OAC Online Seminar 17-29 January Martin Holbraad "Can the thing speak?"

I would like to thank all of our members who helped to make the clutch of online seminars we put on in late 2010 so enjoyable and successful. I would encourage the rest of you to join us now and in future. It is still early days in the formation of a model that will guarantee our invited speakers a measure of security while opening up discussion to the widest possible participation. With this in mind, I would like to introduce an experiment now by suggesting that contributors limit themselves to one comment and a direct follow up every two days. I will not impose a limit on length, but ask you to be as concise as you can. The speaker is not so restricted and as chair I will limit my substantive interventions to half a dozen in all. If we compare this seminar with one in a physical location, you would expect to take turns in addressing the speaker. Let's see if something similar works here.

 

The OAC has had quite a heavy dose of theory on our home page lately. A sequence from Kant's anthropology through placing boundaries around the human to what is post-modernism? and beyond that might persuade casual readers that we have forsaken our populist mission for scholasticism. In which case, the present seminar will do nothing to dissuade them of that. Think of it as a phase. Martin Holbraad, co-editor of  Thinking Through Things (2006), presents here a further reflection on this topic, Can the thing speak?, available online or downloadable as a pdf file. This is partly a systematic review of a range of positions on the relations between people and things, partly a personal manifesto which takes the distinction between humanist and post-humanist approaches to a post-post-humanist extreme. Confused? Fear not. There are some very important issues at stake here and Martin is nothing if not lucid in guiding us through them.

 

To ground what might be otherwise an abstract philosophical argument, Martin draws on his own ethnography of divination in Cuba. His informants say that a powder used in the process is power. Not represents power, but is power. What would it take for us as anthropologists to accept this identity and perhaps to go further, seeing the powder not merely as a sort of magical object, but as something with a voice capable of speaking to us in its own right? Why does this matter (so to speak)? Stay tuned and find out. Tell us what you think about it all or what you would like clarified.

 

Since this is an extension of the 2006 volume, we are lucky to have on hand a review of Thinking Through Things posted by the OAC's very own Phil Swift, Where the wild things are. This review is both a straightforward introduction to the topic and a source of critical questions, no less significant for being gently posed. I strongly recommend that you read both Martin and Phil. The latter also absolves me as first discussant below from having to do too much work of introduction.

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NIkos, M. Izabel, could it be that you are being too hasty in your rejection of what Martin is trying to do? Your premise that he wishes to replace persons with things is, as I read him, completely mistaken. He is not trying to replace persons with things. Instead, he is urging us to attend to things with the same openness and attention that we, albeit only ideally and sometimes, bring to our conversations with the persons whose lives we study and share. 

As with most anthropological debates, there is history to be considered. Others here will have a more detailed grasp of that history and be able to correct my mistakes, but to me it goes like this.

There was a time when anthropologists were collectors, filling museums with artifacts (pottery, textiles, tools, canoes, art and other "ritual objects"). Then, a new type of anthropologist appeared; in the British tradition, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Edmund Leach are exemplary figures. They embraced the vision that anthropology should be a science of society, revealing its elementary forms through construction of models of social structure and process abstracted from lived realities. It may or may not have been, as our mentor Keith Hart has suggested elsewhere, because they were crappy fieldworkers and not very meticulous scholars either. But Leach epitomized their reaction to their predecessors by calling their work "butterfly collecting," relegating the collectors and the collections they piled up in places like the British Museum to the status of childish hobbies. 

It is ironic that Leach was a great popularizer of Lévi-Strauss or, rather, a caricature of Lévi-Strauss that captured only his interest in mathematical models, instead of the advocate of close study of "the logic in tangible qualities," who inspired Martin, Daniel Miller, and other anthropologists including myself to revisit things, i.e., the tangible, material realities of what we found in the field — not to replace the persons whose lives we have studied but, instead, to better understand them. 

There are, of course, other threads to this history. I think, off the top of my head, of Brian Turner and Emily Martin and the renewal of interest in embodiment, in actual, biological bodies, offered as a corrective to a sociology that critics like these found too entirely mental — trapped in some Cartesian other world where bodiless minds interact in terms of institutional constraint and rational choice alone. I think of science and technology studies that have brought renewed attention to how scientific equipment and technique form vital parts of the paradigms that govern how research is done and its spin-offs in economic sociology. One my shelves I have a marvelous book called Material Markets by sociologist Donald MacKenzie. Based on ethnographic research in financial institution trading rooms, it shows how small (and in both senses) highly material differences in new technologies have major effects on the ways in which markets operate.

 

From this perspective, what Martin is trying to do is part of a much larger intellectual movement that confronts the abstractions of such theological constructs as market fundamentalism and rational-choice with highly material muddle of a world in which people and things interact, each shaping the other, and revealing the aspects of agency, purposeful action, found in both.

