Through a glass, darkly

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © James Laidlaw. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.005


Through a glass, darkly

James LAIDLAW, University of Cambridge

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 (1984) paper on “Theory in anthropology since the sixties” was an extraordinarily skillful, timely, and influential synthesis of what a range of anthropologists and others were thinking at the time, and it set a theoretical agenda for many within the discipline for years to come. Her new essay, clearly intended to be an update of its predecessor, displays many of the same qualities of breadth of range and skill in synthesis, and is equally effective in giving voice to widely shared concerns and attitudes in the discipline. If some of what I say below argues more or less directly against some aspects of Ortner’s presentation, this is a quarrel not so much with her as with the anthropology she describes. And insofar as it is with her, it has to be said that it is also indebted to her, because she has enabled me to see more clearly a number of things about recent anthropological discourse that I had perceived only dimly before, and to see in a new way what might be at stake in them. I agree wholeheartedly, moreover, with one of Ortner’s principal recommendations—to “rethink the seemingly monolithic category of ‘capitalism’” (2016: 65)—the difference being that I think this will require a rather more comprehensive theoretical retooling than she seems to contemplate here, including rethinking the equally problematically monolithic category of “neoliberalism.”

The story Ortner tells in this article is of anthropology’s response to how the world has changed in the last few decades, a set of changes that are presented as being unrelentingly negative—unraveling social fabric, spiraling inequality, intensifying conflict—virtually all of which she sees as so many facets of the all-pervasive force of neoliberalism. The “dark anthropology” that has documented this dystopian scene, and described lives lived in conditions of marginalization, exclusion, [18]and uncertainty, has also been, by Ortner’s account, a theoretical interrogation, and moral prosecution, of neoliberalism. She discerns the emergence of two complements to this central theoretical endeavor: anthropologies of the good, on the one hand, and of activism, on the other, which are to serve that greater enterprise, as cheering relief and motivating fillip, respectively. But neither is looked to as a source of theoretical innovation in itself. I shall leave others to comment on the anthropology of activism. But the anthropology of ethics and the good, I suggest, is rather a profound departure from the very premises of dark anthropology.

Ortner does express some hesitancy that her accounts both of the world at large and of anthropology might be partial. She acknowledges that there have been theoretical developments that are not obviously best understood as responses to neoliberalism, though she doesn’t venture an opinion on whether they are also to be explained in an indirect way by it, or by some other facet of the contemporary world, or are, on the other hand, outside the explanatory paradigm of the paper in general. What is more striking, perhaps because it ought logically to be inessential to her arguments, is the relentlessly one-sided negativity of her account of how the world has gone since the 1970s. She worries this, too, might be partial, but only in the sense of being parochially American, and the relatively stagnant earnings and increasing job insecurity of the American middle class do seem to be especially acutely felt. But it is not so much the national distribution of misery that seems unbalanced. The point is significant, and worth commenting upon, because Ortner here, as on many points, is brilliantly lucid and accurate in representing the content and tone of the anthropology she describes.

The grim things that have happened during recent decades are undoubtedly many, and should be given full weight. But the period in question has also seen global levels of absolute poverty, illiteracy, child malnutrition, and child labor fall at what are in all probability the fastest rates in human history. It has seen life expectancy increase sharply, and the near eradication of a number of diseases that only a few decades ago killed millions every year. It is also the case that during this period the proportion of the world’s population living in servitude has fallen sharply, that large numbers of people who were formerly persecuted and oppressed on account of factors such as gender, race, sexuality, or disability enjoy many greater rights and freedoms than heretofore in a wide range of countries, and that a considerably smaller proportion of the world’s population now lives under authoritarian, tyrannical, or dictatorial regimes, and a higher proportion under at least moderately accountable electoral democracies. A picture of the world and how it has changed in the last several decades that leaves all this out, or that gives the impression that more or less all change has been for the worse, whether that picture emerges in a single polemical paper or, more seriously, cumulatively by weight of publications in an entire academic discipline, is getting something fairly important wrong.

