How Anthropologists Think: Configurations of the Exotic

  Bruce Kapferer, … being the Huxley Lecture: British Museum, 16 December 2011, subsequently published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 9, 886 2013 … [with the numerals in the publication date references subject to distortion in this version–distortions that will be corrected eventually]

Anthropology has often been criticized for its exoticism and orientalism. They are the paradoxes of a discipline focused on the comparative study of difference and diversity and are at the centre of the discussion here in the larger context of the importance of anthropology in the humanities and social sciences. The emphasis is on the role of the exotic as vital to anthropology’s study of difference and to its overall coherence and significance for the understanding of humanity as a whole.

Anthropoloy is a vast subject, the study of humankind no less, and in its historical development as a university discipline sometimes appears as a micro-universe of the approaches that are available and which are continually being invented concerning the nature of human being and the circumstances of its existence. There is virtually no limit to what the discipline can encompass, and the debates that constitute the intellectual life of the space that anthropology embraces refract many of those that take place within and across those areas of intellectual inquiry that otherwise form separate disciplines or enclaves within the modern university. There is a potential intensity, often a frictional intensity, in anthropology that refracts the diversity of approaches that the subject may incorporate – all the more so because from the time of its establishment in the late nineteenth century it has bridged the divide between the sciences, on the one hand, and the arts and humanities, on the other. All that I have said applies to the sub-branch of socio-cultural anthropology, and possibly most intensely. While typi- cally classed as a social science (a category with which some of the pioneers of the discipline, such as Edward E. Evans-Pritchard and A.L. Kroeber, were distinctly uncom- fortable: see Kapferer 2), it manifests a marginality defying any definite positioning within the shifting orders of contemporary university schemes. This contributes to the difficulty that socio-cultural anthropologists generally encounter in fixing upon an overall conceptual and theoretical paradigm that would mark its distinction; the same applies to a neat declaration of distinguishing empirical focus. Those that have surfaced from time to time have been marked by a lack of specificity and reflect the already inchoate nature of the subject. Functionalism, structural functionalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, are conceptual and theoretical frames that are ultimately extraor- dinarily open in scope and interpretation; nor are they by any means the exclusive provenance of the discipline. The fast progression of anthropology through different perspectives or the production and maintenance of competing approaches is a feature of the internal differentiation of the discipline which receives added impetus in the demand for funding in the shifting contexts of constant university restructuring and managerialism.

As a consequence, anthropology is becoming increasingly an adjunct discipline – Business Anthropology, Design Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, Neuro- anthropology, and so on. The situation is complicated by the fact that anthropologists find their inspiration from throughout the intellectual universe – no wonder that diversity, heterogeneity, and hybridity have wide currency in the subject often virtually definitional of the discipline; its brand, as one prominent anthropologist (Hannerz 21) recently declared in a spirit of concern for market demand. Territorial demarca- tions of the kind that socio-cultural anthropologists study society or, better, small-scale societies, or concentrate on culture or the force of value, or that anthropology is concerned with ethnography do little to refine matters and in any case open up arenas of contest with other disciplines such as sociology or emerging subjects such as cultural studies – the latter currently threatening to swallow up what many would regard to be anthropology or reduce its apparent relevance in today’s realities.

There is no doubt that the expanse and internal heterogeneity of approach and focus in socio-cultural anthropology contribute to its dynamism and have value in many areas outside it. Social anthropology provides a forum for debate, a place where dif- ferent perspectives can intersect and be opened to critique. The frictional intensity of the  discipline  –  or  what  John  Comaroff  (21)  refers  to  as  its  in-discipline  –  while potentially creating a space of generative excitement, can make it into a non-discipline. By this I mean a loss of a sense of a unifying project that may accelerate the disappear- ance of the subject, and some of the indeed grand potential of its beginnings, in all but name. Such a possibility may be further facilitated in current conditions of economic austerity and university restructuring, whereby anthropology is dissolved by amal- gamation, often in a reduced significance, into other disciplinary assemblages. There may be more anthropologists and apparently more anthropology being done (as the vastly increased size of annual conferences indicates) but to diminished intellectual and theoretical effect. The virtual loss of disciplinary distinction for socio-cultural anthropology, even the appropriation by other subjects of some its methodological innovations – for example, long-term observational or participant fieldwork (multi- or single-sited) – may result in its growing invisibility, if not its thoroughgoing discipli- nary redundancy.

Socio-cultural anthropology was once far more distinctive than it is now. Indeed, that which made it so was its focus on the exotic, on those human practices that were largely external or marginal to ruling orders. Let me say immediately, for I risk misin- terpretation, that I have no intention of recommending many features of the idea of the exotic or of exoticism that attached to socio-cultural anthropology in the past. These have been more than well critiqued and continue to be so by anthropologists, although it is necessary to make some reference to them here. I do so in the interest of a reconfiguration of the idea of the exotic: the exotic as methodologically central to the ethnographic, empirically grounded attitude of the discipline in accordance with which anthropology makes its potentially distinctive contribution within the humanities and the sciences (see Kapferer 2). Everything and anything is potentially in an exotic relation. Nothing is intrinsically exotic except through the relations into which it is drawn, and my concern is with anthropology as a practice which engages with the exotic as a methodology for discovery and understanding.

The scandal of the exotic

The association of socio-cultural anthropology with the exotic is in many ways ascandal. The exotic defined populations subject to imperialism and to colonial author- ity, and these were primarily the subjects of anthropological work. Anthropology is still conceived as being implicated in colonialism and in political discourses of Euro- American dominance, regardless of the fact that many anthropologists were strongly critical, as in the Manchester tradition of Max Gluckman (see Evens & Handelman 26), with which I am proud to be associated. Anthropologists are keen to remove the stain, especially since scholars vital in the current intellectual development of the discipline are postcolonials and from subaltern communities. None the less, there are in many quarters of the subject repetitions of the past, though with clear differences. Eric Wolf commented, in a strangely innocent tone, that anthropology, which began as a fraternal endeavour to understand men [sic] in their concrete similarities and differences, is rapidly becoming one of the ‘policy sciences’, a discipline of human control, the very denial of humanity. Prometheus yields to Procrustes both in our culture at large and in our study of it (194: xi).

Since this was said in 194, anthropology has witnessed the growth of embedded anthropology as part of the Human Terrain programme in Afghanistan and Iraq, the explosion of consultant anthropology often for major global corporations, and intense pressure by governments and business to be pragmatically relevant (see, e.g., Lattas 212; Sahlins 211).

The difficulty for anthropology of its colonialist associations and its one-time stress on travels in remote regions – which the concept of the exotic also conjures – was recently driven home to me by the editorial comment made by a senior US academic (a professor of English). He advised that I cut the word ‘exploration’ from my text because it would evoke unfortunate colonialist associations among general readers precisely because the word was being used by an anthropologist with reference to materials collected far away from the metropoles.

‘Exotic’ glosses many other things problematic for anthropologists. Edward Said (198) attacked the orientalism that is deeply ingrained in the history of European encounters with other peoples, and is particularly poignant for anthropology as a discipline born in such encounters.1

Said (1994) was to modify his argument in response to criticism stating that he largely excluded those engaged in solid scholarship, although, of course, scholars of all kinds of knowledge disciplines are far from immune from the points of his discussion and continue to perpetuate the notions of which he complained, particularly in the currently expanding situations of global strife. Anthropologists, well before Said, were eager to dispel the thinly disguised prejudices of racism and superiority (born of power and its corollary, a discourse of advancement and progress) that were implicit even in the romance of the exotic and apparent in celebrations of difference and the Other. That anthropologists in the view of outsiders effectively address exotic practices and


peoples despite the anthropological preference for terms such as culture, difference, and otherness (which anyway risk a closet exotic or orientalism), and the often thin line of ambiguity they tread, was borne out in reactions to the BBC commoditization of the exotic in the 2 series Tribe. The blurb for this series in the accompanying booklet for the DVD reads as follows:

” Former Royal Marine officer and expedition leader, Bruce Parry, shed the trappings of a western existence and lives alongside tribes, such as the forest people of Central Gabon, adopting their methods and practices. Taking adventure into a wholly new realm, Parry dares to go where other presenters fear to tread: hunting, cooking and eating like a native and even trying the local recreational and ritualistic poisons. He also examines the way in which western influence is encroaching on these remote region areas and asking whether this is a good thing.”

