week 9 & 10 (kelly): boundaries, metaphors and methodologies

I want to begin this week with Allaine Cerwonka’s introductory chapter to Nervous Conditions before delving into this week’s theme of biopolitical formations. Primarily, I want to use this reading to address some of the anxieties and tensions I outlined in my post two weeks ago, which Julia pointed to as well. She wonders: “how to turn ‘unruly experience’ into an ‘authoritative written account’, but also becomes how to faithfully write an interpretive account of a cross cultural encounter ‘shot through with power relations’” (Julia citing Clifford, 120). Or, articulated differently, the tensions and anxieties that surround the proliferation of moments of “intellectual disorder” (Cerwonka, 5; emphasis added). The main methodological problem I have had with ethnographic practice is the relationship between theory and the world or between theoretical frameworks and objects. I think I have the bad habit of wanting to fully theoretically apprehend an object I am studying before even encountering the object itself. Moreover, most of the time, the objects I want to interrogate are theoretical concepts.

Cerwonka outlines a process of “tacking between ethnographic details and theoretical concepts” (15) and between “part and whole, fieldwork and theory” (18). What she makes clear in her exchange with Liisa Malkki is that the uncertainty and disorder that arises from using theory, not as a totalizing framework but as a way to think through the ethnographic encounter, are in fact generative and that a fixed and predetermined theoretical/explanatory frame is stifling. More broadly, as Cerwonka point out, the exchange between herself and Malkki illustrates how ethnography is not a methodology and cannot be reduced to “a set of standardized techniques” (20). Moreover, Cerwonka is, in the strictest sense of the term, not an anthropologist and, as a result, does not have the taken-for-granted knowledge afforded by a strict disciplinary training; a fact that she states directly in this chapter. It almost feels like these are the things we dare not mention as academics, that we maybe don’t know the answer.

Finally, I want to address the question of ethics. Cerwonka brings up the ethical question towards the end of the chapter when she points to “an ethics of engagement” (30). This ethic surrounds the problems of becoming “too close” to the research subject (30). Although I am attracted to this kind of ethics, one that is fluid and contextually bound, I worry that it, in some ways still privileges that ethical position of the researcher. While Cerwonka acknowledges that, in the case of the woman who was strip-searched, her own body (Cerwonka) became aligned with that of the police, in terms of a power relation. Cerwonka states how she became aware of her ethical “misjudgment” (34) because she felt claustrophobic; the axis in which she negotiates this ethical problem is through her own body. I guess what I am concerned with here is the role of the researcher in such a situation: can an ethics of engagement become an ethics of intervention? Moreover, should Cerwonka have maybe (and this is not to mean that doesn’t elsewhere, this is just an introduction after all) looked more closely at her own complicity? Was the spectacle for her benefit? Because, in a sense I feel that she somehow benefits (a good example for her book) from this fairly troubling interaction. How does the ethnographer account for these kinds of ‘benefits’ whether desired or simply a by-product of the ethnographic process? I have been struggling with these questions since last week and hope that we can address them more fully on Friday.

What was meant to be a quick note exploded into a series of anxieties and concerns, on to the biopolitics…

Continuing with questions of methodology, I want to begin with the Stoler piece. Her work illustrates this tacking and back and forth between theory and the field that Cerwonka describes. Although very much an anthropological analysis, Stoler’s field is a historical field. This is an “anthropology of empire” (Stoler, 43) that is concerned with the (biopolitical) tactics used to maintain the various “boundaries separating colonizer from colonized” (42). A project that in many ways brings to mind Douglas’ work on contagion; Stoler is charting the sites of racial and sexual contagion in the colonies: women’s bodies. And, as she analyses “discourses [that] tie fears of sexual contamination, physical danger, climatic incompatibility, and moral breakdown to the security of a European national identity with a racist class-specific core” (Stoler, 46), Stoler makes it clear that her aim is to “unpack what is metaphor, what is perceived as dangerous (is it disease, culture, climate or sex?), and what is not” (Stoler, 46).

While not her explicit intent, Stoler is articulating something that has resurfaced time and time again in our readings: the slippage between metaphor and matters of fact or metaphor and the world. Stoler situates her project in the distinction between metaphor and what is dangerous (ie: what has ‘real’ effects on ‘real’ bodies) in order to attend to this (conceptual?) slippage. I see this distinction as being essential for the ethnographer to attend to: her fieldwork can become metaphor and there are metaphors that circulate in the field. Granted, I understand that I may be reading too much into this little methodological detail; nonetheless, I feel it is an important problematic for the ethnographer.

Stoler’s work also functions as a multi-scalar critique. She locates individual women’s bodies as the boundaries between different populations. She delineates various colonial technologies or tactics that worked to regulate these potentially unruly bodies; technologies that have as their aim the control women’s bodies in order to regulate “man-as-species” (Foucault, 243). Although the body in Stoler’s work is both racialized and gendered, it is a “new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot be necessarily be counted” (Foucault, 243). It is this new, multiple, infinite body that we need to be careful with questions of scale or what Rabinow & Rose call, following Deleuze, “the molar and the molecular” (204). Not only do we need to tack back and forth between theory and the world but also between the molar and the molecular.

Finally, it is important to note that the readings this week that biopolitics is not some conceptual framework removed from the world. A politics aimed at the organization of life-itself can never be separated from the living world. And, in many ways this is a politics of purification or of “control over the relations of the human race, or human beings in so far as they are a species” (Foucault, 245). Although, I have read some of the readings before this week, rereading them in context of this course, I am realizing that biopolitical formations or a politics of life are huge projects of racial annihilation, but occur more insidiously in our everyday life. What it does draw our attention to is the reality that the State is concerned not with killing but with fostering life, but that such a fostering of life requires that some living-being be let die. As we move into questions of multispecies ethnography and/or citizenship, the biopolitical field will, I believe, become more complicated.

As a concluding thought, I would like to maybe focus our discussion around race and the biopolitical order. Anthropology’s topic is, in many ways, examining the boundaries of racial formations. And, while in many ways the topic of the course, I am not sure if we have really spoken to the problem of ‘race’, specifically the relationship between race and culture or racial contamination and cultural contamination (Stoler). What are the boundaries between racial and cultural formations? How does the biopolitical order map onto cultural formations?

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