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The Potentiality of Ethnography and the Limits of Affect Theory

Author(s): Emily Martin

Source: Current Anthropology, Vol. 54, No. S7, Potentiality and Humanness: Revisiting the
Anthropological Object in Contemporary Biomedicine (October 2013), pp. S149-S158
Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological
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Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013


The Potentiality of Ethnography and the

Limits of Affect Theory
by Emily Martin
Historical scholarship on the banishment of subjectivity from experimental psychology led me to explore a current
theoretical enterprise in literary and cultural studies that goes by the name affect theory. This approach, tied to
contemporary neuroscience research, at once joins the effort to banish subjectivity from human experience and
introduces the apparently compelling merits of a certain kind of potentiality. The potentiality revealed by affect
theory lies deep in the human brain, hidden below the level of conscious intentionality. Affect theory draws on a
long history in the human sciences going back to the late nineteenth century. Therefore, in this paper I take a fresh
look at the early history of experimental psychology from the vantage point of the Cambridge Anthropological
Expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898. I intend this early anthropological approach to subjectivity to serve
as a thought-provoking counterpoint to the later banishment of subjectivity from the methods used in experimental
psychology and from the models proposed in affect theory.

In a recent foray into an ethnography of experimental cognitive psychology, I encountered firsthand what the historical
banishment of subjectivity from the experimental model
means. Because it was so difficult to gain ethnographic access
to any of the many psychology labs I approachedrun by
colleagues, neighbors, and even friendsI resorted to participating as a volunteer subject in various currently ongoing
experiments accessible through the websites of all major psychology departments. I was struck by how irrelevant my experience as a subject was to the experimenters. In one experiment, for example, I was hooked up to electrodes used
to measure small facial movements of which I was unaware
that would indicate my emotional responses to photographs
presented on the computer screen in front of me. I pressed
keys on the keyboard to register my conscious responses to
these images. A software program tallied the results. My responses were produced, I was told, by specific parts of my
brain. What the researchers sought were data about how my
brain reacted to the photographs. But there were confounding
elements all over the place in this experimental setting. For
example, although the monitor I was to attend to and make
my responses to was right in front of me, just on my left was
another monitor that showed the varying electrical impulses
from my electrodes. I noted to the experimenter that I could
easily see the readout of my own responses, and she said,
Thats fine; it doesnt matter. But it mattered to me. I could
Emily Martin is Professor in the Department of Anthropology, New
York University (25 Waverly Place, New York, New York 10003,
U.S.A. []). This paper was submitted 18 VI 12,
accepted 1 III 13, and electronically published 22 V 13.

not help trying to catch a glance of the varying signal, and I

wondered how this distraction might affect my responses.
Puzzlement over the origins of this current lack of interest
in subjectivity led me to the work of historians of psychology
who have described how subjective experience, introspection, was central to early German laboratory psychology under the tutelage of Wilhelm Wundt. Subjective experience was
also central for the late nineteenth-century anthropological
expedition to the Torres Strait Islands, whose members carried
out many psychological experiments on the Wundt model
(Richards 1998). Strikingly, introspection largely came to be
ruled out of experimental settings in psychology by the midtwentieth century (Bayer 1998; Danziger 1990; Morawski
1994). In due course, interest in what a subjects brain was
doing supplanted interest in the subjects experience. My interest in the historical banishment of subjectivity from experimental psychology made me wonder about a current theoretical enterprise in literary and cultural studies that goes by
the name affect theory. This approach, tied to contemporary
neuroscience research, at once joins the effort to banish subjectivity from human experience and introduces the apparently compelling merits of a certain kind of potentiality. The
potentiality revealed by affect theory lies deep in the human
brain, hidden below the level of conscious intentionality. Affect theory thus draws on a long history in the human sciences
going back to the late nineteenth century. To explore what
has been gained and lost in this extended process, I have
divided this paper into three parts.
In the first part of this paper, I follow the banishment of
subjectivity historically by tracing what was involved when
human beings came to be treated as experimental psychological subjects in the late nineteenth to early twentieth-

2013 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2013/54S7-0016$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/670388

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Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013

century expeditions and laboratories organized in Cambridge,

England. My goal in this part of the paper is to identify the
specifically anthropological approach to the experimental subject used in early psychological experiments. Expedition membersphysicians, anthropologists, and psychologistsintroduced an arresting way of understanding the meaning of
human social practices as inextricable from their social context and from their subjectivity. I intend this early anthropological approach to subjectivity to serve as a thoughtprovoking counterpoint to the later banishment of
subjectivity from the methods used in experimental psychology and from the models proposed in affect theory.
In the second part of the paper, I turn to contemporary
experimental neuropsychology and to the ways a number of
humanities and social science disciplines are using its findings
in affect theory as a way of tapping a particular kind of
potentiality: a hidden force emanating from fruitful darkness.
This darkness, one we have ignored, is located in primitive
parts of the brain where precognitive processes occur. My
goal in this part of the paper is to ask whether positing that
there is a realm in the brain filled with potential, an unlimited realm that is before and unfettered by meaning, threatens loss of the most valuable aspect of the early anthropological conception of human psychic capacities. In the third
part of the paper, I present some thoughts about how the
insights of the early anthropological researchers could be recovered and deployed as an antidote to affect theory.