Parry dismissed the view that he was making a parody of the serious work of anthro- pology, uncomfortable parallels notwithstanding. I think most anthropologists would say that Tribe (a concept that many of them have now excised from their lexicon) is an egregious example of exoticism – orientalism played to its fullest extent in the com- mercial interest of audience ratings. Despite anthropologists’ claims of the serious scientific purpose of their work, the exotic, unintentionally perhaps, plays no less a role in the popular appeal of the discipline and, crucially, in the attraction of students in a situation where numbers may be just as important as relevance or even intellectual worth. Geertz makes subtle (or, depending on your point of view, not so subtle) reference to the commercial or commodity value of the exotic in anthropology while stressing its significance for anthropological practice:

We [anthropologists] have, with no little success, sought to keep the world off balance; pulling out rugs, upsetting tea tables, setting off firecrackers. It has been the office of others to reassure; ours to unsettle. Australopithicenes, Tricksters, Clicks, Megaliths – we hawk the anomalous, peddle the strange. Merchants of astonishment (1984: 25).

Socio-cultural anthropology is built on a paradox – its distinction and significant contribution are grounded in the exotic, and the search for it, which inescapably may have exploitative and other problematic dimensions of a more methodological kind – that TV series and the expansion of tourism (e.g. eco-tourism) highlight. Much effort, from Lévi-Strauss to the present (e.g. Foster 1982; Stasch 211), has been spent by anthropologists to criticize and distance their project from popular exoticism and particularly forms of travel writing that combine a patronizing and, as with Tribe, an often apparently self-critical and bemused empathy with stunning superficiality. This would include the nineteenth-century travel writing of celebrated orientalizing ‘exots’, as Segalen (22) refers to them, such as Gustav Flaubert’s sympathetically amusing accounts of his sojourn in Egypt or the famed writings of Pierre Loti relating his travels among the peoples of the Pacific, the Middle East, and North Africa at the turn of the last century.2

Exotic imaginaries

But the idea of the exotic and of exotic travel is a powerful imaginative device deep in European traditions of trenchant socio-political satire, as in Rabelais and Swift. In them the exotic gives rise to European absurdities that are exploded through fantasies of the exotic in the extreme. My own favourite is the work of the utopian anarchist Gabriel de Foigny, a de-frocked Franciscan priest who in 1693 published A new discovery of Terra Incognita Australis. Writing at the time of the great European expansion, which was also a period of political and religious turmoil in which European modernity gained momentum, de Foigny imagines a Swiftian Australian reality. It is an egalitarian world that is in every way the negation of European hierarchies and in which all difference is erased, including that of gender, for Australia is a terrain occupied by a race of her- maphrodites. De Foigny writes:

“What is more surprising in the Australian Dominions, is, that … this great country is flat. To this prodigy may be added the admirable uniformity of languages, customs, buildings, and other things which are to be met with in this Country. ‘Tis sufficient to know one quarter, to make certain judgement of all the rest; all of which without doubt proceeds from the nature of the people, who are all born with an inclination of willing nothing contrary to one another” (1693: 51-2).3

There are better-known imaginations of the exotic Other than de Foigny’s, written around the same time, where an orientalism is engaged to powerfully criticize the socio-cultural institutions of the Self. They have a closer genealogical connection to aspects of contemporary anthropology. Thus Montesquieu’s Persian letters (193 [121]),  published  just  after  the  death  of  Louis  XIV,  develops  around  the  fictional correspondence between Persian princes travelling through France and their wives at home. France is presented through the imaginary lens of Persia whereby differences and similarities are recounted. Montesquieu’s critique is a doubled exotic, as it were. The recognition of the similarity is itself a critique. Catholic priests are described as dervishes and revealed, therefore, as expressing the same empty mystical authority. Furthermore, through the imagination of exotic Persia, Montesquieu criticizes in a reverse exotic many of the absurdities of French socio-political life and customs. He achieves through the fictionalized Other some of the aims of that which became enshrined as the anthropological comparative method: the de-centring of metropoli- tan assertions and the opening of dominant thought and practice to critical exami- nation at a moment of its own self-admiring imperial splendour. Like Montaigne, who came well before him, and, later, Chateaubriand and, of course, Rousseau, Montesquieu is a major figure for whom the exotic, real or imagined, enabled critical reflection upon metropolitan realities (their barbarity and savagery) and a questioning of emerging hegemonic theories of human evolution, its differences and inequities.

By the late Enlightenment, in the nineteenth century, when the discipline of anthro- pology began to be academically founded, the extraordinary discoveries and develop- ments in science and technology, combined with political revolution, religious reformation, nationalism, and global imperialism, yielded an intellectual and social climate in which scientific positivism and rationalism reigned supreme. Authority was vested without uncertainty in European thought, in which the success of science was given ideological value even against the interest of that scientific approach whose cornerstone is an openness to possibility. In this context, the exotic became that which was not Euro-American and which did not exhibit the rationalism of science, the two being almost, if not quite, synonymous: the prejudices of one finding their justification in the other with a consequent devaluation of all that was defined as the exotic. Montesquieu, Montaigne, and Rousseau were concerned to challenge such devaluation and the European self-admiration that Euro-American visions of the exotic encour- aged. Their influence continues.

But the critical turning-point in anthropology and its relation to the exotic was reached in the context of Darwin’s discovery of evolution. Darwin opened an orien- tation to the exotic that, while facilitated in the imperialism of the time and wedded to the confirmation of its attitudes, also created the exotic as the source of new concep- tions of the nature of existence that radically challenged the accepted order of things. It is this latter direction that has become the most fruitful in anthropology.

Science and the scientific exotic

Darwin’s career manifests the adventure, romance, and Eurocentric imperialism implicated in travel in exotic climes (and, as I have said, far from absent in contemporary anthropology and certainly a dimension of its commodity value), but above all the scientific worth of such experience. The voyage of the Beagle (1831) provided Darwin with some of the data that led to The origin of species, although vital material was found closer at home: for example, in the study of barnacles and snails. The voyage through exotic regions was probably far more significant in contributing to Darwin’s celebrity, preparing the way both for the popular interest and for the distortions of the radical thesis of Origin. The thesis, thoroughly central to the de-centring of Man and God in the cosmo-ontological scheme of things, none the less was appropriated into the socio-political ideology of the time and made into a justification for imperialism and class hierarchy. Thus Herbert Spencer, despite his own dislike of the state and a strong antagonism to colonialism and its imperial wars, was prominent in a reinterpretation of Darwin in Lamarckian terms giving social processes biological evolutionary effect. Spencer’s friend Thomas Huxley refused the idea that social evolution or social differ- ences between human beings could become ingrained and transmitted biologically. Natural selection and the evolutionary dynamic of creation, speciation, and extinction operated independently of any human desire or conscious selective action for fitness in Spencer’s terms.

Darwin’s work exemplifies what could be called, for want of a better phrase, the scientific exotic. By this I refer to the exotic as the appearance of a previously unknown phenomenon of existence or else a perturbation in the behaviour, creation, or forma- tion of phenomena that deviates from expectations or predictions based in current knowledge, opinion, or theory. In these senses the exotic is at the edge of or beyond knowledge and, furthermore, is active in its generation. It is both new or original information and is itself either active in the revision of conceptual and theoretical understanding or else instrumental to the formation of a radical new understanding. The scientific exotic challenges received wisdom and, as in Darwin’s case, overturns theories and becomes the basis for new ones.

This is a key dimension – whether or not Darwin is the inspiration – of the role of the exotic in anthropology, whereby the exotic is not that which is merely different or strange, an artefact or an astonishing practice. More than difference, the exotic and its recognition have to do with the challenge to understanding, and, as I will develop, can be as much a property of the familiar or what appears to be known as of that which is external or outside. There are poietic dimensions in the exotic in which case the exotic may have the properties of an event, an emergence which reveals new potentials of phenomena and may call forth a reformulation of how the nature of existence may be grasped.

Lévi-Strauss presents most clearly the anthropological direction to the scientific exotic. His intellectual journey parallels that of Darwin. Tristes tropiques stands in relation to Lévi-Strauss’s major works, The elementary structures of kinship and the volumes of Mythologiques, as does The voyage of the Beagle to The origin of species. The closing pages of Tristes tropiques express a Darwinian sensibility:

The world began without man and will end without him. The institutions, morals and customs that I shall have spent my life noting down and trying to understand are the transient efflorescence of a creation in relation to which they have no meaning, except perhaps that of allowing mankind to play its part in creation (1992: 413).

