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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Amiria Salmond said:
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’)?

 


This is fair enough comment, Martin. Is this exercise an intellectual game? What is pragmatology for? Is anthropology just about getting closer to some self-defined version of ethnographic truth? Are we to seek pleasure in mind contemplating itself? I don't think there is only one reasonable answer to these questions. I have already said that your presentation and subsequent discourses have been extremely illuminating. Is cleaing up the intellectual muddles the point or is there something more? I don't say there has to be, but your interlocutors, most of whom start from a position not a million miles from your own (unlike me), seem to want a straight answer.

I don't say there has to be, but your interlocutors, most of whom start from a position not a million miles from your own (unlike me), seem to want a straight answer.

 

Keith, you are right; but we who want that straight answer could be wrong. Let me explain why.

 

Demanding a straight answer assumes either that an answer already exists but is being concealed from us or that there is no possible answer, so it's time to put the knife in. What these stances omit is a third possibility — brainstorming.

In a brainstorming exercise, the assumption is that there may be an answer, but no one knows what it is yet, and it is everyone's responsibility to try to find one. This last condition is vital. If everyone else at the table only waits for the current speaker to to provide "THE ANSWER," which may not exist, or contributes nothing but negative feedback, the process collapses.

I remember talking about this issue with my advertising guru, senior creative director Kiimoto Kazuhiko, who gave me my job at Hakuhodo. What he said involved visual aids, which I can only ask readers here to imagine.

 

First, he raised his arms in front of his chest, clenched his fists, and pounded his fists together, knuckles to knuckles, keeping his arms at the same height. As one fist banged into the other, there was no motion up or down. This, he said, is a bad meeting. People just keep pounding on each other, nobody  changes position, and nothing gets done. 

Then, he opened his hands, palms down. He placed one hand on top of the other. Then, the other hand went on top. As the hands took turns one on top of the other, they both moved up from in front of his chest to eye level. That, he said, is a good meeting. 

 

Shibata Tsunefumi, another creative director with whom I worked, made a similar point. In an essay on running creative teams, he says that during meetings he is always alert for the "so shitara" (Well, in that case....) moment when participants start building on each other's ideas instead of trying to push their own agendas. 

 

How would this process work here?  Martin has put forward a provocative idea. Neither he nor anyone else here knows yet what to do with it. If instead of saying, in effect, "Give us your answer, NOW, Martin," more of us were saying, "Things speak...interesting...how does that work? I find myself imagining....," then someone else chimed in, "I could have sworn that when I was staring at the Rothko at the Phillips Collection last week, it opened its eyes and yawned at me." (People laugh)...Then, maybe, someone else says, "Suppose we don't take 'speaks' literally. What are we actually saying when we say that music speaks to us? Does shape or color or texture have similar effects?...."

 

Do you see the difference between this sort of process and everyone very genteelly—a nice change actually from the hostile tone of so many academic debates, but still rather snide—saying, in effect, "OK, Martin, you schmuck. Put up or shut up. Tell  us the answer, be clear about it,  and do it right now"?  

 

Lord knows, it's not easy to change the habits of the argument culture of the law court, debating society or academic pissing match. But mightn't it be worth a try?

 

 



Martin Holbraad said:
    
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.

Very best!

Martin,

I don't share your project of trying to emancipate things, so I don't think the onus of explanation is on me. Instead, I tend to think they are already emancipated. I don't think things -- whatever they may be -- are reducible to our relations, encounters or descriptions of them. If anything needs emancipating it is not things 'as such', but rather our modernist preoccupations with the relationship between them and concepts.

More concretely, in PNG where I worked, for the Boazi our relation to things is a problem, but not a conceptual one. There things do more than speak, they also move around on their own accord and enter into social relations. Knowledge, for the Boazi, concerns how to manage and control the effects bodies have on one another. And I should add, humans are not the only ones with a body. Animals, spirits, the landscape, and even things, have bodies.

And words are another thing altogether. They have the capacity to do more than describe, represent, or create concepts. Together with certain human and nonhuman substances, they have the capacity to effect bodies -- to conceive and grow the human body; to domesticate enemies and wild animals; to transform warriors into headhunting dogs; to animate and control things such as stones or wooden carvings, often to kill other human beings.

Furthermore, sacred relics were kept collectively in the cult house, often hanging in a 'baby basket'. Without the constant care of their fathers and elder brothers, such objects could run amok, or go berserk, to the point of not recognizing their kin or affinal relations, and kill indiscriminately.

