Designs on the Contemporary pursues the challenge of how to design and put into practice strategies for inquiring into the intersections of philosophy and anthropology. Drawing on the conceptual repertoires of Max Weber, Michel Foucault, and John Dewey, among others, Paul Rabinow and Anthony Stavrianakis reflect on and experiment with how to give form to anthropological inquiry and its aftermath, with special attention to the ethical formation and ramifications of this mode of engagement.
The authors continue their prior explorations of the contemporary in past works: How to conceptualize, test, and give form to breakdowns of truth and conduct, as well as how to open up possibilities for the remediation of such breakdowns. They offer a surprising and contrasting pair of case studies of two figures who engaged with contemporary breakdowns: Salman Rushdie and Gerhard Richter. Approaching Richter’s artistic struggles with form and technique in the long wake of modernism and Rushdie’s struggles to find a narrative formas well as a form for livingto respond to the Iranian fatwa issued against him, they show how both men formulated different new approaches to anthropology for the twenty-first century.
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About the Author
Paul Rabinow is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author or coauthor of many books, including The Accompaniment and Designing Human Practices, both published by the University of Chicago Press. Anthony Stavrianakis received his PhD in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Together they are coauthors of Demands of the Day, also published by the University of Chicago Press
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Designs on the Contemporary
By Paul Rabinow, Anthony Stavrianakis
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Problematization of the Modern: Bios
The only true anthropology is a pragmatic anthropology, where each fact is placed within the open system of können and sollen. —Michel Foucault
I continue to think that [we] require work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty. —Michel Foucault
During 2006–2011 we undertook a series of experiments in collaboration among and between the biological and human sciences to see not only what we could (können) achieve by working together, but more importantly by seeking to ascertain what we should (sollen) achieve if things went as we hoped they would. That is to say, we wanted to see what would happen if a form of mutually enriching and synergistic practice could be imagined, invented, and experimented with, and its results analyzed. It is fair to say that when we began this project in 2006 we were working at the limits of what had been attempted previously by others within the prior jurisdictional forms to bring the biosciences and human sciences into a common frame in which actors contracted to a minimal equality, in the name of a vocational science worthy of the name.
We undertook these experiments as a task and an obligation. Consequently, as long as the work and its conclusions were rigorously and honestly carried out and iteratively evaluated, we would be satisfied that veridictionally our results, whatever they might be, would be warrantable and assertible. At the end point of a five-year multisited and multi-investigator experiment, as well as concurrent sets of experiments in web-design and pedagogical innovation, we felt sure that the determinations produced within the experimental systems were pragmatically warrantable in the sense John Dewey has given to the term. We had worked patiently attempting to invent forms and to occupy them; as we have documented, we encountered many obstacles in giving form to our impatience for a different practice of liberty, although we did succeed in practicing a form of libertas.
Given the determinations we have established in, and from, our prior experimental situation, we were now in a position legitimately to put forth judgments as to what could be done currently within the framework of collaboration; and, in the light of the determinations that buttress those judgments, to propose a modified type of practice, a different manner of form-giving as to what is reasonable to hope for and to attempt today under actually existing conditions. We were in a position, in other words, to pose the question: What difference does today make with respect to the near future?
In order to do so, however, in the light of our experiments and after sustained examination of the objects produced during the inquiry, we have found it necessary to reconsider, as well as to reconfigure, the core objects and determinations not only with which we had been engaged but more pertinent here with which we should now be engaged. Above all else, we have decided that we should and could concentrate on the forms, not just the ideas or values, which had always been the ultimate objective, we now came to realize, of the whole undertaking as well as the experiments in which we sought to put it to a test. We had begun with ideas (collaboration, practice, diagnosis, etc.) and values (trust, sincerity, truthfulness, etc.,), but no satisfactory forms. This lack was not a deficit as the whole undertaking was premised and contracted on the hoped for invention of new collaborative knowledge-seeking practices for the twenty-first century.
In this stage of evaluation, and as preparatory work to move ahead, the first crucial step was to reconsider what we had taken to be the problem space of our inquiry. Upon reflection, after having worked through as much as we had on multiple registers, we decided that the object and objective we had been actually assembling could be grouped under the term bios. Remembering that a term is a word + a concept + a referent, we began to understand more clearly that different and contrastive concepts and referents had been (and continued to be) collapsed under the same word.
Surprisingly, although some scholarly help concerning the term bios is available and some is invaluable in its own right; we discovered nonetheless that the existing inquiries and genealogies that have been produced so as to address objects and problems proximate to our own were in the end significantly different in their form and standards than ours such that their apparent proximity has proved to be an obstacle, at least initially, to our understanding and the invention of future form-giving.
Originally, we had been under the sway of our own assumptions that the core term (and its associated concepts and referents, as well as the problem space in which they were, had been and might be further situated) which we were striving to understand and to transform was anthropos. It was only after having brought to fruition a complex set of experiments in participant-observation, collaboration, and pedagogy, and equally having produced a series of books, that we came to appreciate that while anthropos unquestionably and self-evidently remains an objective for an anthropology of the contemporary; it apparently can only be arrived at after more mediations have been confronted, clarified, addressed, and worked through.
