The Woes of the Corporate Anthropologist

In classical anthropology, there’s a rigid distinction between “field” and “home.” Field’s where you go to do your research, immersing yourself, sometimes at great personal risk, in a maelstrom of raw, unsorted happening. Home’s where you go to sort and tame it: catalogue it, analyze it, transform it in to something meaningful. But when the object of your study is completely interwoven with your own life and its rhythms, this distinction vanishes: Where (I asked, repeatedly) does home end and field begin? Or—and this problem follows from the last—I reflected on the anthropologist’s relation to the figures known as “informants.” If these people’s background and culture are at base no different from your own, and if these people are your friends—albeit ones who might (or then again, might not) know of your sidebar ethnographic carryings-on—then how should you interrogate them? What constitutes “interrogation” in the first place? In what way should it be staged? Does sex with a Lycra-miniskirted informant on your writing table at five a.m. when you’re both tripping count? Does passing out with someone in a toilet? Then, if the train of that one—and I’m not skipping the solutions to these predicaments, these pickles, since I didn’t provide any—comes the question of the anthropologist’s persona. Since the necessary act of approaching the familiar as a stranger, of behaving—even to yourself—as if you didn’t understand the situations that in fact you do, is an obvious contrivance; and since, conversely, pretending to understand them, at a profound, unmediated level, to think and believe and desire certain premises, propositions, objects and outcomes, for the purpose of attaining better access to the subculture you’re infiltrating, is equally contrived; or, to flip it back the other way again, to actually think and believe and desire these, but to be forced nonetheless, in your role as anthropologist, to pretend you’re being and doing what you really are being and doing—in brief, since all this shit entails a constant shifting of identities, a blurring of positions and perspectives, you end up lost in a kaleidoscope of masquerades, roles, general make-believe.

—From Tom McCarthy’s third novel, Satin Island, about a corporate anthropologist identified only as “U” who has been hired to write an ethnography meant to sum up the world’s entire cultural epoch in one document. Unsurprisingly, U is overwhelmed by the task at hand. McCarthy’s fiction often deals with the collision of personal and corporate interests.

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