Movement space

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Paul Rabinow and Anthony Stavrianakis. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.1.021


Movement space

Putting anthropological theory, concepts, and cases to the test

Paul RABINOW, University of California, Berkeley

Anthony STAVRIANAKIS, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Response to HAU Forum, “On the anthropology of the contemporary: Addressing concepts, designs, and practices,” edited by James D. Faubion, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Volume 6, Issue 1, Summer 2016.

There was a guiding principle for Dewey throughout his career—
the principle, namely, that equally viable but mutually incompatible
views (including, for instance, “Continental philosophy”
versus “British analytic philosophy,” or “holism” versus “atomism,”
or “existentialism” versus “essentialism”) call for finding a
perspective from which the given dichotomy is only apparent or is
otherwise resolvable. (Burke 1994: 21; cf. Dewey 1926: 40–48)

Gratitude (Paul Rabinow)

It is gratifying to have been invited to have my work entertained in such an innovative and conscientious venue.1 The initial gratification came from the hope that some things would be learned that would remediate and stimulate further thought. This hope has been met.[404]

What is striking in the generous commentaries in this forum is a shared concern for a set of common anthropological topoi: questions of inquiry, such as how to participate and observe in heterogeneous and changing domains of life and work; a focus on experimentation; a concern for questions of the objects and objectives for anthropology today.

Before opening onto a broader reflection on the challenges of anthropological inquiry, of theory, concept work, and casuistry today, I should address a specific series of themes that the texts of this forum raise. Jane Guyer’s focus on “emergence,” contrasted with the concept of “possibility,” is an occasion for the clarification of the endeavor of an anthropology of the contemporary. In a series of recent works, I have sought to conceptualize the parameters of anthropological inquiry into the “present” in terms of a movement-space (Bewegungsraum—I take the term from Hans Blumenberg), in which both the subject conducting inquiry and the objects and objectives of inquiry are in motion. What I have endeavored to prime is the problem of adopting a posture and relation to a moving present, a present one endeavors to both be part of and to observe, and yet relative to which one is often slightly too early or too late, slightly too close or slightly too far.

Implicit in Guyer’s three modes of participation—learning from others, collaborating, actively intervening—is a question of the subject and her relative disposition. Implicit in her generative distinctions are Immanuel Kant’s three auto-critical questions: What can I know (with and from others)? What should I do (how to collaborate)? What can I hope for (if I attempt to reconstruct situations)? She provides an enlivening juxtaposition of vernacular maxims regarding the status of the objects and objectives of inquiry in a present in which an anthropologist could pose these questions: instead of an inquiry into the “possible”—of just “going for it,” that is to say, for a possibility known in advance—the objective she names for an anthropology of “the emergent” is learning to become familiar with the objects that result from inquiry, not least in order to be able to live with them. There is pathos in this maxim, which well captures the mood and mode of the anthropology I have sought to develop over the years. Nevertheless, once having raised the ethical, affective, and veridictional stakes of an anthropology of the emergent, Guyer brackets the question of ends: “there appears to be no vision of an ultimate goal.” By contrast, over the last decade, with a series of collaborators, I have precisely endeavored to raise the question of the ends of anthropology, the ethical work of collaboration and the ethical stakes of inquiry. This question draws on prior work, of course. The response to the problem of subjectivity, ethical life, inquiry, and knowledge in Reflections on fieldwork in Morocco (1977) is different from that proposed in Demands of the day: On the logic of anthropological inquiry (2013), or again in Designs on the contemporary: Anthropological tests (2014)—different not only because the inquiries were different, taking place in heterogeneous “presents,” but also because the configurations of inquiry differed; the postures and ways into the work differed. In that sense, adjacency or, more generally, the question of the position and posture of the anthropologist is not a basic presumption. It is rather a problem that requires conceptualization.

In the collaborative participant-observation that I have designed and conducted with Gaymon Bennett and Anthony Stavrianakis, my anthropological experimentation was oriented to an ethical end, which we named from the start as [405]“flourishing,” a translation of the Greek term eudaemōnia. Flourishing was a term we used to posit the reason for our mode of participant-observation. We used the term to ask how the ethical outsides of the instrumental rationality of the sciences could be reactivated and reconnected to new practices of scientific inquiry. This is not to say that flourishing is per se opposed to instrumental goals. Rather, we used the term to ask how modes of judgment distinct from those of instrumentality could be introduced into seemingly emergent spaces of work in the biosciences. Relative to our interconnected projects, flourishing was an end toward which we were trying to work, through the activity of anthropological and ethical inquiry into the ramifications of bioscience and engineering.

Our initial conception of flourishing was stymied in our relations with the bio-scientists and other social scientists (more on this below). This indifference led us to develop a conceptual repertoire of what we termed “minor vices,” embedded in the micro-practices of knowledge production during the course of inquiry and research. Attention has been paid, of course, to the macro-scalar conditions of funding, institutional and bureaucratic inertia, the corporate shaping of agendas, as well to as our ever-increasing audit culture. How these macro-forces became anchored in practice, often tacitly, has been less explored.

These breakdowns and blockages reveal conceptual and ethical topoi that we are convinced demand more attention and a change in practices. Our experiment left us convinced that flourishing is an essential metric of science as a vocation. In terms of our own collaboration as well as the conceptual and narrative work that nourished it we remain convinced and indeed experienced among ourselves the joys and solace of a scientific practice guided by a metric of eudaemōnia.

It is thus with the question of position, mode, and mood that we enter the stakes of the contemporary as an anthropological problem space and the core of the temporal stakes raised by Tom Boellstorff. The present and the contemporary are not isomorphic categories. “The contemporary” was initially a response to a problem of the temporality, historicity, and observer-position of anthropological inquiry. The contemporary is a complex category on the verge between the experiential vector of the observation of practice—whether that be the practice of biologists in their labs, engineers with their PowerPoints, or an artist with his squeegee—and the historical vector of gauging the transformation of the forms through which these practices are enacted. We’re asking what is at stake in the crossing of the vectors in the remediation of past forms and practices, particularly modern and modernist forms. Thus, in the conceptual development of the term “contemporary,” it is crucial to underscore that although we index the historicity of forms and practices, the contemporary is not a historical category per se. It is rather a precise counterpoint to the conception of modernity as an ethos, indexing the search for an ethos through which to observe and gauge breakdowns and remediations of the modern ethos.

There is an intermediate step on which it is important to insist: between inquiries in the present and the effort to forge a contrapuntal, distinctively contemporary ethos that can engage the breakdowns and remediations of modernity and the modern ethos. Together with Stavrianakis, I have called this intermediate step the “actual”: objects that could be seized from an inquiry in the present, worked through as phenomena and taken up in their relation to the inquirer at a second [406]order of observation. Such a step is crucial in challenging the commonplace of the “ethnographic present” and the emphasis some anthropologists still place on the self-evident worth of ethnography as a manner of grasping the present.

It is precisely here that Boellstorff ’s insightful insistence on the open question of how to discern the significance of the “recent” and “near” in the temporality of inquiry comes to the fore. In arguing for the invention of a contemporary ethos—which can gauge transformations in modernity’s ethē through inquiry in the present, with specific attention to which of those transformations renders an ethos “actual”—it is important to note that we are not dealing with historical consciousness, nor an ontology of things waiting to be represented. Within a pragmatic logic of anthropology, the near future is constituted from determinations of the objects of the recent past. These determinations are rendered visible through the motion of inquiry that works through a movement-space of the present, rendering objects of inquiry actual. There is no object existing in the recent past by itself; technically speaking, there is no recent past by itself.

Marilyn Strathern’s discerning and perceptive commentary is of great aid in clarifying the stakes of the movement and motion of such a conceptual sequence: from inquiry in the present, to a contemporary ethos capable of seizing its significance, by way of its actual determinations. As she well indicates, “it is anthropology that needs to conceptualize the contemporary if it is to do its analytical work. Anthropologists do not have to suppose that synthetic biologists have a counterpart contemporary of their own”: neither allochronism nor isochronism, then, but rather a search for contemporaries with whom to share a search for multiple responses to a shared problem of forging an ethos to work through and live with the breakdowns of the guiding ethē of modernity.

