On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry: A Conversation with Paul Rabinow

By Todd MeyersNovember 4, 2013

On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry: A Conversation with Paul Rabinow
FOR DECADES Paul Rabinow has been producing scholarship that tightens the aperture around what it means to write and think with anthropology. His work is ambitious and broad-reaching, yet at its core there is a preoccupation with the details of practice as well as modes of inquiry and their ethical, conceptual, tangible dimensions — the stuff of “doing” fieldwork in the interpretive social sciences. Rabinow’s work operates through numerous valences: it is driven by personal intellectual commitments articulated in a distinct voice, yet remains fiercely collaborative; it tackles areas seemingly absent of human presence (the laboratory, the administrative life of private and public sector biosciences research, the domain of concepts), yet is densely populated by actors throughout — furthermore, he insists on asking what it is to be human and what it means to make claims on life and living today. Across numerous books, articles, and interventions, Rabinow’s efforts have remained inventive, unquiet, and experimental.

Rabinow has recently published a cluster of books: The Accompaniment: Assembling the Contemporary (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology (with Gaymon Bennett, University of Chicago, 2012), and Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry (with Anthony Stavrianakis, University of Chicago Press, 2013), with a fourth volume, Designs on the Contemporary (with Anthony Stavrianakis), to follow next year. These books result largely from collaborative research Rabinow and colleagues conducted alongside scientists at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc). Together, what these volumes create is a highly original case for the role of the humanities and social sciences in new areas of biological science (synthetic biology and genomics in particular) as well as an outline for critical work in the human sciences today.

— Todd Meyers

TODD MEYERS: Your recent books are quite an undertaking. In part they provide a map for future work, but also, in an unambiguous way, they’re an appraisal of the past — your own intellectual past, the past of the discipline of anthropology, and of the various projects in which you’ve participated over the last several years. I’m curious how these volumes (including the forthcoming Designs on the Contemporary) were initially conceived, and how they evolved.

PAUL RABINOW: For a long time now I have been in search of a different manner of practicing the qualitative human sciences. In a sense this quest goes back to my education at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, where there was a curriculum and where we were encouraged to think beyond the disciplinary boundaries. I was drawn to anthropology as a discipline in which it might be possible to practice “fieldwork in philosophy,” that is to say to pose questions and address problems traditionally situated in philosophic venues but to explore them out of the academy through sustained inquiry in the world. With the prodigious exception of Michel Foucault, 20th-century philosophers have not conducted this form of empirically based, slow, and time-consuming inquiry. Even John Dewey, one of my guiding lights in providing a conceptualization of inquiry, basically did not carry out any such project. Thus, the challenge has been to be conceptually innovative, experimental in the dual sense of an appropriately rigorous approach to problems and in the work on the self and others that makes one capable of ethically undertaking such work.

For some time now I have understood anthropology to be the study (logos) of anthropos, different figures and constitutive practices of human beings. In previous books, Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment (2003), written while teaching in the philosophy department of the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris, and Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary (2007), I began to clarify the conceptual equipment for an anthropology adequate to the 21st century. This work entailed reaching back in time to recover and remediate many concepts that had been articulated previously to address different if analogous problems of living beings and their milieus, science as a vocation, and the care of the self and others.

TM: You write that Demands of the Day was about “tracking the movement out of the field.” I’m curious about this movement as a starting point for conceptual reflection. Part of this seems to be turning serious attention towards (as well as scrutinizing) the various metrics, diagnostics, and other modes of evaluation that otherwise characterize research at its close.

PR: It came time to test, evaluate, and modify these concepts through sustained inquiry. The occasion arose when, through a somewhat twisted chain of events, I was offered a position as a principle investigator in a five-university undertaking to turn post-genomic biology into an engineering discipline. Before accepting, I flew to Washington to meet informally with the officials at the National Science Foundation to clarify my terms of engagement. I wanted real-time collaboration as the biological engineering unfolded, not the previous frame of “consequences” and “exteriority” that the human genome sequencing projects had insisted on. These officials agreed, as did the leaders of Synberc. With the money provided I could fund a number of doctoral students to work jointly on the project. One, Gaymon Bennett, was a theologian who felt that theology needed to be more grounded in the workings of the world, and another was Anthony Stavrianakis, who was dissatisfied with the lack of experimentation in bioethics and the study of the new biosciences that he was encountering at the London School of Economics. We set to work to forge a different type of participant observation simultaneously with the various bioscientists as well as with social scientists working in related fields. We conceived of this work as an experiment. It was at best partially successful; but results of an experiment that is rigorously and conscientiously undertaken are worthwhile in and of themselves.