In that light, rather unexpectedly (and not without a certain obstinacy given how broadly these terms are taken to be as foundational ones which one cannot venture beyond) we had significantly less trouble concurring that neither nature nor culture had been either baseline terms or objects of inquiry for us. It was in that available light that it became clear to us that we had been working all along on bios. Such an insight was not exactly a surprise; we had been engaging with biologists all the way through and the whole enterprise had begun with a challenge to bring a branch of the postgenomic sciences into a productive relationship with an ethically informed anthropology.
Nonetheless, while in and of itself clarifying, identifying the term bios alone did not solve everything as recent decades have seen a proliferation of speculation on the term life. We had noticed during the course of our participant-observation that although the social sciences and a branch or two of high speculation in European philosophy had devoted themselves to deploying the term, we never encountered it as a technical term or object in an experimental system in the biosciences. There were thousands upon thousands of experiments concerning molecules; we had encountered none concerning the molecularization of life. In sum, life was not a scientific term—its concepts and referents were metaphysical or merely an exercise in proliferating doxa.
As to life in the social and philosophic discourses we knew rarely had been given a precise designation (in many cases because it was implied that its referent was to be found in the biosciences or in nature or in culture). When it has been given a more precise meaning and function, as in the work of Giorgio Agamben, we disagreed with the conceptual field and its associated claims. Agamben's sense of the term life as a problem space and an object enduring over millennia in Western thought and practice certainly did not harmonize with the work of Michel Foucault or Georges Canguilhem which we had a claim to understanding. Naturally that slippage, if slippage it were, did not invalidate Agamben's Heideggerian perspective but only indicated that the problem space and interpretive tools with which he had been laboring was significantly different from our own. We knew we had to construct a pathway different than Agamben's singular genealogy of life understood as a millennial reduction of bios to zoe, bare life.
We also knew that parallel work was required to differentiate our inquiries from the sociological approaches perhaps most admirably developed by Nikolas Rose. Rose's work was organized around the idea of neoliberalism and hence was primarily concerned with a mode of governance and secondarily with a mode of subjectivation (the responsible subject). Although Rose and his associates do take up veridictional concerns, they are consistently subsumed under and subsidiary to the jurisdictional and subjectivational modes. Like Agamben, although more historically and geographically delimited, Rose deploys the term life as a component of a neoliberal world view. Taken in its own terms, the corpus of work constitutes a major contribution to understanding the present; its eschewal of conceptual work—"biopower is a perspective not a concept"—separates its objects, objectives, and ultimate goals from our own.
The Legitimacy of Modernity
This nature has nothing more in common with the ancient concept of nature to which the mimesis idea referred: the unmakable model of all that is made. That all phenomena can be manufactured is instead the universal presupposition of experimental investigations of nature, and hypotheses are outlines of instructions for the manufacture of phenomena. Nature then becomes the embodiment of the possible results of technology. —Hans Blumenberg
An important cornerstone of the ramifying conceptual architecture we are working within depends on the work of Hans Blumenberg. His diagnosis of the transformation of nature in modernity is a fundamental entry into a problem space that had no direct predecessors in the history of ideas. Following genealogical expositions of the present, Blumenberg could ground his admonition not to attempt to reoccupy the older problem spaces (cosmos, theology) in which nature had been located before modernity. With that illuminating insight, and within the constraints of his masterful and highly original history of ideas as responses to problems rooted in metaphors, Blumenberg, consistent with his own distinctive version of the history of the present, carried his explorations no further forward in time.
Blumenberg's core enterprise was undertaken as a refutation not only of Heidegger's history of metaphysics about which Blumenberg frequently ironizes but more pointedly as a refutation of the position of Karl Löwith (and Carl Schmitt) that Western history should be seen as a long set of transformations of a unifying, underlying substance. Blumenberg devoted his intellectual efforts to reconceptualizing the history of ideas not as a set of transformations of a single theme but as a series of occupations and reoccupations of problem spaces. By so doing, he invented and carried out in extraordinary detail a set of genealogical exercises aimed at undermining and recasting the very idea of history as a progressive and unified unfolding.
Once this genealogical work was accomplished, once modernity was shown as a distinctive and unprecedented threshold event in the history of ideas, Blumenberg's persuasive diagnosis made itself available to be turned into a judgment. That judgment consisted in asserting, with all the genealogical warrantability he had made accessible, that the legitimacy of modernity consisted in leaving progressive philosophies of history behind, as well as those supposed universals, above all nature, which rather should be understood as reoccupations of a series of problem spaces. By refusing to reoccupy any slot in this series, Blumenberg provided a judgment as to what henceforth must be hoped for and undertaken: finding a vindicatory form for self-formation in thought.
In The Legitimacy of the Modern Age published in 1966, Blumenberg takes issue with Karl Löwith's central thesis from his 1949 work, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History: that the idea of progress is an illegitimate secularization of a properly medieval and Christian conception of salvation. According to translator and Blumenberg scholar Robert Wallace, Löwith interprets eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophies of history
as a "secularization" of the eschatological pattern set up by the Jewish and Christian religions, of their faith in a fulfillment of the world's history through "final" events.
