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Knowledge, an Anthropological Commodity

Within the pages of his newly published book, An Anthropological Trompe L’Oeil for a Common World: An Essay On The Economy Of Knowledge, published by Berghahn last month, Alberto Corsín Jiménez addresses the value and framework of knowledge, theory, and scholarship. Below the author discusses the sources of inspiration for the book, the commodity of knowledge, and the trick that not everything is exactly as it first appears.


Although I did not quite know it at the time, I began writing this book roughly at the time of my appointment to a university lectureship at the University of Manchester in 2003.


The university had only just merged with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology — a merger hailed in various contexts as a harbinger of the changes to come in UK higher education.


Nobel Prize winners were recruited; a new campus with flagship new buildings was built; additional layers of audit paperwork were introduced. What really caught my attention, however, was the sudden appearance of a language of ‘ethics’, ‘trust’ and ‘public goodness’ in describing the university’s institutional agenda, not something peculiar to Manchester. In June 2005 the Council of Industry and Higher Education organized a conference on ‘Ethics and Higher Education’ where the neo-liberalization of higher education was presented as indispensable for the fine tuning of its moral equipment.


When my first sabbatical at Manchester came up in 2006, I made plans to explore the ethical turn in higher education and research by carrying out an ethnography of academic work at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). I was interested in the terms through which humanities and social scientists conceived of their own work as a ‘public good’.


Few ethnographic studies addressed the labour of scholarship in the humanities. And yet I had the suspicion that the ‘public value’ of science might take a different shape in a laboratory than in a library or archive.


My time at CSIC had an enormous impact on my theoretical outlook and preoccupations.


It soon became obvious to me that neither ethics, nor indeed the public value of academic labour, was of immediate concern to my fellow colleagues and informants. They remained highly sceptical about the terms (journal impact factors, international collaborations, research grants, etc.) in which the worth of their work was being caricatured for measurement.


Their scepticism, however, was not simply a reaction to managerial encroachment or to the epistemological grossness of audit cultures. Or rather, they did in fact react to such encroachment, but they did so by doing things to ‘the ethical’ that I for one found utterly wondrous.


For example, while talking over CSIC’s new strategic plan for interdisciplinary research, someone would recall the colours or forms of a seventeenth-century lamina drawn by a Jesuit scholar. The question of interdisciplinarity would subtly disappear from the conversation, which then turned instead to the granularity of the lamina, its tactility, the details of its reproduction, the Jesuits’ scholarship and archiving practices, or the circuits of trade wherein they provisioned themselves with exotica and paraphernalia and enriched their curiosity cabinets, for example. Scholarship had forms and colours and textures and journeys—they seemed to be insinuating—that escaped the hubris of audit.


I found such disquisitions absolutely fascinating. But it soon occurred to me that the images and stories evoked by the historians were not simply analogies; they actually re-inscribed and modulated the forms of knowledge available to us in the present.


I was provoked into thinking how ‘comparison’ is organized internally as an epistemic effect—when and to what effects is it rendered visible. This has important consequences for how we conceptualise the very project of an anthropology of knowledge.


The historians’ stories and similes and excursions did more than set up a semiotic landscape of comparison. They enabled ‘comparison’ itself to be rendered visible as an epistemic form through the work of certain scopic images and trajectories. Comparison ‘ascended’ as the very effect of moving between epochs, scales, details, artefacts: it was the produce of zooming in and out of particulars and global accounts. I was particularly struck by the role of optics in the internal configuration of such ascensions, and in particular by the use of visual effect.


Certain optical effects rendered certain forms of description more effective than others by making things big or small, material or immaterial, visible or invisible, significant or insignificant. There seemed to be an anthropology ‘captured’ in the internal self-presentations through which historians of science made sense of their academic predicament, and indeed on their subsequent judgments over matters of science policy or the politics of knowledge at large.


This book, then, could have been an ethnography of the labour of scholarship in the humanities at the turn of the twenty-first century. But somewhere along the way I got trapped in the internal anthropology of theorizing as a form of description itself. That trap is this book’s trompe l’oeil: an account of how the knowledge economy and ethnography perpendicularize each other as descriptive forms.


The book charts my itinerary and rambles in trying to find a form of description suitable to the topic at hand.


Sometimes gaining a deeper understanding of a problem led me to drop or change my vocabulary. Sometimes I was taken aback by new theoretical developments. It was not simply that I felt I had to catch up with new authors and ideas: I remained fascinated at the ways in which ‘theory’ reconfigured internally as a descriptive form.


I do advance an argument about how anthropology, and social theory at large, organizes its theoretical effects. I explore what I call the ‘epistemic engines’ through which theoretical descriptions open up a space for their own effects to be rendered visible. I focus on two such engines—proportionality and reversibility, and their compound work in what I call the figure of ‘strabismus’—and argue that their epistemic tricks are very much the legacy of a baroque or trompe l’oeil epistemology.


Consider what would happen if we were to imagine the classical objects of political economy (the public, knowledge, the market) not as Renaissance paintings (geometrically and perceptively coherent) but as trompe l’oeils or anamorphic projections – if we were to reverse our perspective on them? What, in sum, would the public, knowledge and the economy look like if seen with strabismic eyes?



Alberto Corsín Jiménez is an Associate Professor at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid. He is the editor of Culture and Well-Being: Anthropological Approaches to Freedom and Political Ethics (Pluto, 2008) and The Anthropology of Organisations (Ashgate, 2007). His current work examines the rise of an urban commons movement and the development of open-source urban hardware projects by architects, artists and academics.