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Duke University Press Books
Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary

Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary

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In this compact volume two of anthropology’s most influential theorists, Paul Rabinow and George E. Marcus, engage in a series of conversations about the past, present, and future of anthropological knowledge, pedagogy, and practice. James D. Faubion joins in several exchanges to facilitate and elaborate the dialogue, and Tobias Rees moderates the discussions and contributes an introduction and an afterword to the volume. Most of the conversations are focused on contemporary challenges to how anthropology understands its subject and how ethnographic research projects are designed and carried out. Rabinow and Marcus reflect on what remains distinctly anthropological about the study of contemporary events and processes, and they contemplate productive new directions for the field. The two converge in Marcus’s emphasis on the need to redesign pedagogical practices for training anthropological researchers and in Rabinow’s proposal of collaborative initiatives in which ethnographic research designs could be analyzed, experimented with, and transformed.

Both Rabinow and Marcus participated in the milestone collection Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Published in 1986, Writing Culture catalyzed a reassessment of how ethnographers encountered, studied, and wrote about their subjects. In the opening conversations of Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Rabinow and Marcus take stock of anthropology’s recent past by discussing the intellectual scene in which Writing Culture intervened, the book’s contributions, and its conceptual limitations. Considering how the field has developed since the publication of that volume, they address topics including ethnography’s self-reflexive turn, scholars’ increased focus on questions of identity, the Public Culture project, science and technology studies, and the changing interests and goals of students. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary allows readers to eavesdrop on lively conversations between anthropologists who have helped to shape their field’s recent past and are deeply invested in its future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822343707
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/10/2008
Series: a John Hope Franklin Center Book Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 152
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Paul Rabinow is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary, A Machine to Make a Future: Biotech Chronicles (with Talia Dan-Cohen), and Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment.

George E. Marcus is the Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His books include Ethnography through Thick and Thin; Ocasião: The Marquis and the Anthropologist, A Collaboration (with Fernando Mascarenhas); and Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (with Michael M. J. Fischer).

James Faubion is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Rice University. He is the author of The Shadows and Lights of Waco: Millennialism Today and Modern Greek Lessons: A Primer in Historical Constructivism.

Tobias Rees is Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine and the Department of Anthropology at McGill University.

Read an Excerpt


By Paul Rabinow George E. Marcus James D. Faubion Tobias Rees


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4370-7

Chapter One


TR: I would like to begin our conversations by framing what both of you have described as a distinct challenge facing anthropology today. Since the 1980s, anthropologists have moved into new terrains-technoscience, finance, media, law, etc.-but the concepts available to analyze these new terrains are largely survivals of the past, survivals from a time when anthropologists studied the culture and social organization of far-away others. The inevitable result is a profound mismatch between old concepts and new analytical requirements. Said in another, perhaps too schematic way, anthropologists are increasingly studying timely phenomena with tools developed to study people out of time. On the one hand, this mismatch is exciting for it invites conceptual innovation and demonstrations of analytical skill. On the other hand, it is unsettling, for the necessary innovation implies a thorough revision of the concepts, problems, questions, and topics that have been constitutive of the discipline. Ultimately, the challenge is to restate anthropology in relation to its classical tropes. Both of you agree with this broad task but there are some differences in the ways you would pursue it. Before we explore these differences, let's talk about how contemporary anthropology has been set in motion. Why did anthropologists enter into new research arenas? A good point of departure for discussing this question might be the critique of the 1980s that was epitomized in Writing Culture, an intellectual movement in which both of you have been protagonists. What happened? What were your dissatisfactions with anthropology as it existed in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s?

PR: In America, at least, the shift you note began well before the 1980s. And there is a specific prehistory to Writing Culture, centered on the figure of Clifford Geertz and the joint Harvard, MIT, and Ford Foundation projects of the 1950s that had combined Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, and the ambitious projects of the Harvard Social Relations group. The ideas of a carefully conceived and conceptually worked-out multidisciplinary project of research were put into practice on a large scale in Indonesia. Thus, Geertz was initially a forerunner in rethinking and reorienting the practices of the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular. So maybe that period would be a place to begin.

GM: There certainly was a more authoritative model of how one became an anthropologist in the days of the Harvard and MIT projects to which you refer. Of course, however much is owed to the pre-World-War-II era when Malinowski and Boas pioneered the discipline's distinctive research practices, that model was undergoing change. This was especially true in the United States during anthropology's short post-war expansion, the twilight of its Golden Age, which coincided with Cold War investments in academic expertise, notably area studies, with "development" being the common problem, and ending by the time Paul and I were becoming professors. Actually, we were its beneficiaries as students in elite graduate programs.

TR: Was there continuity between Boasian and post-war anthropology in the sense that anthropology remained concerned with the faraway other, located in "our" past?

