If anthropology is understood as being composed of anthropos + logos, then anthropology can be taken up as a practice of studying how the mutually productive relations of knowledge, thought, and care are given form within shifting relations of power. Paul Rabinow has developed a distinctive approach to an “anthropology of the contemporary” that moves methodologically beyond modernity as an object of study or as a metric to order all inquiries.
Rabinow’s work has consistently confronted the challenge of inventing and practicing new forms of inquiry, writing, and ethics for the human sciences. He argues that currently the dominant knowledge production practices, institutions, and venues for understanding things human in the 21st century are inadequate institutionally and epistemologically. In response, he has designed modes of experimentation and collaboration consisting in focused concept work and the explorations of new forms of case-based inquiry.
Rabinow has also devoted a great deal of energy to the invention of new venues, adjacent to the existing university structures, diagnosing the university’s disciplinary organization and career patterns as among the major impediment to 21st century thought. We need venues that are adjacent to, but more flexible than, the university and the existing disciplinary structure. The Anthropology Research on the Contemporary (ARC) was founded by as part of an effort to create new forms of inquiry in the human sciences. Its aspiration is to create models for new infrastructures, tools of collaboration, and practices of inquiry.
We are experimenting with ways to invent twenty-first century modes of inquiry cast in a contemporary ethos. Our experiment concerns the relation among and between knowledge, thought, and care, as well as the different forms and venues within which these relations might best be brought together and assembled. Our commitment is anthropological, a combination of disciplined conceptual work and participant-observation based inquiry.
Our challenge is to produce knowledge in such a way that the work enhances us ethically, scientifically, politically, and ontologically. What concepts, venues, and forms are most pertinent for building a reflective relation to the present? How should a comparative study (logos) of present forms of life, labor and language (anthropos) be mediated? How should they be curated? We ask: What are the reflected modes and forms for conducting life: the bios technika – the arts and techniques of living? In short: what is a worthwhile philosophic and anthropological practice today?
This new iteration of a long-standing project is based at UC Berkeley although increasingly its practitioners are located worldwide. The conceptual and ethical core grows out of the work of Paul Rabinow and a long line of students as well as the major thinkers—Max Weber, John Dewey, Michel Foucault—whose writings and lives help us to orient ourselves to a remediated, reflective relation to the present.