In the Folds of the Contemporary

Let us consider this process of disenchantment that has been at work in Western culture for thousands of years and, in general, let us consider “progress,” to which science belongs both as an integral part and a driving force. Can we say that it has any meaning over and above its practical and technical implications?

— Max Weber, Science as a Vocation

It seems, as one becomes older / That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence.

— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

We are grateful for the chance to revisit the pathway of readings we assembled in Science, Reason, Modernity: Readings for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. We take it as an occasion to pick up a number of themes to which we could only give brief attention in our introduction to the text, as well as to reply to the questions raised in each of these four thoughtful and critical responses, generously arranged by Todd Meyers.

Before doing so, it is worth, we think, revisiting the stakes for assembling such a volume in the first place, stakes which we named in our introduction to the volume as primarily “equipmental.” The book aspires to bring together conceptual and methodological tools for an inventive, collaborative practice of anthropology, one which draws on and contributes to a legacy of anthropological and philosophical reflection on the troubled relation of truth practices and ethical conduct. Our goal was to do this in a mood and mode we qualify as “contemporary,” as we explain in detail below.

What this means, contrastively, is that we did not set out to proffer a manifesto for an Anthropology of the Contemporary — whether “Rabinowian” or otherwise. We are not interested in advancing a “school of thought” that could be reduced to a single method, a single conceptual repertoire, a single object, or a single ethics or politics. One need only take a cursory glance over the breadth of our recent works (which we will describe) to see that we are not in the business of selling a novel “program” for anthropology. We have sought rather to generate a common space and shared tools for collaborative inquiry. To this end, we concur strongly with the Ottawa collective’s suggestion that what is required today is a practice of care indexed to the hard work of inventing new forms for a “mediated experience” of the contemporary.

Reflection on the problem of truth and conduct did not, of course, begin with Kant, though the pathway traced out in our Reader begins with his programmatic statement “What is Enlightenment?” Kant’s call to enlightenment brings to sharp relief the questions of science, reason, and modernity with which we are concerned in the Reader and our own ongoing research. Indeed, all the readings in the book can be approached as following from this call and thereby as offering modes and models for taking up those questions. In this way, they also provide a mode and model for how to connect forms of living to modes of thinking (including modes of critique) and to practices of inquiry. It is in the name of such interconnections that we likewise seek to take up Kant’s call, believing it to be at once timely and untimely—necessary in and for our “present,” and yet increasingly difficult to put into practice.[i]

In what follows we will engage three themes pertinent for the exploration of such a form of inquiry, within the larger problem space of science, reason, and modernity, drawing on the assembled responses and our own recent work, hoping these reflections will open up further discussion:

  1. The first theme concerns the use of non-anthropological texts (in the disciplinary sense of anthropology) for practicing anthropology. Here we will discuss the limits to a conceptual orientation of “the West” (and hence by logical consequence the “non-West”) and the question of what forms of “comparison” might be invented beyond the imperial gaze of a structuralist project that seeks to englobe and characterize (all known) forms of human being. We will argue for a mode of comparison that draws on a more pragmatic anthropology, later specifying its contemporary intent.
  2. The second theme is one of truth practices, ethics and forms of life, priming the problem of collaboration. We will here address the specific question of which forms and modes of critique we think are made visible in the sequence of readings we have assembled, and what shared practices of conceptual testing and judgment are rendered possible (in both a Kantian sense of bringing an object under a particular concept and in Deweyan sense of the attribution of a mode of being to a determined situation).
  3. The third theme is the endeavor to make visible “ratios of modernity and contemporaneity” and the challenge of the invention of an anthropological ethos appropriate to such ratios. Otherwise put, given a broad historical problematization within modernity, in particular specific problems pertaining to practices of sciences (practices of logos broadly speaking), how, on the basis of our inquiries, can we grasp the historicity of breakdown, change, and trans-formations of those problems and with what ethos? This is the challenge of “the contemporary.”

