Once in a great while,  while reading anthropology, I stumble across an idea that seems both fresh and provocative — very likely to shake up my thinking in productive ways. Kristin's Peterson's "phantom epistemologies" is just such an idea. I offer it here in the form of a quote from the book in which I found it, with no further comment, in the hope of seeing what others make of it.


In James D. Faubion and George E. Marcus (2009) Fieldwork is Not What It Used to Be: Learning Anthropology’s Method in a Time of Transition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. pp. 37-51.

pp. 38-39
I propose the idea of “phantom epistemologies.” Specifically, I refer to empirical elusiveness, unspoken common sense, a politics of (in)commensurability, and how the presence of any “ghost” becomes viewable to those who believe—these are the ethnographic entryways into what is knowable. Yet what is knowable will often lie in the realm of uncertainty; that is, the very thing of empiricism cannot be absolutely defined in the presence of phantoms and unknowable possibility. My thinking is partly informed by “shadows” theorized by Carolyn Nordstrom and James Ferguson. Both refer to “shadow” political economies that are liminal, hidden, or simply unaccounted for. James Ferguson writes:
A shadow is not only a dim or empty likeness. It also implies a bond and a relationship. A shadow, after all, is not a copy by an attached twin—a shadow is what sticks with you. Likeness here implies not only resemblance but also a connection, a proximity, an equivalent, even an identity. A shadow, in this sense, is not simply a negative space, a space of absence; it is a likeness, an inseparable other-who-is-also-oneself to whom one is bound. (2006: 17)
The desire here is directed toward recognition, not one marked by an empiricism that provides a finiteness or certainty of something, but a recognition of some hidden essence, implication connection—one that sits, for a moment, underneath or beside our apprehension. While the shadow waits to become known in some concrete form, a phantom epistemology does not count on revelation. Rather than dismissing our quandaries of “not having all the data” that may not be gotten, a phantom can inhabit the data in ways that do not always desire the fullest of answers—one that allows the unknowable to remain as powerful an analytic figure as the know. That is, the phantom—the stuff of familiarity, yet also the stuff of the unknowable—is the ethnographic object of inquiry, rather than being some shadow whose materializing requires further patience and digging. Finding one’s way through (or even detecting at all) the presence of such ghosts is difficult, as the latter occur at different levels of scale, not only in fieldwork but at the level of interpretive circulation. 
Examples  include assumptions used to interpret statistics whose compilation itself is fraught with uncertainty and the likelihood of political interference, e.g., in relation to capital flight and the AIDS epidemic. 

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The concept "phantom epistemologies" tries to cover a lot of ground. I sympathize with its attempt to account actions not simply as the aftermath of careful reflective reasoning and articulation. Surely impulsive tastes produce most human action; habits mirrored unreflectively from our ethnoscapes. Most donuts and clothes are bought not as a political or nutritional stance, but because of impulses and desires inherited from our communities. But is this vast terrain of overdetermined connotations and urges best understood as that of "phantoms" or "ghosts"? Here we the have murky spectres of  "unspoken common sense[s]" reflecting like shadows on… what? The solid enlightenment background of rational actors? Is such a digital separation of the connotation and denotation of everyday life desirable? Or might these 'blind faiths' of the gut be better approached as wrought in the midst of relations of power?

Maybe what's most interesting about these flickering desires is how people try to explain them. That is, how people justify their repulsion to effeminate gay guys laughing shrilly, or the haunting accapello of an Islamic call to prayer, identifying their annoyances and hopes with a wider political problem / project at hand. Might a focus on "unspoken commonsense" as "a politics of (in)commensurability" lose track of Gramsci's highly useful take on common-sense: assumptions that are always in the process of being articulated and re-articulated within a wider war of position between interest groups?

