Dear OAC, 

I'm incredibly keen to form a group of like minds who are interested to discuss the ideas of Elizabeth Povinelli. If you are likewise interested in talking about late liberalism, affect, ontologies of potentiality, ethical substance, explorations of the otherwise and other Povinelligrams, please hit me up and we'll start a group asap. All interested parties welcome. 

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From Wikipedia,

Povinelli’s work has focused on developing a critical theory of late liberalism that would support an anthropology of the otherwise.[3] This critical task is animated by a critical engagement with the traditions of American pragmatism and continental immanent theory and grounded in the circulation of values, materialities, and socialities within settler liberalisms.

OK, this is Wikipedia, and I am not blaming Povinelli for what others have written about her. Could you tell us more about what makes you incredibly keen to discuss her work?

Hi John, thanks for your reply. 

There are a number of reasons for wanting to discuss Povinelli, and I confess they are not all limited to what she herself, has written. For instance, I am broadly interested in the themes of marginality, precarity, social visibility (or lack of it), alterity, and for want of a better term, material life histories. There is nothing necessarily Povinilliesque about these ideas (arguably they have been at the very heart of anthropological enquiry for at least the last 30-40 years).  What I find incredibly compelling about Povinelli's work, is her commitment to understanding how life endures at the fringes of a system which insists that one either conform or perish.  What I also find alluring and potentially groundbreaking is her framing of debate within the context of 'geontologies of the otherwise,' and this particular idea is one that I find myself simultaneously drawn to but also somewhat out of reach.  

I suppose what I am looking to discuss here are the details and implications of her thinking, and how they manifest around particular research topics. I know, for example, that Dr Thomas Cousins at Stellenbosch University and Prof Fiona Ross at the University of Cape Town make use of her ideas in their discussions of childhood obesity and early child development respectively, but I am curious as to who else is making use of this theory and to what end. For myself, I have done research on small, community led boxing gyms in the townships of Khayelitsha and Imizamo Yethu in Cape Town, and am preparing to conduct more research this March on homelessness in the same city.

Really, I am reaching out to people who are similarly interested in her ideas (as well as those who have most influenced her) and wish to engage in ongoing debate about the implications of immanent theory in anthropology and how the ideas that spring from it are helping to mould their work.

Si, we find ourselves in an all too familiar awkward situation. Someone (here you) has mentioned an interesting sounding body of work of which someone else (her me) has been totally unaware. What I should be doing is finding and reading some of the work in question. But, candidly speaking, the odds of my doing that are slim. That is not a comment on the body of work in question, simply a reflection of the fact that I have a busy offline life and a great pile of works that, I tell myself, I should get around to reading some day. It would be enormously helpful to me in deciding whether to move Povinelli higher in my stack for you to elaborate on what you have said above and and say a bit more about key terms — 'geontologies of the otherwise," for example. This phrase is totally new to me.

That said, responding to what you have just written, I wonder about "a system which insists that one either conform or perish." I wonder about the possibility of scenarios in which there are paths less traveled that open up other possibilities.

I wonder that because I have had the good fortune to pursue a wholly unexpected career; in 1980 I was an unemployed anthropologist when my wife's grant brought us to Japan and one of her colleagues in Japanese literature provided the introduction that got me into the fringes of the Japanese advertising industry and then a job as an English-language copywriter for Japan's second biggest advertising agency. It was, of course, important to adhere to basic Japanese etiquette. I will never forget, however, a conversation with Kazuhiko Kimoto, the Japanese creative director who hired me. We were in the middle of one of the agency's recurring efforts to get its employees to follow company rules: basic stuff like coming in by 10:00 a.m., not after noon. Kimoto remarked that, "In our business, there is only one rule. If the agency gets business because you are here, you can forget the other rules."

I know full well that this fortunate life I have led may seem like something from a different planet compared to the lives of people in townships in South Africa. Still, I think of OAC founder Keith Hart's work on "informal economy" and recall that people in what I imagine to be similar situations can find all sorts of ways to do more than either conform or perish.

But what this has to do with Povinelli, I don't really know.

Hello

Povinelli is an interesting author, but I have not read her in a couple of years and I 'm not sure I remember much. I would join a discussion group which talks about some of the concepts she is engaged with. I would particularly be interested in the relationship between agency and potentiality and whether they are overlapping concepts. I think a lot of academics speak past each other because they are using different concepts to explain similar things.

John: I think the Geontology of the otherwise is the idea that built into the substance of all things that exist is an unintentional by product which does in some way disrupt the thing itself. So in having the concept of "a home" you get a byproduct "homelessness". I think Povinelli's argument is that the people who are "otherwise" to systems of power endure and disrupts these systems by their existence. Si would have to correct me on this if I'm wrong.

Povinelli is inspired by Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Giorgio Agamben in particular.

Andreas, thanks for the explanation of Geontology. Do you think that there is more here than a new buzzword for the now relatively commonplace sociological observation that societies create deviants by imposing norms that are, in practice, always violated?

Well I wouldn't say it is a buzzword. There is much more complex framework for which I provided a very simplistic explanation. No doubt Povinelli has been inspired by works like "Stigma". Particularly i think she is inspired by the concept of alterity. But Povinelli's larger framework tries to integrate this into a larger theory about human existence in the system of power which she calls late liberalism. Her use of ontology (and geontology) is about bridging the dichotomy of mind and substance, and finding new ways for anthropology to understand the social as part of for example the material or the geographical (for geontology in specific). Her work is also about the suspension and endurance of peoples potential, especially in the light of the end of the cold war and the ideological hegemony which came after it (at least in some parts of the world).

Thanks, Andreas. This is helpful. Still, however, not quite enough to push Povinelli to the top of the people I have to read real soon now stack. What would help a lot is a concrete example in which her "more complex framework" adds something unexpected to the basic dialectical postulate that every thesis implies an antithesis. "The suspension and endurance of people's potential" looks promising. Could you say a bit more about that?

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