(1) After Comparison

Taylan raises a crucial question about the character and function of comparison in anthropology, and we are grateful for the opportunity to set out our own views. Taylan suggests that “a classical question remains concerning the non-comparative character of [attempts] to ‘anthropologize the West.’” His argument is that our effort to replace universal masterwords like Culture, Society or globalization with focused inquiry into the “plurality of reasoned discourses” by and about human being necessarily fails because it does not compare the cosmology of “the West” with those of “the others.” Rather more implicitly, he seems to be suggesting that the very idea of a “plurality of reasoned discourses” is itself part of what he considers a “Western” relation to natural beings that he calls “objectification.” Therefore, such a project not only fails to understand “the others”, but also fails to understand the “very specificity of our relational cosmology, “remaining “stuck in a closed Western circuit without the comparative perspective.”

First, to be clear, the proposal for an anthropology of “the West,” or more accurately put, an anthropology of the moderns, was never imagined as an exclusive project — in either time or space. The idea was to extend anthropological inquiry to places previously considered beyond the pale of such inquiry — into scientific laboratories, for instance. It was not to say that only modern places held anthropological significance. Against a “frontal” mode of comparison (Candea 2016) that leaves “the West” as an implicit, understudied “hinterland” to the explicit reports of fieldwork in some “non-Western” site, the anthropology of the moderns proposed that it was just as important to actually observe what goes on in, for example, biotech labs in California as in villages on other continents. A “critique” of modern science could no longer be presumed to follow from a description of an “other’s” practices — as, for example, for many years ethnographic descriptions of other “healing practices” were presumed to function as a critique of biomedicine. Rather, the premise was that to develop a critique of modern science, you actually needed to study it anthropologically. Labs, hospital clinics, government bureaus — and the offices of anthropologists — became field sites.

Indeed, such an approach precisely denied what seem to be the terms of Taylan’s prompt, namely the anachronistic idea that there is in fact a reified and singular cosmology of the West, whose closure and self-identity allows for a juxtaposition to that which lies beyond it. The anthropology of the moderns was possible only to the extent that it rejected such a reification and opened up spaces of difference within those modern zones of living otherwise presumed to be integrated by a master culture and a master imaginary. After all, as works such as Paul Rabinow’s French Modern have detailed, the presumption of a uniform modernity was not only dangerous for life in the colonies but for life in the metropole as well. Whilst it is easy to identify the stark forms of violence in colonialism, such violence was always in a reciprocal exchange with forms of violence in the modernization of (i.e. making of) the “West.” Colonial settings, midst the violence to which they were subjected, were also experimental settings for the invention of elements of what would become modern welfare society, critical elements of which France is on the verge of dismantling as it faces an electoral choice next year. A critique that lumps all of these modernizing projects under a single sign of the “West” is not only naïve, but in fact reiterates the ideological frameworks that characterized some of the most violent colonial projects (Mamdani 1996). Hence the ongoing need, in our view, to particularize the so-called West, and to find in it the lineaments of multiple forms of living. One might think of the classic works of Favret-Saada or De Certeau in this regard. Our inclusion of Blumenberg in the Reader signals our own commitment to refusing the closures implied in the presumption of a modern uniformity.

Second, we should also make clear that we position Science, Reason, Modernity, as well as our own work, in the aftermath of the anthropology of the moderns, rather than within it. The anthropology of the moderns did enable us to exit the 19th century project of discovering the truth of “Man” (l’Homme) in the empirical details of human practices, but it also left us with a largely unordered plurality of forms of anthrōpos, a fact of heterogeneity which in itself cannot be our objective or end. We assume Taylan will agree with us that the proliferation of singular ethnographies which reflects the anthropological status quo is hardly satisfactory. Where we differ with Taylan is how and in what way anthropology should address this heterogeneity, what modes of comparison are adequate to it, and indeed whether comparison, as traditionally understood, is the only, or best, way of composing the heterogeneity of forms of anthrōpos.