Still, beyond caution against engendering political myopia, I appreciate the attention here to human energies, spirits, moods, lusts, desires. These have surely defined and redefined human praxis much more than any kind of self-critical attention to efficient, reasonable, "best practice". There's a lovely urban myth that dogs pick up their owners' energies and develop similar personalities. Surely this remains all the truer for children absorbing their kins' bashfulness, anxieties, or aristocratic presence. As we grow we find ourselves expected to justify our feelings of repugnance or admiration of the ideas, rhetorics and styles that colour our days. Much of growing up is becoming articulate at explaining why we feel how we do about what's being said and done. This self-justifying is always in reaction to our pre-absorbed impulses and actions. So focusing on the dispersal of these gut feelings, and not just on their articulation, could shed interesting light on how people find themselves within an overdetermined war of dispositions.

 Keith Hart once lamented that American cultural anthropology "tends to put a happy face on social life, elucidating in meticulous detail the symbolic composition of culture – an exercise which celebrates the intricate structure of its subject and not the discordant systems of non-meaning integral to the key dilemmas of American and any culture". Ethnographic rumination on how life's uncertainties urge the living forward (in all sorts of contrary directions) might provide fertile grounds for better understanding the xenophobias of empire builders that private democratic integration. Still, we should be careful not to fetishize the shadowy unknowableness of these urges, lest we lose track of the factions lobbying them and the agency subjects do exercise in drawing together their contradictory, fragmented desires to sublimate themselves into new unities of style, new politicians, momentary individuals. 

Jeremy, great comment. Lots to think about here. My mind is haring off in two directions.

The first is a conversation with my daughter, a former Navy helicopter pilot turned policy wonk, who does contract work with the National Nuclear Security Administration. She was recently contacted about the possibility of giving a talk about developing program metrics to some folk who audit aid programs in Afghanistan. She observed that those doing these jobs are often stuck with measures whose relationship to the overall mission of which they are a part is unclear. Why are they stuck? Because someone, at some point in the past, created a series of authorized forms and procedures. These have less to do with anything that current interest groups are quarreling about than bureaucratic inertia. I am reminded, listening to her, of John Maynard Keynes' famous remark that today's hard-headed businessmen are in thrall to the ideas of long dead economists — phantoms, indeed. Which leads me to a mild disagreement with your final remark. Of course, we should not fetishize as unknowable the phantoms in question. But we may need to recognize when they are lurking in the taken for granted assumptions of those we study.

My second thought picks up from an image I used to use when introducing students to the concept of culture. Culture is, I said, like an old-fashioned wedding dress: something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue (with "blue" understood as a mood; there are always things about it that make someone unhappy). I take it for granted that when someone proposes a new concept, it will be both mostly old and mostly borrowed. But, perhaps I have worked for so long in advertising, I keep an eye out for the new. In this case, the new for me in "phantom epistemologies" is the juxtaposition of the terms in a way that reminds me of the kind of problem my daughter and Keynes were talking about: the implicit, perhaps even repressed, assumptions about how things are known, which affect behavior and a derail even the most reasonable seeming plans.

Does this make any sense to you?

Interesting. So "phantom epistemologies" can be seen as those assumptions for which we've lost a reason, though they continue to affect our behaviour, inevitably putting us in friction with an innovating world. Of course, which epistemologies are deemed archaic, dead, and incommensurable with modernity defines the field of struggle; something the ghost of Keynes knows well right now! Maybe it's useful to differentiate between the willful lobbying of these phantom directives and the zombie life they take on posthumously.

For example, you suggest these phantoms might have "less to do with anything that current interest groups are quarreling about than bureaucratic inertia".  I'm thinking of a scene in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" when the protagonist has to escape a manhunt because of a clerical error in which he'd been reported as dead. The bureaucrats are so enthralled to the technicalities of their organization that it is they who end up working for it. Here it is people who become the phantoms of epistemologies, a human being literally running for his life from an unthinking nexus of contracts threatening to swallow him. Marx imagines capitalism in a similar manner in the Manifesto, when he describes the genie of capitalism released by a bourgeois magician, only to overpower him. This image of epistemologies as "structures of effectivity" with general logics beyond the particular interests of their employers conjures a converse image, the alienation of living up to a system that (seemingly) has its own momentum. 

