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On Concept Work

The most recent edition of Cultural Anthropology is dedicated to Writing Culture as an episode in the history of anthropological thought. George Marcus (2012) provides one of two vistas of the relation of Writing Culture to experiments and experiences in anthropology today.

He writes in his abstract, “Fieldwork today requires a kind of collaborative concept work that stimulates studios, archiving, para-sites, which in turn constitute the most innovative expressions of ethnography, difficult to capture in the traditional genre.” Whilst one may disagree that ethnography is the only object and form for anthropological inquiry, the claim that fieldwork requires “a kind of” collaborative concept work is well-taken. What “kind” then?

For the last six years a collaborative group centered at Berkeley Anthropological Research on the Contemporary (ARC; anthropos-lab.net), has been engaged in just such experiments in collaborative concept work, to assist in the orientation and practice of fieldwork as well as the labor of giving form to the products of fieldwork within a collaborative setting (Rabinow, 2003 & 2011; Rabinow and Stavrianakis, forthcoming). As participants in this ongoing experiment, we think that there is something missing in Marcus’ brief synopsis that is worth drawing out.

Giving an account of the collaborative work at ARC, Marcus writes: “It [ARC] has evolved a distinctive sense of how collective labwork should develop alongside ongoing ethnographic research projects [sic] (the function of “concept work” that it defines for itself), and there are some interesting debates early in its history, and archived on its website, about alternative ways a lab or studio initiative might relate to existing ways of thinking about the conduct of fieldwork” (Marcus, 2012; 439). In view of Marcus’ suggestion that the “concept work” at ARC has been taken up for idiosyncratic reasons, it seems worth offering a word about the shared problem to which the creation of ARC was one response. ARC took form out of a dissatisfaction with the reigning “individual project” model in anthropology, and the modes of subjectivation that it presumes and produces (Collier, Lakoff and Rabinow, 2006). There was a felt need for an organized space in which two things would be facilitated which are often disfavored by the university department in its current state: a collective work on concept formation for use in orienting common work; and the formation of shared standards and modes of judgment.

In this sense, concept work is not an end in itself. It is always connected to the problems one wishes to think through, as well as the question of how one could make a judgment about the problems one is engaging. Thinking about the (collaborative) mode in which one makes judgments is necessary if one thinks that ethnography, understood as the description of how a group does something, is only one part of anthropology. Rather, concept work forms one part of a broader experiment in attempting to change both how anthropology can be practiced and the purpose for which it is practiced. Marcus writes that he is in favor of “mutual concept work … on which the collaborative experiments with form that I am evoking depend.” (Marcus, 2012, 435). The question is: what does such mutuality consist in and what does it cost? In his recent book, The Accompaniment, Paul Rabinow argues that work on shared concepts requires attention to the disposition of those engaged in the practice as well as power relations (Rabinow, 2011; 127-132). To this end, through ARC and also through his experiments in graduate pedagogy (ibid), Rabinow has attempted to work against modes of subjectivation dominated solely by contemporary regimes of credit and career rewards.

When practiced as inquiry, anthropology produces knowledge of the world, and, occasionally in very skilled practitioners, it makes something visible that was not visible before. Insofar as this is a practice of form giving, this making-visible can be thought of as a judgment of sorts. To put it in terms taken from Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy: “The meanings which are suggested as possible solutions of a problem, which are then used to direct further operations of experimental observation, form the predicational content of judgments.” (Dewey, 1938, 131). The fact that problems, observations and judgments are context dependent, situated and existential shows the deep resonance between Dewey’s pragmatism and anthropological modes of inquiry. Dewey is not an answer, but is a resource for anthropology (Rabinow, 2003, 17.)

Concept formation and work on shared standards of judgment were responses to the broad question of how knowledge is produced in the human sciences and the purposes for which it is produced. More specifically, the question was what kind of anthropological knowledge should be produced today and how?

