Art and anthropology after relations

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Roger Sansi and Marilyn Strathern. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.023


Art and anthropology after relations

Roger SANSI, Universitat de Barcelona

Marilyn STRATHERN, University of Cambridge

The following text is the result of a conversation between the authors in the context of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network. The point of departure for this conversation was the recent publication of Roger Sansi’s Art, anthropology and the gift (Bloomsbury, 2015), a monograph about the relation between art and anthropology. From that basis, the conversation engages with a number of concepts—from the uses of the notion of the gift in art and anthropology, to the avatars of the “relational” also in both fields, to wider questions of detachment and interdisciplinarity.

Keywords: Art, anthropology, gift, relations, detachment

In June 2015, Roger Sansi and Marilyn Strathern were invited to have a conversation under the title “How art performs society,” in the context of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network. The point of departure for this conversation was the recent publication of Sansi’s Art, anthropology and the gift (Bloomsbury, 2015), a monograph about the relation between art and anthropology. In recent decades, the dialogue between contemporary art and anthropology has been both intense and controversial. Art, anthropology and the gift proposes a comprehensive overview of this dialogue, while also exploring the reciprocal nature of the two subjects through practice, theory, and politics. The central contention of the book is that art and anthropology don’t just share methodologies but also deeper intellectual, theoretical, and even political concerns. One of the central arguments of the book is that the problem of the “gift” has been central to both anthropological and artistic practice.

The event was framed differently from a book symposium, as an open conversation about gifts and relations in art and anthropology. The following text is an [426]extended version of this conversation, starting with Sansi’s answer to the title of the event: “How art performs society: gifts, relations and exchanges.”


ROGER SANSI. The theme of the gift has always been central to anthropology but also to art, if perhaps in less explicit ways. So much has been written about the gift in anthropology; it is indeed one of its key concepts, one of the hallmarks of ethnographic theory. It is hard to imagine what else or what more could be said, what could be added. Can the concept of the gift in art effectively say something more, something else, to what anthropology has already proposed?

This question came first to me as a surprise, when I encountered a number of art practices explicitly based on gift giving in the late nineties. Felix González-Torres’ more emblematic works were piles of candy in geometrical shapes, rectangular carpets, or pyramids leaning against a wall, all “Untitled.” They were left “in process”: the intention of González-Torres was for the audience to take the candy, and then the pile has to be filled up again by the gallery—the process by which they are constantly being deconstructed and reconstructed in an endless act of gift giving. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work raised similar questions. Tiravanija’s first shows basically consisted of cooking meals for the people who visited the gallery. The aim was to bring people together, participating in a meal. For Tiravanija, “It is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people.”1

What is interesting about González-Torres’ and Tiravanija’s work is more than what they represent, it is what they make happen: a situation of encounter, a social relation. Both Tiravanija and González-Torres were central to Nicolas Bourriaud’s arguments in Relational aesthetics (2002). Bourriaud described the “relational art” of these artists as “taking as its theoretical horizon the whole of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space” (2002: 14). The real object of González-Torres’ or Tiravanija’s work was to invite people to eat and talk to each other, to construct a social relation. For Bourriaud, art is a situation of encounter: “All works of art produce a model of sociability, which transposes reality or might be conveyed by it” (2002: 18). The form of the artwork is in the relations it establishes: to produce a form is to create the conditions for an exchange. In other terms, the form of the artwork is in the exchange with the audience. Hence, the artist becomes a mediator, a person that fosters and provides situations of exchange, rather than a creator of objects. For Bourriaud, relational art practices establish particular social relations for particular people; the artist tries to keep a personal contact with the public that participates in the exchange, fostering what he calls a “friendship culture” (Bourriaud 2002: 32), in contraposition to the impersonal, mass production of the culture industries.

Relational artworks as gifts would be free, spontaneous, personal, and disinterested events, in opposition to commodification and mass consumption. These kinds of “free” gifts are deeply engrained in Western philosophical aesthetics: the very notion of the aesthetic experience in Kant—as free of interest and finality—is described as a gift. More than two centuries after Kant, arguments on the free gift are still very present, not just in contemporary art but also in a larger sphere of debates on “free culture” and the cultural commons that have reemerged in the [427]last decades with the new digital media and the free software movement (see Hyde [1983] 2009).