Justin, fascinating. I found myself reminded of all sorts of Chinese and Japanese folklore. Then, a literary example: Pao-yu (Precious Jade) the protagonist of the classic novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, in which he is introduced as the reincarnation of a stone described as follows in the Wikipedia entry

In the story's preface, a sentient Stone, abandoned by the goddess Nüwa when she mended the heavens aeons ago, begs a Taoist priest and Buddhist monk to bring it with him [sic] to enjoy in the worldly world. 

Dear all,

 

Many apologies for the silence - I'll try to make up for it by answering all that's come my way now.

 

Though, Justin, I'm not quite sure what kind of engagement you are after with what you say.  It's of course fair enough not to share the agenda I'm pursuing, but it's more helpful to engage with it by somehow translating your concerns into the ones I raise, albeit by way of refutation or what have you.  You don't go into the trouble of explaining (a) what you take my argument to be or (b) how your material and interests run against it, so I find it hard to say something appropriate.  E.g. the very fact your material is introduced in the manner of ''For the Boazi...' would suggest that your critical impulse is premised on a concern for the relationship between indigenous ('native') discourse and anthropological analysis, whereas my paper only addresses this question by means of a series of analogies and contrasts (as per my critique of TTT, for instance).  Similarly, when you write that you “don't think things -- whatever they may be -- are reducible to our relations, encounters or descriptions of them”, I wonder why you might think that I think so in the first place.  The conflation between the analysis of things and their ‘reduction’ is yours, not mine. 

 

Now, to politics. Ami and Keith, I actually thought I gave a pretty straight answer on this in my first couple of postings when I responded to queries about my notion of emancipation.  I suspect, again, that the reason for which it appears crooked, as it were, is the aforementioned ‘chasm’ in our respective intuitions on what counts as ‘politics’ at all (see my reply to Keith last week). [And John, I hear what you’re saying about possible alternatives to ‘cut and thrust’ in academic debate, but I have to admit I rather like it, and it provides a format for judging the merits of a case and its proponent, as well as of his interlocutors’ of course – much academic paedagogy is directed to cultivating this form of agonistic debate, and I’m not minded to dispute its worth – though there’s of course much space for alternatives, as you suggest.]

 

Let me state the way I see the contrast in another, albeit cognate, way.  The demand that we be ‘political’ as anthropologists, to my mind, typically takes the form of a demand to militate our anthropology towards one or other end that is already defined as ‘political’ at large, i.e. beyond anthropology (almost always, incidentally, in a left-leaning way – but that may be another conversation…).  E.g. write a book on gift and gender in Melanesia that intervenes in debates on feminism which one wishes to further.  Do an ethnography that counterposes indigenous ways of living to global neo-liberal or neo-colonial forces (or exploitative elites etc.). And so on.  This is what I call ‘politics’ in anthropology.

 

Now, I am certainly as ‘political’ as the next guy, in the sense that I have my own opinions about various things, most of which I hold tentatively since I know that I usually don’t know enough to be sure I’m ‘right’.  What I do resist, however, is the idea that (my) anthropology should be in the service of these views.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that such a stance, though ‘political’, must be profoundly un-anthropological.  This because, as you know from my paper, I take the reckoning with the prospect of alterity to be the sine qua non of anthropology, and its most distinctive challenge.  And if engaging with alterity is engaging with that which one doesn’t know (or, as I define it elsewhere, that which one *cannot* ‘know’), then it seems to me to follow that to put this engagement into the service of already known concerns one has settled on ‘politically’ (justice, equality, freedom etc.) may be good politics but is bad anthropology.  It is to trump the object of study (or ‘the other’) with the means of study (or ‘the self’), whereas, as you know from TTT and my paper, I take the demand of alterity to be precisely the opposite.

 

So, why do I call this a- or even anti-political-seeming position ‘proto-political’, as I did in my first postings?   Well, this is because I take it that the anthropological commitment to alterity (and the deep conceptual challenges it poses) pertains to, if you like, the conditions of possibility of ‘politics’ as defined above.  The imperative to recognise one’s object of engagement as potentially ‘other’ – the anthropological imperative, I’d say, though I know Keith would not agree – should act as an immediate check on the political impulse to pronounce upon it. 

