Asian Studies in Asia

A review of Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization, Kuan-Hsing Chen, Duke University Press, 2010.

Asia As Method.jpgThere are two kinds of Asian studies on North-American campuses. The first, area studies of Asia, grew out of the Cold War and of the United States’ need to know its allies and enemies better. It is politically neutral, although some critics would consider it conservative in essence, due to its modalities of topic selection, standards of scholarship, sources of research funding, and practical applications. It focuses on the production of experts on a specific region of the world which is of strategic interest for the United States. It usually requires the mastery of at least one Asian language, acquired through years of painful learning and extended stays in the country being studied. Great scholars have contributed to the field and have led distinguished careers that have brought them into positions of leadership within and outside academia.

The two kinds of Asian studies in the United States

Faced with a general crisis in area studies that may be linked to the decline of America’s Cold War commitments, the discipline was reinvigorated by renewed interest in Asia-Pacific as the new center of global economic growth. A number of social scientists who learned their trade in sociology, political science, or sometimes even literature studies, reinvented themselves by turning into business consultants and management specialists, offering to unveil the mysteries of Asian capitalism in its successive reincarnations (from Japan Inc. to China’s global reach). In addition, whereas other fields became highly compartmented, it is still possible to pass as a “Japan specialist” or an “expert on China”, covering all aspects of a country’s culture, economy, and political situation, in a way that is no longer possible for countries like France or Germany, let alone for Europe as a whole. Outside academia, one may even earn the reputation of an “Asia hand”, as one experiences successive postings in diplomacy or corporate management in various Asian capitals. As Benjamin Disraeli said: “the East is a career”.

The second kind of Asian studies in the United States, cultural studies of Asia, is very different in its nature and its applications. It is born out of the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, the claim of ethnic or sexual minorities, and campus politics. It bundles together a set of disciplines sometimes referred to as “critical humanities”: literary criticism, media studies, cultural anthropology, women studies, and the ethnic curriculum reflecting the distinctive identity of Asian-Americans. Theoretically, it is grounded in or influenced by various kinds of post-isms (postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, posthumanism), as well as by feminism, queer theory, subaltern studies, deconstruction, and critical theory. It is also closely linked to practices of political militancy, social activism, human rights advocacy, and experiments in the performing arts. The focus of cultural studies of Asia is on transnational flux, diasporic mobility, immigration challenges, and shifting identities, as opposed to the centralizing state structures and fixed identities favored by area studies.

American cultural imperialism and Asian resistance

According to Kuan-Hsing Chen, a Taiwanese cultural critic, the second form of Asian studies is no less imperialistic than the first. It considers Asian countries only in relation to the US, and it uses American or European authors, concepts, and points of reference in order to “frame” Asia. Western scholars look to Asia from afar, and with concerns close to home. Not only do they present their partial view as the only legitimate one, but by monopolizing speaking positions they also block the emergence of alternative voices coming from Asia. It is by invoking the right to difference, to cultural identity and to affirmative action, that America exerts its cultural hegemony on a global scale. By promoting multiculturalism, it draws the best elements from the rest of the world into its universities, and dictates the terms of the cultural debate in foreign academia as well. America’s multicultural imperialism gives birth to a new generation of local informants and academic brokers, which Kuan-Hsing Chen labels as “collaborators”, “opportunists”, and “commuters”. In Asia as elsewhere, the staunchest advocates of cultural identity generally come from the diaspora: it is through exile and distance that they come to overemphasize the importance of small differences.

Knowledge production is one of the major sites in which imperialism operates and exercises its power. Kuan-Hsing Chen gives several examples where the West is used as “method” without it even being acknowledged. The existing analytical distinction between the state and civil society cannot account for democratic transformation in places like India, Taiwan, or South Korea. As Professor Chen explains, India does not possess the condition required to develop civil society in the Western European sense, because only a limited part of the Indian population, mainly social elites, could enter such a space. Instead, critical historians like Partha Chatterjee show that subaltern classes and groups have been able to invent alternative spaces of political democracy to ensure their survival and livelihood. Similarly, in Taiwan and Korea during their democratic transition, civil society virtually became the state, as major figures associated with the civil-society camp acceded to power or were coopted by the regime.

The demise of the nation-state is a luxury only the West can afford

Another issue with “the West as method” is the academic insistence on the demise of the nation-state and the advent of post-nationalism. For Kuan-Hsing Chen, this is a luxury only the West can afford: “at this point in history, a total negation of nationalism is nothing but escapism.” As he comments a documentary on Singapore made by an independent filmmaker, “one has to sincerely identify with the nation, genuinely belong to it, and truly love it in order to establish a legitimate position from which to speak.” His relation with Taiwan is itself ambivalent. He refuses the rigid binary structure that demands a choice between unification with mainland China and independence from it. He tries to sketch a “popular democratic” alternative, based on grassroot movements, anti-imperialism, and local autonomy. For that, he recommends an effort to liberate from the three-pronged grip of colonialism, cold war, and imperialism. But if attempts to engage these questions are locked within national boundaries, it will not be possible to think beyond the imposed nation-state structure and work toward genuine regional reconciliation.