Perhaps it's most often in these moments of inability to explain convincingly to others (or ourselves) why we must act the way we do that we turn to our gut's "(in)commensurable common sense[s]". So attention only to a consciously articulated war of position might obfuscate the wider war of dispositions (the push and pull of "phantom epistemologies") within which people learn to identify themselves as political beings. And this focus on "unknowableness" could make anthropologists more receptive to the effectivity of alienation in everyday life... While "taking our subjects seriously", we could also be more attentive to moments in which they have trouble taking themselves seriously, and rely on phantom epistemologies to guide them through a disjointed world. 

Still, the real movement of history is not driven by indecision and overdetermination, but by those few determined to draw new fire from these heaped ashes. A keener eye for alienation might give more colour to speaking of its exceptional sublimations.

Jeremy, thanks. Again a lot to think about here. Your "(in)commensurable common sense[s]" recalls a classic article by C. Wright Mills on what he called "vocabularies of motives." The grim conclusion is that when people lack common, mutually acceptable, terms for describing what moves them, the only alternatives are fight or flight. I also like very much 

While "taking our subjects seriously", we could also be more attentive to moments in which they have trouble taking themselves seriously, and rely on phantom epistemologies to guide them through a disjointed world. 

But I wonder if the phantoms in question are phantom epistemologies. I notice that in our conversation so far, we have mainly been focused on the "phantom," which reverses the emphasis in Kristin Peterson's article. We have been talking about tacit or repressed or (in)commensurable common sense(s), lumping them together as "assumptions." Now it occurs to me that assumptions need not be epistemological. They may also be ontological, assumptions about the world as opposed to how we know it. 

The most memorable example of a phantom epistemology in Peterson's article underlies the the belief that "forty percent of Nigeria's oil is stolen." People say this on the streets of Lagos. It also appears in the official documents produced by NGOs and international agencies. But ask, as Peterson did, how do we know that, and everyone seems to have heard it from someone else. There is a universal assumption that somehow, somewhere, someone is able to measure Nigeria's total oil output and determine that forty percent of it is stolen; but nobody seems to know how, where, or who. 

It occurs to me (and I would be happy to be corrected if this impression is wrong) that while we anthropologists happily ascribe such things as cosmologies, values, models-of and models-for to the peoples whose lives we study, for the most part epistemologies remain firmly located on our side of the the researcher-subject divide. We worry endlessly about how we can know what we claim to know; but we rarely, if ever, examine seriously how they go about deciding what they claim to know. We attribute critical self-reflection to us, the scientific/scholarly/philosophical observers, but assume that how we know is our problem, not theirs. We argue endlessly about whether social structures, material conditions, cultural logics, repressed motives, whatever, take your pick, determine what they say they believe. That the others, the subjects, our collaborators, might include people who also worry about what it takes to make a persuasive case for belief or decide that something is true beyond a reasonable doubt is something we simply don't consider. 

There must be exceptions to this argument. I can even think of a couple: Malinowski's description of the uses of fragments of magical spells in The Sexual Life of Savages and David Jordan's description of villagers pondering whether a young man who had fallen into trance and was displaying signs of what a Western observer might consider a epileptic fit was possessed by a god, possessed by a ghost, faking, or insane, in his ethnography of a village in southern Taiwan. But, as far as I know, these are exceptions that prove the rule. 

Am I wrong here?

Great, I like this turn you stress to asking how our collaborators go about deciding what they claim to know… the effectivity of doubt…   I think you're right that this is often neglected. But how can these individual trepidations be framed within a macro flow of ideas vying against one another?