This understanding of the gift is very different from what many anthropologists have said since Mauss: in opposition to the ideology of freedom, improvisation, and egalitarianism of the gift in modern art and aesthetics, anthropologists, in their ethnographies and theories, have often described gifts in terms of obligation, ritualization, and hierarchy. Mauss’ first paragraph in The Gift concludes with the statement: “in theory these [gifts] are voluntary, in reality they are given and reciprocated obligatorily” ([1925] 1990: 3). Many decades later, you [Marilyn] described gifts that “convey no special connotations of intimacy. Nor of altruism as a source of benign feeling” (Strathern 1991: 295).

Does this distinction between theory and reality also apply to the gift in modern art? Are gifts in art voluntary and egalitarian, in theory, but obligatory and hierarchical, in truth? This “false consciousness” or “misrecognition” would be at the basis of the rules of art, and of all social life as a matter of fact, for Pierre Bourdieu (1996). The criticism of many of the different forms of relational and participatory art that have emerged in the last decades also have been built, directly or indirectly, on arguments of false consciousness. Claire Bishop has described how community arts in the United Kingdom have been embraced as a sort of “soft social engineering” (Bishop 2012: 5), promoting “participation” in the arts as a form of preventing social exclusion. For Bishop, “social inclusion” policies were deeply rooted in a neoliberal agenda, seeking to “enable all members of society to be self-administering, fully functioning consumers who do not rely on the welfare state and who can cope with a deregulated, privatised world” (Bishop 2012: 12). Notions of “creativity” as innate talent of the socially excluded, an energy that could be transformed from a destructive to a constructive impulse, are also quite common in these cultural policies. Participatory and community art could become, in this context, devices of neoliberal governmentality (Miessen 2011).

And yet, there is something more to the question of the gift than false consciousness. Mauss did not just describe the gift as a misrecognized form of symbolic capital but he also presented it in direct relation to the notion of the person: how a gift is an extension of the person who gives, hence blurring the very distinction between people and things. Mauss opened the door to imagine other ontological possibilities to Western individualism, where this division is clearly established from the onset. The relation between gift and personhood was a central question for Melanesian anthropology all along, but in particular in the eighties and nineties in the work of Annette Weiner, Nancy Munn, Marilyn Strathern, and Alfred Gell. Alfred Gell famously extended the discussion of the “distributed person” to a general theory of art in Art and agency (1998). In that book Gell proposed to look at works of art as indexes of agency. Indexes of agency are the result of intentions: “Whenever an event is believed to happen because of an ‘intention’ lodged in the person or thing which initiates the causal sequence, that is an instance of ‘agency’” (Gell 1998: 17). To have intentions means to have a mind. The “life” we attribute to things, and works of art in particular, would be the result of a process of abduction or indirect inference of a “mind” in a thing.

Artworks don’t just index the agency of the artist, but of all the agents that have been “entrapped” by the artwork: they contain their distributed person, or [428]distributed mind, which for Gell were the same thing. Gell argued that works of art can be seen as persons “because as social persons, we are present not just in our singular bodies, but in everything in our surroundings which bears witness to our existence, our attributes, and our agency” (1998: 103). For Gell this is not an exotic belief but on the contrary, he affirms that works of art are some of the more accomplished objectifications of human agency. Artworks can contain several different agencies from the artist, to the person represented or the person who commissioned it, to the person who bought it, to the curator that displays it. An artwork can be a “trap of agencies” sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary (Gell 1998).

Gell didn’t seem to be aware of participatory and relational art practices at the time he wrote Art and agency, and yet his understanding of the distributed person can help engage with these practices in particular ways: artists like González-Torres and Tiravanija distribute their personhood through the events of gift giving they perform. This distributed personhood does not necessarily have to be understood in terms of the free gift, of egalitarianism, but it can also create hierarchies between those who “distribute” their personhood and those who are “entrapped” by the personhood of others.