Tristes tropiques may be interpreted as an account of one anthropologist’s transition from being, on the one hand, a traveller in exotic worlds, living, recording, and col- lecting difference – an ‘exot’ (of which he is critical and from which he distances himself) – into, on the other hand, a scientist, for whom difference and variation are instrumental for radically new understandings, including a unified comprehension of human diversity and its general import.

Lévi-Strauss is the major anthropological figure who epitomizes in his own intel- lectual journey the anthropological revaluation of the exotic: that is, of peoples and practices at the margins of dominant centres and subject to their political and eco- nomic power. Effectively he conceives of those defined as exotic to be the effects of dominant power and mirrors to the destructive processes of its globalizing dynamics. Lévi-Strauss refuses the marginalization of the exotic as a function of dominance. He rejects the anti-scientific orientation that attaches to power that ignores the contribu- tion of those excluded, those defined as exotic, to the stock of knowledge concerning human being as a whole and its general theoretical understanding. Lévi-Strauss addresses the difference of the exotic as a brachiation of differentiation, understanding the peoples and practices so classed as not being aligned along a single evolutionary line of flight (with the exotic at the bottom end) but as expressing different pathways of human potential. With Lévi-Strauss, the exotic is brought in from the cold, as it were. He brings what dominant forces effectively created as the exotic and then used to further aggrandize their authority (moral, political, and scientific) into a position that not only questions such authority but also participates on a more equal plane in contributing to knowledge. The exotic ceases to be passive, mere evidence, positive or negative, for scientific authority or for already established opinion in dominant centres. Through the mediation of Lévi-Strauss’s kind of anthropology, the exotic, those disempowered, dismissed, and excluded in the course of the march of progress, are yielded critical place in the general understanding of human being. This includes an understanding of the processes that have control and power over what is conceived to be the exotic.

Lévi-Strauss represents anthropology as pre-eminently a discipline of the minor discourse.4 In this the concept of the exotic undergoes a vital shift from that typically associated with orientalism. While indeed anthropology is created in the circumstances of imperial expansion and concentrates its endeavour within erstwhile colonialized regions, this is the historical ground for its invention as a discipline of the minor discourse which includes a revaluation of the concept of the exotic. Thus the exotic comes to operate as a key term in the emergence of anthropology as a discipline of the minor discourse wherein marginalized, subordinated, suppressed, or outrightly dismissed practices from the perspectives of dominant power, its conventions of opinion, as well as the ruling authority of science, are given serious expression and consideration. In anthropology, the minority of a discourse, which the idea of the exotic identifies, is given recognition as having potentially significant scientific and other social and political import independent of conventional, official, and/or scientifically accepted assumptions and theory.

Anthropology has a long tradition in marking the exotic of difference with the object of challenging dominant thought.

When Evans-Pritchard (198 [194]) describes the Nuer as an ordered anarchy, he asserts a non-reducible distinction from ruling Eurocentric conceptions of anarchy or of state order. That is, their political process is neither chaotic in a common-sense understanding of anarchy nor to be comprehended in Western statist terms as disor- dering resistance. Nuer refusal of colonial political hegemony is not merely to be grasped as a rejection of colonialism, which it was, but has other roots not to be incorporated within the dominant European historical evolutionist rationalist scheme of things. Pierre Clastres (198) expands the point, showing that such a dominant discourse (a particular compact of knowledge with power) not only distorts evolution- ary theory, but also fails to learn from that which it controls. Societies without states indicate a pathway in history that in the trajectories they take give expression to dynamics that are thoroughly within state systems and potentially threaten them to the core. In other words they form a different unity with state orders from that proposed by regnant theory, whose very terms are constituted through the history of state power. Thus the import of Clastres’s argument is that so-called ‘stateless’ societies manifest dynamics that are also integral in societies of the state, socio-political systems in which the state has been long established. Moreover, these dynamics, although intertwined with state processes, are thoroughly inimical to the state, perhaps fundamentally contradictory of state dynamics, underpinning the persistence of problematics for state authorities everywhere. Clastres’s indication is that even the concept of contradiction ameliorates and masks what is at stake. It is already a concept appropriate within dominant discourses embroiled with the state and may insufficiently recognize the possibility of dynamics, expressed by stateless societies, that are irreducible, untransmutable or unresolvable, to those that describe state dynamics. Furthermore, this leads Clastres to suggest an improved political theory that is not premised on terms internal to the authority of state discourse (on the concepts born of state dominant contexts), which asserts a resolution of difference in a self-legitimating universalizing theory of progressive evolutionism. Here, I note, the critical point is not that the theory is self-legitimating (although this motivates its misunderstanding) but that it is a bad theory which can be overcome in a theory that more accurately includes that which it has demeaned or otherwise excluded. Through an anthropological attention to what appear to be exotic and exoticized practices (the romantic light in which peoples such as the Nuer may be seen, though motivated, none the less, in discourses orientated from within perspectives of dominance), Clastres indicates a potentially more fruitful politi- cal theory applicable both to stateless societies and to societies of the state.

Edmund Leach’s earlier and classic Political systems of Highland Burma (1954) has a similar implication, though not as overtly politically radical as that of Clastres, for ruling Western paradigms concerning the political philosophy of the state of further relevance to ongoing debates about democracy. Leach’s Kachin study, as most students know, demonstrates the intertwining of a non-state logic with that of state orders, at the same time indicating that they are not different stages in a dialectic proceeding along the same line of flight: Kachin social dynamics is not synthetic with that of the neighbouring Shan hierarchical state order. Despite their embroilment, there are irre- ducible differences which are, none the less, vital in the overall political integrity of the Shan-Kachin order.

Indigenous resistance movements in Latin America and in Asia display anarchist dynamics that are stimulated in the shadow of contemporary states. Their anarchism should not be reduced, necessarily, to modernist concepts within which such resistance movements can be captured and domesticated. Modern anarchist ideologies (examples include de Foigny, as well as Proudhon, Bakunin, Bedyaev, and others) were con- structed within the orbit of recent state formations and refract their discourses, if extremely critically. They are bound in a mutually reproductive dialectic. But as Evans- Pritchard indicated, the resistant anti-state orientation of some indigenous move- ments, or, better, their passionate antagonism (and I note that the very term ‘resistance’ is also a concept with which ruling opinion is comfortable), may be fuelled by value principles conceived quite independently of state discourse, although stimulated, as among the Nuer, by colonial state oppression or that manifested in the circumstances of the postcolonial state. When these value principles are given due consideration and in a way which is not conditioned by the dualisms and exceptionalist discourse of dominant power, other, more integrated theory of greater explanatory capacity may be produced.

The foregoing well-known examples underscore the idea of the potential of the exotic in anthropology to refuse its understanding through the conceptualizations of a Euro-American dominant discourse. Orientalist exoticism is an extreme of such domi- nance, and anthropology, if not orientalist, has been bound to the paradox born of its beginnings in the circumstances of Euro-American power and associated value. This governs recurrent debate.

Thus the conventional criticism of Lévi-Strauss is that he is tied to dualisms that give commanding place to Euro-American conceptions despite his attempt to overcome them. His oppositions of a West/Rest, modern/ancient, hot/cold kind underpin the very orientalist exoticism that he powerfully rejects. Lévi-Strauss addresses this dualism as a historical-cum-cultural product or the historical working through of the openness or closure of the logical possibilities of different ideas and practices. None the less, the dualism insists on an orientalist potential. This is so despite Lévi-Strauss’s appeal to science as the universal capacity and potential of all human beings and his demonstra- tion that this is variously apparent in the ideas and practices across the dualist divide. His science is based in assumptions that claim to transcend Euro-American value that is apparent in the positivism of Durkheim (or existentialist philosophy). Lévi-Strauss stresses the scientific ideal of openness to possibility rather than the closure that nineteenth-century hyper-rationalist science promoted in the face of major religious discourses and in the interest of its establishment. None the less, this as well as his effort to use his own cultural/historical aesthetic sensibility (e.g. music) as a means for entering into difference – an explicit and positive recognition of the use of his own subjectivity as a scientific method – runs foul of the routine criticism of a Eurocentrism within anthropology. That is, Lévi-Strauss reproduces the authority of dominant dis- course, or a discourse of dominance, even in his methodological efforts to give voice to minor discourses and to establish their larger significance.

