For some time, I have been interested in developing an anthropology of the otherwise. This anthropology locates itself within forms of life that are at odds with dominant, and dominating, modes of being. One can often tell when or where one of these forms of life has emerged, because it typically produces an immunological response in the host mode of being. In other words, when a form of life emerges contrary to dominant modes of social being, the dominant mode experiences this form as inside and yet foreign to its body. For some, the dominant image of this mode of interior exteriority is the Mobius strip, for others the rhizome, and still others the parasite. But what if the dominant visual metaphor of the anthropology of the otherwise were a woven bag?
How might one consider the anthropology of the otherwise through gift economies and alternative currencies and communities, and in turn consider emergent forms of social being in relation to what I am calling the embagination of space by the circulation of things? As I hope will become clear, conceptualizing social space as a kind of embagination foregrounds the fact that gift economies can close a world but never seal it. Every gift economy creates simultaneous surplus, excess, deficits, and abscesses in material and memory, and thus the most profound gift is given at the limit of community. Thus, in exchange for the invitation to participate in the publication you have before you, I offer a series of thoughts on how spheres of life emerge and collapse, and expand and deflate, as things move and are moved across space and time. I will begin with a discussion of the anthropology of the gift, turn to contemporary debates between Bruno Latour and Peter Sloterdijk about the relative values of network and sphere theory, and end with reflections on two recent projects—a graphic memoir and augmented reality venture—that elaborate what I mean by embagination.
At the center of modern anthropological lore is a person who created a discipline by describing a practice wherein to give away was to receive more in return. The person was the Polish scholar Bronisław Malinowski, who chose to remain on the Trobriand Islands rather than spend the First World War in an Australian internment camp. The practice was Kula. Malinowski claimed that, at its simplest, Kula was an inter-tribal exchange of ceremonial objects (red shell necklaces and white shell bracelets) that traveled in opposite directions in a closed circuit along established routes. No man—and for Malinowski it was always men, if not all men—knew where Kula objects traveled outside his local purview. And no man could keep the object he received nor, once in, could he opt out of this ritualized exchange. “A partnership between two men is a permanent and lifelong affair.” The things that moved between them could also never stop moving. Once within the circle of Kula exchange, ritual objects only left when they physically perished. But if the ceremonial exchange of necklaces and bracelets publicly defined Kula, “a greater number of secondary activities and features” took place “under its cover,” including the ordinary trade and barter of various goods and utilities that, although indispensible for everyday life, were often locally unavailable. As a result, Kula embraced an inter-connected complex of activities, created an organic social whole out of disparate social parts, and established a hierarchy of prestige that defined this social world in part and in whole. Ceremonial necklaces and bracelets were given, accepted, and reciprocated, but what returned was not mere jewelry, but a world. This world was fabricated by the hierarchies of power and prestige Kula established, represented, and conserved; and by the ordinary activities that went on under its cover, embedding these hierarchies of prestige ever deeper into the fabric of everyday life.
If we are interested in how Kula provides a genealogical backdrop to network and sphere theory, let alone to new forms of exchange communities, then three observations about Malinowski’s methodological and conceptual claims are pertinent. First, Malinowski sought to found the discipline of anthropology on the premise that the anthropologist had a different analytical perspective on the social world than “the native,” namely, that the anthropologist could see the total social system of exchange whereas “the native” could only see his local part. Second, in order to produce this anthropological point of view, the anthropologist had to abstract the Trobrianders from the diachronic nature of Kula (that Kula lines were always being made and remade) and himself from the history that connected him to his subjects. And third, anthropologists had to reconceptualize acts of reciprocity as the condition rather than the end to sociality—reciprocity does not end social relations, but knits them.
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