Kuan-Hsing Chen wants to contribute to the emergence of the new field of Asian studies in Asia by proposing a radical alternative: Asia as method. “Using the idea of Asia as an imaginary anchoring point,” he writes, “societies in Asia can become each others’ point of reference, so that the understanding of the self may be transformed, and subjectivity rebuilt.” In a lecture given in 1960, the Japanese critic Takeuchi Yoshimi intuitively proposed the notion of Asia as method as a means of transforming the Japanese subject. But he concluded aporetically to the impossibility of defining what such a transformation might imply. Mizoguchi Yûzô, a recently deceased scholar, took up from where Takeuchi left and proposed “China as Method”, by which China or Asia ceased to be considered as the object of analysis and became a means of transforming knowledge production. In this sense, the emerging field of Asian studies in Asia will have a very different historical mission than the Asian studies practiced in Europe and North America. Studying Asia from an Asiatic standpoint is a means of self-discovery and collective emancipation. As Chen puts it succinctly, “the more I go to Seoul, the better I understand Taipei.”

Using Asian frames of reference

A first step in pursuing “Asia as method” is by using Asian authors and frames of reference. This is what Kuan-Hsing Chen does, noting that “Asia as method is not a slogan but a practice. That practice begins with multiplying the sources of our readings to include those produced in other parts of Asia.” His references include classic thinkers such as Lu Xun and Gandhi, or more recent critics like Mizoguchi Yûzô and Partha Chatterjee or Ashis Nandy. He borrows from Lu Xun a certain critical tradition that addresses broad political issues by responding to concrete events, such as a campaign to expand Taiwanese investments in South-East Asia, or the claim of a group that wishes to register Taiwan as America’s fifty-first state. The non-violent philosophy of Gandhi is mobilized to broaden the concept of civil society and to discuss the emergence of subaltern classes in conjunction with the Chinese concept of minjian. Takeuchi Yoshimi complements these references by suggesting that Japan has gone through the opposite direction of India and China, and that its cultural dependence toward the US prevents it to build a more penetrating critical subjectivity at the societal level.

Professor Chen also uses foreign authors who have become common references in postcolonial studies, in order to design “a methodology specific to the colonized third world.” The central figure here is Franz Fanon, a Martinique-born French psychiatrist, writer, and militant of decolonization, whose work inspired many revolutionary leaders from the Third World. His basic affirmation, “the black man wants to be white”, suggests that Asian people also want to become American, and end up wearing the same masks and fetishes. The psychic dimensions associated with colonialism have also been studied by Octave Mannoni, who showed that the colonizer and the colonized are bounded together by a relationship of mutually constituted subjectivity, and Albert Memmi, who posited that the alienation of the colonized cannot be reduced to the question of individual subjectivity: it has to be addressed at the level of the social structure, which conditions the collective psyche. The use of these sources and others allows Kuan-Hsing Chen to build an alternative narrative of decolonization, deimperialization, and “de-cold war” that stands at variance with North American academic references.

Decolonization, deimperialization, and “de-cold war”

The author goes farther. Asian scholars have been doing “Asian studies” all along without realizing it, “just like Europeans, North Americans, Latin Americans, and Africans have also been doing studies in relation to their own living spaces.” “That is,” Chen insists, “Martin Heidegger was actually doing European studies, as were Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jürgen Habermas.” The choice of names is not insignificant, and quite ironic as well. Thinkers who attempt to “provincialize Europe” and call into question Western philosophy’s pretense to universality usually find themselves at home in the philosophy of Heidegger, that quintessential provincial who never left his Heimat and had only contempt for science and technology. Similarly, Michel Foucault dreamt of other horizons without ever using non-Western sources. “If a philosophy of the future exists,” he wrote, “it must be born outside of Europe, or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe.” Kuan-Hsing Chen does not rule out the possibility of a synthesis, but he sees universalism as the end of a process as opposed to a starting point. “Universalism is not an epistemological given but a horizon we may be able to move toward in the remote future, provided that we first compare notes based upon locally grounded knowledge. Universalist arrogance serves only to keep new possibilities from emerging.”

Between Marx and Anthropology

A review of The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange, Kojin Karatani, Duke University Press, 2014.

Karatani.jpgThere is a tradition of contemporary Japanese philosophers drawing from anthropology (the names of Shinichi Nakazawa and Akira Asada come to mind). There is also a Japanese tradition of philosophical re-readings of Marx (with Kozo Uno or Makoto Itoh). I am interested in the first tradition. I regard the second as negligible. In The Structure of World History, Kojin Karatani combines the two approaches. He offers a broad synthesis on the origins of the state, the market, and the national community, based on the works of classical anthropologists. And he provides a close reading of Marx’s texts in order to construct his own philosophical system, encompassing the whole of human history. I found the first part based on anthropology most valuable. I only skipped through the second part. Below are a few reading notes and commentary intended to provided a cursory reading of Karatani’s book.

A Japanese rereading of Marx

Marx, like Comte and Hegel before him, saw the history of the human race as neatly divided into historical phases. He identified five such phases: the primitive horde, Asiatic despotism, the ancient classic state, Germanic feudalism, and the modern state under capitalism. The principle of that division was to be found in modes of production and the type of labor relations they generated. The stateless clan society was characterized by primitive communism: there was no private property, and goods were shared among all members of the clan. It was followed by the Asiatic mode of production in which the despotic king owned everything and his subjects nothing. Then came the Greek and Roman slavery system giving power to a minority of citizens, followed by the Germanic feudal system with its relations of allegiance and serfdom, and modern bourgeois capitalism characterized by the opposition between capital and labor. Thus Marx famously proclaimed that all history was the history of class struggle, and that it necessarily tended towards the advent of communism, in which class would disappear and the state would wither away.

