Rethinking Public Anthropology Through Epistemic Politics and Theoretical Practice

Abstract

This article advocates for an epistemic notion of politically engaged scholarship. Focusing on potential intersections between research on social movements with a subset of recent anthropological work on complex and emergent objects, this article moves beyond recent debates on engagement that separate “activist” work from more critical academic endeavors. Drawing on my own research with contemporary activist networks in Italy, it calls for an understanding of politics and action informed by epistemological habits that favor uncertainty, critique, and complexity, and that reject liberal, naively realist approaches to the social and political. This essays aims to help us rethink how anthropology can contribute to the political present, as well as to recognize how scholarship and knowledge production more generally are in fact already critical sites of contemporary struggle and world-making.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published many articles on activism and social movements, including Kregg Hetherington’s “Beans Before the Law: Knowledge Practices, Responsibility, and the Paraguayan Soy Boom” (2013) , Yarimar Bonilla’s “The Past is Made by Walking: Labor Activism and Historical Production in Postcolonial Guadeloupe” (2011), and Thomas Pearson’s “On the Trail of Living Modified Organisms: Environmentalism Within and Against Neoliberal Order” (2009).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on knowledge practices, such as Amade M'charek’s “Beyond Fact or Fiction: On the Materiality of Race in Practice” (2013), Saida Hodžić’s “Ascertaining Deadly Harms: Aesthetics and Politics of Global Evidence” (2013), and Hirokazu Miyazaki’s “Economy of Dreams: Hope in Global Capitalism and Its Critiques” (2006).

Additionally, the journal has published a number of essays related to the anthropology of Italy, including Noelle J. Molé’s “Existential Damages: The Injury of Precarity Goes to Court” (2013), Andrea Muehlebach’s “On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy” (2011), and Elizabeth L. Krause’s “‘Empty Cradles’ and the Quiet Revolution: Demographic Discourse and Cultural Struggles of Gender, Race, and Class in Italy” (2001).

About the Author

Michal Osterweil’s work focuses on contemporary social movements, offering ways for rethinking their materiality and effects. She is particularly interested in the intersection of knowledge production and politics, and what this suggests for the relationship between the academy and political projects. She explores the ways in which a variety of actors and mechanisms challenge the modern liberal episteme and posit alternative forms of knowing and being. Osterweil is also interested in the “problem of activism,” or the ways in which activists, or an activist subjectivity, can become a conservative force, as they walk the line between theoretical potential and embodied habits. She has written about theoretical-practice and political imaginaries of the Italian Global Justice Movement and related transnational networks, in particular those affiliated with Zapatismo, as well as on the World and Regional Social Forums. Her current project is a collaborative investigation with members of a U.S.-wide movement network using the phrase “transformative organizing and deep change” to describe a holistic form of activism that acknowledges the limitations and shortcomings of previous practices and frameworks of change. In addition to her research, Osterweil has worked to co-create projects and spaces that seek to produce collective knowledge for change inside and outside the university. She was one of the core members of the Social Movement Working Group at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is also involved in activist publishing and theoretical endeavors. For examples of the latter, see Turbulence: Ideas for Movement, for which she was a founder, contributor, and a member of the editorial collective.

Interview with Michal Osterweil

Charles McDonald: In this article, you use the terms "epistemology" and "ontology" to argue for an understanding of the political that refuses conventional distinctions between reflexive thought and pragmatic action, or between "academic” versus "activist" pursuits. Despite—or perhaps because of—their notorious imperviousness to consensual definition, these two terms have become watchwords of sorts in anthropology of late. What is it that "epistemology" and "ontology" allow for or capture in the fields in which you work? What traction do you get from the concept of "epistemic politics" and how does your usage of it compare with that of other anthropologists like Ann Stoler or Marisol De La Cadena?

Michal Osterweil: The reason I use the terms epistemology and ontology is because I really want to emphasize that a lot of political struggle today is not understood, or at times even seen, because it is premised on different standards for registering “truth,” “effects,” and “impact” that are in turn based on different understandings about the nature of reality, including what counts as “real politics.” Moreover, I believe that many movements, like the “Movimento dei Movimenti” (Movement of Movements, or MoM) are involved in actually trying to make legible these other kinds of entities and practices through their activist work. In other words, their work is at the order of making visible the contours, sometimes limits, of our current episteme, and showing how new ways of knowing and registering reality could help transform the political terrain. De La Cadena’s work is very much an inspiration and influence for me, especially in the way it uses the tools of science and technologies studies to acknowledge the blindspots of the dominant modern political terrain as well as to make better sense of the nature of the conflicts. In many ways this essay is an attempt to help make visible that contestations of the liberal modern episteme don’t come only from indigenous or “non-modern” subjects, and that these critiques should be taken more seriously in terms of their abilities to transform the political categories and realities we ourselves depart from. While Stoler’s argument refers to a very distinct context and historical period, her recognition of the ways in which politics work through the epistemic, in often uneven and messy ways, is very complimentary to what I am trying to make visible about the MoM and other contemporary social movements—that they are themselves working with different epistemic standards or logics.