Taylan proposes a model of comparison drawn from the so-called “ontological turn,” highlighting in particular the comparative work of Phillipe Descola. The presumption is that by constructing a homogenous and systematic set of possible forms of relation, the “West” or “modernity” — refigured by Descola as “naturalism” — becomes equally exotic or equally familiar as other ontological configurations. We see several limitations to this approach. First, whereas the anthropology of modernity worked to pluralize modernity and take apart the discursive unity of “the West”, Descola reinscribes modernity in geographical terms—the naturalist ontology is “indisociable from the expansion of modern Europe” (Salmon and Charbonnier 2014: 570). Second, and frankly troubling, the terms of comparison are set in advance by the fourfold logical system, and every “group” or “collective” must be fit into one of them. As a platform for future inquiry, this is stultifying — all that is left for others (researchers) is to provide empirical studies of more and more groups (Others), showing how they fit into one or another of the four ontologies. And indeed, while philosophical debate has proliferated around the so-called ontological turn, anthropological inquiries into actual “groups” following upon Descola’s schema are few and rarely featured in the debate.

We aim to move beyond the anthropology of modernity toward new engagements with the heterogeneity of the contemporary. The genealogy of readings assembled in Science, Reason, Modernity aims not so much to represent an anthropology of the moderns — this work is already well done by the several existing STS readers — but rather to provide the philosophical and conceptual equipment for recomposing contemporary anthropology after the “modern moment” in this history of truth. By marking a pathway of thought along which science and modernity have been questioned in terms of their relations to lived realities, we hope to build axes of relation that can bring diverse anthropological objects into a contemporary problem-space. Drawing on Kant, Rabinow and Stavrianakis have recently emphasized that “a single answer [to the problem of human being] betrays the anthropological demonstration of the empirical heterogeneity of responses to such a core problem” (2016). As a result, comparison remains a necessary tool for an anthropology of the contemporary. But in what mode and in what form?

We take up Fearnley’s fieldwork on the avian and pandemic influenza crisis in contemporary China as an instance to think with (Fearnley 2015). His inquiry was oriented toward the discrepancy between the way pandemic fears infuse international flu researchers with visions of reforming rural China’s agricultural landscapes through biosecurity programs, and the distinct ways in which free-grazing duck farmers in southern China deal with the problem of poultry diseases in their flocks. Existing anthropological accounts of this or similar topics have largely adopted a “frontal” mode of comparison (Candea 2016) that contrasts biosecurity “discourses” (the hinterland) with “political, cultural and socio-economic realities of the societies that have come to be associated with the virus.” (Kleinman, et al 2008) In doing so, they attempt to elucidate the disconnection between the anticipatory discourses about the origins of future pandemics and the “realities” of politics, culture and economy in southern China.

Fearnley shifts this frontal mode of comparison toward what we could call, both drawing on and remediating Candea’s proposal (2016), a form of lateral comparison. This entails concrete comparisons of the two formations of discursive and nondiscursive practice (that of flu researchers; and that of duck farmers)–and specifically, comparison of the “modes of uncertainty” through which futures are engaged and managed (Samimian-Darash and Rabinow 2015). Within such a topology it is not simply that flu researchers and duck farmers have different points of view on flu, health and farming. The challenge rather is the invention of an anthropological standpoint from which to grasp the significance of the problems, the interconnection of problems which arises from within and between the practices of researchers and farmers. Such topological composition contributes to the kind of “experimentation with anthropological topology” that we have been curious about, one which “assembles variables that have been pertinent in our various inquiries, but which are absolutely not variables of society, structures (social or mental) or “culture” (Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2016: 428).

For flu researchers, the free-grazing of ducks in fields or waterways is a potential source of influenza viruses that threaten to cause a global pandemic. These claims about free-grazing ducks are configured in a mode of potential uncertainty — visions of future global catastrophe exhort urgent action in the present, including most notably calls for increased agricultural biosecurity, although actual dangers in the present are minimal. Duck farmers, on the other hand, observe free-grazing ducks in terms of their production uncertainty. With household wealth invested in the growing bodies of the ducks, disease threatens the turnover of money into more money, posing the uncertainty of kuiben, or losing everything.

