Bound by Recognition

A few weeks ago I finished “Patchen Markell’s”: book “Bound by Recognition”: . In my opinion it is utterly superb — and those are not words that I use often. The book has many things to reccomend it but what I like so much about it is the way Markell is able to describe a skepticism about the moral certainty that prods to action which I have long felt inarticulately. In other words the book is not just good, but it snaps neatly into a missing space in the puzzle of my own personal philosophy.

Given the somewhat lefty circles I run in, my friends are often surprised at how unwilling I am to engage in denouncing those who hold political positions antithetical to mine. Those who have never met me in person have perhaps seem the recent discussions comments on the various “posts by Oneman”:/author/oneman/ and the seemingly interminable threads that emerge from them. My hesitancy to speak the anthropological truth to the public — to “make the world safe for difference” — is not due to some sort of cryptoconservatism or cryptoscientism but rather from what I might call a certain ‘Burkean existentialism’ that Markell (drawing on Sophocles rather than Burke and Arendt rather than Sartre and hence probably terrified by this characterization) outlines so well in his book.

Those who advocate anthropology’s ability to command both factual and ethical assent from its ‘public’ also typically imagine the readers of their work to be a different set of people from their research subjects and worry about it’s ‘relevance at home’. Historically, this has been the case — as Pacific Islander scholars often point out, Coming of Age in Samoa wasn’t written for Samoans (and don’t even get me started on Sex and Temperment!). But my concern, like that of many anthropologists, is what it means to be an anthropologist when the people portrayed in my books are the people who are reading them (for more on this see why I think “the Yanomami thing is overdone”:/2005/05/23/yanomami-fatigue/). As several of the commentors pointed out in a very fruitful and insightful discussion in response to “one of Nancy’s posts”:/2005/06/24/perceptions-of-anthropology/, anthropology’s moral certainty and need for self-assertion starts looking less and less pretty the further it gets from home. At its best this sort of anthropology adopts a slightly farcical “my name is Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you” sort of air when applied in the field, and at its worse the ease with which it wears its expertise can be both paternal and colonial as anthropologists begin lecturing local people about what their culture is like and asking who needs to be saved from globalization. Thus the distaste for the moral imperialism that often arises when ‘doing right by the other’ is still in my mouth when I contemplate my ‘relevance at home’.

The usual way to steer the course between ‘relevance at home’ and ‘doing right by the other’ is to adopt the old anthropological tactic of drawing a line between ‘your culture’ and ‘their culture’ and then respecting external difference while being critical of internal disagreements, which results in a situation where ritual homosexuality needs to be understood, but Republicans need to be stamped out. For me, the easy answer of being critical of ‘my culture’ while ‘respecting theirs’ doesn’t work because it relies on a bright and clear boundary dividing ‘one culture’ from ‘another’ that doesn’t exist and which (pace Markell’s understanding of ‘the anthropological notion of culture’) probably never has. As someone who studies mining in Papua New Guinea, my research subjects includes corporate executives and indigenous negotiators. Both have lawyers. My accounts of my fieldsite could very well be used as ‘expert evidence’ in their own endless legal wranglings like the work that my colleagues have written. Moreover, as a settler on O’ahu I find myself a participant in debates about who gets to speak about and for ‘traditional Hawai’ian culture’ in which anthropological authority has been substantively and importantly challenged. The situation is complicated by the fact that Hawai’i is a place which began producing indigenous scholars just as soon as the alphabet was introduced. How can I teach native Hawai’ians about ‘their culture’, and how do I engage in scholarly debate with indigenous scholars about it?

These are the sorts of issues that Markell’s books can speak to. While the majority of the book is concerned with technical issues in the political ontology of agency and identity which, despite how luminously well written it is, will be slow going for people who can’t immediately jump into discussions of Arendt, Hegel, Herder, and Taylor, the chapter on multiculturalism is perhaps the easiest way in to the argument for nonspecialists. Here his focus is on the politics of recognition (think Charles Taylor, Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Will Kymlicka, etc.). The politics of recognition has emphasized the way in which recognition and affirmation of one’s identity and culture is itself a social good which ought to be recognized in multicultural liberal states, and particularly Canada (home to Taylor and Kymlicka). However, Markell argues that this aspiration to mutual recognition is appealing but ultimately unsatisfying and even incoherent.

