Incomplete regularities

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Giovanni da Col. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.001


Incomplete regularities

Comparison, values, personhood

Giovanni DA COL, University of Cambridge


I don’t have any ideas, comparison provides them.” Louis Dumont’s zen-like epigraph introduces the special section on radical comparison and value published in this tenth and longest issue of HAU. If truth be told, ethnographic theory rises beautifully and coincidentally out of the aleatory movement of juxtaposing unfitting images of ethnographic situations. Thus, Dumont’s quote ranks with EvansPritchard’s reported statement that “there is only one method in anthropology, the comparative method—and that is impossible,” as one of the most memorable quotes for Hau’s manual for ethnographic theory. All recent “turns” in anthropology (ontology, ethics, multispecies) call for a revision of the comparative method. Against Fred Eggan’s (1954) seminal proposal for “controlled comparison,” Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2004) responds with a method of uncontrolled comparison or “equivocation,” which partially returns to Marilyn Strathern’s (1990) “negative strategies.” Maurice Bloch’s (2005) “incomplete regularities,” Marcel Detienne’s (2008) Comparing the incomparable, Joel Robbins’ (2013) proposal for an anthropology of the good, Peter Van der Veer’s 2013 Morgan Lecture The value of comparison, Hau’s recent special issue (Vol. 4.3, Fall 2014) edited by Carlo Severi and William Hanks on Translating worlds, the recent Sawyer Seminar series on “Comparing Comparativism” at CRASSH-Cambridge—all are part of a movement attempting to restore some optimism in the comparative method, seemingly quenched by the anti-essentialist obsessions of deconstruction, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism. The purpose is to group together not essences but sets of recurrences and propensities indexing universal human concerns and perceptual regimes, however contingent on different histories and political-economic conditions.[ii]

Many of the new inquiries on the comparative method concern systems of “values” and moral referents. “Value” is also a major component of this tenth issue, continuing a trend that began in 2013 with the publication of our first special issue, “Value as Theory” (Vols. 3.1 and 3.2, Spring and Summer 2013) edited by Ton Otto and Rane Willerslev. Yet, we consistently confront the question: which value(s)? What matters for Dumont is not a single value or a set of values but a configuration in which values are hierarchized and compared to another configuration. As guest editors André Iteanu and Ismaël Moya (this volume) explain, for Dumont the term value indicates neither an objective nor a subjective fact but designates synthetically both the relation and the terms elicited by a comparison.

Such configurations of value via comparison, in Dumont’s sense, are especially immanent in this issue of HAU. The individual research articles in this volume present a series of cutting-edge analyses ranging from Congo to Amazonia, from STS to the Indian Himalayas. Marshall Sahlins (1994) once wrote that where Galileo thought that mathematics was the language of the physical world, the capitalist believes that the cultural universe is reducible to the discourse of price. In a nuanced analysis of mining economies and temporality, James Smith reflects on the social foundations of global capitalism in the Eastern DR Congo by looking at the complex and unequal relationships that influence pricing in extractive industries. In a masterful article on technology as a global form of magic, Alf Hornborg questions how recent anthropological conceptions of ontologies fail to take seriously the subject/object dichotomy and require the tools of political economy. By employing Carlo Severi’s (2015) notion of “chimera” concepts, Antonio Guerreiro convincingly shows how Amazonian chiefs in the Upper Xingu employ paradoxical and contradictory statements in their political oratory, and how the resulting uncertainty (rather than “belief ”) can produce both persuasion and the identity of a group. Nayanika Mathur follows with an original and dazzling reading of the discourse of climate change in the Himalayas, which is juxtaposed to the elements constituting a conspiracy theory.

Roy Wagner (pers. comm.) once recounted about a breakfast he had with Louis Dumont in Charlottesville. At some point during the meal, Wagner suddenly announced: “Louis, do you know that Homo hierarchicus is the first anthropological holography?” Caught off-guard, Dumont responded: “Holo-what?” That was the moment, argues Wagner, when he realized that Dumont mistook his model for reality. This brings us to a crucial question for today’s anthropological theory: when we speak of cosmologies, ontologies, and values as being “imagined,” what do we actually mean by this? In its simplest form a cosmology could be defined as an imaginatively coherent conception of a totality of beings and units, and the relations between its units. A cosmology is a magnificent, all-embracing totality of some sort: cosmologies are nothing else but cosmogonies of order in becoming, a set of metaphysical principles of order and differentiation, where also chaos and non-linear systems are constantly accommodated as a necessary element of an ordered totality. Cosmologies entail coherent claims about an “audience” (e.g., “society” or a religious community) brought together by ritual events or ceremonies where mishaps happen all the time or are often marked by improvisations, playful and “as if ” attitudes (cf. Graeber 2013). Yet the scholastic fallacy is behind the corner: fragmentary events, incoherent pantheons, and solitary revelations by erudite informants could be yieled easily into a coherent system by supplying [iii]spurious missing elements. Dumont, the methodological core figure of this issue, is falsely remembered for positing coherent systems and abstract total categories. But in fact he was more interested in fraying their edges, and ethically committed to positing only provisional results that were always subject to further ethnographic fraying.

