Testing the Strength of the Last Instance: Political Economy and the Anthropology of the Built Environment
(University College London )
Paper short abstract:
"No measure will ever wrench from cities their fundamental irreducibility." (Latour 2006) Against Latour's foreclosure, this paper argues that structural Marxist ideas like 'determination in the last instance' by the economy can usefully be deployed by an urban anthropology which aspires to reduce urban complexity rather than to celebrate its irreducibility.
Paper long abstract:
Articulated around clarion calls such as 'Back to things!' (Latour 2005: 23), a burgeoning community of scholars have recently attempted to highlight the agentic power of nonhuman, material 'actants'. However, thinkers focused on emancipating tangible actants have betrayed a tendency to elide the significance of what they consider to be non-material 'factors', such as 'capitalism' or human intentionality. Referring to the anthropology of the built environment, I will suggest that the long-forgotten Althusserian (1969) concepts of 'overdetermination', 'determination in the last instance' and 'relative autonomy' point in the direction of how to appreciate the complexity and heterogeneity of the agentic field surrounding architecture, without foreclosing the possibility that factors might ultimately end up being more important than actants. Laying common ground between materiality and materialism, I will identify 'the economy', or more specifically, the mode of production as a powerful factor-actant ('factant'), which ties the realms of the 'abstract' (relations of production) inextricably with the 'material' qua 'physical' (productive forces). Citing my ethnographic research in Warsaw, I want to claim that the place and role of architecture in a given social setting is determined in the last instance by its relation to the (political) economy. The task of an anthropologist investigating this determination is to test the strength of the last instance; to illustrate whether and how the determination of the built environment by the mode of production is mediated by a 'concrete diversity' (Godelier 1978) of 'relatively autonomous' material and immaterial entities.
Capitalism and global anthropology: Marxism resurgent