Hau: a new open access journal of ethnographic theory
I recently learned of the establishment of a new anthropological journal, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. This is, I think, a potentially very interesting development and this has generated a fair bit of interest around various anthropology-related mailing lists. I have to say I got quite excited reading about the journal’s focus, which seeks to address two important issues in contemporary anthropology: open access to anthropological thought, and the relationship between ethnography and theory.
According to its own blurb:
The journal is motivated by the need to reinstate ethnographic theorization in contemporary anthropology as a potent alternative to its ‘explanation’ or ‘contextualization’ by philosophical arguments, moves which have resulted in a loss of the discipline’s distinctive theoretical nerve. By drawing out its potential to critically engage and challenge Western cosmological assumptions and conceptual determinations, HAU aims to provide an exciting new arena for evaluating ethnography as a daring enterprise for ‘worlding’ alien terms and forms of life, by exploiting their potential for rethinking humanity and alterity.
As I see it Hau is also an attempt to reinvigorate what is important and unique about anthropology that means that it isn’t simply derivative of other fields of enquiry. It doesn’t do this by locating anthropology’s uniqueness in its ethnographic methodology alone, or in a core concept such as “culture”, but in the particular relationship between theory and methodology that anthropology enables. The heart of anthropology, it seems to say, is its ability to generate theoretical insights through ethnography which cannot be reduced to pre-existing philosophical categories. The goal is to return theory to a more intimate relationship with ethnography, as something that emerges as much out of ethnography as much as being applied to it.
The title of the journal is also worth noting. It references of course Mauss’s foundational essay on The Gift, a text that has been extremely fertile within, and beyond, anthropological theorising. In it Mauss famously argued that that something intangible of the giver remains a part of the gift and demands to be returned — and he used the Maori term hau to indicate this “spirit of the gift” to capture the way gift-giving produces the need for reciprocity and therefore forms the basis of various kinds of social bonds. What was particularly daring about the way Mauss employed hau was that he didn’t limit its application to the Maori context but used it to say something about gift giving in general. Instead of remaining confined to ethnographic specificity, hau became part of an attempt to say something about being human in general.
This has been controversial. Is is appropriate, for example, to apply this term in contexts where the concept of a “spirit of the gift” doesn’t exist? But this difficulty is precisely the point that the journal is trying to address, at least as I see it: is it any more appropriate to take Western philosophical categories and assume that they can say something about being human in general? Can we assume that we can just treat different cultural contexts as variations on a universal theme which can all be explained with the same theoretical language? Or do we need to take culture, difference, more seriously than that and acknowledge that there is always going to be a certain impossibility in bringing the particular and the general together? Is cultural translation always going to be a fraught process because there isn’t a universal framework in which we can map all human variation?
These are the sorts of issues the journal’s blurb references when it describes its debt to Mauss and his use of hau as a theoretical construct. Unfortunately it is expressed in a near impenetrable piece of text:
HAU takes its name from Mauss’ Spirit of the Gift, an anthropological concept that derives its theoretical potential precisely from the translational inadequations and equivocations involved in comparing the incomparable. Through their reversibility, such inferential misunderstandings invite us to explore how encounters with alterity occasion the resurgence and revisitation of indigenous knowledge practices.
The paragraph has been the subject of some discussion (and mockery) on the Australian Anthropological Society’s mailing list. And indeed, what are we supposed to make of this passage? If this kind of writing alienates many professional anthropologists how are the wider publics that the journal is trying to reach through its open access policies supposed to react?
Alex Golub of Savage Minds provided his own improvement of the above passage to the AAS mailing list which I hope he doesn’t mind me repeating here. I think it does a much better job of conveying why it’s interesting to use hau as a sort of guiding motif for the journal:
HAU takes its name from Mauss’s Spirit of the Gift, an anthropological concept that is powerful because it cannot be adequately translated. By standing with a foot in two worlds, concepts like the Hau invite us to explore how encounters with difference can be occasions to revisit and empower indigenous knowledge practices.
This is an important issue for a journal that seeks to promote open access anthropology. Open access, if it’s taken seriously, shouldn’t just be about making it possible for a general public to gain access to anthropological texts; these texts also need to be accessible. In other words, there are more barriers than just paywalls to getting anthropological thought out into the world as knowledge that connects with and inspires people outside the discipline. My feeling then is that a journal that professes both to want to affect philosophical debates outside the discipline and to be openly accessible should take a broad view of that project. A commitment to clarity of language as a foundational principle would help the journal to more effectively achieve its stated goals. However I’m not arguing that the writing should be dumbed down. Obviously a journal dedicated to cutting edge anthropological theory should encourage sophisticated thought and challenging ideas. But I agree with the adage attributed (correctly?) to Einstein: “Say things as simply as possible, but no simpler.”
In a way both of the above areas of focus — of revitalising the relationship between ethnography and theory, and of open access anthropology — revolve around similar core concerns. In both cases the central question has to do with the tensions inherent in translation, of communicating across difference, and of bringing the specific in relationship to the general. How do we communicate the specificity and uniqueness of an indigenous worldview, or that of a tribe of anthropologists, to the wider world without at the same time destroying what makes it specific and unique? The project of reinvigorating and “worlding” indigenous knowledge therefore parallels that of reinvigorating and “worlding” anthropological theory. And indeed it would appear that these projects are not only analogous but interdependent.