Jon Bialecki

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Getting beyond arguing over ‘getting beyond the suffering slot’

A recent article in a small, boutique on-line journal named HAU (which, apparently, will publish just about anybody) has reminded me of a recent debate in anthropology: whether there is an inordinate focus on ‘suffering’ in anthropology, and particularly the sort of suffering that has its roots in neoliberalism. The most trenchant for of this argument is Joel Robbin’s arguing for the ‘anthropology of the good.’ Robbin’s gambit is that after the loss of culture as an organizing motif, suffering now serves as the warrant to validate anthropological projects, and what this forecloses is any investigation into how people make lives that run along the lines of what they think is of value in the world. Rather, we can only discuss what they endure.

Of course, there is another side to this as well: there is the competing idea that there is something Panglossian about focusing on the good in a time when neoliberalism is obviously so regnant, and there is so much abject misery in the world. This opposition is usually put forward as a debate, where we are supposed to pick sides. Debates are fun, of course, but as a substantive position this oppositional framing is a bit pathetic, as if ideas were countries locked in a border skirmish over some piece of a map, and not modes of creation.

Alternately we could meekly chirp that ‘both sides have a point,’ which may be the most levelheaded though lukewarm answer. Of the three options, though, that last is the one that strangely seems the most wanting, even if it is the most ‘catholic-with-a-small-c’ answer to the challenge (as if that’s a virtue). The reason that this ‘third way’ feels particularly unsatisfying is probably not because it is so irenic, though. It is because it is the one answer that doesn’t come to grips with the problem. But notice that there is shift – we have gone from ideas, as statements with determinate and mutually irreconcilable content, to a problem – an event or crisis that demands a response. And once we see this as a problem, and a shared one that can be taken up in different ways, then we can frame the various sides as differential resolutions – and hence can think of it in terms not of a binary, but perhaps in some kind of topological way, as different modes of unfolding the same terrain (as opposed to the topographical military metaphor of countries on a map at war.

Now, it happens that I’ve written on this before. Of course, I wrote on this in a pay-wall blocked essay-length book review of hard-cover volumes of Deleuzian theology, so perhaps the wider anthropological world can be forgiven if it didn’t take notice.  But I think what I say there is on point. What I argued there is that we should understand the different responses to the question of ‘the anthropology of the good’ and ‘the anthropology of neoliberalism’ not as different ethical positions, or as incompatible visions of what the proper object of anthropology is, but whether or not we are talking about an ethnographic object that is inside or outside of neoliberalism. This is not a moral judgment, but about the object engaged and the means of engagement. One is an internal critique of neoliberalism, using the academic tools fashioned under neoliberalism (which is not to disparage these academic tools in any way, just to be honest about the fact that much of the discourse about suffering and neoliberalism and been fashioned in the neoliberal academy!). And the other is pointing to an outside of neoliberalism through ethnographic disjuncture, to finding in our informants ways of being in the world that escape from or were never captured by a neoliberal order, and hence not already familiar to us.

Here is the specific passage of the book-review essay I’m referring to. (The Barber here is Daniel Colucceiollo Barber, discussed in his capacity as the author of Deleuze and the Naming of God: post-secularism and the future of immanence. As I have stated before, I’m fond of his work, and if you have an interest in theology, or if you simply wanted to see what happens when Stanley Hauerwas is given the kind of ‘back door’ reading that Deleuze specialized in, I strongly recommend him).

However, the most sustained and detailed discussions of this front can be found in Joel Robbins’s (2013) recent call for an ‘anthropology of the good’. In that article, Robbins states that after the loss of cultural alterity as an organizing motif in anthropology, the disciplinary center switched to ethnographic documentation of human suffering (thought of in terms of abjection, exclusion, and oppression). This concern is informed by an often unarticulated universalist ethic and an equally unspoken presumption that the capacity to identify human suffering, as well as to identify with human suffering, is not mediated by cultural specificities. However, Robbins sees signs that anthropology is starting to develop a different interest, one centered around charting “the different ways people organize their personal and collective lives in order to foster what they think of as good, and to study what it is like to live at least some of the time in light of such a project” (ibid.: 457)

Robbins’s call is understandably controversial. Despite his objections otherwise, it suggests that the ‘anthropology of suffering’ not only runs roughshod over anthropological differences, but that its day is over, that one must choose between these two competing options. However, the choice before us might not be that procrustean. While there are other formulations of the anthropological project that attempt to transcend this binary (see Maskens and Blanes 2013), what I would like to point to is how Barber’s [the author of one of the books reviewed – which is quite good!] positing of the complementary necessity of a metaphilosophy and of a non-philosophy might help us pass through the present moment, in a way similar to how Barber wishes to pass through Deleuze. The linkages between the anthropology of the good and non-philosophy should be obvious. Like the ontological turn, the anthropology of wonder, the anthropology of becoming, and non-liberal religiosities as engines of critique, the anthropology of the good is a way of thinking through that which we cannot think on our own.  That is to say, while they may not encompass fully immanent possible forms of life (see Scott, forthcoming), these are modes of believing in life, modes that point to horizons beyond the present one, and hence involve some sort of transformation at some level.  They are thus non-anthropological, although not non-ethnographic.  These ways of thinking are the fruit of field encounters with forms of life— either incipient (as with those found within the Western metropole) or perhaps even fully flowered (similar to those on the periphery of the West as a world system or even beyond its immediate horizon)—and necessitate our leaving the armchair for the field.

But all the same, we should note that the anthropology of the good is not a replacement for the anthropology of the suffering slot; rather, it is its complement and its mutual catalyst. If we take Barber’s point that suffering is an index to the blockages in the current moment, of human potentia foreclosed, then we can see that there are resonances between the call for a systematic metaphilosophy and the anthropology of the suffering slot. It is the anthropology of the excluded and abject that points us to what we cannot envisage and allows us to see what forms of life we would wish to turn to in order to escape from the present moment. Proof for this lies in what Robbins cites as one of the limitations of the anthropology of suffering—the transparency of suffering. This should not be taken as an intellectual deficiency but rather a sign that we are engaged not in charting alterity but in reflexive critique. We are able to grasp immediately what is transpiring [when we document suffering] because the limitations are already familiar to us, in that they are the outcome of a larger global system in which we are directly embedded, albeit it in different roles and with differing effects. To use another Deleuzian metaphor, what we have here in the relation between the ‘suffering slot’ and the variety of projects subsumed for purposes of this conversation under the anthropology of the good is a mirror, only one where the image and its reflection do not resemble each other….

Now, outside of the context of the book review, I can say that while I still stand by the point, I’m not particularly attached to the language of meta-anthropology and non-anthropology: this is obviously language imported from a quite different domain, and I’m not sure that it brings clarity for us here and now. And I would want to focus more on the fact that spaces and subjects might be at once inside and outside of the neoliberal order already, with either aspects or moments of their lives escaping neoliberalism, or perhaps something more complicated, a quantum “fully both at once” state. But either way, I do think that there are sharper approaches to the question of anthropological approaches to neoliberalism and unhappiness, approaches that don’t ratify only one side and require judging various anthropologies, but rather encourage proliferating them.


(As anthropology should/could only be one thing….)


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