CCS Conference: “Character”

The conference will explore the contemporary status and uses of ‘character’. This will include a look at the diverse ways in which character operates as a live category for human subjects in the world and an exploration of its potential as an analytical category within anthropology and the broader academy. Moving beyond the now largely dismissed and problematic deployment of character as a descriptor of nationhood or culture (part of mid twentieth century debates centred in North American anthropology), the conference aims to examine what the reintroduction of character might add to scholarly conventions of analysis focused on subjectivity, the nature of individualism and personhood. It also wishes to explore how the category may allow us to rethink the terms of discussion in contemporary anthropology; in particular, around ‘hot topics’ such as the anthropology of ethics, ontology and materiality, Christianity and human-animal relations. In short, we want to suggest that the work that ‘character’ does outside the academy in connecting together diverse fields of social life and experience might provide a model for the potential of the category in anthropological writing more generally. Thinking through character may allow us too to draw out unexpected points of connection or analogy across usually differentiated domains of analysis.

for further information contact: [email protected]

Anthropology of Character Conference programme: 1-2 September 2016, University of St Andrews

Thursday 1st September: Hotel du Vin, 40 The Scores, St. Andrews, KY16 9AS

9am: coffee

9.15am: Adam Reed: Welcome & Introductory comments


Jonas Tinius: Rehearsing detachment: on the cultivation of conduct and character

Alain Pottage: Character as forensic artefact

10.45-11am: Coffee break


Liana Chua: Distinctive characters and quotidian intimacies in the virtual orangutan adoption industry

Jon Bialecki: The divine and demonic psychic economy of character

12noon-12.30: Roundtable discussion of morning sessions

12.30-1.30pm: Lunch


Huon Wardle: Ethnographic Reflections on ‘Character as a Way of Thinking’

Tom Yarrow: Character Building


Paolo Heywood: The hedgehog and the central banker: two responses to uncertainty in financial regulation

Robin Irvine: Testing for character: Heritability and temperament among Spanish fighting bulls

3.30-4pm: Roundtable discussion of afternoon sessions

4pm-4.30pm: Tea break

4.30pm-5.30pm: Keynote: James Faubion: On the Character of Character:  An Immodest Proposal

5.30-6pm: Drinks

7.30pm: Dinner


Friday 2nd September: Hotel du Vin, 40 The Scores, St. Andrews, KY16 9AS


Marilyn Strathern: Portraits, characters and persons

Mat Candea: Individuals and characters: meerkats and the category of the ‘not-quite-person’

Matthew Engelke: Death and Character

10.30am-10-45am: Coffee break


Nigel Rapport, Enumeration and Generalization, and Knowing through Love: The Character of Stanley Spencer’s Artistry

Christos Lynteris: Plague’s “Character”: Transformations of an Elusive Epistemic Object

11.45am-12.15: Roundtable discussion of morning sessions

End & lunch

Titles and abstracts

Jon Bialecki

The divine and demonic psychic economy of character

For the middle-class American Charismatic Evangelical Vineyard Christians, character is ambivalent, both in its moral charge and in the sense of ownership. Influenced by Pentecostal forms of religiosity, they believe that capacities such as speaking in tongues, battling demons, healing and prophecy originate not from their intrinsic capabilities, but are gifted to them by the Holy Spirit. However, a large percentage of these Christians are unable to engage in these pneumatological feats, even though they have the desire. The danger here is that this raises the possibility that God in some way is unhappy with them, or is failing them, both of which are unbearable propositions. The solution here is for specific character traits, and for character more generally, to be seen as also capacities on load from the divine. At the same time, negatively valued character traits are seen as belonging to the person, and have to be worked through via ethical exercise … except when these disvalued traits are identified as demonic. This paper will trace out the psychic economy that results from this set of beliefs, and asks what the relation is between agency and character when the latter is only ambivalently associated with interiority.

Mat Candea

Individuals and characters: meerkats and the category of the ‘not-quite-person’

Meerkats in a long-term kalahari-based behavioural study appear twice. Once as individual points in a database – the basic units of sociobiological theorising – and another as ‘characters’ in a popular docu-drama and its its various online spin-offs. Neither of these iterations adds up to full rounded ‘personhood’ in what is usually understood by this term in the anthropological literature. By considering those two modalities of not-quite-personhood, the different kinds of moral assessment they invite from human commentators, and the ways in which they blur in practice, this paper revisits some classic questions in the anthropological study of Euro-American personhood.