Still, there are limits to Gell’s approach. For Gell, agency is always originally human, and often seems to give primacy to the (first) agent, namely the artist, even if other agencies are “entrapped” in the process. Art works have power but for Gell this power is always bestowed on them by people with “minds,” whose intentions are distributed in art objects. But the notion of distributed or partible person may be much wider. For Strathern, partible persons may not start or generate from a single human person but they may assemble collectives of humans and nonhumans in multiple ways. In these terms, tracing back the origin of agency is less important than describing the particular relation, where relations take precedence over entities: “it is at the point of interaction that a singular identity is established” (1990: 128). This shift of the question from agency to relations is important also to understand one central issue in modern and contemporary art, what Grant Kester has called the “disavowal of agency” (2011: 4). Allowing chance to guide the process of production of art, modern and contemporary art have proposed to open up the space of possibilities of the artistic process by explicitly withdrawing the agency of the artist, and describing this process as an assemblage of heterogeneous elements, human and nonhuman, without a preestablished order of agency.

Shifting the discussion toward an ontology of relations also highlights further the contradictions of the concept of the gift as an object of exchange. We owe to Jacques Derrida the explicit formulation of the ontological antinomy of the gift: taken to its logical conclusion, a pure “gift” cannot be reciprocated because if a return is expected, the gift always implies its opposite: interest, benefit, utility, accountancy, commodification. “The gift, like the event, as event, must remain unforeseeable. . . . It must let itself be structured by the aleatory; it must appear chancy or in any case lived as such” (Derrida 1992: 122). The gift is not in the thing given but the event of giving: an event that gives itself and that has to be forgotten as such. In part, this understanding of the gift as an event goes back to the notion of the spontaneous, free gift that we have described before as key to modern art and aesthetics, but brings it to a deeper phenomenological level. Derrida’s understanding [429]of event and gift are explicitly indebted to Martin Heidegger’s discussion of “the thing” as a gift (1971), as the establishment of a relation, of giving itself as an event. The gift happens as an event before there is a division between subject and object, before there is being as substance (Derrida 1992: 24). To put it in your terms [Marilyn], the gift as a relation takes precedence over the entities it constitutes. The gift is not a given: it is not there before it happens; it cannot be easily naturalized or reduced to a sociological model (like “exchange”).

At this point I should stop spinning around the concept of the gift. But that is precisely the point I wanted to make: we have a number of definitions of the gift as a concept and practice, from the “free” gift of art and aesthetics, to the hierarchical gift of Mauss and the anthropological and sociological tradition, to the “distributed person” that has been more recently reclaimed, to the gift as an event. These definitions are not contradictory or in dialectical opposition but they add upon each other: the gift is a recursive concept. Martin Holbraad defines the notion of recursivity as “a concept that changes every time it is used to express something” (Holbraad 2012: 76), but the change is built upon the previous uses. The gift is the core anthropological example of recursion both as an event and as a concept, as it is constantly changing and adding up. In these terms, rather than what the gift is, as a given, in art and elsewhere, is perhaps less interesting that what it can be, its performativity.

If we approach the gift as a recursive concept rather than as a social fact, we can shift the focus toward its performative potential. This could help us address, for example, the key role of the gift in the utopian vision of situationism, to come back to the field of art. Situationists explicitly engaged with theories of the gift, in particular Georges Bataille’s reading of the potlatch in his theory of an economy of expenditure and excess ([1949] 1993). Bataille envisioned a human condition that was not determined by need and utility, but empowered by pleasure and play. But still Bataille’s notions of free play didn’t have much to do with the democratic and libertarian utopias of contemporary art, like in Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics: on the opposite, his image of the gift as expense are transgressive and destructive.

