Orin Starn (Editor). Writing Culture and the Life of Anthropology. 280 pp., illus., bibl., index. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015. $94.95 (cloth), $25.95 (paperback)

The essays in this volume reflect on the landmark 1986 Writing Culture and are short, sharp, and satisfying.[1] Like many commemorative volumes, each essay provides a bit of reflection: where were you when you first read Writing Culture? While this has the unsurprising effect of turning the 1986 work into a metonym for the “reflexive turn” in anthropology, the essays are not overly nostalgic and instead focus on, as the title spotlights, the “Life of Anthropology.” As such, Writing Culture and the Life of Anthropology is useful to those who stayed up late to finish the book in 1986 as well as those of us who became scholars long afterward, for whom the lessons of the original Writing Culture have become inextricably embedded in anthropology, history, and other humanistic social sciences.

A number of original contributors to Writing Culture give their perspectives on disciplinary developments since 1986. George Marcus and Michael Fischer assess the transformation of ethnographic practice in an increasingly globalized world; their respective essays cite exemplary collaborative projects and ethnographies that grapple with digital communication, biotechnology, and the sobering effects of late capitalism that have become more visible since the 1980s. James Clifford’s essay presents a condensed personal genealogy leading up to Writing Culture that outlines broad trends in post-war U.S. anthropology and history.

Yet tracing these developments only underscores the field’s predicament: how can anthropology produce meaningful, positive change in an increasingly precarious world? The overall thrust of the volume makes an argument for anthropology’s role in exposure: to perpetrated injustices; to situated and globally linked crises of self and community; to potential positive affective relationships; to emotional and sensorial elements that give meaning to people, places, and things.

The contributors portray ethnography in its multiple registers. Exemplary ethnographic vignettes by Anne Allison and Charles Piot explore twenty-first-century precarity and illuminate diverse practices for relationship-building and kin-making. John L. Jackson Jr., Kim Fortun, Marcus, and Fischer present examples of the positive and life-affirming uses of collaborative, digital, and reflexive ethnographic projects that respond to the specific conditions of what could be called “Late Industrialism.” Kathleen Stewart, Michael Taussig, and Kamala Visweswaran each write essays in experiential and affective registers that tie together various ways-of-the-world and being-in-the-world, and ponder the anthropologist’s place in and against the lives of others—and how to possibly begin to represent such complexity. Hugh Raffles gestures to another affective register in an historical anthropology of a material, stone, to think about the qualities of matter and materiality’s historically specific, and sometimes transcendental, meanings. Ethnographic writing, the authors variously argue, should be accessible and even moving to wide audiences. For this reason, as Orin Starn (in his introduction) and Visweswaran suggest, journalists and novelists need not be oppositional figures to ethnographic writing but rather looked to for their unique abilities to convey living worlds from various scales of inquiry.

This is not to say that ethnography has diverged from empiricism. Danilyn Rutherford, reading Writing Culture through David Hume, sees the reflexivity of the 1986 volume as combining the empirical and ethical. She reclaims for ethnography a “kinky empiricism,” “an empiricism that is ethical because its methods create obligations, obligations that compel those who seek knowledge to put themselves on the line by making truth claims that they know will intervene within the settings and among the people they describe” (105).

While the aforementioned essays will be of interest to HAN’s constituency, one essay is distinctly oriented to the history of anthropology. Richard Handler presents a useful historical tool through his notion of disciplinary “coincidence”—a constellation or confluence of disparate influences that give an indication of how the discipline hangs together at any given time. For Handler, journals and societies such as the American Anthropological Association are spaces for coincidence, where the meta-form of the discipline coheres. Handler ably shows how such coincidences can be viewed through a reading of the 1982 Annual Review of Anthropology—a reading that reveals that the reflexive turn was “in the air.”

Our disciplines have matured enough to poke critically at prior scholarship without throwing out the lessons and historical contexts that produced important work like Writing Culture, and this volume is certainly not a full-throated celebration. That said, none of the essays seriously consider the potential foreclosures to historical or anthropological inquiry as Writing Culture and related texts became normalized by anthropology. If the history of the field is understood as a history of colonial complicity (in the service of empire or through the more subverted imperial forms of representation—as in “writing up a culture”), what questions did anthropologists (and their historians) subsequently avoid? And which aspects of the history of anthropology are forgotten or over-determined as colonial handmaidens? In the end, works of commemoration may always have these lacunae because they canonize paths trodden rather than imagine those untaken.

While these critical questions still loom, this volume is an excellent sampling of the best of anthropology since 1986 and re-affirmation of the discipline’s critical and political relevance. This work will be useful to historians and early-career anthropologists, who hope to get a sense of how the discipline of cultural anthropology has configured itself—in the wake of a watershed book, in the midst of a globalizing world.


[1] Eight of the thirteen chapters in Writing Culture and the Life of Anthropology appeared in Cultural Anthropology 27 (2012), no. 3.

Adam Fulton Johnson: contributions / website / afjhnsn@umich.edu / History and STS, University of Michigan