TROMPE L’OEIL

My first monograph, An anthropological trompe l’oeil for a common world: an essay on the economy of knowledge, was published in 2013 by Berghahn. The book offers an analysis of the anthropological shadows that have historically accompanied the modern project.

 

Cornelius Gijsbrecht, The reverse side of a painting (c. 1670), Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Our political age is characterized by forms of description as “big” as the world itself: talk of “public knowledge” and “public goods,” “the commons,” or “global justice” create an exigency for modes of governance that leave little room for littleness itself. Rather than question the politics of adjudication between the big and the small, the book inquires instead into the cultural epistemology fueling the aggrandizement and miniaturization of description itself. Incorporating analytical frameworks from science studies, ethnography, and political and economic theory, the book charts an itinerary for an internal anthropology of theorizing. It suggests that many of the effects that social theory uses today to produce insights are the legacy of baroque epistemological tricks. In particular, the book undertakes its own trompe l’oeil as it places description at perpendicular angles to emerging forms of global public knowledge. The aesthetic “trap” of the trompe l’oeil aims to capture knowledge, for only when knowledge is captured can it be properly released.

The trompe l’oeil is an aesthetic-epistemological trap whose effects can be seen at work (sometimes productively, sometimes innocently) in much contemporary social theory. I have written for example about the (productive) appearance of a trompe l’oeil epistemology in Roy Wagner’s very influential work on analogical kinship, and have used this to illuminate the descriptive shallowness of much writing on the ‘knowledge commons’:

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