Strathern is insightful in her treatment of what she calls the work of “con-figuring and re-figuring the elements of figures already worked upon.” She names the affective and veridictional stakes of the work of turning and returning to the objects and objectives of inquiry as “calming” and “incontrovertible.” Such a generous judgment resonates with what (with Stavrianakis) I have called vindication as the mode of subjectivation of an anthropology of the contemporary. Such a judgment is all the more appreciated given her fine-grained understanding of the work that was entailed in working through the double binds of collaborative participant-observation in the field of synthetic biology—double binds that provided the kairos for pushing our inquiry further into the practice of anthropology as she and we understand it to be. Strathern’s accompaniment throughout these conceptual turns and travails has been of great solace. There are few others who have demonstrated with such joy the power and pleasure of forging a conceptual anthropology that recognizes its ethical stakes.

An anthropology of the contemporary, it should be noted, is not only about science and technology. As Frédéric Keck and Clémentine Deliss demonstrate, questions of the remediation of practice, remediations which take up parameters of ethos and veridiction, pertain to a wide set of domains. Their generative collaboration in thinking about the remediation of museum practice is a case in point and demonstrative of the significant challenge of the invention of “post-ethnographic” venues. In their cases the challenge is how curation and inquiry can be given a form in the contemporary anthropological museum.[407]

Taken as an ensemble, these rich reflections index a plurality of modes in which to undertake the challenge of anthropological inquiry, of concept work, and the delineation of a shared problem space in which one could hope to engage in collaborative work. Over the last five years, HAU has provided just such a venue. Moreover, in terms of the intellectual conjoining of anthropology and philosophy, these reflections index precisely one of the themes that will be taken up again in the text that follows: that the fundamental question of the being and becoming of anthrōpos is best served by not imposing boundary conditions, conceptual or empirical. In a mode of inquiry that draws on the pragmatism of John Dewey, the question of the being of anthrōpos is and must be an open-ended question, and one that on philosophical grounds should ignore calls for foundations or arguments as to ontological or epistemological first principles.

I will admit, however, that I have not been a regular reader of HAU. Two terms I have eschewed in recent years have been theory and ethnography, preferring, for a range of reasons that I have sought to articulate, concept work and anthropology. Preparing to respond to my readers, I thought it only prudent to look more closely at the content, form and ethos of HAU. Much to my delight, I have been treated to a challenging range of concept work, if in a different vein than my own, as well as substantial quantities of anthropological reflection. There is, to be sure, a bounty of ethnographic description, as well there should be if the term is understood broadly enough to provide fertile terrain for anthropological reflection.

What exactly is meant by theory still escapes me. At least, it remains contestable to me whether or not the category is helpful or obfuscatory. Thus, for example, I was struck by the invocation of Foucault’s term “biopower” in the inaugural editorial (da Col and Graber 2011: x). I wholeheartedly concur that the term (as with almost all of the terms of Foucault’s work) in the secondary and tertiary literature has long since lost its conceptual precision and its strength as a tool of inquiry. On the one hand, the vast fast-food diet of what Graeber nicely calls “vulgar Foucauldianism” is itself in need of diagnosis; so much of what I know of it could not be farther from what rigorous thinking and inquiry should consist in (see Graeber 2014). On the other hand, Foucault forged the term “biopower” to do conceptual and research work about specific problems. There is nothing inherently wrong about using it in a common-sense manner to cover anything vital. Presumably, however, such inflationism is not theory.


This raises the question of debt and citation. Terry Smith is astute in singling out my citation practices. He is generous in giving me the benefit of the doubt that in fact I have read and considered many sources that I don’t cite. I am contrite for the oversight since I too have felt slighted when work of mine that seems relevant is not cited. My only self-justification is that my disposition is to keep separate the flow of writing (and thinking) during the drafting of my texts from an obligation to acknowledge more recent predecessors working on somewhat different problems and concepts. Anecdotally, having been turned down multiple times on grant proposals where I attempted to play by the rules of the game, no doubt I have (over) reacted to the strictures of citation and audit culture. Certain forms seem to block thinking for me, instead authorizing practices and norms which one might well not [408]affirm. Want a grant on neoliberalism? Be sure to cite many sources, since some of those reviewing your proposal may well be adjudicating your desire for funds. But by doing so, aren’t you contributing to the field of constraints one wants to evade?

Perhaps more vindicatory is my incessant return to key texts and thinkers that were part of my philosophical training at the University of Chicago. It has been my experience (ever renewed) that one cannot read Max Weber (and the ever expanding voluminous commentary on his work) and then cite him as if the statements he gives us were straightforward and directly addressing our present situations. A petty instance: Smith says I deploy Weber as a critical sociologist. In fact, I do nothing of the sort. Weber was not a sociologist and I quote him elsewhere as saying that he wasn’t. The question that intrigues me about Weber or Foucault or Dewey is that, given the generations of serious scholars who have demonstrated time and time again such scholars’ inadequacies and mistakes, why do we (or some of us) still read them, refreshed and challenged? The answer lies for me in their multiple statements of problem-formation (Weber’s Anti-critical reflections as responses to his critics are one example), their repeated attempts to develop conceptual equipment (in Weber’s case, the ideal type or Gedankenbild) and their impatience with the necessity for experimentation with form (Weber wrote no books; he wrote works constantly in progress that were codified as proper books only after his death).2

Keying in on the enduring relevance of these authors eventually makes it possible to understand a central aspect of their work and why our situation—our space—as thinkers, as citizens in the state-system, and as a particular kind of civil servant (I have taught in public university systems my whole career) are neither the same nor radically different. That space, Blumenberg’s Bewegungsraum, is one I have sought to operate in. Life is short: this writing, thinking, and citation practice can justifiably be seen as arrogant or a necessary evil. Regardless, as I have learned, there is a price to be paid either way.

The same criteria and the same disposition apply to my work on Gerhard Richter. I am neither an art historian nor a credentialed art critic or curator. I rely on these specialists, some wonderful and perceptive, others less so. Familiarity with the ever-growing body of scholarship on Richter protects one against simple factual mistakes as well as ignoring a growing number of diverse perspectives and interpretations that demand recognition of their plausibility if not their mutual compatibility. My role is not to adjudicate these conflicting positions but to learn from them.

Precisely why I have centered on Gerhard Richter is hard to say; at first I neither admired nor understood his work. My engagement with him was peripheral to the main work on synthetic biology that I was undertaking at the same time—but just so, there was time for curiosity and admiration to begin to take root. Smith is [409]correct in his authorial position as wide-ranging specialist that other choices could well have been made, or, at least that my field of vision could have widened. In fact, I have a completed manuscript on Richter that touches on such artists as Sigmar Polke, Joseph Beuys, Blinky Palermo, and others. For the art historian, that is an insufficient answer and in no way meets Smith’s challenge to broaden the scope of my attention to art practice. A similar criticism could well be made of my work on post-genomics; but I never intended to be a specialist on post-genomics. The gamble in both cases was whether there was a payoff to this professionally reckless, anti-disciplinary, ultimately amateur path; a mode of inquiry and reflection, one might argue, that has characterized a great deal of anthropology.

Richter’s corpus provided me with a terrain in which to think at once about the relations that hold among the traditional, the modern, and the contemporary. Richter can’t be read as avowing any essential relation among any of these relations, or these ratios. Instead, he’s exemplary in continually experimenting with giving a form to these ratios, forms that are consequent both to the kairoi of his practice and the historical turning points and configurations that he seeks to shape. He’s a second-order observer of the very history of art in which he’s already established himself (or has been established) as a major figure. His practices are manifestations of just this. In short, they are practices of adjacency. In his practices, Richter makes very clear what an engagement with heterogeneous historical and aesthetic elements of the present consists in, when taken up with an ethos distinct from that which reigned under past modernisms.

I am beginning work again on Paul Klee, an artist whose work has caught me for decades (Rabinow 2003). The art historical literature on Klee is equally voluminous and a new wave of art historical and art critical writing of a new generation is taking shape. There is a stunningly smart and deeply appreciative book on Klee—Annie Bourneuf ’s Paul Klee (2015)—that demonstrates a deep scholarly command of the secondary and primary literature both of the time and more recently. As it happens, Pierre Boulez published a number of essays and a small book on Klee. Naturally, the theme of this work is the compositional strategies of Klee as an adjacent reflective device to Boulez’s own meditations and practices of composing. This exercise is fascinating and for me opens up many problems and pathways. How might one take up the challenge of composition in a rigorous fashion in anthropology given Boulez’s analysis of Klee? Regardless of the answer—and the website Stavrianakis and I are building (http://contemporary.lacunastories.com/) is in part an initial attempt to confront this challenge—it is striking that Bourneuf does not take up the fact that Klee was a musician (son of two musicians) who played at a high level his whole life. Bourneuf documents in fascinating detail the art criticism of the 1910s and 1920s in Germany, but does not touch the revolution in music and theory taking place at the same time. Her book is magnificent but perhaps it will suffice to say that no single book, tethered to the inevitable scholarly practices of a specific discipline, can do everything.


