Gadfly at Large

Why is the eminent University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins publishing pamphlets

Photo: Marc Hauser

Marshall Sahlins may not be a household name, but in the world of anthropology he is a supernova. Over a 50-year career, he has championed the idea of culture’s universal power to shape people’s thoughts and behavior, distinct from biology. Now, at 74, Sahlins is focusing his formidable intellect and West Side–bred scrappiness (one admirer calls him “brilliantly irksome") as the executive publisher of pithy polemical pamphlets known as Prickly Paradigm Press. Those on the receiving end of Sahlins’s barbs might say the name fits the founder to a T.

Since 2001, Sahlins has financed the series and tapped his wide network of colleagues and poker-playing chums to write essays of 100 pages or so, often bordering on let-’er-rip harangues, attacking the accepted wisdom in a number of fields. Why, in the age of the blog, has Sahlins turned to a format associated with Jonathan Swift and Thomas Paine? He says he believes people maintain a physical connection to books as objects and prefer them as vehicles for sustained argument. “Knowledge today has crossed the traditional disciplinary boundaries,” Sahlins says. “Pamphlets can better capture this intellectual turmoil and allow scholars to write across the academic apparatus of departments and footnotes.”

Prickly Paradigm can trace its roots back to England in 1993 when two British anthropologists founded a small press named Prickly Pear. In 2001, the press, under new owners, expressed interest in an essay Sahlins had written about the case of the young Cuban refugee Elián González, but the editor, Matthew Engelke, informed him that it couldn’t be published for at least a year due to lack of funds. Sahlins eventually bought the Prickly Pear with an investment group that included his brother, Second City’s cofounder Bernie Sahlins. Sahlins hired Engelke to serve as editor from England, tweaked the name, and enlisted the marketing and distribution muscle of the University of Chicago Press.

Today, Prickly Paradigm is a pay-as-you-go venture, with per-issue sales in the 1,000-to-1,500 range. Its best seller to date has been What Happened to Art Criticism? by James Elkins, an art history professor at the School of the Art Institute, which topped 5,000 copies. Profits from sales of the $10 booklets, found mainly in campus and independent bookstores, finance next year’s crop of titles. But Sahlins’s interest lies more in disseminating pungent ideas-a fitting goal for the man credited with originating the anti–Vietnam war “teach-in” in 1965.

Last year, Lindsay Waters, an editor at Harvard University Press, bemoaned publication pressures on junior faculty which, he wrote, result in unimportant ideas and unreadable prose. “Some colleagues have threatened to hit me,” he says. In a recent issue, The Law in Shambles, Chicago labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan argued that the collapse of labor unions, declining voter participation, and a loss of trust in judges and jury verdicts are ruining U.S. democracy. Sahlins is pleased by the buzz but he’s cagily modest. “So far, it’s been good,” he says, “but, as my brother Bernie says, we still haven’t achieved world peace.”

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