Paper short abstract:
This paper looks at how residents of the London neighborhood of Kilburn negotiate incoherence and emergence within their own biographies, by asserting various frames of coherence. Using this as a lens, it interrogates broader trends within anthropology which have tended to valorise incoherence.
Paper long abstract:
This paper explores the connections between the ideas of accountancy and biographic accounts. The former, understood as the process by which a rate of equivalency is established between distinct things, is often seen as the central technology of liberal society - not only as a financial technology but as a technology of the self. However, it has widely been argued that the complexity of social relations, and indeed of personal biographies, persistently evades and exceeds such techniques of accounting. As a result, academics have often come to privilege accounts which emphasise emergence, complexity or even incoherence, favouring these both in terms of empirical attention and theoretical valorisation.
Such messy accounts were certainly widespread in the London neighbourhood of Kilburn. However, in many cases their narrators would nonetheless insist that these accounts ought to be recognised as coherent, and would sometimes go to considerable lengths to secure this recognition. In this paper, I focus on two such instances: a case of a 'roadman' in his thirties, involved in Kilburn's subversive and often violent street culture, grappling with doubts over his choices; and a case of a late-middle-aged benefits claimant who seems to want to put a vast swathe of his life story down on his benefits application form. I suggest that both these accounts resist liberal forms of commensurability, yet simultaneously seek to insist on their coherence through alternative narrative structures. I conclude by suggesting that alongside complexity, anthropologists must also attend to attempts to narrativize and mobilize the world through the assertion of forms of simplification.
Making accounts count: imagination, creativity, and (in)coherence