Bioethics Blogs

On Deanthropologizing Anthropology — An Essay on Tarek Elhaik’s “The Incurable Image” by Tobias Rees

“Are cultural anthropologists ready to shed their habit of using society and culture? (…) No, I don’t feel so. (…) It seems to me that many anthropologists wish to keep the human (…). There is a tricky problem here: concentrating around the human could mean either maintaining this character apart from other entities — the former beings of ‘nature’ defining by contrast what could be called the ‘humanistic’ position —, or it could mean accepting that, as soon as you take the human into consideration, it is suddenly redistributed (not disintegrated, that’s the whole point, but redistributed) in many other roles and connections that make its earlier figurations unrecognizable.”

Bruno Latour



Could one deanthropologize anthropology? Is it possible to differentiate anthropology, science of the human, from the figure of ‘Man’ as it emerged in the 18th century and made anthropology possible (Foucault 1966)?

At first these questions may sound bizarre — and an anthropology journal an odd choice for asking them. However, the will to leave the human behind is a prominent feature of what one could call contemporary anthropologies of nature. The reference here is largely to the so-called ontological turn (for reviews see Kohn 2015; Boellstorff 2016) and multi-species anthropology (Helmreich and Kirksey 2010; Kirksey 2014).[1]



Admittedly, I find the writings of the multi-species anthropologists and the ontologists — the two groups are best kept separate, precisely insofar as many of the former are not actually ontologists at all — hugely fascinating: I find myself intrigued by the effort to break free from ‘the human.’ I find it fascinating to read anthropology books on mushrooms (Tsing 2015) and cheese (Paxson 2012), on rocks (Povinelli 2016), water and waves (Helmreich 2009; 2015), pigeons (Jerolmak 2013), and insects (Raffles 2010) — to read them as an effort to imagine anthropology as independent from the concept of the human that has historically made anthropology possible.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.