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Sunday, June 12, 2011


Let me interpolate an anecdote garnered from the third time I taught "Ideological Critique" as a graduate seminar at The University of Massachusetts. One of the students in the course was originally from the West African nation of Sierra Leone. One day, in a nearby village, several graduate student ethnographers from the University of California at Berkeley showed up. Their professor, whose field was native African folklore, had formulated the hypothesis that native peoples with the sort of kinship structure exhibited by the people in this village would tend to generate children's stories having certain thematic elements. He had sent several of his doctoral students into the bush to test the hypothesis. My student, who was fluent both in the local language and in English, was hired to serve as an interpreter. This was a great boon to him, as he was trying to put together enough money to pursue his own graduate studies in the United States. The Berkeley graduate students laid out their professor's hypothesis, and sent him to quiz the locals. He dutifully explained to the folks in the village what the Americans were looking for, but they stared at him blankly and said they had never heard any stories, for children or otherwise, that sounded at all like that. This was an enormous disappointment to my student, who saw his chances for an American doctorate crumbling before his eyes, so he begged the village elders to come up with something, anything, that he could translate for the Americans. Well, they were eager to see a local boy make good, so they set about inventing a raft of stories, which it took a long, lucrative time to translate. The Berkeley grad students went home happy, loaded with evidence to confirm their professor's hypothesis, and my student earned enough money to come to UMass.

To continue: the Zhu do not send emissaries to Nairobi, or Cairo, or Cape Town, dressed in traditional Zhu garb, to study the ways of the Kenyans or Egyptians or South Africans, bringing with them choice bits of Gemsbok as gifts to persuade the natives to serve as informants. Merely to put such a notion into words is enough to capture its absurdity, and thus to express the asymmetrical relationship between the ethnographers and their subjects. Ethnographers understand this perfectly well, of course, and they worry about it a good deal. But the asymmetry is built into the fundamental structure of their enterprise. No amount of phony "going native" can change the facts [any more than a professor can bracket the asymmetrical relationship to students by using her first name, bringing cookies to class, agreeing to arrange chairs in a circle, or even - perhaps the most heroic effort of all -- by shutting up and letting the students talk.]

In my judgment, Wilmsen manages to overcome this asymmetry to an extent that Lee et al. do not. [You may disagree, of course. Like all potentially interesting comments, what follows rests on a strong premise, and hence is open to attack at two levels. This is an unavoidable structural feature of any theoretical analysis that has a hope of being worthwhile.] I have asked myself how, or why, his discourse succeeds in overcoming the asymmetry, and the answer, so far as I can see, is this: he conceives the Zhu as a modern people fully equipped with a politics and a class structure, and therefore as equal interlocuters. The Zhu, as he represents them, live in the twentieth century in a space that is not ontologically underprivileged, if I may put it that way. They are very poor, to be sure -- a fact he insists upon. But they are poor in much the same way that an urban underclass is poor, or that a rural proletariat is poor. They are not, in his conception of them, atavistic survivals frozen in a time that is long past. Significantly, his account is not framed by a narrative of a voyage to a distant land.

This is a good place to say just a word about the concept of the primitive, which continues to dog ethnography, despite the best efforts of many anthropologists to be quits with it. The term, which of courses derives from the Latin for "first," appears originally to have been applied, in English, to the early Christian Church -- hence, with a mixture of positive and negative connotations, depending on the user. In the eighteenth century, it shows up as referring to peoples lacking cultural sophistication or modern technology. There is always an implication that what is primitive is early in time, simple in structure, lower in some order of evolution, development, or evaluative hierarchy -- and also, possibly, pure, pristine, uncorrupted by civilization, closer to nature, closer to true human nature, hence perhaps also closer to God, etc etc.

The notion of an historical evolution from the simple = primitive to the higher = more complex = better appears already in Tylor's Primitive Culture, in reference to the evolution of higher forms of religion. Anthropologists have long recognized that the kinship systems of many of the peoples they study are a great deal more complex than those of any contemporary industrial society. They also understand that the languages of the peoples they study are neither more nor less complex, by any reasonable measure, than those spoken by people in industrial societies [anything that can be said in one language can, with suitable coinings of terms not already available, be said in any other language. All languages, in that sense, are equally complex]. Once we set aside the Christian biases of Tylor, we can see that the religious systems of the peoples studied by anthropologists are as complex, as rich in symbolism, as theologically complex [and, of course, as absurd] as the "higher" religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. So, what makes a people "primitive"?

