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  • Ethnography as Political Critique
  • João Biehl and Ramah McKay

In a splintered world, we must address the splinters.

—Clifford Geertz (2000:221)

In his essay “The World in Pieces,” Clifford Geertz (2000) wrote that a much more pluralistic politics seemed to be emerging in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and through the rise of borderless capitalism, the growth of technology and the mobility of people, and the emergence of new centers of wealth and power. As old certainties and alliances dissolved, he wrote, “we, it seems, are left with the pieces” (2000:220).

The patent heterogeneity of this “world in pieces,” Geertz argued, was impossible to cover up with totalizing concepts that once organized ideas about world politics and about similarity and difference between people—concepts such as tradition, religion, ideology, values, nation, culture, society, and state. Beyond the skeptical abandonment of synthesizing notions, Geertz urged the development of “ways of thinking that are responsive to concrete matters and ‘deep diversity’” (2000:224), to a plurality of ways of belonging and being. Such thinking serves as an “empirical lantern” (in the words of economist Albert O. Hirschman [1998:88]), charged with illuminating people’s sense of connectedness, “neither comprehensive, nor uniform, primal or changeless, but nonetheless real” (Geertz 2000:224). Any kind of unity or identity “is going to have to be negotiated, produced out of difference” (2000:227).

For all Geertz’s attention to the world in pieces and the concreteness of difference, he concluded his essay with a return to liberal principles, “still [End Page 1209] our best guides to law, government, and public deportment” (2000:246). In the decade since his essay was published, this straightforward faith in the politics of liberal democracy has been hard to maintain, as recent events (from Tunisia to Syria to Wall Street) have shown. Rubrics such as religion, long assumed to be falling away, have reemerged in the public sphere as enduring sites of politics and identity (Asad 2003, Mahmood 2005, Hirschkind 2006, Hammoudi 2006, O’Neill 2009). Neoliberal rearrangements of state and capital have both dismantled and instantiated new regulatory regimes and strengthened older power formations (such as the military). While public infrastructures crumble and rifts deepen, the unexpected amalgamation of social mobilization, technology, human rights, and transcendental values is breaking open new grounds in which politics are waged and ideas over what is socially possible and desirable are refashioned.

Alongside orientations that mourn the absence of new ideas and orientations in anthropology today (Marcus 2008), a wide array of recent ethnographies have creatively mined this tension between fragmentation and connectedness in-the-making (Biehl 2005, Garcia 2010, James 2010, Nelson 2009, Petryna 2002, Oushakine 2009, Roitman 2005, Sanal 2011, Xiang 2006). As the institutional dimensions of existence have been successively unsettled, anthropologists have nonetheless stayed tuned to politics, be it in the field, in their theoretical concerns (for example, with structural violence, social suffering, and biopolitics) or as activists (Comaroff and Comaroff 2011, 2006, 2001; Chatterjee 2004; Das 2007; De Genova and Peutz 2010; Good et al. 2008; Farmer 2011, 2003; Fassin 2007; Ferguson 2006; Graeber 2011; Hansen and Stepputat 2005, 2001; Merry 2006; Goodale and Merry 2007; Piot 2010; Riles 2000; Scheper-Hughes 1992; Spencer 2007; Tate 2007; Ticktin 2011). Most compellingly, anthropologists have examined the politics involved in the formation of what we call “para-infrastructures” such as humanitarian interventions and therapeutic policies. Although precarious, they significantly inform governance and the ways of living that people take up vis-à-vis ailing public institutions (Abélès 2009, Anand 2011, Biehl 2007, Biehl and Locke 2010, Fassin and Pandolfi 2010, Feldman and Ticktin 2010, McKay 2012, Nguyen 2010). Attention to such intermediary power formations presents new ethnographic quandaries as we engage and think through the ambiguous political subjectivities that crystallize amidst the blurring of distinctions between populations, market segments, target audiences, and collective objects of intervention or disregard. [End Page 1210]

The transformations of politics and markets to which Geertz pointed, and the evacuation of taken-for-granted social formations that has accompanied them, have indeed sparked rich theorizations of lives in the neoliberal or late liberal moment (Povinelli 2011), not just by...


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