In general, Markell is critical the idea that people can come to have a ‘sovereign’ knowledge of themselves — that identity can in principle become a settled thing. Thus while the politics of recognition demands that others “recognize us as who we already are. Invoking ‘identity’ as a fait accompli precisely in the course of the ongoing and risky interaction through which we become who we are (or, more precisely, who we will turn out to have been).” But this attempt to achieve an “independent and masterful agency” papers over “our basic condition of intersubjective vulnerability” — in fact, our very desire for self-certainty often ends up displacing our the burden of bearing an unsought identity onto other sectors of social space, making the project of recognition itself a medium of injustice and people become ‘bound’ by recognition as we displace our uneasiness and make them bear the weight of our self-confidence.

Drawing on Povinelli’s account of settler guilt in Australia (which I’ve always felt was better-executed “here”: rather than “here”:, Markell points out how multiculturalism is often figured as “a moment of redemption” that can “salve liberal anxieties.” For liberals in multicultural societies seek both “redemption from their past” and its history of injustice as well as “their lingering discomfort with the exercise of power in the present.” But not any sort of redemption will do. As Markell writes “the imagined prospect of an ‘infinite’ emergence of new groups and new demands would prolong the process of atonement, never quite releasing these liberals from the obligation and discomfort in their own historical skin… perhaps even more threatening than the prospect of a permanent stain on the historical record is the possibility that the wrongs in which liberal societies are implicated are not just past but present and ongoing… and that justice might therefore require sacrifices that cut deeper than the explicit renunciation of the acts of past generations.” Thus demands which are not ‘appropriate’ and “are phrased in ways that restore the liberal agent’s sense of sovereign agency” are labeled radical and inappropriate. In Hawai’i, for instance, teaching Hawai’ian culture in primary school in the form of myths and legends is appropriately ‘multicultural’ but “pursuing land restitution for indigenous people through international law”: is labeled “a dangerous scam”: The very recognition that multiculturalists believe to be so empowering turns out to empower them, while those who are ‘bound’ by the limits of their recognition are only allowed to be different in safe and nonthreatening aways.

In contrast to this approach, Markell points out that “the weight of history” does not “always come tidily packages in rules and prescriptions for action.” Following Arendt, he argues that our identities are the “results of action and speech in public, through which people appear to others and thereby disclose who they are.” It is only in the moment of applying the lessons of the past to the present that who we are is established. Following Sahlins, we might want to call Markell’s approach an ‘ethics of the structure of the conjuncture.’ Markell calls this fact tragic because it creates in us a “constitutive vulnerability” — who we are is the result not of the past that lies at our backs, but in our openness to a future that we cannot control because of the ‘impropriety’ of our action: “the very conditions that make us potent agents also make us potent beyond our own control, exposing us to consequences and implications that we cannot predict and which are not up to us. Our acts, you might say, are always improper in the sense that they are never our property — neither as choosers, nor as the bearers of identity.” This “constitutive openness of action to worldly contingency” is demonstrated again and again as our actions have consequences that we did not anticipate, and are subject to interpretation that we cannot control by the people we share our lives with.

Thus our identities are always simultaneously predicated on our actions, but slip beyond our control and the idea of a “democratic justice” which requires “that all people be known and respected as who they really are” aspires to a project which not only binds its interlocutors in a recognition which, ironically, was meant to liberate them, but is incoherent because it is based on a theory of agency and identity which is incorrect. This is not to suggest that we ought to live in a “spirit of resignation” but rather, to undertake a ‘politics of acknowledgment’ in which “no one be reduced to any characterization of his or her identity for the sake of someone else’s achievement of a sense of sovereignty.” Such a politics “demands that each of us bear our share of the burden and risk involved in the uncertain, open-ended, sometimes maddeningly and sometimes joyously surprising activity of living and interacting with other people.”

I like Markell’s account because it speaks to “many other”: approaches to “human life”: that mean “so much”: to me and that focus on the relation between tradition, innovation, and the human experience of novelty. But what is important for my purposes here is the way it suggests anthropologists personally (not professionally) deal with their research findings. Typically, when an anthropologist begins dealing with someone else our first reaction might be to avoid making assumptions — rather than tell a Papua New Guinean ‘what their culture is’ and how we might help them ‘defend it’ we might wait and see what they want and need. For our part, we might reciprocate in turn by some sort of self-disclosure in which we articulate to them who we are ‘honestly’ are so they could become aware of our ‘biases’ and how terribly terribly upset we are when brown people like themselves are trampled underfoot by the ‘bad’ white people who have so little in common with us ‘good’ white people. But the ‘acknowledgment’ in Markell’s politics is not an acknowledgment of the other, but about how little self-knowledge we are capable of. Identity is retrospective, which means in the present one can only know that in the future they will turn out to have been someone. Thus acknowledgement is “self- rather than other- directed; its object is not one’s own identity but one’s own basic ontological condition or circumstances, particularly one’s own finitude; this finitude is to be understood as a matter of one’s practical limits in the face of an unpredictable and contingent future, not as a matter of the impossibility or injustice of knowthing others; and, finally, acknowledgment involves coming to terms with, rather than vainly attempting to overcome, the risk of conflict, hostility, misunderstanding, opacity, and alienation that characterized life among others.” Whatever you think of this argument more generally, it captures for me perfectly the experience of culture shock that one is undergoing when entering a foreign fieldsite and making introductions when (in my experience at least) you have already begun a transformative personal experience and have lost your moorings, identity-wise.