 

It is interesting to note the relationship between this way of motivating the ‘proto-politics’ of anthropology and the full-blown political commitment Viveiros seems to appeal to when, as I discuss in the paper and Ami brings up too, he talks of the role of anthropology as a handmaiden (so to speak!) of ‘the conceptual self-determination of the peoples’.  In this statement, rhetorically, Viveiros renders good anthropology (reckoning with alterity as the profound problem of conceptualizing the unknowable) coterminous with good politics (taking the side of the people we study). 

 

Now, I’m on Viveiros’s side politically, as you are too Ami: I want to take the side of my informants against the forces that oppress them.  And, furthermore, I also agree that the deepest forms of oppression rely on a prior denial of alterity – a pasting over of indigenous concepts by oppressive ‘universals’ that distort them (including, by the way, freedom, human rights etc).  But I think it is sleight of hand (good rhetoric but, actually, dodgy arguing) on the part of Viveiros to *conflate* this political demand with the intellectual demands of anthropology.  This is because the demand for taking up the challenge of conceptualizing the unknowable is *internal* to the intellectual activity I call anthropology, whereas the imperative to take the side of our underdog informants against their oppressors (conceptual or otherwise) is external, or, better, extraneous. 

 

My point is that you do *bad anthropology* if you assume you can know your object of study, and that that the fact that you can’t assume this means that in your study of it you must be prepared to recast even your most fundamental assumptions, including those pertaining to (your) ‘politics’.  This is indeed a matter of conceptual self-determination, where the self in question is, precisely, the *other*.  But to motivate this politically by saying, “I like anthropology because I’m on the side of the other, politically, and I will therefore call it ‘peoples’”, is to trump your anthropological commitment with your politics.  After all, the coincidence between the two may be virtuous in many cases, but is just is likely to be vicious. As Matt Candea and others have asked, what happens when the ‘other’ you engage with anthropologically is an odious racist?  Is the conceptual self-determination of Hitler or, to be less emotive about it, Genghis Khan, less of an anthropological imperative than that of Arawete or Maori people?        

 

So, yes, Keith, it’s all about ‘cleaning up intellectual muddles’, if you like.  But the suggestion that this might not be enough (‘is there not something more?’ you ask), and particularly the suggestion that this is not ambitious enough because it is not sufficiently ‘political’, is the one I most want to resist.  In short, I claim that the very project of anthropology is logically prior to politics, and any politics that does not take it into account runs the risk of falling, precisely, into ‘intellectual muddles’ of all sorts.  And, yes, intellectual muddles may certainly be politically dangerous, ethically treacherous etc.  But the imperative to good conceptualization derives not from its beneficial political consequences, if such they are (always?), but from its own requirements as an intellectual activity. 

 

To end with a very open question: would people who worry about the politics of anthropology also worry about the politics of music or mathematics?  I may be very interested in the politics or, say, Shostakovich (as was Stalin, tragically), but does my judgement on this score speak also to the quality of his music?  Why, precisely, should the case of anthropology be different?  I’m willing to accept that it is, but I’d like to be told exactly how…

 

Cheers,

 

Martin    

Well, you can't get a better illustration than justin's from one end of the spectrum. Since Keith has written on why and how 'money talks' it is obviously not the principle he is quarrelling with: it is the political/moral agenda. There are a lot of issues here. Take the cognitivists' argument that agency-seeking is a programmed feature of the human brain. This has played a part in all that drivel about the ' god delusion' and so on. Or here's another version; the perceptual psychologist in an example John has on another thread, who says that it is impossible to recognise a bit of cat without recognising a cat and - a big reach as far as I am concerned - that the word 'cat' inevitably pops into our heads simultaneously. I.e. Cat,s speak their name every time we see them. Or freud's Id (it) that is telling ego what to do behind it's back while fighting with the superego at the same time. Plenty of examples in other words but what to make of them. I seem to remember on that last one that Leach thought that anthropological theory was like freud's ego desperately trying to escape from its own self.
br /> One of those annoying simultaneous post situations. You've answered the politics issue, Martin.
br/>

Huon Wardle said:
Well, you can't get a better illustration than justin's from one end of the spectrum. Since Keith has written on why and how 'money talks' it is obviously not the principle he is quarrelling with: it is the political/moral agenda. There are a lot of issues here. Take the cognitivists' argument that agency-seeking is a programmed feature of the human brain. This has played a part in all that drivel about the ' god delusion' and so on. Or here's another version; the perceptual psychologist in an example John has on another thread, who says that it is impossible to recognise a bit of cat without recognising a cat and - a big reach as far as I am concerned - that the word 'cat' inevitably pops into our heads simultaneously. I.e. Cat,s speak their name every time we see them. Or freud's Id (it) that is telling ego what to do behind it's back while fighting with the superego at the same time. Plenty of examples in other words but what to make of them. I seem to remember on that last one that Leach thought that anthropological theory was like freud's ego desperately trying to escape from its own self.

