Essays In The Anthropology Of Reason

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Sounding the Limits of Life is a collection of 14 essays, many of which have been previously published but have been revised for this book. Given the richness and diversity of topics that the essays address, this reviewer will engage with their crosscutting themes, with the book's structure, and mostly with the methodological and analytic contributions it makes. Stefan Helmreich tells us that the book explores “how one might think about the relation between the abstract, the empirical, the formal, and the material—a relation that in no way is always working in one direction, in one order” (xxii). Said exploration unfolds around three fundamental categories of our times: life, water, and sound.

But each of these categories has a different kind of pull in each of the essays. In some, sound waves are the object of analysis, while in others sounding is a form of figuring things out. Water is in some essays the medium needed to propose new epistemologies (such as underwater archaeologies), while in other essays it is a theory machine, a material afforded the capacity to structure thought. Life figures as a set of relations while also being the very structure of information. Sometimes object of analysis, sometimes formalism, sometimes path to discovery, sometimes found object, life, sound, and water never settle on inherited wisdoms. Instead, the book directs us to the moments in which said wisdoms reach their internal limits and are reinvented. And this is one of the advantages of reading these essays together as a single collection. They bring into relief Helmreich's style of thought. We can see how he works assiduously to keep the meaning of fundamental categories changing, reminding us how easy it is to fall back into essentialisms (his analysis of the turn to new materialisms being a case in point).

For those interested in the study of scientists, politicians, experts, and bureaucrats, Sounding the Limits of Life offers a suggestive example of how to conduct that type of anthropological research. Helmreich refuses to reduce science to a worldview, culture, ideology, or even ontology. Instead, he is committed to science as a field action that is material and abstract at once. Leaving behind any foundationalist desires for all-encompassing meanings or explications, he is not looking to get to the bottom of things. He does not want to claim that science is an idea of process—setting hypotheses and testing them—or that it is a material technology—a set of laboratory practices or routines for collecting data. He cautions us that searching for foundations in the science of life, sound, and water is a doomed project because it obscures what is lively about scientific practice: its continuous making and transgressing of its own boundaries, both conceptual and material.

Instead of offering new foundations, Helmreich contributes something else. He takes us into the dynamics by which abstractions and materials dance together, following the ways in which they go beyond the limits they have created. That is, the book's purpose is not to anthropologically map the latest scientific definition of sound, water, or life, even if a superficial reading would take the more historical chapters as doing just that. Rather, its purpose is to sound out the processes by which those three orders acquire different forms according to different fields of inquiry, experimentation, and artistic exploration. The book traces how material and conceptual relations stretch, adapt, transform, or refigure life, sound, and water. And in the process Helmreich shows us how our own tools of anthropological analysis—semiosis, matter, abstraction, history, and classification, among others—are also being transformed.

Helmreich takes a similar nonfoundationalist approach when he attends to the racialized, gendered, and classed stakes of the techno-scientific worlds he investigates. Class, race, and gender are not defined objects of analysis in and of themselves; they imbue the doings and makings of the practices and abstractions he investigates. In his analysis, race, gender, and class construe the limits of what is thinkable, touchable, and representable for sound artists, scientists, experimenters, and innovators.

If you are wondering how to read this book, where to begin, I can offer one suggestion: be a bit undisciplined. For instance, instead of starting with the introduction, I would begin with the epilogue. There you will find succinct openings that provide enough background to the kinds of analytic questions the essays explore. You will also find a condensed explanation of their central contributions, such as the notion of reverberation as a distinct temporality of analysis, categories and concepts as sets of contradictory forces, and ultimately sounding. The collection offers great resources for classes on the anthropology of science and knowledge, expert elites, environmental issues, and research methods. Different chapters can be used for different levels of training. “Cetology Now,” with its playful riff on Moby-Dick, would work well in a first-year class to visualize how systems of classification reflect their historical times; “The Signature of Life,” on the other hand, would be better suited for advanced undergraduates or graduate students who can engage with technical vocabularies more fluently.

When collections of essays include previously published work, the anthropological establishment often asks whether the repackaging is worth publication. In this case, Helmreich's introduction and epilogue are themselves rich contributions that stand on their own merits. But taken as a whole the collection also stands as a provocation about what we routinely count as convincing argument and compelling interpretation. Sitting on the verge of scientific transformations that promise to radically challenge what we understand as water, sound, and life, the essays are not mappings of events that have already occurred. For that reason, Helmreich cautions against the fetish of neologisms, of which the Anthropocene is one example, as diagnostic tools. Using that historical diagnostic as an entry point, he invites us to do away with the fetish of articulate language, given that the worlds that he charts are worlds where foundations are being undone. How to speak of those worlds when our language depends on those very foundations? Maybe sounding, a thinking through, rather than a form of precise articulate representation is a more empirically sound strategy. Sounding the Limits of Life is a thoughtful, stimulating voyage that challenges us to revisit our fetishes about knowledge and matter, form and content. Take that voyage according to your own creativity. Follow triangles, circles, or squares (hint: look at the table of contents), and then reroute. Read in one direction, then backward. You will enjoy riding the waves.

So, yes, this reviewer is pleased that this book exists as a thing in itself. It works well as a companion and a resource. It is also a physical location that we can go to for reference and inspiration. It is a material thing that participates in the redefinition of abstractions as it sits in our hands while working with the formalisms that are at the core of our anthropological craft.

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