GM: Yes. And in retrospect, what is most remarkable and striking in my view is the rupture that the period of the 1980s through the early 1990s marked and produced in the specific kinds of questions, topics, and quite deep traditions of inquiry with which anthropology had been concerned and through which it defined itself. The Writing Culture critiques and the debates they stimulated were only the catalyst, however powerful. Geertz is an interesting, towering, transitional figure in terms of the rupture that took place. I think he was the first figure who, even though still of the Golden Age and deeply within anthropology's traditional concerns, under the guise of symbolic anthropology, and then interpretive anthropology, also practiced an anthropology that centrally engaged other disciplines. I'm thinking here of his distinctive contributions to the modernization/ development paradigm of the day-the Harvard-MIT development projects in Indonesia and later the New Nations Committee at Chicago-to the flowering of his interest in the theories and philosophies that informed the study of literature and the humanities generally. That's how I see his enduring importance; he legitimated the stature and presence of anthropology in the interdisciplinary domains and peripheries where it now thrives (and not necessarily in ways he would have endorsed). He forged a presence and constituency for anthropology, by dint of a personal style of writing rather than forming a "school." He legitimated a different kind of core anthropology without it really ever being a project.

PR: I think that distinction is very important. Talcott Parsons at Harvard basically assigned "culture" to a small group of people, the most prominent of whom were Clifford Geertz and Robert Bellah. Bellah took up the Weberian project in Japan, asking, how did it become industrial and modern in the light of its cultural singularity? And Geertz's role was to develop and advance a theory of culture set within a neo-Weberian project of development at a time of decolonization. A version of this project was continued at the University of Chicago in the Committee on New Nations. However, the Vietnam War and the crisis of the development model brought all that to an end for Geertz. Others like Bernard Cohn continued in a more critical mode, for example, engaging actively with subaltern studies.

TR: So, Geertz's focus on culture goes back to Harvard and Talcott Parsons?

PR: It was part of the Harvard project to construct a total human science that would be multi-disciplinary, divided into specific analytical areas, graphically ordered in Parsons's famous tables, and unified under a "general theory of action." The project did not endure whether conceptually, institutionally, or politically. Thus, George's point that anthropologists were marginal is true, though for awhile at least, even after his "interpretive turn" in the early 1970s, Geertz was touted as a great trailblazer of a new social science. For example, he was the first social scientist to be appointed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Unfortunately, his tenure there turned into a failed opportunity to build something substantial and enduring.

GM: What distinguishes the present from Geertz's heyday is that anthropology then had a slot to participate in, a secure but marginal slot at what I would call its interdisciplinary peripheries. It was largely a social science slot in a neocolonial project of development. Today, anthropology's engagements have shifted. They are less with social sciences and more with what remains institutionally of the humanities-focused movements of the 1980s and 1990s, of which Writing Culture was a part and expression. In recent years anthropology's research agendas have been defined by the terms and frameworks produced by those conversations, perhaps because they brought to culture and difference, which have historically been formative of anthropology itself, new theoretical and conceptual resources. Anthropology has transformed itself internally through this shift in the direction of its most important interdisciplinary alliances. Yet, I find it curious that anthropology's interdisciplinary partners, for example in literary and cultural studies, seem to be oblivious to the changes they have wrought in this field. What they know of anthropology is what the Writing Culture critique indeed revised and updated, rather than what happened after Writing Culture. Often, when I meet someone from a literature department today, or anyone of the general public for that matter, they still think what anthropologists have to say comes out of the experience of studying peoples like the Trobriand Islanders, in relative isolation, even though the discourse and research concerns of anthropology are now much more expansive and diffuse. I suppose, in some sense, that the humanities (and a mainstream public) need anthropology to keep representing the "primitive."

TR: And this "expansive and diffuse discourse" is what we want to address as a symptom of the contemporary condition of anthropology?

GM: What most interests me in this symptom is what could recreate a density of technical consideration amid all this diversity of work within the discipline and even if that can be done at all now. What counts as data in research-as ethnography? Is ethnography mainly about data anymore? What forms do data take, and how distinctive are they? And if anthropological knowledge is not significantly based on technical considerations, as in the past history of ethnography, then what? If the writ for ethnography is still descriptive analysis, but if ethnographies today are more complex documents of research experiences that the training models and process do not sufficiently imagine, or only thinly control, then what?


TR: You both seem to agree that anthropology, in the 1960s and 70s, had a secure project and position, and yet, both of you were dissatisfied with the state of the anthropological project as it was. Why? What was wrong with the Harvard project of a total human science?

JF: George, you yourself arrived at Harvard's Department of Social Relations to witness its crumbling. That was clearly crucial to your own sensibility with respect to anthropology.

PR: What year?

GM: I was supposed to go to graduate school at Harvard in 1968 but I deferred it for a fellowship at Cambridge University and then was drafted into the Army. I came back to Harvard in 1971. I entered Social Relations with an emphasis in anthropology but ended up with a Ph.D. from the anthropology department. Within four years of my arrival, Social Relations had disappeared. It felt like the end of a historic project in interdisciplinary optimism. Talcott Parsons was still there, giving abstract lectures reminiscent of some heyday, but mostly to foreign students ...

