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For a Creative Anthropology: A Reply

I wish to express my profound gratitude to Somatosphere, Todd Meyers, and the forum contributors for these incisive reflections on Reel World. The forest paths evoked by Richard Baxstrom took me back to a morning spent in the shadow of the High Wavy Mountains in Tamil Nadu, in the midst of my dissertation fieldwork in 2001. This was a tract that wild elephants, boar, and the occasional tiger were known to prowl. But the women weeding the bean fields on the terraced plain that day likened what they were doing to acts of domestic care: like feeding, bathing, or grooming the plants, as one would do with children. Older women in weathered cotton saris called out folksongs to pass the time—“It’s been eighteen days since you came this way…”—while the younger members of the weeding party made quiet retorts with recent film songs and lyrics. Everyone there knew the present as an “age of cinema,” and it was hard to miss how thoroughly cinematic images, sounds, and feelings had come to saturate the organic process of creation in this part of the world, yielding a supple means of expressing its trials and uncertainties.

This book, Reel World, wrestles with the problem of what to do in the face of such experience. How best to make sense of such cinematic recourse? Should we retreat to the critical distance that would account for what surfaces when and why in the lives of our interlocutors, or try instead to think, as they often do, with the vicissitudes of the world at hand: its snaking paths, precarious plants, and, indeed, its cinema? The stakes of this question are much greater than the problem of how best to engage that object of inquiry we call “cinema.” As Eduardo Kohn suggests in his thoughtful response, the question here is whether cinema and anthropology can contribute toward one of the defining challenges of this time of ecological malaise—as Kohn puts it, “learning to open oneself to the wild world beyond what we think we can control.”

Elsewhere in a recent essay, Lisa Stevenson and Kohn (2015) suggest that the film Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel 2012) might best be grasped as an “ethnographic dream,” yielding “a sensorial method for allowing [other kinds of] realities to make us over.” Reel World asks whether an anthropological text could not be written, and perhaps even experienced, in this manner. What would it mean for our writings to evoke, embody, exude, or express something of the creative and disruptive force of the myriad beings and worldly elements with which we think and work? There is the very real possibility here of the sadness to which Kohn refers, the discordant reactions—“Never get off the boatabsolutely goddam right!” (Baxstrom, Apocalypse Now)—that such sensory ventures can provoke. All the same, I share with Kohn an ethical concern for trying to learn, as he suggests, “to inhabit the world of the unforeseeable.”

Simply putting things this way raises a problem of scope, as Stephen Chrisomalis rightly observes in his lucid analysis of the book, for claims are thereby implied with regard to the very nature of things. Are we “evaluating philosophical premises using ethnographic evidence,” Chrisomalis asks, “using evidence to draw generalizations, or something else entirely?” His elegant distinction between the telescopic and the microscopic pulls the question into sharp focus. But I am reminded of the medieval Tamil poet and mystic Idaikkadar, who wrote of glimpsing the seven seas in a single mustard seed—such is the infinitely telescopic promise, I would argue, of attending closely to an ethnographic singularity in its uniqueness.

This has less to do with opposing realist and non-realist traditions in anthropology than with extending our realism in a speculative direction (Shaviro 2014: 67). Reel World draws from a number of ethnographic and philosophical archives—mythical, religious, literary, aesthetic—that seek to work with the tendency of things to exceed their givenness, that is to say, that affirm the reality of what is intangible and evanescent. Cinema is replete with the tugs and force of such spectral presence. The writing in the book pursues a speculative poetics of what could be true if expressed in a form faithful to the openness of such a reality, rather than seeking always to approximate what is already given. As I ask in a chapter on the conjuring of divine miracles in a digital effects lab, “what must reality be to accommodate such wondrous deeds?”

The book therefore turns to certain thinkers like Henri Bergson less for axioms to follow than for their intuition of potential openings between disparate domains of thought and practice—recall what Levi-Strauss (1963: 103) said so generously of Bergson and Rousseau, that they were “trying on themselves modes of thought taken from elsewhere or simply imagined.” The chapter on time, to which Chrisomalis refers, juxtaposes side-by-side the ideas of Bergson and the ideas of a young Indian film director, not to explain one by means of the other, but instead to explore what could happen to our understanding of time if we stayed with the experience of a filmmaker. What is essential here is the possibility of a novel and emergent congruence, which is why the arguments themselves are left in speculative form. This does court “the risk,” as Chrisomalis notes, “that [readers] will splice together perspectives that were never meant to be brought together by the author,” but such possible splicing, with all of its hopes and perils, is entirely apt for the book’s project and its montage style.

