintessence of everything that is equivocal, everything that is inadequate, but also, everything that is nonetheless endlessly productive and enlightening in the project of translating alien concepts” (Da Col and Graeber 2011:vii). But it was the journal itself that ultimately became an equivocal, inadequate and productive symbol of the violence of theory.

The insider critiques of the journal chiefly took the form of #MeToo-style public testimony about an abusive workplace. Anonymous letters from the journal’s staff testified that da Col, who was Editor in Chief, had systematically mistreated them. They described financial mismanagement, wage theft, “daily vitriolic reprimands,” “overwork, exhaustion, and de-moralization,” and “inappropriate sexual comments,” and they argued that the journal’s open access mission had been betrayed by transferring its operations to the University of Chicago.[2] Graeber publicly disowned the project, writing an apology for the failed “realization” of what he still called the project’s “brilliant concept.”[3] The journal’s continued defenders, preoccupied by internal reorganizations, declared that the allegations amounted to a smear campaign by disgruntled egotists, confused outsiders and misguided radicals making “destabilizing efforts.”[4] (The phrase became infamous.) It seemed to me that the journal’s defenders never made a very persuasive public case for themselves, while the alleged labor abuses struck me as depressingly common features of precarious academic workplaces.

But the ensuing debates, which circulated on numerous blogs and on Twitter under the hashtag #HauTalk, rightly made HAU into a broader site for critiquing coloniality and elitism in contemporary anthropology.[5] Just as #MeToo had insisted that we not deny our coevalness with sexism, #HauTalk reiterated that colonial structures in anthropology were not a matter of the past, but were an ongoing crisis in the present, as Zoe Todd particularly emphasized (2018). It was commonly observed that HAU was a product of the elite Northern centers of the field: it was based largely on social networks from the University of Cambridge and the University of Chicago (my own alma mater). The Mahi Tahi collective wrote pointedly from New Zealand to ask, “How well have the journal’s recent practices, decisions and approaches lived up to the Māori concept of hau, a concept that the journal has continually stated is its central ethos?”[6] Adia Benton’s comments from 2017 were picked up again; she had been one of the first to say publicly what minoritized anthopologists had been saying privately, that HAU had fixated on “a rather old-fashioned model of canonizing the oldies,” and that these “select few ‘theorists’… skew[ed] white, old and male.”[7] Takami S. Delisle summed up the “core problem” as “white colonial elite masculinity.”[8] Was it a coincidence that the editorial board foregrounded representatives of “old school” anthropology, while the journal seemed to reject contemporary theories of identity, coloniality, race, gender, sexuality, and the intersections of all these?

Let us turn here to re-examine HAU’s founding statement, which turns out to center on a specific melodrama of masculine recognition. For Da Col and Graeber, the widespread influence of French Theory in cultural anthropology had left us a “discipline spiraling into parochial irrelevance” (Da Col and Graeber 2011:xii). Instead of borrowing ideas from Foucault or Deleuze, they argued, we should take refuge in the heartlands of our discipline, distilling concepts from ethnographic data instead of borrowing them from others. “It’s only by returning to the past, and drawing on our own hoariest traditions, that we can revive the radical promise of anthropology” (xxix). Doubling down on territoriality, the HAU founders also pictured the discipline in Leninist terms, declaring that “anthropology has been since its inception a battle-ground between imperialists and anti-imperialists, just as it remains today” (2011:xi). I have nothing against critiquing imperialism, but unlike Lenin, Graeber and Da Col did not link their radical rhetoric to any collective labor politics or political project. On the contrary, the rhetoric of anti-imperialism worked to downplay the journal’s own elite position in the academic field. In theory, Da Col and Graeber sought to diversify anthropology, promising to “promote intellectual diversity across different traditions… outside the North Atlantic and Anglo-Saxon academic juggernauts.” Yet these were the very juggernauts that had seeded their project with its initial academic capital — a contradiction which the authors proved incapable of working through.[9]

Thus if the radical promise of anthropology was ever “revived” at HAU, it was buried alive again the same day. The obvious detachment from contemporary Māori culture—however much it was valorized as a source of ethnographic concepts—was only matched by an equal and opposite disengagement with its French counterpart. As an ethnographer of French academic life, I was struck by how HAU’s founders unwittingly replicated the form of shallow, ahistorical engagement with France that they deplored in others. They treated “French Theory,” “European thinkers,” “Continental philosophy,” and the “Western philosophical tradition” as synonyms for each other, reproducing an essentialized, undifferentiated image of Europe. And instead of seriously analyzing theoretical production in the Cold War moment of decolonization and Western Marxism, they invoked a bizarre analogy with Classic Rock, dismissing “French theorists from the period of roughly 1968 to 1983” as “the intellectual equivalents of Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin” (Da Col and Graeber 2011:xii).