Early History of the Experimental Human

Subject in Psychology and Anthropology
Experimental psychology is the discipline that has, perhaps
more than any other, exerted experimental controls over human beings. What is important for this paper are the years
before the process of ruling out subjective experience was
complete, starting from the vantage point of early anthropological and psychological field expeditions. It was the psychological research conducted during and after the Cambridge
Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in
1898 that had an important influence on Ludwig Wittgensteins critique of experimental psychology in the 1950s. This
connection has helped me see how to give the ethnographic
method a firmer grip in the face of currently fashionable,
neurologically oriented accounts of the human mind, in particular, affect theory, to which I turn in the third part of this
Wundts Introspective Methods
First, here is some background about the ancestor of the
Cambridge researchers, Wundts psychological laboratory in
Leipzig, and its introspective methods. The experiments in
Wundts laboratory all depended on the precise measurement
of time. Historians Ruth Benschop and Deborah Coon have

written in detail about the technologies that enabled time to

be measured in a standardized way and recorded accurately.
As Coon explains, laboratory hardware standardized and regulated the physical stimuli to which the subject would respond, and it also gave quantified, standardized output to
the introspective method. Perhaps even more important, the
subject himself had to be standardized. Even though in the
early stages of psychologys development, typical experimental
subjects were professors and graduate students, not experimentally naive college sophomores and white rats, there was
still too much individual variation among these flesh-andbone introspecting instruments. In order to standardize themselves as experimental observers, therefore, psychologists resorted to long and rigorous introspective training periods.
. . . Only if introspectors themselves were standardized could
they become interchangeable parts in the production of scientific psychological knowledge (Coon 1993:775; italics added).
Edwin Boring (1953), a historian of psychology, reports that
Wundt insisted that no observer who had performed less
than 10,000 of these introspectively controlled reactions was
suitable to provide data for published research (172).
Standardization also extended to regularity outside the
context of experimental practice (Benschop and Draaisma
2000:19). One of Wundts students, the American James Cattell, relates how he followed a strict scheme of physical exercise, and he remarks in a letter to his parents that he and
the other experimenters were required to walk 36 miles a
day (Benschop and Draaisma 2000:1819; Cattell and Sokal
1981:89). In sum, as the psychologist Edward Titchener explained in 1912, it was not that the subject should be hooked
up to machines, it was that the subject had virtually become
the machine, capable of automatic introspection (Coon 1993:
776). In this experimental setup, the subject would be presented with a stimulus (a word or a color), and the time
would be carefully recorded. With training, the subject could
register the exact time at which he had recognized the stimulus
(understood the words meaning or thought of the colors
name). The difference between the two times was the reaction
time: the delay between the appearance of the stimulus and
the minds psychological, introspective recognition of the
Wundt and his collaborators aimed at measuring processes
in what has been called the generalized mind, those parts
of mental life shared by all human adults alike. As Benschop
(Benschop and Draaisma 2000) explains, Being practised in
appearing in experiments helped to make sure that the results
were representative of the universal features of adult human
mental life (5859). Viewing the subject as having a generalized mind meant that experimenter and observer could
switch roles between trials without affecting the format of the
experiments. A person could run the experimental apparatus
one day and be a subject in the same experiment the next.

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Martin The Potentiality of Ethnography

Cattell and the Lip Key

Into this system came an earthquake. The American James
Cattell, who was pursuing his PhD in Wundts Leipzig lab in
the 1880s, realized at a certain point that he was unable to
carry out Wundts directions. As he explained,
When I was a student in the Leipzig laboratory, attempts
were being made to measure the time of perception by
letting the subject react as soon as he knew from introspection that an object had been perceived. . . . I attempted
to continue these experiments, but, feeling no confidence
in the validity of my introspection in such a case, took up
strictly objective methods in which a movement followed a
stimulus without the slightest dependence on introspection.
(Cattell and Sokal 1981:335)

What did this mean? Wundts method was to let the subject
react as quickly as possible in trial 1 and then in trial 2 wait
until he distinguished the impression (like recognizing a
color or understanding a word). The difference between the
two times gave the perception-time (Cattell and Sokal 1981:
99). Cattell (Cattell and Sokal 1981) explains his problem: I
have not been able myself to get results by this method; I
apparently either distinguished the impression and made the
motion simultaneously, or if I tried to avoid this by waiting
until I had formed a distinct impression before I make the
motion . . . I added to the simple reaction, not only a perception [i.e., a discrimination], but also a volition [i.e., a
choice] (65). What was Cattells solution to this problem?
In 1886 he added an instrument to the experiment, namely,
the lip key. This was an electric switch the subject held between
his lips. When he was in the act of perceiving a color or a
word, it was assumed that he would move his lips unconsciously, as if silently naming the object of his perception.
Hence, the lip key would register the time of the perception
without the need for any problematic conscious introspection
on the part of the subject.
Why does such a minute-seeming change as the lip key
loom so large? It was at this moment that Cattell joined the
mind to the brain. As soon as he finished his experiments
using the lip key, he adopted a relentlessly physicalist perspective and questioned whether purely mental qualities existed. This was in 1886! As he explained this transition, it
takes time for light waves to work on the retina and to generate in cells a nervous impulse corresponding to the light.
It takes time for a nervous impulse to be conveyed along the
optic nerve to the brain. It takes time for a nervous impulse
to be conveyed through the brain to the visual center. It takes
time for a nervous impulse to bring about changes in the
visual center corresponding to its own nature, and to the
nature of the external stimulus (Cattell 1886:220). When all
this has happened, the subject sees a red light. The sensation
or perception of red does not take any time. The sensation
of a red light is a state of consciousness corresponding to a
certain condition of the brain (220). This immediacy is par-


