Dialogical Anthropology in an Age of Controlled Equivocation

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.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Dialogical Anthropology in an Age of Controlled Equivocation

  1. It was, I seem to recall, Edward Said who remarked that an academic discipline only remains vital as long as new generations of students continue to debate its perennial issues.

    That said, I found this post provocative enough that I wrote a reply too long for a Savage Minds comment and have posted it on the Open Anthropology Cooperative. Should anyone be interested, point your browser to http://openanthcoop.ning.com/forum/topics/speaking-of-dialogical-anthropology.

  2. well, there is the problem of reinventing the wheel: i remember when people were all abuzz about global [place descriptor here]scapes and flows asking some of the most excited about the new terminology to describe a well trod path, “well, have you read linton? have you thought about the literature on diffusion?” yes, we should be better read, um, in our own discipline [said with a rising intonation]; but of course the way that these questions intersect with contemporary concerns may be distinct.

    and thus a homage to paul friedrich. in my second year in grad school he said to the comparative poetry seminar, “comparison is very out of fashion now, as is posing certain features of language or thought as universals. so i feel subversive, in a sense, asking you to think about these.” then he added that in anthropology the inclination and disinclination to do comparative work has a x [here i cannot remember the number of years] year cycle: it will probably come into fashion during your career, he said.

    as for me, i think that these these cycles might be like hem lengths. i don’t know that this is a bad thing, but my willingness not to think that it is bad comes from too much reading in taoist philosophy. it’s likely that the cyclic pattern has to do with contradictions within disciplinary method that are foundational to our practice and that thus cause us to oscillate between the extremes of dialogism and monologue. what do y’all think?

  3. Being in tha curious position of being both an anthropologist and an advertising copywriter, I note the similarity between scholars and creatives. Both would much rather work on their own big idea, hoping that it will make them famous, than produce yet another variation on previous work. Then I recall advertising guru David Ogilvy’s remark that the audience is a moving parade and what seems old hat to a jaded generation may still seem fresh and exciting to members of a new generation, who likely have never seen or read the sources that their elders still revere.

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