Letter #2

I hope to update you on what I have been up to since then and to seek your counsel on my current predicament: the anthropology of ethics.

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for your attentive and encouraging correspondence. I read it many times and to much effect. I hear you. I hear the sound of your voice—my voice, ours—and it is in search of this voice that I write you again today.

It’s been well over a year since my last correspondence, and I apologize in advance for the delay. Indeed, so much has happened since the fall of 2018 when I initiated conversation with you. I hope to update you on what I have been up to since then and to seek your counsel on my current predicament: the anthropology of ethics.

But first, I wanted to respond to your characterization of this peculiar genre of self-writing, “this Foucauldian-confessional Arendtian-public blog post epistle of [ours].” Thank you for pinpointing the exact section on publicity in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1998 [1958]; see p. 50) that I failed to cite in my initial letter. I think you are spot on when you say that it is “the tripartite powers of presence that collide into each other in this most curious of literary experiments” that I seek to harness in an attempt to hobble m/(y)/our-self together. But I’d like to draw attention to another aspect of this peculiar pathway that I have opened up between us, what I’ll gloss as proleptic magic.

Well, I suppose it is only your speech that has this quality, and not the medium itself. Let me explain. “You are doing fine,” you said. Yet it is I, you, who wrote those words for me, us. You must see the anachronism that splits open this curious cleavage in our voice. When you indulge me this urgent fancy, the temporality of your speech, my speech, anticipates an us for me to step into. Your speech is in this sense proleptic, a conjuring of a future state of affairs in the present as already having been accomplished in that future. It is also proleptic in the more literary sense of a flashforward, a cut-to-scene in the future that breaks the continuity of my present with a glimpse of what is bound to happen. At the risk of getting too technical, the utterance “You are doing fine” appears at face value in the present continuous, but is actually a statement made in the future perfect: “By the time I arrive at the time of your writing, I will have realized that I am doing fine.” Note also that the completion of the act—my realizing—will be completed in some unspecified time between the then of your utterance and the now of my reception. Accordingly, upon my hearing, I step into the unspecified certainty of a future state of affairs that will already have happened the further I go. The floor arises before me and I am able to walk with confidence: I am doing fine, present continuous. Magic.

By interrogating the mechanisms of proleptic magic, I hope to expose the fragile contrivance of this genre—not in order to undermine it, but rather to steward it well. Having experienced the potency of prolepsis, I wonder: How to best wield this magic? What felicity conditions must be met for these peculiar speech acts to maintain their efficacy? Does proleptic magic wear with use? Are we at risk of evacuating this stage of its aura, teetering at the brink of a million rabbits pulled from the same flat hat, technique gone trite? I would hazard a tentative yes. Perhaps this magic of yours is best kept under lock and key, saved for only the most dire of circumstances, lest we run out of G*d tricks. All that to say, I am unsure whether what follows—my updates from the 2019 calendar year and my current predicament with the anthropology of ethics—warrants a proleptic intervention, and hence do not intend to write with such desperation. Rather, I suspect that you are growing a bit impatient with me, this past self of yours who has yet to make up their mind. May this letter be a first step towards bringing us closer together.

You know from my last blogpost that I came into the anthropology of ethics through Foucault’s later writings. The “major epiphany” that “I am a scholar who studies selves in a late Foucauldian way” was such an “intellectual biography milestone” that I had, by the time of my writing, abandoned the flimsy fantasy of becoming a “queer Asian Americanist” to such an extent that I turned down the offer I had received from UW-Madison’s Gender & Women’s Studies MA program. It was a hard decision, but I made it because I saw more of myself in the ethics literature than I did in gender studies. It also helped that the anthropology graduate student community at UVA generously welcomed me into their fold, as well as certain key faculty here, extending to me the hospitable gift of a space to read, think, and write. And that’s exactly what I’ve been up to.