allel to the chemical changes in a galvanic battery: the chemical changes take time, but when they have happened the
current does not take any additional time. The current is
the immediate representative of these changes (Cattell 1886:
220; Cattell and Sokal 1981:334335). He concluded, Mental
states correspond to physical changes in the brain; henceforth, his goal was to inquire into the time needed to bring
about changes in the brain, and thus to determine the rapidity
of thought (Cattell 1886:241). The times he recorded were
now for cerebral processes without the intrusion of introspection. Cattells innovation paved the way for what Danziger
was to call the relentless discounting of the subjects experience in experimental psychology by the 1950s.
Torres Strait Islands: The Generalized Mind
Cattell opened a new road, but others continued to travel old
roads. Scientists on the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898 continued understandings and practices sympathetic to Wundts introspection.
The members of the expedition included W. H. R. Rivers, C.
S. Myers, and Charles Seligman, among others, under the
leadership of Alfred Cort Haddon. Because the expeditions
scientists assumed that the social and natural environment
determined the way the mind perceived the world, they also
assumed that after immersion in the daily life of villagers on
the islands, they could serve as appropriate experimental subjects comparable with the native inhabitants. This enabled
their introspective reports of the time they took to react to
a stimulus to be measured and compared with the reports of
native Torres Strait Islanders. The notion of a generalized
mind (now extended to these islanders) entailed that the context in which such minds were trained determined their specific characteristics and made them commensurable.1 For this
reason, as in the Wundt lab, experimenters and subjects could
trade places. In one expedition photograph we see W. H. R.
Rivers sitting in front of the color wheel, a device used to
measure perception of different colors. Rivers and his Torres
Strait companion Tom are seated on the same side of the
table because Rivers is showing Tom how to use the color
wheel. Tom is being trained to operate the device in order to
gather perceptual information from the expedition scientists
(Kuklick 1998; Richards 1998).
These practices were especially well articulated by Rivers,
who believed that a resident of the Torres Straits Islands was
no different from any of Rivers experimental subjectsincluding Rivers himself (Kuklick 1998:174). Rivers explicitly
1. At the time of the Torres Strait expedition, the psychologists on the
team (W. H. R. Rivers and C. S. Myers) were haunted by the widely
accepted evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer that primitives surpassed civilised people in psychophysical performance because more
energy remained devoted to this level in the former instead of being
diverted to higher functions, a central tenet of late Victorian scientific
racism (Richards 1998:137). Despite this, their experiments did not find
significant differences in the predicted direction.

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Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013

trained himself to participate with the minds of Torres Strait

Islanders: he imagined he could immerse himself in the lives
of the islanders and faithfully follow their way of life: If
the anthropologist conducted himself as his subjects did, he
would become an embodied instrument, literally thinking and
feeling as they did (Kuklick 2011:21). The Cambridge Expedition scientists realized that this immersion had its limits:
they could not embody the past experience of islanders. So,
for example, when they saw that hearing was strikingly diminished in some villagers, they attributed this to previous
injury from diving for shells among coral reefs (Haddon et
al. 1935:286).2
I am suggesting that there is resonance between these practices and the ideas behind Wundts laboratory training aimed
to make subjects comparable through experience of the same
regimen. In the Cambridge Expedition, the regimen entailed
immersion in the environment and social life of the islanders.
Perhaps the expedition scientists were on the cusp of a profound challenge to the assumptions of Wundtian experimental
psychology: they pushed the meaning of the generalized
mind far beyond where the Leipzig experimenters intended
by including children and primitives. They also took the
idea of being an embodied instrument further than the
Wundtians by taking the experimental system and its training
regimen to a different culture altogether. They were stuck on
the cusp, however. Their comparative charts between the Torres Strait Islands and British villages did assume that one could
set reaction times from experiments in these different places
alongside one another.
Bringing Back Context
If shared context was essential to produce minds that could
be compared in experiments, shared context was also important to achieve communication with readers back home.
The expedition members were extraordinarily devoted to
bringing back as detailed a record of the islanders way of life
as possible, as if to immerse their British audience in the
islands environment.3 There were published descriptions, six
volumes worth, but also music recorded on wax cylinders
and sound recorded with the rhythmograph; this was necessary, according to Myers (Freire-Marreco and Myres 1912),
because many kinds of barbaric music have rhythms so complicated that the metronome is useless, and must be recorded
mechanically (217). They made the first ethnographic films
in spite of the limited technology of the time.4
2. They described this labor as the result of ruthless exploitation by
traders until the 1881 Pearl-Shell and Beche-de-Mer Fishery Act was
passed regulating the engagement and employment of natives (Haddon
et al. 1935:14).
3. Of course, any expedition worth its salt would bring back shiploads
of documents and artifacts (Jardine 2000).
4. See MacDougall (1978). Haddon took a Lumie`re camera to the
Torres Strait, but despite his high hopes for the medium, it was not taken
up seriously again until after the Second World War.

