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RETHINKING PUBLIC ANTHROPOLOGY THROUGH EPISTEMIC POLITICS AND THEORETICAL PRACTICE


MICHAL OSTERWEIL University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

We need to take the opening which [the cry] another world is possible presents very seriously. For another world to be possible, really possible, the reality of that possibility effectively implies that we dont quite know how to respond, how to continue, how to inherit. Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers In recent years there has been a marked increase in the literature on engaged or public anthropology; moreover, denitions of engagement have been opened up to include a multiplicity of ways and forms that anthropological work can be seen to be politically engagedranging from direct activism, to critical deconstructions of dominant categories, to teaching (Low and Merry 2010; Checker, Vine, and Wali 2010; Brondo 2010; Mullins 2011; Lamphere 2004; Lassiter 2005; Peacock 1997; Borofsky 2011; Juris and Khasnabish 2013; Hale 2008; Speed 2008a). However, we have yet to sufciently explore the ways in which epistemological and ontological critiques of representation, the real, and the political can also participate in redening such forms of engagement and impact. By combining insights from new visions and forms of political action emerging from contemporary social movements, in particular actions that involve and produce forms of knowing in which complexity, uncertainty, reexivity and criticality are key, I believe we can enrich our vision of the public and political potential of anthropology, as well as of knowledge production more generally.

CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 28, Issue 4, pp. 598620. ISSN 0886-7356, online ISSN 1548-1360. the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/cuan.12029

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RETHINKING PUBLIC ANTHROPOLOGY THROUGH EPISTEMIC POLITICS AND THEORETICAL PRACTICE

In what follows I develop an argument for augmenting anthropologys scope of what counts as engaged scholarship, moving toward an epistemic denition that understands the relationship between knowledge and action as inherently political and at the heart of current work needing to be done both by social movements and academics alike.1 This means moving beyond an intellectual recognition of the political nature of the relationship between knowledge and action (c.f. Foucault and Gordon 1980; Haraway 1988), to a more thorough and practical understanding of the ways in which critical intellectual and theoretical work, including analysis, deconstruction and critique, are themselves material and potentially politically powerful practices. This in turn requires seeing our writing, research, and the epistemological and ontological frameworks and categories we use to perform these, as themselves both productive and politically charged.2 Without dismissing established forms of engagement such as doing advocacy, performing public service, or participating in policy-making on behalf of those we study, I argue that we should also employ anthropologys particular methods and forms of knowledge production to expand our understanding and our practice of political engagement. This includes its access to reading and engaging alternative cosmo-visions, practices and epistemological frameworks as well as recognizing that these alternatives can actually traverse worlds and realities, potentially transforming the anthropologists own world(s)as well as his/her understanding of it. Recent debates in anthropological theory and method make for a particularly rich point of departure for the kind of epistemic and ontological politics I argue for.3 In particular, forms of what Marcus (1999) terms critical anthropology concerned with post-representational ethnographies of complex, emergent, and contemporary sites or interlocutors (Rabinow et al. 2008; Tsing 2005; Fischer 2009; Mol 2002), which evade bounded or ontologically realist demarcation, can offer crucial tools for, and insights into, an epistemic and ontological practice that enables or augments alternatives worlds and alternative forms of efcacious action. While social movements are exemplary of the kinds of complex, emergent, and recursive objects anthropology has begun to develop tools to apprehend, as of yet critical anthropology has paid relatively little attention to social movements, struggles, or politics more broadly (see Law 2004; Casas-Cortes, Osterweil, and Powell 2013). In fact, for this reason (among others), critical anthropology is often pitted against, or seen as opposed to, public, activist, or engaged anthropology. This opposition poses one of the major obstacles to the expanded notion of engagement I want to pursue. In this essay, I argue that moving beyond this divide is absolutely
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crucial for arriving at a more holistic and effective vision of engagement. This involves understanding how our assumptions about politics, action, and intellectual work help to perpetuate such unnecessary distinctions. I make this argument drawing on ethnographic research with activist networks of the Italian alter-globalization movementa movement that became visible with the 300,000-person strong, 2001 protests against the G8 in Genoa and is often known as Movimento dei Movimenti(MoM). Central to this movement are a series of material practices involving analyses, deliberation, research, investigation, questioning, thinking, and theorizingwhat I call theoretical practicesdone through the production of texts, reexive discourse, and more subtle or virtual forms of intervention. A great deal of contemporary activism is constituted by experimental, reexive, critical knowledge-practices, all of which are meant to reexively, and even recursively develop better or more effective politics. This is done largely through producing subjectivities that know, think, and do differently (Osterweil 2010; Casas-Cort es, Osterweil, and Powell 2008), often through what one might think of as a non-dual or open-ended epistemology, in which process and resonance are as if not more important than Truth, objectivity, and end-points. As such, and counter to traditional perspectives that treat activism or political action as constitutively distinct from academic or knowledge-work, the centrality of these theoretical practices suggests that today epistemology is a crucial terrain of political struggle and transformation; however, not in the ways we usually assume. To explicate these points, I begin by discussing the activist research v. cultural critique debate on engagement. I seek to reframe the valid concerns raised by Hale (2006) and others by considering the ways in which an opposition between these two approaches establishes false divisions between the real world and academia and prevents us from seeing important parallels between the work and world of academics and those of activists. Having pointed out my concerns about the divide, I then argue that knowledge is a crucial political terrain, and that social movements like the Italian MoM are involved in sophisticated forms of knowledge production that resemble some of academias most sophisticated theoretical practitioners. I conclude by suggesting that since a good deal of work done by social movements can be considered theoretical, analytical, and criticalmirroring many academic practices and valuesthe divide between academia and activism blurs, creating a novel space for rethinking the boundaries of engaged or political anthropology, in turn broadening our view of efcacious political action.
