Asad litanies

I just started re-reading Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion, which I haven’t looked at in a few years. Only a few pages into the introduction, I came across something that 3 or 4 years ago I wouldn’t have thought too hard about, but now seems very interesting. The context is a brief critique of certain then-recent discussions in anthropology regarding its place in relation to other of the “human sciences”:

There are systematic features of human collectivities that are real enough even though you can’t see them directly—for example, life expectancies, crime ratios, voting patterns, and rates of productivity. (You can see them once they are represented as tables, graphs, and maps, on a sheet of paper or a computer screen: here seeing and manipulating are closely connected.) Various kinds of social practice are inconceivable without such representations. (6)

He goes on to explain how these systematic features, their representations, and the uses to which they are put are what he is interested in analysizing. He argues that this analysis, while clearly informed by “on the ground” anthropological fieldwork, lies outside the scope of such fieldwork but at the same time doesn’t relegate it to some secondary status.

What I think is interesting here, though, is Asad’s determination to incorporate a variety of collectives (indeed, a variety of kinds of collective) into a broader anthropological umbrella. Now, he doesn’t seem to be going all the way with this, as he implies (1) a fairly clear distinction between “systematic features” themselves and their representations; (2) a distinction, perhaps less clear but still there, between representational figures (tables, graphs) and the material on/in which they are located; (3) that this material as such does not figure into the systematicity that is at issue for him, but only qua representation. But just bringing these elements together as he does here is an important step. The next one would be to follow the effects of dropping the above assumptions and fully grant the same kind of reality to systems, their representations, and their representational media in all its materiality.

I’ll grant that it’s also a bit misleading to call the list above a “litany” in the same sense as a “Latour litany”, in that it obviously doesn’t aim to incorporate the same range of objects. Nevertheless, in the same couple of pages as the passage above, Asad references “governments, businesses, churches, … distributions, trends, … matters of landed property, disease, and literacy.” One could view these narrowly as simply different collectives or systems that can be represented on graphs or in reports. But I think the much more interesting and productive approach would be to use such systematic groupings as starting points from which one could trace relations out to markets, consumer products, tools, ideas, divinities, books, buildings, topographical and geological features, crops, insects, and microbes – not to mention the “local peoples” who remain the objects of anthropological studies.

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Posted on May 24, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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