• [immunology;
  • virus;
  • critique;
  • collaboration;
  • para-site]

Today, then, immunology sees itself quite differently, and I would argue is well-positioned—perhaps better positioned than any other domain of modern science—to help us rethink notions of the self that have dominated Western philosophy at least since the Enlightenment. … 

We now know that defending the body against a viral “attack” is nothing like defending it from invading organisms. Viruses need cells to achieve vitality, and cannot attack without that life that autogenous, “self-made” cells (ones made by our own bodies) bring to each and every viral encounter. … 

For we will see that the virus stands somewhere at the borders of “self” and “nonself,” and is thus as much a conditioner and definer of a body's boundaries as it is a “single-minded attacker. … 

Why should we in fact refer to viruses as foreign agents, if a virus is lifeless outside a living cell? And if the floating virus is not an active “other” to be defeated, what generates a so-called “viral attack”? Why, furthermore, should the body's bringing it to life be understood as primarily a defensive activity, if a virus on its own is inanimate? … 

How can viral antigens be considered foreign invaders if our own cells animate viruses? … 

What of antibodies—those mutations we generate in anticipation? Might they not be seen, then, as creative attempts to engage risk at the borders of self? In numerous non-Western models identity depends on such a dynamic engagement. … 

An unrecognized but giant leap that has almost subconsciously become a core immunological precept—namely that viruses do not invade us, but that we, for better or worse, bring life to the sometimes dangerous encounters that define the limits of who we are—that limit what we can be—and that (hopefully) do so without taking the very life that those viruses, once embodied, now inform—or, as we used to say, infect.[Napier this issue]

I have assembled the above quotations from Napier's article to focus the readers attention in preparation for the animation of my own viral assimilation of his interesting summary of advances in immunology to certain developments that I have been studying in the contemporary application of ethnographic methods.

These developments that concern the conduct of fieldwork in spaces of science, infrastructures, technology, and expertise where other knowledge forms and their social effects define ethnography's primary object of study also stimulate an intense and functional play of metaphors, which often has occurred in anthropology when it tries to extend itself into new realms where classic anthropological problems and methods have to be redefined, restated, and built up, so to speak, in a radical manner from within the discourses and thinking (sometimes identified as “paraethnographic”; see Holmes and Marcus 2005) of engaged subjects. Perhaps the experience of immunology with metaphors in response to new understandings of viruses that Napier addresses will add to the mix of metaphors being tried out to recharacterize the dialogic nature of fieldwork encounters with epistemic partners and engagement with other knowledge forms as products of modern reason that increasingly must be made socially accountable.

Napier indicates that immunology is solving its own pathologies in the overuse of powerful metaphors (self–other conceived “enemy, invasion” thinking) through its expanding research and its openness to findings of fields that it previously overlooked. Whether or not it needs a replacement metaphorical vision, as evocative as the one that has apparently dominated it, is unclear. But Napier is articulating one anyhow at the point of change in immunology that he suggests may also (or perhaps primarily?) be important in feeding back on the long-term project of critique of the autonomous self in which many of the disciplines of the cultural–human sciences have oriented themselves, anthropology very prominently among them. Indeed, although immunology may be able to liberate itself from an outmoded guiding metaphor without the need for a replacement one as strong, it is certainly the case that the cultural–human sciences have been, and continue to be, dependent on such “working” metaphors. Thus, the findings of immunology that displace its form of “self–other” might provide resources for thinking differently about the parallel bind in the cultural–human sciences for which guiding metaphors are as, if not much more, vital, and continuously so, in deeply shaping their epistemologies. (It is hard to conceive of contemporary ethnography, for example, without such metaphorical commitments.) Or at least this seems to be a primary wager of Napier's article.

I want to take him up on this wager by considering how he reconceives the “self–other” relation in immunology might be a resource for rethinking the ethnographic research relation in the above noted contemporary arena where there is considerable metaphorical play among anthropologists about how they are signifying their fieldwork encounters and relations to their objects of study. Although the autonomous Western self has long been an object of anthropological critique, it is also the case that the fieldwork process itself still largely proceeds by a self–other conception (e.g., it without exception guides the training model of dissertation fieldwork), where the introspective, autonomous, individualized anthropologist self is the organizing trope for narrating ethnography.