To start, I guess we agree a focus on doubt vs faith needn't be defined against the hard surface of empirical reality ("almost half of Nigerian oil is stolen" - "is that stat true?"), but instead, is more productively related back to the stratified flows of meanings and desires from which they emerge. Writing about her work on Carribean migrant workers' experiences with spirit guardians, Stephan Palmie considers the "realness" of these ghosts. He concludes that to ask 'did they really see the spirit guardian', is probably to miss the point. 

So what's the point?

 I'd begin by framing this question of our collaborators' doubts, ghosts, flickering convictions within the more general question: under what conditions are they actually brought to the surface? At the end of the day, if we're talking about urban myths - "almost half of Nigerian oil is stolen", or "I can't get a job because of the immigrants"  - then it's probably the overwhelming sense that something to this effect is true, which bypasses the feeling of responsibility to collectively doubt the statistic. So what are the contexts within which these unconscious pangs become articulated into conscious, active forces?

There are positive and negative aspects to this question. Like Foucault's stress on power as both a positive and negative force, doubts create actions as much as they inhibit them. Yes doubts speak to unrealized desires, but a more engaged ethnography might relay them as markers for pathways to realizing these desires; not just an indicator of repressed, unrealized native ways of knowing, but the birth pangs of alternative epistemologies. (Prefigurative activism, alternative currencies and financing, populist movements...). Of course, these actions are not just reactive and are attempts by people with real problems to create authentic projects to deal with them. But how they are popularized by appealing to widespread doubts is a big part of the story.

But doubts could also be registered as inhibiters of action. My sense is that inculcating a generalized doubt is as much a political weapon as ingraining blind faith. Many find themselves a-political because they "don't really trust any of that stuff" - whether it's IPCC reports or state of the union addresses. No doubt this attitude does more to maintain the political status quo than to erode it. Maybe this opens up consideration not just into individual doubts, but how they're systematically fostered ((corporate funded) spectacle media / (corporate funded) negative political campaigns)…

Any doubts? 

Great, I like this turn you stress to asking how our collaborators go about deciding what they claim to know… the effectivity of doubt…   I think you're right that this is often neglected. But how can these individual trepidations be framed within a macro flow of ideas vying against one another?

My first approach to this problem, and one I still think has potential, is first to map the field of possible answers and then consider why individuals with particular backgrounds or social positions would favor one or more of them. That is the approach I used in the first paper I published after reigniting my academic interests; the paper was titled "Why don't we see some real money here?" and attempted to explain the following puzzle.

Chinese popular religion is full of rituals that, while they vary in numerous details, share a common form. Two types of offerings, food and spirit money are laid on the offering table before an altar. Incense is lit, petitions are made to the spirit(s) to whom the ritual is addressed, the spirits' response is divined, and, then, when the ritual ends, the offerings are removed from the table. The food is real food. If not polluted by having been offered to ghosts, it is eaten by those who presented the offerings. The spirit money, however, is not real money. It is a simulacrum of money, pieces of coarse paper decorated with silver or gold foil. As the ritual ends, it is burned. 

But why is the food real, while the money is not? When you ask, you are told separate stories. Re the food: the spirits take only the ethereal essence of the food, leaving the rest behind. Re the money: when burned, spirit money turns into real silver and gold in the Yin world of the spirits. These stories are utterly commonplace and confirmed repeatedly in studies of Chinese ritual.

But, I asked my Taiwanese collaborators, "If the spirits take only the essence of food, why not make paper offerings of food and burn them to turn them into real food in the Yin world?" "No, no, you can't do that," I was told. Well, then, I asked, "Why not put real money on the table, let the spirits take its essence, and leave the rest for us?" No, no, you can't do that," I was told. That there was a tangible difference, no one could deny. But nobody had a good explanation for why the food was real and the money was not.  If I continued to press the matter, my collaborators fell silent, became irritated, or increasingly angry with me.

