«Planet M : The intense abstraction of Marilyn Strathern Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen Anthropological Theory 2009 9: 371 DOI: ...»
‘cyborgs’, ‘Cantor dust’ and, more abstractly, the image of the fractal. Here we want to stay with the paradoxical formulation: things that are what they are by virtue of being at the same time more and less than themselves. The real virtue of the paradox, we would suggest, is that just as it renders incoherent the pluralist metaphysic of things, it serves as a coherent rendering of the postplural alternative. Sure, we may assume, things cannot be both more and less than themselves. ‘More’ and ‘less’ are comparatives after all, and it is hard to see the point of comparing something to itself, let alone of ﬁnding it different. But this is just to say that the postplural alternative to ‘the thing’ is, precisely, the comparison. Stripped of the assumption that it must operate on things other than itself, that is exactly what a comparison would look like: something that is both more and less than itself. Which is just to say that on a postplural rendition, the differences that pluralist comparisons measure ‘between things’ now emerge as constitutive of those very same things, and can therefore best be thought of as residing within them.
Now, it will be evident that this line of thinking has taken us fairly directly to a conceptualization for which Strathern’s work is perhaps most famous, and on which she herself pins her ﬂag most ﬁrmly, namely ‘the relation’ (e.g. Strathern, 1995). That comparisons are relations in the Strathernian sense goes without saying. For example, the thought that places Strathern most obviously in the vicinity of post/structuralism, namely that relations are logically prior to entities, would be one way of rendering her point about scales and their relationship to things. Here, however, we want to stick to the apparently narrower notion of comparison, and this partly because we would argue that rendering Strathern’s relational universe ‘comparative’ adds something to it (indeed, we will argue that the ability to add to thoughts by narrowing them down is at the heart of Strathern’s notion of comparison). In particular, a focus on the notion of comparison in Strathern’s work redresses one potential source of dissatisfaction with the concept of the relation and the universe it comprises, namely its apparently inordinate malleability – the virtue it appears to make of a complexity that can ‘run riot’, to recall one of Strathern’s own formulations. From the point of view of exegesis, we consider that the advantage of a narrower focus on the notion of comparison in Strathern’s work, over that of the relation, becomes clear when one articulates the contrast between ‘plural’ and ‘postplural’ renditions of comparison in starker terms than she does herself. In fact, as we shall explain, it may be because Strathern does not offer an explicit and sustained account of this contrast that her position (typically cast in terms of the blunter notion of the ‘relation’) can sometimes be mistaken blithely for a kind of postmodern-sounding relativism.
Consider a contrast of images. On the one hand, depicting the drive to control complexity from which pluralist modes of comparison draw strength, Strathern presents two images that correspond to what we have called ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ scales of comparison: respectively, the map and the tree (2004: xvi–xvii). Scaling up and down to alter a form’s scope over content corresponds directly to what one means by ‘scale’ 375
when referring to a map: the proportion that holds between a territory (content) and its depiction (form). Analogously, qualitative switches from one form of comparison to another (e.g. focusing on economic as opposed to religious dimensions of a given set of data) involve the assumption that each of these forms is related to the others in terms of the lateral and vertical relations that make up a genealogical tree. For example, while one might imagine economic and religious scales to belong to the same ‘generation’, like siblings, one might posit the scale of the ‘social’ to contain them both, like a parent.
The two images are themselves laterally related (on a tree they would be siblings) inasmuch as they both make the control of data possible by virtue, in Strathern’s words, of the ‘constancies’3 they imply:
[The map] implies the existence of certain points or areas, like so many villages or ﬁelds seen from the air, that will remain identiﬁable however much their features are replotted; all that changes is the perspective of the observer. [The tree] implies some kind of closure that deﬁnes a system of concepts and their potential transformation from within, insofar as only particular trajectories are ‘genetically’ possible from the principles one starts with. (2004: xvii) Both images are to be contrasted, on the other hand, to the imagery with which Strathern depicts postplural comparisons – cyborgs, fractals and so on. While Strathern puts these metaphoric depictions to all sorts of uses in her argument – thus displaying, one might say, the sheer malleability of the concept of comparison itself – one also gains the impression that a notion of a lack of control or, put more positively, an inordinacy of potential, acts as their cumulative effect. So, for example, if maps and trees rely on the constancies of identity and closure to contrive a sense of control over data, the cyborg suggests an image of inconstancy, or even incontinence: it ‘observes no scale’, being a ‘circuit of connections that joins parts that cannot be compared insofar as they are not isomorphic with one another’ (2004: 54). Indeed, the image of the fractal itself, with its ‘not-quite replication’ (p. xx) that generates a ‘proliferation of forms’ (p. xxi) inward and outward all the way, may produce in the reader a sense of asphyxia as well as one of beauty, vertigo as well as wonderment. Equally, it may provoke a typical quip made against ‘postmodernists’ at the time Partial Connections was originally written, namely that of anything-goes ‘ﬂatness’. The impression could be borne out by the punch line ‘postplural realization’ that gives the book its name: ‘The relativising effect of multiple perspectives will make everything seem partial; the recurrence of similar propositions and bits of information will make everything seem connected’ (2004: xx).