These are indeed problems of knowledge, but they have less to do with the familiar epistemological worry—“How can I know?”—than with the question of what our knowledge could become, in a worldly sense, through a deeper embrace of its sensory and imaginative textures. It is this kind of question that cinema—itself a thinking medium of experience and sensation—invites. I think of a moment late in the wonderful film by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Manakamana (2013), when two older Nepali women take the gondola down from the shrine of Manakamana. The film, as you may know, seats us in a cabin with a series of different occupants, its frame always fixed to the borders of a window that reveal the precipitous depths of the Himalayan foothills below. With this particular sequence, much of what is happening takes place beyond the frame: a crinkling sound that is eventually revealed as a plastic bag, the hidden lap onto which its ice cream bar keeps dripping, and the remarked beauty of a vista that falls somewhere beyond the edge of the screen.

The struggle to keep melting ice cream from dripping is a familiar one, and we are led to laugh along with these two women in a shared spirit of implication. But then, as we are spliced into this unexpected kinship with these two travelers from elsewhere, we are invited to make another kind of connection: between the fearsome depths beyond the window and the sweetened fluid falling much closer at hand. Something of epic gravity—an Austrian-engineered transect through the Himalayas—suddenly gains a sense of lightness and caprice, a feeling of openness and vulnerability.

Thinking back to Chrisomalis, I have no idea whether this concatenation was meant by Spray and Velez. But a scene like this from Manakamana, and the weave of ideas it puts into motion, underscores a crucial point made in Spray’s moving response to Reel World, that “style, form, and structure are not ancillary to content.” I am grateful for her attention to the “seams” in the fieldwork that made the book possible and the “fragments” that came to comprise its descriptions, as she examines, with an editor’s eye, its “intercutting ethnographic scenes with theory and reflections.” As I read this talented filmmaker move so fluidly between the emergent possibilities of both cinematic and textual form, I am drawn to her evocation of “the creative potential that surrounds us as embodied and sentient beings in any given moment, if we would cultivate the perception of a maker.” Such perception involves something less than mastery, Spray reminds us, calling on us instead to “lend an open ear to the world.”

The vulnerability of an open ear to suggestion and deception has long been conceived in Western thought as a problem for knowledge—the ear, as Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler wrote, “is fundamentally a passive organ” (1947: 13). Although Larkin’s challenging commentary is more concerned with the visible than the audible, his questions concern the difference between passive uptake and active critique. Are we not exposing ourselves to unnecessary dangers of misunderstanding by leaving open the field of social relations, whose operation we already understand so well? I was surprised that Larkin found the book anchored in a basic opposition between the human and the non-human, given all of its attention to what happens behind office doors, beside video monitors, or in small clusters of conversation and collaborative labor. Throughout the book, I tried to convey a complementary interplay between human and non-human, the conscious and unconscious, thought and sensation—take, for example, the many scenes of mass spectatorship in theaters presented by the book, where waves and pulses of feeling are always intercut with critical rejoinders that brush those moods at a tangent.

Larkin poses this problem in relation to a “middle ground” of scholarly inquiry—to put it in slightly different terms, the question of what company we keep when we think anthropologically. This book seeks to think with and among the human interlocutors that comprise its chief characters—the cameraman on the cover, for example, Nirav Shah, a recurrent protagonist in the chapters—and to follow what happens when circumstances exceed their capacity to master them. Its ecological sensibilities lie in its attunement to this excess. Scholarly engagements are there, but left chiefly to the notes, as a writing strategy meant to yield argumentative force to the stories themselves.

Think of what Marilyn Strathern observes in Partial Connections: “the anthropologist’s contexts and levels of analysis are themselves often at once both part and yet not part of the phenomena s/he hopes to organize them with” (2004: 75). Because our scholarly perspectives on things and their contexts may deeply cross-cut the local perspectives we seek to make sense of, Strathern notes, “one can always be swallowed by another” (2004: 75). Facing up to this possibility, I would add, means relinquishing our habitual tendencies to explain each thing by putting it securely in its place, and taking the risk instead of acknowledging that certain things will necessarily exceed the context-giving boundaries of our understanding. This acknowledgment once again informs the way that Reel World is written: the chapter on color, for example, which tries to work along the grain of sensation’s resistance to grammar.

