On Deanthropologizing Anthropology — An Essay on Tarek Elhaik’s “The Incurable Image”

This article is part of the following series:

“Are cultural anthropologists ready to shed their habit of using society and culture? (…) No, I don’t feel so. (…) It seems to me that many anthropologists wish to keep the human (…). There is a tricky problem here: concentrating around the human could mean either maintaining this character apart from other entities — the former beings of ‘nature’ defining by contrast what could be called the ‘humanistic’ position —, or it could mean accepting that, as soon as you take the human into consideration, it is suddenly redistributed (not disintegrated, that’s the whole point, but redistributed) in many other roles and connections that make its earlier figurations unrecognizable.”

Bruno Latour



Could one deanthropologize anthropology? Is it possible to differentiate anthropology, science of the human, from the figure of ‘Man’ as it emerged in the 18th century and made anthropology possible (Foucault 1966)?

At first these questions may sound bizarre — and an anthropology journal an odd choice for asking them. However, the will to leave the human behind is a prominent feature of what one could call contemporary anthropologies of nature. The reference here is largely to the so-called ontological turn (for reviews see Kohn 2015; Boellstorff 2016) and multi-species anthropology (Helmreich and Kirksey 2010; Kirksey 2014).[1]



Admittedly, I find the writings of the multi-species anthropologists and the ontologists — the two groups are best kept separate, precisely insofar as many of the former are not actually ontologists at all — hugely fascinating: I find myself intrigued by the effort to break free from ‘the human.’ I find it fascinating to read anthropology books on mushrooms (Tsing 2015) and cheese (Paxson 2012), on rocks (Povinelli 2016), water and waves (Helmreich 2009; 2015), pigeons (Jerolmak 2013), and insects (Raffles 2010) — to read them as an effort to imagine anthropology as independent from the concept of the human that has historically made anthropology possible. How can one imagine anthropology differently? What could an anthropology of the animal — or the mushroom — look like?

But then, I also find many of the anthropologies of alternative ontologies or multi-species assemblages sobering. Leaving the human behind, whether in substance or in form, seems much more difficult than anticipated. For example, most works in multi-species anthropology happily reproduce the very genre of anthropology from which they seek to depart. Like classical modern ethnographers studied strange and exotic others — the ‘primitive,’ the ‘savage,’ with their seemingly inexplicable rituals —, multi-species anthropologists study strange and exotic animals and their seemingly inexplicable (but endlessly curious) behavior. And like the ‘primitive’ was once invented — or instrumentalized — by ethnographers to put the taken-for-grantedness of our own, Western life style in question, so today the animal is used to question our self-description as human. What is more, just like once every anthropologist had her tribe (Shilluk, Trobrianders, Zulu, Aranda), so each multi-species anthropologists has her animal or plant.

There might be a focus on animals rather than on humans, but in a curious — and at times problematic — turn, animals (or plants) often seem to assume the role formerly reserved to ‘the primitive:’ as a moralizer of the (Western, modern concept of the) human.[2]

Ontology has comparable issues (e.g., Kohn 2007; Viveiros de Castro 2004; Holbraad 2009; Holbraad et al. 2014; Descola 1996a, 1996b, 2013, 2014). The vast majority of ontologists directly or indirectly seem to rely on Latour’s problematization of modernity understood as the separation of nature and culture — and to then argue that the ‘primitive’ has never made that mistake in the first place (Latour 1996). More often than not this argument is offered in form of a critique of modernity that is reminiscent of the 19th century romantic conception of nature (of which the formerly premoderns are the guardians) — a setup that evokes the moral authority of nature in the face of the violent (human) destruction of the environment.

Much of ontology, thus, appears to be a curious inversion of the philosophy of history that has been constitutive of modernity: it is contingent on the very argument it sets out to leave behind.[3]



At least two sets of questions emerge from the sobering effect that emerges from readings in ontology and multi-species anthropology. The first is quite simply this, how to really break free from ‘the human?’ How to decouple anthropology of the figure Michel Foucault called ‘Man’ without immediately reintroducing the vocabulary that stabilized ‘Man’ from within and without simply inversing the nature/culture relationship?