Other authors, mainly inspired by Marx, offered their own classification of social formations. To the five modes of production identified by Marx, Samir Amin added two others: the trade-based social system seen in various Arab countries, and the social formation based on the “simple petty-commodity” mode of production seen in seventeenth-century Britain. Building his own theory of world systems, Immanuel Wallerstein described a succession from mini-systems that preceded the rise of the state, to world empires that were ruled by a single state, and then world-economies in which multiple states engaged in competition without being unified politically. The modern world system of global capitalism itself went through the successive stages of mercantilism, liberalism, and imperialism, each dominated by a single hegemonic power: first Holland, then Britain, and then the United States.

Stages of development

Yet other thinkers identified various stages of development by the dominant world commodity or technology: the wool industry in the stage of mercantilism, the textile industry in liberalism, heavy industries in imperialism, and durable consumer goods such as automobiles and electronics in the stage of capitalism. Our present times may witness the rise of a new stage in which information serves as the world commodity. Still for others, each historical phase is characterized by the dominant mode of energy supply: from biomass and wood to windmills and hydropower and then to coal and steam, then electricity and the oil engine, followed by gas turbines and nuclear power or renewable energies. These periodicizations are only variants of a dominant scheme that locates the crux of world history in the realm of production.

While offering his own teleology based on modes of exchange as opposed to modes of production, Karatani introduces variants and correctives in these classifications in order to paint a more complex picture of world history. For instance, he argues that societies existed in the form of nomadic bands before the rise of clan society, and that the real turning point came with the adoption of fixed settlements, with its accompanying institutions of property, religious rituals, and political coercion. Contrary to the standard view of the Neolithic revolution that associates sedentarization with agriculture, he argues that fixed settlements preceded the appearance of agriculture, and first took the form of fishing villages located at the mouth of rivers and trade routes. Stockpiling was first made possible through the technology for smoking fish, not piling grain or herding livestock. Nomadic tribes on one side, and clan societies on the other, engaged in different modes of exchange and redistribution: pooling of resources and “primitive communism” for the first, and the logic of the gift and the forms of trade described by classical anthropologists for the second. Along with Pierre Clastres and Marshall Sahlins, he agrees that primitive societies were “societies against the state”, and actively resisted the concentration of power through warfare and reciprocity of exchange.

The Asiatic mode of production revisited

Karatani also develops a more nuanced picture of the Asiatic state, considered by Hegel and Marx as well as by Karl Wittfogel as the symbol of despotism. Contrary to the vision of tyranny and oppression, he argues that the Asiatic social contract was based on a form of redistribution. People were not simply coerced: they voluntarily undertook to work for the sake of their king-priest, driven by religious beliefs and the offer for protection. State power is based on a specific mode of exchange, distinct from the first mode based on the reciprocity of the gift. Drawing resources from large-scale irrigation systems, the Asiatic state developed the first bureaucracies, created the first permanent standing armies, and organized long-distant trade with other communities. Through his bureaucrats, the despot was expected to rule, administer, show concern for, and take care of its subjects. It was not the Asiatic community that gave birth to the Asiatic despotic state; to the contrary, it was only after the establishment of a centralized state that a new community would emerge.

Karatani also offers a revision of our understanding of Greek and Roman antiquity. As he demonstrates, political theories and philosophy did not first emerge in the Greek polis, as is sometimes alleged. The formation of Asiatic states was associated with intense philosophical debates, as in the Warring States period in China which saw the emergence of the Hundred Schools of Thought. This is because the appearance of the state required a breaking with the traditions that had existed since clan society. Greece and Rome existed at the periphery of Asian empires and retained many aspects of clan societies. Rome in the end did become a vast empire, but that was due if anything to its adoption of the Asiatic imperial system, which survived the fall of Rome with the Byzantine dynasty and then the Islamic empires. For this reason, historians should regard the despotic state that emerged in Asia not simply as a primitive early stage, but rather as the entity that perfected the supranational state (or empire). Likewise, they should regard Athens and Rome not as the wellspring of Western civilization, but as incomplete social formations that developed at the submargins of Asian empires. Drawing from Karl Wittfogel, Karatani sees a subtle dialectics between civilizations-empires at the core, vassal states at the margins, independent polities at the submargin, and out-of-sphere communities that retained their nomadic lifestyle.

From modes of production to modes of exchange

Moving to his third mode of exchange, based on money and commodities, Karatani enters classic Marxian terrain, and offers vintage Marx analysis. That is where he kind of lost me, and my reading of this part is wholly incomplete. Drawing from the classic formulas M-C-M’ and M-M’, he argues that the world created by this third mode of exchange is fundamentally a world of credit and speculation, and that it still needs the backing of the first mode (based on reciprocity) and the second mode (drawing from the social contract offered by the state) in order to sustain itself. My attention also lapsed during his discussions on world money, world commodities, and world systems à la Wallerstein. It was only revived when he described the different schools of socialist thinking, seeing great commonality between Proudhon and Marx as well as with the Young Hegelians who first developed a theory of alienation of the individual through a critique of religion, state power, and capital.

Karatani then introduces his fourth mode of exchange, labelled mode D, which marks the attempt to restore the reciprocal community of mode A on top of the market economy of mode C, and without the state structure of mode B. Although this mode of exchange is an ideal form that never existed in actuality, it manifested itself in the form of universal religions and expressed the “return of the repressed” of the primitive community’s mode of reciprocal exchange in a higher dimension. His analysis sometimes borders on the bizarre, as when he warns of a looming ecological catastrophe and generalized warfare that may take humanity back to the stage of the nomadic tribe. His description of Kant as a closet socialist advocating the disappearance of the state and of capital also seems far-fetched. But it is his reading of Marx and Hegel through Kant that may provide the greatest food for thought to modern philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek, who quotes Karatani eloquently in his books. Based on solid anthropological data and a re-reading of Marx’s classic texts, Karatani’s work may generate a thousand theoretical explosions, placing the construction of world history systems back at the heart of the philosophical agenda.