After Bataille, for the Situationists the gift, the potlatch, and the economy of excess prefigured a form of exchange radically different than commodity exchange. In The revolution of everyday life ([1967] 2009), Raoul Vaneigem made a sharp distinction between two different kinds of gift, one that would imply hierarchy, another that would be the gateway to revolution. The first was the feudal gift; the gift of what Mauss or Bataille would call “archaic societies,” before capitalism. For Vaneigem, the feudal mind seemed to conceive of the gift as a sort of haughty refusal to exchange—a will to deny exchangeability; hence its competitive, agonistic character, where one has to be the last to give, to keep their reputation, rank, and hierarchy (Vaneigem [1967] 2009: 57). Vaneigem’s vision was not to return to the feudal gift, but the opposite: moving forward to the “pure gift” (59). The pure gift would be the “don sans contrepartie,” the gift without return, that would characterize the future society, in opposition both to bourgeois society based on the market, and the previous aristocratic society based on the agonistic gift that didn’t play for benefit but for fame and rank. In this sense, the Situationists dismissed the hierarchical aspects of the potlatch that were central to Mauss, Bataille, and most of the anthropological and sociological tradition. In the “pure gift,” instead, the “young [430]generations” would play for the pleasure of playing itself. The gift for the Situationist has the subversive potential of questioning commodification and the property relations in themselves. Following Bataille, the transgressive, excessive character of the gift is put forward, very far away from the measured, liberal humanism of the aesthetic utopia. And yet, this transgression for the Situationists doesn’t have the aristocratic tone of cosmic tragedy of Bataille’s sacrifice, but on the opposite, it is a utopian hope. It is interesting to note how Vaneigem had a very clear understanding of the “ontological aporia” of the gift, as we have formulated it before: the impossibility of thinking the “pure gift’ if not in opposition to the commodity. In these very terms, situationism describes this “pure gift” as a revolutionary, utopian project of subversion of the existing social relations, which comes not just in contradiction but also in direct opposition to commodity exchange. It is also interesting to note that the main example of Vaneigem’s pure gift is nothing but . . . theft: “The growing passion for stealing books, clothes, food, weapons or jewelry simply for the pleasure of giving them away” (2009: 59). . . . Can theft be a gift? Vaneigem clearly elaborates on the connection between the two notions, by emphasizing the idea that the “young generations” steal objects out of desire to give them away, not to hoard them. Perhaps this connection is a bit far-fetched but still, any anthropologist can recognize that giving is always the counterpart of taking; often the anthropological literature has made reference to poaching, freeloading, the aggressive soliciting of gifts by people who feel entitled to have them, or even the simple act of taking gifts without permission, if they are not given. This poaching may take place in confrontation to commodity exchange, for example, in colonial situations or during fieldwork, when the colonists or the anthropologist are asked to share what they define as their “private property” (e.g., Sahlins 1993). In this sense, Vaneigem’s understanding of the “pure” gift as theft emerged clearly as an aggressive form of questioning commodity exchange, after commodity exchange, in response to it, as a revolutionary act.

To conclude, I would only add that although many contemporary art practices (like relational art) are inspired by situationism, their transgressive potential is quite mitigated. The forms and notions of the gift that circulate in the world of cultural production today are not very transgressive but constructive: there is a widespread discourse on the commons, care, participation, co-labor, et cetera—that is, narratives on the autonomous creation of an utopian alternative, based on the libertarian ideology of the free gift, rather that on the creative destruction of capitalism. Perhaps the sphere where the radical “pure gift” of the Situationists thrives more openly is in digital media, not only through active hacking but through the everyday practices of “piracy” of many of its users, operating in a gray area between “gift” and “theft,” and forcing the culture industries to constantly reinvent their business model.


MARILYN STRATHERN. For me Art, anthropology and the gift (2015) was quite thrilling to read. There are several wonderful moments in this book, from which I pick two. One just to mention, and one that leads to a question.

At the outset, let me say how much I appreciated the whole handling of the gift. It is an incredibly slippery topic but you [Roger] at once hold it and extend it with finesse. You both discriminate the ways in which the concept has been used, and [431]continue using it yourself to great effect. In particular I enjoyed the explication first of its crucial character in the aesthetic regime that sees it as “building communities of free individuals” (101), as against the obligation or coercion of “reciprocity” as is so often emphasized in anthropology, and then of just how that second (anthropological) understanding can also be brought into play when we look at participatory art and the way value is created for the artist. But this is among many analytical staging posts in the way you set out the broader argument.

The particular moment that demands mention concerns the isomorphism between, on the one hand, developments in anthropological thinking about ethnography, and the continuing search for a way to be “with” the people whom one is with, and, on the other hand, the relentless distribution or dissipation of agency in artists’ encounters with the world, as it has evolved through ideas about participation, relationality, and living “life.” Parallel trajectories, keeping pace almost decade-by-decade! It is comforting in a manner of speaking to realize that as anthropologists worry away along what they think are their own grooves, others are doing it too (and along similar grooves). Given the reflective-critical positioning in which we might say both artists and ethnographers place themselves, and I shall return to this, we can see the alliance.

