As collaboration and interdisciplinarity once more enjoy wide celebration, it is easy to overlook the many challenges faced by those attempting to truly conduct themselves in collaborative and interdisciplinary ways. On a recent trip to New York City, James Faubion, Chair and Professor of Anthropology at Rice University, warmly admonished me: “One can call for interdisciplinarity all one wants, but if one is not actually engaging people in practices that allow them to embody the capacity to be interdisciplinary, then it’s not going to work.” In addition to his ethnographic inquiries in Greece and Texas, and his deep engagements with the work of Michel Foucault and the anthropology of ethics, Faubion has long sustained a commitment to experimenting with collaborative and interdisciplinary modes of inquiry, research design, and teaching. Reflecting on collaboration and interdisciplinarity, the history of anthropology and the ethical formation of oneself, Faubion underscored the importance of practicing as opposed to merely endorsing these recursive epistemic virtues.
[Note – This interview was done in conjunction with the New School for Social Research Public Lecture Series. A list of past speakers can be found here]
Cameron Brinitzer: I just read Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary again and I was struck by the relevance today of the conversations constituting that book. Its themes of needing to design new modes of anthropological inquiry and venues for collaborative research seem particularly prevalent now. Do you think these are still problems in anthropology?
James Faubion: They remain at least as salient as they were a decade ago, and perhaps more salient now than they were even three decades ago. The self-critical currents of thought that coalesce in Designs—in which, as one reviewer of the book put it, I have only a “cameo” role—have their beginnings in the mid-1970s. To my mind, what is fundamental to all of those currents is a problematization of what at the time remained the prevailing mode of the relationship between the anthropologist and his or her “informant.” Johannes Fabian’s Time and The Other is frequently—I might almost say dogmatically—cited by many present-day anthropologists as the singular revelation of a disciplinary penchant toward casting the informant as non-coeval, as a representative or survival of a sociocultural past. In fact, a variety of works preceding or contemporaneous with his own—Paul Rabinow’s Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, Kevin Dwyer’s Moroccan Dialogues and Richard Price’s First-Time—were already bringing to critical attention an issue on which Time and The Other itself hinged: the issue of the epistemological authority that the anthropological inquirer can or should assert in the face of the anthropological subject. The vector of this problematization—though with a great many variations of affective and epistemological tonalities (from the reflexive critics of the 1980s to our current redesignation of ‘informants’ as ‘consultants,’ and perhaps even the recent various expressions of the ‘ontological turn’)—is proceeding with increasing velocity toward an epistemological, ontological, and ethical egalitarianism for which the fashioning of the relation between anthropologist and consultant is collaborative. At least that’s the principle. Matters often turn out to be something else in practice.
How broadly do you see this trend inflecting social and cultural anthropology? Is it limited to those coming out of intellectual lineages that explicitly took up these problems around the 1980s?
The disciplinary interventions and turns beginning in the later 1970s and continuing through the mid-1990s have had wide-ranging repercussions, but I think we shouldn’t construe them as marking anything so dramatic as an epochal shift. In fact, there’s a long—if checkered—tradition of collaborative anthropological research since fieldwork became the order of the day. Franz Boas cultivated collaborative relationships with several of his informants. I could also point to a long list of the close and enduring relationships that one or another anthropologist has established with a particular informant (or ‘interlocutor’ or ‘consultant’): Alfred Kroeber with “Ishi”; Maurice Griaule with Ogotemmeli; Sidney Mintz and “Taso”; Ralph Bulmer with Ian Saem Manjep; Marjorie Shostak with Nisa; Vincent Crapanzano with Tuhami. All of these relationships are marked by asymmetries (always in favor of the anthropologist), and to be quite honest, I’m not sure if such asymmetries can ever fully be overcome. I’m not even sure that they should be overcome in practice. Still, the vector I have in mind has overcome them as its telos.