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ACTIVIST RESEARCH V. CULTURAL CRITIQUE Interestingly, both activist research and cultural critique emerged as responses to the increasing recognition of anthropologys role in maintaining systems of oppression and colonization that were unintentionally harming the marginalized communities anthropologists were working with (Hale 2006, 2008; Speed 2008b; Scheper-Hughes 1995). Whereas proponents of cultural critique responded to this identity crisis by advocating that these political and epistemological problems should be addressed almost exclusively in the realm of the textual and theoretical, even arguing against direct forms of activism or engagement to avoid well-meaning yet awed and simplistic impacts, proponents of activist research went the other way. They saw the crisis as pointing to the need for anthropologists to work explicitly on behalf of marginalized and subordinated communities in order to address these legacies through the process and relationships of research, actively decolonizing methodologies and by more directly orienting the work of anthropologists to the needs of the community (Hale 2008; Speed 2008b; Smith 1999). In other words, both groups were concerned for the communities anthropologists traditionally worked with, but whereas activist researchers felt they had to do something on behalf of these communities, and felt that it was unjust not to, many cultural critics believed that more intervention would likely lead to more harm. While there is more to say about the differences, what I am interested in here is considering the charged nature of this divide, particularly from the side of those advocating more engagement. Proponents of activist-research are troubled by the suggestion that deconstructive critical interventions and sophisticated analyses are sufciently political, believing that it is a self-serving justication for disengagement. I am sympathetic to the concern underlying this position, and also wish for more explicitly political engagement by scholars. However, opposing critical anthropology to political work doesnt resolve the problem of engagement: instead it perpetuates a number of false oppositions between political action and intellectual work that in turn rest on an ultimate cynicism about the substantial political potential of critical knowledge. If we consider quotes from of a seminal piece by Charles Hale (2006), titled Activist Research v. Cultural Critique, we can begin to see core tendencies and assumptions underlying much of this work. Two that I will highlight are an emphasis on working with people in the eld, and the division between analytical work and political action. According to Hale the difference between the two can be summed up as follows:
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By activist research, I mean a method through which we afrm a political alignment with an organized group of people in struggle and allow dialogue with them to shape each phase of the process, from conception of the research topic to data collection to verication and dissemination of the results. (2006:97, emphasis added) For Hale, and other proponents of activist research, true engagement assumes, even requires, a relationship to a community or group of people in struggle. This is not only premised on a denition of a eld of struggle outside of the academy, it in a sense implies that the absence of such a relationship essentially removes the possibility of substantive political intervention. While an anthropologists relationship to a group of people in struggle, or to their eld-site, certainly can be an important site for political intervention, questions about whether it should be limited to such a relationship, as well as what constitutes the eld, remain (see Marcus 2002). A second concern exemplary of this division is the distinction between complexity and political action. Hale writes: Proponents of cultural critique, driven by the search for ever-greater analytical complexity and sophistication, object to the politically induced analytical closure that activist research often requires. . . . Both these differenceshow political commitments transform research methods and at times prioritize analytical closure over further complexitymake activist research difcult to defend in an academic setting, especially when the arbiters of academic value tend to be proponents of cultural critique. (2006:100101, emphasis added) Although what Hale means by the analytical closure required of activist researcherson the ground and in the heat of the everyday life of social movementsmakes sense on a visceral level, it rests on some problematic assumptions about the kinds of knowledge and truth claims we associate with political action and activism. It is often presumed or implied that values and logics highly valorized within academic practicecomplexity, critique, questioning, investigating, deconstructing, and writing (text)are somehow opposed to, or at odds with, those valued and needed in movements. Conversely, it is assumed that the raison d etre of movements or activists is to suspend complexity in order to take action. Such views rest on a limited or positivist conception of action, subsequently overlooking forms of action that involve thought, complexity, contemplation, or problematization (Stengers 2005).
