• [empiricism;
  • anthropology;
  • methods;
  • ethics;
  • Dutch New Guinea United States]


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In this article, which takes James Clifford and George Marcus'sWriting Cultureas its starting point, I make the case for a kinky kind of empiricism that builds on the singular power of anthropological ways of knowing the world. Kinky empiricism takes established forms to an extreme and turns back to reflect on its own conditions of possibility. At the same time, it deploys methods that create obligations, obligations that compel those who seek knowledge to put themselves on the line by making truth claims that they know will intervene within the settings and among the people they describe. I begin to make this argument by way of a close rereading of moments inWriting Culture. I then turn to David Hume's writings on empiricism, which, I suggest, offer the ingredients for an empiricism that is both skeptical and ethical because it includes among its objects of inquiry the apparatuses through which reality is known. I end by exploring dangers and possibilities associated with kinky empiricism by juxtaposing a moment from my research on state building in Dutch New Guinea with the approach taken in Philippe Bourgois and Jeffrey Schonberg's groundbreaking study, Righteous Dopefiend. In rereading Writing Culture, I find the ingredients of a more affirmative stance toward anthropology than is usually associated with Writing Culture—one premised on the need for what Michel-Rolph Trouillot once called “an epistemology and semiology of all anthropologists have done and can do.”

It is time for anthropology to reclaim the empirical. But this reclaiming must be accompanied by a rethinking of what empiricism means. What I’d like to affirm in this article—and have attempted to practice in my recent research—is a kind of empiricism that builds on the singular power of anthropological ways of knowing the world. A kinky empiricism: kinky, like a slinky, twisting back on itself, but also kinky, like S and M and other queer elaborations of established scenarios, relationships, and things. An empiricism that admits that one never gets to the bottom of things, yet also accepts and even celebrates the disavowals required of us given a world that forces us to act. An empiricism that is ethical because its methods create obligations, obligations that compel those who seek knowledge to put themselves on the line by making truth claims that they know will intervene within the settings and among the people they describe.

There are several reasons why now is a good time for anthropologists to insist on the empirical nature of what they do. The new kinds of interchanges in which anthropologists are now engaged create obligations of a particularly pressing sort. There is a price of admission to the politically fraught arenas that anthropologists are increasingly entering. As I have learned in my work in the troubled Indonesian territory of West Papua, paying this price can require us to write and speak authoritatively on issues that matter to the people we have studied. But all too often, anthropology has appeared to outsiders as having a tangential relationship to the empirical, producing knowledge that is too partial, too particular, too relativistic or theoretical to bear on real-world questions. However mistaken, such views reflect the long shadow cast by the 1980s, a time when many anthropologists developed new allegiances in the humanities. In reclaiming the empirical for anthropology, we must contend with the legacy of this époque in the discipline's development. In writings demonized as steering anthropology away from “reality” that one finds the clearest expression of the epistemology that is implicitly embraced by the best practitioners of the discipline. These writings make the case for a kinky kind of empiricism, an empiricism that takes seriously the situated nature of what all thinkers do.

Sometimes to find the way forward, one must begin by looking back. In the first half of this article, I consider two sources for the ingredients for the kinky empiricism that I would like to affirm as a critical dimension of contemporary anthropology. The first is Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986), which, I argue, helped add to the phenomena open to anthropological enquiry by foregrounding the circumstances of ethnography. The second is the work of David Hume, whose epistemology, I argue, proves surprisingly resonant with the empiricism implicitly endorsed in Writing Culture. Following the lead of Gilles Deleuze, Brian Massumi, and others who have read Hume in new ways, I consider how this 18th-century philosopher, like Writing Culture's contributors, sketched out an empiricism that was both skeptical and ethical because it included among its objects of inquiry the apparatuses through which reality is known.

My aim is not simply descriptive; it is also polemical. Kinky empiricism is a position I would like anthropology to embrace. But it is also a position that brings with it dangers as well as possibilities. In the final section of this article, I turn to my research on Dutch New Guinea and the pitfalls of ways of knowing that anthropologists and colonial officials have shared. I end by considering a recent ethnography that responds to these dangers and possibilities in a particularly compelling way. Kinky empiricism is always slightly off kilter, always aware of the slipperiness of its grounds and of the difficulty of adequately responding to the ethical demands spawned by its methods. Being off-kilter is a strength, not a weakness. For anthropology, it is what comes with getting real.