 

Personally, I may niggle about the use of terms like "talk" or "speak." I know enough linguistics to want to know where to find the analogues to phonology, grammar and semantics that both natural and programming languages embody. I may wonder if there is any actual "pre-political" moment or stance — as opposed to a Holy Grail or mathematical limit-type goal toward which we can only strive because we will never get there. But these are details. The larger project is fascinating and does not at all (unless I am horribly mistaken) replace persons with things. Instead it uses things to enrich our understanding of persons.

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P.S. Going back to my own contribution to this series seminars, I wonder what the material details of sculptures of Chinese deities tell us about the sorts of persons that they are supposed to be. I may have expressed some skepticism about Martin's powder as power example. Come to think of it though, in a world where power can also be conceived as a ring (the "one ring to rule them all" in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings triology), one has to wonder if powders and rings are only synonyms for a single abstract "thing" power — or if seeing power as a powder instead of a ring has material consequences. 

 

 

John, as far as I know, I have not yet critiqued Martin's paper since I still find the definitions of "thing" and "stuff" unclear and problematic.  I have spent time (re)searching how material culture theorists define them, but I still think they have not exhaustively tackled them using linguistics, ethnography, philosophy ( like idea as form or concept as material), and even physical/material sciences. Example, when Americans say, "I'm doing some stuff," is the stuff they say a thing or is the act of doing something a stuff?

 

My last post was a response to Nikos' misreading of my other post.  He thought I erased the traces of a person in a thing.  I introduced the concept of network, which can be a community or a society, to be inclusive of humans and non-humans effecting and affecting material culture.  A sinker, for example, can tell us about a fisherman and his fishing and a fish and its size, and it is only possible if we situate the sinker in a network of fish, fishermen, those who make and trade fishing stuff, and those who sell, buy, and eat fish. 

"Philosophy is less a creation of concepts than a creation of objects"
– Graham Harman (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 2005: 248).


Let me first say that I deeply appreciate your concern for what an engagement with things might entail for description. I also want to say thank you for the opportunity to engage your argument.

 

In TTT, you argued concepts equal things, that "instead of treating all the things that your informants say of and do to or with things as modes of representing the things in question, treat them as modes of defining them." Here, you argue for the reverse, things equal concepts, "treating the thing as a manner of defining what we (analysts now, rather than natives) are able to say and do around it." 

 

Two observations: 

 

(1) At some level, what your argument boils down to is the proposition that 'things' as we understand them in a 'modernist ontology' matter conceptually to human beings, to both native and anthropologist. 

 

Nowhere here do I see an emancipation of the thing 'as such.' You are still inside the correlation of thought and being, and privileging philosophies of access. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means you're still doing anthropology.

 

(2) To take your proposition seriously, we'd have to say then there is no real differences between concepts and things (by the symmetric property of equality). 

 

If this is the case, why do you continually insist on the distinction in your argument, and constantly return to 'things' as we understand them in a 'modernist ontology'?

 

Why not treat humans, animals, spirits and things – any thing – as being symmetrical, belonging to a general class of 'things' (or as Harman likes to call them 'objects')? Then you could perhaps be attentive to a things' particular qualities, capacities, and relations – in effect, to an entire economy of things.

 

Good evening all,

Thanks again for the growing correspondence – it’s good to get a mixture of direct engagement, lateral musing and visceral reaction (that’s for you Niko!).  On my part, and to take us into the second week of the seminar, I had three points I wanted to make.

The first, as promised, has to do with the relationship between the notion of the ‘intensional vertizon’ of ‘abstension’ as proposed in the paper, and Levi-Strauss’s ‘science of the concrete’ as set forth in the Savage Mind (mentioned by Phil, Danny and Ami).  In fact, Danny in his comment suggested that the kind of focus on the conceptual affordances of things with which I’m dealing has long been a concern in material culture studies, and traces it back to L-S among others (I take it to be a mark of L-S’s true genius that well nigh everyone (apart from Ingold!) claims him as an ancestor – from post-structuralist pomo-types to hard core cognitivist positivist like Dan Sperber!).   I’m very happy indeed to admit that the kind of ‘move’ from things to concepts I seek to explore has been with us for a very long time.  My only claim to originality is in the way I seek to isolate that move in order the better to articulate it, along with its implications for anthropological analysis. 

In this connection, I do want to make clear how much these thoughts owe to Levi-Strauss on the science of the concrete.  Indeed, placing the idea of abstension in relation to L-S’s distinction between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ science (the engineer versus the bricoleur) might help make the notion a bit clearer.  

