When Marshall Sahlins was in his eighties, he was introduced at some ceremonial event as "the greatest living anthropologist," at which he quipped "That just proves longevity is a good career move." He had more than longevity to his credit. When he died on April 5, 2021 at the age of ninety, he had just finished his nineteenth book, and was widely considered one the most influential social thinkers of his times. His life and work are already well recorded in numerous obituaries ranging from The New York Times to the New Left Review and Jacobin and need no rehearsal here. Although I only came to know him after he became my advisor at Chicago, this brief sketch notes his deep bonds with the University of Michigan and its Anthropology Department, where he received his BA (1951) and MA (1952), and where he taught (1956-1973 and again briefly in the 2004).
Born in 1930 into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, Sahlins grew up in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. His older brother, Bernard, achieved renown as founder of the Second City improvisational troupe (known to many as the breeding ground for Saturday Night Live). To those who enjoyed--or endured--Marshall's relentless witticisms, it was easy to imagine the brothers embroiled in a lifelong comedic rivalry. After his death, former colleagues and students exchanged so many of his jokes, puns, wisecracks, and aphorisms that they could fill a volume in the Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series that he had initiated.
Sahlins knew he would be an anthropologist by the time he graduated from high school. Enrolling at the University of Michigan (where he met his life-long partner, Barbara, at freshman orientation) he was deeply influenced by the introductory lecture course taught by Leslie White. Although he eventually rejected White's scientism, he always insisted that he learned in this class that culture is an expression of human self-determination.
He also shared with White a commitment to political radicalism. White regularly wrote for the Socialist Labor Party paper (under a pseudonym) even at the peak of the McCarthy era red scare. He did, however, warn that if you were going to talk about Marx in class, be sure to close the door first. For his part, Sahlins would later argue that the Vietnamese revolutionaries' struggle against overwhelming odds could not be understood without grasping how culture makes it possible to imagine and create other possible ways of living. This emancipatory view of the world-making powers of culture became an increasingly central part of his thinking over subsequent decades.
Recalling his undergraduate years at Michigan in a conversation shortly before his death, Sahlins told me "I got to registration and they asked me what I would study. [When I answered 'anthropology'] they said, 'Well, there's this intro course. Beardsley on Japan.' It was dull but nothing could stop me!"
Freshman year he also took a creative writing class with his roommate Jerry Knodel. As Sahlins tells it, "When [the teacher] handed our papers back, he said 'Knodel can write--you have it in your blood.' Imagine the effect that had on a freshman!" Although he came to be a noted stylist, the writing did not come easily and he took great pains with his craft.
He went on to say "My BA was unorthodox. I was taking a class on Near Eastern history with Cameron. He suddenly got money for a project in Iraq. He recruited me even though I was only an undergrad. I was on my way to Iraq when they found out I was Jewish. So he sent me to Turkey. I worked on a secret group of followers of a Jewish holy man who was famous across Europe, Sabbatai Zevi. The Ottomans offered him a piece of Palestine if he would allow himself to be pierced by arrows, or he could convert. So he converted. . . . I managed to get a few old [Sabbatians] to talk. That was my thesis for the BA. Then I went straight to the MA."
From Michigan, Sahlins went on to graduate school at Columbia, receiving his degree in 1954, at the age of 24. He explained his rapid progress this way: "The comprehensive exam for the MA at Michigan was so thorough that I aced the PhD at Columbia. It was 17 hours over a four-day period, one on each of the subfields."
In an unusual sequence, he did not go to Fiji until after writing the dissertation, which was based on written sources. Although Sahlins was never known for his fieldwork, his ethnographic knowledge, especially of the Pacific, was extraordinary. In later years, those who took his classes hoping for pure "theory" could be dismayed to find themselves immersed in the details of everything from land tenure to ceremonial exchange systems; the conceptual arguments never lost their grounding in the empirical.
From Fiji Sahlins returned to Michigan as an Assistant Professor. It was the height of the Cold War, but apparently the department even then had a certain political edge to it. A passionate follower of Michigan football, Sahlins said that when they went to games, his senior colleague Elmer Service would shout after the national anthem (sardonically, it seems) "Beat Russia!" More seriously, during the Vietnam War, Sahlins and Eric Wolf, who was also at UM with him, took leading roles in organizing the campus anti-war movement. Here's how the The New York Times tells the story:
"In March 1965, [Sahlins] and several colleagues from the University of Michigan gathered in his living room to discuss what they could do to oppose President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the war.
Some wanted to go on strike, a move that threatened to shut down the university and, Professor Sahlins worried, harm the students they were there to instruct. Instead, he said, taking a page from the sit-in protests of the civil rights movement, what if they set aside their syllabuses and gave lectures about America’s foreign policy, politics, and history?
