After Knowledge

Part essay, part book review, part SOS, this blogpost looks to Anand Pandian's new book for an anthropology of ethics after knowledge.

Update: This blogpost was reworked into the 2020/12/21 piece “One More Time from the Top: A Review of Anand Pandian’s A Possible Anthropology on Footnotes.

Should I stay or should I go? It’s May 2018, and Zoe Todd pens a painful reflection on what it means for her to be in anthropology. I won’t attempt to convey how heavy the question is that Todd poses to herself and her readers, for no feat of summary can do it justice: “why do I continue to call myself an anthropologist?” Further still, I have my own weights—similar to and articulated with what Todd shares; of a family resemblance, for sure, but also of a distinct kind—that I am trying to make manageable here with these words, and I fear that a single blogpost would be crushed flat under the existential weight of two scholars’ indigenous/queer/raced bodies navigating the white supremacist space of anthropology. “Either we find a way for our bodies to assimilate to the pressures of the structures we occupy, or our bodies turn that pressure inwards, slowly destroying the structures that keep us standing,” Todd writes. 

Should I stay or should I go? It’s November 2019, and I am sitting in the windowed corner in the foyer of Brooks Hall reading this quote on the first page of Anand Pandian’s new book, A Possible Anthropology: Methods for Uneasy Times (2019). The sun gently shines in from the high windows directly behind me and to my left, light playfully posing on the pages in my hands; faculty greet me with warmth, this orphaned student of theirs always reading in the same corner, as they pass up and down the grand Victorian staircase in front of me; the sound of the usual gossip (professors and their personalities) softly bubbles up from the graduate student lounge in the basement below, coating the insides of my ears with the aural froth of friendship. How lucky am I to have been folded into the Virginia anthropology community like this, I think to myself: welcomed to audit graduate courses as I please, deliberately included in graduate student social happenings, the many email exchanges and meetings I’ve had with various faculty, a well-lit space to read and think amidst peers and mentors, even a sliver of shelf space to put my books. Anthropology does indeed feel suffuse with possibilities.

Go. It’s the end of January 2020 and Zoe Todd has found her answer. A classmate breaks the news to me as I drive her home one evening after our seminar. I’m speechless. We part ways with a somber and silent goodbye. I get home and read Todd’s blogpost. It takes a day for my body to respond. I wake up at 3AM. I can’t sleep. An hour and a half pass by. I can’t sleep. I roll over and write this in my journal:


1/30/20, 4:25AM

I’ve lost about an hour and a half of sleep. This tension, this twitchy foot. Can I really do this? Anthropology? Can I keep holding my breath around these white folk? What do I do with this frustration, this feeling of being on edge, this twitchy foot, this psyche scuffed thin? This plight of mine… I feel pressed in from all sides. No way out. Except maybe there is a way to be in this space, or bust through the walls. This spring inside of me, wound up so tight. Will it snap or push me through, explode or give me the ability to fly?

Stay. It’s the end of May 2020, and I am still lingering on this word and what it might mean for me to stay with it. I sincerely hope that my desires for what anthropology might be are not, in the final analysis, a form of cruel optimism, but rather a genuine response to the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. Such warm illumination, among many other things, is what I felt when I finally took the time to give A Possible Anthropology a thorough, slow, and attentive read. What I hope to accomplish in this blogpost—part essay, part book review, part SOS—is to utter something of what this warm illumination might have been and to keep open the horizon from whence it came. In what follows, I explore what it is that keeps me and my twitchy foot here in anthropology, and specifically in the anthropology of ethics, through a wayward reckoning with Pandian’s Possible Anthropology.

Walk with me.

. . . .

We’re sitting in a room too large for the number of students taking the class, ANTH 7040: Ethnographic Research Design and Methods. Our desks face each other in the middle of the room like a single-dot domino. The ten of us—three first year anthro PhD students, one second year, three third years, a first year religious studies PhD student, an English professor planning to “go ethnographic” for their next project, and the anthro department’s adopted friend (yours truly)—chit chat as we wait for the professor to arrive. He bursts into the door about five or ten minutes late, feet shuffling and hands juggling a stack of papers organized into folder sheets, his legal pad, and multiple worn books. This particular professor is on the hiring committee for our department’s tenure-track opening, and so he has been very busy preparing for the job talks just a few weeks away. After apologizing for his tardiness (some time-sensitive invite decisions that needed to be attended to), he convenes class with something of a confessional cleanse.