And we get a clue as to what that might be from a really very striking omission from the paper. By Ortner’s account, the most consequential thing that has happened in recent world history is the rise of neoliberalism. But however narrowly or broadly that phenomenon is interpreted, from the writings and ideas of authors such as Mises, Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan, or more expansively including policies that might be attributed ultimately to some degree to their influence, even if implemented by people who have never heard of them, and of whom they would [19]heartily have disapproved, it will just not bear scrutiny to attribute to it the most dramatic and far-reaching changes of the era. At best, neoliberal ideas might have played a subsidiary role in causing (their subsequent dissemination was certainly itself a consequence of) the incomparably larger and more important defining event of the period covered by Ortner’s essay, arguably indeed the most important thing that happened in the second half of the twentieth century, but of which she makes absolutely no mention at all, namely the systemic failure and collapse of Soviet communism, and, with the almost complete abandonment of Marxist economics by the most significant remaining communist polities (China and Vietnam), the effective exit from the historical stage of Marxist socialism.

Now it is admittedly a complex and interesting question just to what degree the material failure of “actually existing socialism” constitutes a refutation of Marxist social theory. Pretty well all academic Marxists, pretty well right up to the moment this happened, firmly maintained what was then called “the unity of theory and practice,” so they at least ought to have been fairly irrevocably committed to the conclusion that what happened was very bad news indeed for the theory. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that they were correct in having held that position, and perhaps the many who more or less seamlessly abandoned it in favor of retaining commitment to the theory itself were right after all? Perhaps the apparently repeated patterns of purges and mass famines really were caused by chance concatenations of individual “mistakes” and “natural calamities”? Perhaps the repeated systemic failures really were because the theory hadn’t been applied “correctly,” yet again? These are not the arguments I wish to enter into here. What I do wish to comment on is just one consequence of the fact that, all these events notwithstanding, as Ortner rightly points out, the framework of Marxist political economy became so dominant in anthropology from the 1980s.

Ortner describes the major political, economic, social, and cultural changes across the globe which have been seen as resulting from “neoliberalism,” and she describes how Marxist perspectives “came to prevail” in anthropology, as if these were independent developments. But my contention is that they are not: the former is a consequence of the latter. It is only through the dark-tinted glasses of a Marxist orientation, in a world that has moved so resolutely against the expectations that orientation inculcates, that so much of what has changed looks to be so unified.

A Marxist framework for the analysis of the global political economy commits you to certain concepts and beliefs, whether more or less consciously: the labor theory of value; wealth creation as a necessarily zero-sum game (“the enrichment of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless . . . the division of the world into rich and poor nations . . . as a result of . . . the extraction of wealth from the colonies of the past” [Ortner 2016: 51]); the absolute impoverishment of an increasingly large working class in advanced capitalist societies; declining rates of profit; consequently declining technological innovation; the erosion of national and religious in favor of class identities; and, of course, the inevitable and irreversible replacement of crisis-ridden capitalist economies by socialist societies, which then proceed toward full communism. If and insofar as the basic tenets of Marx’s analyses of world history and the dynamics of capitalism are correct, all this does indeed follow “inexorably” and may be confidently expected, as he modestly said himself. The confidence such an analysis, were it correct, would inspire [20]is reflected in the impressively millennial tenacity with which some authors still refer, long after it has outlived its supposed successor stage in world history, to “late capitalism.” If all this is what your theoretical premises and analytical (as well as political and moral) commitments lead you to expect, then it is understandable that the major trends of recent history—complex, various, and heterogeneous as they may be—can come to seem to have a certain unity, insofar as basically none of them are conforming to these predictions. They are all part of the same historical “deviation.” They are all moves away from rather than toward state socialism as it was conceived mid-twentieth century, even if they are moves away in divergent directions. The fact that they are all moves away from Marxist socialism in truth endows these various trends with no real unity of cause, structure, form, moral valence, or consequence, except when viewed through the spectacles of Marxist presuppositions and hopes. “Neoliberalism,” as it appears in so many anthropological texts—as a designation not for a specific set of ideas or policies but for everything the author doesn’t like—is the name of the optical illusion that results. And this must also be how so many other salient trends that cannot be readily fitted into the metanarrative of the rise of neoliberalism can fail to come into view, as is the case in Ortner’s paper, from the eradication of major diseases to the rise of militant Islam. These latter are not so much counter to as unimaginable within the terms of the theory and its predictions. What Ortner’s spirited and in many ways inspired narration illustrates, I think, is that in a world after Marxist socialism, a Marxist anthropology cannot but be an anthropology of real-world negations of Marxism. And in such a project, “neoliberalism,” as the catchall concept for its anguished concerns, must needs expand almost indefinitely.