Well, Huon, if it hadn't overlapped, you might not have sent it in that form and it was one of the best and most entertaining short riffs I have seen in a long time. I forgot about that piece on money talks, but I do recall that the point of the paper was to emancipate people from their enslavement to a fetishized notion of money. Some hope!

I am sure that there is room for a number of takes on what anthropology is for, Martin, and I respect yours. I wouldn't have invited you here otherwise. Sometimes, when the flow is slow, I am not above a little tactical stirring. On this occasion, it brought out another lucid statement from you which I am sure was not completely redundant. Thank you.

We are entering the last few days of the seminar. Please feel free to make a comment before we close. It doesn't have to be based on reading everything that has passed before.

Just to clarify, Martin, given that you work in Cuba, presumably you're not going to pursue some kind of de Castroian fantasy to the effect that human rights aren't part of your informants concept system?

 

This is because the demand for taking up the challenge of conceptualizing the unknowable is *internal* to the intellectual activity I call anthropology, whereas the imperative to take the side of our underdog informants against their oppressors (conceptual or otherwise) is external, or, better, extraneous. 

 

This is a position with which I can agree wholeheartedly. The only niggle I would have is the assumption that our informants are oppressed underdogs. My informants are, as I have said repeatedly in various places,frequently richer, more powerful and smarter than I am. But let's put that aside.

 

The principle is not that the anthropologist should never make moral judgments or support political causes. It is only that to do a proper job of anthropological analysis the anthropologist should be able to reserve judgment, to avoid leaping to conclusions based on commonplace prejudices. In this respect, I maintain, the anthropologist is in no way different from a judge or juror in a court of law or a therapist working with a client. We must all reserve judgment and remain open to the unexpected in the evidence from which we try to understand the other. 

 

The claim that we will never know the other completely deserves only one response, "Of course." But so does the opposite claim that we will never know the other at all. The lives we and the other lead may be so very different that finding common ground is extremely difficult. Our differences may be so profound that fight or flight are our only serious options. But we and our informants are both human; we eat, we shit, we bleed, we have sex in one or more of a limited set of ways. We experience heat, cold, muscle pain, feelings of weakness, fevers and runny noses.  Unless we choose monastic isolation or find ourselves in prison, we live in groups with children, and interact with people of different genders, who may be younger or older than we are. In the end, we all die.

 

Were it not so, the idea that we are obliged to do something for those less fortunate than ourselves would be a non-starter. We could rest content with the old, satirical prayer, "Dear Lord, bless me, my wife, my son, his wife, us four, no more, Amen" and let the devil take the hindmost. 

 

So, the question arises, should we open ourselves to things as we open ourselves to the other human beings whose lives we share and study. The answer is surely, "Yes." The things that interest us are those that are part of those lives we study.

 

Can those things "speak" to us? This question can be taken in many ways. As I was Christmas shopping and looking at a display of antique jewelry, one piece spoke to me. Without uttering a word, it stood out and said, "I am the one." I have had similar experiences visiting art museums. I am scanning the works on display; then one demands my attention. To describe this experience, I turn to a phrase I first heard used by Japanese marketers: pin to kuru, "It pops into focus." My attention is drawn. This is, perhaps, the most basic sense in which things speak to me.

 

I have already mentioned that some things speak to me by evoking particular memories; no need to run on about that again, except to note that what I hear is far richer and more detailed than in the moment when the piece of jewelry or work of art first spoke to me.

 

Then, in a more analytic vein, I recall a puzzle about which I wrote a paper published 20 years ago. Chinese rituals frequently involve two types of offerings, food and spirit money. The food is real food and may be taken away and eaten after the rite is over. The spirit money is mock money, burned as the ritual ends and the spirits to whom the rite was addressed are sent off. But why should one be real and the other not? I pester my informants, who have standard stories about both types. The spirits, they say, take only the delicate essence of the food, leaving the rest behind. The spirit money turns into real silver and gold in the realm of the spirits when burned. Why not, I ask, use mock food and burn that? No, no, they say, that wouldn't be right. Why not, I ask, put real money on the altar, let the spirits take the essence and return the rest to our wallets. No, no, they say, that wouldn't be right. If I go on pressing them, they become first irritated, then angry.