The second set of questions emerges from the, let’s say, ‘narrow’ focus of most of the works that ask the first one: the actual empirical focus of those interested in breaking with human exceptionalism is almost exclusively on nature, on human-animal relations, on bacteria, plants, mushrooms, soil, environments. A bit as if nature or the possibility to establish a human/nature continuum is the only possible point of departure, the only hopeful remedy against ‘the human.’ Indeed, one is occasionally left with the impression that any attention to the human is retrograde, a conservative remnant of a modernist past. This, well, morally charged focus on nature provokes me to ask: Couldn’t one envision an anthropology ‘of’ the human but after ‘the human?’ That is, an anthropology still interested in things human but not ready to assess human things in terms of ‘Man?’ Differently asked, could it be that one venue for deanthropologizing the human could be found not in nature but in the emergence of human affairs that escape the vocabulary that surrounds ‘the human?’

It is in the face of these questions that The Incurable Image, a book by Tarek Elhaik, an anthropologist and curator, gains its significance; it provides an unanticipated, fieldwork-based answer to both of the above questions.



In the early 2000s, Elhaik, left to conduct fieldwork among contemporary artists and curators in Mexico City. Prior to attending University, Elhaik — a native of Morocco — had been a curator of Arab film festivals. While immersed in cinema, he found himself intrigued by the overlap between the themes explored by the films he curated and questions that surfaced in various anthropological projects of the 1990s: questions of decolonialization, of the possibilities and pitfalls of a postcolonial identity, of the figure of the migrant, of cultural differences, of alternative modernities, of the possibility of a — non-Western-based — cosmopolitan politics.

In school (working with Paul Rabinow) Elhaik built an imaginaire that revolved around a clearly defined set of references (think of it as an echo of the 1990s): (1) the sense of play defined by what Marcus and Fischer in 1986 called ‘the experimental moment in the human sciences;’ (2) the critique of western epistemologies today largely (if not quite correctly) associated with Writing Culture and Public Culture; (3) what Jim Clifford described as Ethnographic Surrealism (the overlap of avant-garde, literary modernism, painting, and anthropology especially in the 1920s and 30s); and (4) by Georges Marcus’ exploration of the significance of the cinematic technique of montage for post-Writing Culture ethnographies.

Equipped with this imaginaire as well as with the questions he had fostered since his days as film curator — question of non-Western modernities, postcolonial identity, art, and cosmopolitanism —, Elhaik left, in the early 2000s, for Mexico City.

He was curious what a contemporary, politically as well as epistemologically oriented formation of Ethnographic Surrealism in Mexico City would look like. What if one replaced ‘classical modern ethnography’ with ‘contemporary anthropology’ and ‘classical modern art’ with ‘contemporary art’ (art after the conceptual turn, in the age of media art)?

Mexico seemed an ideal site for posing these kinds of questions. The country has a long — indeed, a spectacular — history of encounters between art and anthropology, between the search for political form and film. Beginning in the 1920s anthropologists and avant-garde artists (Mexican as well as international) came together to invent emblems for a national culture for revolutionary Mexico. Quite literally, anthropology — science of ethnos — was charged with the task to provide accounts, together with artists, film makers, writers, of Mexican culture (Elhaik has many pages on the significance in particular of Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico for this collaboration between art, avant-garde, anthropology and revolutionary politics).

Elhaik found himself intrigued by the adventure of exploring what the latest configuration of this interplay of art, politics, and anthropology in contemporary cosmopolitan Mexico City would look like? What new configuration of modernity, of cosmopolitan — but non-Western — politics would emerge?



It seems like the first thing that emerged was, well, a tragic disenchantment with his own set of questions. The reason for this disenchantment — for this intellectual tragedy — was what Elhaik calls his encounters with ‘the post-Mexican scene.’

