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Epiphenomenal Anthropology – Grim Thoughts During Finals Week about Anthropology, Speculative Realism, Materiality and Affect Theory
I am probably late to this party, and I certainly don’t want to be seen as piling on, offering yet another iteration of a critique that hasn’t been particularly well received. This is especially the case because I’m someone who has tried to play around at the margins of these concepts myself. But a conversation with an archeologist colleague has left me in a somewhat deflated mood about things such as Object Oriented Ontologies and Speculative Realism. He suggested that the general interest in this whole line of thought, including a wider-scale interest in materiality in the anthropology of religion, might be seen as epiphenomenal of a broader University-level interest in the STEM disciplines. There are certainly some tells – one can remember Danilyn Rutherford’s observation that affect theory (which has both a family resemblance and a genealogical tie to a lot of this thought) has an attraction for anthropologists “who have dreamt of forging alliances with former enemies – of science peace, not science war.”
Also, this not to substantively critique this thought, nor is this a claim that those presenting this thought are opportunists. One can imagine an almost Darwinian scenario in which these sets of questions, always somewhat latent, are not produced in bad faith, but rather were always capable of being brought into being. However it is only now that they happen hit on the controlling problematic of the time, and hence can enjoy a greater reception and a prosperity beyond the idiosyncratic and unread.
There is of course no reason for this to be disheartening – anthropology (and the social sciences and humanities more broadly) have long been comfortable with the social and material forces immanent in the production of certain kinds of knowledge. The sense of loss rather is locatable in the question of what other virtualities of thought are lying latent, and the sense of passivity that comes along with it, the idea of not quite being the product of an event, but rather captives of it as well.