The isomorphism reminds me of the sense of the uncanny I got when reading Donna Haraway’s Primate visions (1989) and her account of the changes in primate biologists’ treatment of their subjects over the twentieth century: one could track the unfolding paradigms of fieldwork and analysis in primatology, if not quite decade-by-decade, certainly in concert with what was happening in anthropology. What Art, anthropology and the gift shows in such a compelling way is that this being in step with the times isn’t simply due to there being some special “relationship” between art and anthropology, although there are, as it also shows, several points of relationship, including self-conscious crossreferencing. It is significantly due to the unfolding mediation—as in media—of production and consumption in late capitalism through the de-materialization of products and processes of production alike (2015: 114), not to speak of the burgeoning of the participative society.

This leads to my question; but before it is broached the book brings something else to mind, which requires what may seem—but hopefully isn’t—a digression.

I feel a bit like the lady at the art production center in Can Xalant (Barcelona) who, after a day of intense discussion about experimentation with processes and methodologies, said she could not see any artworks in the room (Sansi 2015: 113). Well, I’ve brought a bit of artwork into this room [where the conversation took place]. It is like one of those incidental archives that is all that is left of an occasion. The object in question is a file with pieces relating to an event in which I participated ten years ago. It was completely out of context for me—and your book, Roger, has named and explained it: relational art, no less.

A letter came out of the blue from Michael Stevenson: it was about a project he was making in association with a group of art collectors in Germany. They fund an artwork each year, under the unusual stipulation that at the conclusion of the exhibition the piece be apportioned among the collectors relative to their financial contributions. The artist simply called his exhibit “The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies.” Wishing to draw attention to the social economy [432]of the art community, and arguing that there has to be more than monetary exchange involved, he constructed a series of gifts of various kinds (from himself to the collectors) handed over both before and after the dismemberment of the artwork in 2005. (The work had already had quite a journey from other locations in Australia and the United Kingdom.) He got me over, I suppose, as a kind of gift too, an anthropologist who would talk about the gift before the dismemberment. As a footnote, the talk later appeared in a volume on his work, which included diverse writings intended to draw out Stevenson’s strategies in relation to the interconnectedness of things (Stevenson 2013).

The object for dismemberment was a replica of a craft lashed together from three wartime fuel tanks by a destitute artist, Ian Fairweather, who had travelled from Darwin to London in 1952 without spending money. The raft itself got as far as the island of Roti, off Timor, where local residents—in Stevenson’s words (pers. comm.)—took the aluminum, “this useful metal having currency in the local economy,” probably divided it “as gifts” among themselves, and “in exchange” nursed Fairweather back to health, whence he was eventually shipped to London. One of Stevenson’s plans for the aluminum replica was to take the pieces that the art collectors cut up and rework them into implements common in Indonesia at the time, these new artworks (his word) to be gifted back to them. There are many things one could say about his vision; thus, on the last point, the artist would be demonstrating the (free) gift of his refashioning—his labor, his energy, his skill, his insight, his grasp of the world—of the very metal pieces that the art collectors had paid for as parts of a replica he too had fashioned.[433]

Figure 1
Figure 1: Michael Stevenson, The Gift. Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, 2011. Installation view. Aluminium, wood, rope, bamboo, tar, WWII parachute and National Geographic magazines. Photograph by Jenni Carter.
Figure 2
Figure 2: Michael Stevenson, Die Abteilung, Saturday, 21st May, 8pm, 2005. Marking the pieces to be cut. Photograph by Alice Maude-Roxby.

What comes through for an anthropologist is the social criticism that informs the questions Stevenson is asking. He is not alone, and perhaps I can use the coincidence that Fairweather was aiming for London because he had heard that a work of his was hanging in the Tate Gallery, to mention the long-running interest of Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska in the late nineties on possession and the value of things. Thinking of a project that would take advantage of the siting of the new Tate Modern across the Thames from the Bank of England, they also wanted an anthropologist to write about the gift. One of the purposes of “Capital” (mounted in 2001; catalogue of same date) specifically looked to the gifts behind the commodities, beginning with the fact that the bank was founded through public subscription, the original Tate Gallery through a donation. The Director of the Tate Modern described Cummings and Lewandowska as exploring the “zone or field”—everything in their surroundings—through which diverse activities “reveal meanings, power systems and values” (introduction to catalogue). But to what extent is it an anthropological (re-) appropriation to see social criticism in the projects of such artists? Or rather, what kind of alliance is this?