One flag that this vector is snowballing is that, in framing the design of their research, an increasing number of young anthropologists are evoking what Douglas Holmes and George Marcus have called the “para-ethnographic”—an empirically grounded engagement with informants or interlocutors or consultants in a joint analytical enterprise. As Holmes and Marcus have formulated it so far, however, the enterprise has its (perhaps very realistic) limits. It’s limited to engaging with a very particular kind of actor—an actor who has enough sociological or culturological sophistication to be able analytically to engage an institutional domain in which he or she has some sort of authority and expertise. So, the question that one has to bring to it is this: how far can one expand the para-ethnographic enterprise beyond the boardroom or the inner sancta of major institutions?
How do you think about that alongside the point Paul Rabinow makes in Designs—put simply, that you can go anywhere and find reflective people?
Rabinow is right. I think you can go anywhere and find reflective people, not all of whom would in any stretch of emic or etic categories be appropriately cast as experts or authorities—but not all of the people you are going to find in any particular place at any particular time are in fact going to be reflective in a manner that furthers anthropological collaboration, properly speaking. Rabinow and his co-authors make a crucial and sustained point to this effect in their writings on their efforts to conduct collaborative inquiry with synthetic biologists.
So, the inquirer is still going to have to undertake a process of selection. For example: in the mid-2000s, I undertook what I think could legitimately be called a collaborative inquiry into the position and condition of the ‘nobility’ in contemporary Portugal with Fernando Mascarehnas, the late Marquis of Fronteira—but the plausibility and feasibility of my doing so hinged on George Marcus having provided the inquiry with considerable form and substance and having provided me with a connection to the Marquis well before I undertook my own research. I don’t know that you could call a Marquis an expert on anything but being a Marquis—though quite a lot of historical sociocultural learnedness and literacy hinged on his being an expert in just that.
But, in short, the rhetorical import of the question you’ve raised is on the mark. At least as a matter of the design of research, we’d do well not to take the category of expertise for granted. We’d also do well not to presume that the category of expertise—etically or emically construed—corresponds to the category of those and just those actors who are capable of the sort of reflections on the sociocultural conditions and the sociocultural conditioning of their own circumstances that the anthropologist can productively pursue. I think it’s more likely that more people have a sociologically or culturologically reflective stance toward their being in the world now than ever before. It’s almost inescapable not to have such a stance in order to survive—though just a bit of clarity might be more than enough in most cases. The scope of collaboration is thus wide and could continue to widen.
On the other hand: it’s precisely those actors on which Marcus had focused as candidates for para-ethnographic collaboration that proved for Rabinow and his colleagues to be an insuperable obstacle to collaborative conversation. You never know… “Experts” conventionally and collectively acknowledged as such might well prove to be the worst of para-ethnographers. This isn’t altogether surprising. Experts who are deeply socialized into, affectively invested in and effectively plying the practices of their expertise (Rabinow’s synthetic biologists, for example), are much less likely to be able or willing to engage in reflections on the epistemological or normative grounds of their investments than experts or authorities who face—constantly or episodically—challenges to their status as experts.
Whether or not one is designing an explicitly collaborative inquiry then, fieldwork remains a crucial testing ground for one’s analytical frameworks and methodological approaches—and, often one that upends them?
Yes, exactly, and that’s what it should be. Good fieldwork should not be a matter of marching into your designated territories with your conceptual portfolio in hand and simply filling out the modules it already includes. That’s not going to work. Or rather, it will work—but in almost all cases, it will work at the expense at the very least of capturing the full complexity of the lives of the people who are graceful and generous enough to accommodate you into their midst.
I would like to bring your work on ethics into this discussion. Have you thought about the ethics of collaboration or interdisciplinarity? Presently, and of course this is not the first time, both are almost universally valorized. Do you have any thoughts on the ethics of collaboration, and the practical difficulties that obtain for those trying to design more collaborative forms of inquiry?