This understanding of the ethnographer self at the core of fieldwork's operative imaginary is perhaps most challenged in those arenas to which I referred in which being immersed in complex organization, and technical knowledge forms is standard, and there is the need for more explicit and elaborate concept work done with subjects who are counterparts, rather than classic informants (or more recently, “consultants”). In this varied arena of contemporary ethnography (science, technology, finance, policy making), inquiry into the deployment of changing forms of knowledge seem to accent ontological questions more than epistemological ones (see Rabinow et al. 2008), and the qualities of “being there” in fieldwork have been reflected on differently or at least have generated fresh thinking about the function of ethnography and the nature of the relations that produce ethnographic knowledge, which is partly second order (observing observers observing, so to speak) and partly, distinctively independent in terms of its own insights and arguments. At the Center for Ethnography, University of California, Irvine (, we have been interested in following the emergence and growth of such arenas of ethnographic inquiry during the first decade of the new century and the ways that method and theory are rearticulated, and are evoked as experimental. Writings emerging from these projects evidence a play of metaphors, characteristic of moments and nodes of innovation and challenge.1 In this intensity of play, we might consider an application of Napier's discussion of immunology's departure from the hold of its own heuristic self–other orthodoxy, as an additional proposal to rethink the fieldwork encounter in the domain of big science projects, or, of the worlds of banking, finance, and market structures.

So, in the way that Napier recharacterizes the self in animating the viral threat within (see opening quotes), as part of the self's horizon of adaptive possibility, he sustains the point of view of the human self, and not the virus (which has no “self” other than through its assimilation). If one carried this choice of point of view over analogously to the ethnographic self–other relation in its complex systems–expert realms, the point of view would remain that of the anthropologist “self” rather than the “other,” the virus to be absorbed and animated by anthropological inquiry. Explored in this way, the ethnographer as the analogous open immunological self in response to virus (as a corrective to the “Enlightenment” self) brings to mind a recent characterization of social anthropology (and ethnography) by Marilyn Strathern, as she herself was involved, however briefly, in a big, complex science project, and its network of collaborations, the Cambridge Genetics Knowledge Park. As Strathern says, “Social anthropology has one trick up its sleeve: the deliberate attempt to generate more data than the investigator is aware of at the time of collection” (2004:5). This is the ethnographer self that absorbs (and animates) what is in its research environment; it collects what might not be immediately useful to it; it strength is in its ability to anticipate by being open to absorbing as surplus or in reserve what is in its research environment—it, like antibodies, makes “creative attempts to engage risk at the borders of self.” Such an analogy might inspire rethinking of the self side of the self–other relation in fieldwork, along the lines of Strathern's sense of what is special about the ethnographer in technical knowledge realms, but how does the “other” as virus fit in this relation? It doesn't very well.

A more interesting appropriation of Napier's play with the metaphor of the self out of immunology's findings would be a reversal of perspective in which the anthropologist is analogous to the virus, or the viral, and the “other,” one's subjects in organizational spaces of expertise, would be the transformed self, capable of absorbing and animating the viral ethnographer as foreign visitor, if not foreign invader. To see how this might fit, the reader might try to go over the quotes at the beginning of this commentary, and substitute “ethnographer” for “virus,” and the “other” of fieldwork for the “self” or body that Napier reconceives.

This might seem like a provocative, if not absurd, shift in perspective on first reaction, as might the very idea of thinking of the self–other relation of fieldwork in such overtly warlike, competitive, conflict terms, even given Napier's evocation of a smarter, more open immunological self that is still engaged in protecting the self–body from dangers. The ethnographer having the initial passivity of the virus, that can only be imagined as alive in terms of the life that the human self–body gives it? The “other” being the fully human self–subject of fieldwork who absorbs, circumspectly, the ethnographer virus and animates it in its own framework?

Well, in my own view of how anthropology enters this arena of research especially after the history of shifts in the discipline over the past three decades (Rabinow et al. 2008), it makes sense to entertain some metaphorical play that might characterize the ethnographer on entering a space of fieldwork as viral-like—filled with potential, but only animated by engaging with the other whose frameworks of knowledge must be appropriated as one's own (called “deferral” in another article on contemporary collaborations; see Holmes and Marcus 2008), or like one's own, before the distinctively anthropological question can be asked and theoretical argument can be evolved (see, e.g., Dumit 2003). The elaborate concept work in dialogic relation to particular others as counterparts or epistemic partners to the research, rather than its informants or subjects, that occurs alongside the pursuit of fieldwork deserves a kind of methodological thinking for which the virus:self//anthropologist:other might be provocatively appropriate.

