Dialectical dreams

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Carol J. Greenhouse. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.004


Dialectical dreams

Carol J. GREENHOUSE, Princeton University

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

Sherry Ortner’s “Dark anthropology and its others” is a daring and welcome venture, as she takes stock of sociocultural anthropology in a time of flux. The essay tracks her sense of dialectic: “dark anthropology” (by which she means accounts of oppression and suffering) prompts a response in the form of “anthropologies of the good” (by which she means accounts of humanitarianism, solidarity, and resilience)—their differences resolving in what she refers to as the reemergence of studies of resistance. Dark anthropology “asks us to see the world in terms of power, exploitation, and chronic pervasive inequality” (Ortner 2016: 50). The anthropology of the good—glossed in her essay as “the happiness turn”—“makes sense precisely as a reaction to that work” (ibid.: 59). The new anthropology of resistance combines these two movements, focusing on cultural critique, critique of capitalism, and “deep participation” in activist movements (ibid.: 61–64). Ortner names neoliberalism as the axis that sustains the dialectic.

The reemergence of resistance, in her account, harkens back to the period just after her 1984 essay leaves off (citing Comaroff 1985, among others). Today, resistance theory is renewed with a difference. After the 1980s, as she tells it, resistance theory “faltered” in the disappointment over the failures of the American Dream and the postmodernist end to grand narrative (2016: 61). And this time, the renewed energy for resistance is coming not from the critique of coloniality and hegemony (two themes in her 1984 essay) but from anthropologists’ direct participation in activist networks opposed to neoliberal globalization (ibid.: 47–48, 51, 63; see also Garces 2011). The conclusion is an embracing cheer for all three positions and their contradictions (and beyond): “We need [12]it all” (2016: 66). Such a condensed narrative is inevitably selective, and Ortner modestly acknowledges some deliberate omissions (adumbrated as the ontological turn, the affective turn, and ethnographic history; ibid.: 48). Even with those omissions, the essay is a treasure trove of references—far more than a head start for anyone interested in catching up on the ethnography of the contemporary United States, and gaining a sense of how it might be integrated into the discipline’s wider fields of knowledge.

There is a beguiling vertigo in reading the 1984 essay after this one—they are messages from different worlds in some ways, but in other ways it seems time has accumulated without passing (pace Evans-Pritchard). The earlier essay registers the tenor of a time when Western anthropologists found themselves unexpectedly tested by the end of colonialism and rise of social movements. Suddenly characters in the very stories they were writing, anthropologists began to worry seriously about the scientific and ethical integrity of their discipline. The resulting fragmentation of the field was (in Ortner’s 1984 account) a direct response to the fragmentation of state power at home and abroad—an unraveling on the sharp edge of a realization that some of the discipline’s paradigms had relied on forms of hegemony that few were now prepared to defend. That earlier essay preceded by two years both Writing culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) and Anthropology as cultural critique (Marcus and Fischer 1986), and it is surprising now to see how evident the postmodern moment was even before the moment arrived. Postmodernism (so-called) was a salutary opening to the discipline’s transformation and (paradoxically, perhaps) its ethnographic renewal, as settled paradigms gave way to the always-unsettled knowledge demands of grounded engagement. Anyone who remembers reading Ortner’s essay for the first time in 1984 will recall its bracing effect, as Ortner gathered those theoretical “shreds and patches” (her phrase, borrowed from Lowie, borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan) and rewove them into new cloth. The first part of the 1984 essay repositions the squabbles of the day onto a fabric made of “Parsonian/Durkheimian” functionalism along the warp threads (anthropologists’ “dominant view of the world”), and a Marxist/Weberian fusion along the weft (packing Marx’s concerns with “economic exploitation” into Weber’s concerns with political systems) (Ortner 1984: 146). In the second part of the essay, she raises these submerged traditions into full view, with Victor Turner as heir to Durkheim, and Clifford Geertz as the avatar of Weber (ibid.: 128). As her discussion draws to a close, these two lines of theorizing become the armature of an “intellectual dialectic” (ibid.: 160) in which the tensions between structure and agency ultimately resolve in practice as the theoretical hallmark of the age. It is arresting to realize that the essay, though replete with references to many anthropologists who today’s graduate students probably no longer know, nevertheless brings us to this familiar point—a moment that has not passed.