Beyond what I’ve already suggested might be an emerging ecology of collaboration, I can offer only anecdotes. Many of them are unhappy, but a few are a bit more hopeful—the latter pointing in the direction of the realization of an epistemologically and perhaps even ontologically collaborative venture among anthropologists and their interlocutors and consultants that we haven’t previously countenanced. On the unhappy side: Rice University, where I teach, invested a gigantic amount of money into putting together what was originally conceived as a bio-scientific and social-scientific “collaboratory.” It’s now officially only a “bioscience research collaborative.” This is symptomatic of what remains the profound difficulty of crossing over epistemologically (and politico-economically) entrenched disciplinary divides and finding beyond them common grounds of conversation. Epistemologically, C. P. Snow’s diagnosis of the clash between scientific and humanistic ‘cultures’ remains all too relevant to any assessment of the diminution of the titular (and practical) scope of the mission of that collaboratory as it was—in good faith—originally conceived.
In contrast—but by no means full contrast: My work over the past several years on what I’ve come to call “parabiopolitics” has as its critical point of reference a project that brought together people from across a very wide array of disciplines to work on constructions of the Greek future (or much better, its potential futures). The leader of the enterprise, with whom I have ongoing conversations, has indicated to me that among other things one of the most intractably difficult and, to his mind, debilitating aspects of the project was that the team he led did not have any of the embodied skills (intellectual or affective) crucial to interdisciplinary collaboration, and that the coaching the team received was inadequate to the appointed task. That’s a very important point: it’s not just a matter of translating one vocabulary into another; it’s a matter of embodiment and practice. It’s a matter of forming oneself into and as a subject endowed with certain kinds of generative capacities that have to be learned and trained. There has to be a pedagogy for it. One can call for interdisciplinarity all one wants, but if one is not actually engaging people in practices that allow them to embody the capacity to be interdisciplinary, then it’s not going to work. Or, if it works, it works quite by accident.
One good story I have is about a Ph.D. student at Rice who was studying sustainability and, perhaps naively, approached two environmental engineers at Rice whom she also knew to be working on the topic of interest to her: i.e., sustainability. What she was studying was, effectively, the way in which the figure of sustainability has been folded into audit culture, has been turned into a set of boxes to check that allow one to demonstrate compliance with the criteria of its coding. What the engineers were trying to do was actually to generate a quantification of the concept of sustainability as such. They were willing to work with her because (among many other factors) she was well placed as a researcher in and with a connection to the empirical domain in which they were interested. Yet, if working in the same terms figuratively, her engineers and she weren’t ever working with the same terms semantically or pragmatically. As the conversation among them unfolded, the statisticians increasingly began to recognize that there were certain basic problems with their own enterprise. The chief problem was that the very concept of ‘sustainability’ wasn’t a semantically and semiotically general sign, but instead (always more or less) an indexical marker of commitments and practices without any stable referent, undetachable from the context of their articulation and practical execution.
So, collaboration in this case was able to disrupt the engineers’ principal assumption, and your student’s analytical decomposition of their object was taken seriously.
Right. Her ‘case study’ which was the only way they could understand what she was doing—might in fact have been and might still be the only appropriate methodological approach to the issue in which all of them were engaged. Everything hinged—and hinges—on whether the contingencies, accidents, and unforeseeable consequences of decisions made in the present can be rendered algorithmically as a coding of future trends—and so as a guideline for intervening into those trends, should we wish to do so. I have to join my student in questioning whether any algorithm adequate to the management of ‘sustainability’ is possible.
That strikes me as one promising route for anthropology to regain its public relevance—that is, by finding ways to build bridges with people who might feel themselves benefiting in some way from that engagement.
I’ve alluded to this already, but you’re right to bring it back to our attention. No small part of the possibility of seeing this through is going to have to involve some kind of academy-wide reflection on the politics of boundary maintenance. The big scientists are very invested in maintaining the epistemological and methodological superiority of their practices in any contest with our allegedly fuzzy-headed modes of the accumulation and the assessment of what I’d far prefer to call ‘wisdom’ rather than ‘knowledge.’
