A Conversation with Daena Funahashi

In this conversation, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Daena Funahashi and PhD student Justin Greene speak about the why of anthropology, Bataille, “crazy medicine,” and Dionysian “de-struction.”


Justin Greene: I guess the most basic question to start with is, why anthropology? How did that discipline become a home?

Daena Funahashi: I took a really meandering path to end up here. I started out in botany in my undergrad. I guess I was always interested in the intersection of plants and people, but at that stage I was more interested in understanding the food we eat and the pharmaceuticals we take via the chemical composition of plants. My interest actually started in high school. I went to high school in New Jersey, right across the border from Manhattan, and for my final project for a biology class, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at plants we used for medicinal purposes. I wanted to explore plant toxicity as it related to its medicinal efficiency. In any case, my parents took me up to the Bronx Botanical Gardens because I couldn't find the kinds of books I needed to do this research at my high school. The librarians there were amazing! Once they understood what I needed, they gave me a desk by a window and provided me with a stack of books. I was probably either 16 or 17, and I had never been at such a specialized library before. I was just so impressed by how seriously they took me, and I remember feeling so excited by the fact that they gave me a desk at such a serious place! I just felt so chuffed, I guess.

One of the books was written by an ethnobotanist, and it did not dawn on me that this person could have been an anthropologist. But it was the word ethnobotanist that made me think, wow, this is a category that I can be. So that’s what I went to do for my bachelors. I was kind of in plant science, in philosophy, and still, up until then, I did not know [about] anthropology. Halfway through, I realized that, instead of focusing on the scientific aspect of botany, I was more interested in how people created knowledge about plants. I was more interested in the art of medicine, the art of healing, rather than the taxonomy of plants in itself. And the more I dove into the science of botany, the less I got interested in that, and I realized that I might be drawn to the philosophy of science. From there, I was really interested in medicine and healing, but of course when you’re talking about healing and the art of healing you’re always talking about something fundamentally political. I say “fundamentally political” because it’s about the decision of how you ought to be, how you ought to compose yourself, but also “hygiene,” what you should be eating, which is also “discipline,” and then the kind of access that is required so that you could be disciplined. Then it’s political economy. It’s the politics of access and of what it takes to be a good citizen, what it takes to be responsible. Then I was like, “oh, philosophy seems a bit abstract,” and I was searching in my young brain, thinking, “what would link all these things together?” And I finally ended up in anthropology.

So, it was my dissatisfaction, let’s say, with philosophy—especially philosophy of science and especially ethics (I did bioethics). It just seemed that you could say ad nauseum “oh but this oh but that.” You’re talking in this kind of hollow chamber. I thought, “why don’t we consider how people actually think about these things rather than us abstractedly talking about the logics of this or the ethics of that? Why don’t we look at how this conflict, this tension unfolds in society?” And again, that’s how I moved toward anthropology.

JG: Interestingly, the dissatisfaction with another discipline is a recurring theme I’m noticing in these interviews regarding how people have gotten to anthropology. That seems to be an interesting thread.

DF: That might be! But also, I was always an outsider. I was born in Japan but grew up in England. I thought I was English for a long time. Not even British. No, strongly English for a long time. Then I moved to Hong Kong, and then I moved to Japan and then I moved to Germany. I moved with my family a lot, so I was never part of a main school-based social group. I was always on the outskirts looking in and because I relocated not only across dialects, but also languages and cultures, I always felt like I was an outsider trying to fit in and not quite doing a good job of it. So, reading texts on anthropological methods explained so much that felt like second nature to me. Taking anthropology courses as a student, I knew I was in the right field. Being an outsider is also a fundamental position of the philosopher as well, and I found anthropology’s relationship to philosophy very interesting. Though I chose not to go for a career in philosophy, I never stopped engaging with it, and my background in it informs my perspective on anthropology. So, in a way I started out as an outsider to anthropology as well. But anthropology is one such discipline that thrives upon such tensions. It also helped that my graduate training in anthropology at Cornell introduced me to a lot of French social theory that helped me connect my interests.

JG: Thinking of the French theorists, I’m going to jump to somewhere more contemporary. You taught a class on sacrifice [in Fall 2019], and French theory takes me to [Georges] Bataille. I heard that Bataille was quite the feature in the class. Thinking of sacrifice, and seeing [your Spring 2021 graduate seminar] The Enigma of Authority coming up, I’m wondering, what goes into those classes? What’s interesting about them to me is that they seem so different, and I’m curious how that all goes together, thinking of the plants and the healing and the politics. In short, what goes into a class?