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In the 1980s, the potted history of our discipline goes, anthropology turned left while its sister disciplines turned right. Significant subgroups within psychology, political science, economics, and sociology began adopting mathematical models and quantitative methods, and crafted experiments aimed at producing generalizable findings. Anthropology, for its part, looked inward, producing self-indulgent, jargon strewn texts that only the initiated could understand. Silliness ruled the day. “I’ve talked enough about me,” the “postmodern” anthropologist in the famous joke says to an informant. “What do you think about me?”“What's the difference between a gangster and a postmodernist?” another joke goes. “A postmodernist gives you an offer you can't understand.” For purveyors of this potted history, the move toward dialogue and partial truths represented a retreat from empirical research—above all from the kind of empirical research on colonized and formerly colonized peoples and cultures for which the discipline long was known. And when anthropology did finally come to its senses, the potted history goes on, it turned its attention to colonialism and science: the peoples and cultures that gave birth to anthropology. The fervor of the 1980s left anthropology unauthorized to claim to know others; the best we could do was know ourselves.

I do not believe in this potted history, even though it was foisted on me at a tender disciplinary age. (The second person to introduce me to anthropology was Steve Sangren, a Marxist anthropologist influenced by Terry Turner who wrote a critique of Writing Culture and other “postmodern” works that appeared in Current Anthropology shortly before I arrived at Cornell [1988]. The first person to introduce me to anthropology was Jim Siegel, a student of Clifford Geertz who was so singular in his orientation to the discipline that the first course I took, “Political Anthropology,” had a syllabus that consisted exclusively of serialized novels in colonial Malay.)1 This potted history makes me squirm whenever I confront it, which is usually in conversations with other social scientists. It's way too easy to get sucked into the narrative. “But we’ve left those bad old days behind!” I find myself saying. “We’re doing all kinds of hard-nosed work!” When we open Writing Culture and actually read it, a different view of the “bad old days” comes into focus. Writing Culture provides a warrant for an anthropological empiricism that takes on more reality, not less.

The reality taken on by Writing Culture takes two forms. On the one hand, the chapters in the collection extend the range of empirical phenomena open to inquiry outward and criticize those who have limited their studies’ scope. Renato Rosaldo (1986) discusses the pacification campaigns undertaken in the Sudan shortly before Evans-Pritchard contracted “Nueritis” trying to extract information about local politics from his understandably reticent Nuer informants. Vincent Crapanzano (1986) criticizes Clifford Geertz's famous essay on the Balinese cockfight for failing to provide enough empirical evidence to substantiate Geertz's claims. “We must go further” is a refrain repeated throughout Writing Culture—we must say more about the intellectual settings and professional imperatives that are shaping our discipline, Paul Rabinow (1986) tells us (see also Marcus 1986b); we must say more about the interplay of social phenomena on different levels and scales, George Marcus (1986a) insists. This dimension of Writing Culture reflects what I see as a key strength of the discipline. Because we don't set the parameters of admissible data from the get-go, anthropologists are arguably able to be more empirical than social scientists constrained by survey instruments and the need for large samples. We sacrifice what statisticians call statistical validity, but we gain construct validity: a higher level of confidence that we are doing justice to a messy reality. Writing Culture queers this second kind of validity. The chapters reveal a kinky penchant for thoroughly specifying the messy reality with which anthropologists are concerned.

