ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Scalarity and the cross-sectional imagination: orders of magnitude, projection, and consequentiality in the organisation of social relationships

Panel convenor: Corsin-Jimenez

Panel abstract

This panel aims at exploring and presenting new ethnographic and analytical vocabularies with which to account and explicate the situatedness of social life. It calls for the development of anthropological imaginaries capable of transcending our classical, ‘grounded’ and territorial idioms of spatiality: place, landscape, space, context, field. Grounded metaphors of locality fail to capture the capacity of social relationships to traverse various orders of social organization and meaning at once (temporal, structural, historical, mythical, imaginary), as well as of accounting for the scaling (up and down) that such excursions and cross-sectional cuttings effect on people’s perceptions of themselves and their relationships to others. Different modes of relations are laden with different degrees of aperture to the world, different orders of magnitude, and different kinds and degrees of consequences. Relations are inflected by and open themselves up to the world in a cross-sectional mode: they collapse and fold unto themselves events and structures of meaning that belong to different orders, reorganizing the structure of sociality as they go along. The capacity and authority of a shaman to intervene in the affairs of others is of a different order, aperture and consequentiality than the capacity of a lecturer to effect changes in the behaviour of her students. Different hierarchical structures, sources and destinations of agency, and social qualities are summoned and put to work at the different levels and stages of the relational encounter, instantiating worlds of social life that cut across the taken-for-granted backstages and templates of society.

Social relationships scale up and down orders of meaning that transcend their occurrence in the here-and-now, weaving or colluding relational worlds that will not lend themselves to descriptions of a grounded kind (place, landscape, context, field), and that have important consequences for how people imagine and re-act to their past and future. This panel hopes to contribute towards the development of a new vocabulary that un-places the social and that in so doing can map the uncanny in the imagination and unfolding of social life.

Proportions: how relationships emerge as consequences

Alberto Corsín Jiménez, University of Manchester

My inspiration for this paper comes from reading Ortega y Gasset’s extraordinary work La idea de principio en Leibniz (“Leibniz’s idea of ‘principle’”). Building on some of Ortega’s ideas, this paper takes issue with the category that lies at the very heart of the anthropological project: the relation. It locates anthropology’s enchantment with the ‘relation’ in the algebraic imagination that marked the birth of Modernism as the exemplary rational and logical mode of thought. Against the Aristotelian definition of entities (or ‘things’) as classificatory terms (grouped and/or separated into genus and species), the Cartesian algebraic revolution defined, or rather ‘elicited’ its terms by their position in a purely formal and nominal system of relations. Relationality thus understood emerges in structural orders of deictic references. Referents ‘call out’ one another, and their mere ‘appearance’ (or visibility) is proof (i.e. deixis) of their existence. This is in fact the vocabulary (relata, deixis, visibility, indexicality) of much current anthropology (e.g. Gell, Strathern, Viveiros de Castro, Wagner) and it is with some of its contentions that I take issue.

My concern with anthropology’s application of the algebraic imagination is twofold. On both counts, I am concerned with the application of a system of logical relations to human affairs; I do not oppose its use, but want to examine its limitations and explore its possibilities.

First, I do not believe that deictic proofs are useful accounts of how social life takes effect. Not the logical, but the para-logical (analogy and homology, for example) works in human affairs. From a phenomenological point of view, social life no doubt simply ‘happens’ before our eyes, but this is hardly an explanation of what is going on. In logic, deictic proofs are evidential: self-given and self-accountable. Social life, however, is not logical, and social forms though self-given are not self-accountable. (Social life may be self-accountable, but that is an entirely different matter.) It is not deixis, then, but apodeixis that we need to use in the explanation of human affairs. The apodeictic (i.e. de-monstrative) perspective is essentially reflexive and pragmatic: it tells us how people get along and engage with the world of ‘things’ (pragmata) around them.

My second concern arises from this pragmatic, or apodeictic, way of looking at social life. Logical relationality tells us how the terms or relata between relations arise, but it says nothing about the quality of such relations. Here I argue that social categories are in fact related in the form of proportions: relations that are inherently magnitudinal and projective. Proportions bring together and coalesce in one directional moment orders of meaning and action otherwise kept apart. In this light, the relationship between, say, A and B is not a flat relationship (of whatever kind) but an imaginative re-scaling project. A relates to B by making itself bigger or smaller or more powerful or more beautiful; that is, by  reorganizing orders of existence that are otherwise distinct, travelling and traversing such orders cross-sectionally, and in doing so gaining a sense of the proportions and possibilities that cement social life. In other words, coping with the world (dealing with the people and pragmata around us) is all about weighing our life-projects and proportioning them out. Unlike the neutered relationality of deictic tautology (where things are what they are because they are connected to be so), a pragmatic or proportional perspective allows for a clearer understanding of how social life emerges as consequences (where things happen because although all things relate, some (proportions) are left unbalanced – some relations weigh heavier than others).