Only a few years before his arrival, the anthropologist Roger Bartra had published Blood, Ink, and Culture, a volume of essays, several of which can be read as a deconstruction of the collaboration of anthropologists and artists in the invention of a national culture for revolutionary Mexico (from the emblematic cactus landscape to pre-Colombian figurines to the hacienda to the pelado, the disenfranchised urban poor).

Bartra argues that contemporary Mexico has outgrown the images of Mexicaness that anthropologists and artists once constructed — and he shows the indebtedness of the images of Mexicaness to European genealogies. The dream of Mexico was a European dream, a nightmare that configured humans through substantive humanist conceptions of culture, society, the nation, territory.

How to come to terms with Mexico after — Mexico?

It is this question that critically defined the arts scenes in which Elhaik arrived. Many of the most active art and curatorial groups of Mexico City — Curare, SEMFEO, Teratoma, InSITE, and Laboratorio 060 — understand their work as attending to the Post-Mexican moment, a moment which they attend to in terms borrowed from pathology (Elhaik, noticing the close relation between critique and a clinical language often refers to Deleuze’s Essays Critical and Clinical).

To give an example, Elhaik quotes from a curatorial statement written by a member and co-founder of Teratoma:

“Teratoma is a site of encounters, debates, exhibitions, residencies, pedagogy, dialogues, archiving of textual, visual, physical and virtual information in order to allow production, debate and reception of the various cultures to come in our continent. For now, we have decided to adopt TERATOMA as a provisional name for our group. As some of you may already know, the name comes to us from pathology: it is a denomination that refers to a type of tumor that has the nasty particularity to generate all kind of cell types, but without organization. As a result of a failure in the cellular reproductive mechanism, often due to the latency of embryonic cells or to genetic disorder, Teratoma has the tendency to grow in the body by combining, in a quasi-monstrous way, neuronal tissue with pelvic bones, semen with mammal glands, and so on Teratoma appears like a double of the affected body, perfectly identical to it, yet acting as its twin, without top or bottom, left or right, or distinction between function and localization. Teratoma is a metaphor that stands for the rejection of at once the ideal architecture of culture and the evolutionist imaginary. It is the illness of a regression to chaos by a colony of cells that acts parasitically towards the symbolic apparatus.”

Another feature (next to the blurring of the critical and the clinical) of many of the art projects Elhaik studies is that they symbolically use anthropology — science of nations small and large, of territorially imagined societies that are culturally identical with themselves — to bring the sickness of the ethnos-configuration of the human into view.

The exemplary reference here is to Eduardo Abaroa’s La Destrucción Total del Museo de Antropología (2012), an installation of pieces of debris from a symbolically destroyed national anthropology museum.

In Mexico City, thus, Elhaik begins to recognize — and this recognition process is a critical feature of his Erkenntnisprozess — that many of the elements that framed his research when he left for the field were ultimately still refractions of ‘Man.’ He discovers, not without shock, that, ultimately, even the postcolonial, cosmopolitan critique of the West or the search for alternative, ‘culturally’ differently configured modernities (or ontologies, for that matter) is bound to the territorial, the national, the social, the cultural (Deleuze and Guattari). What, after all, becomes of multiple modernities if one takes away the territorial and cultural references so critical for, say, Appadurai’s appropriation of Eisenstadt?

Or take the figure of the migrant as the unsettling cultural other: isn’t this still a reflection of a territorialized culture concept of the human?



The question, of course, is how Elhaik — the anthropologist — responds to his interlocutors’s destruction of anthropology? What form does an anthropology in the moments of its impossibility take?

Elhaik’s takes up this challenge by making his major fieldwork based discovery the object of his book: in eight essayistic chapters he traces how — with what tools, with what concepts — contemporary Mexican curators, media and film artists expose anthropology. However, these chapters are not representations, as if Elhaik were simply saying ‘this is what contemporary artists in Mexico do.’ Were they representations, he would reproduce the form that he — his friends — so vehemently critique. Instead of a representation, Elhaik designed his book as an ‘installation’ book — a book that is as much art as anthropology, that blurs the artists’ exposure of anthropology with the anthropologists’ interest in finding a form of anthropology in the moment in which anthropology as we know it has become impossible.

