There Is More to Philosophy for Anthropologists Than Just Foucault

A review of The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, Edited by Veena Das, Michael D. Jackson, Arthur Kleinman, Bhrigupati Singh. Duke University Press, 2014.

The Ground Between.jpgMy strong belief is that this book will prove as important as the volume Writing Culture, published in 1986, which marked a turning point in the orientation of anthropological writing. This is not to say that anthropologists didn’t engage philosophy before Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, or that they will with renewed strength thereafter. Many classical anthropologists were trained as philosophers, especially in the French tradition where disciplinary borders are more porous. Pierre Bourdieu described his work in anthropology and sociology as “fieldwork in philosophy.” Nowadays “theory”, which samples a limited set of authors from contemporary philosophy, is part of the toolbox that every graduate student learns to master, and that they often repeat devotedly as a shibboleth that will grant them their PhD. What is striking in The Ground Between is the variety of authors that the contributors discuss, as well as the depth of their engagement, which goes beyond scholarly debates and is often set out in existential terms. For many anthropologists, philosophers are a life’s companion, helping them to navigate through the pitfalls of scholarship and the vicissitudes of life.

After having been killed by Writing Culture, Clifford Geertz is back in favor

If Writing Culture was a gesture aimed at dismissing Clifford Geertz, killing the father as it were, several authors from The Ground Between move back to him as a revered father figure, or maybe as a grumpy uncle who may provide an unending collection of quips and aphorisms. Geertz indeed offers wonderful quotes as to how anthropology and philosophy stand in relation to each other, to the world, and to the self. He observed that anthropology and philosophy share “an ambition to connect just about everything with everything else,” and remarked that “one of the advantages of anthropology as a scholarly enterprise is that no one, including its practitioners, quite knows exactly what it is.” Asked by João Biehl what was his main contribution to theory, Geertz replied succinctly: “substraction”. While being generous and open to dialogue, Geertz could also strike back viciously at personal attacks such as the ones perpetrated by the authors of Writing Culture. “There is very little in what the partisans of an anthropology in which fieldwork plays a much reduced or transformed role… have so far done that would suggest they represent the way of the future,” he wrote, somewhat presciently.

Another move that many contributors enact is, although with much caution and the remains of a certain reverence, a distancing from Foucault. At the very least, they demonstrate that there is more to philosophy for anthropologists than just Foucault. Reproducing poorly rehashed quotes and concepts from Foucault will not automatically grant you access to graduate school. Didier Fassin exposes a research proposal submitted by a prospective student that reads as complete gobbledygook. Simply borrowing the lexicon of Foucault (biopolitics, power/knowledge, governmentality) or of his direct heir Agamben (the state of exception, bare life, thanatopolitics) will not get you very far. Similarly, Arthur Kleinman points out that scholars often engage in the “cultivation of the recondite, the otiose, the irresponsibly transgressive, and the merely clever,” with the effect of estranging the learned public from their discipline and turning scholarly debates into irrelevant wordplays. For João Biehl as well, “insular academic language and debates and impenetrable prose should not be allowed to strip people’s lives, knowledge, and struggles of their vitality–analytical, political, and ethical.”

Keeping Foucault at a distance

Didier Fassin writes his essay “in abusive fidelity to Foucault”, and prefers “a free translation rather than mere importation” of his concepts. Although he recognizes the heuristic fecundity of the master, he points out that many formulas borrowed by his heirs and epigones are just that: formulaic. As he soon realized in his research on humanitarian interventions, “I was indeed exploring something that Foucault had paradoxically ignored in spite of what the etymology of his concept of biopolitics seems to imply–life.” This led him to substitute the term “biopolitics” with the expression “the politics of life”, and to pay attention to the tension between the affirmation of the sacredness of life (as defined by Canguilhem) and the disparities in the treatment of particular lives (exemplified by Hannah Arendt’s work). Life is indeed a theme and even a word that is alien to Foucault’s writing. Attending to life as it is lived features prominently in several essays in the volume: “taking life back in” could be an apt description of the whole enterprise. Another common move is to go back to the source of Foucault’s inspiration, by rereading the scholars who had the most formative influence on his thinking: Georges Canguilhem in the case of Didier Fassin, and Georges Dumezil for Bhigupati Singh (who hints at a homosexual relationship between the master and the student). If Foucault is spared by those authors, they find in Agamben an avatar of “a negative dialectical lineage” (Singh) and reject his “apocalyptic take on the contemporary human condition” (Biehl).