In addition they sought to make a complete record of all

sensory modalities: smell, hearing, vision, touch, and taste.
In the published report, they cite comparisons (common at
the time) asserting similarities between the acute senses of
nonhuman animals and savages as what their experiments
set out to confirm or deny. In all cases they denied or at least
complicated such comparisons by gathering evidence that islanders could have less acute hearing or vision than members
of the expedition.
But besides capturing what people could hear and see physically, they also tried to capture how the islanders saw things
qualitatively. They collected islanders perceptions of natural
phenomena, ritual beings, and ordinary objects by asking
them to make drawings of how they saw the sun and moon,
ritual beings, and canoes. Though the expedition members
thought the islanders lacked the components of high culture
familiar to them from the cities of Britain and Europe, they
insisted that the islanders could meaningfully render the objects that were significant to them: People of low culture are
often admirable draughtsmen and every opportunity should
be taken to make them draw, to illustrate objects of all kinds
(Freire-Marreco and Myres 1912:110).
Ethnographic Methods
Despite their resonances with Wundtian psychology, expedition scientists often departed from expectations appropriate
to the laboratory, devising an early (and underappreciated)
version of the ethnographic method. I will mention three
aspects of their method here.
First, the expedition members took comparison two ways.
They immersed themselves in the island environment, but
they also extended their experimental comparisons back to
the British Isles. In their studies of smell, hearing acuity, and
visual perception, they gathered data from children and adults
living in Cambridge, Aberdeenshire, and Girton (a village near
Cambridge). Immense care was taken to describe the environment in which the experiments were done in both Britain
and the Torres Strait Islands and to acknowledge when comparisons were not possible. Smell was the most difficult sensory mode because in Murray Island [Torres Strait] everything seemed to have a smell (Haddon et al. 1901:177).
Hence, no odorless substance was available to serve as a control.
Second, despite their desire for careful recording of the
experimental setting, they were remarkably able to tolerate
lack of accuracy: they frequently acknowledged rough accuracy, having no pretense to extreme accuracy, willingness
to sacrifice greater accuracy, and the impossibility of identifying aberrant reaction times (Haddon et al. 1901:209). But
they asserted that, even so, their results had significance and
their experiments were very far from being unprofitable
(Haddon et al. 1901:209).
Third, and particularly prescient, looking back from present-day anthropology, was their concern to collect materials

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Martin The Potentiality of Ethnography

in their ordinary, everyday settings. In Notes and Queries of

1912, they summarized a compendium of what was learned
in the Cambridge Expedition.
A not infrequent feature of anthropological work . . . is very
puzzling. It often happens that you ask for information in
a way which seems to you to be perfectly simple and straightforward, and your informant may be quite unable to respond, and yet later, sometimes within half an hour, he will
give what you want incidentally, perhaps in the course of a
tale or other narrative. Probably the formal question, framed
on some category of European thought, put the matter in
an unaccustomed light. In order to grasp its meaning it
would have been necessary for your informant to see the
matter in a light different from that natural to the people,
but when telling the tale the facts are in their natural setting
and rise to consciousness spontaneously. (Freire-Marreco
and Myres 1912:111)

I will return to the importance of finding information in its

ordinary, everyday setting below.


1937:63). In The Ethnological Study of Music, he summarizes:

Thus it comes about that many examples of primitive music
are incomprehensible to us, just because they are not so
readily assimilated as those which are more nearly related
to our previous experiences. Our attention is continuously
distracted, now by the strange features and changes of
rhythm, now by the extraordinary colouring of strange instruments, now by the unwonted progression and character
of intervals. Consequently much familiarity is needed before
we can regard such music from a standpoint that will allow
of faithful description. We have first to disregard our welltrained feelings towards consonances and dissonances. We
have next to banish to the margins of our field of consciousness certain aspects of music, which, were it our own
music, would occupy the very focus of attention. Thus incomprehensibility will gradually give place to meaning, and
dislike to some interesting emotion. (Myers 1907:249)

C. S. Myers took the Cambridge Expedition approach some

steps farther.5 His studies in the Torres Strait Islands and later
in the Cambridge Laboratory of Experimental Psychology
(after 1912) focused on aural perception in music and rhythm
(Freire-Marreco and Myres 1912). He founded the psychological laboratory at Cambridge in 1912, taught experimental
psychology, and authored a two-volume textbook on the subject. He was interested not only in recording music, measuring
its intervals, and measuring reaction times in various sensory
modalities but specifically in the subjective components of
sensory experience. So, for example, using a Wundtian apparatus in Cambridge, he could present subjects with sounds
separated by various intervals (Myers 1909:96). The subject
would try to replicate the pattern, and these patterns would
be recorded on the smoked surface of a revolving drum. The
subject should carefully record the results of introspective
analysis (Myers 1909:97). Metronomes were also used: The
subject should observe and record the varying affective values
(pleasant, wearisome, etc.) of different rhythms and the associated experiences which they may revive (Myers 1909:99).
An objective accentuation could be added by enclosing the
metronome in a box, which could, unbeknownst to the subject, be opened or closed. The point of the experiments was
to identify the conditions under which subjects heard or
read into a sequence of beats a rhythm which was not in fact
there (McGuinness 1988:127).
Throughout his career and well into the 1930s, Myers
stressed that the aesthetic aspects of music and rhythm had
to be understood comparatively in different cultures (Myers