This eschatology is contrasted with ancient Greek philosophy and religion,
founded on a "reverence for the past and the ever present," which are embodied in the cyclical pattern of reality exemplified by organic life and the revolutions of the heavens.
For Löwith, the break in such cyclical understanding of reality was the introduction of
novel ideas of creation from nothing and total final destruction, of a unique world history centered (in Christianity) on a unique Incarnation and directed at one absolutely final Judgment.
Löwith claims that this is the single origin of the modern conception of progress.
Blumenberg's magnum opus, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, contains a three-step response to the secularization thesis: (1) He offers an original and compelling alternative explanation for the sources of ideas of progress from the seventeenth century:
The overcoming of the fixed authoritative status of Aristotelian science by the idea of a cooperative, long-term scientific progress guided by method; and the overcoming (in the literary and aesthetic realm) of the idea of ancient art and literature as permanently valid models of perfection in favor of the idea of the arts as embodying the creative spirit of their particular ages and in that sense capable of again achieving validity equal to that of the creations of the ancients.
He then offers a caveat (2) that accounts for the complexity of the historical phenomena under discussion, in the transition out of "medieval ideas"
there is a continuity of problems rather than of solutions, of questions rather than of answers.
Blumenberg characterizes what is original about the overcoming of nature as a fixed system and permanently valid model of perfection, as "self-assertion." In his account, self-assertion is a response to a problem "posed for us by the overriding emphasis in the late Middle Ages on the theme of divine omnipotence." As Blumenberg writes,
The Middle Ages came to an end when within their spiritual system creation as "providence" ceased to be credible to man and the burden of self-assertion was therefore laid upon him. Thus "self-assertion" here does not mean the naked biological and economic preservation of the human organism by the means naturally available to it. It means an existential program, according to which man posits his existence in a historical situation and indicates to himself how he is going to deal with the reality surrounding him and what use he will make of the possibilities that are open to him.
The final move he makes is (3) that insofar as self-assertion is a response to a prior problem, a necessary acknowledgement so as to avoid the fiction of de novo developments in the history of ideas, nevertheless the specificity of modern ideas of "possible progress," a progress made possible by method and an open space of creation, was forced to
reoccupy a "position" that was established by medieval Christianity, the "position" of an account of history as a whole.
The refusal of such reoccupation is the means for a proper ethical understanding of the difference introduced by the development of techne in "nature." Nature here is a transformed concept and referent to the one referred to in ancient Greek philosophy: "the unmakable model of all that is made." Rather, "nature," in a milieu of self-assertion, "becomes the embodiment of the possible results of technology." An ethos has its correlates in logoi and techne. This has a striking consequence, which Blumenberg diagnoses very precisely:
Only through the reduction of nature to its raw potential as matter and energy is a sphere of pure construction and synthesis possible. This results in a state of affairs that seems paradoxical at first glance: An era of the highest regard for science is at the same time an age of the decreasing significance of the object of scientific study.
We thus see the increase in techne and logoi, within an appropriate modern ethos; however, within this modern ethos, we see that there has been little problematization of this decreasing significance correlative with the increase in specialized techniques and knowledge. Otherwise said, what have been and are the multiple possible responses to such a diagnosis of the modern?
As these [social] sciences have developed technically, the question of their moral status has become increasingly pressing. Yet, from a Deweyan point of view, most of the debates stimulated by this concern have been somewhat lacking in point, for they rarely have been based on any circumstantial examination of what such research is as a form of conduct. —Clifford Geertz
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Table of Contents
Part One: After the Actual
One. Problematization of the Modern: Bios
Part Two: Toward the Contemporary
Four. The Rushdie Affair: Truth and Conduct
Five. Gerhard Richter’s Pathos
Conclusion: Checking the Contemporary
Terms of Engagement
What People are Saying About This
“Designs on the Contemporary is the narration of a quest, and the quest is double. In one part, it seeks to formulate the means by which and the criteria according to which the anthropologist can legitimately claim to be a diagnostician of our contemporary forms of life—forms marked, among other things, by their irreducible indeterminacy. In another part, it seeks to identify just those forms of contemporary life for whose adequate diagnosis anthropological fieldwork is a necessary point of departure. The latter aim proves constantly to impose itself on the former, and the former aim constantly to have to be reformulated in the face not merely of the recalcitrance but also the inspiration that its encounters yield. There’s an epistemological, ontological, and ethical moral to this story: that collaborative inquiry is essential to coming anthropologically to terms with who we aren’t any longer, who we are, and who we might be. Were anthropologists to take this seriously, anthropology would be a very different discipline than the discipline it is today—all the calls for collaboration notwithstanding. Let’s hope they take it seriously.”
“In a world where concepts are so often deployed in an ad hoc fashion, half explored before being displaced by others, it is immensely refreshing to encounter such serious and sustained attention to the building blocks of inquiryand to the responsibilities thereby incurred. Designs on the Contemporary is a work of profound importance to the philosophy of anthropology. In conjunction with Rabinow’s other works, it creates a nonpareil, a configuration of thought with no equal.”