DF: I think that question takes several steps. So, first, what goes into a class. It’s like what goes into sound. You have so many different elements that constitute sound in a way that differentiate it from noise. And, of course, like sound, each person who hears it hears something different. So, my class on sacrifice, at one level, it’s a literal story of sacrifice, for instance, ritual oblation, an explicit giving up and or destruction of a symbol. There’s the “of course” element recognizable to anyone who knows anything about making public offerings. But on top of that base note that makes that whatever-it-is recognizable as a specific sound, there are other elements that inflect upon that. So, in talking about sacrifice, another term that comes to mind would be self-abnegation. On a more abstracted sense, we sacrifice a lot in focusing and seeing something. There is a difference between human attention – the way humans hear and see things – and how a camera sees things. We’ve now switched over to seeing, here, but we humans tend to focus on one thing, whereas a camera will capture the whole thing. So, in “seeing”—if we follow French theorists—we fall into a certain kind of blindness. Seeing depends heavily on a certain kind of nonseeing, the sacrificing of the rest in order to distinguish the few. In distinguishing between things, here, going back to sound, we can actually hear a sound from what might appear like white noise. In this logic, the fact that we can think and distinguish between things requires the sacrifice of other modes of being.

And, yes, we read some Bataille in the class on sacrifice. We read him with an eye towards thinking how this logic of destruction and sacrifice consecrates and sets things apart in ways that rites of productivity do not. What we waste, and what remains in excess of what we can express are elements I take up in my upcoming class, “The Enigma of Authority.” So, what brings my research and teaching interests together is a concern with negativity, or what Bataille calls the “accursed share.”

Moving on to my new course, “The Enigma of Authority,” I will be specifically looking at what falls out of our attempts to establish authoritarial legitimacy (e.g. political, scientific, ethical, etc.). And again, like in the course on sacrifice, I start with one concept, e.g. sacrifice / authority, and then branch out in amoebic fashion from there. There’s a definite tethering point that gives coherence to the overall design of the course, but you can also get what you want out of it. So, let’s say you don’t want to deal with these more indeterminate ideas of being/non-being or seeing/not-seeing, you can still come out of that class with an understanding of a classic notion of what makes a community an object of study, or what constitutes the field of the political. These notions are classic in that they trigger questions fundamental to anthropology such as: what is exchange? What do we mean by economics? What does it take to be-in-common? These classic questions are also great for generating course discussions on contemporary issues such as the limits of democracy, etc. I don’t know how well that metaphor of sound worked here, but that’s how I think about and design courses.

JG: I thought it was a sound metaphor! Now I’m thinking of courses as “curated but capacious.”

DF: Exactly! There’s a little bit for everyone.

JG: That’s the ideal class, in my opinion. You can get so many things out of it!

DF: Yeah. Some students from medical anthropology came and it was fun to read Bataille with people who have a very different take on him. There are all these interesting and unique combinations that can come because of the fluidity of the course and the diversity of our students.

JG: I’m glad you brought up medical anthropology because I wanted to talk about that a bit. You were an assistant professor of medical anthropology [at Aarhus University] in Denmark. So, you were in Denmark and you took up work in Finland—so not too far—but then also in Thailand. And then there are the various places you grew up in, so there are a lot of different places. How did you come to the research projects on burnout in Finland and, in Thailand, goodness (at least that’s what stuck with me the most)?

DF: The topics that interest me remain constant, even though they take different forms. I am driven by phenomena that emerge on what you might call the reverse side of social formulations. In my project on burnout in Finland, I learned from my interlocutors with burnout that in fact the very notion of burnout can “burn-you-out.” Where Finnish health experts put great emphasis on the rehabilitative promise of self-management, these individuals saw such demands to manage themselves very differently. Often, when asked to explain why they worked so much by the resident psychologist, they fell speechless. It was a matter of some national concern at the time of my fieldwork in Finland in the early 2000s, because there were cases of people dying from overwork, and Finnish health experts identified burnout as an antecedent condition to such cases of death. But while health experts had much to say about how to solve the issue, those diagnosed with burnout fell silent, presenting a particular problem for health experts and anthropologists alike. This space of silence is at the core of my book. And I put forth in it what I was taught by those who spoke with me—and those who sat silent with me—that what drives us to do what we do oftentimes does not reside in what we believe could be managed.

I ask similar questions in my project in Thailand. What captures people to do what they do? What is the drive beyond socially determined thinking that makes us aspire to be? 

