«Planet M : The intense abstraction of Marilyn Strathern Martin Holbraad and Morten Axel Pedersen Anthropological Theory 2009 9: 371 DOI: ...»
As explained earlier, the logic of intense abstraction refers to how things-cum-scales transform themselves in speciﬁc ways. As we depict in Figure 2, the ‘ethnographic moment’ can be said to constitute just one such abstensive transformation, namely a selfscaling of the ethnographic ﬁeldwork observation or, more accurately perhaps, ﬁeldwork encounter. This is what the holistic method (or its lack) implies: the fact that the wouldbe ethnographer vaguely senses that unknown future connections could one day appear transforms her ‘ﬁeld of information’ from being a historical artefact conﬁned to a certain point in time (when the ﬁeldwork took place) to a trans-temporal scale of comparison (from which analogies may be drawn at any given time). In that sense, the ethnographic moment is both more and less than the ﬁeldwork encounter. As a postplural, abstract event, it simultaneously effectuates a ‘sharpening’ of the anthropologist’s ﬁeld of information (on account of drawing on what is only an insigniﬁcant amount of her data), and a ‘widening’ of the ﬁeldwork material at hand by making its ‘less evident’ aspects visible.
Now, if trans-temporal comparison involves an act of intensiﬁcation in which some ‘thing’ (the ﬁeldwork observation) is ‘scaled’ into a different version of itself (the ethnographic moment), we may also ask: Which scale is being ‘thinged’ in the same process? We suggest: time itself. One radical implication of Strathern’s analytics is that it undermines the transcendent – or even, in Kantian terms, transcendental – status of time in Western knowledge traditions. As noted, ‘time’ is not different from ‘ﬂutes’ in
its capacity to act as a conduit for comparison: both can act as postplural scales that allow for speciﬁc kinds of relational transformations. So, on the abstensive logic of trans-temporal comparison, time is reduced to just one of many (in fact, countless) possible scales for the elicitation of analogies between actual and virtual forms, and, more generally, for man’s perception and conceptualization of the world and his place in it (one could imagine an alternative universe where apples and pears are invested with the same a priori nature as time and space in Western epistemology). Thus the medium of time is brought down from its Kantian pedestal. If the ethnographic moment is a certain scaling of a ‘thing-like’ observation, then it is also a certain thinging of (otherwise ‘scale-like’) time.8 Thus time in Strathern’s work assumes a rather different role than in other forms of anthropological analysis. If it makes sense to say that on Planet M the only time is ‘now’, then this is because of the ethnographic moment’s self-scaling capacity to extend itself to any event of the future (or indeed the past), along a transversal, trans-temporal vector with no end point, yet bursting with directional thrust. It is the inherent tendency for intensive interpretative proliferation in one’s ﬁeldwork material that makes it so important to obey what seems to be a key lesson of Strathern’s trans-temporal approach: that of cutting away all the most evident relations in one’s ‘ﬁeld of information’ to ensure that all one is left with are odd pairings of phenomena (‘uncommon denominators’), which would otherwise be separated by history. For the same reason, anthropological analysis requires unusual interpretative patience – the cultivation of a sort of ‘deep hesitation’, which enables the anthropologist to not make connections (start comparing) before the moment is right.
Deep hesitation This requirement for hesitation also expresses itself in Strathern’s peculiar way of writing, and the challenges this style presents to her readers – the second ‘remainder’ of our discussions in Part I about the role of comparison in her work. As we shall now show, Strathern’s notoriously difﬁcult writing style can be seen as a reﬂection of the realization that the capacity to add to thoughts by narrowing them down is not an ability that the anthropologist is automatically imbued with. On the contrary, refraining from drawing the most obvious connections from one’s material requires constant abstract work.