It is fascinating to read that essay again, and recover the sense of problem that underlay the appeal of practice theory. Thirty-plus years later, in Ortner’s new essay, agency and practice are givens. It is neoliberalism that perfuses anthropological theorizing now (2016: 48). In “Dark anthropology and its others,” Ortner underscores what has become a pervasive politicization of the cultural field since the 1980s, in theory and in the world, and in this I feel she is very correct. The modernization of anthropology has periodically been advanced by anthropologists [13]attuned to political change—responding directly or indirectly to crisis and corresponding developments in adjacent disciplines. Cultural relativity, historical particularism, structural functionalism, interpretivism, and postmodernism—not to speak of the commitment to field-based ethnography itself—are examples of anthropologists’ efforts over time to provide an account of difference that is intellectually, ethically, and politically sustainable. Some of those developments are so deeply embedded in the fabric of the discipline that their specific engagements are now difficult to retrieve (see Gledhill 2000; Vincent 1990). To borrow from Ortner’s references, for example, interpretivism emerged directly from the knowledge demands of the Cold War, as seen from its contested margins (Geertz 1973). Discourse came to ethnography through post-Marxist critique (Williams 1976). And as the Cold War waned, anthropology’s engagement with postmodernism (and the intensity of those debates) may be understood at least in part as a broad response to new forms of liberalism on a global scale. In the United States, identity came into the discipline at that same time, a gesture of resistance to the uncoupling of race and class that was the hallmark of the bipartisan political mainstreaming of neoliberalism (Greenhouse 2012).

In Ortner’s account of anthropology since the 1980s, neoliberalism is both an object of study and a framework for understanding. The generality of that formulation is indeed current in some quarters in the discipline, and the essay pushes us to consider what more might be needed to make neoliberalism more specifically available to ethnography—since as a generality, it tends to fall into the background. Ortner defines neoliberalism in general terms as a “new and more brutal form of capitalism” (2016: 48). She notes that neoliberalism has been “very extreme” in the United States, where its effects are evident as “upward transfers of wealth and its impact on American politics” (ibid.). I am not convinced that the US experience with neoliberalism is more extreme than in other countries, but perhaps she means that proponents of neoliberal policies were prominent in the United States. Or perhaps she is referring to the shock of the shareholder revolution, the end of federal welfare entitlements, the weakening of antidiscrimination protections, the crime policies that fueled mass incarceration, the unilateralist national security policy that coupled military alliances to bilateral investment, and the US Supreme Court’s unfettering of corporate wealth into the political process in its Citizens United decision (558 US 310, 2010)—among other possible examples. These are among Ortner’s longstanding ethnographic concerns, and they might well be among the developments in the United States (the main focus of her essay) that merit her assessment that “conditions were particularly ‘dark’” in the period covered by the essay from the 1980s to the 2010s.

She acknowledges that neoliberalism is not uniform, and that it doesn’t “explain” everything—for example, she tells us that “issues of race and gender, and religion and ethnic violence, have their own local histories and internal dynamics” (2016: 48). But neither can race, gender, and class be set apart from the sharp contests over rights, the “free market,” policing, and national security that were—are—reshaping the lives of individuals and communities, and the political landscape. In the essay, US neoliberalism serves as a “backdrop” (ibid.) against which these other things (local histories, including the history of anthropology) become visible. A more specific engagement with neoliberalism might yield a fuller picture of [14]its connections and disjunctions in practice—a suggestion I take to be congenial to Ortner’s analysis. From that perspective, part of the interest in the ontological, affective, and historical “turns” left off of her roadmap (perhaps because they did not mainly develop out of the US ethnographic space) would be the extent to which they rework the three main positions she reviews—fueling new debates about agency, epistemology, and reflexivity (see Bessire and Bond 2014). Those debates speak to the three positions she dialectically conjoins—holding them apart as political projects and troubling the implication of their commensurateness as critique of neoliberalism.

