The Time of Anthropology: Notes from a Field of Contemporary Experience

Peer Reviewed


This article concerns experience of time in anthropology.  It triangulates between theoretical discussions of time, embodiments of temporal experience in a handful of classic and contemporary anthropological works, and the temporal texture of ethnographic fieldwork, reading, and writing.  Thinking with philosophers such as Nietzsche, Bergson, and Deleuze, as well as with my disciplinary and field interlocutors and the circumstances of our encounter, I argue that time may be taken as inventive for anthropology insofar as it is untimely, contemporary, present, and virtual in its quality.  These four dimensions of time are described as generative insofar as they suffuse anthropological experience with the feeling of being out of joint with the here and now.  I argue that the pursuit of newness in contemporary anthropology depends less on the objects of our investigation and more on the temporal and affective relations we nurture with them.  Through the use of experimental form, and an alternation between argumentative and expressive language, I seek both to outline and to evoke the importance of time in our encounters with the experimental texture of other worlds. 

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published multiple articles on contemporary anthropological theory and ethnographic writing, including: Stuart McLean's Stories and Cosmogonies: Imagining Creativity Beyond "Nature" and "Culture" (2009); E. Valentine Daniel's The Coolie (2008); Michael Taussig's Tactility and Distraction (1991); Paul Rabinow's Midst Anthropology's Problems (2002); Vincent Crapanzano's Reflections on Hope as a Category of Social and Psychological Analysis (2003); George Marcus' The End(s) of Ethnography: Social/Cultural Anthropology's Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition (2008); and the pieces in the August 2012 special issue on Writing Culture at 25.

Photograph courtesy of Anand Pandian.

About the Author

Anand Pandian is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His research and writings fall under three general categories: cinema, media, and public culture; nature, ecology, and environment; and theory, method, and writing. He has published widely in these areas and is currently working on an ethnography about affect and cinema, based on fieldwork over the last five years in the Tamil film industry. Detailed information about Anand Pandian's background and his current projects is available at:

Photograph courtesy of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Anthropology, faculty profile picture.

Additional Works by Anand Pandian


Living in a World of Cinema (in process), 2012.

Mitcham Meethi: Oru Anubava Kanakku (What Still Remains: A Ledger of Experience). Chennai: Kalachuvadu, 2010.

Ethical Life in South Asia. Edited with Daud Ali. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.

Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference. Edited with Donald Moore and Jake Kosek. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Journal Articles:

"Imagination: Cinematic, Anthropological." Forthcoming in Social Text.

"Landscapes of Expression: Affective Encounters in South Indian Cinema." Cinema Journal 50.1 (2011): 50-74.

"Reel Time: Ethnography and the Historical Ontology of the Cinematic Image." Screen 52.2 (2011): 193-214.

"Anthropology and the Image of the World." Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 36.2 (2011): 46-50.

"Interior Horizons: An Ethical Space of Selfhood in South India." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16.1 (2010): 64-83.

"Tradition in Fragments: Inherited Forms and Fractures in the Ethics of South India." American Ethnologist 35.3 (2008): 466-480.

"Devoted to Development: Moral Progress, Ethical Work, and Divine Favor in South India." Anthropological Theory 8.2 (2008): 159-179.

"Pastoral Power in the Postcolony: On the Biopolitics of the Criminal Animal in South India." Cultural Anthropology 23.1 (2008): 85-117.

Book Chapters:

"In the Event of an Anthropological Thought." Forthcoming in Generations and Genres: Conversations with Veena Das.

"Ripening with the Earth: On Maturity and Modernity in South India." In Modern Makeovers: Handbook of Modernity in South Asia, edited by Saurabh Dube. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

"Cinema in the Countryside: Popular Tamil Film and the Remaking of Rural Life." In Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India's Other Film Industry, edited by Selvaraj Velayutham, 124-138. New York: Routledge, 2007.

"Culture, Cultivation, and Civility in the Tamil Country." In History and Imagination: Tamil Culture in the Global Context, edited by R. Cheran, Darshan Ambalavanar, and Chelva Kanaganayakam. Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2007.

Photograph courtesy of Anand Pandian.

Interview with Anand Pandian

Elizabeth Lewis: This article reads as a fascinating experiment with form and language, and you are thoroughly embedded in the text as the reader’s guide through your personal memories of fieldwork, as well as excerpts from your fieldnotes and from what appear to be notes from your current personal journals.  What led you to approach “the time of anthropology” from this angle?

