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



6 thoughts on “Lacanian or Deleuzian Anthropology? Paradoxes of thought

  1. My undergraduate is in cultural anthropology. I would say that to apply either of these philosophers to some sort of objective outside thing as if somehow I can come to a model of how to approach this outside thing, is missing the point of both of those philosophers. The problem with participation observation is that already in includes an aspect of exception, as if the observer is exempt from any sort of intrusion upon the observed, so then he can participate as a sort of vacuum to there by observe how other cultures have the reality.

    Both D and L use this kind of you by which to establish what they’re really saying. For that view is it in itself really is an aspect of the observer the anthropologist itself. And so there’s really no contradiction between these two points except in as much as Graham Harmon might say the anthropologist has overdetermined his situation as an undetermined subject or under determine object in that situation of observing that other culture.

    The issue before you I think doesn’t really have anything to do with giving justices some other culture, or chosing between different particularities a various authors. I think it is more figuring out that all these things that you’re deciding between a really constituting your view.

    Anthropology will always be in a dilemma of enforcing the big other enforcing the great signifier, while attempting to dissolve that signification by observing the other. The point of D and L is that this doesn’t happen it never happens and the mistake involved in that approach is what perpetuates, unfortunately for this example, anthropology as a colonialist enterprise.


    1. So what you are saying about enforcing the Signifier is anthropology’s obsession with grand metatheories is inherent to the discourse? That’s true- we always have to come back and “make a theory”. I think that’s really true- there are definitely ways of getting around it, purposefully having that colonial heritage in mind when writing, using techniques like co-writing with an informant, but to me it’s really going beyond writing altogether that is the way to go beyond theory. At the end of the day, writing in anthropology serves to satisfy the interest of a Western audience, whether that audience is sympathetic or not. If the reader is then moved to DO something (like say stop voting for certain politicians) then maybe it has accomplished its job. In short, what I am saying is that I think Deleuze is a good theoretical justification for engaged anthropology (working with NGOs, etc). Lacan is interesting to me, but how Lacan is *applied* politically in the work of Zizek is much more interesting, with some exceptions (his connection to theories of culture). thanks for reminding me about Deleuze’s theory of the (upper case) Signifier, I have a better grasp of that concept now!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. … you know and re-reading your post here and thinking about what’s going on right now in those areas of academics and intellectualism, getting back to the thing in itself is really getting over this notion that somehow we can allow everyone to speak by somehow being a vacuum subject. And you ask what does these discourses do as opposed to what do they mean; I like that, because it seems what they do is they allow people to be vehicles rather than positions. If I’m constantly looking outside and judging and having self reflection in so much only as I am some sort of think you’re amongst other thinkers then I am having positions every where I go as opposed to another position that I was posing basically what could amount to “colonialist” thought. But indeed if I do not view my centrality as somehow universally significant as if somehow I am into eating a special place that I can there by Intal everyone with an ability to speak through me, then indeed everyone else has a voice because then I am just the occasion for other people’s voices. I’m not vacant because I’m not denying anything about my position; I am not attempting to be two places at once but in fact and being a position of ultimate contradiction.

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    1. I like what you said about people being vehicles rather positions. That’s what I was trying to get at in this post- what is the purpose of thought? I guess I thinking aloud in this post, but I think Lacan could also potentially be used to convey something with impact- but what I have seen in the anthropology literature is that Lacanians are more interpretive, and the Deleuzians are more political (there aren’t many of either- there are many more Foucaultian anthropologists who probably haven’t read Deleuze). I think there is a way to combine these two approaches, but I still have to work it out in my head. If your interested, I could write a post about that, having to do with the relevance of these concepts to what is called “Mirror Anthropology” in the literature

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah. Do it. (And yeah, Faucalt seems way more popular in anthropology Delueze or Lacan. I d never even heard of them until my philosophy interests)


  3. I feel like I am contradicting my self with the recent post and my reply here. lol
    But the indication of these authors, I feel, is the same; as I say, they are talking about the same thing, the same object.

    Anthropologically, Latour’s contribution (at least with AIME) is that a kind of ‘hole’ is needed a kind of ‘pass’. I am not always so interested in the the types or variations of incarnations and manifestations, applications into political and ideological constructs. I feel that too often, people jump (pass) into these areas with only a similarly understood application of the situation wherein we would need a pass, without really come to terms with this need. But ironically, that is the nature of the political and ideological realms lol


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