Being situated within the field of production and consumption in late capitalism, not to speak of the participative society, the digression leads us all over again to the question. The digression has been about the gift located within an earlier, thoroughly material, critique of commodity forms. One of Sansi’s questions apropos new models of dematerialized capitalism is about what art then becomes, and what the gift then becomes. My question looks backward: are we going to have to reinvent some of the forms of agency that, once their historicity is acknowledged, otherwise seem inevitably left behind?[434]

The question is for both anthropology and art interested in the roads that Art, anthropology and the gift lays out. If the end of the road is an assimilation of “artistic” and “anthropological” activity into the rhythms of life, its also follows that all that seems distinguishable between them is, as the book points out, the label: this is being done by “artists” (entries for their portfolios); that is being done by “anthropologists” (their dissertations in the library). We can be cynical about the agency that emerges in the end, but for myself that (self) consciousness about both artistic and anthropological agency, with its now old-fashioned ring, demarcates something I wouldn’t want to disappear. How do we speak about interests and prejudices? It would indeed be turning back the clock if the participatory vocabularies of many contemporary art practices refuse to recognize interest, prejudice, and other issues that only work—play, intervention—will reveal. And between art and anthropology, maybe we should indeed start with alliance rather than assimilation; we do not need to measure how close social criticism is or is not to (say) the Situationists’ utopian project of subversion when it is allies we are looking for.

What links them is that being an artist or anthropologist is not performing being an art collector or an NGO, let alone an entrepreneur or medic or a destitute person or anyone else with particular interests and standpoints or prejudices. At the moment, the notion of ordinary people somehow saves the day: you do art or ethnography “with” them. But in truth nobody is an ordinary person—everyone has his or her interests and prejudices. Taken to its extremes, wouldn’t an assimilationist ethos also mean the artist/ethnographer dropping the labels altogether and performing/becoming an entrepreneur or medic or destitute person—in which case why not just leave things to the “real” entrepreneurs, medics, and destitute people. I can’t be the only person who thinks we still want critical observers—“artists” and “anthropologists”—in the mix. I do not mean that entrepreneurs, medics, and destitute people cannot also be critical observers; indeed, quite apart from what he did in his art, Fairweather’s audacious journey without money can be constructed from such a position. But it is not their principal work or focus of communication and effort.

So, otherwise asked, the question is: how to take a view of that agency, of critical observation?


ROGER SANSI. The assimilation to “everyday life,” the dissolution of art into life, heteronomy, is a constant utopian drive in modern art. In my book I have tried to show how there is a parallel between the avant-garde reaction against academicism and the rejection of “armchair” anthropology in search for fieldwork as a context of life. There is a lot in common between participant observation and participatory art from the onset. Of course “everyday life” is always a slippery concept: as you say, “ordinary people” don’t think of themselves as ordinary—that is rather our image of them. Both art and anthropology have constructed a (perhaps utopian) image of the everyday. What is interesting about some art practices of heteronomy on the other hand is that they don’t stop at proposing an idealized image of the everyday: they explicitly intervene in everyday life, they perform it. This is something that anthropologists have always been more ambiguous about: it has been hard to recognize that we don’t simply make representations of a “field” that is already there but that becoming a part of it, we make it happen in particular ways. The anthropological field is a participatory event.[435]

So the question is not just how artists and anthropologists have built a utopian image of everyday life but how they have intervened into it, how they have performed it. And this performance entails a certain politics, as you point out. This was quite explicit in the case of situationism, where the dissolution of art in everyday life entailed a criticism of the very division between work and life, the alienation of labor that capitalism was based upon. Guy Debord famously said: “In a classless society there will no longer be ‘painters,’ but only Situationists who, among other things, sometimes paint” (Debord [1957] 2006: 41). What this implied was that in the future classless society, there would be no professional painters, or professional artists, or professional critical thinkers, but everyone would be, in their own time (sometimes), an artist or critical thinker. To be consequential with this objective, Situationists renounced to their career as artists, abandoned the production of artworks as commodities and dedicated their life to the situationist revolution.

