On reparative reading and critique in/of anthropology: postdisciplinary perspectives on discipline-hopping

*This is a more-or-less unedited text of the plenary (keynote) address to the international conference ‘Anthropology of the future/The Future of Anthropology‘, hosted by the Institute of Ethnography of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, in Viminacium, 8-9 September 2022. If citing, please refer to as Bacevic, J. [Title]. Keynote address, [Conference].

Hi all. It’s odd to be addressing you at a conference entitled ‘Anthropology of the Future/The Future of Anthropology’, as I feel like an outsider for several reasons. Most notably, I am not an anthropologist. This is despite the fact that I have a PhD in anthropology, from the University of Belgrade, awarded in 2008. What I mean is that I do not identify as an anthropologist, I do not work in a department or institute of anthropology, nor do I publish in anthropology journals. In fact, I went so far in the opposite direction that I got another PhD, in sociology, from the University of Cambridge. I work at a department of sociology, at Durham University, which is a university in the north-east of England, which looks remarkably like Oxford and Cambridge. So I am an outsider in two senses: I am not an anthropologist, and I no longer live, reside, or work in Serbia. However, between 2004 and 2007 I taught at the Department of Ethnology and Anthropology of the University of Belgrade, and also briefly worked at the Institute that is organizing this very conference, as part of the research stipend awarded by the Serbian Ministry of Science to young, promising, scientific talent. Between 2005 and 2007, and then again briefly in 2008-9, I was the Programme Leader for Antropology in Petnica Science Centre. I don’t think it would be too exaggerated to say, I was, once, anthropology’s future; and anthropology was mine. So what happened since?

By undertaking a retelling of a disciplinary transition – what would in common parlance be dubbed ‘career change’ or ‘reorientation’ – my intention is not to engage in autoethnography, but to offer a reparative reading. I borrow the concept of reparative reading from the late theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay entitled “On paranoid reading and reparative reading, or: You’re so paranoid, you probably think this essay is about you”, first published in 1997 and then, with edits, in 2003; I will say more about its content and key concepts shortly.

For the time being, however, I would like to note that the disinclination from autoethnography was one of the major reasons why I left anthropology; it was matched by the desire to do theory, by which I mean the possibility of deriving mid-range generalizations about human behaviour that could aspire not to be merely local, by which I mean not apply only to the cases studied. This, as we know, is not particularly popular in anthropology. This particular brand of ethnographic realism was explicitly targeted for critique during anthropology’s postmodern turn. On the other hand, Theory in anthropology itself had relatively little to commend it, all too easily and too often developing into a totalizing master-narrative of the early evolutionism or, for that matter, its late 20th– and early 21st-century correlates, including what is usually referred to as cognitive psychology, a ‘refresh’ of evolutionary theory I had the opportunity to encounter during my fellowship at the University of Oxford (2007-8). So there were, certainly, a few reasons to be suspicious of theory in anthropology.

For someone theoretically inclined, thus, one option became to flee into another discipline. Doing a PhD in philosophy in the UK is a path only open to people who have undergraduate degrees in philosophy (and I, despite a significant proportion of my undergrad coursework going into philosophy, had not), which is why a lot of the most interesting work in philosophy in the UK happens – or at least used to happen – in other departments, including literature and language studies, the Classics, gender studies, or social sciences like sociology and geography. I chose to work with those theorists who had found their institutional homes in sociology; I found a mentor at the University of Cambridge, and the rest is history (by which I mean I went on to a postdoctoral research fellowship at Cambridge and then on to a permanent position at Durham).  

Or that, at any rate, is one story. Another story would tell you that I got my PhD in 2008, the year when the economic crisis hit, and job markets collapsed alongside several other markets. On a slightly precarious footing, freshly back from Oxford, I decided to start doing policy research and advising in an area I had been researching before: education policies, in particular as part of processes of negotiation of multiple political identities and reconciliation in post-conflict societies. Something that had hitherto been a passion, politics, soon became a bona fide object of scholarly interest, so I spent the subsequent few years developing a dual career, eventually a rather high-profile one, as, on the one hand, policy advisor in the area of postconflict higher education, and, on the other, visiting (adjunct) lecturer at the Central European University in Budapest, after doing a brief research fellowship in its institute of advanced study. But because I was not educated as a political scientist – I did not, in other words, have a degree in political science; anthropology was closer to ‘humanities’ and my research was too ‘qualitative’ (this is despite the fact I taught myself basic statistics as well as relatively advanced data analysis) – I could not aspire to a permanent job there. So I started looking for routes out, eventually securing a postdoc position (a rather prestigious Marie Curie, and a tenure-track one) in Denmark.