In defining fieldwork projects after the 1980s, permitting critically reflexive license, we have tended in preparation for research to continue to elaborately theorize the ethnographer, inquiring self while leaving the “other” to be discovered. In entering the realm of big science projects and expertise., it might be interesting instead, in anticipation of fieldwork, to undertheorize the ethnographer self—which the idea of the viral to be animated does—and to overtheorize the self of the other at the outset—say, according to Napier's metaphorical play with immunology's new findings—as a way of anticipating the sort of partnering of mutual appropriation that strong research relationships in the ethnography of big science projects, finance, infrastructure, and complex arrangement seem to require, and for which the current play of metaphors and analogies seem to facilitate (see, e.g., Fischer 2004; Holmes 2009; Maurer 2005; Riles 2011).

So, as a prolegomenon to a viral thought experiment, in the spirit of Napier's own, I invite the reader to try it out, see where it goes, and let me know.2

  • 1

    In an unpublished paper entitled “Alongside, … ” I collage the various metaphors that I have registered in attempts to refunction ethnography for application in spaces that require the derivation of the conceptual apparatus of the research through pronounced, marked collaborations with particular subjects equivalent to epistemic partners: tropes like adjacency, third spaces, para-sites, collateral, composition, alignment, and lateralization. The animation of the viral in being absorbed by the self would be the entrée to vivid thinking about an additional trope of reconceiving the imaginary of fieldwork in new arenas.

  • 2

    As I recall back in the day of infectious cultural theories (the 1980s and 1990s), virus, or the viral was one of the tropes, along with rhizome (and the immunological as well), that expressed a fascination with the unpredictable circulation of ideas. In retrospect, not much more was made of, or came from, this particular metaphorical play. It was perhaps loosely associated with the rising awareness of the AIDS emergency in those years. Now that research into the nature of virus has been instrumental in undoing the trope of invasion shaping common and technical understandings in immunology, and given the metaphorical work that Napier is doing in the interval, perhaps more can be done with this trope now in joining in the kind of serious play with metaphors that often assists the concept work that produces innovations in anthropology.


  1. Top of page
  3. Appendices
  • Dumit, Joseph 2003 Picturing Personhood. Princeton : Princeton University Press.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J. 2004 Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice. Durham , NC : Duke University Press.
  • Holmes, Douglas R. 2009 Economy of Words. Cultural Anthropology 24(3):381419.
  • Holmes, Douglas, and George E. Marcus 2005 Cultures of Expertise and the Management of Globalization: Toward the Re-functioning of Ethnography. In Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Aihwa Ong and Stephen J. Collier, eds. Pp. 145173. Oxford : Blackwell.
  • Holmes, Douglas, and George E. Marcus 2008 Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter. In Collaborative Anthropologies, vol. 1. Luke Eric Lassiter, ed. Pp. 6388. Omaha : University of Nebraska Press.
  • Maurer, Bill 2005 Mutual Life, Limited: Islamic Banking, Alternative Currencies, Lateral Reason. Princeton : Princeton University Press.
  • Rabinow, Paul, George E. Marcus, James D. Faubion, and Tobias Rees 2008 Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham , NC : Duke University Press.
  • Riles, Annelise 2011 Collateral Knowledge: Legal Reasoning in the Global Financial Markets. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
  • Strathern, Marilyn 2004 Commons and Borderlands: Working Papers on Interdisciplinarity, Accountability and the Flow of Knowledge. Oxford : Sean King.


  1. Top of page
  3. Appendices

Editors’ Notes: Cultural Anthropology has published many articles on the history and anthropology of science, including Mette N. Svendsen's “Articulating Potentiality: Notes on the Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research” (2011), Celia Lowe's “Viral Clouds: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia,” Michael M. J. Fischer's “Four Genealogies for a Recombinant Anthropology of Science and Technology” (2007), and Deepa S. Reddy's “Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the Market of Genetic Research” (2007).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on conceptions of self and personhood. See, for example, Arafaat A. Valiani's “Physical Training, Ethical Discipline, and Creative Violence: Zones of Self-Mastery in the Hindu Nationalist Movement” (2010), Tomas Matza's “Moscow's Echoc: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show” (2009), Nancy Ries' “Potato Ontology: Surviving Postsocialism in Russia” (2009), and Julie Livingston's “Suicide, Risk, and Investment in the Heart of the African Miracle” (2009).