What I would reject in HAU’s inspiring inaugural editorial statement is not merely what seems to be shaky concept work in the name of theory. That being said, the re-introduction of a historical corpus of anthropology into current trends [410]is most welcome indeed. In fact, I would see this assemblage as holding great potential for a contemporary anthropology; one in which there is a moving ratio of past work and current problems, as well as a call for collaboration between anthropologists in addressing interconnected problems. Accordingly, I invited Stavrianakis, with whom I have engaged in a series of (ongoing) works, to think together about the mode in which we could take up and work over a contemporary anthropology.

Mode (Rabinow and Stavrianakis, here and following)

The archive of the ancestors haunts the present as Nachleben [afterlife, survival], to use a key conceptual term of Aby Warburg (Didi-Huberman 2002; Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2014). To learn how to be attentive to such a lingering repertoire can only be enriching, although it does demand an art of discernment as well as diagnosis. One way to approach this archive is to cast our situation as tragic: the greats of an older anthropological discipline tower above us. Another is ironic: we had interesting work some time ago and let’s use it today and see where that gets us. The latter stance can derive from simple insouciance or from a theory that says things might look different, but as we have never been modern, they’re not and haven’t been so different once we understand what is going on. A method of this sort arises from and leads to irony and, it should be added, the embrace of irony leads to a distinctive method.

The giants never did roam the earth, although much monumental work of its time and place can be challenging and instructive. It is not tragic that we can’t be Evans-Pritchard or Kroeber. Insisting on ironic distance and self-protection in all things may lead to theory and the ever growing massing of resources, but its conceptual thinness and general implausibility is tiresome.

A better alternative, it seems to us, is a form of pathos as well a form of the comedic. We are using comedy in the older sense of “temporary resolution.” The comic mood recognizes that things break down all the time, but equally that there are momentary or short-lived reconciliations. There is, however, in this mood a constant emphasis on self-affectation, often delusional, as in Shakespeare’s comedies; nonetheless, even delusional action may lead to temporary reconciliation and repair. The comedic, one could hold, never loses sight of the need for and availability of practices of care up and down the scale from love to the law. The trope of repair is prominent. That being said, these repairs are always vulnerable to larger forces and need to be rebuilt.

Why pathos? Pathos has a long tradition of twin settings: the theatrical and the medical (Canguilhem 1966; Rabinow 1989). The mood of pathos turns on breakdown and repair, leading to more breakdown and repair. The mood of pathos, however—and this is what gives it its specificity—requires self-affectation, which is not delusional, but at least in its more accomplished forms recognizes both the necessity and finitude of taking up and testing whatever margins of freedom exist under particular conditions. This is not reconciliation, but rather a mode of testing limits, resisting resignation, and seeking maturity. The mood of pathos, as with the comedic, seeks motion toward a near future. This orientation is unlike the mood of [411]the tragic, which seeks a far future, or a distant past, and unlike the ironic (at least in its current STS form), whose future and past are always the same. The mood of pathos requires a veridictional practice and, as we will explain, a form of anthropological testing of diagnoses and working hypotheses addressing parameters, contours, and uncertainties of the near future and recent past.

Indifference versus complicity

Our books (Rabinow and Bennett 2012; Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2013) have been misleading. In the occasional print review and in the more common corridor gossip, the story line is that our experiment with synthetic biology and synthetic biologists was a failure. This story line is false for two reasons: an experiment that produces definitive results—even or especially if they were not the ones proposed in the grant proposal—is not a failure. There will be more on this below. The second reason concerns the quality and scope of the human interactions. Our relations with the bio-scientists were cordial. We were afforded access to almost everything we wanted to observe or question. The tone from the leaders of the project was supportive in an abstract manner. Jay Keasling, head of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), told me on a number of occasions that he did not intend to interfere in the autonomous research projects of any of the principal investigators—and that included our project, headed by Rabinow. He stuck to his word. The ethos of the institutional situation we were operating within was some wavering zone of respect and indifference. The latter was the blockage point. After all, the contractual terms of the project were collaborative. Little if any motion was accomplished on that front. In sum, the kind of mutual understanding and accommodation of ideas and practices that were unfamiliar was not forthcoming. One might attribute this shortcoming to inadequacies on our part and no doubt there were some. However, we have observed other “social and ethical” teams operating within other venues for synthetic biology and other techno-science projects, and there is scant evidence that the form of collaboration we were attempting to bring into motion took place anywhere else.

If the measure of success is to have brought about flourishing collaboration then ours was not the only “failure” (See Marris 2013; Aguiton 2014). In our view, the measure of success is the capacity to learn from the experience and to reflect on what can be warranted from the situation of inquiry; in that, we were successful, and others less so.

All things considered, it seems clear that the power differentials were large. In any case, our goal was not to play power games but to inflect them, so as to yield a different ethos of research into and understanding of living beings. This did not happen. Furthermore there were several “ethical issues” that arose (turning on plagiarism and the status and credibility of research results). These were handled behind the scenes through the old boys and girls networks of the elite university world. Not only were we not consulted, we were excluded: reputations were at stake. Again, the moving line between indifference and exclusion can be seen to be at play. We learned a great deal about how such affairs are handled and in that sense the experiment yielded positive results. Why haven’t we written more about these breakdowns? Perhaps because we initially had other narratives to construct, the material for which (textual, observational, interactive) we had access to.[412]

Social science

The arena in which there was actual conflict, breakdown and intimidation was the arena of relations among and between the social scientists.

Initially the person who was slated to fill the ELSI (“ethical, legal, social implications”) slot was a lawyer with an interest in regulatory and governance matters. He took this role seriously and from the outset produced proposals and talking points. His efforts were not well received. Apparently, the leadership of SynBERC wanted to proceed slowly and was adamantly opposed to governance proposals that they did not completely control. This situation led to a blowout argument at a dinner between the lawyer and the chief PR propagandist for the consortium. It was in that context that an alternative was proposed—a social scientist on the East Coast (MIT) and one on the West Coast (Berkeley). The East coast political scientist was to be in charge of regulatory and governmental issues and the West coast anthropologist was to explore ethics and collaboration. The underlying proviso was that we did not interfere. This was the ELSI model—although the contractual agreement with the National Science Foundation funders was that we would invent new modes of interaction. Efforts to do so were blocked throughout. Ultimately, the demand for non-action and soothing public relations prose was echoed in Washington.

The blockage came not only through the indifference of the bio-scientists but also through the lack of coordination among the social sciences. Stavrianakis has written of his parallel experiment in participant-observation, conducted as part of the Socio-Technical Integration Research project (STIR) (Stavrianakis 2015). The endeavor was based at Arizona State University and aimed to use social science participant-observation and exchange between natural scientists and social scientists to increase the “reflexivity” of the lab workers about social considerations in their technical practice. What was striking about this experiment was not the limits to a project aimed at increasing scientists’ reflexivity, but rather the limits to the capacity of the social scientists in the project to adequately reflect on how their method was bound to the dominant instrumental norms and values of contemporary techno-science.

Indifference and the incapacity to recompose such instrumental norms is a social fact on the side of the natural scientists. Indifference and the incapacity to recompose such instrumental norms is a deficiency of intellectual instrumentalities and a matter of complicity on the side of the human scientists (Stavrianakis and Bennett 2014: 219–23).

It turned out to be clear that there was neither the interest nor the capacity to engage in collaborative work and reflection on the part of the high-flying bio-scientists and engineers. It also turned out to be clear that the bio-scientists and engineers were indifferent to the actuality of their indifference and its function and place within larger apparatuses. By contrast, the social scientists in STIR, in SynBERC and in other parallel institutional setups with which we’re familiar were not indifferent either to the issues of collaboration or to our challenges that they were not living up to the norms of collaboration. Rather, they were acquiescing to the institutional deficiencies put in place by the indifference of the bio-scientists.

