WC25: Clifford and Marcus Reflect

Duke’s conference to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Writing Culture began a day before I could make time to arrive. This was a great disappointment to me because the first panel of the program (and the only one scheduled for that day) was reserved for the volume’s editors, George Marcus and James Clifford, so that they might share their thoughts on how the book had aged and where they thought anthropology was headed today. I am grateful to Ayla Samli for agreeing to take notes and prepare a blog post for this opening session.

Writing Culture’s Decomposition by Ayla Samli

There was something right about meeting in an old warehouse to discuss Writing Culture at 25. Like the edited volume did to ethnography, the space of the warehouse had been retooled, a repurposed site now used for humanities conferences and colloquia. Like the edited volume, the space showed its age and its possibilities for refurbishment. There weren’t enough seats in Bay 4, the garage where the podium stood, to accommodate all of the listeners so they watched the streaming video close-by on flat screen TV’s.

In her opening remarks, Laurie Patton, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke and professor of religion, called Writing Culture a game-changing book and ultimately cast the tensions between scientific representation and literary representation created through the book as canyons. “Canyons are places of biodiversity,” she advised us, “tend to the canyon well.”

Orin Starn, chair of Duke’s anthropology department, then reminisced about the conditions of the 1980s, when Writing Culture was authored; a time of typewriters, new technologies, and Western Empire. A time which echoed the hubris and possibility in the book’s chapters. Now the presenters and audience endeavored to discuss the state of anthropology and its new possibilities under current historical circumstances.

James Clifford gave a talk on what it feels like to feel historic. Importantly globalization was not indexed in Writing Culture and he reflected on how much things have changed, noting that the volume had been a product of changing times. He praised works that make space for marginalized identities, and noted that “displacement is not disappearance.”

What struck me is the feeling of a kind of uncanny return, the way that the anthropologists involved in the WC moment decenterd anthropology to “give voice” to the marginalized and how they (well, we) are now being displaced by global forces, economically, and ontologically. I see how the force of American power coursed through these writings. Only one who has power can “make space” for other voices and perspectives. There is a difference between willfully moving and being pushed aside and something about this conference intonated the profound loss and displacement of that power.

Clifford contrasted globalization with imperialism because globalization can happen from below. “I cringe a little bit when I read it now. We were telling people how to displace themselves. We were confident in our uncertainty.” Clifford interwove the current global crisis with the loss of the haughty superiority of Writing Culture. Things have changed, back to the factory to figure out how to improve our process.

George Marcus delivered his Powerpoint slideshow, “The Legacies of Writing Culture and Alternate Forms Within and Alongside Ethnography,” inclusive of third spaces, para-sites, and ethnocharettes. He discussed the time Clifford arrived at his department with a book bag, a sacred bundle of books, suggesting that this book bag inspired Writing Culture and asked, “What is in the sacred bundle today?”

Marcus then raised an example of the multiple layers with interpretive possibilities on UC Irvine’s web design, discussing the process of selecting and layering images together. The site has a large Russian ship going through Shanghai, fieldnotes (of kinship charts), a silhouette of two suited men in a kind of therapeutic conversation, etc. The image, powerfully iconic, evokes something about a really big ship sailing into an intimate conversation, and the gloss of ethnographic data, all shaded in stormy blues.

He said that the ship “was plowing through urban space.” I think the image attempts to get at the complexity, specters of power, technologies, and shadowy interviews, as part of the process of writing or hypertexting culture today. It says to me that history is undeniable and that our research as anthropologists is bracketed or pushed by other global forces, and yet something remains recognizable about the work.

Marcus talked about the availability of new forms that did not exist during Writing Culture, new possibilities for experimenting with texts, the modes of representation, the possibilities for collaboration, and the temporality of scale. This resonates with how I see anthropology today—it’s not just works and lives, it’s slippery collaborative projects, momentarily brought together by a common quality or interest, then developed into other projects. It’s experts and activists weighing in on events from a different perspective. It’s rich and messy and yet those earlier impulses of representation remain.

Ayla Samli (Rice ’11) is a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on gendered material culture and new subjectivities in Turkey.

Matt Thompson is adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University and a student in the School of Information Science at the University of Tennessee. He was once cast as a soldier in Andrew Jackson's army in a theatrical production on an Indian reservation.

4 thoughts on “WC25: Clifford and Marcus Reflect

  1. Thank you for this overview. It helped mitigate my sadness at not being able to attend this event. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m an anthropologist with a creative writing and art/design background so WC has a special place in my heart. Interesting to read where the authors thought they were being arrogant (in hindsight), or unperceptive. I can imagine something like WC must be challenging to go back and read.
    As a snapshot of a culture- it reminds me not just of the 1980s though, but a certain intellectual climate that I found in the humanities throughout the 1990s as new technology led to new kinds of experimentation. Thanks, Ayla!

  2. Here are some excepts from George Marcus and James Clifford’s talks. If more video is made available, I’ll link to it as well.

  3. Clifford’s noting that ‘”confidence in our uncertainty” in which his confidence is now shaken is a point worth pondering. Looking back what I see is what I would call the thrill of unmasking and a totally misplaced confidence that if only people could see what we appear to see so clearly, the world would change for the better. Opening up our minds to new possibilities is a great first move, but without an answer to “And then what?” it provides no program for scholarly or political action. It leaves us stuck.

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