Marilyn Strathern on Rabinow, Sahlins, Haraway, Newton, Stengers…


V0016252 Credit: Wellcome Library, London An allegorical monument to Sir Isaac Newton and his theories on prisms. Line engraving by L. Desplaces after D. M. Fratta after J.B. Pittoni, D. Valeriani and G. Valeriani. By: Owen Mac Swiney after: Giovanni Battista Pittoni, Giuseppe Valeriani, Domenico Valeriani, Louis Desplaces and Domenico Maria Fratta
V0016252 Credit: Wellcome Library, London
An allegorical monument to Sir Isaac Newton and his theories on prisms. Line engraving by L. Desplaces after D. M. Fratta after J.B. Pittoni, D. Valeriani and G. Valeriani.
By: Owen Mac Swiney after: Giovanni Battista Pittoni, Giuseppe Valeriani, Domenico Valeriani, Louis Desplaces and Domenico Maria Fratta

Marilyn Strathern has an article in the latest issue of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and, per usual, it hurts my head and will take some time to unpack, traversing the work of Paul rabinow, Marshall Sahlins, Donna Haraway, Isaac Newton, Isabelle Stengers and others in just a few short pages.  When it comes to Strathern, usually this effort is far exceeded in its rewards.  For now, one passage caught my eye, on the work of “relation” in Paul Rabinow’s writing:

For some time now, Rabinow has been experimenting with language, assembling a toolkit of concepts to advance inquiry in the human sciences, with attention to ‘the ways that information is given narrative and conceptual form, and how this knowledge fits into a conduct of life’ (2003: 2). ‘Experimenting’ is apt insofar as, in changing conditions of narration, he subjects such concepts to constant rethinking. The concept of ‘assemblages’ was one foray. These formations are specifically ‘not the type of things traditionally identified in Western philosophy as totalities or essences’ (Rabinow 2011: 122), and certainly not systems or structures reducible to a single logic. They are identifiable, for example, in problematizations of the forms and values of individual and collective existence,1 such as are made evident through new combinations of entities. Synthetic biology is an instance of assemblages of organic entities being brought into the world.2 Things happen that did not happen before. ‘While [an entity’s] properties are given and may be denumerable as a closed list, its capacities are not given … since there is no way to tell in advance in what way a given entity may affect or be affected by innumerable other entities’ (Rabinow 2011: 123, quoting DeLanda 2006: 10).

The terms and phrases that carry concepts are bound to become habituated with varying degrees of explicitness, and this is my own focus in remarking on the now implicit, now explicit, use anthropologists make of ‘relations’. From this point of view, the following passage from Rabinow is quite lyrical.

Assemblages are composed of preexisting things that, when brought into relations with other preexisting things, open up different capacities not inherent in the original things but only come into existence in the relations established in the assemblage … Thus an assemblage brings together entities in the world into a proximity in which they establish relations among and between themselves while remaining external to each other and thereby retain their original properties to a degree (2011: 123, my emphasis).

Entities expose features previously unknown, then, as functions of relations with others, so that these features can never be exclusively properties of the entities themselves; relations open up the capacities of properties in unexpected ways and capacities come into existence through new relations.

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