Beyond Ethnography: Anthropology as Nominalism

Essay Excerpt

The triumph was provisional. The continuing search for more scientifically, spatially,and stylistically comprehensive means by which to both represent and regulate a society devoted to efficiency, production, and the welfare of its population led to a second series of dissolutions and transformations. This second step, accelerating after the First World War, entailed the transformation of the object to be worked on from a historico-natural mlilieu into a sociotechnical one. This new object could be called modernist: society had become its own referent to be worked on through technical procedures that were becoming the arbiters of what counted as socially real. Both norms and forms were becoming increasingly autonomous from previous constraints, defined by their own operations, norms, and practitioners claiming a historical and a cultural universalism. 

Many of us would endorse Baudelaire's ironic injunction, "you have no right to despise the present"(1955:127), interpreting it today as a call to write  the History of the Present.4 This task entails the kind of self-reflective, critical awareness outlined above. It also means research. All of the work in this issue is the product of sustained historical, ethnographic, and sociological fieldwork. It instantiates, in one vein, much of what has been called for programmatically under the title of the "new ethnography." However, to continue the article's vocabulary, perhaps it would be better to see it as a set of examples of a "new anthropological" inquiry. The following articles are written by present or former graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley. However, as a kind of truth in advertising disclaimer, these articles should not be taken as representative of the variety of research underway in the Berkeley anthropology department. Nonetheless, there has been a sustained set of discussions and seminars in conjunction and counterpoint with stays at Berkeley of Michel Foucault, Michel de Certeau, Jiirgen Habermas, and others. While there is certainly a confluence of interests demonstrated in the articles, the only school in formation would be a peripatetic one of inquiring "anarcho-rationalists," doing their apprentissage in the ecole du monde.  (Rabinow, 362) 

About the Author

Dr. Paul Rabinow is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. Paul Rabinow's work has consistently centered on modernity as a problem: problem for those seeking to live with its diverse forms, a problem for those seeking to advance or resist modern projects of power and knowledge. This work has ranged from descendants of a Moroccan saint coping with the changes wrought by colonial and post-colonial regimes, to the wide array of knowledges and power relations entailed in the great assemblage of social planning in France, to my work of the last decade on molecular biology and genomics. His current research centers on developments in post-genomics and molecular diagnostics. It seeks to invent an analytic framework to understand the issues of bio-politics and bio-security. A related research interest is the contemporary moral terrain with special attention to "affect."

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