And why Thailand? When I was a graduate student, I started out doing a project in Cambodia. But while in the field, I got dengue fever and I was really, really sick. When thinking of a different project, I got to thinking why there were comparably fewer students of non-European heritage working in Europe? That initial realization was something that propelled me towards the Finnish project, but I remained fascinated by Southeast Asia, and when the time came to think about a second book, I went back.

Political protests had just spiked in Bangkok in the 2010s, and I was drawn to what was happening in Thailand. During this time when I was thinking about new projects, I got a double postdoctoral position at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale-NUS. Logistically, this move to Singapore made conducting my new project in Thailand much easier, and with this easy access to the field, I was able to do the groundwork for my second project. In terms of language, my training in Cambodian helped me a lot. Cambodian shares a lot of high vocabulary with Thai because they both have a basis in Sanskrit.

In Thailand, I expanded upon my interest in sacrifice and excess that I looked at in Finland. Instead of burnout, I chose to focus on speed. Where I was fascinated by people who worked themselves almost to death in Finland, in Thailand I looked at the relationship between labor and speed, especially with regards to the consumption of methamphetamines or ya ba [crazy medicine] in Bangkok amongst construction workers. It’s a project that examines speed in both its physical and metaphysical sense in order to understand how each moment of capitalism gives birth to its own perversions. In a way, both my projects on burnout in Finnish rehabilitation centers and my project on drug consumption in Bangkok examine the relationship between speed, capital, and labor. If in Finland workers skirted death to keep up with the demand for efficiency, in Bangkok, construction workers dreamt of being able to work ever faster through the use of ya ba.

With cheap concrete pouring in from China, and cheap labor flooding in from neighboring Cambodia and Myanmar, Bangkok has experienced a construction boom in recent years. So, this new project examines speed in its manifold registers as it drives the expansion of Bangkok’s skyscrapers and its vertical aspirations. Unlike burnt-out workers in Finland, though, construction workers in Bangkok know exactly why they work so much. They point to ya ba, and spoke about how it helps them stay awake and complete their tasks – it speeds them up, in other words. Building on Marxist takes on the disjuncture between the relations of production and the forces of production, I explore ya ba as a point of fascination that also drives capitalist dreams of control, or the nightmare of spinning out of that control.

JG: I’m also curious to think about—especially in the way you just described classes as having this sort of node (maybe that’s not the right word, but being able to be capacious)—burnout and speed as possibly nodal concepts that could then be polyvalent, in the case of speed as in methamphetamines and velocity. So, how do we get to burnout and speed in particular?

DF: That’s good. We’re now getting into the specifics. There is a commonality, and thanks for highlighting that. With burnout, that word itself was really provocative. There was this presumption of an inner fire that needed to be harnessed for the sake of capital, but also when individuals were asked to tap into that, this demand to “tap in” provoked a form of speechlessness. People were like, “what is it exactly that I’m tapping into? What is this thing and to what end?” I take this up in my book Untimely Sacrifices.

JG: What’s the full title and when’s it coming out? I want to get the book plug in there!

DF: It’s Untimely Sacrifices: Death and Work in Finland. It’s coming out with Cornell University press, tentatively in 2022.

In the case of my project in Thailand on speed, we’re talking about a very different kind of energy. This new project deals more with the human-chemical interface and the kind of fascination we have with the promise substances like meth have to allow us to go beyond our human limits to accomplish something. People speak about ya ba in hyperbolic terms as the drug that makes you work hard [ya kayan]—a drug that turns you into an uber-worker. Burnout is not an issue, or is not a category afforded to them. Construction workers I met who rely upon ya ba to get their work done speak about what future the drug would bring them, a new house, education for their children, a better life, etc. Ya ba acts like a fetish object that allows them to not only dream these dreams, but to realize them. These people also speak about altered states of consciousness and shifts in the experience of temporality when taking ya ba.  So here again, I concern myself with the tension between the ideals of labor and what it takes to give credit to such ideals.  

More broadly, my new project in Thailand builds on urban studies, and of course recent scholarship on speed, nodes, circuits, and the idea of humans as part of circuits. So, [Paul] Virilio is very important in my work, but my take on circuits is a little different. That might be a different conversation we could have. But this project connects me to recent re-examination of the fetish, other fields such as STS, history of science, especially concerning history of meth, and of course, economic anthropology.

But, anyway, this is a very new project and COVID has kept me from going back to Bangkok. In any case, labor is a common theme in all of my work. Labor, energy, and people coming together, and how there is this attempt to harness and domesticate. And that’s where negativity comes in. Derrida asks what if that which is not stated in effect allows us to say what we can say? I take inspiration from this perspective in both my research and in my teaching approach.