So. L-S’s distinction, if you remember, relies on the Saussurean scheme of percept (or image), sign, and concept.  The definition of a sign is that it weds a percept (signifier) to a concept (signified).  Signs are therefore both objects of perception (concrete) and objects of conception (abstract).  Now, the distinction between bricolage and engineering, if I understand it correctly, is articulated in terms of this scheme on (at least) two fronts. 

First, on an axis of distance: the bricoleur characteristically operates at the (concrete) level of the sign, while the engineer operates ‘a step removed’ from it, at the (abstract) level of concepts.  That is to say, while the bricoleur does deal in concepts (signs are concepts too), he does not separate them from the percepts with which they are contingently wedded.  The engineer, by contrast, is able to separate concepts out from their contingent manifestations in signs, and to manipulate them in the abstract, as such.

Secondly, the bricoleur and the engineer characteristically move in different *directions* along this vertical axis of concrete/abstract.  The bricoleur derives his signs by rearranging them into different perceptual orders.  His thinking is ‘concrete’ precisely because differences in conception (in and through signs) are generated through differences in perception (the use and reuse of ‘odds and ends’ on his workbench).  The engineer, by contrast, works in the other direction, from abstract to concrete.  Able to arrive at an infinite variety of conceptual schemes by manipulating concepts in the abstract, he then ‘applies’ these schemes to the contingent world of perception, to make a bridge or an aircraft or whatever. In short, the bricoleur operates at the concrete end of the scale and moves upward (though only to the sign), while the engineer operates at the abstract end and works downwards, presumably all the way to percepts, perhaps via signs (L-S, in this infernally difficult text, is not very clear on this – in fact, the above rendition of the whole argument is of course rather interpretative on my part, so I’d be grateful to have my exegesis corrected or qualified).

In terms of this framework, then, the notion of abstension occupies a third position (sticking to my terminological guns, I’m as it were adding the pragmatologist to the list of bricoleur and engineer).  The pragmatologist, I am suggesting, is like the bricoleur in that he is interested in moving in the direction that runs from the concrete (thing) to the abstract (concept).  Unlike the bricoleur (and more like the engineer), however, he is not limited to some intermediary and still sensuous level of the ‘sign’, but can rather go full hog to the most abstract level of conceptualisation.  He is, if you like, a philosopher-bricoleur (just in the sense that, I take it, philosophers are those most characteristically interested in concepts for their own sake).

It is important, however, to be very clear that this sidling up to L-S also has its limits.  This is important, in fact, because it is precisely a basic *divergence* from L-S’s framework that allows this third position of things that become concepts (rather than just signs) to emerge.  For L-S, I take it, the very reason for which the bricoleur and the engineer are to be qualitatively distinguished (notwithstanding the homology between their respective ‘sciences’) is that the ‘concrete’ and the ‘abstract’ pertain to distinct ontological realms: the world of perception (that of the signifier) and the world of conception (that of the signified) – and this correlates (though does not simply correspond) to that other famous ontological axiom, for him, of nature versus culture. 

By contrast, TTT as well as the pragmatological argument presented in my paper, turn on a refusal to accord axiomatic status to this distinction.  The neologism ‘abstension’ is meant to keep this departure firmly in view.  Abstension, I suggest, is what ‘abstraction’ comes to look like if you refuse to assume that the only way to move from things to concepts is by way of ‘abstraction’, which I take to be a process of identifying a concept that ‘corresponds’ to the things in question, including them in its ‘extension’ (or what L-S I think calls its ‘comprehension’).  Things, then, become sources rather than objects of conceptualisation, dictating the *definition* of concepts (or what philosophers call their ‘intension’ – and hence my tongue-in-cheek term ‘intensional vertizon’, as well as the ‘s’ in ’abstension’).            

This last point also brings me to a couple of comments on Justin’s posting.  

Both your queries, Justin, turn on the cardinal difference between according a distinction heuristic status, and according it a metaphysical one.  Straight up, I don’t know enough about the ‘speculative realists’ (whose work informs your posting) to place my position in their terms.  On this you can perhaps help me in a later posting.  But it does seem to me that both your queries start from the assumption that whatever I'm trying to do in the paper with the distinction between things and people must be a rearrangement (or not, as you charge me) of the metaphysics involved.  This is exactly what I claim *not* to be doing.