Liana Chua

Distinctive characters and quotidian intimacies in the virtual orangutan adoption industry

One of the most prominent features of the public face of orangutan conservation, virtual adoption has become a powerful means of raising awareness of and funds for ‘the plight of the orangutan’. Drawing on ongoing research into the social media-scape of orangutan conservation, this paper examines the centrality of two overlapping notions of ‘character’ to the stories, transactions and affective relations that animate the adoption industry: one generic (cute babies, nurturing mothers, etc.), the other highly personal. I suggest that both these forms of ‘character’ combine to produce individual orangutans as real or potential adoptees, replete with names, biographies and specific attributes. In this capacity, they can be woven into adopters’ everyday lives and relations, not as generic animals but as (what are perceived as) individual selves and participants in particular networks of kinship, care and intimacy. My paper examines how these processes play out through the quotidian affordances and affects of social media in ways that elide both the species divide and the consumerist structures that make virtual adoption possible.

Matthew Engelke

Death and Character:

This talk focuses on the character of ritual experts. We know that rituals communicate important messages—that they present, both in sternly authoritative and openly creative ways, what things are like or ought to be like. The extent to which what we might call the character of the ritual experts who are responsible for these communicative and disciplinary enactments is, though, a relatively unexplored aspect of ritual studies. How, when, and in what ways does the character of the ritual expert matter to the ritual’s efficacy?

I attempt an answer to this question that is relatively modest, and grounded in relation to a specific case—that of the British Humanist Association, and its 300 “celebrants,” who among them perform over 8,000 funerals a year. As I hope to show, the celebrants’ commitments to a secular future, in which the world is shorn of any metaphysics, places a heavy expectation on how their own conduct and character can be seen as an instantiation of that world. In a humanist funeral, the celebrant plays an important role in exemplifying what it means to be secular. Here, at least, death and character (the phrase is David Hume’s) come together.

James Faubion

On the Character of Character: An Immodest Proposal

Any revival of the anthropology of character (or its companion concept, “personality”) should avoid four chief faults of what has come before. First—and most obviously—it must resist any temptation to approach character as “national.” Second, it should not fall back on a general psychology—whether of temperament or of the strategic actor. It should instead remain resolutely on the plane of the social in its approach. Third, it should not assume that the sociocultural analysis of character is best approached through its putatively simplest, “modal” expressions. Instead, it should take the complexity of character—from its embodiment and reembodiment in the individual to the plural and often competing and inconsistent collective demands of the formation of character that any given individual in any collective context must face—as its point of departure. Fourth, it should not privilege the homeostatics of the reproduction of character over the dynamics of the alteration of character—whether at the level of the individual or at the level of the collective, whether short-term or longer-term. All of these requirements can be met in approaching the analysis of character through a synthesis of the logics of autopoiesis and the Bourdieusian field.

Paolo Heywood

The hedgehog and the central banker: two responses to uncertainty in financial regulation

Financial regulation is about dealing with complex situations of uncertainty. Until lately, central bankers have tended to deal with this by trying to meet complexity with even more complexity: expanding the depth and scope of the knowledge they do have as far as possible. More recently the Bank of England is moving towards an alternative philosophy: that in uncertain situations it is better to know a few important things than a great many little things. This view requires regulators to cultivate ‘judgment’ as a character virtue, so as to be able to apply simple decision rules to complex situations. This paper sketches out the architecture of these two solutions, how they have been deployed, and explores their implications for the anthropological study of contemporary finance.

Robin Irvine

Testing for character: Heritability and temperament among Spanish fighting bulls

In Andalusia, on the Partido de Resina bull-breeding estate, carácter (character) is a live category that can be used to talk about both humans and animals, and their qualities as individuals and groups. When it comes to the fighting bulls that the estate produces for bullfighting events across Spain and France, caractér can reference particular traits or characteristics such as ferocity, nobility or strength; or it can reference the overall temperament of an individual, family, generational cohort, or sub-type of fighting animal. In the latter sense carácter forms one category among many in the suite of morphological and behavioural characteristics that define fighting stock as good or bad. What is interesting in the case of the bulls is that at tentadero events on the bull-breeding estates carácter in the sense of temperament (temperamento) is directly tested for by assessing individual female animals in the arena, which involves taking them through two key stages of what we know as the bullfight. Depending on how the cow scores, she will either go on to be a brood animal or go to the slaughterhouse. The bull-breeder, with their scoresheet, effectively breaks down the overall character of each cow by evaluating her performance based on specific characteristics (also called caracteres), which are seen as heritable. The paper will draw on a mixture of material from my fieldwork in Andalusia and from the bull-breeding literature. I will focus on the ideas of the tentadero as a test of character and explore what it might mean for multispecies anthropology and an anthropology of character when character transcends the individual and crosses species lines.