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Ultimately, both the assertion that engagement requires a relationship to a group of people in struggle and the call for analytical closure as a prerequisite for action, rest on false assumptions. First is a notion that academic and activist practice(s) are constitutively or essentially distinct; or more precisely, that action, associated with activism and politics, is essentially different than thinking, analysis, critiquewhich are in turn associated with scholarship. This corresponds with the presumption that there is a clear-cut boundary between the real world where struggles take place and the academy, a detached realm where textual and knowledge production happen. These ideas in turn rest on a particular and limited notion of the political and a modernist or realist ontology that takes the political eld and its constituent elements for granted, consequently neglecting possibilities for radically different ontologies, political entities, and forms of subjectivity and action. In other words, this division, often justied by calls for pragmatism and realism, continues to treat action as that which takes place within the existing political terrainworking within the dominant ontological and theoretical understandings of politics, premised on solid measurable outcomes. Moreover, states, NGOs, parties, and individuals are the kinds of entities assumed to exist therein. The implication is that on another planethe textualanalysis, critique, and knowledge-production are free to participate in imagining other possible ways of being, other possible social arrangements, other possible worlds, but these alternatives remain relegated to the space of the imaginary, never really taken seriously, never given a chance to take hold or ourish. The Italian MoM challenges many of these assumptions. In what follows I will introduce the MoM and the centrality of theoretical practice, showing many connections, similarities, and symmetries between these supposedly separate worlds and discussing what this means for politics and engagement today.
THE ITALIAN MoM: THEORETICAL PRACTICE AND EPISTEMIC POLITICS During eldwork with the Italian MoMself-named for its internal heterogeneitymy own aspirations of being a politically engaged ethnographer were confounded many times over. I found myself faced with an ethnographic eld that was more like a barely assembled puzzle than a unied whole, and I was thrown by the contradictory desires and aims of those with whom I worked, and what that meant for my own ethnographic choices and questions. The epistemological and methodological difculties crystallized for me through a particularly rich and complicated moment during my dissertation research. On January 2930, 2005, Italian
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philosopher Giorgio Agamben participated on a panel as part of the rst seminar of the Nomad University, held in an old gymnasium in Venice. In a speech later titled, What Is a Movement? Agamben spoke of a certain malaise and difculty he had when dealing with the concept of social movements: I realize that I did not know what the word movement meant: despite its lack of specicity, everyone seems to understand it but no one denes it. For instance . . . why was a politically decisive instance called movement? . . . It is not possible to leave this concept undened, we must think about movement because this concept is our unthought, and so long as it remains such it risks compromising our choices and strategies . . . nor do I want to do this because it is my job to dene concepts, as a habit. I really do think that the a-critical use of concepts can be responsible for many defeats. I propose to start a research that tries to dene this word. (Agamben 2005) I listened to this speech via webstream as part of my eldwork and out of my own political and theoretical interests in Agambens views on politics. I had returned from Italy a few months before, having spent one year of pre-dissertation research trying to make sense of the power, in both presence and absence, of Italys alter-globalization movement. As I sat at my computer, perched above and far beyond the heads of the hundreds of activists physically seated in the old gymnasium, Agambens words resonated quite strongly and unexpectedly triggering one of those slowly unfolding and rare aha! moments. My rst reaction was to feel a sense of relief that someone of Agambens stature would publicly admit to confusion with respect to the disparate eld of actors and practices called MoM, validating my own difculties in delineating this movement historically, geographically, sociologically, and politically. At the same time, this instantiation of the basic question What is movement? in this specic context and with this level of philosophical sophistication, became a particularly important instantiation of a material practice of questioning and reexivity I had observed and would continue to observe countless times throughout my research. Since I had arrived in Italy in June 2002 to begin studying this immense thing that everyone was then calling il movimento dei movimenti, I had been almost overwhelmed by the task. On the one hand I struggled to nd ways to draw conceptual borders around what everyone called a movement but would not t into any of the conceptual, theoretical, or even commonsense frameworks with which I was used to thinking about and understanding social movements. On the other, I was continuously struck by the fact that so many participants
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seemed to share this confusion, and expressed this by repeatedly asking questions, or making enigmatic statements, about what this movement was, or should be. They simultaneously seemed awed and puzzled by it. For example, the owner of a popular bar where many informal movement gatherings took place explained, Its strange, I dont know how to explain it. . . . What moves is like nothing I have seen before, its a sensibility, an afnity. Another leader expressed his awe and puzzlement in a large meeting, stating performatively, I believe that this movement is a woman referring to the fact that the movement seemed to function according to logics of difference, emergence, and complexity. Perhaps most poignant was the declaration We dont understand this movement! expressed by a perplexed yet exuberant leader from the south of Italy to an auditorium of thousands the day after a wildly successful march.4 Despite these mutual uncertainties and questions, however, it was also undeniable that this movement was there and very real. It was comprised of concrete events and people and even had substantial political clout. It had brought over 300,000 people to the streets to protest the policies and legitimacy of the G8 in Genoa in July 2001. It was a major cause of unprecedented levels of social mobilizations lling Italy for two years following Genoa. It sent hundreds/thousands of participants to World Social Forums in Brazil, making Italians second only to Brazilians and Argentineans in attendance. It saw local social forums spring up in almost every Italian city. It convened hundreds on an ongoing basis in numerous seminars, meetings, and other events, making it one of the most vibrant alterglobalization hubs in Europe. Moreover, it changed the political vocabulary and horizon of political possibilities, within Italy and beyond. The Nomad University seminar in which Agamben spoke was an event in which movement as concept, idea, and aspiration stared the material movement comprised of activist bodies, marches, and organizations in the face, simultaneously embodying and arguing the political nature of thought and concepts and rejecting any neat separation between the two. It was also an event in which the division between eldwork and my own life and worlds were confused: taking place in cyberspace, but also in Italy and the United States; situated within a movement context, but looking very much like a university lecture, and even named as part of a nomad university. This was an empirically and epistemologically complicated eldwork moment. But it was also intellectually and theoretically productive on a personal level. I have joked that I was not sure whether my notes on this event belonged in the academic notebooks I used for class, my eld-notes, or my personal journal. Agambens malaise, and his own iteration of what I began to term the What
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is movement? mantra, traversed empirical, political, and philosophical terrains. It not only conrmed how difcult it is to speak of a social movement as an objectively real entity existing in the eldi.e., the real worldit also demonstrated how mutually intertwined and similar the worlds and practices of movements are with those of academics.
