George Marcus: “No New Ideas” (2.0) & the After-Life of Anthropology (1.1)

In a recent notification of new articles in Cultural Anthropology, I saw this particular item:

Cultural Anthropology 23.1 (February 2008)
IN CONVERSATION: George Marcus and Marcelo Pisarro, “The End(s) of Ethnography: Social/Cultural Anthropology’s Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition”

In an extended abstract of the piece that was circulated by email, the journal editors reveal:

There are no new ideas, and none on the horizon, as well as no signs that its traditional stock of knowledge shows any sign of revitalization,” states [George Marcus] the University of California at Irvine Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology in this wide-ranging and provocative interview. One of anthropology’s most accomplished figures, Marcus acknowledges that many outside the field have turned to it for answers when examining this century’s dramatic cultural, political, and economic transformations. Yet while such new “terrains and contexts” continue to beckon, anthropologists remain wedded to traditional methods “a la Malinowski and Boas” and unable yet to bring to its center “coherent ideas” about the meaning and practice of anthropology in the contemporary world.

The assertions (or observations?) above are not new either, but they are important as a testament to the sense of disarray, dissipation, and decline within the discipline. Also not new, but not less valuable, is what Marcus sees as the future orientations of ethnography:

“We don’t need more conferences or seminars but a different style and process of training anthropologists, also a rethinking of the standard forms and functions of writing in anthropology, Marcus suggests.” At the heart of this reworked fieldwork would be the “anthropologist as collaborator,” a scholar who works not with “others” but with “counterparts,” who often share the anthropologist’s concern and inhabit the same intellectual world – a world of questions, emergences, and experiments rather than the holistic certainties of an older conception of “culture.”

Marcus then adds, according to the journal editors’ rendition of the interview:

“What’s left to do, then, is to follow events, to engage ethnographically with history unfolding in the present, or to anticipate what is emerging. The great majority of projects of anthropology are pursued in this defining kind of temporality, which, in my view, has become much more important than traditional spatial tropes of “being there” in situating ethnography in time-space.

Now it seems that anthropology has indeed reinvented itself and there are new ideas, for as Marcus states above, “the great majority of projects” are engaged in novel pursuits.

The interview may have been provocative, but the message above does not appear to be consistent. And to be honest, if I want to know what is “new” in anthropology, then I would tend not to look to well established chairs, with established axes to grind, with their well worn routines, speaking out of the same old journals, to the same old audiences, in the same old way. For his part, Marcus describes participatory action research, which is well known and is practiced by at least some anthropologists. It’s just that he doesn’t name it as such. Perhaps, within the narrow context of the history of this discipline then, yes, such collaborative and participatory research is something new. However, arriving at that conclusion involves reinforcing one old problem: how much we stick to ourselves compared to the other disciplines. There seems, at least to me, to be a combination of fear and resentment when it comes to the other disciplines, without considering the rich possibilities for partnership.

Marcus also seems to have completely neglected new forms of doing, producing, and writing ethnography, especially with reference to cyberspace ethnography, new forms of visual ethnography on the web, anthropological blogging, and so forth. There are a number of very important lessons to be learned by these various acts of omission and the privileged way they are showcased in the discipline’s traditional sources. Let me list just a few of these possible lessons:

1. For those engaged in new forms of doing ethnography that are collaborative and in new venues, do it for the pleasure of doing so, for the rewarding experience of working with others, and for the sheer joy of being immersed in extended dialogues that reach well beyond the corridors of the professional discipline. It is important to realize that in most cases your work will not be recognized within the institutionalized discipline, and Marcus is really offering no exception here. Work that seeks such recognition from among the authority figures produced by the discipline–the way that Cultural Anthropology reproduces Marcus as an authority on what is new–will tend to be innovative within constraints, and thus as is usual now the works produced will tend to be defensive, insecure, and overly deferential to authority as evidenced by exaggeratedly long bibliographies, over referencing, and self-contradicting or indecisive paragraphs that pose as “nuanced scholarship”. Let us remember that we are in a discipline whose professionalists will have us believe that visual anthropology was founded by Margaret Mead (wasn’t everything?), and not by those disturbingly independent characters of half a century earlier, such as Edward Curtis and Robert Flaherty who innovated and conducted ethnography like no professional anthropologist of the time.