I also like this approach because it describes how I attempt to deal with people who live on the island to which I have just moved. My first step when meeting Pacific Islanders is not to explain to them how anthropology can help them, how I am ‘an expert in their culture’, or to explain how terribly, terribly sympathetic I am to people with brown skin. It is to realize that I don’t even know how much I don’t know. I try to live with them as we negotiate who we will both become. I am not quite sure who I am going to be in this situation. An expert? A colonizer? An ally? An absurd clown? (my favorite is the first and last options combined). I try to approach people with a strong sense that we are going somewhere together, but our destination is not something I can know before hand. Hence the ‘Burkean Existentialism’ I mentioned above. This approach keeps me both humble and prudent — two virtues that I admit are not exactly my speciality. It reminds me that anthropology makes me a “hedgehog rather than a fox”: — I know one trick, and it’s a good one. I do a certain kind of research that is good at describing certain sorts of things, and answering certain sorts of questions that have developed over the course of my discipline’s intellectual history. But what good does this do for others? How could I possibly know when I am not sure who I myself am becoming as I immerse myself deeper and deeper into the lesser works of Rodney Needham? Neither politically quietistic nor overly self-assured in my opinion of what people need to learn from me, I have tried to live a life which “does not promist the pleasure of sovereignty” but provides what Markell has called “the less grand and more tentative pleasure of potency — simply having (and being carried along by) effects in the world.”


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

11 thoughts on “Bound by Recognition

  1. (Got the impression you slightly changed your position compairing the beginning of the reflection initiated by oneman with your post above.
    I personally do not agree with advocating ´to make the world a better/safer place for difference`, but to make this historically grown intension explicit–this is all “we” can do and all “we” should do in Weberian terms and that is the way the famous chinese is expected to understand the work`s context, that´s all.)
    Having read Hannah Arendt and Shulamit Volkov especially on terms of cultural codes and their representation in action,
    Markell sounds superinteresting!
    Thx for sharing.

  2. This is a strikingly well-argued thesis, and it seems to sit well with a consensus view that has been brewing within social theory.

    The core of Markell’s thesis–that “the very conditions that make us potent agents also make us potent beyond our own control, exposing us to consequences and implications that we cannot predict and which are not up to us” sounds quite a bit like Judith Butler’s in Excitable Speech. They also seem comfortably compatible with Silverstein’s version of identity in his 2003 Public Culture piece on the way ethnolinguistic recognition is conducted 24/7 in realtime.

    My question then is what consequences flow from this? Any? “potency—simply having (and being carried along by) effects in the world” sounds like what lots of people already do anyway.

    Is Markell basically a Stanley Fish figure, emerging from the Cave to reveal to us that we should continue business as usual?

  3. Markell has clearly read Butler and discusses her interpretation of Antigone. A summary of the argument here does run the risk of making him appear to be a Stanley Fish (who is not an appealing theorist to me) sort of person but I don’t think that would be fair at all — although it’s beyond my means to provide a summary situating him in the Academcy (he is at the UofC so you should ask him!). The final chapter has the closest to what might be called ‘policy implications’ of this approach. As I say, the book is really superb and fits in with what is happening in a lot of other areas.

  4. I like the bit about the hedgehog, and I agree there is no point in faux-apologies for preferring delving into the minor works of needham to sharpening the edges of the latest manifesto on What Anthropologists Oughta Do in the World. I know which kind of enthusiast I’d prefer sitting next to at a dinner party.

    Still, it seems to me that one has no choice but to do both. Right, agency and intentionality and identity and all of that are polyvalent and complicated, and one *could* be like the reflective millipede and spend all one’s time considering how to run. Many anthropologists choose a life of such contemplation, and right on to that. But other stuff is NOT complicated — if those same anthropologists aren’t also writing angry letters to public officials, going to protests, and behaving decently in the field as best as they can figure what that amounts to — ie, acting and speaking in the inevitably clumsy ways available to us in the world as it is, well — then they are rotters.