Both flu researchers and duck farmers can look at the same diseases in the same ducks and both see “a problem”. The problem is not “the same” but also the significance of naming these problems does not stem from the fact that they are “different.” Significance, in this mode of comparison, comes from the creation of shared space in which interconnection and breakdown can be identified. As such, what is crucial in Fearnley’s work is to grasp the distances and points of contact between distinct modes of uncertainty, which inhabit, from the conceptual standpoint of the anthropologist, a shared problem space.

Comparison thus becomes a tactical move because these problems can be interconnected in such a way as to show how they interact in ways that are not ameliorative, but rather intensifying. First, responses to the veridictional claims about potential future pandemics — culling of poultry, closure of markets, and consumers who refuse to purchase poultry — amplifies the production uncertainty for duck farmers. Second, duck farmers increase the free-grazing of ducks in order to ameliorate this uncertainty (free-grazing reduces the outlay of cash needed for commercial feeds) — thereby expanding the practice that, flu experts prognosticate, may lead to a potential future pandemic. A positive feedback loop is developing as a consequence of the interaction of these two problems.

This is not the “disconnection” often attributed to the encounter between Global health and Local (realities, experiences, contexts, bodies). The objective is not to discover once again that reality is more complex than global plans had planned for. The objective is to reveal through the juxtaposition, configuration, resonance or dissonance of two objects of inquiry — much like the juxtaposition of two artworks produces a distinctive effect irreducible to the individual works — a dynamic of movement that is itself problematic, one for which amelioration and rectification cannot come from denouncing “local” traditions or denouncing “global” plans and programs. And certainly, if one hopes to “invent and encourage new modes of conciliation” across the heterogeneity of anthrōpos (Descola 2013: 405), shouldn’t these compositional dynamics be an urgent task for inquiry?

(2) Forms of life, and of judgment: on collaboration and its limits

Our second theme draws on a consistent thread through the Reader: viz. the problematic, which is to say, indeterminate and sometimes discordant, relation between truth and ethics. If the admonition “dare to know” is our Kantian starting point, we carry this forward by way of Canguilhem’s dictum that the observer of science, reason, and modernity must “take from the living the thought of the living.” That dictum entails both a scientific and ethical demand: to look to the living for one’s concept of life, and in doing so contribute to a way of life that takes living things seriously in their normativity. Both Kant’s and Canguilhem’s maxims constitute permanently unresolved tasks, requiring a vigilant labor of self-formation (hence our approach of the texts in the Reader as “equipment”) and an ongoing commitment to the openness of inquiry (hence the need to shift from “equipmental” preparations to anthropological research).

Given this double commitment — on the one side to the conjunction of truth and ethics, and on the other to the open-ended labor required of that conjunction — we cannot agree with Greco’s assessment that in the work of Canguilhem there is an “almost tautological” connotation of science and ethics. Whilst we agree with Greco’s insight that in Canguilhem’s thought the “distinctiveness of the living” provides a “normative vantage point for the purpose of evaluation,” and whilst this vantage point brings into view the profound continuities between the normativity of living things per se and the normative tasks of human ethics, we worry that Greco overstates the case and thus risks obfuscating one of the most important characteristics of Canguilhem’s work.