I did not like Denmark very much, and my boss in this job – otherwise one of the foremost critics of the rise of audit culture in higher education – turned out to be a bully, so I spent most of my time in my two fieldwork destinations, University of Bristol, UK, and University of Auckland, New Zealand. I left after two years, taking up an offer of a funded PhD at Cambridge I had previously turned down. Another story would tell you that I was disappointed with the level of corruption and nepotism in Serbian academia so have decided to leave. Another, with disturbing frequency attached to women scholars, would tell you that being involved in an international relationship I naturally sought to move somewhere I could settle down with my partner, even if that meant abandoning the tenured position I had at Singidunum University in Serbia (this reading is, by the way, so prominent and so unquestioned that after I announced I had got the Marie Curie postdoc and would be moving to Denmark several people commented “Oh, that makes sense, isn’t your partner from somewhere out there” – despite the fact my partner was Dutch).

Yet another story, of course, would join the precarity narrative with the migration/exile and decoloniality narrative, stipulating that as someone who was aspiring to do theory I (naturally) had to move to the (former) colonial centre, given that theory is, as we know, produced in the ‘centre’ whereas countries of the (semi)periphery are only ever tasked with providing ‘examples’, ‘case-‘, or, at best, regional or area studies. And so on and so on, as one of the few people who have managed to trade their regional academic capital for a global (read: Global North/-driven and -defined) one, Slavoj Žižek, would say.

The point here is not to engage in a demonstration of multifocality by showing all these stories could be, and in a certain register, are true. It is also not to point out that any personal life-story or institutional trajectory can be viewed from multiple (possibly mutually irreconcilable) registers, and that we pick a narrative depending on occasion, location, and collocutor. Sociologists have produced a thorough analysis of how CVs, ‘career paths’ or  trajectories in the academia are narratively constructed so as to establish a relatively seamless sequence that adheres to, but also, obviously, by the virtue of doing that, reproduces ideas and concepts of ‘success’ (and failure; see also ‘CV of failures‘). Rather, it is to observe something interesting: all these stories, no matter how multifocal or multivocal, also posit master narratives of social forces – forces like neoliberalism, or precarity, for instance; and a master narrative of human motivation – why people do the things they do, and what they desire – things like permanent jobs and high incomes, for instance. They read a direction, and a directionality, into human lives; even if – or, perhaps, especially when – they narrate instances of ‘interruption’, ‘failure’, or inconsistency.

This kind of reading is what Eve Kosofsky Segdwick dubs paranoid reading. Associated with what Paul Ricoeur termed ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ in Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, and building on the affect theories of Melanie Klein and Silvan Tomkins, paranoid reading is a tendency that has arguably become synonymous with critique, or critical theory in general: to assume that there is always a ‘behind’, an explanatory/motivational hinterland that, if only unmasked, can not only provide a compelling explanation for the past, but also an efficient strategy for orienting towards the future. Paranoid reading, for instance, characterizes a lot of the critique in and of anthropology, not least of the Writing Culture school, including in the ways the discipline deals with the legacy of its colonial past.

To me, it seems like anthropology in Serbia today is primarily oriented towards a paranoid reading, both in relation to its present (and future) and in relation to its past. This reading of the atmosphere is something it shares with a lot of social sciences and humanities internationally, one of increasing instability/hostility, of the feeling of being ‘under attack’ not only by governments’ neoliberal policies but also by increasingly conservative and reactionary social forces that see any discipline with an openly progressive, egalitarian and inclusive political agenda as leftie woke Satanism, or something. This paranoia, however, is not limited only to those agents or social forces clearly inimical or oppositional to its own project; it extends, sometimes, to proximate and cognate disciplines and forms of life, including sociology, and to different fractions or theoretical schools within anthropology, even those that should be programmatically opposed to paranoid styles of inquiry, such as the phenomenological or ontological turn – as witnessed, for instance, by the relatively recent debate between the late David Graeber and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro on ontological alterity.

Of course, in the twenty-five years that have passed from the first edition of Sedgwick’s essay, many species of theory that explicitly diverge from paranoid style of critique have evolved, not least the ‘postcritical’ turn. But, curiously, when it comes to understanding the conditions of our own existence – that is, the conditions of our own knowledge production – we revert into paranoid readings of not only the social, cultural, and political context, but also of people’s motivations and trajectories. As I argued elsewhere, this analytical gesture reinscribes its own authority by theoretically disavowing it. To paraphrase the title of Sedgwick’s essay, we’re so anti-theoretical that we’re failing to theorize our own inability to stop aspiring to the position of power we believe our discipline, or our predecessors, once occupied, the same power we believe is responsible for our present travails. In other words, we are failing to theorize ambiguity.

My point here is not to chastise anthropology in particular or critical theory in more general terms for failing to live up to political implications of its own ontological commitments (or the other way round?); I have explained at length elsewhere – notably in “Knowing neoliberalism” – why I think this is an impossibility (to summarize, it has to do with the inability to undo the conditions of our own knowledge – to, barely metaphorically, cut our own epistemological branch). Rather, my question is what we could learn if we tried to think of the history and thus future of anthropology, and our position in it, from a reparative, rather than paranoid, position.