The crucial point is that Myers was interested in the physical

world (how people perceived sound with their ears), but he
held that the social and cultural world would determine how
peoples perceptions were experienced. In his writing on music after the Cambridge Expedition, Myers may have even
gone a step beyond the expeditions original extension of the
Wundtian experimental method. The expedition extended
Wundts concepts of the generalized mind and of introspective
training: Myers may have been moving toward a method that
was not experimental at all.
Another significant aspect of Myerss work was that he
worked for a time with Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge.
Wittgenstein was a student at the University of Cambridge
reading moral science, and at the time, moral science included
philosophy and experimental psychology. In his later writings,
turning away from the logical system he laid out in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein frequently referred to
anthropological facts and anthropological phenomena.
He articulated some of the central tenets of anthropological
analysis; here, he restates Notes and Queries on the everyday,
natural setting: What we are supplying are really remarks on
the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing
curiosities however, but observations which no one has
doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they
are always before our eyes (Wittgenstein 1953:415).
My argument up to this point is that the members of the
Cambridge Expedition took the elements of the Wundt laboratory that placed introspection and intentional action at
the center of human psychological experience and ran with
them.6 They devised a remarkable way of looking at human
psychology as inextricably embedded in its context, right
down to the bottom. Even the most raw, natural perceptual
inputs from eyes, ears, nose, and skin were only graspable as

5. Myers trained in medicine. He went in this capacity to the Torres

Strait Islands and worked there with Rivers, who also trained in medicine.

6. I am deliberately emphasizing those elements of their work that

exceeded the experimental model. For another view, see Schaffer (1994).

C. S. Myers and Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013

products of specific human social environments. As we will

see in the following section, many other descendants of early
experimental psychology have come to see things otherwise.
Enamored of what seem to be new reservoirs of potentiality
with creativity and free play unleashed, affect theorists depict
the social as stopping well before we get down to the bottom.
Language, meaning, and cognition are separated from the
affects by a gap. After describing the landscape of affect
theory, I will return for an alternative view to Wittgenstein
and the legacy of the Cambridge Expedition.

The Move Away from the Social

Wittgensteins thought looped back to the Cambridge Expeditions sensibilities after his excursion in the logical fields
of the Tractatus. Experimental psychology, meanwhile, trod a
single-minded path for the most part into models that
stripped the human subject of subjectivity. Perhaps sparked
by James Cattells innovation of the lip key, there was a progressive elimination of the experience of subjects from psychology. Kurt Danziger has pointed out that where the effort
has been made to reintroduce subjectivity, the refusal has been
absolutely relentless. It became a key principle of the dominant model of psychological experimentation that the subjects experience was to be discounted. Attempts to change
this state of affairs have always evolved the most determined
resistance (Danziger 1990:183).
The story of how this happened is a far longer one than I
can tell here, including, in recent years, a growing rapprochement between experimental psychology and neuroscientific
imaging technologies. Here, in order to follow the theme of
potentiality, I will develop a case study of the ally of neuroscientific thinking I mentioned earlier, affect theory, which is
being used in the humanities to explain phenomena on one
scale (e.g., those embodied in social relationships, places, practices, and institutions that have a material existence apart from
the brain) by means of phenomena on another scale (those
embodied in the brain).
Affect Theory
Many scholars in the humanities have recently engaged with
research in neuroscience to posit a view of a precognitive,
preindividual stage of human perception that promises unrealized dimensions of potentiality. Here are some descriptions of affect in the words of two theorists from quite different disciplines.
Nigel Thrift, a geographer, writes,
In this paper I want to think about affect in cities and about
affective cities . . . and, above all, about what the political
consequences of thinking more explicitly about these topics
might beonce it is accepted that the political decision is
itself produced by a series of inhuman or pre-subjective
forces and intensities. (Thrift 2004:58)

Eric Shouse, a cultural critic, states,

An affect is a non-conscious experience of intensity; it is a

moment of unformed and unstructured potential. . . . Affect
is always prior to and/or outside of consciousness. (Shouse