He tells us about how bad anthropologists have been about training their students in methods. Flipping through his pile of books, he shares a few quotes from disciplinary giants giving their students comically bad fieldwork advice. “Bring a stool,” says Evans-Pritchard, and “don’t get food on your fieldnotes.” The parody of our professor’s passive double voice is clear. The throughline of this semester will not be a snide reminder to remember our notebooks and pens. Instead, we were to dwell together in the practicalities of fieldwork, covering topics such as how to identify an ethnographic niche, negotiate entry into said niche, write fieldnotes and turn these notes into narratives, conduct interviews, engage in forms of collaboration and reciprocity appropriate to the unique situations we find ourselves in, and make our research legible to IRBs and compelling to grant agencies.

My mind wanders back to this past semester in ANTH 7040 as I reflect now on what it is that I appreciate so much about Pandian’s book, a book also ostensibly about “methods.” In the introduction, Pandian, like my methods professor, admits at the outset that “Clarity regarding method has been a notoriously difficult matter in the discipline” (p. 11). Indeed, the main argument of the book is that anthropology has a unique method—a word that Pandian leaves undefined, but that we might productively and simply consider as a way of doing something—that has much to contribute to our uneasy times. And so the book’s task is to put into words this something that anthropology does through an exploration of anthropology’s peculiar ways of doing.

In the first chapter, Pandian explores the practice of empiricism in anthropology by pursuing what Pandian sees as “unexpected forms of kinship” (p.10) between Bronislaw Malinowski and Zora Neale Hurston. 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). In other words, anthropological inquiry is a way of attending to the real with a sense of magic, an eye for the latent virtualities therein, making the task of ethnography “the conjure of realities otherwise unseen” (p. 17). Anthropology, Pandian suggests, is about more than what meets the eye. 

Keeping with his style of making arguments that dismantle commonplace distinctions (i.e. the real/virtual, actuality/possibility, scientific/literary, Malinowski/Hurston), Pandian’s second chapter 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 Natasha Myers in Toronto’s Hyde 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). Anthropology, then, does something in the world beyond its purported task of understanding. 

Despite arising from the same desire for clarity, the way that Pandian writes about method in anthropology could not be more different than how we learned methods in ANTH 7040. For instance, consider our class on fieldnotes. With regards to note-taking, our Chicago-trained professor, who described himself as following “the David Schneider fieldnotes model,” urged us to consider our note-taking as memory aids rather than an archive, tools of attunement rather than a mode of documentation. Because our objective is not the impossible task of capturing the full expanse of empirica available in any given moment, we should instead write our fieldnotes keeping in mind the much more manageable task of writing our ethnographies. Fieldnotes will help us to notice what it is we are after. And, when writing them, we will want to focus in on the juiciest of details: vivid descriptions of the characters we meet, the places and settings we find ourselves in, the scenes and incidents we witness, the bits of revealing dialogue we are privy to, and of course, the ever elusive manifestations of “indigenous meanings.”

Consider also the series of classes we spent around the topic of grant writing. The key to a successful grant application, we learned, is alignment between the problem in the literature you are addressing, the research question whose answer intervenes in said literature, the niche tailored to the question you ask, and the methods used to gather specific kinds of evidence needed to answer your question. Through a mock grant review panel, we learned about the importance of explicating the literature you are building upon and the literature you are intervening in. If you keep these two literatures straight, your writing will be succinct and the intellectual merit of your project clear. When we practiced reverse-engineering a grant application from a book of our choosing, we experienced first hand the arduous task of rendering a robust research project down to the dictates of this specific genre of writing. The essence of any grant application, be it the Wenner-Gren or NSF, is a clear intellectual merit argument. What is it that you want to know and why should anyone care about this knowledge that you propose to produce? This guild of ours, after all, is after knowledge.

