The Viral Intimacies of Ethnographic Encounters: Prolegomenon to a Thought Experiment in the Play of Metaphors

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Essay Excerpt

Napier indicates that immunology is solving its own pathologies in the overuse of powerful metaphors (self–other conceived “enemy, invasion” thinking) through its expanding research and its openness to findings of fields that it previously overlooked. Whether or not it needs a replacement metaphorical vision, as evocative as the one that has apparently dominated it, is unclear. But Napier is articulating one anyhow at the point of change in immunology that he suggests may also (or perhaps primarily?) be important in feeding back on the long-term project of critique of the autonomous self in which many of the disciplines of the cultural–human sciences have oriented themselves, anthropology very prominently among them. Indeed, although immunology may be able to liberate itself from an outmoded guiding metaphor without the need for a replacement one as strong, it is certainly the case that the cultural–human sciences have been, and continue to be, dependent on such “working” metaphors. Thus, the findings of immunology that displace its form of “self–other” might provide resources for thinking differently about the parallel bind in the cultural–human sciences for which guiding metaphors are as, if not much more, vital, and continuously so, in deeply shaping their epistemologies. (It is hard to conceive of contemporary ethnography, for example, without such metaphorical commitments.) Or at least this seems to be a primary wager of Napier's article.

I want to take him up on this wager by considering how he reconceives the “self–other” relation in immunology might be a resource for rethinking the ethnographic research relation in the above noted contemporary arena where there is considerable metaphorical play among anthropologists about how they are signifying their fieldwork encounters and relations to their objects of study. Although the autonomous Western self has long been an object of anthropological critique, it is also the case that the fieldwork process itself still largely proceeds by a self–other conception (e.g., it without exception guides the training model of dissertation fieldwork), where the introspective, autonomous, individualized anthropologist self is the organizing trope for narrating ethnography (169-170).

Marcus, George E. "The Viral Intimacies of Ethnographic Encounters: Prolegomenon to a Thought Experiment in the Play of Metaphors." Cultural Anthropology 27.1(2012): 168–174.

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