In search of an answer, I combined two theoretical frameworks, one from Claude Lévi-Strauss, the other from James Fernandez. From Lévi-Strauss I took the idea of "a logic in tangible qualities"; but instead of seeing binary oppositions like food v money or real v unreal as moments in a dialectical argument, I framed them instead, following Fernandez, as the opposites that define dimensions in a multidimensional space within which ritual action, conceived as metaphor, shoves things around. It then became clear that food was being used to draw in the spirits and establish the closer relationship with them that would allow a request for a favor to occur. The money was being burned as the spirits were sent away, as a payment that restored social distance. Given these basic assumptions, it is then easy to see why offerings to malicious ghosts typically involve meagre food but lots of spirit money (in the extreme case, spirit money is simply burned as a form of exorcism), ancestors are offered more food than spirit money, with the food cut up, cooked and ready to eat, affirming an intimate relationship with their descendants (but, nonetheless, a bit of spirit money is burned; like other spirits ancestors are also threatening presences best kept at a distance); offerings to gods often involve lavish amounts of food, but the food is mainly whole and raw (in Taiwanese temple festivals, the main offering is often whole, raw pigs, who before being slaughtered have been specially raised to be as large as possible). Gods must be treated with special respect but never with improper intimacy. 

Once you understand this basic cultural framework, many other things also fall into place. Proper Confucian or Buddhist intellectuals call both types of offerings superstitious nonsense. Both decry the idea that spirits can be bribed, bought off, or, in other words, corrupted by material offerings (though why they should be different in this respect from human officials who can be bought off in similar ways, by invitations to banquets and envelopes stuffed with cash at the end, remains a tender question).

There remains, of course, the possibility of events that distort or rip the fabric of the cultural space within which this kind of interpretation is possible.....

On a more mundane level, I simply adopt the premise that the people whose lives I share and study (1) deserve to be treated with the same respect with which I hope that my family and friends approach my own views and (2) approached with the same skepticism that my frequent muddle and confusion deserves. I suspect that we all tend, most of the time, to depend on some combination of sacred texts, "everybody knows," and "It works for me" to decide what we take to be knowledge sound enough to act upon. Only rarely do we take the trouble to engage in the systematic search for evidence we find in Sherlock Holmes, let alone the planning and execution of scientific experiments. Thus, it usually makes sense to examine the sacred texts in some detail, analyze who the everybody is and how they come to "know," and be fully aware that crude empiricism frequently provides positive feedback for unsound ideas. 

How does that sound?

I can feel the intellectual and emotional satisfaction of having arrived at an interpretive frame by which something that seemed to be without sense, is given sense, and more, to behold!, it is beautiful. But, in the end, I am left in doubt. Very nice stories were told about the movement of the stars and planets, about the seasons too. Is it just my sense of aesthetic that causes me to nod and grin, then? Are you tapping into some hidden well of credulity? To push back then; suppose that there is something more here than mere aesthetic satisfaction, or mythic attraction; I suppose I could say, suppose it were true, except that truth is so unfashionable in anthropology. But suppose there was, then what is the causal story? If we were to speak of an epidemiology of representations, the vectors of which are practice, or activity, or use..., and brains, if not also fingers and toes, what is it about that complex structure of cognitive causal chains, that it could be explained thus so consonantly? Why is it that interpretation in terms of meaning always feels so removed from time?

Why should something whose meaning practitioners do not comprehend have meaning at all?

Is it the productivity of the phenomena that we study, or is it the productivity of our own minds at finding meaning in the external world?

  1. Because it is something to be explained, or at least accounted for.
  2. There is also the interesting question why practitioners do not comprehend the grounds on which they are acting.
  3. How "everyone knows" becomes embedded in institutional practice is a classic problem for the sociology of knowledge.

The question I am asking is why a pattern of symbolic activity should be so orderly when the underlying causal processes are so complicated?

That's a good question. Could it be that what symbolic activity does is impose order on chaotic situations, enabling actors to get on with whatever they need or want to do without being paralyzed by information overload? Or course, whose imposition prevails when symbolic activities compete or come into conflict then becomes a political question. 

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