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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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?

I completely agree with that bit of what you said, as a set of concerns to be thought about, by the way.
Can a thing really speak?  I don't think it can.  It can do and act as something though.  For example, a peace offering can stop a conflict even though the persons who give and receive still hate each other.  If a receiver of such offering interprets the thing he receives from a giver as cheap, and that he is cheapened by it, is it the thing that speaks?  Or it is not really speaking but reading.  If a thing can speak, it can only speak with one voice, and if it is altered, its voice changes.  The fact that an image of an apple can be a fruit, a drawing, a candy, a sin, a color, a medicine, a poison, what does that tell us?  is it the thing that speaks or is it the person that reads?

I know I am very late in joining the discussion, although I have been following it all along.  Thank you, Martin, for a very thought-provoking paper, and for encouraging participation simultaneously at various levels and meta-levels.  I must admit to being overwhelmed by some of the deeper levels of abstraction about how we learn from this engagement with each other and with things that speak.

When I think about how (can) things speak, I realize that we may be talking about at least three patterns of speaking.  Firstly, we speak through things that we create or cultivate, as through this forum or any other human-created artifact that has meaning to ourselves or to other humans.  Clearly, that pattern of speaking is fairly obvious and is not the purpose of this discussion.  Secondly, things may speak to us humans, at least if we are interested to learn and understand what they have to say to us.  Recognition of this pattern of speaking seems to depend crucially on whether or not we humans think the communication is directed toward us or is relevant to us.  If we place ourselves, either individually or collectively, in the center of our conceptual universe, then all speech seems to flow in either a direction outward from us or inward toward us.  However (and thirdly), things also may speak to each other, including us in the conversation if we are willing to listen.  Recognition of this pattern of speaking relies on our ability to listen from the perspective of others, with enough patience and care to hear what initially we might not have considered relevant (or at least, not immediately relevant to ourselves).  Speech may flow around the circles within which we find ourselves, whether or not we place ourselves in the center.  I notice that during the first week of discussion, all the examples given seemed to be of the second pattern, in which we consider that the thing speaks only if it speaks to us or has something to say that matters to us.  Thanks to Justin, this week I notice a shift toward examples of the third pattern of things speaking to each other, without any need of emancipation or permission from us to speak and be heard.

As I write this, I think of the communication that occurs within a mature forest, through which many kinds of relationships between both living and non-living things are established, resulting in a healthy system.  Without this kind of speech between things, the relationships would break down and the forest would become unhealthy or die.  If we listen carefully, we become aware of these conversations and their relevance; otherwise, we "cannot see the forest for the trees" as mere board-feet of timber.  I think also of the communication that occurs within systems that we might not consider composed mainly of living things.  For example, weather is the language of a conversation between the oceans, atmosphere, mountains, rivers, forests, etc.  In this language, the stories of climate, seasons, and other natural cycles are told.

Martin Holbraad said:

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. 

It was your equation of concepts with things in TTT -- "treating all the things that your informants say of and do to or with things... as modes of defining them" -- and now things with concepts -- "treating the thing as a manner of defining what we (analysts now, rather than natives) are able to say and do around it" -- which made me wonder about the conflation of things with their description. Concepts may be things in their own right, but I would argue they are ontologically distinct from the things they are concepts of. (And mind you, here I'm not holding in mind either 'multiculturalism' or 'multinaturalism')

My ethnographic examples from Melanesia were meant to bring this into focus, by foregrounding a completely different relation to things and words, one that would never underestimate the alterity or power of either! This makes for a very different kind of political economy. Perhaps there's an ethnographic lesson or two to be learned here, not the least would be to acknowledge our own conceit and ethnographic sorcery in the over-determination of things.

Thank you again for the provocative paper, and the opportunity to engage it with you.

Well, it's getting to be time to wind up this seminar. I will close the thread tomorrow, so please post any last minute thoughts you didn't get round to until now. These could be reflections on organization and not just directed specifically to Martin's paper. I still think of these online seminars very much as an OAC institution in formation. There must be some things we could do better or have not even thought about at all.

I have already expressed my gratitude to Martin for the extraordinary intellectual effort he has made towards communicating his ideas here. I also know that he conceived of this exercise as a halfway house towards a print publication later. That's fine with me and I am sure he will have gained something, as he has admitted. We certainly have. I want members to think of the OAC as a process linked to their concerns and activities in other media. We are an open source publisher and discussion forum. It matters that more of you can find an active use for what we offer and help to shape our development.

We will take a month's break during February, but the next online seminar in the first two weeks of March is an exciting new departure from several points of view. Geographer Sian Sullivan will present a paper entitled 'Creating Earth Incorporated: the financialisation of environmental conservation'. This will allow us to revisit economic themes developed specifically by David Graeber and extend our discussion towards green themes, as Geoff Chesshire suggested. So watch this space and don't forget to post here before the shop closes.

As Keith mentioned in his kind 'winding down' comments, I have indeed enjoyed this seminar *immensely*.  I cannot thank you enough for your many and profound engagements and musings, which it has been my joy to contemplate.  As Keith also mentioned, I'm sending a revised version of the paper to a journal as well (Current Anthropology - another forum for debate of course!), and you can be sure that OAC will be getting a big up in the acknowledgements for that piece, since responding to your comments has helped me clarify to a great extent the areas of my argument that need beefing up.  Not least the Conclusion, of course, but also, I think, the question of heuristic versus metaphysical deployments of distinctions, such as that between things and concepts, on which the whole strategy of my paper turns. 