As neoliberalism reaches its limiting conditions (including but not limited to the resurgence of community-based politics and counterglobalization movements), it is clear that it has all along involved not only global capitalism but also the state systems that put it in place. In this sense, Ortner’s essay maps the conditions that make states, law, and regulation ripe for ethnographic reconsideration—with a fresh sense of problem. Anthropology has tended to follow neoliberalism into the private sector (as Ortner’s review of literature demonstrates); however, states and transnational bodies are also central to a critique of that project, as those are key sites of contestation and active resistance. The pervasive restructuring of public/private relations under neoliberalism (mainly by contract) suggests that there is scope for rethinking anthropology’s conventions of scale and social distance (see Valverde 2009).

The contribution of the “cultural turn” a generation ago yielded a rich ethnography of power while in a sense dematerializing the state—that is, formulating state power as an interior sensibility rather than as the directly coercive effects of an organized entity (in the Weberian sense). For cultural studies scholars, this provided a theoretical solution to the question of the state’s incorporeal quality, bringing probing attention to “stateness” in discourse, and its subjective effects as “a cultural revolution” (to borrow from Corrigan and Sayer 1985). For anthropologists, too, the formulation of states as discursive formations provided a solution to the conceptual dilemmas of states’ apparent immateriality or social distance. But today we see that states are experience-near, with highly corporeal effects—on workers, migrants, prisoners, detainees, protesters, just to begin a long list of examples—central to the phenomenology of power on a human scale. The recombinant governance that is neoliberalism’s hallmark has drawn states well into anthropology’s domains, as public and private interests are pressed together in the name of liberalism.

Ortner observes in relation to the “anthropology of the good” that there is currently some renewed interest in Durkheim as a “theorist of society as a moral universe” (2016: 50, 59). To conclude with a footnote: it is interesting to note the return appearances of Durkheim and Marx in the essay, as classic authors still read after 1984. By Ortner’s account, Durkheim is for the most part still tethered to a reception tradition that associates him with a “static functionalist perspective” and Marx with a “general model of capitalist modernity” (ibid.: 50). (She mentions these renderings but does not endorse them.) The flattening of these authors’ critical hermeneutics into static or general models is ripe for reassessment. Both authors break with illusions of generality in their attention to the human scale, where new futures are thinkable. The persistence of that reception tradition is ironic, particularly in [15]the case of Durkheim, whose dialogue with Marx’s “division of social labor” has so much to offer in terms of meeting the critical demands of neoliberalism today. Division of labor was fundamentally Durkheim’s critique of contract as the basis of the social, and Elementary forms of religious life was his essay on the creative openness of social time.


Bessire, Lucas, and David Bond. 2014. “Ontological anthropology and the deferral of critique.” American Ethnologist 41 (3): 440–56.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Comaroff, Jean. 1985. Body of power, spirit of resistance: The culture and history of a South African people. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Corrigan, Philip, and Derek Sayer. 1985. The great arch: English state formation as cultural revolution. Oxford: Blackwell.

Garces, Chris. 2011. “Occupy Wall Street, open ethnography and the uncivilized slot.” Intergraph 3 (2/3). http://intergraph-journal.net/enhanced/vol3issue2/3.html. Accessed October 3, 2016.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Gledhill, John. 2000. Power and its disguises: Anthropological perspectives on politics. Second edition. London: Pluto Press.

Greenhouse, Carol J. 2012. The paradox of relevance: Ethnography and citizenship in the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Marcus, George E., and Michael M. J. Fischer. 1986. Anthropology as cultural critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1984. “Theory in anthropology since the sixties.” Comparative Studies of Society and History 26 (1): 126–66.

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

Valverde, Marianne. 2009. “Jurisdiction and scale: Legal ‘technicalities’ as resources for theory.” Social and Legal Studies 18 (2): 139–57.

Vincent, Joan. 1990. Anthropology and politics: Visions, traditions and trends. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1976. Keywords. London: Collins.[16]


Carol J. GREENHOUSE is Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. Her research and teaching are primarily in the areas of law, politics, and democratic discourses in the federal United States. Her most recent book is The paradox of relevance: Ethnography and citizenship in the United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

Carol J. Greenhouse
Department of Anthropology
Princeton University
116 Aaron Burr Hall
New Jersey 08544-1011