It should be clear that the criticism of Lévi-Strauss is not his scientific objective but the Eurocentric cultural/historical dualisms that are embedded in it. I say this because, in my opinion, some of the criticism of Lévi-Strauss is rooted more in the legacy of the division between the sciences and the arts in Western academia, itself Eurocentric, than in the interests of developing better scientific or more rigorous understandings of difference and its contribution to knowledge. In this regard some of the criticisms of Lévi-Strauss motivated in Eurocentric humanist visions – sometimes ingrained in exoticism of the romantic kind – if not actually silly, border on being so. Nevertheless, some of the difficulties in Lévi-Strauss’s approach arise from a Euro-American- spawned dualism that is insisted on in his methodology. His critics, keenest among them being Geertz and some located in various currents of postmodern anthropology that extend, if differently, from Geertz’s humanist relativism, may be no less committed to a similar if not the same dualism. Paradoxically, some aspects of the intense self- critique in anthropology concerning exoticism and orientalism may themselves express the very values of dominance and Euro-Americanism that they abjure. This may be particularly so in the present situation of globalization and the hybridizing spread of Euro-American ideas as a consequence of new forms of imperialism and the discourses of control following from colonialism (see Kapferer 2).

It is not the idea of the exotic per se in anthropology that is necessarily problematic; rather it is the dualism founded in the very historical origins and development of the discipline. This achieves its irresolute and paradoxical intensity in the comparativism of the subject upon which anthropology rests and which guides the field’s determinations of difference and the contrasts and oppositions so often implicated.

The aporia of the exotic and comparison

Gandhi’s famous retort when asked what he thought of Western civilization, ‘I think it would be a good idea!’, explodes the implicit understanding of Western value as the standard present in dualism and anthropological comparison. Anthropologists are thoroughly aware of this; so much so that doing anthropology occasionally seems to reduce to an almost exclusive exercise, bordering on the narcissistic, of de-centring the West. However, the clear aporia in this is that the very processes of de-centring and de-exoticism continue to be bound within the very terms from which the problematic of the exotic is produced. The dialectic of the cultural Self vis-à-vis the cultural Other, so much a feature of much anthropological analysis, is one example. The same may apply to that de-exoticizing work that identifies the recognition of the exotic as having its source in the globalization or imperialism of value connected with capitalist expan- sion. Anthropological de-exoticism often appears to invert the exotic rather than dis- pense with it – it is the exoticizer who becomes exotic.

An outstanding example of what I am saying relates to the anthropological discus- sion of sorcery and witchcraft, one of the most conventional sites for the de-exoticizing practice of anthropologists. This is all the more so these days because sorcery and witchcraft seem to have expanded in their popularity – especially in erstwhile imperialized zones of the world – and, furthermore, have assumed more bizarre shapes than before. They have doubled in exotic value. Practices that are already sensitive gauges and pragmatic responses to the usual disturbances affecting everyday life have bounced off the graph, as it were, and in many ways have transmogrified, achieving functions hitherto not observable. All manner of calamities, from HIV to the many specific inequities and vulnerabilities of poverty and of wealth, appear to concentrate their emotional, social, and political potencies into the realms of sorcery and witchcraft practice. Once made sensible in their own cosmological and cultural terms, they demand new or additional interpretation, one which centres them in forces that are more global in emphasis.

In Sri Lanka, a once relatively minor village demon of sorcery, low in the cosmic order of beings, has been transmuted into one of the high gods of the Sinhala Buddhist pantheon (see Kapferer 199). Formerly an ambiguous guardian of village boundaries and an outside force yet intimate within internal social relations and destructive of them, he is now a Guardian God of the Sinhalese. He patrols the territorial boundaries between ethnic Sinhalese and ethnic Tamils and has become a commanding figure of justice among largely urban Sinhalese. The former demon, now a god, uses his destruc- tive capacity positively, righting wrongs and punishing those causing personal distress (frequently, obstructive bureaucrats, abusive landlords, and rapacious business people). His major temples are built at key sites of capital flow, ports of entry and egress of consumables, and, too, at critical points of social and political fracture, spaces of crime and zones of ethnic conflict and opposition. The new god manifests the changing social order motivated through capital and its generation of social and personal crisis.

What was conceived as the exotic of the local becomes the exotic of the global and of the modern and a mirror to dominant forces. There is an echo here of some earlier anthropological approaches that saw a logical connection between the faulty or illogical reasoning of witchcraft, for example, and that of science where old theories are sus- tained against the new despite the bulk of evidence. Witchcraft and science share in a common irrationality. I have no doubt as to the corrective value of such insights, and especially in the context of the current global financial crisis, where the irrational of capital and of the science to comprehend it seems to have reached a new intensity. This is complete with a rash of Salem witchcraft-like accusations extending to the heights of capital control. However, such arguments continue the dualism that they seek to avoid or overcome, either inverting the terms (discovering the premodern in the modern) or declaring a universal (all express the same irrationalism or fetishism, only some more so than others). The legitimacy of contrasts and oppositions – for instance, the nature of the rational vis-à-vis the irrational – is maintained, added to which are further arguments and assumptions internal to major, not to say dominant, discourses coming from global centres. This is not an argument against the spirit of such critique, but simply a recognition that the dualism in which a discredited exoticism was formed continues, the Other, as it were, becoming the measure of the realities of the dominant, instead of the other way about. There is a reprise of orientalism through which an occidental Unreason, now global, is reflected: the argument of Montesquieu re-surfaces but without the same degree of fictive imaginative self-consciousness.

De-territorializing the exotic and overcoming dualism

The foregoing impasse, the circularity of a de-exoticizing discourse, is founded in the aporia of a dualism, whether of a universalizing or relativist kind, which may be embedded in the comparativism at the heart of anthropology and its emphasis on difference and diversity. Here, I consider, is the potential contribution of Louis Dumont (198; 1986) and his attempt to overhaul the orientation to comparison in anthropology and to develop an appropriate methodology for it. It offers an approach that may avoid Self/Other and Us/Them contrasts and oppositions of the kind which place the weight of the exotic on one or other side of the equation. Critically it is an approach that de-territorializes the exotic: any people or practice is potentially exotic to any other. This is so in a way that enables the determination of the distinction in difference (or the nature of an assumed similarity) that may establish the conceptual grounds for the connection or unity with other practices without effacing their distinction. In this, the exotic of difference established through comparison can become a source of abstract conceptualization for the development of general theory that emerges from ethnogra- phy rather than being imposed upon it: ethnography as merely confirming or disconfirming evidence rather than more actively participant in the production of theoretical understanding of a specific and general kind. Dumont’s direction has the advantage of liberating difference from the sometimes tyranny of commanding thought (whether explicitly or implicitly), wherever it may be centred, as well as liberating what may be in difference, the suppressed of the exotic and its conceptual contribution to larger understanding.

Crucially, Dumont’s comparativism is post-Durkheimian and post-Lévi-Straussian structuralism. He starts in orientalist terrain, countering the concepts and theory of dominant Euro-American discourse, demonstrating their exoticizing distortion, and their universalizing limitation. Through this Dumont releases the distinction of that which has been subordinated to the terms of the major discourse, the dimensions of its non-reducibility. Such distinction then becomes the basis of a new conceptualization for a comparative understanding which recognizes connection and unity through difference. His approach extends to a critical understanding of Euro-American domi- nant social science thought and steps towards the building of more general concepts and theory appropriate to humanity as a whole through its diversity and difference.

Dumont’s direction was initially inspired in his Indian research on caste. His inter- pretation of the empirical evidence is the subject of disagreement, although I am largely sympathetic (see Kapferer 21).5 This aside, it is the orientation of his approach with which I am concerned.

Caste is conventionally discussed in Euro-American social science as the extreme of socio-economic inequality and is contrasted with the emphasis on equality in Western contexts. The contrast assumes that caste, as inequality, can be aligned along the same continuum as Euro-American equality, the former being the negative of the latter’s positive to be understood through the same conceptual and theoretical assumptions. This involves the privileging and weighting of ideological values sup- ported more in the circumstances of power and its moralities in which Euro- American discourse and theory are centred than in empirical or scientific understanding. Dumont indicates that it obscures the fact that Europe and Asia (India) are better conceived as historically divergent trajectories from out of the same human potential. They formed different configurations of relational processes that cannot essentially or necessarily be contrasted in the same terms. There is a unity, but the conceptual and theoretical understanding of this is not to be assumed prior to the investigation of the evidence.