The “how” includes the question of whether it is possible to subject anthropological claims about the world to tests of significance. This has taken place in ARC through work on the relation of problems and concepts. For example, with respect to the anthropological problem of the practice of collaboration between human and biosciences, on the ethical ramifications of work in the sciences today, concepts were needed, such as the conceptual distinction between “collaboration” and “cooperation” (Rabinow and Bennett, 2012). The shared concept work, as well as diagnostic work took place over many years and much of it is online and available for use (anthropos-lab.net, see especially, Bios Technika and the Diagnostic of Equipmental Platforms). The shared work of thinking through relevant concepts, and the question of which problems to engage in together, is part of asking how anthropological work can have significance beyond the egoism of an author’s relation to their monograph, or journal article. If this is not taken into account, we think the worth of problem-oriented collaboration and the concept work necessary to it will be missed.

Bibliography

Collier, Stephen, Andrew Lakoff, and Paul Rabinow (2006), “What is a laboratory in the human sciences?”  ARC Working Paper, 1.

Dewey, John. (1938.) Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Marcus, George. (2012.) “The Legacies of Writing Culture and the Near Future of the Ethnographic Form: a sketch.” Cultural Anthropology Volume 27, Issue 3, pages 427–445.

Rabinow, Paul (2003) Anthropos Today. Princeton University Press.

___________ (2011) The Accompaniment: Assembling the Contemporary. University of Chicago Press.

Rabinow, Paul and Gaymon Bennett (2012) Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology. University of Chicago Press.

Rabinow, Paul and Anthony Stavrianakis (forthcoming) Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry. University of Chicago Press.

 

Anthony Stavrianakis is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Anthropology UC Berkeley. Gaymon Bennett is Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Biological Futures, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle.


12 Responses to On Concept Work

  1. I’m not sure I have a very full handle on the ARC project (in fact pretty sure I don’t), but cannot help but see the project’s call to move beyond mono-authorship as an occasional to also raise the issue of a different ‘strata’ of collaboration, specifically collaborative hermeneutics with the traditional (often marginalized/disenfranchised) “subjects” of ethnographic inquiry. Here I would suggest that Foucault’s lectures on ‘subjugated knowledges,’ and Deleuze & Guattari’s development of the construct of “assemblage” (agencement) have much to offer, if taken as serious challenges to dominant academic and disciplinary practices (and also as ideas in tension, to varying degrees, with F, G and D’s own discursive practices).

    (The ‘proof’ of this, finally, I would see as the presence of multi-authored texts that genuinely cut across various academic/ non-academic divides.)

  2. I have difficulty seeing this kind of “concept building” as anything other than academic branding, in which constructing concepts that gain broader circulation becomes the mark of one’s relevance and importance. Here, anthropology becomes more mastery of a particular rhetoric than anything else. Perhaps that is a cynical take and it might be my own ignorance but I haven’t seen anything productive or particularly illuminating coming out of the ARC. In that sense, the final claim that this is somehow not about “egoism” seems odd. If anything it’s all about anthropology’s hierarchy and hegemony of particular academic institutions. Is this anything more than knowledge imperialism? But I guess “attention to the disposition of those engaged in the practice as well as power relations” does not really apply here.

    • @Jacob
      “Knowledge imperialism”: What are the imperial relations at play here?
      If you are interested, Rabinow and Bennett’s “Designing Human Practices” analyzes the power relations at play in collaborations between the human and natural sciences.

  3. Jacob, in his comment in Somatosphere, writes in a tone of indignation concerning the “knowledge imperialism” he detects in the short intervention of Bennett and Stavrianakis. He does not tell us how he has himself escaped the perils of knowledge imperialism; surely it cannot be because of his subject position which he seems to share with those who arouse his contempt. No doubt the global appreciation of Somatosphere is extensive but its core audience would seem to be centered within the academy, by those who read English and who know that the journals it highlights even exist. It is not hard to suppose that Jacob himself is a graduate student; hence by any world standards sociologically a member of the imperial elite, whatever his own consciousness may tell him. In sum, Jacob’s self-branding would seem to arise from his imagined and imaginary “speaker’s benefit” which Michel Foucault so cruelly mocked.
    The United States is a country known for its anti-intellectualism often expressed in contemptuous and mocking terms justified by the allure of pressing real world issues which somehow are held to warrant a variety of attitudes from simple contempt to active censorship. Such anti-intellectualism is dangerous and poses significant risks to free thought and inquiry (not to mention the future of minor disciplines). In that light, when the elite discursive police present themselves in print in the name of others, some of us, perhaps with a longer memory of how such anti-intellectualism, whether or the right or left, shudder.
    There is another option open. After all, those who decline to engage in the rigors of thinking, always have, as Max Weber wrote in 1917, other options that they can honorably take up once they have sacrificed the vocation of thinking and inquiry. Weber was talking of the various churches whose doors were open; today Jacob will find many additional opportunities awaiting him in the myriad worlds of entrepreneurship and communication wrapped in the rhetoric of urgency, efficiency and moralism.

