Problematization in the anthropology of the contemporary



I write this in response to the stimulating discussion in the current issue of HAU on the anthropology of the contemporary, and in particular in response to Rabinow and Stavrianakis' discussion of the insistent problem of the "heterogeneity" of anthropology's object. Drawing on Kant, they emphasize that "a single answer [to the problem of human being] betrays the anthropological demonstration of the empirical heterogeneity of responses to such a core problem." And yet, they note, the classical solutions to the problem of heterogeneity proposed by various anthropological traditions--multiculturalism, institutional comparison, structural patterns--"have withered and lost their veridictional and animating force" (Rabinow and Stavrianakis 2016: 414).

I have recently taken up this problem in revisions of a paper that I originally presented in Paris last December (with Anthony in the audience). The paper addresses a core issue of my fieldwork on avian influenza in China--the persistent discrepancy between the way pandemic fears animate visions of agricultural biosecurity for international flu researchers; and the very different ways in which duck farmers in southern China deal with the uncertainty of poultry diseases in their flocks. My concern was to go beyond the standard approach to this issue prevalent in the "critical studies of global health" literature. This literature has focused on denouncing biosecurity discourses as "geographies of blame," that is, showing that scientific arguments about risk and biosecurity are in fact distorted by cultural essentialism or stigma. I decided instead to start with concrete comparisons of the two formations of discursive and nondiscursive practice (that of flu researchers; and that of duck farmers)--to compare their "modes of ordering" humans and animals (Law and Mol 2008); and to compare the "modes of uncertainty" through which futures were engaged and managed (Rabinow and Samimian-Darash 2015).

When I initially wrote the piece, I adopted the term "points of view" as the object of comparison. One reviewer "wonder[ed] whether "points of view" is the most innovative approach to understanding distinct modes of ordering. Research in STS has pushed against arguments about different perspectives or points of view on objects and relations, and instead examines how different realities are enacted. With regard to work in farm biosecurity as well as studies of domestication STS (and multispecies) scholars have suggested that there are multiple realities, animals, risks, and healths at play." I appreciate that the reviewer also acknowledged that "this is not to suggest that the author must adopt such arguments about enactments or multiplicity."

I don't adopt them. But the reviewer is right that "points of view" is an outdated term, which would return me to the comparative practices of those anthropological schemes which have withered away--multiculturalism in some form or another. Upon reflection, I returned to a blog post I previously wrote here on the difference between "enacted reality" and "problematization". I was comparing problematizations.

A "problematization," in the conceptual terms of Michel Foucault, is "an 'answer' to a concrete situation in the real." To analyze a historical situation as a problematization is to inquire into "how and why certain things (behavior, phenomena, processes) became a problem" (Foucault 2001: 171). In Foucault's early work on madness, for instance, he does not aim to provide a history of "the language of psychiatry" (that would be the work of a historian of ideas or science), but rather to identify the prior "decision that bound and separated reason and madness" (Foucault 2006). His historical inquiry unearthed the practices through which madness was constituted as an object, revealing the primary acts of separation that opened up a space in which the scientific discourses of psychiatry became possible. In this sense, working with problematizations "is an act of modal transformation from the constative to the subjunctive, from the necessary to the contingent" (Rabinow and Rose 2003: 13).

But Foucault honed the practice of problematization as part of the technique of genealogy that is inherent to the critical history of the present (see Koopman 2015). In an anthropology of the contemporary, by contrast, problematization does not primarily unearth the historical contingency of an object [such as revealing how 'madness', which before was not a problem or object, became a problem and an object]. Instead, I propose, problematization works to show the contemporary contingency of a particular problematization. It does so through the juxtaposition of one problematization against another problematization.

To return to my case, both flu researchers and duck farmers can look at the same diseases in the same ducks and both see a problem. But the problematizations are entirely different. These different problemtaizations are rooted in distinct modes of uncertainty. As Paul Rabinow and Limor Samimian-Darash suggest, despite the proliferation of languages and technologies of risk management today, it is imperative to distinguish among different modes of uncertainty "because the world is increasingly being populated by forms, practices, and events of uncertainty that cannot be reduced to risk" (2015: 1). Flu researchers at Poyang Lake are studying (actual) viral transmission or transmissibility between species in the absence of an actual pandemic--but doing so in order to prepare for a potential future pandemic for which the causal virus remains unknown. Rather than a probabilistic risk calculation, Samimian-Darash has called this a situation of "potential uncertainty" (2013). Within a mode of potential uncertainty about future pandemics the free-grazing duck becomes a dangerous being, and furthermore a dangerous being of a certain sort.

For after all duck farmers also see danger in their ducks, but according to a different problematization. Duck farmers view these same ducks in terms of the uncertainty that is produced by the intersection between the production of a living being and its sale on a market. Disease becomes a different kind of problem for duck farmers because of the interplay between a life that must grow and survive in order to be exchangeable for money in a market sale.

These two problematizations have very different temporal and spatial extensions. But comparison is for me here only a tactical move because I then move on to show how these two problematizations interact in ways whose outcomes are not ameliorative, but rather intensifying. On the one hand, the very real dramatic responses to the veridictional claims about potential future pandemics--culling of poultry, closure of markets, and consumers who refuse to purchase poultry--significantly intensify the uncertainty and insecurity for duck farmers. On the other hand, duck farmers use free-grazing of ducks as a technique to ameliorate uncertainty (because it reduces the outlay of cash needed for commercial feeds)--precisely the practice that may contribute to the potential future pandemic prognosticated by flu experts. I suggest that a positive feedback loop may be developing as a consequence of the interaction of these two problematizations. This should be firmly contrasted, however, with the "disconnection" often attributed to the encounter between Global health and Local (realities, experiences, contexts, bodies) (e.g. Beihl and Petryna 2013). The objective is not to discover once again that reality is more complex than global plans had planned for. The objective is to reveal through the juxtaposition of two problematizations--much like the juxtaposition of two artworks produces a distinctive effect irreducible to the individual works--a dynamic of movement that is itself problematic, one for which amelioration and rectification cannot come from denouncing "local" traditions OR denouncing "global" plans and programs.

Some works referenced:

Biehl and Petryna, eds., When People Come First: Critical Studies of Global Health, 2013.

Foucault, Michel, and Joseph Pearson. Fearless Speech. Los Angeles, Ca[lif.]: Semiotext(e) : [Distributed by MIT Press], 2001.

Foucault, Michel. History of Madness. Edited by Jean Khalfa. Translated by Jonathan Murphy. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Koopman, Colin. Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Law, John, and Annemarie Mol. 2008. “Globalisation in Practice: On the Politics of Boiling Pigswill.” Geoforum 39 (1): 133–43.

Rabinow, Paul and Nicholas Rose, "Foucault Today." In: Foucault, Michel, Paul Rabinow, and Nikolas S Rose. The Essential
Foucault: Selections from Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984. New York: New Press, 2003.

Rabinow, Paul and Anthony Stavrianakis. 2016. "Movement space: Putting anthropological theory, concepts, and cases to the test." HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 403-431.

Samimian-Darash, Limor. “Governing Future Potential Biothreats: Toward an Anthropology of Uncertainity.” Current Anthropology 54, no. 1 (2013): 1–22.

Samimian-Darash, Limor, and Paul Rabinow. 2015. Modes of Uncertainty: Anthropological Cases. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.