ARC: CONCEPT WORK
Our Own Impersonal Demons- Review of Demands of the Day

Our Own impersonal demons: moving through the anthropology of the contemporary

Kevin Karpiak

Reading Demands I’m reminded of an exchange I had many lifetimes ago with one of its authors. Paul Rabinow, early on in his work with synthetic biologists, had just come back from a conference with several of them and had noticed something he thought I might be able to offer insight into.

“Kevin, have you ever played fantasy football?”

“Yeah, every year. Why do you ask?” I replied as we waited for the elevator.

“Several of the guys at the conference play. It was all they wanted to talk about during the breaks. Here we were discussing the future of biological life and all they wanted to talk about was ‘their team.’ The anthropologist in me knew that it was something to pay attention to; what’s left of the humanist in me despaired.” Here was a fieldworker with a sensitive and prescient eye, sage enough to know that he could not engage in the fiction that he was somehow separate from those he studied by anything like “culture,” but at the same time wishing the world that they were all immersed in—and especially the faculties at their disposal for engaging that world—were better.

Though the authors pointedly exposit in their acknowledgments that they “eschew the lengthy and embarrassing rhetoric of confessional American discursive gratitude, ” [1] I have no such qualms. Maybe it’s because I’m American, discursive and grateful for what they’ve given us here. So I’ll also offer a confession, of sorts: I’ve been of two minds about this book. I’ve been reading it slowly, and recursively, trying to determine what I think and how I feel about it, and not coming to a personal consensus on the matter.

However this duality is not merely personal nor extraneous to the text, but part and parcel to its object and form [2]. It is a daemonic text. The title of the book itself, Demands of the Day, is taken from a passage of Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” in which it is proposed that such “demands” might be met if only we each find and obey the “daemon who holds the fibers of his very life.” [3] This passage serves as a unifying principle for the “set of field experiences, preconditions, opportunities, and… ‘supportive but harsh task-masters’ ”[4] of which the book consists, as well as an aspirational goal and motor of further inquiry. It is both mode and inclination; how the project moves as well as the direction towards which it is oriented.

This in itself is not surprising. Michel de Certeau famously claimed that anthropology displaced and occupied the discursive space formerly inhabited by demonology [5] , taking with it not only narrative structures but a set of relations of power in which truth claims were made. Furthermore, daemons have been reoccurring figures in Rabinow’s work since at least Anthropos Today[6], although one could trace them even further back, going though the “middling moderns” of French Modern [7]  through any number of what might otherwise be understood as one-off commentaries [8] back to certain figures in Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco [9]. However, while such dark arts have traditionally entailed a form of “exorcism” in which demons are dominated and expelled through rendering silence into language [10], this is not the case in Demands. This is not exorcism, but conjuring; an attempt to give form and submit to a daemon: eudaemonia. It is demonology as aspiration.

Eudaemonia (literally, the good daemon),[11]  is translated from the Greek by Foucault and others as “flourishing.” For such authors, as for Rabinow & Stavrianakis, this entails a situation in which the full capacities of an ethical, rational, and affective anthropos can be enabled to grow and prosper. It is to this daemon that they find themselves tied; it is towards this daemon that they hope to move; it is from this daemon that they experience a demand; and it is this daemon to which they aspire to give form. Such a project is necessary, such a demand is felt, in part because such a form is lacking [12]. This lack is indeterminate, but can be in part attributed to “the incessant involvement of subjects and objects, as well as the milieus in which these living beings find themselves.”[13] If, to quote Sartre, “Hell is other people”— that is, Hell is understanding coexistence to be a battle in which subjects continually attempt to objectify each other—our protagonists have willfully entered Hades; Demands, perhaps despite itself, is a type of heroic journey.

However, as the authors note, daemons need not be demons. For Plato’s Socrates, and for his mentor Diotima, they were merely beings which moved, and acted as messengers between, the realm of gods (theos) and humanity (anthropos); tricky figures, in-between, marginal, but neither inherently good nor evil. They were relational beings, but no more agonistic than one’s other daily encounters [14]. But here they press us, drive us, in a productive yet harsh type of agon that Rabinow has previously called (drawing from Freud’s account of his own demons) durcharbeiten, “working through,” his key mode for engaging the contemporary [15]. In Demands, the work itself “requires”; it possesses its own interminable agency [16].