What I hope to draw out through this juxtaposition of Pandian’s Possible Anthropology and my ethnographic methods seminar is the polysemy of the phrase ‘an anthropology after knowledge’. I don’t think that what I needed in my search for clarity around anthropology, whether I should stay or go, was a course on how to chase after knowledge like an anthropologist; rather, what I needed clarity on was what happens in anthropology after knowledge. While practice writing fieldnotes and grants were no doubt valuable in their own right, what I have found more valuable is a way of thinking anthropology as “a practice of metamorphic passage” (p. 76); knowledge-chasing, yes, but more importantly “knowledge as a project of ethical transformation” (p. 14). What I appreciate so much about Pandian’s book is that he gives sustained ethnographic attention to precisely this other dimension of anthropology after knowledge that I have been struggling to ascertain in a compelling way that would make me stay.

. . . .

I am grateful to Anand Pandian for the labor of love he has performed for the discipline in writing A Possible Anthropology, but also for his presence as a scholar of color who has criss-crossed with the anthropology of ethics and morality literature that I am so tangled up in. Indeed, at least from a bibliometric perspective, he is one amongst many scholars of color who have tarried with anthropology’s so-called ethical turn, only to cultivate other kinds of affiliations later on in their careers. It is no secret that I have been struggling, as a queer scholar of color with an acute awareness of citational seismography, to find secure footing in the ethics literature amidst the thudding exodus of like-bodies. I feel these tremors in my bones, in my twitchy foot, in the paralytic horror of, as I have previously put it, “finding myself aboard an armada of white smiles.” But this pessimistic reading of the anthropology of ethics and its departees that I have been so woefully stuck in depends on how you draw its boundaries. In this essay, I hope to use the polysemy of an anthropology after knowledge to redraw these boundaries in a way that can encompass the various trajectories of its departees, enlist other scholars not conventionally thought of as being part of the ethical turn, and ultimately clear a path forward for myself as an anthropologist of ethics.

In the current Cambridge-centric narration of the origins of the anthropology of ethics and morality, it is the symbolic murder of Durkheim in James Laidlaw’s 2001 Malinowski Lecture that marks the watershed moment for an anthropology that would take the ethical as a domain of inquiry seriously unto itself and resist the Kantian impulse within the social sciences to approach this domain as a mere effect (or perhaps worse, functional). Laidlaw’s call for an anthropology of ethics and freedom that pivots on the conceptualization of ethics found in Foucault’s later works arrived at a time when other scholars were making similar (though distinct) claims, such as by Jim Faubion (2001) and Michael Lambek (2000). With varying degrees of explicit articulation, the 2000s saw a flourish of ethnographic monographs that carried forward an interest in practice, virtue, and subject formation such as Heather Paxson’s Making Modern Mothers (2004), Joel Robbins’ Becoming Sinners (2004), Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety (2005), Charles Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape (2006), and of course, Anand Pandian’s Crooked Stalks (2009).  At the same time, other schools of thought around what the ethical might be apart from, but also in conversation with, the Neo-Aristotelian/Late-Foucauldian mainstream were forming; for instance, Jarrett Zigon’s (2007) phenomenologically inspired moral breakdowns approach, even a Dumontian reconsideration of Durkheim’s grave, and of course the 2008 Toronto workshop that led to the Ordinary Ethics (2010) edited volume and its contentious aftermath.

By the turn of the decade, the growing momentum of the ethics literature carried with it serious disputes and detractions that would play out with an almost soap-opera like quality in the years to come. Cheryl Mattingly (2012) argues forcefully, contra Foucault, for a first-person virtue ethics. Yan (2011) Yunxiang expresses his distaste for the death of Durkheim in this literature. Jarrett Zigon (2014) attempts to rethink the very vocabularies of the ethical outside of the good and right categories of traditional moral philosophy by exploring the ontological conditions of morally being-in-the-world. James Laidlaw (2014) criticizes Zigon’s endeavor as positing “a singular and normative conception of the necessary telos of ethics” (p. 125). Veena Das (2012) criticizes the Foucauldians for misconstruing ethics as happening a step back from the oridinary. Michael Lambek (2015) continues to argue that ethics is intrinsic to social life. Michael Lempert (2013) disagrees. Michael Lempert (2015) disagrees again. Zigon (2014) accuses Das and Lambek of “the confused neologism of Aristotelian Kantianism” (p. 750). Das would rather not be put in conversation with Zigon. Yan (2014) chimes in once again about the social. 