The temporal, spiritual, and spatial aspects of regeneration on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea

James Leach, King’s College, Cambridge

For Rai Coast Villagers on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, the recognition of personhood requires generative productivity. This can be acquired through a lifelong progression in which education, action, and effect are central. Power is located in this context: land based spirits and ancestors are the knowledge gained through education, and the means (power) to have an effect on others. Thus education and action relate to specific places. As it is persons themselves that are the most important outcome of any directed action (they embody other’s generative work, and thus are constituted by the relations between various powers), persons both contain aspects of (located) power within themselves, and can make use of this power as if it existed as external elements in the land around them. There is a complex temporality involved here, as ‘the past’ is made into the present through the regeneration of persons in places. Power is both in, and out, of time. In fact, power (as the ability to generate persons) may be the a-temporal ground upon which time as a forward movement (generating new persons) is made to appear. This paper explores the multi-layered image of the person on the Rai Coast, and necessarily complicates any simple reading of place. Place, like time, is inseparable from the ongoing generation, and regeneration, of persons. Situated-ness in this context then is placement in a temporal, spiritual, and spatial, relational matrix, and is inseparable from particular generative relations between persons and spirits. One outcome of this complex is the possibility that ‘place’ can be carried within persons. As knowledge and power to have effect on others, ‘place’ can be demonstrated anywhere. Persons are places made mobile, while places are persons in stasis. As stasis in gendered as male in this context, a complex interplay of gender, temporality, and spatiality, is made visible in this ethnography.

'Customary', State and International law: articulations of scale or level? - with ramifications for anthropological analyses

Sari Wastell, Goldsmiths

There are are two ways of thinking about the relationships between local/customary, national, and international legal regimes.  They are either relations of scale, i.e., movements between distinct vantages of observation (where 'grain' and 'extent' involve completely different intervals) or they are movements between levels of organisation within a single scale.  The purpose of this paper is not to suggest that either formulation best captures these relationships.  On the contrary, I will suggest that legal 'hierarchies' can and are imagined both as dimensions of time and space which condition observation (scale) and as linkages between disparate levels of function which organise legal and political interaction (level).  However, with recourse to both my own data from work within the Swazi legal system, and with reference to a variety of other anthropological and legal sources, my aim here is to demonstrate the very distinct avenues scalar-based analysis might take - and the radically different endpoints they might reach - when legal systems are treated as existing at different points on the same scale as opposed to operating on different scales altogether.  Ultimately, the decision between the two analytical strategies is an ethnographically driven one, which is to say, one which must derive from outwith law's own realm of self-definition.

An interplay between how things seem and how they are in the Balkans

Sarah Green, University of Manchester

Nobody can quite agree exactly what or where the Balkans are, or even if they exist at all, as such; they appeared and then they disappeared (during the Cold War), only to reappear again (after the Cold War). They have been variously described as a crossroads, a mosaic, a ‘Macedonian Salad’, a ‘virus’ or ‘toxin’ threatening the stability of Europe, if not the world. The Balkans are not a ‘place’ in any pragmatic (‘thing-like’) or scopic (visual) sense; they are a process, endless moments of simultaneously too much fragmentation and too much interrelation, across too many multiple and overlapping scales (of both magnitude and domain, to use Strathern’s distinction in Partial Connections); they are, so one story goes, what was left over after others had battled it out and carved out their places, their relations, their ideals, their truths, leaving the Balkans being neither one thing nor the other, or perhaps altogether too much both one thing and another. The Balkans seem to constitute a gap, or proliferation of gaps, in the Euclidian patchwork of spatiality; gaps in between imagined and asserted borders and boundaries that continually reproduce, rename and redraw the marginality of the (non-empty) gaps; this results in an ongoing cross-scalar entangled mess (a fractal perhaps), a proliferation of ambiguity and disinterested neglect, of jagged edges with no centres, no beginnings and no ends.

In such gaps, how things seem become self-evidently a part of how things are; the performative character of various technologies and techniques of knowing (and not knowing), stretching across a range of scales, become obvious. This paper explores how the Balkans seem to be altogether too hybrid. If anthropology is no longer to be grounded in a spatial paradigm, metaphorically or epistemologically, then it is worth exploring how places themselves occasionally fall outside or in between such grounding. The paper argues that the Balkans are often made to stand for myriad parts of the contemporary world that lack (modern) spatiality in this sense.