Sahlins, colleagues rescue pamphlet press, revive it as Prickly Paradigm PressBy Josh Schonwald
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 unconventionalthe 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 Paradigmwhich is distributed by the University Presspublished 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. Its not academic cookie-cutter stuff. It goes beyond disciplines, and it takes intellectual risks.
Selections include French theorist Bruno Latours take on the Wests relationship to other societies and to nature; Thomas Franks tract on the unlikely affinities between left-wing cultural scholars and libertarian corporation executives; Derek Nystrom and Kent Pucketts Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies, an in-depth conversation with Richard Rorty, professor at Stanford University; and Former Chicago economist Deirdre McCloskeys 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 dont 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 thoughtthe 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. Blackwells 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 ventures 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 pamphlets time has come.