You mentioned that your more recent work on “parabiopolitics” and “cosmologicopolitics” is, in part, a collaborative enterprise.
This work constitutes a collaborative enterprise in a variety of respects. It draws on long-term fieldwork that I conducted with one of the claimants to religious authority over the Branch Davidian church in the aftermath of the conflagration outside of Waco, Texas in April of 1993. I did much of my research on various currents of environmentalism—the other focus of my essay on cosmologicopolitics (which is forthcoming in a volume edited by Othon Alexandrakis, entitled Impulse to Act) either in the classic mode—I went to my library!—or online. In fact, I really don’t think I would have wanted to hang out with many of the people whose texts I found online (Earth Firsters! pointedly among them). Both investigations served as a schematic for—but also were greatly enriched by—a Mellon Seminar I taught in 2006 at Rice with a group of graduate students in anthropology, religious studies, English, and history. I proffered the general topic of the seminar to the students who’d enrolled in it and asked them to generate the syllabus for the course, which was year-long and very much shaped by the dynamics of what I think was genuine collaboration. Let’s not get too rosy-eyed about it: they were religious studies students and English students and history students. They weren’t engineers and physicists and so on. We didn’t have to figure out how to bridge the two cultures—but it was better than nothing.
Going back through your work has made me curious about how you see the relations among your early and enduring interests in methodology and pedagogy, your fieldwork in Greece and in Waco, the anthropology of ethics you crafted, your work on Foucault, and so on. In some ways, the move to the cosmologicopolitical strikes me as a kind of circling back. You bring some of your old subjects back in but, of course, you and the frame of your analyses have changed. So, I’m interested in how you relate to your objects of study and their selection.
My first project was in Greece, where I was studying reformist movements and the role of culturally powerful actors in organizing reformist movements after the military junta that reigned there between 1967 and 1974 fell. There, already, I had a very strong interest in the politics of temporality and also in the political consequences of the rhetorization of social scientific classification, with special reference to the rhetorical play of the category of the modern or of modernity. I didn’t really know then that what I was doing was an anthropology of ethics, though it easily enough could have been cast as such. Instead, I fashioned my analytical approach to the actors with whom I was engaging in terms more aesthetic than ethical.
You have also been engaged with Foucault on aesthetics, so I can see why that would be an available analytic frame too; and, there are linkages between those domains, right?
There are. If reconsidered in light of his later works on ethics ‘strictly speaking,’ the majority of Foucault’s work could, I think, profitably be read as evincing an enduring problematization of the extent to which writing or speaking imposes on the speaker or writer the demand to be a subject, and so to be subject to the demands of consistency, cogency, and univocality that we continue to expect any subject worthy of the name to meet. Let’s add them up: Foucault’s writings on the incompatibility of attributing to an author at once madness and the production of a meaningful oeuvre (as with Rousseau or Heine), his fascination with the subversive ironies of Klossowski’s doubles or Magritte’s pipes, his highlighting of the subversive undoing of the integrity of the narrative voice in Blanchot’s novels, his preoccupation with the imagistic and metaphysical dissolution of the integrity of the subject in Bataille’s erotic and religious manifestos. Foucault didn’t have a term at the time to give a uniform title to the attention he was devoting, but I think we could venture to provide him with a term in retrospect: “desubjectivation.” It’s just here where the enterprise or revision—aesthetic, ethical, political and more—comes together conceptually. I could have been much more lucid in my work in Greece in illuminating and engaging the dynamics of the aesthetic and the ethical. If I went back to do the project I undertook in the mid-1980s in Greece again today, I would definitely call on Foucault’s own rather troubled and none too lucid but still enduring preoccupation with the relation between the ethical and the aesthetic as my analytical point of departure.
How did you move from that project to your next?
