RSS Feed

Posts Tagged ‘posthumanism’

  1. The Year of 2009, the Year of 2012

    March 13, 2012 by Fan

    The Year of 2009, the Year of 2012

    Fan Zhang

          Kaushik Sunder Rajan’s Biocaptial came out on 2009, the same year as Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Both are from Duke University Press. Both have the agenda of deconstructing capitalist essentialism (or in anthropological terms, mythologies) but with subtle differences in philosophy which in turn allocate the two ethnographies in two different epochs, despite the fact that they were published on the same year by the same publisher.

    Rajan reveals her anti-essentialism stand in the opening section: “[the mistake is that] … capitalism … having ‘defeated’ alternative economic formations such as socialism or communism … is therefore considered to be the ‘natural’ political formation.” (Rajan 2009:4). Her deconstruction of the myth is carried out in two countries: the United States and India. In America, the essentialism is expressed in many ways: corporate’s moral rhetoric as opposed to reflections on systematic failures (Rajan 2009:206), their ritual performativity which provides material force (Rajan 2009:206), scientific technicality becoming the object of faith (Rajan 2009:207), literally evangelical background of venture capitalists (Rajan 2009:195), and the fact that anti-Corporate sentiment is considered not as just partisan but as un-Christian and un-American (Rajan 2009:183). In India, neoliberal capitalism and globalization produced similar ritual performativity and zealous hype as seen in the Knowledge Park and Wellspring Hospital (Rajan 2009:95); at the same time, they themselves are part of cultural nationalism (Rajan 2009:185). All those passages in Rajan’s ethnography corresponds to Karen Ho’s analysis of Wall Street’s shareholder value (Ho 2009:169) and a “culture of smartness” shared by Wall Street and Ivy League colleges (Ho 2009:39).

    However, Rajan’s view of capitalism is more nuanced than Ho’s in that she doesn’t see capitalism as all evil no good. This philosophical difference partially reflects the differences in two ethnographies’ subject matters and sites. Investment banking with its shareholder value is Ho’s central theme. In deconstructing its myth, Ho almost inevitably sees nothing tangible behind those values. Readers of her book might reach same conclusions of hers in view of the financial disaster coming right after the book’s publishing. By contrast, Rajan’s subject, besides capitalism, there is science (in particular biosciences) with its epistemology. The dynamic interaction between scientific knowledge and capitalism, though no less mystic, is often more tangible. That’s why the author declare on the outset that there is no capitalism but capitalisms (Rajan 2009:1). The difference can also be observed in two authors’ different views of globalization with regard to ethnographical writing. Ho claims her book to be global in that Wall Street values and practices are both influential and imitated across the globe. Rajan, on the hand, emphasize different ideologies and practices between India and the US: although they are tired by globalization in which the US has an undeniably asymmetric influences on India, without on-site study of either local, her understanding of biosciences, capitalism, and biocapitalism which is the late and most-symptomic stage of capitalism will be incomplete (Rajan 2009:278).

    Admittedly Karen Ho’s ethnography of financial industry is somewhat farther from anthropological tradition than Rajan’s project. In terms of genealogy, Rajan’s is deeply rooted in recent tradition: Michel Foucault started with deconstruction of psychiatry, a medical branch often viewed as dubious; Emily Martin extended to immunology and more; Rajan brought it further to bioscience in general. Marxism is another source of her inspiration. In terms of ethnographical practice, Rajan is actively responding to George Marcus’ multisited ethnography (Marcus 2006; 2007) and Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson’s global anthropology (Gupta 2006).

    Both ethnographies are relevant to or can be viewed as part of “present” / contingency (in Derridian terms). Karen Ho’s book is a (faint) swan song of wild venture capitalism which has been under severe scrutiny since the financial crisis. Her books somehow belongs to a not-so-long-ago past. Rajan’s book belongs to a new age in which the power of globalization and the formation of capitalism are more diverse, especially in the ideologies and practises of the BRIC countries. In this age, even capitalists sometimes can be viewed, wittingly or unwittingly, as popular leaders or even activists. In America, we see this in the outpouring of sympathy in the mourning of Steve Jobs. In India, we have Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw whose capitalism is describe as idealistic and benign in her profile in the New Yorker (Levy 2012). Biosciences are advancing at a higher speed. Capitalism is morphing into something else. Again we are living in hypes and hopes.


    (Questions: 1.Do you think social constructivism of knowledge can be dangerous? Can you offer your critique? 2.Do you believe in the possibility of capitalist activism?)





    Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson

    2006 [1992]. Beyond “Culture”: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. In Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. Henrietta L. Moore, and Todd Sanders, eds. Pp. 608-617. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.


    Ho, Karen

    2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham: Duke University Press.


    Levy, Ariel

    2012. Drug Test: Can One Self-Made Woman Reform Health Care for India, and the World?. In The New Yorker, January 02, 2012, pp. 30-36.


    Marcus, George E.

