Contemporary concerns about truth and responsibility seem to index an instability in the cultural production of reality itself. Intersecting technopolitical and biosocial upheavals are disrupting the conditions under which the real is constituted. Across various domains, the procedures underpinning the real and the claims it warrants are being both exposed and remade: from the rise of inflationary media (Castillo and Egginton 2016) and the virtual in technology and biomedicine (Boellstorff 2008; Whitehead and Wesch 2012) to the nonhuman ontologies of scientific practice (Barad 2007) and indigenous multinatural perspectivism (Viveiros de Castro 2015; cf. Todd 2016). At a time when the ways of producing the 'reality effect’ in social life are changing, the panel seeks to explore the shifting parameters of the real through the lens of ethnography. It also aims to examine how our discipline, with its moorings in the concrete, practical and experience-near, itself engages and evokes the notion of ‘what is.' Reality is a longstanding key concern for ethnography, in terms of both its objects and method, its narrative styles and the very stakes of the anthropological encounter. It is also, and increasingly, a troubled and troubling term. We contend that the real has a history of its own. A history, on the one hand, of the specific modes of its social production and the slippages of reality’s grip at moments of crises or around edges of epistemes; on the other hand, a history of the ways reality has been approached and rendered in anthropology, including in phenomenology, thick description, constructivism, or experimental methods of research and writing that affirm or challenge ethnography’s own ‘realism’: the authority that comes with having ‘been there’ in that real that ethnographic description purports to immerse the reader in, yet cannot fully capture (Jackson 2005; Stewart 2007, cf. Barthes 1986). Today reality appears at once more malleable and exerting an ever firmer hold. As with austerity imposed by economic realities with a simultaneous liberalization of finance (Guyer and Neiburg 2019), the workings of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2019), or the social phenomenon of gaslighting (Sweet 2019), reality is elusive yet unrelenting. So, too, is the ‘new reality’ emerging before us with the covid-19 pandemic and the forms of its mitigation. The panel suggests that the production of reality, in social life as in writing, is intrinsically bound up with relations of power and the specific structurings of the worlds we inhabit, study, and seek to build (van de Port 2011; cf. Yurchak 2006). As such, reality is precisely a matter of not only truth and responsibility but also of the imagination. Panelists contemplate and address this dimension as central to what the ‘really real’ may mean in life as in ethnographic practice.
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Indexing Reality: Remote Sensing, Index Insurance, and "Ground Truth"
AAA Annual Meeting 2021
18 November 2021