The Philosophical Underpinning of Cinema Studies

A review of Gilles Deleuze′s Time Machine, David Rodowick, Duke University Press, 1997.

Rodowick.jpgThe Duke Reader doesn’t usually review philosophy books. Duke University Press doesn’t publish a philosophy series, and only addresses the work of philosophers in conjunction to other disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, or loosely defined “theory”. Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine stands at the intersection between philosophy and cinema studies. It provides a companion reader to the two books Deleuze devoted to cinema, The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, and can be read along with them. Deleuze’s philosophy is notoriously hard to grasp. Readers who have fully mastered his thought and are able to discuss it intelligently can mostly be found in philosophy departments of universities, and even there their numbers may be scarce. At the same time, Deleuze provides easy snipets and ready-made concepts that can be mobilized by other disciplines, with little consideration for philosophical rigor and accuracy. Books by Deleuze and Guattari have coined concepts and metaphors that were used in avant-garde cultural productions, from the film Matrix to the techno music label Mille Plateaux. Deleuze himself encouraged these derivative uses of his thought, and allowed for different levels of reading. His famous video series of interviews, The Abécédaire, was designed for a wide audience and was appropriated as such by many persons who had only little exposure to philosophy. Does Rodowick’s book make Deleuze easier to read and more user-friendly? Is it redundant with Deleuze’s twin books on cinema, or does it provide added value for the non-specialist? And more broadly, does Deleuze’s philosophy offer something meaningful to our understanding of films?

A philosopher is a person who creates concepts

My answer to these questions is a qualified yes. As a reader unfamiliar both with Deleuze’s philosophy and with film theory, I was sometimes put off by the difficult jargon and abstract reasoning that may be more familiar to scholars well versed in both disciplines. Here I must confess that the cinema terms, such as the frame, the shot, the montage, the close-up, or the out-of-field, were no more easy to assimilate than the philosophical concepts. In our society saturated by media images and screen pictures, a basic understanding of how movies are shot and produced should be a requisite part of a general education; but film and media training often fall outside the formal curriculum of the school system. On the other hand, philosophy is part of secondary education in my native France, and I have always enjoyed playing with abstract ideas and concepts. I may therefore conform with Deleuze’s definition of a philosopher as a person dealing with concepts. Here I have to confess that most of Rodowick’s Time Machine fell way beyond my reach, and that I skipped through entire paragraphs without being able to retain a single clear idea. But I nonetheless found the book useful in providing a running commentary of Deleuze’s cinema essays, and it helped me work through these French theory texts as I read them along with this volume. I also was able to get a better understanding of film critiques that use Deleuze as a standard reference. Below are the notes that I took in the course of my reading, the points that I found most clear, and the parts that remained obscure or unaccessible. Of course, the limitations I found in Rodowick’s book may be largely my own, and other readers may get a more substantive intake of food for thought.

Deleuze’s purported goal in Cinema I and II is not to produce a history of the cinema but to isolate certain cinematographic concepts. Concepts, for Deleuze, are not ‘concepts of’, understood by reference to their external objects. They are things to think with, images and signs that can be combined in complex figures and assemblages. This is the meaning of the “time machine” evoked in Rodowick’s book title. Time as a concept is a machine, a device or apparatus that produces certain effects onto other categories of thought.  For Deleuze, thought is inseparable from its object. In this sense, thinking about cinema is inseparable from making it. Filmmakers and artists can be philosophers, just as philosophers must become artists. Great directors and film-makers propose a new cutting or découpage of reality in the same way that thinkers attempt to delineate the world through new concepts and ideas. Alfred Hitchcock, Sergei Eisenstein, or Alain Resnais are philosophers in their own right. Engaging their work requires the same intellectual rigor and attention to detail that one would devote to the commentary of a great philosophy book. Conversely, philosophers who engage cinema think with notions that are the tools and trade of movie-makers. They don’t write from a position of exteriority, but inhabit the universe they are mapping. Indeed, one of the virtue of Deleuze’s books on cinema is to acknowledge philosophy’s debt to film and to film theory. Thinking with the sensory power of sound and image, Deleuze also broaches deeply philosophical themes such as time and space, movement and stillness, desire and imagination. Cinema, he confesses, helps him to think.

Our debt to cinema goes deep and wide

This indebtedness to cinema is not limited to philosophers. Our culture has become a predominantly audiovisual culture. Even in our daily life, we think and understand ourselves and the world with categories we have inherited from cinema’s history. Deleuze allows us to explore what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like a movie. This colonization of everyday life affects our inner selves and changes our most intimate beliefs. In Deleuze’s parlance, our bodies become bodies-without-organs; the crowd becomes the multitude and accedes to the status of true political agent; and people are unmoored from their ascribed position and become nomadic subjects. Even the categories of time and space are affected by our film culture. In a paradigm shift first hinted by Bergson and fully developed through film history, movement can no longer be imagined as physical movement in space; it must be reconsidered as the form of change through time. The fate of the concept—and therefore the fate of philosophy—is linked to that of the image and the history of its transformations. Through the recorded picture, one sees better and farther than one reacts or feels. We often think and reason like a camera. And the camera itself is animated with a life of its own. After the director has commanded “Action!”, the film reel runs without control or interference from the operator. It is a kind of spiritual automaton, a thinking-machine or a machine désirante: it thinks and desires by itself, without the help of a conscious intervention. Life as movie, thought as camera: by taking cinema as the source of his exploration, Deleuze is only repaying our debt back, and returning the letter to the sender.