The obvious answer is: a less powerful technology than is currently possessed by the society from which the anthropologist comes. That is a natural first answer, but it has certain drawbacks. The technology of a medieval castle or of the Greeks of Homeric times may not, on examination, appear notably more advanced and powerful than the technology of peoples termed "primitive." And yet, it strikes us as odd to speak of Homeric Greeks or medieval Burgundians as primitive. A lot turns on not wearing much in the way of clothes, of course [I mean this only half facetiously], but the really powerful answer, theoretically, is the claim that the peoples labeled "primitive" lack an internal class structure and hence a recognizable politics and history. Once ethnographers like Wilmsen debunk that myth, the category of the primitive seems to evaporate. The policy implications of this are, of course, enormous .:One negotiates with people who have a politics, one does not [with any degree of self-conscious justification] oversee their affairs in a paternal manner.

One final response to Wilmsen's book before I leave the subject. This is a thesis that I have in the past advanced with regard to the literature and popular culture of enslaved African-Americans and their descendants, in the talk I gave at Stonehill College and elsewhere, but it comes up fleetingly in Land Filled With Flies and is worth a comment. At several points during his reports of his conversations with Zhu, Wilmsen represents them as speaking ironically. For example, in discussing whether the Zhu were at an earlier time cattle herders [and hence not archaic hunter-gatherers], he recounts the following exchange with a Zhu man named Halengisi.

"Halengisi insists that the past was better than the present -- he once said to me, with a wave of his hands at the herds around us, 'Gumisi ka kwarra kwinki': 'There are no cattle here now.' He made this remark while we were standing together near the CaeCae wells surrounded by about a third of the more than six hundred cattle kept there; we were, in fact, leaning against his magnificent bull, in which he took justifiable pride. He was, of course, speaking rhetorically ..." [p. 251.]

Irony is a mode of discourse that presupposes a double audience for a speech with two meanings -- the apparent, or superficial meaning, and the real or deeper meaning. The speech seems to be addressed by the speaker to the first audience, which mistakenly thinks of itself as the persons for whom the speech is intended and understands only the superficial meaning, which they take for the real meaning. The speech is really addressed to the second audience, which understands both meanings, and is aware of the first audience's misunderstanding. The speech is thus, in a sense, a private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the superficial audience. The most famous example in philosophy is Socrates' statement to a self-important visiting Sophist [Gorgias, for example] that he, Socrates, is ignorant of the subject on which the Sophist claims expertise and that he hopes the Sophist will enlighten him. All of you, I am sure, are familiar with those passages.

In order to speak ironically, one must have a fully developed self-understanding and the confidence to judge an apparently powerful and important person as being in fact clueless. Throughout the folklore, and later the formal literature, of African-Americans, one finds examples of this sort of speech. Such speech is really a mocking ironic send-up of the slave masters for the amusement of the fellow slaves, but is taken literally and superficially by the slave masters, who cannot imagine that their slaves are capable of laughing at them.

The epistemological stance of the ethnographer vis-a-vis the subjects of an ethnographic study [if I may speak pretentiously] precludes the recognition that their subjects might speak ironically to them, sharing a private joke with other fellow subjects at their expense, for if their subjects are capable of such ironic speech, then it is they, not the subjects, who are being studied. For all their love of the !Kung, despite their idealization of them, Lee and his associates really cannot actually bring themselves to see the !Kung [or Zhu] as their conversational equals, for to do so would call into question Ethnography itself. In the end, what makes Wilmsen's work superior to theirs is that he eschews ethnography for history, politics, and economics. In other words, he understands the Zhu to be, not subjects, but people.


GTChristie said...

The the lead-up is wonderful and that last line is a beautiful thing. I have read boatloads of anthropology (and its anxieties) and you have all of this nailed to a T.

wallyverr said...

Does this then leave an important distinction between ethnography and orientalism? (I ask in part hoping for a continuation of the bourse.) The Zhu may not send emissaries to foreign capitals, but the agrarian empires undermined by European imperialism certainly did, and documents from these missions have been translated into English. While the power balance in these latter cases was highly asymmetrical, the epistemological relationship was arguably much less so.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you, GT. Your comment means a great deal to me, a great deal.

Wallyverr, there are all manner of important distinctions between orientalism and ethnography, but also important points of similarity. I decided against continuing with the discussion of Said's ORIENTALISM for several reasons, one of which, to be honest, is that my command of the extremely complex materials is much slenderer. But today I shall post a "coda" on Said's ideological critique of MANSFIELD PARK that will at least give the flavor of his extraordinary work.