THEORETICAL PRACTICE The more time I have spent studying the Italian MoM and other autonomist and Zapatista or neo-zapatista networks,5 the more I have been struck by how much movement activity is constituted by a set of practices that in diverse and material ways can be considered analytical and theoretical. Such practices pursue knowledge about the political and social context in order to arrive at better understandings of the present while also working to theorize, create, and posit alternatives to this present. Moreover, many MoM activists I spoke with see in movement the call for a positive and ongoing practice of investigation, experimentation, and imagination. The open-ended, experimental nature of these theoretical practices are not only opposed to ideas of analytical closure, they also stand in stark contrast to the ideological dogmatisms of past leftist paradigms, with their rigid categories and expectations of the vanguard, revolution, etc. At the same time, these practices emphasize and focus on the theoretical and investigative moment of political practice. In other words, many MoM activists pose problems to that which is considered politics, experimenting, evaluating, and reexively theorizing alternative possibilities as they go. By this I mean that central to what these activists do on a day-to-day basis are a series of material practices of analyses, deliberation, contemplation, and research. Materially, this means many activists produce texts, participate in spaces aimed at the collective or multi-vocal production of meaning and political discourse, and engage in cultural and virtual actions that offer alternatives to what people consider reality and possibility to be. The texts produced for MoM are too numerous to count. They range from the more formal or polished, such as those published in journals or books, and others that are more tentative and informal, such as interventions on listservs or webchats or newsletters handed out at protests. In addition to texts are the theories and analyses produced collectively in public spaces. For example, key to movements are gatherings and encounters (encuentros), meetings, and informal group discussions, where analysis, deconstruction, and political readings are rendered public, then discussed, debated, refuted, embraced. As with the texts, they also range from more formal gatherings, such as the Uninomade seminar described earlier and
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myriad conferences on various political themes, to more ordinary, small-scale activist meetings that take place regularly, as well as large meetings held after major protests where thousands attend. Beyond Italy, World and Regional Social Forums, originating in 2001, are excellent examples of this last sort of space and point to the political importance and centrality of collective, reective technology for the larger alter-globalization movement as well. Notably, to my knowledge, Italy is the only country where nearly every city and many towns created its own social forum. In addition to the more or less clear-cut production of theory and analysis, a great deal of day-to-day activism can be understood to be part of an extended theoretical or experimental moment in which the object is to test out or make visible the possibilities of new arrangements or imaginaries of the social, as well as to think within and against current formationsincluding the market, the state, and the university. Success, then, is achieved by impacting peoples imaginations and desires: making imagining other worlds and other institutions possible, rather than creating immediate or actual transformations in the present. Much as poststructural interventions interrupt hegemonic arrangements (Gibson-Graham 1996, 2000), activists chip away at the hegemonic or totalizing vision of social and political reality, instigating experimental or spectacular actions that have semiotic or preguring effects on peoples imaginations and impinge on their way of engaging with and perceiving society as it currently stands. Examples of this virtual theoretical practice range from experimental interventions in daily life and the city, such as the self-reduction of supermarket prices performed as a rite to San Precario (Saint of Precarity), to the occupation of an abandoned space to create a laboratory for re-imagining the city, as with a temporary squat in the center of Bologna, 2004.6 Finally, key to this theoretical practice is privileging a kind of theory and knowledge more interested in opening up questions and processes of becoming than promoting a particular program or goal. Against formulaic, ideological, and dogmatic forms of knowing implicit in traditional forms of leftist practice, the theoretical practice of these Italian activists points to the emergence of a new political ethic based on a different kind of epistemologyone founded on a commitment to critical reexivity and an open-ended, processual trajectory. These practices help create the conditions of possibility for new ways of being in the world, challenge what we consider to be valid or viable knowledge or truth claims, and reconceptualize the kinds of real entities that populate the socio-political terrains.
