Steve Reyna: Bloat and tents: Further thoughts on Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy

This brief note suggests some directions that a rising Marxist anthropology might consider taking. Sandy Smith-Nonini and Donald Nonini have done a wonderful job explaining why Carbon Democracy is a “brilliant” book that is “essential reading for anthropologists” (2014), especially for those concerned with the political economy of fossil energy. Elsewhere, I have reviewed Timothy Mitchell’s book (Reyna 2012) and offered some suggestions concerning an approach to the anthropology of hydrocarbons (Behrends, Reyna, and Schlee 2011), so I do not propose to discuss here either the substance of Mitchell’s argument or the emerging literature on the anthropology of oil. Rather, I will explore two implications of Mitchell’s work for the very nature of the anthropological project. These implications deal with bloat (conceptual) and tents (pup and big top).

Conceptual bloat
Let us begin with bloat. Smith-Nonini and Nonini assert, “A central, perhaps, the central, question in political economy today is how forces of democracy…can regain control over corporate capitalism in the neoliberal era” (2014). The strengthening of democratic forces is “central” because it can be a weapon to “regain control” over capitalist forces, with the understanding that the aim of a resurgent Marxism is not to “regain control” over capitalism but to replace it with more socially just social forms. A key part of Mitchell’s argument is to show that the different organizations of coal and oil production and circulation had different consequences for the emergence of democracy. Coal in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was good for democracy; since then, oil has been bad. I agree with Mitchell, and so do a number of others who suggest that oil is really bad for democracy (see Ross 2001). Mitchell, then, is important because he suggests conditions favorable to the strengthening of democratic forces. Here is where the bloat problem comes in.

Lamentably, the concept of democracy is obscured by conceptual bloat. This is an epistemological notion based upon three concepts—the signifier, the signified, and their referent. The signifier in Saussurian terms is the word or sound of a sign. “Democracy” is a signifier. The signified is the meaning of the signifier. The referent is that to which the signified refers, in the sense of denoting or connoting. Conceptual bloat refers to a property of the signified, specifically that it is composed of a large, wiggling number of meanings that are highly variable (that is, ambiguous) and vague, which make it impossible to know its referent. Such bloat is bad news because its users literally do not know what they are talking about.

Mitchell tells readers that democracy “can have two kinds of meanings,” and largely accepts that of Jacques Rancière (2012: 9). Surely he jests—democracy with only two meanings? The term has been defined and redefined since the Greeks. There are representative democracy, direct democracy, popular sovereignty, and majoritarian views. There are liberal democracy conceptualizations, with recently neoconservative and neoliberal variants. The left has its views of democracy. Marx had his opinions; so did Engels, as did Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Lenin. Recently, Laclau and Mouffe, Rancière, and Bobbio, among others, offer different approaches. Consequently, the concept might be described as a pulsating mass of signifieds with uncertainty as to what signifieds attach to what referents. So, as Harvard’s Sean M. Lynn-Jones puts it, “‘Democracy’ is notoriously difficult to define” (1998) because, as Stanley Benn states, among other problems,it is vague” (1967). Democracy is a notion about which we don’t really know much because it is a can of worms writhing in conceptual bloat.

How is one to strengthen the “forces of democracy,” when democracy holds a variety of meanings? This suggests that a resurgent Marxist anthropology prioritize research on democracy.1 There might be two strands to this research—one conceptual, the other empirical. The conceptual research would review the different signifieds of democracy, removing as much as possible their ambiguities and vagueness, and making clear how observations can be made that connect the signified with its presumed referent.2 Analysts would seek to discover similarities and dissimilarities in the different conceptions. The result of such work would be an inventory of conceptualizations of democracy to know what people think they think is democracy. Then the empirical studies would observe actually existing polities thought to be democracies to discover how they became democracies, what happened to them after they became democracies, and their relationship with capitalist forces. These researches would need to cover considerable periods of time. Their focus would be upon how, and how much, democratic forces were able to either challenge or support those of capitalism. The goals of such work will be to discover which of the different democratic conceptualizations are associated with the growth of democratic forces best able to eliminate capitalism and replace it with more just social forms. There is a problem in conducting such research in anthropology as it is currently constituted. Examination of this problem leads to consideration of tents—pups and big tops.

Pup tents and big tops
A pup tent is a small, wedge-shaped military tent that sleeps one person and a partner, uncomfortably. Big tops, of course, are circus tents—giant affairs, usually with three rings, putting on different acts at the same time, to the delight of large crowds within. A distinction can be made between pup tent and big top anthropology. “Pup tent” anthropology has anthropology sleeping with its partner, ethnography, a research technique that since Writing Culture (1986) has all too often been high on poetics and down on science. “Big top” anthropology, developed out of the more expansive spirit of Franz Boas, offers much more hurly-burly; in the center ring are acts analyzing the social, in the neighboring two rings are acts researching the cultural and the biological. The different acts put on their shows with all sorts of different methodologies: participant observation, historical, statistical—whatever works to make certain the show goes on. Additionally, the three rings in big top anthropology might be imagined as Venn diagrams intersecting each other so that the acts in one ring become integrated with those in the other rings. I have nothing against pup tent anthropology or participant observation. It is a useful tool for studying humans, but it is only one tool, and one with a weakness owing to its limitation vis-à-vis space and time.

