So much for laterality.

I have just successfully managed to make it through the first chapter of Mutual Life, Limited by Bill Maurer, entitled “Lateral reasons for a post-reflexive anthropology.” Maurer’s books represents one of the most recent statements of one school of thought trying to recover an anthropological program after the critiques of the 1980s (the I mentioned other, ‘unnew’ approach “a while back”:/2006/01/03/from-reinventing-anthropology-to-writing-culture). Maurer’s argument is (very) complex, but at a general level we might want to say that it involves an attempt to rethink anthropology as a program of adequation — of creating representations of life that are adequate (or resemble) the empirical world. His alternate conception is important (to me, anyway) because it might allow us to escape some of the problems with the existing I-say you-say dynamics of “anthropological explanation”:/2006/01/09/on-anthropological-explanation I mentioned earlier.

His approach — a “nonempirical modality of ethnographic inquiry” attempts not to explain the world but to ride alongside the explanations offered by other people (to be ‘lateral’ to them) rather than to find “a new Archimedean point for critical analysis.” Thus at one point he is discussion Marilyn Strathern’s analysis of Maurice Leenhardt’s Do Kamo. Strathern takes issue with an aspect of Leenhardt’s work at one point, but Maurer, in his modality of mutual laterality, writes on page 19 of the book: “Refusing the structure of error, I would simply add that his [Leenhardt’s] language lies alongside others, where mistakes can be made and where the very idea of a mistake can be obviated by multiple and polyvalent emergences.”

Not surprisingly, Maurer writes in the conclusion of his chapter that he worries about being “taken as too metatheoretical… and having no politics besides.” Apparently its a bad thing to have no politics, especially when you study, as he does, Islamic banking and are writing your ethnography, as he notes on pg 22, “in a world in which oil companies are awarded lucrative contracts after a war in Iraq over weapons that simply did not exist.”

So much for ‘refusing the structure of error!’ I’m not sure what happened between page 19 and page 22 that kept Maurer from noting that George Bush’s claims about WMDs were language which lies alongside other uses of language, and that the very idea of Bush being incorrect can be obviated by multiple and polyvalent emergences. Except, perhaps, that it is difficult to maintain a state of laterality when the time comes to vote with your feet. Perhaps I am unfair in noting the performative contradiction of Maurer’s book, and perhaps as I continue reading things will make more sense to me and such a reading will seem uncharitable. But the differences between these two passages really leapt out at me.


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

3 thoughts on “So much for laterality.

  1. ooh, the mention of Leenhardt gives me an opportunity to work in a very funny line from a recent email from a friend & colleague:

    “I’ve reading the biography of M. Leenhardt by J. Clifford. I usually think Clifford is a complete ass, but I must admit this book is very good.”

    to try and make it relevant to Rex’s point, I think it is fair to say that in evaluating arguments — anthropological or otherwise — most of us slip in and out of the modality of “mutual laterality” and that might not be such a bad thing…

  2. Arrg. As I happen to be reading it as well, I can say that I think the problems with Maurer’s book lie elsewhere… Here is the full quotation, which I think, Rex, you did not quite do justice to:

    “I am writing in a world in which oil companies are awarded lucrative after a war in Iraq over weapons that simply did not exist, and where these oil companies are domiciled in the same offshore financial centers as other entities labeled ‘terrorist’ and have had– and may still have– dense yet opaque interconnections with those very entities. Yet that information seems not to generate interest, not least because it can never be ‘verified’. When empirics fail, other modes of reflection might become important.”

    There follows an indecipherable quote from Elizabeth Grosz, but I think Maurer is in fact suggesting that Bush’s claims are lateral in the same sense. I also do not think that the relativizing of discourses is, or should be intended to render the verifiability of claims incoherent–it is eminently possible to achieve sound and meaningful agreement on whether that weapon is there or not–but that today, there are other modes of reasoning about this relation which people fall back on prior to and above verification. But I am only in chapter 1…

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