More real life than lifestyle

Exotic No More
December 6, 2002

Christopher Pinney believes that anthropology must resist calls to be useful

A recent news report in The THES will have dismayed many readers. It described how some elite US educational institutions were increasingly marketing themselves not in terms of the quality of their faculty but in terms of the comforts - whirlpool baths, room service, cable TV - on offer in their student accommodation.

Many branches of academic inquiry have already been corrupted by this process, in which the confrontation with knowledge and difference is converted into a utility. Inquiry ceases to be a potential means of changing the world and becomes instead a lifestyle enhancement.

Anthropology perhaps has more to lose than any other discipline from pressures from "users" desiring something more "friendly", something more harmoniously adjacent to their bourgeois world. "Exoticism" has been anthropology's poison and its cure. As poison, it signified the legacy of colonialism, still not fully addressed, and a lack of "relevance". But as cure, it is a key element of anthropology's intransigence through its emphasis on the idea that the exotic matters and that there are alternatives to world-destroying westernism.

It is therefore hard not to feel ambivalent about a popularising volume titled Exotic No More , rather than, say, The Necessity of Exoticism . Jeremy MacClancy's introduction bemoaning anthropology's perception as preoccupied with "abstruse customs of out-of-the-way tribes" does little to allay this. His solution is to point to the anthropologists who from the earliest days of the discipline have also worked "in Britain as well as Papua New Guinea, in France as well as Niger". An alternative approach might be to question how one makes "out-of-the-wayness" less "belated", more central (as an urgent matter of survival) to the present.

But the utility of such questioning would be harder to establish and might entail "abstruseness" (a very bad thing in MacClancy's view), which would get in the way of the revelation of the "public value of the discipline". What matters is to show anthropology to be "socially beneficial" and as concerned as much with the West as the rest. Nothing must be difficult, everything must be relevant. "We want the taxpayers, who ultimately foot most of our bills, to know what we are up to, not to dive for the dictionary before they have turned the first page."

Thankfully, this all turns out to be rather clever packaging, a strategic sly civility designed to disguise a set of highly engaged, often activist readings. Dressed externally as a sacrificial offering of anthropology on the altar of utility, the substance of the book does much to make the familiar strange and show the possibilities that anthropology still has to become (as Foucault hoped it would) a "counterscience".

The volume is stuffed full of exceptionally fine essays that will appeal to, as they deserve to, a broad readership. The volume's origins lie in a suggestion made by Jonathan Benthall, former director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and several of the contributions grew out of innovative papers and debates in the journal Anthropology Today . Particularly outstanding are Philippe Bourgois's account of crack dealers in East Harlem, Nancy Scheper-Hughes's disturbing analysis of the international body organ economy with its "kula ring" of body parts, and Valentine Daniels's contemplation on refugees as the embodiment of the "traumatic kernel" of a better world.

Bourgois's work, rightly described elsewhere in the volume by Michael Gilsenan as "vivid but not sensationalist", is a brilliant exploration of the structural degradation of impoverishment with its internalised rage and desperation that forces him to conclude that the US is a model for what not to imitate in political and economic development. Like many other contributors to the volume, Bourgois presents anthropological insight as a path towards the clearing of political action.

Scheper-Hughes's equally powerful and arresting account traces her growing realisation that the rumours of kidnapping, mutilation and dismemberment she documented during fieldwork in the shanty towns of northeast Brazil were accounts of a global scramble for body parts. This flow of organs from South to North, third to first world, black and brown to white, and female to male, inculcates in marginalised populations the ultimate "ontological insecurity" through the understanding that the world values their bodies more dead than alive.

Other contributors consider seemingly quieter domains where politics and inequality take different forms. Among these, Faye Ginsburg on anthropology and media and Christopher Steiner on art and museums stand out.

In his chapter on intellectual property, David Napier describes chancing upon a display of Amazonian curare arrows in the home of the French physiologist Claude Bernard. Acquired from an unknown Amazonian in 1842 they would impact immeasurably on modern anaesthesiology and for Napier they dramatise certain issues around intellectual property. But the wider issue of human survival, which the respect for and borrowing from diverse worlds might make possible, is not explicitly addressed in the book. Also missing is a focus on the ways in which anthropological work on colonialism might shed light on the new American global hegemony. But perhaps anthropologists' tendency to localise and stress the "negotiated" and "appropriated" nature of global flows still remains a barrier to grasping the full dimension of structures of imperial domination.

A minor criticism is the great variation in the form of the bibliographies attached to each essay. Some are useful annotated guides to further reading, others the briefest of lists. Future editions of this book might attempt to systematise this and also to correct some glaring errors. A bibliographical reference to my own work mis-spells my surname, renders the title of the work inaccurately and gives the wrong publisher and the incorrect date of publication.

My irritation cannot prevent me from declaring that this is a book of great power, a sparkling window on the politicised concerns of much contemporary anthropology, and a collection that is likely to be of extraordinary value in the teaching of anthropology to those students who want more than whirlpool baths and lifestyle enhancement.

Christopher Pinney is reader in anthropology and visual culture, University College London.

Exotic No More: Anthropology on the Front Lines

Editor - Jeremy MacClancy
ISBN - 0 226 50012 8 and 50013 6
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £42.00 and £17.50
Pages - 456

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