Christos Lynteris

Plague’s “Character”: Transformations of an Elusive Epistemic Object

Once seen as indisputable, the impact of the so-called ‘laboratory revolution’ in medicine, and the paradigm-shift introduced by bacteriology as regards understandings of infectious diseases now stand challenged by nuanced and detailed works in medical history and ethnography. No longer driven by Bruno Latour’s idea that bacteriology came to determine the identity of diseases, such works allow us to explore the in-flux social life of human infection. This paper seeks to explore a pivotal but neglected component in the transformative and aporetic history of bubonic plague as an epistemic object: its “character”. Drawing a genealogy of this notion, from early nineteenth-century treatises to the experimental era of the third plague pandemic (1894-1959), my aim is to show how, rather than being a convenient metaphor, plague’s character formed a central epidemiological question, which spanned diverse epistemologies and ontologies of the disease. From an illness of “cowards”, or just one form of a protean meta-disease, to an ailment of “rice eaters”, plague –as much symbolically powerful, as biologically lethal– became an agent of social transformation, political conflict and scientific innovation. The paper will explore how different experimental methods and containment technologies attempted to fix, capture or ascertain plague’s character. In particular it will underline the epistemic, ethical and political impact of the latter’s elusiveness.

Alain Pottage

Character as forensic artefact

Law has evolved its own variation on the sense of character that runs through the modern western tradition from Voltaire to Freud; that is, the sense of character as a rooted mode of responsiveness to the world. In English criminal law character is figured in terms of ‘propensity’: although the legal definition of character has shifted – historically, character once meant ‘reputation’ – in the context of the criminal trial character is now construed as a set of deeply-ingrained traits. In the common law tradition, the danger of character evidence is that it might lead to what lawyers call ‘moral prejudice’: instead of determining the facts of a specific event according to the test of reasonable doubt, the jury might be induced to judge the person rather than the facts, and might rush to convict the defendant on the basis of his or her conduct or previous convictions. So the question of character in criminal law largely becomes the question whether or when evidence of the conduct or previous convictions might be admissible: when does ‘probative value’ outweigh ‘prejudicial effect’? Two ‘characters’ are in play here. The question is not only whether the evidence really, probatively, bespeaks the character of the defendant, but also whether it is likely to engage the ‘propensities’ of jurors in a prejudicial way. In this paper, I engage in what might be called a historical anthropology of the techniques through which character is made to appear in the frame of the trial.

Nigel Rapport

Enumeration and Generalization, and Knowing through Love: The Character of Stanley Spencer’s Artistry

The work of the painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) is renowned on a number of counts. His attachment to the village of his birth, Cookham, making it the main source and subject of his art, led to The Stanley Spencer Gallery (1962) being the first such gallery dedicated to the work of a single artist in Britain. Cookham lived in Spencer’s art not only as landscapes, still-lifes and portraits but also as ‘visionary’ images in which Spencer sought to represent certain universal human truths concerning the individual character of things and their intrinsic relationality. The local environment of Cookham became a microcosm for Spencer’s global social commentary: the ‘gift’ he saw himself providing the world. As a ‘new’ Adam or Christ, Spencer hoped to instruct humanity, through his art, in the benefits of a ‘loving’ engagement with the world. We know this because, as art historian Timothy Hyman phrased it, ‘the most fulfilled, courageous and irreplaceable British artist of the century may have been even better with words than paint’; Spencer left an immense archive of writings.

In this talk, Spencer’s artistry and especially his writings are looked to for the insights they might offer to an anthropological vision. More precisely, how might Spencer’s understanding of a ‘loving engagement’ with the true character of the world and its inhabitants illuminate the social-scientific problem of doing justice to the particular case? Enumeration and generalization are not appropriate methodologies, it is argued, if identity, character and relationality are to be anthropologically accounted for in ways that transcend contingent conventions of their nature.

