Good Anthropology in Dark Times


Anthropology’s engagement with the serious challenges faced by people world-wide, including political regression in many countries,  resonates with so-called “Dark Anthropology” — an anthropology that hones itself to understand and critique regressive, oppressive, or otherwise harsh conditions and victimizations. This stands as a complement to the so-called “Anthropology of the Good” — an anthropology that focuses on how people maintain and expand their sense of meaning, value, worth, and dignity including under difficult or trying conditions.  Articulating between and across these two dimensions or modalities of perception is key to much good work in contemporary anthropology — as discussed and analyzed in my Spring 2019 journal article in TAJA : Good Anthropology in Dark Times.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =  = = = =

There are many ethnographic examples and inflections of how an anthropological engagement with difficult or “dark” conditions can articulate with understanding and appreciating people’s resilience, recuperation, and resurgence — from our currently polarized and contentious political climate in the U.S. to, say, the oppression of Tibetans in China, to how people even in remote rainforest areas, such as the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea, not just cope but assert value, meaning, and significance in the face of trying and collapsed socioeconomic conditions.

As fleshed out below, I have ongoing interest in all three of these contexts.  In 2016 and 2017, I found remarkable responses and reactions among Gebusi to their increasing marginality,  to their being increasingly left off the map of cash economy, paid work, and government services.  In coping with this situation meaningfully, they may actually present a surprising bellwether of how future Western generations may need to adapt through ‘replacements to work’ in an increasingly “jobless” world.  I considered this in my 2019 journal article, Finding the Good: Reactive Modernity among Gebusi, in the Pacific, and Elsewhere.  The complement to Gebusi’s remarkably self-developed resilience and resurgence are the capital depredations and wealth inequality fomented by large scale capital resource and development projects elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, particularly mega-mining and oil/gas extraction that have a huge direct impact at selected sites within the country. That these gargantuan energy  projects have not arrived and have not destroyed the environment and subsistence of many remote peoples like Gebusi is taken by they themselves to be a calamity and disaster rather than a blessing:  they are all the more “left behind.”  This despite the fact that areas that are directly impacted by these projects suffer catastrophic internal strife and social degradation as well as environmental destruction and ecocide.  In only apparent irony, the negative impact of relative deprivation and subjective suffering among those not impacted can be all the greater — not from the presence but by the absence of extractive profit-taking capitalism (see my 2018 Cambridge ESfO presentation: Resource Extraction and Entrained Inequality; ESfO PPT Compressed). This throws into relief and makes yet more significant Gebusi adaptations and resilience amid their locally failed modernity.

In the U.S., the reaction of Americans to insufficient modern progress foments increasingly profound expressions and experiences of suffering  — and political resentment.  This has been reflected in the election of Donald Trump and in America’s continuing political impasse. In relation to this, I have recently penned an analysis that thinks along the lines of Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte to take stock of recent American political developments : see Trump Beleaguered.  The final conclusion to that piece connects with my more academic article in Genealogy of last year:  On the Political Genealogy of Trump After Foucault.

For the coming two months, I will be on the road in the U.S., in part attempting to rediscover what intangible ambience — social, political, cultural — inflects this place called America across some some 25 states from the East to the Rockies (plus parts of Canada).  Then, during this summer, I hope to take flight again to the Himalayas — this time to Eastern Tibet — to find what is happening there concerning the repression — and, in many cases, the resurgence — of Tibetan Buddhism. I am particularly interested in the similarities and differences among Gelug, Nyigma, and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism as their distinctive practices have accommodated, morphed, and re-asserted themselves in Eastern Tibet under Chinese political oppression and ongoing surveillance. These developments have a major bearing as well on how Tibetan Buddhist schools travel and develop different styles of organization, teaching, and impact in the West and other non-Himalayan regions, including the remainder of China and East Asia.

