Toward a Cosmopolitical Anthropology
by Jeremy Trombley
Anthropology has been going through something of an identity crisis in recent decades. The move away from the positivism of the past threw the field wholly into the arms of the social constructionists. The move was liberating in many ways; finally we could free ourselves from all forms of determinism by showing that everything, even science itself, is socially constructed, contingent and ideological. But what we gained in liberation we made up for in terms of relevance – in our enthusiasm for deconstruction, the public lost interest in what we had to say, and we lost the ability to build anything new. Now, as the novelty begins to wear off and so many things have been shown to be socially constructed, we search for something that will give us back our relevance to the wider world and allow us to make a real difference. But we cannot return to the positivism of the past – that road is blocked. Instead we need something new. In this paper I propose an anti-essentialist but realist approach to anthropology drawing on the philosophies of Bruno Latour, Manuel de Landa, Isabelle Stengers, and others. This approach – which I'm referring to as a cosmopolitical anthropology – will, I hope, bring us back to the world while allowing us to avoid the pitfalls of the past.
In Territories of Difference, Arturo Escobar (2009) describes a spectrum of scientific theory. On one side are essentialist theories such as Positivism and Systems theories. On the other are anti-essentialist or constructivist theories, with several gradations or mixtures of the two along the middle. Until recently, this spectrum has defined scientific inquiry, and provided much of the basis for the division between the natural and social sciences.
According to the essentialist approaches, meaning is found within the object which possesses and essential core of being independent of human conceptions. This core is transcendental and ahistorical. It can be progressively known through observation and measurement, and knowledge is the ultimate goal of inquiry. We cannot alter the nature of reality, but knowledge of that nature can allow us to live more reasonably within it. This perspective closes down deliberation, and places science as the ultimate arbiter of truth – we may argue about values, but facts are immutable.
As a result, our lives appear in many ways to be shaped by forces beyond our control. We are stuck within a system of natural determinism, and our only hope is to learn and develop the means – usually technological – to overcome those natural limitations. In order to know, however, we must overcome the distance between the subject and the object. Positivism attempts to accomplish this through a kind of sleight of hand by abstracting the subject into the realm of objectivity – the panoptical view from nowhere. But in order to remain in this realm, one must be purified and keep one's self free from such vices as politics, and values, which are seen to be subjective.
For social constructivists, on the other hand, meaning is found primarily in the subject, and the world is not made of predefined essences independent of human thought. Indeed, all knowledge is contextual, ideological and historical including what we previously took to be scientific facts. Thus we were freed from the domination of the natural, and the sciences could no longer be said to hold a monopoly on truth.
But the freedom proved to be limited. For social constructivism failed to put to rest the cartesian dualisms that define Modernity. Instead of rejecting positivism on it's ontological grounds, constructivists choose to object on epistemological grounds. For when we talk of the “social construction of X” (i.e. gender, quarks, capitalism, etc.), we are talking not about the construction of the actual entity, but the construction of the category X. The world is thus a field of representations which must compete for dominance.
Rather than blurring the lines between facts and values, subject and object, nature and culture, and so on, constructivists merely shifted the balance in the opposite direction - facts become values, the object becomes subjective, nature becomes cultural. The result was a more empirical epistemology – one which recognized the reality of the subject embedded within the world – unable to abstract itself into an objective realm – but which failed to extend that empiricism to its ontology. Indeed, constructivists often avoid making ontological claims about the nature of reality, which inevitably causes them to default to the dominant ontology of Modernism.
Furthermore, there is no basis for differentiation between social constructs. One is as constructed and, therefore, as valid as the other. The only difference lies in their relative dominance in the field of discourse. Is it any wonder, then, that the public has lost interest? If we cannot distinguish between the claims of climate scientists and climate deniers aside from our personal or political preference, then what's the point of social constructivism other than to deconstruct our social lives? What can be built using such tools? As Latour points out, we cannot make a house with a sledge hammer.