Why is it so difﬁcult to read Marilyn Strathern? Musing over this same question, Alfred Gell recalls how he ‘used to think it was her writing style, and that something could be done by dividing each sentence in half, then attaching the ﬁrst half of each sentence to the preceding one, and the second half to the succeeding one, and in that way one could produce a series of sentences each of which was on the topic, rather than each being precariously suspended between two topics’ (1999: 30). Although Gell eventually ‘changed [his] mind’ and concluded that it is ‘not the manner in which [Strathern] writes, but the content of what she says, that is difﬁcult to understand’ (p. 30), we believe that his original and only half-serious comment about Strathern’s writing style was, in fact, onto something important. There really is a sense in which Strathern’s sentences are ‘precariously suspended’ between two poles: surely we are not alone in often having to pause after ﬁnishing one of her sentences, unsure about whether we can move on to the next.
Does this reﬂect a deliberate strategy? Certainly, Strathern is deeply reﬂexive about her own and others’ writings, even if she considers the ‘literary turn’ associated with the crisis of representation to be an impoverished alternative to the obsolete conventions of modernist anthropology (2004: 7–16; see also Reed, 2004: 19). In the foreword to the updated edition of Partial Connections, she explains how it was composed with the intention that ‘every section is a cut, a lacuna: one can see similar themes on either side, but they are not added to one another’ (2004: xxvii). Note the characteristic sense of ‘cutting’ here, which is used not in the sense of reducing complexity (its conventional, ‘plural’
sense of making a generalization), but as a particular conduit for (scale of ) complexity:
Partial Connections was an attempt to act out, or deliberately fabricate, a non-linear progression of argumentative points as the basis for description... Rather than inadvertent or unforeseen – and thus tragic or pitiable – partitionings that conjured loss of a whole, I wanted to experiment with the apportioning of ‘size’ in a deliberate manner. The strategy was to stop the ﬂow of information or argument, and thus ‘cut’ it. (p. xxix) While denoting a particular experiment, this rare self-description might be extended to Strathern’s entire oeuvre. Indeed, one may speak of a distinct aesthetic form – which might be called creative cutting – that is replicated, fractally so to speak, at every scale of her work, ranging from the partial connections between her books to a certain irreducible friction between her sentences, if not between her words.9 This might explain Strathern’s tendency to reason indirectly for using what sometimes comes across as unnecessarily cumbersome syntax. If her style accords to the criteria of a postplural aesthetic that dictates that self-similar ‘cuttings’ must recur across all dimensions of text, she could perhaps be said to be always writing the same sentence twice (Riles, 1998). Is there a sense to which invisible ‘remainders’ are always present within or between her sentences, like propositional shadows whose ghostly clauses are themselves not quite replications of their visible doubles?
Recalling the lacuna-inducing strategy that informed the composition of Partial Connections (‘one can see similar themes on either side, but they are not added to one another’), and inspired by Adorno’s metaphor of the colon as the green light in the trafﬁc of language (cited in Agamben, 1999: 223), we may say that, on Planet M, there are only orange trafﬁc lights, the latter image indicating the doggedly persistent, obviously deliberate and sometimes unpleasant hesitation that Strathern’s writings provoke in readers like Gell and, indeed, the two of us.10 Between Strathern’s sentences, a gap must be crossed that is much wider than in the pleasant breathing space produced by a conventional full stop (let alone the impatient thrust of the colon); indeed, it is here, in the intensive passage created by cutting all the most obvious implications of the previous proposition away, that Strathern’s abstensive thinking most clearly shows in her manner of writing.11 CONCLUSION This article has explored what the ‘crisis of representation’ debate in anthropology might have looked like had it had not remained trapped within a pluralist metaphysics, but had instead unfolded according to the postplural alternative developed by Marilyn 388
Strathern. To fully understand the radical character of Strathern’s anthropological project, as well as the subversive (if not downright disturbing) analytical and rhetorical forms this entails, we may return to the contrast between Strathern’s work and the ‘crisis of representation’ literature, with which this article began.
