Oct. 10, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 2

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    Sahlins, colleagues rescue pamphlet press, revive it as Prickly Paradigm Press

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    Since the 1950s, when he began studying cannibalism and culture in the Fiji Islands, Marshall Sahlins has made a career of unconventional thinking. His ethnographic work in New Guinea, Fiji and Hawaii has sparked vigorous debate about the way anthropologists think about culture. But now, after more than 40 years of challenging orthodoxy in academia, the iconoclastic anthropologist has an additional career.

    Earlier this year, Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Anthropology, became executive publisher of Prickly Paradigm Press, a small press that specializes in unconventional polemics and whose medium is also unconventional–the pamphlet. A slim, 80-page or less, 10,000- to 20,000-word volume, a pamphlet can almost fit in a breast pocket.

    This summer, Prickly Paradigm–which is distributed by the University Press–published its first five titles, written primarily by academics. Though there is no political agenda to the pamphlets, one theme links all of the work, Sahlins said. “It’s not academic cookie-cutter stuff. It goes beyond disciplines, and it takes intellectual risks.”

    Selections include French theorist Bruno Latour’s take on the West’s relationship to other societies and to nature; Thomas Frank’s tract on the unlikely affinities between left-wing cultural scholars and libertarian corporation executives; Derek Nystrom and Kent Puckett’s “Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies,” an in-depth conversation with Richard Rorty, professor at Stanford University; and Former Chicago economist Deirdre McCloskey’s pamphlet, “Secret Sins of Economics,” questioning the usefulness of her discipline. Sahlins’ own contribution, an anthropological satire, titled “Waiting for Foucault, Still,” includes such social science one-liners as “In Anthropology, some things are better left un-Said.”

    Sahlins has no previous experience in publishing, but he said he decided 18 months ago to enter the business because of his belief in the pamphlet.

    “Pamphlets are an important genre for academics who have something they want to get off their chests,” said Sahlins. “It gives them freedom and encourages creativity. So many academics have a lot to say that they don’t want to write as a piece with scholarly apparatus, footnotes and a bibliography. Some have been thinking of pet subversive pieces for years. When word of our press came out, proposals and manuscripts began coming over the transom.”

    While pamphlets have had a rich history as a means of introducing radical ideas– among others, authors George Orwell and John Milton used pamphlets to rail against prevailing thought–the pamphlet has become nearly extinct in the United States. Sahlins had discovered this decline two years ago, when he wanted to publish “Apologies to Thucydides,” an argument that examined the problem of why historians sometimes narrate history in terms of human actors, such as Napoleon or Pericles, and sometimes as though the actors were collective entitites like Athens or England. Although his paper was academic, Sahlins strayed beyond his discipline, using baseball and the Elian Gonzalez affair as examples. “I thought it had broader appeal,” he said of the piece.

    At that time, only a few pamphlet publishers existed. Blackwell’s Press published a series of small books, Open Media had been started during the Gulf War and Prickly Pear put out scholarly pamphlets on anthropological topics.

    Prickly Pear had published the first edition of Sahlins’ “Waiting for Foucault” in 1993, but when he approached editor Matthew Engelke about “Apologies” he found the press was struggling financially and barely publishing one pamphlet a year.

    “Prickly Pear was too important to let flounder,” he said. It was then that Sahlins put together a team of investors, which included his brother, Second City founder Bernie Sahlins, and the Seminary Co-Op bookstore, and they took over the faltering publisher by agreement. Engelke is still editor, but they changed its name to Prickly Paradigm Press and broadened its editorial mission beyond anthropological topics.

    The audience for pocketbook-size polemics is probably narrow, Sahlins continued, adding, “We are not going to sell much at the check-out counter of the supermarket.” Still, he is optimistic. Amazon.com stocks Prickly Paradigm pamphlets, and Sahlins expects the pamphlets soon will be available in such mainstream bookstores as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books. Four new titles will be published next spring.

    The infant venture has been aided by media coverage. Both the Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times gave Prickly Paradigm space in recent articles about the resurgence of pamphleteering earlier this year, and the press’ pamphlets have caught the attention of international readers. German and Dutch publishers are presently considering translations of various Prickly Paradigm pamphlets.

    Sahlins is unsure of the venture’s financial success. “More of our business comes from the Seminary Co-Op than anyplace in the world,” he said. But he is hopeful the pamphlet genre will become popular with a general intellectual audience.

    And, he added, “There is a possibility that the short, edgy, critical, sometimes cantankerous pamphlet’s time has come.”