Remarks on the Receiving the Bateson Prize

From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: The Resonance of Unseen Things

Photo by Hamish Weir.

I am beyond honored to receive the Gregory Bateson Book Prize. It’s humbling after the brilliant and transformative ethnographies that preceded me over the past eight years. And it’s so rewarding to join in paying tribute to the legacy of Gregory Bateson, who stands for anthropology’s most unabashed creativity. Bateson is more inspiring now than ever in his example of rigorous intellectual freedom, using the tools and approaches of so many disciplines, to pursue anthropology’s restless curiosity about human life in every dimension of social and subjective experience.

I want to express my deep gratitude to Karen Strassler, chair of this year’s prize jury, and to the other jury members, Amira Mittermaier, Lucas Bessire and Paul Eiss.

I most profoundly thank the people who generously shared their experiences, ideas, and stories with me, often along with their friendship. The book is rooted both in the stories I explicitly retell and those that implicitly deepened and shaped my ethnographic understanding of America.

My early mentors, Katie Stewart, Greg Urban, and Steve Feld, encouraged this project from the beginning, which was many years ago. Yes, many years ago! This book waited a very long time to be published. I was for a long time concerned about making potentially sensitive experiences public, even though of course that’s what ethnography must do. I was perhaps too acutely aware that we tend to judge most harshly the people who live nearest to us but are not us, that often the closeness of others is what makes them seem most different.

But the timing itself turned out to be uncanny, because the book finally emerged at a disturbingly fitting moment in the United States. It came out just as the thoughts and feelings and conspiratorial stances of the people I write about have moved, in morphed and exploited forms, from the margins to the center of political discourse. This movement reminds us, with a sharper insistence than ever, that although some people are excluded from social, political, and economic resources, when it comes to meaning and affect, margins always tell us about the center. At this moment, we can see that some forms of experience have to be listened to outside the binary of fact or fiction, in ways that transcend the literal. Because while we can (and must) work to reclaim science, align ourselves with historical truth, and disprove false facts, doing that alone isn’t enough to slow what has become the terrifying velocity of something that has nothing to do with fact. Listening with attention lets you see perspectives that can, depending on the context, produce either shattering or liberating social consequences. So it is especially thrilling to feel that this prize celebrates not just my book, but a moment in anthropology in which we are recognizing experimental form, affect, and other attempts to represent the poetics of those things in the social that are not quite tangible but that nonetheless have an enormous material effect.

I’ll end with a quote from Bateson (1979, 92): “Interesting phenomena occur when two or more rhythmic patterns are combined, and these phenomena illustrate very aptly the enrichment of information that occurs when one description is combined with another.” Thank you so much.


Bateson, Gregory. 1979. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: E. P. Dutton.