While Elhaik explores various installation forms, two emerge as most prominent from his research, curation and the incurable.

What is the incurable? It is a metaphor taken from the realm of the clinical to indicate the post-Mexican condition — a situation in which Mexico has already broken with Mexico and still is trapped by the image of Mexico it once has itself fabricated. It is the impossibility of letting go a form even when this form has become impossible — the form composed of an assemblage made up of the revolution, of politics, ethnos, the nation, culture, society, anthropology, art. What is sick — incurable, even untreatable — is as well anthropology. The incurable allows to bring into view a Mexico (an anthropology) that can never be anything but an escape, a discrepancy, a pain, a disease. Like his interlocutors, Elhaik here grounds his work in a language partly borrowed from pathology, partly from existentialist philosophy: he speaks of the incurable, of metastases, of pathology, and — often — of ‘endurance’ (as if all that is left to do is endure the untreatable).

And curation? Curation is first and foremost a form of care, a form of attending to the incurable, the untreatable — which also is to say a form of exposing disease. It is through the broken figure of the incurable image — the image of Mexico, the image of the human, the subject, the migrant, the postcolonial, the cosmopolitan, etc. — that Elhaik attends to the contemporary (im)possibility of Mexico, of anthropology.

For Elhaik, riffing of Abaroa’s total destruction of the national museum of anthropology, the anthropologist today is left with attending — with care, with pain, but also with a certain relief — to debris, with scattered bits and piece no one can put together again into something whole.

It is the rupture with ‘the human,’ that makes anthropology possible (as an attention to the dispersed, the scattered, the fragment).



The Incurable Image is also a book of critique — a critique that emerges from the debris that Elhaik studies. One of the principle objects of the critical energy of the book is alliance of anthropologists and artists around what Hal Foster in 1996 called the “ethnographic turn.”

Elhaik’s intervention is twofold. On the one hand, he writes with vehemence against artists who naively reinstate anthropology as the science of ‘cultural alterity.’ On the other hand, he fiercely turns against those anthropologists who embrace the artist’s suggestion that anthropology is somehow the guardian of the wisdom conserved by the premodern. The climax of this critique is when Elhaik exposes the emergence of a sensory ethnography (the reference here is to Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s sensory ethnography lab).

The background to the ‘turn’ to the sensory, Elhaik explains, is the suggestion by critiques of modernity that ‘the culture’ of ‘the West’ has privileged ‘vision’ over the other four senses; it has thereby established a hegemony of one mode of relating to the world — a mode of observation, of representation, of the cognitive, ultimately of thought and reason. The implication of this critique is that the non-Western — the premodern as documented by ethnographers — has had a sensually more diverse, indeed ‘holistic’ relation to the world. The non-Western world, the story goes, has preserved a haptic way of being enmeshed in the (natural) world through smell, touch, hearing, smell, and also through vision. The implication is as well that the sensory turn in anthropology and in art is a critical exposure of the shortcomings of modernity, of what the West has forgotten.

With verve Elhaik mocks the image of the ‘holistic man’ that emerges from sensory ethnography, mocks the very idea that anthropology is the guardian of the holism that has been preserved among ‘the primitive’ (a story that strangely reflects the turn to social suffering that has made much of medical anthropology a moral science). What is more he exposes the naïve conception of humanity that distinguishes between the West/modern and the rest/premodern and thereby repeats a philosophy of history that has so severely been critiqued by the Writing Culture generation. Some of his sentences are worth being quoted at length.

“Alas, rather than opening new vistas and problematizations, [sensory ethnography] implicitly returns us to a place that still distinguishes between West and non West, and from which we have to choose between conceptual abstract and sensorial material modes of conducting life and research.”