So we are left searching for something different, something new. The obvious place to look is in the realm of ontology. What's needed, then, is an anti-essentialist ontology – one that takes the empiricism of social constructivism and extends it beyond epistemology. For this we can look to the emerging work of philosophers such as Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, Manueal de Landa, and others. These philosophers outline a novel approach to the world, which I will call – borrowing from Stengers – cosmopolitical. Thus, an anthropology based in this ontological commitment is what I would refer to as a cosmopolitical anthropology.
In the cosmopolitical approach, reality – the cosmos – is not predefined. Rather, it can be thought of as a heterogeneous, material-semiotic assemblage which is in a perpetual process of becoming. In such a formulation, nothing can be reduced to anything else, so the barriers between facts and values, subject and object, nature and culture become blurred or are erased altogether. We escape, once and for all, the cartesian dualisms of Modernity. What's more, there are no essences, since any entity must be composed relationally. So we preserve our liberation from naturalism, while restoring our ability to differentiate between constructions – no longer on the basis of true or false, as Positivism would have it, but on the basis of whether they are well or poorly constructed.
Realities are composed through practice. Science, then, is not primarily a matter of knowledge about reality, but is a practice which contributes to the composition of reality. So the question is no longer an epistemological one – how do we know reality, and how do our methods and theories affect that knowledge – but an ontological one – what kind of reality are we creating through our methodological and theoretical practice, and is that reality well or poorly constructed?
In anthropology, for example, we can start thinking about the kinds of relationships we form in the course of our work, and how we alter existing sets of relationships through our practice. We can also begin to think of ways we might intervene to create a more just and sustainable world.
I have identified several characteristics of a cosmopolitical approach, though, the list is not exhaustive, and will surely expand. They include: 1) Strategic interventions during periods of bifurcation. Bifurcations are periods when existing realities converge and new potentialities are generated. Sometimes this results in great upheaval, as in the case of the current uprisings in the Middle East, but usually they are at least marked by controversy. It is during these periods where the greatest possibilities for change arise, and our interventions have a greater chance of giving rise to the desired changes. 2) A willingness to experiment. Since reality is complex, we cannot know what activities will contribute to change. We must, therefore, try many different approaches in the hope that one or more will take hold. 3) A commitment to broad strategies and tactics. Because reality is heterogeneous, we cannot limit ourselves to a single form of intervention or communication. Instead, we must be open to utilizing diverse media including: online media, mainstream media, non-traditional media, political activism, economic intervention, and so on. This broad approach will help us build the relationships that will foster the new reality and make it strong enough to resist appropriation or dismantling. 4) Humility in the face of a complex world. We cannot hope to simply impose our vision upon the world around us – this would be imperialistic, teleological, and ineffective. This should not, however, keep us from proposing a vision and arguing for its implementation. If approached with a degree of humility, and the recognition that others may reject our vision or alter it to suit their needs and desires, we can avoid the paternalism that characterized previous approaches to development and aid.
With these characteristics in mind, I would like to offer a few examples of a cosmopolitical approach. To begin with, I turn to geography and the work of Julie Gibson and Katherine Graham who, up until Julie Gibson's death last year, published together under the pen name J.K. Gibson-Graham. Together they founded the Community Economies Project, which seeks to bring together researchers and communities who are concerned with creating alternatives to the Capitalist economic system.
In their books, The End of Capitalism as we Knew It and Towards a Post-Capitalist Politics, Gibson and Graham describe their attempts to retheorize capitalism from a non-essentialist, ontological perspective. Starting out as Marxist geographers, they began to see how academic theories which critiqued Global Capitalism as a totalizing system tend to reinforce that system by obscuring potential alternatives. Instead of seeing Capitalism as a totalizing system which determines every aspect of our lives, they began to see it as a heterogeneous assemblage of different economic practices many – in some cases the majority of which are not capitalist at all. This allowed them to find pockets of difference where potential alternatives could be explored.
