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.
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).
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.
 Wagner, 2009. p.1
 “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.