A few weeks ago I finished “Patchen Markell’s”:http://home.uchicago.edu/~pmarkell/index2.html book “Bound by Recognition”:http://www.citeulike.org/user/rex/article/241984 . 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”:http://www.uchicago.edu/research/jnl-crit-inq/issues/v24/v24n2.povinelli.html rather than “here”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0822328682/qid=1120508674/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_ur_1/002-3949094-5952040?v=glance&s=books&n=507846), 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”:http://www2.hawaii.edu/~anu/index.html is labeled “a dangerous scam”:http://www.angelfire.com/hi2/hawaiiansovereignty/fraudperfecttitle.html. 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”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1580230113/qid=1120510130/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_ur_1/002-3949094-5952040?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 approaches to “human life”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0942299795/qid=1120510169/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_ur_1/002-3949094-5952040?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 that mean “so much”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0226733580/qid=1120510196/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_ur_1/002-3949094-5952040?v=glance&s=books&n=507846 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”:http://www.cc.gatech.edu/people/home/idris/Essays/Hedge_n_Fox.htm — 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.”