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Across the Rationalist Veil


Many recent works of art hold undoubtedly close ties to anthropology, resembling reverse ethnography or neo-ethnography, taking the form of research that embraces anthropology’s sociological methods, adopting documentary techniques or borrowing from such genres as the travelogue. Anthropology, on the other hand, is currently engaged in renewed debates over the discipline’s roots as reflected in its contemporary “politics.” These controversies, involving politics, ethics (both disciplinary and individual), and image strategies, were sparked by the death of “human terrain” researchers in Afghanistan—anthropologists embedded with the U.S. military to help tacticians in the field navigate local customs and codes. Claiming not to militarize anthropology but to anthropologize forms of violence, these practitioners have eroded a border that, given the colonial roots of the discipline, was before only notionally in place.

This is the first in a series of articles concerned with a specific site of convergence between contemporary anthropology and contemporary artistic practice, namely, their concern for boundaries, whether territorial, epistemological or conceptual; and of which the question of collaboration and entanglement of forms of knowledge production (and operation) is only one aspect. Certainly, many works of art that appropriate elements of anthropology are doing so in awareness of the history of the discipline, but many also assume its problems. Anthropologists, on the other hand, as Hal Foster observed some time ago, often look with a certain envy at artists, and the capacity of aesthetic strategies to relate to, and particularly to transgress, boundaries. But Foster’s critique remains within the representational logic of the self/other dichotomy, and consequently he is concerned with the problematic of identification and the question of either “too much” or “too little” distance. Much of the discussion since has remained within these parameters, leaving aside the historical nature of aesthetic transgression, that is, the way modern boundaries are established as well as crossed through the use of images and their placement within artistic strategies.

Which borders, however? And how does transgression affect them? These questions are of some urgency, particularly with regard to art that we perceive to be “politically engaged.” The transgression of political boundaries has largely been perceived as a form of negation, one that could effectively be used to build up an oppositional position. This approach to transgression could be termed “dialectic,” since it mobilizes that which is excluded in a regime of inclusion and exclusion. But this mobilization must have as its prime target those representations that are employed to legitimize such exclusions.

There are two familiar problems with the “dialectic” approach. One is that, when taken to be an exception, the critique often retains, or even confirms, the paradigms on which the original law or boundary is modeled. The other problem is that the strategy applies only to borders modeled on dichotomies (such as linguistic binaries) that are at least theoretically symmetrical, constituted by a de jure symmetry that can therefore be politically claimed where a de facto asymmetry rules. This applies to the borders of the modern disciplinary regime, such as the nation state and its institutions, or to gender division, to name but a few. The “modulated” boundaries in the “society of control,” however, pose a different challenge, for not only do they incorporate plurality effectively, they are scattered, evasive, and themselves transgressive, mobilizing the power of images by shifting the static logic of representation to the dynamic and the performative.

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