Collaboration -- Response to Marcus and Fischer

"A turn"

Given a veritable tradition of experimentation in collaboration in American anthropology (of which no doubt there are other national variants) it is noteworthy how collaboration has re-emerged as an object and practice for anthropology. Looking back on the recent past of anthropology and with his efforts in post-war collective social scientific projects in mind, Clifford Geertz wrote that,

what had been an obscure, isolate, even reclusive, lone-wolf sort of discipline, concerned mainly with tribal ethnography, racial and linguistic classification, cultural evolution, and prehistory, changed in the course of a decade into the very model of a modern, policy conscious, corporate social-science.

Corporate in the anthropological sense we suppose.

Collaboration has returned, through a “turn” toward collaboration. We would like to focus on the significance and stakes of the image chosen and the heterogeneous kinds of motion it can imply. In focusing on the motion and movement at stake in turning toward collaboration, we seek to specify the labor of undertaking the practice of collaboration, and the disciplinary price to be paid for moving from an idea to a practice.


First indicator: from where is the impulse to turn coming from? “To turn” may involve being turned (passive, put in motion) as well as active turning. We recall Foucault’s use of the André-Jean Festugière’s analysis of the “spinning top” in which the spinning top is deficient as an image-movement of thought and practice insofar as it moves without going anywhere, always in motion whilst staying where it is; an effect of the passivity of the motion and the effect of the external action. Given external demands “to collaborate” there is a danger of being spun around. Moreover, in turning toward collaboration through invitation, institutional arrangement, and demands, there is a danger of a turn away from, or a neglect of the subject of collaboration; the kind of subject that is capable of turning towards the invitation, the arrangement and the demands (etc.), and who is also able to weigh up and judge how that movement and motion towards collaboration is going. We recognize that naming these two dimensions of “turning” may come at a price: to refocus attention on the subject of a turn, turning toward the subject of collaboration so as to ask how a subject is capable of a practice, risks denunciation and dismissal.


The Subject of Collaboration: "Evaluations" 

Evaluators require standards of evaluation, which either they control or they internalize as their own. Writing a dual-review of The Accompaniment and Demands of the Day George Marcus recently asked: “How do Rabinow’s collaborative venues move back into or through society on their own terms? Or do they become sect-like? What kind of assemblage might these venues become without also becoming something like the genre of the ‘official commission’ which chapter 4 (of Demands) so acutely critiques?”

First of all it is noteworthy that Marcus can willingly reduce close to a decade of work for the invention of collaborative practice, the creation of shared venues and the invention of concepts to the possession and thus authority (as well as credit and blame) of “Rabinow.” Second, Marcus suggests that there is a choice and a challenge: will the collaborative work enable those of us who have participate in this form of inquiry and mutual care to move “through society”? We take “society” in the 18th century sense of the high table at the AAA. The question is an interesting one: can a “venue” “move back into or through society”? Such a question would presuppose taking seriously our longstanding claim that “venues” are composed by the work we have engaged in so as to occupy a series of collaborative subject positions. We are given a choice, and it is presented as though it is up to us: Will we move back to “society,” that is, will we join the club, or will we become a sect? Marcus’ thinly veiled judgment is not defended, although it is insinuated.

Michael Fisher’s recent review of The Accompaniment is more upfront in its vitriolic evaluations and more explicit in showing his own position: he accuses Paul Rabinow of “limiting collaborations to students and former students,” which is then taken up by Fischer as exemplary of “individualism.” What Fischer fails to see is his own position within that judgment, which says much more about his own form of life and of his lack of understanding as to what we have indexed within our practice by the term collaboration. It is telling that in Fischer’s review he was unable even to include the name of Gaymon Bennett the co-author of the book “Designing Human Practices.”

These different forms of evaluation evade engaging with arguments about collaboration and anthropology, and instead make a series of attacks on the supposed absence of various forms of sociality. No one is against 'collaboration,' provided two things: (a) it is not objectified as a practice; (b) if it is objectified it is done so only as an idea. As a form of life, collaboration poses a threat to the actual practices; it is very difficult to do collaboration if one is focused only on individual research projects or the publicity and networking that comes with conference attendance.

Because no one is actually willing to stand up and attack collaboration, a series of other figures are mobilized to carry out the attack (elitism, sect-like, crypto-individualism, Masters/Slaves, etc.) without naming the predicament that many many people are dissatisfied with the forms of life made possible in the academy (Marina Warner?) There are multiple possible solutions. Hence there is problematization. We make use of a distinction between collaboration from cooperation. The former indexes the work of attempting to name “common problems”; the latter presupposes that problems are settled and that what is needed is a new division of labor in order to “work through” known topics.


For us, collaborative work “on topics” means transforming topics and hence transforming the analytic and diagnostic categories that enable researchers to shape problems to which topics can be identified and worked over. Such a distinction is not to ignore the importance or worth of cooperation: it is appropriate that there are some settled problems for which there is a division of labor through and among a heterogeneous set of actors.

We have noticed that few people make such a distinction and it is not for lack of conceptual rigor but rather for institutional reasons: blurring what we distinguish as cooperation and collaboration allows academics to play two sides simultaneously: the cooperative side allows researchers to be “on the same page,” “speaking the same language,” and in agreement about what work consists in; at the same time partaking of what we have termed collaboration allows a critical posture towards the exercise of power in the production of expertise and the constitution of research programs.

There is here a predicament of collaboration.