For some of the social scientists, this contradiction was not acute because their careers and disciplines, for example in political science, were more easily adaptable to these demands. For others—for example, in philosophy, ethics, anthropology, [413]sociology, and the like—the contradiction between critical discourse with which they would identify in a public arena and their actual practices of complicity with instrumental apparatuses haunted them. We can affirm this claim because discussion of the issues was possible and took place between them and us. Various defenses of such positionality were offered at various times: to wit, being threatened with funding cuts, scarcity of jobs, and other understandable reality conditions. However, defensiveness and reluctance to conceptualize the situation amounted to complicity with norms and practices that these social scientists would not wish to be identified with, at least discursively. Moreover, reluctance to conceptualize the situation amounted to a bracketing of norms of veridiction and ethics. This took different forms, from a simple refusal to discuss the issue any further, to attempts to justify technical criticism as an end in itself, to a straightforward nihilism in which truth counted for nothing.3

We have attempted to turn these blockages into anthropological topics of inquiry and reflection (Stavrianakis, Bennett, Fearnley, and Rabinow 2014). For example, we have pursued a catalogue of minor vices, that is to say, micro-practices that block ethical and veridictional pursuits without refuting or directly challenging them. Or else, the double binds that ensnare situations of unequal power relations, such as those we have been engaged in (Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2013: 58–60). We came to the conclusion that the only way to escape such double binds was to exit from them with a self-conscious acceptance that there was a price to be paid for doing so, including knowing that we would be accused of failure by those invested in maintaining the configuration of indifference and complicity.

We conceptualized this dimension of our experiment as an anthropological test quite different from traditional ethnographic description and theory. The asymmetric power relations of the latter are quite different from the asymmetric power relations in techno-institutions. Consequently, the ethical and veridictional challenges for the anthropologist are configured differently. Just as the previously tacit topics of the colonial and postcolonial situation have now become thematized as part of the history of anthropology, we argue that it is time to thematize the new configurations of power relations in which anthropologists are working today. Critique as denunciation, still the dominant mode in anti-colonial narratives, is no longer sufficient for the complexities of contemporary inquiry. We are arguing for a more fine-grained acceptance of the fact that by refusing the binaries of inside and outside, one’s responsibility for one’s position in the field is made available for reflection and invention.

Anthropological tests

Anthropology in Kant’s view takes up the question: what is the human being? Kant claims that this question cannot be answered metaphysically. It must be answered in the first place through local observation and in the second place requires abstraction from local inquiries in order to attain a more general level of understanding.[414] Such an understanding is not timeless or universal, but is rather historical—guided by changing historical distance—and experiential, with the assumption of a unity of apperception as well as an implied regulatory coherence. As he wrote already in “Universal natural history and theory of the heavens” (1755):

It is not even properly known to us what the human being truly is now, although consciousness [Bewusstsein] and the senses [Sinn]) ought to instruct us of this; how much less will we be able to guess what he one day ought to become! Nevertheless, the inquisitive human soul [die Wissbegierdeder menschlichen Seele] snaps very desirously [begierig] at this object [Gegenstand] that lies so far from it and strives, in such obscure knowledge, to shed some light. (Kant 2015: 307)

We accept Kant’s challenge to ask how to abstract from the heterogeneous results of local inquiries, to compose and give form to the determinations arising from those inquiries in order to respond to the anthropological problem of what the human being is today, and human beings’ inquisitiveness about their becoming.

Significantly, we can draw on Kant in order to underscore that a single answer betrays the anthropological demonstration of the empirical heterogeneity of responses to such a core problem. The task, for us, is therefore to determine what form, what anthropological form, one can give to such heterogeneity given attention to generality and given that anthrōpos is that kind of being with the capacity to reason about the heterogeneity of its being and its reasoned discourses about being.

Anthropology, perhaps particularly American anthropology, has taken as its task to give form to human beings’ cultural heterogeneity while maintaining an underlying generality. Anthropology, perhaps particularly British anthropology, has taken as its task to document heterogeneity within common institutional thematics such as, for example, kinship and law. Anthropology, perhaps particularly French anthropology, has taken as its task to demonstrate variations in structural patterns of society and the mind. Today, the general problem of heterogeneity remains pertinent, but these three solutions seem dated. The objects and objectives of anthropology have been once again problematized to such an extent that these three responses to the problem of heterogeneity and unity have withered and lost their veridictional and animating force.

Nevertheless, we want to insist that embedded in these previous responses were forms of the validation of what counted as an anthropological object and fact. The criteria of validity and the forms and venues in which they were put to the test were largely tacit. Hence qualifying exams, peer review for grants, publishing and hiring arose out of and reinforced community norms. These too have been under pressure and stress for some time.

It follows that in the present, given the increasing self-evidence of the contingency of the standards of inquiry, it is now appropriate to conceptualize the tests and measures of validity, both of facts and of what constitutes an anthropological object. Parallel changes in concerns apply to the qualifying characteristics that authorize the claims and practices of the researcher. The dismissive claim that these concerns are “subjective” or “objective” qualifies in our view as a minor vice that blocks thinking about how previously tacit norms are being challenged and rethought.[415]

Given this situation, putting previously tacit criteria of worth and validity under critical examination would seem to be one of the demands of the day. Such an examination, we wholeheartedly agree, must include a broader and deeper understanding of the anthropological traditions to which we have alluded. Such an examination, we hold—and which HAU seeks to pursue—cannot mean resting in the past.


A key concept that facilitates motion, which has been previously largely underplayed in American anthropology and has been tacit in British anthropology, is that of an épreuve or “test” developed by a range of French sociologists during the 1980s and 90s.4 The concept of tests constituted a significant contribution to the tool kit of sociological inquiry. At least in retrospect, it opened the way to finer-grained ethnographic understandings that culture, society, and institutions were not simply thoroughly determining forces, but that, as Kant would have wanted to remind us, there was always some degree of latitude or freedom in human practice.

A further step in the development of this tool kit was forged in the French sociological context. It was shown that épreuves, if structural, were best studied in the course of action. For example, the sociology of tests, in Michael Pollack’s generative use of the concept, was mobilized in order to adequately grasp the narratives of Nazi camp survivors about the manner in which they maintained their identity during and after their years of internment (Pollack 1990). Without denying the pertinence of the sociological concept of habitus, Pollack argued that his inquiry revealed the need for a broader and more flexible repertoire to understand how persons lived through life in the camps. Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus issues from analyses of phenomena that have a high degree of institutional stabilization, in which persons are trying to gain or maintain capital in social games, or participate strategically in high-stakes fields (Lemieux 2008). Pollack observed that in an extreme situation such as the Nazi concentration and death camps, the assumptions embedded within concepts of habitus and field led away from rather than toward comprehension of what was going on experientially and practically.

The concept of test, in Pollack’s usage, was thus designed to offer a better grasp of the ethical and veridictional stakes of the object of research and the practice of the research itself. That is to say, the stakes did not turn per se on contesting Bourdieu’s theory, but rather stemmed from a finer-grained attention to the veridictional and ethical requirements of the object and objective of the inquiry. Although not thematized in these terms, this amounted to the inclusion of an additional operational perspective for inquiry, whose goal was not denunciatory but rather to contribute to the adequacy and enrichment of the inquiry itself.

Anthropological testing

Nevertheless, the work in France is a sociology of tests. The putting to the test of the sociologist herself in conducting an inquiry adequate to the object of inquiry is implicit, but is never part of the actual analysis. In line with HAU’s editorial call to draw on past repertoires of distinctive conceptual contributions, we propose that putting to the test be reintroduced beyond France and in a modified [416]anthropological manner.5 In recent years, we have been experimenting with a different manner in which this testing of concepts could be given an anthropological form. In Designs on the contemporary we put it into practice without elaborating its conceptual contours. At that juncture our inquiry had led us to two cases in which authorial figures were confronted with a range of tests (political, artistic, ethical, and social). Their responses were of interest given our endeavor to test our own conceptual repertoire (ideal types) concerning the proposed existence of breakdowns of a “modern ethos” and the remediation of such breakdowns by bringing them into a ratio with a “contemporary ethos.”

Case #1: Gerhard Richter. The ethos of modernist art practice has, in many domains, broken down. Nevertheless, the ethos does not disappear. Rather, the challenge for some contemporary artists and for their anthropological observers is to inhabit an ethos of art practice capable of taking up and remediating breakdowns in that past ethos. The challenge for anthropology is to test a mode and form of observation capable of grasping these ratios of ethos and practice. Not unlike Pollack, the process of inquiry led us to the need for this concept of the test. We were explicit, however, about the place of the analysis of the tests these “actors” were going through, tests of the ethos through which they could weather and traverse the challenges they faced, and the symmetrical need to account for the tests of the anthropologist’s ethos and manner in which to observe, describe, and analyze the indeterminate situations under scrutiny. The case of the image-making practices of Richter, taken up in Designs on the contemporary, is a step toward articulating an anthropology of tests as well as a test of anthropology and the anthropologists.