It seems that Joel Robbins (2012) has not been “alone in finding the currently frontier-like quality of discussion in the anthropology of morality productive and exciting.” Indeed, the ethics literature has been booming with the gunfire of scholars of various persuasions homesteading their hard-earned plots in hopes of settling the domain of the ethical once and for all. These heated debates over how to define the realm of ethics/morality constitute the first wave of the anthropology of ethics. This first wave is “after knowledge” in the first sense of the phrase—that is, seeking knowledge of the ethical, staking claims on how to best understand the ethical/moral dimensions of the world we live in, pleading “for an anthropology which has morals for its object” (Fassin 2008, p. 334).  Though I have, for a time, found these lively discussions to be productive and exciting, I’ve since lost interest in the anthropology of ethics’ first wave. The water has gone stagnant, brackish with blacklist ink and the blood of an unreviewed book. I don’t know if I care about ethics in a build-camps-burn-bridges kind of way, let alone care to join the existing turf wars. And besides, frontiers make me sad.

To speak of a first wave is to speak of a second wave already in motion, an anthropology of ethics after knowledge in the second sense of reaching for something beyond knowledge. Indeed, many so-called “first wavers” have contributed a tremendous amount of work toward a second wave. Consider the way Laidlaw concludes Subject of Virtue (2014), suggesting that the anthropology of ethics “constitute itself as a form of ethical practice” (p. 213) in which the ethnographer and their readers “place themselves in a pedagogic relationship to the ethnography … open themselves to learning from and modifying their own thought and conduct in light of it” (p. 216). For Laidlaw, “The study of other forms of ethical life becomes a form of self-fashioning insofar as initial puzzlement or incomprehension or prejudice is overcome by improved understanding achieved through modification of the self” (p. 217), “a form of spiritual exercise” (p. 224). Indeed, one can read something of a shared Cambridge ethos between Laidlaw’s pronouncements and Robbins’ (2013) anthropology of the good, a project that Robbins self-describes as an attempt to stay with “the importance of the cultural point” and its “critical potential” (p. 447) in the era of suffering slot anthropology. For Robbins, anthropology teaches us about the “profound differences between human lives lived out in different cultural surroundings” (p. 456); accordingly, an anthropology of the good which “[does] justice to the different ways people live for the good” may help us to “[find] ways to let their efforts inform our own” (p. 459). For Laidlaw and Robbins, anthropological practice is a form of ethical self-transformation and anthropology itself an ethical tradition.

Consider also Jarrett Zigon’s (2019) critical hermeneutics, which he describes as contributing to an emerging anthropology of potentiality which “differs in significant ways from anthropology as a fieldwork-based science focused on the descriptive analysis of the actual,” one that “is perhaps best understood as a hermeneutics of the emerging contours of a not-yet” (p. 13). Zigon’s critical hermeneut is a particular species of critic that refuses to “take existents to be what they ‘claim’ to be or concepts to mean what they are ‘supposed’ to mean, but rather asks what they point us toward” (Zigon 2018, p. 18). By suspending fidelity to the actual, “critical hermeneutic analysis discloses the potentialities that are already there partly shaping what is, but as of yet, are not fully possible” (ibid.). And so, Zigon (2019) is able to utter something of the disclosive freedom, attuned care, and politics of worldbuilding practiced by anti-drugwar activists when these same activists may enunciate themselves with the familiar frames of human rights. For the purposes of this essay, what I want to highlight in Zigon’s latest work are the ways in which his second wave ethics scholarship seeks to articulate an alternative figuration of the anthropologist-cum-critic that can rise to the challenge of hope in disappointing times. Post-Heideggerian phenomenology becomes, for Zigon and others in his circle, a kind of ascetical passage for participating in something that happens after knowledge: the worlding of otherwise possibilities.