So, I take it that ‘modernist ontology’, which treats the distinction between things and people as axiomatic, offers a particular metaphysical option.  Whitehead, Stengers, Latour etc, who rescind the distinction in favour of ‘process’, ‘event, ‘network’ etc, offer another one.  And, I imagine (correct me if I’m wrong) that Harman, Brassier, Meillassoux (i.e. the ‘speculative realists), who seek to overcome the Kantian heritage of ‘correlationism’, are in the business of developing yet another metaphysic – perhaps one that seeks to conceptualise ‘objects’ (including things, people, planets, thoughts etc) without referring them back to the ways they are ‘accessed’ in human thought at all (something like that?).  Though I realise that the book title ‘Guerrilla metaphysics’ may suggest otherwise (I haven’t read the book yet), so do correct me if I’m wrong. 

Still, what TTT anthropology and my putative ‘pragmatology’ in the paper have in common is a desire to refrain from engaging in this kind of metaphysical legislation.  Indeed, as I try to make clear in the paper, I conceive of both as ways of *subverting* the project of metaphysics. One way of expressing the agenda is to say that, whereas metaphysics is in the business of telling us what exits and how, anthro/pragmatology is in the business of allowing ‘the world’ about which metaphysicians legislate to dictate its own metaphysics (and since the world may be as heterogeneous as we know it to be ethnographically – and as way may discover it to be pragmatographically –, this raises also the prospect of a kind of metaphysical anarchy, in which multiple and quite possibly incompatible metaphysics might emerge). 

It is with a view to this agenda that it is so important to insist on the purely heuristic status of my focus on ‘things’ in this paper.  As explained above in relation to L-S, the very possibility of TTT and pragmatology relies on *not* heeding ‘modernist ontology’.  That, however, in no way prevents us from seeking to identify how the things one would common sensically (informed, perhaps, by modernist ontology for example) identify as ‘things’ (e.g. an amphora rather than a Greek potter, powder rather than power, etc.) might participate in the project of anarchic conceptualisation to which the absolution of the thing/concept axiom gives rise.  To do so, I take it, is to propose a particular intervention in anthropological thinking.  So, I do not derive my interest in ‘things’ and ‘concepts’ and the relationship between them from a modernist metaphysic.  I derive them from anthropological heuristics: anthropologists talk about things a lot, typically because they feature so prominently in their ethnographies; and they are very invested in concepts, because they are in the business of thinking, analysing, conceptualising etc. My concern is how best to articulate the relationship between those two concerns in the activity of anthropology (and to think this through I found it useful, as I explained in a previous posting, to posit a ‘limit’ thing-oriented activity called pragmatology). Ans it's strictly in relation to this concern that I claim to be articulating an emancipation of the things 'as such'.  You say that you don't see that, but I think the onus is on you to say what would count as as such an 'emancipation' for you, and how that would relate to what I set out to do.  

Which brings me to a final comment, relating to Ami’s query about my attitude to Sev Fowles’ critique of thing-theory (the idea that we ‘emancipate’ the thing only the easier to dominate it).  I like Sev’s acerbic point very much.  But I think it relates only to the kinds of thing-emancipations from which I have distanced myself in the paper, i.e. ‘emancipations’ that involve widening, in way or other, the circle of the human.  As we have already discussed at some length in this seminar, the notion of emancipation I embrace (which, in relation to ‘natives’, is Viveiros de Castro’s) is that of finding a way for the object of emancipation (in this case ‘things’, heuristically defined) to dictate what we, as analysts, can say of them – i.e. how we end up conceptualising them.  I think that this is, precisely, the best way to *avoid* the situation Sev purports to diagnose, namely emancipation that ends up as a further form of domination.  To say that allowing things to dictate the terms of their engagement by us is a form of domination just doesn’t make sense to me. 

Simply put: I take it, broadly speaking, that ‘engaging with’ (things, people, ideas, institutions, feelings, whatever) is what we most value anthropology for.  So I take it also that finding a way to do this in a way that allows the things we engage with to be the origin of the manner in which we engage with them to be the biggest ‘value’ we can accord to them – or, better, recognise in them.  Finding a way to arrive at such a position with respect to that subset of the things we engage with that we designate as ‘things’ is, for me, a part of this wider agenda, as indeed was TTT.

Tomorrow I’ve got my heaviest teaching day of the week, so I may not be able to post much – but I’ll definitely be on the ball on Tuesday.

Very best!

 

Martin,

Your contributions to the discussion have been very valuable in terms of elucidating your argument.

As others have already suggested, I’m pretty sure that Nikos’ dire warning of the zombie consequences of ‘thing theory’ doesn’t apply to your enterprise (nor to that outlined in TTT). If it did, then we really would be in John Carpenter territory! (‘This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation…If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.’)

I must say that I very much like your recent Lévi-Straussian explorations, but I’m still intrigued by the embryonic project of pragmatology, and your recent clarifications on the latter have been especially helpful. All the same, to judge from the examples so far presented, the conceptual dividends that an exclusive attendance to material properties is supposed to pay out still seem to me to be overly general.