In the spring, I brought together the notes, memos, and portions of the archive I had been building from my time with the Spiritual Friendship people and wrote, with the utmost discretion, a paper that I envisioned as a preliminary fieldwork essay for a dissertation project situated firmly within the anthropology of ethics. “Themitical Assemblages, Recombinant Natality, and the Post-Ex-Gay Politics of Side B Worldbuilding,” the title proclaimed. By the end of this essay, I landed somewhere in the ballpark of what a prominent figure in the ethics literature dubs”the problem of judgment,” but also on the decision that the trajectory this project would launch me in as an early career endeavor was not the path I wanted to pursue—and yes, this decision was very much in line with the AAR 2018 flop. I set my sights for anthropology.

With a sense of footing in UVA anthropology established, I began studying Mandarin and thinking about projects I could potential do in Taiwan. I spent the entire summer there, slowly brewing an interest in the confluence between Taiwanese identity and LGBTQ rights activism amongst Taiwan’s pan-Green, post-Sunflower Movement generation. And so I spent most of my time (apart from much needed Mandarin study) around gender and sexual minority groups and “born independent” Taiwanese young adults. I was beginning to get a grasp on the possibility of thinking these phenomenon together through the lens of what might be called an ethical project of becoming Taiwanese. And so it seemed at the time that there was indeed a way to blend together Taiwan Studies and the anthropology of ethics. So far so good.

But perhaps the most important thing that happened over the summer was that I saw clearly for the first time what medical sociologist Wen-Yuan Lin has described as the feeling of being “intellectually beheaded … that his head is full of EuroAmerican theory and knowledge, while his body inhabits Taiwan.” I engaged with Taiwanese graduate students much more versed than I in the entirety of Pierre Boudieu’s oeuvre; who excitedly chatted with me about the US academics that they had read; who gave public lectures on Virginia Woolf, even authored entire books indebted to her work; who were leaving Taiwan to continue their graduate training in Europe and the United States. I listened to broken-record lectures given to primarily Taiwanese college students from prominent Taiwanese professors that were essentially bad re-runs of American gender studies from at least three publishing cycles ago. And I of course know better than to extrapolate to the whole of “Taiwan scholarship” from these instances, especially when Taiwanese scholars of the 知識/台灣 variety have been actively laboring to think the possibility of Taiwan Theory. Nevertheless, what these moments precipitated for me was a realization that the horror I felt upon peering into the colonial global knowledge regime from the periphery was not so much the spectacle of other heads and other bodies split before me, but the hauntings of my head and my body also split. Here I was, my body in Taiwan, my head in the States. 身首異處 indeed.

And then my body came back to the States and resituated itself in what I’ve been calling my home department in Brooks Hall. But a piece of me stayed behind, slack-jawed, in Taiwan. This dissonance has stayed with me throughout the fall semester, especially in light of the tasks I took up. I sat in on a class led by two important people in the anthropology of ethics that turned exclusively to phenomenology as the theoretical treasure trove to leaven our thinking without once pointing out how flat some of the books in the so-called “critical phenomenology” corpus turned out. We read arguments employing Greek and Latin etymological philosophizing without a mention of other languages and traditions that also invite such attention. Aristotle’s long shadow crackled softly but not subtly in the background. We were all touched, so the argument goes, by Merleau-Ponty. And where would we be without Heidegger and Kierkegaard’s angst? The part of me on the other side of the planet glared a hole straight through the middle of the earth so it could reach in and slap me upside the head. So there I was, my face slammed into the continent (yes, that continent), my head still throbbing from my body’s resolute remonstrations.

At the same time, the theory paper I volunteered for the AAAs got accepted, so I had to write the damned thing. “Ethics and Agency: Alfred Gell and the Post-Foucauldian Anthropology of Ethics,” slithered the title. The incongruity of simultaneously harboring aspirations to decolonize my thinking and doing armchair theorizing with a British social anthropologist and a French academic celebrity in order to think beyond an impasse between two approaches in the ethics literature spearheaded by well-established American and British professors juddered the entire time I was writing, right up to the point that I gave the talk in November.

