Obviating the “Crisis of Representation” - the Anthropologies of Roy Wagner and Marilyn Strathern

One thinks no better then one can write, and for the simple reason that one’s audience, one hopes, is not exclusively in one’s own head.[1]



This paper reviews the works of Roy Wagner (1938-) and Marilyn Strathern (1941-) contrasting them with the kind of anthropological studies published in the United States at the time (henceforth referred to herein as “post-modernist”) such as The Invention of Culture (1975).

The need for this reading arose from a succession of events. Before being interested in Anthropology, the subjects that most interested me were related to Philosophy, which is how some years ago I began reading Gilles Deleuze. As time passed, the methodologies and theoretical developments of Anthropology, taught through exposure to its different “traditions” or countries of origin, ended up bestirring my interest.

Geertz’s Interpretivist Anthropology and a spectrum of anthropologists writing books on anthropological rhetoric were among the disciplinary readings I encountered. By that time, giving the chronological placement of these authors within the curricular structure of the undergraduate program, I had the feeling that the discipline had come to its limit, which, by the way, was not interesting at all.

Simultaneously, however, I was also introduced to the work of Viveiros de Castro (1951-) and to The Gender of the Gift (2006), by Marilyn Strathern. To the former, I reacted with great interest but at the same time, with a kind of déjà vu. Its innovative proposals concerning the relationship between Anthropologist and Native and issues that, in the beginning of the undergraduate course, seemed to be a “dead end street”, and, as with cultural relativism, left me feeling completely isolated and apathetic when reading such “post-modernists”. Concurrently, Viveiros de Castro’s use of a Deleuzian lexicon made the language and structure of the texts, in some way, familiar to me.

However, Strathern’s book, which apparently deals with two subjects completely familiar to me (gender and society), showed itself as a reading and comprehension challenge. I could say the same about Roy Wagner. The feeling was that I had never seen “that” before along with the certitude that they were anticipating answers to questions I did not yet have, a “vújà de” (Wagner, 2010a). Nevertheless, the only means I had available to situate these two authors in a context was through comments proceeding from the Museu Nacional, such as those from Viveiros de Castro (2007) and Flávio Gordon (2005).

I do not find it necessary to emphasize the brilliant character of a paper such as Intensive Filiation and Demoniac Alliance (Viveiros de Castro, 2007). In addition, the deliberate strategy I have adopted to avoid mentioning Gilles Deleuze to comment on Wagner and Strathern is not, in any sense, a critique aiming at those affiliated with the French philosopher. Furthermore, despite what was asserted by Gordon (2004), I do not think that the only option left to those who have not “made something out of [Roy Wagner’s work]” is to overdecode, unveil, decipher and examine it nor, finally, to search for its origins. It is, in fact, because I agree with a certain Deleuzian literality, “it is not a metaphor” (Zourabichvilli, 2005), that I felt the need to look for distinct means of access than those offered by the “Post-Social Anthropology’s” readings and Project to deepen the “dialogue between Deleuze” and Anthropology (Viveiros de Castro, 2007, p.77).

In line with Holbraad & Pedersen (2009), Viveiros de Castro (2007) and Goldman (2011) I take as evident Wagner’s and Strathern’s singularity against what is known as Interpretivist and Post-Modern Anthropology. This singularity, however, will be made explicit neither through the outlining of a “Post-Plural” (Holbraad & Pedersen, 2002), nor “Post-Structuralist” (Viveiros de Castro, 2007) nor an “Immanentiste” (Gordon, 2005) Anthropology, of which both authors would be instances or inspiration. This work refuses this movement in order to find other ways of getting the point of these two anthropologists. I will try not to include Wagner and Strathern in “anthropological projects” since this points to programmatic contents which, it seems, is exactly what the anthropologies I try to put against them try to establish.