Many decades after, there have been many different contentious readings of the outcomes of that revolution. Many think it never happened: by the early seventies there was only one Situationist left: Debord himself! And yet others think it did happen but it went in the opposite direction than what the Situationists aimed. The separation between art and life, the alienation of labor was indeed questioned by the new kind of society that emerged from the seventies. And yet this new society was still a new form of capitalism, with a “new spirit,” as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have defined it (2006). The new spirit of capitalism reappropriates the artistic critique and proposes a new form of life in which the worker is creative, entrepreneurial, identifies with his work, doesn’t really make a distinction between his life inside and outside of his work: his social relations are part of what he does for a living. This is the new model of “management,” also a utopian model, because it does not correspond to reality, of course, but is enforced through performative mechanisms of bureaucratic enforcement that try to bend reality (everyday life!) to the model: mechanisms of accountability and auditing, which quantify “creativity,” the value produced by everyday life as it becomes a commodity, transforming relations into objects.

So in the new spirit of capitalism, the division of labor has been cancelled in particular ways. The autonomy of different fields of practice has been superseded, to an extent, by the imposition of a model of life and work that is transversal: management. Nowadays, artists and anthropologists are also managers: they have to demonstrate they are able to raise money, independently from the quality of their work in the autonomous terms of their practice as art or anthropology. To give one specific example: a colleague giving a presentation some weeks ago (November 2015) commented en passant that in the Netherlands today to become a full professor, the candidate has to demonstrate the ability to raise 300,000 euros in the private sector. Regardless of the content or quality of their research and (!) teaching, which one thinks should be the definition of their job. That is indeed one of the outcomes of the “participative society,” in which nobody should expect to just get from the welfare state but everybody should be able to “participate” in raising funds.

There are several possible reactions to this management utopia or dystopia, of which I could point out three. The first, which in my experience is quite common both in the art world and academia, is what I would call “outsmarting.” It is born [436]from the conviction that we (artists and scholars) are indeed the chosen few. We are smarter than the managerial-bureaucratic machine that is imposed upon us and we will be able to use it to our own benefit, getting lots of grants and making whatever we want with them, because anyways these bureaucrats won’t know. Of course it never works, the managerial machine always ends up imposing its own logics, it doesn’t depend on our individual cunning. I have to say that I have always been surprised by these discourses, in particular in the mouths of scholars and artists who know the work of Foucault very well. In the end, perhaps, it reveals a deeply ingrained belief in individualism and the survival of the fittest that lies deep in the habitus of many scholars and artists beyond layers of sociological theory. In other terms, some think that they will do fine because they are brilliant and that bureaucracy is only a problem for losers. Of course, this is precisely what the managerial machine expects them to think: it is their own merit that has taken them to success. And if they don’t succeed, it is their own fault.

The second reaction is the autonomist. This is a conservative reaction, and I don’t mean it in a negative sense but as a statement of fact: of preserving things as they were, or as they were meant to be; defending the autonomy of intellectual labor and art, and stating the necessary autonomy of critical thinking. The division of labor in modern Western society also had a political sense, as a necessary complement of the division of powers in the public sphere. Intellectuals should be separated from the executive power to be able to have a critical perspective. We could ask if this ever did actually happen, but there certainly is an argument to be made against the banalization of intellectual life. The ironic fact is that these arguments in defense of the autonomy of art and the university are often accused of “ivory tower” elitism by the advocates of management: ironically, the Situationist and Maoist arguments against elitism in the sixties have become the arguments of the zealots of the managerial utopia (as in the “participative society”).

There is indeed a case to be made for autonomy. Or in other terms, there is a case to be made for detachment: not everything can be reduced to relations, participation, commonalities, inter- or transdisciplinarity. For example, in his work on the relations between anthropology and archaeology, Thomas Yarrow found that it is precisely the disconnection and difference between the ways in which these disciplines produce knowledge that sets up the possibility for productive engagement (Garrow and Yarrow 2010). There is no question that any relation produces a form of disengagement, just like any detachment is premised on a previously existing relation (Candea et al. 2015: 24), there is always a moment of separation and cut, like your own work already pointed out (Strathern 1996). In any case, I personally think that autonomist arguments are very valid and yet inevitably limited if we confront the extremely powerful and pervasive “relational” machinery of management that is ideologically inoculated against them.