That is to say, the kinds of ‘conceptual affordances’ that materials might generate so far appear to be either an incipient property that would be common to materials of the same class, or similar sorts of concepts would seem to be emergent in objects that differ in terms of their materials, but which share some other characteristic in common, such as the ways in which they are composed.

Hence, the aché powder, employed in Cuban divinations, may well be peculiarly suited to the evocation of the concept of ‘motility’, owing to its particular material properties as powder, but couldn’t the same be said for that of powder (any kind of powder) in general? After all, gunpowder would seem to similarly afford a concept of motility (of a potentially highly accelerated variety). Or consider cocaine (or ‘Bolivian marching powder’ as the slang has it), which not only offers a potential conceptualization of the mobile, but – given what I understand to be a common means of its activation, via a rolled-up banknote – would also seem to provide a concrete instantiation of your suggestion regarding the ‘vertical axis of materials’ transformation into forms of thought’! (By the way, everyone, just to be clear: I’ve never experimented with cocaine, except ‘conceptually’, as here.)

As for the other instance (that of objects that would seem to generate similar concepts by virtue of the ways in which they are composed or assembled), I very much like your conceptual speculations about the temporal ‘reversibility’ that the Greek amphora engenders. But – to be a little cheeky about it – the unstable and collapsible constitution of the amphora is, arguably, also exhibited by the Ikea table at which I’m writing this response. Affording a concept of ‘self-assembly’, the table is decomposed and recomposed (for example) whenever I have to move house. In other words, the conceptual ‘difference that makes a difference’ [I think the originator of this phrase was Bateson, but I might be wrong] would seem to be more or less the same with regards to two very different assemblages of materials (fired clay and water-soluble glue, on the one hand; fibreboard, paint and a few metal screws, on the other).

I suppose what I’m getting at is that the strength of TTT, as I see it, is the conceptual singularity which particular things are understood to generate. Pragmatology, on the other hand, would seem to lead in the opposite direction, towards a conceptual generality. In short, the promise of pragmatology is that it will allow the thing to speak, but I’m worried that too many things might end up saying the same thing.

Again, however, I realise I’m being pretty hard on you! Apologies! I’m very much looking forward to seeing future papers on the subject (in particular, the stuff on skeuomorphs). 

Martin,

Following up on what Philip says, it is more likely a flaw in my reading than in your intent, but you seem to me to be advocating what I have seen before described as a typically medieval worldview, in which everything in the book of the world has its own particular way to tell us about the glory of God — which, given the absence of God from your account, leaves everything speaking for itself and raises the question why anything or anyone else should be bothered to listen.

 

In the classic accounts to which I allude (A.N.Whitehead's Science and the Modern World, for example), it is precisely the recognition that the tree means different things to the poet, the biologist and the logger that requires selection of a stance from which to interpret what the tree says. If the tree has something it wants to say that fits no human preconception, how is it to be heard? This seems to me the weakest point in the program you advocate. 

Philip Swift said:

 

Martin,

Your contributions to the discussion have been very valuable in terms of elucidating your argument.

As others have already suggested, I’m pretty sure that Nikos’ dire warning of the zombie consequences of ‘thing theory’ doesn’t apply to your enterprise (nor to that outlined in TTT). If it did, then we really would be in John Carpenter territory! (‘This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation…If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.’)

I must say that I very much like your recent Lévi-Straussian explorations, but I’m still intrigued by the embryonic project of pragmatology, and your recent clarifications on the latter have been especially helpful. All the same, to judge from the examples so far presented, the conceptual dividends that an exclusive attendance to material properties is supposed to pay out still seem to me to be overly general.

That is to say, the kinds of ‘conceptual affordances’ that materials might generate so far appear to be either an incipient property that would be common to materials of the same class, or similar sorts of concepts would seem to be emergent in objects that differ in terms of their materials, but which share some other characteristic in common, such as the ways in which they are composed.

Hence, the aché powder, employed in Cuban divinations, may well be peculiarly suited to the evocation of the concept of ‘motility’, owing to its particular material properties as powder, but couldn’t the same be said for that of powder (any kind of powder) in general? After all, gunpowder would seem to similarly afford a concept of motility (of a potentially highly accelerated variety). Or consider cocaine (or ‘Bolivian marching powder’ as the slang has it), which not only offers a potential conceptualization of the mobile, but – given what I understand to be a common means of its activation, via a rolled-up banknote – would also seem to provide a concrete instantiation of your suggestion regarding the ‘vertical axis of materials’ transformation into forms of thought’! (By the way, everyone, just to be clear: I’ve never experimented with cocaine, except ‘conceptually’, as here.)

