The negation of hierarchy and its consequencesby V. Peacock

Anthropological Theory





Anthropological Theory 2015, Vol. 15(1) 3–21 ! The Author(s) 2014

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DOI: 10.1177/1463499614564887


The negation of hierarchy and its consequences

Vita Peacock

University College London, UK


This paper traces the large-scale abandonment of hierarchical models of society by human scientists in the aftermath of 1968. The late 20th century saw these scholars emphasizing the contractual and ‘egalitarian’ relations between actors, at the expense of relations predicated on status differences and the differentiation of function relative to a totality. It simultaneously argues that these scholarly developments hinged on a set of socio-economic conditions in Europe and the USA which defined ever-growing numbers of social forms in terms of the commodity. The great paradox, of course, is that the same historical moment in which the social was ‘flattened’ by human scientists also witnessed the emergence of new structural inequalities on an unprecedented scale. The paper concludes that this realization is leading to a resurgence of hierarchical models in the human sciences.


Flat ontology, hierarchy, neoliberalism, organizations, value


Resplendent on the wall behind the dais of the Great Council Hall in Venice’s

Doge’s Palace, the former seat of its government for several centuries, is a gargantuan painting called ‘Paradise’ by the Italian Renaissance artist Tintoretto. The image is dominated by the figure of Christ, right of centre at the top, who, sun-like, radiates gold upon the rest, and towards whom an unwieldy, brain-scrambling mass of saints, angels and evangelists in varying degrees of dress appear to gravitate in uneven concentric circles. The ground on which Christ stands is composed entirely of slightly lost-looking plump-cheeked winged babies, or Cherubim, each face tilted at a slightly different angle. Over a century ago, however, excavators discovered that this bombastic piece had been concealing a long-forgotten fresco underneath it, painted in the 14th century by Guariento of Padua.1 Its predecessor shared the same

Corresponding author:

Vita Peacock, University College London, 14 Taviton Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK.

Email: paradisiacal theme, but in Guariento’s celestial portrait strict order and solemnity reigned. The central figures of Christ and Mary were surrounded by a ‘multi-tiered extravaganza’ with ‘rank upon rank of fiery-winged angels and saints’ (Paoletti and

Radke, 2001: 135) seated in static postures on rows of benches and individual stalls.

The angels around the throne were adult – rather than childlike, draped in long robes, and gazed collectively at the central pair with grave expressions. After the

Great Fire of 1577, which damaged large parts of the fresco and the palace itself, the Venetian aristocracy awarded Tintoretto the commission to replace it. For art historians, the shift in representation from a heaven of variegated tiers of draped adult angels and saints, to the same biblical characters as an overwhelming swarm of winged children and semi-denuded figures, is emblematic simply of ‘changing taste’ (Franzoi, 1979: 284): the substitution of a Gothic style for its Renaissance successor.

Nevertheless, there is a parallel explanation which goes right to the heart of the argument this article pursues: that this was a representation of one system of exchange being substituted for another. In the intervening period, the Venetian

Republic had been the key northern nucleus of a global commodities trade: once the primary passage point for the importation of silk spices and cotton from the

East into Europe, and the exportation of woolen cloths and metal in return, not to mention large-scale transactions of slaves across the Adriatic (Goody, 2012). It had witnessed the invention of still recognizable banking and accountancy practices: the bill of exchange, the transaction tax, and double-entry bookkeeping (Lane, 1973;

Lane and Mueller, 1985). In short, this city state was an early progenitor of the exchange relations which can be defined as ‘capitalistic’, and the transition from

Guariento’s to Tintoretto’s paradise reflected these developments. Since PseudoDionysus in the 5th century (2011), angels have been symbolic vehicles for social conceptions of hierarchy, and in stripping them of their age, garments, and cohesiveness, Tintoretto was stripping these heavenly hosts of their potency. Just like the occlusion of Guariento’s fresco, a new canvas of value was being painted upon the surface of the old. Tintoretto’s social arrangement was less concerned with the strict delineations between different kinds of persons, each of whom performed different functions in a totality, than with setting a single individual (in the form of Christ) against a chaotic and as yet unformed social mass. Thus the underlying argument, which these artworks illustrate, is that the socio-economic conditions of commodity exchange create social imaginaries which work against hierarchical formations. Such conditions are, as Gadamer once said, the social theorist’s ‘historically-effected consciousness’ (1979). This is the basic proposition on which the paper rests, which I shall return to again and again.

The overlying argument, however, is rather more modest. I hold that the past forty years of scholarship in the human sciences have witnessed a progressive marginalization, leading in many fields to negation, of hierarchy and hierarchical ideas as analytic categories.2 This is a historical process which begins with the antihierarchical critiques of 1968 (in which many of those who subsequently found fame as human scientists were enmeshed), but gathers pace in the 1980s and 4 Anthropological Theory 15(1) particularly the 1990s, when the flattening visions of computational ontology, particularly the metaphor of network, becoming popularized. I trace this trajectory through the first section of the article in three ways: a literature review of anthropological articles from 1970–2000 which tracks the changing associations of the category of hierarchy, an examination of three popular metaphors for the social (the rhizome, the fractal and the actor-network), all of which serve in some way to flatten it, and in presenting a short review of Louis Dumont’s (a scholar virtually synonymous with hierarchy) waning popularity towards the end of the twentieth century.