A space. Two people, collaborating. A door, slightly ajar.

B checks the time.

B: I think it’s a good intervention, but we will have to see what they say.

A: And it’s been really fun to collaborate. Once I finish those revisions on my paper from Minneapolis, I can turn my attention to writing this up . . . if there is anything to write up.

B: I guess they will tell us.

A: Who?

B: Our public.

A: You mean, my thousands of Instagram followers? (Laughing.) But seriously, we can’t rely on them to do the work for us. I’m not worried about the outcome. What’s been really interesting about the project is the way that it has allowed us to do concept work together. Having the project in front of us allows us to think together in a mode that doesn’t rely on critique.

B: Yes! (Adopting a mocking tone.) “But have you considered Latour?”

A: Exactly! I took a playwriting course in college, and the professor used to say that the hardest thing about discussing each other’s plays was making sure we weren’t trying to rewrite them. You had to listen for the play they were trying to write and not the play you wanted to write. An author sets the evaluative terms.

B: I’m not sure I follow that last part. Of course you might have evaluative terms that get you going vis-à-vis a premise or prompt, but true collaboration is horizontal. And it relies on the moments of valuation when the work gets valued or priced by a public. Collaborators take on the role of public as we draft, sketch, model, prototype, and rehearse. As soon as the work is visible, it can be priced. That’s the moment of inflection when a proposition can be iterated. Interestingly, collaborative pricing is almost purely about quantitative value. Not what or even why value, but how much value. Almost like a currency market.

A: That construction makes me itchy. Reducing it to money! Trying to quantify an investigation in terms of impacts. It’s both too positivist and too short-term. Your metaphors are all from art markets, but they should be from art. Our infrastructures, our funders and review committees, insist that we have to create visible forms of public practice to validate our existence. So typical of late capitalism.

B: Late capitalism? Don’t you think you are being a little optimistic?

Besides, I’m not just speaking about money. Money is just a marker of value. It could be any exchange system that turns on the dematerialized.

Since anthropology seems premised largely on the importance of knowledge that is constructed and shared, it seems only ethical that the value of that knowledge should first and foremost be assessed by people who generated it, who coproduced it. Curating an experience creates a micromarket that is potentially responsible to a local audience. That is one of the most exciting parts of our project. It puts ideas in a form that is legible to publics without an intermediate step.

Just as we negotiated terms and conditions during our project development, they are reopened for negotiation in the reception. And the fact that this embodied form defers to the public for its significance means that we don’t stack the deck with our own so-called expertise.

A: I can see how appealing it is for you to rely on a participatory model, but for all your rhetoric about markets, you actually have a very utopian image of power relations. It’s not a fierce jungle of competition but a form of play-fighting. Like that YouTube video of the dog and the polar bear.

Illustration by Luke Cantarella.

I’m not sure I buy it. There are real differences in power that must be addressed. Also, in order for this project to have value, it must be translated back into a form of ethnography that relies on expertise and can be recognized within the traditions of the discipline. What makes our understandings of the social powerful is putting the argument in a cogent, nuanced, rigorous, and rhetorically beautiful form. Think of the Balinese cockfight.

B: The Geertzian thing again!

A: You have to appreciate the power of that style of ethnography. Even economists recognize something powerful in it. What makes it significant is the fact that a specific practice can be a synecdoche for a whole cultural system. That’s what gives the discipline impact, because in addition to recording social facts, it does concept work that is portable and can be broadly applied to understandings within and beyond the discipline.

Ultimately, projects are accountable to secondary audiences who judge the results within a particular evaluative framework. In art, you might call that framework aesthetics in its broadest sense. Coproduction isn’t an end run around that. Not that I’m bashing collaboration per se. You can see how powerful it is in business, education, basically everywhere right now. It is a necessary tool on complex research projects like that one on mobile money that has like forty individual projects all over the place. But the picture of collaboration that we should aspire to is one that unifies . . .

B: Ah! The hive mind . . .

A: (Ignoring the comment.) . . . toward a singular voice. Call it the project’s voice if you’d like. What is powerful and necessary about collaboration has to do with the complex problems that contemporary anthropology wants to work on. Like the hard sciences, we can’t expect any one individual to have such diverse expertise as to complete a complex multi-sited project on their own.

Footsteps are heard from the hallway.

B: Wait. That must be them. You’ll see. We just need to watch carefully to see if they engage with the project. Do you think they will stay for the whole time?

A: Well, that’s definitely one way of measuring engagement. Or maybe they will just smile and be polite.

A and B exchange looks, smile, and walk toward the door.