“Of course, it is important to remind ourselves, as Jonathan Crary, Laura Marks, and others have astutely done, of the imperial primacy of vision in Western modernity’s capture of the world and its attendant neglect of the haptic, the aural, and so on. But, it is unclear why and how a sensory ethnographic orientation would enable, simultaneously, the decolonization of the categories of the ethnographic turn, the poststructuralist desire to unseat the sovereign subject and the question of the author, and the geopolitical reconfiguration of artists’ and anthropologists’ mise-en-scene. It is simply unclear why and how, today, the value of the sensory should be the order of the day and the ethical mode framing the relationship between art and anthropology.”

“The sensory mis-en-scene will always be haunted by two ghosts that are ultimately two sides of the same coin: it will claim the so called non-Western, subaltern, and sub cultural practices as occupying a more multisensorial, less ocular centric subject position while attempting, in the same gesture, to search for and redeem, in the present, a pre-visual, communal and artisanal state of affairs which the West has allegedly lost.”

To Elhaik, the ethnographic turn of art — and its reflection in sensory ethnography or the ontological turn — ultimately is a reification of the naive modern primitivism of the 1920s and 30s. With one difference though, “Tragedy the first time, farce the second.”



What makes The Incurable Image a most interesting book is — that it is one the most successful attempts at deanthropologizing anthropology that I know of. What makes the book so compelling, even if this may sound strange, is that it is an intervention in a discussion its author never meant to contribute to: The beauty of the book is that it revolves around questions its author never set out to address. Indeed, it is precisely that — and how ­­— Elhaik’s initial project fails, the perplexity that emerges from this derailment, and, eventually, the effort to find possibilities to conduct anthropology in the moment of its becoming impossible that is so compelling and refreshing.

For Elhaik, the departure from the configuration of the human in terms of culture, society, territory was nothing he had hoped for or planned. On the contrary, it was an (at first) unwelcome, fieldwork based, unanticipated discovery that came in form of a shock. How shocking indeed this discovery has been — how painful (endurance) — emerges from every page of his book.

The consequence of this shock — of the encounter with unanticipated that dissolved his initial project — is that there are no grand arguments in The incurable Image. No universal theories; no ontologies; no declarations of epochal errors (the destructions of nature wrought about by the moderns); no grand alternatives or replacement approaches (what comes after culture or society?). What is more, the book is free from allocation of blame, free from moral judgments (no celebration of the moral authority of nature, the non-moderns, animals, or plants).

Instead of writing in the tone of someone who has broken through to the truth, or of someone who knows what’s wrong, Elhaik offers hesitant fragments — uncertain, honest, perplex probings. Collectively, his probings amount to a broken inventory of possibilities (plural) of practicing anthropology in the moment in which it can’t rely on ‘the human’ anymore. An inventory specific — singular — to his site of research.

The Incurable Image is a subtle, a complex book — many shades of grey, rather than black and white. Indeed, this is one of the most powerful insights that emerge from Elhaik’s book, that in the aftermath of the falling apart of the human (of ethnos) that he documents all (human) generalities may fail: if the ‘the’ human is gone, all there is are scattered bits and pieces, are inchoate venues that don’t add up, differences instances of an elsewhere that remain incommensurable to one another. Call it the joy that emerges from the painful liberation of the grandiose — epochal stories, universal forms, general theories, etc.

The true? The good? Elhaik debunks all those who hold on to these concepts — that is, the good, the truth — as hopeless. To substitute nature for culture is as futile — as damaging — as substituting the animal for the primitive.

Of course this is impossibly provocative! But then, when have you last read an anthropology book that intellectually aroused you? That left you passionate, that radically opened up the question what anthropology is or ought to be?



Coda (no book review without critical comments, however minor). Although I tremendously enjoyed reading the book, I initially came away from The Incurable Image with a mild sense of unease. Elhaik’s language of pathology — the grounding of the critical in the clinical — seemed to be partly owed to a holding on to a form in the moment of the impossibility of this form. Couldn’t one, I wondered, explore the space that opens up after ‘the human’ (after ethnos) more positively? Without “endurance” and instead with a certain joy?

