Tobias Rees. After Ethnos. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018. 192 pp., 3 illus., notes, bibl., index.

In “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” Clifford Geertz wrote that to understand a discipline you should look at what its practitioners do, rather than accepting what they say they do. And anthropologists, he claimed, do ethnography: they write. “The ethnographer ‘inscribes’ social discourse; he writes it down,” Geertz argued. Ethnographers thus turn passing events into accounts.[1] Since the years of Malinowski, this method-driven definition of the discipline—at least in its “cultural” branch—implied the existence of more or less static “societies,” “cultures,” a well-defined ethnos constructed as an object to be studied and described with a long-term fieldwork approach. The answer thus emerged before the question: cultural anthropologists knew that human lifeworlds took place in societies or cultures, and their science should describe them. But as the world changed—decolonization, the emergence of new states and what Geertz later called “complicated places,”[2] the end of the Cold War, deeper globalization (from above and from below)—it became harder to disentangle the ethnographic project from the practice of delimiting, defining, or better yet, inventing “peoples,” “societies,” and “cultures” in order to write them down.

And cultural anthropology, understood mainly as ethnography, kept struggling with the imperialistic aims of its past even after the “field” shattered and the ground shifted under its feet: the post-colonial and post-modern turns that anthropologists used to critique their predecessors eroded their own authority.[3] As with most realms of scientific knowledge, anthropology was conceived as a means to understand and control the unknown—the making of the other (at home and abroad). And as the world changed, anthropology stayed the same: ever in crisis. Even after the field-changing publication of books that shed light on the poetics, politics, and artifice of ethnographic writing—from Orientalism to Writing Culture, Time and the Other, or The Invention of Culture—the equation of anthropology with ethnography in American cultural anthropology remained largely untouched.[4]

In After Ethnos, Tobias Rees attempts to unbalance the equation: he puts this unquestioned association into view to imagine a deanthropologized anthropology. What happens when we disentangle anthropology from the abstract concept of “the human” as an entity grounded in a culture and society? What would an anthropology “after ethnos” look like? What would be the consequences for the discipline and its practitioners? The book raises more questions than answers and leaves out many contributions and approaches outside of cultural anthropology, but that is the point: to explore the possibilities of anthropological curiosity, to release the discipline from its objectivistic aims, to “essay” a new model of inquiry.

One of the strengths of the book lies in its particular style and organization. Instead of a systematic treatment of a single topic or a traditional exposition of a linear argument, the chapters read more like ongoing conversations. By including potential objections to the arguments, observations, comments, loose ends, disclaimers, and replies (sometimes based on recordings of conferences and seminars where he presented these texts), Rees anticipates the reactions the book has triggered,[5] presents a broader picture of the underlying concerns—and weaknesses—of his proposal, and forces the reader to engage with his ideas at a deeper level.

The first chapters of the book are essays in the strict sense of the term: trials, experiments, wanderings on different paths toward an anthropology after ethnos. In the first chapter, “on anthropology,” Rees sketches some of the effects of decoupling anthropology from classical modern ethnography and thick description. He revisits the emergence of “the human” as a modern, distinct realm of knowledge—an object of study—and the rise of the disciplines that write it down: history and anthropology. Rees notes, however, that the modern cultural anthropology he argues against (Boas, Malinowski, Meade, Geertz) was more concerned with ethnos (how do humans live together?) than with anthropos (what is human?). This narrowed focus, he continues, was due to the fact that the answer to the question of “anthropos” was assumed beforehand: that humans are “social” beings, who live in distinct agglomerations usually called “societies,” where people behave and think according to a “culture” (13). The question became, then: what forms can society and culture take?

Rees proposes to replace this circular approach, in which the central answer is already given, with a question-based approach: a “philosophically inclined anthropology” (15). In Rees’s terms, “an anthropology ‘of’ the human / after ‘the human’—a practice of fieldwork-based immersion that revolves around the discovery of the unanticipated: ways of thinking, possibilities of living that escape ‘the human,’ that cut through it, undermine it, dissolve it, render it useless” (34). It entails a project that opens up new ways of defining the human, after culture, society, and history; an anthropology without established objects of study and decoding tools. A fresh start.

The second chapter goes even further and asks what would happen if besides breaking with ethnos—culture, society, territory—anthropologists broke with “the human” as well? In the provocative essay that follows, Rees outlines an answer: the analysis of movement / in terms of movement, an experiment that aims to:

render visible ruptures and mutations of established conceptions of the human (an analysis of movement) by way of bringing into view how instances in the here and now derail and defy the normative conceptions of the human that are silently transported by the analytical concepts on which anthropology thus far has relied (in terms of movement).

Rees, After Ethnos, 41.

