Monday, January 25, 2010

The impossibility of reciprocal anthropology

Anthropology in a planetary era

a fake lecture by Marc Auge

Video is the perfect tool to document ‘reality’ with ‘fiction’, to simulate real history out of its context, it has built a mixed image for both of the cities subject of this documentary (I mean Amsterdam and Beirut); it is in a way, a tool to turn inside out the displayed images of those two cities, as it has the ability to frame reality and to manipulate its transcendences; it has the power to exclude and fragment, to virtualize. The video itself is deconstructing the documentary techniques and dissecting them to use them and then destroy them, it uses the collapse of the technique to demonstrate the impossibility of documentary, the impossibility of anthropology.

Baudrillard’s theories of “simulacrum” are questioning the notion of “reality” which he categorized as a problem of semiology, a “reality” disguised by appearance, where “appearances create their illusion of reality”, where “images invent reality”, in such a way that “the real is not only what can be reproduced but that which is always being reproduced”: the “hyper-real”. The world of information and images that submerges us today is locking us more and more in the situation of a global entity; we are eventually oriented in the direction of more gigantesque norms. The reform of the resistance against this state of being that had been expressed recently is considered as a symptom of a global ‘taking in charge’. This global ‘taking in charge’ remains for the time fragmented or undulant, the new global public space is not born yet, and there is a feeling of fascinating surprise that takes hold of the observers of the contemporary world facing an overwhelming and sudden change in scale, a change in entourage in a conspicuous way that we cannot yet imagine it’s effects and consequences on the long term. A change of scale that is putting us, without being aware, in a period of transition where our standing ground is not more than a reference or a starting point.

We find ourselves in a moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of differences and identities, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. We find ourselves lost in the ‘au- delà’ as Homi Bhabha likes to call it, or in the ‘non-place’ for there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction. We are living in the ‘beyond’, in the ‘in between’ interval, experiencing an exploratory, restless movement of discovering this void of nothingness to establish an anthropological justification for an analysis of contemporaneity, which in part requires the rethinking of concepts central to anthropology in the traditional sense. To begin with, a recent paradigm shift within ethnology as practiced in France. Rather than focusing on studying ‘remote’ societies, social anthropologists are now setting their sights closer to home. However, I refute the claim that this reorientation originates in the increasing difficulty to perform fieldwork in ‘the distant elsewhere – formerly “colonial”, now “ underdeveloped” – favored in the past by British and French anthropology’. Rather than being an ‘anthropology by default,’ the anthropology of the near has the potential to be a strong, methodologically sound area of research. Anthropology is taking a new direction towards the author himself, a kind of self-anthropology against the study of the other despite its raising of a double-sided question. The first concerns the possibility of an anthropology of the near as being as conceptually complex as ‘traditional’ anthropology; the second questions whether ‘the facts, institutions, modes of assembly … [and] circulation specific to the contemporary world’ are valid objects for anthropological analysis given the difficulty we experience in isolating aspects as individual objects of study.

In the first case, European ethnology has already established that it can be as rigorous as when analyzing the objects of ‘traditional’ anthropology, as it proves the importance of such objects to our own cultures and the existence of a plurality of cultures within a certain area. In the second case, a concern stems from the confusion between the object and method of anthropologies of the near. Even if individual objects of study are hard to isolate given the complexity of modern society because of their interconnecting aspects (such as work, leisure, commerce, and so forth), we must still establish some boundaries within which we will set our sights. However, we need not worry about ‘representativeness’ within ethnological research in contemporaneity, because the ‘mythologiques’ or abstract ‘anthropological objects’ longed for by anthropologists as general hypotheses from which to work are problematic in the first place. In addition, such isolated anthropological objects may not be of relevance or of interest to those within contemporaneity. If the anthropology of the near contemporaneity had to be based exclusively on the categories already registered, if it were not allowed to formulate new objects, then the act of moving into a new empirical terrain would not answer a need, merely the researchers idle curiosity.

In that regard I find it important to make an overview of the European anthropological studies in the Orient or what is called “Orientalism”.