If “Classic Rock” was passé to HAU’s founders, the funny thing is that then they got nostalgic for theory from the era of Dixieland jazz, Tin Pan Alley showtunes and Frank Sinatra. In the first half of the 20th century, they declared plaintively, anthropology had produced “concepts that everyone, philosophers included, had to take seriously” (2011:x). They noted excitedly that Jean-Paul Sartre had written about the potlatch and that Sigmund Freud had written about totems. Yet their casual expression “everyone, philosophers included” was really a misnomer for a narrow Franco-German sphere of white, male, overwhelmingly bourgeois intellectuals. In 1949, which HAU cast as the end of anthropology’s glory days, 68% of French university students were children of the bourgeoisie or of civil servants, while less than 2% emerged from the industrial working class.[10] Meanwhile, in France, anthropology hardly even existed as a discipline.[11] The Big Men of French social theory — Durkheim, Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, Bourdieu — were all initially credentialed to teach philosophy, via a French certifying exam called the agrégation. This philosophical legitimacy, not (contra HAU) some inherent draw of early anthropology, was key to why French philosophers took ethnology “seriously.”

Meanwhile, it is hard to idealize this intellectual epoch, since it was also a factory for vicious colonial and racist ideologies, as Aimé Césaire documented in his Discourse on Colonialism (2000 [1950]). The very French institutions that produced Mauss were themselves organs of structural racism, in a way that HAU never acknowledged. In 1952, Frantz Fanon described the agrégation as sufficiently racist that black men would simply not bother with it. “When an Antillean philosophy graduate says he won’t bother to take the agrégation, citing his color, I say that philosophy has never saved anyone.”[12] I find it disturbing that these seminal critiques of colonialism mark the ending of HAU’s preferred era of social theory.

In any case, when HAU went on to call contemporary anthropology an “intellectual suicide,” what they were lamenting was not a failure of political engagement with the communities where we do research, but a failure of renewed recognition from present-day academic elites. This is why I say that HAU was founded on a melodrama of masculine recognition. Its founding mood was embattled woundedness, and its founding relation was the fear of not finding legitimacy in the eyes of the Other — this obscure “everyone” that still seemed to focus on European philosophers. Da Col and Graeber went on to fantasize about creating a “different mode of engaging” with philosophy, but they did not imagine studying philosophers ethnographically (which, of course, is the project here). Instead, invoking a game of competitive one-upmanship, they liked to envision ethnographers showing that Deleuze and Guattari had been wrong about one concept or another (2011:xiv).

I have long appreciated Graeber’s contributions to anarchist anthropology and his activism. But he has never sufficiently processed his own investments in the elite section of the discipline, and I must disagree strongly with his conclusion that HAU was founded on a “brilliant concept” that was poorly realized. On the contrary, the project was always compromised by its basically affirmative stance towards anthropology itself, by its indifference to intersectional critiques of the field, and by its inability to move beyond the elitism and structural violence of its institutional origins. It was sometimes said during #HauTalk that HAU had renounced one locus of white masculinity, French Theory, only to enshrine another instead. Yet if we look at the social institutions of French Theory, it turns they are not only the institutions of pure white radicality that they seem to be. Like contemporary anthropology, they too are sites of struggle with coloniality and masculine domination. One reason for an ethnography of French Theory, then, is to learn from a set of French struggles that most of us are not even aware of.

Césaire, Aimé. 2000 [1950]. Discourse on Colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Chimisso, Cristina. 2005. “Constructing narratives and reading texts: approaches to history and power struggles between philosophy and emergent disciplines in inter-war France.” History of the Human Sciences no. 18 (3):83-107.

—. 2000. “The mind and the faculties: the controversy over ‘primitive mentality’ and the struggle for disciplinary space at the inter-war Sorbonne.” History of the Human Sciences no. 13 (3):47-68.

da Col, Giovanni, and David Graeber. 2011. “The return of ethnographic theory.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory no. 1 (1):vi-xxxv.

Fanon, Frantz. 1952. Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris: Seuil.

—. 2008. Black skin, white masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press.

Mauss, Marcel. 1990. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W.D. Halls. New York: W. W. Norton.

Sauvy, Alfred. 1960. “L’origine sociale et géographique des étudiants français.” Population no. 15 (5):869-871.

Todd, Zoe. The Decolonial Turn 2.0: the reckoning. Anthrodendum, 15 June 2018.


[1] See Mauss 1990:114n24-25.
[2] “Former and current HAU staff letter”, June 14, 2018,; ”An Open Letter from the Former HAU Staff 7”, June 13, 2018,
[3] “HAU Apology,” David Graeber,
[4] ”Letter from the new Board of Trustees,” HAU Journal website, June 11, 2018,
[5] An overview of these debates is at “HAU Mess,”
[6] ”An Open Letter to the HAU Journal’s Board of Trustees,” June 18, 2018,
[7] Tweets by Adia Benton,,
[8] Tweets by Takami S. Delisle,
[9] To be clear, I also got my academic capital from this juggernaut, and I too oppose it in theory while benefitting from it in practice.
[10] See 1949 data in Sauvy 1960:869. I counted as “bourgeois or civil servants” the categories professions libérales, chefs d’entreprise, fonctionnaires, and propriétaires-rentiers.
[11] On French disciplinary recomposition in this period, see especially Chimisso (2000, 2005).
[12] “Lorsqu’un Antillais licencié en philosophie déclare ne pas présenter l’agrégation, alléguant sa couleur, je dis que la philo­sophie n’a jamais sauvé personne” (Fanon 1952:22). I have modified the English translation somewhat from Markman’s recent version (Fanon 2008:17).

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