week 11: asking nicely: a recasting of agency (kelly)

One thing we have not really discussed in relation to ethnographic study is the question of ‘agency’. In any epistemic field it seems to me that there are always multiple agencies at work; some much harder to apprehend then others. First and foremost, I want to signal how difficult it is to discuss questions of agency, primarily because ‘agency’ is so tied to questions of action, resistance and liberal politics – as Mahmood deftly articulates. Agency, particularly individual agency, is a concept that often comes attached with discussions of resistance, of power and, moreover, is a concept that, despite all our well honed critical apparatuses, we are very attached to; agency, for a Western audience, signals resistance and as such, the freedom to resist. What Mahmood shows us is that agency can also mean the “capacity to endure, suffer, persist” (Mahmood, 217); agency and docility, for Mahmood, are not contrasting concepts. Docility, as technology of self, is in itself a form of agency. Such a redefinition or recasting of agency is, a form of agency, that I find hard to see, which speaks more to my situatedness or location than to whether or not piety and docility are actually forms of agency. All this liberal humanism is pretty hard to shake.

On a (slightly) different note, when rereading Haraway in light or with an ethnographic eye and in tandem with Mahmood, it becomes clear how her important call for a situated knowledge practice is essential to an anthropological practice. First of all, it seems pretty undeniable that the anthropologist needs to be a historically situated in relation to her field. More to the point, it wasn’t until I read Mahmood’s piece that I realized the kinds of epistemological violence (cliché?) that can occur even with a view from somewhere. It is not just the “unrestricted” (Haraway 582) view from nowhere that risks erasing subjectivities through a concomitant “narrowing” (584) of their lens but partial perspectives also risk seeing the world through a very narrow frame. Moreover (and perhaps more strikingly) “narrowing” one’s field of vision is a systematic form of agency unto itself. The tables the ethnographer brings to the field are not passive and even if they are (why do I still want to contrast passivity and agency?) they still have some kind of agentival force. Mahmood’s recasting of agency(ies) requires one to also, as a result, examine the forms of invisible agencies that make up our tables; tables that the researcher cannot help but map onto the field. How do we become aware of our mapping practices?

While we have covered this terrain before, Mahmood’s piece brings to the fore the importance of “becom[ing] answerable for what we learn to see” (Haraway 583). This can only be done by engaging in an anthropological practice that, as Mahmood urges us to do, where one’s political positions will not necessarily “be vindicated, or provide the ground for [one’s ] theoretical analyses” (Mahmood 225). “Faith” (225) in the validity of a secular humanism (even if that faith is vestigial) girds most theoretical views in the West and it is difficult to make that table strange. How do we give up our politics? Or, more, accurately, how can we retain our politics without narrowing our field of vision? Haraway also makes clear the risks involved in learning how to see differently and I also want to attend to risk. The risk of learning to see from below is particularly salient for anthropologist, who often enters a field in a priori power imbalance. Haraway writes of the “danger of romanticizing and/or appropriating the vision of the less powerful while claiming to see from their positions” (584). How to engage in such a practice? I think Mahmood gives us a (partial) answer to that question in the form of a gesture.

The scene that I found particularly striking in Mahmood’s piece is when she relates the encounter with Nadia and Iman on the bus. Mahmood tells of her confusion when Nadia expresses as view that runs counter to the picture of Nadia that Mahmood had constructed. To make what is incoherent to her coherent, Mahmood proceeds a few days later to ask Nadia why she counseled Iman to entertain the possibility of marrying an already-married man. It is this asking that I find theoretically compelling. In the ‘asking’ is an implicit avowal of one’s ignorance as well as a concomitant transferal of authority as researcher to interpret the actions of subjects. The authority on Nadia-as-subject is Nadia herself. The ‘asking’ relinquishes that authority. Instead of Mahmood attempting to explain this seemingly incoherent subject she has Nadia herself explain her actions revealing an form of agency or at least what Nadia herself perceives to be agency.

I would like to compare how Mahmood and Cerwonka both dealt with a scene that defied easy understanding. While the chat on the bus and a racially charged instance of what essentially amounted to police brutality are not necessarily the same, the point of comparison lies in the ‘asking’ or the lack thereof. Had Cerwonka asked her police officer informants (and perhaps she did but for the sake of argument I am going to argue she didn’t) why they had strip searched that particular woman, she would have shifted the responsibility (and agency) in important ways that don’t function from an a priori politics.

Instead of an ethics of intervention, as we discussed last week, I want to put forth the act or gesture of ‘asking’ as an anthropological ethics. Intervention signals a form of agency that we are familiar with, an agency that resists or disrupts what is an always-already hegemonic form of power, instead of an ethic that aims to recast and reshift the way power, subjects and agencies are made intelligible.

Finally, I want to address Butler and Mahmood’s critique of her in a way that argues that they can be read together and that Mahmood’s position is not that divergent from Butler, at least on a temporal axis. But, Butler also represents a received view of resistance that Mahmood is trying to escape. How do we understand performance/performativity as anthropologists? I should probably address these concerns more fully but I am going to end here because I hope that we can address them in person when we meet and I am running out of steam….

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