It’s not obviously a matter of a continuity of interests that I would move from studying elite reformist activists in newly democratic Greece to paying regular visits to a claimant to ecclesiastical and prophetic authority out in the middle of the Texas prairie, but part of the continuity between the two, which I think is continuous through almost all of my work and I think will continue to be, is an interest (and here, Foucault certainly becomes a muse in many ways of his own, but also a methodological guide and a guide at the level of research design) in the excluded, the marginal, the radical, the discontented and alienated. Most of the subjects (‘interlocutors, consultants’) to whom I’ve been attracted are (not to put too technical a spin on it) ‘weird.’ They aren’t just run-of-the-mill people. Those in Greece were unquestionably persons of privilege, but in every case standing outside the sociocultural mainstream. The ideational power and authority they were able to exercise depended precisely on their being ‘stand-outs’ in just this sense.
If we could conceive of my Greek interlocutors as constituting a photographically positive snapshot of a locally situated modern vanguard, then we might conceive of the subjects I spent rather more time with than I’d hoped to spend in the middle of that Texas prairie as the photographically negative snapshot of an anti-modern rearguard through which the troubled condition of what we’re in the habit of calling modernity might better—if by no means completely—be conceived.
Perhaps puerilely, I went out to that troubled site on the Texas prairie to sniff around, but found a woman who proceeded to terrify but also enchant me. Episodically, I spent the next five years visiting her and producing what was ultimately published as The Shadows and Lights of Waco. She belongs to the modern but she hates everything about it. The two books together constitute a limited but, I think, representative portrait of the Janus-faced god or monster that modernity is.
And then, for years and years, I had planned to write the book on ethics that I finally wrote. I look at that book as a kind of recapitulation. I return to my prophetess again at the end of that book. It’s also a book in which I have reflected on issues of collaborative versus hierarchical relationships among researcher and research subject—not merely to think about an anthropology of ethics but also to think about the ethical purchase of anthropology more generally, and about the kind of ethos one best brings to work in the present. James Laidlaw puts it better than I do in saying that one of the things an anthropology of ethics has to contribute to a more general ethics of anthropology is to provide anthropologists with a thoroughgoing example of listening very carefully to what their subjects have to say and actually learning from them. Now, there are some classical echoes that go all the way back to Mead in that statement, but I nevertheless think that the epistemics of an anthropology of ethics must be very attuned and committed to what is effectively a non-hierarchical and collaborative relationship with one’s subjects. If that makes it old-fashioned, then so be it.
It’s interesting that you describe An Anthropology of Ethics as, in some ways, a recapitulation. Earlier, I mentioned a kind of circling back also present in part of the work on cosmologicopolitics. It seems like there is something interesting about the temporality of research and writing here that maybe you can comment on.
Well, you’re never able to say everything about what you’ve encountered in one go-around. I was very disturbed and yet at the same time pleasantly surprised to go back to my archives and realize how much I hadn’t seen in them on a first pass. I’ve come to recognize as a consequence that I have far too much ‘data’ for my own good for the rest of my life. I measure the work I accumulated in my many encounters with a prophetess (who happened to be an extraordinarily prolific writer), I measure it in cubic feet; it’s a physically as well as semiotically enormous corpus. But, for me, it’s been enriching precisely because it’s been a process of what I hope to be an ever more enriched engagement with materials gathered in previous encounters. What I accumulated in Greece comes less often into play. My fieldwork there was not nearly as successful as the work I managed to do in later projects. Even so, I also can’t quite get away from it.
You came away with something rich.
I came away with a project that was in many ways flawed; certainly, many of my reviewers also thought that. But, it was also a project that opened doors for researchers beyond me because I was the first to focus on an urban elite anywhere in the Mediterranean. After everyone stopped hating it, the work came to serve as a small part of the legitimation of urban research, research into non-peasants, non-traditionals, non-refugees—in Greece and elsewhere—that I don’t regret. And, I still think that a couple of the chapters are…worth preserving.
Cameron Brinitzer is a graduate student of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research. Before studying Anthropology, he earned a Master’s degree from The New School’s Graduate Program in International Affairs. In the fall of 2016, he will begin a PhD in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.