I’ve been thinking about Dennis Tedlock and reading Marisol de la Cadena’s Earth Beings at the same time lately. Much of Earth Beings is concerned with intimacy, translation, and understanding — both cross-cultural and inter-personal. It seems to me that Earth Beings isn’t alone in having this concern. Although I am hardly an expert in this literature, Viveiros’s ‘controlled equivocation’, Holbrad’s Truth in Motion and much other work in this vein is really about what it means to understand someone who is different than you. Although much of this work is branded ‘ontology’ at times I feel like its central concern is really epistemology.
The last time this really happened in anthropology was the ‘dialogical turn’ of the late 1980s of which Tedlock was a part. Today, this movement is not that well remembered. When ‘postmodernism’ gets cut down to two or three readings in a theory course, it is generally assigned to Marcus, Clifford, and Fischer and students get a slice of Predicament of Culture, Writing Culture, or Anthropology as Cultural Critique. But when oldsters really start getting apoplectic about ‘postmodernism’ and its navel-gazing, narcissistic, mumbo-jumbo language, I think most of their ire is aimed at dialogical anthropology, not the Writing Culture Crowd or ‘Rice Circle’.
When I think of dialogical anthropology, I think of authors like Vincent Crapanzano, Kevin Dwyer, Paul Friedrich (in a way), and especially Dennis Tedlock, who actively promoted the term. There is a lot of variability in these authors’ approach, but in general each of them were interested in the personal encounter of the anthropologist and the ‘informant’ and in examining how that encounter serves as the origin of the material that would later be smoothed in to what would later be a seamless ethnography. The key terms — often inflected by psychoanalysis and Clifford Geertz — were reflexivity, experimentation, and of course dialogue. A lot of this work took place in Geertz’s North Africa. This was the era when Paul Rabinow wrote Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco.
Although much of this work involved musing over how people ever come to know one another, there was definitely an interest in having coffee (or perhaps mint tea) with the Radically Other. Just how different from the current interest in Ontologically Other, for instance, is this brief abstract of Dwyer’s Moroccan Dialogues?
With misgivings about the credibility of his own discipline and responding to the interests of Moroccans, Dwyer moves away from the usual anthropological perspectives of either secure scientific detachment or narrow subjectivity toward a dialogue-based approach. First providing a background to life in a southern Moroccan village, Dwyer then moves quickly to his encounters with Faqir Muhammad, a villager from humble beginnings who spent most of his life farming his land. The engaging dialogues expose Western readers to experiences taking place in another part of the world as well as to the strengths and vulnerabilities of the fieldworker and the culture he is studying.
Or consider this quote from Crapanzano’s Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan (when reading this passage, try replacing ‘culture’ with ‘ontology’):
The subject of Tuhami’s tale is ontologically different from the subject of those tales with which we in the West are familiar. Generic differences are not simply formal differences. They are cultural constructs and reflect those most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, including the nature of the person and the nature of language, that are considered… self-evident by the members of any particular cultural tradition. The recognition of such differences, of the possibility of another more or less successful way of constituting reality, is always threatening; it may produce a sort of epistemological vertigo and demand a position of extreme cultural relativism. (p. 7-8)
I am not saying that Earth Beings or work like it is merely a retread of dialogical anthropology, or somehow not as good as the work done in the late 1980s or somehow less valuable because of the existence of dialogical anthropology. But I do feel a bit disappointed when I find us addressing the same theoretical issues from scratch every thirty years. True, there are connections between these two bodies of literature (read: Roy Wagner), but few citations. Perhaps this is just my own bizarre attachment to Old things, but I somehow feel that newer work would somehow be better off reading what other people who have addressed similar issues have had to say.
Or perhaps this is just to say that there are a whole old/new set of ethnographies that are about to be dusted off as interest in the topic of translation across difference grows. Or maybe not. One thing is for sure: At our current pace, the next outbreak of interest in this topic should come in 2046.