Ok, a little less politics on this blog and a little more anthropology. Hopefully some of you have looked at the introduction to HAU and want to start talking about it. The title of the piece is “the return of ethnographic theory” but I’ve titled my post the ‘opening of ethnographic theory’, and for good reason.
A quick look at the bios of the contributors and editors to HAU will reveal that it is in many ways a Chicago-Oxbridge production, but with a continental twist. In many ways, HAU represents what people at some of the most prestigious institutions of anthropology have been thinking for some time, but the journal ‘opens up’ that thought to the public by making their work open access. The result is something unique: a journal with a strong, almost parochial character which is also transparent to a fault.
As someone in this network (but not really involved in the production of HAU) I recognize this take on ‘ethnographic theory’ as a species of what they call in France the ‘sciences humaines': an approach to knowing the human that is rigorous, humanistic, and often places anthropology in conversation with philosophy rather than, say, evolutionary biology. At least this is how it seems to me.
What Ethnographic Theory Is, afaik
So what is ethnographic theory? According to da Col and Graeber “a conversion of stranger-concepts [that entails]… the destruction of any firm sense of place that can only be resolved by the imaginative forumulation of novel worldviews” (vii-viii).
The goal of anthropology on this account (afaik) is to take alien concepts, understand them, and then see the way they sort of make sense from our point of view, but don’t quite. Another kind of anthropology might try to slot alien concepts into a broader conceptual system, to say “this is a variety of exchange” or “this is a kind of taboo”. Ethnographic theory, on the other hand, wants to resist this easy assimilation. It wants to find the part of a concept which is untranslatable and use it as a jumping-off point for our own theoretical innovation. Instead of asking “how can we best translate this concept into our own system” it asks “how can we change our system so that it can understand this concept which resists classification”.
That’s why the journal is called HAU — Mauss’s analysis of the Maori concept of the ‘spirit of the gift’ is the paradigmatic example of this sort of ethnographic theory. And the reason that they called the ‘HAU’ instead of ‘SPIRIT OF THE GIFT’ is that the original Maori word includes meaning and resonances that the English translation doesn’t. And those resonances and meanings are what are productive, what produce innovation in us. Or better, what elicit it or pull it out of us by their foreigness.
It’s an interesting idea, no? To me the idea is very attractive, and as a Chicago-trained anthropologist I will now do the greatest honor I can to something I appreciate and enjoy: attempt to destroy it. Sorry Giovanni — it’s what they trained me to do!
Some Questions and Concerns
Part of what is appealing about the notion of ethnographic theory is the way that it cunningly reverses what many anthropologists think our discipline is supposed to do: make the strange familiar. Instead, the goal is to make the strange as strange as possible — to honor, welcome, embrace, and perhaps even emphasize its strangeness. In America, this smacks of ‘orientalism’ which we all automatically know is ‘bad’. But here, intriguingly, othering involves moral validation.
This stance is familiar to those of us who remember the bad old days of the Sahlins-Obeyesekere debate. That debate was basically about how best to honor indigenous people: Sahlins argued we should do it by emphasizing and validating their legitimate difference, while Obeyesekere argued this task was best accomplished by emphasizing our common humanity.
Both, in other words, represented the two moments of recognition that Charles Taylor talks about in his essay on “The Politics of Recognition”. Contrary to what you might expect from the subject positions of the two authors (Obeyesekere the third world elite, Sahlins the first world working-class intellectual) it is Sahlins who pursues a politics of difference and Obeyesekere who pursues a politics of universalism.
In many ways, this emphasis on recognizing otherness is akin to certain flavors of poststructural politics, such as a politics of performance a la Judith Butler, where the goal is to destablize hegemonic norms by revealing the excess which they must elide in order to make themselves taken for granted. It is for this reason that I — and probably I alone — see Butler and Sahlins as kindred spirits. But that is a topic for another day.
Many influences by Sahlins (such as Ira Bashkow and Rupert Stasch) have continued to pursue a way to recuperate a morally positive recognition of difference, and I see HAU as operating within this genealogy, even if it lacks the Yankee obsession with politics and relevance.
Looking ethnographic theory with Manoa eyes (eyes keenly focused on the politics of Pacific and Indigenous scholarship) I have my doubts as well. In an extremely obvious way, this is a project that engages indigenous ideas, not actual indigenous people (much less indigenous scholars). Some might object that the authors clearly state that they are “speaking of alien concepts, which are by no means limited to those drawn from strange and romantic places” (vii). But, to be frank, does anybody actually buy this?
