Unfinished: An #AmAnth17 Panel Review

Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming 

Presenters: João Biehl (Princeton University), Peter Locke (Northwestern University), Angela Garcia (Stanford University), Laurence Ralph (Harvard University), Naisargi Dave (University of Toronto), Lilia M. Schwarcz (University of São Paulo), Lucas Bessire (University of Oklahoma), Elizabeth A. Davis (Princeton University), Adriana Petryna (University of Pennsylvania). Discussant: Michael M. J. Fischer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Sponsors: Society for Cultural Anthropology and Association for Political and Legal Anthropology.

If classical anthropology was concerned with revealing the structures and patterns that govern human thought and behavior across time and space, this panel showed just how far anthropologists have come in the direction of the kinetic and the interstitial. Yet, one of the central insights of the panel was that the domain of becoming is in constant tension with the sticky political economic, social, and ethical closed systems that circumscribe us.

Still from Reel-Unreel (2011). Image courtesy of Francis Alÿs, in collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi.

Ethnographic fieldwork, and specifically the humility with which it suspends judgment as it witnesses realities that momentarily exceed our understanding, is a privileged domain by which to examine this tension without, as so much social theory does, resolving it. “Ethnographic creations are about the plasticity and unfinishedness of human subjects and lifeworlds,” as João Biehl and Peter Locke stated in their introduction to the panel and to their larger book project (Biehl and Locke 2017). In bringing experimental ethnography to bear on a diverse set of collaborators and sites in various worlds on the edge, the goal of the panel was not to offer a set of practices to be normatively applied or a new analytic buzzword—notwithstanding the panel’s avowedly Deleuzean orientation. Rather, it was to bring into critical conversation a collection of cutting-edge ethnographic work about the endurance of new, improvised ways of knowing and relating even as racism, state violence, financial collapse, and ecological destruction continue to foreclose alternative horizons.

Following Biehl and Locke’s introduction, Laurence Ralph brought us to Eastwood, a low-income neighborhood in Chicago where Mrs. Lana undergoes a break in consciousness after her son is shot and killed. Knowing what others did not—that a bullet might kill them when they were least expecting it—Mrs. Lana would walk around the neighborhood with newspaper and duct tape, urging neighbors to cover their heads. Ralph argued that as neighbors came to appreciate Mrs. Lana’s insight as something more than simply a symptom of mental illness, “her scars gained a status that was no less than sacred” and her insight transformed their own understandings of how to care for each other “despite and through the terms of dehumanizing violence.” Like Ralph, Angela Garcia and, later in the session, Elizabeth Davis also explored human becomings in the context of communities reckoning with histories of violence. Garcia described a 2014 gathering of thousands of people in Mexico City that linked, through chants, photographs, and effigies, decades of disappearances. People, Garcia explained, thus “turned disappearance into presence and presence into a process of transformation.” Davis, in turn, used the figure of time machines to approach a variety of objects through which Cyprians grasp the period marked by the Turkish invasion of Cyprus: conspiracy theories, archival images, bones and belongings. These objects unsettle temporalities and allow the forensic scientists Davis collaborates with, as well as other Cyprians, to become “something different, which might also entail having been something else in the past.” 

Panelists also explored becoming and unfinishedness in personal and professional encounters across ontological, moral, and epistemological boundaries. Naisargi Dave’s presentation centered on a scene: an animal activist explaining how to soothe a dying cow. “Just be there,” the activist explained, “body to body, life to life, soul to soul.” Although initially Dave was skeptical about the anthropocentrism implied in such evocations of interspecies caring, she explained that she has come to hold open the possibility of becoming other or being-with an other without having to colonize the other with human subjectivity. The boundaries Lucas Bessire examined were also ontological: the racialized boundaries between Christian missionaries in Paraguay and Ayoreo “ex-primitives,” who were perceived as not yet fully human. To become human in the Christian, moral sense of the term is to destroy one’s “primitive” subjectivity, Bessire reflected, a dynamic he termed “negative becoming.” Here, processes of becoming are shot through with destruction, challenging us to appreciate how subjects in even the most apocalyptic of conditions may, in Bessire’s words, “grasp within instability the potential to re-affirm” a humanity.

Lilia M. Schwarcz also framed her reflections on working with the Brazilian visual artist Adriana Varejão with the notion of becoming across boundaries—not ontological or moral, in this case, but epistemological. Schwarcz marveled at the artist’s ability to “cannibalize” her own theorization of color as a doppelgänger of race in Brazil into inks and images. As Schwarcz succinctly put it, “I became the work of others.” Finally, Adriana Petryna’s presentation also considered how anthropologists might reveal new avenues of becoming as they work with other professionals—in Petryna’s case, researchers grappling with the modification of ecosystem dynamics in the behavior of wildfires. Becoming, here, is a feature of a world that has run amok in layers upon layers of human–nonhuman entanglements. In asking what happens to “horizon work” in a world where our own efforts to see beyond horizons can entrap us, Petryna finds an answer in ethnography. Rather than demanding improvements in our technical capabilities, perhaps shifting dynamics are opportunities to fashion what she called a “counter-technique, a continuing capacity for recalibration.”

The discussant of the panel, Michael M. J. Fischer, offered a perspective on these exciting discussions about plasticity and unfinishedness with the allegory of Zen exercises—“pragmatic skills and apperceptions in which we can be trained” and that may might allow us to “remain open to change and becoming.” In contemporary worlds on the edge, Fischer suggested, what we need is precisely a Zen anthropology, in the sense of a “human science of uncertainty.” Instead of the universal structures our armchair predecessors sought, then, Fischer called anthropologists to focus our awareness on people as “biosensing membranes” and as palimpsests of social “calligraphies” or “hieroglyphs,” continuously becoming in space and time.

Anthropology matters, then, now more than ever, for at a time when we feel stuck in a collapsing world, it can (in Biehl and Locke’s words) “remind us that there is more than one way of seeing things” and direct us to “care for the as-yet-unthought.” Yet as an audience member asked the panelists, might not the “question of becoming . . . become itself a normative figure . . . valorized by a certain commitment to an ethos of presence?” Another audience member, invoking Marxian theories of the end of history, followed up by asking: “When does becoming stop?” In their responses, Dave, Fischer, and Biehl insisted that becoming is an empirical reality that unfolds all around us, in and beyond our fieldsites, regardless of whether it is understood as a normative imperative. Yet, they suggested,  apprehending and sustaining it requires a heightened attentiveness, a distinct re-tooling of oneself.

As the panel drew to a close, Fischer wryly noted that the end of becoming—when movement and transformation stop, whether for individuals, collectives, or ecologies—is, quite simply, death. This exchange highlighted a fundamental point that resonated across all of the panel’s presentations: that the mutual becoming of people and social fields—their vitality, experimentalism, and dispersal—must be understood ethnographically rather than measured against notions of progress or expectations of revolutionary outcome. At stake is the project of sustaining the unpredictability, multiplicity, and incommensurability that animate lives and realities and, in Biehl and Locke’s words, keep critical thought “engaged and multiplying.”


Biehl, João, and Peter Locke, eds. 2017. Unfinished: The Anthropology of Becoming. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.