There are a number of importantly different varieties of

affect theory. Some are indebted to Silvan Tomkinss (2008)
writing and others to Francisco Varelas work on open systems, often in the style of Deleuze and Guatarri (1987; Varela
1999). But taking into account their differences, historian
Ruth Leys (2011) summarizes some of the main assumptions
they hold in common: For the theorists in question, affects
are inhuman, pre-subjective, visceral forces and intensities
that influence our thinking and judgments but are separate
from these. Whatever else may be meant by the terms affect
and emotion . . . the affects must be non-cognitive, corporeal
processes or states (437).7 For such theorists, affect is, as
Brian Massumi (2002) asserts, irreducibly bodily and autonomic (28). Other enthusiastic contributors to affect theory from a wide range of fields, include Eve Sedgwick, Patricia
Clough, Lauren Berlant, Elizabeth Grosz, Rosie Braidotti,
Kathleen Stewart, Lawrence Grossberg, Elizabeth Wilson, and
Antonio Damasio.8
This work relates directly to the theme of potentiality. Massumi, one of the most widely read writers on affect theory,
stresses its connection with potential in a chapter called
Autonomy of Affect.
Something that happens too quickly to have happened, actually, is virtual. The body is as immediately virtual as it is
actual. The virtual, the pressing crowd of incipiencies and
tendencies, is a realm of potential. In potential is where
futurity combines, unmediated, with pastness, where outsides are infolded and sadness is happy (happy because the
press to action and expression is life). (Massumi 2002:30
31; italics in original)

The definition Massumi gives to the concept of potential here

seems to be unlimited. In particular, the affective realm is
not limited by what he sees as the constraints of sociolinguistic
meaning. What motivates these scholars? They do not all agree
on every point, and I will be glossing over their differences
here, but Leys identifies some common motivations. Centrally, they claim that the role of reason and rationality in
politics, ethics, and aesthetics has been overvalued. It is too
disembodied and unlayered an account of the way people
actually form opinions (Leys 2011:436). Given this, they adopt
the position that humans are corporeal creatures with important subliminal affective intensities and resonances that
are decisive in the way we form opinions and beliefs. They
share an insistence that we ignore affects at our peril because
7. See this astute overview of commonalities and differences among
affect theorists (Blackman and Venn 2010).
8. See, e.g., the papers in Gregg and Seigworth (2010) or Clough and
Halley (2007).

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Martin The Potentiality of Ethnography

they can be manipulated deliberately and because they contain

the potential for creativity and transformation.
In sum, the affects are independent of and before language.
They are before intentions, meanings, reasons, and beliefs;
they are non-signifying, autonomic processes that take place
below the level of conscious awareness and meaning; they
are inhuman, pre-subjective, visceral forces that influence
our thinking and judgments even though they are noncognitive and corporeal (Leys 2011:437, 443). Among the affects,
at the physiological level, categories that are cognitively separate (such as sad or pleasant) get connected, and this is one
way the affects are thought to open up new and creative
potential (Massumi 2002:29). Massumifollowing Deleuzeconsiders that the affects are characterized by intensity rather than content. Affective states, characterized by
intensity, are nonsemantic, nonlinear, autonomous, vital, singular, indeterminate, and disruptive of fixed (conventional)
meanings. Hence the affects provide a rich reservoir of unpredictable potentiality.
All this means there is a gap between the signifying order
(content, meaning, convention) and the affective order. What
exactly is the gap? According to Leys (2011), there is a constitutive disjunction between our emotions on the one hand
and our knowledge of what causes and maintains them on
the other, because . . . affect and cognition are two separate
systems (437). These theorists generally argue that affect is
independent of meaning and signification; they deny the role
of intentionality and meaning at the affective level (Leys 2011:
450). There is a gap or radical dichotomy between the real
causes of affect and the individuals own interpretation of
these causes (Tomkins, quoted in Leys 2011:437). In Tomkinss view, affects are phylogenetically old, automatic responses of the organism that have evolved for survival purposes and lack the cognitive characteristics of the higher-order
mental processes and are separate from them (Leys 2011:
437). The affects are located subcortically in the brain, in the
part of the brain that processes universal, natural kinds (such
as the so-called basic emotions). The basic emotions or
affect programs are genetically hardwired responses, products of human evolution, that are expressed in autonomic
behavioral patterns (such as characteristic facial expressions
for fear or disgust) (Damasio 1994; Leys 2011:438439; Sedgwick 2003).
There is one part of affect theory that relates directly to
the theme of potentiality. This is the supposition that there
is no way to include both mind and body in an account of
meaning, making it necessary to posit a level below the gap
where bodily aspects of affect go on; it is the unformed, precognitive aspects of the lower level of the affects that make
them seem filled with potential. This move separates intentionality or meaning from affect and assumes that intentionality and meaning are purely mental or cognitive.
There are many points at which this argument can be crit-