Anand Pandian: I have to say that it was quite accidental. I had in mind a more conventional form when I began working on this essay. One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in a café here in Baltimore, reading Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. For some reason, I began to notice the rhythms all around me, as I was reading: the caffeinated tremor in my chest, the students talking about paintings at the next table over, the thrum of cars and motorbikes outside, the heavy drone of a synthesizer blaring from the speakers. Then I looked again at the sentence that I’d just underlined: “Untimeliness is really what marks the anthropologist as different in a field full of competing and overlapping discourses and related purposes and projects.” I was startled by the resonance between what was written in the passage, and my in-and-out-of-jointness with what was happening all around me. When I came back to the book, to begin reading again, the point at which I’d left it seemed strange and unsettled. It struck me that there was some affinity between the “happening” in time of this essay I was working on, and the contemporary forms of eventedness that I was trying to say something about. I don’t generally keep journals or diaries except when I am in some kind of “field” situation, but at this point, I began to jot down little notes of what seemed to be minor yet pivotal moments in the emergence of the essay itself. I wanted to find a way to incorporate these into the text, and I ultimately fell back on a montage structure, probably because I’ve been thinking and working so much with cinema as of late. Now that I’ve said all this, I realize that I ought to have incorporated this vignette as well into the essay. Unfinished, still…

EL: In parts of this article, you describe your own frustrations with the process of writing and publishing this piece.  This offers a rare and perhaps surprisingly honest glimpse into the writing process, perhaps particularly with regard to more literary approaches to ethnography.  How would you describe the writing process for this piece or, more generally, your relationship to writing anthropology?  For you, what is the relationship between writing, theorizing, and experience? 

AP: I think that one of the most interesting aspects of writing as a practice is the way that it can populate us as writers with alternative voices, perspectives, and possibilities. This already happens when we take fieldnotes: what we need, while we do fieldwork, are occasions and circumstances to take in such alternatives, by writing them to ourselves, allowing the currents of our own thoughts to bend toward them. This continues to happen when we “write up” our findings, which is to say that we don’t need to assume some radical break between being in and after “the field.” Fieldnotes are incipient arguments, materials suffused with potential thoughts. Perhaps the frustrations of the writing and publishing process aren’t all that different from the frustrations of fieldwork. And if the time in which our writing happens has some affinity with the time in which our fieldwork happens, what could we gain if we began to think and work more deliberately across this divide? Are there dispositions, for example, that can be carried forward from one domain of frustration into another? At some level, I think the textual form of the essay is an attempt to try to “fold in” ethical qualities that we have to cultivate in fieldwork, such as listening or patience. The essay kept accumulating more and more of these small exercises as it went through successive iterations, until it was almost fully cross-hatched by them.

EL: One general theme here is how we think through and engage with the worlds around us, and you describe anthropology as a “science of experience.”  What are some of the main challenges involved in approaching anthropology in this way?  How might anthropologists best convey - and, indeed, build on - the generative power of experience?  

AP: To be honest, this is something I’m still trying to work out. But take just one observation of what we do: we, in a manner unlike any other discipline, take experience as both object of knowledge and method of knowing. There are affinities between the kind of empiricism we exercise in anthropology, and the “transcendental” empiricism that Deleuze proposed, or the “radical” empiricism of William James. James described the field of experience as indefinite, open-ended, continuously in process, for example, and insisted on the reality of the “conjunctive” relations through which we align ourselves with such things in the process of knowing them. At the same time, though, because we are engaged with a field science, and because we make these “experience-books” (borrowing a phrase from Foucault) called ethnographies, I think we have the chance to push such ideas further, both through the empirical materials we work with and the experiential artifacts we generate with them. In his recent book on drawing, Michael Taussig describes the fieldworker’s diary as a record of experience in a field of strangeness. He and many others have also shown us how effectively and importantly such strangeness can persist in our ethnographic texts. Why are we so concerned in anthropology with “vivid” description? I think the bracing sensory quality of so many ethnographic works has to do with the possibility of provoking and proliferating transformative forms of experience: impersonal and asubjective forces of change that convey the novelty of the worlds in which we think and work. There is rigor, precision, and cumulative knowledge in this. Let’s call it a science.