    2006 [1999]. What is at Stake – and is not – in the Idea and Practice of Multi-sited Ethnography. In Anthropology in Theory: Issues in Epistemology. Henrietta L. Moore, and Todd Sanders, eds. Pp. 619-621. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.


    Marcus, George E.

    2007. Ethnography Two Decades after Writing Culture: From the Experimental to the Baroque. Anthropological Quarterly 80(4): pp.1125-1145.


    Rajan, Kaushik Sunder

    2009. Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life. Durham: Duke University Press.










  2. Understanding to Being: an Anecdotal Understanding of Anthropology

    February 4, 2012 by Fan


    Understanding to Being

    Fan Zhang


    “Come here!” A faint voice came from the other side of the curtain separating the ward’s two beds. It was my new Pilipino roommate.

    The hospital chaplain just ran away. A kind and accommodating lady, she came here to soothe my soul. But her question about the “meanings” of being ill excited me – and she got a lecture on the violence in the Old Testimony and different kinds of witchcrafts instead. She told me that I was very confused and that I need to rest.

    “You know …” my new roommate, who was a factory machine operator before hospitalization, began, “I am a witch … but I’m a good witch.” Just having a spinal surgery, he sure had no intention of joking: “Back in Philippine, there are a lot of witches. Those with power are actually all witches, but they are bad witches. The do it for themselves, but I do it to help other people. In any case, you can’t go wrong if you are careful about people around you … ”

    “But do you think there are witches here in Canada?”

    He thought about the question for about one minute and then spoke with uncertainty: “Well … probably not many. Because here people don’t understand it’s possible to be witches. Only when you understand that this is possible, you can be a witch.”

    My roommate’s distinction of understanding and being puzzles me a little until now when I am reading Amira Mittermaier’s Dreams that Matter. Is she making the same hermeneutic connection? If so, is she successful? In any case, even when her interpretative framework is not entirely organic and her Freudian connection is slightly too obvious, her  book inevitably explores a few very important new fronts in the field of anthropology: diaspora anthropology, historical anthropology, art anthropology, and existential anthropology. Probably none of those “anthropologies” is intended by the author – and every single of them is prone to misunderstanding.

    Diaspora anthropology is not anthropology of diaspora. Instead of the study of migration and diaspora, it refers to an anthropology done by people with one particular cultural background other than the dominant one in which she or he is writing her text. In fact, she or he often still studies “other” cultures relative to the dominant one. There might or might not be an ancestral connection. In any case, the view point this anthropologist brings is unique and often a liminal one. Amira Mittermaier’s ethnography fits the profile, so is Dorienne Kondo’s Crafting Self and Anna Tsing’s In the Realm of Diamond Queen (which is not an obvious case but still holds true). Talal Asad and two literary critics who have profound impacts on anthropology, Gayatari Chakravory Spivak and  Edward Said, also belong to the category. The point is: those scholars have hermeneutic advantages over many of their colleagues. Their potential to transcend understanding to the realm of being is bigger, although this potential may or may not be realized in the end. In Mittermaier’s case, she often appears to be a natural member of the milieu in Dream: “Sipping sugary tea, we leaned back and listened as the shaykh began talking about the lives of various prophets” (Mittermaier 2011:84, emphasis is mine). The hermeneutic manoeuvres she carried out in the book seem to be seamless. However, the overall impact, or shock value, is less impressive than Argonaut when Malinowski hides himself entirely from the scene or Evans-Pritchard’s phenomenological approach in the first chapter of Azande when he unexpectedly brings his readers into the local belief system.

    In fact, diaspora anthropology is a misnomer. It shall only be viewed  a transitional stage in the development of a world anthropology in which fieldwork will not only be done physically by Self as opposed to Other but also done within a lively native paradigm. As a matter of fact, in the mature age of world anthropology, who is doing the anthropology is beside the point. The point is that is done with a true world view, hence my next point: historical anthropology.

    Again, the word historical anthropology doesn’t capture the true exuberance: it should be called civilizational anthropology. In particular, it incorporates subjectively cultural traditions outside Western civilization (admittedly also an ambiguous concept), be it evolutionary, functional, relativist, structuralist or postmodern. Indic, Sinic, Islamic, and potentially African traditions will be brought into an integrated (not “clashed”) paradigm. It’s noteworthy that Mittermaier’s very choice of dream as the topic of her ethnographic investigation comes from the fact that the interpretation of dream comes from Arabic textual canon. In fact, she carefully emphasizes the textual connection every time she has the chance, such as her invocations of Qur’an and hadith literature (6), poetry (114) and a 8th-century book whose title can be translated as “Interpretation of Dreams” (54).