On the other hand, the chapters in Writing Culture also, more famously, extend the range of empirical phenomena open to inquiry inward toward the research and writing process itself (see Clifford 1986a, 1986b; Fischer 1986; Tyler 1986). Taking the quest for construct validity to an extreme, Writing Culture's empiricism becomes kinky in a second sense: this empiricism loops back on itself. In bringing ethnography's dialogic character clearly into view, the collection raises ethical questions about the enterprise, questions to which some contributors responded by calling for writing practices that more fully represented informants’ voices in a work. In the years since Writing Culture was published, linguistic anthropologists have provided us with a sophisticated understanding of the issues raised by the book's kinky obsession with reflexivity (see Lucy 1993; Silverstein 1976). As Writing Culture's authors knew well, dialogue never happens between just two sides (see Bakhtin 1981; see also Feldman 1991; Keane 1997).2 Bearing the traces of long histories of interaction, dialogue also never happens in just one setting but, rather, requires the bringing into relevance of institutions that authorize, valorize, and lend prestige to speakers’ words (see Silverstein 2004; see also Agha 2007). Dialogue is always fraught with ethical conundrums. To converse is to engage in an exchange of gestures. To exchange is to receive and to receive is to confront the impossible demand to give others their due. For anthropologists, the conundrums multiply. Fieldwork generates both debts and identities in the back and forth through which interlocutors create a sense of what they are up to and who they are. Anthropologists find themselves compelled to do right by a cultural other that fades into a specter as soon as they think hard about what they do.3 This second dimension of kinky empiricism—its slinky effect, as we might call it—eats away at certainty as well as good conscience. When anthropologists look closely at their own research practices, it becomes clear that partial truths are the best they can do.

What I see as the most important contribution of Writing Culture is this coupling of the empirical and the ethical. What I have described as two realities are really just aspects of one: the messy reality in which ethnography lives. Unfortunately, readers of the collection haven't always recognized that, for Writing Culture, looking outward and looking inward are two sides of the same kinky coin.4 To some degree, Writing Culture's authors and contributors were complicit in perpetrating this view, adding references to empirical “standards” almost as an afterthought. In fact, there is nothing inconsistent or incoherent about the implicit epistemology articulated in Writing Culture. The reflexive turn in anthropology has expanded, rather than contracted, the discipline's power to represent reality. The ethical challenges that have come out of this recognition are indicative of how much more, rather than less, anthropology is trying to say about the empirical world. I think we can do a better job of defining and defending this dimension of our discipline. But this may require yet another look backward—to an early champion of empiricism, a thinker whom at least one contributor to Writing Culture may have too hastily dismissed.


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Eighteenth-century philosopher, friend of Adam Smith, “a man of letters and, in a mild manner, a man of affairs,” as one biographer puts it, David Hume would seem an odd patron saint for today's anthropologists (see Macnabb 1962:28). Born in 1711, Hume entered Edinburgh University at the age of ten and encountered the writings of John Locke as a teenager before decamping for France. There, in his early twenties, he wrote his magnificent flop, A Treatise of Human Nature and made friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he “imported to England” and provided with a house, a dog, a mistress, and a pension from the King. (“But nothing would persuade Rousseau that Hume was not secretly plotting his ridicule and humiliation,” D. C. G. Macnabb [1962:28–29] reports. “The relationship ended in a spectacular quarrel. In self-justification, Hume was forced to publish the correspondence, from which it is abundantly clear that the only man who ever hated Hume was mad.”) Hume himself never married, preferring to live with his sister and a cat. Whatever Hume's erotic proclivities—he seems less kinky than quirky by this account—his thinking clearly had twists.5 Giving with one hand and taking with the other, leading the careful reader on a conceptual loop, Hume proclaimed that all knowledge begins in experience. But he also argued that we have no real reason to trust experience or to believe that what has happened in the past provides a basis for predicting what is to come.

Hume was, among other things, an epistemologist, and hence a proponent of a breed of thinking dismissed in Paul Rabinow's chapter in Writing Culture as “an accidental, but eventually sterile, turning in Western culture” (Rabinow 1986:234). But as Gilles Deleuze (1991) and Brian Massumi (2002), have suggested, Hume's work may be more generative than Rabinow would lead us to think. I find it useful to read Hume's work as fodder for an exercise in reverse engineering. If we begin with the view of thought advocated by Rabinow (1986:234) in his chapter—as “nothing more or less than a historically locatable set of practices”—what kind of mechanism do we need to envision such that thought and the subjectivity of the thinker could both be, in Deleuze's words, “constituted in the given” (1991:104)? Whether or not we call it epistemology, a tacit understanding of how this might work weaves its way through our research in the wake of Writing Culture. Hume is perhaps less useful in telling us what we should think than shedding light on what we do think when we are making the most of our methods: the kinky empiricist background assumptions that structure knowledge production in our field.

