Guest Post: One More Time from the Top: A Review of Anand Pandian’s A Possible Anthropology

[Footnotes is pleased to present this guest post by Daniel Chen (he/they),  an affect alien anthropologist and writer based in Taipei. You can follow them on Twitter @YoLingChen.] 

A Possible Anthropology, Fall 2020

So you’ve just finished your first semester of an anthropology PhD program. A few weeks ago, your “Foundations of Anthropology” core curriculum course read Anand Pandian’s new book, A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times (2019). Given the tremendous labor of love that Pandian has performed for the discipline with this book, which he describes as “an ethnographic encounter with anthropology, an effort to grasp what this field does in the world, with an eye to what it might yet be” (p. 4), it isn’t surprising that A Possible Anthropology found its way onto your syllabus. With the brush of a Berkeley Foucauldian, Pandian skillfully paints a portrait of anthropology as “an endeavor that verges on the ethical” (p. 75), following strokes of inquiry throughout the book such as “What dispositions toward the world does an anthropologist cultivate” (p. 48) and what “practices of engagement, sociality, and self-cultivation” does anthropology as a discipline foster in order to enliven “its critical capacities” (p. 112). The book was well received in your Foundations seminar. Your classmates enthusiastically discussed each of the essays/chapters that make up the body of this text.

Like your classmate who is really into the history of anthropology. They appreciated the way Pandian pursues “unexpected forms of kinship” (p. 10) between the work of Bronislaw Malinowski and Zora Neale Hurston in chapter one, which explores the practice of empiricism in anthropology. The chapter’s main argument is that anthropological empiricism happens “between scientific and literary inquiry” (p. 15), involves “a peculiar interplay between close attention and imaginative reach” (p. 16), and occurs in “an empirical world more elusive than the givenness of the here and now, its actuality always open to critical shades of virtual presence and possibility” (p. 17). A few Zoom panels over, another classmate with a creative writing background nodded sincerely.

One student eagerly commented on how part of the cachet of chapter two, like the chapter before it, is in Pandian’s style of making arguments that dismantle commonplace distinctions (i.e. the real/virtual, actuality/possibility, scientific/literary, Malinowski/Hurston). This chapters argues that “what we do, when we pursue anthropology, is to put experience into motion as both means and end of investigation” (p. 49). To make this argument, Pandian examines four domains of practice in anthropology—reading, writing, teaching, and fieldwork through the endeavors of, respectively, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michael Jackson, Jane Guyer, and Natasha Myers—as a way to tease out “a shared sensibility” that “unfolds in the name of anthropology across these disparate domains” (p. 48). What Pandian finds is a kind of pathic vulnerability that allows for a larger unfolding of the world, where myth (Lévi-Strauss), writing (Jackson), the unexpected (Guyer), and other ways of knowing (Myers) pass through the anthropologist like an open channel pouring into wider streams of force. Reflecting on his time with Myers in Toronto’s High Park, Pandian writes: “everything turns on the extent to which the anthropologist herself becomes a vector of transmission, a medium to take in and pass onward the force of a transformative encounter” (p. 72). Experience, “understood as that which makes possible a break from the confines of an individual life” (pp. 48-49), is what the anthropologist both seeks (as means) and serves (as end). The Zoom call filled with nodding heads.

The class conversation got especially lively around the third and theoretically most ambitious chapter where Pandian turns to the vexed figure of the human not “as a species, but … [as] a moral feeling of responsiveness, as the sense of a fate shared with others unlike oneself” (p. 107). In chapter three, Pandian wonders “whether recent calls for anthropological attention beyond the human have forfeited too quickly the idea of humanity as a horizon of moral and political transformation” (p. 11). While not every student was willing to follow Pandian to his conclusion that “Anthropos remains a being of indeterminate shape and nature, and that there remains a value, therefore, in staying with the trouble of this particular being” (p. 135), there was unanimous agreement that Pandian had articulated something profound when he writes: “Anthropology is less the study of culture as an object of understanding, than the culture or cultivation of humanity as a method of change” (p. 11). Head nods, furrowed eyebrows, and a few audible mmm’s emanated from your laptop.

The instructor then redirected us to the ethnographic portions of this chapter where Pandian goes beyond the discipline’s professional boundaries to consider how this pursuit of humanity as a method of change takes shape in the activities of the 2016 World Conservation Congress, the work of artists Richard and Judith Lang on sea plastics, and the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin. Even beyond the profession, Pandian prompts, we can see “the anthropological inclination to think and dream the human in contrary terms” (p. 104) at work. More mmm’s followed.