Still, considering that the postmodernist message about multiplicity, partiality, pliable connectivity and so on, as well as the tetchy rebuke made of its levelling effects, are both by now well-digested in anthropology, we would suggest that something more interesting lies in Strathern’s characterization of postplural comparison – an extra dimension to her thinking on which she never quite comments explicitly in Partial Connections or elsewhere in her work, but which is nevertheless present in the manner in which she conducts her own ethnographic comparisons ‘postplurally’. This ‘eclipsed’ aspect of Strathern’s thinking pertains to the peculiar role that something akin to ‘abstraction’ plays in her concerns with comparison – although we wish to show that what is at stake here is something different than the logical operations one ordinarily associates with that term.
Plural abstraction The closest Strathern comes to an explicit statement of her concern with abstraction in Partial Connections is, tellingly perhaps, not as part of characterizing her own concept of comparison, but in the course of her most detailed commentary on an example of the pluralist comparisons it displaces. This is her discussion of attempts to provide an integrated frame for comparing societies from the entire Highlands region of Papua New Guinea with reference to a theme they are meant to have in common, namely the association of the use of bamboo ﬂutes with male power (e.g. Hays, 1986). The problem with such cross-cultural comparisons, she argues, is that while they certainly do pick out signiﬁcant ethnographic and historical connections, they also, necessarily, involve a slippage of levels. From where, one may ask, do they draw the features of the common theme whose variations they wish to chart? If, for example, in some cases ﬂutes are focal to male initiation while in others less so or not at all, or in some cases the ﬂutes themselves are conceived as male and in others as female or as both, while elsewhere bamboo ﬂutes are absent altogether, then from which of these cases does the putatively common notion that ﬂutes are an important element of male power draw its strength? Strathern
The difﬁculty with this comparison is that our supposed common regional culture is composed of the very features which are the object of study, the ‘meanings’ people give to these instruments, the analogies they set up... [T]he common cultural core, the themes common to the variations, is not a context or level independent of local usage. (2004: 73) At issue here is the familiar anthropological charge of essentialism: mistaking ethnographic categories for analytical ones. Yet, as we understand it, Strathern’s remedy is anything but the familiar one (namely the tautology of saying that all categories are by deﬁnition cultural since they always come from somewhere, so the modernist chimera of a culturally neutral analytical language for comparison should be replaced by the wiser proposal for a culturally laden dialogue, tutored by the anthropologist’s own reﬂexivity – in other words, the crisis-of-representation move). Rather than treating the slippages of levels that essentialism entails as grounds for its rejection, she effectively makes a virtue of them. In fact, were one to think of Strathern’s discussion of the above example as an ethnography of anthropological comparisons,4 one would recognize an instance of the very idea of comparison as partial connection (and only therefore a critique of its pluralist opposite, on grounds, so to speak, of ethnographic inaccuracy). From a pluralist starting-point, slipping from putatively neutral scales for comparison to culturally laden objects of comparison (viz. essentialism) is indeed a problem. But from the postplural position Strathern is articulating, that is precisely what comparison is: the ‘unwarranted’ melding together of what the pluralist takes for ‘scales’ and their ‘objects’ (things that scale themselves or equally, to complete the image, scales that ‘thing’ themselves). In fact, as we want to show, recognizing this allows one to arrive at a stronger characterization of comparison in Strathern’s work – its extra dimension.
The ‘difﬁculty’ of essentialism in the pluralist take on comparison can be described as a failure of abstraction. As a plural ‘scale’ for comparing Highlands societies, ﬂutes and male power are not
enough, i.e. they do not constitute a ‘level’ of analysis 377
that is consistently of a different logical order from the cultural ‘contexts’ that are meant to be compared. Indeed note that abstraction is integral to the pluralist notion of comparison: for scales to be able to measure things they have to be more abstract than them. Now, it is obvious that the distinction between abstract scales and concrete things cannot survive the transition to thinking of comparison postplurally unscathed, the whole point being that in such a transition the very distinction between scales and things is obliterated. Nevertheless, we argue, something of the distinction between the abstract and the concrete does survive – it leaves a residue or, to borrow a term from Strathern, a ‘remainder’ (2004: xxii). To see this we may turn once again to the pluralist image.
How is conventional, pluralist abstraction supposed to work? Consider the verb: ‘to abstract’ something involves isolating from it one of its predicates. Take, say, a dog and isolate from it its quality of being a ‘quadruped’. Or take the ﬂutes PNG Highlanders use and isolate the quality of being ‘associated with male power’. As we have seen in relation to Strathern’s comments on the role of scale, such acts of isolation afford a battery of techniques that are supposed to help bring data under control for purposes of comparison – not least, quantitative scoping by analogy to maps and qualitative ordering by analogy to genealogical trees. To take the most rudimentary example, we assume that abstracting from a dog the quality of being a quadruped allows us to make analogies between it and a cat, or to study it from the point of view of its locomotion, contrasting it perhaps to other quadrupeds whose legs are otherwise different, or relating it evolutionarily to bipeds, or placing it within the class of mammals, and so on.
Abstraction increases the agility of comparison, one might say.