The grey zone

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Danilyn Rutherford. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.006


The grey zone

Danilyn RUTHERFORD, University of California, Santa Cruz

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 has a simple message in this pithy, readable essay, which adds to her influential series of meditations on trends within anthropological thought. These are dark times, times to which today’s cultural anthropologists are being true when they write dark ethnographies, using dark theory to bring its lineaments to light. The work of our predecessors reflected the demands and openings of their own particular eras. In the 1970s and 1980s, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, decolonization, and the Vietnam War all shaped the projects anthropologists undertook and the tools they used. In “Theory in anthropology since the sixties” (1984), Ortner documented this dynamic, showing how the shift from a focus on structure to a fascination with practice was born of struggles that encouraged anthropologists to turn for inspirations to thinkers like Bourdieu and Marx. Here, she places this previous period in the broader context of transformations in world capitalism, with the Cold War setting the parameters for political projects and dreams.

Today’s global capitalism follows the dictates of neoliberalism, a “theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (Harvey 2005: 2, cited in Ortner 2016: 52). The pessimism that prevails under current conditions calls for pessimistic theory, with Foucault’s account of the all-pervasive nature of power topping the list. But in response to this darkness, anthropologists are also searching for glimmers of light. Some are attending [26]to the ways people seek to live a good life in the midst of the neoliberal wreckage; others are following, and in some cases joining, the ranks of activists seeking novel ways out. Like anyone attempting to describe the state of a field, Ortner is forced to generalize. But if cultural anthropologists come off a bit like sheep in these kinds of treatments, at least, in Ortner’s essay, we’re a flock that is heading in the right direction: engaged, aware, our eyes open, alert to the risks and opportunities associated with our work.

Just as Ortner’s earlier work was an aid to newcomers to anthropology, her treatment of the current moment will prove invaluable as an introduction to the concerns and questions occupying significant numbers of cultural anthropologists. It’s hard to join the latest conversations in our discipline without this kind of background: beginning students need to understand what topics we consider worthy of our attention and which citations we see as most effective in authorizing our words. But as Ortner herself is undoubtedly aware, there are other ways to approach the task she undertakes. In sketching out a couple, I don’t mean to diminish her contribution, merely to suggest what might be gained by charting a different course through the same terrain.

On the one hand, there is the question of theory. Ortner uses the term in the colloquial way it generally is deployed in the social sciences. The tools in the toolkit are tethered to foundational thinkers; we have to make a choice of whether we are going to “use” Durkheim, or Marx, or Weber, or Foucault. It may be a matter of taste, but in my own teaching and writing I’ve always been fascinated by the surprising resonances I’ve found among thinkers who are supposedly opposed in their outlook. Look, I tell my students, when we are reading Discipline and punish ([1975] 2012) and discussing Foucault’s grisly account of the spectacle of the scaffold. What might the scene Foucault is describing have in common with the “effervescent” milieus Durkheim turns to in The elementary forms of religious life ([1912] 2008) when he tries to account for what gives collective representations their force? Or I might pause when we are reading about the spirit of the gift and remind my students of our conversations about commodity fetishism and the concrete contributions of particular laboring bodies that capitalism both depends upon and obscures. Yes, their politics are different, but what about their ethics? Aren’t Marx ([1867] 1990) and Mauss ([1925] 2016) both calling upon us to give absent others their due? Yes, in a broad sense, you can sort thinkers according to the kind of world, bright or dark, that their ideas bring into focus. But sometimes it is useful to play up their ambivalence: the fact that for Mauss, the gift is not just an instrument of peace but also a weapon of war, the fact that Foucault’s account of subjectification as an effect of power has embedded within it a moral stance that insists on the entanglement of others and selves. Useful in that it encourages us to read more carefully and creatively, instead of dismissing authors on the basis of what we understand to be their politics. Useful in that it invites us to avoid presuming that if our intentions are worthy, then our analyses must be true.

On the other hand, there is the question of context. Ortner is entirely correct in suggesting that our times are shaping our topics and approaches. But neoliberalism is doing more than reshaping the lives of those we study; it is reshaping the universities where many of us teach. For better or worse, since the 1980s, anthropologists have been forced to find new ways of justifying their existence. New collaborations [27]between natural scientists and cultural anthropologists have become possible and necessary in the aftermath of the so-called science wars, which culminated in the important insight that facts can be socially “constructed” without losing their ability to have real effects. This is an exciting development within the discipline, but it also reflects the constraints cultural anthropologists increasingly face. The best work navigates the border zone between science and the humanities without losing its critical bite. A scholar Ortner doesn’t mention, but could have, is my colleague Anna Tsing, whose The mushroom at the end of the world (2015) asks us to imagine what it means to survive on a damaged planet. Tsing and other multispecies ethnographers have set out to show how, against the odds, surprising new forms of life are taking root: deep in the forest, in the crevices and cracks of global capitalism, among people and plants pushed to the edge. In this world of inquiry, theory is neither dark nor bright—neither pessimistic nor optimistic. Rather, the emphasis is on curiosity and an insistence on the limits of human agency in a world in which relationality is the norm.

What I find striking about today’s cultural anthropology is less our mood than our renewed commitment to our mission, which is to create empirically rich, imaginative portraits of whatever corner of the world we are grappling with. Since the 1980s, anthropologists have been approaching this mission with a keen sense of the histories associated with their ideas, which all, in one way or another, are tethered to the injustices of the past. The work of the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2003) is exemplary in this regard. Trouillot asks us to take seriously the histories—of American racism, of Western imperialism—that gave the discipline its privileged object of inquiry and shaped the scholarly slot it came to fill. At the same time, he urges us to reflect on the power of the conceptual and methodological tools we have inherited from these pasts. Ethnography remains an empirically powerful way of knowing the world. “Culture” has a conceptual kernel—the idea that behavior is patterned and that patterns are learned—that cultural anthropologists are hard put to do without. In reading Ortner’s account of recent changes in the discipline, it’s worth keeping these longer genealogies in mind. Trends may come and go, but deeper histories constrain us; it behooves us to confront them head on.

These thoughts are meant to complement, not replace, Ortner’s reflections. Ortner has done something audacious in this essay: she has offered us a theory of theories, and an ethnography of ethnographies, in tracking the contexts that have shaped our scholarly concerns. Her findings leave me strangely optimistic. Isn’t it always darkest before the dawn?


Durkheim, Émile. (1912) 2008. The elementary forms of religious life. Translated by Carol Cosman. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1975) 2012. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Random House.

Harvey, David. 2005. A brief history of neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.[28]

Marx, Karl. (1867) 1990. Capital: A critique of political economy, Vol. 1. London: Penguin.

Mauss, Marcel. (1925) 2016. The gift: Expanded edition. Translated by Jane I. Guyer. Chicago: HAU Books.

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.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2003. Global transformations: Anthropology and the modern world. New York: Palgrave.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Danilyn RUTHERFORD is Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of Raiding the land of the foreigners: The limits of the nation on an Indonesian frontier (Princeton University Press, 2003) and Laughing at Leviathan: Sovereignty and audience in West Papua (University of Chicago Press, 2012). She is currently completing her third book, Living in the Stone Age: Colonialism, anthropology, and the experience of empire in Dutch New Guinea.

Danilyn Rutherford
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Santa Cruz
1156 High Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95064