Two of Hume's terms provide useful tools for grasping these background assumptions. The first is the notion of circumstances, which relates to the first form of reality addressed by Writing Culture: the one that comes into focus when one takes in the broader contexts that shape what anthropologists find in the field. Hume is famous for his account of what he calls “moral reasoning,” a category that encompasses the lion's share of thought, which, with the sole exception of certain problems in mathematics, proceeds through inference (see Hume 1962, 1988; see also Deleuze 1991). Inference, for Hume, is an interpretive practice that reads the unfolding of events as signs of what once was and what is to come. Inference, like all sign use, cannot occur in a vacuum. Interpretation is an imaginative form of conduct in which what Hume calls the “fancy” moves along grooves established by previous encounters with the world. In describing the aggregated effect of these encounters, Hume draws on the notion of circumstances. Circumstances consist of the patterned distribution of happenings that makes it more or less probable that a certain person will have certain experiences. Circumstances shape the expectations that lead particular people to read a particular cause or effect off of a particular event.

But Hume goes further than the contributors to Writing Culture did in exploring how circumstances influence what people think and do. The solid ground of Hume's empiricism grows shaky when he considers the process through which experiences give rise to expectations. Hume asserts that the ability to infer is adaptive: it is the basis not only for science and technology but also for government, civil society, and domestic life. Yet he also does much to show that the practice of inference has no logical rationale. The mind-fuck moment in Hume's writings comes when he argues that the legitimacy of our inferences stands or falls on the assumption that events will have the same kind of causes and consequences in the future as they did in the past (see Hume 1988). There is no way of adducing evidence in support of this assumption because it is the assumption on which the very notion of evidence rests. (Pause. Think about it!) If we believe in the evidence of our senses, it is because of what Hume calls a “principle of human nature,”“custom,” which Hume describes as a quasi-organic variety of the repetition compulsion that drives us to wait for a “tock” following every “tick” (see Hume 1962; see also Deleuze 1991, 1994). Unlike philosophers who draw a distinction between mind and body, Hume finds passion at the heart of reason. Rational thought draws on the same organic forces that drive hunger, lust, and the beating of hearts. Along with fellow feeling, reason is less sublime than lizard brained.

The same tendency both to trust experience and undermine it runs through Writing Culture's critique of the anthropology of its day. Something like Hume's notion of circumstances makes an appearance throughout the book. The contributors’ point is not that anything goes, when it comes to interpreting ethnographic data. Their point is that what does go is, to quote Paul Rabinow again, “historically locatable.” Interpretations follow grooves laid in the imaginations of individuals and institutions by virtue of their pathways through space and time. Notably, interpretations follow grooves left by what Hume (1962) calls “artifices”: technologies for regulating the imagination, which for Hume include both police forces and books. What Hume adds to this approach is the proposal that among the circumstances that matter is the form of the organism that thinks. The process of interpretation is anything but dispassionate. Thinking occurs in the body, not some isolated “internal space,” and in the company of others linked together through the repetitions that constitute custom. And the process of interpretation is scarcely immune to doubt. Simply “being there” in the field cannot qualify an ethnographer to produce a transparent account of what he or she has witnessed. Every observation is haunted by a multiplicity of places and times. This holds for ethnographers and the ethnographers of the ethnographers, not to mention the people they study. There is no act of reasoning that is not a leap of faith, both embodied and collective. “Contextualize!” we contemporary anthropologists tell our students. “But take nothing for granted, including context,” we always add.

The second term from Hume's repertoire that provides us with a grip on the implicit epistemology we have inherited from Writing Culture is sympathy (see Hume 1962; Deleuze 1991; see also Panagia 2006). Sympathy for Hume is not empathy, pity, or any of the other rosy synonyms for the ability to identify with another that we tend to associate with the word. Rather, it is the embodied outcome of proximity—occasioned by the placement of human bodies and artifacts in space and time—that leads people to share perspectives and passions. Sympathy is the outcome of inference, but with a twist. One witnesses an event—a gesture, a facial expression, an utterance—and one infers a cause, in this case the passion that led to this effect. Proximity makes the passion vivid, and one comes to feel what one imagines the other feels. The ability to share perspectives and passions, for Hume, is not simply the basis of friendship, kinship, and romance. Like inference, sympathy plays a critical role in public life. Without this passion, there would be no state, no economy, and no science. Sympathy is an embodied mode of intersubjectivity; it is the sentiment that provides the grounds of all social pursuits. Sympathy is both a source of power and compassion. It is an instrument of governance. It is also the privileged instrument of ethnography. “Be interested in what people are interested in,” we tell our students. We often add a caveat: “Don't presume that simply by seeing things their way you are necessarily doing them any good.”