The end result of having a “theoretical program” is, first, that in trying to “ground” it, it draws pari passu a line dividing intention from outcome. That said, Azzan Júnior’s comment (19993, p.105) that Geertz “seems happier announcing, in theory, the textual model than in comparing the social life with it.” is not accidental, nor is it a coincidence that in postmodernist texts, it could be argued that, “In short, there is more talk of jumble than practice of it” (Strathern, 1987a, p.18).

Second, I would like to suggest that even if the three anthropologists above mentioned were not trying to include Wagner and Strathern in some kind of larger framework (which is certainly true), they aimed to extensively amplify analogies between authors, confirming the “originality” of some by bringing them closer to others already considered “innovative”. Hence, asserting that Strathern is “the anthropologist most molecularly Deleuzian” (Viveiros de Castro, 2007, p.94), will not aid this paper in drawing the singularity of her work.

If, according to Goldman, there is no reason to “resuscitate the dead” (2011, p.199) – hinting that post-modernists, as well as the criticism against them, are already well established – and if, as Gordon asserts (2005), “Wagner and Strathern are two examples of anthropologists that were able to creatively re-enact the virtual spaces represented by the Levistraussian ‘Nothing’, then it could be said about their work that they had an immolating effect on the “crisis of representation”. That said, one is left with the question of how this was done.

This paper hypothesizes that Wagner and Strathern obviated postmodernist criticism. Obviation, according to Wagner (1978) is the cumulative and transformative process “suffered” by a certain analogy until its subsequent “fall”. One of the side effects of this process is the outbreak of another or other analogies that - as means through which the sequential “fall” is completed and also as its outcome – are recognized as having the same status as inventions or events: something we had never seen before, something in and out of itself.

From this explication, it follows that, to obviate the analogies used by the criticism of representations, Strathern and Wagner might have departed from similar theoretical references or else, they have probably dealt with the same “conventional references” as Clifford Geertz, James Clifford and Stephen Tyler. They were, nevertheless, also capable of elicitating the analogies that motivated these other anthropologists. That does not mean that Wagner and Strathern were directly “answering” the issues that concerned the postmodernist literature, but that they were, in a way, articulating the metaphors of an epoch (Wagner, 1986).[2]

Having introduced this paper’s problem, the next chapter is concerned with Roy Wagner’s work and some of its theoretical developments such as the notions of “symbolic interaction”, “symbol”, “metaphor”, “meaning”, “convention”, “differentiation” and “obviation”. Afterwards, in the third chapter, Marilyn Strathern’s reflections on the anthropological narrative and on Melanesian and Feminist theorizations will be presented as a way of eliciting certain postmodernist presumptions. In the fourth and final chapter, the “Final Considerations”, I will review some arguments stated by Wagner and try to take further steps on the issue of Anthropology and its possibilities.

Before getting to the first chapter though, I would like to introduce the some aspects of the postmodern literature and its tenet so as to contrast it against the two Anthropologists I am interested in.

[1] Wagner, 2009. p.1

[2] “Epoch, then, is time considered as organic, happening as one and the same as the frame within which is perceived. This epoch is the fundamental factor in the differentiation of time (...) An epoch may be instantaneous or it may occupy eons; yet whiter memory or classification assigns it to the past or future, its ‘time’, as figurative realization, is always ‘now’” (Wagner, 1986, p.84-86). This is an important notion in that it shows Wagner and Strathern’s contemporaneity regarding other kinds of anthropology developed at the time (Structuralist, Interpretivist, Symbolic, Postmodern) without considering any of them as cause or outcome of each other. In this sense, Gordon’s comment (2005) that Wagnerian and Strathernian enact the post-levistraussian “Nothing” might not be that precise in that Lévi-Strauss and his Project were still alive when “pots-structuralist’s” books such as The Invention of the culture (1985) were published.


