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Volume 92, #3
Remuneration in an Unequal World
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Volume 93, #1 • Winter 2020
Overwhelmed by Proximity
INTRODUCTION: Overwhelmed by Proximity
by Julienne Obadia, , University of Cambridge
Intimate Encounters: Queer Entanglements in Ethnographic Fieldwork
Margot Weiss, Wesleyan University
ABSTRACT—This article explores ethnographic intimacy beyond an identitarian focus on sex, sexual identity, and sex-desire by reflecting on three of my own fieldwork projects in queer anthropology. Bringing queer, decolonizing, postcolonial, and critical race theory into conversation with reflexive work on sex in/and ethnographic fieldwork, I argue that broadening our conceptions of intimacy enables us to think less about sex in the field and more about sex as a field—a field of encounters, relationalities, and entanglements that connects us queerly to others. I suggest that such approaches to ethnographic knowledge might disrupt anthropology’s colonial object relations by embracing a critical intimacy of interrelationality—staying with, rather than foreclosing, reifying, or trying to master, the overwhelming aspects of both sex and ethnography. [Keywords: Queer, ethnographic fieldwork, sexuality, identity, reflexivity, positionality, knowledge production]
Assembly by Aggregation: Making Individuals in the Face of Others in an American Intentional Community
Julienne Obadia, University of Cambridge
ABSTRACT—From Tom Wolfe’s “me generation” to the imputed digital narcissism of millennials, cultural critics have interpreted American neoliberalism as producing a crisis of hyper-individualism characterized by greed, selfishness, and a general incapacity to cooperate with others. This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork with an American intentional community, Oak Haven, to argue that, even as the notion of community is so often heralded as an antidote to the excesses of American individualism, understandings of community are themselves predicated on a powerful commitment to the individual. Rather than self-interested, competitive, or greedy, however, this individual is figured as a crucial component in healthy, ethical forms of being together. The form and promise of the individual thus made living collectively possible for community residents, who responded to the tantalizing promises and often acute challenges of living with others in communal proximity by intensifying calls for personal space and boundaries, on the one hand, and interior self-examination, on the other. Moreover, many Oak Haveners looked to another time and social order to imagine that “tribal” affinity could be achieved by bringing robustly volitional, independent persons into proximity, adhering to a theory of community that I call “assembly by aggregation.” I conclude that this emphasis on individual independence and boundedness as a path to communal solidarity obscured how Oak Haven’s most highly valued members were not those who were firmly encased, but those who were permeable to others—able to receive, respond to, and intuit the calls of others—even as this very permeability was cast as unhealthy and undesirable. Examining the dilemmas of (re)producing the individual in relation to idealized, pathologized, and actual forms of kinship at Oak Haven, this article attempts to illuminate how the unquestioned status of the individual in American late liberalism has significant effects on how collective flourishing can be lived and even imagined. [Keywords: Individualism, intentional community, intimacy, kinship, late liberalism, proximity, settler colonialism, US]
“Don’t Study People”: Disentanglement and the Dangers of Studying Others in Trinidad and in Anthropology
J. Brent Crosson, UT Austin
ABSTRACT—Throughout my fieldwork on the island of Trinidad, my interlocutors told me “don’t study people” because it might lead one to “take on” the thoughts and feelings of others as a kind of weight. In this article, I consider how this cautionary adage about the dangers of proximity reframes:1) the act of studying others through ethnography, and 2) Liberal understandings of the person and society. Within academia’s critique of the modern West, proximity is generally assumed to be good, while individualism is considered a pernicious (and often-isolating) Western assumption. Shifting focus from binaries to entanglements, individuals to dividuals, distanced observation to vulnerability, or from informants to friends are ethically valued shifts. I suggest that the dangers of “studying people” at my field site in southern Trinidad question the limits of this framework and illustrate the importance of disentanglement for my interlocutors. My interlocutors saw individualism (manifested as stubborn recalcitrance to others’ wishes) as a valued characteristic. Yet, rather than assuming the individual as a pre-existing entity, my interlocutors saw individualism as a tenuous creation potentially threatened by “studying” others. Liberalism rests on the opposed (yet complementary) visions of the solitary individual and the togetherness of society, with the former figure at the center of Western modernity and the latter image allegedly found in traditional, premodern, or non-Western places. Instead of illustrating Romantic notions of community, however, togetherness was a key site of danger for my interlocutors in southern Trinidad. In this way, the milieu of what I call “agonistic egalitarianism” leads me to question two common assumptions structuring ideas about personhood and ethnography: that individualism is a disaggregating Western project and that proximity to others necessarily leads to trust and understanding. Keywords: Ethics of ethnography, Caribbean, Trinidad, individualism, agonism, egalitarianism, autology, genealogical society.
Proximity to Disability
Danilyn Rutherford, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
ABSTRACT—Proximity can be overwhelming. Proximity can be particularly overwhelming in these modern times, when groups and individuals find themselves in the grip of regimes demanding that they live their identities and relationships with others in particular ways. Modern individuals are supposed to find themselves in what Elizabeth Povinelli calls an intimate event of recognition: an encounter between “I” and a particular kind of “Thou,” a lover or a nation-state who sees them as they truly are. Povinelli focuses on the love between modern lovers but her model holds for modern parents, whose relationship with their children is both fated and chosen, all at once. What happens when a child’s embodied experience of the world renders this form of love problematic? How might their parents’ responses challenge our unstated assumptions about how intimate relationships are supposed to work? Drawing on my own experiences as the mother of a multiply disabled daughter and my research on families like my own, I show how parents create the basis for an intimate event of recognition in relationships with others who don’t respond in predictable ways—and the alternative social worlds that proximity to disability can create. [Keywords: Kinship, intimacy, disability, proximity, sign use, subjectivity, embodiment]
by Elizabeth A. Povinelli, , Columbia University