The thread that connects and refines my three great areas of scholarly interest — Gebusi / Melanesia; American politics and subjectivity; and Tibetan Buddhism in Asia and North America — is a concern with contemporary suffering, including what might be called, following Joel Robbins (JRAI 2013), the revenge, or resilience, of the ‘suffering subject.’  This and so-called Dark Anthropology — as cited in my prologue further above, following Ortner (Hau 2016) — have an intriguing and in some ways transformative or antipodal existence in the longer history of Anthropology itself since the late 19th century.  The place of the so-called dark and the so-called good in the deeper history of anthropology — one might say in it’s epistemic history as an academic field — are traced and analyzed  in my paper, From Savage to Good – AAA 2018.

In contemporary perspective, as we all know but are well advised to recall, “suffering” and feeling “good” are at once objectively influenced AND subjectively conditioned.  They are not easily or simply reduced to people’s economic and political conditions alone, as critically important as these also are. The subjective side of this coin — including cultural orientations, psychological dispositions, and self-subjective or introspective understanding, leads me to be interested in political subjectivities and the relative deprivations experienced by people — including Americans of different class and identity backgrounds.

This all connects to larger issues of social and cultural theory.  It is remarkable to me how, practically across the world (is Tibetan Buddhism an exception?) — our contemporary identities and polarizations are so thoroughly informed by a modern sense of entitlement to what is perceived as progress.  In comparative world historical terms, this is really distinctive if not incredible.  In our present capitalist epoque, our deepest assumptions and expectations about time itself  — that the passage of time should and must reflect social progress and material improvement — have become increasingly unhinged from realistic understanding and appreciation of physical, environmental, and social conditions and constraints (cf., my volume Critically Modern, 2002). No matter how much conditions may improve on the whole — as reflected in large-scale indices of longevity, health, education, violence reduction, global and national GDP, and so on — improvement seems at once never enough and more unequally distributed than ever.  These two factors are hardly unrelated.  Indeed, there is a fundamental relationship between expectations of infinite entitlement and the skyrocketing of inequality; these are mutually reinforcing. No surprise, then, that in the U.S. as well as around the world, we presently witness what may be called the visceral revenge of the suffering subject (see my Dec. 2018  University of Lucerne paper, The Revenge of the Suffering Subject). This articulates with what Zygmunt Bauman called Retrotopia and what has otherwise been termed, more globally, “The Great Regression” (H. Geiselberger).

In complement to this malaise are the myriad ways that modern suffering can be creatively responded to and managed, including wide varieties of not just accommodation or management but rejuvenation and resilience — including among people like Gebusi and Tibetans in Sichuan and Qinghai. (Can we add American Democrats to the list?) These counter trends, so often unsung, are easily underappreciated amid both the drumbeat of negativity and, it should be added, the continuing importance of trenchant critical theory (see my Critical Theory, 2013; cf. my earlier book, Genealogies for the Present . . .).

Viewing the glass as half full in terms of resilience, I feel drawn to consider the alleviation of suffering in a wider sense, including in relation to larger ethical understanding and subjective application. At once ethnographically, theoretically, philosophically, and ethically, I find Tibetan Buddhist sensibilities particularly useful in this respect.  Trying to understand suffering and its management or alleviation has been central to Buddhism — not as a “religion” but as an ethics of life — from its beginning.  To me personally, this seems important and productive in Anthropology as well — both analytically in terms of critical theorization of political economy and culture, and ethnographically in relation to subjectivities of experiencing, managing, and alleviating dysphoria.  I have been exploring these latter issues of subjectivity and self-awareness in my work on Tibetan Buddhist tantra — see for instance my 2017 Ethnos article,  Self possessed and Self governed – Tibetan Buddhist Tantra.  In relation to this, I am also exploring the expression and amelioration or transformation of mentally projected affliction in dreams and in the management of dream consciousness, including in so-called ‘dream yoga.’ (See Life is But a Dream: Dream Yoga in Tibetan Buddhist Tantra – BMK SPA Presentation 2019)

At larger issue is our relationship with and commitments to ethical mindfulness in our own subject position as professionals and more generally as persons.

So many wonderful possibilities and developments.  And such rich potential to critically understand, appreciate, and effectively engage the risks and challenges of our current world.

-Posted 3/2/19

-Updated 3/8/19


Comments are closed.