And these are just some of the notable heavyweights from the first wave. As I mentioned earlier, I am interested in what other voices might be included in redrawing the boundaries of the anthropology of ethics with a second wave after knowledge. Elizabeth Povinelli is, as far as citations go, an obvious ally whose scholarship attempts “to capacitate modes of life currently around us but without an explicit force among us” (Povinelli 2012, p. 454), to work with and through “the problematic of existence, obligation, and endurance” (Povinelli 2015, p. 169). We might also consider David Scott’s (2017) most recent and forthcoming book on Stuart Hall as an inimitable intellectual pedagogue; but also revisit Saba Mahmood’s (1996) life-long “desire to challenge the adequacy of our inherited analytical tools in understanding political challenges that we currently face in the world” (p. 496). What might these two displaced thinkers, Hall and (vs.?Mahmood, teach us about intellectual life and various figurations of the intellectual after knowledge? I gesture to such inquiries as a way to (hopefully not too sloppily) sketch the contours of a central concern in what I’m calling the second wave of the anthropology of ethics: the open horizon of critical thought and its possibilities—be it through Laidlaw’s subject of virtue, Robbin’s anthropology of the good, Zigon’s critical hermeneut, Povinelli’s otherwise, Stuart Hall’s voice, Mahmood’s ethic of self-displacement, or, as I suggest below, Pandian’s possible anthropology. 

What exactly was that warm illumination I felt reading A Possible Anthropology, I wonder now. To be sure, it had something to do with the fact that the felicitous phrase “anthropology after knowledge” had been germinating in my mind for over a year now, and here was another wordsmith hammering away on anthropology’s anvil sounds that I had been struggling to pronounce. What emerges from A Possible Anthropology is a portrait of the discipline as “an endeavor that verges on the ethical and even spiritual” (p. 75). Pandian paints this portrait with the brush of a Berkeley Foucauldian, exploring questions throughout the book such as “What dispositions toward the world does an anthropologist cultivate” (p. 48) through its spiritual exercises and what “practices of engagement, sociality, and self-cultivation” does anthropology as a discipline foster in order to enliven “its critical capacities” (p. 112)? These are questions that I have been pondering myself for some time as I’ve wandered through STS, gender studies, and sociology, trying to make sense of what sets anthropology apart from these neighboring domains.

Most importantly, Pandian’s book helped me to solidify a growing sense of what the anthropology of ethics might become. Indeed, one of my arguments in this essay is that A Possible Anthropology should be read as a central text in the anthropology of ethics’ second wave—or at least that’s how I plan to teach this book in the years to come. I read Pandian’s Possible Anthropology as growing out of the larger momentum of his academic career, a career that has risen with the first wave of the anthropology of ethics and splashed on the shores of an anthropology more capacious, more creative, and more compelling for junior junior scholars such as myself who are just starting to get a sense of footing on this second wave.

I wonder what Pandian himself thinks about thinking about himself as a second wave anthropologist of ethics. I wonder, too, if Naisargi Dave—another ostensible first-waver whose first book was pitched as “A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics,” but has since, with Bhrigupati Singh, declared being “recurrently, drawn to” the anthropology of ethics “in the past” (p. 232, emphasis mine)—would consider their second book to also be “A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics” in this second wave sense. I wonder, ultimately, who the other graduate students are that, like myself, desire more for the anthropology of ethics than the lashing of sharp tongues. Where might I find the good company of pedagogues, fellow pupils, and friends of an anthropology of ethics after knowledge?

. . . .

One cannot adequately speak about A Possible Anthropology without attending to the vexed figure of the human. In chapter three, Pandian asks “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), ultimately arguing 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). Indeed, the centripetal force of A Possible Anthropology pivots on the axis of the human, or more precisely, what Pandian repeatedly calls “a humanity yet to come.” “Anthropology,” Pandian writes, “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). ‘Humanity yet to come’, then, is Pandian’s telic signifier for the continually open field of possibilities that an anthropological ascesis of humanity, taken as an ethical substance, makes possible.