CM: What led you to work in Italy and with MoM? Did the "aha" moment you experienced while listening to Agamben's talk reconfigure your research design itself (where you went, who you talked to, how and what you attended to) in addition to helping you to focus on the processual aspects of "movements" like MoM?

MO: My own decision to begin work in Italy with this “movement” was largely based on coincidence. I first went to Italy as a research assistant for a project, called “Women and the Politics of Place,” at a small NGO in Rome, whose work focused mostly on cases from the Global South. It was the summer of 2001: the summer of the Genoa protests when 300,000 mostly Italians took to the streets, making it the largest protest yet in the then young alter-globalization movement (AGM). While I was unable to attend the protest in Genoa, it definitively captured my attention and my imagination. I was intrigued by the way the movement seemed to be present throughout Italian society, from the front pages of the newspapers, to the windows of bookstores. This was very different from the reception of the Global Justice Movement in the United States. More than anything else, as I began to speak with people, I was completely fascinated by the ways the movement was described. Narratives spoke of it as a “new” kind of movement—a “movement of movements”—a response to the failures of liberal representative democracy, and to the supposed fragmentation of the Left. I was also struck by the ways various narratives located this “new” movement as a historical continuation of the long decade from 1968–1979, what is often referred to as Autonomia. Truth be told, I also believed that anthropology had something both to gain and to contribute by turning its analytical and ethnographic lenses to social movements and politics in a place like Italy, where social movements were often perceived as the strict purview of political scientists and sociologists. I was convinced that an anthropological and cultural studies approach could reveal a lot of what got masked by the more positivist and tautological research approaches of the field of social movement studies—that often could not see a political impact that exceeded the modern political terrain—and in the process I could help provincialize that political terrain.

The “Agamben moment” didn’t exactly reconfigure my research design, but it did transform how I made sense of all of the ethnographic material I had already gathered and would continue to gather for another couple of years. It also helped my understanding of the kinds of knowledge ethnography and anthropology can and should produce to evolve. The “aha moment” allowed me to recognize and accept in a more thorough sense the importance of understanding MoM as a discursive entity, one that did important work and had real effects at the level of knowledge, meaning, and theory, even as its presence—in a macro or molar sense—became harder to pinpoint. That is to say, the moment freed me to rethink what I had previously experienced as methodologically confusing or challenging. I began to understand that it was all right that my ethnography was not necessarily of specific activist groups, events, and networks, because it was an ethnography of this idea, this entity: the MoM. An entity that was as important in failure (absence) as in success (presence), in terms of the theoretical and meaning-making work it did for how people understood, strived for, and practiced both movements and politics. This in turn helped to give me more confidence in arguing based on my ethnographic methods for understanding the MoM as a space for collectively coming to discern the limits of current political logics, practices, and institutions, and for experimenting with, striving for, and figuring out new culturo-political logics, practices, and institutions.

CM: Do you see important lessons to be gained from your research with and on MoM that might shed light on, or reframe, debates and analyses within anthropology about Occupy?

MO: Yes, definitely. I believe this research could have important consequences for how to study and make sense of Occupy, specifically, and of social movements more generally. First, although many people that participated in Occupy Wall Street or occupations throughout the United States might not have even heard of the alter-globalization movement, it is undeniable that Occupy was itself informed materially, culturally, and ideationally by the political practices developed in the AGM. (Materially, because many of the activists that participated in the occupations and the meetings that made the Zuccoti Park occupation possible were themselves activists informed by the lessons learned in the AGM milieu and political culture). In general, my argument pushes us to open up what we understand to be the “political effectiveness” of movements, recognizing that their effects take place at the level of culture, theory, subjectivity, and meaning, in addition to more traditional political outcomes—for instance, concrete demands, policy changes, campaigns. So many people have lamented the failure of Occupy, calling it merely symbolic; my hope is that we can refute such simplistic readings, by on the one hand defending the importance and materiality of meaning to how we live life, and on the other by pushing for an ontologically and temporally decentered vision of the political. In general, a continuing shortcoming in treatments of movements like Occupy is to not take seriously their critiques of liberal capitalist modernity and what constitutes reality, and real politics therein. Given anthropology’s openness to other, non–state-centered logics, and to the emergent and not-yet, I would hope we could help to transform how liberatory movements and processes are understood and therefore lived.

