Anthropology grappling with its history as a disciplinary tool of subjugation, produces amazing insights. As the science moved away from “ultimate other” as its subject, “primitive” and otherwise “salvage” societies, it questioned itself as it where could be situated its further legitimate interests? Joel Robbins suggested, it concentrated on “suffering subject” (Robbins, 2013, 448), since trauma is something on the one hand engaging and attracting, and on the other, ridiculously commonplace, a kind of experience that we all share. Thus it was capable of maintaining the unalleviated otherness of its subject and to establish, weirdly, a kind of commonality that would reach the humanistic pathos known from the times of Franz Boas as the claim of the equal humanity of all humans, no one of whom, regardless of what civilization, race, gender, sexuality etc. she belongs, is any less human than the privileged, “Western,” in the broader sense, individual who carries on the study.
While Robbins’s argument is appealing and he is careful enough to make it explicitly clear that “sufferer” does not describe the multifaceted subject of new anthropological construction of a discipline, I wonder if there is something else that could be brought into conversation and be more precise. That is correct that we are interested in trauma, but I want to resist the extension of the “suffering subject” on multiple subjectivities in which contemporary anthropology busies itself. Not only because to be interested in “suffering subject” would mean that the anthropologist is taking a precarious position of something between “psychoanalytic actor” and “curious actor” (and it’s unclear what is worse), not only because there are plenty of “subjects” that refuse to be put into this categorization (where do you put “anthropology of perpetrators,” for example?), but also because it brings unnecessary repercussions of further victimization of the “really suffering subject,” erasing their experience of resistance, survival, revolt, coping, and overcoming. How many activists fighting inequality in different societies would call themselves “suffering subjects”? What kind of hierarchies emerge out of building of this notion in its present form? Could not there be found some other grounds for the multiplicity of anthropological queries?
The historical move of the interest from “other” to the “suffering subject” would mean anthropology is not ready to relinquish its position as an instrument of re-establishing of power. And even if we forewent hopes that we ever could produce something close to “objective knowledge,” such trajectory might mean furthering of its exploitative tendencies and inquisitivenesses.
Robbins, Joel. Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3): 447-462. 2013