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New York Stories: An Imperilled Anthropology of Urban Life

The CEU Campus
Monday, January 23, 2017, 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

 —Oscar Wilde, Preface: Portrait of Dorian Gray.

 As Oscar Wilde observes, because there is so much to be gained by observing surfaces, their study should not be seen as shallow, superficial or trivial. Nonetheless, a few pages after declaring allegiance to the realm of appearances, Wilde cautioned: “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril”. With this warning in mind, I argue it has become necessary for anthropology and social-science to place itself in greater “peril” by venturing beneath the observable and audible surfaces of urban life in order to gain a better understanding of the interior dialogues and imaginative life worlds that constitute people’s everyday lives and practices. The capacity for a rich and imaginative inner life—that simultaneously encompasses streams of inner dialogue and reverie, as well as inchoate, non-linguistic or image based forms of thought and expression that exist beyond third-party observation— is an integral part of what makes us human and is central to the negotiation of social life. Without some form of inner expression there would be no self-understanding or social existence, at least not in a form we would recognise, and it constitutes a broad range of experiences, from routine practices to extraordinary moments of existential crisis. This presents a deep-seated problem for disciplines like anthropology that are based on empirical evidence insofar as it is primarily a methodological and practical problem rather than a conceptual one. Often people’s interior expressions are seen as irrelevant or extraneous, rather than fundamental to embodied experience and they are rarely the primary focus of anthropological monographs or urban research. As such anthropology, the quintessential study of humanity, risks only being able to tell half the story of human life. Accordingly, this presentation attempts to open up a debate and attempt an ethnographically grounded account of the complex streams of consciousness and amalgams of inner expression, memory and imagination that constitute city life, action and practice.

Andrew Irving is Director of the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. His research areas include sensory perception, time, illness, death, urban anthropology and experimental methods, film and multi-media. Recent books include Whose Cosmopolitanism? Critical Cosmopolitanisms, Relationalities and Discontents, (2014 with Nina Glick-Schiller. Berghahn Press); Beyond Text: Critical Practices and Sensory Anthropology, (2016 with Rupert Cox and Christopher Wright. Manchester University Press), The Art of Life and Death (2016: Hau Monographs: University of Chicago), and Anthropology and Futures: Researching Emerging and Uncertain Worlds (2017 with Sarah Pink, Juan Salazar and Johannes Sjoberg. Bloomsbury).

Recent media works include Wandering Scholars: Or How to Get in Touch with Strangers: Österreichisches Museum für Volkskunde, Vienna (2016); Live Edition: Plataforma Gallery, Bogota, Colombia (2015), and the play The Man Who Almost Killed Himself (2014) in collaboration with Josh Azouz and Don Boyd, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, BBC Arts and Odeon Cinemas.