But by the time the discussion got to chapter three, you could no longer ignore the growing sense of alienation thudding within you. Your classmates and the instructor glowed brighter than your screen. Wave after wave of collective effervescence crashed onto the shores of your frown. After class, you closed Zoom and clicked to a tab on your browser, an article by Sara Ahmed (2010). You find consolation in Ahmed’s words: “To become alienated from a picture can allow you to see what that picture does not and will not reflect.” You are reminded that your alien affects—those feelings of being out of line with an affective community, that mismatch between objects and the affects they should and shouldn’t conjure—are an invitation to explore otherwise possibilities. And so you started writing, writing this blogpost, treading forth on the willful path of an affect alien anthropologist.

One More Time from the Top

Extra-professional ethnographic forays aside, the central muse of chapter three is Johann Gottfried Herder, to whom Pandian turns for a ressourcement of anthropology’s pursuit of humanity. For Pandian, Herder is a figure central to the founding of anthropology and hence articulates the philosophical ground upon which anthropology’s experiments with the human, that ‘being of indeterminate shape and nature’, are staged. “For Herder, the Humanität of humans lay in their capacity for sympathizing with the condition of beings unlike themselves” (p. 82), Pandian writes. Herder construes this alterity of ‘unlike beings’ as resulting from the manifold ways in which human consciousness “[emerges from] and [develops in] continuity with the dynamic forces of nature” (p. 81). The sympathetic capacities of humanity discloses a kind of ethical imperative to extend beyond the likeness of one’s surroundings to learn from other manifestations of the human elsewhere. And so Pandian locates an early articulation of anthropology’s guiding ethic in Heder’s philosophy: “‘The mind nobly expands,’ Herder wrote, ‘when it is able to emerge from the narrow circle which climate and education have drawn round it, and learns from other nations at least what may be dispensed with by man” (p. 83). Indeed, this same ethic echoes throughout the book in Pandian’s other anthropological exemplars: “It is there in Bronislaw Malinowski’s declaration, on the final page of Argonauts of the Western Pacific, that ‘in grasping the essential outlook of others … we cannot but help widening our own'” (p. 118); it is there in the legacy of Franz Boas, who taught anthropologists to pursue “a horizon of movement beyond the boundaries of a particular social environment and its history” (p. 83); it is also there in the work of Roy Wagner, who wrote that “‘Every understanding of another culture is an experiment with our own'” (p. 101).

Chapter three concludes with a gesture towards the work of Aimé Césaire. After referencing another essay by Herder that argues for an edified kinship with a diversity of human beings that sees “their history is the history of our nature,” Pandian attempts to address “The shadow of Western racism and imperialism [that] looms over” (p. 108) such an endeavor by turning to Césaire. Despite the dehumanization inflicted upon the colonized by the colonizer, Pandian notes that “the Martinican poet did not reject humanism, calling instead for ‘a true humanism—a humanism made to the measure of the world'” (ibid.).  Even this Black body, Pandian seems to say, has not given up on the human, and therefore neither should we. Pandian then goes on to quote a section of Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal as a poetic “seed of an anthropology to come” (ibid.). But where was the explication of what this “true humanism” might have been for Césaire, and by implication the kind of anthropology that it might give rise to? Pandian leaves this line of inquiry unaccounted for and instead instrumentalizes Césaire’s postcolonial humanism as a token to be put into the slot machine of his larger ressourcement. As the reader stares eagerly at the whirl of words on the page, the spinning wheels slowly come to a halt: Herder, Boas, Malinowski. Jackpot.

Pandian’s Possible Anthropology leaves intact the traditional anthropological triumvirate of likeness, alterity, and transformation that emerges from Herder’s humanism. Within this reigning logic, the anthropologist encounters something unlike themselves, labors to accommodate this difference, and in the process becomes something more than they once were. The anthropologist then attempts to communicate this ‘something more’ to various audiences, to “take in and pass onward the force of [this] transformative encounter” (p. 72) and thus put humanity as a method of change into motion. But for whom does experimentation with the human take this particular shape? In what rendering of anthropology is it, to borrow the words of a different Pandian (1985), “considered necessary and valid to study other people in order to understand ourselves and the nature of humankind” (p. vii)? What do we make of practitioners whose worlds are in various states of disrepair, whose main task is to keep these worlds from falling apart rather than seek the seasoning of other places, other people, other perspectives?