The empirical and the ethical go hand in hand in Hume's work, as they do in Writing Culture and the best of contemporary anthropology. Inference and sympathy are key ingredients in every human project. They are ways of getting things done. As kinky empiricists, we would do well to follow Hume in insisting that it is not just anthropologists who engage in “moral reasoning,” as singular as our research methods might seem. So do sociologists, psychologists, economists, and political scientists, along with our more distant cousins in the natural and physical sciences. What is distinctive about anthropology among the disciplines—what makes our form of moral reasoning particularly fruitful—is the fact that we refuse to draw a categorical distinction between our practices and those of the people we study. This kind of reflexivity would risk becoming paralyzing, if it were not for an insight that Hume also offers. Even though we are aware of the partiality of our truths, we still must act. For Hume, our seemingly most rigorous ways of thinking proceeds “merely from an illusion of the imagination” (Panagia 2006:90). And yet the practical effects of “this capacity to compose fictions to both ourselves and others,” as the Canadian philosopher Davide Panagia points out, are what “saves us from the kind of nihilism Hume's radical skepticism might induce” (2006:90). As Jacques Derrida (1995, 1996) insisted, an ethical question is one that cannot be answered according to a prescription or program. Uncertainty and justice go hand in hand in those moments that force us to choose among contending ways of doing the right thing. The empiricism that characterizes anthropology at its best is both skeptical and committed. The discipline's future lives in the kinks.


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If anthropology is going to remain a going concern, we have to learn to inhabit the ethical quandaries built into our kinky empiricism more creatively by building alliances across some of the barriers we have built around cultural anthropology. I have in mind those that divide us from policy work and the more quantitative social sciences. Counting people is not the only way to control them. When it comes to the consequences of our research, the best lives next door to the worst, as my work on sympathy and colonial state-building makes clear (see Rutherford 2009). In my investigation of the establishment of the first government post in the New Guinea highlands, I came upon an episode that stopped me in my tracks. It was in Lloyd Rhys's JunglePimpernel (1947), which describes the life and times of one of the officers whose expedition reports I poured over as part of the research for a book I am finishing. Jan Victor de Bruyn was the mixed race son of a planter, an urbane, sophisticated man with a doctorate in Javanese archaeology who responded to the call of New Guinea. De Bruyn made it his mission to bring the “Stone Age” Papuans into the modern world through a carefully crafted program of colonial intervention. He was so devoted to this task that he refused to evacuate when western New Guinea fell to the Japanese at the outset of World War II. Rhys describes the wealth of ethnographic knowledge gathered by de Bruyn during his adventures running from the Japanese. De Bruyn gained an intimate acquaintance with the Papuans’ distinct form of justice when a man accused of sleeping with another man's wife took shelter in the house where de Bruyn was staying. The man begged de Bruyn to save him, and de Bruyn almost succeeded, moved as he was by the dread that swept over the unfortunate man. But when the crowd set fire to the building, forcing the culprit to come out, de Bruyn picked up his camera. Rhys recounts what happened next. “When the adulterer had been shot and captured and de Bruyn could do nothing to intervene, he took the opportunity of taking an extraordinary set of photographs of the scene. Like many of his pictures they are unique. No other white man is known to have witnessed such an event, and no other photographs are known to exist” (Rhys 1947:210).

For de Bruyn, as for other Dutch officials in New Guinea, sympathy was a means of controlling the Papuans. And yet it created obligations—obligations born of the unsettling proximity that de Bruyn had to experience to get state-building done. The fact that sympathy was an instrumental, as well as an unavoidable, element of governance in New Guinea may have made it easier for de Bruyn to put sympathy back in his toolbox when its demands proved impossible to fulfill. This is not to say that the obligations born of de Bruyn's proximity to the Papuans were not real. The abruptness with which de Bruyn turned to photography is evidence of the violence it took to turn away when he was faced with the prospect of sympathizing with the dead. However much we might want to distance ourselves from colonial figures like de Bruyn, the scenario Rhys describes should make anthropologists uncomfortable. This is not simply because there is no way fully to satisfy our obligation to others. It is also because an ethnographer and his or her subjects come from and return to different places. He or she and they come from and return to different sets of circumstances that open different opportunities, offer different constraints, and pose different demands.