One could understand the ‘crisis’ of anthropology in the 1980s and 1990s as an attack on self-consciousness. Imagining earlier generations of anthropologists (and not least the British tradition of social anthropology) as having ignored in the name of positivistic objectivity the irreducible inﬂuence of their own personal, cultural, political (etc.) outlook on their research, the idea was to re-invent anthropology by making these inﬂuences explicit. After all, it was recognized, anthropology is itself a socio-cultural practice, and hence belongs to the same order of phenomena that it purports to study. What was called for, therefore, was an anthropology imbued with a double vision: one eye on the object of inquiry, the other on the inquirer. What made this move a ‘crisis of representation’ was that it had the potential to bring down the entire project of modern anthropology, understood as the endeavour to arrive at accurate representations of social and cultural phenomena which could provide the basis for theoretical generalizations: no more modernist naïveté, was the message. But for its detractors (not least in Britain), the real crisis resided in the reﬂexivist remedy itself. As with sundry forms of scepticism, the call to problematize the conditions of possibility of anthropological knowledge is subject to an apparently debilitating inﬁnite regress. If these conditions of possibility are themselves to become part of the object of knowledge, then what are the conditions of possibility of that? Which is just a quite formal way of expressing the habitual quip against the reﬂexivist ‘turn’ in US anthropology since the 1980s: ‘navel gazing’.
One way of articulating the contrast between Strathern and the reﬂexivists is to point to the way she avoids this latter charge of navel gazing (that she avoids the ﬁrst charge of naïve modernism is self-evident). The key difference relates to how Strathern decouples a pair of binary oppositions that the reﬂexivist argument conﬂates, namely the epistemic distinction between subject (as knower) and object (as known), and the identity distinction between self (or the ‘us’) and other (or the ‘them’). For the charge of inﬁnite regress depends on confusing these two levels: on taking the call to examine the self as tantamount to examining the epistemic subject as such (and thus to raise epistemological concerns about the conditions of possibility of its knowledge). Strathern avoids this solipsistic trap. The self can certainly be the object of ethnographic scrutiny, also when this ‘self ’ is anthropological reasoning itself. However, in coming under scrutiny in this way the self must cease to be the epistemic or hermeneutic ‘subject’, which was the centre of the reﬂexivist turn. For if the ‘self ’ is to be scrutinized in the same way as all other things are scrutinized, then it cannot be scrutinized as a subject, since to scrutinize things is to treat them, precisely, as objects – the old philosophical chestnut.12 So, instead of the well-tried (and we would submit impossible) ‘inter-subjective’ method of reﬂexivity, where the purported subjectivity of the self is turned into an ever more transparent object for its own introspection, Strathern offers an ‘intra-objective’ alternative, where the ‘objectivity’ of the self is transformed onto less stable – and thus less transparent – intensiﬁcations of itself. Unwilling to partake in disciplinary autotherapy, Strathern’s analytics allows for the ethnographic self to be studied through a logic of sustained ‘extrospection’ (our term), which, to paraphrase from the ﬁnal pages 389
of Partial Connections, works by letting ‘the centres of others become centres for [the self ]’ (2004: 117).13 These reﬂections about the eccentricity of the position from which Strathern conducts her comparisons takes us back to Planet M, and our introductory comments about the half-comical, half-serious intent of this metaphor. In a sense, our subsequent argument in the article has left this initial image in a somewhat battered state. After all, we have argued, Strathern’s ‘position’ (inasmuch as it makes sense to say that she takes one at all) hardly can be described as a speciﬁc place (not even a shadowy one in permanent, postCopernican eclipse). Rather, as we have sought to demonstrate, Strathern’s thinking amounts to a particular form of controlled movement, which we have tried to convey by introducing concepts like postplural comparison, the internal ‘removal’ of abstension, deep (trans-temporal) hesitation, and sustained extrospection. But perhaps, then, there is also a sense in which, as an ironic effect of the motility of our object of analysis, the planetary metaphor now comes back with a vengeance, full orbit. Only now Planet M does not so much refer to the vanishing point from which Strathern conducts her analysis, but rather to a position we have needed to occupy in order to carve a comparative scale out of her.
Notes 1 This article is the result of many hours, if not years, of sustained collaborative friction between the two authors. A shorter version has appeared in Cambridge Anthropology. We thank Morten Nielsen for insightful and challenging comments on an earlier version, as well as Anthropological Theory’s anonymous reviewer.