At one point in in Kelty’s series of posts entitled “Is An Anthropology of Freedom Possible” (or something like that…) Matt made the remark that it might be more interesting to frame the question of “Anthropology of…” in new terms, of “Anthropology as…” This ingenious idea allows us to imagine our discipline’s potential and values by comparison to… well, pretty much anything. My post on “Anthropology as Velociraptor” will be coming next week but first I want to blog about the idea of anthropology as stand-in and interpreter.
The derives from a paper by Habermas about the plight of philosophy, but I think it offers an appealing way to think about anthropology’s relationship to the people it studies — and particularly its relationship with indigenous people.
Way Back In The 80s, Habermas faced a problem: for centuries philosophy had been the ultimate form of knowledge, grounding and subsuming all others. In this way, it had replaced theology by being the great ‘usher’ (I guess it sounds better in German) and ‘judge’ for all other forms of knowledge: directing them to their seats and arranging in them in order, explaining who they were and where they ought to go. It had, in other words, a great deal of epistemological authority — the same way that anthropologists at one point (we are told) has when it came to the colonized populations they studied. Then it all fell apart. Today it is difficult to find people who feel like their moral judgments and science classes can all be derived from Kant in Hegel — or anyone else for that matter. The story that Habermas tells of the fall of reason is complicated, but the solution that he suggests is more straightforward: that of philosophy as stand-in and interpreter.
The idea of ‘stand-in’ is meant to avoid two untenable positions. First, the idea that the sciences can by themselves create strong, universal claims about, for instance, human nature. This is a bad idea because, as anthropologists well know, a lot of time this just ends up resulting in the scientist discovering their cultural predispositions in the data and dressing them up as a philosophy of everything. Second, it prevents a situation where philosophers dictate a big theory of everything to scientists because they have somehow distilled it from all the big books they’ve read.
A stand-in or placeholder in this situation is a philosopher who uses disciplinarily specific skills of analysis to help create big-picture models of phenomena that technical specialists study. They are ‘placeholders’ for more ambitious and less realistic efforts and big-picture making who work together to clarify directions of research. Thus, for instance, philosophers of science can work together with historians of science to develop a broader and more universal model of how science works than either of them could separately. The same could be said (according to Habermas) of moral philosophy and cognitive science as they try to develop a strongly universal picture of moral psychology.
The notion of interpreter is equally straightforward: in an era of increasing specialization, the world needs generalists who can connect increasingly isolated spheres of research in order to make sure they can talk to one another. Philosophy’s ability to synthesize and generalize about different strands of work enable it, Habermas claims, to help connect the arts and the sciences, literature and biology, logic and experimentalism.
How would anthropology work as stand-in and interpreter? As the most ridiculously generalizing, holistic discipline on the planet, I think its role as interpreter has a lot of potential: anthropology is the discipline that already aspires to connect subfields that many would say have grown too specialized to be housed in the same department. I also find the notion of anthropology as ‘stand-in’ very attractive. Anthropologists have long sought a way to maintain their right and ability to know the human without thereby quashing the knowledge claims of the humans we study. Understanding our work as that of a stand-in or placeholder represents it as a translation of someone else’s point of view, one that allows us to make that viewpoint known to others, without arrogating it to ourselves. As the discipline that says “but not among the…” we are speaking for people who, if they chose and are able, to join our conversations.
Anthropologists have long used tropes of mediation, translation, and interpretation to describe the way we transduce knowledge and meaning across cultural boundaries. One particularly attractive way to imagine anthropologists as stand-in and interpreters is as mediators of anthropological work back not to the academy, but to our research subjects. Rather than telling them who they are, ought to be, or fail to be, I think this account helps us imagine anthropology as a discipline which can work closely with them to help them become whoever they want to be by offering our own account of them.
I’m still at the start of exploring these ideas so I’d be interested to see if these ideas resonate with anyone else.