TM: I’m struck by the idea of “sacrifice” you write about, as you conceive it in relation to intellectual life — between giving something up and producing something new or securing something, which in no small way is a type of care reaching back into the classical notion of sacrifice described by Girard, Vernant, and others. It’s also an experimental practice. How do you see these notions of sacrifice and experiment aligning with “collaboration,” or more precisely, challenging individualism in intellectual life?

PR: It then came time to write about our experiment. The series of books are themselves experiments in form. How to write in a timely fashion about fast-moving events and organizations? One had to sacrifice certain things in order to do so. I basically withdrew from academic politics local and international. There is a price to be paid for that disappearance in terms of building networks, accumulating debts, gaining discretionary familiarity, and conforming to the current fashions.

First with Bennett and then with Stavrianakis, we worked together almost every day. This practice is accelerative and challenging. Its advantage is a flow of ideas and narration not interrupted by longer and shorter stretches of time with bureaucracy, irritations of the rampant pettiness and gossip that abounds, et cetera. The price to be paid aside from being neglected and even scorned was the risk of insularity. We hoped to counter that tendency by strong dialogue with thinkers such as Foucault, Dewey, Weber, Seneca, and Aristotle. One can easily imagine how this strategy was received in certain quarters — even philosophers complaining about the use of German and Greek terms!

Each of the books grew as seemed appropriate. In two instances we had imagined they would be articles but simply kept working until we had covered what we thought was the bare necessities. Here I have to underscore the extraordinary fortitude and even courage of Bennett and Stavrianakis in continuing this work while also writing their doctoral theses and seeking employment; I also have to underscore the splendid confidence of David Brent at the University of Chicago Press who was willing to proceed as things unfolded. Brent was queried by members of his board as to whether the production was too rapid, despite the generally extremely positive reviewers’ reports. Our answer was that if one was not diverted by all the myriad interruptions and excuses available not to do one’s work, and if one had a rich store of material to work on, and if one thoroughly enjoyed both undergraduate and graduate teaching but eschewed the rest of the academy’s demands, then this output seemed appropriate to what we thought was required.

TM: This seems ideal, but tough.

PR: Of course, if anything like this rhythm of inquiry, writing, and reflection were ever to become the norm in the university instead of constant conference travel, never-ending committee meetings, iPhone addiction, scheming and plotting, obsession with being in the know and doing the trendy thing, the academy would either disappear or look very different. Not for me to say. All I know is that we did not engage in some graduate student marathon of all-nighters. We worked regularly together about four hours a day; then went about meeting our other obligations.

TM: I think it deserves mention that the scope of collaboration in your writing and research is much more than just working alongside one another. This would include very personal, mutual efforts as well as a rich notion of influence.

PR: On the one hand, the model of the individual researcher grinding away or displaying her flights of Romantic genius provided only negative guidance. On the other hand, the biosciences had passed a threshold of a kind different than the one we were crossing but which demonstrated nonetheless that in the contemporary world, inquiry, research, and knowledge production could not be individualistic. In the human sciences there were very few models to learn from. A prominent one was that of the late Robert Bellah and his group of younger researchers who had worked collaboratively on their book Habits of the Heart and several subsequent projects. Another was a group in Paris led by Luc Boltanski which produced an impressive number of monographs, including On Justification, through sustained group conceptual work. No doubt there are a few others perhaps in Denmark.

TM: Any other sources of inspiration?

PR: Another source of inspiration for me is found in what I considered to be the most innovative, serious, and formally successful urban anthropological project of all time: The Wire. The truly astounding fact that a series of directors, an array of amateur actors as well as professionals who had not worked this way previously had forged a form of participant observation still leaves me breathless in admiration.