The ideological weighting of Euro-American social science is evident in the empha- sis placed on the individual, the individual-as-value – that is, on the individual as the primary starting-point for theoretical understanding, prior to or apart from its forma- tion in relations. This includes, in much social science, the value given to the essential equality of all individuals that, while a worthy ideal largely developed in recent Western history, can skew the interpretation of other systems. Most significantly in this discus- sion, it can deny the conceptual and theoretical contribution of other configurations of practice to the generation of knowledge concerning humanity and defeat or distort comparative understanding.

Exploring the variations of caste practice, Dumont shows that it is a particular form of social differentiation founded in ritual values of a specific holistic character. Thus the system of caste, or the differentiation of castes and the complexity of their interrela- tions, are formed out of the mutually negating forces of purity and impurity. To put this another way, purity and impurity are hierarchically enfolded (what Dumont refers to as the encompassing of the contrary), purity being valued over impurity, each the negative force of the other. Purity and impurity are simultaneously processes and moments in a continually unfolding dynamic of the whole which are ultimately expressed, in terms of caste, as oppositions at the limits of the system. This is a non-dualist system in that the dynamic is not produced by an opposition, but rather the opposition (e.g. Brahmin vis-à-vis Outcaste) is a result of the dynamic.6 With reference to caste, particular castes may be conceived as moments in the differentiating process of the whole (the encom- passing of the contrary), as are the qualities of inter- and intra-caste relations through which the system is continuously sustained.

Therefore, for Dumont, caste cannot be placed along the same conceptual plane as inequality.Its form of hierarchical differentiation is not the hierarchy of commonWestern usage where it is synonymous with inequality and also stratification. These are socio- economic concepts grounded in the individual-as-value and are not embedded in a ritual holism of a pure/impure dynamic. Thus while class processes intermingle with caste, each is not reducible to the other yet may well express a particular synergy of hybridization, as, for example, in contemporary violence towards outcaste dalits in India.7 The holism of caste practice is altogether different from ideas of the whole and of part/whole relations in Euro-American everyday understanding and in social science thought. In the latter, the whole is often defined as equal to or greater than the sum of its parts. In the part/whole relationof suchasystem, thepartcanreflectthewholeoractasif itwasthewhole. Notions of culture and society and identity in much Western practice imply such holism.However, in the holism of caste the parts are emergent from within the dynamic of the whole, which itself is integral to the parts and their relations. The whole is neither reducible to the part nor vice versa, as it is in much practice in the West.

Dumont’s argument is that Euro-American concepts should be applied to the situa- tion of caste in India with some care. But he does not leave matters here. He asks if the concepts that he has developed for and abstracted from his investigation of caste in India might be capable of larger application where those of Euro-American theoretical dominance have failed. Thus he indicates that practices in the West can be conceived as configurational variations of the conceptualizations of holism and hierarchy derived from his study of Indian caste. I stress them as configurational rather than transfor- mational to underline a unity in difference rather than expressions of extremes at the ends of a continuum along a single line of flight or as different moments of the one phenomenon.

The argument is that the concepts of holism and hierarchy are of more universal value.8 This is so as abstractions which are drained of their ideological content. Such ideology itself is conceived as the product of specific configurations (of holism and hierarchy) in history which may achieve or exacerbate further positive or negative effects of an ethical or moral kind. Thus Euro-American practices, even the concept of the individual and the individual-as-value, are specific dimensions of configurations of holism and hierarchy.

This is evident at the extremes of such configurations, especially in what are recog- nized as their pathologies, as certain ideological possibilities emerge within them as well as excite them (see Rio & Smedal 29). For example, forms of exclusion, discrimi- nation, and racism in contexts dominated by Western value demonstrate a specific part/whole configuration where hierarchy is conceived as difference to be excluded in order to maintain the integrity of the whole and an equivalent value of its parts. This is expressed as a positive, for instance, in de Foigny’s imagination of Australia from which I quoted at the start of this essay, although it explicitly intimates its own absurdity. The thorough negative potential is manifest in Apartheid and National Socialism, for example, which realize a specific form of hierarchy in a dynamic of exclusion whereby the integrity of the whole as a community of identical parts, as essentially the same, is constituted. That which is excluded and valued as less than that which is included manifests, through its externalization, an intensification or re-insistence of hierarchy that, moreover, comes to define the unity of the included. I might add that certain notions of the individual-as-value, those which stress a purity of the person as an integrated totality of equivalent parts, not only suppress hierarchy but also recognize the immanence of hierarchy in difference as threatening the disintegra- tion of the part as whole.

In the situation of caste, hierarchy has its fundamental effect in a different configu- rational set. Its pathology is necessarily no less destructive or reductive of human potential, as the evidence more than indicates. However, this arises from a holism that is the intensification rather than the suppression of hierarchy. A distinct part/whole relation obtains in which hierarchy as the encompassment of the contrary, expressed most clearly at the extremes, constitutes the dynamic of the whole. The parts are differentiated moments of the overarching and unfolding process in which mutually negating forces are held in hierarchical union, which is also vital in the relations between the parts that sustain the integrity of the whole.

There are other, no less important approaches to comparison in anthropology that engage with the exotic of difference and demonstrate its significance in general and theoretical understanding. Two of the better known are those of Mary Douglas (19; 193) and Marilyn Strathern (1988; 24). Douglas’s famous example of the Lele pan- golin – thoroughly exotic as being outside all categories yet, none the less, a unity of them (hence its sacred quality) – can be regarded as one conceptual starting-point for her grid/group scheme of mix and variation. This has the great virtue of de-territorializing and de-exoticizing the exotic and giving it a place in more general understanding. But the scheme is still firmly set in Euro-dominant thought, its univer- sal classificatory scheme distributing societies and practices topographically according to different grid/group combinations, which, at the risk of being unfair, is a reconfiguration of familiar Eurocentric oppositions: grid (open/individual) versus group (bounded, closed). The one receives no positive value over the other. However, for all its insight, it remains a classificatory approach whose explanatory potential yields little to the phenomena distributed throughout it. These remain as illustrations for a theory that is already built into the scheme.

Strathern’s (1988; 24) approach is far more orientated to opening the erstwhile exotic to produce a major theoretical rethinking. The Melanesian Other becomes the basis for a reimagination of a sociological orientation that is forceful for the widespread examination of practices wherever located. Strathern’s orientation has much in common with that of Dumont. Both de-centre that social science which takes the unit individual as the theoretical starting-point and stress the person rather than the indi- vidual. The person is not a stable point and expresses different and changing possibility through relations. Here I think there would be some disagreement. Strathern writes of the dividual, along the lines of Melanesian conception, as a changing point of connec- tion in an open network assemblage in which there is no societal closure along con- ventional Durkheimian lines. Dumont might have seen this perspective as another form of individualism (which was his reaction to Marriott’s [196] alternative direction to Indian ethnography influential for Strathern) and a return to Euro-dominance. There is a degree of correspondence between Strathern’s (24) concepts of partial connections, partible persons, and assemblages that, even if unintentionally, reflects globalizing inter-territorial corporatizing realities as it expresses an expansion from the suggestions of Melanesian ontology and practice. However, this in no way necessarily disconfirms her perspective.

Here, I think, Dumont’s comparative method and approach to the exotic achieve potential significance. Dumont articulates a methodological perspective that could conceivably start from any point whatever on the globe without necessarily privileging one logic of practice over another. Anything and everything is possibly exotic to any other. This includes that which is within the domains or fields of commanding political centres and their theories as well as that which is marginalized or peripheralized. What Dumont offers is a method for determining the exotic as an authentic difference. That is, it approaches apparent difference or similarity in a way that guards against the return of the same through the assertion of difference as well as a potential failure to grasp what may be buried in difference, vital within it, that may contribute to larger under- standing. Moreover, Dumont’s comparative approach is a method of disclosure for revealing what may be suppressed within practice and otherwise subdued in its under- standing – the exotic, in my usage. Furthermore, through such exotic (which can refract the exotic in major discourses simultaneously with the hitherto minor), abstractions can be extracted from ethnographic ground that can then be engaged to build concepts and theory of more general comparative worth. That is, anthropology can work towards the potential of generating broader or more encompassing understanding through its attention to diversity. This yields to such diversity, and indeed the ongoing differentiation in humanity, its own authority wherever it is and its contribution to the building of theory rather than being a passive object of confirmation for imposed conceptual frameworks. The kind of methodological direction that Dumont and other anthropologists project is an overcoming of dualisms in which exoticism is born (without sacrificing the authentic of difference) and, most especially, those dualisms that are internal to the comparative emphasis of the discipline.

