Lacanian or Deleuzian Anthropology? Paradoxes of thought

Following Deleuze, it may be enough to ask “what does this concept do” rather than say “what does it mean?” For the ethnologist, or ethnographer, a concept can only be useful, to reduce the interpretation of a given field to “One Grand Theory” must be missing the point. We have reached the point as anthropologists where we can hold two contradictory thoughts at once in our heads, I believe that must be the case, if and only if we have already taken the “Crisis of Representation” seriously. For there are still far too many anthropologists, or at least anthropology students, who cling to simple explanations, simple Cartesian dualisms, and “vulgar materialisms” to quote Levi-Strauss.

But as far ethnology is concerned, particularly the interpretation of symbols, is it enough to always follow the “emic” interpretation? The question of the emic vs. etic distinction in anthropology has always seemed to revolve around the question of which should be privileged, the native’s point of view or the view of the anthropologist. Continually vacillating between the extremes of relativism and objectivism, anthropology’s ontology has never been stable, and of course is not singular, for there are multiple anthropologies. There are probably multiple anthropologies inside a single anthropologist! And not just when considering the change in the perspective of an author over their lifetime- no, as Whitman saw quite clearly, we all contain multitudes. It is this problem that I am grappling with currently, which must be taken from the abstract to the concrete and particular- which “mapper of the unconscious” has more to offer anthropology? Which French elite intellectual, Lacan or Deleuze, is a better fit for anthropology?

Point for Deleuze: Deleuze engages with a wider variety of anthropological material, from structuralists like Leach and Levi-Strauss but also has incorporated insights from more than the “French elite”, like Victor Turner. In fact Deleuze’s take on Victor Turner’s work with the Ndembu is fascinating.

Point for Lacan: Lacan’s model of the unconscious is also a model for enculturation, the Big Other who gives the signifiers, the Symbolic Order as such

In this sense, Deleuze and Lacan both offer ways to interpret the symbols of other cultures from a dimension that is beyond “structural-functional” or Durkheimian. For Lacan, it moves to the psychological dimension of structure, how individuals inhabit the social roles, their “fit” behind the mask, their identification with their social roles. This proper kind of psychoanalysis is a good fit for anthropology, because it can offer psychological portraits of certain individuals in complex societies that serve certain functions. How does an Ndembu man think about fatherhood? These are properly psychological/Lacanian-inspired anthropological questions.

Both authors seem to situate Desire as being a necessary element in the psychological constitution of an individual. Lacan’s concept of the “objet petit a”, a continual striving toward an unobtainable goal, is a fascinating concept. But it seems to always boils down, to Lacan, as with psychoanalysis in general, to the pathological individual, to the hysteric, to the individual as having some form of mental pathology. Or rather, that pathology is inherent in the psychological make-up of humanity, and that society “patches over” or represses these pathologies, or subverts them, or channels them.

Deleuze brings back the properly existential into this debate. For if Lacan says that we do not simply desire objects, in a economic reductionist sense, Deleuze takes it a step further- what about those who desire the end of Desire? The yogic assemblage. Or those for whom endless Limitless Desire is not the defining characteristic of the unconscious. Of course, for Freud, it was Libido that was universal. But what would Buddha say about this?

Of course, Desire is a defining characteristic of Man, in the sense of Want. But something that is different about Man, is that Man can withhold himself, stop his urges. In Buddhist cosmology, the human realm is the Desire realm, after all. But it is also the realm of Anger, to which the Freudian would reply “at not getting what one wants, frustrated Desire”. True- but it is also true that man can overcome! Perhaps we should go beyond the simple pathologization or valorization of Desire. For anthropology, maybe it is not Deleuze vs. Lacan that matters in terms of a model of subjectivity, but Nietzsche vs. Schopenhauer.

In any case, anthropology needs a broader engagement with the philosophical, because only through philosophical reflection can the world be properly conveyed in all its depth, its drama, its gravitas. The social is more than a simple scaffold or structure, it is a narrative, a grand drama of history in which there are “players”. Perhaps it all signifies nothing, in the end, but the model anthropologists should perhaps take from the best biographers is that in describing culture, one should attempt to draw a psychological portrait, to the extent that this is able to be done. What was the intensity of emotion at a certain moment in time? How did the lines on a face furrow? How did it impact the ethnographer? And how can we get at this thing called Emotion? In short, Deleuze offers me a better picture of how to be a better anthropologist, because Deleuze and Guatarri’s “ethico-aesthetic paradigm” (emphasis on aesthetic) is the only proper way to convey things like compassion. Any good author knows that to evince compassion out of a reader, poetry is necessary, and poetry is not just a string of pretty words. Anthropologists have the advantage of being in contact with the real, but no one is going to be swayed by caloric intake charts. Only a master craftsmen can get what he needs to across while touching the SOUL of the reader. Anthropology, despite its duty to faithfully collect “data”, must be already by necessity an art, insofar as it uses words and tries to convey a MEANING. If information tells us how we are supposed to think, meaning tries to convey a FEELING. In short, anthropology has yet to fully incorporate the existential in writing. It does not need a new “interpretative schema” or mechanism. It just needs more heart