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«Planet M : The intense abstraction of Marilyn Strathern Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen Anthropological Theory 2009 9: 371 DOI: ...»

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Anthropological Theory


Planet M : The intense abstraction of Marilyn Strathern

Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen

Anthropological Theory 2009 9: 371

DOI: 10.1177/1463499609360117

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Focusing on her abiding distinction between ‘plural’ and ‘postplural’ approaches to analysis, we explore the role of ‘scaling’ in her anthropological project, and argue that this allows for a characteristically intense form of abstraction, which, among other things, enables her to make trans-temporal comparisons between ‘ethnographic moments’ otherwise separated by history.

Key Words abstraction • comparison • ethnography • post-plural anthropology • representation • temporality


Marilyn Strathern’s work is what the ‘crisis of representation’ would look like had she been in charge of its management. To show how this is so, in this article1 we seek to elucidate the character and role of comparison in her work. It is the manner in which Strathern conducts comparison, we argue, and not least comparisons between what others might call ‘self ’ and ‘other’, that accounts for both the commonalities and the differences between her approach to anthropology and that associated with the ‘crisis of representation’ literature and its aftermath (e.g. Clifford and Marcus, 1986; Marcus and Fischer, 1986; Tyler, 1987). Following to its ultimate consequence the reflexive injunction to treat the ‘self ’ as an object as well as a subject of anthropological scrutiny, we 371

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believe Strathern effectively comes out on its other side. At whatever scale one might choose to recognize it (ranging from the individual to the West), the ‘self ’ is eliminated as the subject of analysis and thus features only as its object. In exploring how this is so, our aim is not so much to point out the affinities between Strathern’s anthropology and the ‘death-of-the-subject’ anti-humanism of structuralist and post-structuralist thought (although such affinities are no doubt there, and arguably go to the core of her divergence from the American-liberal humanism of the literature on the crisis of representation in anthropology). Rather, our question is this: if the ‘self ’ features only as an object of analysis, alongside what one would take as its ‘other’ (e.g. English kinship alongside Melanesian kinship, commodity alongside gift, etc.), then what takes the place of the subject? Put differently, if Strathern treats herself (her person, her thinking, her culture, her society) as just another topic for anthropological inquiry – no different from, say, the people of Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea – then who is doing the treating and the inquiring? Our answer is: Planet M.

Both the comic intent and the initial are of course taken from Alfred Gell’s notorious essay ‘Strathernograms’ (1999), in which Gell describes his diagrammatically aided account of Strathern’s argument in Gender of the Gift as an account of ‘System M’, leaving it to the reader, as he says, to decide whether ‘M’ stands for ‘Melanesia’ or ‘Marilyn’. The tease being that Strathern’s argument is, in Gell’s terms, ‘idealist’, so the question of whether her analysis represents facts as they are in Melanesia or how she imagines them to be is ontologically moot. One of the motivations of the present article is to arrive at an answer to this question, although we may as well warn in advance that distinctions such as idealism versus realism hardly capture what is at stake in it. Indeed, crasser than Gell’s, our own tease of calling ‘M’ a planet is only partly meant to evoke the sense of outlandishness that Strathern’s sheer originality can produce. Our less facetious intention is to use the image to convey one of our central claims in what follows, namely that Strathern’s peculiar way of absenting herself from her analyses is a constitutive feature of what comparison amounts to in her work.

By identifying Strathern’s thinking with the imaginary Planet of M, we also have in mind the Kantian metaphor of the Copernican revolution. Indeed, the coordinates between subject and object that this image sets up can serve to articulate the core move that the crisis of representation literature sought to perform in the 1980s, when Strathern was also formulating her own thoughts on comparison. If Kant’s Copernican revolution consisted in rendering the objectivity of the world relative to the transcendental categories that structure its subjective experience, its American ‘reflexivist’ counterpart involves making anthropologists’ accounts of ethnographic others relative to the cultural categories of the self. So-called positivism is to the reflexive turn as heliocentrism is to Copernican astronomy. Strathern, we think, occupies a third position – one that exceeds the Copernican coordinates altogether. Hers is the planet in permanent eclipse, if you like, from which Earth and Sun can be seen alike but which cannot itself be seen from either.

I It is obvious that getting a handle on Strathern’s concept of comparison is an exercise that instantiates (recursively, as she might say) the problems it addresses. Comparison as an activity and as an explicit concern permeates her works, so that discussing it inevitably 372

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becomes a comparative exercise in its own right – a comparison of comparisons, as it were. Mindful of the frustrations with reference to which she herself gauges the stakes involved in the intellectual task of comparison – the dizziments of disproportion, arbitrariness, and assorted variables, levels, contexts, dimensions and so on running riot, we start our discussion from the most glaring example of Strathern’s thinking on comparison, namely Partial Connections (2004) – a book whose subtitle, had it been given one, would surely include that word.

Indeed, one of the motivating premises of Partial Connections takes the form of a tragic irony: one may think that by changing one’s viewpoint on one’s material (e.g. scaling up to gain an overview of its general contours as opposed to scaling down to limit the amount of data considered, or shifting between different terms of reference altogether) one may reduce its complexity, but in doing so one soon realizes one is playing a zerosum game. So, presumably, no matter whether one sets out to compare Strathern’s comparisons across her many books and articles, or just in Partial Connections, or even – which is where we shall begin from here – in just its first section (‘Writing Anthropology’, pp. xiii–xxv), the ‘amount’ of complexity should be expected to remain constant.