    When I was reading excepts from Freud’s book of the same title, I was alarmed by the fact that Freud heavily relied on textual transcriptions of his own or his patients’ description of dreams. Mittermaier’s ethnography of dream is similarly heavy on interviews. In other words, it is verbally based. Her project of jumping from the “English tradition” of ritual study, the “French tradition” of myth study, and “contemporary tradition” of sociology/political history study .. to the study of dream or imagination is not entirely a success. We still see words, words words … which reminds us of our very central topic: the difficulty in transcending words as seen from the very beginning with Heidegger’s A Letter on Humanism. She admits later in the book that “What arises at the intersection between dream-medium and mass media might then ultimately be a better understanding of  the ethics of imagination that I have been tracing throughout the book” (231, emphasis is mine). An anthropology of massmedia or popular culture, of course, will be of help, but more to the point, we need an art anthropology that is not dealing with the so-called “primitive art” but high art from antiquities of different civilizations. In other words, we need to introduce art history into anthropology, and vice versa. Alfred Gell insists on that anthropology of art shall focus on social context instead of aesthetics in his Art and Agency. I, however, believes in the centrality of aesthetics and its possibility of enwrapping externalities internally.

    Art anthropology will bring us one step closer to an existential anthropology in which the elements of being looms over understanding. Verbal, textual or even artistic expressions will be greatly reduced. Yet by then, anthropology probably is risking returning to its roots: religion.




  3. Look, Listen, Dream and Become: Chuang-Tzu and Derrida

    January 30, 2012 by Fan


    Look, Listen, Dream and Become

    Fan Zhang


    “Once upon a time, I, … dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly, I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man, dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man a butterfly there is necessarily a barrier. The transition is called Metempsychosis.” (Chuang Tzu 1926:32)


    Chuang Tzu concludes The Identity of Contraries with a dream. Derrida begins his deliberation on – in my humble opinion – similar subject with a gaze. In dream, one becomes the other. In looking, one is opposing the other. Dream is the conclusion. Looking is the beginning.

    Looking is the beginning of a humanism that produces “the knowledge of identities, differences, characters, equivalences, words” (Foucault 1994:386). This is a humanism Derrida intends to transcend – with a proliferation of words, equivalences, characters, differences and identities – after the gaze, and after the shame.

    But why shame? Is it really about “[the] impropriety of a certain animal nude before the other animal” (Derrida 2008:4)? I believe the word “animal” is only a trope. After all, “animals”, in common sense use, are not ashamed of being nude in front of each other. Only humans do. What he actually means, is cat the human person. The initial shame comes from his realization that a cat is a human who looks back. This moment of shame is a moment of transcendence over the human-animal distinction. It is to be celebrated. The second wave of shame, “ashamed for being ashamed” (Derrida 2008:4), however, comes from the realization that by treating the cat as human he only transcends humanism on humanism’s terms – it is not a real transcendence. Foucault’s quotes from Montaingne is never more salient: “There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things; and more books about books than on any other subject; we do nothing but write glosses on one another (Facault 1994:40). The gaze prompts the shame, and the shames prompts the proliferation of interpretations and words, many of them in an incestuous relationship.

    Hence Haraway’s criticism of Derrida, that he “missed a possible invitation, a possible introduction to other-worlding” (Haraway 2008:20), a participation in animals’ socio-cultural world(s) as Barbara Smuts did in her interaction with baboons (Haraway 2008:23-25). By allowing himself dwelling in canonic thoughts and language, Derrida stays comfortably in “this world”. And by ignoring “philosophical thinking that goes in popular idioms” and people “who are not shaped by the institutionalized Western … canon” (2008:21), Derrida missed other humanistic ways to approach the “other world”.

    What is happening here and now might have happened there and then. The gist of the present is probably in the past. Chuang Tzu’s dream concludes a text – it also concludes, tentatively, a period of humanism (or in Chinese, ren 仁 with an individual on the left and a “two” on the right) the farthest extension of which to animals came when Mencious praised a king for his kindness to spare animals because he heard their whining on their way to the slaughter house: “If you have the sympathy for cows and sheep, you will have sympathy for your people”. Sympathy – and empathy – is one of the foundational concepts proposed by contemporary human rights writers (Ignatieff 2001:95). The domination of a Confucian humanism in the next two thousands years indicates that it might not work.

    It’s not enough to listen, to look, to read and to write. What may be needed, is to dream, and to become.





    Chuang Tzu

    1926 [286 BC] Chuang Tzu. Herbert A. Giles, transl. Shanghai:Kelly & Walsh Limited.


    Derrida, Jaques

    2008 [2006] The Animal That Therefore I Am. David Wills, trans. New York: Fordham University Press.


    Foucault, Michel

    1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


    Haraway, Donna Jeanne

    2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnisota Press.


    Ignatieff, Michael

    2001. Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.





    1. Derrida’s cat emerges as a real cat, not part of “Kafka’s vast zoopoetics” (Derrida 2008:6). But in “Eating Well”, when asked “why do you … limit yourself simply to the animal?”, he answers “nothing shall be excluded. I said ‘animal’ for the sake of convenience and to use a [classical reference]” (Derrida 1995:269). Is there any contradiction here?
    2. Upon Derrida’s death, both the New York Times and the Economist published negative obituaries. The criticism is focused on his obscure style. What’s your opinion?