On that score, let me make just a very small final comment, which  think may be relevant to Ami, Justin and Huon’s latest comments (Ami, I mean the first paragraph of yours in particular, i.e.:


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).


So my comment is just this: The very point of distinguishing heuristic from metaphysical uses of distinctions is that the former permit us to *locate* or *identify* stuff we want to talk about (in TTT terms, ‘think through’) *without* defining (or ‘infining’) them a priori.  In terms of the central metaphore of my paper, if the question is how to ‘listen’ to things, then the heuristic designation of ‘things’ and their ‘material qualities’ only isolates them as things worth listening to - *whatever*, that is, they end up ‘saying’.  I.e. whatever *conceptualizations* they may precipitate analytically after they have been isolated heuristically, including conceptualizations that might contravene the criteria that allowed us heuristically to isolate them in the first place. 


So the central corollary of talking about heuristics in this way is that they create languages (‘things’, ‘concepts’, ‘people’, ‘human rights’, ‘powder’, ‘power’) that are designed to (potentially) *undo* themselves.  Wagner has a felicitous term for this, which captures what is at stake in this way of thinking, namely ‘obviation’.  To use a term heuristically is to ‘obviate’ it, by allowing the stuff it identifies to have reciprocal effect (better, a ‘recursive’ effect) upon it.  It’s really, then, a project of metaphysical subversion: use terms like ‘thing’ in order the better to be able to undo them, in the myriad ways ethnographic and pragmatographic contingency might, potentially, permit.  So, in your terms Ami, heuristics is a necessary step to get *out* of analytical solipsism, if by that we mean (as I think you do) the predicament of always ending up in one’s analyses at the same point from which one started, locked into the circle of one’s own conceptualizations.  The point of heuristics is to allow you, precisely, to break out of that circle.


Okie dokie – that’s me signing out!  My deepest thanks to all of you, and not least Keith for providing us all with this invaluable forum, and for running the seminar so brilliantly.

Martin Holbraad said:


[...] 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 [...]. 


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’) […].


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’ [...].


In short, I claim that the very project of anthropology is logically prior to politics […].


Thanks for the invaluable clarification of what for you is the point of the heuristic approach you have outlined, Martin. I guess my only further comment there is that, while I can certainly see the potential of deploying ‘things’ in that way (due to the term’s ‘peculiar vacuity’, as noted in TTT), it might help to see the case laid out more explicitly for a similar deployment of ‘the material properties of things’ – at the moment these strike me as significantly more conceptually loaded and therefore potentially less open to creative reconfiguration.


And, lastly, if I may, a final note from me on politics: I certainly share your reservations about the kind of anthropology that wears its political heart on its sleeve – having seen how, in New Zealand, the routinization of such an approach can quash debate (or, more precisely, lead to its exodus from the discipline, only to reappear elsewhere in the form of legal claims, indigenous activism and government sponsored policies such as ‘biculturalism’) – which, as you say, may well be ‘good politics’, but - I agree - doesn’t necessarily encourage ‘good anthropology’.


But being with you on that doesn’t remove my concern that, in defining the sine qua non of anthropological analysis as an engagement with alterity (understood as that which one doesn’t – or cannot – know), you may have, in a stroke, foreclosed on what is for me an indispensable (unavoidable?) part of the kind of anthropological analysis that I practice (not to mention apparently obviating the analytic potential of what is sometimes called “anthropology at home” or “native anthropology” – but that’s another story).


As far as my own work is concerned, I invariably find that my ethnographic interlocutors are deeply ‘anthropologically engaged’, in the sense of having pretty definite (albeit diverse) ideas about how best to characterise and reflect upon ‘Maori culture’, in *quasi-* (or not-so-quasi-) anthropological terms. (And just as an aside, we are all probably familiar with the now standard critiques of this sort of predicament, from the ‘invention of tradition’ debates to Adam Kuper’s swingeing attack on natives who ‘borrow from the conceptual toolbox of anthropology’ in defining themselves, thus ironically disclosing their own tragic inauthenticity – suffice to say that this sort of representation does not, in my book, do any sort of justice to the level of reflexivity and sophistication of the kinds of ‘self-analyses’ I routinely come across – and often seems hypocritically oblivious of its own potent political effects). But the point I want to make here is simply that little, perhaps none, of the ‘ethnographic data’ I am able to assemble comes in a ‘raw’ (i.e. un-analysed) form, and that this inevitably inflects the way in which I approach the task of anthropological (meta-)analysis. 


My specific worry is in relation to your argument is thus that whereas for you (and Levi-Strauss) anthropological analysis seems to be something you do on your own, back at your desk, as you reflect on the ethnographic ‘data’ you have assembled in the field, for me it is something inseparable from the process of information gathering itself – a process that relies on the cooperation and / or collaboration of people who participate at least as much as I do (in fact usually far more explicitly and influentially) in exploring and speculatively defining the conditions for the possibility of (cultural) politics in New Zealand and beyond – and sometimes as an integral aspect of their politico-cultural activism.


So, I have to ask, is it really practicable to frame the practice of discoursing on the conditions of the possibility of politics (within anthropology or without) as more ‘proto-political’ (or ‘logically prior to politics’) than any other form of discourse that pronounces on the nature of otherness (or sameness, for that matter)? It strikes me that it is impossible, in the practice of anthropology, to separate the two, so that one must always maintain an eye on the ‘political’ effects of what one is saying within anthropology, even if one’s primary subject may be intended (in terms of ‘logical order’) to be ‘proto-political’). Or perhaps it simply seems more practicable in relation to some places/people than others.



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