The crucial point turns on the difference between continuity and tautology. Greco is right to highlight the fact that Canguilhem’s vitalism points us to the fact of continuities between the needs and freedoms of a living cell and the needs and freedoms of human communities which might otherwise get overlooked. The continuities, in our view, turn on an irreducible but inescapable relation between life as concept (understood in the Aristotelian tradition of life as the bearer of a logos or anima) and life as experience (in the tradition of Spinoza’s natura naturans). As Aristotle insisted, in the former, life grasps itself in itself, and thus is the author of its own normativity. Yet in the latter life must constantly recover from the errors produced by the demands of a milieu and of modulations; it therein elaborates itself in new ways, and becomes a source of its own renormalization. All of this, as Canguilhem argued, points to the fact of living beings as centered beings who discern the world and respond to it in a normative fashion. This means that the difference between the ethics practiced by humans and the science practiced by humans is a linked one in which the human is a living being alongside other living beings. In Canguilhem, in other words, the living being qua bios and the living being qua ethos is much closer than one might imagine. And this proximity is as true for the human as it is for any other animal.

But there is a crucial and critical twist in all of this. And the twist concerns the difference between normativity as indexed to the demands of an environment and normativity as indexed to the aspirations of excellence. In the 1955 published lecture “The problem of regulation in the organism and in society” (2015), Canguilhem argued that, in the order of the organism, we commonly see “the whole world debate the nature of ills [mal], and no one debate the ideal of the good” (648), for the simple reason that the ideal of the organism is the organism itself. By contrast, “the existence of societies, of their disorders and unrests, brings forth a wholly different relation between ills and reforms, because for society, what we debate is how to know its ideal state or norm” (Canguilhem 2015: 648). As such, (though one might resist the category of “society” as the key term) the point here is to underscore that while science and ethics are conjoined they are far from tautological. It is, rather, the core problem, a problem relative to which one cannot simply index the claim that life is normative: the question, the open question, is the form that can be given to “living”, to manners of living (bios), given the situation, the limits, the anticipations and judgments made. Or, as Deleuze, channeling Nietzsche, wrote: “evaluations, in essence, are not values but ways of being, modes of existence of those who judge and evaluate, serving as principles for the values on the basis of which they judge. This is why we always have the beliefs, feelings and thoughts that we deserve given our way of being or our style of life.” Greco indexes recent work on “accepting the reality of Gaia” as demonstrating the possibility of life as a “resistance” to a mode of scientific self-satisfaction; and yet, precisely the problem, a problem which should be grasped as such, is that, following Blumenberg (who reshapes the problem itself inherited from Kant, and Weber), “talk about science”, including such claims as Greco’s regarding ‘resistance,’ “only begets further science” (Stavrianakis, Bennett, Fearnley 2015: 115). We fear that Greco’s text in praise of resistance against science, in which resistance is figured as a good in itself, ultimately transforms the domain of strife over truth claims into a domain of struggle where only relations of force matter. Our Reader is composed as a counterpoint to this vision.

Otherwise said, if Greco wishes to index the resistance of forms of life to the capacity to undo or baffle modes of veridiction, there is then an open and serious question of the status of a mode of veridiction for those forms of life, and for herself as a writer who seeks to valorize such forms of life. Whilst we agree that there are forms of life which push back against modes of veridiction that endeavor to reduce life forms to their mechanics, physics, and chemistry, it should be acknowledged that there are scientific practices which do the same (and vice versa, i.e. reductionist vitalisms). What matters to us is that as anthropologists we attend to the parameter of veridiction in the relations of strife, contest and criticism.

Canguilhem’s problematic of knowledge and life may be “quintessentially” his own, as Greco suggests. It is not, however, the secret heart of the Reader, to which our configuration of thinkers has been bootstrapped. Such an enterprise would be out of step with Canguilhem’s own mode of historical epistemology; a mode which we should remember is kindred to that of the German tradition of Begriffsgeschischte, a tradition instantiated by Blumenberg, in which the historical afterlives and transformations of problems and concepts can be tracked. The Reader cannot be reduced to Canguilhem and certainly not to a uniquely “ontological” reading of his work, precisely because we attend to the manner in which problems of science and ethics have been raised and given form in a historical pathway.