It is necessary at this point to say a few words about how the thought of Michel Foucault appears in Ortner’s account of recent anthropology. Once again, as with the anthropology of neoliberalism, I think Ortner summarizes with devastating accuracy what has occurred. Even if no one until very recently (e.g., Bidet 2016) has explicitly argued for it, and notwithstanding Foucault’s repeated statements distancing himself from Marxism, there has been a widespread working assumption that they may be read as saying basically the same thing; that Foucault provides, in a more up-to-date and vivid idiom perhaps than Marx’s sometimes dully economistic language, a political supplement to historical materialism which, as Ortner (2016: 50) puts it, “asks us to see the world almost entirely in terms of power, exploitation, and chronic pervasive inequality.” It is not merely, as Ortner acknowledges (ibid.: 51), that some of Foucault’s later work “moves away from the relentless power problematic.” Certainly, the project for a genealogy of ethics that dominated his later years did constitute a thorough rejection of deterministic social science in general and historical materialism in particular, but this was not because he abandoned his earlier concern with power. It was because he worked out its implications consistently. He remained centrally concerned with power throughout his later writings, but it became increasingly clear that his understanding of power, together with the rest of his social ontology, was fundamentally at odds with Marxism (Grace 2009). All his writings, at least from The history of sexuality ([1976] 1979) onward, involved rejecting the central premises of Marxist historical materialism, a fact that was immediately perceived by Gilles Deleuze, who never again spoke to Foucault after the publication of that book, relations between them already having [21]soured following Foucault’s support for dissidents in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe (Eribon 1991: 258–62; Miller 1993: 297–98; Paras 2006: 90–92; Bourg 2007: 239–40). The history of sexuality itself was an explicit repudiation of the then-fashionable Marxist-Freudian thesis that sexual “repression” was functional for capitalism, and it was a repudiation, equally, of the “liberationist” conception of freedom as the removal or absence of relations of power. Hence Foucault’s explicit claim that it was simply a misreading to attribute to him the idea of “a system of domination that controls everything and leaves no room for freedom” (1997: 293). And his subsequent writings were centrally concerned with how freedom might be conceived (and practiced) not as an absence of power but as particular forms of the exercise of power, and particular configurations of power relations (see Faubion 2011; Laidlaw 2014: ch. 3).

All that notwithstanding, Ortner is undoubtedly correct that in much of what she calls “dark anthropology,” Foucault is represented as being essentially a continuation of Marx, and it may well be that crude injections of some of Foucault’s ideas and language have prolonged the life of otherwise moribund forms of analysis. The distorting effect this has had on many anthropologists’ reading of Foucault has, however, been considerable.1 It has fostered the notion, for instance, that there must be a radical theoretical discontinuity between, on the one hand, concerns with governmentality, or, for example, tracing the configurations of power and knowledge in disciplinary institutions, and, on the other, the study of ethical life.