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Take, for example, these words of a Bolognese activist, who explained the importance of the MoM, and the broader alter-globalization movement: [It] in a sense resituates all of a series of classical polarities of the 20th century, challenging precisely their polarity: Reform/Revolution; Vanguard/Class; Seizing Power/Classical Reformism; Violence/Non-Violence. . . . This performs a grand squat of the imagination in which I am the vanguard, but I am not the vanguard, rather I am just one part. (Interview, Bologna, July 2002) Interestingly, these movements not only embrace the uncertainty, complexity, and partiality of their own knowledge; they also see sophisticated theoretical and philosophical interrogations as a key part of real political work. This includes grappling with notions of the political and political action that push against traditional, more modernist conceptions of these, struggling to discover durable forms and institutions outside the gures of the political party and the state. As they do this, they work to develop new language(s) and narratives that can more effectively grasp and describe these forms and the different political logics they are premised on. As this activist from Naples, also part of the Disobbedienti network, describes the purpose of the MoM, the goal is not to win elections or take up the seat of power: [We are more interested in] the need to de-authoritize power, to disarticulate power, to progressively break the mechanisms of traditional political representation. While today in Italy and in the world there exists a real crisis of the political . . . we are the only possible anti-body, the only possibility for a rethinking of the political in terms of, precisely, real political participation. (Interview, Porte Alegre, January 2003) There were many echoes to this sentiment. Following the third European Social Forum, a network of Italian activists published an open letter on several international websites as well as on their own listserves in an attempt to evaluate the contemporary situation and prospects of the movement. In the letter, following a longer written assessment of the Forum, the activists conclude: There are no shortcuts and if there are they are only table tricks. There is only experimentation as method and substance of the becoming-movement. (www.globalmagazine.org, October 20, 2004) In all of these, the novelty and importance of the MoM is not about nding new solutions or Truths for organizing social change, nor about effacing complexity
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in order to take action. Rather, in the case of the Bologna activist, politics becomes about questioning all of the assumptions or taken for granted categories of thought that accompanied older modalities of pursuing social change. Similarly, in the case of Global Magazine, movement activists recognize the movement as a sort of puzzle with no clear-cut solutions. However, rather than see this as a problem to be xed or solved, they identify in this inexplicability the call for a positive and ongoing practice of investigation, experimentation, and imaginationwhat they term becoming. Similarly if we look at the geography and architecture of the movement, we nd that key spaces and practices including assemblies, seminars, and journals are premised on the aspiration to open up debate, discussion, even imaginations, rather than simply win a political or ideological battle. The seminar from which Agambens quote comes is itself a good example. It is part of a project dened as an itinerant laboratory of critical thought; Researchers, teachers, students and activists give life to a free university. A practice that is theoretical and political in contrast to the misery of the forms of action of the university, and the smug cultural self-sufciency that often characterizes the movement of movements. (Mezzadra and Bascetta 2005) One interviewee even drew my attention to how one could tell the peak period of movement was in decline once the large protests were no longer followed by well-attended assemblies where all that was done was talk, review, critique, etc. Interestingly, according to him, it was in those assembliesrather than on the streets or in the parliamentthat things really happened. While certainly one can dismiss him as being overly optimistic about the role of debate and intellectual production, I believe it points to the centrality of these interrogative and theoretical practices. As such, the concept theoretical practice not only recognizes an important function of social movements, but also expands our own notions of what theory and knowledge are and do. In a present dened largely by uncertainty and the absence of hegemonic frameworks for social changefor academics and activists bothrecognizing that auto-ethnographic theoretical work is a common social movement practice can point to ways in which academic and activist practice share a great deal in common and can potentially be seen to participate jointly in making the way for new worlds.