Another reason why I read Pandian’s latest book alongside the anthropology of ethics is due to this shared investment in the human, even as many in the ethics literature are rightfully concerned with something beyond and other than the human or dismiss the human as “an irremediably compromised term” (Laidlaw 2014, p. 108). Nevertheless, the anthropology of ethics is one of the spaces in anthropology today where something of a post-post-humanist dissent can be heard. For instance, Thomas Schwarz Wentzer and Cheryl Mattingly’s HAU special issue entitled “Toward a New Humanism,” where they turn to the tradition of German philosophical anthropology as a resource for “[addressing] the human in a way that accounts for its essential indeterminacy” (p. 150). Pandian too turns to German philosophy in an attempt to explicate the ‘humanity yet to come’ through a ressourcement of the work of Johann Gottfried Herder. 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 protagonists: “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).

Pandian’s third chapter was the most lively and most difficult part of the book for me to read. On the one hand, I am unequivocably aligned with Pandian in his commitment to explore “how the human moves beyond itself” (p. 79) as a response to various forms of posthumanist critique, for it is to the human that the posthuman makes its demand. After all, what is ethics but precisely this movement beyond, this demand made met—more? On the other hand, Pandian’s responses to various forms of postcolonial critique leave the reader severely in want. Pandian is right when he writes that “We ought to recall … that for Herder humanity had no ‘prototype’ in any one culture or civilization” (p. 82). Furthermore, Pandian even directs our attention to what might be called Herder’s penitential humanism: “‘Our part of the world must be called,’ Herder wrote in his Letters for the Advancement of Humanity, ‘not the wise, but the presumptuous, pushing, tricking part of the earth; it has not cultivated but has destroyed the shoots of peoples’ own cultures wherever and however it could'” (ibid.). But while I may be moved by Herder’s words and can acknowledge the kernel of something transformative in the way his thoughts have flowed into the form of this peculiar discipline that, I too, have become so partial to, I am nevertheless deeply disturbed by the ways in which the ethos of anthropology that Pandian renders for us in his book recenters the experiences and ethical transformations of its Euro-American practitioners. Are these really the voices and perspectives that will help us through uneasy times?

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 the ‘yet to come’ of humanity into motion. There is indeed something special, something beautiful, something worth stewarding of this particular tradition of an anthropology after knowledge “founded on receptivity to difference” (p. 8). But how can we disentangle this tradition from the over half a millennium of world history that has predisposed, made possible, and encourages—as a reproductive mechanism for the differential ontological floors at the base of the colonial modernities in which we still live—a certain set of bodies to flourish within its parameters of sameness and difference? What kind of person does one need to be to engage in the kind of alterity-induced transformations that serve as the bedrock of the anthropological tradition to which Pandian counsels heedance? 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? What other ways might the humanistic soil from which anthropology sprouts be retilled, retold with other kinds of stories more amenable to the cultivation of other anthropologies?

Perhaps the most painful part of reading Pandian’s book was that he demonstrates an acute awareness throughout of the task to which I am gesturing. But this awareness never actualizes within his text and at times even borders on flippant. Consider, for instance, the tyranny of tense that Pandian commits towards the beginning of the book when he cites the World Anthropologies Project in the present perfect as evidence that “Anthropology today is a much more diverse enterprise than the scholarly discipline that took shape within elite universities in Europe and North America” (p. 8), whereas the actual grammar of the Annual Review article he cites in this sentence is written primarily in the future conditional, meaning that the project of world anthropologies is still an ongoing, incomplete endeavor. One cannot help but suspect, given that Herder is Pandian’s muse for the human as a horizon of moral aspiration put into motion by the propellant of alterity, that Pandian’s possible anthropology borders too closely to a liberal cosmopolitanism “‘committed ‘to certain (universalizing) epistemological and political tenets of the Western tradition'” (Ribeiro 2014, p. 488).

Consider also how Pandian conjures his final character at the end of chapter three, 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 once again “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 prompt for the reader to imagine the kind of anthropology Pandian seeks to push forward. 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 these possibilities unaccounted for and instead instrumentalizes Césaire’s postcolonial humanism as a token to be put into the slot machine of his larger argument. 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.