As for the other instance (that of objects that would seem to generate similar concepts by virtue of the ways in which they are composed or assembled), I very much like your conceptual speculations about the temporal ‘reversibility’ that the Greek amphora engenders. But – to be a little cheeky about it – the unstable and collapsible constitution of the amphora is, arguably, also exhibited by the Ikea table at which I’m writing this response. Affording a concept of ‘self-assembly’, the table is decomposed and recomposed (for example) whenever I have to move house. In other words, the conceptual ‘difference that makes a difference’ [I think the originator of this phrase was Bateson, but I might be wrong] would seem to be more or less the same with regards to two very different assemblages of materials (fired clay and water-soluble glue, on the one hand; fibreboard, paint and a few metal screws, on the other).

I suppose what I’m getting at is that the strength of TTT, as I see it, is the conceptual singularity which particular things are understood to generate. Pragmatology, on the other hand, would seem to lead in the opposite direction, towards a conceptual generality. In short, the promise of pragmatology is that it will allow the thing to speak, but I’m worried that too many things might end up saying the same thing.

Again, however, I realise I’m being pretty hard on you! Apologies! I’m very much looking forward to seeing future papers on the subject (in particular, the stuff on skeuomorphs). 

Dear Phil and John,

 

Really quickly, before I get down to preparing my lecture for later today.  I take your points, and, as I say, I'm with you in being a little underwhelmed with conceptual potentials I myself have been able to extract from things so far - though it doesn't necessarily follow that there is no hope in principle.  I think a closer engagement with theoretical physics as well as conceptual art (as mentioned in my conclusion) would be relevant - though far beyond my expertise.

 

Still, I am not very swayed by your main line of attach Phil.  Basically, what you are saying is that my examples (powder, amphora) provide neither necessary not sufficient conditions for the conceptualizations they precipitate in my analyses (motility and reversible time respectively). One could arrive at similar conceptualisations using other materials (no necessity) or different conceptualization using the same ones (no sufficiency). 

 

I may well agree (though I'd like to see more of the detail of the analyses you suggest, since it does strike me, for example, that the ancient status of potsherds (subject to carbon dating or what have you) in the amphora case is rather integral to the argument about reversibility, as the fact that particular figures are marked by design on the surface of the ache powder is to the argument about motility and transcendence).  But since when has the lack of necessity or sufficiency in this way stood in the way of anthropological conceptualization, I would ask! E.g. the reason why I may find an anthropological discussion of kingship in Southern Africa (such as that offered by Wastell) entirely compelling in terms of my own material on divination in Cuba might be that both ethnographies raise issues regarding the nature of truth (the word of a King that ‘tells no lies’, as Wastell reports of the Swazi king, and the word of a deity such as Orula who is also constitutively inclined to tell the truth, as my diviner informants emphasise).  I have no problem with admitting that the kind of conceptualizations of truth that I might derive from Cuban divination could be derived from an ethnography of Swazi kingship.  So no necessity there!  Similarly, I fully expect an ethnography to be amenable to a whole series of alternative projects of conceptualization, depending on the questions one asks of it.  E.g. Cuban diviners and Swazi kind might offer a homology in terms of notions of truth and a contrast in terms of their respective notions of power, or gender, or whatever. 

 

So if you are not tempted to discredit my analysis of, say, truth in Cuban divination by saying “ah, but the same goes for Swazi kings!”, or, “ah, but the sake ethnography could say something not about truth but about gender!”, then why do you think my account of powder or amphoras is weakened by saying “ah, the same could be said about an IKEA table!” or ‘ah, gunpowder and cocaine are also motile objects but don’t lead to a conceptualization of the problem of divine presence’? 

 

In fact, I wonder whether there might be an argument to be made for reasons peculiar to ‘things’ (qua Ingoldian ‘materials’) for which this erasure of the expectation of necessity or sufficiency of argument might hold.  I’ve always been rather taken by this idea of the ‘uncanny’ character of materials – Pels talks about it in relation to fetishism of course.  The fact that ‘things’ are always and by definition *more* than we can make of them.  This would imply in irreducible zone of indeterminacy in the relation of conceptualization I have been trying to articulate – things that ‘abstend’ themselves into concepts.  In Strathern’s terms, things always leave a ‘remainder’ once the analytical work is done, since there is always ‘more’ to be said of them qua ‘things’ – and this is indeed part of the ‘modern’ analytical frame she calls ‘merology’ (see After Nature, Partial Connections).  So you can always something else with them, or say the same thing with something else, as it were…     

Picking up what Nikos and Keith have said, it strikes me that in, say, Latour's case (he continues to strike me as the most obvious protagonist of this line of thought) the argument can be read in two ways. One is that his 'iconophilia' is a form of perverse (possibly catholic) anti-rationalist agenda. The other is that it is a provocation toward the intellectuals who think they are iconoclasts. I tend toward the latter view with constraints. Most of us, most of the time, are probably concrete thinkers who allow animistic thingologies to enter our thoughts and behaviours - and probably some of our happiest moments are spent in that dream like state.

