Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: The Political
Secondary Theme: The Visual
This panel grows out of two considerations. First, the increasing entrenchments of a “cynical reason” (Sloterdijk) in educational, political, and governance-related institutions point up the threat of an increasing political pessimism. Second, in inverse relation, a number of critical analysts (Povinelli, Brown) have started to call for a progressive politics in the key of an “otherwise.” Yet what constitutes such an “otherwise?” As if to support Bruno Latour’s claim that fiction writers are often better than social analysts at capturing possibilities, largely because they are more free to experiment, Elizabeth Povinelli – for example – builds on the writings of Ursula LeGuin to provide a number of ethnographic thought experiments to imagine efforts aimed at radical change. To anthropologists trained to consider powerful temporal rhythms, institutional re-arrangements, and various forms of activism as prime vehicles for change, such a project can seem strangely formalist, ineffective, and “quiet.” But instead of seeing experiments in narrative, poetic, and visual form as a recipe for political quietism, this panel argues that the primary goal of experiments with ethnographic form and design is radical social change.
Approaching social change in an artful or aesthetic way that includes experiments with, for example, narrative ethnography, poetry, performance, photography film, graphic writing, and montage, ostensibly moves us away from one of the deepest political convictions in the field: that ultimately it is deep structural forces, including capitalism, nationalism, and racism, that are the truly powerful shapers of our lives, and that need to change. Critics are not wrong to hold on to such explanations: our lives are certainly organized by powerful structuring principles, and it would be a grave mistake to overlook them. But at the same time it is not always clear that an exclusive focus on ultimate causality benefits progressive or leftist politics: it can also distract us from thinking strategically about how best to deploy multiple forms for political ends.
The stakes in such an argument are high. It is the work of forms to arrange or shape. And this means that forms are the stuff of politics. The approach suggested here has been influenced by Brazilian politician Roberto Mangabeira Unger and French critique Jacques Rancière, both of whom make the case that too strong an analytical focus on deep structures is disabling for radical politics. It limits our attention and our targets to a small number of the most intractable factors, factors so difficult to unsettle that most people abandon the attempt altogether. What if we were to see political change driven by a multiplicity of agents, including those attached to the realm of aesthetic and art? What kinds of aesthetic forms do exist to open up a space for thinking about politics in less causal ways, and how might ethnography engage them? The contributors to this panel contend we must by canny about mobilizing a plurality of political and aesthetic forms if we are to set of opportunities for real change.