One can think of the particular turn of thinking we associate with anthropology as a calibration of two scales of alterity: one that plots difference on geo-cultural coordinates, from one society to another, and one that measures distances on the terrain of the imagination, from thought to thought. Anthropologists translate ethnographic alterities into intensities of argument, transfiguring the aporia of ethnographic ‘culture shock’ in the activity of thinking new thoughts. If metaphysics is par excellence devoted to thinking new thoughts, then anthropology conceived in this way is a royal road to it. One might even say that anthropology is hyper-metaphysical, inasmuch as its constitutive investment in alterity renders novelty of thinking as a kind of methodological necessity: the ‘meta’ of metaphysics must, by disciplinary exigency, also be ‘alter’, which is to say constitutively different, new.
This paper seeks to address the complaint that this vision of anthropology as ‘alterphysics’ does not quite live up to its promise in practice. Even when looking at the work of anthropologists who most deliberately ascribe to versions of the alterphysical project, at a certain level of analytical abstraction one tends to find a rather similar-looking set of ideas being (re-)generated with reference to ethnographic settings as different from each other as ceremonial gift exchange in Papua New Guinea, Mongolian shamanism, Japanese finance, Afro-Cuban divination, Amazonian hunting, European laboratory science, West African political violence, and so on: relationism, ontological transformation, mutual constitution, self-differentiation, multiplicity, process, becoming, non-humanism, cyborgs, the post-, the para-, the off-, the exo-, the minor. Indeed, these kindred ideas are typically not a million miles away from the conceptual currencies of certain strands of contemporary social theory, if not metaphysics – often the trendier ones. So how aporetic exactly, goes the complaint, are ethnographic exposures that tend so typically to issue in one version or other of, say, relationism? Taking this complaint as the single-most urgent challenge to the discipline of anthropology at present, this paper seeks to set out the coordinates within which different responses to it might be developed, and assess their chances of succeeding. In this connection, with reference to Lévi-Strauss’s idiosyncratic characterisation of art as a manner of allowing ‘the necessary’ to be revealed through ‘the contingent’, I end with the suggestion that anthropology’s distinctive claim to creativity may be cast as an inversion of art – a matter of allowing the contingent (i.e. ethnography) to be revealed through the necessary (i.e. analytical conceptualizations).