The main author Deleuze engages in his essays on cinema is Henri Bergson. In his book Matter and Memory, written in 1896, Bergson had the intuition of the changes that cinema would bring to our conceptions of time and space. He argued that thought is quintessentially temporal, a product of movement and change. In Bergson’s view, thought always moves in two directions at once: while it unfolds along a horizontal axis of association, it also expands across a vertical axis of differentiation and integration into open sets and ensembles. Through integration, related images are internalized into a conceptual whole whose movement expresses a qualitative change: the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Deleuze argued that the classical cinema, the cinema of the movement-image, provides a concrete representation of this process. By reducing the interval between photograms—the twenty-four images per second that are perceived by our brain as continuous—, between shots and between sequences—integrated through montage—, cinema introduces a new possibility for the image: the representation of movement, or the movement-image. This is similar to the concept of la durée that Bergson introduced in his early work. But in Creative Evolution, written ten years after, Bergson denied the revolutionary potential of the invention of the “moving pictures” and presented the “cinematographic illusion” as an example of false movement. In fact, said Bergson, when the cinema reconstitutes movement with mobile sections, it is merely doing what was already being done by the most ancient thought (Zeno’s paradox) or what natural perception does. Deleuze’s purpose is to reenact Bergson’s fundamental intuition of the representation of thought and movement by reading him through the lenses of film theory and in conjunction with other philosophers, such as Peirce, Nietzsche, Kant, and Leibniz.

There are different levels of reading

This makes The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, as well as Rodowick’s Time Machine, difficult books to read. But books can be read at different levels. Non-specialists can read a philosophy book and get as much insights and inspiration for their own thinking as patented philosophers. The same goes with painting, music, and other art forms: one doesn’t need to ‘understand’ art or ‘know’ art history to be deeply moved at an existential level by an artwork. This even holds true for science: Deleuze confessed he was very poor at reading math and understanding formal models, but he nonetheless gained a lot from his conversations with mathematicians and scientists. Indeed, some pages of his essay on cinema seem to come straight out of a discussion on set theory. No wonder many scientific readers of Deleuze’s texts told him his philosophy “made sense” to them. But they are not the only public that could be reached by philosophy: Deleuze also confided that the most insightful testimonies of readers of his study on Leibniz, The Fold, came from surfers and from origami (folded paper) fans, who told him they could relate to his writing. Similarly, he found the most potent metaphor of his own thought process in the kneading operation that bakers apply to dough, folding and stacking the dough repeatedly so that points located on opposite sides in the original plane can come into close contact with each other. In Deleuze’s words, one needs to stand always at the tip of one’s ignorance. The autodidact can be as insightful as the academic. One just needs to know enough to work through the text and let one’s imagination run loose, in order to generate thought associations and create new meanings. Deleuze’s advice to his readers is: don’t let your ignorance inhibit you. Don’t pretend to know when you don’t know, but get as much as you can from existing knowledge.

Paradoxically for a book that is supposed to help readers interpret Deleuze, I found Rodowick’s text harder to read than Deleuze’s Cinema I and II. Part of it may be due to a language issue. I read Deleuze in the original French, whereas Time Machine uses Deleuze’s English version, with abstruse discussions on the proper way to translate certain concepts and expressions. Part of the message conveyed in the original text may be lost in translation. Deleuze is generally considered as a hard-to-read philosopher, but he also paid a great deal of attention to issues of style and aesthetic rendering. He used colorful images and metaphors to convey meaning, and he had a talent for drawing connections and making shortcuts between very different realms. By contrast, David Rodowick uses a bland and emotionless prose, and proceeds analytically to interpret Deleuze’s thought. He keeps references to movies commented by Deleuze to the minimum, and concentrates on his conceptual work as opposed to his style. The reproductions of film stills are sparse, following Deleuze’s opinion that an excessive reliance on using frame enlargements in a print medium in the name of “cinematic specificity” would be entirely oxymoronic. Rodowick operates through classifications and orderings, decomposing an idea into several components that are addressed successively. Whereas Deleuze uses digressions and often deviates from his plot line, Rodowick proceeds orderly and step-by-step,

Making sense of Deleuze’s Cinema books

Another source of difficulty is that David Rodowick considers that Deleuze’s twin books on cinema cannot be properly understood without making reference to his whole work, including books published before (such as Difference and Repetition, A Thousand Plateaus, Foucault, and What Is Philosophy?) and afterwards (The Fold). Interpreting Deleuze, in turn, cannot be made without a solid understanding of the history of philosophy, and in particular an in-depth knowledge of Bergson, Nietzsche, Kant, and Leibniz. To compound the difficulty, he adds that Deleuze should also be read in the context of the history of French film theory, with references to André Basin, Christian Metz, and Jean-Louis Schefer, most of whom remain untranslated in English. Of course, this is only a methodological postulate: one should always feel free to skim through Deleuze’s work, to delve deeply in limited passages and pages while skipping others, and to pick up only the themes and ideas that one can relate to. This is, in essence, the invitation that I would like to make: if you are not theoretically inclined, skip the commentary and go straight to the text.

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.

Getting It Up in China

A review of The Impotence Epidemic: Men’s Medicine and Sexual Desire in Contemporary China, Everett Yuehong Zhang, Duke University Press, 2015.