Research in the Community Economies project is characterized by intervention in communities to reshape their relationship to Capitalism. It begins with a thorough reconceptualization of the global Capitalist system, and a reevaluation of the assets and resources available to the community. They identify other modes that exist alongside the typical class and consumer modes, and look for resources for building potential alternatives including skills, materials, equipment, and so on. The result of this interaction in many of the communities they study has been the generation of new ways of living in places that were once dependent upon Global Capital for their livelihoods. The communities become empowered, and relatively self-sufficient while at the same time undermining the structure of domination.
From the cynical perspective that has come to dominate our field, Gibson and Graham's approach may seem too optimistic. Such small scale projects will likely be enveloped into the Capitalist system and have little actual effect in changing it or creating alternatives. But Gibson and Graham argue that we cannot judge these attempts as failures before they're given a chance. Just as no one could have predicted that one man's solitary act of frustration and protest could have ignited the conflagration that has consumed the Middle East and other parts of the world, there is no way to tell ahead of time if one or more of these small scale projects might provide the impetus for reforming Capitalism. At the very least, it offers a community the chance to live out an alternative, even if only for a time. As these kinds of projects proliferate, the likelihood that Capitalism will be replaced increases.
Another project that could be described as cosmopolitical is Sarah Whatmore's project titled Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies. In her research, Whatmore developed a methodology which she refers to as Competency Groups. These groups are composed of scientists, policy makers, and members of stakeholder communities, and work together to generate novel solutions to previously intractable problems. Her primary example is with flooding in rural England. Scientists and policy makers had come up with a solution based on their data, but the solution ignored the needs and concerns of the local communities. As a result, they were not supportive and even opposed the proposed solution. Whatmore convened a competency group with members of the communities affected by flooding and the scientists and policy makers responsible for decision making. Researchers provided interactive models that allowed the participants to suggest and experiment with different approaches to addressing the flooding, and as a result of this, they came up with a novel solution to the problem – strategically placing a few small dams upstream to store water.
By bringing together scientists and community members in an attempt to co-produce knowledge rather than merely consulting, the competency group methodology is able to generate novel solutions which may be more effective than those proposed by scientists alone and which are more likely to be accepted by the communities themselves. This practice does away with the gap between subject and object, facts and values. Solutions to environmental problems are never simply scientific – they involve a variety of other values as well, and, by bringing the communities on as equal partners in the research we can compose more robust solutions than if they were to be ignored or marginalized.
The question remains as to what a cosmopolitical anthropology would look like – what would it mean to incorporate these ideas into the practice of anthropology? I don't have a full answer, but I have some thoughts based on my limited experience researching traditional cultural properties for the Bureau of Land Management. During the course of my research, I began to think about the meaning of cultural protection and the role of the anthropologist in the process. What I realized is that cultural protection is about values – what is it that we want to protect and why? And values are relational, so cultural protection, ultimately, is about building relationships – between communities, between agencies, between individuals, and so on. As anthropologists, we often find ourselves working between communities, and ethnographic methods can be seen as more than just techniques for generating knowledge or translating knowledge from one group to another – they can also be seen as tools for building relationships. In my case, I began to see the possibility of using ethnographic methods to build relationships between federal agencies and tribes and communities – constructing a reality which is better able to protect the cultural and natural resources that people value.
By conceiving ethnographic methods this way, we can start to think more broadly about our role as researchers. We can think about ways we might use our methods to compose new realities by building relationships, and altering those that already exist.
What is the ultimate goal of the cosmopolitical project? The goal is to build a more just and sustainable world – it is nothing short of utopia. But utopia can no longer be thought as static or homogeneous. Rather, utopia must be conceived as an unending process of experimentation, and negotiation – constantly trying to improve – constantly fighting back the powers of oppression. To quote science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, utopia can be defined with two simple words “Struggle Forever.”