I refer to the almost perennial tension in anthropology caught between the extremes of relativism and universalism. In the former, anthropologists threaten an isolating – almost narcissistic – retreat into difference, a celebration of the exotic verging on exoticism, becoming Geertzian ‘merchants of the strange’. They demonstrate the limits of grand narratives but the significance of what they have discovered is reduced to a spoiling tactic which may withhold that which is suppressed in the exotic that could contribute to a larger, more positive understanding. Alternatively, the concern to apply universalizing concepts and theory, apart from being overly premature in the context of human differentiation, may involve the capitulation, if not collusion, of anthropolo- gists in the very suppression of what their ethnography otherwise discloses. The kind of comparative approach that Dumont and others indicate – I think of Clastres again – has the potential to bridge and perhaps overcome a negative and self-defeating dualism in anthropology. The significance of anthropology as the discipline of the minordiscourse founded upon the comparative study of difference and diversity is further realized.

The exotic as an open plane of emergence

I now wish to expand on the idea of the exotic as a dynamic of disclosure and emergence: the exotic as a departure from the expected and which refuses constraint within established conceptual categories and theoretical understanding. The emphasis is on the exotic as that which breaks conventional and established frames of compre- hension and the exotic as the expression (or revelation) in practice of potential that various forms of conventional and established kinds of interpretation or understanding occlude or suppress. My direction is to free the idea of the exotic from its constraint within a comparative Other/Self dialectics or Other-ing – in other words, to de-territorialize the exotic. I illustrate the direction with reference to two methodo- logical approaches involving (a) a focus on the event as a site for the realization and revelation of potential, and (b) an analytical procedure that I call conceptual cross- register. These identify the exotic (the ordinarily occluded and suppressed or marginalized) as an enduring potential of all practice anywhere and dislocate or de-situate the exotic as something necessarily obtaining in particular types of practice or a feature of certain cultures or societies rather than others. All of these threaten the kind of exoticization and, indeed, orientalism that anthropology has long de-valued.

The exotic of events

Anthropologists often appear to revel in the exotic of events, playing with accepted categories of the exotic – for example, ritual, magic, sorcery, forms of kinship and exchange often associated with small-scale systems at the margins of capitalist expan- sion – in an effort to destabilize and redirect conceptual and theoretical understanding. Thus, the state and nationalism are addressed as magical forms, their dynamics con- ditioned, furthermore, in a mytho-logic; mass ethnic violence bears the shape of an exorcism; identity politics expresses a new tribalism; capital describes a sorcery; the internet indicates new lineaments of kinship and characteristics of exchange reminis- cent of archaic societies, and so on. Undoubtedly, conventional domains (e.g. of the political, the economic, and the sociological) and their rationalities of description and explanation are broken by calling on images and metaphors imbued with the sense of the exotic. But, as I have said, this is done at the risk of confirming an exoticism despite the deconstructive and de-centring aims and the concern to give rise to innovative interpretation. My orientation here takes a different direction, stressing the event as an exotic in itself. This is so not in terms of conventional categories of the exotic. What is stressed is the exotic of the event or what the event as exotic signs/symbolizes as a going beyond, outside, and/or a revelation of processes or potentials of the world in which it manifests. The idea is not to constrain the exotic of the event in established categori- zations of the exotic, which paradoxically may deny critical dimensions of the event (the exotic of the event) and even beg the question and constrain the move to novel understanding that it might demand.

This is the direction of Gluckman’s (1958; see also Evens & Handelman 26) methodological innovation of situational or event analysis that he and his Rhodes- Livingstone Institute and Manchester colleagues tried to develop especially in the 195s. But they were stuck in an anthropology of representations, the legacy of their Durkheimian roots. Victor Turner (1969), via his analysis of ritual – a still conventional category of the exotic harking back to the past if ever there was one  –  broke out, for he reconceived ritual events not as empty (mechanical, ritualistic) occasions or instru- ments in the cyclical repetition of the same, in the terms of van Gennep (196) or Eliade (1949), but, in far more Nietzschean vein, as vital in the generation of the new. The exotic were not merely bizarre or strange or terrifying representations or signs of transition (as in initiation rites); they were themselves dense with the potential of change that they also effected. Transferring this understanding from ritual (specifically its liminal moments) to other social and political processes, Turner (194) identified the exotic of the event as a major point of differentiation out of which original meaning and social formation were to be constituted, although the directions that were to be established remained always open (e.g. Turner’s discussion of Hidalgo’s grito on the eve of the Mexican revolution).

Marshall Sahlins (1981; 25), working from within a different genealogy, expands the point effectively, if not explicitly, discussing the exotic of the event as emergent in the conjunction of differently motivated processes – or, in Deleuzian terms, the joining of different lines of flight. In the event conceived as a moment of conjuncture, poten- tials are realized that in Sahlins’s view constitute the actualization of the imaginal possibility of culture, culture as a dynamic virtuality of potential (see Kapferer 25). This potential is not already present in the structuring of social relations, or experien- tial orders, and is not, therefore, a representation of reality, an event as an illustration of what already is. In other words, a key aspect of the event is as a particular point of generative emergence whose exotic both is outside pre-existing structural arrange- ments and indicates a new configuration of open possibility. Here the idea of the event in a less radical way anticipates more recent notions of the event as a plane of emer- gence (Badiou 21; Deleuze & Guattari 1994), which fits with the idea of the exotic I am developing here.

I highlight the development of a methodology of the event in anthropology as a re-centring of what is immanent in the role of the exotic for anthropology, but shorn of exoticism. That is, the approach to the event outlined accents an attention to the emergence of the extraordinary within the domain of the ordinary. It is to be distin- guished from those analyses of ethnographic cases, still common in anthropology, that are concerned with illustrating routine or typical practice. The approach to the event that I stress here concentrates on what would be deemed atypical, what is often excluded from consideration, the marginal, the minority, the suppressed and the ‘strange’ – what the idea of the exotic often communicates. But I suggest, rather than engaging in a procedure of ‘normalization’ or ‘rationalism’ (often the feature of much de-exoticization), what I describe as a methodological orientation to the exotic of the event accents the poietic, the ‘strange’ unique of the event. This not only opens up or reveals the potential in what already may be but also emphasizes the role of the unique of the event for a rethinking of what is immanent in the structures of human practice in their particularity as well as the larger import for an understanding of humanity as a whole. This was the function of the orientation to the exotic in anthropology and achieved through the specific value placed on the details of ethnography which I think is re-insisted or given original emphasis in current anthropological methodological directions to the event.

I have outlined the exotic of the event as an extension (and a de-territorialization) within the ethnographic emphasis of that anthropology pursued in the marginalized realms of the erstwhile exotic. Gluckman and Manchester’s direction to situational analysis and the study of the event was, it should be noted, thoroughly concerned to reimagine the importance of anthropology as a basic social science discipline – to bring it in from exotic realms as it were. I now turn to the notion of conceptual cross-register, which I conceive to be a development from the methodological emphasis on compari- son in anthropology, whereby significant difference is discovered (or the exotic as difference and an invention of the comparative conjunction or interrelation) and is engaged to reconceptualization and theorization in which unities of a new kind may be revealed.

The exotic of crossing the category

Cinema and ritual can be considered as two independent and irreducible categories of aesthetic practice. The former is the invention of the modern technological age, directed to entertainment and enjoyment. Ritual is commonly conceived as virtually primordial, a practice in which human beings originally began to realize their human- ity, and, in ongoing realities, to (re-)create and transform their conditions and situa- tions of existence. Cinema and ritual are poles apart, and comparing them brings to mind most of the dualisms which underpin discussion concerning the exotic and exoticism. They give rise to modes of understanding that are radically different. Yet bringing them into conjunction, into a conjunction that in itself is exotic, reveals dimensions that might expand features of the phenomena in themselves – ritual, for example. Of course, upon reflection, this is what anthropologists in one way or another are continually doing – approaching practices through a positioning elsewhere and often in terms of assumptions and metaphors that are under-examined for their impli- cations. This is a core paradox and problematic of comparison that I have already addressed.

