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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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The first relates to the peculiar role of time in Strathern’s thinking. The second addresses her no less unusual writing techniques. To anticipate our argument somewhat, Strathern may be said to be doing the same with time as she does with other mediums of abstension, namely making a virtue out of its failure to act as a more general or ‘abstract’ scale of comparison. By treating time as just another thing-cum-scale of analysis – as a scale that is no more context-independent than, say, flutes – she allows for a particular and very novel kind of comparison between societies across time. In line with the above analysis of the logic of abstension, we argue that the originality of these comparisons comes down to Strathern’s ability, evident in her writing as well as in her thinking, to avoid drawing the most obvious connections between her Melanesian material and its Western analogues by laterally ‘cutting open’ the least obvious (most original) lines of comparison, according to the logic we have just set out.

Trans-temporal comparison It is well known that Strathern’s original fieldwork in the Mt Hagen area of the Papua New Guinean Highlands occupies a special place in her anthropological thinking (e.g.

Strathern, 1999: 6–11). Given that the bulk of her fieldwork was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s, one might see this as posing an (automatically growing) methodological problem: does the increasingly ‘historical’ nature of her material not render her comparative project more and more dubious? Surely, a standard social scientific objection would go, one cannot as part of the same analysis compare two different places (such as Melanesia and ‘Euro-America’) and two different periods (as, for instance, Hagen kinship terminology in the 1970s and British kinship today) simultaneously. Either axis – the temporal or the spatial – must be kept stable so as to compare like with like.

382

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Strathern’s response to objections of this kind (e.g. Carrier, 2005) has been characteristically indirect. Instead of seeking to counter the claim that her material is not contemporary (with reference, perhaps, to her more recent fieldwork), she has pleaded guilty as charged, happy to admit that many of the practices she originally observed in Hagen have since changed or disappeared altogether (e.g. Strathern, 1999: 142). This is not to say that Strathern accepts the premise of this critique. On the contrary, her response to James Carrier and others reveals key assumptions about the nature (and in particular the temporality) of conventional anthropological comparison, which remains

invisible to itself:

[T]he knowledge anthropologists have made out of their encounters with Melanesians... does not cease to become an object of contemporary interest simply because practices have changed. I would indeed make it timeless in that sense. Carrier’s argument is that historical change is crucial, because... that shows up the social and conceptual location of previous practices, and this must be part of – not excluded from – the knowledge with which one works. Yet, from another perspective his own categories of analysis remain timeless, as in... his notion that there is such a thing as ‘the relationship between people and things’. By contrast, my interest is directed to the historical location of analytical constructs, for none of the major constructs we use is without its history. (1999: 143) Yet, to describe Strathern’s concepts as ‘historical’ is not, perhaps, sufficiently precise a characterization of the work of temporality in her thinking. To illustrate this, we may raise a question grounded in our earlier discussion of her postplural metaphysics. What would a ‘trans-temporal’ comparison of socio-cultural phenomena look like, if we by this understand a ‘lateral’ analysis in which the dimension of time itself is not assumed to be independent from these phenomena – that is, if time were not assumed to constitute (as pluralist metaphysics would have it) a ‘scale’ that occupies a transcendent, vertical position with respect to the ‘things’ whose comparison it facilitates? We suggest that certain writings by Strathern represent concerted attempts to facilitate (a-chronic) comparisons across time, providing an alternative to both the synchronic project of cross-cultural comparison and the diachronic comparison of different historical moments of one society.

To understand the role of time in Strathern’s thinking it is useful to consider the veiled critique she makes of the method of multi-sited ethnography in Property, Substance and Effect (Strathern, 1999: 161–78). The problem with George Marcus (1993) and others’ attempts to ‘modernize’ the ethnographic fieldwork is the pluralist assumptions behind the notion that the limited scale of ‘the local’ is automatically overcome by conducting fieldwork in several different places. The assumption seems to be that, by ‘following the people’, the multi-sited ethnographer gains a new perspective from which different ‘local’ phenomena can be brought together into a single, albeit fragmentary, narrative, by someone whose perspective (scale) is sufficiently ‘global’ to do so.

If the multi-sited approach involves the ‘tracing [of ] cultural phenomena across

different settings’ to ‘reveal the contingency of what began as initial identity’ (1999:





163), the goal of Strathern’s comparisons between Melanesian and Euro-American property arrangements in Property, Substance and Effect is very different. Rather than tracing ‘global’ connections between dispersed ‘local’ phenomena, it is her deliberate strategy to 383

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avoi[d] discursive connections, making a story, in order to avoid both the false negative appearance of stringing surface similarities together and the false positive appearance of having uncovered a new phenomenon. For what the locations presented here have all in common has not necessarily happened yet. What I believe they have in common is their potential for reconceptualisations of ownership, and specifically for raising the possibility of persons as property. What has not happened yet is the way in which these sites may in future connect up... Exactly the routes that they follow, or what chains of association they set up, will be the subject of future ethnographic enquiry. (Only) the potential is present. (1999: 163; emphasis original) One could describe this approach as ‘trans-temporal comparison’ – a distinct anthropological method that differs both from the modernist ideal of cross-cultural comparison, and from the postmodernist preference for multi-sited fieldwork. The term ‘trans-temporal’ draws attention to the fact that Strathern’s units of comparison are neither outside time nor prisoners of a certain historical period. Instead, we suggest, trans-temporal comparison proceeds according to an abstensive logic by which the anthropologist’s knowledge about certain (Melanesian) pasts is brought to bear on certain (Euro-American) futures. As an abstract mode of comparison, it turns on a peculiar ‘intensification’ of the act of fieldwork, namely what Strathern calls the ‘ethnographic moment’.