The themes I cover at first glance do not immediately speak to each other, so my work can be seen as a bit dissonant. But if you can be generous and see how scholarship on sacrifice, negativity, and economics can talk to each other, I think it can open up a very different approach to politics, to language, and to medicine itself.

JG: I also remember, in addition to Bataille, that you were reading some EE Evans-Pritchard in Sacrifice class, right?

DF: Yes. Evans-Pritchard is a favorite of mine to teach. But you can see why, right? Because I’m interested in language as a technology of sorts, I am really inspired by Evans-Pritchard’s take on fetish, oracles, and this thing from beyond which is not within your control that nonetheless speaks. And if you read The Nuer, Evans-Pritchard is awesome in that he’s sensitive to categorizations and structures of how people map out the kind of cows they have. These categories, the ways you mark difference, matter. And that’s also the basis of meaning. Anyway, I like turning to Evans-Pritchard in my classes. I also really like teaching Durkheim. I think we still have a lot to learn from them.

JG: I feel like Durkheim is everywhere, though. Like, what intro to anthropology class isn’t going to have some Durkheim in it?

DF: This might be unfounded, but I worry that we keep him there – as an introduction! It depends on how you extrapolate from that text. Something very simple can also be the most profound. And I think the reason why we keep going back to Durkheim and also back to Mauss is that they still tell us something that resonates with our times and that we still can’t really grasp. That is their genius. Bataille definitely saw that. I really find it beautiful, the way he writes, and I worry that the way we professionalize anthropology may at times over-sanitize and sterilize the way we think and write. Like, for instance, Bataille was never considered a scholar. And yet he has inspired so many scholars.

JG: Yes, and then you have “The Solar Anus” and it’s like, “what is happening?!”

DF: I was wondering when that might come up! Well he wrote several erotic novels as well, right? But that’s the thing. He’s there to provoke. But when did scholarship not become a thing of provocation? That’s a problem. Knowledge is, by fundament, dangerous. So, classes for me have to be in some ways provocative and in some sense risky so that you don’t domesticate that force of provocation as, “oh, this is knowledge.” There is danger I think in also packaging knowledge too much in that we close off something else that could come out of class discussions by over-stating, “in this class we look at x, y, z.” Knowledge codified as such, to me, limits the conversations that the space of the university could open up. I find most exciting unstructured and impromptu conversations in the classroom. I think it’s important to say what you will be talking about in a given course, but I always hesitate from stating what it is that you will get as knowledge. Something might come out of a discussion that we didn’t know before and then that’s learning. But then for that to happen, you have to be willing to let go of certain kinds of guarantees about learning. You have to be willing to accept that that wonderful moment where you feel you grasp something might not happen—or at least in that moment. So in this sense, the discussion should continue beyond the classroom. Some questions are indeed open ended. I find Bataille instructive in this sense in that he forces you to keep learning, to keep seeking and to avoid the complacency of knowing.

JG: It’s the centrality of the might. And I think a good place to end is talking about what might make anthropology unique. Pardon that attempted tie-in. It was kind of forced. But so many people, anthropologists, have very strong opinions on this. I’ve heard, anthropology is a discipline that has no center or key texts and that that’s a problem. Or anthropology as opposed to sociology, this sort of offsetting that happens.

DF: I like this question a lot, and I think it goes along with what we’ve been talking about. For me, anthropology is unique because we revel in interrupting things. We’re the interrupters. We just knock things over and we’re fine with it. I say this because we don’t assume there is a “ground.” We don’t presume. We don’t begin with “here’s the ground from where we should look at x.” What we attempt to do is to lose whatever ground we have in order that something else can be thought. So, I think what we offer as anthropologists is an interruption. Our work, our writing is an undoing of what we think we already know. And, in this “de-structive” endeavor we try to find new ways of being.

JG: We are giving constant Dionysus, chaos, revelry.

DF: There’s a word that we should be using. I love that you said Dionysus. The Dionysians were always tearing each other apart. There’s a word that refers to this tearing each other apart, limb from limb…

JG: [looking on Wikipedia] Sparagmos? “An act of rending, tearing apart, or mangling, using in a Dionysian context…”

DF: Yes, I feel like that’s what we do. We engage in ecstatic (as opposed to profane and pecuniary) acts of “tearing apart” in order that we fall not into the dangers of conceptual complacency.