This in itself, is a fraught process; not least because anthropology (including in Serbia) has not been exempt from revelations concerning sexual harassment, and it would not be surprising if many more are yet to come. In the context of re-encounter with past trauma and violence, not least the violence of sexual harassment, it is nothing if not natural to re-examine every bit of the past, but also to endlessly, tirelessly scrutinize the present: was I there? Did I do something? Could I have done something? What if what I did made things worse? From this perspective, it is fully justified to ask what could it, possibly, mean to turn towards a reparative reading – can it even, ever, be justified?

Sedgwick – perhaps not surprisingly – has relatively little to say about what reparative reading entails. From my point of view, reparative reading is the kind of reading that is oriented towards reconstructing the past in a way that does not seek to avoid, erase or deny past traumas, but engages with the narrative so as to afford a care of the self and connection – or reconnection – with the past selves, including those that made mistakes or have a lot to answer for. It is, in essence, a profoundly different orientation towards the past as well as the future, one that refuses to reproduce cultures – even if cultures of critique – and to claim that future, in some ways, will be exactly like the past.

Sedgwick aligns this reorientation with queer temporalities, characterized by a relationship to time that refuses to see it in (usually heteronormatively-coded) generationally reproductive terms: my father’s father did this, who in turn passed it to my father, who passed it to me, just like I will pass it to my children. Or, to frame this in more precisely academic terms: my supervisor(s) did this, so I will do it [in order to become successful/recognized like my academic predecessors], and I will teach my students/successors to do it. Understanding that it can be otherwise, and that we can practise other, including non-generational (non-generative?) and non-reproductive politics of knowledge/academic filiation/intellectual friendship is, I think, one important step in making the discussion about the future, including of scientific discipline, anything other than a vague gesturing towards its ever-receding glorious past.

Of course, as a straight and, in most contexts, cis-passing woman, I am a bit reluctant to claim the label of queerness, especially when speaking in Serbia, an intensely and increasingly institutionally homophobic and compulsorily heterosexual society. However, I hope my queer friends, partners, and colleagues will forgive me for borrowing queerness as a term to signify refusal to embody or conform to diagnostic narratives (neoliberalism, precarity, [post]socialism); refusal or disinvestment from normatively and regulatively prescribed vocabularies of motivation and objects of desire – a permanent (tenured) academic position; a stable and growing income; a permanent relationship culminating in children and a house with a garden (I have a house, but I live alone and it does not have a garden). And, of course, the ultimate betrayal for anyone who has come from “here” and ‘made it’ “over there”: the refusal to perform the role of an academic migrant in a way that would allow to once and for all settle the question of whether everything is better ‘over there’ or ‘here’, and thus vindicate the omnipresent reflexive chauvinism (‘corrupt West’) or, alternatively, autochauvinism (‘corrupt Serbia’).

What I hope to have achieved instead, through this refusal, is to offer a postdisciplinary or at least undisciplined narrative and an example of how to extract sustenance from cultures inimical to your lifeplans or intellectual projects. To quote from Sedgwick:

“The vocabulary for articulating any reader’s reparative motive toward a text or a culture has long been so sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary that it’s no wonder few critics are willing to describe their acquaintance with such motives. The prohibitive problem, however, has been in the limitations of present theoretical vocabularies rather than in the reparative motive itself. No less acute than a paranoid position, no less realistic, no less attached to a project of survival, and neither less nor more delusional or fantasmatic, the reparative reading position undertakes a different range of affects, ambitions, and risks. What we can best learn from such practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.“

All of the cultures I’ve inhabited have been this to some extent – Serbia for its patriarchy, male-dominated public sphere, or excessive gregarious socialisation, something that sits very uncomfortably with my introversion; England for its horrid anti-immigrant attitude only marginally (and not always profitably) mediated by my ostensible ’Whiteness’; Denmark for its oppressive conformism; Hungary, where I was admittedly happiest among the plethora of other English-speaking cosmopolitan academics, which could not provide the institutional home I required (eventually, as is well-known, not even to CEU). But, in a different way, they have also been incredibly sustaining; I love my friends, many of whom are academic friends (former colleagues) in Serbia; I love the Danish egalitarianism and absolute refusal of excess; and I love England in many ways, in no particular order, the most exciting intellectual journey, some great friendships (many of those, I do feel the need to add, with other immigrants), and the most beautiful landscapes, especially in the North-East, where I live now (I also particularly loved New Zealand, but hope to expand on that on a different occasion).

To theorize from a reparative position is to understand that all of these things could be true at the same time. That there is, in other words, no pleasure without pain, that the things that sustain us will, in most cases, also harm us. It is to understand that there is no complete career trajectory, just like there is no position , epistemic or otherwise, from which we could safely and for once answer the question what the future will be like. It is to refuse to pre-emptively know the future, not least so that we could be surprised.