TM: I was thrilled to see that the final chapter of the forthcoming Designs on the Contemporary is on the German painter Gerhard Richter — a chapter that begins forcefully (and playfully) with the statement, “It is very hard for a German not to be tragic.” What I find most illuminating about your engagement with Richter and his work is your assessment of productivity, or more specifically the activities involved in making his paintings, which are purposeful but also formed by chance. I’m curious to hear how Richter creates a conceptual opening for you in anthropology.

PR: Gerhard Richter has drawn my intermittent attention for a number of years now. The reasons for this attraction in an almost physical sense have been hard to pin down as his paintings per se have not always drawn me to them. Richter is by now arguably the most famous painter in the world; and yet his prodigious output of distinctly diverse forms and modes; his relentless creativity and experimentation (including many failures, as he himself attests) are impressive in and of themselves. They are also captivating in their ability to escape from critical categories while inciting critics to produce interpretations of what he is doing and, more rarely, how one might decide if it works or not. This incitation of critical response is not accidental on Richter’s part; he has cultivated it for decades, obviously understanding that what was once modernism is worn out, its flashy and fashionable fads have come and gone, and yet painting persists.

Richter’s friend Benjamin Buchloh (Richter has painted the two of them together) has provided high theory, Adorno inspired criticism for a long time. Richter consistently rejects or claims not to understand what Buchloh is saying. Yet, these high theory–laden interviews have provided an opening and legitimacy to critical writing and museum circles. Extensive writing have come from important museum curators who have mounted exhibits with ever increasing regularity of Richter’s paintings. Although it is evident that there is an instrumental dimension to this proliferation of prose and an ever-expanding scholarly literature (especially in German), it would be reductive to see Richter’s relationship to this outpouring of words as only manipulative. Rather, it is clear that he listens to the criticism and responds to it laconically, frequently giving interviews, but it is also clear that the relationship of criticism and painting no longer fits either the older connoisseur mode or the theory-laden criticism that accompanied and championed modernism in the arts. Richter, it seems to me, assembles a different form of relationship between his painting and its reception, between his artistic striving and its distance from the prose that seeks to capture or at least attempts to characterize it.

TM: And for anthropology?

PR: What does this have to do with the humble practice of anthropology? What has drawn me to genomic and post-genome-sequencing molecular biology as well as Richter’s work is the objects they are bringing into the world, the collaborative manner in which they are being produced, and the way they are being made to ramify. I think of this as historical ontology of an anthropological sort, but if the term has been polluted by other disciplines we can find a different one. We can learn from these modes of production of objects with a warrant of truth about who we are as living beings and those objects which have attained authority as to making things visible, but we cannot directly imitate them. That challenge of science, art, and logic or multiple other triads have been taken up perennially in various modes. How they assemble and disassemble, and how to think about and give form to our understandings of these defining works in progress, works that contribute to defining the logos of anthropos as well as experiments in form, would seem to be one eminently plausible, if all too rare, way of doing anthropology.

Finally, why is this mode a contemporary one? It proceeds with an assurance that historical aspects of the things of the world are inescapable; it proceeds simultaneously with an assurance that distinctive forms of objects and life practices, wonderful or horrible, exhilarating or disgusting, are all around us. To reduce them to a pattern continuous with the past as too many in the social sciences do, or to announce that the moderns have never been modern as the leading guru of science studies never tires of disclaiming is something an inquirer has to live with in so much as she is an observer, but it also provides a motivational drive to appreciate what escapes these tired binaries by accepting them as contemporary and refusing them in search of a contemporary mode that is neither modernist nor postmodern. As the first episode of The Wire closed with one of the neighborhood young men explaining senseless violence to the perplexed officer of the law: that is the way things are; this is America. The observation such things of the world qualifies, it seems to me, as an anthropology of the contemporary.


Todd Meyers teaches medical anthropology at Wayne State University.

LARB Contributor

Todd Meyers is Assistant Professor of Medical Anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He is the author of The Clinic and Elsewhere: Addiction, Adolescents, and the Afterlife of Therapy (University of Washington Press, 2013), and, with Stefanos Geroulanos, the editor of the Forms of Living book series at Fordham University Press.


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