In a series of interconnected projects we have been precisely concerned with the critical limitations / externalities of scientific practice with respect to ethical questions which emerge from but which cannot be solved by those technical activities (Stavrianakis 2015; Bennett 2015; Rabinow and Bennett 2012; Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2013). These projects have primarily concerned ethics and bioengineeiring, although they have been inter-connected with projects such as those on global pandemics, disease expertise, biosecurity, a plurality of ecological and farming practices, surveillance and police practices (e.g. C. Caduff, S. Collier, L. Fearnley, F. Keck, A. Lakoff, L. Samimian-Darash, M. Stalcup). One of the core problems was precisely to invent forms for the interconnection of problems that would open up and remediate the relationships between assemblages of scientific practice and their milieu. The challenge was to show the significance of problems observed as emerging from within scientific practice, and for which scientists themselves were ill-equipped to respond. The goal was to invent and set into motion a collaborative practice for identifying and thinking about those problems (e.g. biosecurity in the case of synthetic biology studied by Rabinow, Bennett and Stavrianakis.)

In a similar vein, Stavrianakis’ recent work (2016) on assisted suicide in Switzerland draws on our line of thinkers for whom the interconnection of truth claims and conduct is far from “obvious” in showing how doctors, patients and their families are confronted with the limits to medicine’s capacities to both cure and heal, posing the open normative question of what to do? The project seeks to make sense of the ways in which an ensemble of physicians, lawyers, nurses, accompaniers, clinics and advocacy groups accompany those who want to inhabit the grey zones of Swiss law concerning assisted suicide. The question of how judgments are made such that this zone becomes inhabitable — workable, manageable — requires (on the one hand) that the anthropologists be able to trace and assemble the fragments of ethical discourse and practice spun out of multiple disjunctive moral communities and stitched together in these grey spaces as though they were self-consistent and self-evident. At the same time (and on the other hand) the anthropologist must be able to inhabit the seriousness of those moral communities, the discontents of those who form them, and the uncertainties connected to the judgments they must make. Amidst these fragments, in short, the anthropologist must make warranted judgments about the manner in which people are trying to make warranted judgments about what counts as a good life and a good death as part of that life (bios) without the aid of settled institutional norms but nevertheless with an ethos.

Far from being reduced to a language of “resistance” against science, or medical knowledge, the anthropologist is obliged to grasp the manners in which modes of veridiction, forms of justification and normative embodiment of conduct are configured together, in an open terrain of both collaboration, care and strife.

(3) An Ethos of the Contemporary: Anthropos, Bios, Theos

The Reader — as Dunseith, Pryzbylack-Brouillard, and Stalcup nicely put it — was indeed composed in the spirit of an invitation. It is indeed an invitation “not to a canon that would replace any number of others, but to a set of equipment.” The Reader is composed of texts to be used as tools for work on underspecified ends. But if those ends are underspecified, they are not unspecified. A defining feature of our collaborative work — one which we sought to lift up and advance through the Reader — has been a sharp move away from the “epochal” thinking, which characterized a good deal of work in the anthropology of modernity, and toward engagement with the problem of “ethos.”

Prime among the tools that have facilitated this shift is Foucault’s reconsideration of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”, an essay which he published under Kant’s original title and which we include in the Reader. Those familiar with the text will recall that Foucault signals in Kant what he (Foucault) calls a “modern attitude,” one which Foucault takes as definitive for his own project (albeit in a reworked form). This modern attitude is calibrated by and to the question “what difference does today make with regard to yesterday?” The “modern,” taken up as an attitude, can be said to have temporal connotations but not necessarily historical ones (cf. Rabinow 2007). The modern is no longer taken to be a term that specifies a period of time — whether a series of dates on a calendar, an “age” with defining features such as a uniform cosmology, or a distinctive “epoch” which could be said to have a “pre” and a “post.” The term designates, rather, an ethos, taking ethos in the double sense of a collective way of being in the world (i.e. a zone of habituation), as well as the clarifications and techniques needed to put that collective life to the test and, where necessary, move beyond it (i.e. an ethical practice).