icized.9 Some critics have shown in detail how the psychological evidence that is the basis for the tenets of affect theory
is questionable and out of date (Leys 2010). Others have
detailed the ways affect theorists sometimes misread biological
and psychological research (Papoulias and Callard 2010). For
example, in a 1985 experiment by Benjamin Libet, subjects
were asked to decide to flex a finger at will and to note the
exact time they made the decision. The experimenters also
measured the exact time of any rise in the subjects brain
activity and the exact time of the subjects finger flexing. The
results showed that there was a 0.2-second delay between the
brains activity spike and the subjects decision, then a 0.3second delay between the subjects decision and his finger
flexing. In all, there seemed to be a half-second delay between
the subjects brains initial activity and the subjects finger
actually flexing (Libet 1985). This half-second gap provides
Massumi (2002:29) with the evidence of a gap between
(lower) brain activity and (higher) decision, intentionality and
action. He concludes that material processes of the brain generate our thoughts; conscious thoughts, decisions, and intentions come too late to be very significant. At most they are
reflections after the fact. No one would doubt that the brain
is necessary for thought and action. But Massumi and other
affect theorists place too much weight on this experimental
evidence. Other studies have shown that Libets evidence is
open to contrary interpretations from its publication in 1985
up until the present (Banks and Isham 2009, 2010; Gomes
1998). At the very least, before drawing such far-reaching
conclusions, one would hope scholars of cultural phenomena
would consider the experimental structures that generate psychological data. As I noted earlier, the psychological subject
becomes a particular kind of stripped down entity, a dataemitting being whose subjective experience is outside the
frame of the experiment. Perhaps this is not the most adequate
model for understanding human intentionality.
The mistakes and confusions in this position are laid bare
by the approach pioneered in the Cambridge Expedition and
later pursued in Wittgensteins account of intention, remembering, and other psychological terms. That account argues
that our criteria for whether they have happened are normative and conventional. These criteria are located in use,
not in the interior psyche. Saying that criteria for meaning
are normative and conventional does not mean that everyone
must agree, that there is harmony, or that there is not conflict
or change. It means that criteria for meaning cannot arise
from the mind of a single, isolated individual or from a primitive part of the brain. Drawing on Wittgenstein, Elizabeth
Anscombe argued for a social account of intentional actions.
Anscombe was arguing against the common-sense view of an
intention as composed of an action plus an interior mental
9. The point is too tangential to elaborate here, but I would add that
the theory involves a troubling alliance with neuroscientific findings
rather than a critique of the pervasive cultural effects of neuroscientific

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Current Anthropology Volume 54, Supplement 7, October 2013

state. Looking at the ways we speak of an action as done

intentionally, she concluded that intention in everyday
language means something done as an action of a whole person, a moral agent, under a description. The relevant description would include the past and present social contexts
relevant to the person as much as his or her interior states
(Anscombe 1957).
What is at stake is whether we understand intentional human action as gaining its meaning in an interior, hidden, and
thus socially inaccessible space instead of in the light of social
experience. Anscombe worked in a Wittgensteinian mode to
move intentionality away from the private interiority of the
mind into the space of social interaction, where meaning in
language is constituted. Wittgenstein conveyed this message
through many homely examples:
I tell someone: Im going to whistle you the theme . . .
It is my intention to whistle it, and I already know what I
am going to whistle. It is my intention to whistle this theme:
have I then already, in some sense, whistled it in thought?
(Wittgenstein 1967:2e)
One would like to ask: Would someone who could look
into your mind have been able to see that you meant to say
that? Suppose I had written my intention down on a slip
of paper, then someone else could have read it there. And
can I imagine that he might in some way have found it out
more surely than that? Certainly not. (Wittgenstein 1967:8e;
italics in original)

The point is that intentionality emerges from the whole structure of events from the inception of the notion to the execution of the action. We decide whether someone had a certain intention not by referring to an event or template in the
mind but by whether his or her gestures, postures, words,
and actions fit with a socially defined notion of being about
to whistle a tune or meaning to say something. Sometimes a
mental event (whistling the tune or saying the words in ones
head) might precede the action and sometimes not, but in
any case, that interior event could not constitute a usable
criterion for whether someone was intending to whistle or
meaning to speak.
Removing any interest in intentionalityconceived as a
social process, as affect theory doesremoves socially produced contexts of use as a necessary and sufficient basis for
what actions and words mean to people. Tackling mathematics, the realm of symbolic life perhaps most difficult to
regard as contingent on social norms, Wittgenstein commented that people found the idea that numbers rested on
conventional social understandings unbearable (Rhees
1970). Why is there resistance to allowing the meaning of
human acts to rest on social understandings all the way down?
Why such an idea is unbearable returns us to the Cambridge
Expedition. Rivers and the others thought that plunging into
a different social and physical environment would make them
different people, comparable in many ways to the islanders.

In this view there is a vast reservoir of potential for change

and creative adaption. But this view also entails that there are
limits to human experience set by whatever social contexts
are relevant. It does not compare with Massumis (2002) virtual realm, the pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies (30). Perhaps it is any limitation that seems unbearable
in the present era, where the drumbeat of the necessity for
constant growth is heard and felt everywhere.
Saying that social context limits what is relevant does not
close off experiences that are unconscious, inchoate, or unspeakable. Anthropologists and sociolinguists have long found
ways to address the entirely social meanings of things that are
repressed from speech or action but nonetheless contain powerful kinds of potentiality.
Years ago Gayle Rubin (1975) analyzed the sex/gender
system as a set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity
(159). More recently, in Brainstorm, Jordan-Young (2010) rephrases this: Gender . . . is a social effect, rather than the
result of human biology. Sex in this regard is conceived as
the remainderthe material body, and those bodily interactions that are necessary to reproduce it (13). Borrowing
from this way of putting it, we could say that like the sex/
gender system, the affect/intentionality system is a set of arrangements by which a society transforms neurological processes into products of human activity. Affects are a social
effect rather than the result of human biology. Intentions in
this regard are conceived as the remainderthe material brain
and those neurological interactions that are necessary to reproduce it.
Looked at this way, what we see as the affects are the product of a social process that has separated them from larger
contexts rather than a new entity we have discovered in nature. The feminist concerns that motivate Rubin are relevant
to analysis in terms of the affects. We need to ask whether
one result of seeing the affects as biological phenomena is
losing the insights that feminism can provide.10