  4. I escape the perils of “knowledge imperialism” (yes, an inartful phrase) because I do not make programmatic, imperative, or normative calls for what anthropology is or should be (or what it “requires”, “must” do, or any other kind of disciplinary agenda-making).

    Revealingly, in grouping all academics into the same subject position within the “imperial elite”, all socioeconomic variations in our present day conditions are elided, conveniently glossing over such issues as the recently much discussed proletarianization of academic labor. “Speaker’s benefit,” indeed!

    Even more, what does “collaboration” really mean in the context of unequal power relations between supervisors and graduate students? We know in other “laboratory” collaborative settings, the “lab” is often a hierarchical space that can be rife with abuse and exploitation. Why would this model function without similar potential problems in anthropology? When you have vulnerable graduate students dependent on supervisors for their future careers or junior colleagues dependent on a tenure process, the power relations intrinsic in this model of collaboration must be called into question. Obviously, the context is such that contradiction or challenge of key principles and tenets is not to be undertaken without potential risks (and apparently, if done, it might involve being, like me, cast off into the world of entrepreneurship). I haven’t read The Accompaniment so I don’t know how this is answered there, but the answer above that “we” are all from the same “imperial elite” ignores this issue entirely.

    In assessing the rest of your response, I am reminded, ironically enough, of your own 1984 interview with Michel Foucault in which you asked him, “Why is it that you don’t engage in polemics?“ Foucault, insisting on the morality of an anti-polemical response that “concerns the search for truth and the relation to the other”, replied, “The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on.”

    All things more or less done here and not so much with “contempt” or “indignation” (I freely allowed for my own ignorance), as bemused confusion and, in retrospect, perhaps an unfortunate dose of internet-era snark (alas, the default subject position of blog comments). However, your response is almost a perfect example of Foucault’s polemicist:

    “The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question…For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.
    As in heresiology, polemics sets itself the task of determining the intangible point of dogma, the fundamental and necessary principle that the adversary has neglected, ignored or transgressed; and it denounces this negligence as a moral failing; at the root of the error, it finds passion, desire, interest, a whole series of weaknesses and inadmissible attachments that establish it as culpable. As in judiciary practice, polemics allows for no possibility of an equal discussion: it examines a case; it isn’t dealing with an interlocutor, it is processing a suspect [i.e. I AM PRESUMED OF BEING A GRADUATE STUDENT AND HAVE A PRESUMED SUBJECT POSITION WITHIN THE IMPERIAL ELITE(!)]; it collects the proofs of his guilt [i.e. I READ SOMATOSPHERE, I AM A HYPOCRITE], designates the infraction he has committed [i.e. I AM GUILTY OF ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM, I HAVE DECLINED THE RIGORS OF THINKING (very strange one – assuming as it apparently does that a narrowly defined ‘concept work’ is the only way of thinking), and thus I AM DANGEROUS TO FREE THOUGHT AND INQUIRY] and pronounces the verdict and sentences him [i.e. I AM UNFIT FOR ANTHROPOLOGY AND SENTENCED TO A CAREER – egads! - IN SALES AND MARKETING]. In any case, what we have here is not on the order of a shared investigation; the polemicist tells the truth in the form of his judgment and by virtue of the authority he has conferred on himself. But it is the political model that is the most powerful today. Polemics defines alliances, recruits partisans, unites interests or opinions, represents a party; it establishes the other as an enemy, an upholder of opposed interests against which one must fight until the moment this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.”

