The importance of hand waviness

Now that it is the summer I have been catching up on all the things I should have read during the school year, including “Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems”: by Michael Fischer. Despite its very different topic and approach, the essay reminded me of Arjun Appadurai’s important “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Economy”.

What I thought united them was what I’ve come over the years to call “hand waviness”: a certain breathless quality of argumentation which relies on enthusiasm — rather than, say, evidence — to convince. I seem to remember this to be particularly the case for Appadurai, bits of whose essay might be paraphrased as saying: “gay filipinos are doing karaoke… to Elvis songs… ZOMG EVERYTHING IS FLOWING EVERYWHERE!!1!!” or “hey you know that fractal thing on NPR yesterday about how a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and there’s a storm in Paris? GLOBALIZATION IS JUST LIKE THAT D00D!!!!!”

As a graduate student hand waviness drove me nuts — as ethnography it lacked specificity and as philosophy, it lacked rigor. In retrospect, however, I think Appadurai’s essay probably did a lot of good. As a student I would never have produced work that was suggestive but hazy, but now as a professor with gradaute students I see suggesting but hazy prose as a key way to find ways to connect your intellectual project with that of your students and fellow researchers — fleshing out, as it were, forms community.

So my immediate reaction to Fischer’s piece was that it is a pretty orthodox history of ‘social theory’ (you can take the boy out of Chicago but…) written Fischerian with an enormous amount of “RMA! RNA! DNA! BIOGENETIC CYBORG INSURGENCY!!!11!!” hand waviness tacked on at the end. But in retrospect I think one of the charms of the piece is the way that it creates an project — and a community around it — by creating a vision that is enticing but incomplete.

I know we’ve mentioned this piece on the blog before, but I’d be interested in more discussion on nineties globalization versus oughts experimental systems.


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

8 thoughts on “The importance of hand waviness

  1. This post resonated with what I just read in a NYT article (sent to me b/c of a filter for anthropology). It was in a sports article, about Billy Donovan’s decision to stay as a college basketball coach instead of the pro’s. Here’s the quote:

    “Maybe in a reported telephone conversation between mentor and disciple Pitino reminded Donovan of how some of the same players who jumped to his every frenzied college command tuned him out as if he were an anthropology professor when they were reunited in the pros.”

    Is this because of our lack of enthusiasm — not enough hand-waving — or because of the hand-waving? Why did the reporter choose the anthropology professor as the epitome of the one to tune out, like Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher?

    I will have to do some catching up myself- I did not yet read Fisher’s piece.

  2. While I never got too interested in Appadurai, I did find his representation of globalization as a system of interlocking and overlapping “spheres” helpful for explaining some of my undergrad paper topics. As “globalization” is not yet fully understood as a modern concept, and is still fairly nebulous as far as I can tell, you can’t begrudge the man for being a bit “hand-wavy”.

    If I were in an undergrad class and they had started teaching globalization from a bottom-up approach, getting bogged down in details and specific case studies right off the bat, I certainly would have tuned out.

    Of course, while both bottom-up and top-down approaches need to be explained to get a full picture, some concepts could lend themselves to one approach over the other initially, especially depending on individual pedagogical styles.

    So, theoretically it could work both ways depending on how you structure the discussion. You could start out with a specific case and expand on how that case manifests itself in a global system.

  3. My own first thought about Fischer’s piece is how much it expects and demands of the reader. I’ve read or at least heard about most of the authors he mentions, but I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t a serious theory geek not being overwhelmed. A bravura display of erudition, yes; a useful crib for a grad student reviewing for quals, yes; a program for a really smart undergraduate, “This is what you’ve got to master over the next few years,”maybe. Anybody else, watch the eyes glaze, watch the heads explode.

    Which is too bad, since the basic idea of cultural analysis as experimental systems (ideas competing with other ideas as descriptions of reality, not totally wrong, not totally right) is a valuable insight, one that should be taught early and often.

  4. Commenting on both examples
    together when I haven’t read either one – perhaps it’s just that the ratio of handwaving to facts has become lopsided in our discipline?

  5. DooD, this posting was hilarious. But there are apparently some pictures missing that I’m sure would have furthered the hilarity — can you edit them in somehow?

  6. Many French thinkers use a similar approach to writing. It’s in fact one that I enjoy quite a bit. The idea then isn’t to convince someone else or even to provide an argument but to inspire inquiring minds.
    Most English-speaking scholars dismiss this approach from students even when they appreciate the texts from important French figures.
    Lévi-Strauss is an obvious example of such, especially in his “proof by accumulation” style: Mythologiques, Potière jalouse, and the “Wild Pansy” book the mistranslation of which gave a name to this blog. But CLS is more of an argumentator. Possibly out of his U.S. training, he’s the most American of French anthropologists, IMHO.
    Bourdieu could be a good example if he were better understood by people who read him, in the U.S. He apparently had a lot of fun with how English-speakers tended to label him as “PoMo.”
    My personal favourites for inspiration through hand-waving include Barthes and Attali. For North Americans, there’s E.T. Hall. And, now that I have finally understood his work to be in the same type, McLuhan.

  7. The idea then isn’t to convince someone else or even to provide an argument but to inspire inquiring minds.

    A lovely sentence for a lovely idea. Consider how often those who intend to convince or to argue aim to shut down discussion (“I got it right, so there!”) instead of stimulating a constructive response.

  8. Thanks, John, for the moral support. I’m at the end of a rather long period of changes in my language ideology management. I still notice a number of differences between English- and French-speakers in Europe and North America in terms of conversational strategies. A bit difficult to describe without resorting to stereotypes but it still makes for awkward interactions, including in learning situations. Maybe I’m just thinking about my teaching too much (just received my evaluations) but it seems that conversational goals vary greatly between speakers of these two languages. As if Grice’s maxims were meant for Anglophones and Francophones had decided on their own «maximes».
    I do hope to be able to express this in a way that makes sense in both communities. Not that it’d apply universally, but it could serve me in explaining my own behaviour.

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