Exactly how this distinction of epoch and ethos in the modern attitude might have played out in Foucault’s work will never be known, given his untimely death. But it clearly signaled a certain distance from much of his earlier work, which had been dedicated to specifying the forms and contents of modernity as an epoch. In our work, we have sought to further elaborate Foucault’s distinction and to carry it forward. Our aim in this has not been to complete a Foucauldian program, nor has it been to search the world for examples of a Foucauldian theory of modernity. Our aim, rather, has been to make Kant’s (and Foucault’s) question our own: what attitude does one need to specify and adopt in order to account for and critically assess the ethos in which we find ourselves today? That is to say, how does one bring the task of thinking into alignment with an ethic adequate to the demands of the day (Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2013)?

To this end, and following a further distinction honed by Rabinow, we have worked together to think about “the contemporary.” Taken as a term of art, the contemporary names a particular style of cultural formation — one which is not just sitting there in the world awaiting apprehension, but one which can be grasped through a particular analytic. Rabinow proposes that the modern, taken as an ethos, can be thought of as a moving ratio of the new and the old in which the new is valorized against the old unless and until it can be shown that the new is not yet sufficient. An Apple product release can be thought of as a pure play in a ratio of the modern. In a connected fashion, one can take “the traditional” as a ratio as well, a moving ratio of the old and the new in which the old is valorized against the new unless and until the new can show that the old is no longer sufficient. The Catholic Church’s judicial body the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can be thought of as a pure play in the traditional.

Alongside both of these, we have oriented our attention to the contemporary, understood as experiments in assembling elements of the old and the new in in a manner that allows the concerned actors involved to deal with situations of breakdown — situations of indeterminacy or discordancy, to use Dewey’s classic terms. The contemporary can thus also be framed as a ratio. It can be thought of as a moving ratio of the modern, and “the traditional” as part of modern formations, in which both the modern and the traditional are already becoming historical. The twist is that the artefacts, the remains, of those two ḗthē are (not surprisingly) still among us. As such, one of the difficulties one must attend to in thinking about an ethos of the contemporary are the ways in which elements of the modern and the traditional exist in the present, and assert themselves therein precisely as modern or as traditional — a phenomenon we have referred to in our work as Nachleben, the afterlife of the modern in the contemporary (c.f. Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2014). The challenge is to then grasp these afterlives with a distinct ethos capable of discerning the significance of such assemblage. Therein lies the stakes of the contemporary.

Taken up as an analytic that orients inquiry, the contemporary has been flexible enough to move across and between our various empirical projects, allowing us to pursue the collective work of trying to discover interconnections among those projects in a conceptually robust manner. The subtlety is that “the contemporary” does not over-determine those conceptual interconnections, but only facilitates the work of crafting them out of materials immanent to the projects themselves. The contemporary, to put it differently, is a concept (as well as a search for a mode, a mood, an affect) to be used to open things up and not a theory to be used for explanation. What this means is that the answer to the question ‘what is happening in the world today and our relation to it such that our various projects can be felt to be mutually resonant’ is not ‘they are all examples of the contemporary.’ Rather, conceived as an ethos, and thus as a style of being in the world, the contemporary allows us to grasp our respective materials in such a way that we can subsequently bring them into relation and test them against one another’s work — an agonism of collaboration which helps us specific convergences, illuminations, and disjunctions.

Crucial to all of this, and what might seem to go without saying, is that the contemporary names not only a manner of taking up the objects which we study but a relation to a reality within which (at least in part) we live and move as we conduct our work. It is, to put it differently, an experimental ethos whose indeterminacies and discordances makes as many demands of us and our work as we make of it.