And now we bring you a HAU special section edited by André Iteanu and Ismaël Moya that showcases the continued value of such radical ethnographic fraying. The articles illuminate not only individual societies via projects of comparison predominant in recent anthropological theory, but also by juxtaposing Dumont to the theoretical strategies of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Marilyn Strathern. With contributions by rising and established scholars such as André Iteanu, Ismaël Moya, Joel Robbins, Aparecia Vilaça, and Cécile Barraud, this section is sure to provide much matter for rethinking issues of personhood, inequality, conversion, cultural change, and sex distinction (as opposed to gender difference). Appended to the end of this section, we also include the first translation of Michael Houseman’s classic essay on Dumont’s concept of hierarchy (translated by Eléonore Rimbault), one of the most accessible introductions to the thought of the maître à penser.

With the exception of the Essay on the Gift, perhaps Marcel Mauss’ chief contribution to anthropological theory has been the reflection that the concept of a privately conscious, self-directed individual is not a human universal (Mauss 1985). The debates his essay on the personne sparked are legion ranging from psychological anthropology to comparative notions of ethics, morality, agency, and forms of exchange. This short essay influenced Dumont’s inquiry on the rise of the individualism in the West as well as Marilyn Strathern’s critique of the self-centered individual posed through her Melanesian heuristics of dividual personhood. However, what happens when such Maussian-inspired critique—which generated so much fertile ground for anthropological theory in the last decades—is posed through the categories and ethnographies of a world religion, such as Christianity? This is the question that Jon Bialecki and Girish Daswani ask in their guest edited special section titled: “The anthropology of personhood, redux: Views from Christianity.” Rehearsing the conceptual histories, pitfalls, and promises of individualism and “dividualism,” this section brings together contrasting Christianities and contrasting images of personhood—from the Word of Life Church in Sweden (Simon Coleman) to Auhelawa funeral rites in Papua New Guinea (Ryan Schram), from the processional personhood of the Bidayuh of Malaysian Borneo (Liana Chua) to the globally “dividual” feature of Christian personhood (Mark Mosko). Michael Lambek then concludes the section with an afterword, reflecting on what the concept of “love” might have to do with Christian personhood. The section is followed by a Colloquium from Bruno Reinhardt that, in the spirit of ethnographic fraying, brings Deleuzian philosophy into an encounter with Pentacostalism in Ghana.

Picking up on themes raised throughout this volume, Marisol de la Cadena and Marianne E. Lien present an edited Forum on the collaborative interfaces between STS and anthropology (with contributions also from Mario Blaser, Casper Bruun Jensen, Tess Lea, Atsuro Morita, Heather Anne Swanson, Gro B. Ween, Paige West, and Margaret Wiener). Here we have an offspring of a set of “localizing strategies” that situate different modes of practicing and thinking STS with anthropology, an exploration of the generative interfaces from and between different traditions and geographical locations.[iv]

After a reminder of how the notion of the individualist modern subject maximizing benefit has led to the profound inequality of the contemporary world, HAU is enabling the reintegration of anthropology and economics by providing a Book Symposium (edited by Gustav Peebles) for fecund interdisciplinary investigation into issues of power and capital. Here, with the illustrious participation of Thomas Piketty responding to Karen Ho, Sylvia Yanagisako, Jane Guyer, Michael Ralph, and Anush Kapadia, we focus on one of the most widely read texts of the past year: Capital in the twenty-first century.

The issue concludes with a second Book Symposium that confronts radical comparison with radical critique via the question of what the units of anthropological comparison really are. On the menu is Stephan Palmié’s brilliant The cooking of history—a work of anthropological theory that seeks not so much to “deconstruct” traditional objects of anthropological analysis (like religions, cultural units, etc.), but to analyze their complex epistemological and historical origins—in and out of the social sciences. Here Palmié responds to master chefs Kristina Wirtz, Margaret Wiener, Danilyn Rutherford, and Michael Silverstein who each bring their own ingredients to the discussion of the generative interfaces that create our objects of study.

Open access, ten issues later

Two editorial notes on the future of open access have been recently published in American Anthropologist (Chibnik 2015) and Cultural Anthropology (Corsin Jimenez, et al 2015), followed by a pungent comment the blog Savage Minds. On one side, there are the AA editor’s cautious evaluations on the political economy of a journal and its organization, on the other the advocates for open access argue for its necessity as a moral and political decision.

