Forging Links, Surveying Rifts

Stavrianakis, Bennett, and Fearnley offer in Science, Reason, Modernity a selection of essays, which they dub Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. “The anthropology of the contemporary” is a distinct and multifaceted approach to inquiry developed collaboratively over time by Paul Rabinow and colleagues — including the editors of Science, Reason, Modernity — that has “been conceptualized and narrated in a series of books” and articles appearing over the last two decades (Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2014: xii). Science, Reason, Modernity includes texts and thinkers that Rabinow and his collaborators have worked with recursively in developing their program. Returning again to Blumenberg, Canguilhem, Dewey, Foucault, Kant, and Weber, Stravrianakis et al. aim to make visible “a genealogical pathway across philosophical and social scientific works in which science has been problematized in relation to the breakdowns, limitations, and possibilities of modernity” (2015: 2). Avowedly invitational, the editors’ intent is to make “this pedagogical legacy available to a wider body of students and scholars in anthropology and science studies” (Stavrianakis et al. 2015: 33).

The volume proceeds from Rabinow’s claim that “the human today is a being who suffers a heterogeneous plurality of reasoned discourses about its being” (Stavrianakis et al. 2015: 3). Too many logoi (Rabinow 2003: 6). With this premise, and against the backdrop of a particularly “rapid proliferation and diversification of concepts and methods” among those taking the sciences as objects and domains of study in recent decades, Stavrianakis et al. aim to “mark out a pathway through” the cacophonous terrain a “student beginning a program of research into the sciences today” must navigate (Stavrianakis et al. 2015: 1-2). As an anthropologically attuned and trained student of the history and sociology of science, I am analytically and existentially interested in how one might think with this kind of anthropology in an adjacent domain of research.

Among historians of science, interest in the anthropology of the contemporary may pivot to some degree on what is made of the specific meaning given to “the contemporary” in this project. Rabinow defines the contemporary as “a moving ratio of modernity, moving through the recent past and near future in a (nonlinear) space that gauges modernity as an ethos already becoming historical” (Rabinow 2008: 2). The anthropology of the contemporary is cast as a form of inquiry that “refers to an actual object domain in the present whose recent past, near future, and emergent forms can be observed” (Rabinow 2008: 5). As their collected and collective works have indeed been carried out “with a great deal of nominalist prudence,” it is crucial to note that modernity refers here to an ethos as opposed to an epoch, and that the contemporary is likewise oriented toward disciplined activity (Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2014: vii). A primary aim of their project is to reconnect the work of inquiry with the conduct of life. The contemporary does not succeed the modern; it stakes no claim to postmodernity. The contemporary instead furnishes “an orientation that seeks out and takes up practices, terms, concepts, forms, and the like from traditional sources but seeks to do different things with them” (Rabinow 2011: 110). The question of “how older and newer elements are given form and worked together” is foregrounded, with a focus on identifying emergent phenomena (Rabinow 2008: 2-3). The task for an anthropologist of the contemporary is to make such phenomena available for thought by curating and giving form to elements of the present, recent past, and potentially opening futures (Rabinow and Marcus 2008: 58; Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2013: 99).

It is not self-evident that historians of science should consider the present, the recent past, the near future, or an analytical space wherein aspects of each are put in flux, as appropriate objects of study. Some historians may be disturbed by the minor role afforded historical thinking in certain articulations of this project’s parameters (Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2013: 99). Rabinow has even drawn a heuristic contrast between the work of the historian and that of the contemporary anthropologist, arguing that while the latter signs with the former on the importance of historical elements in conditioning what takes place, the anthropologist of the contemporary goes a step further in bringing together the old and new in “a mode of vigorous contemplation of the about-to-be-actual” (Rabinow 2009: 28). And yet, in other formulations, the role of historical labor takes different inflections. For example, Rabinow claims that the contemporary “indicates a mode of historicity” in which many types of objects are made available for analysis (Rabinow and Marcus 2008: 58). Recently characterizing their project as “something like a historical topology of the contemporary,” Rabinow and Stavrianakis place renewed emphasis on the need to account for the historicity of endeavors into the contemporary and the compositions produced therein (Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2016: 428).

It is worth noting that in between Stavrianakis et al.’s introduction and Rabinow’s conclusion, Science, Reason, Modernity contains works not of anthropologists but of historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science. The volume thus raises intriguing questions concerning the relations among the anthropology of the contemporary, histories of science and ideas, and research straddling disciplinary boundaries. Given the centrality of historians of science both in Science, Reason, Modernity and, more generally in the project to which it contributes, might this volume occasion reflection on, and clarification of the seemingly robust part historical thinking plays in the anthropology of the contemporary? Certainly there are many historians of science interested in the recent past, the present, even the future; they also experiment with form. This volume gives them an opportunity to engage with what are likely familiar texts, assembled, however, to facilitate a specific approach to studying “the sciences as forms of life” (Stavrianakis et al. 2015: 2). Historians of science are invited to reflect on the ways in which attention to the present, the recent past, the near future, and how elements of each are brought together, may shape their practices. How might thinking of modernity as an ethos rather than epoch shape historical research? Finally, Science, Reason, Modernity makes the anthropology of the contemporary itself available for (historical) thought: can this project not be taken up as an object of inquiry at a time when historians of science are turning attention to histories of the social sciences and humanities (Isis Focus Section June 2015)? How might this project be situated in the history of anthropology or histories of the human sciences more broadly?


Works Cited

Rabinow, P. 2003. Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.

Rabinow, P. 2008. Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.

Rabinow, P. 2009. “Foucault’s Untimely Struggle: Toward a Form of Spirituality.” Theory Culture, Society (26)6: 25-44.

Rabinow, P. 2011. The Accompaniment: Assembling the Contemporary. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rabinow, P., and G. Marcus, with J. Faubion and T. Rees. 2008. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham (NC): Duke University Press.

Rabinow, P. and A. Stavrianakis. 2013. Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rabinow, P. and A. Stavrianakis. 2014. Designs on the Contemporary: Anthropological Tests. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rabinow, P. and A. Stavrianakis. 2016. “Movement Space: Putting anthropological theory, concepts, and cases to the test.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 403-


Cameron Brinitzer is a PhD student in the department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds an M.A in Anthropology from The New School for Social Research, and an M.A. from The New School’s Graduate Program in International Affairs.

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