Professor Sahlins called friends at Columbia, where he had received his Ph.D., and other schools, and within weeks faculty at dozens of campuses were holding teach-ins. In May 1965, Professor Sahlins led a national teach-in in Washington that received worldwide news media coverage.
His activism didn’t stop the war, of course. But the teach-in created an intellectual bridge between older leftists like Professor Sahlins and the budding activists of the baby boom generation. And as one of the earliest high-profile protests against America’s intervention in Vietnam, it set a template for future antiwar activism."
The following year Sahlins made a brief visit to Vietnam, about which he wrote "The Destruction of Conscience in Viet Nam" for Dissent magazine, describing the American advisors as "hard-headed surrealists." In 1968 he signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest," withholding the portion of his taxes the organizers calculated was the individual's share of the military budget.
During his Michigan years, he gradually moved away from the evolutionary and materialist paradigms in which he had been trained. A key moment in this development was the volume Stone Age Economics (1972). Showing the influence of Karl Polanyi from his time at Columbia, he argued against the ethnocentrism and racism of the models of linear evolution and economic rationalism prevailing at the time.
Both political conviction and philosophical persuasion led him toward a fusion of the American culture concept and French structuralism. Pursuing these ideas, he spent two years in Paris, participating in the seminar of Claude Lévi-Strauss. During those years "I had lunch with Pierre Clastres every day. The same sausage sandwich and a glass of wine, then back to work. . . I was the court jester at the Laboratoire. The French weren't used to that. I would make jokes against him [Lévi-Strauss]."
And it was there that he witnessed the uprisings of May 1968. Years later, in Chicago, as he dismissed his seminar for the week, he told us he had said to his departing students in Paris "See you next week"--and never saw them again. Revolution had broken out overnight. I think it was in part transformative moments like that which came, in time, to force him to rethink the structuralist paradigm.
Gayle Rubin has vivid memories of her undergraduate encounters with Sahlins. Although she was a self-designed "women's studies" major, a discipline which she was helping to invent, she took his course on economic anthropology in 1970 to fill an elective requirement (the grader went on to become the pioneering feminist anthropologist Reyna Rapp). According to Rubin "Marshall's lectures were extraordinary-- beautifully crafted gems of detail and concept, and I was smitten. . . . It was my Paul on the road to Damascus moment. I felt that anthropology had everything I was missing in my other majors." Talking to Sahlins about her ideas for a paper on women, he suggested she read The Elementary Structures of Kinship, “which hit me like the proverbial ton of falling bricks." The resulting essay eventually became the famous article "The Traffic in Women."
Entering Michigan's graduate program, Rubin continues, "I then took every class he taught. He did two semesters of what was an early version of Traditions--a sort of great books of anthropology (510 and 511). I loved those classes, with Marshall engaging in the intellectual histories of the discipline right at his own period of transition from a kind of Polanyi inflected materialism to his post-1968 romance with "structuralism" et al, . . . I followed him around like a puppy, trying to soak up all that brilliance." Although the major programmatic statement of this stage of his thinking, Culture and Practical Reason (1976) appeared after he moved to the University of Chicago, it was to large extent the fruit of his time at UM.
By the 1980s, both theoretical developments in the academy and the political experiences of the Sixties led Sahlins to a more thorough-going engagement with history. It was at Chicago that he elaborated his thinking about structure and agency, returning to his relentless critique of capitalism and the self-absorbed universalism of the West with renewed vigor.
This was the period when I came to know him. As an advisor he led by example, not precept. His pedagogy was never dogmatic--he never told me what to do. His personal style was of a certain era; although he clearly enjoyed his students, and quietly supported even those with whom he disagreed when it was called for, he was not notably warm and nurturing. The other side of this was that he encouraged independence of thought. It would be hard to look around the discipline and identify obvious "Sahlins students."
Old age did little to slow him down. Looking back at his arrival in Ann Arbor as a newly hired professor, he said "There was this cocktail party with a lot of old farts. One was a geographer who had recently retired. He said 'I was a geographer.' It stunned me. How can you be an ex-geographer? I 'm an anthropologist, that's what I am. My work keeps me alive." Much like the college freshman he had been, whom nothing could stop, he was engaged in political activism and intellectual debate to the end.
A devoted Michigan football fan, Sahlins had always joked that he would gladly teach again at Michigan in return for good seats in the stadium. In 2004, the historian Thomas Trautmann, who had named his Collegiate Professorship after Sahlins, took him up on it and worked out an arrangement. As a result, Sahlins spent a term commuting from Chicago to Ann Arbor to attend home games and giving a seminar that became the book What Kinship Is--and Is Not (2012).
After nearly five decades in Chicago, Sahlins could still say of Ann Arbor "It wasn't as much fun then as it is now. But I love it, a great little city. Sometimes when I want to say 'University of Chicago' I say 'University of Michigan' by mistake."