Events pertaining to humans take place over time and across space. Fernand Braudel, in his classic The Mediterranean (1972 [1949]), proposes that there are three varieties of time, or “planes,” that scholars can explore: la longue durée, l’histoiresociale, and l‘histoireévénementielle (20–21). La longue durée is the “slow unfolding of structural realities…whose passage is almost imperceptible(23, 20); l’histoiresociale is the “history of groups and groupings” (20); and l’histoireévénementielle refers to “brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations,” “individual time,” and the “history of events (21). Two sorts of criteria distinguish Braudel’s temporal planes: They involve either short or long time periods (i.e., l’histoireévénementielle versus la longue durée), and the actors in the planes might be structures or individuals (i.e., la longue durée and l’histoiresociale versus l’histoireévénementielle.) A question arises about this conceptualization. Why, if there are long and short temporal planes, is there no medium plane?

To address this question, it might be suggested that human realities can be studied in terms of short, medium, and long space-time frames. Short frames roughly correspond to Braudel’s l’histoireévénementielle. They are “moments,” occurring briefly, from months to a few years over relatively small areas. Pup tent ethnographers are masters of the moment. Participant observation allows them to collect rich information about thoughts, feelings, discourse, and actions of individual actors. However, participant observers study relatively few people over short periods. So while they can acquire considerable information, it is about few persons over very little time. Additionally, if the ethnographers have abjured science, serious questions arise about the representativeness and validation of their statements.

Medium frames have no real Braudelian correspondence. They are periods of decades to a century or so over large areas. They have within them different “moments.” Participant observation is not possible over such long periods. The ethnographer cannot hang around for a century or so.3 Consequently, medium frames have normally been studied by historians or historically inclined social thinkers, and they are long enough that trends can be distinguished, though generally not so long that it is possible to know the results. Even though Braudel did not conceptualize a medium frame, The Mediterranean was actually such an investigation of the reign of King Philip II of Spain (1527–1598). Carbon Democracy analyzes hydrocarbons and democracy over a medium frame. All in all, studies over such frames tend to be ”teasers” in the sense that they indicate the direction in which the story is going but do not actually reveal its ending because it has not yet occurred. In the case of hydrocarbons and democracy, it is by no means clear what the end of the story will be.

Long frames approximately correspond to Braudel’s la longue durée and l’histoiresociale (if observed over centuries). They extend over grand time periods—when trends have begun, matured, and finished—and are comprised of the medium frames that are themselves marked by different moments.  Usually, long time frame researches have been the domain of historians or archeologists. Nineteenth-century evolutionary anthropologists—such as Lewis Henry Morgan and E.B. Tylor—as well as mid-twentieth-century neo-evolutionists—including Leslie White and Julian Steward—conducted long time frame researches. More recently, Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People without History offered the entire world’s peregrinations during modernity. Long frame studies often emphasize structural change, because times are so great that individual actions have become lost in a fog of the past. However, where individual data is still available, it can be interesting to analyze individual response to structural transformation. Long frames can be gratifying to study because they contain the “end of the story” for both structures and the persons who compose them.

If you appreciate that analysis of democracy can be helpful to develop strategies for opposing capitalist social inequities, then it is important to, as much as possible, remove the conceptual bloat from the term so it is possible to know with some certainty just what type of democracy is effective against capitalist inequities—the better to build such a weapon. If you recognize that democracy occurs over long periods over large spaces, then it behooves anthropologists to go beyond pup tent anthropology, with the goal, among others, to develop historical techniques suitable for observation of medium and long frame transformations of democratic social forms. The more general realization I am urging here is that an anthropology that wishes to contribute to a rising Marxism is one that needs to be methodologically rich, encouraging different sorts of research techniques that are useful for analyzing the different times and spaces of humanity. It needs to be big top.

Steve Reyna is a Researcher at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute of the University of Manchester, UK as well as a Research Associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.

1. A literature on the anthropology of democracy is beginning to develop (see Paley 2002, 2008).

2. Useful to start the proposed review would be Karl and Schmitter (1991) and Whitehead (1997).

3. Marcus (1995) has proposed developing multi-sited ethnography to allow analysis of larger spaces. Whether this particular approach has been successful is open to question. However, such methodological innovation is to be encouraged.

Benn, Stanley. 1967. Democracy. In Paul Edwards, ed., The encyclopedia of philosophy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Behrends, Andrea, Steve Reyna, and Günther Schlee. 2011. Crude domination: An anthropology of oil. New York: Berghahn Books.

Braudel, Fernand. 1972 [1949].The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II. Vol. 1. New York: Harper and Row.

Clifford, James, and George Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Oakland: University of California Press.

Karl,Terry, and Philippe Schmitter. 1991. What democracy is…and is not. Journal of Democracy Summer: 75–89.

Marcus, George. 1995. Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology. 24: 95–117.

Mitchell, Timothy. 2012. Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil. New York: Verso.

Paley, Julia. 2002. Toward an anthropology of democracy. Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 469–496.

Paley, Julia. 2006. Democracy: Anthropological approaches. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

Reyna, Stephen. 2013. Timothy Mitchell: Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil (New York: Verso, 2012). PoLAR 36(1): 186–188.

Smith-Nonini, Sandy, and Donald M. Nonini. 2014. “Fueling the neoliberal turn: Why we need to engage Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy,” FocaalBlog. August 29,

Whitehead, Lawrence. 1997. The vexed issue of the meaning of “democracy.” Journal of Political Ideologies 2(2).

Wolf, Eric. 1982. Europe and the people without history. Oakland: University of California Press.

Cite as: Reyna, Steve. 2014. “Bloat and tents: Further thoughts on Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy,” FocaalBlog, September 11,