Ann Stoler | Practice on the Line

By Ann Stoler

I had wanted to thank Bernard for inviting me to think about what critical praxis might look like and about “What is to be done?” that might garner inspiration from (but cannot follow or rely on the focused directives of ) early moments.

But in reading through Bernard’s launch of this new series and (with the gift of having just read his extraordinary manuscript on critical theory and praxis, now available online), I realize that it was not really an invitation extended so much as an urgent call, a summons in both senses of that term — an interpellation, but also a demand to halt, the sign perhaps of an accumulation of infractions, that many of us unwittingly have commit(ed) and share.

For the call is not to do better critique alone, nor to fortify and reinvent our political concepts and conceptual grammars (the latter task to which I am especially partial and have long thought of as my critical labor). Rather it is to re-envision what critical praxis could be and how the critical praxis of each one of us—with respect to each other and to ourselves might speak to the inequitable conditions of privation to which increasing numbers of the world are subject, but to which we critical academics (who write so assiduously about it) are largely not.

Let’s turn for a moment to how praxis has been defined by two persons who have thought a lot about it: Richard Bernstein, in Praxis and Action holds that it suggests “that form of truly human activity manifested in the life of the polis.” For Paulo Freire it is “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.” To my mind, critical praxis demands irreverence, not a cynical reason, so much as a concerted sense of what is renegade vis-a vis normative politics. Critical praxis is about timing and place: in an arena in which a deliberate political encounter is crucial. It would have to emerge from the capacities I might harness and what those with whom I find sustenance and alliance make possible for me to do and say. At the core of each of these are the practices and performative gestures and processes that produce and affirm what is political.

In the interest of brevity I’d like to make several observations from the field in which I was schooled (at Columbia) but precipitously strayed.

First of all: As someone trained in Anthropology, self-taught in Marxism, collectively taught in feminism and with philosophy and history my passions, “praxis” as a galvanizing concept has had virtually no place. I don’t mean the kinds of action that might be taken as cognates for “praxis” (participating in marches, attending protests, abetting occupations). What I mean is the absence of discussion of the term itself. “Engagement” has been there for a long time, praxis has not.

Why that is so in anthropology I think may have something to do with the pervasive conceit that we who do ethnography in a critical, reflective, reflexive and ever respectful mode, increasingly in contexts of patent disadvantage, violence and on the intimate entailments of those conditions… have been “doing” critical praxis under the name “practice” all along. I think it is more than a conceit; rather evidence of a modus operandi that is critical but not confrontational (in which case we would lose research permissions), that is rigorously empirical but rarely comes with true risk to our positions and ourselves, a modus operandi that garners kudos for the intimate and privileged local knowledge we are prepared to convey (and there are many exceptions–those who have exited from the field, those who have been forced out, those who have blown the whistle). We are alert to the sundry sites of practice in everyday life but not to praxis. We are immersed, our insights are poignant and intersubjective, we don’t speak for but with, we attend to the unspoken as well as the articulated– these are the practices that produce anthropology’s analytic traction and critical edge.

But there are two questions that I wonder: how much practice is praxis? And whether, as we launch Praxis 13/13, we are edging toward imputing to praxis solutions before the questions are posed?

Scene one for evidence: It’s dark winter of 1982 in Paris where I’ve been for the last three years finishing my dissertation on the confrontation of Javanese workers with multinationals of Goodyear, Socfindo, and Uniroyal — the mammoth precursors to the disastrous biofuel industry of oil palm today. Sherry Ortner, esteemed scholar and author of an essay that became required reading for several generations of anthropologists, a de riguer text on the rise and dominance of the study of “practice” in the 1980s – had just sent an early draft to her friend and my partner, Larry Hirschfeld for comments. I don’t have time to go into the 1984 essay (readily available on line, “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties”) except to say two things: it announced “practice” and “practice theory” as the signature of the 80s and had already supposedly taken the field and adjacent ones like sociology by storm. Her insight was easy to corroborate but there was something troubling and amiss in the way it was cast.

Struggle was almost surreptiously removed from the lexicon and the agenda. As Sherry then at Michigan parsed Marshal Sahlins then the doyen at Chicago, and wrote, “radical change need not be equated with coming to power of groups with alternative visions of the world.” Instead Sahlins emphasized important “changes of meaning in existing relations” or in a nutshell, she wrote “This does not in itself imply either conflict or struggle,” people in different social positions have different “interests.” Interests? Maximization of interests? Homo economicus had already been slain for many of us. Far before we knew the term neoliberalism, we had long rejected both the reduction of personhoods to rational choice cyborgs and the wooden terms of a defunct economic anthropology riveted on searching out the entrepreneur hiding in “undeveloped” rural villages, maximizing man (sic).

Marx is there in Sherry’s text but sidelined, present but curiously muted for those of us who imagined that the signature of Anthropology was to figure out how to demonstrate Marx’s adage “that people make their own histories but not exactly as they please.” We attended to what they did to sequester that space but also to the sheer weight of the forces that squashed their efforts, the “structures of dominance” as Stuart Hall would write around the same time, that tore them and their visions apart. We were bent on keeping the macropolities of power center stage with the microphysics of rule and refusal informing what James Scott would later call “infrapolitics.” As Sherry rightly put it, if “practice” once had the romantic aura of voluntarism, as the saying went ‘man makes himself,’ now practice has qualities related to the hard times of today: pragmatism, maximization of advantage, “every man for himself.”