When Jeff Schonberg picked up his camera in the research that led to Righteous Dopefiend (Bourgois and Schonberg 2009), his and Philippe Bourgois's astonishing study of homeless heroin users in San Francisco, it was not in an effort to turn his back on obligations. Like de Bruyn, Schonberg documented suffering: the dusty, trash-strewn roadside where a man crouches to inject himself, the exposed flesh left after the removal of an abscess from another man's neck; the grief on the face of another man near the coffin of a deceased friend. But Schonberg's aim was not to take a distanced view on the distress he witnessed; it was to help create a book that acts as an artifact, in Hume's sense, enlivening the passions—and expanding the imaginations—of anyone who opens its pages. The two authors’ prose fulfills much the same function. The book consists of a refreshingly unapologetic combination of divergent kinds of evidence—from statistical data drawn from the public health and policy studies literatures to excerpts from field notes intimately detailing particular people's lives, loves, and torments.

What is remarkable about the book is its ability to track between the empirical and the ethical. The book offers a fascinating analysis of the different ways black and white heroin addicts inhabit their predicament: from their methods of injection, to their ways of getting by, to the divergent ways they stand, talk, move and react in a world that is ethnically divided. At the same time, Bourgois and Schonberg get close enough to the complicated lives of individuals to show how ethnic boundaries are crossed. Large-scale circumstances are everywhere revealed in this ethnography as shaping the narrow world that Bourgois and Schonberg describe. These circumstances range from the role of race in fragmenting the labor force that existed before economic change turned this industrialized neighborhood of the city into a wasteland, to the tendency of African American extended families to retain ties to addicted relatives, to the streetwise styles of comportment available to black addicts, but not to whites, who appear to the world as pitiful, not fearsome and strong. And yet Bourgois and Schonberg's role in the narrow world created by these circumstances is anything but that of a tourist. Bourgois and Schonberg hung out with the heroin addicts. They went with them on “licks”—expeditions to steal enough resalable goods to provide for another fix. They slept in their leaky tents on cold, rainy winter nights. They lent money to the addicts; they gave them rides; they gave them photographs; they documented the stories and images the addicts wanted them to record.

The book stands as a tribute to particular people: Tina, Carter, Frank, Max, Petey, Scotty. And yet it opens and closes as a policy study: a book that yields specific recommendations on how Americans might deal with the problem of heroin addiction more effectively. The research Bourgois and Schonberg undertook was funded to do precisely this: to document the public health implications of different methods of injection. As much as Bourgois and Schonberg registered the effects of specifically U.S. modes of sovereignty and governmentality in the lives of those they studied, this lens does not obscure their gaze. The book ends with a bittersweet account of how the authors tried to help the individuals who populate the book escape drug addiction when their 12 years of fieldwork ended. But it also ends with a call to action to transform the circumstances that made the lives described in the book the ones the addicts had to lead. The efficacy of this appeal turns on a methodological eclecticism in which fieldwork is not the only way to illuminate a social world. It is impossible not to identify with the people Bourgois and Schonberg so generously and unflinchingly describe in their joy as well as their pain. But the book's efficacy depends on the authors’ ability to step back: to pick up not just a camera, but also statistics. There is no question: the bold contentiousness called for in Writing Culture is absent in Bourgois and Schonberg's study. Righteous Dopefiend's kinky empiricism is marked by what one might hope is a different kind of bravery: the courage to build alliances with anthropology's disciplinary rivals in the social sciences but to do so on our own terms.