While keeping Foucault at a distance, most authors remain firmly committed to French theory, and engage in a productive dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari, Bourdieu, as well as older figures such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre or Bergson. Deleuze in particular is mobilized by many authors, to the point one could speak of a “deleuzian moment” in anthropology. Bhigupati Singh finds in Deleuze “an opening, a way into non-dialectical thought” that he uses in his analysis of life in a destitute Indian community. João Biehl read Deleuze while documenting the fate of Catarina, a poignant character in a place of abandonment, until his editor commented: “I don’t care what Deleuze thinks. I want to know what Catarina thinks!” Ghassan Hage wrote the “auto-ethnography” of his deafness and capacity to hear again in close dialogue with Bourdieu, seeing exemplifications of his key concepts but also the limits in the way Bourdieu conceived of being in a world characterized by inequalities in the “accumulation of homeliness”. To be deprived of raisons d’être is not to be deprived of being: as João Biehl puts it, “language and desire continue meaningfully even in circumstances of profound abjection.” “If Sartre became for me a “natural” conversation partner in my anthropological work,” confesses Michael Jackson, “it was because his focus on the conditions under which a human life becomes viable and enjoyable implied a critique of metaphysical and systematizing philosophies.” As Geertz put it succinctly: “I don’t do systems.”

A return to the American liberal tradition

A cadre of young French philosophers such as Jocelyn Benoist, Sandra Laugier and Claude Imbert also find their way into the bibliography. But other philosophical voices are also making themselves heard. For some, it is a return to the American tradition, with prominent contemporary figures such as Stanley Cavell or Nelson Goodman and older ones such as Henry James and John Austin or Hannah Arendt. Arthur Kleinman finds in Henri James the life lessons that accompany him while giving care to his wife suffering from a neurodegenerative disease, making him “feel less alone”. He considers James’s Varieties of Religious Experience the best source for teaching a course on “Religion and Medicine”. Reading Hannah Arendt in Teheran, Michael Fischer notes that Iranian intellectuals were “no longer interested in revolutionary political philosophy but rather in liberalism. Habermas, Rorty, Rawls, and Arendt were all objects of much interest.” Veena Das finds in Cavell’s philosophy the kind of attention to “the low, the ordinary, and the humble” that helps her answer to the pressures from her ethnography by “making the everyday count”.

The anthropologists are careful to point out what philosophers owe to anthropology. João Biehl underscores that Deleuze and Guattari owe their notion of “plateau” to Gregory Bateson’s work on Bali, and that their key insights on nomadism, the encoding of fluxes, the war machine, or indeed schizophrenia, all come from Pierre Clastres’s attempt to theorize “primitive society” as a social form constantly at war against the emergence of the state. The habit of “writing against” that defines a large strand of contemporary philosophy is also central in the conceptual schemes of the founding fathers of anthropology, from Bronislav Malinowski to Margaret Mead. Bhigupati Singh reminds us that “Deleuze deeply admired Levi-Strauss” and may have found in his brand of structuralism a few nondialectic terms that he finds “helpful for thinking about power, ethics, and life.” Following his provocative advice to “take an author from behind,” he imagines the offsprings that may have been produced by an anthropologically-oriented Deleuze. Michael Puett invites us to use indigenous theories to break down our own assumptions about how theory operates: “the goal should not be just to deconstruct twentieth-century theoretical categories but to utilize indigenous visions to rethink our categories and the nature of categories altogether.”

Who’s in and who’s out in the philosophical market

But this book is not a popular chart of “who is in and who is out”, whose ratings go down and whose go up in the philosophical market where anthropologists do their shopping. The authors are careful to distance themselves from “anthropologists who look to philosophy as providing the theory and to anthropology to give evidence from empirical work to say how things really are.” Ethnography is not just proto-philosophy, and anthropologists do not need authorization or patronage in their pronouncements. The idea is to “work from ethnography to theory, not the other way around.” If philosophy can be defined as “the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts,” then perhaps anthropology constitutes “a mode of heightened attentiveness to life” that builds on “experience-near concepts” in order to show “how ordinary life itself gives rise to puzzles we might call philosophical.” The Ground Between therefore doesn’t herald an “ontological turn” or a “philosophical moment” in modern anthropology, in the way that Writing Culture was perceived as a turning point affixed with various labels (“postmodern”, “reflexive”, “deconstructionist”). But it is an attempt to step back, take stock, and reflect on what anthropologists are doing, in order to make their contribution to social science, to knowledge, and to human life more meaningful.


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