It is not that issues of power and inequality were not there but somehow our attention to “practice” – an attentiveness not shared by other social sciences was to give anthropologists a political standing and political credentials and purchase that other disciplines could hardly claim… “we were there.” They were not.

Note again — “praxis” rarely enters the lexicon, even to clarify how “practice” might be aligned or distinct from it. At the tale end of the essay, Foucault makes an awkward appearance as a footnote (via a personal communication from Paul Rabinow), a quote included in his and Herbert Dreyfus’ then much called upon 1982 text: “People know what they do: they frequently know why they do what they do: but what they don’t know is that what they do does” (187). The footnote laments that Foucault was not more discussed in the essay. But given that Edward Said’s Orientalism was published in 1978 (the same year as the English translation of Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice) with an equally astounding ripple effect across the discipline (in an analysis of knowledge and power explicitly indebted to Foucault), it is hard to figure the latter as an after thought at the time. The assault on the academe and anthropology had lots to do with our practices and far more than with practice tout court. The stakes were higher: they were about a European epistemological arrogance, and an intensified focus on the politics of knowledge.

Sherry was certainly right to identify what was just emerging in the mid 1980s to revamp the field. But something else was a foot as well — a swell that would challenge the foundations of anthropology in way that practice theory was not to do. Anthropology’s praxis, i.e. its critical impulse to question foundations and to interpret all the way down, came with a more fundamental new vigilance with respect to the politics of epistemology — not only that of ethnography’s subjects but of them/ourselves (think Johannes Fabian’s Time and the Other [1983] appearing when Sherry’s essay was already in press).

Scene Two: Indeed “practice” fifteen years later, at the hand of the Harvard anthropologist Michael Herzfeld, is reinstated not as what ethnography should focus on or move toward, but as the signature of the entire discipline and who “we” are. Anthropology had become defined as a “PRACTICE OF THEORY” building on Bourdieu’s project. In Herzfeld’s final words “theory as practice” and the “intimacy of the observational scale at which it is activated” was largely what distinguished anthropology from its closest neighbors.

Emphasis here is given to practice and agency, to the fact that what we take to be common sense might not be ‘theirs.’ As I have argued elsewhere, defining anthropology’s task as the “comparative study of common sense” exaggerates what ethnographers can actually know, how they know, and what they can do: common sense is not only what “goes without saying”; it splinters into what “everyone” knows, and what cannot be said and what is rendered “uncommon.” It is more rare than acknowledged that the sometimes most basic language skills and a year living with a particular community warrants the bracing claim of sensory and embodied knowledge of the unarticulated habituations that only partly make up the policed protocols of practices for what is taken as common sense.

So the issue that might have once allowed the conjunction “AND” to join “Theory and Practice” (in view of Karuna Mantena’s warning against theoretical models that view practice as simply the sphere for the application of norms) hasn’t been operative in anthropology for some time. The notion of “mere” application left little room to explore the discrepancies between prescription and practice –one guiding principle for what some ethnography attends to and what ethnographers do.

In recent history, “theory AND practice” commands less attention than does a “practicing theory,” and a “practice-oriented anthropology.” And then there is the “practice of theory” — that possessive preposition “of” indicating several claims: 1) that valid ethnography was practice all the way down and that no theory can remain in the abstract nor can its creation and innovation come from ungrounded principles. Here “practice” at once produces theory, not only the “practices” of those we study “but our own practices, reflexively considered” as the bulwark against the “vanity of expertise.” 2) “Practice of theory” is situated knowledge with knowledge production a collaborative activity with those with whom we think and work. And 3) the “practice of theory” has no need to state that this is high moral ground: “our” practices are responsibly wed to “their” concerns and on common ground. “Being with,” cachet in the trenches, and accountability are the credentials that follow.

This is admittedly something of a caricature. The focus on what a focus on practice might offer was not a problem in itself. Still, I read deep political consequences in its all inclusive emphasis: not on an “ethics of discomfort” as Foucault would strive for, but on a righteously earned “ethics of comfort” (we’re there and doing the right thing). And something else gets side-swiped. Somehow “practice” and “praxis” were made equivalents with the first a gloss for the second, the political urgencies neither demanding nor loud. Their strategic distinction was muddied as if homologous. “Action” was sorely disdained in what became somewhat disparagingly called “applied anthropology” (as if being applied evacuated the possibility of conceptual production). Being “too involved” remains the thorn in teaching students about “participant-observation.”

The astuteness of Sherry Ortner’s early observation in some ways paled next to how it was read, if not to its moderating message; despite our political differences, we can all focus on practice, and everyone will be sort of on the same page. Transformation in the order of things need not be a confrontation of “alternative visions of the world”. The latter phrase not surprisingly strikes a dissonant chord given that is probably the most potentially politicized horizon in anthropology — where radical possibilities for new alliances and convergences are sought today.

So at the heart of the problem may be something else. Not that anthropologists don’t and haven’t studied politics, or found themselves precariously caught in local and global political contests. But there is something that moves closer to what Steven (Lukes) also gestured towards. If we are to understand what might make up critical praxis, then we had better be well equipped to broaden our understanding of who makes up the polis, what counts as “politics” – where it is, the forms it takes, the scales at which it and we operate. How can we know so well that the political content (parsing Hayden White) might be in the form, and still abide by such a restricted notion of the domains of its performance? Critical praxis is dead center on our table but unless we have a more capacious capacity to identify the political and endorse its emergent, recalcitrant and irreverent contours and course, — sometimes “beyond semantic availability” as Raymond Williams put it — I’m not sure from where critical praxis can come.