Perhaps Elhaik would agree. In any case, if one reads the few essays he has written after The Incurable Image, one can see the emergence of a response to my critique. In his most recent writings the existentialist trope of ‘endurance’ and the clinical concept of ‘incurability’ seem to recede, and a more positive form of inquiry emerges, one that displays a calm indifference.

I find it fascinating to see how Elhaik now turns to questions of solitude, of beauty, virtue, care, ultimately to the possibility of philosophical life by way of turning to the broken figures of ‘solitude,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘care,’ and the ‘philosophical life.’

Instead of attending to the incurable, he now turns to “Antonioni’s artificially colored landscape, Fatmi’s installations and essays on Levi-Strauss’ voyages, Gruner’s films and sculptures with volcanic stones, Smithson’s entropic earthworks, and Ruiz’s hallucinatory dreamscapes.” “In these minimalist art practices,” Elhaik writes, “human geography and the human figure is rarefied,” is being “dis-figured” and “left behind.” And what interests him is not only that these “de-morphed” humanity “is unlikely to be repairable through ‘sensory’ ethnography.”

What interests him as well is the liberating joy that emerges from these fragments.

That I know of, Elhaik’s The Incurable Images is to date the most interesting and most successful attempt at deanthropologizing anthropology. Not least because it achieves this departure not by turning to nature as non-human but by attending to, well, the human.



Tobias Rees is Associate Professor of Social Studies of Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research (CIFAR). His expertise lies at the intersection of anthropology, art history, the history of science, and the philosophy of modernity and concerns the study of knowledge/thought. More specifically, he is interested in how categories that order knowledge mutate over time –– because of humans, microbes, snails, the weather, or other events –– and in what effects these mutations have on conceptions of the human/the real.



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[1] The beginnings of the contemporary efforts to depart from ‘the’ human can be traced back to the works of Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway (I stress contemporary because there were, of course, previous projects of problematizing the human, just think of structuralism or post-structuralism). On the one hand, the reference is to Latour’s 1993 We Have Never Been Modern and his thought-provoking problematization of European modernity (see as well his search for political alternatives in Latour 2004). On the other hand, the gesture is to Donna Haraway’s troubling of the category of nature in Primate Vision (1989) and Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991), and specifically to her argument that “we have never been human” in the Companion Species Manifesto (2003) or When Species Meet (2008).

At least in retrospect, it was largely (of course not exclusively) through these works, that, over the course of the 1990s, the condition of the possibility of a non-human centric anthropology emerged. Latour’s suggestion that the mistake of the self-declared moderns is that they remained blind to the natureculture continuums led (some) anthropologists –– today referred to as ontologists –– to suggest that the supposed ‘primitives’ indeed never made the mistakes of the moderns. And Haraway’s turn to dogs has encouraged others to conduct anthropologies of insects (Raffles 2010) and mushrooms (Tsing 2015), of oceans (Helmreich 2009) and bacteria (Paxson 2012) –– publications today grouped together under the heading multi-species anthropology (Helmreich and Kirksey 2010; Kirksey 2014).

[2] This is not meant as wholesale critique. There are most excellent works that reflect on –– or subversively play with –– these inversions/relations, see for example Povinelli 2016, Tsing 2015, Helmreich 2009 or Raffles 2010.

[3] Aside, when ontologies are ‘socially constructed,’ and each ‘society’ has its very own ontology, then I am not sure where the rupture with the anthropocentric epistemology of European modernity has actually occurred: society, after all, is a genuine European concept, born in the France of the first half of the nineteenth century, introduced among other things to set the human apart from the animal, to argue that there is an irreducible human reality, a reality sui generis that needs to be understood in its own (social) terms (see, e.g., Descola 1996b, 2013, Holbraadt et al. 2014 or Viveiros de Castro 2004).