Abduction: An #AmAnth2016 Panel Review

Abduction! Captive Lines of Inquiry

Presenters: Julie Chu (University of Chicago), Eleana Kim (University of California, Irvine), Summerson Carr (University of Chicago), Jason Alley (Bucknell University), Bettina Stoetzer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Discussants: Andrew Mathews (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Hussein Agrama (University of Chicago). Sponsors: Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

This invited session explored the potential of abduction for anthropology. Abduction, a term coined by Charles Sanders Peirce, is the earliest stage of inquiry, where explanatory hypotheses are built. During induction, for Peirce, surprise and intuition are key. The ethnographic cases panelists presented foregrounded the potential of abduction as both as a mode of ethnographic engagement and an empirical finding in the field. 

To begin with the empirical: Mrs. Li developed what Julie Chu described as an “abductive intuition” about the workings of the law in China. After multiple disappointing and even dangerous encounters with the state pursuing legal justice, Mrs. Li became enchanted by the “feeling of law,” the ritualistic quality of legal practice which makes law effective. While discovering this quality revealed law to be an “empty show,” it also offered Mrs. Li and others like her a new avenue to pursue legal justice: by performing the theatrics of law. Summerson Carr also framed abduction as an empirical finding—a mode of acquiring knowledge that emerged in a different context of professional practice. Motivational interviewing (MI) professionals motivate clients by eliciting behavior-changing speech. In order to do so, Carr argued, apprentices in MI training programs are taught how to reason abductively about their interviews as they are conducting them. They are taught to regard what clients are saying both as an index of their own performance in the interview and as a source of data for how to proceed with the interview. It is through this abductive process of shaping and reshaping their interviewing skills that apprentices are able to meet the demands of the case at hand.

According to one of the panel’s discussants, Hussein Agrama, abduction as a concept is based on a notion of truth as the end result of deliberation by a “community of inquirers.” This concept of truth resonates both with the way Mrs. Li came to think of justice and the way that MI interviewers are taught to think of motivating their clients. However, this concept of truth, based on Peirce’s optimism about the potential of science to reveal truth in the world, assumes that the past is uniform and the future, predictable and constructive. The problem, for Agrama, is that, in light of a series of recent surprising global developments, these assumptions may not hold. Franz Kafka, for whom the same scientific developments that made Peirce optimistic made the human condition increasingly impenetrable to the observer, may have been right after all. Abduction may “abduct itself,” Agrama argued, if we are not critical about the assumptions that abduction as a mode of acquiring knowledge presupposes. As an empirical finding in the world, then, we perhaps need to view abduction as a tool for disempowerment just as surely as one for empowerment. What, for instance, are the longer-term stakes of a legal system that requires the kind of abductive intuitions of an exceptional character like Mrs. Li for accountability?

Abduction also surfaced in the presentations as a mode of ethnographic engagement. Bettina Stoetzer labeled this mode “precise inattention.” Since the vegetation that exists in the rubble spaces of postwar Berlin with which Stoetzer is concerned emerges by chance, an ethnographer cannot find it through structured observation. You encounter what Stoetzer called ruderal species precisely when you least expect them, through precise inattention. In his discussion, Andrew Mathews suggested that we should consider approaching phenomena that appear to be beyond description—like ruderal species or, in his case, the changing forms of chestnut trees—through drawing, singing, and other nontextual modes of engaging the unknown. So perhaps developing precise inattention involves more than sharpening one’s peripheral vision; it involves using senses other than vision to capture emergent forms of life. For Mathews and Stoetzer, however, the focus is on the nonhuman: the chestnut tree, rubble vegetation. Their choice of ethnographic mode brought to mind the question of how precise inattention figures when our questions concern the human per se. Abduction seems promising, for instance, as a mode to register the effects of structural violence on the human body.

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Diagrams of the changing forms of chestnut trees. Image courtesy of Andrew S. Mathews.

The remaining two presenters also inquired into the use of abduction as a mode of ethnographic engagement, but focused instead on the importance of dwelling in the tension between abduction and refusal. Eleana Kim wrestled with whether to let herself be abducted by the “peace and life” discourse that has come to frame the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The DMZ’s surprising biodiversity is being called upon to redeem the region from its history of violence. But this discourse, which commoditizes the region as an ecological sanctuary for economic gain, is based on an assumption that South Korea will eventually assimilate North Korea and that a peaceful border is necessary to avoid a social and economic disaster in South Korea. A discourse that purports to be universal and ecological is, in fact, ethnocentric and anthropocentric. Yet, Kim argued, the discourse is “not being deployed cynically”; ultimately, it opens the possibility of considering a new kind of peace, “biological peace,” that might push us away from ethnocentrism and anthropocentrism.

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“The Window of Peace,” a sculpture in the So-yi Mountain Peace Ridge Park. Photo courtesy of Eleana Kim.

Jason Alley’s resistance to abduction took the form of refusing the expert knowledge of para-ethnographers—in this case, NGO employees who also work on the issue of LGBT aging. The priority of Gray Pride, as Alley dubbed the NGO in question, is not obtaining funding for core operations, but rather “piggybacking” on projects that foundations find attractive. Given his disagreement with the start-up rationality on which Gray Pride operates, Alley developed what he called an “ethos of partial engagement” with Gay Pride colleagues.

In light of the cases presented by Kim and Alley, we can return to the conundrum Agrama posed. To what extent, given the demands of the day, should we trust expertise, including our own expert selves? Perhaps this is the moment to ask how to decolonize abduction. If abduction as a mode of acquiring knowledge insists on the situatedness and incompleteness of knowledge, what can those who live in the peripheries—of science, the law, the state, the human—teach us about abduction based on the way they see the world?