  5. Do you really understand this entry as being about the choice between a paralyzing reflexivity and political activism? I tried pretty explicitly to explain that neither I nor Markell were arguing for either of those, or even understood the question at issue to be a choice between the two.

  6. Yes, I did. It struck me as participating in a certain paralyzing tendency of high flown cleverness in general — a sort of eye-rolling superiority at the gaucherie of people who do things like unselfconsciously condemning republicans — !!without understanding the contingency of their own positions!! (chortle chortle). Since leaving grad school, I think a lot about how much we heard about politics from our profs and one another and how little about actual concrete wards, precincts, and feets-on-the-ground positions, stances, and alliances. to put it another way: what, really, is so silly about simultaneously explaining ritual homosexuality abroad and opposing Republicans at home [to avoid putting it in terms of cultural boundaries]? both positions may not belong in the classroom, I think they can certainly co-exist in a life.

  7. Wait, opposing Republicans? It’s the Liberals who are ruining this country with their faulty metaphysics and “recognition” hokum, oppressing natives by forcing them to imitate themselves, etc. etc., all of which very clearly laid out by Povinelli etc.

    OK, not really.

    But it’s pretty clear why the left doesn’t have think tanks or ideological development programs like the Heritage Foundation or Patrick Henry colllege (to name the topics of two fascinated, worried profiles in the mainstream middlebrow media).

    It’s because we’ve got Harvard, Oberlin, and every gender studies, comp lit and cultural anthro department in the country. Those are left-wing think tanks. The plus is you’re allowed to think whatever you want (as long as it passes peer review and pleases your colleagues and is aware, in detail, of Bourdieu, Butler and Povinelli–in other words, as long as it fits a whole passel of subtle constraints). But the right-wing think tanks are under much more obvious constraints: 9 times out of 10 their research has to conclude–surprise surprise–EXACTLY what it set out to prove. An excess of self-respect can be a huge barrier.

    The minus with the left-wing think tanks is nobody outside of the fishbowl understands what you’re saying. Maybe a trade-off worth reconsidering. Markell could even help in reconsidering it, if I could figure out what he was saying and whether any specific consequences flowed from it.

    Time to finish my book on epigraphy and ancient publics.

  8. Ozma: To repeat, the entry doesn’t suggest one shouldn’t be politically active in one’s real life. As Patchen put it in an email about this thread, “invoking contingency as part of an eye-rolling condemnation of the unreflective is different from trying to explain how an appreciation of contingency can be folded into a practice and so become enabling of action rather than disruptive of it.” I think the reference was super-obscure for mainlanders, but my positive mention of Keanu Sai’s proposals to declare American possession of Hawai’i illegal under international law was meant to signal a similar idea — my sympathy for this approach is certainly not uncontroversial over here.

    I know that political philosophy is not for everyone, but I think it’s important not to lump people living the life of the mind — trying to rigorously connect their philosophical (and, in my case, religious) commitments to their action — with professors who ‘play at politics’. I think you are right to be critical of profs who take the moral high ground of Marxism in their books and then in class profess to be ‘world class shoppers’ (to take one example we both know) or who substitute the word ‘hegemony’ for ‘culture’ in their books and then think they’ve committed an act of politics rather than jargon. In fact I think the self-satisfaction that these people gain from this is a perfect example of the desire for ‘sovereignty’ that their students have to bear for the sake of their own sense of self that Markell takes issue with.

    So I think that putting me or Markell into this camp, or to categorize anyone who uses ‘high-flown cleverness’ as automatically guilty of those people’s sins is unfair. I’m an intellectual and I’m here to represent for the Life Of The Mind with a capital ‘LOTM’ — that’s what I do. I’m not sure why you think this mode of living can’t co-exist with a politics of “actual concrete wards, precincts, and feets-on-the-ground positions, stances, and alliances” or would consider such a politics ‘silly.’ In fact, the point of this entry was to outline exactly one way in which this coexistence could occur.

    Seth: if you want to understand his argument read the first chapter. If you want the implications, read the last.

  9. Rex,

    I felt badly about my earlier post, because I knew I’d been unfair to you as a person whom I know not to be a reactionary. But I still do think we have a disagreement — let me find a more generous way than I did before to express what it is.

    From what I gather of Markell’s book and your take on the same, you are both attempting to have the “life of the mind” and one’s action in the world be as practically and logically consistent as possible. I am currently finding this a hard go and am coming to the conclusion that it’s an irreducible, immanent contradiction I’ll just have to live with.

