An Uncertain Rush of Energy: An #AmAnth17 Panel Review

An Uncertain Rush of Energy: A Discussion with William Mazzarella on The Mana of Mass Society

Chair: Bhrigupati Singh (Brown University). Presenters: Steven Caton (Harvard University), Eduardo Kohn (McGill University), Lauren Coyle Rosen (Princeton University), Sarah Muir (City College of New York). Discussants: William Mazzarella (University of Chicago), Bhrigupati Singh (Brown University).

Forces, feelings, jolts, surges, energies, resonances, vitalities, attractions. These are the shifting signifiers surrounding the resurgence of a long-latent source of anthropological inspiration—mana. Once a notion engaged by the speculative minds of the generation of thinkers often derogatorily referred to as armchair anthropologists, mana has again risen to the forefront of the anthropological imagination, bringing with it the dizzying sensation of wonder and sublimity that one experiences in encountering that which exceeds stable articulation. These terms float around mana’s resurgence in a vivacious effervescence, hinting at the signs of a fluctuating reformation, a forceful reactivation.

The aptly named panel “An Uncertain Rush of Energy” certainly had its own energetics, as attendees encountered a rekindling of one of anthropology’s most fruitful sites of vitality. It was a rekindling that sought to liberate mana from the chains of history that bound it to the three settlements of thought—empirical, primitive, aesthetic—identified by William Mazzarella (2017) in the text that was the subject of the discussion. This liberation stands to open up a fourth settlement, which Eduardo Kohn called the “mimetic settlement” and which resonates through the Lacanian paradox of extimacy: that which is beyond me is the foundation of my being. Through this settlement we become open to the surges of mana that perforate beings. Such constitutive resonances, which construct one another through extimate encounters, were apparent throughout the discussion of the papers presented, themselves constituted through and in these encounters with mana.

To playfully take up the language of dialectics, perhaps in the spirit of the theoretical approach that Mazzarella calls dialectic vitalism, is to encounter a dialectics that goes beyond dialectics, and beyond even negative dialectics. This is a dialectics that in its movement beyond dialectics dislocates itself from dialectics, opening up a clamorous domain of polyvocality. A domain where what unfolds is not only speech between the dialectic constellations that Steven Caton brought to the discussion, but surges of affects, forces, intensities, and resonations that exceed speech and yet continue to call. Perhaps this is the domain of Mazzarella’s constitutive encounter, which (as Bhrigupati Singh pointed out) unwittingly and perhaps even unwillingly unfolds as extra-dialectical. A domain in which dialectics, even negative dialectics, are not dialectic enough. A domain, in short, that cannot be captured.

To push Mazzarella’s extimate intervention a little further, the apparently paradoxical resonance of “dialectical vitalism” brings the real of the other to bear on the constitution of self. What is repressed in the symbolic domain of dialectics returns in the vivacious and fluid surge of vitalism, and what is passed over in vitalism erupts once more with all the force and authority of dialectics. Like Mazzarella, I want to have my cake and eat it too—and I agree that we should energetically and unapologetically savor it. 

So, to take up Singh’s comments, if the shift in thought that has been labeled the ontological turn allows us to ask “does a duck have feelings?”, then perhaps through the mimetic settlement we can also ask “does Donald Duck have feelings?” For if we permit ourselves to respond in the affirmative to Lauren Coyle Rosen’s question “what if mana was actually mana everywhere?”, then it is not such a leap to permit the forces and energies that animate advertisements, wish-images, and cartoon characters to participate in the vital force of mana.  

As tempting as it is to grant Donald Duck participation in the vital force that permeates and compels our encounters, though, we must take a moment to ground ourselves. For, as Kohn made clear and as Mazzarella echoed, not all surging vitalities are good. We are today surrounded by energetics that have become destructive in their resonant constitution. Thus, the task becomes not just the recognition of mana—the recognition of the symptom—but the careful and gradual development of an ethics of mana, a turn towards therapeutics. 

In attempting to respond to this call for an ethics of mana there is one notion that, to my mind, could suffice. That is the pharmakon—the poison, remedy, and scapegoat, the shifting activity that is a contingent force of social pharmacologies. This figure may provide an ethical foothold in turbulent encounters with mana as that which is at once intimate and external, good and bad, productive and destructive, sacred and profane.

It is particularly with respect to bodies and their powers of action that I am left wondering if we can begin to think of a pharmacology and therapeutics of mana. This would be less an “uncanny critique,” as Sarah Muir put it, and more an uncanny clinique, an ethics of the forces that grant, constrain, enable, and displace bodies. In this way the question gets framed less in terms of whether we are willing to grant Donald Duck feelings and more in terms of which bodies are harmed or empowered, liberated or constrained, pathologized or cured, by the feelings, forces, and vitalities that flow through Donald Duck?


Mazzarella, William. 2017. The Mana of Mass Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.