    I really don’t see how the concept work collaborative model being advanced is so different from that of a “think tank” using what Foucault identified as a political model (one that “defines alliances, recruits partisans, unites interests or opinions,” etc,etc). And while this model is presented in the OP as somehow against the current grain, it actually fits in very nicely with what neoliberal university administrators want – increased collaborative partnerships (“collective work”) and increased standardization of knowledge (“the formation of shared standards and modes of judgment”), not to mention research addressing “urgent”, “cutting edge”, and pressing contemporary issues and problems (biosecurity, biotech, etc,). Nothing wrong with any of that but as a general push exists to regulate unruly disciplines and bring them more into line with standardized university models of knowledge production, I find it problematic that it positions itself as being radical or progressive.

    • 1. A banal point of logic – “I do not make programmatic, imperative, or normative calls for what anthropology is or should be” – the logical extension is that we do, and that should not either, and hence the statement is a normative position. You could have showed how our diagnosis of the problem of anthropology today is mis-guided, or missed what you see as the right problem, but instead you policed the very act of attempting diagnosis and proposal, as though to propose concrete remediation were a priori illegitimate.
      2. Since most (of course not all) graduate students enter graduate school in order to secure a coveted and scarce academic position, the claim that graduate students constitute a proletariat seems odd; exploitation presumably comes in the guise of teaching or research assistant jobs. Both of these kinds of work – not labor (excuse me for making a distinction) – can be (n.b. personal communication with graduate students) considered as investments: when people apply for academic jobs often they send in teaching evaluations and letters of recommendation. Subjectivation is much more at stake than either exploitation or domination – “Gerald is an outstanding, gifted, kind, caring, intelligent, serious, strict, but not too strict, widely read, but disciplinarily committed teacher, and I support his application for postdoctoral fellow unreservedly.”
      3. Your conflation of standards and standardization is minimally annoying and at worst bad faith; John Dewey wrote something that is worth thinking about: “The problem reduced to its lowest terms is whether inquiry can develop in its own ongoing course the logical standards and forms to which further inquiry shall submit.” Standards and forms of thought shift and change depending on the situation, moment and time of the inquiry. Concept work is not the only way of thinking, but is it not worth articulating standards and forms and how they shift? I do not understand how engaging in shared inquiry, and concept work, i.e. collaboratively, constitutes “neo-liberalism.”
      4. In our forthcoming book, Demands of the Day, we write explicitly about how a senior professor, a junior and a more senior graduate student could collaborate, taking into account differences of experience, position and power relations. A meditative statement, which we have frequently returned to is Foucault’s question, how to increase capacities without increasing debilitating power relations? Crucial in this ‘how’ is attention to the question of what kind of subjectivation is possible today in the university. This goes back to (2), if the aim is only career advancement, then that seems like a deficiency. If the aim is only to ameliorate political issues, that seems excessive, since other subject positions and jobs outside of the university are better placed to do that work. Hence, we have attempted to activate a mean, between excess and deficiency, oriented to the question of what a flourishing practice of anthropology could consist in. Part of this, in our experience, although perhaps not in yours, is that working with others, through our differences in experience, position, and acknowledging that power is both generative of capacities as well as disciplinary, is part of a flourishing life in the university today. Take that for what it is; an observation. A judgment is of course up to you.
      5. The original post was aimed at clarifying what we have been doing in ARC, in response to George Marcus’ piece in CA, which I felt had not explained the reason why we have been doing what we have been doing and therefore how we have been doing what we have been doing. Our diagnosis of the problems of anthropology is general, but of course second opinions are crucial. I look forward to others proposing a different diagnosis, rather than only ruling out of court the ones we have made.
      6. Are you willing to name your subject position Jacob?

  5. Whether or not collaborative undertakings such as we’ve been pursing through ARC are what “neoliberal university administrators want” is not at all obvious. In our case this is due in part to the simple fact that much of what we’ve been up to has largely been ignored, or, when not ignored, often reproached or attacked. It is true that the proposal and prospect of collaboration between and across the so-called “natural” and “social” sciences has been institutionally endorsed, and even blessed with offerings of money, space, and time. Our proposal to extend the aims and ethos of ARC to collaboration with synthetic biologists as part of the NSF-funded Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC) was, for example, eagerly embraced at the outset. The NSF officers seemed to like the “post-ELSI” cast of our self-stylization, that is, the proposal that unlike the Ethical Legal and Social Implications programs of the Human Genome Projects, we wanted to engage the biotechnical work as it unfolded. Once work was underway, however, our efforts were ignored, chided as annoying, and, in the end attacked.

