“The quickening of the unknown”: Epistemologies of surprise in anthropology (The Munro Lecture, 2013)

Jane I. Guyer


My title is from an essay by Nigerian writer Ben Okri, which I draw on to address one aspect of classic empiricism in anthropology that I have found particularly important, namely the element of surprise, or “impression” (Hume), as an instigator to thought. Quickening is the moment when a being gives evidence of its own life and presence. An epistemology of surprise has been widely and frequently practiced in anthropology, as is illustrated from works across many fields and theoretical orientations. Variations in conventions of instigation and completion are traced back through skeptic and enlightenment practices; linked to artisanal, poetic, and artistic processes within the discipline across its history; compared in the imagery in classic works from Africa and Melanesia; and then explored in the recent “radical empiricism” of Michael Jackson and politically inflected works that focus on fragments, gaps, and absences rather than presences. Examples from my own work on political economic “quickenings”—a baffling confusion of referents for a number term in Cameroon, and an arresting Nigerian complaint that “there’s no money,” in a globally monetized world—conclude the lecture, showing the wide applicability of this mode of reasoning, which traces a genealogy from Hume and Greek skeptical empiricism.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.012