While Strathern does not fully draw out these implications of her comparative project, she does offer important hints on a number of occasions. One such is in Property, Substance and Effect, where she discusses different ways of thinking ‘about historical epochs as domains from which to draw resources for analysis’ (1999: 145). ‘In certain respects’, she writes, ‘“traditional” Melanesian societies belong much more comfortably to some of the visions made possible by socio-economic developments in Europe since

the 1980s than they did to the worlds of the early and mid-twentieth century’ (1999:

146). Hence her confident response to the charges of anachronism by some Melanesianists: from a trans-temporal perspective, her Hagen fieldwork has ‘not cease[d] to become an object of contemporary interest simply because practices have changed’ (1999: 145).

In fact, for certain analytical purposes (such as her study of intellectual property rights in the above passages) it is the other way round: the comparative purchase of her Hagen material within a contemporary Euro-American context to some extent hinges upon its

very non-contemporary status within a Melanesian context:

[What] time is the anthropologist in? From what historical epoch should I be drawing the tools of analysis?... One of the times Euro-Americans may find themselves in has so to speak only just happened for them. But it may have ‘happened’ long ago in Papua New Guinea. I wonder if some of the considerations voiced by Kanepa – especially those with their roots thoroughly in Hagen’s past – might not anticipate

certain future economic directions in Euro-American quests for ownership. (1999:

150–1) Thus, ‘the knowledge anthropologists have made out of their encounters with Melanesians’ is indeed ‘timeless’ (1999: 145) – not because such knowledge belongs to a context-independent dimension of general truths that transcends the temporal, but 384

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because Strathern’s recollections of her original Hagen fieldwork may continually be mobilized in order to make productive analogies with emerging property forms in Britain and elsewhere. So, if the plural analytics advocated by Marcus treats ethnographic knowledge as general but not abstract (enabling a narrative to bring together otherwise dispersed phenomena), then Strathern’s postplural approach treats ethnographic knowledge as abstract but not general. Trans-temporal comparisons reveal links between societies, which, far from being made possible by multi-sited scale shifts, works by collapsing the distinction between the local and global, and other (post)modernist fictions.

To support this conclusion, we may consider another instance in which Strathern explicitly addresses the temporal implications of her postplural analytics. We are referring to certain passages in Partial Connections, where she discusses an oft-cited article by Kirsten Hastrup (1990) that offers an emphatic defence of the contested use of ‘the ethnographic present’ as an anthropological writing strategy. What especially interests Strathern is Hastrup’s provocative assertion that the anthropologist has ‘no choice of tense’ (2004: 48), for ‘only the ethnographic present preserves the reality of anthropological knowledge’ (Hastrup, 1990: 45). After all, Hastrup rhetorically asks, ‘[w]hat would the point of anthropology be if its truth had already gone at the moment of writing?’ (1990: 56). With Ardener’s work on prophecy in mind, Hastrup answers as follows: ‘through the dual nature of the anthropological practice, of experience and writing, a new world is created – a world of... betweenness that places the anthropologist in a prophetic condition, and forces her to speak in the ethnographic present’ (1990: 56).

While Strathern clearly sympathizes with Hastrup’s defence of the ethnographic present, it is not made explicit how these ideas about the temporality of anthropological writing relate to her own ones about the ‘timelessness’ of anthropological knowledge.

But one could ask: what would the concept of the ethnographic present have to be like for it to allow for a certain (Melanesian) past to ‘foretell’ a potential (Euro-American) future? It is here useful to consider another instance where Strathern discusses the work of time in anthropological thinking, namely in her musings about the ‘scandal’ of its holistic method (1999: 3–11). It is precisely because of the holistic ideal (the scandal) of wanting to know ‘anything’ – as opposed to ‘everything’ (1999: 8) – that the fieldwork exercise is an anticipatory one... being open to what is to come later. In the meanwhile, the would-be ethnographer gathers material whose use cannot be foreseen, facts and issues collected with little knowledge as to their connections. The result is a ‘field’ of information to which it is possible to return, intellectually speaking, in order to ask questions about subsequent developments whose trajectory was not evident at the outset.... Much information is amassed, hopefully, by the field ethnographer with specific intentions in mind. But, at the same time, knowing that one cannot completely know what is going to be germane to any subsequent re-organisation of material demanded by the process of writing can have its own effect. It may create an expectation of surprise. (1999: 9–10) Once again, we see how the ‘timelessness’ of ethnographic knowledge emerges as a paradoxical effect of its historicity. In fact, Strathern seems to go as far as to suggest that the 385

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longer the span between fieldwork and analysis, the bigger the chance that germane connections can be drawn by recourse to one’s ‘field of information’, for it seems to be at this point – and at this point only – that the ‘would-be’ ethnographer is made into a real one.7 This is where Strathern’s concept of the ethnographic moment departs from Hastrup’s concept of the ethnographic present, for it is here that the intensive and lateral – as opposed to generalizing and vertical – nature of the abstractions created through trans-temporal analysis is revealed. While the ethnographic present ‘transcend[s] the historical moment’ by adding more ‘provisional truth[s]’ to the world (Hastrup, 1990: 56–7), the ethnographic moment has the capacity to ‘transverse’ history by cutting away what may, at first, come across as the ‘most evident’ connections between one’s fieldwork observations and one’s object of comparative analysis. To understand how trans-temporal comparison in that sense involves an intensely abstract process of post-plural scaling (or as we also put it, ‘removal’), we return to our pictorial outline of the logic of abstension.



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