    Diagnostically, it is clear that several factors militate against the notion that administrators wanted what we had to offer. In the first place it’s clear that there was a confusion between collaborative and cooperative modes of engagement on the part of our would-be co-laborers. As noted in our original post, and as Paul Rabinow and I have discussed elsewhere, a collaborative mode, in our understanding, consists of the shared work of thinking through relevant concepts, the question of which problems to engage in together, and only thereby coming up with an appropriate division of labor. A cooperative mode, by contrast, proceeds from the assumption that the most salient problems can be identified without engaging in inquiry, and therefore a division of labor, requiring little overlap and only punctuated interaction, can be put into place before work begins. Our insistence in SynBERC that work in unsettled domains calls for the former mode was met by the reproach that issues in “ethics” and “security” are not new, and that the task was only to adjust codes-of-conduct to context. We were told to “stop observing” and “write policy.”

    Perhaps more telling was the fact that, from the outset, we refused the proposal that the ethical significance of the either the biotechnical enterprise or our anthropological engagement with it could be reduced to the instrumental norms of health, wealth, or security. The rather obvious fact that the study of life—whether biological or anthropological—involves the ongoing cultivation of new capacities and subject positions as the price to be paid for bringing new things into the world (such as new truth claims, but also new ways of relating, acting, pursuing careers, using media, and so on), seemed, minimally, to call for sustained attention to the dynamics of power and subjectivation, as is clear from this series of posts. More richly, in our view, it also requires paying attention to how and whether scientific thinking and comportment can be brought into a relation which contributes to a life of flourishing (eudaimonia) for oneself or others (of course, the question of what such a life consists in and requires needs to be posed and reposed as work progresses). Given the obvious potential discordance between that question and the taken-for-granted instrumental justification of much of the university today, it’s hardly surprising that our attention to subjectivation as a precondition for the possibility of collaboration was ultimately ruled out of bounds.

    If collaborations are what “neoliberal university administrators want,” perhaps that’s because the worth of such undertakings hasn’t been thought through beyond the limits of known problems and accepted ethical metrics. Collaboration may be attractive to because its ends haven’t been sufficiently thought through. Or, as Anthony Stavrianakis and I have put it elsewhere, perhaps it is the case that the notion of collaborations seem appealing to administrators and others for the simple reason that proposed “collaborations” have not yet been put to the test either in terms of asymmetries in power relations or conceptions of the goods they might or might not entail. In such cases it is not surprising that proposed undertakings have not yet become a sites of breakdown or re-problematization.

    In any event, within the space of ARC the worth and benefits of collaboration have indeed proven worthwhile for the vocation and practice of anthropology; herein we have flourished. Whether or not such experiences can be extended within and across other disciplines, or even within and across other sectors of anthropology remains to be seen.

