Accepted Paper:

For an anti-literalist anthropology  


Felix Girke (HTWG Konstanz)

Paper short abstract:

This paper argues that concepts like “literalness” are methodological dangers for the “mutuality within the anthropological project”. Research must embrace inchoate, rhetorical, and evocative forms of interaction as constitutive of social life and not dismiss them as deviations.

Paper long abstract:

This paper critically engages with the theme of the panel, in that it argues a different approach for dealing with metaphors and literal speech.

Literalness, not "metaphor" (or evocation, irony), is the problematic mode. To use it or expect it in quotidian contexts is impolite, confusing or naïve; it also lacks elements of play and agon. Literalness (or consistency) is common and appropriate only in limited settings, and is seen here as merely another rhetorical claim. In all speech situations certain "definitions of the situation" are rhetorically negotiated, and people constantly compete and collude in such framing.

To assume literalness as the preferable modality of interaction (as also non-linguistic action is rhetorical), preferable in both a normative and empirical sense, misses out on performative aspects, recently a focal research interest.

While anthropological knowledge does reside in the reflection on the distinction between what people do, say they do, and say they should do, assuming any of these dimensions to be predominantly "literal" blinds us to the element of persuasion inherent in all interaction. Anthropology is strongest where it embraces ways of speaking (or, modes of persuasion, definitions of the situation, meaning-making etc.) in their complexity and ambiguity, and not where it tries to impose consistency where only the inchoate exists.

While every anthropologist has to work it through themselves, patient and empathically, the danger to the "mutuality within the anthropological project" lies thus mainly in methodological preconceptions. The debate is supplemented by examples from research in Southern Ethiopia.

Panel W023
For a sceptical anthropology?