On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that “once seemed to belong to… the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval.” He was right about the place, of course, especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences. Now it was disappearing; in a sense it had happened, its time was over. Perhaps it seemed irrelevant that Orientals themselves had something at stake in the process, that even in the time of Chateaubriand and Nerval Orientals had lived there, and that now it was they who were suffering; the main thing for the European visitor was a European representation of the Orient and its contemporary fate, both of which had a privileged communal significance for the journalist and his French readers.

The Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the occident itself is not just there either. We must take seriously Vico’s great observation that men make their own history. That what they can know is what they have made, and extend it to geography: as both geographical and cultural entities - to say nothing of historical entities – such locals, regions, geographical sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made. Therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other.

Ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without including their force, or more precisely their configuration of power, into the study / analysis. To believe that the Orient was created –or “Orientalized”- and to believe that such things happen simply as a necessity of the imagination, is to be disingenuous. The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony. The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental” in all those ways considered common-place by an average European, but also because it could be made Oriental.

Orientalism is more a European-American “authority” over the Orient than it is a valuable document about it. Nevertheless, what we must respect and try to grasp is the sheer knitted-together strength of the Orientalsit discourse, its very close ties to the enabling socio-economic and political institutions, and its redoubtable durability. Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment. Continued investment made Orientalism, as a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness, just as that same investment multiplied the statement proliferating out from Orientalism into the general culture.

There is an impossibility of “Occidentalism” as opposed to “Orientalism”, referring to the term “Orientalist” which is: anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient -and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, artist, or philologist- either in its specific or its general aspects. And this impossibility would also go for the documentary we just saw: the reciprocal act of researching Amsterdam by someone from 'the Orient' would be an “Occidentalist” act. This impossibility is due mainly to the lack of political and economical interest, the lack of cultural or political “authority”, in opposition to the “Orientalist” position where “Orientalism” is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient, a cultural domination from a repressive and manipulative position, than it is a verdict discourse about the Orient. So the documentary is taking a new direction -the one we talked about previously- a direction towards the near, towards the home city of the maker, a self-anthropology against the study of the other.

As much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other. Amsterdam was, in this documentary, reflecting Beirut; it was its mirror image. It is more of a study about Beirut, as there is an impossibility of studying Amsterdam without referring back to Beirut.

Under such conditions of non-space one would have the illusion of wellbeing until some tremendous event breaks the illusion and reality reveals itself. The 9/11 ‘event’ did exactly that: it revealed the hidden situation of implosion that had started to accumulate after the end of the cold war and the rise of the “empire”. Similar ‘events’, but on a smaller scale, occurred in Amsterdam with the assassination of Theo Van Gogh and in Beirut with the assassination of P.M. Rafik Hariri. They revealed in both cities the problem of coexistence, racism and sectarianism. And this explains why the linear storyline in the documentary continuously attempts to build-up and destroy the facade image of the two cities, while it continuously shows the collapse of “hyper-reality” and the collapse of the medium of documentation itself.

Fake Questions:

To gradually reveal the truth; It would go first through preset questions from the audience; a question by preset audience (1) that the lecturer would answer and a second question by preset audience (2) from which I can take over.

Preset audience (1): You talked about the anthropology of the near or “self anthropology” as a major respond to globalization. And you talked about “Orientalism” as an authority or power control over the Orient; don’t you think that now with globalization there is also an impossibility of “Orientalism”? I mean don’t you think that the anthropology of the near is taking over and thus negate the study of the other or “Orientalism”?

Marc Auge: well I wouldn’t say taking over, and it do not negate “Orientalism” at all, the power control and cultural domination, repression, and manipulation are still there, and thus the reasons and interests (political and economical) are still there and giving a good reason for any anthropology and therefore I don’t see any impossibility in that regard.

But with globalization or what I call “planetary era” (because the term globalization can have many economical connotation that is not the subject of our discussion now) another field had opened, a field worth studding as it held many layers and subcultures, which is the anthropology of the near, especially urban near.

Preset audience (2): you said that the previous video documentary “the other orange” has demonstrated the impossibility of documentary the impossibility of reciprocal anthropology. But why don’t you see it as another way of documenting? I mean this failure to study the other and the collapse of the medium of documentary could be another way of anthropology… don’t you think?

Marc Auge: well since it is about the video, I‘d rather refer this question to the director present here.

And then here I take over and start revealing the truth first by thanking all my actors in the video and then on stage.

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