    So — it is in fact fine by me if people talk about Marxism in their books and shopping in their lives — knowing you, I don’t reckon you could sign an affadavit promising you’d never made that kind of off-hand joke. I make those kinds of jokes all the time. In fact I’ll make one right now: Marxism strikes me as quite persuasive but then, I’m also a sucker for Patagonia’s advertising.

    What instead bothered me about grad school was the sort of lack of willingness to dare to be contradictory in ways more effective/important than shopping. Shopping is actually a great example: it’s frivolous and fashionable, so everyone could joke about it light-heartedly. But there didn’t seem to be a lot of talking political philosophy in the classroom *paired with* public declarations of where people stood ANYWAY in terms of the imperfect politics of the world as we know it, and what they planned to do about it. Maybe it was because we were in a safely democratic city and we all sort of were on the same side anyway, and maybe this has changed since the political climate has more insistently importuned daily life.

    So again, yes, I do think high-flown cleverness (and comments like “political philosophy is not for everyone”) is almost inevitably weaponized when deployed in political discussions. It is aimed right at people’s kneecaps. There are many important intellectual questions that lead in directions that, in my experience, provide much clearer *critiques* of action than they do guides to it. This doesn’t mean I think high-flown cleverness must die. But I don’t like its “gotcha” aspects, which I do think are incredibly paralyzing.

    So, I want to ask the concrete question again, which you chose not to address but which comes right out of your original post: what IS so silly about teaching ritual homosexuality AND opposing Republicans vociferously?

    To beg the question a bit: yes, yes, it is intellectually contradictory. So what?

  10. Thank you for the brilliant posts, Rex (et al). Your Burkean existentialism sounds not unlike my own sense of ethical imperative: ungrounded, unfolding, negotiated, not given to ‘polemic.’ I was of course a bit surprised to see you invoking humility there at the end of your post — given your own constitutive Ipili-ness! 🙂

    I have my own interest in the politics and semiotics of recognition and so will get to the Markell straightaway. I published a critique of Butler’s critique of the politics of gay kinship (Antigone’s Claim) drawing on a longstanding problem I have with Butler’s performative-inflected, quasi-Lacanian, Hegelianism: the resolute focus on the State. I wouldn’t want to be naive about politics in industrial democracies, but if doing fieldwork in Melanesia taught me anything, it is that recognition evinces and elicits diverse relational forms: as, for example, in the dense multisemous symbolism of semen exchanges in Anga-land and elsewhere, symbolism that makes explicit certain forms of personal constitution (‘identity’) while also binding people into future acts of exchange (‘recognition’). Reading about the ways in which Melanesians creatively invent and re-invent ways of recognizing themselves-in-others (and others-in-themselves) leads one inevitably to a critique of the relatively impoverished relational universe imagined in a politics of ‘the state’ and its critiques. And so, in fact, if I can tie a loop (if ever so loosely), I’m inclined to think that understanding ‘ritualized homosexuality’ (we know this is a problematic term, right?) in some ways helps us to think about ways of criticizing Republicans (starting with the naive individualism of laissez faire neo-liberalism). Just a thought.

  11. Ozma: I don’t think its ‘silly’ to teach ritual homosexuality and oppose Republicanism. I never said it was. You said I said that. My point (to repeat) is not that being politically active is a bad thing. My point (to repeat) is that there is a certain motivation to politics which I find personally distasteful — to wit, one which derives from a sense of (and desire for) self-certainty. To put it another way (which may or may not seem enigmatic to you) I think your statement about the “irreducible, immanent contradiction” in your own life is not a criticism of my position or Markell’s but in fact a restatement of it.

    Strongthomas: Thanks for your comment — truly. As I’ve said in my reply to Ozma, I agree that thinking about ritual homosexuality is not in fact totally disjunct from criticizing Republicans and more likely to related (in some tenuous way) to developing models of human life which an activist might want to use for political ends.

    In fact, there are in fact passages in the Markell where in the margin I’ve noted “lol — cf. Lederman!” For instance, on pg. 179 in a discussion of justice as fairness in the distribution of goods, he notes “the principle of giving what is due likewise presupposes that we have already determined who the relevant parties to a distribution are… every appeal to the identity as a settled criterion of distribution will likewise be a potential site of (nondistributive) injustice… because those people for whom justice is a live issue are not done becoming who they are; or, better, who they will turn out to have been.” This could be straight out of Ku Waru or Gender of the Gift! Perhaps you can see now the many levels on which it would appeal to me.

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