It is clear that the trait of potentiality is sometimes thrown
up as an object of desire because it seems to imply creativity,
openness, and infinite possibility unconstrained by social conventions. I want to suggest that in the ethnographic method
lies another kind of potentiality: the potential to examine the
ontological position that comparison between two social
worlds opens up. One key to what is unique about the ethnographic move is that it allows us to see an ordinary, everyday, natural setting in its context but from a certain point
of view. Wittgenstein muses,
Lets imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up and we see
someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting
a cigarette, seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are ob10. A particularly useful reminder is Lutz (1995).

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Martin The Potentiality of Ethnography

serving a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily

we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a
chapter from a biography with our own eyes,surely this
would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful
than anything a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken
on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.But then we
do see this every day and it makes not the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that
point of view. (Wittgenstein 1984:4e)

It is obvious that the theater creates its own context, but the
playwright/artist/ethnographer allows us to view that context
from a certain point of view, namely, from the point of view
of another embedded context: we can adopt the way of
thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it
the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight (Wittgenstein 1984:5e).11
In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein (1984) wrote of the
ethnological point of view and said that this point of view
allows us to take up a standpoint right outside so as to be
able to see things more objectively (37e).12 What could he
possibly have meant by more objectively, given his insistence that there is no external point, outside the immersion
in everyday forms of life, from which those forms of life can
be understood? I think more objectively means from a comparative point of view. Comparing two contexts means describing their differencesit does not mean placing them on
the same scale. Recall Myerss remarks on music: the ethnographic goal in understanding unfamiliar music is to banish to the margins our habitual focus of attention and make
the incomprehensible meaningful through faithful description.
Editor and biographer Rush Rhees (1970) wrote that what
Wittgenstein called the anthropological point of view had
often been misunderstood. He cited a comment of Wittgensteins about language games: The advantage of looking at
language games is that they let us look step by step at what
we otherwise could only see as a tangled ball of yarn (Rhees
1970:50; my translation). Wittgenstein warned against the
craving for generality as the real source of metaphysics. He
added, Instead of craving for generality I could also have
said the contemptuous attitude towards the particular case
(Rhees 1970:51). Ethnography could be said to be about particular cases set alongside one another but not balled up into
one another. Two tangled balls of yarn can look very much
the same; only when we look at them step by step (untangling
the ball of yarn) can we gather the details that make a context
specific, not general. Perhaps we could say that affect theorists
crave generality.
Is the widespread contempt for the particular case today
part of what drives the search for universal neural processes
11. Thanks to Michael Fried for his interesting discussion of this point
(Fried 2008).
12. Dass wir unsern Standpunkt weit draussen einnehmen, um die
Dinge objectiver sehen zu konnen.


that generate the affects? Have the affects been discovered?

Or are they an effect of social processes that have worked to
make them materialize? Is contempt for the particular contempt for anything that limits the kind of commensurability
that our markets and systems of governance demand?

My interest is piqued by the ways Wittgenstein opens up to
theorize what kind of knowledge ethnography is. After my
early surprise while being a subject in a lab that was studying
emotions while disregarding my emotions, I have found a
number of labs in which I can observe and participate, labs
whose members are interested in the history of introspection
in psychology, for example, the work of Robert S. Woodworth,
who continued Wundts introspective methods and questions
(against the grain) into the 1930s. It would be a nice irony
if the practices of Rivers and the other Torres Strait researchers, indebted as they were to experimental psychology, could
clarify both what is important about ethnographic fieldwork
and why some contemporary psychologists are now beginning
to return to questions involving intention and introspection.
Although Cattells lip key opened a path to removing introspection, the historical record of earlier experiments that relied on introspective reports is extremely rich. A shared interest in this history is what opened laboratory doors to me.
If some experimental psychologists are becoming interested
in the role intentionality plays in their experiments, why are
some humanities scholars trying to rule out intentionality
from the literature, art, and media they study? Whatever the
reasons, it seems clear that to counteract the appeal of affect
theory and its notion of potentiality, we will need robust
ethnographic accounts that are specific about how humans
perceptions are social all the way down. Our history in the
Torres Strait guides us toward a limited and socially constrained but creative notion of potentiality.

Thanks to the spring 2011 seminar in the anthropology of
science at New York University for discussions of affect theory
and to Max Black, Georg von Wright, Norman Malcolm, and
Bruce Goldstein in the philosophy department at Cornell University for their lectures and discussions on Wittgenstein when
I was in graduate school there. I also appreciate help with the
historical sources from John Forrester, Alison Winter, Michael
Sokal, David Robinson, and Christopher Green. Most profound thanks to all of the members and organizers of the
Wenner-Gren symposium on potentiality and to the anonymous reviewers.

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