One widely expressed ground for skepticism toward or mistrust of anthropological interest in morality, ethics, well-being, or the good is that it must necessarily be “apolitical,” in the sense of being cut off from the analysis of power. Ortner’s interest and approval in this paper also come with this caveat. She calls (2016: 65) for exponents not to ignore “larger contexts” of power and inequality, and not to position their work in opposition to those concerns, but to see them instead as being “in active interaction.” And she cites two fine recent works that seek to achieve a unified approach. What she doesn’t cite are instances of exponents who have done otherwise. And when she speaks of a “sharp line that is sometimes drawn” (ibid.: 60) between work on virtue and the good and work on power and inequality, the implication is that such a line is being drawn by those writing about virtue and the good. But importantly, there is no such line drawn, in their own understanding and practice, by any of those interested in developing this field, so far as I know. Some, myself included, would distinguish what they do specifically from “the work on power, inequality, and violence discussed earlier” (ibid.), but this is because of the premises and methods of some of that work, not from a desire to exclude or avoid, still less to deny, those aspects of social life. Observers from outside this field sometimes imagine there is a lack of interest in these matters because they do not see them addressed by the methods, and in the idioms, they have become accustomed to from what Ortner calls “a steady diet of (early) Foucault” (ibid.). But [22]what many working in the anthropologies of well-being, ethics, and the good have been concerned to do is precisely to develop an approach that incorporates into that work a reading of late as well as early Foucault (and of course others) on power, understood thereby as a dimension of all social relations.

Take, for instance, Teresa Kuan’s exemplary recent study, which provides a unified analysis of the politics and the ethics of child rearing in contemporary China. Kuan (2015) seeks to convey the dilemmas confronting middle-class mothers, faced, on the one hand, with a set of official discourses that stigmatize ambitious parents as a threat to their children’s psychological health, and, on the other, with the demands of a ruthlessly competitive educational system and job market. She draws creatively on elements of “traditional” Chinese thought to develop her understanding of the workings of power, in a situation that requires a good parent to be an active subject of ethics, engaging in the task of governing and improving herself. She notes how unsatisfactory it would be to interpret the situation, as do so many easy readings of “neoliberal responsibilization,” as people being duped and manipulated by the state into toiling on its behalf. Instead, she brilliantly shows how the mothers she worked with felt burdened by the contradictory demands placed upon them, but also knew and recognized much more about the situation they were in, and about themselves, than such forms of analysis can give them credit for. Her claim is not only that such theories miss a good deal about human experience, but also that they miss substantively the work that is involved in dealing with the inconsistencies, multiplicities, ironies, and tragedies involved in living a life. Incorporating fully into the analysis, but never reducing human action to, supposedly “larger-scale” historical processes, Kuan sees squarely the challenge of theorizing how people negotiate conflicting moral values and ethical demands, and the kinds of judgments and negotiations of responsibility this involves.

Ortner provides in her paper an insightful and sympathetic introduction to recent anthropological work on morality, ethics, and the good. She rightly identifies Joel Robbins’ recent paper, “Beyond the suffering subject” (2013), as one of the most compelling manifestos for the enterprise. And it is true that there Robbins represents what he calls “the anthropology of the good” as a successor, and in some respects a reaction, to the anthropology of suffering, much of which certainly counts as part of Ortner’s dark anthropology. But it does not follow (and is not Robbins’ argument) that the emerging anthropology of ethics and morality is merely a complement to the kind of Marxist diagnoses of the ills of neoliberalism that Ortner rightly describes as having become so prevalent. It is not merely “a refreshing and uplifting counterpoint” (Ortner 2016: 60), but a direct challenge to some of the fundamental premises of dark anthropology.