Theatre is a frequent metaphor as well as a source of analytical tools for compre- hending ritual as, indeed, social performance (e.g. Goffman 196), ritual widely often itself being treated as antecedent to theatre. I have mentioned Lévi-Strauss’s engage- ment with Amazonian myth through his understanding of Western music. The merit of his analytical mediation was that he made his strategy explicit, and my crossing the categories of difference bears some similarity. I suggest the potential for an extension of the understanding of ritual through cinema as conceived by one of its most influential ethnographers, Gilles Deleuze (1986; 1989), and in the context of the work of Victor Turner (1962; 196; 1968), whose ethnography of rite has been influential. Both Deleuze and Turner conceive their approaches to be relevant for the larger understanding of humanity as a whole.

Following Deleuze, cinema is founded on the image (visual, sound, and other sense images), on the moving image, and achieves much of its force through the invention of the moving, mobile camera. Ritual is based in symbols that are, for Turner, grounded in fundamental human sense experiences using a technology and techniques that are thoroughly centred within and extensive from the body. Film, for Deleuze, is not centred in or extensive from the body; indeed, for him, it is founded in the mobile camera, its dynamicof constructionlikenedtothatof abodywithoutorgans.Inmanyaspectscinema manifests itself as apost-human phenomenon: that is, it is centred not in the human being but in realities that take their form through processes that encompass human beings and, for want of a better expression, are not founded in ordinary embodied human perception. The filmic opens to perception that which cannot be directly sensed from the ordinary positioning of the human being. The radical effect of the cinematic is to take hold of the subject via the mobile camera and break up and distribute the subject, as Deleuze says, at any-point-whatever across the screen. As Woody Allen makes witty comment in The Purple Rose of Cairo, in cinema the audience are potentially lifted from their seats and effectively reconstitutedasparticipants, orasparticledorpartibleparticipants, withinthe on-screen action. The subjectivities of the audience are made continually to shift perspective and are not those of an anchored, integrated, organic individual. They come to occupy shifting positionality via camera technique through adiversity of points of view: for example, human and nonhuman, distanced and virtually out of frame, or intensively, penetratingly close. In cinema there is no neat subject/object contrast and its actants, to use Bruno Latour’s concept, can be material and immaterial, both subjects and objects. The individuals in the audience are assembled and disassembled in the connections and relations anticipated or created through the effect of camera motion. Thus the audience can become continuously and differentially consubstantial with the screen action so that aesthetic distancing and reflexive distancing are radically reduced (audiences are in the motion of the film as they might be in the motion of music which is vital in film). This is so to such an extent that occasionally the audience – even despite their resistance (in a melodramatic movie, for example) – are absorbed thoroughly into the dynamic motion/ emotion of the action.

This is very different from a Turnerian analysis of ritual – for which drama and theatre performance is the main metaphor – which depends on subject/object dualities and intersubjectivity, for which reflexivity is crucial. With Turner, ritual, while thor- oughly visceral, is also through and through meaningful. Deleuze’s post-structuralism examines more the compositional dynamics upon which viscerality and meaning come into being.

Deleuze and Turner operate different phenomenologies, and the former is conscious in his formulations of a distinction between the cinematic and, indeed, ritual. Deleuze conceives what may be grasped as ritual to be constructed mainly as a system of representational instants (parts building towards a whole), whereas cinema works through elements that are part/wholes, instants of continuous flow. Ritual and cinema operate with different cosmologies of space/time. In ritual, time is measured in move- ments across sections of space (very much, incidentally, Turner’s concept of the ritual process), whereas cinema is orientated to the expression of time in itself in whose motion and depth audiences are placed. Effectively, cinema overcomes the limitations of ritual and virtually creates the real or, rather, constitutes the realities of its experi- encing through a distinct technologically wrought poiesis. There is the suggestion in Deleuze that cinematographers in their pragmatism – in their concern to solve immediate problems at hand rather than intellectual abstractions – have hit upon how indeed realities form in and around human beings. In this way cinema is able to create a semblance of lived experience, or the way human beings realize their realities, even in the extraordinary of its action. In ritual, on the contrary, while it works within lived experience, it also operates to radically interrupt and suspend the routine of experience as it is ordinarily engaged. The techniques of rite are often thoroughly directed to attack ordinary lived experience in order to enter within its underlying dynamics and to re-establish continuities in ongoing existence that have been broken or disrupted. Such consideration aside, crossing Deleuze’s conceptualizations grounded in the assembling and formational dynamics of cinema into the domain of ritual opens potentials of understanding that are otherwise closed to the conceptual approach of Turner, despite the power of his insights. Turner’s orientation is destabilized through Deleuze, whose phenomenology of cinema begins before language and meaning rather than within language and meaning. I express a caution here because Turner is equivocal on the matter, recognizing that many rites in their very primordialism start before language and meaning and are orientated to give rise to them – think of Gilbert Lewis’s (1988) and Alfred Gell’s (195) New Guinea ethnographies. However, Turner’s approach is ultimately thoroughly grounded in language and meaning. This is not so with Deleuze’s perspective through cinema, which is premised on a coming or becoming to language and meaning, the priority of the image to the symbol.

In cinema, Deleuze argues, consciousness is with the screen, consciousness exists, as it were, apart from the audience and it is projected onto them, drawing them into its process. Deleuze explicitly announces a counter-phenomenology to that of Turner, for whom consciousness is already with the audience or participants and arises intention- ally as a function of their direction to the screen. Consciousness and its process through all manner of objects/subjects embraces audiences and they come to meaning in its course, and, indeed, they participate in the creation of meaning, even of entirely novel meaning, through such filmic artifice as jump shots, irrational cuts, strange juxtaposi- tions, and so on. Applied to ritual, this approach, at least for me, expands an under- standing of such ritual phenomena as trance and a variety of effects where participants lose themselves in the ritual process and themselves become expressions of its shifting movement. This is so for participants who have had no prior experience of particular ritual events. I am well aware that cultural predispositions are in all likelihood there, but this depends on a psychologism that a Deleuzian perspective may, at least, in part, avoid. An orientation to ritual through a Deleuzian understanding of cinema breaks the grip that drama and performance frameworks have had over ritual analysis and may even discover a closer connection with the phenomena of much ritual practices in themselves. The concept of time that Deleuze develops in relation to cinema fits with many village Buddhist rites in Sri Lanka (see Kapferer 199; 212), which operate with both time as process in a spatial sense and with a concern to enter within time itself and the void of creative generation. Many rites of which I have experience achieve their narrative effects through the distribution of subjectivities in virtually a cinematic fashion and break down subject/object dualities. All this, of course, should not reduce ritual to cinema. What I stress is the exotic of their relation within which, via the cross-register from one to the other, new possibilities of understanding are opened.

My discussion of the exotic of events and of analytic cross-register is within the idea of the exotic that I take as vitally central in anthropology, which is a long way from notions of the exotic and exoticism with which anthropology began. The exotic in the reconfigurations in the history of anthropology to which I have referred refuses the dichotomies and dualisms of the past, which on occasion still dog anthropology as they do the social sciences as a whole; it is orientated instead to demonstrating the crucial role that anthropology through its ethnography and the imagination of those human practices anywhere and everywhere contribute to the theoretical and interpretational understanding of humanity as a whole.

Exotic evermore

It has been said that anthropology is ‘exotic no more’ (McClancy 22), a title of a volume supported by the Royal Anthropological Institute that was opposed to the sensationalist exoticism of some anthropology, a criticism with which in the main I agree. However, in my view unfortunately, the book reproduces a dualism separating the anthropology of the modern from the anthropology of the non-modern, the exotic in its terms. It is such dualism that is the basis for the exoticism that the discipline would abhor. Moreover, dualist sensationalism of the exoticist sort which opened this essay should certainly be exorcized, as should the seclusion of the exotic into the world of the Other. This latter not only reproduces old hierarchies (that of imperialism, in which the non-exotic Self defined the Other as exotic) but also is thoroughly against the spirit of anthropology, which is for working towards a unified understanding of humanity in the circumstances of its cultural and social differences and similarities. This is achieved through the close attention to human diversity at all points in history and at any point on the globe without any necessary privilege of concept or practice in the construction of knowledge of what human being is or may become.

