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  • The Accompaniment: Assembling the Contemporary
  • Leo Coleman
Paul Rabinow, The Accompaniment: Assembling the Contemporary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 248 pp.


Anthropology is awash in novelty. New digital networks propagate and expand new political possibilities; synthetic biology creates new life-forms; new reproductive technologies require new legal recognitions of relationality; transnational connections produce new opportunities for engagements and encounters beyond boundaries. Emergence and possibility are the very DNA of contemporary thinking. Meanwhile, of course, innovation in the methods of anthropology—from multi-sited fieldwork to new forms of collaboration and communication through social networks—is valued and celebrated precisely in order to capture and understand new ethnographic objects and contexts, and to form a new anthropology.

Paul Rabinow has been one of the most consistent chroniclers of biotechnical novelties and, reflexively, of the anthropological response to what he calls “the contemporary.” He has produced pairs of books at regular intervals over the past 15 years, one book reporting on his engagements with the life sciences and then another reflecting on these engagements as a means to develop conceptual equipment adequate to this space of unexampled novelty. The “reflection” part of the latest entry in this intermittent series appears before the research report. The latter, co-authored with Gaymon Bennett, comes out of their joint work as co-Principal Investigator and Director of ethical oversight, respectively, within a new institution for synthetic biology at Berkeley. They have chosen to call their “thrust” of the NSF-funded center “Human Practices” and the book, to be released later this year, is called Designing Human Practices. Alongside that book is the aptly named The Accompaniment: Assembling the Contemporary, a heterogeneous set of essays that together respond [End Page 283] to the challenge of remaking—remediating or reconstructing—the intellectual vocation as it is confronted by institutional and scientific novelties.

In addition to providing his reflections on the research in synthetic biology and parallel efforts he has made to reshape graduate teaching in anthropology, these essays together constitute an account of Rabinow’s own long period of fieldwork in anthropology—his participation in universities, research teams, and philosophical pedagogy, and his various attempts to experiment with anthropological writing. What does it mean to “think” today, Rabinow asks, and how can we construct practices within universities that will foster thinking about contemporary problems? More crucially, what intellectual practices are most conducive to finding “companions” and “contemporaries”—inviting others to accompany us in responding to the issues of the day?

Rabinow’s technique of report and reflection in paired volumes, of course, was set with his first two books, an ethnographic monograph and the recently-reissued Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (2007). Then, the problem was less the novelty of objects of knowledge than the status of tradition and of “culture” as guides to understanding people’s action and its forms, under the changeful sign of “modernization.” “Tradition,” he wrote in 1975, in a phrase he has quoted in his recent attempts to define the contemporary as a space of anthropological research, is a “moving image of the past, opposed not to modernity but to alienation” (2008:2). If the life sciences are, as ethical thinkers fear, the new space of alienation for and from humanity, then this is not, Rabinow tells us, something we can measure against any fixed background or measuring stick of “the human” or “the social” or even “the modern.” Rather this is a “moving ratio” that forms a problem-space for reflection, through engagement with the practices that constitute this space of novelties.

This engagement in a mobile “problem-space,” however, presents some perennial challenges for Rabinow the anthropologist, such as institutional barriers to cooperation, blocked forms of collaboration, personal affinities, and potent misunderstandings. In such impasses, as he encountered them in different portions of his career, Rabinow finds his subject for The Accompaniment, a book presided over by a spirit of agonism and irresolution. [End Page 284]


The first half of The Accompaniment presents contrasted pairs of essays, two each on Clifford Geertz and Michel Foucault. These two figures, both of whom made in different ways a personal contribution to Rabinow’s intellectual formation, are framed...