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RETHINKING ANALYTICAL CLOSURE TOWARD AN EPISTEMIC CULTURAL POLITICS Interestingly, many of the theoretical practices I have described enact and valorize several of the characteristics Hale (2006) implicitly contrasts to truly activist or political practice. Returning to Hales concern about the discrepancy between activists needs for politically induced analytical closure versus cultural critics desire for ever-greater analytical complexity and sophistication, it is important to confront not only limited conceptions about social movement knowledge, but also dominant assumptions about the ways that knowledge and action are linked in our dominant culture. Contrary to many depictions of activism, my research suggests that rather than suspend complexity, questioning, and uncertainty in order to act, movements are often seeking forms of action that work with and through uncertainty and openness. Rather than decry analytical complexity, they work to remake both a politics and sociality in which complexity and reection (reexivity) are both acceptable and productive. In contrast to the absolutist, positivist, and legalist norms of much policy and political thinking (not to mention traditional science), Italian activists seemed to be discovering and promoting a form of practice based in partiality, open-endedness, and uncertainty. Taken together, these activist practices refute the importance of analytical closure, arguing instead for a more nuanced, contingent, even messy form of political practice. As one activist articulated to me one year after the Iraq war had started:

If in the past it was acceptable (and expected) for the movement to have the slogan, No to War with no ifs or buts!; today it is better to say, No to War with many ifs and many buts! (Interview, Bologna, 2004) As the quote above suggests, this does not mean erasing or ignoring uncertainty, or suspending complexity, rather, it means actingdemanding No to Warin full acknowledgment of the complexity. While Hale contrasts politically induced analytical closure of groups of people in struggle and the analytical complexity preferred by cultural critics, it is important to acknowledge that politically induced analytical closure is not particularly unique to the space of social movements. On the contrary, the overall assumption in our political culture is that in order to act complexities need to be, at least momentarily, suspended. Analytical closuresthe suspension of complexity in order to take a position or make a moveare, then, the dominant condition or modality by which claims, propositions, facts, and knowledge-claims in general
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are made, whether they belong to natural sciences, social sciences, economics or even policy worlds. That is to say, the expectation for making any truth claims or doing politics in our society is that we bracket complexity (and then bracket the fact that bracketing takes place) (Latour 1999). We are not only expected to ignore or hide any uncertainties or alternative possibilities present at the time of taking actionin policy, science, or economywe are actually supposed to believe that the elimination of these complexities and ambiguities is a good and necessary condition for acting in our world. The question becomes: What kinds of actions are enabled or disabled by this presumption? While Hale is by no means suggesting activists are simple-minded, or that they eschew complexity, the concept of analytical closure seems to leave the larger epistemological frameworks intact and misses the opportunity to push further his own recognition that it is in the tension between utopian ideals and practical politics that activist practice and activist research can thrive (2006:100). In this, perhaps a more radical and politically productive approach might push the question of whether political action needs to presume such closure. In other words, we can acknowledge that movements have to take political positions and make concrete demands even when they know full well that the situation is complex and that causes may not be simple, fully knowable, or transparent. Another aspect of this dominant epistemic culture is a fear that poststructuralism and other forms of anti-foundationalist intellectual work are inherently opposed to action, or worse, will lead to inactiona concern shared by many activists as well (see Dempsey and Rowe 2004; Maeckelbergh 2009). As such, truly taking on an understanding of the epistemic as a political terrain of struggle requires shifting our understanding of what constitutes both the criteria for action, and what constitutes action. While we should certainly be weary of any paralysis or nihilism incessant critique may provoke in an academic (or anyone else), critique is not necessarily disabling or opposed to action. Moreover, our fear of inaction can lead us to assume that taking action is always best. (One need only look to the current discourse on what we know and dont know about the economic crises to recognize that certainties arent necessarily better.) It also tends to suggest that doing somethingdespite complexityalways constitutes the best form of political commitment to ones eld site, or the world. The truth is that such a political modality is part of the modus operandi of contemporary politics, very welcome in traditional political spaces and discourses. As Foucault (1994) argues, one of the key problems of politics today is that it operates polemically, denying the sincere questions, uncertainties, and problems facing the eld of politics, and
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those working for social change. I am not advocating doing nothing, but instead suggesting that what and how we do something might look different than traditional notions of both politics and action.7 Social movementslike many individuals and organizations involved in producing both action and knowledge todayare themselves seeking more ethical criteria and conditions for making claims and taking action. In the process, they are producing new subjects and new forms of doing politics that embrace rather than eschew uncertainty, reexivity, thought, highlighting how our epistemic culture is itself a key site for political struggle (Osterweil 2010). Reorienting our notions of what action is enriches both our understanding of the role of the epistemic as a material terrain of struggle as well as the epistemic practices we might employ in opening up our own forms of political engagement.

EPISTEMIC AND ONTOLOGICAL POLITICS: New Forms of Engagement One of the key criticisms of cultural critique is that its deconstructive, post-structuralist approach actually takes away from real political work, and therefore contributes to the problem. However, I believe the problem is less about the political potency of tools such as deconstruction and critiquetools that by recognizing the historical specicity and contingency of things or interrupting hegemonic arrangements can help enable the existence and growth of alternatives (Gibson-Graham 2000, 1996; Escobar 1995; Grossberg 1992)and has more to do with the fact that we still do not fully take on the consequences of employing such epistemological and methodological tools more consistently and thoroughly. Instead we continue to presume a division between the textual and the real, political action and intellectual work, failing to take seriously the other worlds, ways of knowing, and alternate realities deconstructing dominant entities such as the state, economy, and the individual both entail and require. For example, many scholars will describe and acknowledge the limits of the state form, market society, traditional conceptions of power, and the individual, arguing for a networked, micro-political understanding of social reality in their academic work. However, when acting politically ourselves, we seem more reticent to use the insights of these theories to shift our own forms of political action. I believe that this is largely a result of the strange bracketing of the real world (with real politics) and our own material lives, as well as a compulsion to a form of pragmatic realism that pushes for expediency over desirability. These tendencies
