Acting counter to our time

Andrew Lakoff


This essay poses the question of the timeliness of anthropological knowledge. Paul Rabinow’s writings suggest that anthropological research has a particular relationship to the demands of the present day. The role of the anthropologist is neither that of the technical expert who can provide an instrumental solution to a given problem, nor that of an authoritative commentator who delivers a rapid assessment of the significance of an unfolding event. The essay explores a period of Rabinow’s work in which he articulated a distinctive form of anthropological engagement with present developments in the life sciences. In this work, Rabinow argued that the anthropology of the contemporary should not focus on contests over meaning and value, which tend to remain relatively stable, but instead should seek out transformations of forms, which “can provoke astonishment or arouse hatred.” The concept of assemblage, he suggested, could equip an observer to recognize such form-events as “the curious and potent singularities that they are.”

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/716910