“Alienated from the Sanctioned Discussions”: Rabinow and Marcus on the Anthropological Impulse

One piece of brainfood I’ve been devouring during my trip to South Sudan has been a book of conversations between two of the most esteemed living Anthropologists, Paul Rabinow and George Marcus. Their insights on the history of the discipline and the fallout of the critique of ethnographic writing they were both involved in are profound and have been an inspiration in my thinking while here “in the field,” whatever the heck that means. One particular exchange hit on what I’ve increasingly felt, while reading, writing, and teaching, is the central defense of the continued importance of Anthropology: maintaining a space outside “sanctioned discussions” and “acceptable discourse.” In other words, Anthropology is a much-needed critical perspective outside the accepted, assumed, and predominant ways of thinking:

Paul Rabinow: I became an anthropologist in many ways because I felt, and continue to feel, profoundly alienated from the United States. And, hence, anthropology for me, no doubt naively, was a place for those alienated from the officially sanctioned discussions. It was for people who cared about what was going on below, beyond, and between acceptable discourse. Critical thinking has the task of operating in the future inter-zones.

George Marcus: There’s an existential issue here. Anthropology, I think, encourages these sorts of strong feelings about public issues and the world, be they alienation, idealism, or something else. When I meet any anthropologist, I presume there is such a motivating well of feelings in him or her somewhere, and those feelings are not too far from what he or she does as a researcher and scholar. Anthropology allows for, even expects, this proximity far more so than other disciplines, especially those among the social sciences.

From Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, pg 23

Suffering Together

More valuable by far than common customs, posts, and frontiers conforming to strategic ideas is the fact of sharing, in the past, a glorious heritage and regrets, and of having, in the future, a shared programme to put into effect, or the fact of having suffered, enjoyed, and hoped together. These are the kinds of things that can be understood in spite of differences of race and language. I spoke just now of ‘having suffered together’ and, indeed, suffering in common unifies more than joy does. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.

-Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation,” 1882

Narratives and Theory

Elsewhere I have argued, following philosophers of history, that ‘telling a story’ is itself what might be called a theoretical construction. It imparts knowledge. Narrative ‘converts congeries of events into storied concatenations—-a task whose object is not so much to isolate social laws as to develop an understanding of contingent connections.’ But if this is so for analysts like anthropologists, it is also true, as Bakhtin argued, for others. The way ordinary people act in the world depends, in part, on their narrative constructions of the conditions around them. In other words, so-called objective reality rarely imposes itself upon human actors in a unilateral way. Therefore, analytic narratives are required to understand complex forms of collective human action. By offering stories of stories, such narratives take on depth, revealing unexpected insights.

-Donald Donham, Violence in a Time of Liberation, pg 194

Baudrillard on Colonialism

After extrapolating on the meaning of the scientific saving of the deteriorating Rameses II, which symbolizes a need to believe that power and accumulation can lead to permanence, Baudrillard makes a comparison to contact between Native Americans and Europeans:

We are fascinated by Rameses as Renaissance Christians were by the American Indians: those (human?) beings who had never known the word of Christ. Thus, at the beginning of colonisation, there was a moment of stupor and amazement before the very possibility of escaping the universal law of the Gospel. There were two possible responses: either to admit this law was not universal, or to exterminate the Indians so as to remove the evidence. In general, it was enough to convert them, or even simply to discover them, to ensure their slow extermination.

-Jean Baudrillard, The Precession of Simulacra

Africa in the Media

Reporting from Africa is a low-risk job: Not only are mistakes expected and tolerated, but often they are not even noticed. When it comes to mainstream media, there are no Africa specialists. As a rule African tragedies happen in isolation and silence, under the cover of night. This was true of the Angolan war, which ended in 2002, and it remains true of the continuing wars in eastern Congo. When corporate media does focus on Africa, it seeks the dramatic, which is why media silence on Africa is often punctuated by high drama and why the reportage on African wars is more superficial than in-depth. The same media that downplays the specificity of each African war is often interested in covering only war, thereby continually misrepresenting the African continent. Without regard to context, war is presented as the camera sees it, as a contest between brutes. No wonder those who rely on the media for their knowledge of Africa come to think of Africans as peculiarly given to fighting over no discernible issue and why the standard remedy for internal conflicts in Africa is not to focus on issues but to get adversaries to ‘reconcile,’ regardless of the issues involved.”

-Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors, pg 19

I would add that while the media does not in fact have a liberal bias, reporting on Africa does have a neoliberal one.