  6. 1. But the key difference is that you assume anthropology needs to be radically reworked or reinvented, not an illegitimate claim but one that requires a high burden of proof. I do not attempt to “diagnose” anthropology’s problems. I think such a stance amounts to Münchausen syndrome by proxy. It departs from a fallacious central premise – traditional ethnographic methods are inadequate or insufficient for illuminating the “contemporary.” Any recent list of essential ethnographies belies this claim. In any case, it is one that should be viewed through a hermeneutics of suspicion.
    2. Like you, university administrators argue against the unionization of graduate students with the same arguments. Graduate school is not “labor” and thus should not be subject to labor standards. Alas, the logic of the “apprenticeship” or “investment” argument has fallen apart in recent years since so many of these apprentices find that after this apprenticeship is over, no work exists. I imagine this is not the case for people who work at the ARC lab. One of the privileges of being at a place like Berkeley is, I imagine, one of the highest placement rates in anthropology. And what we see here is a failure to appreciate how your specific subject positions within anthropology (Berkeley grads as, say, 1%ers) limits the general relevance of your model. I’m sure you will admit that a “collaborative” model at universities where, say, only one lab member out of four will likely get an academic position leads to perhaps a far unhealthier (more “competitive” than “collaborative”) environment or one in which professors exploiting graduate student labor would be far more obvious. In any event, I think there’s a failure to think about what a programmatic model from (within anthropology) a hegemonic institution like Berkeley means. It’s this insufficient attention to our own discipline’s micropolitics that appears at play here.
    One other question about the lab (since you position yourself as a case study, unfortunately, the discussion keeps coming back to you): Browsing the ARC site, it appears that with few exceptions, the lab work is almost entirely done by males. I don’t know the gender breakdown at Berkeley, but given the composition of anthropology at the present moment, such an apparent disparity really seems quite striking.
    3. Standards versus standardization. Yes, you are absolutely right, of course, but such bad faith is not mine. I am speaking of university administrations who are constantly searching for ways of systematizing or standardizing knowledge production. You think they act in good faith?
    4. Again, I still fail to grasp how the collaborative model hurts career advancement. On one hand, by publishing with Paul Rabinow, graduate students/postdocs get co-authorship with one of anthropology’s most well known leading scholars. I don’t see the perils. If you want your claim that this is not about career advancement, normal academic self-interest, or authorial ego to be taken seriously than do something radical like, say, publish anonymously or as a collective. Otherwise, it just amounts in my mind to empty posturing, an effort to somehow position the project as something more radical than it is.
    I guess that leads me to Gaymon’s comment (an excellent one – it honestly sounds like a fascinating project – my problem is how it intellectually positions itself) that describes all the difficulties of collaborating across faculties. The question is why, within larger academic structures, these kinds of collaborations are being pushed (even if they, like yours, end unsuccessfully and are perhaps doomed to from the onset). Personally, when I see the word “collaboration” being thrown about, I think of both its first (positive) but also its second (negative) connotation. Collaborative partnerships, knowledge transfer, research partnerships, collaborative networks, works in progress, open source initiatives, etc are all buzzwords of the current university era. If you don’t believe me, see here (http://chronicle.com/blogs/onhiring/the-rhetoric-of-administration/31917). Now, again, it’s no problem that much of what the ARC is advancing (collaborative, online, open participation etc) are the same buzzwords that university administrators use or part of the current moment. But then positioning yourselves as being “against the grain”, rebellious, anti-careerist, or otherwise “transgressive” is fundamentally odd in less this is a case of “subversion from within”. To me, it amounts to faux iconoclasm. The one thing we do have to fight for in today’s academic climate is the space and time required for good traditional ethnographic methods (that’s what’s really “against the grain”).
    6. I prefer to follow Foucault: “an anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer – but not an author”. In any event, by remaining anonymous, I become easier to dismiss as a “troll.” (Yet somehow we don’t seem to think of the peer review process as “troll-like” :) ). But as a general subject position, I guess this comes out of a general frustration I have for much of the intellectual cliquishness of contemporary anthropology (evident at any AAA) in which small groups and hegemonic institutions carve out very specific terrains/territorial imperatives that set the terms under which others operate. It strikes me less as Foucault’s “specific intellectual” than a highly politicized model in which positions become entrenched by partisans and their mobilization of friends and allies against other groups. The result is frequently insular and often stifling.

  7. If the problem is having space for “traditional ethnographic methods,” then I think there’s agreement about that at ARC. Take Stephen Collier, who in Post-Soviet Social described “what fieldwork…provided: insight into critical nodes where fields of power come into contact and are made visible; into singular realities whose intelligibility has to be found in diverse experiences that lie beyond them. The detailed engagement of ethnography provided, thus, an orientation to a grouping of sites and a set of problems that I simply could not have stumbled upon otherwise” (p. 29). Stavrianakis and Bennett hung out in labs, pipetted, did interviews, went to meetings, attended workshops and conferences, read primary and secondary literature, and wrote and presented reports for scientists and government officials. James Faubion writes books about and for anthropology, using interviews and participant-observation (varying the ratio between the two, and explicitly discussing and creating the ethical domain he is “participating” in), but also (like all anthropologists, although he does it to a great extent) drawing on so much more. I don’t want to put words in his mouth but I can’t imagine him saying that his methods were incidental to what he produced. Having the time, space, funding and support to do long-term, thoughtful fieldwork is indeed difficult, and consistently under challenge.