The idea points to an explosion in scope, methods, and potential topics, that would require a complete renewal of the tools and vocabularies of current anthropology. Citing examples including anthropologies of cheese, of wave patterns in the Pacific Ocean, of snails, of Hurricane Katrina, he asks: what concepts and tools are needed to perform an anthropology decentered from the human?[6]

The next three chapters are derived from this question. The third chapter describes the role of fieldwork in an anthropology after ethnos. Instead of asking about a specific place where an ethnos is found—Mexican science, Japanese food markets, American homelessness—the focus shifts toward a “difference in time.” Fieldwork becomes then a technique to figure out how concepts and practices emerge, make sense, and change without assuming a cultural underlying script guiding beliefs and behaviors. It is something closer to a fieldwork-based philosophy: “an artful—experimental—technique at the core of which are accidents that have the power to disrupt the taken for granted” (82). In the fourth chapter, Rees puts his ideas to work and sketches what an “anthropology of the actual” would look like. The result is tentative and incomplete, but gives a clear picture of the type of questions and concerns the author is dealing with specifically, and the infinite possibilities he invites us to explore. A final chapter includes “a dictionary of anthropological commonplaces,” a compilation of sentences that seem indebted with the equation between ethnography and anthropology he tries to disentangle and are easy to find in any published paper or book in cultural anthropology (“This book shows that x is culturally constituted”, “Human nature is fundamentally political,” or “Furthermore, I ask how meaning construction helps shape the social world,” for example). This dictionary, however, offers no definitions.

Two of the main problems of an anthropology after ethnos that, in my view, Rees addresses somewhat unsuccessfully in this book are the role of theory and the boundary between his proposal and history. First, Rees argues that “One powerful implication of an anthropology ‘of’ the human / after ‘the human’ is a certain disregard—disrespect—for theory” (52). But he uses a clearly positivist notion of “theory,” which he understands as the postulation of an explanatory scheme, a set of causal, coherent hypotheses that explain the world. The underlying question that demands attention is how anthropologists can do fieldwork without a simplifying framework. Since the world is a complex place and humans are embedded in broader “webs of meaning” (Max Weber’s phrase), researchers cannot observe, record, and analyze everything. To avoid ending up like Jorge Luis Borges’s Funes the Memorious—a fictional character who had such a perfect memory that he was unable to decide what to register and what to forget—it is imperative to use simplifications of reality. “To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract,” writes Borges. “In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.” How can an anthropology without theory overcome this problem and make sense of an endless list of details drawn from fieldwork? Concepts, categories, and theories are all parsimonious abstractions in the sense that they do not exactly represent reality, but they simplify it to serve as maps, guidelines, and frameworks for empirical analysis. They tell us where to look, what to record, and what to forget.

Second, decoupling anthropology and ethnography is a promising project, but not a new one. It emerged prominently in the 1930s, when anthropologists as different as Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, Franz Boas, and Alfred Kroeber E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Edmund Leach, and Claude Lévi-Strauss all challenged, in different terms, the central assumptions of “culture” and “society” commonly advanced by anthropologists—as things, organisms, structures, webs, innate inclinations. The tensions between the general and the particular, between science and history, between nomothetic and idiographic approaches, between theorizing and describing, all played a fundamental role in the making of modern global anthropology. Rees does not trace this earlier, foundational history of debate and disagreement, taking the equation of anthropology and ethnography as universal and evident. He offers a history of anthropology, one that fits the purpose of his provocations, ignoring archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and anthropological traditions beyond dominant North American departments. This book could have benefited from wider histories and perspectives to refine its arguments and extend its scope.

Near his conclusion, Rees makes a distinction between anthropology after ethnos and a “history of the here and now.” The focus of the former, Rees argues, “is precisely not on history but on those aspects in the here and now that escape it, that cannot be explained by it” (93). This approach goes against other known sketches of an anthropology for the 21st century that propose “anthropology’s journey into history,”[7] such as the Mexican anthropological tradition where history, anthropology, and archaeology are closely intertwined (which implies some non-ethnographic methods), or the work of French anthropologist Alban Bensa (see his La fin de l’exotisme) which suggests that history should be at the center of any serious anthropological research. Though this is one of the most interesting and intriguing arguments in Rees’s book, it only occupies a couple of pages; a much deeper discussion is warranted.

The End of Anthropology (Once Again)

Warning: After Ethnos will surely bring back a delicate, uncomfortable thought, a hunch that many have had for a few years but often deflect, the phrase that everyone is thinking but only some are willing to say: the end of anthropology.

