Moodswings in the anthropology of the emerging future

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Arjun Appadurai. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.002


Moodswings in the anthropology of the emerging future

Arjun APPADURAI, New York University

Comment on Ortner, Sherry. 2016. “Dark anthropology and its others: Theory since the eighties.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1): 47–73.

It is always a pleasure to read Sherry Ortner’s views on how anthropology has developed, and how it reflects the contexts in which it is produced. So it is with this fine reflection on what she calls “dark anthropology” (Ortner 2016), works of ethnography and theory in the last three decades that, through the dark glass of neoliberalism, draw our attention to the ever-increasing saturation of our lives by the workings of power, violence, and exclusion. There is hardly a sentence of this essay with which I disagree, and so I am pleased to confine myself to further reflections on the line of thought that Ortner has so elegantly put before us.

Let me begin with “neoliberalism,” a category which Ortner defines helpfully to support her argument that dark anthropology is largely a response to this historical regime and to its special capacity to produce suffering and injustice. Her essay reminded me that I have made little use of this category in my own work, and I now wonder why. In essence, the label “neoliberalism” refers to that moment or epoch in which liberalism becomes an instrument of advanced capitalism by making the state the guarantor of legal, political, and ideological freedoms for capitalist corporations, whereas these freedoms were once intended for the individual. “Neo” here indicates this momentous shift in the subject of liberal freedoms in our time. The trouble with this category is that it has become too loose, something of a catchall for such a varied body of phenomena that it runs the risk of dulling our critical senses. A concept that can equally be used to understand, among other [2]things, surveillance, deregulation, privatization, and financialization as features of our current political economy cannot be a nuanced tool. Ortner does not fall prey to this looseness, but I wonder if her reliance on the category of neoliberalism compromises somewhat her powerful historicization of the relationship between dark and bright anthropologies. Could it be, for example, that the deeper reason for this growth of temperamental opposites in Euro-American anthropology owes itself to a tectonic shift in contemporary capitalism which requires its subjects, as individuals, to operate on hope, aspiration, and images of the good life while its financial, actuarial, and algorithmic instruments increasingly render us dividuals who are indexed by our profiles as bearers of risk, disease, debt, or dysfunction?1 Perhaps we can extend Ortner’s diagnosis of the struggle between more and less hopeful anthropologies if we shed the conceptual conveniences of the category of neoliberalism.

Ortner also observes that the interest of anthropologists in colonialism and postcolonialism is connected to the growing influence of the category of neoliberalism. As a scholar who had the privilege of being trained by Bernard Cohn, an early figure in the cultural study of colonialism whom Ortner also mentions favorably, I did my doctoral dissertation on a South Indian temple, which I approached as an object of ethnographic and historical study. In those days, the early 1970s, the anthropology of colonialism was in its infancy, but it grew to prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s, in the work of many anthropologists whom Ortner discusses in her essay. Yet the study of colonialism by anthropologists was soon to be overshadowed by the study of the postcolonial condition, an interest that owed much to literary and cultural studies coming from the critical humanities in the United Kingdom and the United States. There is something of a chasm between the anthropology of colonialism and the anthropology of the postcolonial world. This chasm also reflects the swing from approaches in anthropology that were primarily concerned with power, domination, and empire to those in which texts, meanings, and interpretation were more valued. Ortner has much to say on the tension between the political economy and the culturalist approach, one of her long-term preoccupations. The generalized victory of the culturalist approach within anthropology, exemplified by the prestige of Clifford Geertz and Marshall Sahlins in the 1970s and 1980s among anthropologists working in the United States, also explains the general decline in interest in colonialism and imperialism, and a growing interest in what Achille Mbembe called the “postcolony.” One might even wonder if one of the pernicious ideological effects of the category of neoliberalism is to erase the memory of colonialism and empire in favor of more contemporary modes of governmentality.

Ortner concludes her essay with a rich discussion of recent anthropological work on resistance, activism, and social movements, including my own, which she sees as incorporating and mediating the struggle between dark anthropologies and anthropologies of the good, of ethics and of happiness. I applaud her interest in these anthropologies of aspiration and possibility. These studies recognize that aspiration and hope, like despair and suffering, also have a cultural logic and [3]are shaped by language, history, and context. They contest the dominant developmentalist belief in the universality of ideas of the good life and of justice, freedom, and equity. They also undermine the older modernization theory bias, which saw all human societies as heading toward a Euro-American moral consensus around ideas of equality, liberty, and reason. These recent studies of the good life and its varieties thus also incorporate the Foucauldian fear of capillary governmentality, but they avoid the Foucauldian tendency to batten down the hatches and close the doors to resistance and change.

Resistance has always been a subject of interest to Ortner, and she returns to it in this essay, along with thoughts on the anthropology of activism and social movements. The ebb and flow of interest among anthropologists in the topic of resistance provokes some interesting thoughts from Ortner, who also wonders about the periodic resistance to resistance among anthropologists. I, too, wonder about this fluctuation. One source of it is surely that the anthropological concept of culture long associated culture with coherence, consensus, and integration, all features that the discipline historically tended to associate with small-scale societies. In the last few decades there has been growing interest in dissonance, debate, conflict, and diversity within cultures. This development is surely one of the positive accompaniments of the turn to dark anthropology. But resistance is not the same as incoherence or dissonance. It implies a political critique of the dominant cultural order. And when it comes to political critique, anthropology has never had much to say that comes from its own point of view. When anthropologists speak of resistance, they generally draw on Marx or on Foucault, or sometimes on some combination of the two. Ortner thoughtfully discusses these sources of critical anthropology. But a bigger question remains to be more fully explored, and that is the question of why anthropology has not had more insights into the variety of forms that resistance might take, on resistance as a cultural fact. The root problem may be that there is still a temperamental gap between anthropologists interested in resistance and those interested in diversity and difference, traceable to the gap between political economy and culturalist approaches, so central to Ortner’s account. Perhaps we are now ready for an anthropology of and for resistance, which takes the diversity of images of the good life into fuller account when discussing resistance, so that it becomes a matter not just of refusal but of culturally inflected aspiration.

These thoughts are among the many that Ortner’s essay provoked in me. It is magisterial in its account of the Euro-American anthropology of the last three decades. It is also admirably plural, skeptical, and engaged. In these dark times, Ortner’s voice and tone are as much to be admired as her ideas. Her essay reminds us that it is possible to be a big thinker and still to remain lucid, generous, and optimistic. Anthropology could do with more Ortners!


Appadurai, Arjun. 2015. Banking on words: The failure of language in the age of derivative finance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.[4]

Ortner, Sherry B. 2016. “Dark anthropology and its others: Theory since the eighties.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (1): 47–73.


Arjun APPADURAI is Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and is currently a Visiting Professor in the Institute for European Ethnology at Humboldt University (Berlin). His most recent book is Banking on words: The failure of language in the age of derivative finance (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Arjun Appadurai
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14197 Berlin


1. I discuss the contemporary implications of the contrast between “individuals” and “dividuals” in Banking on words (Appadurai 2015).