Charles Briggs Awarded the 2015 Cultural Horizons Prize

The Society for Cultural Anthropology is proud to award the 2015 Cultural Horizons Prize to Charles Briggs (University of California, Berkeley) for his article, “Dear Dr. Freud,” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 2 (2014): 312–43.

An ethnographically rich and theoretically engaged piece of writing, “Dear Dr. Freud” represents the vanguard of anthropological scholarship, pushing the boundaries of where ethnography ends and theory begins. Taking up the contradictory nature of what Sigmund Freud called the “work of mourning,” Briggs returns to primary source material to discover that, despite important and ongoing critiques, Freud’s framing of mourning proves anthropologically and politically important in understanding its extraordinarily painful character. Briggs argues that we can extend understandings of the mourning process by taking poetics, bodily materiality, and acoustics into greater consideration. He draws upon ethnographic insights from the Delta Amacuro rain forest in Venezuela, where he and a team of researchers were recruited to help investigate an emergent “mysterious disease,” which was the tragic cause of death for many in the region. While attending and listening to the laments of the recently deceased, Briggs beautifully confronts the limits of language vis-à-vis the mourning process as he analyzes the affective and collective dimensions of laments.

Briggs goes even further to address the multiple scales and political dimensions that the work of mourning carries with it. Given a political climate in which there exists an “indigenous/nonindigenous chasm that sorts human beings into vastly unequal categories,” Briggs shows how indigenous community members may mourn not only the death of loved ones, but in some cases the loss of political promise that these deaths carry with them.  Since mourning works as a process that depends upon myriad forms of circulation, or “how words, acoustics, and affects move between performers, overhearers, and narrators,” Briggs also addresses his own role as an ethnographer, photographer, and healer. As such, he points to the problems inherent in making laments mobile, as well as the nuances and political stakes that exist in erasing the experience of mourning.

“Dear Dr. Freud” makes a compelling case for rethinking anthropology itself as the work of mourning. Doing so, Briggs writes, “evokes the work that anthropologists do in making images collaboratively and placing them in circulation, and it unsettles the usually unstated techniques we use to infuse images with particular sorts of affects.” Such an approach can be seen both as an effort to account for anthropologists’ imbrication in ethnographic worlds and to surrender “the engaged versus conceptual binary as a means of classifying anthropologists and projects.” This interest in reshaping the contours of anthropology is brilliantly realized in Briggs’s writing style, wherein the journal article takes the form of a personal letter to Dr. Freud himself. Remarkable for its creativity, this intimate mode of address positions the reader as an “overhearer,” and helps us to consider intellectual work as a recomposition of meanings (much like the work of mourning).           

The Cultural Horizons Prize is awarded annually at the meetings of the American Anthropological Association and carries a honorarium of $500. This year’s jury of doctoral students included Sophie Chao (Macquarie University), Elizabeth Rodwell (Rice University), and Christopher Baum (Graduate Center, City University of New York).