Marilyn Strathern


On her book Relations: An Anthropological Account

Cover Interview of April 08, 2020


If the book hopes for anything, it is for a cultivation of alertness. It is no big news that, as they are articulated, concepts carry cultural baggage. When the concept at issue is relation, we need to scale up that alertness, to see its cosmological import. For it is not—even if we wished—alterable or discardable at will. This is especially true of knowledge relations, of the manner in which people go about description, explanation, exposition. Throughout, the book makes it its business to allude, however briefly, to non-English-speaking contexts that tweak the distinctiveness of English usage here. The positive tenor (‘friendliness’) of relations, to return to the example, which privileges similarity as ground for connection, becomes an impediment to expressing the value some cosmologies put on relating through difference. The impediment feeds bitter anthropological controversy over the possibility or impossibility of identifying radical alterity.

A take-home message is that for all the important work that the relation does, we need to be wary of its limits and excesses. While the message springs from criticizing English usage, such usage both does and does not share elements with its European counterparts, and the book provides some navigation for the point. More significantly, apropos English, we are talking of an international language with the power to mold concepts in its wake.

The relation’s important work is evident. There is huge pressure in today’s world to rediscover how interconnected everything is, to treat interdependence as equally a natural and a moral necessity, to appreciate the value of interpersonal relations suddenly thrown into relief by a pandemic for which—for those who can—self-isolation is mandated. English speakers in particular have to go on telling themselves about the significance of relations and the interrelationship of phenomena.

And this is because they are at the same time construing the world otherwise. This is the relation’s excess. Too often the world appears first as an assemblage of discrete items, and only secondarily as a multitude of items intermeshed, linked up, connected (whether or not the items in question can imagine themselves this way). There has been a century of criticism, with anthropology but one among many voices, to try to dislodge the prioritizing of discreteness. But what if impediment is embedded in our very means of expression? Think of the preposition ‘between,’ for example, the construction that renders relations as somehow lying between entities. It allows the entities to be construed as pre-existing, as though they were otherwise independent individuals, while relations take on a substantial character of their own, as in emphasizing shared similarities. To re-think the individual also means re-thinking (the exposition of) relations.

A final note. Nationalist or racist rhetorics, reinvented anew for global times, frequently rest on appeals to self-resemblance or similarity that exclude (make ‘other’) what or who is taken as intrinsically dissimilar. This is not restricted to English speakers; but one way users of English do it is through how they imagine relations.