The other possible reaction is more proactive, and it would involve taking the bull by the horns, or in other terms confronting the enemy in its own terms: neither through cunning and outsmarting, or by detachment but by multiplying the relations. The fact that the old forms of critique have been reappropriated does not mean that the potential for critical thought and action that has emanated from art and anthropology in the last century has been cancelled. The proposal that “everybody is an artist,” may still have potential, if we see in direct confrontation to [437]the dominant “everybody is a manager.” This confrontation may reveal, first of all, that both are based on utopia—they are not a description of reality but a political project. We can also say (why not?) that everybody is an anthropologist. That does not mean to diminish the value of anthropology as an autonomous form of knowledge (beware!), but just the opposite: it proposes the necessity of making anthropology part of public life. What makes anthropology a part of public life, what makes it political, is radically opposite to the managerial utopia: it proposes opposed notions of the person, of the world, of the relation between people and things, et cetera. And hence it implies a certain politics, in contraposition to the politics of utility, impact, and added value. This different politics entails working in collaboration with others, and this collaboration, I think, must start from what we have in common, not from what makes us different; not from our expertise but from a common political ground. Then, once we start working together, it is quite clear then the collective political process will make emerge the different forms of knowledge and skill of all the actors involved, and certain forms of “detachment,” and hierarchy, will emerge. But I think that starting from the common ground is still necessary, in political terms.


MARILYN STRATHERN. Imagining that we might outsmart the management machine, or that critical thinking could be autonomous, are beautifully put in their place by this response [above]. Naming the machinery “relational” shows us what we are up against. Perhaps I had in mind something more isomorphic about interests and prejudices (by which I meant to capture a whole range of motivating issues, at whatever scale, that we do not have to pin on class or other systemic materialisms/structures). Interest and prejudices can equally divide art from anthropology, or separate the alliance between them from their objects of description, depiction, and so forth. And of criticism. What you say earlier about the gift as a recursive concept rather than a social fact can surely be borrowed for (social) criticism. Its performative potential, in other words, is literally of incalculable, nonauditable value.

Naming the machinery relational performs just what I think we have been talking about. At least in your hands [Roger], it has enlarged a critical vocabulary: if the problem is the kind of relationality that seemingly gobbles up every critical countermove, then multiplying the relationalities is surely the answer. To do so is not being smart or innocent—it is being implacable. Or at least it can be when the multiplication takes place through instigating objects of knowledge (work, play, intervention, and such) that have their own specificity.


Marilyn Strathern wishes to thank Michael Stevenson for the original invitation, and for allowing her to here draw on personal correspondence. Both authors wish to thank Jonas Tinius for organizing the seminar that led to this piece, convener of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network, a three-year running research group at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) in Cambridge, UK.[438]


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L’art et l’anthropologie mis en rapport

Résumé : Ce texte est le fruit d’une conversation entre ses auteurs dans le contexte du Réseau Interdisciplinaire de Cambridge. Le point de départ de cette conversation est la publication récente de l’ouvrage Art, anthropology and the gift par Roger Sansi (Bloomsbury, 2015), une monographie sur les rapports de l’art et de l’anthropologie. Cette conversation engage certains de ses concepts, tels que l’emploi de la notion de don en art et en anthropologie, les avatars du “relationnels” dans les deux champs, et les questions plus vastes de détachement et d’interdisciplinarité.


Roger SANSI is Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London and Senior Lecturer and Senior Researcher at the Universitat de Barcelona, Spain. He has worked on Afro-Brazilian art, culture, and religion; the concept of the “fetish” in the Black Atlantic; and contemporary art in Spain. He is the author of Fetishes and monuments (2007), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic (2011), and Art, anthropology and the gift (2015), among other publications.

Roger Sansi
C. Sardenya 48-54 C 5 1
Barcelona CP08005


Marilyn STRATHERN is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology in the Division of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests have been divided between Melanesian and British ethnography. She has worked on gender relations, reproductive technologies, knowledge practices, and intellectual and cultural property rights, as well as interdisciplinarity. In 2013, HAU published the book Learning to see in Melanesia, four lectures on aesthetics and sociality.

Marilyn Strathern
Girton College
Cambridge CB3 0JG


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