Case #2: Salman Rushdie. A second case, again taken up in Designs on the contemporary, is an analysis of the “affair” that emerged in the wake of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic verses. The core problem we raise is how observers of the affair, including anthropological observers such as Jeanne Favret-Saada and Talal Asad, attempted to grasp what was going on. We position ourselves at a second order of observation toward those second-order observers.

Asad denounces Rushdie and his liberal supporters for not understanding the reception of the content of the novel as injurious to some Muslims. His mode of observation relies on a critique of Rushdie as exemplifying a modern ethos of “self-fashioning” and a critique of modernity as an ethos that demands indetermination. In the textual field, this means that modernity as an ethos assumes “that the discourse called literature can fill the role previously performed by religious textuality” (Asad 1993: 287). Asad thus argues for the legitimacy of the counter-modern, which is his privilege, and also for the illegitimacy of the modern ethos, which is not.

Favret-Saada, by contrast, demonstrates an acute anthropological attention to what actually happened, asking how the affair was constituted (Favret-Saada 1992). She provides a powerful analysis of the social forms through which Rushdie’s novel was rendered into a blasphemous object. She thus creates a mode and angle of observation through which to dissolve the pertinence of claims about the affair as [417]turning on blasphemous content. She provides a warranted account of how the accusation of blasphemy was an institutional product of, rather than cause of, the affair. Thanks to her work, we were then in a position to ask how Rushdie’s own narration of what he was up to—his modern and modernist effort to write about religion as someone who does not believe in revealed truth—could be observed, given how he was being observed through the affair and in its aftermath by his denouncers and supporters. The test for the anthropologists was a test of an ethos through which to grasp the relations of force between modern and counter-modern ethē. We sought to provide a contemporary mood and form for observing the breakdowns in the affair and the failed attempts at repair and vindication.

The distinctiveness of an anthropological test (as opposed to a sociology or ethnography of tests) is that it simultaneously analyzes the indetermination and eventfulness of situations, practices, and forms of life under observation, as well as the indetermination of the subject-position, practice, and form of life of the one who observes that indetermination. Such an anthropology of tests and a test of anthropology is of necessity experiential and pragmatic, without being “phenomenological” or “subjective.” For Kant (see Wood 2003: 40) the “pragmatic” in pragmatic anthropology has four meanings: (i) as being simultaneously “characteristic” in the observing of how others act and “didactic” in being a self-forming inquiry; (ii) as indexing participation in a world; (iii) as useful for action; (iv) as being “prudential.” An anthropology of tests and a test of anthropology as we conceive it is then precisely “pragmatic” in Kant’s sense.

For Kant, the blockage to attaining a fully pragmatic ethical life turns on the anthropological problem of “egoism.” The problem of overcoming egoism requires three anthropological tests: the logical test of judgment against and with the understanding of others; the aesthetic test of whether taste is progressive, whether it manifests an openness to put one’s Gemüt [disposition, self-affectation] as a passive and active capacity of sensibility and imagination to the test with that of others; and a moral test, in which egoism is cast against what one owes to others in sharing a common form of life. Such tests of Gemüt should make visible that, as the Dewey scholar Tom Burke has it, “experience is necessarily perspectival relative to the operational capabilities of an agent; but this is not to say that it is necessarily subjective.” Burke (1994: 107) calls this “operational perspectivity.” Moreover, “as a matter of definition, experience is objective to the extent that any kind of agenda relative to peculiar needs and desires of the individual inquirer are relegated to irrelevance and have no functional role in that experience” (ibid.). Or at least this should be the case. The rise of identity politics has, frankly, obscured the power of such a significant operational principle. At its core, a pragmatic anthropology pertains to an object and situation that calls for inquiry in which there are both veridictional and ethical stakes.

Situations, concepts, and operations

Situations are bounded by the reach, scope or content of a living creature’s experience, where the problem in the end is to explain “experience as situated” not “situations as experienced.” (Burke 1994: 37)

[418]To state that the philosophical problem—“in the end”—consists in attempting to explain “experience as situated” makes the problem seem anthropological in the most traditional as well as in contemporary registers. What Dewey’s approach to philosophy, especially to logic, shares with anthropology understood in a pragmatic sense is both commonsensical—contextualizing what the natives are thinking and doing—and requires more sustained analysis than it has been given in recent years. In what ways, for example, does the traditional understanding of contextualizing differ from Dewey’s understanding of experience as situated?

Both contextualizing and understanding “experience as situated” involve judgment—judgment understood in Dewey’s sense as the attribution of a mode of being or action to a situation Up to this point, we have distinguished between three modes of anthropological judgment: a contextualizing mode of judgment; an evaluative mode; and a mode of putting to the test. We will argue that it is only the last of these, putting to the test, which enables judgments of experience as situated.

Contextualization typically involves the multiplication of variables (historical, cultural, political) and factors or parameters (timing, personalities, etc.) that enable the understanding or explanation of episodes and events. The inquirer in a contextualizing mode, however, allows the natives’ point of view to preside. Some contextualization is usually necessary in any inquiry. As a mode of judgment, however, contextualization is frequently deficient, especially with respect to the question of how and why the inquirer is the one doing the particular inquiry and of those operational capacities that facilitate the particular inquiry in question.

A mode of judgment with excessive focus on subject position is found in evaluation: It is excessive because the mode of judgment reduces the stakes of the inquiry to the subject position of the inquirer, who bases evaluation on his or her capacity to occupy a position in the discursive field. Evaluative modes of judgment are most explicit when used to identify the operation of ideology.

Putting to the test, in contrast, is a mode of judgment that seeks a mean between the effacement of the subject position of the inquirer and the excessive parameterization of inquiry by the subject position of the inquirer in the inquiry and the denunciation made possible because of the character of that subject position. Putting to the test demands a movement, in situ, between the operational capacities of the inquirer, the objects under inquiry and the objectives of inquiry.

Why are neither “from the native’s point of view” nor “the speaker’s benefit” the same as “operational perspectivism”? Burke’s proviso—“not situations as experienced”—orients us away from phenomenology and subjectivism towards at least one particular form of pragmatism. That form of pragmatism becomes anthropological when it actually operates at the level of specifics, particulars, and singularities rather than merely advocating such an orientation without putting it to the test of situations experienced.

The task, then, is to develop means to diagnose, analyze, and narrate experiences of inquiry as situated. In order to do so, some preliminary discussion of situations is required.


Dewey developed a distinctive use of the term situation. Burke is helpful in providing succinct glosses on Dewey’s use of the term. He writes:[419]

Situations, occurring in the ongoing activities of some given organism/environment system, are instances or episodes (or “fields”) of disequilibrium, instability, imbalance, disintegration, disturbance, dysfunction, breakdown, etc. (Burke 1994: 37)

Thus, for Dewey, situations are the site of thinking, since thinking is the activity that is occasioned by such instances or episodes of what can be called discordance or breakdown. Thus, situations are local in the sense of being circumscribed (spatially and temporally). In this light, thinking can be understood as an active response that seeks to rectify discordances or indeterminations within a situation. Identifying that there is a situation and proceeding to parse its contours is an important initial step in forming a diagnosis of a problem.

Burke underscores Dewey’s understanding of this dynamic process by insisting on the inescapability of experience in delimiting the nature of situations and responses to them. Dewey argues for an approach to thinking (as well as to logic) that is necessarily embedded in concrete practices and experiences. It is empirical:

In claiming that a theory of situations is “genuinely empirical,” Dewey is saying that situations are objective, concrete things. They are actual fields of organism/environment activity, subsisting within the manifold of “life functions” of some particular organism/environment system. (Burke 1994: 52)

Thus, situations are experiential and inquiry-based as their contours become identified, tested, rectified, and made available for more involvement. In that sense, they are experimental. Not every encounter, however, can be called an occasion for inquiry in the sense of a putting logic into action in a sustained and testable manner. If one has momentarily misplaced one’s keys and then remembers where she put them, there might well be a moment of thought or puzzlement involved, but such a resolution is not, properly speaking, an instance of inquiry.


Dewey’s attention to terms such as “situation,” “experience,” “concepts,” and “inquiry” are focused on cases where controlled thinking, sustained inquiry and ordered rectification come to the fore. Just as thinking is experiential and situated, so, too, Dewey understands the tools or equipment of thinking and logic as well as their objects as pragmatic practices, not abstract, context-free ideas or propositions. To cite Burke again: “Insofar as Dewey is interested in logic and not metaphysics, he talks about facts as elements of existence, not as elements of reality (as if that made any sense), and not as primitive and absolutely unquestionable (‘stubborn’) elements of knowledge” (1994: 215).