 

But Keith's point about the option that people can and should exercise to treat things as data, ideas, or persons or in other ways seems crucial. The politics of the matter lies in the question of having an option. Marx's favourite thing, his bete noire, the commodity, is the best example. Commodities can be violently discriminatory; forcing people into categories and types, ordering people about according to 'their' differences: or they can be a shopper's best friend. Or, they can just be emotionally vacuated information or concept markers. But if commodities are always and only the shopper's best friend then we have become zombies as Nikos says.

I'm with you in being a little underwhelmed with conceptual potentials I myself have been able to extract from things so far - though it doesn't necessarily follow that there is no hope in principle.

 

Martin, this is very generous of you and, I might add, an important insight.

 

Serendipitously, I am reading Revolutions in the Earth: James Hutton and the True Age of the World by Stephen Baxter (yes, the same physicist Stephen Baxter who writes those mammoth science-fiction volumes). As Baxter tells the story, Hutton developed his theories, the foundations of modern geology, while searching for an alternative faith to replace a set of simple Christian beliefs, which had been destroyed by the doubts planted by Deist lectures given by one of his teachers, the famous Scottish mathematician Colin Maclaurin. "'Faith, faith of all things is what I want most,' he wrote. 'I ha'nt a single grain of it to do me any good.'" (p.74) His theories grew out of an argument from design and the observation that, if soil were created and then carried off to the sea by erosion and there were no mechanism to uplift new mountains, the whole world would be flat and life impossible — a proper Deist deity wouldn't have constructed a world like that.

 

I am reminded, too, of E.A.Burtt's observations in his classic The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science that Copernicus was stimulated to imagine the Sun at the center of the solar system by an interest in Neo-Platonic sun worship and remained convinced enough by the Scholastic notion that movement in circles is a sign of divine perfection that the system he constructed required only slightly fewer epicycles than Ptolemy's earth-centric model. 

 

And, of course, I have worked in advertising, where brainstorming often leads through half-baked and ultimately unacceptable ideas, which function as stepping stones, to the kind of ideas that make everyone go "Wow!"

 

I am, thus, disinclined to dismiss theories simply because they seem implausible at first glance or I can quickly find objections to them. Finding objections is both the easiest thing and the cheapest trick in the world. Seeing or hearing something strange that points the mind in a new direction and making something of it—that's anthropology.

 

 

Dear John,

 

May I return the compliment: this is very generous of you indeed, and very much captures a spirit of research I share.  To put it in terms more flashy than you use: much better to be suggestive and wrong than to be predictable and right - or at least in certain phases of thinking/reasearch (which is to say, I wouldn't like to be stuck in a universe where everyone was suggestinve and wrong all of the time!). 

 

Martin

 

[Keith, I hope I’m not in breach of the protocol in offering this response…]

Dear Martin,

Many thanks for your marvellous, punctual comeback to my fibreboard questions. To be honest, I suspected that there must be more to pragmatology as you introduced it, at the end of your paper. If your idea is like a reconstituted amphora, then I guess I was trying to soak it in water and see what would happen, but you’ve shown – to me, anyway – that there’s more potential in this particular conceptual vessel.

Incidentally, I’m certainly not a fan of expelling ideas just because they’re ambitious or interesting or counter-intuitive. (As an aside, another past possibility of pots: the ancient Athenians used to dismiss politicians by writing their names on potsherds, a practice we now know as ‘ostracism’, from ostrakon (potsherd). So I’m not about to do that.) Quite the reverse: give me the suggestive over the predictable any time. I find Lévi-Strauss much more interesting than, say, Dan Sperber. To read the former is like riding on a broomstick across a strange landscape; to read the latter is like queuing up at the post-office!

One reason, then, that I enjoy reading your own work is precisely its capacity for taking me off on conceptual adventures.

Just to quickly comment on your last remark about the excessive characteristics of materials – that, ‘things are always, and by definition, more than we can make of them’. I believe Harman says something similar, but Alphonso Lingis (who Harman cites as his precursor) is also very good on this point:

‘The key, the inner formula of a mango, a willow tree, or a flat smooth stone, is never grasped; the real thing is before our perception as a task for an exploration. But the real thing is not the sum of all that we have recorded of it…The reality of things is not given in our perception, but orders it as an imperative’ (The Imperative, p.63)

(But I think my Ikea table is telling me to shut up now!)

