Anton Blok


Social anthropologist and historian Anton Blok, who in 2001 had a number of his papers published in his book Honour and Violence, has specialized in research on the lives of marginalized or stigmatized peoples (such as bandits and people with outcast occupations such as chimney sweeps); violent conflict, often conventionally called “senseless,” and the narcissism of small differences; and a variety of topics ranging from female rulers, totemism, nicknames, and the art of dying. His work on “senseless violence” treats this activity as expressing huge importance to its perpetrators as the result of perceived issues of social standing, conceived in terms of honor. Mafiosi, bandits, and other violence specialists, Blok says, depend on a reputation for delivering damage effectively, and never receiving damage without retaliating.

In his 2001 book, Blok updates his influential 1972 critique of Eric Hobsbawm on social banditry. This critique ranges from the early eighteenth century, draws on Blok's own Sicilian ethnography, and ends with the Indian Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi who served terms in prison and in parliament before meeting death at an assassin's hand in 2001, after Blok's book went to press. In that essay, Blok asks whether social banditry displays common characteristics over and above its obvious rooting in particular historical settings and if those common characteristics conform to Hobsbawm's portrait of the social bandit. His answer: no, bandits who protect the peasantry rarely do so for long, and do so mostly in something like gestures of noblesse oblige, fortifying their standing and burnishing their reputations through ostentatious acts of charity. By the end, Blok has shifted the emphasis from the actual doings of social bandits to the myths they and others create.

For his part, Eric Hobsbawm has responded and partly modified his position over the decades. In the most recent edition of Bandits (2000), he puts to rest what he has considered “the most cogent criticism” (xi) against his book,

. . . namely my use of bandit song and story both to trace the nature of the social bandit myth and, rather tentatively, to see ‘how far bandits live up the the social role they have been assigned in the drama of the peasant life’. It is now clear that they cannot be reasonably used for the second purpose at all. In any case the identifiable men around whom such myths formed, were in real life often very unlike their public image; including many of those cited as ‘good bandits’ in early version of this book. It is also now clear that they cannot be used for the first purpose, without a full prior analysis of this genre of literary composition, the transformations of its public, its traditions, topoi, modes of production and distribution. (xi)

In the extensive postscript of the latest Bandits, Hobsbawm enters into a detailed review of, and response to his critics. One salient point that Hobsbawm makes is that subsequent outlaws were (and are) highly aware that they belonged to a bandit tradition and they tried to live up to expectations, as it were. He writes, “In the minds of such as Alvin Karpis, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Robin Hood and Jesse James were alive and well and moving across the plains in automobiles” (184).

Finally, Hobsbawm observes that:

. . . the rapid disintegration of state power and administration in many parts of the world, and the notable decline of the ability of even strong and developed states to maintain the level of ‘law and order’ they developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are once again familiarizing readers with the sort of historical conditions in which endemic, and sometimes epidemic, banditry can exist. In the light of contemporary Chechnya we read the Mediterranean bandit explosion of the late sixteenth century differently from the way we did in the 1960s.