 

Having read  Arthur Wolf's account of Chinese funeral dress and Stephan Feuchtwang's summary of Chinese ritual cosmology, I know that that tangible differences are significant in Chinese symbolism.  Having read The Raw and the Cooked, I suspect some deeper significance here, perhaps Freud whispers in my ear, something that Chinese worshippers can't or won't talk about. The hypothesis I develop takes account not only of the differences that caught my attention but also the roles these offerings play in the ritual process and their analogues in other domains of Chinese social life. It turns out, moreover, that when properly elaborated, it accounts quite nicely for a wide range of variation in Chinese rites, from simple, abrupt exorcisms to elaborate communal worship. The things with which I began now speak to me very clearly.

 

These various experiences form the context in which I read Martin's paper and the comments people have been making about it. Both he and most of those participating in this discussion seem to me to get hung up precisely at the point the analysis should begin: Yes, things speak to us? But what is the mechanism? How does that work? I have sketched a few thoughts here. Are they "The Answer"? I'd be a fool to think so, and I like to think I'm no fool. So I'd love to know how others tackle these basic questions. That is why, I believe, I agree completely with Martin. Let's listen carefully to what the other, human or other being, has to say. Let's test our understanding enough to be reasonably confident that we haven't misunderstood completely. Then we can figure out what the other wants and what help, if any, we can offer. 

Many thanks John. Huon, not sure what to make of the putative self-evidence of what you say.  It seems ethnographially slapdash. If your question is specifically about Cuba, I'd say, sure, 'human rights' is part of the vocabulary of Cuban social life, primarily in state discourse ('derechos humanos' etc.). But what that tells us about my informants' conceptual system I don't know at all. 

 

First, because none of what I set out to study is about my informants' conceptual system' - it's about the analytical conceptualisations of what my informants (or things) might be or do or say might work.  But beyond that, I think it is, as I say, slapdash to assume that just because people use a familiar phrase in certain contexts, that phrase must correspond to what you (or everyone?) might understand it to be saying.  E.g.what might 'human rights' mean in a context where most people would be perfectly happy to use witchcraft to furtrher their ends, as is the case in Cuba, or indeed Jamaica?  You may say that the two correspond to different spheres of life for people.  But who's to say before a proper ethnographic engagement that the one does not inflect the other in pertinent ways?  In any case, it would almost be miraculous if a political conception that is as historically contnigent and conceptually unstable as 'human rights' would have travelled to different parts of the world as an unproblematic universal (if that's how we are to think of the problem, though see Anna Tsing's Friction for a proper enegagement with how such ideas travel).  Talk about fantasies!

de Castro does stand for an argument where 'Amazonians' can't possibly have human rights as part of their, let's call it conceptual set up (since system sounds slapdash), so if you put your case in that frame, then I am entitled to wonder what happened to the historiography of the human rights idea in Cuba. Of course, I didn't say human rights meant the same thing everywhere and I certainly can't speak for your informants . But. the argument from particularity only goes so far - of course if I say blue and you say blue we may well not be thinking the same thing at all; but if people say 'blue' and someone else is saying, 'well, hell, blue isn't really relevant' then it raises a question.

Martin Holbraad said:

Many thanks John. Huon, not sure what to make of the putative self-evidence of what you say.  It seems ethnographially slapdash. If your question is specifically about Cuba, I'd say, sure, 'human rights' is part of the vocabulary of Cuban social life, primarily in state discourse ('derechos humanos' etc.). But what that tells us about my informants' conceptual system I don't know at all. 

 

First, because none of what I set out to study is about my informants' conceptual system' - it's about the analytical conceptualisations of what my informants (or things) might be or do or say might work.  But beyond that, I think it is, as I say, slapdash to assume that just because people use a familiar phrase in certain contexts, that phrase must correspond to what you (or everyone?) might understand it to be saying.  E.g.what might 'human rights' mean in a context where most people would be perfectly happy to use witchcraft to furtrher their ends, as is the case in Cuba, or indeed Jamaica?  You may say that the two correspond to different spheres of life for people.  But who's to say before a proper ethnographic engagement that the one does not inflect the other in pertinent ways?  In any case, it would almost be miraculous if a political conception that is as historically contnigent and conceptually unstable as 'human rights' would have travelled to different parts of the world as an unproblematic universal (if that's how we are to think of the problem, though see Anna Tsing's Friction for a proper enegagement with how such ideas travel).  Talk about fantasies!

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