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.

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