Ethnography

March 27, 2022   •   By Taylor M. Moore

DUNE’S GALACTIC PADISHAH Empire depends on ethnography to subjugate the inhabitants of Arrakis. Without it, the Atreides’ arrival and assimilation on Arrakis would be impossible. Gathered by imperial agents, ethnographic knowledge is captured in objects like filmbooks and supplemented by off-worlder knowledge of certain Fremen technologies.

Paul, for instance, watches filmbooks, technologies that imprint their contents through mnemonic pulses, to prepare for his time on Arrakis. One of these, Arrakis: His Imperial Majesty’s Desert Botanical Testing Station, supplies him with information on the unique flora and fauna of the planet while also shedding light on the habits and customs of Arrakis’s inhabitants, framing them — sandworms and Fremen alike — as threats to life and spice production. Techniques such as sand-walking are presented as Fremen innovations to be mimicked if one is to survive in the deep desert. Material inventions such as stillsuits and Fremkits require study or collaborating informants to ensure proper use and, again, survival. The instruction manuals provided with Fremkits are a reminder that off-worlders can only endure Arrakis’s harsh conditions through assimilation.

The Atreides use cultural brokers and ambassadors to facilitate this assimilation. The loyal Atreides swordsman, Duncan Idaho, is the quintessential military man turned colonial anthropologist in the service of empire. Idaho led the second wave of Atreides troops onto Arrakis to locate and negotiate with Fremen desert commandos. After spending time in sietch with the Fremen, Idaho is appointed ambassador by Duke Leto. When Stilgar, a Fremen leader (naib), spits on the table in front of the duke, only Idaho’s knowledge of Fremen custom prevents a fight from breaking out. The men in the room draw their swords, but Idaho stops them, thanking Stilgar for “the gift of his body’s moisture.” He then spits on the table in return and explains to the duke that the act was not an insult but a sign of respect: “Remember how precious water is here.”

While the House of Atreides requires knowledge of Fremen society to maintain its rule, getting too close is frowned upon — just as it is in ethnographic fieldwork. When Idaho reflects on the ingenuity of Fremen technology, Gurney Halleck exclaims: “My God, man, you’ve gone native!” The phrase conjures settler colonists and anthropologists living with (or like) local inhabitants, adopting their dress and customs, sometimes even marrying them and having children. When they become too involved, they run the risk, according to critics, of losing their scientific objectivity.

On Arrakis, “going native” takes on a more embodied meaning due to the chemical properties of the spice melange. Wearing Fremen gear and relying on Fremen technology is necessary for survival. But prolonged exposure to the spice causes the blue eyes characteristic of the Fremen people. Blue eyes eventually become caste markers, with some settlers paying handsomely to keep “the touch of the spice brush” from their eyes.

Herbert’s ability to create a complex planetary empire was not solely a product of his imagination. The author was well acquainted with the settler colonial empire and the importance of ethnography in its service. In the 1940s and 1950s, Herbert worked as an aide for Republican Senator Guy Cordon. Under Cordon, Herbert championed offshore drilling, the destruction of forests for lumber in the Pacific Northwest, and even coveted a colonial post in American Samoa. Herbert’s information-gathering in the interest of pro-empire conservatives became material for his writing. His early novels, like The Dragon in the Sea (1956), were directly influenced by this work. Dune, published almost a decade later, reflects Herbert’s eventual disillusionment with politics in Washington. It also demonstrates, according to historian Daniel Immerwahr, a maturation of his environmentalism and growing interest in Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest, both influenced by his friendship with Quileute novelist and environmentalist Howard Hansen.

Dune itself is a work of ethnography — a gateway into a new world. But new to whom? The art of world-building is as essential to science fiction as it is to anthropology. Science fiction writers have “peered over the anthropologists’ shoulders” since the emergence of the discipline in the 19th century. From H. P. Lovecraft’s “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921) to Midsommar (2019), anthropologists and their ethnographic encounters feature as inspiration for speculative fiction. At times, such as in the work of N. K. Jemisin and Ursula K. Le Guin (the daughter of cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber), these encounters lead to race-conscious and feminist renderings of emancipatory worlds that challenge our notions of human society and its possibilities. Author and historian Haris Durrani recently argued that the reality of Herbert’s fiction (and his conservative politics) rests uneasily somewhere in between. He drew on ethnographic studies to treat non-Western “primitive” societies not as “objects of political critique” but as positive influences on American culture.

While there have been many readings of Herbert’s Dune, the fate of Arrakis — especially in the 2021 film adaptation — is not so much emancipatory as an echo of that older mode of exogenous salvation. Many have seen in Herbert’s work a real ambivalence about such narratives. Others have highlighted the Orientalist renderings of the Fremen that take center stage in the recent film. Anthropology is now reckoning with the horrors of its own fictions. University of Chicago professor Ryan Cecil Jobson has famously called for “let[ting] anthropology burn” by “refus[ing] the fictive separation” between an apolitical anthropology in its ivory tower and the “real world,” and thereby acknowledging the violence of colonialism, imperialism, and racism in anthropology’s past and present.

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Art by Kenneth Mills.

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Taylor M. Moore is an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, and an incoming assistant professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.