Sad stories of the lives of things

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Joel Robbins. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.006


Sad stories of the lives of things

A comment on Chris Gregory’s “On religiosity and commercial life”

Joel ROBBINS, University of Cambridge


Chris Gregory’s article is a tour de force anthropological analysis of an important corner of contemporary intellectual life. I have to confess that in the face of all the things Gregory does so well in his piece, I feel a bit daunted by the task of trying to respond with something more than strong affirmation. And my task is made a little more difficult by the fact that I have no expertise in posthuman cultural economy, having never dived quite deep enough into the waters of actor-network theory to have had a real encounter with Callon, and having not read Appadurai’s new book yet. So I fear my only hope of doing any kind of justice to Gregory’s piece, both in respect to its major accomplishments and in respect to my own limitations in relation to them, is going to be to set in an even broader frame his already very broad argument about posthuman cultural economy and the way it ties us as analysts to the world.

Gregory locates the origins of posthuman anthropology in the late 1970s and 1980s. I agree that a number of things shifted around that time. One is that anthropologists finally fully lost confidence in what had traditionally been their object of study—single societies or cultures. In response to that loss of confidence, since that time we have done tremendous work to develop a new sense of our object—work that has unfolded under such signs as history, transnationalism, and globalization. Let’s say for present purposes that this work has been mostly a success—the objects of anthropological attention are now much more diverse than they were before. So far, so good.

But, and I’m moving too quickly to be more than provocative here, one might also argue that, from roughly its birth until about the end of the 1970s, anthropology was a central theoretical discipline in the humanities and social sciences, and that since about the 1980s it has struggled to maintain that position. There have, of course, been great theoretical developments since that time. But with a few important exceptions, it has been harder to convince both scholars and other people beyond our own tribe that these theories gear into the world in ways they should take notice of and act upon.

In light of these two observations, one way to square up the frame I am constructing is to say that during the period when a huge amount of anthropological energy went into rethinking our object of study, theory was somewhat starved of resources. History, transnationalism, and globalization were not theories—they were new places to look for new kinds of objects, and new ways to look at them, but they were not in and of themselves ways to either understand or explain these new objects. As I used to tell my students, saying globalization is your theoretical interest is a little like an astronomer saying “my theory is Mars”—it doesn’t quite work. Given this, what we might most need now is for theory to catch up with our new objects, so we can once again be able to say things about the world that change the way people want to think about and live in it.

In the widest terms, I think it is this situation of what we might call theory-lag that Gregory has so profoundly diagnosed and described in his article. This is true in a number of respects, only three of which I’ll note, and only one of which I will dwell upon. The first relates to a key phrase in Gregory’s quotation from Chomsky: “Now, the plutonomy is where the action is and it could continue like this.” In the late 1990s, Roy D’Andrade took a year off from teaching in order, among other things, to read from cover to cover every issue of every major journal in anthropology as it was published (this is a true story!). At the end of this exercise, he determined that, like journalists, anthropologists at that time just wanted to be where the action was—everyone wanted to study whatever had been in the news when they settled on their project, or, for the lucky few who were brave enough to wager on uncertainty, to succeed in anticipating where the news would be when they were ready to start publishing on their research. Without some counterweight of a disciplinary sense of our own strengths—a sense that theoretical ambition certainly helps to cultivate—it is hard to avoid running around like this, chasing rather than making news, even if you chase it all the way to the plutonomy’s point of view (about which, more in a moment).

Second, I am happy to sit down with Gregory to tell sad stories of the lives of things. Actor-network theory and other, as Gregory notes, “multidisciplinary” posthumanist positions do aim in some ways to theorize the new worlds we have learned to find—this is, I think, the reason for their current vogue within a theoretical field that it sometimes feels distressingly like they have almost completely to themselves. But too often I think their heavily moralized nominalism means they end up being more descriptive than anything else—these theories make it easy to travel in the vast, diverse spaces we find we want to cover, but they do not, on my reading anyway, do enough to explain them, much less to provide a critical vantage point on them. There is more to say here, but Gregory has already said so many important things on this topic that I’ll leave it for now. I just wanted to situate the posthumanist moment in the broader story I am trying to tell, as something like a theory for our new worlds, but not perhaps one of the theories that anthropologists most need, and anyway not the only one we should want.

The third point I want to make in situating Gregory’s argument follows from an aspect of his piece that I found very striking. This is his diagnosis of the work of a range of theorists as outgrowths of the various points of view from which he argues they see the world. Thus we have Marx speaking from the place of the worker, Keynes from that of the statesman, Weber from that of the entrepreneur, and Appadurai and the other new cultural economists from that of the superprime trader. This conceit leads to one of Gregory’s major conclusions: that we also need to learn to see from the position of the precarious patients of the contemporary world, for if objects really do have some agency, it is usually at these people’s expense. I wholly endorse the political passion that informs this point, but I do want to ask if the best way for us as anthropologists to act on it is to focus on the sense in which theory is always made from some point of view. This is surely true, but it may not always be the most important thing to say about theory—as admittedly anthropologists have felt it has been during precisely the period in which anthropological theory has been in relative eclipse.

One place from which Gregory gets the language of point of view is of course Malinowski’s injunction to discover the native’s point of view. But there has always been a tension in anthropology between this position—which we teach all our students almost from the first day—and another one, perhaps most clearly articulated by Lévi-Strauss, that learning the native point of view is just the beginning of our work, and the point is to go beyond it. What anthropologists formerly went beyond the native point of view in order to reach was something that theorists usually used to figure as a whole of some sort, greater than but able to encompass or even explain the various points of view it generated in those people who lived their lives in relation to it. Theories built around such wholes sometimes defined themselves as antihumanist, and it would be a good task for someone to sort out how this antihu-manism was different from, but may have influenced, the posthumanism Gregory so productively critiques. But in any case, we do not theorize wholes anymore, and it is in their place that we have things and bodies and networks and phenomenologies, not to mention the ontologies that are these days such prominent but also somewhat etiolated versions of the wholes we have lost.

My point is not that we should go back to an older holism—I doubt we could even if we wanted to, given the strength of the intellectual torrents that washed it away. But we might want to sift the rubble those torrents left behind a little more carefully to ask why we anthropologists were so theoretically effective during our holist era. Maybe we would find in the midst of that rubble some hints about how to learn to theorize again in a way that does not leave us chasing after wherever the action is now and taking the point of view of whoever appears to be in charge when we get there. This is the task Gregory’s powerful argument puts me in mind of, in any event, and I would close by echoing one of its most forceful clarion calls in the terms I have laid out: I think it is only if we regain our own theoretical voices, our voices in which we speak precisely from the point of view of anthropologists, that we can contribute effectively to shaping the conversation over “who gets to define God and Good.”



Joel ROBBINS is Sigrid Rausing Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. His work has focused on the anthropological study of Christianity, values, morality, and cultural change.

Joel Robbins
Division of Social Anthropology
University of Cambridge
Free School Lane
Cambridge CB2 3RF
United Kingdom