This is because it asserts the inadequacy of any form of social theory that persistently refuses to acknowledge, adequately describe, or attempt to understand the ethical dimension of human social life, and this conspicuously includes theories that seek to explain it (away) in terms of class interest and ideology or an economy of practices. It is important to emphasize that there is lively emerging debate within the field about how best to characterize what I have just referred to as the ethical dimension of human life. How central is reflective evaluation and judgment? Is some notion of freedom necessary in order to make sense of it? How helpful is an understanding of formal properties of language or interaction? Is a formal analysis [23]of values and value-relations possible? Should we be looking more to how implicit recognition of the-human-in-each-other might be manifest, without conscious reflection or decision, in the everyday? How helpful or distinctive is a phenomenological perspective? It remains to be seen what implications differences in emphasis between, or different combinations of, these lines of thought might have for our general understanding, and for how we go about our work of describing specific ethnographic and historical circumstances. But however deep and far reaching the differences in perspective on the ethical, it is striking that those who have sought most strenuously to articulate them have done so in contrast to one or other aspect of dark anthropology, whether it be the universalism implicit in the category of the suffering subject (Robbins 2013), the reduction of all conduct to “the political” (Lambek 2000), the reduction of what it is to be a subject to subjugation (Das 2007: 59) or interpolation (Faubion 2011), or the false accounting perpetrated by Bourdieu in converting all notions of value into “capital” (Keane 2003; Evens 2008; Lambek 2008; Laidlaw 2014). Foucault himself remarked that “we need to free ourselves of the sacralization of the social as the only instance of the real and stop regarding the essential element of human life and human relations—I mean thought—as so much wind.” He continued, “Thought does exist, both beyond and before systems and edifices of discourse. It is something that is often hidden but always drives human behaviors. There is always a little thought even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits” (2000: 456).

The anthropologies of ethics, well-being, and the good, by challenging anthropology generally to take seriously the ethical dimension of human sociality, challenge it also to abandon failed understandings of power, inequality, and violence, because the latter is not a separate subject matter, but part of the way in which human ethical life is lived. They do not represent a complement or counterpoint to a Marxist political economy, and they do not corroborate a myopic view of the contemporary world in which everything is attributed to the diffuse all-powerful force of neoliberalism. They represent, instead, in my view, the beginnings at least of a comprehensive alternative to them.


Bidet, Jacques. 2016. Foucault with Marx. London: Zed Books.

Bourg, Julian. 2007. From revolution to ethics: May 1968 and contemporary French thought. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Das, Veena. 2007. Life and words: Violence and descent into the ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eribon, Didier. 1991. Michel Foucault. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Evens, T. M. S. 2008. Anthropology as ethics: Nondualism and the conduct of sacrifice. Oxford: Berghahn.

Faubion, James D. 2011. An anthropology of ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.[24]

Foucault, Michel. (1976) 1979. The history of sexuality: Volume 1. An introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. London: Allen Lane.

———. 1997. Ethics, subjectivity, and truth: Essential works of Foucault, 1954–1980. Volume 1. Edited by Paul Rabinow. New York: New Press.

———. 2000. Power: Essential works of Foucault, 1954–1980. Volume 3. Edited by James D. Faubion. New York: New Press.

Grace, Wendy. 2009. “Faux amis: Foucault and Deleuze on sexuality and desire.” Critical Inquiry 36 (1): 52–75.

Keane, Webb. 2003. “Self-interpretation, agency, and the objects of anthropology: Reflections on a genealogy.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45 (2): 222–48.

Kuan, Teresa. 2015. Love’s uncertainty: The politics and ethics of child rearing in contemporary China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Laidlaw, James. 2014. The subject of virtue: An anthropology of ethics and freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lambek, Michael. 2000. “The anthropology of religion and the quarrel between poetry and philosophy.” Current Anthropology 41 (3): 309–20.

———. 2008. “Value and virtue.” Anthropological Theory 8 (2): 133–57.

Miller, James. 1993. The passion of Michel Foucault. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1984. “Theory in anthropology since the sixties.” Comparative Studies in 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.

Paras, Eric. 2006. Foucault 2.0: Beyond power and knowledge. New York: Other Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2013. “Beyond the suffering subject: Toward an anthropology of the good.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 19 (3): 447–62.

Zamora, Daniel, and Michael C. Bennett, eds. 2015. Foucault and neoliberalism. Cambridge: Polity.[25]


James LAIDLAW is William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of King’s College.

James Laidlaw
Department of Social Anthropology
Free School Lane
Cambridge CB2 3RF


1. The misreading has not been confined to anthropologists. Belated recognition in some quarters of how much Foucault’s interest in freedom separates him from Marxist tradition, and of the depth of his critique of the welfare state, and of the care with which he read some liberal thinkers, has fueled a growing suspicion that he must have been (you guessed it!; what else is there to be?) a neoliberal (Zamora and Bennett 2015).