After Difference: Queer Activism in Italy and Anthropological Theory

Heywood, Paolo. 2018. After Difference: Queer Activism in Italy and Anthropological Theory. New York: Berghahn Books.

Keywords: Italy, LGBTQ, activism, recursive turn, ethnographic theory

What is the relationship between ethnography and anthropology? In this exceptional book, Heywood argues that in recent years anthropology has given way to what he and Matei dub ‘ethnographic foundationalism.’ Exemplified by the recursive turn (e.g. Holbraad 2012), this represents the attempt to collapse the distinction between anthropology and ethnography. After Difference explores the paradoxical nature of this: “in producing its own identity, anthropology produces itself as different and distinct from the object with which it seeks to identify” While attending to disciplinary concerns, the book speaks to a broader realm of inquiry – the ties which maintain difference.

Heywood draws inspiration from his interlocutors, LGBTQ activists in Bologna, Italy, and their engagements with identity and difference. These early ethnographic portions (Parts 1 and 2) have largely been published elsewhere in article format, but gain new coherency through their compilation. In the first chapter, Heywood inverts Evans-Pritchard’s notion of segmentary lineage to show how a common discursive identity, ‘left-wing,’ serves as the very ground for disagreement and discussion. Viewed in light of Bologna’s reputation as Italy’s communist heartland, the equivocal uses of left-wing within anthropology and his field site allow Heywood to develop the notion of equivocal locations – field sites with ambiguous relations to abstract topics, by virtue of a reoccurrence of some identifier. With this Heywood begins to tease out the gap “between the fictions of analysis and the facts of ethnography” (39).

There are flashes of ethnographic insight here to excite those engaged in the study of Italy, although . Neither should be . His injunction to resist Foucault’s emphasis on modes of subjectivation is similarly well taken. His exploration of doppia morale – adherence to different interpretations of the same moral code in different contexts – turns attention to the manner in which moral codes are adhered to, towards the situations of partial fidelity which proliferate. As Heywood acknowledges, his concerns remain theoretical, and readers looking for a systematic account of the moral codes of activists, and the nature of their subscription to them, will not find that here.

Throughout After Difference, readers are asked to think about the conditions and consequences of cross-border exchange. How do anthropologists engage with other disciplines, as well as with their interlocutors, while still offering distinctive insight? Turning to a local Catholic group, Heywood explores their experience in boundary construction. Their failure, as he explains it, was that they could not sufficiently differentiate themselves with the LGBTQ activists and serve as representatives of the Church. Ethical conversations across boundaries rely on “find[ing] and sustain[ing] affinities over exactly what it is that makes them different” (71).

The book’s ethnographic portion culminates in a discussion of the possibility of a group, the LGBTQ activist community, sustaining a collective identity in the face of its attempts to reject fixed notions of identity. In admitting the possibility of this paradoxical situation, Heywood is also arguing for recognizing anthropology as admitting of a similar non-conformism.

Although there is much that may interest those engaged in the study of politics, Italy, ethics, and activism, the book is not primarily intended to be an ethnography of activism in Bologna. Rather, it is a rumination on the treatment of difference within anthropology, which serves as the basis for an energetic argument in favor of recognizing the divergent concerns of anthropology and ethnography. Heywood leaves the two terms undefined, though frequently sets up oppositions between theory, analysis, or conceptual fictions and ethnography or facts. This, it seems, is a deliberate ploy to point to the panoply of understandings of the two, many of which render them one and the same. By continually viewing the terms in relation (as he does following Strathern 1987 and Jean-Klein and Riles 2005, in comparisons to feminism and human rights activism), he avoids the question of the (essential) identity of these terms, which perhaps obliges the reader to substitute his or her own understandings. Yet, Heywood appeals to our sense that the questions of anthropology are of a different kind to those of ethnography, especially insofar as our concerns differ from those of our interlocutors. We are invited to imagine the two books which After Difference might have been – an ethnography of LGBTQ activism in Bologna, unimpeded by disciplinary argument or theoretical prelude; or a sustained argument in favor of the proliferation of varied relations between ethnography and anthropology, discussing existing attempts and failures at these projects. Both of these would have been immensely valuable contributions, but neither would be as successful at reinvigorating the broader discussion towards which Heywood seeks to shift the discipline. Part III deserves attentive reading, both in its critique and celebration of the recursive turn, and for a more detailed statement of the problem.

The target of After Difference is the anxiety which has so often fueled dissertations, if not the discipline as a whole – “how should my analysis relate to my ethnography?” (100). There will likely be disagreement over the extent to which a wide variety of answers to these questions already exist, and this book is not a survey of them. Instead it serves as an argument for the explicit recognition of the multiplicity of potential differences between anthropology and ethnography and explains how these can exist in tandem, while some equivocal notion of anthropology endures.

Works cited:

Heywood, P. Forthcoming. ‘Making Difference: Queer Activism and Anthropological Theory’, Current Anthropology.

Holbraad, M. 2012. Truth in Motion: the Recursive Anthropology of Cuban Divination. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Jean -Klein, I. and A. Riles. 2005. ‘Anthropology and Human Rights Administrations: Expert Observation and Representation After the Fact’, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 28: 173–202.

Strathern, M. 1987. ‘An Awkward Relationship: the Case of Feminism and Anthropology’ Signs 12: 276–92.

© 2019 Theodore Park

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