    Important as they are, anthropology is not and never was just fieldwork, but always involved other methods of inquiry, developing and using equipment for thinking. Classic ethnographies were taking up objects in relation to problems, and actively engaged in discussions of how to do so, and anthropology continues to do this. The objects cannot be the same however (time has passed, the world that existed then no longer exists), and there is no reason the problems have to be the same, although some of them may well be, in whatever guise they take in relation to today’s subjects and milieus. Marcus is explicitly interested in experiments of form that he views in continuity with Writing Culture, experiments in “concept work and critique in the protracted, phased segments of many fieldwork projects today” (p. 430), which reads to me as an accurate description of part of ARC. These experiments are for Marcus “the terrain of anthropological inquiry that is conventionally categorized as ‘method.’” Method isn’t always defined to include concept work and critique, but I think classic ethnographies became classic because they did include such elements, grounding conceptual, philosophical work on the nature and experience of man in empirical study, albeit in the hope of a universal answer that most anthropologists would not now seek. I’d say that the result of an anthropologist’s time and effort today is not necessarily an ethnography though, if that means exploring the object of culture or ethnos, “‘difference” or structures of experience,” or “an existential journey in which the experience of the ethnographer is foregrounded” (Collier, p 29), but I doubt that that is what the books on any list of recent essential “ethnographies” are doing either. Marcus in his essay describes ethnography differently too, closer to something like the discursive form of a process of inquiry.

    When an anthropologist is studying contemporary objects, and focused on contemporary problems, it seems reasonable to me to need to develop equipment, to repurpose the old, occasionally invent the new, and thus create contemporary methods. Again, I think this motion is straightforwardly anthropological; anthropology was never static. Reworking anthropology – creating new tools and new findings in an iterative process – is in the tradition of academic scholarship, not because what came before was bad, but because we are continuing to produce knowledge of the world, perhaps “make something visible that was not visible before,” and in order to do so we need to continue to think. It is not particularly contrary or dramatic to say this reworking is part of anthropology. Each piece in the Cultural Anthropology volume made the case for a way forward based on the work the authors do. Each piece is either a proposal for an anthropological approach adequate to the author’s diagnosis of the contemporary, or an offering of what that anthropology might look like; I think in greater and lesser degrees, all the articles provide both.

    But methods do not equal anthropology, and with Stavrianakis and Bennett, I don’t think of ARC’s purpose as just developing methods adequate to certain (complex, contemporary) problems. The purpose of ARC in the beginning, which I think has been tried consistently even if the results have been uneven, has been to develop a venue which would facilitate a certain form of life, one of intellectual friendship, where we could care for ourselves and others in order to become people capable of doing work together. That is what “concept work forms one part of a broader experiment in attempting to change both how anthropology can be practiced and the purpose for which it is practiced” means. It is not a programmatic statement of what everyone should do; it is clarification of what we were trying to do in response to a description that did not include a core part of our project. I can see how it could be read differently though, which is why I am trying to offer an explanation. “The shared work of thinking through relevant concepts, and the question of which problems to engage in together, is part of asking how anthropological work can have significance beyond the egoism of an author’s relation to their monograph, or journal article” is not a statement by Stavrianakis and Bennett about making their work relevant to a wider audience or doing work which is somehow more significant than what is going on now or having work result in a career (although I recognize how it might be read that way. Also I think there is nothing wrong with those goals.). They are specifying aspects of the pragmatic aspiration of doing anthropological work together with other people rather than “mostly individualistic projects” (GM p 429); it is an attempt to describe what we do and why. The thing is, Jacob’s comments about exclusion and cliquishness, and even the fact that he cared enough to make them, suggest that what he too would like is to have colleagues in good faith, engaged in thinking together. Stavrianakis and Bennett’s piece, and the endless blogs, wikis and other ARC sites that have accumulated online over almost ten years are 1) experiments in collaboration and 2) an effort to share the process as well as the result. They are not attempts to convince everyone else to do the same, and certainly not to force them to, but rather an open invitation.

  8. Pingback: Anthony Stavrianakis, about Collaboration | synthetic_zero

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