Between the demolition of the Berlin wall and the fall of the twin towers, ‘globalization’ happened to anthropology. One of the most influential essays of the period (probably because it was ahead of the curve) was Arjun Appadurai’s Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy (originally appeared in 1990, iirc). As an article it is both alluring and infuriating. In it, Appadurai proposes the notion of different sorts of ‘-scapes’, a model which has been tremendously influential but which he (and pretty much everyone else) fails to develop in any real way in any future work. Similarly, Appadurai argues that we need to develop models similar to those based on chaos theory and fractals if we are to undersand the global cultural economy. As a bow to the popular science of the time this was very trendy (Gleick’s Chaos came out in 1988, when the article was being writen, I reckon) but again not something that he has followed up on — although quite a lot of people who work on social networking have done so.
For me, Appadurai is like Mahler — I recognize the genius, I understand why it appeals to some, but at the end of the day all it does is make me queasy (I should say that I am talking about his writing — Appadurai is a very nice guy in person). I began to ask myself: why does this article appeal? Or, more specifically, why did it appeal in the context of the late-80s early-90s?
Having read chronologically in anthropological theory I was struck by a couple of trends that seem to all come together in Appadurai’s essay in a way that made it exemplary of a diffuse but widely spread mood in the anthropology of the period.
1. skepticism, and more generally a lack of sympathy for approaches which aspired to, knowledge modeled on labeled science — an awareness of the power dynamics of research and publishing, the rhetorical nature of all writing, and the difficulty of creating ‘objective’ knowledge.
- Simultaneous to this reduction in (or problematization of) the scope of anthropology’s ethnographic ambition, an enormous expansion of its ambition. At a moment when writing an ethnography of a ‘village’ becomes epistemologically, rhetorically, and politically suspect, anthropology decided that no less than the entire planet needed to be scrutinized.
Recognition that evocative writing is a serious rival to presenting ‘facts’, since ‘facts’ are in any case a paricularly kind of evocative writing.
“The triumph of Stanley Diamond over Eric Wolf”: the political economic flavor of Marxist anthropology is edged out by its humanist competitor as discussion shifts towards Those Wacky Commodities Are Just Everywhere. Something about the uptake of Benjamin here.
An unfair, very quick take on Disjuncture and Difference is that it was so popular because it managed to suggest a way to study global scopes in a politico-epistemologically acceptable way. The result is rich, suggesive prove whose promise has not, as far as I know, really been fulfilled.