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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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2 For another treatment of ‘scalar theory’ inspired by Strathern, see Wastell (2001).

3 ‘Control’ married to ‘constancy’ would be their parents!

4 Strathern says as much: ‘My interest is in the proportions that sustain the conviction of anthropological accounts’ (2004: 75).

5 There are echoes here of Charles Peirce’s concept of thirdness: ‘Thirdness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, in bringing a second and third in relation to each other’ (Peirce, 1958: 328).

6 It is important to note that one’s intuitions about what counts as ‘more’ and as ‘less’ here must also be inverted unto themselves. To imagine the dog as being more than the dog-as-quadruped (‘more full-blown’) and the quadruped as being less than it (‘merely an abstraction’) is to think of the dog-as-quadruped as a thing-like abstension, by analogy to the dog. But abstensions are, as we have seen, defined as the kinds of things that are also, at the same time, scales (and to make this point is, if you like, to abstend the notion of the abstension itself – the abstension of the abstension). But if one thinks of the dog-as-quadruped as a scale, by analogy to the quadruped, the coordinates of ‘more’ and ‘less’ flip over. Now one wants to think of the dog as being less than the dog-as-quadruped (‘merely a particular’) and of the quadruped as being more than it (more ‘general’ or ‘universal’). Indeed, if one could say, very broadly, that the former way of imagining, thing-like, expresses an aesthetic that is characteristic of, say, phenomenology, while the latter one, scale-like, expresses an aesthetic of formalism (or even formal logic), then Strathern’s thinking is their ‘third’ too.

7 It is worth taking notice of what seems to be the distinctly anti-phenomenological tenet of this conclusion. For Strathern, it would appear, the potential of the 390

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ethnographic fieldwork/the ethnographer’s field of information for generating surprising insights increases with time. This flies in the face of established phenomenological wisdom concerning the tragic and inevitable loss in terms of the sensuousness of the fieldwork experience as one’s memory of it is assumed to gradually fade in intensity over time.

8 But which ‘thinging’ are we talking about – what time is it, so to speak, in the ethnographic moment? A proper engagement with this question lies beyond the scope of this article, but the answer cannot be linear, chronological time. Had it been so, Strathern would indeed be guilty of the charge of anachronism hurled at her for drawing analogies between actual Hagen pasts and potential Western futures. But this is clearly not what she is doing. Rather, she seems to conduct her trans-temporal comparisons across durational time, in Bergson’s (and Deleuze’s) sense. Instead of using time as a shared context for every thing she describes, she uses time alternately as foreground and background, figure and ground, by carving temporal scales out of things while also putting things in time. Thus the scaling (‘timing’) of things and the thinging of scales (time) go hand in hand: only though an unfolding (scaling) of the fieldwork observation into an ethnographic moment is it possible to enfold (‘to thing’) such moments of insight ‘back’ into the ethnographic present. Understood in such durational terms, what happens in ‘the moment’ is by no means restricted to ‘the present’. Unlike the present, the moment is not defined by a single tense, which, paradoxically, is precisely why the ethnographic moment does not allow for any generalizations aimed at transcending history. What the concept of ethnographic moment does allow one to do, however, is to dive into a pool of potential analogies to be drawn between one’s past fieldwork experiences and one’s future objects of comparative study (as opposed to the concept of ethnographic presence which is forever imprisoned in itself, unable to self-transform for comparative purposes into different past or future versions of itself ).

9 As Adam Reed points out, The Gender of the Gift (1988) is ‘a text whose significance and rigour derives from what it omits. Orienting dichotomies of social analysis...

are... deliberately hidden. The Gender of the Gift is a book about that disappearance, one that speaks of its own constraint. It invites the reader through demonstration, as well as explication, to consider the contours of these absent dichotomies’ (Reed, 2004: 11).

10 According to Agamben (1999), the colon fulfils a distinct purpose in certain of Gilles Deleuze’s writings: ‘If we take up Adorno’s metaphor of the colon as a green light in the traffic of language... we can then say that [Deleuze’s use of the colon marks] a kind of crossing with neither distance nor identification, something like a passage without spatial movement’ (Agamben, 1999: 223).

11 The awkward relationship between any two given units of texts in Strathern’s work calls to mind what she has described as the ‘doorstep hesitation’ (as opposed to barricades) between feminism and anthropology: ‘Each in a sense mocks the other, because each so nearly achieves what the other aims for as an ideal relation with the world’ (1987: 286).

12 The idea that one aspect of something (e.g. the self as a subject) might be eliminated in order for another to feature more prominently (e.g. the self as an object) recalls Strathern’s own vocabulary of the ‘eclipsed’ and the ‘revealed’ (and their numerous 391

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pairs of synonyms and corollaries) which mark the conceptual coordinates of what in The Gender of the Gift she calls ‘objectification’, i.e. ‘the manner in which persons and things are construed as having value, that is, are objects of people’s subjective regard or of their creation’ (1988: 176). To us it is revealing that Strathern’s ‘binary licence’, as she has recently called it (Strathern, forthcoming), does not extend to the notion of objectification itself. Considering the proliferation of binary distinctions in her work, why is Strathern’s concern with objectification not articulated with reference to a contrasting term – presumably, ‘subjectification’? We argue that the gap is consistent, inasmuch as it bears out the idea that subjects (as opposed to selves) are the one thing that cannot be talked about.