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contribute to a limited and often counterproductive understanding of engagement that ends up reinforcing rather than undermining the current political arrangement. Take, for example, the following quote from Nancy Scheper-Hughes exhorting young anthropologists to go against the grain and become engaged: So how does one survive in the academy as a militant anthropologist? Ironically, by keeping ones public engagements fairly private and very much like the rst generation of working mothers, you do double-time, keeping up with expected home-front duties, with the expected rate of scholarly production of books, articles, and graduate students, participating in academic meetings, etc., while simultaneously doing human rights work, serving on international panels, giving keynote speeches in places and at events that dont matter a hoot to ones peers. (Scheper-Hughes 2009:34) As a young, aspiring-to-be-engaged anthropologist, I empathize greatly with Scheper-Hughes. However, this paragraph captures many of the ways current conceptions of engagement may unintentionally undermine progressive political intervention. First, the suggestion that to be a public anthropologist one needs to take on a second shift [outside waged labor] but not complain about it, re-instantiates the notion that academia is not in the real world, or that political struggles such as those over labor in academia are not as political or vital as the work on behalf of other communities. Moreover, it misses foundational cultural logics of productivity and work as sites for political intervention. This is particularly troublesome given the contemporary political and economic climate within universitiesrecognizing of course that those universities (and the culture of work) are themselves part of broader cultures, systems, and processes. In so doing, we essentially condone or tacitly accept the foundational ideologies of capitalism and liberal modernity: the marketized environment overtaking universities, and the meager notions of democracy currently being peddled. We might appeal to radical deconstruction of capital, and the state in texts, but when it comes to our own practice we tend to move from a rather traditional political place. This leaves a series of unanswered questions, with substantial political implications: If we work with a social movement/group of people in struggle who are themselves propping up what some have coined the nonprot industrial complex (INCITE 2009) and preventing more fundamental critiques to emerge (see Ferguson 1994; Escobar 1995; Alvarez forthcoming), are we truly acting to the best of our political potential? Similarly, if our denitions of politics fall in with the
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liberal state-centered vision of politics and the current world order, are we helping those in struggle, or reinforcing the political status quo? Finally, and as I already mentioned, if we so directly claim our engagement on behalf of others suffering atrocities while remaining silent or complicit with respect to crucial issues of labor politics, racism, and freedom within the academy, what kind of politics and world are we helping to make? Ultimately, the debate on engaged scholarship tends to fall back on an ontological (and epistemological) privileging of a realist and modernist version of politics and of social reality. This privileging denies the political possibilities of other forms and contents. There are substantial political implications of recognizing that our own ontological frameworks determine what kinds of entities can and do exist. As Polanyi (2001) showed, part of the power of the Market Society rests on the fact that it not only appears to be disembedded from society, but that this disembedding appears the natural and the only form possible. When we start to recognize that the kinds of things that exist for us politicallystates, citizens, movements, NGOsare not natural, universal, or immutable, we can start to more seriously consider other possible contents to the political, and move beyond the form of realistic pragmatism that always confronts us with infernal alternatives (Pignarre and Stengers 2011). Presently, our political intervention seems constrained and dened by the current set of actors and institutions, as well as what is seen as politically and realistically possible. This means our political interventions depart from an assumption of the liberal individual, the sovereign nation-state, and the forms of being attributed to these. As a result we miss the more radical potential of the knowledges and worlds our ethnographic engagement often encounters or bears witness toworlds that already exist, but maybe small, nascent, and barely visible, as well as worlds that are real, but may not yet be actualized (Escobar and Osterweil 2010; Boellstorff 2008). As one of few disciplines in the Western academy privy to these virtualities, or at the very least to a plethora of examples that challenge universalizing assumptions, anthropology has an important potential contribution to make here. Can we imagine a kind of anthropological knowledge production that moves beyond engaging people in struggle within the terms prescribed by the current dominant worldview that denes both the political and the real as already known sites? A worldview where the political refers only and necessarily to states and macro-political entities that have formal decision-making and governing powers, and a real that corresponds to an objectively veriable mind-independent notion
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of reality in which cause and effect are clearly and simply related. Might we not be more coherent in thinking with some of the theoretical, philosophical, epistemological, and methodological innovations offered to us by the turn in social theory and anthropology to relational approaches in which the subject/object divide is not presumed, and in which the realness of virtual and micro-political terrains of becoming are taken seriously? Rather than allowing our theorizing and analysis of radical alternatives to remain locked in the troubled dichotomy between textual practices and practices in the real world, we need to develop a better understanding of how these practices intersect and overlap. In doing so we have the potential to recognize, in a much more radical and symmetrical sense, the theoretical or conceptual alternatives we encounter in the eld with entities such as the MoM. It is here that I believe many of the epistemological and methodological contributions of cultural critique, in particular critical anthropologies of the emergent, complex, and contemporary, offer