I don’t see a role for indigenous anthropology (i.e. by and for indigenous anthropologists) in this program at all. Nor do I see — as one would expect if the program was committed to ethnography everywhere and not just ‘exotic’ spaces — any account of how one could do ethnography of their own first-world location. Here again HAU’s title is telling: cultural difference seems necessary, not incidental, to the program. When we see a piece on standard average european concepts made strange, maybe I will change my tune — if, that is, that piece doesn’t fall into the familiar trap of making the first-world working class ‘the other’. An essay on how the concept of ‘monster trucks’ expands our anthropological imagination will not cut it.
I feel clichéd saying this, but the concept of ethnographic theory also seems to ignore the real and enduring fact of colonialism, and the political economic processes that make the kinds of subjects like ‘ethnographers’ and ‘informants’ who in fact are commensurable with each other because of shared (colonial) world-historical experience. Just how alien are we from one another? And if the political effects of eliding the colonialism inside of white anthropologists are palatable, what do we think of an approach that, in some variations, decries Pacific islanders as inauthentic for not conforming to the lifeways described in books written a century ago?
The negative stereotype is this: ‘Ethnographic theory’ as a parlor game in which elite academic weave ever more obscurantist essays for each other inspired by their brush with ‘the exotic’ in the name of a project of getting intellectually high. I don’t think ethnographic theory does this all the time, or necessarily will do this (although frankly, sometimes at conferences I can’t help but get this feeling as people invoke white holes, quantum physics, and Papuan longhouses). Indeed, one of the best parts about HAU is that it might broaden the horizons of those who are used to doing ethnographic theory inside the ivory tower, thus opening it up not only to ‘us’ but opening ‘them’ up by exposure to ‘us’.
What Ethnographic Theory Doesn’t Do
The authors of HAU are not interested in many things that social scientists could do or aspire to do — indeed, some of their project was formulated specifically in reaction to these aspirations. For the sake of giving Michael E. Smith the opportunity to remind us once again that he has resigned from the AAA, I offer a list of some things Ethnographic theory can’t or doesn’t want to do:
Generalize in the Name of Science: This is not generalizing social science. It doesn’t seek to explain anything.
Intervene: Ethnographic theory does not aim to be ‘useful’ in either the lefty applied/emancipatory fight the power kind of way, or the right-wing Project Camelot/HTS kind of way. It doesn’t seem to be ‘good’ for anything except possibly expanding your consciousness, which some may claim has some sort of broad effect.
Be Public: Let’s face it, the style of much of this writing can be off-putting even for academics. This is not something intended for a general audience.
Collaborate: Fieldwork may involve a deep appreciation of local communities, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of cowriting with them.
Of course, few people want an anthropology that does all of these things, and there’s nothing wrong with not doing them. I include this list only to describe some of the desiderata that people might want in anthropology and how they are situated in relation to the project of ethnographic theory.
The foreward to HAU is very, very short and I chose it to publicize the journal as well as provide something that is a bite-sized chunk of this school of thought. Fuller treatments are abound, and many of them are open access. Tony Crook and Justin Schaffner’s article in HAU “Roy Wagner’s ‘Chess of Kinship': An Opening Gambit” is a great overview of this school of thought (I thought about assigning it), especially if you know anything about Melanesia. Frankly, you will probably get more out of it than Roy’s article itself. Over at Tipití, another great open access journal, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation” is a great over view of VdC’s thought, which directly influenced the forward to HAU. Let’s face it — although open access anthropology can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look, some of the best and most cutting-edge stuff is out there, as HAU well demonstrates.
In conclusion, I think the idea of ethnographic theory is exciting, coherent, and offers a way forward for anthropology — and when was the last time you said that about something published in American Ethnologist? But at the same time I feel a little ambivalent, and I’m not completely sold. I’d be interested in hearing your comments and feedback. I’ve tried to be critical but gracious, and I hope that I’ve been successful. So please do the same and keep the tone constructive — remember, the authors are listening, and even well-meaning criticism can come across the wrong way on Teh Internetz, so let’s try to encourage some collegiality here.
I’ll keep this post up until Wednesday, when I’ll make another reading suggestion based on how the conversation in the comments goes. Thanks for reading and thanks for discussing!