Plural and postplural comparison So what notion of comparison does Strathern have in mind in her discussion of ‘partial connections’? The point is put recursively at the book’s outset by way of a comparison of commonplace strategies of comparison in anthropology, cast in terms of the concept of ‘scale’. We give a gloss.2 In line with modern Euro-American metaphysical intuitions, anthropologists imagine the world as consisting of many, many things – an inordinately large field of data. So the most basic methodological question for anthropology (as for any other ‘discipline’) is how to bring this ‘plural’ data under some kind of control. Put in very general terms, this must involve deciding which data go with each other and which do not. In this general sense all descriptive activity is comparative, although there is also a sense in which the anthropological challenge of cross-cultural comparison is ‘exemplary’ (p. xvi), since the things compared – societies or cultures – are fields of phenomena that are defined precisely by the fact that their constituent elements somehow go together, the problem being to work out what these elements are and how they do or do not relate.

Strathern argues that, in response to this challenge, anthropologists tend to plot their materials against different ‘scales’, understood as particular ways of ‘switching from one perspective on a phenomenon to another’ (p. xiv). This anthropological use of scales happens in two principal ways. The first can be glossed as quantitative, since it involves switches in size, and corresponds to the ordinary (literal) associations of the word ‘scale’ with quantitative considerations and measurement. Like, say, Bateson, one might devote a book to a single ritual performed by a particular group of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, or, like Lévi-Strauss, one might devote it (well, four of them) to hundreds of myths from across the American continents. One might say that the switches for which this kind of quantitative scaling allows depend on keeping the terms of comparison (i.e. its form) constant while shifting its scope (i.e. its content), by scaling either ‘down’ to include more detail or ‘up’ to gain more purview. This then suggests a second, obverse way of thinking of scale, which depends on the possibility of maintaining stable contents while shifting forms, and could therefore be glossed as qualitative – arguably a 373

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more metaphorical usage of the term ‘scale’. Here viewpoints on a given body of data switch by changing the terms of reference one brings to bear upon it, as, for example, one does when one compares different cultures (or different elements within one) from the point of view of economic arrangements, or ritual practices, or cosmological reckonings, and so on. It goes without saying that, in anthropological practice, any attempt at comparison will involve multiple combinations and mutual adjustments of both quantitative and qualitative scaling in this sense, and its success will depend on the skill with which this is done.

Now, these articulations of the act of comparison (themselves apparently forming a two-place qualitative scale for the comparison of different kinds of comparison) may seem already to describe the partial nature of the connections on which comparisons rely. The point can almost be put theologically. Faced with the infinite plurality of the cosmos, the finite anthropologist is forced into the false containments of scaling – false because no finite scale could ever contain the whole. The tragedy of culture itself, as Lévi-Strauss (1990) would have it. This, however, is not Strathern’s point. For her the real tragedy – if such it is – would lie in the way infinity replicates itself within whatever scale purports to carve it. As indicated by the absurdity of saying that by virtue of its narrower ethnographic focus Bateson’s Naven is simpler or an easier read than LéviStrauss’s Naked Man, or that Strathern’s oeuvre is less demanding for having homed in more on social interaction than on religion and cosmology, the irony is that the potential for complexity remains constant no matter what the scale. To stick to the theological rendition, it is as if the notion that scaling can cut the cosmos down to size involves forgetting that infinity can be intensive as well as extensive, with angels dancing on the head of a pin just as well as in the ethers.

It is the irony of this logical palindrome that forms the basis of what Strathern calls a ‘postplural perception of the world’ (2004: xvi, cf. 1992), in which the notion that scales can act to carve finite, manageably simple parts out of an infinite, debilitatingly complex whole dissipates. If infinity goes both ways, both outward and inward, so that the scales that would purport to limit it end up acting as its conduits, then the very distinctions between plurality and singularity, whole and part, complexity and simplicity, as well as infinity and finitude, lose their sense. And this because the basic pluralist assumption upon which each of these distinctions rests, namely that the world is made up of an infinite multiplicity of ‘things’ which may or may not relate to each other, vanishes also. If of every thing one can ask not only to what other things it relates (the pluralist project of comparison) but also of what other things it is composed, then the very metaphysic of ‘many things’ emerges as incoherent. Everything, one would conclude, is both more and less than itself. ‘More’ because what looks like a ‘thing’ in the pluralist metaphysic turns out, postplurally, to be composed of further things – infinity inward – and ‘less’ because at the same time it too contributes to the composition of further things – infinity outward.

This, then, raises the question: in what might comparison consist in a world without ‘things’? And if there are no things, then on what might comparisons even operate? On such an image, what would be, say, Melanesia and Britain, or the Western and the Eastern Highlands in PNG, or the different kinds of flutes (or methods of initiation, or modes of exchange, or whatever) that one might compare across them? In Partial Connections Strathern presents a number of suggestive images: Donna Haraway’s 374

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