While at the AAAs, I mostly attended panels and hung around groups associated with the anthropology of ethics and morality. After all, isn’t that where I am heading? I was hard pressed to find bodies like my own, and in fact stretched analogy close to snapping just so I could glimpse the warmth of fellow travelers. I noted the curious resonance that soaked the atmosphere of each of those rooms: Why is it that the majority of people that dare frame their work through the ethics literature—i.e. speak the Names of the Masters—are all white? Why is it that the majority of scholars of color that have spoken those names before have since pivoted into elsewhere trajectories? Is it because they understood that to make it in the anthropology of ethics and morality is, to some degree, to engage in White Man Worship, both in terms of the Masters and their Muses? Is this the Faustian bargain that many faculty mentors of mine outside of the ethics literature have been gently gesturing towards? “Ethics… What an interesting way of framing things…”

Can you see the predicament I am trying to sketch? I could describe it as a moral breakdown that prompts this epistolary attempt to build a dwellable world. I could also describe it as the moral torment of having two contradictory logics warring against each other in this body-mind of ours. Yet to employ such language would be to sink further into the predicament, to grasp helplessly towards an iron rescue tube. But that is precisely what I am doing in this peculiar practice of writing the self into existence in a particular, qualified form. These are my thoughts, these thoughts of mine that breathe life into me while simultaneously sucking all the life away. Am I doomed to this thieving ventilator? Can you see the predicament I am trying to sketch?

Let me try another image, one that I feel adequately frames the scene. After fumbling around through STS, gender studies, and sociology, fidgeting through at least three seemingly disparate independent research projects, my hands finally found the cool comfort of glass, a portal that I could, alas, pass into. But as I ran my fingers slowly across its surface, savoring the texture of thoughts that bristled with my own, charging future shocks of scholarship to come, the glass bloomed brightly and began to throw back the light. I took my hand off the glass and stared, startled, perplexed, paralyzed by what I saw. Who is this white man staring back at me? When I touch my face in disbelief, he touches his, my jaw agape, and so too his. I have been standing here, mesmerized, in front of this cool cruel mirror world for some time. It pulls me in and spits me out. I cannot move. The mirror shows indeed an unmistakable me, and so I am drawn in; yet the man in the mirror is unmistakably not me, and so I am hit with thudding alienation.

Oh how I wish you would write me, deus ex machina, and break my paralysis with your proleptic magic. Tell me, Daniel: What did I do next? Did I crawl into the mirror world and rearrange its contents, firmly furnish myself within its frame, and crawl back out for the satisfaction of finally seeing myself in front me? Or did I attempt such a momentous feat and fail, crawl back out a fool, smiling haplessly at the white face smiling back at me? Or did I simply walk away because the grip of contradiction lost its hold? Which Daniel am I writing to right now?

Tell me, Daniel: Are you there in Baltimore attending the 2021 AAA Annual Meeting for the 20 year retrospective on ethics and morality? Did you help organize that panel? Are you sitting in the audience, fastidious notes and raced bodies at the forefront of your partitioned mind? Or are you walking past that room on your way to another panel, thankful that you got out just in time to avoid the avalanche happening inside?

Oh how I wish you would write me, but alas I know that you won’t, for this conundrum of ours is for me to solve. I have, of course, my own agenda in writing you today. I’d like to think that there is a way to press further into the anthropology of ethics without deepening the moral torment of finding myself aboard an armada of white smiles. I’d like to think that this ship of theirs has room for the facticity of my ownmost Being, is buoyant enough to handle the weight of all the biographical baggage I carry on my person. But to truly inquire into such a possibility would be to risk alienating those at the helm, offending the gods, begging to walk the plank.

You cannot give me an easy flashforward to cling to, but perhaps you can counsel me this: How long can I keep tip-toeing like this before my calves burst into brilliant blue billows of fiery fatigue? If I am to persist in the anthropology of ethics and morality, where will I find the support necessary for survival? Is it too much to ask for both, to have the mysteries that consume me and my queer yellow body understood together?

Stuck,
Daniel

2 Comments

  1. […] ex machina your conundrum with the anthropology of ethics. While you may be right when you say in your last letter that the temporality of my speech anticipates “an us for [you] to step into,” I think […]

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