João Biehl and Peter Locke, the editors of Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming (Duke UP: 2017) gather a stellar set of anthropologists around the lens and method of unfinishedness. The editors advocate an affective attunement to what they enticingly term “the ethnographic sensorium” (p. 1), a scholarly orientation that foregrounds “a radical analytical openness to complexity and wonder” (p. xi). It may seem odd but is nonetheless true that the common term of “becoming” evokes the uncommon and collaborative work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Biehl and Locke nicely explicate how these French thinkers* generate a concept of becoming around affective intensities, power relations, and subjectivites that coalesce from numerous threads and, also, never quite congeal into full stability. Here is a sense of “identity” that better fits our everyday experiences, in which fragmentations, dissolutions, and unbearable uncertainties twine right alongside more durable patterns of self and world. Biehl and Locke’s anthropology of becoming is not only about rethinking subjectivity and ontology, however, but also promises to figure a form of writing that “sits with” (as my student Rebecca A. Moody would say) the persistent destabilizing of being and identity in the face of lived life (p. 8). Put another way, Biehl and Locke attempt to honor the collaborative work of anthropology by encouraging scholars to write in and with the fluidity of just those categories that traditional anthropology spent years trying to grasp, delineate, and settle. This is anthropology without closure, a scholarly focus on the unfinished. What does it look like?
Unfinished ethnography, Biehl and Locke tell us, commits to
- “the plastic nature of human-nonhuman interactions” (p. 5)
- “a dynamic interpenetration of past and future, actual and virtual” (p. 6) and
- “an attentiveness to the unknown, both as a critical feature of people and material worlds and as a productive force in research and conceptual work” (p. 6).
Phrases like these show us that Biehl and Locke are resisting the perception that anthropology is stagnating in old paradigms. Indeed, they write in explicit response to George Marcus, who has bemoaned the fact that since Writing Culture (co-edited by Marcus and James Clifford in 1986), “There are no new ideas and none on the horizon” (48). The bullet-point list I extracted above from Biehl and Locke’s “Introduction” is thus nothing short of marching orders for scholars of the contemporary world. Figure out a way to write, they seem to be saying, that illuminates, solicitously and tenderly, the epistemological black holes in our relations with other people, the questions we can never quite bring ourselves to ask, the answers that don’t quite match the question, the conversations that never flesh out to anything like a felt knowingness.
I find all of this tremendously exciting both conceptually and as a scholar tasked (in both senses) with writing the world I sense and the world I think. My excitement persists even as the experiment fails…as I think it must fail because the structure of academic language works against the best hopes for this anthropology of becoming.
My real concern, however, is discursively bound and frustratingly resonant with age-old debates about reality and abstraction. I refer to the places where Biehl and Locke show their commitment to ethnography in light of its apparent ability—unlike philosophy (p. 29)—to ‘get at’ something real (p. 44), something that is “actually happening” (p. 51) to “actual” people (p. 57). I take exception to this unexplained appeal to reality and actuality for two reasons.
First, it is unclear to me that the abstraction of months of research into a relatively short narrative in a book chapter (as is the case with the research proffered by the book’s contributors as well as editors) is, um, actually all that different from the abstraction of experience and analysis by a philosopher or cultural critic into a critical text. At any rate, I would want to hear more about these different abstractions and why one is perceived so automatically to accomplish something the other not only does not do but cannot do (p. 29). Also, it is unclear to me how talking to people can step cleanly out of the bog that is the (always-becoming) human, with its singularities (Badiou), its non-transparency and non-self-knowing (Freud), and its conscious and para-conscious angling to sequester and circulate power for itself and its agendas (Nietzsche). Unless, that is, one talks hundreds and hundreds of hours with hundreds and hundreds of people, and then (of course) one is dealing with the patterns of big data and not the intimacy of ethnography.
Second, it is clear to me that the tender attention to precarity given and articulated by the anthropologists in this text is bolstered by statistics, empirical studies, and social science institutes. In other words, the encounter with “actuality” does not stand alone but is given signification and context with data that is precisely not actual but accumulated and processed. The only aspect to criticize in this fact is the absence of its acknowledgment and theorization. The gathered anthropologists here are high caliber and persuasive, just the kind of scholar who could take on a theorization of how narrative and data combine in ways that devolve to something ‘more real’ than other kinds of scholarship, and they might even convince me. Maybe.
For now, I would wager that ethnography is not any closer an encounter with the real than is philosophy or cultural critique but rather deploys abstraction and marshals evidence and context differently. By all means, and despite my small jab, this collection is worth reading, worth teaching, worth considering. I read quite a bit of ethnography, and this is the first one that has riled me enough to blog about it.
*Deleuze and Guattari resist the title of “philosopher” since it refers to a stable set of thinkers that D/G’s collaborative work labors to upend and bastardize.