Truly intellectual traps

Art and Agency - The Art of Anthropology
May 12, 2000

Every now and then, we, the intellectually curious, stumble across an argument that immediately strikes us as particularly original and intriguing. So we start to follow it. After a short time the work suddenly turns in a quite unexpected direction. It doubles back on itself and then leads us into the discussion of a topic whose significance had not previously occurred to us. As we follow these convolutions with growing interest, we are also dazzled at one corner by an insight that opens some bright new vistas, and at the next we are delighted with some faceted jewel of wit. At this point we are very loth to put the book down. We are enchanted and driven with the desire to follow it through to its end.

If we do persevere, we have most likely followed the precise intentions of the author of that book. We have become the victims of a trap that was elaborately set to entice us, through appealing to those qualities we admire but also seek to possess. As happy victims, we may feel that we have ourselves been enlarged in our capacities through this process of entrapment. We are also likely to help reproduce the trap through borrowing parts of it, elaborating upon it and emulating it in our next work. In the most extreme cases we will never again be entirely free from its influence and all our future work will in some measure help to reproduce it, though in new forms.

But it is likely that this act of intellectual seduction has also achieved its aim through aesthetic qualities, and we may openly admire its artistry, the apt illustration, the scale of its ambition, and those moments of brilliance that dazzled us and that created for the duration an extraordinary experience that we value in itself.

The outstanding achievement of Alfred Gell, who died in 1997, was not just that he became one of the finest artists of the discipline of anthropology, but that, in the true Enlightenment tradition, he achieved a high level of self-consciousness about how this process of intellectual artistry operates. As such, his own consciousness about how the products of mind work aesthetically to trap the mind of others became the substance of his argument. He thereby fulfilled the brief that anthropology set itself for the 20th century: to instruct humanity about its own creative capacity illustrated through the diversity of social relations and cultural artefacts. Although his final monograph (published posthumously) is called Art and Agency , it is a masterpiece like The Art of Anthropology ,a collection of essays, also under review.

If intellectuals are seduced by complex books, then these may be considered appropriate traps. A South Sea Islander who produces a canoe prow with convoluted patterns of colour and motif may also have created a clever parody of some normative order that thereby seduces, as a visual form, the curious onlooker. Art for Gell was not a system of meaning or aesthetics but of agency, such that minds are motivated by these material indices that thereby extend or distribute the persons of their authors. Applying the same argument both to texts and artworks was crucial.

Gell believed in material culture. In the introduction to The Art of Anthropology , he stresses the materiality of his own work; the performative nature of seminars, and how his arguments usually appeared to him first as diagrams and only later as text. In this and many other instances he goes beyond, but probably depended upon, Claude Levi-Strauss's earlier insistence that social structures and myth (but also masks) should be understood as ways of creating and understanding worlds comparable to more abstract philosophy and cosmology. Gell's essays seem to search for the choreography behind all forms of social action; that which makes them attractive and satisfying enough for peoples to live their lives within their aesthetic order.

These ideals may be applied to any domain of anthropology. The essays in The Art of Anthropology are various in theme and style. They concern the mapping of symbolic aspects of an Indian tribal market and expounding the thesis of a book by Marilyn Strathern through diagrams. They consider the auditory nature of a forested landscape and its symbolism of sound, and how ritual may constrain rather than express the power of rulers. Grounding himself in scholarly ethnography and analytical argument, Gell demonstrates how it is often within the likes of phenomenology and conventional aesthetics that one finds simplistic reductionism.

My personal favourite is an article on commodity barter in New Guinea. Anthropology is a discipline whose modern form is ideologically bound up in the legacy of Marcel Mauss's essay The Gift (1925). It sometimes constitutes itself in a characterisation of ourselves as commodity-based societies as against a kind of lost holism that we project onto others as the societies of the gift. In this context, for Gell to write an essay that demonstrates that the gift in Melanesian society might be better seen as a secondary emanation from an earlier commodity-like barter system, and to make this convincing, is not merely brilliant - Gell at his argumentative best - but it is as funny as it is subversive. It overthrows anthropology's most destructive contribution: the simplistic dualism of romantic primitivism. By contrast, Gell treats all societies as intellectual, because he could see in their material culture both the oppressively and impressively ordered but also the scurrilously seductive.

Gell was a consummate anthropologist. He avoided both the reductionism of cognitive approaches and (usually) the decontextualised abstractions of academic philosophy to create an anthropology of mind that was grounded in the material products of societies, avoiding the reification of the creative individual that characterises the humanities.

He became the most enchanting of anthropologists, perhaps because his main contribution was to enable us to understand the central role of enchantment in societies' intellectual and material creativity. These posthumous books remain eloquent examples of how minds might continue to be expanded by his distributed and thus enduring intellectual presence.

Daniel Miller is professor of material culture, University College London.

Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory

Author - Alfred Gell
ISBN - 0 19 828013 0 and 828014 9
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00 and £17.99
Pages - 217

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