possible ways out. Several components of these critical anthropologies offer points of departure for a radical epistemic politics. These include their critiques of positivism, and their recognition that many important objects and sites evade ontologically realist demarcations. These can in turn be better understood as assemblages that at times participate in the production of emergent forms of life, often involving textual or writing practices (writing machines) similar to those of academics (Marcus 2002; Fischer 2005). This takes us back to the initial division between activist research and cultural critique. How does one reconcile traditional notions of activist research when it comes to contending with heterogeneous, recursive, and networked structures that traverse supposed boundaries between objective reality and ideational potential? How can we allow a movement or a group of people in struggle to determine the research in such a situation, and to whom is the anthropologist accountable? While of course there are many cases where the parameters of a movement are more clearly dened, as in Hales own experience with the Awas Tingni in Nicaragua, ultimately we cannot take either the delimitation of a social movement, nor the kind of relationship between said movement and researcher for granted. As my own experience with the Italian MoM demonstrates, there are times when anthropological knowledge cannot simply be at the service of, or determined by, the desires of activists. This is both because a movement is not a clearly delimited entity, and because in its internal differentiation it may be comprised of diverse, even conicting desires over the kinds of action to take. These contradictions and hesitations are also a natural product of pursuing change in a period in which the
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failure of traditional leftist approaches have not been replaced by new dominant narratives or approaches. In other words, our interlocutors in the eld are themselves parts of projects engaged with the not-yet or emergent (Povinelli 2011; Fischer 1999), trying to bring into being other possible futures, other possible reals, for which terminology, let alone actions may not yet be known. As such, actors within a movement eld are themselves often involved in questioning, analyzing, and guring out what a movement isand that guring out is absolutely part of the action and nature of being movement, being in struggle. Here naming or theorizing something as a movement, or a movement of movementsas opposed to political party, union, revoltis itself political work. In such cases, co-laboring to understand the power in the name or termoften through practices that are presumed to be academic such as recording, writing, deconstructing, and analyzingcan become a form of collaboration and deeply political engagement. The key is getting beyond the narrow understandings of theory as immaterial and abstractthings that we merely discuss in scholarly texts and lecturesto a place where we can take these theories seriously enough to allow them to transform our practice, to actually transform the kinds of entities we see as real and possible, and thus our ways of being, behaving, and striving in the world. The goal is to understand the work of both movements and academics as trying to create the conditions of possibility for radically different forms of politics and sociality.
CONCLUSION At a very basic level academics and activists alike cohabit a world in which what it means to pursue social change does not have clear-cut or obvious answers. Despite claims to their radically distinct locations, then, both activists and academics inhabit in common a world where they engage with this political problematic. I believe that a large part of why we nd so much resonance between activist and academic practice is because transformative political practice today requires epistemological and ontological frameworks that are radically different from the Cartesian modernist ones that have been dominant, involving a different understanding of the relationship between how we know and how we act. It is no coincidence that both academics and activists are struggling to articulate new forms of knowing-being-doing; they are both products of the same episteme and are constantly coming up against its limits, whether in positivist methodologies or Marxist scientism. As a result, both are involved in a terribly confusing struggle to identify and undo the legacies of this episteme while still being part of it.
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It is at this intersectionof knowledge and practice, the recognition that a great deal of political practice today involves such work, and the crisis of liberal modernitywhere our potential for new forms of engagement lies. However, rather than continue to see engagement as something we do out there, it is crucial that we revisiontopographically and ontologicallyhow we see ourselves in relation to our objects of study. And that we recognize the common political and epistemological space in which we are situated. While there is much to celebrate in traditional forms of engagement, it is crucial that we also move away from understandings of engaged or political action in which sites, spaces, and forms are always and already thoroughly constituted by and of liberal-modernist notions of the political and the real. Given the critical times we live in, helping to revision and rethink the terrain of the political and the social more broadly might be some of the most helpful forms of engaged knowledge production to which anthropology and other disciplines can contribute.
NOTES
1. This piece builds on two pieces I coauthored (Casas-Cortes, Osterweil, and Powell 2013, 2008). While I take responsibility for the arguments I make here, I am very much indebted to my coauthors and the social-movement working group at UNCChapel Hill for many of the conversations and arguments that have contributed to the arguments I make here. While I was only made aware of Stolers argument regarding this term as the piece had gone to press, we coincide in noting a marked absence of attention to epistemic habits or cultures in material, political practices (see Stoler 2008). See also Graeber (2004:1112). Turnout for the march exceeded the expected ten- to thirty-thousand by over vefold. Since the EZLNs 1994 uprising many groups, in Mexico and transnationally, have been inspired by the Zapatistas, as well as the cultural politics of zapatismo. See Callahan 2005; Leyva Solano 2003. The virtual is a severely understudied aspect of social reality and the majority of work on it remains at the level of theory; ethnographies like Boellstorff (2008) are important moves in the direction of more empirical engagement. Shannon Speed has also critiqued this uneasy dichotomy between cultural critique and activist research, arguing for a critically engaged activist researchwhere the critical and activist can be practiced together as one undertaking (2008b:215). I agree with her premise that the tensions produced in dialogues between research subjects and anthropologists are rich and potentially fruitful, not to be avoided by remaining in the realm of the textual. This gets closer to what I am advocating; however, it does not acknowledge the direct political effects of work in the realm of epistemology and ontology.

2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

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