Marilyn Strathern

Portraits, characters and persons

Recent experience of ‘repatriating’ ethnographic photographs to acquaintances in Mt Hagen, Papua New Guinea, leads to some questions about the recognition of character. People acknowledge characteristic ways of being or behaving, but it is not at all clear that these are simply attached to individual persons. To what entity or element of action, then, might such characteristics be attached, and what are the ethical repercussions?

There seems something of a parallel between the way English-speakers bundle together the elements of someone’s character and how they might compose a portrait. Indeed to the various senses of ‘character’ as a summation or specification of qualities, intrinsic nature, or customary habit one might add the work it does in painting a ‘portrait’. A completely unlooked-for response on the part of a Hagen friend to my proposal to seek out people in order to give them photographs of themselves (and close kin), some of which I had thought of as portraits, forced me to think afresh about what it means to have pictures of persons. This in turn might throw some light on character as analytic

Jonas Tinius

Rehearsing detachment: on the cultivation of conduct and character:

For the Scottish moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, “characters merge what usually is thought to belong to the individual man or woman and what is usually thought to belong to social roles” (After Virtue, 1981). This notion of character is informed by Aristotelian virtue ethics as much as echoes a canonised theatrical rehearsal method first inaugurated by Constantin Stanislavski and popularised as ‘method acting’. According to this pre-Brechtian acting theory, actors are to identify with their characters as authentically as possible, aiming to merge actor with character.

In this paper, I draw on fieldwork with a professional public theatre in western Germany to suggest an alternative view on the cultivation of actors’ expertise at managing the relation between roles, characters, and selfhood. Rather than training to lock themselves into specific characters, this theatre understands characters as fictional tools employed to facilitate reflection on the capacity to detach and appropriate different ways of being. Being in character, then, is not a passive and essential ways of behaving, but a reflected and critical stance that minds the gap between actor and character. Character, then, becomes a fictional tool for reflecting on the acting self. Informed by the anthropology of ethics, this paper suggests various ways in which this process – described by actors in this theatre as the cultivation of conduct (‘Haltung’) – can inform our understanding of detachment, reflexivity, and personhood.

Huon Wardle

Ethnographic Reflections on ‘Character as a Way of Thinking’.

“To be able to simply say of a human being: “he has a character” is not only to have said a great deal of him, but is also to have praised him a great deal… to have a character signifies that property of the will by which the subject binds himself to definite practical principles that he has prescribed to himself irrevocably by his own reason… Here it does not depend on what nature makes of the human being, but on what the human being makes of himself… All other good and useful properties of the human being have a price that allows them to be exchanged… talent has a market price… but character has inner worth, and is beyond all price.” (Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View.)

In his Anthropology, Kant distinguishes two kinds of character – (1) naturally endowed temperament, from (2) character as a ‘way of thinking’. A person may be, by nature, ‘choleric’ or ‘sanguine’, but, to the extent that they think their place in the world according to principles, they will also have made a character for themselves. Notably character is contrasted here with ‘talent’ which can be exchanged on the market, but which does not reflect the inner life (innenwelt) of the person; character cannot be exchanged because it marks out what is distinctive about the principles that person has chosen to think and live by. ‘Character’ understood this way was central to Kant’s definition of anthropology as a discipline, since anthropology was for him a type of self-liberation which took the form of an exploration of human individuation—how people make themselves. This paper explores Kant’s understanding of character for what it tells us about the contemporary anthropology and ethnography of subjectivity. It does so by way of character studies from Caribbean ethnography.

Tom Yarrow

Character Building

What is the relationship between the character of a building and of the people who own and live in it? Based on ethnographic research with occupants of historic buildings, and building professionals involved in their renovation, this paper examines the imagined capacity of each, to absorb and elicit elements of the identities of the other. While the character of buildings is seen to accrue as an embodiment of these relationships, buildings are attributed ‘individuality’, and ‘personality’, terms connoting an essence that is more than the some of these parts. The paper explores how ideas of ‘character’ are materially performed through these interactions in a range of sometimes competing understandings of where this essence reside. The paper takes inspiration from recent post-human approaches highlighting the analytic limitations of frameworks premised on separations of meaning and matter, building and inhabitant, while highlighting the significance of these oppositions as ethnographic categories.