PR: ... such as Niklas Luhmann.

GM: Social anthropology at Harvard in the early 1970s had retreated into its most traditional forms. But what impressed me most was an intellectual underground or invisible college, especially among theory-oriented students who had been in Social Relations. For instance, none of the French writers who would become important to thinking about culture, such as Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, et al. were read in the courses I took at Harvard in anthropology, social relations, or elsewhere. Marxist theory was big at the time-Althusser, Godelier, the early Habermas. The poststructuralist thinkers were what students were talking about, reading these works on their own. So I belong to a generation in which we were trained traditionally but with this background reading of works in translation in the early 1970s. And this is where our energy and excitement were found.

PR: In Chicago, things were not crumbling in those years, quite the opposite (even though Geertz left in 1970). I was there during the 1960s (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), and we were reading French and German work in the core courses, and that continued in different ways when Victor Turner and Marshall Sahlins came, and even more so with the Comaroffs. I have not had the same sense of rupture and rebellion against the discipline because I was always oriented to a broader conception of the "cultural sciences" of the Weberian kind. Hence I have less disappointment in the existing discipline than you do, although I share many of your dissatisfactions with existing anthropology. This broader view of anthropology in a classic theoretical tradition is what one might call the "Chicago effect," and which one sees in so many Chicago students of my generation and up to the present. I saw anthropology as one discipline among others in the interpretive social sciences, understood with a good deal of historical depth and comparative reach.

TR: Though in Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco you say, a bit like George, that there was a clear gap between students and the faculty. You write that Thomas Kuhn's term "paradigm exhaustion" captured the atmosphere you found yourself in. So what was exhausted?

PR: Most significantly it was the politics, because this was during the Vietnam War and Geertz was basically in favor of the Vietnam War, albeit in a nuanced and doubt-ridden manner. And then there was a more existential sense, which we might have complex reversals on here, that the American academy was moving toward ever more specialization under pressure from the Cold War apparatus; the Hutchins model of a comprehensive curriculum and Bildung appeared to be in trouble even at Chicago. Fortunately, to a surprising extent, that model of pedagogy has endured. I went into anthropology in many ways for existential reasons both personal and political. These broader crises fed a sense of alienation, but the problem wasn't that we weren't allowed to read Gadamer or Ricoeur. I mean, Geertz was writing about Ricoeur. I first heard about Foucault as an undergraduate in a reading course on Buddhism that I was doing with the historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, who thought Foucault's view of history was too static. So Harvard and Chicago were different in this respect.

JF: But didn't your disillusionment, the one that Tobias articulated with regard to Reflections on Fieldwork, have to do with Hutchins's idea of the university? Isn't that what you and your generation had come to see, largely for political reasons, as altogether too imperialistic and ethnocentric?

PR: Not entirely. I thought there was complicity, betrayal, and alienation, but not because the intellectual life at Chicago was impoverished or irrelevant. Sitting there and listening to Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau, Leo Strauss, Raymond Aron, Louis Dumont, or Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Richard McKeon, I was not alienated from thinking, and I'm still not alienated from it. Of course, this does not mean that I agreed with everything I heard. Consensus was hardly the ethos at Chicago; argument was cherished. The Strauss circle never tempted me, although it was fascinating for a young American to hear this diminutive man talking with such passion and authority about Spinoza or Plato. On the philosophic side, the main influence for me was Richard McKeon. He was an Aristotelian and a pragmatist. McKeon was fundamentally opposed to Strauss and others who privileged the past over a supposedly fallen modernity. McKeon thought that was a dangerous and false opposition.

Chicago had a deep seriousness and provided a sustained intellectual training that the American university in general needs to reaffirm. There was awareness that the University of Chicago as an institution was complicit with the racism implicit in and abetted by urban renewal, and that the core curriculum was not consistently energetic enough in making connections to the larger geopolitics of America and the world. That being said, one should remember that David Schneider and Barney Cohn, among others, were making those connections with clarity and passion. It is worth remembering that anthropologists as different as Arjun Appadurai, Nick Dirks, and I are all deeply indebted to Barney Cohn.

JF: This is worth continuing to articulate. This is what George has called the Chicago high-mindedness.


Excerpted from DESIGNS FOR AN ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE CONTEMPORARY by Paul Rabinow George E. Marcus James D. Faubion Tobias Rees Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Introduction by Tobias Rees....................13
Dialogue I: Anthropology in Motion....................33
Dialogue II: After Writing Culture....................45
Dialogue III: Anthropology Today....................55
Dialogue IV: The Anthropology of the Contemporary....................73
Dialogue V: In Search of (New) Norms and Forms....................93
Dialogue VI: Of Timing and Texts....................105
Dialogue VII: Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary....................115
Afterword by Tobias Rees....................123

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