For Dewey, facts and inquiry proceed together; they are mutually intertwined. Dewey opposed other prominent schools of logic of his day, whose founders saw their task as forging propositions that mirrored, or corresponded to, or captured reality, a reality independent of and pre-existent to philosophic analysis. He was engaged for many years in an extended debate with Bertrand Russell over the nature of logic. For Dewey, contra Russell, logic was a practice of inquiry, not the construction of formal symbolic systems.[420]

Dewey defines concepts as habits. At first, this approach seems strange, even counter-intuitive, but it becomes less so once one specifies what type of habit qualifies as conceptual. Conceptual habits are reflective or, perhaps more accurately, second-order:

Concepts are more or less self-contained habits that have names or otherwise are subject to representation within some symbolic medium or other. As such, habits are representations of habits—or more precisely, habits-at-a-distance, capable of being held at bay by virtue of some kind of symbolic handle. (Burke 1994: 173)

Habits understood in this manner are both equipmental instruments for diagnosis and inquiry as well as tools for providing the possibility of a logic that proceeds from inquiry through the mediation of symbol systems at a second-order level. This second-order level will itself facilitate the articulation of further steps in an ongoing inquiry.

Habits and concepts both serve to sift and select possibilities in their own peculiar ways, but plain non-conceptual habits play this role in perception and in direct apprehension of things otherwise, while concepts function as such in processes of reflection. (Burke 1994: 173)

This claim about perception opens up a wide range of issues that cannot be taken up here.

Concepts function at a number of levels: one such level is guiding action, specifically action that is oriented towards carrying forward steps that clarify how inquiry in a situation should proceed.

Concepts are habits in a . . . straightforward sense—insofar as they are mechanisms for directly guiding reflective processes by mapping out ideas relevant in given situations. That is to say, insofar as at least some perceivable affordances will have been named or otherwise can be handled indirectly by some symbolic means, ideas represent affordances—in the sense that ideas are suggestions and support specific proposals about how to proceed in a given situation. (Burke 1994: 173)

What exactly Dewey means by affordances is not spelled out. It seems to be a technical term, but there is no gloss on it either by Dewey or his commentators:

In a different sense, ideas are affordances. Insofar as they pertain to the systematic use of representations, ideas point to lines of development by which reflective processes might work themselves out. In this sense, ideas are the affordances of reflection. And in this same sense, concepts are habits, but specifically with regard to agent/world interactions constituting the use of symbols. (Burke 1994: 173)

As commentators have explored in some detail, Dewey’s understanding of inquiry is both experiential and conceptual. The two terms are not identical, but they are inevitably linked:

The heart of Dewey’s conception of judgment, is an assertible conclusion of inquiry, whose subject is existential in content and whose predicate is ideational in content (together asserting what the facts of the case are and [421]if anything is to be done about them). Judgment should thus reflect an integration of existential and ideational aspects of inquiry. (Burke 2002: 143; Dewey 1934: 263)

This claim is not oriented to ideological judgments about good or bad, right or wrong, true or false, and the like. “What is to be done about them” means how to continue to conduct inquiry within a situation.

Operational perspectivism: Putting to the test

Although Dewey’s approach to logic is experiential, rooted in inquiry and situational, it is not subjective in his sense of the term:

In contrast to Kant—we want to distinguish operational perspectivity from subjectivity. Aprioristic perspectivism, especially in Dewey’s naturalistic and ecological sense where habits and attunements play more or less the same role in on-going experience as would Kant’s a priori forms of intuition . . . is not the same as, and does not entail any commitment to, subjectivism. Experience is necessarily perspectival, relative to the operational capabilities of the given agent; but this is not to say that it is necessarily subjective. (Burke 1994: 107; citing Dewey 1938: 13–14, 17, 102, 530–32)

Properly conducted inquiry is irreducible to subjectivity (distance had been built in from a phenomenology understood as a subject’s attention to an object). It isn’t based either in the proliferation of perspectives converging asymptotically at the reality of a situation.

Such a position—often wrongly ascribed to Nietzsche—would seem to assume that there is a matter of the case or situation that pre-exists breakdown and inquiry and consequently that multiplying perspectives would necessarily enrich understanding.

Such a position is far removed from Dewey’s logic. The reason it is far removed is that operational perspectivism is not a subjective positioning but the product and process of a rolling progression of steps within a controlled inquiry arising out of a breakdown. Such inquiry demands hypotheses as equipment in a process constituted in such a manner that they can be put to appropriate testing and, as appropriate, revised and reformulated. The goal of such hypothesis-driven inquiry is warranted judgments. Dewey, Burke argues, does not say that

every proposition is hypothetical, but rather that every (scientific) inquiry, and hence every judgment, involves the formulation and confirmation of hypotheses. . . . Formulating and refining hypotheses is necessary as part of reaching warranted judgment; but then, so is being clear about particular matters of fact, both prior to and subsequent to altering the dynamics of a given situation. If certain hypotheses, suggested by prior facts, are further confirmed by subsequent results of actions performed in accordance with the given hypotheses, and if this success remains stable in the course of ongoing testing of these hypotheses, then it is warranted, in asserting that those hypotheses are applicable to and descriptive of the given situation. (Otherwise new hypotheses have to be considered, and given facts need to be reviewed.) (Burke 1994: 214–15)[422]

Hence, the perspectivism at issue in this logic of inquiry is operational. Other observers could well have diverse experiences of breakdown or indeterminacy. Such observers would have a different understanding and a different experience of the situation and its concordant problems. Such differences should lead to modified hypotheses and progressions with a different process and directionality of inquiry. This diversity might well enrich understandings of problems and judgments about those problems that might well come to be seen as comparable. Such enrichment can only come about, however, through rigorous inquiry, not expansive subjectivism (or objectivism).

Steps toward the composition of inquiry: Putting to the test

A central component of the composition of inquiry in the human sciences is thus what we have been calling “putting to the test.” We identify three domains for operations of intellectual instrumentalities during inquiry in which putting to the test would be appropriate and would operate according to different criteria: (1) theoretical operations; (2) ideal-typical ones; and (3) casuistic ones. Presumably these forms will differ in their goals and means. They might also entail different forms of putting to the test, which could show excesses and deficiencies, as well as the possibility of a mean or virtuous form.


The challenge of how to understand and define “theory” is as old as Western philosophy itself. From Plato forward through the logical positivists and many, many others, debates have raged (and continue to simmer today) in the branches of the human sciences to which we are closest, those represented in HAU included. For our purposes here, let us simply follow a few broad guidelines, from a pragmatist frame, derived and defended elsewhere. Here are a series of claims about the status of theory within Dewey’s logic from Tom Burke, arguably the leading authority on the matter.

A theory, then, will be a more or less coherent set of definitions, axioms, or basic hypotheses and implications thereof, holding within a given world-view, possibly shared by many worldviews. (Burke 2002: 137)

If we think of theories as systems of definitions and hypotheses and everything that follows from them by given derivation rules, then many of our ideas arise in “constellation”’ that could not properly be called theories at all. (Burke 2002: 137)

With regard to inquiry more generally, scientific or otherwise, the notion of a theory is not rich enough to characterize the ideational aspects of inquiry. (Burke 2002: 136)

Theory then could serve as a tool for an initial orientation. It would draw on the history of approaches to similar problems while being vigilantly attentive to the historical changes in the form of such problems and such orientations. One might say that theory in this restricted sense draws on prior configurations of the actual [423]to provide an initial orientation to the present, rather than a ready-made frame of parameters and objects to which examples can be adjusted.

Excess: When a theory becomes a worldview (or the age of the world picture) it is no longer scientific, but is instead metaphysical.

Deficiency: A theory is deficient when it is so thin that it can apply with little effort to a wide range of examples. At times this deficient form follows from the excessive one: if everything happening during a period of time is “neoliberal,” for example, then the theory has answered the question before it explores anything.

Mean: Theory would be operating according to its mean if the examples obliged reflection on and at times corrections of the basic parameters. The point of the examples would be not only the demonstration of the power of the theory to diagnose and analyze significance but to increase the specificity of diagnosis and analysis. This movement would constitute a form of theoretical inquiry.