2. For those who want to explore what is “new” in ethnographic practice, it might be a good idea to avoid the closed access, traditional print journals such as Cultural Anthropology, that 20 years after Writing Culture continue with George Marcus in an interview on novelty. What is really new in anthropology is often that which is not talked about in anthropology journals. I take exception with the methods of CA, and not with all of Marcus’s message, most of which I actually agree with.

3. We see the familiar way in which authority is produced and reinforced within the discipline. Even critique is made safe and rather stuffy now. This is one of the reasons I very much enjoy using the work of Vassos Argyrou (2002). Who? Argyrou? Exactly. Check the bibliography.

4. Beyond the politics of recognition, we also see the not always subtle politics of command in this same piece in CA, indeed in almost all the established journals in anthropology. The idea here is that the celebrity, the traveler of the keynote speaker circuit, the one with an idea for an honorarium, is looked up to for direction. This authority figure then lets us know where we should all be going, what the new agenda is, and he sometimes also reminds us of how stupid we are. Indeed, everyone else is stupid too, for as Marcus states in this same interview: the culture concept is no longer viable analytically and it is has been appropriated by everyone. Everyone wants a flawed product, not because they have very different takes on what culture is, but because they are…morons? And appropriated…let’s remember to establish ultimate ownership over a concept we never owned and arguably never innovated. Let’s also remember that ideas are not what you do to them, they are what is done to you — hence avoid culture now, it doesn’t work anymore, and there is nothing you can do about it, dummy.

I don’t know if the purpose of the editors of Cultural Anthropology was to depress debate or to insult readers, but I think that in my initial reactions they had achieved both of these objectives.

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Some of the points that need to be discussed, since they are largely absent or silenced, seem to be the following:

(1) Preparing for a future when anthropology no longer exists as an institutional discipline. Most likely it will survive longest as such in the U.S., but there are already signs that it has failed to spread further, and has begun to recede in some countries. I am not a historian of the rise and fall of empires, but I suspect that trouble in the periphery shows the centre its future. It could end up being a very lonely, very American discipline.

(2) We should not necessarily want to attract greater public attention and support, if the increased enrollment or external praises are used to defer consideration of the continuing coloniality of the discipline.

(3) We should consider ways of “performing” anthropology in and among related fields, existing not necessarily as an institutional and labeled identity, but as an epistemological ideal that is realized through a variety of methods, targeted to address specific questions and problems.

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What is written above is from the personal vantage point of someone who has largely ceased to restrict his reading to anthropology texts. I have gone back to reading more widely and participating in conferences that are not organized by anthropology associations (in fact, I have never really focused on attending anthropology conferences alone). Personally, I find more value in reading from cultural studies, postcolonial studies, literary criticism, history, and political economy, than I do from reading “anthropology.” I am also biased by my background, which was multi-disciplinary, spanning the social sciences and the humanities. My switch to anthropology was not a means of burning bridges with the past, but of building new ones.

I also earned my doctorate in an anthropology department that was once dissolved (with faculty reassigned to other departments — interesting idea right there), then re-created, and now no longer exists as a department but as a division in a generic kind of school. When your PhD is from an entity that no longer exists, you can develop a different view of the “permanence” of institutions, and how little tragedy there is in their passing. You also tend to not be as smug and superior about your pedigree as others (or those who live in the shadows of the fame of their supervisors).

Finally, I have never actually worked in a department of anthropology, as such. From that vantage point, I am already among those who have had to accommodate to the reality that, in many places, anthropology has no separate institutional identity.

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Also see the post by Lorenz Khazaleh titled, “George Marcus: Journals? Who Cares?” at antropologi.info for his response to some of the issues raised above, and the my comments to the post for some further clarifications.

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9 thoughts on “George Marcus: “No New Ideas” (2.0) & the After-Life of Anthropology (1.1)

  1. “Personally, I find more value in reading from cultural studies, postcolonial studies, literary criticism, history, and political economy, than I do from reading ‘anthropology.'”

    This sounds like Marcus’s point.

  2. Yes, I think you’re right, and I believe that the way I first wrote the post, surviving through the revisions, resembles talking past Marcus at various points. I may have more of an issue with Cultural Anthropology’s fanfare and its overview than the article itself in the end.

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