13 As an anonymous reader of this article pointed out, The Gender of the Gift (1988) has sometimes been described as ‘an authorless text’ (a term which calls to mind the once heated debates about the so-called ‘anti-humanism’ of Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, and other French thinkers). Presumably, this and other similar characterizations of Strathern’s work have not always been meant as praise; and yet it could be maintained that it is precisely for its lack of any author voice/reflexive subject that her work achieves its full radicalism. Could this be why Strathern reaches the conclusion that, attractive as it may be, Tyler’s notion of evocative ethnography falls short of suggesting a textual form from which ‘an emergent mind that has no individual locus’ (1986: 133, cited in Strathern, 2004: 14) can emerge? After all, as she then goes on to say in a remarkable comment on the merits of what we call extrospection, for a writer to produce a textual event ‘that takes place neither within nor outside the person, one needs to turn the emergent mind with no individual locus into a much stronger sense of exteriority: to imagine a person as a “someone”.

One needs to restore a perception of other presences – of those who jostle, pressing in, as concrete and particular others who will neither go away nor merge with oneself. Between the event that takes place nowhere... and the individual subject... I wish to suggest a third way of personifying the ethnographic experience, to draw a figure who seems to be more than one person, indeed more than a person... [T]here is a sense of holding together in one’s grasp what cannot be held...

of trying to make the body do more than it can do – of making connection[s] while knowing that they are not completely subsumed within [one’s] experience of them’ (2004: 26–7).

References Agamben, Giorgio (1999) Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (edited, translated and introduced by Daniel Heller-Roazen). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ansell Pearson, Keith (1999) Germinal Life: The Difference and Repetition of Deleuze.

London: Routledge.

Bateson, Gregory (1958) Naven (2nd edition). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Carrier, James (2005) ‘Property and Social Relations in Melanesian Anthropology’, in C. Hann (ed.) Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition, pp. 85–103. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clifford, James and George E. Marcus (eds) (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


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De Landa, Manuel (2002) Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London:


Gell, Alfred (1992) The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Oxford: Berg.

Gell, Alfred (1999) ‘Strathernograms, or the Semiotics of Mixed Metaphors’, in Alfred Gell, The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams (ed. Eric Hirsch). LSE Monographs on Social Anthropology 67: 29–75.

Hastrup, Kirsten (1990) ‘The Ethnographic Present: A Reinvention’, Cultural Anthropology 5(1): 45–61.

Hays, Terence E. (1986) ‘Sacred Flutes, Fertility and Growth in the Papua New Guinea Highlands’, Anthropos 81: 435–53.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1966) The Savage Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1990) The Naked Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, George (1993) ‘Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-sited Ethnography’, Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 95–117.

Marcus, George E. and Michael F. Fischer (1986) Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders (1958) Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volume 8 (ed.

A.W. Burks). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reed, Adam (2004) Papua New Guinea’s Last Place: Experiences of Constraint in a Postcolonial Prison. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Riles, Annelise (1998) ‘Infinity within the Brackets’, American Ethnologist 25(3):


Scott, Michael (2007) The Severed Snake: Matrilineages, Making Place, and a Melanesian Christianity in Southeast Solomon Islands. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Strathern, Marilyn (1987) ‘An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology’, Signs 12(2): 276–92.

Strathern, Marilyn (1988) The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Strathern, Marilyn (1992) ‘Parts and Wholes: Refiguring Relationships in a Postplural World’, in A. Kuper (ed.) Conceptualizing Society. London: Routledge.

Strathern, Marilyn (1995) The Relation: Issues in Complexity and Scale (Pamphlet No.

6). Cambridge: Prickly Pear.

Strathern, Marilyn (1999) Property, Substance and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things. London: The Athlone Press.

Strathern, Marilyn (2004[1991]) Partial Connections, Updated Edition. Walnut Creek:

Altamira Press.

Strathern, Marilyn (forthcoming) ‘Binary License’, paper presented at the Comparative Relativism Colloquium at Copenhagen’s IT University, September 2009. To appear in a special issue of Common Knowledge, edited by C.B. Jensen, M.A. Pedersen and B.R. Winthereik.

Tyler, Stephen (1986) ‘Post-modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document’, pp. 122–40 in J. Clifford and G.E. Marcus (eds) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


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Tyler, Stephen (1987) The Unspeakable: Discourse, Dialogue and Rhetoric in the Post-modern World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo (2009) ‘Intensive Filiation and Demonic Alliance’, in C.B. Jensen and K. Rodje (eds) Deleuzian Intersections in Science, Technology and Anthropology. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Wastell, Sari (2001) ‘Presuming Scale, Making Diversity’, Critique of Anthropology 21(2): 185–210.

MARTIN HOLBRAAD works at the Anthropology Department of University College London. He has conducted fieldwork on socialism and Afro-Cuban religion in Havana since 1998. His is co-editor of Thinking through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically (Routledge, 2007) and Technologies of the Imagination (Special Issue of Ethnos, Spring 2009). His monograph, Ifá Never Lies: Cuban Divination and Anthropological Truth, is in preparation. Address: Department of Anthropology, University College London, 14 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW, UK. [email: m.holbraad@ucl.ac.uk] MORTEN AXEL PEDERSEN is Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. Based on fieldwork in rural and urban Mongolia, he has published articles on a range of topics, including shamanism, landscape, humour, violence, and hope. He is co-editor of two volumes: a special issue of Ethnos on Technologies of the Imagination and a special issue of Inner Asia on Perspectivism. His monograph, Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia After Socialism, is forthcoming with Cornell University Press. Address: Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Oster Farigmagsgade 5E, 1353 Copenhagen, Denmark. [email: morten.pedersen@anthro.ku.dk] 394

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