Theories are held to be true; or they can be said to correspond to the way things are. Theories have propositions and methods as the basis of their truth claims. A theory might well be improved by sharpening its parameters. If one were testing a theory, one would look for examples. These examples would be part of a demonstration of the theory’s strength. It would be relatively easy (but also a requirement) to multiply these examples. Such multiplications would not alter the basic structure of the theory. They would serve as a kind of demonstration of its consistency across seemingly different or disparate empirical materials. The goal of such multiplications is to test—or confirm—the range of the theory and to demonstrate its capacity to identify and delimit significant parameters. Theory here is thus understood as a general explanation or account of a phenomenon. A theory of the state, for example, would be a general explanation of the formation and characteristics of states. Historical sociologists, among others, spend their time debating methodological rules for establishing the warrantibility of such general accounts. Actor Network Theory, as another example, is a general account (although not an explanation) of the arrangements and outcomes of human and non-human actants in which referential classifications (binary distinctions) are demonstrated to be unstable or to dissolve in practice. As James Faubion reminds us, in their hypothetico-deductive modality, theorists model problems with axioms, infer hypotheses, and then test them with data of various sorts (Faubion 2011: 274–75). Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot are exemplary in the use of such modelling in their theorization of models of justification (Boltanski and Thevenot 1991). Presumably, a theory of the sort we have under consideration here cannot be refuted. In any case, the test would be to demonstrate how an example that is claimed to refute or fall outside the range of the theory actually could be accommodated (with or without modifications) within the original structure.

Ideal types

As invented and practiced by Max Weber, ideal types are a form of equipment designed to formulate hypotheses about reality and to put those hypotheses to the test within empirical domains. Weber is adamant that the ideal type should [424]not be understood to be a claim about reality. It is a tool to improve and refine diagnosis and further inquiry. It is a tool to hone concepts. Its objects can differ widely, depending on the type of problem being addressed. The goal of ideal-typification is to deploy concepts and to aim ultimately at the elaboration of significant new points of view. Such points of view are operational perspectives, not worldviews.

An ideal type, as the outcome of a disciplined inquiry using conceptual constructs,

has the significance of a purely ideal limiting concept with which the real situation or action is compared and surveyed for the explication of certain of its significant components. Such concepts are constructs in terms of which we formulate relationships by the application of the category of objective possibility. By means of this category, the adequacy of our imagination, oriented and disciplined by reality, is judged. (Weber 1949: 93).

Excess: Ideal-typical practices tend to be excessive when one loses sight of the starting principle that ideal types are not meant to be real or the goal of inquiry. In such situations ideal-typical equipment tends to blend into theory.

Deficiency: Ideal-typical practices are deficient when they become an end in themselves. If the only point is simply to test out whether one can construct an ideal type and apply it to empirical material, a reversal of priorities results whereby the tool becomes the end rather than the means.

Mean: Ideal types function correctly when they are used as tools for conceptual refinement.


Ideal types are put to the test via the examination of empirical materials so as to identify at once the significance of those types and of the materials they formalize. Ideal types are not the goal of such inquiry; they are expendable once they have served their initial purposes. Ideal types per se are not meant to be true or warrantable in Dewey’s sense; they are not propositions. Judgments about significance come at a later point in an inquiry and apply to different sorts of claims.

How then to put an ideal type to the test? As Weber points out, the anthropologist must confront the danger of using ideal types in making judgments of the significance of human practices. “Ideal types” are often used not only “logically” but also “practically” in grasping the significance of a given object of inquiry. The motivation for honing concepts for work on a specific problem can result in the concept containing “within it” the very idea of worth that prompted the search for concepts to work on the problem in the first place (Weber 1949: 92–97). Such self-containment was of great concern for Weber. The “ideas” in ideal types, insofar as they contain evaluations of worth, “are naturally no longer purely logical auxiliary devices, no longer concepts with which reality is compared, but ideals by which it is evaluatively judged.” Weber explicates the consequence of this methodological point: “Here it is no longer a matter of the purely theoretical procedure of treating empirical reality with respect to values but of judgments of worth which are integrated into the concept . . .” (a concept supposed to assist in [425]inquiry into phenomena) (Weber 1949: 98). Weber gives the example of his own work on religion, and of the problem of honing ideal types of “Christianity.” The concept risks containing “what, from the point of view of the expositor, should be and what to him is ‘essential’ in Christianity because it is enduringly valuable” (Weber 1949: 97).

In Weber’s view, two forms of an ideal type must be kept distinct: the form of the analytic construct (logical validity) that is used to grasp (and thus compare) reality and the form of the analytic construct that is used to judge and thus attribute a mode of being to that situation that has been grasped analytically (evaluative interpretation/judgment). Weber demands that the inquirer attend to “the line where these two ideal types diverge,” in order to afford both the discernment of judgments of worth and to take responsibility for the logical procedures through which such judgment is produced (Weber 1949: 98). (As we know, the basic premise of “scientific self-control” for Weber was the rigorous distinction between ideal types and ideals.)

Putting ideal types to the test initially therefore takes the form of rectification through logico-empirical exercises. Such exercises are tests of internal consistency as well as exercises directed toward empirical domains held to be fields of potential significance. The empirical, however, is not significant per se. Even so, it cannot be underplayed in pursuing rectification.

For us, however, Weber’s ethical distinction between logical validity and judgment does not entail their ethical separation. The significance of a “proposition,” or a concept, is not merely its scientific validity; the significance of a proposition about situations, or a concept that makes an observation possible, can only come from the judgments or the discernment that they make possible.


Casuistry proceeds through cases. Its object is neither the multiplication of examples nor the goal of general claims of significance towards which ideal-typical work tends, at least in Weber’s practice. Weber’s sociology of religions is not a theory that rises and falls on its empirical validity in a strict sense, but on its ability to provide a distinctive point of view that illuminates general significance.

Casuistry passes through particularity. Its goal in elaborating instances is to turn them into cases whose singularity cannot be overlooked or subsumed. The multiplication of cases would be a form of inquiry (at times collaborative) through which a topological field could be constructed. Such inquiry is pluralistic and must pass through the painstaking work of elaborating an operational perspectivity directed at singularity. The casuist must carry out such work with awareness that other cases might eventually be related through the contours of the operational perspectivity at play.

Excess: Casuistry is excessive if it turns toward metaphysics, as it does in its Jesuit form—that is to say, if and when its guiding principles are known in advance and fixed. A modified form of such guiding principles, a reflection on how to move from case to case, should be a goal and not a given.

Deficiency: Casuistry is deficient when the case becomes an end in itself. Singularity becomes the goal and not the parameter through which enrichment of other cases can be taken up and related.[426]

Mean: Casuistry as a form of contemporary inquiry takes the form of detailed exploration of cases undertaken with the full awareness that understanding has passed through modernity. This claim means that resting with theory or ideal types alone cannot offer a legitimate form of scientific consolation. If one rests with one or the other, either one has lost one’s way or remains a modern.


The significance of a case turns on a productive relation between the necessity of taking into account the particularity of a given case as well as the relevant metric that specifies that case and directs inquiry to pursue a series of analogical cases. A particular challenge for testing a case in anthropology is that, unlike in law and medicine, there are relatively few settled and uncontested forms, venues, and standards of judgment by way of which and through which what counts as a case can be taken for granted.

Contemporary casuistry requires a second-order—not merely reflective—form of operational perspectivism. It demands a testing whose criteria depend on making sure that one is not falling back into the modern ethos, an ethos of heroic irony and self-assertion (or the imaginary that we have never been modern). The casuist of the contemporary—the contemporary casuist—is aware that one is not seeking to emulate the fixed guidelines or principles of other times. What the casuist in question is attempting to discover are the parameters of a contemporary casuistry. The challenge is how to proceed with an ethos restive toward the present, recalcitrant toward its discordances, while seeking a form of generality.

Composition in anthropological inquiry: Toward a contemporary topology

How to think through integration and juxtaposition? More
generally, how to insert fragments into a form remains an
essential preoccupation for composition, even the essential preoccupation.
Without a justified insertion, the fragment remains
autonomous and the form does not really exist.
(Boulez 2005: 705)6

Upon reflection, what is important to underscore about our diagnostic mode of anthropological inquiry is that it takes aspects of each of the three types and assembles them in different manners, given the problem or breakdown at hand. We assemble these different operations given a space of problem-formation, given an aim of the conceptual specification and interconnection of these problems, and given the aim of specifying parameters of and interconnections among cases. The challenge is thus to compose modes of putting to the test during inquiry, which in our repertoire of theory, ideal-typical concept work and casuistry stand out as chief intellectual instrumentalities. The challenge is also to invent composed forms for [427]the interconnection of problems, concepts, and cases that pertain to these intellectual instrumentalities.