Despite the liberal inclusion of Black, Indigenous, and POC-identified (BIPOC) people throughout the text, A Possible Anthropology consistently centers the experiences and voices of those more proximate to Euro-American ideals of white normativity. Pandian’s theoretical protagonists are Johann Gottfried Herder, Bronislaw Malinowski, Franz Boas, and Roy Wagner; and his primary ethnographic subjects are Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michael Jackson, Jane Guyer, Natasha Myers, Richard and Judith Lang, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Nomi Stone (in the Coda). Against this backdrop, one wonder’s whether Hurston’s presence in chapter one amounts to anything more than being used as another person’s sacred Black cow. And while Pandian writes attentively about Maru Samuels in chapter three, one wonders why “James Leach’s lessons in folded-paper notebooks at a global conservation conference” (p. 118) are foregrounded in the book’s climax as the take-away from the 2016 World Conversation Congress. My point is not to disparage or discredit the individual work of any of Pandian’s primary characters with an unforgiving and myopic identity politics (there is indeed much to admire in Pandian’s lead cast), but rather to draw attention to their collective deployment in an ethnographic portrayal of an anthropology that centers their experiences at the expense of other BIPOC practitioners.

I need to be as clear as possible about the spirit of affirmative criticism in which I write this review, this attempt at “prising open the fixity of what is present and keeping it open” (p. 118). Affirmative critique, Pandian explains in the Coda, is a critique that “involves the nurturing of openings and possibilities already present in the world” (p. 117) rather than “a matter of denouncing what is wrong or unjust, with the idea in mind of a specific alternative” (p. 118). I am decidedly not denouncing an anthropology “founded on receptivity to difference” (p. 8); instead, I am tending to the excess that Pandian’s rendering of anthropology leaves unarticulated. I am after a reparative reading of A Possible Anthropology (Sedgwick 2003), a way to reckon with the many openings already present within and around this text that suggest something more than what Pandian has been able to accomplish in his book. That is the possibility—the possibility of a more capacious anthropology attuned to the experiences of a different audience—that animates this critical review.

It is there in the author’s continued and earnest attempts “to try to grasp the field’s enduring potential” (p. 10) and create alternative conferencing infrastructures that allow for more lateral connections between scholars and activists.

It is there on page nine when Mwenda Ntarangwi is quoted describing their experience of “‘being an outsider in anthropology’” as confronting “‘a sea of Whiteness in front of me’” (p. 9).

It is there in Maru Samuel’s bitterness towards the final language of Motion 53 (p. 91).

It is there in Zora Neale Hurston’s attempts to “‘do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear’” (p. 118) that emanates from Black bodies like her own.

It is there in John L. Jackson’s (2020) gleeful eye-contact with the author, as well as Jackson’s lifelong project of expanding the boundaries of scholarship to seriously include non-traditional mediums such as but not limited to film.

It is there in Dorinne Kondo’s (2020) provocation that “Mainstream anthropology could benefit from a more robust engagement with scholarship in critical race studies that interrogates the Human/the humanities,” and her implicit call to rethink anthropology’s relationship to the human from the dysbeing of the dysselected Other (Wynter 2003, Wynter and McKittrick 2015), to divest from anthropology’s liberal humanist conceits (Thomas 2019, Jobson 2020) in order to pursue an illiberal anthropology After Man (Chuh 2019).

It is there in the affect alien anthropologist’s frown.

What portrait of anthropology might have emerged if Pandian had intentionally pursued this book project with BIPOC anthropologists, scholars, artists, and activists? Would this other anthropology look any different? What kind of fires would it light? What signs of existence would it multiply? What about the lightning of these possible storms?

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects).” The Scholar and Feminist Online 8(3).

Chuh, Kandice. 2019. The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man.” Duke University Press.

Jackson, Jr., John L. 2020. “The Invisible Anthropologist.” Visual and New Media Review, Fieldsights, June 4.

Jobson, Ryan Cecil. 2020. “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019.” American Anthropologist 122(2): 259-271.

Kondo, Dorinne. 2020. “Imagining (Disciplinarity) Otherwise.” Visual and New Media Review, Fieldsights, June 4.

Pandian, Anand. 2019. A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times. Duke University Press.

Pandian, Jacob. 1985. Anthropology and the Western Tradition: Toward an Authentic Anthropology. Waveland Press, Inc.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, pp. 123-52. Duke University Press.

Thomas, Deborah. 2019. “The Question of Audience.” American Anthropologist 121(4): 797-800.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3(3): 257-337.

Wynter, Sylvia and Katherine McKittrick. 2015. “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations.” In Katherine McKittrick’s (ed.) Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Duke University Press.

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