We have come a long way since our first issue in December 2011, where our fifth issue was going to be the litmus test of HAU’s sustainability according to some cautious observers. After four years of involvement in the debate and extensive consulting for organizations like the SCA and the EASA, and for new open-access journals like Medicine, Anthropology and Theory, I wish to add my two cents. We have to face the bleak reality that the majority of the academic community does not care to go the extra mile and submit their best work to open access journals, especially when tenure is a stake. Alas, rather than on authors, the burden to run the extra mile rests on open access journals which need to prove, more than commercial ones, their own value and prestige.

How can we analyze the social life of “open access” ethnographically and through the corpus of anthropological theories? Surprisingly, where rivers of digital ink have been flown on the political economy of open access, few anthropological theories on the development of the “open access” gift ideology have emerged. Anthropological theories of value can help us to form a more general idea of the kind of hold that publications and journal articles have over researchers, especially junior ones. I want to propose a simple argument here, with the help of Alfred Gell and Georg Simmel. For Simmel (1978), the value of an object is in proportion to the difficulty which we think we will encounter in obtaining that particular thing [v]rather than something else. It is the difficulty of accessing an object that makes it valuable, and we desire objects only if they are not immediately given to us for our use and enjoyment, that is, to the extent to which they resist our desire. Following Simmel, Gell (1992) argues that valued objects present themselves to us surrounded by a kind of “halo-effect” of resistance, and it is this resistance which is the source of their value: i.e., it is through a relation between visibility and invisibility, accessibility and resistance that an object may generate its value. Let’s now assume that the value we attribute to journals and the bewitching effect they have on us is a function, at least to some extent, of their price, their way of displaying wealth in forms of scholarship while hiding their internal functioning, the difficulties of accessing them, and the separation and “purification” (to say it with Latour) of the publishing logic from the scholastic one. We could easily imagine how costly academic journals and corporate publishers are capable of generating this effect. By foreclosing access, one generates resistance and value. It is not that hard to imagine why the open access world of gratuity and transparent editorial activities may exercise a lesser form of enchantment on its academic subjects. In contrast, I suggest that as in the image of Kafka’s doorway of the law—inaccessible in its openness—open access may be foreclosing its development because of an association with transparency, freedom, gratuity, and pro bono editorial activities. Open access inaugurates a new form of value founded on an imaginative “removal of resistance” of the mystified halo of technicality and professionalism associated with the world of publishing and the difficulties to overcome it—even practically speaking (outside campus I have to connect to Shibboleth with my institution credentials and move through different webpages to finally access the PDF).

Where does the ideology of gratuity of scholarship emerge? There is no space to respond to such a question in an editorial. Suffices to say that James Carrier (1995) has shown how gift-giving at Christmas time emerged during the nineteenth century during capitalism’s greatest expansion. Jonathan Parry’s (1986) revisitation of Marcel Mauss’ essai, shows how it is only in capitalist systems that people begin to believe in the myth of the “free gift,” whereas different economic cosmologies acknowledge the binding nature of gifts, and the intertwinements of gifts and trade. Recently, I have been asked by some distinguished academics why a department should contribute to open access by joining the HAU-NET model (strikingly similar to the model now adopted by the PLOS-like platform and mega-journal the Open Library of Humanities) and paying more than a subscription to a commercial publisher’s journal. Such questions illustrate once again the mystification of the world of publishing for the majority of academics.

The opposition is not the one Savage Minds (Golub 2015) proposes: American Anthropologist alias Blockbuster vs. Cultural Anthropology or HAU alias Netflix. Netflix was born out of a $2.5 million (USD) startup cash investment by Reed Hastings, and had thirty professional employees, not pro bono editors or assistants to launch the project. Unless funding agencies, benefactors, and the academic community decide to engage with open access publications in terms of donations or manuscripts, then the conversation is moot. (Let’s start, for example by checking how many of the OA ideologists applying for tenure published their best work in open access monographs or journals.) I am therefore siding with Chibnik when it comes to concerns for long term self-sustainability, although I cannot share his pessimism and fatalistic vision of the inexorable demise [vi]of open access. But please, no more articles on the importance of OA and the need to liberate journals: start a fundraising campaign, donate, send manuscripts, or please shush.

We proved against all odds that we could make it to the tenth issue and the current editorial team has hoarded funds and manuscripts until the end of its cycle. HAU’s survival now depends on the good-will of the readers, not upon the shoulders of the founders.


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Chibnik, Michael. 2015. “From the editor: Open access.” American Anthropologist 117 (2): 225–28.

Corsin Jimenez, Alberto, Dominic Boyer, John Hartigan and Marisol de la Cadena. 2015. “Open access: A collective ecology for AAA publishing in the digital age.” Fieldsights Commentary, Cultural Anthropology Online, May 27, 2015, http://www.culanth.org/fieldsights/684-open-access-a-collective-ecology-for-aaapublishing-in-the-digital-age.

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