Although we do not do theory in a strict sense, without some already established broad sense of a problem and its diagnostic contours there would be no way to proceed except on a purely local or particular level. We do not do this; the lure of the ethnographic per se has for us had its day. We also have developed a good deal of equipment that, while not directly in the mode of the ideal type, can at least be used to bracket truth claims and to formulate a conceptual strategy (at times post hoc) for inquiry. Perhaps one could say that we deploy ideal types as concepts in hypotheses that both orient and guide inquiry towards making judgments. Although we certainly are oriented to cases, at least in a common-sense use of the term, we have not achieved either a strong sense of their parameters nor have we been able to train others to produce cases that might be amenable to the type of casuistic reflection we are imagining and attempting to practice. What a contemporary casuistic would look like remains a challenge.

We require more reflection on the interplay of objects and objectives in these three domains of the operation of intellectual instrumentalities. Burke’s observation about Dewey’s understanding of objects is helpful in this regard: “The nature of an object is not a ‘substance in which attributes adhere’ (as a subject of predicates) but a ‘constant correlation of variations of qualities’” (2002: 146). That is to say, the “object” of theory, an ideal type, or a case even, is not directly referential (leading to classification of events and things as tokens of general types to which they correspond) (see Faubion 2015).

Such a “constant correlation of variants of qualities” leads us in the direction both of Boulez’s reflections on composition as more than structure as well as toward a topological understanding of fields of objects.

As intellectual instrumentalities, theory, ideal-type work, and casuistry have different kinds of “objects.” Perhaps theory can be best understood, in our use, as an orienting device calibrated toward a problem space; ideal types might be better understood as an equipmental action that initiates or advances an inquiry already in process through the invention and refinement of concepts; they thereby facilitate the initial identification and interconnection of problems as elements within the inquiry process; casuistry aims toward the interconnection of cases relative to the specification of a problem space and concepts.

What is important to insist on is that our manner of conducting anthropological inquiry produces composed motion between these instrumentalities and objects: a problem space, concepts, and the cases of inquiry. Such motion operates at two levels, and therefore with dual objectives for working on the composition of these objects: (1) at the level of the inquiry into a specific singular case, the objective is to discern and gauge the significance and parameters of the specific case, with the aid of concepts and the demarcation of a problem. Then there is a second level, or second-order level, of inquiry whose objective is the composition of a “topology” of concepts, problems, and cases composed by the inquirers. As such we insist that such a mode of anthropology is produced through collaboration, permitting motion between individual inquiries and reflection between and among inquiries. On the one hand, there is therefore the composition of concepts and a problem (within [428]a problem space) relative to a case one is inquiring into (first order); on the other hand, there is second-order composition of problems, concepts, and cases.

The import of Dewey’s orientation to objects, and Boulez’s guidance in composition, can be underscored with respect to others who have recently revived an interest in topology: Giovanni da Col approvingly cites Edmund Leach as a forebear who had taken such topological thinking seriously. He cites the following: “A society is not an assemblage of things but an assemblage of variables.” And further on: “If I have a rubber sheet and draw a series of lines on it to symbolize the functional interconnections of some set of social phenomena and I then start stretching the rubber about, I can change the manifest shape of my original geometrical figure out of all recognition and yet clearly there is a sense in which it is the same figure all the time” (da Col 2013: xii). Leach, and da Col consequently, presuppose the nature of the object that is to be treated topologically. The “variation of qualities” that can be composed and arranged in an anthropological topology is vast and largely unexplored. It is much vaster than the category “society” (or structural-functional interconnections of social phenomena) would imply, or the use of “kinship” as the regulatory model system of such structures.

Our own nascent foray into experimentation with anthropological topology assembles variables that have been pertinent in our various inquiries, but which are absolutely not variables of society, structures (social or mental) or “culture”: gestures; power relations; affect-forms; modes of historicity; “survivals” (Nachleben) of modernity. Our initial orientation to topology is thus parameterized with respect to the historicity of its composition and the historicity of the objects composed within it, understood as a correlation of variations of qualities grasped in ongoing inquiry. These variables are thus identified with respect to the problems that orient inquiry. The composition of variables across problems specified in inquiry gives form to a problem space. We thus follow very precisely Weber’s injunction that what is demanded of the human sciences is to open up new points of view through the conceptual interconnection of problems. We further specify that this problem space of conceptual interconnections must take into account the historicity of the endeavor and the objects composed. We are thus pursuing something like a historical topology of the contemporary. We consider this a counterpart to and remediation of Foucault’s enlivening call many decades ago to undertake a historical ontology of “ourselves,” or else what he probably should have called a historical ontology of the “modern ethos” of anthrōpos.

It would seem that we derive our material for making warrantable anthropological judgments from cases. These judgments, however, can pertain either to the cases in their particularity or to the composition of relations between cases. If that were to be so, then to the return up the ladder to pursue further inquiry would operate at a second-order level. The hope was (is) that after a certain amount of this work, this motion, one could have enough warrantable claims to begin the process of making them variables in a topological space; hypothetically, cases, concepts, and well specified problems would provide us with the subject matter for judgments at this second-order, topological level. Once again, Dewey is a crucial precedent:[429]

The heart of Dewey’s conception of judgment, is an assertible conclusion of inquiry, whose subject is existential in content and whose predicate is ideational in content (together asserting what the facts of the case are and if anything is to be done about them). Judgment should thus reflect an integration of existential and ideational aspects of inquiry. (Burke 2002: 143; cf. Dewey 1934, LW 10, 263–64)

These moves and their relations also and again call to mind many of the analyses of Pierre Boulez on composition. At this juncture it is enough to say that we are attempting to discover the parameters of a rigorous process that would enable us to articulate second-order criteria for topological composition—a mode of form-giving distinct from both curation and comparison.


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Paul RABINOW is is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Of his many publications, the most recent include Demands of the day: An experiment with synthetic biology (with Gaymon Bennett, 2012), and Demands of the day: On the logic of anthropological enquiry (with Anthony Stavrianakis, 2013). A more complete list of his work can be found via anthropos-lab.net.

Paul Rabinow
Department of Anthropology
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94705

Anthony STAVRIANAKIS is a research fellow (Chargé de recherche) at the CNRS, France. He received his PhD from UC Berkeley in 2012. Broadly, his work focuses on forms and practices of ethical judgment in science and medicine and, along with Paul Rabinow, he helps to animate Anthropological Research on the Contemporary (www.anthropos-lab.net), a collaborative virtual laboratory dedicated to anthropological inquiry into breakdowns in modern norms and forms, as well as their contemporary remediation. His current project is a historical and anthropological project on assisted dying, which takes up changes in medical practices toward the ending of life since the nineteenth century. He is particularly interested in the moral anthropologies at stake in medical practice especially during the late enlightenment (1790–1820) and in the recent past (1975–present). As part of the contemporary inquiry into the crossing of medical and moral anthropologies he is currently conducting fieldwork on assisted suicide in Switzerland, supported by the Wenner Gren foundation.

Anthony Stavrianakis
7, rue Guy Môquet
94801 Villejuif Cedex


1. Publication made possible in part by support from the Berkeley Research Impact Initiative (BRII) sponsored by the UC Berkeley Library.

2. Weber’s two “anti-critical” essays were written in 1909–10: “Anti-critical remarks [Antikritisches] regarding the ‘Spirit’ of capitalism” was published in January 1910; the “Anti-critical last word regarding the ‘Spirit’ of capitalism” was published the following September. These essays were vigorous responses to attacks on Weber’s work by the historian Felix Rachfahl. See “Rebuttal of the critique of the ‘spirit’ of capitalism” (1910) (Weber’s first rejoinder to Felix Rachfal)” and “A final rebuttal of Rachfal’s critique of the ‘spirit’ of capitalism” (1910), in Weber 2002: 244–340.

3. For an alarmingly clear refusal of the stakes of truth and ethics in collaborations between social and natural sciences see Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, “Entangled in the collaborative turn: Observations from the field,” Somatosphere, http://somatosphere.net/2014/11/entangled.html.

4. For a recent overview, see Barthe et al. 2013.

5. In her own inimitable manner, Jeanne Favret-Saada’s works on bewitching and unwitching ([1977] 1980) indexes precisely the subjectivational and veridictional challenges for the anthropologist who integrates the testing of her self into the subject matter of the inquiry.

6. In the original French: “Comment penser intégration et juxtaposition, comment, plus généralement, insérer les fragments dans la forme, cela reste une préoccupation essentielle de la composition, et même la préoccupation essentielle; sans une insertion justifiée, le fragment reste à son autonomie, et la forme n’existe pas vraiment.