EL: What does the term literary anthropology mean to you?  What is its generative potential, in terms of understanding the affective contours of our worlds?  What emerging currents do you see in ethnographic writing and how might you imagine the future of ethnographies?  Where might anthropologists look - within our discipline and beyond - for new approaches to form, voice, and other questions of representation?

AP: Stuart McLean (from the University of Minnesota) and I have organized a workshop on “Literary Anthropology,” to take place at the School of American Research in Santa Fe in April of 2013. We’ve been lucky enough to have on board a number of people that we’ve learned a lot from ourselves in terms of ethnographic writing: Michael Jackson, Stefania Pandolfo, Kathleen Stewart, younger folks like Todd Ochoa and Angela Garcia, several others as well. The idea is to focus on modes of creative change and transformative encounter provoked by the reading and writing of ethnographic texts, building on the conversations around Writing Culture, as well as other currents that both preceded and followed that crucial development. I’m excited by the blurring of lines that we often see now between ethnography and many other genres of writing: fiction, memoir, poetry, natural history, and so on. But I also think we should acknowledge that narrative forms of ethnography have long depended upon the charge and potential of such border-crossings. The ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall, for example, has recently pointed out certain fascinating and intriguing parallels between the participatory visuality of cinema and ethnography in the early twentieth century. I find this a compelling and important suggestion, especially when we consider the many ways in which media such as cinema infiltrated and restructured the grammar of literary forms like the modernist novel. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that emergent currents are formed at interstices, and that we could keep exploring such points of intersection as we try to work out, collectively, what ethnography can do.

EL: Your writing here is poetic and certainly non-traditional, and you are clearly interested in pushing the boundaries of typical ethnographic writing.  Do you have any tricks of the trade for anthropologists who want to engage in more literary approaches to anthropology?  How would you describe the current climate for experimental works? 

AP: I think the idea of “climate” is interesting and important, because writing is a respiratory movement: there is both impression and expression, a rhythm of both taking in and letting out. Environments are important when it comes to writing—being able to look outside a window matters to me, for example. But there are many such currents or vectors of impression that you can work with, many potential channels into some world of sensory experience that the text is conjuring. What you’re reading while you write matters a lot, I think: not just reference texts or interlocutors for your arguments, but also fiction and whatever else you let seep into your thoughts. With the work on cinema that I’ve been doing more recently, I’ve been trying out ways of bringing into play a kind of sensual proximity between what I’m writing and what I’m writing about: clipping and looping a small film clip continuously in one corner of the screen as I type, for example, sometimes without the volume so that it’s only movement, sometimes speeded up or slowed down to accentuate some other dimension, sometimes just a song or a train of sounds, again and again. When I wrote my dissertation, I surrounded my desk with portraits of the people I was writing about; it often felt as though they were looking at me. I think this mattered a lot, some intangible sense that I was writing with them, in their company. These are small things, but I think they matter, because they help break down the unnecessary divide between “immersive” fieldwork and analysis at a distance. I think that anthropological thought proceeds from immediate experience. I should also say, in terms of climate, that Anne [Allison] and Charlie [Piot] at CA have been incredibly generous and open-minded, and my advice might simply be, try writing for CA!

Multimedia Links

Here is the music video for "Iragai Pole," by Yuvan Shankar Raja.  In his article, Anand Pandian describes being in the recording studio while the well known South Indian composer wrote the song, and Pandian uses the experience to probe questions of presentness, rhythm, and form.

Scenes from the recording studio.  Photograph courtesy of Anand Pandian.

Related Readings

The list below offers a selection of anthropological works addressing issues of time, temporality, and experience.  It also includes examples of contemporary experiments in ethnographic writing, and features several texts that explore the boundaries of ethnography, affect, bodies, and the everyday by challenging traditional notions of form and style.

Gandolfo, Daniela. The City at its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Garcia, Angela. The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Gell, Alfred. The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images. Oxford: Berg, 1992.

Ingold, Tim. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description. New York: Routledge, 2011.

David MacDougall. "Anthropology and the Cinematic Imagination." In Photography, Anthropology and History, edited by C. Morton and E. Edwards. London: Ashgate, 2009.

McLean, Stuart. The Event and its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Narayan, Kirin. Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Rabinow, Paul. Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Rabinow, Paul, George Marcus, James Faubion, and Tobias Rees. Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Raffles, Hugh. Insectopedia. New York: Pantheon, 2010.

Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Taussig, Michael. I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Photograph courtesy of Anand Pandian.

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