ImpotenceEverett Zhang was conducting fieldwork in two Chinese hospitals, documenting the reasons why men sought medical help for sexual impotence, when Viagra was first introduced into China’s market in 2000. He therefore had a unique perspective on what the media often referred to as the “impotence epidemic”, designating both the increased social visibility of male sexual dysfunction and the growing number of patients seeking treatment in nanke (men’s medicine) or urological hospital departments. At the time of Viagra’s release, Pfizer, its manufacturer, envisaged a market of more than 100 million men as potential users of “Weige” (伟哥, Great Brother) and hoped to turn China into its first consumer market in the world. Its sales projections were based on reasonable assumptions. The number of patients complaining from some degree of sexual impotence was clearly on the rise, reflecting demographic trends but also changing attitudes and values. There was a new openness in addressing sexual issues and a willingness by both men and women to experience sexually fulfilling lives, putting higher expectations on men’s potency. Renewed attention to men’s health issues since the 1980s had led to the creation of specialized units in both biomedical hospitals and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) clinics. There was no real competitor to Pfizer’s Viagra, as traditional herbal medicine or folk recipes clearly had less immediate effects in enabling sexual intercourse.

Taking Viagra along with herbal medicine

And yet Viagra sold much less than expected. In hospitals and health clinics, Chinese patients were reluctant to accept a full prescription. Instead, they requested one or two single pills, as if to avoid dependence. The drug was expensively priced, and customers were unwilling to sacrifice other expenses to make room in their budget. In addition, Viagra did not substitute for traditional remedies, but rather developed in tandem with them as people switched between Viagra and herbal medicine, taking both for seemingly compelling reasons. Viagra addressed the issue of erectile dysfunction, and its bodily effects were clearly experienced by Chinese men who reacted to it in much the same way as male subjects elsewhere. But it did not bring an end to the “impotence epidemic”, which continued to be framed as more than a health issue by the Chinese media. Viagra did not “cure” impotence or restored men’s potency because it was unable to do so. Pfizer’s projected sales figures had been based on false assumptions, and the Chinese market proved more resistant than initially envisaged.

Zhang proposes a compelling theory of why it was so, thereby demonstrating the value of a fieldwork-based anthropological study as distinct from other types of scholarly explanations. In contrast to the dominant biomedical paradigm, he rejects the notion that male potency can be reduced to the simple ability to achieve an erection. Impotence is much more than a bodily dysfunction or a “neuromuscular event”: witness, as Zhang did, the despair of men who complain of having lost their “reason to live”, or the frustration of women who accuse their companion of having become “less than a man”. But impotence is not only a metaphor, as some cultural critics would have it. Impotence is often presented as the symbol of a masculinity in crisis or as a sign of the “end of men” and the rise of women in postsocialist China. But these generalizations do not reflect the practical experiences of impotent men, nor do they explain why the demand for more and better sex resulted in anxiety for some men, leading to impotence. “In fact, notes the author, none of the discussions surrounding Chinese masculine crises was either soundly conceptualized or empirically supported.”

Male potency cannot be reduced to the ability to achieve an erection

Zhang’s fieldwork confirmed the rise of women’s desire or increased people’s longing to enjoy sex throughout their adult life, but did not go as far as to validate the claim of an “impotence epidemic” or to testify to a “new type of impotence”. During the Maoist period, people were discouraged from seeing doctors about impotence, as sexuality was repressed and the desire for individual sexual pleasure was regarded as antithetical to the collective ethos of revolution. If anything, patients came to consultations to complain about nocturnal emissions (yijing), a complaint that more or less disappeared in the post-Maoist era. When men’s health clinics or nanke departments emerged in the new era, they medicalized impotence and established it as a legitimate “disease” warranting medical attention. Private selves emerged when the overall ethos of sacrifice and asceticism gave way to the exaltation of romantic love and then to the justification of sexual desire and pleasure. But structural impediments to sexual desire did not disappear overnight, such as the physical separation of married couples and other constraints on intimacy induced by the danwei (work unit) and hukou (household registration) systems. Other biopolitical interventions created gaps between the revolutionary class and the outcast relatives of counter-revolutionaries, between the urban and the rural or, more recently, between the rich and the poor.

The main value of the book lies in its rich collection of life stories and individual cases of men and women confronted with impotence. The amount of suffering accumulated under Maoist socialism is staggering. People interviewed in the course of this research retained collective memory of starvation during the Great Leap Famine, and feeling hungry was a common experience well into the sixties. Maoist China was a man-eat-man’s world, where middle-aged men would snatch food from school children or steal from food stalls to assuage their hunger. It was also a time when children would denounce their parents for counterrevolutionary behavior, or would call their mother by their given name in a show of disrespect in order to draw a clear line between themselves and bad parents. Sexual misery and backwardness also provided a common background. Some of Zhang’s interlocutors never touched a woman’s hand until they were thirty years old; others confessed that the first time they saw a naked female body was when they saw a Western oil painting of a female body, or when they glimpsed scenes of a classical ballet in a movie. A nineteen years-old girl didn’t understand the question when the doctor asked if she had begun lijia (menstruation) and thought lijia was a foreign word. Many persons consulting for impotence confess that they never had sexual intercourse or had tried to have sex once of twice but failed. Their conviction that they were impotent was based on very limited physical contact with women or was merely a product of their imagination.