Take as an instance one of Bennett’s projects, which examines the making of new technologies as a salvational practice. It tries to make sense of how it is that, over the past four decades, the mid-peninsula tech industry in the San Francisco Bay Area has made manifest and mobilized a mélange of sensibilities and anticipations characteristic, at once, of the secessionist Protestantism of the American West and the political spiritualities, heavily informed by religious traditions of South Asia, which were so vital to the counter-cultural experiments of the 1950s and 60s. In a fashion similar to the project on assisted suicide, this project moves across multiple registers, entailing multiple demands. In one register, it must sort out how the making of technologies, and thus the making of the institutions of technology-making, are calibrated to what one might call a this-worldly eschatology: a religious feel for a salvational future imagined as accessible through material transformations. Yet the project must do this in a manner that highlights how those religious sensibilities were transmuted into technological practice without resorting to a hermeneutics of suspicion which simply tries to unearth the secretly religious character of a putatively secular ambition. This means — moving in another direction — that the anthropologist cannot rely on tools and techniques which take for granted a secular distance between the scientific observer and the scientist being observed. After all, if the making of technology renders actual an ensemble of religious sensibilities, and if such making thereby obviates an otherwise secular imagination of technology, then the anthropologist must find a way to give form to the contemporary in a manner that does not simply re-inscribe a disenchanted distance between the secular practices of the technicians and their religious legacies that animate those practices. Nor for that matter can the anthropologist appeal to a thin re-enchantment of practices that might otherwise be presumed to be mundane, as if technologists simply did not grasp the significance of what they are doing.

It’s in light of the demands of our projects and their conceptual interconnections that we can agree with Cameron Brintzer that the contemporary, understood as an ethos, constitutes a task and a challenge not only for the anthropologist, but also for the historian and the sociologist. At the heart of the Reader, after all, is a call to collaboration, one in which labor on shared problems will always outstrip the disciplinary apparatuses that have been built up around particular projects. Or, to put it in Weberian terms, we agree that the demand of the day is not only to discover the actual interconnections among things, but the conceptual interconnection among problems.

Havens of movement and connection

At the heart of each of our inquiries is a search for an ethos that can give form to the pathos of practices of reason, of sciences, midst the institutions and breakdowns of modernity. Let us merely note, with appreciation, Brinitzer’s suggestion that our collaborative endeavor has indeed been oriented to the introduction of a difference, and a different manner of practice within the human sciences. Inquiry into such a historical difference and its contours might well be for others to take up. Minimally we can say offer an orientation to the historicity of the endeavor, beginning from a literary topos, that of Eliot’s modernism, as indexed by the epigram. Eliot’s modernism, among other modernisms, anthropological ones included, has pointed to the stakes of temporal breakdown and the primacy of the invention of forms. The contemporary problem, for anthropologists and others, however, is precisely one of composition, when the past, and the present cease to be mere sequence in the search to move beyond the grasping of the present’s ruptures. Given such a search for ethos, and such a mode of composition, the Ottowa collective is right to refer to Roland Barthes’ text, “To the Seminar”, and their own practice. They offer a crucial reminder that such a search cannot be done alone. Let us then add to Barthes’ definition of “Reason” a supplement, from Deleuze’s Spinoza, “the art of organizing good encounters.”


Works Cited

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———. 2014. Designs on the Contemporary: Anthropological Tests. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2016. “Movement space: Putting anthropological theory, concepts, and cases to the test.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6.1: 403-431

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[i] See, for example our exchange and disagreement (our post here: with Callard and Fitzgerald (their post here: on Somatosphere.


Gaymon Bennett is Assistant Professor of Religion, Science, and Technology at Arizona State University. He works on the problem of modernity in contemporary religion and biotechnology: its shifting moral economies, contested power relations, and uncertain modes of subjectivity.

Lyle Fearnley is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Singapore University of Technology and Design. His work explores the assemblages of science and rural life in contemporary China, where agricultural modernization projects are giving rise to new environmental and health risks.

Anthony Stavrianakis is a Research Fellow (chargé de recherche) at the CNRS, France. His work focuses on forms and practices of ethical judgment in science and medicine, and is currently conducting a field inquiry into assisted suicide in Switzerland.

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