And this drive leads them to a perhaps unexpected venue. For, if once the daemonic demand, fueled by a reading of Dewey’s “reconstruction,” seemed to require a closer relation to the divine, to something superhuman, and the expulsion of all things rank with diabolic sulfur, the authors have here carved out a different forum through which to engage the contemporary. They have, finally, passed from an inquiry that attempts to transcend the demonic to one in which one can cohabit, albeit with residual curatorial tendencies, with such beings. For, ultimately, they have found such reconstruction too costly “in terms of time, quality of human interaction, likely affect fields, and shallow intellectual depth .” [17]

One might say that they discover something about the mood of our daemons; that though such in-between, relational beings may be directional—they are “towards” something—they are not unidirectional. Not only do they press us mere mortals towards divine beauty, but they tug the divine, ever so slightly, back into this world, where it must learn to find comfort as well. This is a movement, and a mood, to which I also find myself inclined. For while I also hear the call to veridiction—to search for tools with which to sort truth claims in anthropological narration—I am frequently all too human. I am inconsistent. I am frail. I am lazy, less than beautiful, sometimes do not feel very called to hard durcharbeiten, and often find solace in unsavory domains. But I also find myself unable to retire from the demands of this world.

And so, I too find myself driven by daemons who push me to engage demons; to look around, engage the world and struggle to find ways to make it, and myself, better and more beautiful. My own institution is currently considering a multidisciplinary problem-oriented effort, to which I have provisionally been invited. Rather than the National Science Foundation, it will fall under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Defense and, instead of “synthetic biology,” it will be concerned with an equally nebulous object called “Homeland Security.” As with the initiative recounted in Demands, no one really knows where this will lead, if anywhere, and anyone with a modicum of critical awareness understands that there are dangers. It would be hard to conflate Demands with a handbook or field guide of the standard variety, but thanks to Rabinow & Stavrianakis I may have equipment, of sorts, for traversing this perilous realm.




[1]

Rabinow, Paul, and Anthony Stavrianakis. Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry. University Of Chicago Press, 2013. p. ix

[2]

This is something that Rabinow and Stavrianakis are at pains to point out over and over, for example in emphasizing the distinction between a “technology”” of inquiry, in which inquiry is understood as a means to an ends, and a “practice of inquiry" which consists of a means in which the ends are internal to it (pp. 17-18) or by resolutely searching for a mode of writing that conjoins their own ethical journey at the same time as it implicates the reader (p. 108).

[3]

Rabinow, Paul, and Anthony Stavrianakis. Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry. University Of Chicago Press, 2013. p. 4

[4]

Ibid. p. 5

[5]

de Certeau, Michel. The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Pg. 242, n. 52.

[6]

Rabinow, Paul. Anthropos Today : Reflections on Modern Equipment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

[7]

Rabinow, Paul. French Modern : Norms and Forms of the Social Environment. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.

[8]

See, for example, Rabinow’s diagnosis of the productive tensions in the life of Maurice Leenhart as told by James Clifford.  cf. Rabinow, Paul. “‘Facts Are a Word of God’: An Essay Review of James Clifford’s Person and Myth: Maurice Leenhardt in the Melanesian World.” edited by George W Stocking, 196–207. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. p. 197-201

[9]

Rabinow, Paul. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

[10]

We have the benefit, too, of Michel de Certeau’s argument that, since demonology enabled exorcists to ‘dominate’ demons, it played an indispensable role in reclassifying the gestures of the possessed women of Loudon (a text ‘in every respect’) as intelligible symbols.  The aim of exorcism was to turn the ‘silence’ of these gestures into language; ‘even if there is divergence among exorcists and doctors over the taxonomies by which they effect their reclassifying—that is, medical and religious knowledge are not akin—in either instance a form of knowledge is assumed to be capable of naming.”  Clark, Stuart. Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Oxford University Press, 1999. P. 402

[11]

“These framings were forged for their capacity to give form to the incessant mutual involvment of subjects and objects, as well as the milieus in which these living beings find themselves” pg. 5

[12]

“The daemon who binds us to this demand is one with whom we searched, and search again, for a form and mode of such flourishing practice, when such forms and modes adequate to this demand prove lacking” pg. 5

[13]

“These framings were forged for their capacity to give form to the incessant mutual involvement of subjects and objects, as well as the milieus in which these living beings find themselves” pg. 5

[14]

See Brown, Wendy. Manhood and Politics : A Feminist Reading in Political Theory. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1988.

[15]

Rabinow, Paul. Anthropos Today : Reflections on Modern Equipment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. pp. 117-121.

[16]

cf. Rabinow, Paul, and Anthony Stavrianakis. Demands of the Day: On the Logic of Anthropological Inquiry. University Of Chicago Press, 2013. p. viii

[17]

Ibid. p. 106