It seems that Pandian’s only response to “the Eurocentric bias of humanism’s history and the colonial violence perpetrated in its name” is, like the proponents of a so-called “New” Humanism, to not “throw the baby out with the bathwater and relinquish the conceptual project of humanism altogether” (Wentzer and Mattingly 2018, p. 145). I too, as I mentioned earlier, am committed to staying with the trouble of the human. It’s just that I’m tired of saving white babies. I want to know more about how Césaire pursued the project of humanism on his own terms. I want to learn how to read the work of Sylvia Wynter, who David Scott (2000) describes as, in an allusion to the same quote from Discourse on Colonialism that Pandian uses, sketching “a vision of humanism made to the measure of the world” (p. 122). I want to practice an anthropology otherwise that flows forth from other genres of being human. What about these projects, these possibilities? 

. . . .

At the end of this piece, I am left wondering: What does Zoe Todd think of Pandian’s book? Was it enough to, voicing Tracy Chapman, make Todd “turn right back around?” Apparently not. I wonder what Todd and Pandian’s conversations were like in the months leading up to her departure. I wonder what their conversations have been like since. I wonder what Todd thought about Pandian’s protagonists and the way he portrays them in his book. I wonder if A Possible Anthropology made Todd topple over too tired to tactic, or if perhaps this book made her miss something of anthropology. I wonder if Todd shares my worry about rendering anthropology as a series of ethico-liturgical transformations performed by pale priests at the altar of alterity; my worry that Pandian’s possible anthropology risks becoming the apotheosis of a metropole multiculturalism; my worry that ethics, too, may just be another word for colonialism. Or maybe she’s left the field so that her bones won’t be crushed under the weight of such worries.

As I mentioned at the outset, my primary task in this essay is to stay in anthropology, which includes staying with Todd’s departure. If my writing has at times taken the shape of a paranoid point, it is because I am trying to prod language to accommodate the wail of the departed—a wail that I hear within myself, for which I am trying to create a space of reckoning, but a space that can resist the urge to preempt response as a condition of being heard. I hope that this essay can be more than just a whiny wall of acrimonious alliterations. I hope that my writing can help to hold open a horizon for an anthropology yet to come that can accommodate more angles of approach than what Todd has experienced and what Pandian offers in his book. 

“Critique,” Pandian writes in the Coda, “is an art or practice of prising open the fixity of what is present and keeping it open” (p. 118). Pandian ends his book by explicating what he calls ‘affirmative critique’, a critique that “involves the nurturing of openings and possibilities already present in the world” (p. 117). For Pandian, this criticism lies at the heart of anthropology, and he’s right. It is only because I see in anthropology, in the anthropology of ethics (or at least in its second wave), and especially in Pandian’s Possible Anthropology a series of openings and possibilities that I would engage in the labor of “tending [this] open horizon” (p. 118) like I have. I too, like Pandian and his Masked Philosopher, am bored with curtain-pulling criticism and long for a kind of intellectual activity that would intensify, multiply, and proliferate emergent possibilities.

I offer this essay as an affirmative critique of Pandian’s book, the ethics literature it fits into, and the discipline that is both its methods and object. It is a gesture toward a more mosaic historiography of anthropology as an ethical tradition—a way of approaching tradition where, as an earlier first-wave Pandian (2008) teaches us, “the aim is not the restoration of an original form but the making of something new such that old and new are brought together as elements of a larger space of possibility” (p. 478). It is through such a mosaic traditionalism, one that Pandian does not fully realize in his book, that I sense the possibility of an anthropology made possible for a more motley crew of practitioners. May such an anthropology come, and come soon.

I’m sitting at my desk writing these final words. My twitchy foot is bouncing up and down at speed, sending steady shocks of energy into the space around me. I’m filled with both anticipation and dread. Maybe I will finally find the pedagogues, fellow pupils, and friends of an anthropology of ethics after knowledge that I have been so desperately trying to find. Or maybe I’ll be thrown off the ship for mutiny.

There is a curious crackle in the air.

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