Bedroom stories

As Zhang argues convincingly, it takes two to tango; or in words borrowed from phenomenology, “in the final analysis, curing impotence means building intercorporeal intimacy.” In paragraphs that could have been borrowed from Masters and Johnson, Zhang describes the various components of sexual intercorporeality: bodies need to be in contact, as in “touching, kissing, licking, rubbing, and so on”; but they also need to be in sync, geared toward one another in a process of “bodying forth”; and other sensory inputs (such as “seeing, touching, and smelling the naked female body, tasting the tongue of the female, or hearing her scream”) may provide additional stimulus. Male impotence very often originates in the failure of one of these intercorporeal dimensions: lack of touching, as when the husband lies side by side to his wife, waiting to achieve an erection; ignorance of the most basic facts of life, due to the lack of sex education; and withdrawal from the sensory world that is symptomatic of a more serious loss of “potency” in life. As the author notes, with a good deal of common sense, “women’s involvement in managing impotence is not any less important than men’s, and, in fact, at times may be more important. Impotence, after all, is not only a neurovascular event affecting the individual male body. It is also a social, familial event and an intercorporeal, gendered event.”

The Impotence Epidemic is not only ethnographically rich, it is also theoretically elaborate. Zhang received his PhD in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley, in a department known for its emphasis on social and cultural theory. One of his teachers, Paul Rabinow, initiated generations of English-speaking students to the thought of French philosopher Michel Foucault. His thesis advisor, Arthur Kleinman, who teaches medical anthropology at Harvard, recently edited a book (reviewed here) about how anthropologists engage philosophy. Zhang confesses he took classes in philosophy, including one with John Searle, who involuntarily provided him with a way to think about erection (“Now I want to raise my right arm. Look, my right arm is up.”) Throughout the book, he makes frequent references to Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger, as well as to Freud and Lacan.

Confronting theory with fieldwork observations

Engaging the thought of these canonical authors can sometimes feel as intimidating as having sex for the first time. Zhang shows it doesn’t have to be so. What is important is to build a rapport. Zhang graduated from his theory-heavy curriculum with a pragmatic mindset and a heavy dose of common sense. He uses what he can get from the theoretical toolbox, without forcing his erudition onto the reader. He is able to summarize complex reasoning in a few sentences, and to turn difficult words into useful tools. Sometimes only the title of a book or one single expression coined by one distinguished thinker can open up an evocative space and act as useful heuristic. Zhang refers to Deleuze and Gattari’s A Thousand Plateaux to label his collection of life stories and medical cases as “one thousand bodies of impotence.” Impotence is itself a kind of plateau, defined by Gregory Bateson as a force of continuous intensity without any orientation toward a culminating point or an external end. Throughout his book, Zhang provides succinct and transparent definitions of key concepts–Deleuze’s assemblages, Bourdieu’s habitus, Foucault’s biopower, Merleau-Ponty’s intercorporeality, Heidegger’s being-in-the-world, etc. He then tests their validity by confronting them to his fieldwork observations, sometimes giving them a twist or new polish to make them fit with his ethnographic material. In many cases, theory is found lacking, and needs to be completed with the lessons learned from participatory observation.

Zhang’s two main sources of philosophical inspiration are Deleuze and Foucault. The first allows him to think about the impotence epidemic as a positive development that signals the rise of desire; the second provides him with a method for investigating the cultivation of self in post-Maoist China. Criticizing Lacan’s notion of desire as lack, Deleuze and Guattari introduce useful concepts to think about the production of desire or, as they say, “desiring production”, which includes “the desire to desire”. They describe the force of capitalism in terms of generating flows of production and desire, which are coded (restricted) and decoded (loosened) in a moral economy of desire. Their analysis focuses on the decoding phase that is the hallmark of capitalism, lessening restrictions on desire to create deterritorialized flows. Zhang prefers to focus on the “recoding” of flows of desire or “reterritorialization” as exemplified in the cultivation of life through an ethic of “yangsheng” which advocates preserving seminal essence. Sexual cultivation in contemporary China, like the “care of the self” in ancient Greece as studied by Foucault, is an ethical approach to coping with desire. Yangsheng involves everything from sleep to dietary regimens, bathing, one’s temperament in response to changes in climate, qigong, walking, and the bedchamber arts. It is a way to regain potency over one’s life. Foucault, in order to account for unreason and madness, chose to produce a history of reason in Western civilization. Similarly, studying impotence leads Zhang to delineate life’s potency, a notion that goes well beyond the ability to achieve an erection.

Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View

A review of Anthropological Futures, Michael M. J. Fischer, Duke University Press, 2009.

Michael FischerKant is seldom claimed as an ancestor by anthropologists. That he wrote an “Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View” is considered irrelevant for the history or epistemology of the discipline: the “study of man” that the philosopher from Königsberg had in mind was very different from the detailed ethnographic observations by the fieldworkers of the twentieth century. For modern scholars trained in the anthropology discipline, philosophy was considered a waste of time, mainly irrelevant and sometimes dangerous. Ethnography was about facts, not speculation.

Arguably, the main advances in the discipline are associated with anthropologists who were theoretically inclined, and philosophy formed the background of their intellectual constructions. But other philosophical references tended to outweigh Kant’s transcendental idealism. Hegel and Comte exerted a lasting influence on the social sciences, as well as Marx, Durkheim and Weber, whom sociology claims as founding fathers. More recently, anthropologists well versed in theory have turned to Heidegger as well as to French modern philosophers also popular in cultural studies departments: references to Foucault fill the pages of social science journals, and one also finds discussions on Derrida’s deconstructionism, Deleuze’s contribution to media studies, Levinas’ ethics of the Other, or Lacan’s brand of psychoanalysis. Most of the time, however, the philosophical underpinnings of ethnographic studies remain implicit, and social scientists who claim fieldwork as the foundational pillar of their discipline remain wary of theories that are not empirically grounded. Theoretical musings remain the preserve of elder scholars, who can claim the benefit of accumulated experience, have cultivated a taste for literary prowess, and are too old to go to the field anyway.