Here, I acknowledge imperial chromophilia—I work with Taussig’s insights—and the chapter identifies aesthetic debts to the chromolithographic traditions that Larkin invokes. The question remains, though, as to how these histories might be made to matter, what they might allow us to understand differently. Reiterating a regional or a cultural attachment to vivid colors, it struck me, would sit too well with a troubling legacy of pathologizing such attachments. At the same time, my fieldwork also showed that the moments of disdain that Larkin picks out were always cross-hatched with feelings of joy and wonder at the spectacles conjured in cinema, and the writing seeks a way of affirming the openings that such feelings could effect. For Walter Benjamin, the right kind of image could “blast open the continuum of history” by “fanning the spark of hope in the past” (1968: 262, 255). Could we as scholars share in the making of such transformative images? This too is a matter of history, but in a minor key. There are pragmatic resources for novel forms of change vested in the fleeting possibilities of creative process—in the historical biographies, one might even say, of these cinematic images and sounds.

The value of such attention to minute scales of process is beautifully conveyed in Stefan Helmreich’s report from an Oregon “wave lab.” There was an event of critical significance—the 2011 tsunami in Japan. But this history serves here less as a known context for what is happening in the lab than as an ongoing provocation to realign bodies and forces already in motion. Far from confronting human and non-human entities across a rigid divide, we see how many different kinds of beings — scientists, waves, paddles, signals — are woven together into a conjoined process of investigation. Helmreich’s detailing of the differential scaling of time and space helps to underscore a point that I also try to convey in the book, that there is a value in attending to the differences between specific horizons of experience, cinematic or otherwise. And as we follow along with Helmreich, we begin to see the scientists themselves in differential form, as filmmakers, as aliens, perhaps even as gangsters.

We know these scientists are also striving to see and understand these waves otherwise, which is what leads them to “run some waves” as so many cinematic takes: “roll ‘em!” And so the possibility that surfaces is one of generative vision: what would it take not only to see what is just on the threshold of emergence, but also to bend its emerging form into a novel shape? A tsunami that would not be a disaster, for example? Or an ethnography that might learn a new intention as it goes along? Helmreich tells us of a possible resonance between our practices and those of the others we study. Would it be too much to wonder what a rogue wave of insight might look like—the conditions that might possibly precipitate such a thing, and what it would take to live with its consequences?

We are indeed on the terrain of the experiment, the character of which is attested so well by Richard Baxstrom. The writing in these chapters does take various twists and turns, but I did not have a particular strategy or style in mind at the outset of writing any of them. I worked with various forms of sensory material resistant to the conventional form of scholarly prose, and in each case I tried to let that material and its qualities push as far as possible against these conventions without “buckle or rupture,” as Baxstrom observes. Marks to be made therefore began with the body of the text itself, in a manner perhaps akin to the “traces of demonological thinking…discernibly etched upon the surface of the film” in Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 Haxan (Baxstrom and Meyers, 2016: 104). Such experiments with narrative form entertain decisive risks, and I remain unsure how well they work in this book. But I took heart from the improvisational way that these Tamil filmmakers worked themselves—such as the composer Yuvan Shankar Raja, who once told me, regarding one of the songs I write about in the book, “I just went with the flow and it took me all over the place.”

What is at stake here, ultimately, is the possibility of trusting in the creative potential of worldly circumstance, what Gilles Deleuze called “belief in the world” (Deleuze 1986: 171). I don’t deny the sense of political urgency or the pressures of bureaucratic expediency that drive so much of what we do now in anthropology. But it might still be worth asking the pragmatic question in a more speculative and open-ended manner: What else is anthropology good for? What else can anthropology do? This book taught me that an anthropology of creation should aspire to a creative anthropology—one that could share in the transformative powers of experience and the genesis of worlds. That was the spirit in which it was written. Beyond this, there is little more to do than to grab a box of popcorn and wait to see what happens.



Adorno, T., and H. Eisler. 2007. Composing for the Films. New York: Continuum.

Baxstrom, R., and T. Meyers. 2016. Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible. New York: Fordham University Press.

Benjamin, W. 1968. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Castaing-Taylor, L., and V. Paravel. 2012. Leviathan. New York: Cinema Guild.

Deleuze, G. 1986. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Levi-Strauss, C. 1963. Totemism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Shaviro, S. 2014. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Spray, S., and P. Velez. 2013. Manakamana. New York: Cinema Guild.

Stevenson, L., and E. Kohn. 2015. “Leviathan: An Ethnographic Dream.” Visual Anthropology Review 31: 49-53.

Strathern, M. 2004. Partial Connections. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.


Anand Pandian is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.  In addition to Reel World, he is author of Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India (Duke 2009) and Ayya’s Accounts: A Ledger of Hope in Modern India (Indiana 2014).

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