The problem at issue is how to achieve such knowledge without exoticizing in the egregious or more insidious ways that I have addressed in this discussion. Anthropology is caught in a dilemma of the exotic even as it strives to be rid of it as a function of a persisting dualism in thought and practice. This is exacerbated in a continuing commer- cializing climate of the commoditization of the exotic and ina situation where the subject as a university discipline even continues to draw sustenance from the fact. The statement by Ulf Hannerz that anthropology must discover its brand, which I cited at the start of this essay, runs the risk of trading on the dualisms and exoticism of the past, even in the hands of this modernizer of the discipline. An accent on difference rather than the exotic does not necessarily overcome the difficulty, especially in situations of university reforms where the very survival of the subject can depend on commercial appeal to the ideas of the exotic that anthropologists would normally abhor.

In a more positive vein, the replacement of the idea of the exotic with the notion of difference can weaken the potential contribution of anthropology. I say this in the sense of anthropology as a discipline of the minor discourse. That is, as a subject orientated to the general understanding of humankind that reveals in its close ethnographic attention to myriad cultural and social practices dimensions that not only do not fit the regnant assumptions of dominant theory (which paradoxically can be an exoticizing force) but also may lead to the establishing of its limitation as well as revision. The idea of difference can weaken what is potentially contained in the idea of the exotic and, by so weakening, enable the persistence of dominant and dominating assumptions and theory when they might otherwise be rendered intensely suspect.

The aim of this discussion has been to address some of the complexities and dilemmas surrounding the concept of the exotic. I have also been concerned with not necessarily throwing the baby out with the bathwater impelled in some anthropological orientations to de-exoticization. This has involved me in a reconfiguration of the idea of the exotic, principally away from an emphasis on essence and associated dualisms (and the hierarchy of theory and value that these can support) and a shift to the idea of the exotic as a relation, as an emergence and strange perturbation of potential, and as a methodology of cross-register that can reveal dynamics within and across human populations and their practices that are otherwise hidden or suppressed in the con- structions of ruling theory and understandings. My whole discussion, of course, is premised on a commitment to anthropology as not so much a discipline among so many others in the social sciences, for instance, but as a truly foundational or re-foundational discipline vital to the building of an authentic understanding of humanity upon the diverse and differentiating ground of what human being is and is continually becoming.


I wish to thank colleagues in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen with whom I discussed some of the themes of this article and particularly Bjorn Bertelsen, Ornulf Gulbrandsen, and Olaf Smedal. Terry Evens and Caroline Ifeka read an early draft and were willing discussants.

1 Clifford (1988: 255-6) presents a now well-known and important critical appreciation of Said’s thesis. He makes the major observation that its style and uncertainties express dimensions of the current processes of globalization. He indicates that the anti-orientalist argument of Said is itself highly ideological. Clifford supports Said’s disagreements with the dualisms of orientalism but he is less certain concerning Said’s critique, for example, of arguments relevant to anthropology of cultural coherence. This and other criticisms by Said (the inattention to subject diversity and over-collectivist representations by orientalists) have, I think, been more widely accepted by anthropologists since Clifford published his response. Clifford in his reaction extends a disquiet with what may be considered Said’s individualism or commitment to globalizing value that embeds a discourse of dominance and is discussed in different ways by various anthropologists (e.g. Dumont 1986; 1994; Kapferer 2).

2 Loti is the pseudonym of Julien Viaud, said by him to mean ‘red flower’ and to have been bestowed on him by the natives of a Polynesian island – a similar conceit commonly expressed by many anthropologists as signs of their thorough acceptance and inclusion in the world of the Other.

3 These observations have some resonance with actualities in Australia which take their contemporary form in dominant Australian egalitarian values. This is aggressively asserted in Australian nationalist populist imaginary – and often hegemonically engaged by the officers of the state. This imaginary suffers little in the way of difference or, at least, that kind of difference that is not conceived to be based in nature, as this is culturally and ideologically asserted. Difference that is ‘unnatural’ is overcome by ideologically influenced programmes of assimilation or exclusion, as in state policies towards immigration and refugees, or by some kind of combination of the two as exemplified in current Australian state policy relating to the intervention concerning Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (see Kapferer 212).

4 I develop this concept from an idea of Gilles Deleuze in The logic of sense (24) concerning minority languages. Much of Deleuze’s philosophical work can be understood as a reconsideration of hitherto suppressed philosophical arguments in the Western tradition. Henri Bergson, who is a major reference in Deleuze’s work and crucial for his understanding of cinema, which I discuss at the end of the essay, was largely excluded from serious consideration by Durkheim, Mauss, and others associated with them.

5 Major disagreement focuses precisely on the issue as to whether Western-centred analytical frames can be applied to caste. Thus scholars who oppose Dumont assert in the main orientations derived from Max Weber or Karl Marx, or else revisions of such perspectives, in current globalizing circumstances. Reactions to Dumont are complicated not merely because of the scholarly stakes involved (which are significant), but also because his approach has some import for agendas of practical reform relating to caste in India. Dumont, of course, is highly aware of the human degradation that attaches to caste processes in modern India. But he suggests that this is exacerbated in Western and globalizing modernity and even by certain progressivist policies which assume a universalizing truth that they do not necessarily have. Within anthro- pology, the most significant critic of the Dumont position has been McKim Marriott (196), whose point, interestingly, is that Dumont is not centred sufficiently within the phenomenology of Hindu thought. Marriott’s approach is the basis for alternative perspectives upon caste among anthropologists and is influential for the development of what boils down to a rival comparative perspective (e.g. Strathern 1988; 24). Rio and Smedal (29) present an important and thorough investigation of the Dumont argument in relation to his major critics.

6 My representation of Dumont here is my extension from him and is not one that he develops. The approach here is a dynamic perspective, as against Dumont’s more static representation. None the less, I think, it is in keeping with his holistic orientation.

7 I am extending here the implications of Dumont’s own discussion of the disastrous religious violence at the time of Partition in 194.

8 It must be stressed that the concept of hierarchy in Dumont is one that achieves its particular develop- ment through the understanding of caste relations in India and allows him to develop a specialist under- standing that is distinct from common-sense notions of hierarchy within Western cultural and historical contexts. The concept of hierarchy – despite his specialist usage – maintains a confusion for critics of Dumont, who align it with concepts such as inequality and the associated notions of class and stratification, which are altogether different from Dumont’s hierarchy concept (see Iteanu 29). Dumont, unsuccessfully as it has turned out, has tried to develop the concept of hierarchy into one of genuine comparative worth that is systematic with his holist orientation (see Kapferer 212).


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Comment pensent les anthropologues : configurations de l’exotique


L’anthropologie a souvent été critiquée pour son exotisme et son orientalisme : c’est là l’un des paradoxes d’une discipline consacrée à l’étude comparative de la différence et de la diversité. Ces critiques sont ici le pivot d’une discussion plus large sur l’importance de l’anthropologie dans les sciences humaines et sociales. L’accent est mis sur l’importance vitale de l’exotique pour l’étude anthropologique de la différence et pour sa cohérence et sa pertinence dans la compréhension de l’humanité dans son ensemble.

Bruce Kapferer is currently Professor Emeritus, University of Bergen and Honorary Professor, University College London. He has held the Chairs of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide, University College London, and James Cook University. His books include A celebration of demons (Indiana University Press, 1983, 1991), Legends of people, myths of state (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988, 211), and The feast of the sorcerer (University of Chicago Press, 199). His 2 and Counting: Kubrick, Nietzsche, and anthropology will be published by Prickly Paradigm Press in 2014. His field research is in Southern Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka, and, most recently, Kerala, India.

University  of  Bergen,  Department  of  Social  Anthropology,  Fosswinckelsgate  6,  Bergen,  Norway  N-,  4


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One response to “How Anthropologists Think: Configurations of the Exotic

  1. EMAIL COMMENT from an Aussie Academic at Uni-Adelaide who is a China specialist married toa Chinese, 28 September 2023:

    “What a great idea!”

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