Justin Shaffner said:

 

(1) At some level, what your argument boils down to is the proposition that 'things' as we understand them in a 'modernist ontology' matter conceptually to human beings, to both native and anthropologist. 

[...] why do you continually insist on the distinction in your argument, and constantly return to 'things' as we understand them in a 'modernist ontology'?


Martin Holbraad said:

 

[W]hat TTT anthropology and my putative ‘pragmatology’ in the paper have in common is a desire to refrain from engaging in this kind of metaphysical legislation.  [....] That, however, in no way prevents us from seeking to identify how the things one would common sensically (informed, perhaps, by modernist ontology for example) identify as ‘things’ (e.g. an amphora rather than a Greek potter, powder rather than power, etc.) might participate in the project of anarchic conceptualisation to which the absolution of the thing/concept axiom gives rise.  To do so, I take it, is to propose a particular intervention in anthropological thinking.  So, I do not derive my interest in ‘things’ and ‘concepts’ and the relationship between them from a modernist metaphysic.  I derive them from anthropological heuristics [....]

 

I like Sev’s acerbic point very much.  But I think it relates only to the kinds of thing-emancipations from which I have distanced myself in the paper, i.e. ‘emancipations’ that involve widening, in way or other, the circle of the human.  [...] [T]he notion of emancipation I embrace (which, in relation to ‘natives’, is Viveiros de Castro’s) is that of finding a way for the object of emancipation (in this case ‘things’, heuristically defined) to dictate what we, as analysts, can say of them – i.e. how we end up conceptualising them.  I think that this is, precisely, the best way to *avoid* the situation Sev purports to diagnose, namely emancipation that ends up as a further form of domination.  To say that allowing things to dictate the terms of their engagement by us is a form of domination just doesn’t make sense to me. 

 

Okay, Martin, thanks for the wonderful discussion of L-S. I’m with you nearly all the way on the overall objective of your argument (even to the point of trying to ‘leverage’ the peculiar conceptual affordances of things qua artefacts of modernist ontologies, heuristically defined).

 

My point about the politics of your analysis I think relates to Justin’s impression that you are elevating a particular (modernist) conception of things to a universal rule (an impression surely shared, perhaps less critically, by many of your archaeological colleagues when you run this argument by them).

 

I see the distinction you are drawing between an approach that takes the definition of things as 'axiomatic', and one which approaches things instead in 'heuristic' terms. The problem I keep running into in attempting to go with you beyond this point is that I can’t quite see how it is makes sense to self-consciously define (or ‘infine’) things in terms of their ‘materials’ (i.e. choose to apprehend them heuristically according to the terms of a particular - and particularly powerful - metaphysics) and then claim to be thus allowing them to ‘speak for themselves’. You – and the metaphysical ‘toolbox of the day’ – in this case ‘modernist ontologies’ – are surely dictating the terms of things’ engagement, even if *only* as a heuristic exercise. (They are recognised as ‘things’, and therefore allowed the stage, as it were, only on your terms). This is what I was getting at when I wondered how this is not circular or even solipsistic (in that, in interrogating things in this way, it seems you are dictating the kinds of answers you will receive to your own questions). And this is the sense in which I am not sure you are escaping from Fowles' charge (things as refreshingly malleable grist to anthropology's mill).

 

To return briefly to Levi-Strauss: notwithstanding the genius of his ideas, the political impact of structuralism, we were always taught in “po-co” New Zealand, was considerable in anthropology (not least in helping to turn Maori people off the discipline). In my understanding, this had a lot to do with the hierarchical distinction L-S insisted upon between bricoleurs and the kinds of philosophical-logicians he thought anthropologists should become. In arguing that the theories of the bricoleur or indigenous savant, while suitable as an object of study, are not to be regarded as sufficient explanations for social phenomena in themselves, he elevated structural anthropology above the level of mere theory to the status of a science through which, he argued, it is possible to reach the ‘underlying reality’ obscured by peoples’ ideas about themselves. While claiming that ‘the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science’, he wrote that ‘the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in *the nature of the things to which it is applied*’ – which powerfully recalls for me your distinction between heuristic and axiomatic approaches. While I like your idea of anthropologists as bricoleur-philosophers, I'm not sure this weighty political baggage can be shrugged off so easily.

 

Do you think of heuristics as a- or pre-political? If you mean to present this as a thought experiment of the kind put forward by Strathern or Viveiros de Castro, then the highly political ways in which their heuristics are couched shouldn’t be forgotten (Strathern’s as a critique of feminism, for example, and Eduardo’s project to advance the ‘ontological self-determination’ of the world’s peoples). What do you see your heuristics as being ‘for’ (or indeed ‘against’)?

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