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Comment by John McCreery on October 5, 2011 at 3:41am

Priscilla, sorry to be so sluggish. My life has been unexpectedly busy the last couple of weeks. Anyway, you might find it useful to look at the interview with Geertz in Alan McFarlane's Ancestor Series. What struck me when I saw it was that Geertz was saying something similar to what Keith Hart has said here, that anthropologists lacked the close-reading skills and hermeneutic skills in which (at least back then) students in the humanities were drilled. I was reminded, too, of something my friend Don DeGlopper wrote about the anthropology of Chinese religion, that anthropologists took everything they saw and heard with the same flat, dead-pan seriousness, failing to grasp the presence of irony, humor, or other nuances and treating the Chinese equivalents of the Virgin Mary, Santa Claus, fairies and elves as if they all had the same portentous weight in peoples' lives. 


From this perspective, treating culture as a text might not mean treating everything we encounter as if we were reading Heidegger in search of something profound. Perhaps it is only a limerick or some other form of bawdy joke. Which is, by the way, why a firm grasp of the social context is a sine qua non for successful cultural analysis.

Comment by Philip Swift on October 5, 2011 at 3:13am




I am very interested in reading the rest of your paper, since Wagner and Marilyn Strathern formed no part of my anthropological education. (Things have changed at UCL since then.) As a consequence, I've found myself having to play this particular Melanesian catch-up ever since.


And - not for want of trying - I've often found both authors - but Strathern especially - to be difficult to understand. I can see that something important is being said, but I often find it hard to get a handle on precisely what it is. (Holbraad and Pedersen (2009) have proved to be no help to me in this!) One consolation I have is that Alfred Gell also confessed to finding Strathernian sentences to be hard to unravel!


So I'm hoping that the rest of your paper will enlighten me a little...   

Comment by Priscila Santos da Costa on September 27, 2011 at 8:14pm

Hi John


Thank you for you comment (s)

I´ve just translated the other chapters (from Portuguese) as soon as the revision is finished

i will post everything.


Regarding Geertz. I am not really sure how people felt about him when he proposed his semiotic concept of culture. I was born in 1987 :)

However, I will dare to make some comments on that:


Azzan Junior wrote his thesis having in mind the possibility of a hermeutical anthropology, something that was a sort of trend here in brasil among some anthropologists. So, Azzan critized Geertz for not being SO hermeneutic as this "yet to come" anthropology would like him to be and, according to Azzan, as Geertz himself said he was.

In my paper, the quote was used strategically since I was just trying to define my methodological approach to Wagner and Strathern.

But reading Strathern´s papetr you will see that she is not worried if Geertz acchieved something or not (as Azzan). When she quoted Geertz assertions about "culture as text" she was thinking about the assumptions of seeing culture like that. one of them is the later (postmodern) belief that we live in a fragmented world. one of its outcomes would be the proposal of writting ethnographies as collages, for example.


ps. I am not sure if I was clear, english is not my first language and sometimes i am not sure if i am

being confusing because of it or for 'personnal' problems :) (or both). please, excuse me. So, feel free to correct me or to force me to improve my english!!!





Comment by John McCreery on September 26, 2011 at 4:20am

Of the authors mentioned, I have only read Geertz. So  I look forward with great interest to chapters one (on Wagner) and two (on Strathern) from which I expect to learn a lot. 


Re Geertz, I was struck by the statement that, "Azzan Júnior’s comment (19993, p.105) that Geertz 'seems happier announcing, in theory, the textual model than in comparing the social life with it.'" As a young anthropologist in graduate school in the late 1960, this was, in fact, one of the things I found most stimulating about reading Geertz.

As a student of Victor Turner, who insisted that cultural analysis be firmly grounded in understanding of social structure and process, I was, of course, aware of this gap in Geertz's approach. It was, however, precisely this gap that I found fascinating. Unlike other theorists who aimed at premature closure in whatever they wrote, Geertz left the rest of us so much to do and provided so many pointers to directions in which we might take his ideas and see if they led to genuine insights. In this respect I found him far more interesting that those who would pile up what Turner called "logical sludge" in an an effort to demonstrate that they alone had found the key to everything. 


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