CM: How would you describe the location of your research in relation to broader questions and analytics in anthropology, and where it is headed?

MO: I am not sure I can speak to where anthropology as a whole is headed—I have never had that kind of relationship with the discipline, and believe its multiplicities are a great part of its strength. I can speak to some exciting potential avenues I see, based on my own interests, as well as the exigencies of our times. In general, I am very excited by the turn within anthropology, but also other disciplines, towards more relational approaches to knowledge and theory production that are ethnographically based, but see the aim of our knowledge-practices to be not necessarily explaining or critiquing, but making new things possible through our critical work. I believe the limits of more positivist and scientistic forms of knowing that are so hegemonic in so many disciplines—in particular in economics and political science—as well as in more mainstream settings, are increasingly being recognized for the damage they do. With a deeper understanding of the potential for performing epistemic politics, anthropology, in networks or assemblages with various knowledge producers, has the tremendous potential to destabilize dominant forms of knowing and empower more generative forms of thinking, writing, etc., that reframe how we understand the nature of reality, and by pluralizing it, make new futures possible. In general, I see my work fitting into efforts to rethink the grounds and aims of knowledge/truth claims, both within our discipline, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in more quotidian spaces.

Through the combination of science and technology studies (STS), and ethnographies of complex, emergent, and contemporary objects, linked to an empirical focus on movements and struggle, I believe we have the potential to really engage in the problematics that frame contemporary discussions and practices of politics.

In many ways, my entire article is an argument about broader debates, analytics, and problematics in anthropology. In particular, I am trying to offer ways of thinking about the political potential of anthropology by thinking studies of knowledge production, often limited to STS-type sites and methods, with research about social movements—both because I believe social movements are important historical actors, and because their complex, dynamic, and recursive natures challenge the very notion of what actors and objects are. Interestingly, anthropologists have historically been relatively marginal to the field of research dedicated to the study of social movements, a field generally dominated by political science and sociology, and constituted in many ways based on the classical divisions between rural/urban, primitive/developed, West/Rest. In this piece, and in my work more generally, I try to suggest that anthropology has a great to deal to offer in making sense of social movements as meaning makers, knowledge producers, and complex objects concerned with the emergent and “not-yet,” rather than relatively fixed and neutral parts of a stable political order. As such, my research with social movements seeks to show connections between more classical interests and concerns of anthropologists, say with marginalized or oppressed peoples employing different epistemological and cultural codes and lenses, and more contemporary concerns with the politics of the virtual, emergent, and knowledge, more generally. These connections are methodological, epistemological, and theoretical.

In addition, I believe my argument for an epistemic politics builds on an important trend within anthropology towards more relational understandings of our own knowledge and theory production—an understanding that is ethnographically based, but sees the aim of our knowledge-practices not as necessarily explaining or critiquing, but making new things possible through our critical work.

More Works by Michal Osterweil

“Social Movements,” in Companion to Urban Anthropology, edited by Donald Nonini, New York: Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming.

“The Italian Anomaly: Place and History in the Global Justice Movement,” in The European Social Movement Experience: Rethinking ‘New Social Movements’, Historicizing the Alterglobalization Movement and Understanding the New Wave of Protest, edited by Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Laurence Cox, New York: Routledge, 2013.    

“Transformations in Engaged Ethnography: Knowledge, Networks and Social Movements,” with Maria Isabel Casas Cortes and Dana Powell, in Insurgent Encounters: Transnational Activism, Ethnography, and the Political, edited by Jeffrey S. Juris and Alex Khasnabish, 199–228, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2013.  

“Social Movements and the Politics of the Virtual Deleuzian Strategies,” with Arturo Escobar, in Deleuzian Intersections in Science, Technology and Anthropology, edited by Casper Bruun Jensen and Kjetil Rödje, 187–217, Oxford: Berghan, 2009.  

“A Different (Kind of) Politics is Possible: Conflict and Problem(s) at the USSF,” in The World and US Social Forums: A Better World is Possible and Necessary, edited by Judith Blau and Marina Karides, 71–90, Leiden: Brill, 2008.  

“Blurring Boundaries: Recognizing Knowledge Practices in the Study of Social Movements,” with Maria Isabel Casas Cortes and Dana Powell, Anthropological Quarterly 81, no. 1 (2008): 41–82.

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