Claiming Kant as an ancestor of modern anthropology

The return to Kant proposed by Michael Fischer in Anthropological Futures is therefore intriguing. True, as he confesses, the author has always dabbled in philosophy. Along his training in anthropology, he kept philosophy as a minor in his curriculum, and he complemented his formal training with personal readings. His defining moment was when he attended a conference entitled The Structuralism Controversy held at John Hopkins University in 1966, with the cream of French theorists in attendance, from Lévi-Strauss to Derrida and Lacan: it was there that the word “poststructuralism” was apparently coined, and Fischer was, as he claims, present at the creation. Later at the University of Chicago, he was fortunate enough to attend lectures and seminars by Hannah Arendt, Paul Ricoeur, Mircea Eliade, and two former students of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But as his references show, he was always more inclined to pick ideas and metaphors from the latest postmodern critics and French luminaries than to meditate over the abstract metaphysics and stern moral imperatives of eighteenth century’s Immanuel Kant.

Returning to Kant is however justified on several grounds. First, as Fischer notes, particularly for French theory in the late twentieth century Kant remains an important intertext: for Bourdieu, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, and others. Second, although it is not clearly stated, one gets the feeling that our world requires a moral compass and a pragmatic agenda that postmodern critics have been unable to provide. Rereading Kant, along with Hannah Arendt and other moralists, provide our contemporaries with such perspective. It is highly revealing that when Iranian intellectuals connected to Fischer and opposed to the clerical regime want to find references in modern philosophy, they turn to Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, and John Rawls, not Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and the like. The return to Kant is a return to the spirit of the Enlightenment. Countering interpretations by the Frankfurt School (who underscored the “dark side” of the Enlightenment) and by Lacan (who read Kant along with Sade), Fischer notes that “the Enlightenment was not so ethnocentric and parochial as some detractors suggest.”

In addition, one discovers in Kant an attention to detail, a recognition of the “plurality of the human condition” (to use Arendt’s words), and a focus on “the unsociable sociability of man” (Kant’s own expression) that prefigures modern anthropology. Kant apparently was an avid reader of travelers’ reports, explorers’ journals, and news from other countries. He considered his teaching of Anthropology as well as Geography as essential part in the upbringing of citizens of the world. While one should not expect from Kant’s writings anything approaching the thick description or comparative standards of modern ethnography, it nonetheless provides a logical prolegomenon to much of that project. As a last point, cosmopolitanism, conceived as not only knowing but participating in the world, again constitutes our political horizon. Despite its shortcomings, the European Union is the closest approximation to the federation of republics that Kant envisaged in his philosophical sketch for a perpetual peace.

Anthropology as a philosophical mode of enquiry

Fischer’s discussion on Kant is based on the premise that anthropology should return to fundamental moral and cultural issues and become what some precursors envisaged for it: a philosophical mode of enquiry, grounded in theory as well as observation, and bridging various disciplines into an integrated whole. Anthropology stands at the crossroad of the many academic disciplines that have developed over the years around literature departments and social science faculties. Indeed, just as Auguste Comte claimed sociology as the queen of all disciplines, Fischer envisages for anthropology a pivotal role, dethroning cultural studies in its ability to generate interdisciplinary work between the humanities and social sciences. In the end, such discipline should be capable of restoring the human being to a free condition. It should “not just ask what man is, but what one can expect of him.”

Fischer sees particular potential in his own branch of inquiry, the anthropology of science, whose ultimate objective is to reconnect the procedures of the natural sciences with the goals of the human sciences. In comparison with other social studies of science–the field seems to be replete with acronyms, from STS to SSK, SCOT and ANT–, anthropology can bring attention to other terrains beyond the traditional focus on Europe and America. This is what the author does, in short vignettes presenting research labs in emerging countries, with a focus that goes beyond the conventional claims of postcolonial studies or the center/periphery duality. As he notes in a short manifesto concluding a survey on the interface between nature and society, “An anthropology to come will need to be collaborative and intercultural, not only across traditional cultures, but across cultures of specialization, and it will need not only to incorporate the lively languages of the new technosciences, but also reread, decipher, and redeploy the palimpsests of traditional knowledges.”

Borrowing metaphors from the hard sciences

In his attempt to substitute anthropology to cultural studies at the pinnacle of the humanities, Fischer adopts many tics and proclivities of his colleagues in cultural studies departments. The book’s chapters are usually built around a basic notion (culture, science, nature, the body) that is “unpacked” into several loosely-connected dimensions, with various illustration from the arts and the social science literature. Bibliographical references are brought in more as a show of scholarship and for the halo of scientificity that they bring than for close readings or detailed criticism. Footnotes are prolific and develop a narrative of their own, sometimes orthogonal to the main body of the text. Like scholars in critical theory, Fischer likes to bring key words and metaphors from the hard sciences, often used out of context. Such categories include haplotype groups, experimental systems, recombinant science, graphemic spaces, object-oriented languages, emergent forms of life, and material-semiotic operators. Lastly, his writing lacks both the rigorous accuracy of science and the metaphorical literality of the humanities, leaving the reader with convoluted sentences that sometimes require second or third readings. These theoretical musings are far from the models of style and precision that authors such as Clifford Geertz have set forth for the discipline.