Celebrating Transgression – Method part one

This pic is from a recent celebration – heh heh. bleary eyed the next day (in fact already here – those magaritas were fine).

Anyway, Klaus Peter Koepping is coming to Goldsmiths to teach for the next year. This below is from Celebrating Transgression – a festschrift for him. This is the start of my paper. More to come…

From ‘Method in the Madness’ in “Celebrating Transgression” (forthcoming Nov – see the books blog).

1.1 The idea that anthropology is about one culture understanding another, in some sort of binary exchange mechanism, seems absurd. There are no distinct cultures, understandings are multiple. Balance sheets are false documents. But these absurdities are the ethic of anthropology, as a trickster discipline, conjuring its way to a faulty comprehension (Köpping 1989). Ethnographers might lie. They might be brilliant. They might be government spies, or worse, revolutionaries. In an anxious history, the drive to rethink culture must engage with diversity, media, commerce and yet is nothing if it does not encourage the opening of minds that only transgressive quest(ion)ing can ensure.

1.2 Reinventing anthropology could be imagined as a project of recognising differences so as to work an overcoming in equality that preserves them. In Gayatri Spivak’s reading of Marx we hear of a ‘system that will remove difference after taking it into account’ (Spivak 1999: 79). This might even be something like the structure of anthropological reportage in a Malinowskian world, where difference is revealed as not so different – the point might be to radicalise this towards its revolutionary implications. The move from reportage to intervention is a not so unusual ambition. If the structure of ethnographic motivation was to say ‘look how these strange people are not all that strange after all’, then the political task of ensuring equity despite acknowledged differences is only the next step. Here there would not be talk of rights to difference, but of rights to (and the responsibilities of) equality.

1.3 The archive of ethnography shifts and grows exponentially, but only sometimes escapes the impulse to itemise, even as we try to theorise the innovations of the system. If anything, perhaps it is the grand expositions, such as that in 1851 at the Crystal Palace, which are the precursors of the anthropological collection and display, and which still regulate the discipline. We can possibly imagine Marx wandering around the exhibits, astonished. Walter Benjamin, so many years later, obviously wished he’d been there – he noted that visitors were not allowed to touch the goods on show. The produce of the world, today, the fact that cultural curios are often replicated in miniature indicates that the aura of authentic commodification, once prominently displayed in the industrial products of the expositions, is now rendered less significantly, or even ironically diminished, as kitsch. A kind of reductive ambition and loss of grandeur, the convenience store and the tourist flea market become the scenes of culture. The souvenir collected by the anthropologist is more akin to the snapshot or postcard than ever before. Should we see this as a loss? If so, of what?

1.4 The curriculum that demands a critical rethink might claim many avatars. We should not be surprised to find anthropologists that do not fit the canon. Other ways of writing the trajectory of the discipline have been offered. Alternative versions ask urgent political, conceptual, dialectical questions and evoke names not usually present, texts scavenged and refashioned through critique. Popular interdisciplinarity recasts everything afresh. This is in part learned from Peter Köpping’s lectures on Anthropology and Method, here and there updated over the years in a file seasoned with engagement, teaching, reading, activism.

1.5 Most important of all, the critique of mediocrity – the gilt-edged mediocrity of those in positions of privilege incapable of anything other than marching in place with that privilege, incapable of challenging even themselves or the perseverance that put them here in the first place. Who do I have in mind? Certain professors of culture at work in the bureaucratic teaching machine, dull operatives of self-promotion and resignation, luxuriant in egoistic privilege, imagining conference attendance and canteen dinners amount to a jet-set lifestyle – these people thrive on a capitulation to the administrative job that makes the capacity for critical thought a mere line on a curriculum vitae.

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