In thinking through what these terms should be, I can't help but miss the voice of Rolph Trouillot, who would have been a wonderful participant in this conversation. Twenty years ago, Trouillot told us that the time was ripe for anthropologists to contest what he called the “savage slot”—the field of inquiry that defined anthropology's place among the disciplines well before anthropology even existed.6 Trouillot had a far less sanguine view of the project undertaken in Writing Culture than I have presented here. Anthropological calls for reflexivity were “timid, spontaneous—and in this sense genuinely American—responses to major changes in relations between anthropology and the wider world, provincial expressions of wider concerns, allusions to opportunities yet to be seized” now that the “savages” were gone (Trouillot 1991:19). Today's anthropologists have in many ways seized these opportunities and undertaken the “fundamental redirection” Trouillot demanded. There has been no shortage of anthropologists seeking “new points of reentry by questioning the symbolic world upon which ‘nativeness’ is presumed” (Trouillot 1991:40). This is no shortage of anthropologists “claiming new grounds” (Trouillot 1991:36).7 But even as we engage in research that is creating new contact zones among the social sciences, we still have yet to develop compelling ways of describing what anthropologists can—and can’t—do better than economists, psychologists, or political scientists. The time is still ripe for what Trouillot called for: “an epistemology and semiology of all anthropology has done and can do.”

Kinky empiricism: those who embrace it are attuned to the real world effects of their own practices and the texts that they put into the world. They are aware of the analytic and ethical twists and turns born of a research method that forces them to get close enough to imagine how it might feel to walk in another's shoes. They are not afraid of dangerous liaisons. Writing Culture was not a detour on the way to the projects undertaken by today's anthropologists. In all its kinkiness, this book pointed the way.

  • 1

    Siegel developed themes from this course in his brilliant study of Indonesian nationalism, Fetish, Recognition, Revolution (1997).

  • 2

    Clifford and others of the time drew on Bakhtin (1981) for their notion of dialogue. Read by way of Jakobson, Peirce, Goffman, Derrida, and others, Bahktin's ideas about dialogue and voicing also run through much of the work cited above.

  • 3

    See Siegel (1997) on this predicament.

  • 4

    See, for example, Sangren 1988. Clifford (1986a) also points to the diversity of the chapters and eschews any effort to reduce them to a single project.

  • 5

    In his introduction to Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Richard H. Popkin reports that Hume told Adam Smith that “the only reason he wanted to stay alive was to ‘see the elimination of this strange superstition, Christianity, that pervaded the world.’ Then, in his usual skeptical manner, Hume added that even if he could carry on his efforts in this direction, he doubted that Christianity would ever be eliminated.” See Hume 1980.

  • 6

    Trouillot traced this slot to a thématique born during the Renaissance, when the savage became an element in the trilogy, along with order and utopia, that oriented the political and conceptual moves through what we now take as the West (1991:18). Whether or not representations of the newly discovered “other” had any empirical reality is beside the point, Trouillot tells us: “The savage is only evidence in a debate, the importance of which surpasses not only his understanding but also his very existence” (1991:33).

  • 7

    To make a case for the advantages of the kind of knowledge anthropology produces is anything but to invoke what Trouillot refers to as the “ahistorical voice of reason, justice, or civilization” (1991:19). It is to acknowledge anthropology's own situated standing as a science among other sciences—to specify what we can do—and can't do—better than economists, political scientists, or psychologists. We have to learn to think about anthropology within a wider landscape of knowledge production and political action. Patting ourselves on the back from our studies of the state, say, is misguided if we fail to contend with changes in the discipline of political science. The other way of reading our ability to claim new ground is in terms of political science's retreat from the historical specificity associated with comparative politics. The motto would seem to be “let the girls do it”—that is, leave this kind of empirical work to the relatively feminized discipline of anthropology. The boys with their elegant rational choice models remain nestled in the armpits of power. To become something other than specialists in savagery, we need to find new ways to authorize our findings as something other than the musings of adventurers seeking the exotic close to home. Trouillot calls on anthropology to intervene more effectively in debates over the Western canon by championing minority voices. This challenge remains, but these days there are also other interdisciplinary fish to fry.


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  • Bakhtin, M. M. 1981 The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin : University of Texas Press.
  • Bourgois, Philippe, and Jeff Schonberg 2009 Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley : University of California Press.
  • Clifford, James 1986a Introduction: Partial Truths. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds. Pp. 126. Berkeley : University of California Press.
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  • Crapanzano, Vincent 1986 Hermes’ Dilemma: The Masking of Subversion in Ethnographic Description. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds. Pp. 5176. Berkeley : University of California Press.
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