Every now and then, anthropologists declare, lament, or foresee the end of anthropology. From Malinowski to Geertz, from Mead to Lévi-Strauss, colonial expansion, industrialization, and demographic growth have posed a threat to anthropology’s objects of study, and this created a sense of urgency. In his Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), Malinowski already bemoaned the imminent death of “savage countries,” which implied the end of anthropology. Lévi-Strauss echoed this sentiment and wrote that, after the disappearance of the last “primitive tribe,” anthropology would become a discipline without an object. The interpretative turn and the “writing culture debate” in the 1990s evoked the dangers and threats again, making the politics and poetics of ethnography an ethical and epistemological conundrum and brought, once again, the “crisis of anthropology.” More recently, John Comaroff, Vincent Crapanzano, and George Marcus revisited the end(s) of anthropology to imagine different disciplinary futures. After Ethnos does not engage directly with this literature, but defends the discipline by imagining new objects, trying to make it a relevant, energetic form of inquiry—which confirms the arguments mentioned above. Rather than lamenting these changes, it pushes towards the end of at least an old idea of anthropology. The book is another symptom, a reflection, of the ever-ending crises of anthropology (and the changes they bring).[8]

After Ethnos is a provoking, even necessary book. The critiques and attacks it will surely continue to attract will be as instructive as its defenders. The questions it poses will not be answered any time soon, but they will stimulate new ways of thinking the world and the field, and it will be a necessary reference to imagine them—and, I hope, rebuild them: to undermine in order to reconstruct (once again).

[1] Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in his book The Interpretation of Cultures, New York, Basic Books, 1973, p. 19.

[2] In “What Is a State If It Is Not a Sovereign?,” Geertz argued against categories of place that carry a teleological interpretation of history—underdeveloped, developing, modernized—they all entail an idea of what it means to be developed, organized, modern, and how to get there. “History not only does not repeat itself,” Geertz wrote, “it does not purge itself, normalize itself, or straighten its course either. At the very least, this suggests that serious rethinking is called for on the part of those of us—not only anthropologists but political scientists, historians, economists, sociologists, psychologists, journalists—self-appointed or professionally charged with determining what in fact is going on in these complicated places, where it is that things seem to be tending, and how, in the event, it may all come out.” See Clifford Geertz, “What Is a State If It Is Not a Sovereign?: Reflections on Politics in Complicated Places,” Current Anthropology 5 (2004): 578.

[3] Reflecting on this shift 25 years after the publication of Writing Culture, James Clifford recalls a conversation he had with Raymond Firth in the 1970s: “Firth thought the relations between anthropology and empire were more complex than some of the critics were suggesting. He shook his head in a mixture of pretended and real confusion. What happened? ‘Not so long ago we were radicals. We thought of ourselves as gadflies and reformers, advocates for the value of indigenous cultures, defenders of our people. Now, all of a sudden, we’re handmaidens of the empire!’” See James Clifford, “Feeling Historical,” Cultural Anthropology 3 (2012): 419.

[4] See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978); James Clifford and George E. Marcus (eds.), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983); Roy Wagner, The Invention of Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[5] See, for example, Paul Kockelman’s fierce attack on the book and its premises: “Being Multiversed in the Multiverse,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 9, no. 1 (2019): 200–204.

[6] Rees approvingly notes anthropologists doing research and writing along these lines: on cheese, see Heather Paxson, “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States,” Current Anthropology 23 (2008): 15–47; on waves, see Stefan Helmreich, “The Water Next Time: Changing Wavescapes in the Anthropocene” (paper presented at the Center for 21st Century Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, April 4, 2014); on snails, see Tobias Rees, “Snails, Subjects, and Suffering: An Anthropology of (Neuro)Biology” (paper presented at The End of Biodeterminism? New Directions for Medical Anthropology, Aarhus, Denmark, October 1, 2014); on Hurricane Katrina, see Vincanne Adams, Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

[7] Geertz, “What Is a State If It Is Not a Sovereign,” p. 577.

[8] For a recent defense against the end of anthropology, see Daniel Martin Varisco, Culture Still Matters: Notes from the Field (Boston: Brill, 2018). For a history of the end of anthropology, see Holger Jebens, “The crisis of anthropology,” in Holger Jebens and Karl-Heinz Kohl (eds.), The End of Anthropology? (Canon Pyon: Sean Kingston Publishing, 2011); for other recent essays, see George E. Marcus, “The End(s) of Ethnography: Social/Cultural Anthropology’s Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition,” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 1 (2008): 1-14; John Comaroff, “The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline,” American Anthropologist 112, no. 4 (2010): 524–538; for renewed discussions of the discipline’s demise, under the pressure of environmental crisis and continued racial injustice, see Ryan Cecil Jobson, “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019,” American Anthropologist 122, no. 2 (2020): 259-271, and the numerous discussions it sparked, including a Wenner-Grenn webinar and essays in Anthropology Now 12, no. 3 (2020).

Rodrigo Salido Moulinié: contributions / website / / University of Texas at Austin